Frequently, Ball’s work requires a ground-level introduction to daily finance. A fairly typical client is a new widow whose late husband always handled the money. Ball recalls one particularly bad situation: “She was sitting there for four years with the mail piling up,” she says. “She’d never written a check in her life.” By the time Ball was done, though, her client was sorting through all of her mail, writing checks and even was a devoted user of financial software. “She went from being the victim to being the conqueror,” Ball says with satisfaction.
Within days of our introduction, Ball visits my home and immediately frowns at my desk, piled high with documents and important journalist tools such as fingernail clippers and a rolling pin (don’t ask), as
well as a voluminous but sadly neglected filing system. We spend hours sifting though it, tossing out yellowed health-insurance forms and retirement-plan statements from during the Clinton presidency.
Next, we discuss how I can save money. One of her tips is to call my cable company and threaten to switch to another provider unless it reduces its charges. (Although she seems like a sweet English lady, Ball is no patsy.) She also directs me to call one of my credit-card issuers and demand a lower interest rate and/or to look into a balance-transfer offer that could save on interest. I’m also directed to find out what is in a safe-deposit box I haven’t opened in years.
Protecting clients from vendors who range from the inconsiderate to the predatory is also part of what daily money managers do. On the less-drastic end, it’s common practice to find clients paying for data plans on cellphones that lack data capabilities or Internet service when they don’t even have a computer. Ball has also encountered outright swindlers who prey on the elderly with offers to repair roofs that don’t need fixing and schemes to gain access to account numbers and other information to facilitate fraud.
Financial abuse of seniors by opportunistic relatives, rip-off artists and organized gangs adds up to about $3 billion a year, according to the 2011 MetLife Study of Elder Financial Abuse. The considerable bounty encourages crooks to create and swap lists of vulnerable people the way catalog companies broker mailing lists, Ball says. As a result, she has clients refer all phone calls pitching services or products to her. The few callers who follow up get short shrift.
“I’m like a bulldog,” she says. “Nobody comes near my seniors.”
In our next meeting, Ball performs one of the most important tasks anyone can do: She compliments my girlfriend on her cup of tea. Coming from an Englishwoman, this means a lot. Trust me. After the pleasantries, though, she gets down to business and asks how I did on my assignments. Holding people accountable in this way is a very valuable offering provided by money managers, I suspect, although in my case it makes me a little uneasy, possibly because I haven’t done all my chores. Specifically, I didn’t call my sister (who is a lawyer) to ask about powers of attorney and medical directives.
I did, however, do better on holding the cable company’s feet to the fire — although the service rep eventually convinced me they were already giving me the best deal I could get, and I didn’t follow through on my threat to switch providers because it sounded like too much hassle. I did get six months of free Showtime, so that’s something.
I also didn’t call a credit union to inquire about cheap checking or a low-interest loan so I could pay off some credit cards. Fortunately, Ball did. She reports that the credit union is not about to relieve me of my high-interest debts, which I thought showed good judgment if not great compassion. In retaliation, I decide to keep my checking account with my current bank, even though they’ve recently been adding fees for things like air-conditioning the lobby.
I did manage to open the safe-deposit box — and found essentially nothing, though closing it saved me $65 in annual bank fees. And, in a Ball-inspired move for which I will be forever grateful (or for at least the next 18 months), I contacted one of my credit-card companies about a balance transfer. This led to an eventual swap of most of my high-rate debt to a card that offers zero interest for 18 months. This will easily save me several times Ball’s fee ($300, which I hope to put on my expense account — but she doesn’t need to know that).