Tamara Madlock measures her financial stability in many ways, including this: “Let me tell you, I’m not on my depression medicine anymore,” the 36-year-old said. “I was on two depression medications.”

Participating in the Financial Success Program, run through Creighton University, has bolstered Tamara’s personal bottom line: Her finances are in better order, and so is her health.

The link between financial education and physical and mental health is one that Creighton is trying to strengthen as it embarks on a second study of its Financial Success Program, which offers nine weekly classes plus yearlong, one-on-one financial coaching, monthly meetings for graduates and opportunities beyond that. Some participants, Tamara included, have received low-interest debt consolidation loans, which helped their credit scores.

The program is aimed at low-income single mothers who are at greater risk for cardiovascular and chronic disease because of lifestyle and stress, often brought on by poverty. And architects of the program are in the market for 440 participants. Half the group will get in the program right away; half will serve as a control group but are promised slots a year from now.

A previous pilot study indicated that the program was working. The rates of fast-food consumption and hypertension dropped. Participants lost weight. They reported better sleep and less stress. But the pilot, conducted in 2011 and 2012, had a small sample size and no control group.

A nearly $400,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is offering the Creighton team a chance to take a deeper look. Among the researchers will be experts in Creighton’s pharmacy, health professions, medical and business schools, working with Julie Kalkowski, who runs the Financial Success Program she started in 2009.

Among the researchers is Katie Packard, a Creighton pharmacy professor who conducts cardiovascular research. Packard said the No. 1 stressor for Americans is money. Stress elevates hormones that cause people to gain weight. Not only that, for stressed-out single moms, in particular, messages about getting healthy may fall on deaf ears until the financial worries go away.

“Stress is probably the largest barrier to these women to achieving any health changes,” she said.

Tamara, who completed the program in 2015, has first-person knowledge of how stressful it is when you can’t make ends meet. She also knows the deep relief that comes from being able to pay bills and make choices.

Tamara tells me this from a well-worn living room sectional she bought eight years ago after moving to Omaha. With three children, ages 16, 15 and 13, and one cat, that sectional has gotten a lot of use. Tamara hates the way she sinks into it when she sits down. In the past, she says, she would have just gone to a rent-to-own furniture store and racked up debt.

But she can’t afford to replace it right now and is thinking of ways she can shore up the sagging cushions.

“I can make it last a little longer,” she says.

Prioritizing needs and wants — and tabulating the cost — is one thing she learned from the Financial Success Program.

Another? Being better-prepared for life’s curveballs. Take last year when she had to move. Her then-landlord was renovating, and she had two months to get out. Tamara said that in the past, she would have taken her things and moved in with relatives until she could get on her feet. This time, she instead used the time to save money and sell belongings to afford a cross-town move into the rental house she has now.

A third life change is making choices that give her the life she wants. Tamara had been used to operating in crisis mode — working multiple, low-paying jobs and then recoiling from events like divorce and, once, living in a homeless shelter.

After the Financial Success Program, she got a $17-an-hour job with benefits that helped stabilize her economically. In what might seem like a head-scratcher, Tamara left that job because, she said, she needed flexibility and wanted something else. So she now works a night janitorial job and drives for the ride-sharing company Lyft in order to be free during the day for home schooling and starting her own cleaning company. She also wants to devote part of her week to her church.

She said she is not making less money. And she’s happier and has the life she wants.

It’s a contrast to how Tamara had entered the Financial Success Program. Then, in 2015, she was stressed out and overweight. Tamara lived paycheck to paycheck, sometimes splurging on manicures and fast food. Life was hard, and Tamara, a typically upbeat go-getter, was depressed. She couldn’t get ahead or even catch up.

The Creighton class, however, offered respite. First, there was a healthy dinner. There was solid advice: Quit fast food, confront the bills, contact the landlord and utility companies to negotiate payment schedules. And consolidate debts into one low-interest loan the program offers its participants.

The pilot study showed health gains: Half of the participants lost weight and about one-third lost 5 percent of their body weight, which means their risk of developing diabetes is reduced and blood pressure and cholesterol levels are improved.

Tamara said she was stunned to consider how her childhood might have shaped her financial behavior and what lessons she might be imparting to her kids. She found comfort and camaraderie. And she lost 30 pounds.

The class didn’t erase all of her problems. Some of the weight crept back. She still doesn’t have health insurance. And she still relies on the federal Section 8 program, which defrays a portion of her $1,000-a-month rent for a Benson house.

But she is doing better than she was. She said she and her children are knowledgeable about finances. Her credit score has improved from 500 to 640. All three kids have savings accounts and jobs. The younger two are detassling corn. And the family was able to take a rare vacation, riding a bus to upstate New York and Canada.

Kalkowski said so many women tell her that “when the wolves aren’t at your door,” they make better decisions, they’re better parents and co-workers — and they’re healthier.

That’s how Tamara feels.

erin.grace@owh.com, 402-444-1136, twitter.com/ErinGraceOWH

Metro columnist

Columnist Erin Grace has covered a variety of beats since she started at The World-Herald in 1998 — from education to City Hall and from the city's western suburbs to its inner-city neighborhoods. Follow her on Twitter @ErinGraceOWH. Phone: 402-444-1136.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.