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Advice for 'sandwiched' boomers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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?

JM: There isn't going to be help for us the way there was for our parents and grandparents. Social Security isn't going to bail us out; company pensions won't be there for most of us ... People are going to be living longer, thanks to better health care, so they need far larger nest eggs. This is a looming crisis, and too few Americans have done the math and awakened to it.

DM: We've got to do a better job in this country of educating people of the need for saving for retirement.

Finance is barely touched on in American schools. Can parents be teaching it better?

DM: [With my three children], the lessons started early, at age 4, with a belief that kids help around the house. I don't want them watching video games while Mom and Dad are getting dinner ready or folding the laundry ... We've always tried to include our kids in helping out, whether it's setting the table or taking the trash out to the curb. At age 5 or 6, we'd pay them, modestly, each time they'd help, incorporating a little joy as they filled their piggy banks ... By 7, they make a connection that there's joy in saving, and in spending on what you want - as long as it's legal!

JM: I hate to sound like a grumpy old man, saying, "Kids don't work today," but a lot of kids - it's not really their fault - are programmed to be hyper-busy. They're on travel teams, in extracurricular activities. Yet, if you talk to most boomers, they have really fond memories of their earliest work experiences: cutting the grass, baby-sitting, doing a paper route.

During high school, we had our own landscaping business. That's good outdoor work. [It's also] a good way to learn the valuable lesson of dealing with all different kinds of people.

Today, many kids graduate college with credit card debt of $12,000 or $15,000. Good grounding in finance [ahead of time] can head off those kinds of problems.

You're both executives at your respective firms. When you were on your way up, what expenses tempted you?

DM: I'm very Scottish; I'm a frugal dude. I'm the good twin. Jonathan would have the long list.

JM: After college, I worked as a buyer for Gimbel's department store in New York, and the fashion brainwashing kind of rubbed off. After a while, I learned that the "employee discount" could be pretty expensive.

DM: I have one. Right after I met [my wife] Janet, I was transferred to San Francisco. We had a phone conversation every night for the next three months, each one lasting at least 45 minutes. Our phone bills were over $400 a month. In the end, she fell for it, so - good investment.

On the other hand, unlike Jonathan, I don't spend much on clothes. I literally have flannel shirts I've worn for 15 years.

JM: He does have a horrible wardrobe.

Do the Murrays have that twins' kismet?

JM: Before we could even speak, our parents say we had a special language of grunts and noises. Once, one of us - they can't recall who - got out of the crib and told the other how to escape.

DM: I'd like to believe I was the provocateur.

JM: I think it was me.

DM: We weigh the same, to the pound. At least once a month, we call each other at the exact same moment. Even now, when we arm-wrestle, we put in 110 percent, but neither of us wins.

Will the Murrays go Hollywood?

JM: Oh my, no. Our agent flew us out to L.A., to interview with Fremantle [Media], the American Idol folks, for a show they were planning. They wanted us to berate the guests - "How can you spend money on that kind of thing?"

DM: Showbiz! They had the wrong guys. We just shook our heads and came home.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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