In hard times, be prepared for the worst

January 19, 1992|By Gene Yasuda | Gene Yasuda,Orlando Sentinel

The average American spends 90,000 hours working to build a nest egg but no more than 10 hours thinking about how to protect it.

That lopsided ratio makes little sense, especially during a recession when pink slips abound.

During 1991, an average of 2,600 jobs were eliminated daily in the United States, according to Workplace Trends newsletter. With the economy showing little promise of immediate recovery, experts say, consumers should heed simple advice that can reduce the risk of financial disaster.

First, pay outstanding credit-card bills as soon as possible to avoid high finance charges and to maintain access to credit.

"If you lose your job and have little money in the bank, you're going to want to put that MasterCard to use,"

said Richard Patterson, a chartered financial consultant and president of Associated Planners Group Inc. in Altamonte Springs, Fla.

"If you've run up your MasterCard and Visa and then you get fired, you've got a problem," Mr. Patterson said. "Having access to that credit, whether it's $200 or $2,000, could be the difference between keeping your house or losing it."

Starting a list of competitors who may have open positions is another preventive measure Mr. Patterson recommends -- especially if the threat of a layoff seems imminent.

Workers who think there is even a remote possibility of a layoff, Mr. Patterson said, "should explore their industry market and know where their services might be wanted next."

They should also have an emergency reserve fund with three to six months' take-home pay.

"If they don't have it, they should start building it immediately," Mr. Patterson said. "It helps everybody sleep better at night."

If unemployment strikes before people can establish an emergency reserve account, financial planners urge them to contact their creditors and explain their misfortune.

"Of course, you should concentrate on what you need to survive -- you need a roof over your head, you need a car to go on job interviews," said Rosemarie Hayes, a certified credit counselor at the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Central Florida Inc.

"Once you take care of those payments and if there's any money left over, then send it to your creditors in a good-faith gesture," Ms. Hayes said. "And advise them of your situation. Creditors do understand the state of he economy. If you communicate honestly with them and let them know early, it's very likely they'll work with you."

Creditors often extend payment for one or two months.

"For example, if you've been current with your car payments and ask for an extension, they'll likely ask you just to pay the interest and will extend the rest of the payment.

"At the very least, it should relieve a little bit of the pressure," she said.

The counseling service, a non-profit agency that provides debt-management, mortgage and financial counseling, will "meet with anyone, as often as they need, for free," Ms. Hayes said. "You don't have to be behind on your bills. If you simply need some budget planning advice, we'll help. You can be a corporate executive -- there are no eligibility requirements."

In addition to job security, many people are worried about losing health insurance benefits that come with employment.

Those who are laid off are eligible for COBRA, an option created by federal law that entitles employees, when they leave work, to continue group health coverage for themselves and their families for as long as 18 months.

But Connie Nadrowski, a certified financial planner at Financial PTC Freedom in Longwood, Fla., advises the unemployed to shop around.

"Going on COBRA typically leads to higher premiums and less benefits," she said. "They may want to compare price and coverage with plans from another insurance company."

Adopting conservative investment strategies is also a prudent measure, she said.

"If a job loss seems imminent and your investments are in an aggressive, growth-type vehicle, you should consider taking your gains and minimizing your losses by moving into less volatile investments."

For example, Ms. Nadrowski suggested transferring money to a highly rated balanced mutual fund -- a combination of blue-chip stocks and top-rated bonds.

Most importantly, Ms. Nadrowski said, exhaust all other options before tapping a pension plan.

"I've seen so many people lose their jobs. They're short on cash, and they use their pension plan to cover expenses," she said.

"Then in April they get a letter from the IRS, and they're absolutely devastated," she added.

Once employment ends, a person must roll over all pension-plan money, such as lump-sum distributions and 401(k)s, into an individual retirement account within 60 days of receiving the funds or pay income tax plus penalties.

"If you don't roll it over," Ms. Nadrowski said, "at tax time you must pay whatever bracket you're in, 28 percent to 35 percent, and pay a 10 percent penalty if you're under 59 1/2 ."

If an individual receives a lump sum of $20,000 and fails to roll it over into an IRA, that person will owe $8,000, Ms. Nadrowski said, presuming that the person is in the 30 percent bracket and also must pay the 10 percent penalty.

"Consider other sources -- taking out a personal loan or liquidating other assets -- but really try to stay away from your pension," she advised.

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