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Originally published Sunday, February 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Money Makeover

Debt standing between her, her dreams

At 27, Nikki Felker has a job she loves and big plans for the future: grad school, buy a house, maybe start a family someday. But standing in the...

Special to The Seattle Times

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THIS IS THE LATEST in a series of monthly "financial makeovers" by The Seattle Times for readers who want to get real about their money.

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At 27, Nikki Felker has a job she loves and big plans for the future: grad school, buy a house, maybe start a family someday.

But standing in the way of those dreams is a pile of debt from college and the lean years after graduation from Seattle University, where she earned a degree in criminal justice.

"My parents tried to help me during college," Felker says, adding that they made too much to qualify for financial aid. "But my mom became ill one year, and I took out some high-interest loans in order to keep paying my tuition."

Sometimes, she says, she paid tuition with a credit card, which she also used for living expenses after graduation because her job working with kids in shelters paid just $22,000 a year.

"I'd always either worked a second job waitressing or gone to school in order to defer" paying back some of the student loans, she says.

Since 2006, Felker has been working as an employment consultant with an Auburn nonprofit that helps people with disabilities get — and keep — jobs. For the last two years, she's commuted to Tacoma from Seattle, and though she got a raise to about $39,000 a year and a bonus, the mileage took a toll on her car, and costly repairs added to her credit-card debt.

Last year, with gas prices high, she bought a new hybrid car with a $28,000 loan. With the $14,000 she owes on credit cards and a $33,000 student-loan debt, that drove her combined minimum monthly payments to about $1,200. Her apartment rent is $500, a relative bargain, thanks to the fact that the building is owned by her parents. In return, she acts as the building manager.

Nevertheless, in December, Felker realized she had to return to moonlighting as a waitress a few nights a week. "I wasn't meeting monthly expenses," she said. "I would pick what not to pay, skip a student-loan or credit-card payment."

About the same time, one of her clients kept overdrawing from his bank account. Her client's boss asked her to help the client balance his checkbook.

"And I go, 'Oh dear, I can't even balance my own checkbook,' " Felker said. "That was a wake-up call. I need serious help.

"I'm really good at helping other people plan their lives, but I can't seem to get a handle on my own," she says.

Helping Felker find her fiscal footing is Wayne Campbell, a certified financial planner at Campbell Financial on Mercer Island and a member of the Financial Planning Association — Puget Sound Chapter.

Campbell met with her to go over her goals: buying a home, getting a master's degree, creating a realistic budget to better control her cash flow and getting ideas for consolidating or prioritizing her debt.

"(He) really gave me a lot of great perspective on some financial ideas that I didn't know about," Felker says. "Very basic things, like you have to make more than you're spending."

Campbell says that without a bonus at her day job or her waitressing income, Felker won't be making more than she's spending for another four years, largely because of the debt payments.

"He kind of validated that I don't spend that much, but my income is going to high credit-card payments," Felker said.

Campbell saw some low-hanging fruit right away, in the form of an exorbitant interest rate of more than 31 percent on one of her credit cards.

"He told me to just call and tell (the credit-card company) that I have a financial adviser who told me to see how low I can get the rate, and then they gave me 6.9 percent," Felker says. "I thought, 'I should do this more often!' "

On Campbell's advice, Felker has started researching her student loans online to see if she is eligible to consolidate them and possibly apply for a program that forgives student loans for public-service employees after 10 years of payments based on income.

As for graduate school, Campbell encouraged Felker to gain control over her cash flow before taking on any further financial obligations.

"I told her (grad school) should be looked at as whether it works as an investment," Campbell said.

It's a shift in thinking for Felker.

"I'm going to hold off on going back to school," Felker says, after calculating how much she would spend for her degree and factoring in how much she would lose by not working during that time, along with what she could expect to make after graduation.

Campbell also cautioned Felker about using her bank's overdraft protection, which he says amounts to having another credit card linked to her bank account. "She has to watch that she doesn't write checks beyond what she has in her account so she's not indirectly building more credit-card debt," Campbell said.

Other items on Felker's action list include obtaining a bookkeeping software program to track expenses, and setting aside 40 percent of her income from her part-time work to cover taxes if her wages are considered self-employment.

Campbell also suggested Felker consider renters insurance and inquire about disability insurance through her employer, since her ability to earn income is her most important asset at this stage of her life. Already, Felker says she's saving 60 percent of her tips.

In all, Felker says, meeting with a financial planner demystified personal finance and made her feel a bit more confident about money matters.

"It's not rocket science," she said. "I just need to pay attention to it more."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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