It’s an all-too-common financial profile: low pay, significant credit-card debt and skimpy retirement savings. Solving that equation requires careful cash management in a city where the cost of living last year was 49 percent above the national average.
Amid all the talk of the Seattle area’s prosperity bomb, it’s easy to forget that about four in 10 adults nationwide don’t have enough cash on hand to cover an unexpected $400 expense.
Making ends meet is especially hard for people of modest means who live in high-cost cities, such as Seattle. Just ask Janine Kirby, 61.
Even with overtime, the longtime Seattle resident grossed about $36,600 last year working as a guard for a private security company. She supplements her income with odd jobs.
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By way of comparison, the median annual wage for all occupations in Washington state in 2017 was $44,440, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Kirby’s income is a little short of the state’s median wage, which itself gets stretched thin in Seattle. The city’s cost of living last year was 49 percent above the national average.
“For this town, she has an income problem. It’s not necessarily a spending problem,” said Dana Twight, a Seattle financial planner who volunteered to work with Kirby. “She’s not making a living wage for Seattle.”
It’s been difficult for Kirby to accumulate wealth. She uses a checking account at Salal Credit Union for her day-to-day spending. She uses another checking account, at a commercial bank, only to pay off her car loan.
Earlier in her career, Kirby worked at a school tech-support agency in Everett and enrolled in the state’s Public Employees Retirement System. Her “Plan 2” account currently has a balance of $11,500. She has no other retirement savings.
Kirby plans to work as long as possible and begin collecting Social Security when she turns 70, thereby earning the maximum benefit. The Social Security Administration projects her maximum monthly benefit at $1,632.
“As long as I can stay healthy and I work until I drop, I’ll be fine,” she said.
Kirby makes her household finances work by living frugally. She bought much of her wardrobe at discount from such retailers as Walmart, J.C. Penney and Zappos. A friend who loves shopping at secondhand stores found for Kirby a nice women’s blazer. It cost about $10.
Kirby allows herself a monthly trip to a First Hill styling salon, where she can buy a good, no-frills haircut for $40.
She rents a one-bedroom cottage in North Seattle from a kind landlord for $890 a month, and shares the small house with her cat, Mr. Grey.
If Kirby were forced to move, could she afford to stay in Seattle? “Hell no,” she said with a laugh.
When she runs low on cash, Kirby borrows money to get through the month, often by using credit cards to pay for living expenses. The interest rate on some of the cards exceeded 20 percent.
At times she would plug a cash-flow hole with a payday loan, though never in amounts larger than $300. “It’s better than overdrafting or getting in arrears,” Kirby said.
A 2012 study by The Pew Charitable Trusts found that 12 million Americans took out payday loans in 2010, the last year for which substantial data were available. The average size of each loan was $375.
In a related survey of payday-loan borrowers, Pew reported that 69 percent of the respondents used the money to pay for recurring living expenses, such as rent, utilities or groceries. Only 16 percent used payday loans for unexpected bills, such as car repairs or trips to the doctor.
Because of her cash-flow tightrope, Kirby gradually accumulated credit-card debt. Earlier this year, she consolidated the debt with a single loan at a lower interest rate at Salal Credit Union.
Kirby is now making monthly payments of $315 on a loan balance of $18,500, which comes with an interest rate of 10.25 percent. She will retire the loan in five years.
She also owes $9,993 on a car loan for a 2017 Chevrolet Spark, a subcompact. Her brother helped with the financing by putting down $3,000 for the car, and she plans to pay him back.
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In April, Kirby was reading The Seattle Times on her cellphone when she came across the Money Makeover program and decided to apply. The Financial Planning Association of Puget Sound put her in touch with Twight, the Seattle financial planner.
Kirby’s circumstances are not unusual. An annual report by the Federal Reserve, released in May, said 40 percent of American adults do not have enough cash on hand to cover a surprise expense of $400. Their options are few: They can borrow money, sell something or skip payment.
“Something like 40 percent of the country is living paycheck to paycheck, and it does not matter how much you make,” Twight said.
She urged Kirby to get a better handle on her expenses by tracking her daily spending. Only then will Kirby have enough information to make changes.
Twight’s preferred technique for tracking spending is simple. “Whatever works,” she said. “Sometimes a notebook and a pencil work great.”
Twight also told Kirby to put her paydays on a calendar, along with her recurring payments, such as rent, utilities and the consolidation loan. The exercise will help Kirby become more proactive and strategic about paying her bills.
The approach should reduce the risk of Kirby paying extra on one bill, only to come up short of cash for another bill a few days later. She “needs to think beyond one paycheck,” Twight said.
Kirby initially closed credit-card accounts — somewhat gleefully — when she paid off the balances. But Twight advised her to keep some credit accounts, even if rarely used, to maintain her credit history and credit score.
With an eye to the future, Twight and Kirby also discussed the benefits of finding a job with a more generous retirement program. The objective is to have a larger pool of savings for when Kirby stops working.
Kirby is taking on her cash-flow challenges. She put her recurring payments on a calendar and started paying more attention to her daily spending.
She’s become more creative in finding ways to cut her monthly expenses. For example, Kirby reduced the monthly premium on her auto insurance by increasing her deductible to $500, among other things.
Although Kirby is only two months into her five-year debt-consolidation loan, she is determined to stick with it until the balance is paid off.
“Things are a little bit more structured and organized,” she said. “We’re getting a grip.”