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WALL STREET, CALIFORNIA | MONEY MAKE-OVER: Southern
Californians Learning How to Succeed in Personal Finances

A Home of Her Own Is Where Her Heart Is

July 28, 1998|MARGARET LESLIE DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

She'd driven to the dealership several weeks ago intending only to get an oil change, but Taryn Maso-Soto instead impetuously fell in love with a Jeep Wrangler. Succumbing to a salesman's aggressive pitch, she drove away in the shiny, black car that afternoon, committed to a five-year lease.

She regrets it now, feeling none too pleased with herself for giving in to impulse and having to deal with the consequences.

But Maso-Soto, a 40-year-old widow, is no stranger to hardship, and she's determined to get herself out of this predicament and get on track toward meeting her most cherished goal: buying a home with a yard for herself and her two young sons.

It will take some doing, said Scott Leonard, a fee-only financial planner in Santa Monica, and hard choices must be made. But he feels "she can buy a home someday." First, Maso-Soto will need to change her spending habits and stick to a firm budget that will allow to her to reduce her considerable debt load as quickly as possible.

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Maso-Soto earns a modest $27,540 a year as an office computer operator for the Los Angeles Unified School District, where she has worked since the '70s. She also receives $6,924 a year in federal assistance for her two children, both of whom are disabled. She is carrying more than $5,000 in credit card debt and has less than $200 saved.

Retirement savings is not something she can even contemplate at this point in her life. Right now, she is barely meeting all her monthly obligations, which include $700 in rent for her Los Feliz apartment, $360 per month for child care and $227 in minimum payments on her credit cards.

The car lease added greatly to her burden--$388 per month, plus $134 a month for insurance. Fortunately, as an employee of a public agency, Maso-Soto will receive a lifetime pension when she retires, and she receives comprehensive health benefits for herself and her two boys.

Not surprisingly, Maso-Soto often feels panicked about her finances. "Life has not been easy for me," she said. "Sometimes I'm just overwhelmed with what I have to face."

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Her parenting challenges began with the birth of her first son, Neiko, in 1989. A few months later, Neiko's father left the family and has not met his child-support obligations. Maso-Soto has been pursuing the matter through the Los Angeles district attorney's office, but has received only $300 in the last several years.

In 1994, she married Hilario Maso-Soto. Her second child, Khiobon (the name means "little one" in Swahili) was born one year later. However, Khiobon's delivery was difficult, and the boy was born with a severe nerve disorder impairing movement in his arm, hands and fingers, and which has required several surgeries and ongoing weekly physical therapy. Hilario, who worked as a car salesman, had an outgoing personality. He showered Taryn with roses and often swept her away to romantic dinners.

But it was not to last. In February 1995, Hilario was killed during a robbery at a convenience store.

"My world collapsed," Taryn said. Hilario's death left the family devastated financially as well as emotionally. Taryn received no survivor benefits from her husband's employer. There was no life insurance and relatives were unable to help.

Taryn had been grappling with financial difficulties as it was--she had in fact filed for bankruptcy protection in 1991--and now she was left with a funeral to pay for and two young children to support by herself. California's crime victims fund did provide the family with $2,000 in emergency assistance, which Taryn used to buy groceries and pay burial expenses.

Determined "not to fall backward," Maso-Soto vowed to be strong for her boys.

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Soon, however, she noticed disturbing things in the behavior of, Neiko, then a kindergartner. He wasn't concentrating in the classroom and was often irritating other children. The problem was diagnosed as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, a condition characterized by restlessness, aggression and distractibility. Some time later, Maso-Soto learned that her younger son has a similar disorder.

Maso-Soto found help at a Los Angeles clinic, MCC Behavior Care of California, which provides weekly therapy for Neiko and counseling for Maso-Soto.

As Maso-Soto was coping with the aftermath of her husband's death, with her boys' special needs and with some medical bills not covered by insurance, she found herself coming up short. She turned to the Lanterman Regional Center, which helped her meet her rent on a couple of occasions and pay her medical bills. The nonprofit organization, located in the Mid-Wilshire area, provides financial assistance, health services and referrals to parents of children with special needs.

"Things just felt out of control" at that point, she said. But she got through it, one day at a time, keeping the family going and attacking the debts as best she could.

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