In March I offered some financial advice to Michelle, a Mint user who was struggling with debt, a lack of retirement savings and a bit of family financial drama amongst her siblings.
Michelle was anticipating a cash bonus from her company and wasn’t sure if she should save the money or use it to relieve her debt.
I recommended a two-prong approach where she uses the cash to play savings catch-up in her retirement account and knock down some of her debt, which, at the time, included a $3,000 credit card balance and $52,000 in student loans.
Six months later, I’ve checked in with the 38-year-old real estate developer, to see if any of my advice was helpful and if she’s experienced any shifts in her financial life.
We spoke via email:
Farnoosh: Have your finances have improved over the last 6 months since we last spoke? If so, what has been the biggest improvement?
Michelle: Yes. I’ve aggressively been contributing to my 401(k) – about 50% of my pay – and had hoped to reach the annual maximum of $18,000 by June, but looks like it will be more like October. I also received a $40,000 distribution from a project that I closed.
F: What aspects of your financial life still challenge you?
M: Investing for sure. I never know if I’m hoarding too much cash. I am truly traumatized from the financial downturn. I just joined an online investment platform, but it was also overwhelming. Currently I have $45,000 in a regular savings account that earns 1.5%.
Another challenge is not knowing whether to just bite the bullet and pay off my student loans or to continue to pay them monthly. I hate that I’m still paying loans 16 years after I graduated and it’s a source of frustration [and embarrassment] for me. I owe $36,000. Often times I have an inner monologue about the pros and cons of just paying them off but then my trauma from 2008 kicks in…and I decide to keep my $45,000 nest egg safely where I can check the balance daily.
F: I recommended allocating $45,000 towards retirement. Was that helpful? What are some ways you’ve managed to save?
M: Yes, I recall you saying you recommended having a total of $100,000 towards retirement for a person my age. Currently, I have $51,000 in my 401(k), $35,000 in a traditional IRA and $17,000 in my Ellevest brokerage account, so I’ve broken the $100,000 goal.
I did add a car note to my balance sheet. My old car suffered a total loss (major electrical failure due to a sunroof leak!) and the insurance gave me a check for $9,000. I used it all towards the new vehicle (a certified used 2014 Acura) and I’m financing $18,000.
F: Your dad’s home was a source of financial stress, it seemed. Were you able to talk with your siblings and arrive at a better place with that?
M: My dad actually has passed since we last spoke. He passed in February and so his will went to probate. My siblings and I have decided not to make any decisions about the house for at least one year. Yes, this is kicking the can further down the street however, they recognize that I maintain the house and pay the real estate taxes and so they are not pressuring me to move or to sell.
The new deed has been recorded and the property is under all our names and so everyone seems ok with knowing that I can’t do anything regarding a sale or refinance unilaterally.
So, for now, I live rent free other than paying utilities, miscellaneous maintenance on the house and real estate taxes quarterly. This, too, is helping me save aggressively.
Also, the new car note has replaced the hospice nurse contribution so I’m not feeling that my budget is overburdened with the new car.
I think ultimately I will buy out at least two of my siblings and stay in the house. Verbally they have expressed being okay with this.
Farnoosh Torabi is America’s leading personal finance authority hooked on helping Americans live their richest, happiest lives. From her early days reporting for Money Magazine to now hosting a primetime series on CNBC and writing monthly for O, The Oprah Magazine, she’s become our favorite go-to money expert and friend.