In some ways, Lindsey Norden’s timing couldn’t have been better. She started her career during Seattle’s prolonged boom, and landed good entry-level jobs with solid employers.
But her independence has also been marked by financial stress that at times seemed unshakable. The 23-year-old Seattle resident earns about $56,000 a year in salary and bonuses before taxes as a sales representative for a beverage company.
That was a typical household income in King County – in 2002, before a tech-driven prosperity bomb exploded over Seattle as it emerged from the Great Recession. The projected median household income for King County in 2018 was $89,881, according to estimates the state Office of Financial Management released in April.
In addition to living in a high-cost city, Norden is also saddled by $53,000 in debt, nearly half of it student loans.
After covering living expenses and making debt payments, Norden is usually left at the end of each month with a cash surplus of … zero. It weighed on her.
Was it stressful? “Oh, god,” Norden replied.
“I would have a monthly, ‘Oh, my god, I’m so broke,’” she said.
Norden was more acutely aware of her plight because she has a head for numbers. For a time she also held an entry-level job at a bank’s financial-planning division.
She is also a regular reader of The Seattle Times’ ongoing Money Makeover program. In October, she asked the newspaper for help.
The Times forwarded Norden’s application to the Financial Planning Association of Puget Sound, which put out a call among its members for a financial planner who would advise Norden free of charge.
Bob Toomey volunteered. He is vice president at S.R. Schill & Associates, a wealth-management company on Mercer Island.
Toomey gathered and analyzed Norden’s financial data.
“She clearly is burdened with a heavy load of debt,” he said. “It’s heavy relative to her assets, and it’s heavy relative to her income.”
“However,” Toomey added, “she’s young, and she grasps the gravity of the situation, and she’s highly motivated to address it and get herself out of it.”
Norden, who is single, isn’t indulgent with her money. She and two roommates rent a house in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood. Her share of the monthly rent is $940.
Norden’s baseline monthly expenses, excluding debt payments, add up to around $2,675 – hardly extravagant by Seattle standards.
She has also seized opportunities to save some money. Norden has about $16,000 in a 401(k) retirement plan from a previous employer. She plans to roll over the money into her current employer’s plan.
Over the years she also salted away about $4,000 in a Roth individual retirement account.
Then, of course, there are the debts.
Norden owes about $23,000 on four credit cards, two with interest rates at 20 percent or more. She owes another $4,200 on her car.
Norden also has an outstanding balance of about $26,000 on several student loans that she used to finance two-and-a-half years at the University of Washington.
Her stint at UW turned out to be a grind. She paid for college by borrowing money and by working as many as two jobs at a time, leaving little room for study.
After getting a promising part-time job, Norden decided to leave UW in her junior year to work full time. Of her university experience, she said, “I felt it was a waste.”
Her college days are over for now, but her student loans live on. She dutifully pays $199 a month to retire her college debt. At that rate, she will pay off the last of it in the spring of 2034.
Surveys show a rising tide of education debt among young people nationwide. Forty-three percent of young families had student loans in 2016, up from 38.8 percent three years earlier, according to the Federal Reserve.
Education debt loads are also getting larger. In three years the median balance on student loans increased nearly 10 percent to $19,000 in 2016, Federal Reserve research shows.
Last year Northwestern Mutual, the life-insurance company, conducted a survey that broke out responses from millennials, defined as young adults between the ages of 18 and 34.
The surveyed millennials carried an average load of $36,000 on all forms of debt except mortgages, and they used about a third of their monthly income to pay it off. Only one in four millennials said they were debt free.
At S.R. Schill & Associates, Toomey quickly concluded that Norden didn’t need a long-term financial plan. Rather, she needed a short-term strategy for erasing all of her debt before she turned 30.
Because Norden does not foresee any cash windfalls or earnings bumps, Toomey devised a plan based on her current income.
For now, he advised her to make the minimum payments on her student loans and limit her contributions to her 401(k).
Toomey then took aim at the two credit cards with interest rates of 20 percent or more. Norden had been paying a combined $130 a month – the minimum – on the debt, which totals $4,700.
Toomey told Norden to tap all of her available cash flow and increase her monthly payments on the expensive credit cards to $445. At that rate, she could retire the debt within 12 months.
When the two costly cards are paid off, Norden would then use her freed-up money to accelerate payments on her two remaining credit cards, with interest rates between 10 percent and 17 percent.
By Toomey’s estimates, the $18,000 balance on Norden’s other credit cards would be gone within three and a half years.
As for Norden’s $4,200 auto loan, Toomey decided to leave the repayment schedule alone and let it pay off the debt in two years.
By 2023, Norden’s finances will look much different. More than $27,000 in debt will be erased, along with its monthly debt payments. Instead of having no money left at the end of each month, she will have a monthly surplus of about $450.
At that point, Norden can attack her student debt.
Under Toomey’s plan, Norden would increase her monthly student-loan payments to $616 from $199. That should retire the debt in 2026. If she sticks with the strategy, Norden will be debt free when she’s 30.
Norden has started following the plan. She increased her credit-card payments. She also cashed out a pension with a previous employer and applied the $1,100 to her high-interest cards.
“I feel like I have a hold on it, which I did not have before,” she said.
Toomey is optimistic about Norden, but he worries that too many young people are being put in the position of starting out their careers weighed down by debt.
“It troubles me,” he said. “It puts them on a slower financial trajectory.”
“This debt,” he said, “is holding these people back.”