Reader passes along some sound advice

March 29, 2013

My wife and I have been married more than 30 years, but we don’t have any kids. In our adult lifetimes, we have owned 11 homes in the United States and United Kingdom.

Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned about building a strong financial foundation. First, we always assumed at some point we would move for career reasons.

Next, whether you buy new construction or existing construction, you should buy in a great school district because you have to assume your future buyer may have kids. And you should also buy in the middle of the subdivision because open land and/or streets may not look the same in 10 years.

If possible, you should buy, and assume all your expenses, will be paid off of one person’s salary. Do not buy a McMansion just because you can afford it at the moment. If you have a second salary, put it into an emergency fund, college tuition fund for the kids or your retirement account.

If it’s getting late in your careers, don’t take out a big mortgage despite the low rates. Ultimately, someone is still taking your money.

Finally, before upgrading your house, car, boat or whatever, pay down your debt as much as possible. When the Great Recession hit, we were fortunate to be debt free, owing nothing to anyone at the end of the month.

Like most folks, we lost a bundle in our investments — about a third of the total — but we had the flexibility to weather the storm.

Thanks for your note. I think your advice is good — and conservative. The truth is, none of us knows what will happen with the economy, either our own personal economy, the country’s or indeed the world’s. As we look at the continued souring of Europe (British economists were recently quoted in the papers admitting that the economic problems in their country are deeper than first imagined and structural in nature), it’s apparent that we’re not yet clear of the aftermath of the biggest worldwide recession since the 1930s.

Your five points form the basis of a solid financial future. Spending less than you earn, while simple common sense that is often repeated, is advice followed by relatively few. While the amount of debt borrowed has been falling since the start of the Great Recession, and as a nation we are now saving something on a net basis, it’s nowhere near what will be needed to fund the kind of retirement most Americans dream of.

The most astute point you make is to resist taking out a new mortgage if you’re “getting late in your careers.” Financial industry observers have made billions in profits by selling loans (automobile and home loans primarily) to baby boomers, about whom it is often said that they never found a loan they didn’t like. Reducing your annual expenses through refinancing is a great idea, but not if you double the term of the mortgage.

Our favorite piece of advice is to those couples with dual incomes: Buy a home for which you can pay the monthly expenses with just one salary. In fact, if you can manage to live on one of the two salaries, even if it is the bigger one, the other salary becomes savings for the fun stuff in life: vacations, tuition and even those big retirement dreams. It also becomes the saving grace for a family that gets caught in economic turmoil, perhaps because of a job loss, divorce, death or illness.

Ilyce R. Glink’s latest book is “Buy, Close, Move In! Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate attorney. If you have questions, you can call Ilyce’s radio show toll-free (800-972-8255) any Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Contact Ilyce and Sam through her Web site, www.thinkglink.com.

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