When Jon Corzine recently told a U.S. Senate investigations committee that “I simply do not know…” how $1.2 billion of client funds disappeared from the embattled broker-dealer MF Global, some observers may have been tempted to shake their heads at the former CEO and New Jersey governor’s alleged lack of knowledge.
But in fact, a lot of people share a similar predicament, say some financial professionals: money comes into households, but people simply don’t know where it goes.
“Years ago, soon after I set up my business, I got a client whose W-2 (wage and tax statement) reflected a million-dollar salary,” said Michael Mazzucco, partner of the Chatham CPA firm Michael Mazzucco & Associates. “One of the first things he asked me was, ‘Where did it all go?”’
It sounds like a simple task to find out, but in fact it’s not so easy, said Mazzucco.
“People withdraw cash from an ATM machine and they lose track of how they spend it,” he cautioned. “Instead, they need to keep track of it, perhaps by sweeping a certain amount each month into a separate account for cash expenses and then identifying it in ‘buckets’ like gas or food purchases, or repeating bills like utilities; and by using personal financial software like Quicken to keep track of your expenditures.”
Many people get unpleasantly “surprised at the end of the month” when their credit card bills arrive, noted David J. Allegra, president of Allegra & Co., a full-service financial and wealth management firm based in New Providence.
“A large number of people neglect to budget for the future,” he said. “They spend all their money and then there’s nothing left over for savings.”
Allegra said certified financial planners and other professionals can help clients set up automatic checking withdrawals “to pay themselves first” by funneling money into college funds, individual retirement accounts and other savings and investment vehicles.
“Sometimes we also take on the role of a psychological counselor, getting couples to sit down together and examine their goals and spending habits,” he said. “People get used to doing things a certain way, but sometimes they have to cut up their credit cards or take other steps to change their habits.”
The slow economy has helped spur more people to take a closer look at their financial strategy, but some people still “expect a windfall” to come along to help them pay down big credit card balances, observed Walter Pardo, managing director of Wealth Financial Partners LLC in Basking Ridge.
For the most part, though, Pardo said his clients “are aware of how they’re spending their money. People are more conscious about budgeting than they were before, and they’re buckling down and spending less. For many years, the baby boomers drove the markets, but many of them are speeding towards 60 years old, so there’s some slowdown now.”
Good financial planning means “looking at everything, including income coming in and what’s going out,” according to Eve Kaplan, owner of Kaplan Financial Advisors LLC in Berkeley Heights.
“Knowledge is power,” she said. “We look at how clients’ investments are allocated, whether they’ve got the right insurance in place, and what their tax strategies and goals are. The process is like going to a department store, everyone has different needs.”
Sometimes she finds that a client’s retirement goals may not match up with their current savings strategy.
“It’s better to find that out now, instead of waiting until you retire to find that out,” she added. “Even after we’ve worked out a financial plan, I encourage clients to periodically monitor where they are to be sure they’re still on course.”
Some couples avoid that kind of self-scrutiny because they’re worried about stirring up strife, Kaplan said.
“But when you with a professional, we create a non-judgmental atmosphere. It’s not about what you should have done, but what you can do going forward.”