The couple's income may be $30,000, $40,000 or $70,000 -- far higher in many cases than they ever expected to make -- but the bills seem to eat it up. They can't put any money away for the future.
They're facing the middle-class crunch.
Their children will enter college in a few years, even today that can mean $10,000 or more a year for each child. If inflation continues, who knows what it will cost in 1990?
Retirement is years away, but they've heard the horror stories of the elderly whose fixed-position incomes have been devastated by spiraling costs. They're afraid it might happen to them.
They got angry when they look at the taxes taken from their paychecks. There's got to be, they feel some way to trim that.
And what if they did manage to save a little cash each month? Even in today's troubles economy, investors are making money in the stock market and real estate. But it's so complex. What's the best investment for them?
These are the people, say Washington area financial planners, who are showing up in their offices in increasing numbers looking for help in managing their money. A relatively new profession financial planning has grown phenomenally in the last few years, spurred in large part, say these consultants, by the impact of inflation.
"I earn $40,000. I pay 25 percent in taxes. I don't have anything left," a not-atypical client tells financial adviser John P. Ferguson. In Washington, with its many high-salaried, two-paycheck families, that income is not uncommon.
For many people, says Ferguson, who gives money managing tips Wednesday mornings on WAMU-FM radio, the situation becomes "very stressful, very frustrating. They tell me they can't sleep at night."
In their confusion, he says, they very often "fail to act," probably the worst thing to do since forces outside their control -- the fluctuating economy is a major culprit -- may be trimming their nestegg whole they're not looking.
Or, he says, "They read in the paper that gold is selling for $800 an ounce, and they jump in. But they buy without any plan." Then comes the "remorse". They don't feel any more comfortable with their situation than before.
Taxes propel a number of cleints through planner Alexandra Armstrong's door. They often have "just filled out their income tax forms. We get lots of calls around May 1. They want to know if we can reduce the amount of taxes they have to pay." Armstrong is senior vice president with the investment firm of Julia M. Walsh & Sons, Inc.
Or, say Armstrong, who just stepped down as head of the local chapter of the International Association of Financial Planners, some specific event leads clients to seek advice: "They've inherited money, they're thinking of retiring, they are selling a house."
Sometimes it's younger clients -- home-buyers "not sure they can afford a condominium. They're scared. It helps to have somebody objective" look at their financial status.
Though her clients tend to be successful professionals, many feel ill-equipped or are too busy, she says, to keep abreast of complex and changing investment possibilities. "That's my full-time job."
Barry Schuttler of Independent Financial Planners Coproration of Silver Spring agrees. "My experience," says Schuttler, who teaches personal finance and investment courses at Montgomery, Howard and Northern Virginia community colleges, "is that by far the large majority of the public is unequipped" to deal with the changing economic picture.
"They are simply baffled. How," they ask, "do I stay ahead of inflation and taxes and make prudent investments?"
He says many are only vaguely aware of tax shelters as one way to cut the IRS bite for those in the 50 percent tax bracket. "That's how the rich get richer than us."
These are the problems a good finanical planner should be able to help you resolve. "Getting your house in order," says Armstrong.
Probably an unrealistic goal -- especially if you're spending most of your paycheck -- is to ask the planner to make you a millionaire in 10 years. Though, says Ferguson, "if that's what you want, that's what we'll shoot for."
He has a client, he says, who two years ago was making $18,000. He set an ultimate target of having $100,000. By investing in real estate, already "his net worth is $75,000. Now his target is for $1 million in the next 10 years. He's not married. He can afford the risk."
Whom should you see? You'll probably want to shop around, since there's a boggling array of options.
You'll find planners who are strongly optimistic about the nation's economy and those who see bad times ahead. You can get one-time advice on a particular problem or establish a continuing relationship to keep your financial master plan up to date.
Some consultants charge by fee only for advice, which can range from a few hundred into thousands of dollars based on your assets or the complexity of your problems. Others charge by the hour, with $50- to $100-an hour not unusual.
Some make their money partly from a combination of fees for advice and comissions earned from stocks and other investments you buy through them. And another group offers its advice free, making money from commissions only.
That's a point of contention. Some fee-only advisers believe they can be more impartial because they have nothing to gain from their recommendations. Those who get commissions argue they can be impartial, too, because you can take their recommendations and invest elsewhere.
Some planners cater to the more affluent with minimum incomes of from $30,000 to over $50,000. Others advise young singles or couples just beginning their careers at much lower pay scales, but who have a potential for higher incomes.
In the upper brackets, a minimum of $50,000 a year or a net worth of $150,000 or more qualifies you as a potential client of Personal Capital Planning Group, Inc., a new subsidary of stockholders Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith. The fee to develop a "comprehensive" personal financial plan with projections to the future begins at $1,400 and, says, the firm, "has gone as high as $15,000" for "very complex" cases. A stripped-down plan, similar to those offered by other brokerage houses, is $600, with a minimum of $35,000 income.
Armstrong, who thinks a couple needs to earn $30,000 ($20,000 single) before it's worthwile to seed advice, charges 1 percent of your taxable income to draw up a plan. She also earns a comission on any investment she sells.
Ferguson, whose rates are based on fee only, charges up to 1 1/2 percent of your taxable income to draw up a plan. She also earns a comission on any investments she sells.
Schuttler works on investment comissions only. "You don't have to be wealthy" to invest, he says. He has clients earning $10,000 and some who are mulitmillionaires.
"For as little as $3,000," he says, "you can invest in a $50-million real-estate syndicate." Below that, "You can get into mutual funds for $250."
He recently advised a client's 14-year-old son who had saved "several thousand dollars" to invest in "low-risk" oil and gas reserves. "He was tickled to death."
Many accountants, lawyers, stockbrokers and insurance agents offer financial planning services. In many cases, you fill out a lengthy form detailing your financial situation. This information is sent to such firms as COAP Planning Inc. of Greenvale, N.Y., which analyzes it by computer. a
The firm recommends no specific investments, says president Philip Ryan, but it will -- in a report that may number 50 pages -- tell you if you're sufficiently insured, planning adequately for your retirement, and setting aside enough money to pay for your children's college.
If your assets are few, it might be cheaper to consult a book or enroll in one of the many money-managing courses offered at area colleges.
Since theirs is a new profession, these planners advise that you choose a consultant with caution. Ask about experience and check references. Warns Ferguson, "Anybody can go to Panic Press and get a card printed saying 'financial planner.' There's nothing to prevent it."
Ronald A. Melanson of San Francisco, president of the 6,400-member International Association of Financial Planners, says the organization has formulated "a strong code of ethics." Complaints are investigated, he says, and members have been expelled.
A good financial planner, says Melanson, will present clients with a clear picture of where they stand financially and "where he (or she) might go, based on his skills and earning capacity." The planner "should evaluate the clients' ability to accept risks" and select alternatives they will be comfortable with. They should make sure the clients "understand the implications."
Many money managers become Certified Financial Planners by completing the course of studies at the College of Financial Planning in Denver. They are entitled to add CFP after their name.
For people who want to take control of their financial future, Ferguson (one of the optimists) adds this advice. It's a matter of "building in increments." You start with a little bit and go from there.
To get rich, he says, "You don't have to be brilliant. The greatest benefit you have for wealth is time. We have time."