In the school of what not to do with your money, Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens is one of the great cautionary examples. A legendary bad investor, Twain dumped fortunes into ill-fated projects and jumped on opportunities better left ignored. Had he not been able to peddle his alter ego for speaking engagements and celebrity appearances, the wealthiest author of his day might just have died a penniless legend.
Knowing the depths of Clemens’ fiscal ineptitude, Alan Kitty, a Lawrenceville-based actor who makes his living as a Mark Twain impersonator, was taken aback by Mary Stober Murray’s invitation. Murray and Kitty are members of the Carnegie Lake Rowers Association, and it was on the lake — at 5:30 in the morning — that Murray, president of Lawrenceville-based project management firm Global Project Resources, mentioned that she wanted to do a program about financial survival in these tough times. And would Mark Twain like to be a part of it?
After thinking that there is little Mark Twain could offer to the wise investor, Kitty had a change of heart: “I thought, ‘This might work because he was so bad.’ Why not present him as the anti-investor?”
So Kitty-as-Twain will be one-half of “Buck Finn: Investment Advice for Turbulent Times,” a half humorous, half sober financial advice seminar that had been scheduled for Thursday, December 18, at 7 p.m. at Rider University’s Bart Luedeke Center. The seminar, however, was postponed, most likely until January. For more information visit www.marktwainslaststand.com, or call 609-895-1275.
The other half of the event will be presented by Ken Weingarten, a fee-only financial planner and owner, with his wife,Trina, of Weingarten Associates on Main Street in Lawrenceville. He will offer more traditional financial advice — the antidote to Mark Twain’s caveats.
Weingarten, who grew up in East Windsor, earned his bachelor’s in political science from Drew University in 1989 and his MBA from Rider in 1999. Originally in tech sales, Weingarten was turned onto financial planning by his wife, a CPA. He had actually suggested that she look into financial planning and found that he liked it himself. He became a certified financial planner and the couple opened Weingarten Associates in 2003. Together they offer a gamut of financial services, from planning to investment management and taxes. He knows Mary Murray from her E-mail newsletter and was invited to be the counterpart to Kitty’s Twain.
Kitty began acting at age 6 and first read Mark Twain around age 9. “Then I never put him down,” he says. By age 30, in 1979, Kitty had to face the fact that he was too old to be cast as a male ingenuous and not a good enough dancer to land a Broadway role. He could act, but he would have to do it largely on his own, so he turned to his adopted mentor and is today one of only a dozen actors making their living solely as Mark Twain.
What Twain can offer in the way of financial advice starts with technology. Twain was perpetually fascinated by gizmos and fancy machinery, and it was his love of the new-fangled that cost him dearly. For 15 years in the late 1800s Twain invested thousands of dollars a month in James Paige’s automatic typesetting machine. The problem, as Kitty says, is that the machine “had 18,000 moving parts and an inventor who was never satisfied.”
The investment nearly bankrupted the Clemens house and forced the family to Europe. Not long after they arrived there the Linotype machine was marketed to such success that it was the publishing industry’s standard until the 1970s.
Twain also dumped money into a 10-acre parcel in Tennessee that he expected would turn into a money-maker in his later years. “As far as I know, Mark Twain still owns those 10 acres, and they’re probably worth the same price,” Kitty says. He plans to share such anecdotes at “Buck Finn” and says that his material “wrote itself.”
As for his own financial acumen, Kitty admits he’s not versed enough with money to know what he’s doing — but his son-in-law is, and Kitty is smart enough to let him handle his investments.
Ken Weingarten, of course, is a pro with investments, and his advice on money is the polar opposite of cautionary tale. Especially now, amid “something so unprecedented” as our latest economic implosion, Weingarten says, it is important to follow time-tested, sound, rational principles when dealing with your money.
“There are certain things we can control and certain things we can’t,” he says. The stock market? Out of our hands. Cash flow, spending habits, and budgets? There you go.
Paper or plastic? Credit cards are marketed as a solution to low cash flow, and the buy-now-pay-later model has been used by everyone from the casual diner to the United States Congress.
And while credit is the main fuel of America’s economic engine, wise use of it is another story. “There are different ways to spend money,” Weingarten says. “We’ve gotten used to credit cards and how easy it is to spend on them.”
How easy? Numerous studies have shown that going out to dinner with a credit card can increase the bill by up to 20 percent. If you go out to eat and take only cash, Weingarten says, you will rethink the appetizers and the drinks. Having a budget, he says, begins with thinking in the finite. Paying in cash gives you no leeway — if you have $50 for groceries, you can’t just add a couple packs of gum at the counter. If you have cash, he says, “Boy oh boy, do you pay attention to those prices.”
You got a problem? OK, so you went to dinner and you charged it. And you charged some gas the other day. And there was that sweater you thought would look great with your little black pumps. So what? You make good money. You pay off your bills every month. You’re not drowning in debt like those chumps who overreach and spend recklessly.
Ah, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Am I getting a return on value?’” Weingarten says. Even if you’re paying off your bills every month, it is important to pay attention to what you’re actually paying for. Rather than putting money in your savings account, you are throwing hundreds a month at stuff that, even if it looks great, tastes great, or feels great, has no lasting value.
What about the portfolio? OK, so your parents taught you never to charge something without a really good reason. You don’t waste your money on baubles and trinkets, you only pull out the Master Card when you’re in a pinch and you just don’t have the cash in your pocket. Your bill isn’t hundreds a month, it’s barely hundreds a year. You were smart. You invested your money in the stock market.
Ah, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem. You never sought financial counsel and you drafted your stock portfolio alone. It was working fine while everything was up, but now . . . “For people doing it themselves, the biggest mistake is that they sell and lock in their losses,” Weingarten says. “Conventional wisdom says ‘buy low, sell high,’ but in reality, most people do the opposite.”
The reality of our current recession, which hit the stock market with a haymaker not seen in decades, has come down hard on hopeful investors who thought their problems were solved by investing wisely, Weingarten says. As things get worse, people panic and attempt to cut their losses. And certainly there have been some significant losses. Weingarten has seen portfolios nearly depleted and others badly beaten just since September. One of the major things to remember is not to panic, and to ride it out, he says. A wisely diversified portfolio eventually will bounce back. But then, the key word is “wise.”
And you thought Twain was bad. A hundred and twenty-five years later it’s easy to snicker at Mark Twain’s investment in what turned out to be the publishing industry’s greatest Rube Goldberg machine. We’re all a little wiser today, and we have the benefit of being able to choose, follow the advice of, or otherwise emulate any of a thousand financial advisors, investors, or money magazines.
After all, we have guys like Warren Buffet. Even people who can’t count their change know Buffet is the preeminent investor of the age. If anyone has a crystal ball, he does, right?
Well, Warren Buffet, back in August and September, famously announced that Goldman Sachs was the horse to bet on. And he put his money — a lot of it — where his mouth is. But right now Goldman Sachs stock is worth half what it was at the moment Buffet made his $5 billion investment, says Weingarten. Even to a guy like Buffet, $2.5 billion is a hell of a lot of money to lose.
The moral, says Weingarten, is that nobody, even Buffet, has a crystal ball, and that investing in single stocks is a stupid move. The key to a solid portfolio, one that can withstand even this heavy fire, is diversification, he says.
Another thing to keep in mind — stop listening to the talking-head financial gurus on CNBC or any other channel. They don’t know which stocks are hot, he says. They only know how to talk a good game.
Keeping sane. Morale in tough times is as tough to maintain as your budget. But there are strategies that can keep you from watching your entire world fritter away while the very industries that screwed us get buckets of bailout money.
Things start with where you put your money, Weingarten says. More than just avoiding the one-company investment or supporting the tireless inventor of a fantasmagorical printing machine, investors should know how much to invest in the first place. Weingarten likes to put his clients through what he calls his “stomach acid test.” He looks at a portfolio and asks, “What can you comfortably watch this go down to?”
If you have $1 million wrapped up in investments, can you stand to watch it go down to $700,000? $500,000? Lower?
When things start happening, steps can be taken to redraw your portfolio, but investors should know that while stock market investments carry major promise, they can also eat your money.
Sounds simple, but problems happen when people invest too much. Rather than putting some money in non-stock investments like CDs, bonds, even good old-fashioned savings accounts, they put up to 90 percent of their equity in market investments. Before you invest, understand how much you can really stand to lose.
The investment policy statement. Not a budget, an IPS is more like a business plan. Primary to a successful portfolio is this question: What is the purpose of the money I’m investing here?
“Most people who invest do it without identifying their goals,” Weingarten says. They assume that their goals are obvious — they want to retire comfortably.
But what does that mean? Put simply, it means that you have to know that bills don’t stop coming just because you’ve turned 65. What will be your monthly, weekly, and daily expenses? Where will you live? How about inflation? You have to be aware that retiring isn’t necessarily easy, he says. It’s something you might be dealing with for 30 or even 40 years.
“Ultimately,” says Weingarten, money management “is about loss minimization, not gain maximization. A sound investment plan has the right amount of risk.”