Working hard to live within her means
A single mom who makes a living helping others gets some much-needed help from a financial planner who takes aim at her debt and attitude toward money.
Special to The Seattle Times
Would you like some free financial planning?IF YOU WOULD BE INTERESTED in a free financial makeover in exchange for having your story and photo published in The Seattle Times, answer a few questions at seattletimes.com/yourmoneysurvey.
It's a thing of the past.
An occasional girls' night out?
That's ancient history, too.
A video-game system for her 9-year-old son?
Nope. Just cable TV in one room of their house.
As a single foster-parent-turned-adoptive-mom in North King County, Shelley Dooley is already familiar with making financial sacrifices.
But now, with some unexpected home-improvement bills rattling her long-term goals for a nine-month community-service/travel hiatus and eventual retirement, the 44-year-old director at a large social-services agency can't seem to find any more places to save or cut corners.
Even with the one house with a yard she rents out for income, and a smaller town house she is buying and lives in with her son, Dooley worries that another house-fix setback could add to her debt.
On top of that, Dooley still holds out hope of adopting a second foster child.
It's part of the reason she filled out an online survey to participate in a free financial makeover.
Dooley wanted a financial planner who "gets that I've made a choice to be the parent of a child with special needs. They need to get that I've made a choice to be in this field because I have an impact. They need to get that I live within my means but sometimes life things come up."
Like the time a couple of years ago when her house had a leak — and needed a $7,000 roof replacement. And when she discovered last July that her town-house heating bill was literally going out the window — and she had to spend $6,000 to have better-insulated ones installed.
"Yeah, that was a bit of a hit," she says.
Even after chipping away at part of that bill, paying for those expenses with plastic has left her credit-card debt around $10,000.
She hopes her car — which she needs for work and her son's medical appointments — will make it another 110,000 miles, but fears her 10-year-old computer and 9-year-old software might break down any day, requiring yet another charge to one of her two cards.
Meanwhile, her son is growing fast and his shoe size seems to double overnight, so they're often at Goodwill for their wardrobes.
Even though Dooley receives a $450 monthly stipend for the needs of a child adopted from foster care, the Washington state program that funds this is always "on the chopping block," she says.
But she still has to pay for school clothes or the baseball cleats he needs for Little League.
Her job, which provides employer-based contributions to a retirement plan and enough income to make Roth IRA contributions, is equally important.
"I choose to be in this field because I have an impact," says Dooley. "I work in social services so my salary is lower than it could be if I worked in a different field."
To increase her earning potential, Dooley is considering a 16-month online master's degree program. With a scholarship, it would cost about $10,000 and take her 10 years to pay off.
Through all of this, she hasn't lost her sights on a big priority in her life: volunteer/service travel.
"I need to show my son that the world is bigger that just Seattle," Dooley says.
They currently takes two one-week vacations each year within the U.S. where "we always go on the cheap, staying at friends' homes, camping or staying in hostels," she says.
She's exploring service/travel programs that would allow her to take on a nine-month volunteer excursion before he starts high school, or at least before he graduates.
"I have a College Savings 528 Plan similar to GET (Washington state's Guaranteed Education Tuition program) account for my son, but I don't know what I need to do to really be able to retire at a reasonable age," Dooley says.
So what to do?
After a 90-minute meeting and review of Dooley's finances, certified financial planners John Goddard and his associate, Nancy Dienes, came up with a plan.
Start by chipping away at the credit-card debt, recommended Goddard a member of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors and Puget Sound chapter of Financial Planning Association.
"We advised Shelley to work toward becoming debt-free as quickly as she can," says Goddard, principal at Seattle's Goddard Financial Planning.
One suggestion: increase what she charges the couple living in her cash-flow negative rental house by $150 per payment, to $1,500 monthly, when the lease comes due.
This part of her money makeover pitted Dooley's soft side against a fiercer financial focus.
"He showed me I need to think more like a businessperson instead of a social worker," says Dooley, who is already laying the groundwork for the rent hike.
"I need to separate out my business needs from my desire to help my renters, who are students working full time — and they're really good people."
Once Dooley brings her credit-card payments and fees down, Goddard suggests she should begin saving for the possibility of other unexpected expenses — such as the roof replacement she faced a while back.
"Credit cards can be helpful as long as you have them for all the right reasons," Goddard says. "When something important comes up and you don't have an emergency reserve, you don't have a lot of choices. An emergency reserve is specifically for some time in the future when you need $5,000 and so you don't have to put it on the credit card.
"We recommend to all the clients that we work with that they have at least three months of household expenses in reserve," Goddard adds. "This is an extremely high priority. When life throws us a curveball and we need a little time to react, this can help us deal with the unexpected."
Good fit for others
Goddard considers another recommendation he had for Dooley to be a good fit for others: increase disability-income insurance.
Her current employer-paid disability-income insurance provides for about 40 percent of her monthly salary in the event of an accident or serious illness.
"For only $20 more per month, that increases to 60 percent," a figure much closer to the ideal, Goddard says. "This area is one of the most widely misunderstood and underappreciated" — especially for single parents, he adds.
"With a robust employer-paid employee-benefits package, standard disability-income insurance is typically included. When it comes to entrepreneurs, this is still available but many never explore the private policies," he says.
In the event of a work-disabling illness or accident without such coverage, "income stops after 90 days" — something Goddard says can create a personal financial catastrophe.
Goddard and Dienes praised Dooley's term-life-insurance policy, which will provide for her son if she is not here. However, they encouraged her to take a few more steps in estate planning.
"There are a lot of issues involved with having a minor named as the beneficiary of a life-insurance policy," Goddard says.
He recommended that Dooley consult a lawyer to determine the best strategy for handling life-insurance questions and drafting a will that names a guardian for her son in the event of her early death.
Dooley, who says she was "nervous about what I was going to hear," now calls the process "great" and the plan "doable without making gigantic changes.
"When he laid it out for me it felt reasonable, and that was exciting to me," she says.
Dooley says Goddard was gentle when explaining why adopting another child doesn't fit with her other financial goals.
He also recommends she hold off on a new computer any time soon.
Her goals of volunteer/service travel Goddard and Dienes didn't go as far as to call it a pipe-dream, so Dooley doesn't "feel like my trip is totally off the table" — adding that she "appreciates the flexibility in the guidelines they presented to me."
As she moves on, Dooley says she is pleased to discover "that I'm not unsmart when it comes to finances."
And she may turn to Goddard and Dienes for help in the future.
"To me, their expertise is so worth it," Dooley says. "They're operating on a higher level of finances than I am — plus they're not emotionally tied to my situation."