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December 31, 2009

Dow up almost 19 percent for 2009

While the economy is still staggering toward better days in 2010, the stock market started the party last year. k1517628.jpg

While the economy is still staggering toward better days in 2010, the stock market started the party last year.

Despite a down trading day Thursday and a very turbulent year, stocks closed strongly up for 2009.The Dow Jones Industrial Average finished at 10,428.05, after falling 120.46 for the day. The almost 19 percent annual gain was the best performance since 2003.

“It was one hell of a ride and I'm glad to say it's over,” said Rick Dupuis, president of Royal Capital Management in Boca Raton, which manages $80 million.

South Florida stocks moved up in pace with the market. A Bloomberg index of South Florida companies practically doubled from its low point in March. The leading South Florida stock was Q.E.P., a Boca Raton firm that manufactures tools and flooring products. Its shares soared 238 percent. At the bottom of the local list were BankAtlantic, down 50 percent, Singing Machine, off almost 61 percent and Catalina Lighting, down 87 percent.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index slipped 11.32 points Thursday to close at 1,115.10 and the Nasdaq composite index fell 22.13 to 2,269.15.

To many investors, who are trying to protect their portfolios from the roller coaster ride in stocks, even an up year won’t be cause for celebration, because their portfolios haven’t grown since 1999.

2009 will be remembered as the end of the Lost Decade, because major market indexes are virtually flat over the last ten years.

And that hides all the tumult that has happened to investors since 1999: The dot com stock boom and bust of 2000-2003, the housing boom and bust, 9/11, the bailout of Wall Street and the worst recession since the 1930s.

When stocks finally did start moving up in 2009, the surge was sudden in markets here and abroad. Some of the strongest gains, ironically, came in U.S. financial and banking stocks, even as the number of domestic bank failures rose during the year.

Early in the year, it didn’t look like any stocks would be winners. The Dow Jones Industrial Average declined 25 percent between the start of the year and March 8. In that carnage, investors worldwide lost $24 trillion, according to Colbert Investment Management of Miami.
Since then, the Dow has risen more than 61 percent.

That makes 2009 the first year of a new bull market – a period in which stocks are rising strongly. Standard & Poor’s says stocks have always continued to rise in the second year of a bull market, throughout history, although gains in the second year are weaker than in the first.

Eight out of ten professional money managers expect a rising market next year, said a survey by Russell Investments.

The pessimists look at the economy as still struggling and the prospects for business profits uncertain. Unemployment nationwide is expected to stay above 10 percent until the end of 2010. The pessimists point to other threats -- rising government spending and the threat that inflation will come back to life, perhaps after government support of financial institutions begins to ease off in a few months.

Individual investors seem to be on the pessimistic team. hey pulled billions out of U.S. stock mutual funds and put more than $348 billion into the relative safety of bond mutual funds.

But those bond funds would be hurt if interest rates rise from current levels, as expected.

Dupuis, the Boca money manager, says investors should keep an eye on rates, corporate profits and watch out for “wild cards” such as the price of oil as they try to discern the market’s direction in the new year. He’s optimistic that it’ll be up – at this time last year, he said there was a 50-50-chance of stocks rising in 2009 – but making market predictions, he said, are about as easy as “nailing Jello to a wall.”

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The Big Lie of personal finance

Now this is an interesting question: What's the Big Lie of personal finance?

I had that chat the other day with Brad Klontz, a clinical psychologist in Hawaii who has studied “financial disorders” and whose book (co-authored with his father Ted Klontz) Mind over Money was published last week.

He's part of Sunday's column.

We already know what the issues are, he says. “Our worst problems in behavioral finance are people who don’t save and people who spend more than they make,” he said. “I have yet to find somebody who can say they didn’t know [they shouldn’t do] that.”

So what's the Big Lie?

That your personal financial problems are your fault. Because you should have known better. Because you are "lazy, crazy, stupid or greedy." You should be ashamed.

He says people tell us the Big Lie and we repeat it and we begin to believe it.

Really a bad cycle.

He treats it, in the same manner as any mental disorder, by trying to find out where it began and to rewrite the script.

What's the biggest obstacle to people who want to break out of bad money habits?

Being ashamed, he says.

More on Sunday.

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December 30, 2009

What your home is really worth now

Tracked your net worth lately?
For most people, the biggest asset they have is their home.

But it's not nearly as big as it was.

The Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller home price index, released Tuesday, shows that home prices in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami Dade counties in October were 47 percent below their peak in December 2006.

That’s a much larger fall than the national average.

The S&P/Case-Shiller index registered a 29 percent decline in home values in 20 large cities nationwide.

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December 29, 2009

Consumer confidence in Florida lags

While consumers nationwide said their outlook on the economy brightened in December, Florida's mood hasn't turned the corner.

Florida’s consumer confidence level didn’t budge between November and December, remaining level at a reading of 69, the University of Florida said Tuesday.

“Recently, Florida has had a little more bad news than good news,” Chris McCarty survey director of UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research, said in a statement. “There are some indications that other parts of the country, particularly those areas surrounding Washington, D.C., are improving while Florida appears to be lagging the economic recovery.”

The Florida index in 2009 moved from a low of 62 in February to a high of 72 in both September and October.

Nationwide, the New York-based Conference Board's consumer confidence index in December rose to 52.9, up from 50.6 in November.

Consumer sentiment is considered an important economic indicator, because consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of the U.S. economy.

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December 23, 2009

Yacktman, personally

Don Yacktman, the mutual fund manager that I wrote about on Sunday, just called. It was in his fund that I lost money. I told you all about it as a way to show how not to pick a mutual fund.

"Patience is a real problem in this business," he said in his phone message.

When we chatted, he said his two funds now have more than $2 billion in assets and the recognition, including his nomination as a candidate for mutual fund manager of the decade, is growing.

"The accolades and stuff are fine, but this business is about helping people and people getting hurt hurts me, particularly people we're trying to help. I don't take that lightly. This business has a fiduciary responsibiliyy that I take seriously. I try very hard to be objective and to think long term," he said.

And so should we all.

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Start the decade with -- a raise !

I made the spokeswoman repeat it three times before I really heard it: The HR consulting firm Mercer says 86 percent of employers plan to give pay raises next year.rtr0015.jpg

In the face of higher-than-10 percent unemployment and continuing job losses, really, employers want to do what? I asked again and again.

A raise? I’d be happy to report about people just getting a job. Although the economists I’ve spoken to don’t expect payrolls to grow for at least the first six months and perhaps longer n Florida. Even last week, Gallup said its surveys show one out of four employers nationwide is letting people go.

Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm, says we’re going to see in the new year that things are getting better, because right now companies are actually trimming fewer jobs. The number of planned layoffs has declined all year.

So things might get better sooner than economists expect.

But back to that raise.

Wages, nationwide, have fallen sharply in this recession, largely because so many people have lost jobs. Overall, the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that wages in the third quarter were 3.6 percent lower than in the same period of 2009.

But for those who held on to their jobs, some did get an increase in pay.

Mercer says last year, 70 percent of employers gave out pay raises, while 30 percent froze pay.

This coming year, 4 percent plan to freeze pay across the board.

For the rest, the average expected pay increase is 2.7 percent. That's less than what Mercer says were raises of 3.9 percent in 2009.

Mercer's survey was based on a poll of more than 350 employers in November.

If the average pay raise does happen, it would be a small but real help to wage earners.

The raise would be slightly more than inflation, which is expected to rumble along at 2.1 percent next year, according to the consensus forecast of top economists polled by Blue Chip Economic Indicators.

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December 22, 2009

Hold on to your wallet, taxes will change

So, 2010 is going to be tax year, I’m thinking.

Like any year is not one for big tax changes.

CCH, a unit of Wolters Kluwer that provides tax, accounting and audit information, says not to expect one of those last-minute, post Holiday tax bills that extends this and that and messes up everything for the early tax filers next year. The Senate won’t get to it.

But, it won’t mean quiet on the tax front. The Senate will likely take up a whole host of extensions for those provisions, already approved by the House, in the new year. Not to mention the possibility of a healthcare surtax.

And the toughest of them all, the estate tax, has to be settled. Under current law, it expires next year, then comes roaring back to life in 2011. Don’t count on that staying the same.

It’s taxes. It never stops changing.


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December 21, 2009

In case you mssed it....

Here's a llink to my column from Sunday....Embarassing as it is....

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December 16, 2009

Update: Marketplace Money

Sorry, but my commentary did not air on Saturday. It was held, the editors said, because they simply had too much material. They expect it to run either Jan. 1 or Jan. 8, 2010.

Listen up!

I’m going to be on public radio Saturday, doing a commentary on Marketplace Money.

I’ll be talking about mortgage loan modifications, the whole mess that has thousands and thousands of Floridians spinning their wheels trying to get new terms on their loans and the biggest banks in the land frustrated too.

The show from American Public Media airs on these stations
WLRN, Miami-Fort Lauderale, FM 91.3, 2 p.m.
WQCS, Stuart- Fort Pierce, 11 a.m.

Elsewhere, if you want to find out when the program airs and on what station, click here.


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Loan modifications: Fewer than estimated will qualify

Bank of America contends that the government’s estimate of the number of homeowners who will be able to modify their mortgages is far too large.

While the Treasury Department has been reporting that Bank of America has more than 1 million borrowers who are behind on their home loans and eligible for the Obama Administration’s Making Home Affordable loan modifications, the number of “truly eligible” borrowers is just 340,000.

Jack Schakett, a Bank of America executive who spoke to reporters on Wednesday, said the lower figure excludes borrowers who don’t meet the eligibility requirement for the Obama administration Making Home Affordable program, which the White House says is designed to help 3 to 4 million homeowners avoid foreclosure.

Unable to qualify would be borrowers who have moved out of their homes or who have become unemployed and cannot meet the program’s income requirements, he said.

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Looking ahead

What's your financial new year's resolution?

I'm looking for people who would be part of a story for the start of the year.

Who wants to tell me theirs?

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December 15, 2009

Ho, ho, hold down those credit card rates

This would be surprisingly good news. Maybe the time has finally come to rein in credit card interest rates..

This came in Monday:

Cong. Louise M. Slaughter, D-New York, chair
of the House Committee on Rules, today announced that she and Rep. John
Tierney, D-Mass., have introduced legislation to cap credit card interest
rates at 16 percent. The legislation would limit unreasonable fees on
credit card accounts and provide much needed relief to consumers who in
some cases are facing 30 percent interest rates.

What do you think? Will Congress be able to do this?

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December 14, 2009

Loan Modifications: A testy meeting at the White House

There will be some lecturing today when President Barack Obama meets with the big banks.
I hope he doesn't waste his time talking about Wall Street executive pay levels.
That's just a distraction. Wall Street isn't giving up on those big pay packages.
So let's move on. And focus not on the banks. But on their customers.
The real issue: When will they start lending money again?
Why won't they talk to their mortgage customers?

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December 11, 2009

Your stories of loan modifications that don't happen

Your anger and your confusion come through clearly.

I don't get really any good calls or emails about loan modifications. It intensifies every time I write a story about the issue. Such as, today.

Let me share a few of your stories:

This morning, I heard from a man in foreclosure in Broward who was hauled out of the shower by a call from his lender, but after an hour on the phone, he could not reach a human being to figure out what he needed to do. His loan servicer is HomeEq.

A caller in Boynton Beach says after 14 months of trying, he has been denied a modification. He says his wife at first was said to make too much money then too little. He's received nothing in the mail responding to his application. If he didn't keep calling the bank, he'd have no information. "We don't want to join the ranks of the foreclosed," he said.His loan was from Washington Mutual and now is being handled by JP Morgan Chase.

A lady in Palm Beach county says her daughter was told to stop paying her mortgage in order to qualify for a modification. Then she was denied the modification. So she tried a short sale. Bank lost the papers. "They won't give my daughter a loan modification and they won't do a short sale. What is going on with the banks?? I don't believe for one second that people are not sending in what they need. I have had case loads of 500-600 people and never lost anything," she wrote. Her lender is Wachovia.

A borrower in Plantation who says his bank told him he won't qualify unless he falls behind on his payments. That's not true, according to the Making Home Affordable Program's rules published on its web site. "But have you heard of anyone who has gotten a modification who was still making payments?" he asked. His lender is Wells Fargo.

A mortgage broker says it took ten months for his lender, Citi, to respond to his inquiry on his own home loan. In addition, he says, "We cannot find a single person who was with WAMU that is getting modified. I know an elderly disabled woman in Pompano who is going to have to file for bankruptcy because they will not work with her. She is the epitome of what the program should target."

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The housing crisis: Homeownership is falling, but...

At the risk of getting beaten up by public opinion -- like that's something new -- let me suggest something about the housing market. It's not for everyone.3661839.thl.jpg

We used to worry that large groups of people could never qualify to own a home. Then, the lenders made it easy. The largest group of people ever jumped in a bought a house. Now they're leaving. Homeownership rates seem to be dwindling.

The proportion of people in Florida who own homes is falling. Just click on that link and have a look at the chart.

But while it's trending down, the home ownership rate has not fallen into the ditch. Anything in the 67-69 percent range looks like what was normal for Florida for about three decades. And it remains near or above the highest rate in history for the nation, which was 69 percent, reached in 2004.

While I remain seriously concerned about the mortgage and foreclosure crisis, the numbers here suggest that we went way way up and we're starting to settle down now.

Maybe that peak we reached back in 2004 will be just that, a peak. And we'll coast along now at what remains, historically, a very good rate of home ownership.

Here are some interesting numbers for you:

Home Ownership Rates         
State/ 20092000199019801970196019501900
Country 3rd quart.       
United States 67.60%66.20%64.20%64.40%62.90%61.90%55.00%46.50%
Florida  70.10%67.20%68.30%68.60%67.50%57.60%46.80%
California  56.90%55.60%55.90%54.90%58.40%54.30%46.30%
Texas  63.80%60.90%64.30%64.70%64.80%56.70%46.50%
New York  53.00%52.20%48.60%47.30%44.80%37.90%33.20%
 State data not reported by quarters.        
 Source: Census Bureau.        

Here's the full Census Bureau chart

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December 10, 2009

Is it right to walk away from a mortgage you can't afford?

I had a conversation the other day with Shari B. Olefson, a real estate attorney at Fowler White Boggs in Fort Lauderdale. She's the author of Foreclosure Nation: Mortgaging the American Dream.Shari.jpg

Her concern is that we're seeing a whole group of people who are starting to walk away from their home loans. This is spreading from troubled borrowers to the not-so-troubled. They can pay, but they don't want to pay on a loan for more than the house is worth.

Walking away is damaging to the neighborhood, to property values and Olefson thinks to long-term housing trends.

Not to mention, it's breaking the biggest financial deal most people will ever make. I'd like to hear some of you talk about this decision. And how to make it.

(I've talked with many people who owe more on their homes than they are worth and most want the bank to take the loss. But few have said they'd just walk away.)

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Loan modifications: Few become permanent

Almost 35,000 troubled South Florida homeowners have gotten a mortgage loan modification under an Obama administration program designed to reduce foreclosures. But that is less than 5 percent of the borrowers who qualify for them.

The figures from a Treasury Department report Thursday offer little good news for the hundreds of thousands of Florida homeowners who are behind on their mortgage loan payments and seeking help from their lenders.

Banks and companies that service home loans are moving more slowly to renegotiate loans in Florida through the Making Home Affordable program than in the rest of the nation

And most of the borrowers who get new loan terms are only receiving a temporary break.

Nationwide, 24 percent of nation’s 3.3 million troubled home loans have been modified, the Treasury Department said. In Florida, the rate is 13.5 percent through November.

In a loan modification, the lender typically agrees to cut the interest rate to make the loan more affordable for a limited time period for borrowers who have lost jobs or suffered from the economy’s downturn.

Under the Making Home Affordable Program, the Treasury said modifications are reducing monthly payments by an average of $550 a month.

But few people hang on to their new deals. The Treasury said that of the 728,408 modified loans nationwide so far, only 31,382 became permanent modifications.

The problem: Homeowners have to make timely payments and show that they still qualify for the loan after a three-month trial period ends. Banks say few homeowners make it through both hurdles.

Even if they are making the payments on time, about half do not provide the necessary paperwork to make the loan permanent, according to a statement from JP Morgan Chase. “It has been a struggle,” according to Charlie Scharf, head of Retail Financial Services at Chase.

Homeowners say the real reason is lenders are disorganized and difficult to work with.

“I have submitted all the papers three times. I’ve been going through hell, with a promised modification and then the bank said no, really I don’t qualify,” said Claudia LeCompte of Boynton Beach. She said she has been seeking a loan modification since January. Earlier this week, after an inquiry from the Sun Sentinel, her loan servicer HomEq told LeCompte that she will get a modification.

“There is such a grand lack of communication between servicers and their clients and their legal departments and even within their own branches,” said Alexander Fernandez, director of homeownership preservation at Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida, which does counseling for troubled borrowers. “Also, a lot of servicers don’t have structures” to handle the crush of borrowers.

Major lenders Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, say they are restructuring loans at a fast clip through the Making Home Affordable program and other programs. The three major banks issued press releases this week saying they have collectively modified more than 1.3 million home loans total nationwide.
But Treasury is pressuring lenders to do more. It cannot force banks or servicers to restructure loans, because modifications are voluntary.

The Making Home Affordable program, launched in February, has a goal of helping 3 to 4 million homeowners to get lower mortgage payments.

One out of five of troubled loans eligible for the program is in Florida. The state is the nation’s second busiest market for loan modifications under the Obama program.

Florida also had the nation’s second highest foreclosure rate in November.

The Treasury report offered the first look into modifications at the local level. It noted that the Miami metro area is number four among large cities for loan modifications. In metro Miami-Fort Lauderdale, the Treasury said 34,668 loans have been modified. That represents 4.8 percent of eligible loans. The metropolitan area does not include Palm Beach county.

In Florida, there were 667,754 home loans eligible for restructuring under the Making Home Affordable program in October. Statewide, 90,575 have been modified , the Treasury said.

Almost 35,000 troubled South Florida homeowners have gotten a mortgage loan modification under an Obama administration program designed to reduce foreclosures, but that’s less than 5 percent of the borrowers who need them.

The figures, from a Treasury Department monthly report on the Making Home Affordable program, offers little good news for Florida’s troubled home borrowers. Lenders and companies that service home loans are moving more slowly to renegotiate loans in Florida than in the rest of the nation.

Nationwide, 24 percent of nation’s 3.3 million troubled home loans have been modified, the Treasury Department said Thursday. In Florida, the rate is 13.5 percent through November.

The Making Home Affordable program, launched in February, has a goal of helping 3 to 4 million homeowners get lower mortgage payments through loan modifications.

But few borrowers are getting more than a temporary break.

While the loan modifications are reducing monthly payments by an average of $550 a month, the Treasury said Thursday that of the 728,408 modified loans nationwide, only 31,382 became permanent after the three-month trial period ends.

The problem: Homeowners have to make timely payments and then show that they still qualify for the loan. Banks say few homeowners submit all the needed documents.

About half of those who make the payments don’t provide the necessary paperwork to make the loan permanent, according to a statement from JP Morgan Chase. “It has been a struggle,” according to Charlie Scharf, head of Retail Financial Servcices at Chase.

Homeowners say it’s a different story, however, with lenders not really willing to help them. “I have submitted all the papers three times. I’ve been going through hell, with a promised modification and then the bank said no, really I don’t qualify,” said Claudia LeCompte of Boynton Beach. She said she has been seeking a loan modification since January. Earlier this week, after an inquiry from the Sun Sentinel, her loan servicer HomEq told LeCompte that she will get a modification.

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December 9, 2009

Two-way taxes

While the House debates taxes, this is interesting, from the Tax Foundation:

Nearly one-third of the 143 million federal income tax returns filed in 2007 resulted in no tax payment, according to a Tax Foundation analysis of IRS data. That means the tax filers got back every dollar that had been withheld from their paychecks, and often more. Roughly 46.6 million tax returns, or 32.6 percent, are filed by such “nonpayers,” people whose exemptions, deductions and credits wiped out any federal income tax due.

This is the second highest figure ever, the news release said.

About half of those who paid no taxes got a refund.

I find it surprisng, each spring, when it's time to discuss taxes, how little knowledge there is of this. Much of the tax-paying public does not seem to be aware of the huge river of money that flows back to people who don't pay taxes.

For more, go here

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December 8, 2009

Banks offer more rewards

Mintel Compreremedia, which tracks what’s going out in direct mail marketing, says that banks are increasingly offering you rewards for doing such mundane things as using their checking accounts or swiping that debit card.

Let's all think about that.

Banks have cut back on lending. They -- or their loan servicing units -- have made fixing your mortgage a nightmare. They’ve reduced credit lines and home equity lending. They're still charging hefty overdraft fees. And it's taken the force of federal law to get them to begin to reform their credit card practices.

But they want to give you bonus points for being a customer? They want you to be loyal?

Okay, in the extremely uneasy relationship consumers have with banks right now, here's my question:

Who out there thinks a few rewards points will make it better?


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December 7, 2009

Ask yourself

I thought this was a good question that Certified Financial Planner Barry Rabinowitz of BER Financial Group in Plantation was suggesting for the end of the year:

What's happened to your net worth?

Assets minus liabilities.

Did yours go up? Stay the same? Recover from last year? Continue in that recession downfall?

It's a good question because it helps you to get yourself organized and pointed toward the goal, which, of course, is for that figure to grow over the years.

I think it's good to compare it now to last year but also to five years ago. And to do a little dreaming about what it will be five years from now.

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Digging out from under a mountain of debt

In case you missed it, here's a link to Sunday's column.

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December 3, 2009

We want your stories! Get a free Money Makeover, share your investments and tell us about converting your IRA

I'm looking for....folks who want to be in the news...I would like to hear from
...Anyone who needs a Money Makeover. You get a free financial plan and expert advice.
...Someone who is considering converting from a regular IRA to a Roth IRA.
...Someone who wants to discuss how their investments fared in 2009 and their investing plan for 2010.

Drop me a line at

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December 2, 2009

Timing and debt

There are worse things than just being in debt.

Such as, being in debt when you're old.

When you want to retire. And you have no flexibility. So your debt dictates what you can do.

From the Employee Benefit Research Institute we have some numbers that show us debt among people who are older is growing.

Median Credit Card Debt for Families With a Family Head Age 55 or Older
With Credit Card Debt, by Age of Family Head, 1992–2007

Family Head Age199219951998200120042007
All over 55$1,260$1,352$1,783$1,486$2,197$3,000
75 or older$724$473$892$936$1,098$800

Source: Employee Benefit Research Institute estimates from the 1992, 1998, 2001, 2004, and 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances;

My Sunday column is about debt and my suggestions for working your way out of it.

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December 1, 2009

Loan modifications: Treasury says it put heat on lenders

Just for the record, my latest loan modification story.

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About the author
You've got the job of managing your money. No one in school taught you how. But you and I, we can teach each other, how to handle it, how to save for retirement, how to make money last, how to educate the kids, how to make a budget work. The conversations I have with my readers are fun. Money's important, but discussing it does not have to be boring.

Harriet Johnson Brackey Harriet Johnson Brackey, the personal finance columnist for the Sun Sentinel, is an award-winning business reporter. Her columns for 2008 were named "The Best in the Business," a national award chosen by her colleagues at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

Brackey has worked at Business Week magazine and at USA TODAY, where she was a founder and part of the original staff of the Money section at the country's first national newspaper. After nearly 11 years there - spent covering the 1980s bull market, the insider trading scandals, the 1987 crash - Brackey left Washington, D.C., and came to The Miami Herald. She spent the next decade writing a column about personal finance that chronicled the stock market's Internet boom and bust, as well as the popular Money Makeover features.

Brackey also has done commentaries for Marketplace Money, which airs on National Public Radio and The Nightly Business Report which is broadcast on more than 250 PBS television stations nationwide. She also has been a radio guest on WLRN’s Miami Herald News.
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