Joely Johnson, after years of being on an assured trajectory, is learning how to live as a newly single parent on a modest income in an increasingly costly city. And while she worries about the present, she needs to prepare for retirement.
For years Joely Johnson made decisions that rewarded her in spades.
She decided to get an education and earned a master’s degree. She picked a career that played to her strengths — editing and writing — and pursued it for more than 20 years.
She got married, gave birth to a son and quit working full time. The family moved to Seattle in 2011 and bought a house the following year, just before home prices skyrocketed.
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Then, in 2017, Johnson’s life was upended the same year she turned 50.
Her marriage crumbled. Johnson and her husband are separated and negotiating an amicable divorce.
After years of being on an assured trajectory, Johnson is resuming her career and learning how to live as a single parent on a modest income in an increasingly costly city. It’s not easy.
“At my age,” she said, “I’m sort of starting over.”
Johnson turned to friends for financial advice and did research on her own. Then, last year, she read a Money Makeover story in The Seattle Times and decided to apply for free financial advice through the program.
The Financial Planning Association of Puget Sound matched Johnson with Bob Toomey, vice president for research at S.R. Schill & Associates, an advisory firm on Mercer Island.
Johnson asked Toomey to give her the “marching orders” she needed to move forward with her life and raise her son, now 7.
Toomey obliged. He analyzed Johnson’s finances, peered into her future and urged her to take immediate steps that would stabilize her short-term cash flow.
“She’s OK right now for a few years at this income,” Toomey said. Johnson’s retirement remains uncertain, although she has time to prepare.
Among Johnson’s immediate challenges is her income. This year she expects to earn about $42,000 as a content producer at Allrecipes.com. She also sells freelance stories to trade publications and other outlets that are usually online.
That income is modest by Seattle standards. In 2016 the city’s 12-month per capita income was $48,686, according to the Census Bureau.
Fortunately, Johnson has accumulated some assets. She has about $143,800 in retirement accounts, as well as about $5,000 in regular bank accounts.
As is the case with most Americans, Johnson’s largest asset is her house. She and her husband bought their 1952 rambler in Seattle for $425,000 in 2012, property records show. Thanks to the city’s residential real-estate boom, the market value of the property today could be about $807,000, according to Zillow.com.
Johnson owes about $288,300 on the mortgage. She has no other debts.
She plans to continue living in the house, on the condition that she and her husband split the proceeds equally when she sells the property.
Her husband, who works in the tech sector, agreed to pay the mortgage, taxes and insurance on the house until 2027. He also agreed to make support payments that gradually diminish and also end in 2027, when Johnson turns 60.
Johnson’s most pressing problem is her income. “She’s got to focus on getting her income up,” Toomey said. “And I think that is her goal.”
Johnson’s household cash flow now runs in the red for the foreseeable future, even with 10 years of spousal support, Toomey’s projections show. Inflation only makes matters worse.
“The risk is, if she doesn’t improve her income significantly, she starts to deplete her retirement savings, and she jeopardizes her long-term future,” Toomey said.
He used financial-planning software to run 17 different scenarios for Johnson with different variables, such as annual income, investment returns and when to sell the house.
One of the more promising data runs was scenario No. 14. In it, Johnson increases her annual income to $60,000 by age 55 and to $70,000 by age 60. She would also cut her expenses by 5 percent and sell her home when she turns 60.
Johnson agrees that she needs to make more money. “I know that that’s very serious, and I need to do something,” she said. Among other things, Johnson plans to do more freelance writing.
She also plans to cut her personal expenses by 5 percent, to about $3,000 a month, which does not include such things as taxes, insurance or her husband’s house payments.
A source of relief for Johnson was Toomey’s advice that she stay in her home for the next 10 years, while her husband pays the mortgage. Barring a market disaster, the property should continue to appreciate.
Staying put also provides continuity for Johnson and her son, whose neighborhood elementary school is within walking distance.
Johnson’s retirement, meanwhile, remains a work in progress.
Toomey’s projections show that she is at risk of depleting her assets in her 80s, even after increasing her income to $70,000 by 2027 and selling her home that year. Without retirement savings, Johnson would have to support herself entirely on Social Security.
Working longer would help. Fortunately, Johnson enjoys her work and plans to keep writing. She intends to wait as long as possible — perhaps until she turns 70 — before collecting Social Security.
“When I’m 70, I hope to have more time to write more juicy stuff,” she said.
Toomey also advised her to increase the returns in her retirement accounts by putting more of her money in stocks. He estimated that Johnson could increase her annual return to 8.5 percent from 7.3 percent by putting 85 percent of her portfolio in stocks. She would invest the remaining 15 percent in bonds.
Johnson also needs to find a way to contribute to her retirement savings, Toomey said. She intends to do so.
“I’m sure she’ll do well,” he said.
Putting her household finances under a microscope was “a little scary,” Johnson said. But she welcomed the information.
“It’s daunting to look at the numbers,” she said. “But I’d rather know.”
“I’m in charge,” she said. “I’m in charge of me.”