Kristine Sommer and fiancé Adam Shigem have some familiar financial issues, like how to pay off student loans and save for a home remodel. They also have one unconventional money challenge.

Sommer is a professional rugby player, and she wanted to take a sabbatical from her day job to spend a year playing rugby — first in the U.K. and then training with the U.S. team for the World Cup in 2021. Before coronavirus, she and Shigem applied for a Money Makeover because they worried that it might hurt their long-term financial health if she took a year off.

“Rugby pays very little,” she says. “It’s basically pay-to-play.”

Sommer, who is 30, earns $86,000 a year working in stormwater treatment. “I started as a treatment system operator, turning knobs making dirty water clean. Now I’m more in the people aspect; sales, design and business development.”

Shigem, 32, is a brand strategist in advertising and marketing. He makes $98,000 a year. The couple met at the University of California, Santa Barbara, 10 years ago and they planned to get married this summer.

Then coronavirus changed everything.

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The couple postponed their wedding until summer 2021. All rugby plans were put on hold. Both Sommer and Shigem started working from home.

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Home at that point was a $2,500-a-month rental in Ballard. For years, they had looked for a house to buy in Seattle and didn’t find anything they could afford with a big enough yard for the dog they have and the children they hope to have. This summer, the couple decided they could save money for a down payment by moving in with Shigem’s parents.

That was a lot of disappointment and change to absorb, but the couple never forgot how lucky they are to have jobs during a pandemic. They are using this upheaval “to be more intentional with what we want our lives to be,” says Shigem.

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“The silver lining of coronavirus is that we can work from home not just now but into the future,” Sommer says. “We realized we could buy a house someplace other than Seattle!”

And that’s just what they did. They looked at a waterfront house in Port Orchard “for giggles,” fell in love with the little cottage with a big view, and used the money they saved from not getting married or paying rent to make their down payment.

“I would prefer to be married to this woman,” Shigem says. “but this house is a nice consolation prize.”

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Tom McLean, certified financial planner with Advitica Financial Planning
Tom McLean, certified financial planner with Advitica Financial Planning

That was the lay of the land when certified financial planner Tom McLean of Advitica Financial Planning in Olympia started working with the couple. It was a different situation than he thought he’d be helping with when the Puget Sound chapter of the Financial Planning Association tapped him to be the planner for these volunteers.

One of the first items they examined — did the couple make a mistake when they bought the two-bedroom, one-bath cottage for $540,000? If they were happy with it “as is” —  no worries. But Shigem and Sommer plan to have children and that means the house needs to get bigger. McLean advised the couple to get bids right away so they know what it will cost to expand the house. Bottom line — saving $300,000 for remodeling is now part of their financial plan. The remodel won’t happen as quickly as they hoped.

“Tom helped us shift our mindset,” Shigem says. “Know what you are up against to make it achievable.”

Other than their new mortgage, which costs $2,600 a month, the only debt the couple have are four student loans. They have a total of $33,000 in school debt and make payments of $500 a month, which would pay off all loans in nine years. The planner showed them a repayment strategy that would retire the loans more quickly. 

McLean recommends that they target the loan with the highest interest rate first. “Once each debt is paid off, if you apply the newly free cash to the next highest interest rate loan, all student loans will be paid off in six years and 10 months.”

When it comes to ready cash, McLean says Sommer and Shigem should build an emergency fund. They have $17,000 in savings — half of that will get the emergency fund started. Then he advises them to stash around $2,000 a month into the emergency fund, which will get them to their goal of $30,000 in roughly six months.

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The reason to have money set aside for an emergency, McLean says, is so that you don’t raid your retirement. Sommer and Shigem have $102,000 in investments  — most of that is in their 401(k)s. Which, it turns out, is a problem.

“Tom looked at our 401(k)s and said, ‘You both have crappy plans,’” Sommer says. “It’s been super eye-opening. I need to get educated on this.”

Another part of that education is learning when they can retire. Sommer hoped to retire at 53 while Shigem was aiming for 55. McLean crunched the numbers and gave them the bad news:

“Your income sources and assets are a bit below ideal for retiring at ages 53 and 55. However, if you wait until ages 62 and 64 to retire, and delay taking Social Security benefits until age 70, your retirement plan looks solid.”

As a finishing touch to protect all that they have built, McLean believes the couple should purchase a $1.5 million life insurance policy right away. “The risk of dying is best solved by having life insurance,” he says.

He also wants them to buy disability insurance because in their 30s there is a higher risk of getting hurt than dying — especially if you play rugby. “Think of the financial plan as a castle. On the defensive side, life insurance is the moat and disability insurance is the castle wall.”

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Before the ink was even dry on the financial plan, life launched a “crash ball” at the castle wall and the plan responded with a “blitz defense.” In rugby-speak that means that out of the blue, Sommer got tapped to play for the London Harlequins and this month she was suddenly on a plane to England.

Does that mean Sommer will quit her job? Nope. The plan is that she’ll continue to work part time. Even before coronavirus, her company allowed her to work remotely while on shorter rugby tours. “They have been crazy supportive. I can work while traveling. In the past I had to drop to part time. That was what I can mentally sustain,” she says.

Their planner says the loss of income will delay the couple’s goals but Sommer probably won’t regret working an extra year in her 60s in order to have a sports career in her 30s. 

“This has been her dream,” McLean says. “Everyone makes life choices that are often not financially optimized, but are optimized for their dreams. That is really the goal of financial planning.”

Is your 401(k) OK?

Kristine Sommer was surprised to find that her planner did not give high marks to the 401(k) plan she gets through work.

Like many people, Sommer signed up to participate in her company’s plan years ago. “I never thought about it. Until we met with Tom and he said, ‘This plan sucks!’ ”

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“Kristine’s plan has a 4.5% sales charge on new money,” says planner Tom McLean of Advitica Financial Planning in Olympia. “If an investor put $1,000 a month into the 401(k), that would cost $37,000 over 30 years — are you getting anything for that money?”

Sommer was also disappointed to learn that even the “low cost” index funds in her plan had double or triple the going rate for those types of funds.

On the plus side, Sommer’s employer offers a generous 6% match so it makes sense for her to continue to contribute to her 401(k). McLean was able to shift Sommer into better funds offered within the company’s plan — better but still expensive, which reduces the return of mutual funds over time.

McLean suggests that employees could “whisper into HR’s ear” that they want their company to shop for a better plan. He recommends a resource for small businesses, Retirement Marketplace, a Washington state website that has 401(k) plans vetted by the Department of Commerce.