Recently I found myself in the waiting room at a Destin doctor’s office. All of the patients waiting to see the physician were tuned into Jim Cramer’s financial television show.
Helaine Olen’s new book “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Finance Industry” attacks the “easy way to get rich” charlatans of the financial industry on the basis that most are selling the idea that everyone can become rich quickly if they simply follow a particular strategy. Olen criticizes Suzie Orman and Dave Ramsey, among others.
Olen suggests that what we are experiencing is not a financial literacy problem, but an income problem; that people just don’t make enough money to save or invest successfully, regardless of whether they follow a particular strategy.
We could not agree more that a large number of Americans are experiencing an income problem. We recently published a column entitled “Where have all the good jobs gone?” and referenced a recent essay by George Friedman entitled “The Crisis of the Middle Class and American Power.”
Friedman’s essay provides alarming statistics. “The median household income of Americans in 2011 was $49,103,” he writes. “Adjusted for inflation, the median income is just below what it was in 1989 and is $4,000 less than it was in 2000. Take-home income is a bit less than $40,000 when Social Security and state and federal taxes are included. That means a monthly income, per household, of about $3,300. It is urgent to bear in mind,” Friedman continues, “that half of all American households earn less than this.”
It’s probably important to remember that financial television hosts are entertainers vying for viewers and ratings. Their “one size fits all” recommendations are often anathema to legitimate investment advisory professionals. They thrive on good ratings, not good recommendations.
Occasionally they do provide decent advice. One television finance wizard is criticized by Olen for asserting that one can sacrifice one’s way to riches by foregoing, for instance, a daily cup of cappuccino. Taking your lunch to work, for instance, instead of eating out each day, is another method of saving that has been recommended as a wealth building strategy.
The gist of Olen’s criticism is that these things won’t make you wealthy, that they’re gimmicks employed by television personalities to convince us all that everyone can become rich. The truth is, Olen’s knock on saving and investing in small amounts is as much an oversimplification as that of the personalities of whom she is critical.
Small sacrifices will not turn you into Warren Buffett. But the dedication to saving some of what you earn each month, and the commitment to investing those savings, can indeed make one’s retirement much more financially feasible. Naturally, if you’re saving and investing more than a few dollars each month because your income is larger, your investment accounts will grow accordingly. Everyone certainly understands that. But all of us should save and invest what we can, even starting in our salad days when our incomes are not as large.
Here are a few basic thoughts on savings, investing and the financial industry that, while not capable of driving television ratings, will normally serve most folks well.
-If you own a home, put any discretionary income toward principal at the end of each month and pay off the mortgage early. We have never heard a client say they were sorry that they owned their home free and clear.
-Commit your money to savings and investments immediately after each payday and live on what’s left, rather than waiting until the month’s end to set aside money for retirement.
-Avoid any long-term debt, other than homes and cars. Taking on credit card debt for business purposes is sometimes unavoidable. Just remember that paying off any credit card debt is difficult.
-If you use an advisor, consider a fee-only advisor (not the same as a fee-based advisor). Fee-only advisors are compensated solely by their clients and sell no products, nor do they accept commissions of any kind from any source. They also serve as a fiduciary to their clients, something that broker-dealers and wirehouses do not.
-Before you interview a potential advisor, check his or her regulatory record online at http://www.finra.org/brokercheck.
Margaret R. McDowell, a chartered financial consultant and accredited investment fiduciary, is the founder of Arbor Wealth Management, LLC, (850-608-6121~www.arborwealth.net), a fee-only registered investment advisory firm located near Sandestin.