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Originally published May 4, 2013 at 8:02 PM | Page modified May 5, 2013 at 10:06 AM

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Student debt drowns financial future

Financial planner advises tackling student debt quickly by cutting other expenses.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Emily Pierson, 29, of Madrona, has been swimming competitively since she was 6.

But now, Pierson — a full-time investment-accounts representative who supplements her $21,600 salary with a part-time job as a swim instructor — feels like she is drowning in debt. Worst of all, she fears these debts are dragging her dad underwater with her.

“My dad always wanted to teach me how to do things myself, to teach me to be strong,” she recalls. “When I was young he told me ‘Don’t become a slave to debt.’ I’d say ‘I hear you, Dad.’ But I was young and I thought I already knew everything.”

When Pierson enrolled at a local private university in 2004 to study nursing, she secured grants and scholarships — and private loans cosigned by her dad. She changed career goals and took out more loans to earn a health and fitness degree.

“I remember thinking very clearly that I was taking on a lot of debt, but that I would almost be guaranteed a good job that paid well out of college,” she says.

She had accumulated more than $80,000 in student loans by the time she graduated in 2009, when the economy and job market were bleak.

“I have had to work so many jobs and long hours to make the $1,000-a-month minimum-loan payments,” she continues. “Because my interest rates are so high, I have not even begun to pay on the principal.”

Since her dad cosigned on the loans, Pierson laments, “It has put tremendous strain on our relationship. ... If I miss payments, my family has to pay.

“I am afraid for my future, and the future of my relationships if I cannot get my finances organized,” she says.

Pierson completed an online survey to participate in a free financial makeover with a member of the Puget Sound Chapter of the Financial Planning Association.

She was paired with Trish Howe, a certified financial planner and owner of Howe Financial Advisory in Fremont.

After the first meeting, Howe found ways for the swim coach to come up for air.

“Emily is a very hard worker,” says Howe. “She is talented and she excels at two jobs that are not easy to do.”

Pierson’s case is “not a disaster” but it feels like one because of the late payment fees on her student loans and her dad’s involvement, says Howe. “When there are money issues in families, it can create confusion about money and the relationship.”

But she also thinks Pierson can handle this.

“That’s why Goal No. 1 is a strategy for repayment of the one, high-interest rate loan,” the $14,500 she owes Sallie Mae at 10 percent interest, the planner says.

When Pierson first met with Howe, her student loans totaled $82,768 with monthly payments of $612.

“The No. 2 goal is to rebuild her relationship with her father,” Howe says. “She needs to remove all financial issues that would go to him — any phone calls for late payments.”

Howe suggests a five-part plan:

• Set up auto payments that should prevent late-payment calls from going to her father.

• Pay off student loans — three are consolidated by one service, totaling $443 a month; her Sallie Mae loan payment is $169 monthly — from her swimming income.

To catch up on the Sallie Mae loan, Howe advises taking a loan from her 401(k), where she has about $7,500. She calls it “an emergency option.”

Any employee may take up to 50 percent of their 401(k) balance in the form of a loan for a financial emergency other than a house. There are no loan fees, a reasonable interest rate usually set at prime rate, and the employee pays herself back with that interest rate.

Pierson will miss out on the 401(k) earnings and will be paying the loan back with after-tax dollars through payroll deduction over five years; this will be about $60 a month.

• Seek deferment or lower payment options with the administrator of the other student loans, where the interest rate is 3.54 percent.

If she could get the payments on the lower-interest loans deferred, she could use that money to go toward paying off the Sallie Mae loan as soon as possible, Howe says.

It can be frustrating to navigate loan-program call centers and wait times, “but it is doable,” according to the planner. “Take a day when you can spend two hours doing this with a calm attitude and feel good to have made progress on it. “

The important thing, Howe says, is to keep from letting any financial frustration morph into payment paralysis, which makes the problem bigger.

• The final two parts to Howe’s proposal involve “an austerity program” and a budget.

Pierson splits living expenses with her roommate, who pays their $1,200-a-month rent. In return, she covers the costs for their food — about $1,500 a month, most of which pays for dining out.

Pierson also pays her commuting costs, gas for the truck she owns and bridge tolls between Seattle and both of her Eastside employers. She budgets for her cellphone, truck insurance and $175 a month for a CrossFit gym membership.

“I’ve targeted dining out,” says Howe. “One way to do this is to eat at home rather than go out to eat almost every night.”

By bringing their lunch to work, and eating dinner at home a few nights a week, Pierson could save $20 or more a day, the planner calculates. Cutting back on her daily pair of $4 store-brewed coffee drinks — and instead bringing a “really good drink she makes by hand” — could save money, too.

“It’s like a diet: You have to preplan so you don’t cheat,” adds Howe.

She said once the loans are paid off — and Emily’s father is no longer getting debt notices, “She will be happy when she can go to her dad and show him the monumental progress she’s made. As soon as she does that, she needs to show him the document and says ‘I did it. Thank you so much. I am so sorry that this was a stress to you.’ ”

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