There comes a moment in the zeitgeist of a relationship when a couple that have been together since early days switches from youth and freedom to embracing adulthood.
For Adam Lee and Allison Dappen, coronavirus may have played a role in that watershed event. The couple, married since 2018, were at the kitchen table of their small apartment in upper Fremont overlooking a gas station. Both were working from home, and they had a recently adopted cat whose job was to prevent them from working.
“The pandemic and a new cat brought new urgency,” Lee says. “We realized we couldn’t keep sitting across the same kitchen table and staring at each other for much longer without going crazy.”
The couple had been shopping for a home in Seattle for about a year. After the lockdown they quickly locked in a deal on a three-bedroom town house with a lovely backyard in the Sunset Hill neighborhood of Ballard. “I work on the top floor, Adam has his office downstairs and the cat sleeps on the main floor,” Dappen says.
After becoming homeowners, Lee, 31, and Dappen, 32, began to give serious thought to starting a family. But they didn’t know if they could afford a child — or children — and also fund their retirement. The uncertainly was stressing them out. “We take turns being the worried one,” Dappen says.
Lee asked the Seattle Times Money Makeover project for help. Our partners, the Financial Planning Association of Puget Sound, paired the couple with Steve Hoglund, a financial planner and CPA at Capstone Wealth Advisors with offices in Bellevue and Wenatchee, who advised Lee and Dappen for free.
“Allison and Adam were looking for confirmation that what they had been doing meant they were on track,” Hoglund says. “And then if they incorporate family into their life — what would that do to their cash flow? Would they still have enough money for retirement?”
Lee makes $60,000 a year working for a company that facilitates low-income housing. “We help get the money for projects. We partner with cities that want to build low-income housing,” he explains. Lee got his job in 2019 after earning a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Washington.
Dappen is a senior business systems analyst with a large coffee company. She’s been with the company since 2016 and just got a raise that bumped her salary up to $95,000 a year.
When it comes to income, Hoglund says this couple are in great shape. They make $155,000 a year — more than the median household income in Seattle.
Next the planner examined their debt, and again he gives this couple a gold star. According to the most recent figures from the Project on Student Debt, six out of 10 college graduates leave school with loan debt. Lee and Dappen, who met at Middlebury College in Vermont, were among them. But they paid the debt off quickly — Dappen, for example, earned an education award by serving for two years in AmeriCorps.
The only obligation the couple have these days is the $502,000 mortgage on their house. That’s more than they’ve ever owed by a longshot, but Hoglund says it’s OK because they were careful not to buy more house than they could handle.
How about saving for retirement? This couple are in their early 30s and, according to Fidelity Investments, should have an amount saved for retirement that is equal to their annual salaries.
That factoid is enough to give most millennials early-onset indigestion. Lee and Dappen, however, do not need to reach for a Pepcid because they have roughly $166,000 in invested assets. The lion’s share is in retirement accounts.
“Their current retirement plans are invested mostly in target date funds. I agreed it’s a good place to be,” Hoglund says.
Surprisingly, Hoglund believes this couple are saving too much for retirement — especially Dappen. He advises her to cut her annual 401(k) contribution from 15% of her salary to 10% and to stop putting 4% of her salary into purchasing company stock each year. Why? To prepare for a family.
“A lot of planners will say don’t sacrifice your retirement for kids,” Hoglund says. “But because this couple has already saved so much, Allison and Adam can shift some dollars into funds for their kids.”
“Steve says retirement is a big deal,” Lee says. “But he also told us, ‘You’ve got other big-deal costs that will be coming up in the shorter term.’”
Hoglund wants the couple to start setting aside $500 a month for kid expenses — food, clothes, the basics. Dappen has some investments not locked up in retirement accounts that the couple could tap for day care, which Hoglund estimates will cost about $1,500 a month.
The planner advises Lee and Dappen to sock away another $1,000 a month in a 529 account to start saving for college. But which 529? Washington doesn’t have an income tax, so there is no incentive to choose our state’s plan.
“Use a different state plan,” Hoglund advises. “Some have better investment choices and lower fees. I like Nebraska’s plan.”
Dappen says she will be using some time off this holiday season to investigate 529 plans.
“Our families helped support our college educations, and Adam and I have seen firsthand the benefits of those financial supports,” Dappen says. “We want to do similar things for our family down the road. Keep paying that forward.”
Even with a reduction in incoming cash for retirement, Hoglund ran the numbers and this couple’s retirement projections still look good.
“This was a unique plan — there was a lot of confirming — versus a drastic Money Makeover,” Hoglund says. “That allowed us to move beyond cash flow to explore other financial plan tasks.”
“Steve walked us through life insurance,” Dappen says. “I hadn’t thought about that at all!”
Hoglund explained that because Lee and Dappen own a home and want to start a family, the tiny bit of life insurance they have through work won’t cut it anymore. He suggests that each of them purchase 20-to 30-year term life insurance policies with coverage of $1 million.
“They should do it right away,” Hoglund says. “Adam and Allison are healthy and young so they will qualify for better rates.”
Like many millennials, Lee and Dappen don’t have a will. Hoglund says a health care directive is even more important than a will for people in their 30s because they are more likely to get hurt or get sick than to pass away. Hoglund shared a couple of DIY resources that the couple can use to create wills, health care directives and a power of attorney.
The final detail of the plan is an umbrella policy. “Auto and homeowner policies have caps,” Hoglund explains. “What if you hit a minivan with a family of six in it and exceed the $500,000 limit on your car insurance? Umbrella insurance layers on top of auto and home insurance to protect your assets. If you have kids that is really important.”
Our Makeover couple say they feel clearer about their future now, including starting a family. And they are grateful to have a road map from someone who has been there, done that.
“Steve has kids himself who are just out of college,” Lee says. “He has lived the experience that we are just about to start.”
Children are expensive, and then there’s college
You might think the U.S. Department of Agriculture knows only about raising cows or pigs, but it has been tracking the expense of raising children since 1960. Based on its most recent report:
The typical cost of raising a child through age 17 is $233,610 for a middle-income family in America and $245,460 in the urban West.
Where does the money go?
- Housing — 29%
- Food — 18%
- Education — 16%
But a college education is an additional cost. The good news is that the average cost of tuition and fees fell in 2020, according to the annual survey by US News.
Average annual tuition and fees:
- Private college — $35,087
- Public college, out-of-state student — $21,184
- Public college, in-state student — $9,687
- Average annual room and board in Washington State, which is below the national average — $11,838