December 17, 2017

Before You Pay for Financial Advice, Read This Guide

All of this means that the onus remains on savers to ensure the professional they choose is the right one.

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Here are several questions to ask yourself when considering paying for financial advice.

What kind of adviser should I work with?

If you’re thinking about hiring a financial planner, read this primer first.

You’ll want to hire the type of financial adviser who promises to act as a fiduciary all of the time, with all of your money, which is a fancy way of saying that person must be loyal to you first. In fact, you should ask your financial planner to sign a fiduciary pledge, a promise not to profit at your expense. We’ve written a version of the pledge that you can use the next time you’re shopping for an adviser. Find it here.

After your financial planner has signed the pledge, make sure to ask these 21 questions.

Investment advisers, who generally must register with the S.E.C. or a state securities regulator, must work in their clients’ best interest, regardless of what accounts they are working with.

But being a “registered investment adviser” alone doesn’t qualify a professional to answer your most challenging money questions. You also need to check that person’s educational background and training. Certified financial planners, for example, must satisfy some of the more rigorous curriculum and experience requirements. Chartered financial consultants undergo something similar.

Brokers, who may call themselves advisers, don’t necessarily carry any of these credentials. Instead, they may simply pass licensing exams that permit them to sell certain investments. Outside of your retirement money, they are required only to recommend products that are “suitable,” which isn’t necessarily the best or most cost-effective. And why should you settle for less?

How much advice do I need?

If you want to get started saving — or make sure you’re on track to meet certain goals — you may want to pay a financial adviser for a financial plan (which could cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,200 in New York). Otherwise, you may want to pay a planner by the hour — or some other flat fee arrangement — for time and advice.

People who want to hand over the reins of their portfolio to be managed by a professional may pay a percentage of their assets, typically around 1 percent. The key is to find an adviser who does not get compensated only if that person sells you something.

What if I don’t want a full-time human adviser?

Check out the robo-advisers or hybrid services that use human planners who rely heavily on technology. They typically charge just a fraction of what a full-time human money manager costs.

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What if I need advice about insurance or annuities?

This is a tricky area where a lot of people get talked into buying products they don’t really need. If you want to buy life insurance, you might pay a financial planner, for example, for a couple of hours to analyze what’s appropriate for your situation.

Then, you can seek out a sales agent with access to policies from several providers or buy a policy through online brokerages like PolicyGenius or AccuQuote. This is especially important as employers are increasingly pushing the onus of disability insurance onto their employees. Read our guide to purchasing disability insurance here.

Where can I start my search?

Peruse the Garrett Planning Network, the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors and XY Planning Network for someone with expertise working with people like you.

And be sure to check their history for any black marks. Try the Investment Adviser Public Disclosure website. It scans data from the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as BrokerCheck and state securities regulators’ sites.

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/18/your-money/financial-planners/financial-planner-advice.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Wealth Matters: Your Child’s Tuition Is Paid While You’re in Tahiti

When Mr. Ross and his wife sailed their yacht Restless on a six-month journey that took them from the Caribbean through the Panama Canal and on to the Galápagos, Tahiti and New Zealand (with several land stops along the way), “It was nice to know someone was looking after our stuff,” he said.

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He set up a bank account and gave Total Personal Services the power of attorney to distribute the funds to cover any bills or expenses that came up. Mr. Ross said he did not keep more than $50,000 in the account at a time, so “it’s not like they have access to my whole portfolio.”

Nancy Atkinson, the owner of Total Personal Services, said her father formed the company 24 years ago after he sold his stock proxy solicitation company and found there were not any companies that helped wealthy families keep track of mail and other ordinary life tasks.

Multiple homes, airplanes, yachts and other expenses like tuition for school and summer camp or fees for groundskeepers and other household staff members add complexity. Travelers often need someone at home to hunt down documents that help with tourist visas and other issues. Bills for vacation rentals or emergency expenses also need tending.

“We give them back their quality time by handling all the nitty-gritty so they can go off and enjoy life,” Ms. Atkinson said.

Of course, handing power of attorney over to an outside adviser isn’t always necessary. Bills can be set up to be paid automatically through any ordinary bank or brokerage account, or a family member or other person could be designated to handle those tasks.

But advisers say it can be worthwhile to have a formal arrangement. The annual cost of monitoring and handling an account for personal expenses — and perhaps a limited liability company as well — is about $20,000, Ms. Atkinson said.

Paul Pagnato, a Reston, Va.-based adviser who referred Mr. Ross to the service, counts it toward the concierge-style offerings he has for high net worth clients, including luxury travel booking and special event planning. In the past, such perks might have been available only to people at the highest end of the wealth spectrum, but lately more advisers are offering them to those with slightly less money.

Private wealth advisory firms pick up some of the slack in the normal course of business. If a client has already done some financial planning and has set up a revocable trust with the bank named as trustee, the client already has a convenient tool to direct the bank to pay bills in his or her absence through that account.

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“It’s the happy byproduct of estate planning,” said Linda Beerman, the head of the wealth strategies group at CIBC Atlantic Trust, which typically offers such bill-paying and administrative services to families with $25 million or more with the company.

These days, people aren’t completely out of communication even while they are traveling, said Jared Feldman, co-leader of the private client group at the New York City accounting firm Anchin Block Anchin. They will typically check in periodically, and in the meantime if a pressing issue or emergency comes up, the firm can begin looking into it until the client can be located and briefed on the matter.

“We can get on the phone and vet the situation,” Mr. Feldman said. “My business is having that Rolodex handy.”

Mr. Feldman suggests that wealthy people who travel for long stretches set up plans and procedures to anticipate the expected as well as the unexpected, making sure their advisers have one another’s contact information — and that they know where the important documents, online logins and passwords can be located.

Some of the work can be set up in advance, Mr. Pagnato said. Credit card companies have to be notified about likely charges from merchants overseas, so they will accept the charges rather than decline them. Quarterly tax payments and minimum charitable contributions need to be dispatched.

And then there are the nicer details. Ms. Atkinson, for example, said that she and her team even anticipated that a client would want the awnings up around the pool at their beach home in time for Memorial Day weekend, and will contact the service provider to arrange it.

Monitoring cash flow is also important, Mr. Pagnato said. “The reality is the client doesn’t stay on budget,” he said. “Things are usually 20 percent higher. We’re always adjusting accordingly.”

Just having a service to monitor and sort his mail has made life easier for Mr. Ross as he travels from homes as far from one another as South Carolina and Hawaii. All of his mail gets delivered to the service, which filters out the junk mail and sends him a list of what was received. Wedding invitations, greeting cards and other documents he would like to see are forwarded to him.

His advice for people who want to take the vacation of their dreams but are worried about the daily tasks they leave behind? “I would say there are really good options to deal with it and life is short — take the trip,” Mr. Ross said.

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/16/your-money/household-management-services-wealthy.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Your Money Adviser: Consumer Groups Take Aim at Navient for Phone Harassment

Navient is the nation’s largest servicer of student loans, managing accounts and processing payments for more than 12 million borrowers of federal and private student loans. But the company’s practices have come under fire: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and two state attorneys general sued the company earlier this year, claiming vast mismanagement of borrower accounts.

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Under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, automated calls or texts to a cellphone generally require a consumer’s consent, Ms. Saunders said. But in 2015, as part of federal budget legislation, Congress carved out an exception to the telephone act for collectors of federal debt, including student loans.

The exception, however, is subject to rules to be issued by the F.C.C. outlining protections for consumers. Last year, the F.C.C. proposed rules that included limiting automated calls and texts to student borrowers to three a month. But those rules have not been formally carried out, and the delay has muddied the waters and encouraged servicers to be more aggressive, Ms. Saunders said.

Separately, the new rules are being challenged by a group of loan servicers, including Navient, that said they would “hamstring” servicers in their attempts to collect from borrowers.

The consumer groups argued, however, that since the new rules have not been put in effect, the old rules still applied — and Navient was “flouting” them.

In responses to numerous court cases brought against Navient by student borrowers over repeated phone calls, Ms. Saunders said, Navient argued that its calls are permissible because of an exception created by the 2015 budget act.

“Navient has a well-established, positive track record of supporting student borrowers to succeed in repayment, and we respect our customers’ communications preferences,” Nikki Lavoie, a Navient spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement. Calls are an important way to help struggling borrowers enroll in federal repayment programs that lower payments based on income and help avoid defaults, she said, adding, “The only borrower we can’t help is the one we can’t reach.”

The consumer groups’ request to the F.C.C. includes samples of consumer complaints filed with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, detailing the calls. One consumer reported being called “in excess of 12 times per day.” Another complaint claimed the consumer was “called from the same number 14 times in a 30 minutes period.”

“The company has called past co-workers, childhood friends, and mother-in-law,” one complaint stated. “Some of these people I haven’t spoken to in years nor know their phone numbers myself.”

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One business complained that a Navient subsidiary has contacted the office “multiple times per day” in reference to a worker’s personal debt, despite being told repeatedly that workers were not allowed to take personal calls.

In a lawsuit filed in October, a woman said she was repeatedly called on her cellphone by a servicer looking for someone named “Mary,” even though that was not her name, she didn’t know the woman being sought and she told the servicer to stop calling.

The National Consumer Law Center filed the request along with Public Citizen, the Center for Responsible Lending, the Consumer Federation of America, Public Knowledge, and Higher Ed, Not Debt.

The F.C.C. declined to comment.

Here are some questions and answers about robocalls for student loans:

Where can I complain if I am receiving repeated calls from a student loan servicer?

Consumers can file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission, which also offers some consumer suggestions on its website.

What if a servicer ignores my requests to stop calling?

In some cases, calls may stop only after the issuance of a formal “cease and desist” order from a court, Ms. Saunders said. Lawyers who handle cases under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act can be found on the website of the National Association of Consumer Advocates.

Are there any efforts to reduce robocalls generally?

Consumers Union is sponsoring a petition demanding that cellphone companies provide call-blocking technology to customers. The group also suggests various smartphone apps that may help block calls, although it has not tested them.

yourmoneyadviser@nytimes.com

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/16/your-money/consumer-groups-accuse-navient-phone-harassment.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

U.S. Halts New Rules Aimed at Abuses by For-Profit Colleges

The agency also took aim at the Obama administration’s rules on gainful employment, criticizing them as “overly burdensome and confusing” for colleges.

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Consumer advocates and some state officials quickly lashed out against the delay, calling it damaging and potentially illegal.

Maura Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general, called the delay a violation of federal law and a “betrayal of students and families across the country who are drowning in unaffordable debt.” She said she would challenge it in court.

Critics including Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Patty Murray of Washington, both Democrats, argued that the department could not unilaterally suspend negotiated rules, which go through a process intended to ensure that the viewpoints of the public and those affected by the rules have been taken into account.

“I am extremely disappointed that Secretary DeVos has decided, once again, to side with special interests and predatory for-profit colleges instead of students and borrowers,” Ms. Murray said in a statement.

The Obama administration pushed through sweeping regulatory changes after hundreds of for-profit colleges were accused of widespread fraud and subsequently collapsed, leaving their enrolled students with huge debts and no degrees. The failure of two mammoth chains, Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institutes, capped years of complaints that some career-training colleges took advantage of veterans and other nontraditional students, using deceptive marketing and illegal recruitment practices.

Few higher-education institutions could survive without federal student aid, which includes billions of dollars in guaranteed loans, and the money kept streaming in despite warning signs at some colleges that included surging defaults, missed standards and numerous government investigations and lawsuits.

For-profit colleges have vehemently opposed the regulations, known as borrower defense, saying that the rules endanger their viability. They say the industry is being unfairly singled out.

Industry executives are particularly riled by automatic loan discharges for broad groups of defrauded students and by a new ban on forced-arbitration agreements, which prevent students from bringing lawsuits.

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Under the rules frozen on Wednesday, education officials could, for example, take into account lawsuits, accrediting agency reports and graduates’ job placement and wage records in deciding whether an institution remains eligible for federal student aid. The goal was to hold violators financially responsible for soured loans instead of dumping the burden on taxpayers.

In its announcement, the Education Department cited as reason for the delay a federal lawsuit filed on May 24 by an association of for-profit colleges in California that is seeking to block the rules.

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On Tuesday, eight state attorneys general, including Ms. Healey, filed a motion to intervene in the California association’s lawsuit in order to prevent the rules from being delayed.

Existing rules allow students to apply for a loan release if they attended a college that broke state laws. But that process, once used very rarely, has been overwhelmed with claims after a wave of failures by for-profit institutions. Some students have had applications pending for years.

Borrower advocates say the system came to a halt in the first few months of the Trump administration. The gears are turning again, according to the Education Department — but only for a fraction of those who are waiting.

In January, one week before President Trump took office, the Obama administration said 23,000 applicants had been notified that their claims had been approved. Nearly 7,000 of those claims have been discharged, and the rest will be soon, according to Elizabeth Hill, a department spokeswoman.

But the Obama administration also said in January that it had 68,000 applications awaiting further review, on which no decision had been made. Those cases “will still be reviewed under current statute,” Ms. Hill said.

Borrowers caught in the pipeline say that they have been given no information about why the decisions are taking so long. A coalition of 31 military and veterans groups sent a letter to Congress and Ms. DeVos this week stating that “veterans’ applications for relief remain stalled.”

Last week, a federal court judge in California ordered the Education Department to file a report within 90 days on one borrower’s application that has been under review for more than two years.

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Another borrower, Victoria Linssen, applied in October for forgiveness on the $50,000 in federal loans that she had taken out to study photography at the Brooks Institute in Ventura, Calif., a for-profit college that shut down last year after extensive regulatory criticism and penalties. The college lied about its accreditation, its job placement rate and the wages its graduates earned, Ms. Linssen said.

Ms. Linssen said she had made many calls to the Education Department about her claim. “All they tell me is that my application has been received, to sit tight, that there is nothing else I can do, and that it could be a year, potentially two years before I hear a decision,” she said.

A key figure in the Education Department’s regulatory rollback is Robert S. Eitel, previously a top lawyer at two companies that operate for-profit colleges, Career Education Corporation and Bridgepoint Education Inc. Mr. Eitel, who also worked at the department when George W. Bush was president, is the co-chairman of its regulatory review task force.

Like all vocational college operators, Bridgepoint would be directly affected by any change in both the borrower-defense and gainful-employment rules. The publicly traded company has previously been investigated by state prosecutors, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Pauline Abernathy, executive vice president of the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonpartisan research group, called it “outrageous” that Mr. Eitel was in a position to influence rules that could significantly affect a recent employer of his.

Mr. Eitel recused himself from the review of gainful employment regulations, according to Ms. Hill, the Education Department spokeswoman. That review was led by James Manning, the department’s acting under secretary, she said.

Ms. Hill said that the agency’s ethics officer had told Mr. Eitel that he was not disqualified from working on the borrower-defense regulations that were to take effect next month. But Mr. Eitel is not involved in evaluating existing borrower-defense claims, she said, because some of those claims come from students of his former employers’ colleges.

Correction: June 16, 2017

An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to part of an Education Department action involving for-profit schools. While the department indeed froze changes involving the foregiveness of student loan debt that were to take effect July 1, it only said it would reconsider — not halt — provisions involving the “gainful employment” rule, which cuts off loans to colleges if graduates’ earnings cannot meet their debt burden.

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/14/business/student-loans-for-profit-schools-colleges.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Your Money: He Thought He’d Be Your Rabbi. Now, He’ll Get You a Mortgage.

So he thought he might be a camp director or a rabbi at a Hillel, a Jewish organization on college campuses. But as much as he loved text study and translation, he eventually figured out that his outspoken nature and skills were not a perfect match for the rabbinate. Classmates found internships and jobs that suited them, and he wasn’t always getting the offers that he believed he was qualified for. “I didn’t understand that,” he said. “It didn’t feel right.”

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Over a lunch of falafel and shwarma-spiced fries, Mr. Frankel, 44, eventually allowed that he had a few rough edges back then that he had done his best to smooth out in the years since.

Still, he left rabbinical school with something greater than a career: a spouse. He followed his wife, Erin, a cantor, to Evanston, Ill., where they bought a townhouse (fully attached) and he began selling real estate.

Or trying to, at least. It’s not exactly easy to show up in a new place, where you know no one, and be a rookie in a business built on relationships.

“It’s one of the things you do when you’re naïve and oblivious,” he said. “The model was, make phone calls once a month, and ask everybody if they know somebody. It wasn’t a terribly popular thing, but I didn’t know anyone, so I didn’t have that many calls to make.”

He officiated at a few marriages on the side, and some of the betrothed bought homes through him. His first commission came nine months after he arrived in the Midwest, and it took him four years to match his wife’s earnings.

The couple had two daughters, now 9 and 10, and moved to Phoenix in 2009 (detached house, rental). Mr. Frankel had turned to commercial real estate, in search of a more family-friendly schedule. That turned out to be an ill-timed move, given the state of property markets at the time.

The family then moved to the Boston area (another rental), where Mr. Frankel ran a Jewish nonprofit but ultimately realized that his switch to real estate had been right all along. So when his wife landed a job at a synagogue in Philadelphia (they bought an attached rowhouse), he took all that he had learned and turned it to helping people get the money they needed to buy their homes.

Today, he works for a direct lender called Guaranteed Rate. Many of the real estate agents who refer clients to him like the fact that he walked in their shoes back when he was in Evanston. But plenty of them have no idea that he spent years training to be a different sort of counselor, as he doesn’t mention his rabbinical training on his company’s website. “I don’t think it would make much of a difference to my client base,” he said.

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This seems highly debatable. Would it not give him a bit of cover in an industry where untold numbers of people’s lives were ruined less than a decade ago, where the closing process is like running a marathon through molasses under the very best of circumstances?

The Rev. Abbey Tennis, a Unitarian minister who wields an M.B.A. degree and is about to close on a house with Mr. Frankel’s help, seemed to think so.

“Faith was his calling, or part of his calling in life,” she said, acknowledging that she was well aware that plenty of bad financial deeds had been done in the name of the Lord over the years. But still.

“If I’m going to choose anyone,” she continued, “his sounds like a pretty good pedigree for someone that I’m going to do business with.”

Mr. Frankel’s own religious tradition, however, is part of what gives him pause. A concept known as Marit Ayin refers to actions that one should avoid because they look suspicious even though they are technically allowable.

In this context, Mr. Frankel worries about company and industry rules (as any mortgage banker should these days). Would the compliance department at Guaranteed Rate — which is in charge of making sure the company abides by all regulations — let him put “rabbi” on his business card at all? Might it somehow suggest that Jewish customers would get better treatment, or others would get worse or no treatment, even if nothing could be further from the truth? “If it’s a possibility, I don’t want to put it on there,” he said.

Still, his faith and its teachings can’t help but inform his work. This week, Mr. Frankel and I studied a bit of Talmud (writings on Jewish law and customs) on the subject of exploitation and pricing, which seems appropriate given the heated real estate market in some parts of the country. But the reading he shared with me that inspired the most conversation was a passage from Pirkei Avot, another collection of teachings, that speaks of having a house that is “open wide.”

From the Text

Mr. Frankel said he understood that what he was selling was access to money, and at the closing table, his company’s money wasn’t all that different from someone else’s. But when he asks customers open-ended questions about their home search and gets them talking about the space between the mortgage they can qualify for and the (perhaps smaller) mortgage that would actually keep them from being uncomfortable, the conversation may wander away from money and more toward meaning.

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So what is the goal here, really, in buying a home? Gaining a sanctuary where we cordon ourselves off from the world, or establishing a gathering place where we welcome everyone in? And how easy is it to be generous if we are stretched too far?

Mr. Frankel does not become quite that explicit, but he is aware at all times that he is providing funds for a structure that his customers long to fill with meaning.

“It’s a place to live, but also to have whatever kind of life that people want to have,” he said. “A place to live, with an emphasis on live and not place. The mortgage in some ways is the means, but the end is being home.”

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/16/your-money/mortgages/finance-religion-mortgage-real-estate.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Connecticut Bill Would Force Fee Disclosures for Teacher Retirement Plans

The legislation — which will take effect in 2019, but could be changed to 2018 as language in the bill is completed — would require companies that operate 403(b) plans to disclose the charges and returns (after subtracting fees) for each investment offered. It would also require plan administrators to disclose fees paid to any person “who for compensation provides investment advice.”

The disclosures must be made to all plan participants when they enroll, and every year after that. Alternatively, a provider can follow federal disclosure rules — as part of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 — that govern 401(k)’s and other retirement plans.

“This bill grants teachers the same fee and conflict-of-interest disclosures available to private sector workers having a 401(k) and allows the comptroller to make lower-cost plans available directly to local boards of education,” said Mr. Lesser, a Democrat.

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Mr. Lesser was referring to a state-run 403(b) plan, overseen by the state comptroller, which includes several low-cost funds and a low administrative fee. He said the process of crafting the legislation brought a renewed focus on other ways to help school employees, which includes giving them access to low-cost retirement plans already in place and offered through the comptroller’s office. The comptroller already has the authority to market the state’s 403(b) and 457 plans — another type of retirement plan offered to state and local government workers — to school districts and other municipal employees.

A spokeswoman for Kevin Lembo, the Connecticut state comptroller, said his office was analyzing ways to make those plans more readily available. “I am hopeful that we can encourage more opportunities for municipalities, particularly school districts, to partner with the state,” Mr. Lembo said in a statement, “including through both the 457 and 403(b) plans.”

Joshua B. Gottfried, a financial planner in Connecticut who works with many teachers, has said he often tells them to avoid the 403(b) altogether, given the dismal lineup of available investments and the high fees.

He said the state-run plan is a better option. “Compared to many of the products we see in local districts, it does provide a better platform by offering teachers the benefits of low-cost funds and diversification,” Mr. Gottfried said.

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/15/your-money/teacher-ct-retirement.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Retiring: When Mom and Pop Can’t Sell the Farm (or in This Case, the Theme Park)

A once family-owned Frontier Town in New York’s Hudson Valley shut down in the late 1990s, its buildings still vacant. Early this year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York proposed a $32 million redevelopment of the 85-acre site, including a visitor information center, a campground, facilities for shows and festivals, and space for historic exhibits about Adirondack Park.

Ponderosa Ranch, a theme park that operated in Lake Tahoe, Calif., set of “Bonanza,” shut down over a decade ago.

Donley’s Wild West Town is still the site of many happy childhood memories — particularly for the Donley grandchildren.

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“As a child growing up, it was like a fairy tale,” said Shawnah Donley, 29, the daughter of Randy Donley. “It was our backyard, and we were part of what our family did for a living.”

She grew up nearby and recalls school field trips to Wild West Town. After college, Ms. Donley got a job in the live action Wild West show, where her work caught the attention of a talent scout. That led to her professional career as a stunt actor, with credits that include the movie “Contagion” and the NBC television series “Chicago Fire.” She now lives in Chicago and also works as a real estate broker. But while she says her generation, which includes a younger brother and a cousin, hopes to see the park continue to operate, the fact that her family is looking to sell it isn’t a surprise.

“It’s always something that we thought would happen,” she said. “We have our own interests and futures.”

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The phonograph section in Wild West Town’s museum. Credit David Kasnic for The New York Times

The Donleys have always been collectors of trinkets and oddities. Larry Donley acquired the first seven acres of the property in 1972 so he could build a storehouse for the antique phonographs and other things he had begun collecting decades earlier. “I didn’t really know what stuff I had, and I still had too much,” he said. Back then, he owned a gas and service station in Berwyn, Ill., around 50 miles closer to Chicago, where he raised his family. But he would eventually sell that business.

Randy and Mike Donley grew up watching their father collect these pieces of Americana and got into the game themselves, snapping up antique guns and military memorabilia and assorted pieces of American history like toys, lamps, telephones, phonographs, music boxes, telegraph equipment and war souvenirs.

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The first building on the park’s site became a museum and showcase for these items. Despite being right off Route 20 and barely three miles from the Illinois Railway Museum, visitor traffic was slow for the first couple of years.

It wasn’t meant to be a theme park at all until Larry Donley built the town’s gold mine and gold-panning attraction to occupy the children of adults who visited the museum, which opened in 1974. “It all kind of evolved,” Mike Donley recalled.

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The owner Larry Donley displaying a handful of gold pyrite in the park’s gold panning section. Credit David Kasnic for The New York Times
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Second graders panning for gold. Credit David Kasnic for The New York Times

In addition to the museum and gold mine, the site has an operating antique train, a gentle roller coaster (the “Runaway Mine Cart”), a carousel and a water ride. There are also firing and archery ranges, a tomahawk throw and slingshot gallery. Employees dressed as cowboys give roping lessons and gun-spinning exhibitions. The town jail includes authentic 19th-century cells acquired from the jail in the town of Union. Visitors can coax the town marshal to arrest people.

During the height of the season, the site employs about 100 people, many of them students at the local high schools. It draws visitors from a 60-mile radius in northern Illinois, attracting school and day care groups, church groups and camp attendees.

Sid Schroepfer, who will be a high school senior in the fall, demonstrated his lasso-twirling skills in the park one recent Sunday. This is a new job for him, and he said he liked it because he “gets to play cowboy all day.”

“We are selling an experience for parents and grandparents and children,” Mike Donley said. “Everything is hands-on.”

The park has given birth to some careers in show business. In addition to Shawnah Donley, there is Joey Dillon, a gun spinner who now coaches actors on gun handling for films and television. He credits his two seasons in the cast at Donley’s for starting his career.

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Actors and workers at Wild West Town relaxing after the students have gone for the day. Credit David Kasnic for The New York Times

He grew up in rural California and developed an interest in gun spinning from watching old Westerns, and when he moved to Chicago to pursue a career in comedy, he fell into a job at Donley’s. “I look back on Donley’s as kind of my fun dorm days with a bunch of college-aged kids, hanging out with them at night and playing pranks backstage,” Mr. Dillon said. He is still in touch with some of his former colleagues, some 20 years later. Mr. Dillon wasn’t aware the property was up for sale.

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Taylor Fryza, who directs and acts in the park’s live shows, remembered visiting the town as a girl. “When you’re a little kid, it’s like stepping into a different world,” she said. Eventually she went to acting school in New York and returned home. She said she was not worried about the place being for sale. “You just put your best foot forward and do as many shows as you can,” she said.

When it comes to the sale effort, the Donleys have displayed a little showmanship of their own. In what the family admits was largely a publicity stunt, they put the Wild West Town up for sale in last year’s Christmas catalog of Hammacher Schlemmer, where it stood out among the massage wands, radio-controlled toys and exercise gadgets. Many years earlier — in 2003 — they listed it on eBay for $12 million, though they didn’t get many serious offers then, either.

And so the operation chugs along, in nostalgia mode for some of its owners. “As much as we enjoyed it, as much as we loved it, it was hard work seven days a week,” Mike Donley said, adding that the grandchildren “didn’t see that as a future for them.”

Larry and Helene Donley live in a house right next to the amusement park and work on the site every day. The family jokes they are likely to ask the next owners for a job. The brothers say they aren’t forcing a sale.

“If they want to find another proprietor during their lifetimes, I’d rather let them do that,” Mike Donley said of his parents. “It’s another challenge for them.”

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/15/business/wild-west-town-theme-park-retirement.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Sketch Guy: Free Yourself of Your Harshest Critic, and Plow Ahead


Photo
Credit Carl Richards

You’re fired.

No, seriously. Pack up your stuff, and get out.

But let me be clear: The job you’re fired from is one you never should have had in the first place — being a critic of your own work.

Done, finished, not your job anymore. When you finish creating something and you start to wonder if it’s any good … nope! Don’t try to answer. You no longer get to decide.

If you need me to fire you, awesome, consider it done. But in fact, what would be even better is if you fire yourself.

Let me tell you why.

Five or six years ago, when I first started writing the weekly Sketch Guy column, I would have pieces I was certain would go viral. I said to myself, “I nailed it, everyone’s going to love it, a million people are going to share it!” And then, I would hear nothing. For some reason, it just didn’t get the play — no comments, no feedback, nothing.

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Then there were times when I was completely surprised in the opposite way. I’d be running late for a deadline, have something I wasn’t sure of or that excited about, but it was all I had. So, I would send it in expecting some sort of reprimand. And next thing I knew, it had made the sitewide most-emailed list.

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/13/your-money/free-yourself-of-your-harshest-critic-and-plow-ahead.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Flexibility That A.C.A. Lent to Work Force Is Threatened by G.O.P. Plan

This news scares Fern Warnat, 59. She has gotten insurance on the federal marketplace a couple of times in the last few years. When she and her husband moved from New York to Boca Raton, Fla., she bought a policy for a few months to tide her over until she got coverage from a new job. A year later, she needed to buy insurance again when she found herself unemployed. The policy was expensive — around $800 a month.

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“It wasn’t easy, but it was available,” she said.

Now she worries what would happen under the Republican plan if she left her job at a home health company that provides insurance.

“I need something to be there,” she said. “I’m going to be 60 years old. All my conditions pre-exist.”

Since the Affordable Care Act was enacted, companies have become less worried about people who want to leave but feel locked into their jobs because of health insurance, said Julie Stone, who works with corporations at Willis Towers Watson, a benefits consultant. The law “removed one of the barriers to leaving your job,” she said.

Fewer employers now offer health insurance for their retirees, she said. The other alternative is Cobra, the federal law that requires companies to allow workers to remain on their employer’s plan if they pay the full monthly premiums, which are often extremely expensive and out of reach for many people. The coverage generally lasts no more than a year and a half. Cobra was a “Band-Aid on a broken market,” Ms. Stone said.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated in an analysis last month that states covering one-sixth of the population would take waivers that allowed insurers to charge people with pre-existing conditions more. It predicted that such consumers “would be unable to purchase comprehensive coverage with premiums close to those under current law and might not be able to purchase coverage at all.”

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Dr. Marie Valleroy at her home in Portland, Ore. When multiple sclerosis made it increasingly difficult for her to see patients, Dr. Valleroy was able to stop working because she could afford to buy insurance on the federal exchange until she was old enough for Medicare. Credit Amanda Lucier for The New York Times

The budget office did note that the House bill would potentially lead to lower prices, especially for younger and healthier people. In most markets, the low premiums would “attract a sufficient number of relatively healthy people to stabilize the market.”

But the budget office also warned that markets in states that allowed insurers to charge higher premiums for people with pre-existing conditions — whether high blood pressure, a one-time visit to a specialist or cancer — could become unstable. Some places are already experiencing a dearth of insurers. More companies could exit as they struggled to make money in highly uncertain conditions.

Millions of people could also wind up with little choice but to buy cheap plans that provided minimal coverage in states that opted out of requiring insurers to cover maternity care, mental health and addiction treatment or rehabilitation services, among other services required under the Affordable Care Act. Consumers who could not afford high premiums would wind up with enormous out-of-pocket medical expenses.

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The individual market has always been characterized by heavy churn, and insurers struggle to meet the needs of these short-timers, particularly the young and healthy, for whom coverage can be expensive. “It’s a huge challenge, even independent of the A.C.A.,” said John Graves, a health policy expert at Vanderbilt University.

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Insurers say they have had a hard time accurately estimating the medical costs of the changing pool of customers who need relatively short-term coverage and pricing their plans high enough to cover those costs. Aetna, one of the large national insurers that has decided to leave the market, said about half of its customers were new, and it blamed “high churn” as one reason the company lost money.

Older people with potentially the most expensive conditions account for almost 30 percent of those who enrolled for insurance on the exchanges this year.

David Clark wanted to retire from his job at Sam’s Club at age 62, three years before he would qualify for Medicare. He and his wife, Phyllis, who now live in Delray Beach, Fla., were not in good health. He has a heart ailment, and she has diabetes. Before passage of the Affordable Care Act, he said, he would have had to keep working.

“We wouldn’t have been able to buy insurance at any price,” he said.

But he was able to retire and get coverage on one of the marketplaces. “This has been three of the greatest years of our life,” said Mr. Clark, who spends much of his time mentoring college students. When he needed triple bypass surgery at age 64, he was covered.

Many people are keenly aware that the existing marketplaces provide a safety net, even if it is far from ideal.

Dr. Marie Valleroy was able to stop working because she could afford to buy insurance on the federal exchange for four years until she was old enough to get Medicare. She has multiple sclerosis, and her symptoms were making it harder for her to see patients in Portland, Ore. “It was time for me to retire, truthfully,” she said. Her medications cost upward of $5,000 a month.

And the law made it possible for Bobby Evans, now 35, to move to New Orleans two years ago to be with his girlfriend, now his wife. Because he was working part time until he could find a permanent position, he bought a policy through the state marketplace.

He and his wife have talked about opening their own consulting firm, but the plan is being delayed, he said, depending on what happens with the federal law providing individual insurance. “Health care is a big-time barrier for a lot of people’s professional growth,” Mr. Evans said.

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/11/health/health-insurance-transitional-coverage.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

The Haggler: Hanging Up His Fedora, the Haggler Bows Out

What have you learned about the state of customer service in this country?

Asking the Haggler this question is like gauging the nation’s mood at a suicide prevention hotline. Nearly everyone who writes to the Haggler is in distress, and this profoundly skews his sample. If all you ever read was the Haggler’s inbox, you would think that the service economy was at war with Americans. That is plainly not the case.

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Worth noting: Consumer culture in some other countries is much worse. Try renting a car in Brazil. Try opening a bank account in England. Visit Russia.

Can you say anything about why things go wrong when they do?

Generally speaking, the Haggler has divined three different categories of troublemakers. The first is the rarest. Let’s call them Weasels. These are people who are scam artists with various degrees of skill and ambition. The Haggler quickly recognized these characters because they were either difficult or impossible to contact. Maybe they were running a wine Ponzi scheme, or, as in one memorable case, threatened to maim their online customers in the hope that outraged postings to complaint sites would improve their search engine results.

Then there are the Borderliners. These are companies that aren’t breaking any laws but have built their business model around a gimmick that annoys and fleeces customers. On purpose, apparently. Like SAS Group, which sells As Seen on TV products for, say $20 apiece, then tacks on about $58 worth of shipping and handling fees.

Far more common are what the Haggler would classify as Unwitting Incompetents. These are companies that have every intention of doing right by customers but don’t have a system to achieve that end. What’s missing is a mechanism to deal with exceptions. The typical Haggler complainant has a story with a wrinkle in it, a hitch that makes it unusual.

But people working for Unwitting Incompetents have no power, and their supervisors are often hamstrung, too. Great companies know exceptions are inevitable. They give employees the latitude to improvise, or they create a place to send anyone in need of an improviser.

Which type of company was the most fun to haggle with?

The Borderliners. Because they often vigorously defended themselves, usually with a righteous indignity — easily the most entertaining type of indignity.

Are there are any companies that get this whole customer service thing right?

The Haggler has never received a single complaint worth investigating about Walmart. He also heard almost nothing about Amazon.

Have you ever considered taking the knowledge you have collected as the Haggler and using it to create the single most awful and impervious company in American history?

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Not until you asked that question.

Did writing this column sometimes have the paradoxical effect of making you sympathize with companies?

Yes. About a quarter of the complaints sent to the Haggler were from customers who did not have a legitimate case. They wanted a refrigerator fixed free, for instance, even though the warranty ran out a few years ago. They needed a bully. The Haggler is not a bully.

What will you miss most?

The doughnuts.

Any unfinished business that you wished you’d finished?

Lots. Taxi TV still exists, even though the Haggler has been ranting about that abomination for years. American Truck Group of Gulfport, Miss., is still writing contracts that enrage and beggar truckers. Global Tel Link is still charging exorbitant rates to inmates and their families who want to keep in touch by phone. The list goes on.

Oh, dear. This makes you sound a bit defeated.

The Haggler tends to dwell on losses rather than victories. And he has always been armed with nothing more than the power that comes from the glare of illumination provided by The Times. This is a potent weapon, and it usually suffices. But it does not work on the shameless.

Let’s wrap up. Would you like to sign off with something pithy and epigrammatic? Here’s an idea: “Old Hagglers never die. They just get placed on hold.”

Nah.

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Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/09/your-money/hanging-up-his-fedora-the-haggler-bows-out.html?partner=rss&emc=rss