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Nurse's Best Medicine: Healthy Savings Plan

Although O.C. mother won't need to work full time, she might want to shift concern from her daughter's finances to her own.


Joanne Baker has worn some wildly different hats in her professional life, but lately she's starting to feel a little worn out.

For the last six years, Baker, 47, has managed to juggle being a part-time hospital nurse with owning an art gallery. But she recently closed her Costa Mesa-based Timbuktu, which specialized in African art, after realizing her medical salary was essentially subsidizing the popular but unprofitable gallery.

Still, Baker would rather not resume full-time nursing duties. Instead, she imagines a future in which she's free enough to travel with her longtime fiance--a freelance cameraman and aspiring documentary filmmaker.

"I found when I worked as a nurse less hours, I enjoyed it more and it made me a better nurse," Baker said. "I can't return to nursing full time. It would spiritually bankrupt me. I'd rather be poor."

Luckily, Victoria Collins, a fee-only certified financial planner based in Irvine, doesn't see Baker's situation in dire terms. However, there are changes that Baker is going to have to make if she wants to achieve her goal as well as enjoy a standard of living in retirement close to what she enjoys now.

In Baker's favor is that she already lives within her means, she is saving and she expects to be both able and willing to work part time into her late 60s or early 70s. If she retires at 70, Social Security is likely to replace more than half her living expenses--and she has more than 20 years to build up a nest egg to take care of the other half.

According to Collins, Baker's primary financial focus should be increasing savings. The nurse, who now grosses between $35,000 and $45,000 annually, has $24,000 invested in her workplace 401(k) and another $12,000 in individual retirement accounts. She also has $21,000 in equity built up in the Newport Beach condominium that she co-owns with her fiance and another friend.

It's not an inconsiderable sum, considering Baker immigrated to the United States from South Africa 25 years ago and raised her now-adult daughter as a single mom. Yet it's far from what she'll need to get her through her old age comfortably.

"My investment for the last 24 years has been my daughter. That's what I put my money into," said a slightly rueful Baker.

Now that Baker's daughter has graduated from college, the nurse wants to help her pay off her student loans, help her set up a retirement account, contribute $5,000 to her wedding next year and fund a mother-daughter trip to South Africa.

Collins' first recommendation: Cut the apron strings. "Putting aside money for retirement has to be your primary goal," Collins said. "You have fewer earning years left than your daughter has."

The financial planner urged Baker to start immediately. She would like to see the nurse increase her 401(k) contributions from her current 6% of her gross salary--the maximum amount matched by her employer--to the maximum contribution allowed. Not only will this money grow tax-deferred but it will reduce Baker's income tax bill as well.

Collins also would like Baker to shift her investment strategy and become both more aggressive and diversified. For example, Baker's 401(k) is currently divided between a value mutual fund and a generic equity fund. The financial planner recommended that Baker contribute to two other choices in her plan, the highly rated Janus Twenty Fund (three-year average annual rate of return: 43%), and Templeton Foreign Fund (three-year average annual rate of return: 23%).

Her recommendations for the $9,500 that Baker has in her Roth IRA and $2,500 in an Individual Retirement Account also are for greater diversification. Collins urged the nurse to sell very specific types of holdings--Atlantic Richfield and Boeing stock, the Germany Fund, a closed-end county fund, and the Paine Webber Retirement Money Fund--and instead invest the proceeds in more diversified mutual funds.

The reason: Collins believes that Baker simply does not have enough money saved to invest in individual stocks and remain diversified. As a general rule of thumb, the planner recommends a minimum of $100,000 divided among 20 stocks before she advises clients to invest their savings outside of mutual funds, which spread the risk for their holders among dozens of stocks or bonds.

Collins suggested that Baker put about 75% of the $12,000 into the Schwab 1000 Fund (three-year annualized rate of return: 27%), an index fund made up of the 1,000 largest public U.S. companies.

For the rest, Collins suggested something that might sound very aggressive to some: technology-stock funds.

Baker might want to invest in the Internet Fund (which has a 100% return so far this year; almost 200% in 1998) or the Northern Technology Fund (three-year annualized rate of return: 51%), a broad-based no-load fund with a five-star rating from Morningstar, Collins said.

Although the funds can be highly volatile in the short term, Baker is investing for the long haul, and "Technology is here to stay," Collins said.

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