A Maryland minister who used parishioners to finance his luxury lifestyle was recently sentenced to 27 months in prison and ordered to pay more than $630,000 to four church members who took out loans on behalf of the pastor to purchase cars and a mansion.

Prosecutors said Robert J. Freeman, 56, hid church assets to avoid paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts. He pleaded guilty to obstructing bankruptcy court proceedings.

In 2005, Freeman filed for bankruptcy protection claiming he was broke. But it turns out the pastor was hiding the fact that he was living in a $1.75 million, 9,000 square-foot home bought with funds from church members, reported The Washington Post’s Ann E. Marimow and Hamil Harris.

Freeman also failed to disclose that he also had received 11 luxury vehicles worth more than $1 million, also in the names of church members. Freeman served as pastor and leader of Save the Seed Ministry, Inc., Save the Seed International Church, and Seed Faith International Church.

Rod J. Rosenstein, U.S. States Attorney for the District of Maryland, said Freeman “lived a life of fraud and deception, using millions of dollars from church members and fraudulently obtained credit to pay for luxury cars and a mansion while falsely representing in court that he was indigent.”

“The essence of this crime was taking advantage of unwitting people,” District Judge Roger W. Titus said before he sentenced Freeman.

Here’s the Color of Money Question of the Week: What do you think when you hear stories of pastors preying on their parishioners? Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Put “Shepherd Preyed On His Flock” in the subject line. Please include your name, city and state.

Retirement Reservations

Two recent surveys and an opinion piece in the New York Times might have you wondering if individual investors truly have a fair chance of saving enough for their retirement.

Rich Smith of The Motley Fool wrote about a recent survey of financial services professionals that found that 39 percent of financial industry insiders “reported that their competitors are likely to have engaged in illegal or unethical activity in order to be successful.”

Smith said the survey also found that nearly one in four “believed that financial services professionals may need to engage in unethical or illegal conduct in order to be successful.” Nearly one in three said they felt “pressured by bonus or compensation plans to violate the law or engage in unethical conduct.”

“Needless to say, these numbers are a bit discouraging,” Smith wrote. “After all, these are the people to whom we entrust our money, our nest eggs, our life savings.”

In another study, also reported by Motley Fool, researchers at the business schools for Emory and Duke Universities found that “in any given period, about 20 percent of firms manage earnings to misrepresent their economic performance.”

The research team surveyed 169 chief financial officers and a great majority of them said that the reason to manage earnings was to “influence stock price.”

“So the disappointing bottom line is, in any given quarter, one-fifth of those earnings reports that investors and analysts doing their due diligence are poring over might just as well be copies of Great Expectations for all the useful financial information they will provide,” wrote Dan Radovsky. “Then again, for the optimists out there, that leaves 80 percent or earnings reports that could be helpful.”

If those reports don’t give you reason to be concerned about whether we regular investors are being played, then read a recent New York Times opinion column by Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor at The New School of Social Research.

The professor argues that the do-it-yourself pension system is flawed.

“Basing a system on people’s voluntarily saving for 40 years and evaluating the relevant information for sound investment choices is like asking the family pet to dance on two legs,” she writes.

Ghilarducci point out that in 2010 75 percent of Americans nearing retirement age had saved less than $30,000. She also reports that almost half of middle-class workers will be poor or near poverty in retirement subsisting on a food budget of about $5 a day.

“I hope that fear can make us all get real,” she writes. “The coming retirement income security crisis is a shared problem; it is not caused by a set of isolated individual behaviors.”

Ghilarducci has a plan. Read it and then tell me what you think?

Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Put “Retirement Reservations” in the subject line. Please include your name, city and state.

Saving on School Supplies

GreatSchools.org offer some good tips on how to save on school supplies.

Here are a few.

Take inventory and make a list. Before you begin shopping, make sure you go through what’s left from the last school year.

Buy in bulk. For some items it makes sense to buy large quantities at a discount such as pencils, pens and paper.

Recycle last year’s supplies. Instead of purchasing new things, spruce up the old ones. Add some pizzazz to last year’s plain notebook with stickers or photos. Or set up a scrap paper bin so that paper with writing on just one side can be reused.

Responses to “Back-to-School Spending”

For last week’s Color of Money question, I asked: “What’s your best way of saving for back-to-school shopping?”

Readers had some good tips.

“I buy my kids clothes when they need them, not when stores say I need to buy them, although I do tend to get them a new outfit for the first day of school,” wrote Eileen Adams of Fairport, N.Y. “Second, I use a rewards credit card and turn my rewards into gift cards to office supply stores and clothing stores. Of course, I pay off my credit card every month and never pay finance charges.”

“Garage sales are full of children’s clothing and backpacks, and they are sometimes new,” said Brad of Lakeville, Minn.

Katrina Morris of Fairfax, Va. said that saving on supplies takes some planning. She wrote: “I get my school supply list at the end of the previous school year, then subscribed to the local supply stores’ weekly ads. I purchased school supplies weekly according to what’s on sale each week.

By the end of the summer your shopping is done. I’ve made this part of my routine in the summer and I’ve been able to save tremendously on supplies for my kids each year.”

Tia Lewis contributed to this report.

You are welcome to e-mail comments and questions to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name and hometown; your comments may be used in a future column or newsletter unless otherwise requested.