Like many folks in their 20’s, Sara Omary took a few detours before she found her perfect job. She got a bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley in Marine Science and Environmental Politics. Then she discovered she wanted to help humans more than fish.

“Marine science proved to be useless for me,” Omary says. “I wanted to have something concrete to offer people.”

She went back to school, earned a master’s degree in nursing from DePaul University, and took another one of those detours as a traveling nurse in the Alaskan hinterland. Then a few months ago, she landed her “dream job” in Seattle as an RN for a non-profit that serves the homeless and people living in shelters.

When she was at Berkeley, Omary worked multiple jobs so she wouldn’t rack up lots of debt. But the college experience got lost in a shuffle of nannying, delivering groceries, administrative work and keeping up with school work. For her master’s degree she focused full-time on school — and graduated with $146,000 in school loans.

That’s an eye-watering debt, but not uncommon. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, across America more than 1.3 million student borrowers owe between $100,000 to $150,000 — and these figures continue to rise.

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Is the 29-year-old freaked out? Nope. “I am resigned to just paying that the rest of my life,” Omary says with a shrug. “It’s like a mole on my face. It’s there forever.”

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Sara reached out to The Seattle Times for a Money Makeover — but school debt is only part of the reason. Growing up in a single-parent family in the Bay Area, she saw how a downturn in the global economy can sweep away any sense of security.

“My mom was a mortgage loan officer. In 2008, things were good and then they were bad. My mom lost all her money and we got evicted.”

Omary’s mother and her family bounced back over time, but Omary never wants to go through that again. She thinks emergency savings and a retirement portfolio would insulate her — but had no idea how to get started.

Tom McLean, a certified financial planner and founder of Advitica Financial Planning in Olympia, volunteered to help.

“Sara comes from a family that doesn’t have a lot of financial understanding, so I started with a presentation on the basics,” he said. “Like, ‘What are stocks, bonds, REITs etc.?’”

Omary has lots of company. According to the St. Louis Fed, three in five millennials have no stock market exposure, and one reason people in their 20’s and 30’s say they don’t invest is that they don’t understand it.

That first meeting with McLean really opened Omary’s eyes. She thought she was going to have to figure out what the next “Google” was going to be. Then she learned she didn’t have to be Warren Buffet in order to invest.

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“Tom laid out the different kind of businesses and how they perform over time. The idea is that you invest in lots of companies; foreign, domestic, small cap, large cap. It helped to know the ‘why’ behind diversification.”

The planner helped Omary define her overall goal, which is to be financially independent by age 67. “I’d like to not work full time by the time I’m 67,” Omary says. “I can’t imagine not working at all. I would go crazy.”

The next item on McLean’s to-do list was to drill down into Omary’s balance sheet.

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She makes $71,900 a year as a nurse with a non-profit in Seattle. She took a $20,000 pay cut compared to what she was making in Alaska, but has no regrets.

“King County is the gold standard of public health. Working here is so different than Alaska.”

However, moving to Seattle was expensive. Omary worried about the $2,000-plus she had put on her credit card. She only has $3,000 in savings and checking combined.

She rents a one-bedroom apartment in Fremont that she feels lucky to have found at $1,275 a month. She doesn’t have a car. At $218 a month, her gym seemed kind of spendy to Tom. Also the $1,000 a month she shells out on entertainment and travel.

When he questioned the spending, Omary changed some things and pushed back on others.

“I’m quitting that gym. I hate it there,” Sara says. “My plan is to hate a much less expensive gym.”

The entertainment outlay is more sacred. When she lived in Bethel, Alaska, Omary was starved for art. “When I left Bethel, I said, ‘I’m going to plays and art shows and the ballet in Seattle.’ Just anything with artistic value. It’s been really good.”

Omary also splurges on eating out and she loves to travel.

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McLean gets it. “She wants to save for retirement. But does she want to live like a hermit? No! She likes to spend money on travel and she’s kind of a foodie.”

Together McLean and Omary worked out a budget with expenses totaling $48,600 a year. That puts money in Omary’s fun bucket and also gets her started saving. The top saving priority is to create an emergency fund — so that if the unexpected happens she doesn’t have to put it on her credit card.

McLean wants Omary to sock away $300 dollars a month in an emergency fund. He says that the money should be automatically withdrawn into an account that’s earmarked for this purpose. He believes the emergency fund needs to be 6 to 12 months of expenses — a minimum of $21,000 — and that Sara will reach that goal in six years.

Omary predicts she will get there faster. In the two months since she met McLean, she’s eliminated her credit card debt.

“I want to have an emergency fund to give me peace of mind. Now that I’ve paid off my credit card, I’m putting more money into the emergency fund.”

But what about that elephant in the room: the $146,000 loan with a 5% interest rate that Omary owes the Department of Education? She pays $404.96 a month and, as she said, is prepared to do that for life. However, it’s possible she might only have to pay for a decade.

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The federal government sometimes offers loan forgiveness to healthcare professionals like nurses who work in public service. “I work for a non-profit, which I love so I’d be doing that anyway,” Omary says. “Plus my job does qualify for loan forgiveness.”

McLean cautions that loan cancellation is not as easy as it sounds. Omary will need to work in public service for 10 years and log 120 loan payments on time. Plus, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program has been in the news lately for denying many applicants based on small errors in paperwork. For her part, Omary is attempting to follow guidelines to the letter and hoping the program gets fixed in the next decade.

Even if she has to pay the full student loan, McLean predicts Omary will have enough money to choose to work or not when she is 67. “I gave her a printout of her future earnings which are $4,800,000. It’s like a giant battery that will power her retirement.”

Omary is currently saving $600 a month in her 403b — which is like a 401k for employees of non-profits. Her employer matches 1%. In creating a portfolio of investments for those contributions, McLean had to choose from the funds that are in Omary’s plan.

“I had to use their ingredients,” McLean says. “So acting like a personal chef, I aimed to put together something delicious but that meets health needs.”

Omary now has a growth-focused portfolio with 80% invested in stock mutual funds and 20% invested in bond funds. There’s about $3,600 in the 403b already.

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In addition, Omary rolled a $17,000 retirement fund from her job in Alaska into an Individual Retirement Account with Betterment. It’s a robo advisor (see sidebar for more info) that’s automated, and Omary chose an aggressive portfolio with 90% stocks.

McLean ran projections on Omary’s investment accounts and figures that she’ll have $895,000 by the time she’s 52, and $2,592,000 at age 67.

Omary says she is grateful to McLean for figuring out her financial future. But she has mixed emotions about stashing all that cash in a retirement that feels so far away.

“I waffle between wanting to live for today – and save for tomorrow,” Omary says. “If I die when I’m 67, I’m going to be really angry.”

Getting started: tools for young investors

If Omary hadn’t gotten a Seattle Times Money Makeover, how could she create her own portfolio? Most certified financial planners won’t work with folks until they have a nest egg in the $250,000 range. McLean suggests three investment tools for young investors or anyone with small balances.

Tom McLean, Advitica Financial Planning
Tom McLean, Advitica Financial Planning

Robo advisor: A robo advisor is an online, automated investment management service like the one Omary used for money not held in her 403b. Robo advisors utilize computer algorithms to build a portfolio and manage asset allocation. Typically they charge a small management fee, and the funds in the account will also charge fees based on your assets. Account minimums are often low.

Asset allocation fund: McLean also recommends something he calls “robo on the cheap”, an asset allocation fund. He likes Vanguard LifeStrategy Funds, which offer a combination of stock and bond index funds that provide a portfolio of diversity in one fund. The average expense ratio of these funds is 0.13% which is quite inexpensive.

XY Planning Network: A robo advisor is not a financial planner. If you require budgeting assistance, advice on how to allocate investments in retirement accounts, or just a familiar voice to talk to, McLean suggests taking a look at the XY Planning Network. Their planners, who are often young themselves, focus on financial guidance for Generation X and Generation Y clients, and offer assistance on a pay-per-hour basis or lower-cost monthly fees.