One of our core messages here at Money Morning – and one that we tend to repeat over and over – is that it is crucial for you to take control of your own financial destiny.
To underscore just how important this is, allow me to share a personal story I guarantee will drive this point home.
I've massaged the biographical details on this one a bit to protect the folks who are involved. But the rest of the facts are true.
This is the story of Alvin "Big Al" Clifton, the much-loved stepfather of a boyhood friend of mine. Big Al (who I always addressed as "sir") was the longtime manager of a highly successful paint-and-body shop in my hometown.
He knew everybody, and everybody knew "Big Al."
He was boisterous and colorful – an acquired taste for some, I guess. But he also had a heart of gold – as I well knew.
In the mid-1980s, just after I started my newspaper career at a small weekly (and was very poor), I stopped in to see Mr. Clifton after I'd banged up my Chevette – my daily transportation, and the only vehicle I had.
Although Mr. Clifton was in business to make money from precisely this kind of situation, I watched as he picked up his phone, dialed a buddy and within five minutes had arranged for me to get the hood, radiator-core support, grill and bumper that I needed – all for free.
Some years later, when the body shop was sold to a new owner from out of town, Mr. Clifton was unceremoniously dumped from the only place he'd ever worked.
They gave him a lump-sum distribution – a pension and severance – that amounted to about $140,000.
That wasn't even close to being enough for a guy who was only 59, and had enough health problems to keep him from starting a second "career."
And Mr. Clifton knew it.
"William," he said to me one evening when I was at his house for a visit, "you know a lot about investments, don't you? Well, here's my situation. I have 140 grand from my retirement and buyout. I need to double that in a year. And I can't afford to take any risk."
At first I thought Mr. Clifton was pulling my chain: After all, this was the colorful "Big Al"- a man who liked a good laugh.
But I immediately saw he was serious.
"That's not possible, sir," I told my buddy's stepdad. "To even try for a return like that, you're going to have to take on so much risk that you could actually end up with nothing. Please don't do it. I'll help you find someone good to work with, and we'll get a good plan worked out for you."
I argued pretty hard, as I recall, and even resorted to begging. I left that night believing I'd made my point.
Unfortunately for "Big Al," there are brokers out there who are only too happy to tell their "clients" what they want to hear. A young broker from one of the discount houses did just that.
"Sure, Mr. Clifton," the young broker assured him, "we can double your money."
Even more unfortunate: It was 2000, the height of the "dot-com" era – which made it seem possible to get the kind of returns Mr. Clifton was hoping for.
That young broker put Big Al in all sorts of dot-com stocks, "unit investment trusts" (UITs) that were focused on the Internet, and some other tech-focused investments that actually assessed penalties for early withdrawal.
The risk levels on each of the individual investments were huge. And they all faced the same risks, meaning that if one of the holdings got clobbered, chances were good that all the investments would get clobbered.
And that's exactly what happened…
Mr. Clifton was late to the Internet-bubble party. When it burst, his Internet-fueled portfolio blew up.
And the shellacking he took was magnified by the penalties he had to pay when he tried to extract some of his money from the high-commission investment products the broker had put him into.
By the time Big Al extricated himself from the smoking crater that used to be his retirement portfolio, he'd lost about half his money.
Sadly, he never recovered.
One day about four years later, the man they called Big Al told his wife that he felt lousy and was going to take an afternoon nap. Mr. Clifton never woke up.
Although he'd lived in Maryland, Mr. Clifton's funeral was held in the tiny Pennsylvania town where he grew up. The line at the viewing was so long that folks had to wait for two hours just to pay their respects.
I've thought about the sad case of Big Al often in the ensuing decade. And what I realized is that there are at least five lessons to learn from it all. They are:
- First and foremost, take charge of your own financial future. If you don't, no one else will.
- As part of Lesson No. 1, if you are going to invest, understand what it is that you're buying. Mr. Clifton didn't, and the hair-trigger booby trap that stood between him and his retirement savings proved to be disastrous.
- There are many good, professional people at work in the financial-services industry. But you have to watch out for the passel of jackals that are terrific at sensing weakness and vulnerability– the kind of vulnerability created by a lack of knowledge or understanding.
- Never try to "make" the money you need in the stock market. If you need $5,000 for a down payment on a car in six months, don't try to make it in the market. Mr. Clifton committed that sin, too, and it cost him.
- Be honest when you assess risk. Don't take on more than you're comfortable with, or that doesn't mesh with your financial goals.
Take these lessons to heart.
Embrace them as the "second chance" that "Big Al" Clifton never received.
With his 24/7 access to stock market gurus like Martin Hutchinson, Keith Fitz-Gerald, Shah Gilani and Dr. Kent Moors, Bill is able to provide Private Briefing subscribers with an inside look at some of their key recommendations.
To learn more about Private Briefing, click here.]
About the Author
Before he moved into the investment-research business in 2005, William (Bill) Patalon III spent 22 years as an award-winning financial reporter, columnist, and editor. Today he is the Executive Editor and Senior Research Analyst for Money Morning. With his latest project, Private Briefing, Bill takes you "behind the scenes" of his established investment news website for a closer look at the action. Members get all the expert analysis and exclusive scoops he can't publish... and some of the most valuable picks that turn up in Bill's closed-door sessions with editors and experts.