This past Wednesday afternoon, nervously clutching a notepad to my chest, I got out of my car and walked a short distance under the typical Seattle November drizzle to the entrance of the Financial Empowerment Center Hub on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Rainier Valley. I then sat down with a very nice Nepali woman, one of the financial counselors, and dived into the complicated mess that is our financial situation…
It’s actually not such a terrible mess on the surface. My credit score is 770. We’ve never paid a single bill late, and we always make more than the minimum payment on our credit cards – sometimes just a few dollars more, sometimes significantly more, depending on what we can afford at the moment. Other than credit cards, the only loans we’ve ever taken out were my student loans, and these are long since paid off (thanks, dad – you must have paid at least half of those!). While we live pretty frugally, we do have some discretionary income, especially with all the freelance work I’ve been doing these past few months.
The tricky part, though, is figuring out how we can change things in order to start paying off our debt faster, and also saving more. I found it hard to explain to the financial counselor that certain circumstances in our life are beyond our control right now. For example, when the counselor learned that P. has a chronic condition that’s been preventing him from working for the past two years yet did not qualify for disability benefits when he applied a little over a year ago, she immediately said, “You need to apply again, hire a lawyer. People apply many times and eventually get it.” I tried to explain that P. is unlikely to reapply because the process was extremely taxing and would be too much for him to go through again right now; plus, we are not even sure if it’s worth trying because, if we do succeed, P. will probably feel pretty depressed over the fact that he is now officially recognized as “disabled.” (What I didn’t have a chance to add is that this word and concept carries a lot of baggage, particularly in our culture.) “Oh no,” the counselor protested. “People don’t understand that there is the DVR [Division of Vocational Rehabilitation], that you can be on disability and DVR will help you find work.” I told her that we do know about the DVR; that, in fact, we live within walking distance of one of their offices, but my husband has not been able to muster the energy to attend one of their orientations, which is the required first step in accessing DVR services (which actually do not require that the client receive SSDI, so are not tied to the disability application). “Well, it’s a choice,” was her response. I didn’t feel like wasting our appointment time to explain that, in P.’s case, it is not a choice; that he would give a lot – a great deal – to be able to work, with or without DVR assistance, but at the moment, this is just not possible.
Another challenging part, although not nearly as challenging as P.’s health, is going to be figuring out exactly where our discretionary spending goes, and where we can make cuts. Even more importantly, how to make the distinction between discretionary and non-discretionary spending? For example, the rent for our one-bedroom apartment is about to go up to $1,100. Based on this new rent, the financial counselor calculated that 42% of our income goes towards rent and utilities, which she said was too high. In reality, our rent is low for the neighborhood that we’re in, but higher than in some other Seattle neighborhoods, and certainly higher than in the suburbs north and south of the city. Sure, we could move to Shoreline or Puyallup and pay $900 for a one-bedroom (or possibly even a two-bedroom). We could even potentially find a studio here in the city, on First Hill or Capitol Hill or in Pioneer Square, for a couple hundred dollars less than our newly increased rent. But is it worth it? If we moved to the suburbs, our transportation costs would go up, potentially canceling out the difference in rent. If we moved into a tiny urban studio, we’d need to pay extra for parking, laundry, and possibly storage, which again would bring the total cost of living in that apartment back up. But, even if the costs were not a “wash,” would such a move be worth it? First of all, the apartment search and move would be really stressful for P. right now. Also, if we moved into a studio, hosting P.’s dad on extended visits, like his upcoming trip to Seattle, would be extremely challenging, and those visits are key to helping P. feel better and eventually getting back to working. And, how would we feel living in a tiny cramped space with windows facing a wall or a noisy street, or in a non-descript apartment complex that is not within walking distance of anything at all, in the suburban environment that we both actively dislike? Is the psychological cost worth it? Sometimes, when we talk about this, I like to joke that we should move to some place like that intentionally because we will hate it so much that we will be forced to speed up the process of moving to the Methow Valley. However, in reality, I don’t know if it’s a good idea. So, is putting $1,100 towards rent when it could be $900 a case of discretionary spending? Or is it unavoidable, given all the factors I just described? The same goes for our occasional meals out, or buying a piece of fancy cheese or sausage once in a while, or buying the organic version of the most heavily contaminated types of produce (even though that means we don’t eat as much fruit or vegetables as we should), or cooking a nice dinner for friends and neighbors, or buying holiday and birthday gifts for close friends and family, or putting gas in the car to drive out to the mountains for a hike, a round-trip distance of 100 miles. Yes, we can survive without all these things (although I’d feel terrible not spending any money on presents), but is the decrease in our quality of life ultimately worth it? I know, I know, some people will read this and dismiss it all as “first world problems.” But we are a product of our environment and lifestyle, and when you’re living in the US, it’s hard to tell yourself, “OK, just pretend that you are a poor person in India or Zimbabwe and be as frugal as they have to be.”
Phew, that was a long paragraph. I did come away from my Financial Empowerment Center appointment with more than these semi-practical, semi-philosophical questions. I have a couple of home-buying assistance programs to look into and possibly contact for appointments or classes. I picked up some tips on shopping for a mortgage, such as using the Bankrate website to compare rates and limiting the number of lenders we approach to the bank where we currently have an account (I plan to meet with them in the next couple of weeks) as well as a few others recommended by friends and family. I also have another piece of homework: fill out a detailed income and expense chart that goes beyond the very basic one that I filled out at my appointment and really breaks everything down into specific line items. I’m supposed to bring this completed chart back for my next appointment, where the plan is to hone in on where our money is going and see how we can reallocate it to help meet our home-buying goals. I’ll try to go back in a month or so, depending on how long it takes me to check all those tasks mentioned above off the list.
Overall, the visit was definitely worth it. I knew the FEC counselors were not mortgage specialists; I also knew there were no easy solutions like “Oh, just stop spending money on X and Y and instead put it into savings and in a year you will have enough for a 20% down payment.” I learned a few things and there is still more to learn and to accomplish both on my own and during my next appointment. It’s a slow process, but we are – slowly – gaining the tools and resources that are needed to make this move a reality.