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Margaret Starner

Margaret’s Musings

Here’s where you’ll find Margaret Starner’s thoughts and insights on developments that shape your community, your world – and your portfolio.

Margaret Starner

In the Chinese art of Feng Shui, the red door brings luck and positive energy to those who live behind it. Throughout our website, the red door is your portal to Margaret's Musings. “Red Door with Tassel” photograph appears courtesy of Julie Masterson Photography.


| December 31, 2014 – Margaret’s Musings: Happy New Year with Magic Bank Account |

Traditionally, the new year is symbolic of new beginnings...and we all wait to make lists of resolutions ....like get into better shape, get in touch with long lost friends, save more, clean the closets....the list gets pretty long. Then, this morning I received a story, The Magic Bank Account, that said it best.

While we always strive to deliver excellent returns, the Starner Group's mission is more about delivering "dreams and wishes" - a theme that fits in perfectly with the "Magic Bank Account".

Imagine that you had won the following *PRIZE* in a contest: Each morning your bank would deposit $86,400 in your private account for your use. However, this prize has rules:

The set of rules:

1. Everything that you didn't spend during each day would be taken away from you.
2. You may not simply transfer money into some other account.
3. You may only spend it.
4. Each morning upon awakening, the bank opens your account with another $86,400 for that day.
5. The bank can end the game without warning; at any time it can say, “Game Over!" It can close the account and you will not receive a new one.

What would you personally do?

You would buy anything and everything you wanted right? Not only for yourself, but for all the people you love and care for. Even for people you don't know, because you couldn't possibly spend it all on yourself, right?

You would try to spend every penny, and use it all, because you knew it would be replenished in the morning, right?

ACTUALLY, This GAME is REAL.

Shocked?

Each of us is already a winner of this *PRIZE*. We just can't seem to see it.

The PRIZE is *TIME.*

1. Each morning we awaken to receive 86,400 seconds as a gift of life.
2. And when we go to sleep at night, any remaining time is NOT credited to us.
3. What we haven't used up that day is forever lost.
4. Yesterday is forever gone.
5. Each morning the account is refilled, but the bank can dissolve your account at any time WITHOUT WARNING...

SO, what will YOU do with your 86,400 seconds?

Those seconds are worth so much more than the same amount in dollars. Think about it and remember to enjoy every second of your life, because time races by so much quicker than you think.

So take care of yourself, be happy, love deeply and enjoy life!

Here's wishing you a wonderful and beautiful day. Start “spending.”

DON’T COMPLAIN ABOUT GROWING OLD. SOME PEOPLE DON'T GET THE PRIVILEGE.

Happy New Year...we hope that each and every one of you drains your magic bank account daily in 2015.

| November 27th, 2014 – Giving Thanks |

Thanksgiving is unique amongst holidays. This is the time of the year when we all pause from our hectic lives to be thankful for who we love, what we have, and to reflect on what is truly important in our lives.

Certainly, we at the Starner Group are thankful for our wonderful families and rewarding careers...and, of course, we are certainly blessed to have such wonderful relationships with so many of you as clients, friends, and related professionals.

I would love to list everything I am thankful for, but that would be just too long...so I will try to narrow to a few that pop into my mind...and not in any order.

  1. I am incredibly thankful to be an American living in the United States. Despite the many "worries" and media headlines....this is still the land of hope and opportunity. No matter how much Americans are supposedly reviled around the world...it's amazing how many still want to immigrate and live here.

    On the subject of immigration, since my last Musing I traveled to Cleveland, MS, where I attended the first MS Delta Chinese Reunion, and learned more about how the Chinese got there and why most Chinese owned and operated restaurants, laundries and grocery stores. To be honest, I had taken my childhood in MS for granted, as to a large extent; my life in the MS Delta was a good one. At the reunion, I learned how earlier Chinese immigrants had paved the way for me and that I was fortunate to grow up in a town that was more accepting of us. Though not large, the MS Delta Chinese are a close-knit group that began in the early 1920's and now cover a wide area that includes MS, TN, LA, AK. This closeness is unique among the Chinese American community.

    I enjoy poor immigrant stories - both learning about the successes achieved and the challenges faced. Virtually every story has a strong element of courage and determination. I marvel at how so many come to the U.S. with little to no knowledge of English and limited working skills. It doesn't matter whether Chinese, Peruvian, or Polish...the stories are similar and often begin with arriving with not much except hope for an opportunity. Finally, the first kid goes to college...and the ladder to success begins. I recall when telling my mother about a new job opportunity Roger was taking in Seattle, and moaning about having to leave my friends and adapt to a new community. She stopped me and asked..."Do people in Seattle speak the same language as you?" Of course, I said "Yes." Next question: "Will you have a job with money and a new home?" Of course, I said "Yes." Mom then said, "Sounds pretty easy to me, so what's your problem? Count your blessings."

  2. I am thankful for the creativity and opportunities brought about by the technology revolution. This revolution resulted in “creative destruction" by contributing to income and wealth growth, and also to the income gap between the rich and the poor around the world....not just in the US. The advantages of technological innovations are obvious in making our lives easier. Slowly, the power of cloud computing is enabling financial services to be delivered to the poorest in the world. Read this fascinating (and long) article in The Economist’s “Financial Inclusion: “Phoneful of dollars".

  3. I am thankful that the vitality of the US economy is intact, even though our government seems paralyzed and that much of the global economy is in the doldrums. Cities, states, individuals and companies continue to innovate and adapt...such that since the beginning of 2009 unemployment has gone from 7.8% (peaking at 10% in October, 2009) down to 5.8%; GDP growth has gone from -5.5% to +3.9%; and the Dow has gone from 7949 to 17810.

  4. I am thankful to announce that Josh Espinosa, our capable and friendly analyst, was greeted with a newborn son, Alden Jacob, on October 24. Mommy, baby Alden, and Daddy are all doing fine.

    Welcome Baby Alden!

  5. I am thankful to announce our new trainee, Stephanie Song, joined us in September, has passed her securities exams and will begin her training in January as part of the Starner Group.

  6. I am thankful to announce I was included in the inaugural edition of Financial Times Top 100 Women Advisors in America, a part of the November 19 edition.

    Congrats Margaret!

  7. I am thankful to have celebrated Roger and my 52nd wedding anniversary this past week in Newport Beach where we relaxed and had many movie and dinner dates...just like when we were "dating."

I could go on...but instead, I will leave you with a with a link to a great NY Times article about Impulse Buying...we should all be thankful to avoid that behavior!

Again, Happy Thanksgiving!

| September 4th, 2014 – Going to Kansas City |

During Labor Day weekend, I travelled with my family to Kansas City for a Starner Family reunion - a first for my grandchildren. Our grandson, Cole, who is almost 10, was excited that he would see the Kansas City Royals -his "second" favorite baseball team after the NY Mets. Otherwise, our plans were for a nice family gathering to meet and reconnect with our Starner mid-western roots and eat great barbeque from the famous Oklahoma Joe's.

Honestly, I didn't know much about Kansas City. The city has two great museums that we visited - the National WWI Museum and the Truman Library. Both museums are well worth a trip if you are interested in the history of our involvement in two major world wars and the rise of US leadership in the world. Given the challenges we are facing with the world wide economic challenges and power struggles...this was a particularly good time to revisit the history of two monstrous wars.

As I mentioned in an earlier Musing, while WWI began 100 years ago, the economic and political environment are eerily similar to today's. The industrial revolution, similar to the technological revolution, created huge gaps in income and opportunities within and among nations. There was fierce competition between the British, Germans, and French for supremacy that encompassed colonies around the globe. Plus, leadership within countries was shifting from monarchies to rule by legislators. Over 16 million military and civilians died in WWI.


National World War I Museum

The Truman Library tells the story about an ordinary man, who became a world leader at the time when he had to make extraordinary decisions in the face of complex issues. In his youth, Truman, not knowing what else to do, enlisted in the Army during WWI. He was sent to fight in the trenches of France. At first, his fellow enlisted men were not too impressed with him. However, in the trenches, Truman learned he was a natural leader and was eventually promoted to Captain. This experience served him well in his later years as president, when his many foreign policy decisions included the decision to drop the atomic bomb, the daunting task of re-building both Europe (Marshall Plan) and Japan, and the changing of American foreign policy. Truman had a key hand in the establishment of NATO, the containment policy of the Cold War, and other major foreign policy decisions - all to prevent a WWIII. He decided to be the first country to recognize the state of Israel despite opposition from key advisors.


Truman Library

Domestically, after the war, Truman faced labor unrest and integrating all the GI's back into the economy and transitioning back to normal from a war economy ....all which made him immensely unpopular. He complained bitterly about a "do nothing Congress".

Interestingly, Truman faced similar struggles to those we face today. Choices and decisions were not obviously easy. However, from the beginning, Truman had a moral compass that propelled him from being a smart ordinary man, to being backed by a corrupt political machine, to being chosen to lead the US through a most extraordinary time. He is now considered one of the great Presidents in US history. Truman was willing to be unpopular - he often disregarded the polls to lead and make tough decisions that would endure in the long run. Some of his decisions are still controversial.

My time at these two museums has made me more reflective and less inclined to overreact to all the news chatter "to do something". I believe that our leadership must make decisions and implement long term policies, both domestically and internationally, that will serve our long term national interest. David Brooks wrote a recent NYT article, The Revolt of the Weak, which connects Truman's accomplishments and decisions with those facing our leaders today.

For those of you with young ones, the museums were done so well that even our grandchildren found the history and exhibits interesting. And to the KC Royal fans...Cole loved the game, despite the loss that evening. The stadium is designed to be family friendly and affordable... the cost of hot dogs, peanuts and soft drinks was just $1!


KC Royals Stadium & Cole

One final treat from our Kansas City trip - we had lunch at the magnificently restored Union Station, which has a storied railroad history of the great mid-west. The station was beautiful....and lunch was delicious. Now, I want to take the family on an Amtrak trip!


Union Station

I hope this first week of September finds you all well. Please feel free to forward us any of your Labor Day adventures...




| August 8th, 2014 – Bruce's Journeys: Normandy to MIT |

Bruce recently returned from two interesting trips. The first trip was for business, to the "Age Lab" at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Age Lab is a fascinating department that studies the aging process and how the baby boomer generation may have needs that differ from preceding generations. The second trip was for pleasure - he and his family went to Paris for a week.

Bruce has some interesting stories to tell, so I've asked him to guest muse for me this week:

Thanks Margaret. I will share the details of my amazing trips in reverse order, starting with Paris. I had been to Paris once before, on business during my management consulting days. My wife Lise had been a few times, but this was the first trip for my children Micaela (14) and Cole (9). We did all of the usual touristy activities - the Eiffel Tower (tip: if you are up for it, take the stairs, the ticket is ½ the price and the lines are ¼ the length), the amazing museums, and the creepy catacombs, where the bones of over 5 million Parisians are stacked under the city streets. We also spent a day at the decadent Palace of Versailles and ate more delicious bread and cheese than I thought humanly possible. Though all of these experiences were fascinating, the undeniable highlight of the trip was our tour of the WW II sites around Normandy.

I have always been a bit of a history buff, and Normandy has been high on my list since studying world history back in junior high. Also, my grandmother was a European Jew who lost much of her family in the Holocaust, so there was a very personal aspect to the trip as well. Given the historical and cultural significance, Lise and I did our best to educate the kids prior to our trip. In retrospect, I likely went a bit too far when I had our nine year old watch the beginning of the movie, "Saving Private Ryan." I had forgotten how realistic it is -- he was reduced to tears by minute three. Regardless, this brief introduction gave both kids at least some understanding of the sacrifices made by the "Greatest Generation."e;

We started our tour at 9 AM on Omaha Beach. We had an amazing private tour guide named Colin, an engaging Brit with a Masters degree in history and a seeming endless reserve of WW II knowledge. Though the beach is beautiful today, Colin's vivid commentary gave us a very clear idea of just how nightmarish it was for US soldiers on June 6, 1944.


Micaela & Cole with Colin, our tour guide

I could muse all day about the events on D-Day and the sights we saw in Normandy, alas, the space I have in this blog is limited. However, the experience was immensely impactful for my family. We saw bullet-addled churches, still standing assault guns, and the remarkable Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, where 9,387 fallen soldiers lie. I hope that every one of you has either seen Normandy or has the opportunity to visit at some point in your lives....to say the experience is humbling is an understatement. In comparison to the hardships our nation faced during World War II, I can't help but feel that the differences our politicians argue about today are petty...and I hope compromise can be made for the common good. One fact to consider- the cemetery at Normandy is part of the American Battle Monuments Commission and hence funded by our tax dollars...probably one of the best uses of these dollars imaginable. Sadly, this also means that the cemetery is forced to close when our politicians shut-down the government. Colin told us a heartbreaking story of a small group of Normandy Beach veterans who were locked out of the cemetery during the most recent shut-down and hence unable to pay respects to their fallen comrades.


View from the waterline at Omaha beach. Our soldiers had to charge
from this point all the way to the top of the green hill


Reverse perspective view from the site where the highest German guns were.

........ and now to MIT

Today, there are barely 1,000,000 WW II veterans remaining, and they are dying at the rate of over 500 per day. Meanwhile, baby boomers are turning age 64 at the rate of one every seven seconds. Regardless of generation, we are all aging, which is why I am happy to announce that Raymond James has created a formal partnership with the MIT Age Lab, which I visited earlier this summer

Age Lab, run by Dr. Joseph Coughlin, is a remarkable institution that is wholly focused on studying the aging process and empowering seniors to navigate a longer life. As financial planners, we at the Starner Group have always been focused on making retirement more manageable. We create retirement savings plans and goals, and measure our clients' financial ability to retire with their desired lifestyles. However, Age Lab takes retirement planning past just finances...because even though we all fear outliving our wealth, there are other risks that are more likely to occur. In order to address these risks Age Lab uses three simple questions to predict the quality of life in retirement:

In other words, how do we prepare for...

  1. Staying independent later in life?
  2. Accessing the big and small things that make us happy?
  3. Maintaining and continuing to grow our social network?

As your financial planners, we often say that our mission is to help you "enjoy today while preparing for what's to come." We know that retirement planning goes beyond money - it includes determining where you want to live, addressing long-term care, creating strategies for passing down family culture and values to future generations. As this is the case, we have helped many of you with family meetings to address these topics for yourselves, your children, and sometimes your aging parents. Our partnership with Age Lab will enable us to utilize their vast research and library of tools to make our financial planning services even more robust and holistic than they already are -- our goal is to help

our clients navigate the countless choices to be made regarding important issues such as housing, transportation, and healthcare...likely all issues that the remaining 1,000,000 WWII veterans face every day.

In closing, I hope you have all had a wonderful summer, it's hard to believe but my children start school again next week! If you happen to know any World War II veterans, please thank them for me, and if you have any stories that you would like to share, we would love to hear them. I will leave you with a link to the story of Ted Roosevelt, Jr. III, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor on D-Day. I was not familiar with Brigadier General Roosevelt's D-Day story before Colin shared it with my family during our tour, but I found it amazing and inspirational. I hope you will as well:

Bruce, thanks for sharing your journeys. The Starner Group is very excited about Raymond James' partnership with the Age Lab...and I am excited to share a discussion about "Preparing Heirs" in a future Musing.

| July 4, 2014 – Celebration of Birthdays |

It's July 4th again...and for my long time readers, you may recall that I always celebrate July 4th with our annual family/friends barbeque to celebrate the birth of our nation, the birth of my Dad, and the birth of our oldest granddaughter, Micaela who will be 14! The party is getting larger and larger as Micaela now includes her basketball world as part of her family world. This year, my youngest sister (Judy) is making the barbeque sauce created by my father, and flying with it to LA! My brother, Wallace, will make sure the ribs are done perfectly. As you can tell...this is truly a family treasured event.

In recent news, many headlines have focused on the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and how the results of World War I influenced the past 100 years to this day. In conjunction, experts continue to speculate that events in the Middle East today are eerily similar to events 100 years ago when the Ottoman Empire was breaking up. Scott Weingarden recommends a fascinating 3 part mini series on the History Channel titled "The World Wars" on how WWI shaped the lives of men who were prominent in WWII ...Roosevelt, Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, and Patton.

Speaking of new empires, I just returned from the Far East, where I was on our annual corporate trip with Founder and Chairman Tom James and CEO Paul Reilly. We went to Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Two highlights of the trip were having dinner at the Great Wall and in The Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square. Words will not do justice to my experience at both places....take my word for it...these two once in a life time experiences were awesome and beautiful. Everyone has read about the incredible growth of the Chinese economy and in particular, the many cities as well as the problems with pollution. The Chinese attention to detail and service continues to impress me. Since my first trip to mainland China in 1981, I have witnessed not only the spectacular growth, but how fast they focused and learned the essence of service. They have long mastered the "smile" which is a universal language. As they say, "it's difficult to attack a smiling face".


Dinner at the Great Wall

From a weather perspective, we were fortunate -- a storm with strong winds cleared the skies of Beijing, the day before our arrival -- so we had a few clear days. Our hotel said we saw the best couple of days they have had in 5 years! However, by the time we left Shanghai, the smog was dark and thick...very similar to LA in the 50's and 60's. The Chinese residents are extremely concerned too. A major difference from previous visits was the Chinese concern about hygiene and the environment... due to the adverse impact of the smog, but also due to the experience with the SARS, the bird flu, and the impact of cleaning up the city for the World Olympics.

Hong Kong is probably one of the most fascinating cities in the Far East, if not the world. It is compact, diverse (where East meets West), full of life, and great for eating (anything) and shopping. Yet, a huge cloud hangs over their ability to continue the life of freedom and capitalism as existed so long under the British rule. I was surprised at how many of the young people don't speak English as so many come from Mainland China now. While Mandarin is the official spoken language of the Mainland Chinese, the locals in Hong Kong still speak their native dialect, Cantonese. I hope the Chinese government can find a way to allow Hong Kong to remain Hong Kong. Read about a recent Pro-Democracy Protest in Hong Kong on WSJ and NYT.

Taiwan, less traveled by Americans, is a beautiful and interesting island. It was actually difficult to find a local travel agency to help me and Roger plan our trip. Fortunately, friends like Tally Liu and Ken Wang, of Taiwan, were able to make our trip memorable. Similar to Hong Kong, Taiwan's future is also clouded by China. Taiwan has enjoyed the benefits of a free and democratic society and China has benefited tremendously from the accomplishments of the Taiwanese. Question -as China grows and flexes its muscle, will they overtake Taiwan? The Taiwanese are counting on the US to help them remain free. This is all for interesting discussion.

Everywhere we went in the Far East, we heard similar problems that we hear here in the US -- lack of jobs for the young and growing inequality of wealth and income. Like the US, too many people don't have the skills to adapt to the changing world...and the ones who do and have the right connections are the ones who get the jobs....all contributing to the growing inequality. This is a worldwide problem, not just the US.

You have all heard or read about the Chinese becoming the dominant power of this century or how they are bound to stumble and push the world into a major recession. One of our guides in Beijing remarked how shocked she was when she went to NYC and saw the old and inefficient subway system. Make no mistake, China will likely stumble...and they will also continue to expand and create an even larger middle class. That doesn't equate or mean the US will become a lesser country. The US, despite all of our obvious problems, still sets the gold standard for innovation and an open society. Everywhere on the plane, sitting in the airport I met young Chinese who are going to the US to study and work for a few years before taking our ideas back to China.

On the plane, I read Hillary Clinton's new book, "Hard Choices". While the book has not received good reviews, I found it an easy summary of the challenges and importance of foreign policy. One comment that resonated with me is that while there are few problems that the US can solve alone, the US remains the "indispensable nation".

As I left on plane for China, the Barron's June issue published the Top 100 Women Financial Advisors...and for the 8th year I am on the list.

Happy July 4th! And Enjoy the fireworks.


Roger and Margaret sightseeing in Tiananmen Square

| June 3, 2014 – Graduation Time 2014 |

I can't believe Micaela, my oldest granddaughter, graduated today from 8th grade. She is bright, beautiful, quite tall and plays on the Nike basketball travel team in her area. She's also a handful for her parents and still isn't allowed to have an iPhone. Not even as a gift from Granny. Speaking of which, according to her mother, Micaela is an activist and quite opinionated like her "granny" :).

Many of you are also going through the graduation rituals with your children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren about now. There is much to celebrate as they move on to the next big stage of their lives. For those of you reading, I am sure they will go armed with a good education and a good family foundation of support for whatever opportunities and/or obstacles they may face.

What worry me are the many, many college graduates who are loaded with student loans beyond their capacity to pay. So many of these young adults have been victimized and were too young or naive about paying off large debt. They didn't have the knowledge or support to find other ways to finance their college education. Thankfully, most of the students I have known found jobs that enabled them to pay off their loans in due time and not impact their ability to buy a home.

Until...

Last year, Malcolm, a Teach For America Corps member in Miami, asked if we would help him invest $5000 he had managed to save. As we asked him the usual questions about his financial situation, we were aghast to learn the size of his student loans and the interest rate he was being charged. The interest was accruing at a faster rate than he could pay! Given his financial resources, Malcolm could be encumbered with this debt for life! We did know of a few ways to have some of the debt forgiven by working in public service for 10 years. He was willing to do that, but his pay would still be insufficient to get him out of debt. Even more frustrating, Malcolm had the type of loans that didn't qualify for refinancing to a lower rate. Of course, Malcolm could look for a higher paying job, rather than public service but that would take him out of the world of teaching that he loved. In other words, he was somewhat trapped by his student loan. Malcolm was happy that he had received a great college education and had a wonderful experience, but in retrospect, he wished he could have found a way to finance it differently or had gone to a school that was less expensive.

Since that meeting, I have met many students like Malcolm. Thankfully, we were able to help some. Unfortunately, we could never find a way to refinance Malcolm's loans. The rapid rise in costs of college and rates being charged the students is detrimental to the future of our country. I suspect the decrease in number of first time home buyers is due to so many with high interest student loans. Also, these huge debts often deter students away from lower paying public service careers that they would like to choose.

The activist in me wants to find like-minded people to push our legislators to solve the student loan dilemma. I am surprised that these students haven't banded together to protest. I am considering talking to some community banks to work on a loan refinance program for the graduates who work as teachers in our community. Any suggestions will be welcome.

Fortunately for Micaela and her cousins, they each have a 529 Plan that grows tax free to pay for their college. Given the recent rise in tax rates, the 529 Plan is a tax gift that shouldn't be missed.

It would not be graduation without some advice to the graduates on how to live your life. So to all you getting ready for college or graduate school...

My Advice:

  • Think long and hard about accumulating too much debt. Of course, debt should not deter you from college, but make sure you will get the education you expect. Check the track record of the school independently.
  • Research extensively for grants and scholarships...I had one student tell me he had multiple sources of tuition payments...I think it was 6 or 7. Don't scoff at someone offering $2000 or $5000. Combinations of many small grants will add up to lessening the debt load when you graduate. Schedule an appointment with your guidance counselor - there are tons of scholarships out there based on not only academics/sports but also talents -like yoyo spinning - too!
  • Maintain your grades so you can keep your scholarships or grants.
  • Consider a less expensive school, living at home or working part time to pay your tuition. Some schools will discount your tuition or provide a stipend if you work part time for the school.

Getting a college degree is a great investment and does pay off...I just don't want you paying for it the rest of your life.

I am off to China for the annual Raymond James Chairman's Council trip. In the interim, Bruce, Scott, and the team will be minding the shop as always. If you have any questions about college funding or 529s, please don't hesitate to call.

Next blog will be 4th of July. Hope everyone is looking forward to the start of summer in just a few weeks.

**Investors should consider before investing whether their home states offer state tax or other benefits only available for investments in their home state's 529 plans. 529 plans offered outside their resident state may not provide the same benefits as those offered within their state**

| April 17, 2014 – Spring Ahead |

Greetings!

Spring, around the world, is about a new beginning or starting anew. I want to share an interesting article from the American Funds about the coming transformation of how we will live and work. From smartphones to shopping online, new products and services are dramatically altering the behavior of millions of people around the world and fueling growth for many companies. I was particularly excited by the future of a driverless car. Click to read…Invest Ahead of the Curve

Wishing you…

Happy Easter



and

Happy Passover

| April 1, 2014 – Time "Marches" On |

This was an interesting March to say the least. From Crimea to the lost Malaysian airplane to the mud slide in Washington state and host of fires...horrible headlines overshadowed any good news. Needless to say, I am ready for a new month, even though March has historically been a fun month for me.

My daughters, Lise and Dana, were born in March in the late 60’s. I recall all the time Roger and I spent on creating and planning the best birthday parties. We visited animal farms, hired magicians, hosted sleepovers, and as they got older, went to fancy restaurants, shows, and attended the Lipton (now the Sony) Tennis! I must admit that Roger and I still sometimes find it hard to believe our daughters are in their late 40's. March was made even more pleasant when tax filing was moved from March 15 to April 15 way back in 1955. And much as I am glad March is over...April is about paying taxes.

When Lise and Dana were born, our savings were fairly limited. It was not so easy to be a working mom in the 60's, so I focused on planning for how we were going to pay for college. I had two ideas...and lucky for me - both worked and both involved understanding tax laws and investing. My father was a huge believer that wealth creation came from owning good companies. Being the eldest, I had the advantage of watching what he bought from a trusted stock broker at then AG Edwards, although he also lost his shirt on high flyers with friends. I wish I had saved the certificates of those defunct companies. Fortunately his winners significantly outweighed his few losers. Tax Theory was one of my favorite courses at Stanford. Highest rate on investment income was 70%! There were many loopholes and I enjoyed searching for the legal ones. So, how did all this pay for our girls' college education?

I invested in one growth stock and in one piece of real estate in Palo Alto, CA. I have to confess: both ideas were assisted by my parents. And I didn't know much about diversification yet. I invested in a company my father knew well and he would gift me shares for my birthday. I held the stock for almost 20 years. When my girls were older, I gifted them the shares into custodial accounts since they were in a zero tax bracket. The sale of the stock paid for two years at Duke! In addition to the stock, I convinced my father to invest in an apartment building in Palo Alto when Lise was born. At the time, real estate was not only a growth investment, but also a great tax shelter. He gave me a small equity position to manage and take care of the property. My goal was always to pay for our daughters' college. Unfortunately, the government has since implemented the "kiddie tax" so my strategies would not work so well today. Fortunately, we have many other vehicles available now that did not exist back then - 529 plans, REITs, many mutual funds from which to choose. Today, it is much easier to invest and diversify with a small sum of money.

During those "stay at home" years, my career in financial planning began to take shape. At that time, I also worked evenings at H&R Block. I loved helping people figure out their taxes. I was paid on speed...how many returns I could do while the customer sat in front of us. I was surprised by the number of people who had no understanding of how to minimize their taxes and how this was costing their ability to save. I would try to counsel them as I did the returns. My early motivation for becoming a CFP was really how to help clients manage their financial lives by paying fewer taxes. For those of you who can't recall...the highest tax rate on earned income was 50%; investment income was 70%; and the estate tax was down-right confiscatory. Taxes were a huge impediment to wealth creation. Fortunately, tax rates did come down...but by then I had a career that was not totally dependent on saving taxes.

What's important is having goals and having strategies to meet those goals. The environment and opportunities will change. Challenges will happen.

During my career, I have been blessed to have many wonderful clients and friends who have partnered with the Starner Group to help achieve their financial dreams and wishes. Many of our clients have been with us for nearly my entire career. Over the years, we have tackled their long-range planning goals...having children, sending those children to high school and college, and eventually celebrating the births of their grandchildren. I am happy to say that the Starner Group not only continues to help our long-time clients,; we are now helping their next generation plan for a successful future. I feel like we are part of the family tree!

Speaking of the younger generation, our first granddaughter Micaela will be 14 years old on July 4th. As many of you know, The Starner Group advises grandparents who have the means to start a 529 for their grandchildren. So, I took my own advice, and Roger and I started a plan. In the coming years, we started three more as Kailee, Kendall, and Cole came into the world. Flash forward to present day -- in just a few months, Micaela will graduate from eighth grade and begin high school. Essentially, she is the same age that Lise (her mom, my daughter) was when I decided to embark on my new career! Thankfully, that 529 plan has grown over the years, and paying for college will be free from taxes. In my mind, that is what financial planning is all about...to not only help us lead the lives that we want to live, but also to teach our children how to achieve the same so that hopefully their lives will be just a little better than ours, and their children's lives will be a little bit better than theirs...in other words, the preservation and growth of a family's culture, values, and wealth from generation to generation.

Though my parents never had a financial plan per se, they taught me the value of saving, investing, taking risks and having meaningful goals. They were two Chinese immigrants who arrived in Mississippi with barely any money and no English skills. Neither had a college education, yet they still managed to build a successful business and sent six children to college....that was their goal.

I know that my story is not unique. Many of you are parents and grandparents as well, and you all have family stories and history that you will pass down to the next generation. We at the Starner Group are honored to be your financial partners on this journey...and we are humbled that so many of you have trusted us to help your adult children and grandchildren on their journeys as well.

Well, that's my trip down memory lane. We are always delighted to hear stories about your children and grandchildren, so please don't hesitate to send them along. Hopefully, spring will finally arrive for those of you in the northeast and Midwest. The weather is already beautiful in Miami.

A few other pieces of news - I am once again on Barron's Top 1200 Advisor list for 2014 and also on the Financial Times Top 400 List for 2014. You can also check an interview I did for WSJ online on Alternative Investments.

Lastly, tax season is winding down. Per usual, we have been in touch with many of your accountants, but please don't hesitate to have your tax professionals contact us with any questions.

| January 30, 2014 – Gong Hay Fat Choy |

Gong Hay Fat Choy (Cantonese)
Wishing you Health and Prosperity in the Year of the Horse


January 31, 2014 marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year. As many of you know, the Chinese zodiac is made up of 12 different animals and the Chinese calendar goes in a 60 year cycle. We are beginning the 31st year of the cycle, which is the 7th year of the 2nd zodiac. The place in the calendar and zodiac makes this the year of the Horse, or more specifically, the Lunar Wood Horse. Much time will be spent doing everything to foster good luck and keep bad luck at bay. The celebration lasts for 15 days...and is a time for families and friends to connect for positive interaction. Children will be delighted by gifts of red envelopes filled with money and candy.

Even growing up in Mississippi, my family celebrated the lunar New Year. On New Year’s Eve, I knew I had to have a spotless room (to make sure no evil spirits were lurking in the corners), clean hair, and my fanciest clothes so I would be prepared to greet the New Year at my best. The New Year starts on New Year’s Eve with a feast that included dishes that were auspicious for the year as well as my favorite, the delicious bird’s nest soup. The table was always beautifully set. We were expected to be happy and on our best behavior at dinner to ensure good luck for the coming year. It was easy to be happy with such a feast and to know that Daddy would not be yelling at us for anything. As far as I can tell, the efforts for good luck paid off.

Aside from good food, visiting friends and relatives, there is much preoccupation about the fortunes and misfortunes for the coming year. Chinese can be obsessed with ensuring good fortune. And one way is to avoid bad luck. Wearing red is a given as the color red blocks evil spirits.

Now that the history lesson is completed, I want to share some of the observations about the Wood Horse Year:

  • The Horse year is considered a fortunate year that brings luck and good things. Magical Horse has supernatural powers, is heroic, strong, and can even fly!

  • The Horse year begins a clear departure from the slower energy of the previous Water Snake year 2013. As the Chinese say, “a good horse never turns its head to eat the grass behind" So look ahead, not back.

  • The Wood Horse year is a time of fast victories, unexpected adventure, and surprising romance. It is an excellent year for travel, and the more far away and off the beaten path the better. Energy is high and production is rewarded. Decisive action, not procrastination, brings victory.

  • Horse energy is free spirited, wild, willful, and independent. Horse has a refined instinct that acts fast and on the spot, unlike Horse’s opposite (the Rat) who thinks and plans before acting.

And now some generic recommendations for horse year:

  • The time for pondering and planning was 2013 Snake year. Horse year is time to act fast,

  • HOWEVER, if you are not 100% secure about a decision, then don’t do it. Events move so quickly in a Horse year that you don’t want to gallop off in the wrong direction.

  • Buy that home, launch that business, travel the world, make a big purchase, get a promotion at work, have a breakthrough – take a leap and fly. If it’s right, then there’s nothing to think about. Just follow your instincts. Even if you miss the mark, you’ll have all of Wood Sheep year 2015 to get cozy and enjoy life’s comforts in all their artistic forms.

If you are curious as to what’s in store for you on a more personal level, check your birth year below for your zodiac sign, contact us and we will send you a link to your fortune and predictions for the year.


Chinese New Year starts on a different day each year (and never on January 1)
It is also helpful to know your birth feng shui

I hope this mid-winter Musing finds you all well, especially those of you in freezing climates! As always, Scott, Bruce, and I are here to assist with any and all financial questions. We look forward to seeing and speaking with you in the New Year.

We have a bowl of red lucky candy in our office for anyone who stops in!

| January 10, 2014 – Feliz Año Nuevo en Cuba (Happy New Year in Cuba) |

As some of you know, Roger and I, along with our daughters' families, just returned from a trip to Cuba. Given that Bruce's heritage is Cuban, I asked him to write a "guest Musing" about our trip. His thoughts follow:

By Bruce Cacho-Negrete

My father was born in Havana in 1942. He spent the first 15 years of his life in Cuba before immigrating to the United States just before Castro came into power. Like many Cuban Americans, Dad had a complicated relationship with his native country. He rarely spoke of his childhood there - in fact, the only story he ever told me about Cuba was that he had once hit a baseball into a neighbor's yard and the neighbor refused to give the baseball back. So, dad threw a rotten Mango through the neighbor's window...and was promptly spanked until he was black and blue. I think that story was a thinly veiled warning to my brother and me to not misbehave! As an adult, Dad was a staunch republican, and supportive of the Cuban embargo until the day he died in 2002. Interestingly, he is survived by my grandfather, who is 97, and last visited Cuba in 1965 for his cousin's funeral. After the funeral, security personnel at the airport refused to let him board his plane, claiming he was still a Cuban citizen and hence couldn't leave. Thankfully, his cousin was mayor of Havana and found a way to expedite him off the island. My grandfather refuses to return to Cuba while the Castro regime is in power, in fact, he often says that he has stayed alive this long for the sole purpose of outliving Castro!

Before we left, my grandfather asked us to visit his old neighborhood (Santo Suarez) and El Principe, the Havana prison where his grandfather had been a warden. I promised to try.

Our family tour was sponsored by Stanford University Travel (thanks Margaret!). The tour actually started the night before our flight, when dozens of Stanford alumni from all over the country (along with their families) converged on the Miami Airport hotel for a welcome dinner and a night of sleep at the airport hotel before our early morning charter to Havana (note to reader: if you are contemplating staying at the Miami Airport hotel, be warned that the accommodations are less than plush - perfect preparation for a trip to a third world country). Accompanying the tour was a former Stanford economics professor who proved to be an invaluable and knowledgeable resource.

Our charter flight was the first eye-opening experience of the trip. We had been warned that each person on the trip was limited to 43 lbs. of luggage; any more would result in a $2/lb. charge. Hence, I was quite surprised to see the long line of Cuban Americans waiting to check in bicycles, big screen TVs, huge boxes of cleaning supplies, and many other heavy objects. Our tour leader explained that these objects were nearly impossible to acquire in Cuba, hence it was cheaper to bring them from the states, even with the baggage charge. He also said that many of the Cubans don't even keep the goods, rather choosing to sell them, which is a way to avoid the 13% additional tax that is charged on US dollars.

The flight was a mere 45 minutes, and clearing Cuban customs was remarkably quick. Our tour group was then loaded onto two modern, air conditioned buses (made in China) where we met our fabulous Cuban guide, Jorge. The 25 minute drive to Havana was eye-opening. The architecture was beautiful. However, most buildings were run down and in disrepair. Even newer buildings were rusted and decrepit, notably the grand outdoor sports arena that had been built for the 1991 Pan Am games, which looked ready to collapse. We lunched that day at the Nacional Hotel, a grand property on the river which was designed by the same architecture firm that designed The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida. The property fell into disrepair after the Cuban revolution in 1959, but was restored in the 1990's after the collapse of the USSR, when Cuba needed tourism revenue to (partially) fill the financial gap left by the end of Russian subsidies.

Speaking of finance, our next stop was the currency exchange, where we converted US dollars to Cuban Convertible Pesos ("CUCs"). CUCs and their less valuable brethren, the Cuban Peso ("pesos") present a large problem for the Cuban economy. For reasons too complex for this blog, Cuba initiated a dual currency system in the 1990's. The CUC is worth exactly one American dollar (though the Cuban government takes a tax of 10% plus a 3% exchange fee on all converted dollars). In contrast, the peso, is worth a mere $.04. All Cubans employed by the government (essentially everyone) are paid in pesos, at an average salary of 475 pesos per month, or $19. Conversely, all foreigners use CUCs. This has resulted in a "have" or "have not" economy, where foreigners eat in "CUC only" restaurants and shop at "CUC only" markets, both of which are essentially inaccessible to all but the most affluent of Cubans. Meanwhile, rank and file Cubans live off of their government rationed food and whatever extra items their meager salaries can purchase, which is not much. For instance, a four pack of toilet paper costs ~5 CUCs, or nearly 30% of an average Cuban salary. Needless to say, many Cubans go without toilet paper. Hence, according to tour guide Jorge, the main financial goal for Cubans is to find a way to earn CUCs. In fact, Jorge was once a professor at the University of Havana medical school, but found that he could make far more money as a tour guide, where he is tipped in CUCs.

Our final stop for the day was The Parque Central hotel, which is part of the international Iberostar chain, and would serve as our home base for the following six days. The hotel was quite nice, other than an antiquated exercise room and a strong mildew smell in my children's room.

The next six days of travel were a blur - if I tried to describe the entire trip in detail, this would be more of a novel than a musing. Since this is the case, I will only touch on a few highlights. First, many of you have asked how we were even able to travel to Cuba in the first place. The answer is that Stanford University owns a People to People license (very rare), which allows Americans to travel to Cuba if their trip is a "full-time schedule of educational exchange activities." Hence, our itinerary consisted of numerous meetings/educational/cultural activities with native Cubans. Highlights included: a baseball game with local Cuban children, a trip to the Cuban national art museum, Q and A with a Cuban economics professor, and a trip to the Museum of the Revolution, which is full of historical artifacts from the Cuban revolution, and ends with the "Rincon de Los Cretinos" ("Corner of Cretins") - a series of caricatures that includes Batista, along with American presidents Reagan, Bush 1, and Bush 2 Travel Blog Photos.

The most moving experience of the trip for me (and many others) was our visit to a Cuban children's "circus." The circus was held in a burnt out warehouse, with holes in the ceiling and exposed concrete everywhere. Other than a few dozen worn chairs for spectators, the only items in the warehouse were a threadbare red rug, musty blue curtain, and a series of wooden poles, rusted pulleys, and fraying ropes that looks tenuous at best and downright dangerous at worst. For the next 30 minutes, our group watched in amazement as 11 Cuban children performed often death-defying feats on this worn out equipment. Time and time again, they vaulted skyward via rope and pulley to do flips and turns. I am not sure what was more remarkable; the children's acrobatic skills, the fact that they performed without a safety net or mat, or that the "equipment operators" of the rope and pulley were the children's parents, clearly untrained in the circus arts. Regardless, by the end of the performance, our group was so moved that we spontaneously started a collection and raised well over $1,000 - hopefully enough to fix the holes in the roof and to purchase some proper mats(currently, the children practice with old mattresses).

One last experience to relate -- we did manage to make a trip to my grandfather's old neighborhood of Santo Suarez (see picture below). Though known as the "best neighborhood in Havana" (according to Jorge), the majority of once-grand homes were in disrepair. We also attempted to see El Principe, however, the prison has been converted to a military base which is apparently the Cuban equivalent of the Pentagon - hence, we were deterred by armed guards before we could even get close. Regardless, we took pictures as best as possible for my grandfather.

Though we have been back in the states for a week now, I continue to revisit Cuba in my mind on a daily basis. I wonder what my father would think about his native country, and whether or not he would still support the embargo. The pros and cons of socialism were readily apparent in Cuba. On the pro-side, the population is remarkably healthy (life expectancy equivalent to the US and infant mortality actually slightly better than that US. They are also well-educated, with a literacy rate well above 95%. However, many rank and file Cubans are quite poor, with little opportunity for economic advancement - this is a country where a doctor and a street sweeper earn nearly equal salaries. Cubans also have little or no access to goods that we take for granted. Jorge joked that he could make a fortune in Cuba if he could open a toilet seat store. He also lamented the lack of nails and paint to complete basic home maintenance.

As I reflect on our trip, I am more convinced than ever that capitalism is surely the best economic system in the world, despite its flaws. I also hope that my children and niece and nephew have a new appreciation for the opportunities available to them in the United States.

Obviously, there are many more stories to tell and either Margaret or I would be happy to share more tales and impressions about our trip with you. If anyone is interested, PLEASE do not hesitate to contact us - we would be delighted to share.

Oh yes, one more thing, remember that mildew-smelling room in the hotel? Here's what we woke up to on our last morning in Cuba:

Last Morning in Cuba

Again, Happy New Year...and soon to be Year of the Horse.