As Shakespeare wrote, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” In Lauren Benner’s case, her true love is art — and the bumpy ride has been figuring out how to support herself as a visual artist.

Armed with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, Benner moved to New York City in 2004. “I worked random jobs in New York,” Benner says. Then she attended the Fashion Institute of Technology and got a degree in fashion design.

Benner worked as a freelance clothing designer for eight years in New York. She made enough money to live in one of the most expensive cities in the world, but not enough to save for retirement — or anything else.

“It’s easy to excuse not saving when you are living paycheck to paycheck,” she says.

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In 2016, she moved to Seattle. At first, she had a similar experience here, working job to job as a contract clothing designer. Then a temporary assignment revealed a rainbow of possibilities. An outdoor retailer gave Benner a chance to try color design. She was so good at it that they offered her a permanent position choosing the hues that everything from T-shirts to tents will sport. She’s been doing that as a full-time employee for two years and loves it.

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Now that Benner makes $62,000 a year and gets benefits, she started asking herself two questions: “What am I doing with my life?” and “How can I get my retirement in order?”

She applied for a Money Makeover and The Seattle Times’ partner, the Financial Planning Association of Puget Sound, connected Benner with Steve Burkett. He’s a financial planner with Palisade Investments in Bothell.

“At 41, Lauren is a late bloomer when it comes to saving money. Everyone has their own path,” Burkett says. “Sometimes people with an art background aren’t so great with numbers. And if you saw my art, well, stick figures would be more awesome!”

“Steve was great, really nonjudgmental,” Benner says. “Talking to him was like talking to a therapist. In a good way.”

Benner expected the financial planner to drive one message home: Save for retirement. She got some surprising news: Don’t do that right now. Instead, Benner should wipe out her credit card debt. Some of her cards charge 16% interest.

“High-interest debt makes managing your finances very challenging,” Burkett told his client. “Focus on paying off your credit cards first, using the money you were previously saving in the 401(k) plan.”

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Burkett says Benner can put her retirement on pause because her employer offers a generous retirement feature that is nearly extinct. “Her company makes what’s known as a Non-Elective Contribution (NEC), which is a fancy way of saying Lauren does not need to ‘elect’ to make her own contributions in order to receive this NEC,” Burkett says. The benefit will range from 5% to 10% of Benner’s salary every year.

Burkett advised Benner to withdraw $2,000 she had in a taxable account with the financial services company Acorns, and use it to pay off credit cards. “Paying off credit cards at a 16% interest rate is a smart move versus the uncertainty of the stock market in the near term,” Burkett says.

That sounded good to Benner, who’s whittled the balance on her credit cards down to $2,000. “A year ago, it was $10,000. It feels good to be close to over.”

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A long-term goal for Benner is buying a house. Now she rents a small apartment in Wallingford for $1,700 a month. But next month she’ll pay $400 less for a bigger apartment.

How is she going to do that? By moving to Boise.

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Because of the pandemic, Benner has been working from home for nearly a year. Her company has made a major shift toward permanent remote work. Benner is originally from Boise, but hasn’t lived there for 20 years.

“I’ve rented an apartment in Boise for a year. My manager is OK with me trying it out,” Benner says.

“COVID-19 has reshaped her idea about work,” Burkett says. “Lauren can live more cheaply in the short term in Boise and that opens the possibility for a home purchase down the line.”

To make that a reality, Benner has a lot of saving to do. Once she has paid off her credit cards, Burkett recommends that she open a Roth IRA that will do double duty as a place to save for a down payment. She could also tap it in case of emergency. A Roth allows investors to pull out their contribution at any time without a penalty, while the earnings can remain in the account and grow for retirement.

“I would plan on making annual contributions into your Roth IRA to the greatest extent that you’re able to, up to the $6,000 annual contribution limit” says Burkett. The planner advises Benner to put that money in the Vanguard LifeStrategy Moderate Growth Fund.

“It’s 60% stocks and 40% bonds, which makes sense for an intermediate-term goal like a home purchase,” Burkett says. “While we don’t normally encourage using retirement dollars except for retirement goals, Lauren is behind on purchasing a home so some creative and even aggressive strategies need to be considered.”

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And speaking of aggressive, that brings us to Benner’s biggest goal: retirement.  Once she has an emergency fund and down payment for a home, the care and feeding of her 401(k) plan will be job #1. Her planner says, “She should have the goal of saving a minimum of 15% up to 30% of her salary annually.”

Benner has $13,000 in the 401(k) now. It’s invested in the Schwab Target Retirement 2045 fund, and Burkett says that’s a good place for her nest egg. Crunching the numbers, Burkett says Benner should be able to retire at 70 with roughly a million dollars stashed away for retirement.

“It’s nice to hear Steve say I can retire if I continue following this advice,” Benner says. “I feel not hopeless, which is great.”

Steve Burkett, certified financial planner at Palisade Investments  (Palisade Investments)
Steve Burkett, certified financial planner at Palisade Investments (Palisade Investments)

Student loan forbearance — the pause that refreshes?

This month’s makeover volunteer is among the more than 45 million Americans who have student loans. Lauren Benner has three student loans, and planner Steve Burkett says it’s fine to put them on the back burner for now. And maybe forever.

President Joe Biden signed an executive order delaying payment of federal student loans due to COVID-19. The president has also supported the idea of wiping out $10,000 of student debt. Democrats are debating whether to forgive as much as $50,000 of debt per borrower.

“Take advantage of the current political climate! Joe Biden extended forbearance on federal student loans through September 2021,” Burkett instructs Benner. “There’s a chance your federal loans could be forgiven entirely since your student loan amounts are under $10,000.”

Private loans aren’t covered under the executive order, and Benner has one private loan. She continues to pay a small portion of the total $3,700 she owes in student loan debt. But the bulk of what she was paying to student loans, she’s deployed toward vanquishing credit card debt.

Burkett acknowledges that retiring student loans is a hot-button issue. “Some people think it’s not fair because they paid their student loans themselves. Taxpayers would pay for student loan forgiveness,” Burkett says. “But you are helping people who are in a sector where they will become good long-term tax-paying customers.”