Wise Advice

When Jerome and Barbara Harris were newlyweds living in a rental in Mount Vernon, New York, back in 1992, their dream was to own their own home. But they were laden with about $35,000 in consumer debt and didn’t have the cash for a 10% down payment. “We believed that people who bought homes had no money problems,” says Jerome. The couple failed to seek out information on what alternatives were available to them.

Then a friend introduced the couple to Cyril Wise, a certified financial planner with Ameriprise Financial in Valhalla, New York. Wise set up a three-year plan for the couple to be out of debt and into a home. The first order of business was to toss their credit cards, pay for all purchases with cash, and to stick to a budget. Once their rental came up for sale, the couple had to decide whether to purchase it or move into another rental. Instead the Harrises opted to buy their first home.

Wise found the couple a real estate agent and a mortgage broker. The Yorktown Heights, New York, house sat on almost an acre of land and cost about $200,000. Wise advised them to put 5% down and sign up for an adjustable-rate mortgage. He was later able to help the Harrises refinance their mortgage at a lower 30-year fixed interest rate, around 7%.

That was 12 years ago. The house is now worth around $500,000. The Harrises’ consumer debts are paid off and they have managed to increase their retirement savings. Before enlisting Wise’s services, their combined investments in their employer-sponsored 401(k) plans did not add up to $50,000. Through careful planning, maximum contributions, and sound asset allocations, Barbara, 50, now has more than $400,000 in retirement funds. Jerome, 58, has about $150,000. The couple’s diversified portfolios include 15% in foreign equities, 20% in mid-cap stocks, 40% in large-cap stocks, 5% in small-cap stocks, and the remaining 20% in liquid assets.

A big adjustment and financial challenge for the duo came when Barbara was downsized in 2004 after Texaco acquired Chevron, where she had been earning $66,000 as a marketing manager. Wise suggested she have her severance package distributed over the course of a year instead of cashing in a lump sum. This way she wouldn’t spend all the money in one place. This tactic also kept up a steady stream of income and minimized the couple’s tax burden.

Shortly after Barbara’s layoff, the Harrises expanded their family by adopting a 5-week-old baby girl. They have started discussing how Eleasa, now 22-months-old, will affect their finances. They are making plans to set money aside for her education through a 529 college savings program.

“In our golden years, we won’t have to work,” says Jerome, who put in 20 years at the New York City Department of Sanitation before retiring from his job as route supervisor in June 2005. He now spends his days coaching teenagers at a basketball clinic he founded 11 years ago. Barbara has also chosen to nurture