Struggling engineer gets a plan to build a better financial future
Hit hard by the economic downturn, dragged deep into debt by student loans, a single mother of four gets a financial plan to help turn things around.
Special to The Seattle Times
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Mechanical engineer Rena Cummings knows what it's like to be jobless and living out of her car for a week with barely $60 in her pocket — and she vows never to go back there again.
When double-digit unemployment smacked the Florida economy 10 years ago, the single mother of four daughters was hit by the layoffs.
She was jobless for five years. As work dried up, so did her savings.
Resolute in finding a job, Cummings temporarily left her daughters with family while trekking to Seattle for a contract engineering position.
During the trip, she slept in her car for a week — and in a Seattle hostel for four — while getting back on her financial feet.
The temporary job gave her a brief financial respite, a Seattle foothold and enough money to bring her youngest three kids out to live with her.
But after two years, the Seattle contract job expired. With local openings tight, Cummings took another temporary engineering gig in Portland.
She split her time between both cities — supporting a Portland daughter studying culinary arts, and her other two daughters in school here.
When the Portland job ended a year ago, her savings evaporated again.
"My goal was to put away $1,000 a month in savings," says Cummings, 54.
"But because I was commuting between two states, not getting overtime and paying two rents and two sets of groceries, I had to dig into my savings. I was making $4,000 a month, but $2,000 was going toward my rent. I would like to start my saving again when I am employed again," says Cummings.
Equal parts supportive single mom, determined job-seeker, part-time online student, and frazzled family financier, Cummings is no quitter — but the Seattle woman is also whipsawed between securing a new job to pay daily bills and finding options to prepare for retirement while dealing with what feels like snowballing student loans.
Though only a portion of it is for her own studies, Cummings' education loans top $150,000 because she assumed responsibility for her daughters' student debts — with a 5.2 percent average interest rate.
Right now, Cummings says, her money issues are more of a "survival thing."
It's why she filled out an online survey to participate in a free financial makeover.
During her first meeting with certified financial planner Clara Hollin, of Kirkland-based Lincoln Financial Advisors, and a member of the Puget Sound Chapter of the Financial Planning Association, Hollin immediately pinpointed the core of her client's challenges: a shaky employment landscape is rattling Cummings good financial intentions.
"Rena is not a crazy woman with her money," says Hollin. "She is one of the many, many people in this country affected by the economic downturn. She's extremely focused, smart and optimistic.
"She could be you or me. She is focused on raising herself out of poverty and raising her kids to be strong young adults," she says.
"This is what happens to people during an economic downturn," Hollin says. "The reality or challenge for people who have racked up student loans or credit-loan debt or are underwater in their mortgage is that they can become so overwhelmed that don't know where to begin. ... There are a lot of people out there who have been living on the edge, even while they're working."
So what should she do?
Right off the bat, Hollin suggested Cummings begin looking for assistance and resources available to the unemployed to take a little pressure off monthly bills.
Hollin pointed her to WashingtonConnection.org, an online clearinghouse of public and nonprofit resources — including Seattle City Light for electricity and Seattle Public Utilities for water — and benefits available to those with various income-based eligibility requirements.
With Cummings' 21 years of service as a reservist in the National Guard, Hollin also reminded her client that she may be eligible for health insurance or other veterans' benefits.
That prompted the Seattle woman to begin researching the new Veteran Retraining Assistance Program, part of the Veterans Opportunity to Work to Hire Heroes Act of 2011.
The joint U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and U.S. Department of Labor program focuses on retraining 99,000 veterans for high-demand jobs.
It allows qualifying unemployed veterans between the ages of 35 and 60, and were not dishonorably discharged, to receive up to 12 months of assistance equal to the full-time GI Bill for education at about $1,473 per month.
Longer term, Hollin recommends Cummings channel the hours she spends looking for a high-paying engineering job into landing a longer-term, if slightly lesser-paying position — even if it's outside of engineering or project management.
"Certified financial planners aren't trained as career counselors, but we do know how to listen, listen, listen," says Hollin.
That's why she knows some clients with complex financial challenges often face tough employment issues.
With Cummings' 2011 tax refund already spent, "the key right now is to get her a job" so she can begin building up a cash reserve of $15,000 to $30,000 by saving about $1,500 a month.
That would cover daily expenses — money Hollin calls "pure savings for a real emergency" — and allow her to begin making minimum monthly student loans payments of $1,384 — a debt that is deferred while she is unemployed.
Once Cummings has sufficient cash reserves, says Hollins, she should "redirect" the $1,500 in monthly savings/reserves toward her student-loan debt for a monthly $2,800 payments.
Hollin outlined some choices that might help Cummings tap into her professional skills while chiseling away at her mountain of student loans: federal service.
Several AmeriCorps programs, for example, could allow Cummings to apply her engineering and professional experience for a few years.
Many of the programs offer a living stipend that can vary widely, based on the area's cost of living and services provided, according to Samantha Jo Warfield, spokeswoman for the Corporation for National and Community Service. A quick check shows the stipend for this area is about $1,000 after taxes.
During service, Cummings' student loans would be deferred. After that, she might also be eligible for a Segal Education Award of about $5,550 per year of service.
These awards are only for federal government-backed loans — including Stafford, Will D. Ford, Federal Consolidated, nursing student, health education, primary care and supplement loans, according to Warfield.
"There is a lifetime cap of two education awards and only for your first two terms of service," she adds.
If she qualifies, this could be applied to Cummings' own loans or transferred to her daughters' student debts.
Another option Cummings might consider:
Income-based Repayment (IBR): available for qualifying teachers, government workers or those employed at eligible nonprofit groups.
According to IBRinfo.org, an independent, nonprofit source of information about federal student-loan payment and forgiveness programs, this helps most borrowers cap payments at less than 10 percent of their income.
IBR will forgive remaining debt after 25 years of qualifying payments.
Even so, full retirement likely won't come for Cummings until her mid-70s — news from Hollin that the Seattle woman took in stride.
"At first, when we started talking about my student loans, it was 'Whoa!' because they're pretty high. It was a real eye-opener," says Cummings. "But there are lot of people like myself who are facing hard times.
"Right now, I want to continue working with her because it's encouraging to have some long-term goals and to set some short-term goals to see what I need to do to get back up on the horse and get through this transition."