Melissa Tatro wanted to keep her hobby farm east of Kent, but her personal finances were groaning under the weight of the mortgage payments. So she reached out to The Seattle Times Money Makeover project for help.

Three years later, we know the outcome: She succeeded.

Tatro is among the 49 Money Makeover stories that I wrote for The Seattle Times in the last five years. This story, No. 50, is my last.

George Erb, who for several years wrote about other people’s retirement and financial planning in The Seattle Times Money Makeover feature, is retiring. (Courtesy of George Erb)
George Erb, who for several years wrote about other people’s retirement and financial planning in The Seattle Times Money Makeover feature, is retiring. (Courtesy of George Erb)

After years of writing about retirement, it arrived on my own doorstep. On July I turned 66. Memo to everyone younger than me: Retirement comes faster than you think. Prepare for it.

As for The Times Money Makeover project, it will carry on. The project’s model is simple. Local financial planners give free advice to families who volunteer for the service. The Times tells their stories and helps countless readers in the process.

In 2016 Melissa Tatro was working, divorced and living in a home on 3.5 acres east of Kent with fruit trees, blueberries, pigs, chickens and honey bees. She loved it.

But the mortgage payments ate up a little more than half of Tatro’s take-home pay. She was also obligated under the divorce settlement to buy out her former husband’s stake in the property.

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Tatro’s pastoral dream was grinding against financial reality. She asked the Money Makeover project for help and was connected with Kathy Henningsen, a financial planner in Bellevue.

Henningsen concluded that the expense of keeping the farm threatened Tatro’s retirement. The property sopped up so much of her cash flow that she had too little to save for the future. So the two women devised a plan for Tatro to sell the farm, downsize and increase her savings.

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A few months later, Tatro contacted a real estate agent who advised her how to prepare the property for market. Among other things, she needed to fix the fence.

Meanwhile, Tatro had resumed dating. One of her dates, Jeff Archer, made an impression when he gave Tatro a set of pliers and worked on the fence. Soon, Archer was just as enamored of the farm as Tatro.

One thing led to another, and the two married. Archer, who works full time, invested some of his money into the property. They now have a two-income household and share the farm chores. Tatro’s cash-flow headaches? Gone.

Tatro, now 56, never did put the farm up for sale. Instead, she and Archer are working and living on the property together.

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“Many times we walk out into the front pasture and look out and say, ‘Wow, we’re really lucky,’” she said. This summer they’re planting flowers.

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Reader reactions to Money Makeover stories ran the gamut, but the most memorable responses came when readers heeded their better angels.

For example, a Money Makeover in 2014 explained how an unpaid emergency room bill was complicating a young woman’s dream of going to college and becoming a professional midwife.

Shortly afterwards a donor who asked to remain anonymous mailed an $8,000 cashier’s check to my editor. It came with instructions to pay off the medical bill. The debt disappeared, and the young woman enrolled at Bastyr University, aided by the kindness of strangers.

A 2018 story featured a frugal security guard living in Seattle on an annual gross pay of about $36,600. Two readers separately offered to pay for the guard’s monthly splurge – a $40 visit to a hairstyling salon. She was grateful for the offers, but declined.

In 2016, the Money Makeover project advised a Tacoma graduate student who was trying to launch her career without being swamped by student loans. The piece generated emails from about a dozen students at a private college in the Midwest.

This actually took some doing. I’m a contributing writer, not a Times staffer, so I don’t have a Times email address. The students had to track down my personal email – and they did.

A professor had used the syndicated story to teach financial literacy, and he urged his students to contact the author. I replied to all of them.

One personal finance trend became increasingly obvious with each passing year, and that was the stunning rise in median household income in King County.

In 2011, as Western Washington began climbing out of the Great Recession, the median household income in King County was $66,294, according to estimates by the state Office of Financial Management.

Recently the agency projected the county’s 2018 median household income as $89,881, an increase of 35 percent in seven years.

That gust of wealth, along with soaring home prices, eclipsed our baseline assumptions of what it means to be “middle class” in King County.

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It doesn’t help that the term “middle class” lacks a widely accepted definition. It could be based on household income, assets, occupation, education – or even, as The Brookings Institution suggested last year, a state of mind.

The Pew Research Center has put a lot of thought to the problem in recent years. It devised a formula that estimates lower-, middle- and upper-income tiers based on annual household income, cost of living by metro area and the number of people living under one roof.

Using 2016 data, a family of three in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue market would be “middle class” if its annual household income fell between $49,941 and $149,822, Pew estimates.

King County’s estimated median household income has increased about 6 percent just since 2016, which means the upper end of the range would be higher today.

The upshot is that a “middle class” family in Seattle has a noticeably larger household income than comparable families in such large markets as St. Louis, Cleveland and New Orleans.

But if you’re imagining a red carpet rolling out for Seattle’s middle class, you’ll have to mentally roll it back up.

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Housing costs have soared since the recession. The price of existing single-family houses in Seattle nearly doubled between February 2012 and this May, according to the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller Index.

Meanwhile, the mountain of student debt shows no signs of eroding. Outstanding student loans nationwide added up to $1.48 trillion at the end of June, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Nearly every family I met wrestled with the cost of higher education. Recent graduates struggled to pay off their debts. Parents wondered whether they could afford to send their kids to college. Retirees debated raiding their nest eggs for college-bound grandchildren.

An important partner in the Money Makeover project is the Financial Planning Association of Puget Sound, a professional association. The Times solicits volunteer families, and the association matches the families with volunteer financial planners among its 400 or so members. No money changes hands.

I worked with 30 different financial planners in the last five years, and each one took a slightly different approach. In one respect, though, there was surprising uniformity. The vast majority of financial planners liberally stock their offices and meeting rooms with two items – small candies and Kleenex.

That’s a tip-off that financial planning is about much more than spreadsheets and risk models. Planners know their clients are human beings, fully loaded with quirks and vulnerabilities.

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About 300 families volunteered for Money Makeovers in the last five years. Their applications ranged from inspiring to heartbreaking. I know this because I read every single one. If I could have, I would have selected all of you.

I’m thankful for the families who volunteered, the financial planners who advised them for free and the readers who turned to the feature for tips and lessons. To a large degree, the Money Makeover project is you.

This story has been updated to correct the acreage of Melissa Tatro’s farm.