Stop counting other people’s money

Your neighbor pulls up in a sweet new ride. Your co-worker announces she’s taking yet another trip abroad. Your best friend upgrades to a bigger house in a better area of town.

You’re pretty sure these people don’t make a lot more than you do.

So how are they able to spend that kind of money?

Maybe they’re up to their ears in debt, or they’re trust fund babies, or they’ll never be able to retire. Or maybe they’ve figured out the secret to money, which is: You can have anything you want. You just can’t have everything.

The new car, that house and that exotic trip are the shiny end results of a series of decisions hidden below the surface. What we don’t see, typically, are the trade-offs – or their consequences.

In my latest for the Associated Press, why you need to focus on your own finances instead of counting other people’s money.

Chasing a dream? Fix your finances first

Mark Howard of Basalt, Colorado, earned a hefty six-figure income during his 25-year career in financial services. His dream, though, was to teach high school — a job that paid about $40,000 a year.

When he floated the idea past his wife and business partner, Danielle Howard, her reaction was surprise and unease. He was 54, she was 44. They had two kids in college, a big house and a lifestyle based on their $250,000-plus income.

But her experience in the life planning branch of financial advice taught her to ask searching questions of clients and follow up on their answers.

In my latest for the Associated Press, why it’s important to fix your finances before chasing your dream.

Q&A: To help elderly dad hold off mooching adult kids, call in the experts

Dear Liz: My dad, age 90, needs personal care and I am trying to get him to move out of his house to a senior residential place. He is in agreement, but it is taking a long time to make this happen. He owns his home free and clear and, along with the sale of his home, has enough financial assets to cover these costs.

The problem is my two sisters’ husbands, who overspend and are in debt. These two guys continue to pressure my sisters to ask my dad for money for such things as their mortgages, expenses for their children and credit card debt. My sisters are not just starting out — they are in their 50s! Not only that, when I ask them for help with our dad, they flake out on me. I’ve told them that the financial assistance can’t continue because Dad will need his money to pay for his care.

I feel that my sisters’ and their husbands’ behavior is senior financial abuse. I read that this situation happens a lot in families, where the kids will milk an elderly, wealthy, sympathetic parent or grandparent, sometimes draining their savings. Or one dysfunctional sibling with take financial advantage of a parent, while other siblings in the family struggle with making ends meet. In our family, both my sisters have children, so my dad feels a soft spot for helping them out. I am single, no children, and I am treated differently. I do struggle to make ends meet. My dad is sometimes even reluctant to reimburse me $20 for gas that I spend driving him around and doing shopping and errands.

I’m trying to remain on good terms with my sisters but it is getting tough. Is there any financial advice or references you can give in my situation?

Answer: You’re right that most financial abuse of the elderly is committed by people close to the person, typically family, friends or caregivers. The toll isn’t small, either. A survey by Allianz Life Insurance Company found that the average victim lost $30,000 and 1 in 10 lost more than $100,000.

Family members may not see what they’re doing as abuse. They may think that they “deserve” the money or that it’s some kind of advance on a future inheritance. They also know that Dad just can’t say no and will continue to press him for money as long as they’re allowed to do so.

You and your dad should consult an elder law attorney to discuss ways your dad can be protected against predators. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Elder Law Attorneys at naela.org, and the attorney can discuss your options.

One obvious solution would be for Dad to hand over his checkbook to you, which would give you the unpleasant job of standing up to your brothers-in-law. You’re certainly in a better position to do so than your elderly father, but he may not be willing to give up control or you may not want the job.

Another option is hiring third parties. Daily money managers provide personal finance and bookkeeping services to elderly clients. They can keep a watchful eye on transactions and spot signs of fraud. You can get referrals from the the American Assn. of Daily Money Managers at aadmm.com. Hiring a geriatric care manager also could be a good move. The manager could assess your father’s health, living and financial situations and help craft a plan to help him move forward. Referrals are available from the Aging Life Care Assn. at aginglifecare.org.

Are you afraid to look at your finances?

Credit counselor Linda Humburg understands why many of her debt-burdened clients don’t want to open their mail. What bothers her, though, is the sheer volume of untouched bills and collection notices that some bring to their first counseling appointments.

“The shoeboxes (full of bills) don’t make my heart drop as much as the grocery bags and garbage bags,” says Humburg, counselor manager for FamilyMeans Financial Solutions in Stillwater, Minnesota.

Not wanting to confront unpaid bills is a perfectly understandable, if unfortunate, reaction to a bad financial situation. And it’s not just people in extreme debt who might be afraid to look. Many people avoid checking their credit scores or using retirement calculators because they’re afraid of what they might find.

The problem is that delaying action usually makes matters worse.

In my latest for the Associated Press, the high cost of living in denial.

How to ruin your finances fast

Some financial disasters are a long time in the making. It typically takes years of unfortunate choices — minimum credit card payments, forgone savings opportunities — to create suffocating debt or a poverty-level retirement.

Other disasters you can trigger almost instantly. The decision itself costs money, or the clock starts ticking toward a consequence you might not have foreseen. In my latest for the Associated Press, three common ways to trash your finances fast, plus how you may be able to undo or limit the damage.

Q&A: How to protect an elderly widower from financial predators

Dear Liz: Our mother recently died after a long illness. Our father is in his 70s and is getting a lot of attention from ladies at his church and the senior center. We’re concerned because of a pattern we’ve seen in other families, where the widower remarries and the new wife convinces him that his kids are only after his money. When he dies, she gets everything. The kids and grandkids are left out in the cold. We love our dad and don’t want him to think we’re gold diggers. We also don’t want someone to take our father from us and take advantage of him. What can we do?

Answer: If your father is willing to consider it, an irrevocable trust could go a long way toward protecting his assets from avaricious future wives and any number of other financial predators, including scam artists and unethical financial advisors. The trust could continue to pay income to him while allowing the underlying assets to be transferred at his death to the heirs he chooses now, when his judgment is presumably not impaired.

This is not a do-it-yourself project. Transferring assets to an irrevocable trust could create a gift tax issue for your dad. An attorney who specializes in trusts will have to carefully craft the language to avoid that, Los Angeles estate planning attorney Burton Mitchell said.

The problem may be convincing your dad that he’s vulnerable to impaired judgment. Although our financial decision-making abilities peak in our 50s and our cognitive abilities decline fairly rapidly after age 70, our confidence in our abilities continues to rise as we get older.

Financial literacy expert Lewis Mandell likens it to driving ability. Other research has shown that older drivers often don’t perceive their driving skills as deteriorating, despite declines in sensory ability that come with aging, said Mandell, author of the book “What to Do When I Get Stupid: A Radically Safe Approach to a Difficult Financial Era.”

But the same research found that when the drivers took an objective test that demonstrated their decrease in skill, they were more willing to alter their driving behavior to reduce the probability of accidents.

It may help to have a third party, such as a fee-only financial planner or an estate planning attorney, talk to your dad about the importance of protecting his assets at this stage in his life.

If that effort fails and he marries the type of woman you fear, try to remain in his life, no matter what. She may try to pick fights with you and then demand he take her side as a way of isolating him. Avoid conflict where possible and maintain contact with regular calls, letters and visits. It will be harder for her to demonize you if you remain a constant, loving presence in his life.

Treat your marriage like a business

My artist husband likes to say that if I were in charge of our spending, we’d be sitting on milk crates instead of furniture and that if he were in charge, we’d have no retirement accounts.

The fact that we have both nice furniture and retirement funds is a testament to compromise — and the wealth-building power of marriage.

Married people are significantly wealthier than single people in every age group, and the gap tends to widen as people approach retirement age. Married couples age 55 to 64 had a median net worth, excluding home equity, of $108,607 in 2011, the latest available Census Bureau figures show. By contrast, single men in the same age bracket were worth a median $14,226 and single women $11,481.

Income and education also contribute heavily to wealth — and to the likelihood that people will marry. But a 15-year study of 9,000 people found that even after controlling for those and other factors, marriage itself contributed to a 4 percent annual increase in net worth. The same study found that wealth typically began to drop four years before a divorce, which ultimately reduced people’s wealth by 77 percent.

Since marital status is so powerfully associated with financial status, people would be smart to view marriage as a business arrangement in addition to a romantic one. Taking a few pages from the business world has certainly made our 19-year marriage stronger as well as wealthier.

In my latest for the Associated Press, a look at what works for us and how to apply it to your own marriage.

Secrets of next-door millionaires

The way most Americans build wealth is no secret: Save, invest, repeat. How average people keep their wealth, though, gets a lot less attention.

It boils down to how they handle risk. It’s hard to accumulate wealth without taking some risks, but there are perils that “next-door millionaires” seem to avoid.

Next-door millionaires weren’t born into wealth. They haven’t invented killer apps or won the lottery, exercised a pile of stock options or played professional sports. They’re the majority of millionaires, and they include teachers, small business owners and professionals who accumulate wealth gradually over time. They’re often in their 50s or 60s before their net worth ticks over to seven digits.

In my latest column for the Associated Press, how to apply the secrets of next-door millionaires to your own finances.

Three reasons not to simplify your financial life

January seems to beg for fresh starts, organizing binges and articles about simplifying your life. In some ways, though, a little complexity is a good thing.

Of course, paring and consolidating your financial accounts, for example, can help you better track your money. You may find it easier to coordinate your investments, save on account fees and spot fraud.

But there are times when less is not more. In my latest for Reuters, three reasons why you may not want to take simplification too far.

In my latest for DailyWorth, a look at seven smart ways to save for retirement.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailToday’s top story: The 13 key numbers to understanding your finances. Also in the news: How to save on taxes, what to do with an unexpected inheritance, and the financial lies we tell ourselves.

These 13 Numbers Are the Keys to Understanding Your Finances
Understanding your potential.

Three Moves In December To Save Taxes Next April
Act now, save later.

5 Things to Do With an Unexpected Inheritance
Choose wisely.

12 Financial Lies We Tell Ourselves
Time for the truth.

New startup aims to ‘Trim’ the fat from your monthly spending
Eliminating recurring payments.