For years, Cheryl McDonald has been her family's financial rock, always willing to give financial support. In terms of retirement, however, being the rock has weighed her down.
"I have been the primary income producer and the primary holder of assets," said McDonald, a widow. "My attitude has always been, 'It's a family pool of money.'"
But that generosity has left McDonald, 65, with too few assets and too much debt for someone so close to retirement, said Alfred McIntosh, founder of McIntosh Capital Advisors, who reviewed McDonald's finances. The downtown Los Angeles resident can't turn to her home for relief because her condominium is "underwater," meaning it wouldn't sell for enough money to pay off her mortgage.
McDonald's challenge is an increasingly common one for an aging generation on the verge of retirement: learning how to say no.
"What we are experiencing as a nation is a time where children are not exceeding the success of their parents. We haven't seen that in decades," said McIntosh, a fee-only financial planner in West Los Angeles.
"That is creating unique challenges for parents in their expectations, and in their retirement planning."
McDonald's adult daughters are independent. But her 91-year-old mother is in declining health and her younger sister is disabled following a back injury. McDonald said she has lent her mother and sister financial support and will probably need to do that again.
McDonald also manages to give her church about $6,000 a year in donations and an additional $1,100 in contributions go to National Public Radio and other organizations.
McDonald said she understands McIntosh's warning, likening what she has to do to the preflight airline lecture about fastening the oxygen mask on her face first before worrying about anyone around her.
"Going forward, my attitude is that it is OK for Cheryl/Mom to take care of Cheryl/Mom," she said. "We're going to put together a plan that will take care of me. From that point, we'll reevaluate the family pool in the event of need."
The fact that McDonald's "financial future must be very different from her past" is particularly crucial now, McIntosh said.
McDonald had been earning $105,000 a year from her job as a senior program manager at the Worker Education and Resource Center, a nonprofit job training organization in Los Angeles. But McDonald's work hours recently were cut in half.
One important move would be for McDonald to build an emergency fund of six months of expenses, McIntosh said.
None of her assets, including two annuities worth more than $200,000, are accessible in the short term. McIntosh said that is primarily why McDonald has turned to credit cards to handle emergencies. She's paying off about $35,000 in credit card debt.
McDonald has $150,000 in a 401(k) in the Janus Balanced Fund, a choice praised by McIntosh that posted a gain of more than 14.9% last year. The fund's five-year average annual return of 7.6% beat the S&P 500's 7% average return over the same period.
A more immediate need for McDonald involves paying off the high-interest personal debt, which McIntosh wants her to do in two years, about half of the time she had planned.
Moreover, McDonald has been putting $750 to $1,000 a month on her credit card. That should stop.
"We can't stress this enough. She has to avoid additional debt," McIntosh said.
There are other challenges as well.
The downtown condominium McDonald bought in 2003 for $330,000 once appraised for more than $500,000, but that was before the real estate collapse.
McDonald has a leg up on anyone claiming to be a pioneer of the downtown Los Angeles renaissance. She has spent much of her life within a three-and-a-half-mile radius of where she now lives. On Saturdays as a child, she would study at the downtown library before window shopping at the May Co., Bullock's and other one-time downtown department stores.
But her condo purchase has yet to pay off. It most recently appraised for about $230,000 in 2012, or about $50,000 less than what McDonald owes on her mortgage.
The condo building, which suffered many foreclosures during the real estate meltdown, seems to be stabilizing, but it is still a financial drain for McDonald. Her condo fees are more than $600 a month and her unit requires more work, such as new ducts for her heating and air conditioning system.
Still, she loves where she lives, having sunk $30,000 into the place to build a gourmet kitchen. In the evenings, it provides her with panoramic sunset views of California Plaza and Signal Hill.
"This isn't just my home. It's my community," McDonald said. "I've made friends here I will always keep."
McDonald is hoping the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's regional connector subway project will provide a big boost in value to her condominium just in time for her to sell it at a premium. The $1.4-billion project, expected to be completed in 2019, will connect light rail lines downtown and include a stop near McDonald's building.
The condo may be her ace in the hole, McIntosh said, particularly if it rises in value to previous appraisal levels.
McDonald has ambitious retirement goals away from downtown.
In an ideal world, she would retire to a few acres of land in the Sonoma County wine country with a select group of retirement-aged and younger friends.
She envisions buying and renovating something like an old school building or firehouse for her improvised communal living situation.
McDonald's retirement community goal is achievable with careful legal and financial planning, McIntosh said, although she may have to scale it back to a location with cheaper real estate or to a large home she could share.
"If she sells her condo at age 70, she will have enough for the down payment on the communal living plan with $20,000 available for relocation expenses," McIntosh said.
To stretch her money out until her 90s, McDonald must be willing to work at least part-time for at least an additional 10 years. That may be easier for her than it would be for others. The UCLA and Loyola Law School graduate has a versatile skill set that has led to work in law, insurance underwriting and mediation.
McDonald's reaction to McIntosh's advice included a little self-criticism.
"Why didn't I do this 15 years ago?" she said.
"I have been lost in the weeds," McDonald said. "I'm beyond just being grateful that I'm not going to starve in the streets. Very exciting. This is my road map."
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