Finances after 50: Have we learned anything from the Great Recession?

Too soon poor, too late smart? A story by WSJ staff reporter Glenn Ruffenach in the November 14/15 Wall Street Journal “Encore” section  asks if we’ve learned any lessons from the financial crisis. And just in case you’re feeling smug about having done so, a quiz inside may shine a sober light of reality. It also contains a lot of data you will find useful, interesting and possibly surprising.

Amid the tumult of the past year, financial advisers are telling us that the Great Recession has produced one invaluable benefit: an education.

We now know, for instance, that our nest eggs can lose almost half their value in a matter of months; that “diversifying” our holdings doesn’t necessarily safeguard those holdings; and that our homes—our one investment for later life that was supposed to be foolproof—can make us look like, well, fools.

How much have you taken away from the events of the past year? Try our quiz and find out.

OK, so it isn’t much of a silver lining. But even worse is that we’ve supposedly learned these lessons before—after each recession, sell-off and market bubble since the 1960s. And yet, we continue to make the same mistakes.

How much have you learned about retirement finances in the past year? And has it sunk in this time? Our quiz will offer you a chance to see if you know where you stand—and provide some guidance for the future.

You’ll have to pick up the Weekend Journal for the quiz, but here’s one freebie in advance:

Q – In retirement, Social Security will likely replace what percentage of your pre-retirement income: (a) 23%; (b) 33%; (c) 43%; (d) 53%.

A – Well, don’t guess high.

Or:

Q – The single best cure for a battered nest egg is: (a) invest more aggressively; (b) save more money; (c) Work longer; (d) Plan to withdraw less money from retirement savings

A – And just when that pile of books to read is so inviting… sorry. (c)

The quiz is full of useful data and interesting insight (fully 40% of men and 41% of women ages 40-50 are considered obese by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, for instance; you knew?) One overall message seems to be, in fact: If you have one, don’t quit your day job.

Your Money or Your Life

How old is too old to manage your money? Maybe Brooke Astor’s family could tackle that one.  Or a few of the folks who were living comfortably in posh retirement communities last year and now need charity thanks to investments — that seemed just fine at the time — with Bernie Madoff.

True/Slant contributor Ryan Sager has an interesting new post about “The Age of Financial Reason” that caught my eye thanks to its accompanying geezer-photo. (True disclosure: I am not Ryan’s grandmother — though I certainly could be.) He cites an abstract I find fascinating, although I tend to distrust any proclamation that plays fast and loose with phrases like “suboptimal use of credit card balance transfer offers” or misestimentation of ” home value.  Did these people ever take regular English? Nevertheless, they are seriously into their study, however convoluted their language.  They are concerned about us older adults and our potentially poor financial choices, since it seems “about half the population between ages 80 and 89 either has dementia or a medical diagnosis of ‘cognitive impairment without dementia'”. Good grief.

This is, truth be told, no laughing matter.

You would not want me making your financial choices. Numbers have never been my strong suit. This is despite the fact that I once wrote a pretty good little book titled “Money Management,” part of a 13-volume series designed to reach the functionally illiterate adult population (I was the creative part; co-author LuEllen Ransbottom was the brains.) What I did really smart was to marry Bud Johns; you should be so lucky as to have Bud make your financial choices.

But the point is, few of us can really predict when our sharp brains might slip right into that ‘cognitive impairment without dementia’ gray area. And the further point is, as noted in Ryan’s post, there is a limit to which government should not go in removing one’s control of one’s financial choices — at least, the financial choices we have left over after taxes.

Many of us geezers are less than pleased about the fact that careful choices past — such as optimization of credit cards, i.e. religiously paying balances on time; credit companies hate people like us — carrying only reasonable mortgages or other debt, investing in properly run, socially responsible companies — many who practiced fiscal responsibility (except Bud and I both, separately, did invest in Smith Corona just for old times sake) have found themselves penalized by measures taken to avert disasters brought on by the fiscally irresponsible.

What’s a body to do? I agree that families need to maintain awareness, at whatever age, of the financial choices being made by themselves and their loved ones. If they’ve had long-term investments with good investment companies or advisors, chances are those companies or advisors will not lead them astray. When checking out those links from Ryan’s blog, and a few dozen others on reputable senior and financial sites, I also found a zillion agencies out there eager to help. It is likely that the ones with .org after their names rather than .com might be preferable.

In a recent post I talked about the emergence of brain exercise, and its small promise for postponing ‘cognitive impairment without dementia’ (I’m beginning to detest that phrase.) For example: say six numbers out loud. Now say them backwards. You have exercised your brain. In an effort to forestall poor financial decision making, for the time being I plan to do my brain exercises. And leave the decisions to Bud.