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The price of financial illiteracy
Old 07-12-2008, 07:10 PM   #1
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The price of financial illiteracy

This is a tough post. The couple I'm writing about is just like me & spouse-- shared colleges & backgrounds, graduate degrees, very similar careers, a bit higher on the pay scale.

They're military retirees, they seem to be good people, and they're struggling with their finances. They know they could do better but at the same time they're willfully paying a huge price to be blissfully financially ignorant. I'm actually hoping that they'll read this thread and decide that they need to educate themselves (if it isn't already too late). They're highly unlikely to ever find this board, let alone browse it. But maybe this example can educate someone else-- before it's too late for them too.

I'll try to leave out the irrelevant (and identifying) details. They're both a couple years older than us, raising two teens in a flamboyantly extravagant (yet apparently kid-safe) section of a good town with a high military concentration of active-duty, Reserves, & retirees. Extremely prestigious address, good schools. They moved there on orders and decided to rent amid the horrendous expense. After their third consecutive tour there and contemplating retiring in the area, they decided to buy.

They bought a crappy 1930s two-bedroom bungalow on a 3500 sq ft lot overlooking an alley a quaint lane. Zillow.com's old data claims that it was worth nearly $1M. Other homes on the block currently range from $1M-$2.5M. However they found the home to be essentially unlivable (and too small for two kids) so they decided to renovate.

You home-improvement experts are already groaning at what came next. (Remember the HGTV show "Before & After"?) They squeezed into a 2BR apartment for almost a year while the house was torn apart. I think they were able to save the foundation and the exterior frame. A second story, new plumbing, new electrical, all new layout-- amid an extremely stringent historical-conservation town association's draconian rules on design & size. The result is a very nice, modern, 4BR 2BA home that fills the lot but has all the family comforts & conveniences. They're within a mile of the beach and the kids have plenty of nearby parks, so although it's a crowded suburban neighborhood (and everyone can see into their neighbor's windows) it's still considered a nice place.

It better be nice, because it could bankrupt them. The problem is that in the process of buying the home and renovating it, they picked up a $1M mortgage. Seven figures!! The house is arguably worth $1.5-$2M, even amid the current meltdown, but almost all of their net worth is locked up in home equity and almost all of their cashflow goes to the mortgage payment. I don't know the precise terms but they started with an ARM and then paid an additional fee to lock the interest rate for five years. Presumably there's some pressure to reduce the balance before the rate unlocks in another 2-3 years.

But wait, there's more it gets worse.

Early in their relationship it became apparent that he paid the bills only when he needed to clear some counter space. He felt that he was making more money than he could possibly spend so he was saving nothing didn't mind paying late fees to avoid the inconvenience of doing the bills every month. She took over the bills two decades ago but she hasn't updated the system since-- from her description you get the impression that she's still sitting at the kitchen table with a pile of paper, a calculator, a checkbook, and a roll of stamps. Neither one of them seems to have attempted to educate themselves about their finances. Other than balancing a checkbook, we can't tell that they even attempt to track their expenses.

They are so financially ignorant that for the last two-plus decades they've invested all their after-tax retirement money with First Command. They knew that they were paying more money for less performance than their shipmates, but they didn't really care because they were saving for retirement and First Command kept them from having to deal with all those yucky financial-management issues.

As First Command hit the skids, they eventually realized that they would have to "do something" and they decided to find a new financial advisor. As they started the asset-transfer process, they met with FC's top sales guy. He helped with the transfer but he let them know that he was also leaving FC to start up his own firm. Without actually violating his non-compete agreement, he managed to leave enough locating data for them to track down his new business and sign up.

They're pulling down over $140K/year in COLA'd pensions with cheap healthcare and living a fairly low-key lifestyle amid some of the world's priciest real estate, but they're unhappy and even a bit desperate. They're both working full-time because they're in their 50s with a 30-year mortgage and barely positive cash flow. The husband, in particular, despises his defense-contractor job-- and she would probably be happy to stop working too. I don't know the numbers but from their experience I suspect they're grossing at least another $120K/year. Yet between work & family they're totally exhausted and overwhelmed.

So in the last few months they've relocated their assets to a new brokerage. The new advisor has given them some good advice-- they've filled out an exhaustive balance sheet and personal cash-flow statement. They've completed (and discussed) an extensive risk-tolerance questionnaire. He's walked them through the paperwork to begin maxing their employer's 401(k)s. They're starting 529s for their kids. Of course there are a million websites & library books that will do all of this for free, but he's an experienced and reassuring tour guide. For a fee.

But when they expressed their mortgage fears to him, he put them into a "mortgage accelerator". The first thing is that DFAS screwed up the transfer of her pension check-- it used to be direct-deposited with a credit union but maybe by next month it'll be direct-deposited into the mortgage accelerator's account. So already they're scrambling to make the minimum payment on a mortgage accelerator. The second thing is that they know they're paying fees but they don't really know how much-- they're just following "their" advisor's directions. The third thing is that they are aware they could hypothetically run their own free version of a mortgage accelerator, but they admit that they lack the confidence to set up a plan and execute it. The worst thing is that they don't really know what happens if they decide to refinance the mortgage or even sell the house. Of course they claim they're never moving.

In August they're meeting with the advisor for the next step of their financial makeover. He wants them to roll over all their money from their TSP accounts into his "professionally managed" IRAs. I can't wait to hear the financial logic rationalization behind this move. Those who aren't familiar with the TSP may enjoy the July 2008 newsletter, which this woman has promised to read: http://www.tsp.gov/forms/highlights/high08c.pdf

The kids, living among friends & peers whose parents are flat-out stinkin' rich, are also blissfully ignorant. The housecleaner was let go for the home renovation, but now they're agitating for a replacement. Their parents are actually considering this, but they're imposing the "harsh condition" that the kids have to pick up everything off their bedroom floors before the housecleaner's visits. One kid's activity (a school golf team) costs $900-- and whatever it's for, I sure hope it covers the entire season. Neither kid does their own laundry, has an allowance, or runs a checking account-- let alone a credit card.

We've known this woman for a few months and my spouse learned the above while sharing a couple days of meetings, seminars, & meals. I'm glad they're not lifetime friends, but it hurts to see how much Stupid Tax they've paid. I've probably loaned out a couple dozen copies of Bob Clyatt's books, but never to people in this kind of financial quicksand. I don't think they'd even recognize how his advice would possibly apply to them, let alone lead them out of debt into ER. Heck, to them the "Finances for Dummies" books or the Boglehead's Guide would seem like a doctoral thesis.

Spouse and I are going to continue our low-key attempts to boost their literacy. But geez... at this stage of their lives, it's hard to argue with the price they're paying. Right now they're just too dangerous to try it on their own-- and although they're anxious about their mortgage, they have absolutely no interest in learning how to handle their finances.

If you recognize yourself in this post or if you have a seven-figure mortgage and a mortgage accelerator-- tell us what you're doing about it!
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Old 07-12-2008, 07:51 PM   #2
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They're pulling down over $140K/year in COLA'd pensions with cheap healthcare and living a fairly low-key lifestyle amid some of the world's priciest real estate, but they're unhappy and even a bit desperate. !
Could you set up a bank account where I could contribute to these poor desperate folks? I mean even more than I already contribute with my tax payments?

Ha
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Old 07-12-2008, 08:16 PM   #3
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That's a sad story from so many perspectives. I suppose it is possible their net worth will recover IF the real estate market bounces back in time and they sell the house and downsize drastically. But, what are the odds of that? And, it sounds like their kids will continue the cycle.

Our financial lives today are more complicated than when our parents were young. Bills came in the mail, and you paid them once or twice a month. Savings options consisted of Savings Bonds, a passbook account, or (maybe) CDs. Since that time, everything has changed--many more options (some of them very costly/inappropriate), much more complexity. Defined benefit plans are largely gone (this couple is tremendously lucky to have one--else their lot would be much worse). Through it all, nobody has undertaken to provide formal guidance to kids on this area. We mandate driver training, we mandate that children attend schools and are taught the basics of reading and writing, but nothing about this essential part of modern life.

And investing. Bernstein had this to say:
The Probability of Success

Quote:
A decade ago, I really did believe that the average investor could do it himself. After all, the flesh was willing, the vehicles were available, and the math wasn’t that hard.
I was wrong. Having emailed and spoken to thousands of investors over the years, I’ve come to the sad conclusion that only a tiny minority, at most one percent, are capable of pulling it off. Heck, if Helen Young Hayes, Robert Sanborn, Julian Robertson, and the nation’s largest pension funds can’t get it right, what chance does John Q. Investor have?

Why the sad state of affairs? It’s pretty simple. To invest competently, you need four faculties:
  • An interest in investing. It’s no different from cooking, gardening, or parenting. If you don’t enjoy it, you’ll do a lousy job. Most people enjoy finance about as much as Carmela Soprano enjoys her husband’s concept of marital fidelity.
  • The horsepower to do the math. As Scott Burns explained to me years ago, fractions are a stretch for 90% of the population. The Discounted Dividend Model, or at least the Gordon Equation? Geometric versus arithmetic return? Standard deviation? Correlation, for God’s sake? Fuggedaboudit!
  • The knowledge base—Fama, French, Malkiel, Thaler, Bogle, Shiller—all seven decades of evidence-based finance back to Cowles. Plus, the "database" itself—a working knowledge of financial history, from the South Sea Bubble to Yahoo!
  • The emotional discipline to execute faithfully, come hell, high water, or Bob Prechter. Mr. Bogle makes it sound almost easy: "Stay the course." Alas, it is not.
I expect no more than 10% of the population passes muster on each of the above points. The devastating part is, to succeed you need to string all four together. Thus, in a state of nature, just 0.01% of investors have what it takes. An optimist might guess a 30% success rate on each count, in which case one percent of the population can make all four.
Conclusion: Those of us on this board are a bunch of self-selected freaks.
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Old 07-12-2008, 08:37 PM   #4
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nords,

I'm in a somewhat similar situation, except I actually have to see this couple and birthdays [3-4 times/year]. They did basically the same thing: bought too much home, both kids are in daycare, and they barely make enough.

They were also letting a close friend "manage" their IRAs at Edward Jones. After I told them how little it takes to become a broker, and how screwed they were, I offered to help them for free. I've got more finance/econ knowledge than the EJ moron. I mean, seriously, if you're going to manage someones money, you should at least know what negative convexity means. They have yet to take me up on anything.

I think a lot of the issue is denial. They [and probably your couple] can't face the fact that they royally screwed themselves. Admitting you've made a terrible financial decision appears to be extremely hard, especially for the men I know.

Perhaps it's time for the "We retired on a fraction of your pensions and here's how we did it" talk. Bring them into the light.

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Old 07-12-2008, 08:41 PM   #5
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I don't see what the problem is. The worst that could happen is that these folks declare bankruptcy, lose everything but their COLA pensions and healthcare. If you gave me a COLA'd $140K and healthcare for life, I wouldn't mind starting over and paying cash for everything.
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Old 07-12-2008, 08:45 PM   #6
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Nords , I've heard a few of these stories from fellow R.N's and my reaction is usually total disbelief . How do people get to this stage in life and be so clueless ? The scarey thing is most of them do not want the education .
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Old 07-12-2008, 09:08 PM   #7
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You've answered your own question

Honestly, though, I don't think these people are in that much trouble. They're house poor, but the house has equity in it.

All they have to do is want to change. If they do, they can sell the house and be flush with cash. Otherwise, they can continue on as is. Not much fun, not how I would choose to live, but they get to live in a million dollar house.

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Nords , I've heard a few of these stories from fellow R.N's and my reaction is usually total disbelief . How do people get to this stage in life and be so clueless ? The scarey thing is most of them do not want the education .
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Old 07-12-2008, 09:50 PM   #8
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Just can't find any sympathy for the poor folks. Goes to show that one can be over-educated and under-informed. Far too many fit the profile. And not just in the financial sense.

The most they can lose is the house and their self esteem along with their good standing in the country club. Still have COLAd pension.

As one who earned a masters in LBMM by age 15, and supporting my mother, father died when I was 2, never did I make anywhere near the kind of dough this folks make, and still retired before 60, on my own savings and investments, just can't feel their pain. By the way, our house is mortgage free, all improvements are done and fully paid for.

This example is just one of many with dismal financial abilities, living the high life, and there are many more.

Even with the market tanking somewhat, I find it to be an amusing story.
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Old 07-12-2008, 10:29 PM   #9
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It's been many years since I had a mortgage, but back in the old days all you had to do was send in additional money (representing a pure repayment of principal, as I recall) along with your regular mortgage payment. I don't remember whether I used a separate check for the principal repayment or not - seems like a good idea to avoid screwing up the mortgage servicing co's accounting system. Also, back in the old days it was illegal for mortgage originators to create mortgages with a prepayment penalty - don't know if that's still true today. A mortgage accelerator seems like an entirely unnecessary and worthless service - why in heaven's name would anyone fall for this scam? :confused: :confused:

BTW: back when I started massively prepaying my mortgage, I got an anxious call from the mortgage servicing co asking what the hell I was doing. They had bought the mortgage from the originating bank assuming that I'd be sending them nice interest payments for a long time, and by prepaying I completely screwed up their calculations regarding how much my mortgage was actually worth. I had trouble feeling their pain.
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Old 07-13-2008, 01:05 AM   #10
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I have friends in a similar predicament. But, they're definitely not financially illiterate.

They live in a 6,000 sf + house, originally bought a few years ago for $2.5M in a very prestigious neighborhood, now worth closer to the $3M zone. Big mortgage. Well into the 7 figures.

2 kids in private school, luxury car leases, maid, vacations.

Along comes the slump in the markets, and their business is severely affected. They also have payments to make on other business loans.

Their solution: They've now pulled their children out of private school, and will send them to public school. Reduced their business expenses. Hasta la vista, maid. They're also considering selling their house and downsizing, if necessary.

No miracles, no sophisticated financing schemes. In general, when money becomes tight, responsible people do what they need to do to cut back on their fixed expenses. There will be time enough in the future to ratchet up the lifestyle when things get better.
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Old 07-13-2008, 01:17 AM   #11
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Conclusion: Those of us on this board are a bunch of self-selected freaks.
Another conclusion: the 10% who "pass muster" will end up paying for the other 90%.
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Old 07-13-2008, 06:41 AM   #12
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Sadly, of my 80 employees, about 90% are financially illiterate/hate even thinking about finances and at least 25% are one or two paychecks from financial ruin. Almost all of them make well above the average wages for the US. One of our local banks was bought out and for one cycle they told their customers (some of our employees) that their deposit would not be available for 1-day, and you would not have believed the outcry. My HR Manager, who has a good income, was outraged and called the President of the bank!

I have tried many times to provide some basic financial education, mostly on a voluntary basis, and typically they resent it. Maybe it's my approach, but after many years of resentment, I now only offer the bare minimum. I wish I could do more...
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Old 07-13-2008, 06:49 AM   #13
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Conclusion: Those of us on this board are a bunch of self-selected freaks.
That Bernstein quote is pretty scary. Many of us have one or two of the required qualifications but are deficient on the others. The problem is most advisors are an order of magnitude worse. thus we are left to DIY with one hand tied behind our back. Given my own short comings I do not generaly offer advice to friends. I will tell them what I do and caution them about obvious pitfalls. But I always caution them that they need to get to a basic comfort level about what they are doing and not rely on others to make their decisions.
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Old 07-13-2008, 07:34 AM   #14
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Sometimes it amazes me how someone can make so much money and be so stupid....

Don't waster your time on 'helping'..... it will not come out like you want.... let them keep paying their stupid tax....
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Old 07-13-2008, 07:46 AM   #15
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Something about "Horses" and "Water" comes to mind.
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Old 07-13-2008, 09:04 AM   #16
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In general, when money becomes tight, responsible people do what they need to do to cut back on their fixed expenses.
And herein lies the problem. We are a nanny state style of society. If peoples actions resulted in natural consequences, I suspect the 90% who don't pay attention to their responsibilities would be closer to the 10% level. But our society has learned that someone will take care of them no matter what they do.

I don't fear this economic downturn we are in. However, I do fear the tax implications of all the irresponsible people who plan to work all their lives suddenly realizing they can't due to health problems, the whim of their employers, or whatever. Even more scary is what they'll demand whe they decide they don't want to work anymore and realize they can't afford their previous lifestyles {/rant}

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Old 07-13-2008, 09:10 AM   #17
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However, I do fear the tax implications of all the irresponsible people who plan to work all their lives suddenly realizing they can't due to health problems, the whim of their employers, or whatever. Even more scary is what they'll demand whe they decide they don't want to work anymore and realize they can't afford their previous lifestyles {/rant}

Harley
Ditto. And it's one of the reasons we live a very modest lifestyle for our means. By design, we are definitely 'the millionaire next door...'
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Old 07-13-2008, 09:30 AM   #18
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Sometimes it amazes me how someone can make so much money and be so stupid....
To quote MASH..."They are officers."

I spent about a year cleaning up the mess of my FIL (retired BGen) and never imagined anything so screwed up. It was obvious it had always been that way and the only thing that saved them from financial ruin was their failing health. Left to themselves they would have had no assets other than their house in 2 years. They were also house poor and were never going to move.

I discovered that my FIL/MIL were primarily motivated by image. They wanted to look richer than they really were. Needless to say, they lived beyond their means.

You're in a difficult spot since you have taken on some "ownership." I think the best you can do is lend them a copy of Bob C's book and possibly the Bogle book. I think the Bogle book on investing is way to simple but it's probably like a PhD thesis to them. I don't think they can even comprehend Bob's book with their orientation.

As been said before, it's hard to feel too much sympathy for people with $140K/yr in COLA'd pensions. They can solve all of their problems so easily and it comes down to downsizing their home. They won't do that easily because I suspect the image it projects on their "status" is more important than a comfortable, financially secure retirement.
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Old 07-13-2008, 09:40 AM   #19
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You're in a difficult spot since you have taken on some "ownership." I think the best you can do is lend them a copy of Bob C's book and possibly the Bogle book. I think the Bogle book on investing is way to simple but it's probably like a PhD thesis to them. I don't think they can even comprehend Bob's book with their orientation.
Buy them a Christmas subscription to Money or Kiplingers or something . Not the greatest advice, but at least they can learn the terminology. And it's an easy and "socially acceptable" read geared toward the financially illiterate. Then, after a year or so they could "graduate" to Bogle or Bob C.

I got started that way. It was one path to the destination. I'm sure there are others.

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Old 07-13-2008, 11:05 AM   #20
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It is people like these who make it hard for me to say that USPA/First Command/whatever are 100% bad. Sure, they rip off their clients. They take advantage of ignorant, vulnerable people and put them into mediocre investment vehicles. They take advantage of the younger troop's trust in his leaders by hiring retired senior officers and NCOs to bring in the sheep to be shorn. They are scum. And yet, there are thousands of their clients who would have nothing--zero-saved for retirement if they hadn't been roped in by these vermin. So, sometimes they perform a public service,though that's clearly not their intent
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