Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Who Helps You Spend?

Who helps you spend? Everyone? Nobody?

There's never a shortage of people wanting to sell us something to get our money (or kids, spouses and grandkids wanting us to buy them something). No shortage of people wanting you to save or invest with them either. But there is little or no guidance on how to access and use the money you've saved and invested, especially retirement money.

Why? Because the companies and their representatives we invest and save with have much to lose and little to gain by you withdrawing money. Also, if money is in a 401k, you are rarely still working for the company when it's time to start using the money, so you don't have access to human resources professionals.

What's the result of the lack of help? In my practice, I usually see one of two extremes. Either a person pulls out more than he or she should, often paying much more in taxes and penalties than necessary, until the nest egg is either gone or drastically reduced to the point that the standard of living falls. I see the other extreme much more often. In those cases, fear of the money running out prevents it being used at all. Those people don't live any better than those who have spent their nest egg. The money sits earning a small amount of interest with nothing taken out until age 70 1/2. Then only the RMD's (Required Minimum Distributions) are taken. Then 20 years or so later at death, the descendents (usually adult children) receive the money and have to pay taxes on it. This often puts them into a higher tax bracket where they end up with a fraction of what their parent intended for them to get. Most of the children would much rather have had their parents spend more money on themselves instead of passing it on.

There's great news regarding a solution to this problem. There isn't one! There are many. You need a professional to sort it out. The best piece of advice I can give is is to actually formulate a plan instead of just "thinking about it" and maintaining the status quo. Equally important is to run, not walk away, from someone who talks to you about a product without delving into your wants and needs. The new generation of annuities, life insurance and other products have better performance and guarantees than products of just a few years ago. However, small, somewhat hidden differences between products can make one a perfect fit for your neighbor but cause huge problems for you. The wrong "help" can be worse than no help at all.