Advice for `sandwiched' boomers

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June 18, 2006|By JONATHAN PITTS | JONATHAN PITTS,SUN REPORTER

When Jonathan Murray visits schools to teach children about money, he poses a simple question: "What would you rather have: $1 million in your hand, or a single penny, to be doubled every day for a month?"

Murray, 43, familiar to local listeners as the kindly, dulcet-voiced, financial-advising alter ego to WBAL's crusty afternoon talk-show maven, Ron Smith, says the answer he usually gets is: the cool million, now.

"That's until I explain that a penny doubled every day for 30 days would add up to more than ten million dollars," says Murray, who along with his identical twin brother, David - a wealth-management specialist in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. - came out with his first book last month.

Jonathan Murray concedes that Two For the Money is far from the first self-help book for the baby boom generation, that glut of folks born in the two decades after World War II.

Most books of the genre show the group facing unprecedented dilemmas: parents living longer than ever (nursing homes cost $5,000-plus per month), education costs rising far faster than the inflation rate, a shaky Social Security system, and the prospect of underwriting a retirement that's likely to last nearly as long as the years spent on the job.

To describe this demographic - to which most of their clients belong - the Murrays borrow the term "Sandwich Generation": those folks "caught between our kids' wants and our parents' needs."

"Even in these expensive, fast-moving times," says Jonathan, a senior vice president for investments for Smith Barney in Baltimore, where he lives, "if you're smart and a little disciplined, the news is excellent."

The Murrays learned such positivity growing up near Pittsburgh, where their father, Boyd - a one-time steelworker who eventually managed the local branch of a stock brokerage firm - paid them (modestly) for household chores, sent them to public schools, and showed them that time spent with family and friends made a strong foundation for a rich life.

Two for the Money brims with practical advice, much of it linked to the little-by-little ethic. It lays out how to organize your desk ("the less ... you can see, the more money you'll have"), find "free money" (buy solid used cars; purchase clothes that don't go out of style), choose a savings account for the kids' college educations (UTMA custodial accounts vs. Coverdell Education Savings Accounts), and in many ways, to make use of what Jonathan calls "the miracle of compounding interest," whereby small investments (like that penny doubled each day) gain disproportionate value over time.

For example, the average rate of return on the stock market over the past eight decades - roughly 12 percent - doubles one's money every six years. And it's never too late to start investing. A 50-year-old with just $85,000 in his 401(k) will, by adding $250 per paycheck, harvest more than $1 million by age 70.

Now national-TV regulars, the Murrays - both married fathers - play up their differences in cheerful point-counterpoint on CNBC and NBC's Today show, gigs that led to the book. David, a private banker, deals mainly with preserving wealth; Jonathan aims to create it. As such, David (four minutes older and half an inch taller) trends conservative; Jonathan (more outgoing, less caustic) favors judicious risk.

Unlike most books of its kind, Two for the Money stays rooted in the personalities and life stories of its authors, tail-end baby boomers from an unpretentious American town. "In Pittsburgh," says Jonathan, "nobody cares what kind of car you drive, what you look like, what you wear." Adds David: "It's all about whether you're a good guy or not. I don't think we've forgotten that."

If they haven't rewritten the money racket, the Murrays have laid its modern fundamentals out for fellow boomers in a way that makes the sandwich generation's problems seem bite-sized. "In a financial adviser," says David, "you're looking for somebody who gets it, who has been there, and who's trustworthy. We see a connection between genuine interest in others and doing well in our field. Who says nice guys finish last?"

`If the lesson is self-deprecating and fun, it's easier to take'

Given the plethora of books on personal finance, why did you two write yours?

JM: In both our careers, three questions kept coming up repeatedly. First, "Am I going to be able to retire [and how much will I need]?" Second, "How am I going to pay for these crazy tuitions?" Third, "How will I provide for my aging parents?" We felt a broader need to address those points.

DM: I've got 11 or 12 [such books] on my shelf right now. They all start to sound alike: Get out of debt; get rich quick; consider rental properties for real estate. We wanted to incorporate our personalities as much as possible.

People don't want to be told to eat their vegetables ... If the lesson is self-deprecating and fun, it's easier to take. That's part of the equation.

Let's look at one of your three issues. Why is retirement such a major concern?

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