Retire Rich? Yes, You Can.

Despite Ohio's struggling economy, we can still dream of quitting our jobs early and living the good life, right? Judging by the overwhelming response to our call for volunteers, a lot of you have visions of vacations, community service or a quiet retreat

Janet Nabring-Stager and Jeff Stager

The Dream

• Pay off credit-card debt

• Invest in home improvements, plan for children and college educations

• Retire comfortably with the ability to enjoy entertainment and travel luxuries

The Reality

Bill Hawke, a financial adviser with Cleveland Financial Group, offered these tips for Janet Nabring-Stager and Jeff Stager.

• Save first, spend second. "We are all creatures of habit," Hawke notes. "If you get in the habit of saving first and spending second, you will be able to retire, which is the long-term goal." Shoot for setting aside 10 percent of income, perhaps in a vehicle like a 401(k). When cash flow allows, gradually increase savings to 20 percent of income, Hawke suggests.

• Focus on paying off credit cards, starting with the card that has the highest interest rate. Hawke says Janet should seriously consider liquidating the brokerage account to pay off debt, especially if credit-card interest rates are 9 percent or higher. "Eliminate unfortunate circumstances that happened in the past and start with a clean slate," he says. Further, with plans for children, clearing off debt will alleviate financial stress when additional household expenses crop up. "Interest is to be earned, not spent," Hawke points out. "And you can't earn interest if you have a big debt."

• Continue contributing to 401(k) accounts. "It would be financial suicide to not contribute at least what your company matches," Hawke says. And to ensure adequate savings for children's college educations, save from day one, he says. "Do not wait until children are 5, 6 or 7 years old. If you start saving from the beginning, it is a small amount per month to get to your target vs. if you wait until they are older."

Urban Dwellers

Life in Cleveland costs less than in its urban counterparts, but living large can creep up on credit cards. Janet Nabring-Stager isn't a stranger to financial planning; her former position at Charles Schwab in Chicago exposed her to the value of planning for retirement, she says. She and her husband, Jeff, 31, contributed to 401(k) accounts, rolling them over as they switched employers.

"We made it through two rounds of unemployment for my husband without touching the brokerage account and we've established a small account with some stock," says Janet, 30. But credit-card debt nags at the couple, who moved back to Cleveland in 2003 to settle near family and start a future they figure eventually will include little ones.

Living costs in Chicago had limited the couple's housing options — in fact, Janet says they ruled out buying there completely. Cleveland was simply more affordable.

But transition and fun times ran up a tab, she admits. Chicago nightlife, entertainment, shopping and dining options were too tempting to ignore. Despite two stable salaries, two growing 401(k) accounts and the brokerage account she set up while at Charles Schwab, the couple amassed modest credit-card debt.

When they moved to Cleveland, it grew. Today, the bill boils over at $12,000.

Their 1900 Euclid Ave. loft apartment was luxurious, at the very least, but the rent was hefty and monthly costs for Jeff's studio space, where he paints, racked up a fatter bill than they expected. "We knew we needed to buy and we knew we'd be hit with taxes for a double income and no kids," Janet says.

She pulled funds from her 401(k) and dollars they'd set aside in savings for a 10-percent down payment on a Lakewood home. "Because of our really good credit, we were able to buy without a lot of money down," she says.

But with Cleveland came a car payment, insurance, gas and maintenance. The Stagers cut out their cell phones to save money. They also found entertainment costs were quite a bit lower here. But as Jeff searched for full-time employment, juggling free-lance jobs on the side, the single income and comfortable lifestyle didn't mesh well. Meanwhile, Janet's loans from graduate school at DePaul University are $300 a month.

Today, Jeff's full-time job at Walker Printing in Mentor and Janet's position as Web-content manager at Invacare supply a $90,000 household income. Janet contributes about $400 per month to her 401(k). The brokerage account, with stock from General Electric, Charles Schwab and FedEx, continues to post positive returns. "The best move I made was setting up the brokerage account and always contributing to a 401(k), even if it was only a couple of percentage points from my salary," she says.

The brokerage account contains a little less than their credit-card debt. Janet wonders whether she should liquidate this fund and pay off the debt, especially as she considers intermediate plans — home improvements, for example. "The bathroom hasn't been touched since 1980," she quips. "And I'd like to have furniture for it someday."

Eventually, the couple also imagines decorating a nursery or two. And with children come additional expenses, from basics to such long-term investments as education.

"I think we'll be OK as long as we keep looking at alternatives," Janet figures. "My parents started off with less than I did, and they will retire very comfortably." She hopes her retirement days include plenty of travel and career independence, though cutting work out of the picture is not part of the plan. "I do anticipate working a long time, as does my husband," she says. "I don't think I'd do well not working."

Volunteering or freedom with a part-time position are options, she muses. "I'd like to have a home base, but know that we are secure financially. [We want to] stay close to family and friends, but have the opportunity, money and means to travel, go to museums, go to the orchestra and really be comfortable."

Toni Rodriguez
The Dream

• Financial stability and freedom to travel

• Pay off $2,000 credit-card debt and manage a $40,000 student-loan debt

• Begin saving for retirement; purchase a home in the next 10 years

• Balance paying bills, working down debt, building a cash reserve and saving for retirement

The Reality

Eric Tolbert, a financial adviser with American Express Financial Advisors, offers this advice to Rodriguez.

• "It's never too early to think about retirement, and a lot of people don't understand the magic of compounding interest," he notes. "It's imperative to start as early as you can, and Toni has a long time to work toward her goal."

• Build a cash reserve to finance emergency expenses rather than turning to credit cards. Tolbert recommends setting aside 20 percent of a monthly salary in 401(k) and savings accounts if possible. "Look into a balanced mutual fund," he suggests. "If your employer offers a 401(k) match, you should never leave any money on the table."

• Manage credit-card debt by first seeking the lowest interest rate possible. Pay more than the minimum balance and continue to build a cash reserve, as well. Refinance student loans. "There is an active market for student loans," he points out. Rates might be up to four points lower than when Toni took out her loan 12 years ago.

• Obtain adequate disability coverage.

• Track expenses and avoid ATM syndrome: taking $20 out of the machine for a $5 lunch and letting the rest slip away. "Get a receipt for everything for at least one month," Tolbert suggests. "At the end of each week, figure out how much you spent. Then you can say, •Do I need to have 1,000 cell-phone minutes or is 400 enough?' •Do I need to buy that dress?' It's the little things that add up." Dedicate extra dollars to savings or paying off debt.

Post-grad Rebound

Toni Rodriguez scans through her career history. At 30, her abbreviated time in the work force already is punctuated by gaps and decorated with job jumps.

She remembers hitting rock bottom.

Two years ago, she was standing in line for food stamps in Lorain after tapping out the three months of unemployment compensation she was collecting from an information-technology position.

"I thought, How am I going to do this? How am I going to survive?" she recalls. She was thankful for help from friends and family, but her mother's fixed income allowed little room for financial gifts. Meanwhile, Rodriguez's degree in business information systems couldn't put food on the table — or finance her rent, for that matter.

"I was just embarrassed. All that was going through my mind was, I'm in my late 20s, I'm a college graduate and I have to apply for food stamps because I can't find a job and I don't have money to pay the bills or eat."

Today, the portrait is quite different. Rodriguez moved from her mother's home in Lorain to an apartment in the University Heights/Coventry area, and her mid-$30,000 income as a help-desk technician at Baker & Hostetler is steady, comfortable and carving into college and credit-card debt. She purchased a car two years ago — a 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme — her first independent mode of transportation. Most of all, she can afford to repair it if it stalls.

But she's looking for more. She dreams of travel, tracing her family roots in Greece and visiting Spain. She wants the complete package: kids, house, car, vacations, grandchildren and money to spare. She watches retired families enjoy luxuries like nice automobiles and fancy dinners at fine restaurants. "I ask friends of my parents, •What did you do to set yourself up for this — to be able to have the Cadillac and the nice condos?' They say, •Good, solid investment planning.' But there are so many options out there, I'm afraid of making the wrong choices."

Rodriguez admits that she has made a few mistakes, but most of her financial decisions were predetermined by a poor economy and debt. "Trying to juggle loan payments plus an apartment — I couldn't even fathom a car or being able to live that post-graduate lifestyle," she says. "I still felt like I was in college, being constantly broke all the time."

Her first $13-per-hour job in IT support at Cincinnati Bell allowed for little "fun money," a frustrating reality that followed Rodriguez for the next six years. "I felt really trapped," she remembers.

She lowered student-loan payments to $100 through a contingency plan, but didn't erase the credit-card debt she incurred while trying to make ends meet. "Just about every student falls into that trap," Rodriguez says. "You have no income and the credit-card companies are like, •Here, buy a 2-liter bottle of Coke and sign up for this credit card.' I had about $3,000 in debt when I graduated." This escalated while she jumped from job to job and suffered unemployment stretches; the longest was six months.

Rodriguez recently hacked off a large portion of this debt burden. She consolidated and consulted collections agencies, negotiating lower payments. Last year, she paid off two cards. Today, she owes about $2,000. "I'm slowly paying them off and making arrangements," she says.

College debt that nears $40,000 punches a hole in her monthly paycheck, an expense she doesn't expect to rule out of her budget for at least 20 years. Rather than paying interest, she opted to tack interest onto the principal. "It feels like a debt I will always have," she says.

"I'm an urban professional, but I don't make $60,000 to $70,000," Rodriguez notes. "I know there are other people like me getting their feet wet — they just graduated from college and wonder where to get started."

Tom, Kathryn, Alexandra and Christian Harsha

The Dream

• Finance college educations for children

• Move to a larger home and live comfortably

• Own a time-share in France

• Flexibility to work as a consultant and enjoy leisure activities during retirement

The Reality

Richard W. Lowrie Jr., senior vice president and financial adviser with McDonald Investments, offers these tips for Harsha.

• Small-business owners can take advantage of tax and financial-aid strategies to defray college costs, Lowrie says. Based on Harsha's earnings, $10,000 savings per year should allow him to finance college educations without sacrificing retirement comfort if he plans well. However, retirement plans such as profit-sharing programs, IRAs and 401(k)s can have positive or negative effects on his ability to qualify for college financial aid. In Harsha's case, profit-sharing programs are likely the best bet, Lowrie suggests. "You need to know beforehand how business decisions might affect your financial aid so you can make sound decisions," Lowrie stresses, noting that involving an accountant in these steps is critical.

• Allocate investments more efficiently. Lowrie suspects that Harsha is assuming more risk than necessary. "He could lower the risk without sacrificing the return," Lowrie points out.

• A car accident or illness could sabotage Harsha's retirement and college saving plans. Lowrie estimates that life insurance policies with $975,000 and $120,000 coverage for Tom and his wife, respectively, will duplicate earnings, substituting $5,000 per month in expenses and $10,000 per year in savings. Disability coverage should equal two-thirds of Tom's yearly income.

• A time-share in France isn't impossible, but if Tom maintains his current income and saves $10,000 per year, he will sacrifice some retirement comfort or college education funding. But the financial landscape can change, Lowrie notes. "If his business is successful, his earnings picture a few years from now is different and there is extra cash flow, a time-share can become more of a reality." This means making lifestyle choices when extra cash flow is available: a larger home vs. a retirement time-share.

Beating Academic Odds

A guidance counselor's pessimistic career prognosis fueled Tom Harsha's passion for financial success. College-bound he was not, she told him, despite his straight-A track record in industrial-arts classes. "In so many words, she told me I was not the sharpest tool in the shed and that I needed to think about what to do in life," remembers Harsha, 32.

He was heartbroken. "I made up my mind that day that I was going to show everyone and I'd do it by working harder and smarter," he says. Personal drive and a little "luck along the way" allowed him to surpass his counselor's salary five years after graduation. He chuckles, "I blew her away, and that was a personal goal and my first milestone."

The sales manager at a car dealership in Decatur, Ind., where Harsha had a job cleaning automobiles, recognized his potential and encouraged him to work hard and do what it takes to establish relationships with customers.

Sales quickly became Harsha's game. He played it well, wheeling, dealing and watching dollars roll in while he saved by living with his parents and driving demo cars. He contributed 15 percent to his 401(k), 12 percent to charitable organizations such as Youth for Christ, and he saved the rest. When Harsha left the dealership in 1997 to move to Cleveland with his wife, who was accepted to the Cleveland Institute of Music, his savings totaled close to $10,000, his 401(k) was worth $18,000 and his salary topped off at $67,000.

"I felt like I was on top of the world, never having a mortgage," he says. The couple rented an apartment in Cleveland Heights and Harsha rebuilt his client base, starting from scratch. He had a guaranteed draw salary for the first three months at Motorcars Honda in Cleveland Heights, but after that he was on his own. "I was scared to death," he recalls. "You can't go from a level of income you built up over six years to almost nothing."

Cash reserves were drained when Tom and his wife, Kathryn, 32, decided to chip away as much of her $26,000 annual tuition as possible before incurring loan debt. Meanwhile, he'd taken a $40,000 pay cut with the move. Cleveland's cost of living doubled their expenses and Tom had to purchase his first car. When Kathryn graduated in 1999, loan payments kicked in and credit-card debt cranked up.

"There is a place I want to be at 55, and you don't get there by paying a lot of interest," Harsha says. "That eats you alive." Today, the couple's credit-debt totals $8,900 with $6,900 in student loans, which Tom refinanced to a 3.87 percent fixed rate.

"We had a couple of breaks," he adds, pointing out his promotion to sales manager and Kathryn's success as a conductor, which led to employment opportunities. Today, she works as a music director at Bethany Covenant Church in Lyndhurst and also holds positions with the Lakeland Civic Orchestra, Ursuline College and Symphony West in North Olmsted.

Good news sometimes comes with a price tag attached, however. In 2000, the couple welcomed a baby and bought a home. A year later, a second child entered the picture.

Earlier this year, Tom entered a business partnership, Internet Dealer Solutions. He maintains full-time employment at Motorcars, taking advantage of health insurance benefits, but consults for eight to 10 other car dealerships, building their Internet departments, reviewing hardware and software, and helping dealerships hire and train personnel for online car sales.

Today's financial picture looks like this: Household income is $93,600 and his 401(k) is worth $32,829. They maintain a checking-account balance of roughly $5,000 to cover two months of bills in case of emergency. Tom recently started a $4,000 Roth IRA for Kathryn and the couple has $60,000 in bank stocks. "There are pockets all over the place," he says, wondering if he has made wise investing decisions.

Harsha proved his guidance counselor wrong — and he has lofty ideas for post-career days: a time-share in France and a jet to transport him there. He wants to provide college education for his children. "I don't know if I want to stop working, but I want to pick and choose what I do," he says. "If I play golf three days and consult for two, that's my idea of a perfect life."

The obstacles he and Kathryn will hurdle along the way include financing those two college educations and possibly upgrading their home down the road, with a potential move to the Chagrin Falls area. Tom will continue to build his consulting business, which he admits is "brand new to me."

Michaelann deVille

The Dream

• Strike a balance among expenses, college education funding and retirement savings

• Determine how to allocate equity from a joint house sale for the best returns

• Ensure adequate savings for a comfortable retirement that includes travel and relaxed employment

The Reality

Linda Gasparatos, a financial planner with FirstMerit, offers these tips for deVille.

• Conduct a cash-flow analysis to determine how much money remains after monthly expenses. Then, determine retirement needs in dollar amounts. Finally, decide how to distribute equity from the home sale, considering retirement a priority.

• Because deVille has limited time to save for retirement, she must consider her needs first. "She only has the years between now and her retirement to save enough money to last her the rest of her life," Gasparatos points out. "Her children have their whole lives in front of them." Max out IRA and employer retirement plans and filter a portion of savings — no more than half — into a liquid account for her children's education. Put the remainder in an account for retirement. Also, conduct an asset allocation for all accounts.

• DeVille's high credit scores position her for a 30-year fixed mortgage at a 5.8-percent rate rather than relying on a five-year adjustable-rate mortgage where interest rates most likely will increase. DeVille can lock in a lower rate now for the long term rather than gambling with market trends.

Renovating Retirement Plans

The muted, teal paint on the living-room walls is barely dry, but Michaelann deVille isn't quite sure about the color. She hesitates, comparing the shade to a retro-patterned pillow. Half-unpacked moving boxes occupy corners and a vanilla-colored Arhaus sofa is stranded in the dining room after a failed attempt to squeeze it up a cramped stairwell to her master bedroom.

The walls, rooms and new furniture represent a clean slate for deVille — a fresh start, but still a work in progress. The 46-year-old mother of three moved into the Lakewood home in August when her divorce finalized.

"The immediate future is on my mind," she admits, tucking a chestnut lock behind her ear. "I've never been good at long-term planning because there is just so much going on right now."

"Right now" includes a college-bound senior at St. Ignatius High School, a 14-year-old social butterfly at Beaumont School and an energetic 11-year-old who bounds through the front door, ready for Mom to take her to see the GuitarMania guitars in front of the Rock Hall. These immediate engagements take priority over retirement reservations at this point.

"I'm very engaged in my work and children and everything around me," says deVille, a speech-language pathologist for the Cleveland Municipal School District. She's settling into a new home and adjusting to a different neighborhood after living in near-West Cleveland neighborhoods for more than 20 years.

Change is the constant in her days. Financial concerns center on balancing today and tomorrow: college educations and living expenses now, retirement and comfort later. She says setting aside dollars for down the road never took priority over the present, even during her marriage. "We were just trying to raise the family," she explains. A career change for her ex-husband and her part-time work as a clinical supervisor at Cleveland State University while her children were young didn't supply extra income to set aside significant funds for later. And planning a single-parent lifestyle certainly wasn't part of deVille's long-term financial strategy several years ago.

"I never did any college planning," she says. And with three children, each three years apart, this expense is an urgent reality. "My expectation is that I will earmark an amount of money for college and the rest will be up to them." Academic scholarships, she hopes, will assist her son, who excels in math. Private high-school tuition is a monthly budget line item, though not a burden because of endowment funds and scholarships that whittle down what could be $16,000 in annual tuition to around $500 a month. (Her ex-husband also pays a portion of the tuition.)

DeVille is debt-free, except for her home and lawyer fees, where she has a balance of $20,000 to manage. Equity from a home she and her husband own together, listed below $200,000, will defray these costs. She figures the remainder will help pay down the principal on her 30-year mortgage.

Otherwise, deVille doesn't spend more than she makes. "I'm a very frugal person," she says, adding that although she charged a new living-room set, she will pay the credit card bill in full when it arrives in the mail. A $10,000 cushion in her savings account allows her to live comfortably today, but even so, she budgets wisely. "I always shop for the best deals and I will continue to do so," she says.

An IRA with $10,000 in it and her State Teachers Retirement System savings will fuel her mature adult years. DeVille continues to contribute $50 each month to her investment plan. But striking a balance raises financial questions, she admits. When she collects equity from the joint home sale, how should she divide the pot? How much goes toward retirement, education, savings and expenses?

"Retirement concerns me because I look at how old I was when I started working in the schools, and I would be close to 70," she says, figuring a 30-year tenure based on her starting age of 40.

Meanwhile, deVille doesn't have lofty goals for her golden years. "I want to have enough to draw from for travel, vacation — to be able to go where I want," she says. She probably will continue to work in her field in some capacity. Passion for her career and children will color any future, she figures. She says her driving force is simply "the love of life."

Philip Zeber

The Dream

• Retire at 64

• Pay off his home

• Earn profit from his store; sell the business

• Invest in real estate; build A-frame homes with hot-tubs for vacation renters

The Reality

Doug Sockman, a certified financial planner and financial adviser with Skylight Financial Group, suggests these strategies for Zeber.

• Financial freedom starts with a cash reserve and a protection plan, Sockman says. Accumulate three to six months of savings to cover fixed expenses. Zeber's profit from his Florida lot sale fulfills this.

• Health-care and disability insurance are musts. "Phil is his own greatest asset at this point," Sockman notes. "If he were injured or unable to work, how would he cover his business overhead? Who would run the business?" Disability insurance — protection from catastrophic loss — also is important for single individuals.

• Rather than a 15-year mortgage, consider refinancing the investment over 30 years, Sockman suggests. This arrangement will free up money to pay for health-care and disability insurance.

• Real estate investments can provide additional retirement income, if the property is leased. "Phil can utilize real estate leverage. He can put a small down payment on a property and, if he gets enough rent to cover expenses and provide positive cash flow, he will grow from his initial down payment while the property value increases. Real estate allows you to buy larger investments with smaller amounts of money and have your dollars work harder for you."

• Rather than stocks, consider investing in mutual and index funds. "If you study market theory, you realize that, over time, you won't average more than 8 to 12 percent on stocks," Sockman points out. Index funds beat out mutual funds about 67 percent of the time. "Mutual funds can provide a good income stream for Phil during retirement to supplement his $400 pension from EDS and Social Security," Sockman notes.

Rat Race to Country Mouse

Philip Zeber rings up a soda for a customer at his country store in Rock Creek, a pebble-sized stop in Ashtabula County where the largest traffic jam he can recall was a seven-car procession.

"There are two different types of owls on the river, and when I get out of my truck, I hear nothing," says the 49-year-old store owner. A generous collection of winning lottery tickets — $50 or more — plasters one wall, and a mural washes another. Locals stroll in and out all day; Zeber knows each by name.

He prefers country life: conversation rather than e-mail, faces and names rather than faxes and memos. This pace is quite different from his former high-speed Internet world. When Cisco downsized in 2002, the 25-year technology veteran and Internet protocol specialist walked away from a $129,000 salary with a secure severance package toward his retirement dreams.

Today, he places vendor orders with beer distributors and stocks shelves for busy weekends. Zeber left his Seven Hills home and purchased a $200,000 general store, the first stop on his retirement roadmap. Now, he operates at a $1,000 monthly loss — a big change from the days when the worth of his technology stock peaked at $355,000.

"I figured my business was computers and my game was real estate," he remarks. His final moves, he hopes, will land him acreage, a collection of A-frame houses for vacation renters and a comfortable but complete lifestyle.

After all, this simple living suits him. "I'm frugal," he says. "I buy what I need and I buy the best." He weighs discretionary purchases just as carefully as stock investments. "I could go into Kmart and get $25 boots, but I'd wear through them in three months," Zeber says. "Instead, I would go to a shoe store and get Red Wing boots that lasted two years."

Zeber started saving when he was a young boy with a couple paper routes in Rocky River. His father taught him to budget with a homemade banking tool: a cigar box he divided into four sections, one for each week of the month. "My dad told me some people would pay a week in advance, some will pay two in advance," he remembers, explaining how he placed advance pay in dedicated slots. He worked his way through each week and each section of the cigar box, and never went without pay.

Zeber graduated from St. Edward High School in Lakewood and followed in his father's footsteps, working on Great Lakes ore ships until he was 22. He landed his first technology job at Control Data Corp. in Lakewood, moved up quickly and saved diligently. He figured he was doing OK playing with stocks and real estate. He and his brother invested in a Lakewood apartment, where Philip lived for six months before purchasing his first home. That first real estate venture hooked Philip. He was 22 with a $22,500 country cottage in Rocky River, where he lived for 10 years — still collecting rent money from the Lakewood house — until a job offer from Electronic Data Systems in Texas pulled him west. Zeber retained a land contract on his house, eventually selling it for $48,000.

He repeated this real estate strategy with every home purchase. Each sale financed the next move — to Texas, Boston, Florida, Chicago and, eventually, back to Cleveland in 2000, when he moved to Seven Hills.

In the meantime, Zeber piled savings into a pension plan and his technology stocks were sweet. The market crash in 2001 decimated his $355,000 technology-stock stash. "I had to sell all my stocks to cover the margin," he recalls. "I lost my shirt, b

Share this story: