Most of us don't know our assets from a hole in the ground.
But, according to investment counselor William Donoghue, almost all of us have buried treasure in our financial landscapes -- money long forgotten or ignored.
"Nine out of 10 people have a pile of unproductive assets . . . generally several hundreds of dollars or more, one way or another," says Donoghue, 43, who describes himself as "America's do-it-yourself financial guru."
The author of two best-selling guides to investing, Donoghue claims his new book, William E. Donoghue's Guide to Finding Money to Invest (Harper & Row, $15.95), is a step-by-step plan for building a lifetime savings program from hidden cash. "It doesn't matter how small your income or how limited your resources," he says. "Even the most destitute among us have some hidden assets lying around that they can turn into investable cash."
Donoghue's credentials? "I've been fired three times and divorced twice. I know cash management like you wouldn't believe," says the Holliston, Mass., resident. He emphasizes his practical investment experience and strong sense of thrift over his CPA certificate and MBA in finance from Temple University.
Although Donoghue's strategy -- more is better than less -- seems simple, he warns that he's not offering a get-rich-quick scheme. Instead, it's an opportunity, he says, to turn "bad finances" and useless junk in the attic into a substantial nest egg.
Donoghue suggests 10 most likely "locations" to find hidden assets:
1. Cash on Hand. While counting "money under their mattress," don't overlook cash idled in travelers' checks and foreign currency left over from vacations or business trips. Traveler's check companies, Donoghue says, make profits by investing the cash you give them from the time you buy the checks to the time you use them.
2. Accounts You Bank On. "There's $300 billion out there sitting in passbook savings accounts -- and it's ludicrous," says Donoghue. Even average-yield money market funds outperform passbook savings accounts.
Donoghue also attacks checking accounts, especially NOW accounts that typically pay a low 5.25 percent interest. He says Super NOWs, which earn less than money funds, charge more for services and are fully taxable, are like "burning up money and paying taxes on the ashes." He recommends writing checks (free) on interest-earning money funds, and never keeping more than you'll spend in a week or two in a checking account.
3. Losing with Savings Bonds. "The absolute dog of the investment world" is how Donoghue defines U.S. Savings Bonds.
"FDR started three of the biggest Savings Bond programs in history," he says. "He bought the first bond in each case. When he died, they were the only three he owned." Bonds often earn much less than the inflation rate. And some people hold on to bonds for years after they've matured and have stopped earning interest.
4. Taking Stock. Review stocks, bonds and mutual funds you bought years ago. If they're not fulfilling the optimism you had when you bought them, get rid of them. Invest in something that makes sense.
Old stock certificates your father or grandfather left lying around should be checked out. If the company or its successor still is in business, they could be worth a fortune. If the company is "down the tubes," he adds, the certificates might be valuable as antiques.
5. The Real Insurance Benefit. Borrowing on your life insurance policy is the easiest source of cheap money you'll ever find, says Donoghue. Policies issued before 1972 usually provide loans at only 4 percent interest. Those issued between 1972 and 1980 often provide loan rates of 6 to 8 percent.
"It's your own money you're borrowing, but not enough people have done it." he says. "They think they are reducing their insurance, or they think they're being unfair to the insurance company. When I bought my policy I didn't think I was being unfair, did you?" This is one loan, he adds, you never should repay.
If you can't bring yourself to unload the homestead, look into equity access programs that allow you to borrow back at attractive rates the equity you've paid into your home. Stockbrokers such as Merrill Lynch offer them.
7. Thrift Plans. If you've signed up for a company thrift plan, such as a 401K program or a self-administered retirement program, make sure it's paying at least as much as an average money fund. If it's not, pull out. However, Donoghue says generally thrift plans are "underused and underrated."
8. Possessions Room by Room. "Your home has more liquid assets than you realize," says Donoghue. The first step is to identify them all. The second step is to determine their worth and if they're salable.
Check out your house, room by room, including the garage, attic and cellar. Don't overlook items stored at friends' and relatives' homes. To price property such as appliances, furniture and hobby equipment, turn to your newspaper's classified ads. Don't forget to include property that may require expert appraisal, such as jewelry, that dusty collection of old gold and silver coins or popular collectibles.
"You never know what you'll find," says Donoghue, who likes to recount eye-opening tales of rummaging, such as the man whose $20 gold coin turned out to be a rare double eagle 1870 CC worth $10,000.
Among the less dramatic but more typical assets are collectibles, from grandmother's glassware to turn-of-the-century furniture. "If you're going out West, take your old oak or Victorian furniture with you," says Donoghue. "It's much more valuable there than in the East. What we call collectibles, they call antiques."
9. Call in the Loans. Collecting money people owe you can be an easy way to find money to invest. Your deadbeat brother-in-law can't pay it back? Donoghue's rule: "Don't dismiss any asset as a lost cause until you have tried to turn it into investable cash."
10. Other Assets. "Don't keep anything valuable if it's useless to you," says Donoghue. If you own a business, for instance, or are a co-owner, he recommends you consider selling it if you could make more money by investing its worth.
The most important asset that you'll discover from taking financial inventory, says Donoghue, is your ability to generate cash. "And just as important as discovering hidden assets is putting that money to work quickly," he adds.
"Your assets should be making you rich, not serving as shelter to homeless spiders."