Originally created 12/23/01

Mapping out retirement



It's done. Finally.

For the past year, The Augusta Chronicle sponsored free financial advice for a handful of Augustans, using their experiences as fodder for a series of financial-help stories.

Today we offer the year's summation: Here's what a year of financial planning can do for you.

Of course, this year was unlike any other. A record run of national economic growth ground to a halt; the Federal Reserve Board lowered interest rates 11 times; and the New York Stock Exchange shut down for nearly a week after terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Though the world and the way we view it has forever changed, the need for sound financial planning and economic security remains as strong as ever.

Among our participants were a young couple planning for their family's future, a middle-aged couple readying for retirement, a single mother starting her second career and a 71-year-old retiree living off her investments.

Here's how they fared during a strange - and at times frightening - year for investors.

Dennis and Rose St. John

With retirement just a decade away, Dennis and Rose St. John have been dutifully saving and investing. Their Chronicle-sponsored financial planner, Gene McManus, was optimistic that they could reach their financial goals in time to enjoy the golden years.

Then came Sept. 11.

Preparing for the future gave way to fretting the present. Mr. St. John, a retired military intelligence specialist, was tapped to serve his country again and shipped to Kuwait two days before Thanksgiving.

He could be gone for a year, maybe longer. Understandably, Mrs. St. John has put everything on hold.

"We've been together 30 years and separated so many times because of his military job," she said. "I thought he was through, but then - boom - this happens, and they need him again. I've been worrying too much about it to worry about much else."

Fortunately, the couple diversified most of their holdings before the terrorist attacks and were somewhat protected from the resulting market plunge. Mr. McManus also advised them to refinance their new home, locking in one of the recent 30-year lows on rates and improving their debt level.

The couple will meet with Mr. McManus after Mr. St. John returns.

"We really like Eugene, it's just that I can't think about it right now," Mrs. St. John said. "Everything we do, we do together. Eugene will understand to sit tight until Dennis comes home."

Mr. McManus will be ready.

"Finances are the least of their worries right now," he said. "Whenever she does decide to revisit these things, I'll help in any way I can."

Kathleen Hurst

Whenever Kathleen Hurst gets a pay raise, she invests it. She has done so for more than 20 years. Ms. Hurst has developed her own blueprint for financial success by working hard, investing wisely and never making an impulse purchase.

"If there's something big that I think I want really bad, I put it on layaway," she said. "Then I have some time in a different state of mind to think about buying it. Then, sometimes I don't buy it."

As an experienced investor, Ms. Hurst has never hired a financial planner. She decided to participate in The Chronicle's series to find out what these certified financial planners know that she doesn't.

Turn's out, she says, not much.

"I've been managing my portfolio a long time," she said. "Understanding how to diversify - that was a talent I brought to the table."

But Jennifer Noah of The Monitor Group in Augusta found Ms. Hurst's portfolio in disarray. Ms. Hurst's drive to invest and save was excellent; her knowledge of the market was above average; her organizational expertise was nil.

Ms. Hurst had neglected to track the paperwork for her numerous investments. She had no idea how much equity she had built up in her holdings and was routinely burned on high capital-gains taxes.

"Ms. Noah was very helpful in getting everything consolidated," Ms. Hurst said. "That was something I'd never done before. I just knew I had to save; I didn't realize how disorganized I was."

By the time she retires, Ms. Hurst will draw two pensions and Social Security, in addition to the income from her current investments. She is not dependent on dividend income, so Ms. Noah suggested she move more of her assets to growth stocks to lower her tax burden.

"She's in good shape but needs to make sure she doesn't veer off course," Ms. Noah said. "If she keeps on top of it, she can accomplish what she plans to do."

Terry Grosberg

Terry Grosberg retired long ago. The 71-year-old North Augusta resident has no income except that produced by her investments.

To say Sept. 11 came as a shock to her is a bit of an understatement.

"I've taken a big hit, but they're starting to go back up," she said. "Hopefully, it will continue to improve."

At the start of the year, the bulk of Mrs. Grosberg's assets were in Duke Energy and General Electric stocks. They're good stocks to have, no doubt, but moves to diversify her holdings earlier this year helped protect her investments when the stock market took a dive in September.

"She still has large holdings in Duke and GE," said Will Rogers, senior adviser with American Express Financial Advisers in Augusta. "But diversifying a portion has made her position more sound."

Mrs. Grosberg has transferred all her accounts from her former brokerage company to the care of Mr. Rogers, who has devised an economic model to utilize her holdings, assuming she lives to be 90.

The model includes selling her house and buying a condo and moving her IRA holdings into a lower-risk group of funds with the same capital-appreciation potential.

"I like Will, and I trust Will," she said. "It's been interesting. My husband used to handle all the investments, and he was a whiz-bang at it. When he died, I had no knowledge. I'm better off now."

Bryan and Allison Rhodes

Bryan and Allison Rhodes, each in their late 20s, entered The Chronicle's financial makeover series with the hope of mapping a plan for early retirement because, as Mr. Rhodes put it, "I don't want to work anymore."

Seems fair.

With plenty of time to work and invest in the market, the couple's financial planner, Steve Marbert of Richard Young Associates Ltd., says their dream of retiring early is attainable - as long as they stick to the plan.

His first piece of advice was simple. Mr. Rhodes was not contributing the maximum to his 401k account. With the employer matching funds, it's "free money."

Also, the couple's investments were grossly underdiversified. Mr. Marbert implemented an asset-allocation plan before Sept. 11, helping to protect what investments the couple had already made.

He also addressed the issue of saving college money for 3-year-old Bailey and 1-year-old Camden. The federal tax cut passed in July increased the contribution limits for education IRAs to $2,000 a year. The money can be withdrawn tax-free so long as it is used for education.

The other option is a state-run 529 plan, which also provides a tax-free opportunity for education investments. Georgia is developing its 529 plan, and Mr. Marbert said it might offer state tax deductions to residents.

"When the tax laws changed, it made both of these plans extremely attractive," Mr. Marbert said. "We'll wait and see what Georgia does before making a decision."

Mr. and Mrs. Rhodes had a brief encounter with a financial planner a couple of years ago. Convinced their planner was out for personal gain, they were left jaded.

"He did not look out for our best interests," Mrs. Rhodes said. "We didn't know if they were all like that or not, but now we know it's important to find someone you trust - and for us it's Steve."

Reach John Bankston at (706) 823-3352 or john.banks@augustachronicle.com