Monday, March 13, 2017

Fiduciary Advice From Auntie Inga

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published March 15, 2017] ©2017
 
As you’ve probably been reading, the fiduciary rule – the one that says that financial advisors have to put the client’s interests first – may not go into effect in April after all. A recent article in US News reported that non-fiduciary advice costs Americans $17 billion a year.  And my response is: only $17 billion?
 
Welcome to Inga’s School of Fiduciary Failures. I’ve never had a single piece of good financial advice from a broker or a bank. You’d think that just once somebody would have sold me a product that inadvertently made money not just for them, but for me too.  But nope! Even in up years when people were routinely making 10-15%, I had investments that were losing that much.
 
In 1984, a year after becoming single, I invested a $6,000 inheritance with a broker at a downtown La Jolla brokerage with the hope of buying a new (used) car in two years. He invested it all into international currency bond funds. I was lucky to get $3,000 back. Important lessons: (1) Never ever invest in vehicles you don’t understand (2) do not buy investments from someone you’re dating.  (2) may in fact be even more important than (1).
 
My father always had a stock broker. People in my generation still think of it as a respectable profession. But we would be wrong. Now that there are virtually no more company pensions, we’ve all had to become investors, making our own retirement fund decisions.  We’re basically roadkill for the vultures who populate this industry.
 
After the brokerage fiasco, I tried to get my investment advice from “financial counselors” at my bank. But the turnover of those folks was higher than the swing shift at Jack in the Box. It didn’t help that my banks kept folding (the one on Pearl where the mattress store is now went down for fraud) or being swallowed up by bigger banks (all the rest of them).
 
At one of my myriad ex-banks (where US Bank is now) I took their free Finance for Women course which came with a complimentary financial consultation afterwards. I showed up with my check for $1,000 and said that after taking the course, I had targeted a particular fund that I thought suited my financial goals. Oh, no, says the investment counselor, she’d like to suggest a much better fund for me from the Pacific group of funds. Turns out that the ONLY funds they sold were Pacific Funds which obviously were hugely commission-driven for them. I’m embarrassed to report (I am such a slow learner) that I allowed myself to be convinced that the Pacific fund was the better investment, a sentiment I did not share a year later when it was worth $800 (in an up market!) and the investment lady was long gone.  (Soon after, so was the bank.) 
 
When we got a home equity loan to remodel our kitchen at the big red brick bank on Girard, their investment advisor attempted to get us to put our investments “under the umbrella” of their bank so they could “manage” them for us.  “Bwaaahahaha,” I said.  
 
I should note that along the way, I have had two excellent sources of financial advice. I had three dates with a really seedy boiler room guy.  (Those are the guys still swimming around the dating pool when you suddenly find yourself divorced at 35.)  No background in finance required in his biz. Arrest record OK. His company targeted mid-westerners who would send back a card from some publication where this company heavily advertised. The investments were total crap; the boiler room guy said they made 40% on every deal.  Why doesn’t word get around? I asked.  Because people only brag about making money, not losing it, he said.  Thank you, seedy boiler room guy.   
 
My second and definitely best source of financial advice was, of course, my second husband Olof.  Olof, who has always done his own investing, was horrified at the “investment” advice I had received. He convinced me that I could read a prospectus as well as anyone (a subject strangely absent in the Finance for Women course).  More to the point, the advantage I had over an “investment advisor” was that I was putting myself first in the profit equation. At my worst, I did better than I had done with “professional” advice.
 
I don’t want to suggest that all financial advisors should be painted with the same brush. In the absence of Olof, I would totally trust my financial advisor neighbor Bob but only because Bob knows me really really well. He is not confused that if he churned my account, his cruelly dismembered remains would be found in the ashes of his house. And that’s really the most important lesson I’ve learned in all this: whoever manages your money should be clear on your definition of “fiduciary.”
 

 
 

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Happiest Years Of Your Life

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published March 8, 2017] ©2017
 
Some months ago, AARP Bulletin ran an article about happiness and cited a study that maintained people reached the peak of happiness in their lives between 65 and 70.
 
This, of course, immediately piqued my interest since Olof and I are both in that demographic.
 
Some of this happiness argument makes sense.  By 65 you’ve presumably turfed the kids, have maybe even paid off the mortgage, and may well have grandchildren.  In our case, I think it helps that both Olof and I have decided that we’re about as good as we’re ever going to be.
 
Since 60 has been deemed to be the new 40 (who comes up with this stuff?????), one is statistically likely to still have a modicum of health, which is defined as two working hip joints and at least one working knee. Personally, I have the body of a centenarian.  I used to say that between childhood polio, a horrific auto accident, and just plain age that I had the body of a 90 year old, but my 90-year-old friend Natasha, and my 95-year-old mother-in-law both have stronger backs and clearer minds than I do. 
 
But if 60 is the new 40, there’s pretty strong agreement that 70 is still the old seventy. It’s like your body knows it can’t keep up the pretense any more. I have to confess that when I see obituaries of people in their 70s, I’m inclined to think, “Well, they were OLD.” I’ve had to work overtime to keep up the disconnect now that I am edging up on that decade. It is a testament to the power of self-delusion that I’m still able to see people who pass away in their 60s as dying young.
 
The AARP-quoted study maintained that people tend to be least happy in their teen years and 20’s. Personally, I think eighth grade is a year that should be put out of its misery. I’ve never known anyone who was happy in eighth grade. 
 
All sorts of factors determine happiness. Most moms I know would say they are only as happy as their least happy child. And then there’s the common expression, “Happy wife, happy life.”  Or as we say in our house, “Healthy dog, happy life.” We spent a whole lot of our life and assets at the vet last year.
 
Of course, most decades are mixtures of good times and bad, but I had one decade that was pretty much a total loss. 
 
My thirties were the tough years. I got divorced. I had two tiny kids. I was poor. I had an entry level job that in its initial phase was so mind-numbingly boring that I used to have fantasies of drinking White-Out (the stuff you used to make corrections on typewriter-generated copy in the pre-computer Pleistocene era.)  Swimming laps in a very depressing dating pool, I watched my criteria for suitable guys shrink to “hasn’t been in prison.” I was really, really lonely.
 
I was 19 when I became engaged to my first husband while still in college. Let me just say that the rules of dating in high school and early college are a whole lot different than dating as a 30-something divorcee with little kids. I decided with true Pollyanna optimism that everyone has good qualities so if someone asked me out, I initially always said yes. Everyone deserves a chance.
 
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Who knew how many sociopathic commodities brokers were out there?   “Sociopathic commodities broker,” by the way, is all one term. I still can’t believe how polite I was to these guys. I even got a marriage proposal from one of them. Actually, I think my house got the marriage proposal. (It, unlike me, had commercial value.) I guess he went long on pork bellies when he should have gone short.
 
In my 39th year, my now-husband Olof came back into my life. We were high school exchange students together in Brazil our senior year of high school and knew we’d be lifelong friends. So my forties were exponentially happier. Who knew what a difference it made when you could actually believe a word the other person said? 
 
Other than health issues of the cancerous persuasion for both Olof and me and one horrific auto accident, the fifties and sixties have been pretty good too. I do wish spinal transplants were not in their infancy. Travel is no fun when the airplane seats are torture and the beds leave you crippled in the morning.
 
The AARP article said to not make your happiness dependent on other people.  I’d have to disagree. For the last 30 years, happiness has been where Olof is.
 
So we’ve still got a little time before we leave the AARP-designated happiest years of our lives and descend into the dark unknown of the 70’s.  There’s only one conclusion to make: Let’s just party on, Olof.
 

 
 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Dawn's Way Too Early Light

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published March 1, 2017] ©2017
 
Finally I’m living the life I was meant to live. I just had to wait 65 years for it.
 
My whole life I’ve been a night person, or more specifically, NOT a morning person. But until I retired a few years ago, circumstances maliciously forced me to live the life of people who were compelled to get up in darkness. The second that alarm went off, I’d lose my will to live. Sometimes for days at a time. I’ve always felt that alarms were cruel and unusual treatment. It didn’t even matter if it was soothing music from a clock radio or a jarring alarm. Unnatural awakening is unnatural awakening.
 
I actually know people who like to get up early. It’s obviously a birth defect.  It just goes against nature to wake up before it’s light. Cave people knew this instinctively.  Personally, I am of the belief that anything before 10 a.m. is still the night before.
 
In my first marriage, I was married to a morning person. This should be a screening question on a marriage license application. Morning people should be legally enjoined from marrying night people. One person I know who would absolutely agree with this is my former husband.
 
On vacation, for example, crazy psycho morning people want to get up two hours earlier than usual while nice normal night people want to sleep two hours later which is the whole purpose of a vacation.
 
Night people would never throw a plastic tarp over a sleeping spouse so they can get an early start painting the bedroom ceiling. (You know who you are.)
 
I concede that sunrises are beautiful. If only you didn’t have to get up so early to see one.
 
I mean, it’s not like I haven’t seen plenty of sunrises in my life, especially while feeding an infant. They have absolutely no respect for the rest requirements of their parents.
 
I’ve also experienced a fair number of sunrises en route to the airport for an o-dawn-thirty flight to the east coast. What with TSA lines now, you have to get up at 3 a.m. which even morning people would have to concede is in the middle of the night. I admit that the soft light looks really pretty on Mission Bay as those gluttons-for-punishment, the rowers, glide across the glassy water.
 
Which leads us to the third way I’ve seen a lot of sunrises: as the glutton-for-punishment parent of one of those rowers. OK, I get that you have to row when the water is quiet if you don’t want the boat to be swamped. But for all four years of high school, my younger son Henry was a rower which necessitated him being on site at the boat house as the first potential ray of light peeped over the horizon. One of the happiest days of my life was the day he got his driver’s license and I heard the car pulling out of the driveway to rowing practice without me in it.
 
But there were still frequent regattas in not-nearby places like Long Beach and Newport Beach for which the rowers had to be on site at precisely 6 a.m.   This meant that we had to be on the road at 4 a.m.  Henry would be snoozing in the back seat while I fed cups of industrial-strength coffee to the semi-conscious Olof who was driving. We’d turf Henry out at the dock then go have breakfast in the dark at the Denny’s in Long Beach, watching the sun come up over the bright yellow obnoxiously cheerful Denny’s sign, the sight of which I hate to this day. 
 
And then, of course, I frequently had to get up before dawn for work, depending on what season of year it was. And that’s my second favorite thing about retirement: waking up when I want to. If I’d known how good retirement was, I’d have spent my entire working career being despondently depressed.
 
The other side of not having to get up early is that you can read late into the night.  Some (my second husband would be one of them) would consider it the next morning. In my frantic single working mom years, I managed to read one book a year. Now I get to read three a week. 
 
The only way I’d willingly see sunrises again is in a recumbent position. This, I discovered, can be achieved if you live in an east-facing high rise where you can angle your bed toward the window. I have a friend who lives in one. You open your eyes as all that pretty pink light floods in and then as soon as it’s over, hit the automatic curtain closer button, flip over, and go back to sleep until a civilized hour.
 
If I can’t have that, I’ll just watch the video.
 

 
 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Getting An 'A' In Uber

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published February 15, 2017] ©2017
 
I recently saw an article on MSN about how you can find out what rating Uber drivers have given you. There wasn’t any doubt in my mind that it would be a perfect 5. I only get A’s. I do not do B+.  I am also an Uber driver’s dream: I’m standing out front when they arrive, regardless of the weather. I chat it up with them, am insanely cheerful, always give THEM a 5 and never fail to write a message of praise for their Ubering skills in the comments section. 
 
So I was stunned – and stunned is actually way too mild a word – to discover that my rating from drivers was 4.89.  WHAAAAAT?????  I’d love to get my hands on that driver (or drivers) who gave me less than a perfect score.  I even gave a 5 to the driver who blasted Christmas music in my ear at 120 decibels AND the one who took me ten miles out of my way. I demand an explanation!
 
But the app doesn’t provide explanations. Just an average score.
 
Seriously, this is haunting me. I take Uber a lot. My driving parameters definitely narrowed after a serious auto accident several years ago, and I also don’t like to drive at night.
 
Personally, I think Uber (and Lyft) are the best ideas of the new millennium. Unlike taxis who aren’t inclined to show up for short hauls, Uber is relentlessly reliable. Over the years I’ve given many elderly women rides home from the supermarket after the cab that the store manager has called for them failed to show up. Normally these women would never have gotten into a car with someone they didn’t know but by the time they’ve been sitting on a folding chair for two hours watching their groceries thaw, stranger murder doesn’t sound too bad. But now there’s Uber.  My whole outlook on aging has changed knowing I will not have to be a supermarket folding chair lady.
 
And Uber has so many applications! I love to tell the story of my son and daughter-in-law going to a dinner party in L.A. and forgetting the chocolate soufflé that my daughter-in-law, a fabulous cook, had promised to bring for dessert. My son thought he’d end up missing the whole party while he drove back home in L.A. Friday night traffic to retrieve it. But in an inspired moment, he sent an Uber car to his home where the babysitter handed off the soufflé to the driver who delivered it to the dinner party. (For the record, the soufflé gave the driver five stars.)
 
So now I’m second guessing myself.  Am I TOO chatty? Should I be sitting in the front seat?  Usually I automatically climb in the back except for one time this past December when my uber-friendly woman Uber driver with the heavy Southern accent patted the front seat as I got in and said, “Come sit up here with me, honey!”  Learning that I was headed to a medical center for a scary test, she suddenly raised her head skyward (I was kind of wishing she’d keep her eyes on the road), and began a prayer for me that lasted pretty much the whole trip.  “Lord Jesus, I am here with your servant Inga and I pray that in your infinite wisdom you will spare her!”  (I figured I could use all the help I could get.) But then the prayer took an ominous turn: “But it’s all up to you, Lord, so if you should decide it’s Inga’s time to join you in heaven then—“
 
WTF?  “Wait!” I said. “Stop talking!” As far as I was concerned, we were good with amen-ing after the sparing part. And fortunately, I was indeed spared. (That driver got the War & Peace of good comments from me.)
 
So why don’t I have a perfect 5?  Could it be about the tip? (Or lack thereof?)  I confess I do tip sometimes but not always. Uber makes such a big deal about not needing to tip. And it really IS nice not to have to be carrying bills in tip denominations. (Like most people, I live by my debit card.) But maybe this was at least one driver’s way of expressing his unhappiness that I live in La Jolla and couldn’t cough up a tip, my sparkling personality notwithstanding.
 
I’ve even tried to figure out the math of my 4.89. Was it just one driver who really just wished I’d shut up and gave me a 2? Or maybe a couple of mildly tip-disgruntled 4’s?  But now that I know my score I’ll be rigorously checking my rating after every ride. Goes down and that driver is toast. I have a reputation to maintain.
 

 
 

Monday, February 6, 2017

We Shouldn't Have Done It

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published February 8, 2017] ©2017
 
I just want to say, there were extenuating circumstances. And if you’re an art collector, please read no further.
 
When my first husband, a physician, finished his two year commitment to the Navy and opened his private practice, we were really short of money. We’d bought our home on a 100% VA loan, even borrowing the closing costs. My husband had paid his own way through college and medical school, and would pay off medical school loans until he was 48.
 
So there wasn’t a lot of money for art.  In fact, none at all. The few inexpensive prints we owned were now hanging in his new office leaving the walls of our house totally bare.
 
A favorite low-cost date for us in the mid-1970s was to go to an opening at one of the small galleries in La Jolla. It was fun to drink some wine and look at the art, chatting it up with some of the other cheapskates who were there for the same reasons that we were.
 
At one of these openings, my ex and I stood pondering a 3’ x 4’ oil depicting a daisy petal. It was basically an off-center yellow blob on a white background with assorted black and white petals disappearing into the frame. It cost $1,500, a chunk of money at the time.
 
Now, both of us, to our admitted detriment, had failed to ever take an art history class so we often struggled to understand why a particular work was considered “art” as opposed to a cruel psychology experiment to see who would be duped into thinking this utterly minimalist work (in our uneducated view) was worth that kind of money.
 
My husband suddenly had an idea. “I think I could duplicate this,” he whispered. Even we weren’t so gauche as to whip out a pencil and sketch it on the spot.  But we were not so gauche as to come creeping back a few nights later after dark when the gallery was closed, press our noses against the glass, and sketch away. 
 
The next day we stopped off at the art store on Cass St. and purchased a canvas, and some black and yellow oil paints.  As my husband painted, I concluded that the composition lacked a certain pre-Raphaelite je-ne-sais-quoi while he noted that the asymmetrical focal point emboldened the saturation of the petals creating a contemporary but evocative aesthetic with its own stylized drama.  We may not have taken any art history classes but we’d hung around at a fair number of art openings by that time.
 
Forty-five minutes later, “The Daisy” (as we unimaginatively entitled it) was hanging, still drying, in our guest room. It wasn’t as though we weren’t aware that this was technically art forgery, but we rationalized that we weren’t trying to sell it. We just wanted a little color.
 
About a year later, we had invited some new friends to dinner, another physician and his wife, also just starting in private practice. We were giving them a tour of our little house and when we collectively walked into the guest room, their eyes were suddenly riveted on the daisy painting. “Where did you get that?” they wanted to know.
 
And thus we regaled them with the story of seeing this painting at a gallery, deciding it was pathetically easy to copy, and wondering who in their right mind would pay $1,500 for the thing.
 
As it turned out, they would. And did.
 
I mean, seriously, what were the odds?  Actually, much higher than you might think, given that we subsequently recalled that we had first met them at an opening of another gallery. It goes without saying that dinner was acutely awkward, and we never saw them again.
 
While going through a photo album recently, I came across a picture of our guest room in 1977 with the daisy picture hanging over the bed. After the dinner guest fiasco, we knew we should take it down. But we hated to blow our $17 investment.
 
Ultimately, however, our consciences prevailed and it ended up in an alley dumpster in the dead of night.
 
Forty years later, I find myself wondering: Is the original of “The Daisy” now a classic studied by art students the world over? Is it revered for its uncompromising timeless boldly-organic vibrancy?  Or is it all about the light?  Are those folks who bought it now lending it out under armed guard to galleries the world over, basking in the prescience of purchasing a piece now worth $2,000,000? 
 
I’m hoping that the bona fide owners of the daisy painting have long since retired in Jackson Hole and will not see this column.  But if they do: we’re sorry.  We shouldn’t have done it. And I promise: we never did it again. 
 
The daisy picture hangs in our guest room, 1977