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Parenthood: Tough act in money juggling

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

October 17, 2016


SEATTLE ó Every age group has its own financial challenges, but money pressures seem especially plentiful for young, working parents.

Having children, though it has numerous benefits, is also expensive. Meanwhile, young parents are often saddled with mortgages and student loans. Many are trying to save for their childrenís college ó and for their own retirements.

Whatís more, all of this hits before their peak earning years in their 40s and 50s.

Erin Gunn and Peter Ehlert, of suburban Seattle, have most of those "life cycle" financial challenges on their plates, plus a few more.

Advice from a financial planner to young parents: Save 10 percent

They are raising two sons: Mason, 3, and James, 6 months.

Gunn and Ehlert have steady tech careers, but they have also contended with a layoff, contract work with limited benefits, and a new home that came with surprises, such as costly repairs and a squirrel living in the garage attic.

They also have an annual child-care bill of about $48,400.

"It feels like the last four years or so itís been absolutely crazy," said Gunn, 36. "Weíve been in survival mode."

That prompted Gunn to ask for some free financial advice. The Puget Sound Chapter of the Financial Planning Association matched the couple with Richard Marshall, a certified financial planner with a Seattle-area office of Vestory, an investment-advisory firm.

Marshall pored over the coupleís finances and delivered a reassuring message.

"Theyíre doing pretty well," he said. "Theyíve been able to save a fair amount for their age and they seem to be dedicated to the concept of saving."

Then, he added: "Itís just that the day care blows them out of the water a little bit."

Fortunately, Gunn and Ehlert chose careers in the well-compensated tech sector.

Gunn is a technical writer working for Microsoft through a staffing agency. Ehlert, 42, is a program manager at the downtown Seattle office of The Walt Disney Co. He got the job several months after he was caught in a layoff at Microsoft in 2014.

Combined, they earn between $192,000 and $197,000 a year before taxes.

Although Gunn is eligible for paid time off through her employer, the staffing agency, she hadnít worked enough hours to qualify before taking leave in April for the birth of James. That reduced the familyís income for more than four months.

The couple bought their home in 2013, and the property is currently worth about $685,000. But they also owe $308,000 on the mortgage, and they had to spend about $50,000 in unexpected repairs on the house, which was built in 1973. They have no other debts.

Combined, Gunn and Ehlert have about $400,000 in various investment accounts, most of which are for retirement and college savings for their sons. They also have about $146,000 in checking and savings accounts.

So far, the couple are on track for their retirement savings, Marshall determined. Two trouble spots remain, however.

The first is the cost of day care, which, at more than $4,000 a month, exceeds the coupleís monthly mortgage payment.

On weekdays, Mason and James spend a little more than 10 hours daily in a day-care center. Day care for James is an additional $460 a month because he is an infant.

Gunn and Ehlert agonized over their decision to put their sons in day care so that both of them could work. They miss their children during weekdays. But they like their day-care center, and they can better save for their sonsí college educations and their own retirements if both of them are working.

At least their day-care expense comes with a sunset clause: It goes away when Mason and James are old enough to go to school. Until then, Marshall advised the couple to reduce their savings a little to cover the extreme expense.

The second trouble spot concerned college. Marshallís projections showed that Gunn and Ehlert arenít saving enough to fully cover the cost of their sonsí college educations.

A four-year degree at a public university for Mason could cost about $176,800 if he enrolls, as expected, in 2029, Marshall estimated. For the younger James, the price tag could be about $220,300 if he enrolls five years later, in 2034. That adds up to about $397,100 for both boys.

Marshall based his sobering estimates on an annual average increase of 4.5 percent in the cost of a college education.

His projections showed that, at their current savings rate, Gunn and Ehlert would run out of college savings during their sonsí senior years. It was news to them.

Luckily, they have time to adjust, and the scheduled end of day care is part of the solution.

As their day-care expenses drop, Gunn and Ehlert should pour the freed-up money into their sonsí 529 college-savings plans, Marshall advised. Instead of saving $315 a month for each boy, the couple should begin saving $515 a month for Mason and $565 a month for James.

Marshall also urged Gunn and Ehlert to max out their contributions to their individual retirement accounts and their 401(k) programs when their day-care expense goes away. Whatever money is left over should go into their investment accounts.

Gunn and Ehlert were grateful to Marshall for reminding them that their enormous child-care bills are temporary. The couple were so consumed by day-to-day challenges that they began to lose their long-term perspectives.

Now, they say, their perspective is back and they see a range of options for the future.

"Itís been a relief," Gunn said.