After six years of scrimping as recent college graduates, Amanda Mattocks and Bryen Graver married and formed a household. Mattocks also completed her pay-as-you-go master’s degree and got a pay raise.

Just like that, the North Seattle couple went from barely making ends meet to having monthly surpluses.

Yet their hard-earned fortunes uncorked another set of anxieties: Now what?

Mattocks and Graver worried about their spending rising to meet their new income, leaving them no better off at saving for future goals, such as buying a house, raising a family and funding retirement.

In short, they weren’t sure how to avoid blowing it.

“We realized that we had a surplus that we had never had before,” Mattocks said. She laughed. “It was a new experience.”

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Last fall the couple asked The Seattle Times for help through the newspaper’s Money Makeover program. The Times contacted the Financial Planning Association of Puget Sound, which reached out to its membership. Association member Kathy Henningsen, a Bellevue financial planner, offered to advise Mattocks and Graver for free.

Starting to save early pays off later

After listening to the couple and examining their finances, Henningsen concluded that their Money Makeover request “was a proactive cry for help.”

Henningsen wasn’t worried, however. That the couple asked for help at all was a sign they wanted to take charge of their finances and head off trouble down the road.

“They’re sitting in a strong position to have choices, in the short run and the long run,” she said.

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Mattocks, 29, works as a high school history teacher with a public school district in the greater Seattle area, earning about $75,600 a year before taxes.

She supplements her teaching salary as a high school softball coach, a position that pays about $4,900 for the season. Mattocks also picks up between $200 and $400 a month during the school year by doing such things as advising a class and taking tickets at events.

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Graver, 28, earns about $49,900 before taxes as a graphic designer for a paint and equipment supplier. He expects to bring in an additional $2,000 this year from freelance graphic design work.

They have about $4,500 in a household checking account. A couple of savings accounts add up to about $12,800.

Both of them have started saving for retirement. As a government employee, Mattocks is enrolled in Washington state’s Teachers Retirement System Plan 3. She also contributes 6% of her pay to her employer’s 401(a) plan. Its balance is about $24,000.

Graver is contributing 4.2% of his pay to his employer’s 401(k) plan. His employer matches the first 4%, but he couldn’t resist socking away an additional 0.2%. “Why not a little bit more?” he said. His account balance is about $2,600.

The couple have little debt. Mattocks paid for her master’s degree at the University of Washington by saving up for it and taking classes as she worked.

Their only debt is about $1,200 in medical bills for Graver, who needs annual exams to keep tabs on a liver transplant when he was 1 year old.

When it comes to debt, they are atypical for their generation. Only about one in four millennials, defined as adults between the ages of 18 and 34, are debt free, according to a 2018 survey by life-insurance company Northwestern Mutual.

Notably, the indebted millennials told researchers that 41% of their debt came from student loans and credit cards.

Among the couple’s core values is philanthropy, and one of their first decisions after getting married was how much money to give away and to whom. They settled upon 10%, which for them comes to $750 a month.

They allocate their contributions to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter at Virginia Tech, their Ballard church and Humble Beast, a Portland organization that combines creative arts with the gospel.

A gnawing doubt for Mattocks and Graver was whether they could ever afford to buy a home and raise a family in Seattle, which has climbed into the ranks of America’s most expensive cities.

Seattle’s cost of living at the end of 2018 was the sixth-highest in the nation, according to an index compiled by the Council for Community and Economic Research.

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The expense of Seattle housing, in particular, nearly convinced the couple that they would have to buy a home in a more modestly priced suburb – or even as far away as Tacoma.

They were surprised when Henningsen told them that, with patience and savings, they could afford a house in Seattle.

“That was an awesome moment,” Mattocks recalled. “We had almost written it off.”

A home was only a portion of Henningsen’s financial road map, which put the couple’s monthly surplus to work for the future.

For starters, she advised them to build an emergency fund by adding $500 a month to their $12,800 in savings and moving the money to an account that pays higher interest. In three years the account should have about $30,000 – enough to cover six months of living expenses.

At that point, Mattocks and Graver should keep saving $500 a month, but this time for future child-raising expenses.

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Next, Henningsen urged the couple to sock away $750 a month for a home. She suggested investing the money in a mutual fund, such as the Vanguard Star Fund. Its blend of 60% stocks and 40% bonds helps buffer the market’s ups and downs.

Depending on their diligence and investment returns, Mattocks and Graver could have between $105,000 and $124,000 in the account in 10 years – close enough to make a down payment on a $600,000 house.

“That was a big deal for them,” Henningsen said.

As for retirement, Henningsen advised the couple to stay the course for now, with Graver diversifying his savings by putting some money into a Roth individual retirement account.

Mattocks and Graver wasted little time putting Henningsen’s plan to work.

They opened an account at Ally Financial, an online bank that pays 2.2% interest, and designated the account for their emergency fund.

They also opened a Vanguard account, seeded it with a $3,000 tax return and began pouring $750 a month into it. The couple followed Henningsen’s advice and put the money into the Vanguard Star Fund.

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Come 2029, the account should have enough money to supply a down payment for a house.

Mattocks and Graver say Henningsen’s advice gave them a sense of direction. Buying a house, in particular, now seems less daunting. “It wasn’t nearly as intimidating as we first thought,” Graver said.

On reflection, Henningsen said of the couple, “They realize they have options.”

“They can accomplish those things that are near and dear to their hearts.”

This article has been updated to clarify that the emergency fund, projected to reach $30,000 after three years, includes their $12,800 in other savings.