WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT YOUR MONEY (...AND YOUR PARTNER'S TOO) WHEN IT COMES TO MONEY, IGNORANCE IS COSTLY. HERE'S HOW TO DISCOVER WHAT YOU'VE GOT, SO YOU CAN GET THE SECURITY YOU DESERVE.
(MONEY Magazine) – Abigail Huffman, 39, holds degrees from Yale and the University of Pennsylvania. She pulls in $45,000 a year as a beginning stock trader at a Wall Street brokerage. Smart and sophisticated, she's the very image of today's successful woman of independent means. Yet until five years ago, Huffman (left) had no plan for building her own financial life. "My idea of a smart economic move was to marry a successful man," she admits. Which she did. But when her marriage to an investment banker crumpled after only 33 months in 1989, so did her security.
The aftermath was sobering, yet inspiring. Partly because she had paid so little attention to the size of her husband's assets or whose name they were in, she exited the marriage with only a $50,000 settlement and a $32,000-a-year job as a fledgling architect. Worse, she had little idea how to dig herself out of her financial ditch. That's where the inspiration came in. She used the 50 grand to get an M.B.A. from Indiana University, setting herself up for the higher income stream she enjoys today, and she used the bitter lesson of her naivete as the spur to get going financially. "I was a sitting duck," she says, "but I'll never be one again."
Financial shortsightedness like Huffman's isn't unique to women, of course. But unlike men, who often view their net worth as a scorecard, many women still have failed to tune into the financial game at all. Yes, more and more of them are investing wisely. But financial planners with large numbers of female clients still see blind spots aplenty. Says Karen Kabarec, a planner who advises most of the women in the Chicago practice she runs with her partner and husband Mike: "It's rare for a woman to know what she's worth." Despite the progress described in the preceding article, says Kabarec, many women, especially in married households, still "don't think it's their job to manage money, or they lack confidence. Either way, they just don't want to do it."
But whether you're married or single, remaining clueless about your assets and liabilities is not just dumb; it's dangerous. You may well meet and marry your soul mate if you're single, and if you're married you might just make it to your 50th wedding anniversary together in a state of joyous financial bliss. Then again, you might not. So the only way you can know for sure that you'll always be taken care of is to know that you--and you alone--have the financial resources to fend for yourself, no matter what happens.
Right about now you may be thinking, "This story isn't for me. I know how I'm doing financially." But a full reckoning is almost always an eye-opener. You may discover items you've overlooked or simply don't recognize as assets, such as pensions or antiques. If you're married, you may turn up assets your husband has neglected to mention, such as property held in his name alone. "There's a big difference between holding assets separately and holding them secretly," says Esther Berger, a Paine Webber financial planner in Beverly Hills. "The first can be a sound strategy, but the second is just an insult."
Since single women control their own assets, they may have an easier time than married women in coming up with the information they need to figure out where they stand. Wives may have to whine, wheedle, cajole or demand information, or--in rare cases--hire an accountant to trace hidden assets. How should you deal with a spouse who doesn't want to talk money? "Gently but persistently," advises Berger. "Don't let him make trust the issue, because then he can win on emotion. The issue is equality." No matter what, stay calm, says Berger, and be nonthreatening. If that approach doesn't work, she adds, "then there really is something wrong and you'd better find out what."
For most women, though, figuring out what you're worth is a straightforward math exercise. To begin, you'll need to take inventory of everything you (and your spouse, if you're married) own that has financial value. (Use the worksheet below as your guide.) Start with tangible assets such as your home, land or vacation property, and investment-quality jewelry, artwork, collectibles and antiques. Mark down an approximate value for these items. A rough estimate based on library research or your memory is fine, though you may want to employ an appraiser if you own particularly valuable items.
Next, tally up the value of your intangible investments such as life insurance, checking and savings accounts, certificates of deposit, Individual Retirement Accounts, stocks, bonds, government securities and mutual funds. If you have a safe or a safe-deposit box, look through it for valuables, deeds, securities or other property documentation. Check last year's tax return to see whether you've forgotten anything; a thorough review of your 1040 will sometimes turn up investments you've overlooked. Call your accountant, insurance agent, lawyer or anyone else familiar with your holdings and ask them to search their files for records of purchases, loans you've made or other financial transactions. Once you've assembled a complete list, compute the current value.
Now, listen up for a moment. If you're married, you must give some thought to what portion of your assets you'd be entitled to keep in a breakup. Sadly, four out of 10 marriages fail, so to ignore this unhappy possibility is folly. Also consider: What if your husband were to die? At such a sad occasion, the last thing you need is to learn you've been left with nothing. Make sure you understand what your family lawyer says about how your state laws treat the assets of married couples in death and divorce, and be clear on how you and your spouse have divided your holdings. Do you and your husband each have a will? If not, go to an attorney and get one drawn up now. That can cost anywhere from $250 on up.
Now, back to happier thoughts. It's time to think about employee benefits. One asset men and women frequently overlook in totting up their net worth is a defined-benefit pension--a guaranteed monthly retirement stipend built up during an employee's working years. If you're covered by such a pension at work, or if your husband is, find out how much it's worth. If the pension is yours, it's a simple matter to ask your benefits department to calculate its current value.
Don't forget to collect data on pension funds you may be entitled to from previous jobs. Then add in the value of any other work-related savings accounts you have, such as a 401(k), stock-purchase or profit-sharing plan. You should have received regular statements from your employer updating you on these investments, but if you're like most of us, you've been shoving them in a drawer. If you're not sure what you've got, check with your benefits department or the company, like Fidelity or Putnam, that manages your plan's funds.
It is imperative, if you have a spouse, to familiarize yourself with the details of his retirement benefits, including the size of his defined-benefit pension--both its present value and the amount he expects at retirement. Federal law protects your right to be covered by your spouse's pension, but when you divorce or when he retires, you can sign away that right if you choose. One reason might be to increase your partner's pension at retirement, since a pension that terminates at his death will be larger while he's living than one that continues to cover you after he dies. Or you might give up your pension rights in a divorce in return for an asset you covet more, such as your home. But think very carefully before giving away your rights to your husband's pension. "Odds are, his eventual pension is a lot bigger than you imagine," notes Mary Merrill, a Madison, Wis. planner. "Before giving up your share, you need to know exactly what's at stake." Your husband can get this information from his company benefits department.
Check too the totals in your spouse's 401(k) plans, profit sharing, stock options or other deferred savings plans, including simplified employee pensions (SEPs) and Keoghs. Sara Fera, 54, a real estate sales rep in Marietta, Ga., now regrets that she traded away 25% of her ex-husband's profit-sharing plan in return for his share of their house when they divorced 11 years ago. She estimates that a booming stock market has ratcheted his plan balance to nearly $1 million. Meanwhile, the house, which Fera sold in 1987, netted her only $25,000 after the real estate commission and taxes. "It seemed fair to me at the time," laments Fera. "Now it just looks dumb."
Naturally, if you own a business, you need to calculate its worth as well. If you have an accountant, ask him or her to estimate the sale value of your enterprise, or do it yourself using a conservative multiplier, such as two times yearly profits. Don't forget to add the value of retirement plans you've set up for yourself, such as Individual Retirement Accounts, simplified employee pensions or Keogh plans.
Once you've calculated your assets, you're ready to move to the liabilities column. Here's where you list all your debts, such as mortgages, loans, outstanding bills and credit-card balances. Each obligation probably produces a monthly statement that you can check for the total balance remaining. If not, the bank, mortgage company or credit-card issuer will be only too happy to tell you. For a list of your creditors, call one of the three credit rating agencies--TRW (800-682-7654), Trans Union (800-916-8800) or Equifax (800-685-1111)--and ask for a copy of your credit report. (See In Your Interest on page 84.)
You'll need to check with your spouse too, assuming you have one. The reason: Some financial obligations he acquired in his name alone, such as credit-card debt and income taxes, may count against the value of jointly held assets. Here too, secrecy is a red flag. A disconcerting number of men take loans against their pension plans or life insurance without mentioning it to their wives. The trigger may be a temporary emergency, says Esther Berger, but some men also do it when they're scheming to dump their spouse.
Once you've tallied up your liabilities, subtract them from your assets to come up with your overall net worth. You may be happily surprised. If you're worth less than you thought, on the other hand, don't freak. Instead, use the information to figure out how much you need to start setting aside each month or year to ensure your financial security forever.
For inspiration, you might want to look to our cover subject, Jacqueline Ricks, a 32-year-old Chicago homemaker who manages her family's six-figure portfolio. Ricks (pictured on page 161) was already reading the Wall Street Journal, scoping out companies and investing by age 15; her father lent her some start-up capital and signed for her trades, but the research was all hers. By age 17, her stock picks were successful enough to put her through college and help put a younger sister through school. Today, Jacqueline is the financial brains for her brood, which includes her husband Michael, a commodity trader, and sons Johnathan, 3, and Sam, 1. Since she took over the family finances 2 1/2 years ago, their portfolio has grown 450% to $80,000. "I read financial journals, watch trends, make trades. To me it's as natural as brushing my teeth," says Jacqueline. "I think that the only time women are truly in control of their lives is when they finally develop the financial side of their brains."