Business
Money Makeover

Reset after recession

BusinessFinanceUnited States Census Bureau
Median income in U.S. fell from $55,627 to $51,017 between 2007 and 2012
Macias family has good saving habits, but needs to boost earnings
'You can't borrow for retirement. They need to think of themselves first,' advisor Jennifer Hartman says

For Victor and Shannon Macias, the good old days were as recent as 2012, when the couple could afford to take their two daughters to Disneyland or out to dinner without worrying about the bill.

But after both were laid off from their jobs, family entertainment became staying home and watching a movie or heading to the local park for some free fun.

"They are an unfortunate example of people who were in the middle class and were doing an excellent job of saving," said fee-only financial planner Jennifer Hartman. "They had a very reasonable lifestyle."

But like many other Americans who suffered layoffs during the recession and its aftermath, Hartman said, "the new jobs they were able to find don't pay nearly as much as their old jobs."

Between 2007 and 2012, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the median annual income for a typical U.S. household fell from $55,627 to $51,017.

The country's median income numbers have dropped steadily despite the end of the recession and the beginning of the nation's economic recovery.

For the Macias family, the change has been dramatic. For a couple who never finished college, they had been doing well, but their income fell from a combined $72,500 in 2011 to $43,000 by 2013.

First, Shannon lost her full-time job working as an administrative assistant for a local church in 2012. Three months later, Victor was laid off from his job as a senior merchandiser for Mattel.

Since then, Shannon, 44, has been able to find only part-time work. That's been hard on the family finances but also has fed her desire to be a full-time homemaker.

Victor, 40, has had a full-time job for the last six months as a driver for an electrical contractor, delivering equipment to work sites. But he's earning considerably less money than he did at his last job.

To try to make up some of the lost income, Victor has been taking all the overtime hours he can get.

"The hard part is getting up at 4 in the morning," he said, "and sometimes not getting back home until pretty late at night."

With their old jobs, Shannon said, "we were making enough to put some money away and feel comfortable."

Most months lately, Victor added, "we're just making it."

"The last few months have been very tough," he said. "Now there's a lot of anxiety. Now we worry about spending as little as $10, $20. Should we really spend it?"

The couple aren't sure how to proceed.

They know they need to maintain a frugal lifestyle unless their income improves, but they also want to support their girls' extracurricular interests, such as one daughter's unexpected talent for fencing.

They recognize the need to save for the future education of their children, ages 10 and 12, without sacrificing progress in building their retirement nest egg.

"To have the girls go to college would be my fondest dream," Victor said, "since we hound them so much during the year to do well at school."

The Macias family currently rents in Eagle Rock and would like to buy a home there that they could leave to their daughters.

Financial planner Hartman said the Macias family could have been in far worse shape if Victor and Shannon hadn't maintained such good financial habits.

The couple avoided the kind of post-layoff overspending that often results in big credit card debts. They have paid off one car, a Chevy Tahoe, and most of their $17,800 in debt is a loan they took out to buy the family's other car, a Chevy Cruze, to replace a 1965 Mustang that Victor reluctantly sold.

"Their debt isn't bad," Hartman said. "That is a positive thing. I've seen plenty of people just keep spending like they did when they were making more money."

But the homeownership plans need to be set aside for now, Hartman said.

"They simply don't earn enough," Hartman said, to cover a mortgage in a neighborhood like Eagle Rock, much less the additional costs of homeownership.

"They don't have the money for repairs, property taxes," Hartman said.

In the meantime, the Macias family should try to enjoy the fact that they are living in a neighborhood they love, on a relatively quiet street and in a reasonably priced apartment that is much safer than the one that was burglarized back in 2005, in another neighborhood. Until the layoffs, that was the worst financial disaster the Macias family had faced, losing Shannon's jewelry and other valuables in the crime.

Job No. 1, the planner said, is to find higher-paying work or other ways to boost their income, "especially since they are just not spending a lot of money. I don't see a lot of room for cutting back."

Victor, for instance, has volunteered with youth baseball and softball programs; he could put his love of sports to work by offering his services as a private coach, Hartman said.

Hartman advised Victor and Shannon, who met two decades ago while working at the Glendale Galleria, to put new resumes together that emphasize their retail experience and strong skills working with other people.

They also need to find time to squeeze in some additional training or other education to bolster their earning potential, she said.

"There are online courses they can take," Hartman said. "There's also night school."

Another reason for supplementing their current income, Hartman said, is that the family has only a small buffer against unexpected debts. They have $190,000 in retirement savings, which they really shouldn't touch.

Their $2,500 savings account needs to grow large enough to cover at least three months of living expenses.

"Sudden expenses will happen," Hartman said, "and they need to be better prepared for that."

On the bright side, their retirement savings "are excellent for this stage of their lives. They are way ahead of the curve. I've had clients who make $500,000 a year and haven't saved a thing."

Hartman had only one complaint about the couple's retirement savings so far. They were top-heavy in large-cap stock funds and there was an over-reliance on high-yield but also high-risk bonds.

"I'd like to see them move the money into something more conservative that will still probably provide a good return," Hartman said, "and charge them lower fees."

Saving for college should be a lower priority than building an emergency fund and saving for their golden years.

"Financial planners like to say, 'You can always borrow for college,'" Hartman said. "You can't borrow for retirement. They need to think of themselves first."

Hartman added that there were other financial concerns the couple hadn't thought about at all, such as estate planning.

"At the very least, they need wills. The software is not expensive and they can do it themselves," Hartman said. "God forbid, but if something happens to both of them, they don't want the courts deciding what happens to their kids."

Hartman said that included the important task of picking a trusted friend or relative to be their children's guardian if something happened to both parents. Victor and Shannon also need living wills that outline their intentions if they were unable to make decisions themselves.

Despite the challenges they face, the two have a lot going for them, Hartman said.

"They're young. They're smart. They're personable. They seem to have a lot of skills," she said. "I think they have great potential."

ron.white@latimes.com

Twitter: @RonWLATimes

::

Money Makeover highlights

Who: Victor Macias, 40, and Shannon Macias, 44

2013 income: $43,000

Assets: $190,000

Debts: $17,800

Goals: Find higher-paying jobs, become debt free, save enough to put both daughters through college, buy a house

Recommendations: Maintain their current frugal lifestyle while they look for better jobs. Start an emergency fund with the goal of amassing at least three months of expenses. Saving for college is admirable but saving for retirement is more important. Diversify their retirement savings. Continue to rent.

About the advisor: Jennifer Hartman is a fee-only financial planner who co-founded the Greenleaf Financial Group with her sister Kathleen Hartman in 2006.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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