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Finding stability in topsy-turvy economy

March 18, 2009
Times Leader
For?The Times?Leader

The current economic crisis is affecting all Americans in one way or another, with those at either end of the working spectrum - young families starting out and older folks nearing or entering retirement - feeling particularly vulnerable to financial uncertainties.
For baby boomers who are part of the "sandwich" generation - rearing children or helping adult children become established, as well as caring for elderly parents, while maintaining their own households - the financial crunch can seem like an ever-tightening vise, as prices increase and income dwindles.
To the boomer whose stomach churns with every plunge of the stock market, Wheeling stockbroker Kevin Stryker has succinct advice: "Don't jump."
Stryker, vice president at the Hazlett, Burt and Watson brokerage firm in Wheeling, said, "The vast majority of clients, as long as they have quality investments, should stay the course. For those who, on the other hand, are looking to their savings for current income, that's a different scenario."
Seniors' financial decisions may depend upon what kind of income stream they possess, such as income from pensions or Social Security.
"The overwhelming media message in the last six months has been to tighten up your discretionary expenditures. That's a well-placed message," Stryker commented.
When Boomers lose their jobs because of corporate downsizing, they are faced with many dilemmas, chiefly: if unable to secure new, full-time employment, should they take a part-time job, or should they just begin "retirement" earlier than they expected?
If part-time work is the person's only current prospect, Stryker said, "It's important to go ahead and take the employment opportunity that's there." He explained that such a choice is important for several reasons: "first, for current cash flow; secondly, to maintain a person's feeling of self worth and, thirdly, to at least be in a position for additional opportunities as they arrive." He observed that "the networking opportunities are greater" for someone who is in the work force, and that "networking is typically a better resource" for finding a job than some other options.
Retirees who invested in Individual Retirement Accounts and 401K plans during their working years may be seeing a drop in their monthly checks because of downturns in the market. "Dividends have been decreasing somewhat," Stryker said. "For people who are relying on dividend income or interest income, in many cases, they have experienced a decrease in cash flow."
Stryker advises clients who are experiencing a drop in cash flow to "cut expenses and "not feel compelled to give monetary gifts of the size they've been used to."
For people who are still working and are investing now to ensure their financial security in later years, Stryker recommends that their portfolios "remain diversified with a balance of fixed income and equity for the long term."
Thinking positive thoughts and being thankful for what one has, even in times of financial uncertainty, also play a role in living a fulfilling life.
"Lastly, concentrate on the blessings and benefits of living in this country at this time," Stryker said. "Turn off the television. We are so lucky to be living here at this time, compared to the rest of the world."
Joy Reese, director of Family Service Credit Counseling in Wheeling, offers several suggestions for anyone - including Baby Boomers, seniors and young adults - facing financial difficulties in tough economic times:
Eliminate credit card debt. Pay down all credit card balances.
Pay more than the monthly minimum on your mortgage.
Don't make any large purchases just "to keep up with the Joneses." Use, and appreciate, the appliances, home furnishings and clothing that you already own.
Try to economize. Become more frugal.
Analyze where your money is being spent.
If you want to eat at a restaurant, go out to lunch, rather than dinner, because prices tend to be lower on luncheon menus.
Move your "coffee klatches" away from trendy coffee shops and into private homes. To enliven the experience, you and your friends can try different varieties of coffee at home.
Invest in secure savings plans with a stable rate of return. Don't do anything risky.
Go "green."
Find creative, but inexpensive, ways to socialize.
Eliminate extra options on telephone and cable services.
    Mary Harriman, a certified credit counselor at Family Service Credit Counseling, said the first step a family should take when facing financial difficulty is to have a family conference. At that time, she said, family members should be asked: "How can we reduce expenses and increase income?" She cautioned, "You have to have a consensus of the whole family to make it work."
Reese agreed, saying, "All decision-making should be a family matter." Harriman added, "One person can break the budget."
"Sandwich generation" parents may need to reconsider making car payments and paying auto insurance for their college-age children, and parents may need to stop supplementing their adult children's income, Harriman said.
Echoing Stryker's advice, Harriman suggested that people facing financial woes should also try "to really accentuate the positive things in your life. Revisit all the things in your life." She and Reese also suggested that people rearrange their furniture to make a room look "new" or take accessories out of storage to create a fresh decor. Shopping at thrift shops and yard sales is a good way to save money on purchases.
To save money on health care, Reese said patients can use generic medications if their doctor approves, and children and adults can receive low-cost dental care from dental hygiene students at college-operated clinics.
As companies reduce their work force and/or eliminate insurance coverage for remaining employees, the demand for medical services increases at free clinics such as Wheeling Health Right.
"We're seeing a lot of Baby Boomers and people under 65" seeking assistance at Wheeling Health Right as a result of the current economic crisis, Executive Director Kathie Brown said. "We're seeing a lot of those people who, for first time in their lives, either their employer is doing away with insurance or they are losing their job. They're really in a dilemma. They're really upset, concerned, in a panic."
The increase in Baby Boomers being admitted as patients places more demands on the agency. "When the economy goes bad, Health Right and free clinics across the state and the country see a huge influx. It (the caseload) increases dramatically because these people have no other options," Brown said. Ten free clinics operate in West Virginia, she noted.
When an employer eliminates insurance coverage, workers "find themselves in a very difficult situation because they don't qualify for a medical card, and they're not disabled for six months or more," she said.
People whose jobs have been eliminated are eligible for 18 months of COBRA coverage, if they can afford to pay the premiums. "It's very difficult to cover. That rate goes up quite a bit. Especially family coverage, it can be very very pricey," Brown said.
When unemployed people have to seek help at Health Right, "they're in this situation for the very first time," Brown said. "They just don't know what to do. That first step to come across the threshold to a free clinic is huge. To acknowledge, 'I can't take care of my family,' that is a very, very difficult thing to do."
Brown observed, "We're all a paycheck away, that's the scary thing. These economic times are proving that - jobs are being eliminated, people who thought they were secure ..." But, she added, "I've got hope. We've all got to hope."
Currently, Wheeling Health Right has 17,875 active patients in lower Brooke through Tyler counties and in Belmont County, Brown said. Last year, the community-supported clinic had 77,000 patient encounters and filled 135,000 prescriptions. The numbers have gone up this year as Health Right's three providers are seeing an average of five new patients a day, she said.

Article Photos

Photo by Linda Comins
Mary Harriman, left, a certified credit counselor at Family Service Credit Counseling in Wheeling, and Joy Reese, director of the agency, discuss ways that baby boomers and retirees can cut expenses during tough times.



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