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Archive for November, 2010

What could possibly link the children’s story of Watership Down, Thanksgiving turkey and retirement investing risks?

Well, my mind works in strange ways (just ask my wife and I’m sure my 15-month old Spencer agrees as well).

Buy and Hold – A Broken Promise?

After all the troubles in the stock market and in financial markets in general over the past couple of years, I was recently rereading an article in the trade magazine, Journal of Financial Planning. In the September 2009 issue there is a book excerpt by Ken Solow, CFP (R) entitled Buy and Hold is Dead (AGAIN): The Trouble with Quant Models.

Over the past couple of years there has been much written about Buy and Hold investing. You may be familiar with the concept as an approach to investing that focuses on selecting an investment (stocks, bonds, mutual funds, real estate) and simply holding on through good times and bad.  Occasionally, you should rebalance back toward some strategic assert allocation to reduce or minimize certain risks.

The reasoning behind this is simple: humans are bad at financial decisions and by adopting this approach you can take the emotion out of investing.  Too often, we tend to make important decisions with little information and rely on emotions like fear or greed.  In fact, Warren Buffet, investor-extraordinaire of Berkshire-Hathaway fame, has said this many times and by doing the opposite of what the masses do he has amassed a fortune for himself and his investors.

For many, buy and hold was discredited after the great Financial Meltdown that tipped us into the Great Recession.  All asset  classes – whether large company stocks, small company stocks, stocks of foreign firms, bonds from companies large or small and bonds issued by sovereign nations – went down.

Most investors feel cheated, angry and worse. This buy and hold approach was advertised as a way to minimize risk.  Unfortunately, most investors probably misinterpreted the idea of minimizing risk and thought that it eliminated the downside volatility.

As I often say to clients, we know there will be sunny days and rainy days.  Risk management means carrying an umbrella and maybe wearing a rain coat as well.  But just because you are using one or both of them doesn’t mean that you won’t get wet.  You’ll just not get soaked like the guy who’s running from the street curb toward the office door with nothing but a newspaper over his head.

It’s true that Buy and Hold will help take the emotion out of investing. Over the long-term, the Ibbotson Charts will show that all asset classes have gone up since 1926 until now even after the meltdown.

That provides cold comfort to the retiree who is just about to start withdrawals from his portfolio to supplement his retirement income and lifestyle.  There were many who saw their investments drop 30%, 40% or more.  And while their portfolio may have bounced back some with the market rally and over time the market may continue to rise, they just don’t have the time to wait.  They have to start taking out money now.  And each time they take out money to live on, there is less in the pot to grow.

This has happened before.  Remember Enron.  Remember Lucent Technologies.  On one day someone is a paper millionaire.  Fast forward and the companies are in the tank (bankrupt in the case of Enron) and your retirement dream is a nightmare. If you’re at the tail end of a 25 year career, you really don’t have the time to make it up but have to make do with what you have. (Even for these folks, not all is lost and there are things one can do to sustain a retirement as I noted here in a previous post. And I’ll be talking about sustainable withdrawal rates in another post on retirement income planning.)

For the rest of us, there is a lesson in there. And this is where Watership Down and Thanksgiving turkey come into play.

Buy and Hold, Modern Portfolio Theory & The Illusion of Math

Buy and Hold is based on the quantitative model of Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) first devised Harry Markowitz more than 50 years ago.  Such quantitative models are based on lots of mathematics.  The formulas are complex and elegant.  They are beyond what most of us are comfortable with but they do provide a sense of security.  You input numbers from data on various asset classes and a very precise number comes out the other side of the black box.  This provides a sense of security.  Instead of relying on something subjective like your instinct or your gut feelings, you can put your faith into something objective like the science of math and finance.

Over the past few years and principally from the mid-1990s until our recent meltdown, we have come to rely on ever more complex quantitative models. These complex models drove the markets in real estate and mortgages as we relied more and more on the black boxes of the financial engineers.  But theories are only theories and models are only as good as the assumptions and data used to create them.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  And a model is only as good as the assumptions behind it.  All models are based on past events. And even though we are warned that “past performance is no guarantee of future results” we rely on these backward-looking, statistically-based models for predicting our futures.

In a normal world, the behavior of markets and investors can be assumed pretty well. But in panics, all bets are off.  No amount of modeling can predict how presumably reasonable people will act but it’s safe to say that human nature’s fight or flight syndrome kicks in hard.

Watership Down – A Lesson from Spencer’s Bedtime

What happens is that things go along and work until they don’t.  Assumptions are assumed to be fine until they need to be revised. When I was reading Watership Down there is a scene where the protagonist, a wild rabbit, encounters a number of other well-fed white rabbits.  Our hero tries to get them to follow him but to no avail.  The tame rabbits live in a fine world where they are provided plenty of food, water, shelter and care.  What more is there to go searching for “out there?”

The Thanksgiving Turkey

Our false sense of security and belief in a system like MPT or Buy and Hold can be illustrated in the tale of the Thanksgiving turkey.

As retold by Nassim Taleb in The Black Swan:

Consider a turkey that is fed every day. Every single feeding will firm up the bird’s belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race “looking out for its best interests,” as a politician would say. On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey:  It will incur a revision of belief.

Unable or unwilling to question its beliefs, the turkey was lulled into a false sense of security by his daily reinforcing experiences. Like the tame white rabbits in Watership Down, the turkey’s world is looking good and life is great.  So much so that neither even think about ways to escape.

At least in the animated movie Chicken Run with Mel Gibson (another soon-to-be Spencer favorite), the chickens are led to question their assumptions about life on the farm and plot ways to escape.

What We Learn from Bedtime Stories for Investing

What we learn from these stories is that just because things have worked in the past, doesn’t mean that they are absolute truths that will hold in the future. The most dangerous thing that an investor can do is simply accept with blind faith the assumptions of the past.  In a changing market, there’s nothing scarier than conventional thinking.

Theories are only theories and while it may seem like heresy to question assumptions, it’s in your best interest to do so.

Does this mean abandoning Modern Portfolio Theory or Buy and Hold? No.

It does mean that it makes sense to add some human judgment to the mix.  Good models can work even better with common sense.

Like the counter-culture of the 1960s would teach, you as an investor will do best to question authority and question assumptions.

Use an Investment Policy Statement as a Better Road Map

Here with the aid of a qualified professional you can walk through and create a personalized investment policy statement as a road map for investing decisions.

Such an approach can combine the quantitative tools to be used along with the more qualitative, value-based criteria that can be combined to help in the investment selection and portfolio management process.

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It’s easy to get tripped up in retirement.  I’m reminded of the expression by the octogenarian to the recent newlywed fretting about life but rejecting out of hand the advice of his experienced senior:

A long time ago I was where you are now.  And later you’ll be where I am now.  But just as you haven’t been your age before, I’ve never been old before.

So for new retirees who “not been there or done that” it’s a whole new world filled with possibility and pitfalls.

Transitioning

Most retirees have an imperfect vision of retirement at best.  And if it hasn’t been discussed or communicated, it could be vastly different from that of your spouse.

Finding meaning in a post-work world can be a real challenge.  If your identity has been wrapped up in what you do, then you might now feel lost.  Your social networks might change.  Your activities might change.

It’s important to reassess your values and envision how you want to live in this next chapter of your life.

Initially, there may be more travel to visit family, friends or places.  You may want to tackle that “bucket list.”

But to live a truly fulfilling and rewarding retirement may require you to take stock in yourself, your values and what gives you meaning.  You may benefit from working with a professional transition coach or group that can help guide you through this period of rediscovery.  One such resource can be found here at the Successful Transition Planning Institute.

Lifestyle Budget

Typically, most retirees may take the rule of thumb bandied about that you will need from 60% to 70% of your pre-retirement income to live on in a post-retirement world.  This is because it is assumed that many expenses will drop off:  business wardrobe, commuting to work, professional memberships, housing, new cars, etc.

The reality is far different.  According to research conducted by the Fidelity Research Institute 2007 Retirement Index, more than two-thirds of retirees spent the same or higher in retirement.  Only eight percent spend significantly lower and about 25% spend somewhat lower. The Employee Benefit Research Institute  reported in its 2010 Retirement Confidence Survey that while 60% of workers expected to more than half of retirees didn’t see a drop in retirement expenditures while 26% of this group reported that their spending actually rose.

It all depends on your goals, lifestyle and what curve balls life throws at you.  If you have adult children who end up in a financial crisis of their own caused by job loss, health issues or divorce, you may be spending more than you expected to help out. Maybe the home you live in will require higher outlays for maintenance or to upgrade the home so you can live there independently. In reality all of that travel and doing things on your bucket list will cost money, too.  So it’s more the rule than the exception to expect spending to increase while you’re still healthy to get up and go.

Over time, the travel bug and other activities will probably decline but even after that these may be replaced by other expenses.

Healthcare

There is an old saying that as you get older you have more doctors than friends.  This is a sad reality for many including my parents.

My father is on dialysis and has complications from diabetes.  His treatments probably cost Medicare (and ultimately the US taxpayer) more than $30,000 each quarter as I figure it.  He takes about 13 prescriptions each day and enters the dreaded “donut hole” about mid-year each year. At one time their former employers (a Fortune 500 company) provided medical insurance benefits to retirees but that became more and more cost prohibitive for their employer and for my parents as premiums, co-pays and deductibles rose.  So now they rely on a combination of Medicare and Blue Cross/Blue Shield and a state program called Prescription Advantage.

As private employers and cash-strapped state and municipal governments tackle the issue, you can expect to pay more for your health care in retirement.

Wealth Illusion

It’s not uncommon to feel really rich when you look at your retirement account statements.  (Sure, the balances are off where they may have been at the peak but it’s probably still a large pot of money). The big problem is that retirees may have no comprehension about how long that pot of money will last or how to turn it into a steady paycheck for retirement.

In reality the $500,000 in your 401k or IRA accounts may only provide $20,000 per year if you plan on withdrawing no more than 4% of the account’s balance each year. Then again if you take out more early on in retirement, you could be at risk of depleting your resources quickly.

Misplaced Risk Aversion & The Impact of Inflation

So as you get older, you’ll be tempted to follow the rule of thumb that more of your investments need to be in bonds. Although this may seem to be a conservative approach to investing, it is in fact risky.

Setting aside that this ignores the risks that bonds themselves carry, it is ignoring the simple fact that inflation eats away at your purchasing power.  Even in a tame inflationary world with 1% annual inflation, a couple spending about $80,000 a year when they are 65 will need over $88,000 a year just to buy the same level of goods and services when they turn 75.  Given the potential for higher inflation in the future that may result from a growing economy and/or current monetary policy, investments need to be positioned to hedge against inflation with a diverse allocation into stocks and not just bonds even when in retirement.

The other risk is trying to play catch up.  As a retiree sees the balances on his accounts get drawn down, he might even be tempted to “shoot for the moon” by investing in illiquid investments like stocks in small, thinly traded markets or in sectors that are very speculative.

Ball games are one by base hits and consistency on the field and at the plate.  Home runs are dramatic but not a sure thing.

Underestimating How Long You’ll Live

We all want a long and productive life.  Many will even say that they don’t want to live to be a burden to their families.  But here again the reality is that most folks do a bad job of guessing how long they’ll live.  A report by the Society of Actuaries notes that 29% of retirees and pre-retirees estimate that they’ll outline the averages but in fact there is a 50% chance of outliving them.

So while they may have enough resources to carry them through the average life expectancy, they will not have enough when they live longer than the averages. And if a couple attains the age of 65, there is a better than 50% chance that at least one of them will live into their 90s.

Given the fact that most women become widows at the age of 53 (Journal of Financial Planning, Nov. 2010), this has a big impact on the availability of resources for retirement.  Too often, a short-sighted approach to maximize current retirement income from a pension is to choose the option that pays the highest but stops when one spouse dies. All too often this puts the widow who may live longer without a reliable source of income to provide for her.

Conclusion

Too often people underestimate how long they will live in retirement, how much they will actually need for living in retirement and how to invest for a sustainable retirement paycheck using appropriate product, asset and tax diversification.

Many people do not save enough for their own retirement.  The social safety net providing support for old age income and healthcare may not be enough to maintain a desired lifestyle.  Women need to understand the risk of living long into retirement and manage resources accordingly.  And because more than 40% of Americans are at risk of retiring earlier than expected because of job loss, family care needs or personal health, there is a real need for proper planning to address these issues.

While retirees will benefit from having a good plan and road map before the final paycheck ends, it’s never too late to start. And for the newly retired with the time to address these issues, now’s as good a time as any to speak to a qualified professional who can help.

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Black Friday is traditionally the day that can make or break a retailer’s bottom line.  But don’t let enthusiasm for the season, the sales or the advertising hype end up putting you into the Red.

Black Friday is here.  Even before you may have had a chance to digest your Thanksgiving feast or recover from a day of football, you may have already been lured into the local mall.  Maybe you were one of those early bird shoppers preparing for a marathon day of shopping at 1 AM.  (It’s not too late to consider these tips for the rest of your shopping season or to teach your kids).

I was not one of them.  I slept in and have probably missed a host of specials and discounts on every imaginable thing sold. While I don’t feel bad I know that I’ll probably be picking on the leftovers like a I will be with the Thanksgiving turkey in the refrigerator.

Although I’m not the best marathon shopper, I thought I’d share a few tips that may help you avoid turning this holiday’s shopping season into a budget-busting hole for your family budget that you’ll be paying for and digging out of long after that snazzy do-dad you bought for Uncle Charlie is lost or breaks.

Have a Budget

No one says that you have to go and take out a second mortgage on your home to buy gifts for the entire world (that’s even assuming that you can qualify for a Home Equity Loan or HELOC).

It’s probably reasonable to budget somewhere around 1% of your gross income for holiday purchases of gifts for others in your family and friend network. Unless you’re buying an engagement or anniversary ring for your significant other, there’s no need to bust the budget here – even then there are limits. (And you really should not be spending more on stuff than you’re putting away in your IRA or 401k).

Are you afraid you’ll be considered the cheap skate relative or office mate? Who cares?  Are those folks going to bail you out if you’re in financial trouble?  Do you really want to be one of the folks who’s still paying off the credit card charges you incurred for this holiday by the time you serve next year’s Thanksgiving turkey?  All of those great savings you got will simply be replaced by interest charges on the balance you carry.

Gifts are barely remembered while memories of sharing time with friends and family have more meaning to most folks.

Make a List and Check It Twice

Just like Old Saint Nick, you should prepare a shopping list. Have a written list of who’s going to be receiving gifts.  If you know them well, you can jot down a few ideas of types of gifts to try to find.  Before you even open up your web browser or step foot in the store, get this done.  Without a list you’re more likely to become an impulse buyer.

Have a Shopping Plan

Experienced shoppers know that it pays to have a plan of attack when those doors open.  You’ve been scouring the newspaper inserts (you do still get the newspaper, right?) and browsing the websites.  You’ve been in the stores before and know the floor layout.  You can bypass all the stuff you don’t need and just go straight to the department in the store where that perfect gift for Aunt Sally is.

Hey, store merchandisers know that you’re only human and easily distracted.  That’s why they’ll stack up stuff near cash registers.  That’s why grocery stores force you to walk through the entire store to get to the dairy case and that quick stop to pick up milk costs you $30 because you pick up a “few things.”

I prefer to use shopping sites that will find and compare items.  Whether you use Amazon.com or MySimon.com or a host of other shopping robots, you can narrow down the price range to expect to pay for an item.  And for the Smartphone set, “there’s an app for that.”  You can download an app that will allow you to scan a product’s UPC which can then pull up product information and comparative prices.

Consider Charity

You might want to give back instead of simply consume.  Sure, we need consumers to buy more stuff to get the economy moving again (we also need corporations to invest their $2 trillion in cash back into their businesses by buying equipment and hiring folks but that’s a different discussion).

But nothing says that you have to stimulate the economy single-handedly.

There are causes and people who need your help throughout the year and providing a donation in lieu of a gift made in China will help them, make you feel good, provide you with a tax deduction, and reduce our trade imbalance which will ultimately improve the strength of the US dollar.

Remember the Spirit of the Season

What do you really want your family to remember about the season?  What values do you want to pass down to your children or grandchildren?

Sure, it can be all about the ostentatious display of holiday lights and some of those displays are really nice and others are just way over the top.

Sure, it can be about buying the biggest, best new shiny thing.

I’m not trying to be Scrooge here. Far from it.  I believe that the holiday is about family and friends.  And more particularly, I think that playing Santa for young kids is magical – for you and them.

When I was growing up, my brother and I typically received one gift each from our parents, aunts, uncles and grandmother. And after we opened them up, our parents let us keep one toy out to play with while the others were put away so we didn’t end up overly distracted and bored with the toys all at once.

On the other hand, I remember going to a cousin’s house and they had TONS of packages under the tree.  Their parents would wrap all sorts of little stocking-stuffers – candy, marbles, even tooth paste and socks.  It was all about showing the quantity of gifts even if they were mundane, everyday sort of things.

I think that I enjoyed our holiday more and better because we weren’t focused on tearing off lots and lots of wrapping paper.

And I think that’s what I want my soon-to-be 15-month old son, Spencer, to take away as part of his understanding of the holiday and our new family’s traditions.

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It’s natural for investors who are still skittish after a decade-long roller coaster ride with the stock market and plummeting real estate values to be risk averse and seek out investment alternatives for protecting their nest eggs for retirement, college funding or simply their emergency cash.

And where there is demand, there will be supply.  So naturally, financial firms will design products geared toward satisfying this demand.

One such product that’s getting more attention recently are Market Linked Certificates of Deposit (CDs).

These are in essence a savings product designed to provide a minimum guaranteed interest rate plus the opportunity to increase the return by linking to the return of a specific market index or in some cases an index for inflation.

Such products are part of the larger class of “structured products” produced by investment banks that can come in many flavors and various strategies:  reverse-convertibles, principal-protected notes, Exchange Traded Notes.  They essentially are debt bundled with a derivative and marketed as a way to bet on stocks and interest rates as a way to manage certain risks. All offer in one package strategies using some sort of derivative and may offer a combination of principal protection, risk reduction and/or enhanced returns.

Recent surveys of more than 17 brokerage firms and more than 38 million investors show that most of these products are used by those with under $500,000 in investable assets.  For those with assets between $250,000 and $500,000, about 1.5% of their assets are placed in such products which is slightly higher than the 1.33% of assets for those with under $250,000 to invest.  (Investment News, 11/15/2010, page 52).

More than $70 billion of such products are held by investors with more than $42 billion bought in 2010 according to Bloomberg data.  And given continued uncertainty about the markets, the demand looks like it will not be abating any time soon especially as financial marketing organizations use investor fears as a selling point. Brokers and banks often receive higher fees and commissions for selling such products.

Keith Styrcula of the Structured Products Association said in a recent interview “these kinds of investments have become so attractive because people can no longer trust stock market indexes to go up.” He added that “there’s a lot of fear in the market right now, and a lot of investors don’t just want one-way exposure anymore.”  (Investment News, 11/15/2010, page 51).

But even though these products are marketed as a way to reduce risk they are not risk free.  There is no free lunch and this is no exception. Such products are subject to liquidity risk, market risk, credit risk and opportunity costs.

Market-Linked CDs are a form of principal-protected note offered by an investment bank.  These are not your Grandmother’s bank CDs.  First, such notes are offered as debt of the sponsoring institution so there is always the potential of credit risk.  Think of Lehman Brothers which was a large producer of such notes.  If the issuing firm fails, as Lehman did, the investment is at risk. While there is FDIC-protection on the principal, that may be small comfort when dealing with the time frame to get access to your money through a FDIC claim process.

They may involve a complex strategy which may be buried in the details of the offering’s prospectus.  For market-linked CDs, for instance, the issuer offers the downside protection by managing a portfolio of Treasury bonds (like zero coupon bonds to meet the projected maturity date of the CD).  The upside potential that is offered comes from investing in the bond yield through various strategies.

In such a low interest rate environment, these notes work only if provided sufficient time for the issuer to implement its strategies.  This is one reason that such CDs typically have long lock up periods that can be five years or more.

An issuer may guarantee a minimum interest amount but this is typically not FDIC-insured.  And this is really an obligation of the issuer so that’s where the credit risk comes into play. And you should note that the minimum guarantee usually only applies when the investment is held to maturity.  An investor will lose this guarantee by redeeming before the contract maturity date. And because of the nature of these products, there really is no secondary market around to allow someone else to buy you out early.

The upside potential is calculated based on the performance of the index chosen.  The CD investor does not own the index or the stocks in the index.  The issuer uses its money to invest and potentially reap the dividends issued as well as the appreciation.

What the issuer offers to the CD investor is a certain percentage of the upside gain of the index (called a participation rate) but limited by a ceiling (called a cap).  This calculation of the gain can be convoluted for an investor to understand. While it’s pretty simple to understand a typical CD (put $1000 in at an annual interest rate of 3% means you have $1,030 at end of the period), the same is not true for market linked CDs.

Your gain may be based on an average (so now the question is how are they calculating that average: monthly,  semi-annually, annually, term of the CD) or a Point-to-Point calculation. (Example: If the market index is 1000 when the account opened, went up to 2000 after one year but drops to 1050 by the maturity date, then the point-to-point is from 1000 to 1050 or 5% in this case).

In many ways these are similar to other structured products like market linked annuities (sometimes referred to as index annuities or equity-indexed annuities).

I addressed many of the same issues about calculating returns and possible risks in a post on the subject a while back.

Bottom Line:

Whether or not such products make sense for your personal portfolio really requires a good, long chat with a qualified financial professional. Like any other investment, the potential risks and opportunity costs need to be weighed against your personal goals, time frame, liquidity needs and the potential offered by other alternative options.

So if you are considering such products, just be aware of all the risks and look beyond the marketing brochure at the local bank.

Resources:

SEC Investor Education on Market-Linked CDs

MoneyLinkPro Blog Post on Market Index Annuities

Wikipedia Definition

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There are so many choices and ways to pay for college.

Let’s look at an overview.

In general in comes down to this.  Find a school and a program that fits your needs and learning style.  Do whatever you can to limit the amount of time you need to stay on campus. Take advantage of every opportunity to work, get financial aid or qualify for scholarships.

You can reduce the time you’re enrolled by getting advanced placement credit for some courses.  You can do this through testing while still in high school or you can apply for classes at the local college that can possibly transfer to the school you enter.  You should also consider taking classes during summer break to accelerate your graduation date.

For financing, consider this:

  1. Choose a school that offers a great financial aid package: There are database search tools that will provide you with a comparison of the kinds of aid packages available.  You can access one of these tools through the Clear View website here.
  2. Consider a state school: Tuition is lower for instate resident students allowing you to save a bundle. If you like a school’s program but you live out-of-state, consider finding a way to qualify for in state residency.
  3. Work during school and more during the off-season: By working an average of 20 hours per week you can earn enough to cover most books, fees and equipment as well as pizza and beer.
  4. Find scholarships:  Getting someone else to pay for school is a real bonanza. So don’t underestimate the value of searching out scholarships.  Many go unclaimed each year.  You can start your free search at www.scholarships.com or www.collegeboard.com under the “Fund Finder” section.
  5. Consider post-college service programs:  By joining certain community service programs some or all of your student loans may be forgiven.  So consider working in an inner city neighborhood program like CityYear or teach.
  6. Borrow if you have to:  While Shakespeare said “neither a borrower nor lender be,” sometimes you can’t avoid it. So here your options are many and varied.  Over 71% of college aid comes in the form of loans.  To navigate your way through this contact a qualified financial planner who can help.

If you follow these steps, you can minimize the amount of debt you or your student will be burdened by.  And your retirement nest egg will remain intact as well.

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Let me offer the classic unsatisfying answer:  It depends.

Before you offer your John Hancock you should understand the risks involved.

Just like any other financial decision, it’s best to try to do this without the emotion, drama and angst that can complicate a relationship.  Easier said than done, I know.

But like your investments, you should do your own due diligence and follow your own values.

Sometimes it’s absolutely necessary to get a cosigner for a loan, credit card or apartment lease.  The best terms are offered to those with the lowest credit risks.  A credit card issuer, mortgage lender or landlord will rightly offer someone with an established good credit history and deeper pockets a whole lot better set of terms than a newly minted college grad or someone with a bunch of blemishes on their credit report.

I remember a favorite uncle of mine.  He was single, very responsible with money, a great saver.  He once went to buy a car but needed a younger nephew to consign for him for the auto loan because our uncle had no established credit.  He had paid cash for everything all his life making him an invisible man to a loan underwriter.

I also remember once walking across campus and a friend stopping me as I passed the financial aid office.  He asked me for a favor.  He needed a cosigner for his student loan and it was my lucky day to be the guy to help him.  Don’t worry about a thing, he told me.  I’m good for it, he had said.

Luckily he was but that’s not always the case.  The FTC reports that three out of four cosigners are asked to pay because the primary borrower hasn’t.

Know the Risks

There are risks in life and in every decision we make.  It’s not a matter of avoiding all risks but managing them, understanding them. Don’t just think that you can walk away once you’re on the hook for the loan.  Just because your signature may not appear first doesn’t mean that you won’t be the person they turn to collect the debt.

Landlords typically require a parent to cosign on an apartment for a child.  They know if the kid skips or the keg party gets too wild that Mom and Dad will not want to risk their good credit and will be there to cover the bill.

Remember that each loan or credit card you have will have an impact on your own credit score.  The payment history and amount utilized compared to the maximum line of credit can have a potential adverse impact on your own credit score.

And the amount of the debt will be counted as if it were your own.  This may make it difficult or impossible to get a loan when you need one.  I had a client who had cosigned for a car loan for her adult son.  The son has made every payment on time.  But when his mom applied for a home equity line of credit the car loan fixed payment was included in calculating the underwriter’s debt ratios.  Combined with her other debts it was enough to push her over the maximum qualifying debt ratio allowed resulting in a loan decline.

Put Yourself in the Lender’s Shoes

If you treat this like an investment or a loan, you should be prepared to ask questions.

You should be asking the same sort of questions that any would.  Why do they need the money?  What’s the default risk? Can they afford the debt?  How will they manage to pay it back?

Curb Your Enthusiasm … Set Limits

Like all financial decisions, consider the risk and find ways to limit it.

For a credit card you can request that the limit be set low so that the card can only be used for emergencies and not big ticket discretionary purchases that will leave you on the hook.

For apartment leases with roommates, make sure that all the parents are also listed on the lease so you’re not the only one that the landlord will call when there’s a problem.

For other large ticket items requiring a loan, consider being listed on the title for the car for example.  If there is a default, you’ll have the right to sell the car.

At the very least you can ask to receive duplicate statements so that you can monitor that payments are being made as promised.

For larger loans like a mortgage, you may even want to consider offer your help in the form of an intra-family loan.  There are services that will manage the payment processing so that it avoids getting ugly if there ever is a payment problem.  Just remember that if you choose to lend a hand to someone to buy a home in this way, they will need to declare it on the application as a debt and they’ll have to qualify for the new loan with this payment as well.


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Secrets are dangerous.  Money secrets can be the worst kind for families.  What should you do if you have a child struggling financially or just needs a helping hand when it comes time to buy a home?

The trend toward “boomeranging” among newly minted college graduates to return to the family nest is a well-known phenomenon. With persistently high unemployment and an ongoing crisis in real estate, it’s now not uncommon to hear of adult children with families of their own seeking a helping hand from parents.

This is certainly not something that was on the radar screen when thinking about retirement.  But more often I’m hearing of parents at or in retirement helping out their adult children who in turn are trying to help out their college age kids, too.

In the past, when I was a mortgage banker I would often need to ask about the source of a down payment for a home purchase.  Many times I would hear that mom and dad or a grandparent or uncle would be helping out to fill in the gap.  Sometimes I would make the suggestion and probe to find out if there was any chance for a family gift.

Because of lending rules, there was a certain way that such gifts needed to be documented.  On more than one occasion, I would find a family member who was not just reluctant but downright belligerent about sharing any information needed to document the gift.

Other cultures while just as secretive were more willing to provide such a helping hand. I found that it was especially common for those who were part of first generation immigrant families to gift money to family members literally from money stashed away in coffee cans and mattresses.

Many people may find it easier to talk about health or sex problems than to talk or share information about money.

Unfortunately, this kind of climate perpetuates poor money management skills.

If you’re in the fortunate position to have extra resources to help a child or family member, then you should consider it a “teaching moment.”

Yes, there are those who will say that it’s your money and you don’t have to tell anybody about what you’re doing.  But consider this:  You could be sowing the seeds of some kind of rift between family members if not know then later when you pass away.

The key here is communication. While you don’t have to tell your children to the penny what kind of gift you’re planning, you should inform them so as to avoid hard feelings later.  Your kids probably know that you wouldn’t offer if you couldn’t afford it.  They may even recognize that one child is in tougher straits than others or that they have other resources as a safety net such as their own in-laws if need be. But don’t assume anything. If they have your best interests at heart, then they may just want confirmation that you aren’t putting your own financial security at risk.

Back to the teaching moment.  Here is an opportunity to ask questions that may help them think about what they are doing.  Are they short on cash because of something beyond their control or do they have trouble handling money?  Are they gambling or overindulging?  You could impart some added wisdom from experience here such as when my aunt told my mother about how she always saved any raises she got instead of counting on it for spending money.

I’ve had a couple of clients who invested money in their son’s businesses.  Each formalized it with a loan agreement and an equity stake. If it’s a business, then treat it like one.

If it’s help for a home purchase, you could help provide some perspective.  Is this really a good neighborhood to invest in? Are there problems with the property that will become an issue when trying to resell later? (Think here about the time you bought the house with the shared driveway).

Remember to be equitable with your family.  You don’t have to offer help in equal amounts since every child’s circumstances is different.

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