With Seattle’s cost of living nearly 50 percent above the national average, retirement in a less expensive city is one strategy to make savings go farther.
Longtime Seattle resident Michelle Kelly is a disciplined saver with a stable work history in art and teaching, professions that she loves.
But as Kelly, 56, looks ahead to retirement, the mathematics of her personal finances lead to a sobering conclusion: She can’t afford to live in Seattle when she stops working.
Many city residents of modest means are in the same boat.
Living expenses in Seattle are now among the highest in the nation, according to the Cost of Living Index compiled by the Council for Community and Economic Research, based in Arlington, Virginia.
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The cost of living in Seattle last year exceeded the national average by 49 percent, according to the index. In the third quarter of 2017, the city was the sixth most expensive market in the nation.
For Kelly, who expects to earn about $42,000 this year as a part-time college art instructor, the changes have been keenly felt.
She routinely adjusted to rising prices during the city’s cyclical expansions. Then, “in the last five years the cost of living has exploded exponentially,” she said.
Kelly says she is paying more for rent, food, clothing, insurance, health care and utilities, including power to heat her apartment.
One reason she likes the unit is because neighboring apartments above and below provide insulation against the cold.
Last fall Kelly began weighing when she could retire and how much money she needed — complex questions made more difficult by Seattle’s changing economic landscape.
As a regular reader of the Money Makeover feature in The Seattle Times, Kelly decided to ask The Times for free financial advice.
“I’ve spent my entire life being stressed about money,” she said. “It would be nice at some point just to be able to breathe.”
Working with The Times, the Financial Planning Association of Puget Sound put out a call among its members for volunteers who would advise Kelly at no charge.
Two colleagues at Comprehensive Wealth Management in Lynnwood raised their hands: Brian Lockett, vice president and wealth manager; and Marc Knauss, financial adviser.
They were impressed with Kelly’s disciplined approach to spending and saving. Her car is paid for, and she rents a 750-square-foot apartment in North Seattle for $1,175 a month.
“Michelle is doing surprisingly well with the amount that she’s saving, considering her income and where she lives,” Lockett said. “She’s living proof that it can be done.”
Kelly’s only source of earned income is her job as an adjunct college instructor, for which she often teaches eight art courses throughout the year. She’s worked at the same college for 20 years.
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Full-time work has been out of the question for Kelly because she has a disorder with symptoms that include migraine headaches and fatigue. Last year she participated in a drug trial that dramatically improved her condition.
Kelly logs enough hours in the classroom to qualify for her employer’s benefit package, which comes with a retirement-savings plan and health insurance. Even with health insurance, though, her out-of-pocket medical expenses can add up to several hundred dollars a month.
She signed up for her workplace 401(a) retirement program and contributed enough of her own money to take full advantage of her employer’s matching contributions. By late March the account balance was about $240,000.
(Government employers, such as public colleges, can offer 401(a) retirement programs, which resemble the 401(k) retirement plans used by private-sector employers. Both plans allow employee and employer contributions.)
Kelly also has a savings account with an estimated balance of $700. She owes about $6,000 on a credit card, the result of travel and uncovered medical expenses.
After poring over Kelly’s finances, Lockett and Knauss concluded that she faced an unacceptable risk of running out of money if she lived into her mid-80s. Longevity runs in Kelly’s family; her mother, 88, is still living, and her father died when he was 91.
They urged Kelly to maintain her current workload until she turns 67 and qualifies for full Social Security benefits. Her full benefit is expected to be about $19,200 a year.
After Kelly begins collecting Social Security, Lockett and Knauss advised her to keep working part time for three years until she turns 70, earning about $20,000 a year. Their projections showed the late-career boost reduced the odds of Kelly running out of money late in life.
The amount of money that Kelly can safely withdraw from her retirement savings will change as she moves deeper into retirement.
Lockett and Knauss entered Kelly’s assets and income into a software program, along with all of her known expenses. Then they assumed an average inflation rate of 3 percent for core living expenses and 4 percent for health care.
The program projects how much Kelly can tap from her retirement accounts when she stops working and Social Security becomes her principle source of income.
In all likelihood, she will need to take ever-larger amounts from her savings because inflation will outpace the annual cost-of-living increase for Social Security, which Lockett and Knauss estimate at 1 percent.
Lockett and Knauss also recommended that Kelly leave Seattle and move to a community with a lower cost of living. Doing so would reduce her living expenses and extend the life of her retirement savings.
Their advice was not unusual. “This isn’t the first time we’ve told a client that they can’t afford to live here,” Lockett said.
Knauss did comparative research for Kelly on the cost of living in Seattle and Spokane. The Eastern Washington city interests her because it has an art scene, she has a brother in Idaho, and Seattle is within a day’s drive.
Also, Spokane is less expensive. The cost of living in Spokane last year was 4 percent below the national average, according to the Cost of Living Index.
Finally, the financial planners urged Kelly to pay off her credit card this year. Once the debt is retired, she should build an $8,000 cash reserve by putting $300 a month into her savings account.
By 2021, the balance in her cash reserve should be large enough for Kelly to redirect her savings into a Roth individual retirement account. Lockett and Knauss advised her to put $6,500 a year into the IRA until she retires in 2028.
Kelly has already turned her attention to paying off her credit card. Because of her improved health, Kelly is entertaining the idea of increasing her income by selling more of her artwork.
The savings goals laid down by Lockett and Knauss are daunting, Kelly concedes. “It’s still going to be tough,” she said.
But Kelly now knows where she stands and how she can improve her circumstances.
“I feel much more hopeful,” she said.