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Lessons learned in personal finance

Final thoughts — the same rules still apply

By Eileen Ambrose, The Baltimore Sun

September 9, 2012

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About a dozen years ago, the Internet bubble had burst and many workers were forced to postpone retirement because their 401(k)s were wiped out by the bear market. Today, we're living through the aftermath of another bubble collapse and workers again are wondering when, or even if, they'll be able to retire.

In the time between these two devastating events, I like to think that workers have become more informed and engaged in finances.

When this column launched 13 years ago, many people didn't know about credit scores and that a lender judged whether they could borrow money and at what interest rate based on that number. Now it's rare to find a consumer who doesn't know about the scores or what it takes to improve one.

Consumers are paying down their credit cards. Families are beginning to balk at steep college tuition and choosing less-expensive schools.

Workers are finally being told just how much they are paying for their 401(k)s, a new requirement that has already forced some financial companies to reduce fees before they had to disclose them. (Consumer advocates fought long and hard to get this information to workers, so when you start getting it this year, please look at it.)

Social media has handed consumers a megaphone that makes it difficult for corporations to ignore them. Does anyone think that Bank of America would have dropped its plan for a $5 monthly debit card fee if not for an online campaign against it?

The Baltimore Sun hired me in fall 1999 to cover personal finance, a beat created by the newspaper in recognition that workers were being forced to take more responsibility for their retirement while at the same time finances were becoming increasingly complex. That hasn't changed, although this will be my last column. I will continue to cover personal finance for The Sun, as well as banking and financial services, both in print and online.

My first Sun column talked about the most common money mistakes derailing people's financial futures. The advice then still holds true: Live within your means. Take full advantage of your 401(k). Maintain a diversified portfolio. Don't time the market. Develop a financial plan. Read the fine print.

Many of the columns tackled weighty issues such as taxes, estate planning, elder financial abuse, saving for retirement and getting out of debt. But when I look back on some of my favorite columns, they often were off the beaten path of the usual personal finance topics and made me laugh.

During a visit to the Ravens training camp to interview players who had undergone NFL-required personal finance classes, offensive lineman James Atkins told me he planned someday to open a women's shoe store with hard-to-find sizes because that's where the money is.

And like many, I was fascinated to get a peek in 2009 into the personal finances of the new Obama administration's key players, who turned out to be pretty conservative — as investors, at least.

John Bacci, who has to be the funniest financial adviser, had this to say about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's exceptionally dull portfolio: "Everything is as vanilla as it can possibly be. It's like the furniture at a beach house. It's nice, but it doesn't tell you anything about the person who owns the place."

It was an education to find out the best way to sell gold, and I've never looked at old jewelry the same way. And when reporting on how to find lost pensions, it was gratifying — with the help of a former Sun librarian — to help a Maryland retiree locate his missing benefits.

Many financial professionals lent their expertise to this column, patiently walking me through the complexities of taxes, insurance, estate law, stocks and bonds, retirement plans and, more recently, interest rate swaps. Without them, it would have been much harder to explain the more arcane corners of personal finance.

I also appreciate the many readers who have shared their financial stories with me over the years. It's not easy to talk about money matters, especially mistakes. But your experiences often became fodder for this column and helped others.

Thank you, readers, for your time and feedback. Continue to look for me in the business pages and online, and I look forward to talking to more of you in the future.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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