Reversals of economic fortune among the pressured middle class are driving a big boost in multi-generational households, and a host of concomitant financial issues are afflicting these families. Many early-edge baby boomers are shelving plans to convert Junior's old bedroom into an art studio because Junior himself is moving back in, sometimes with wife and kids and tow, and too often without a job of his own.
In 2008, according to Pew Research Center, 16% of the U.S. population-about 49 million people-lived in multi-generational households, almost double the 28 million in 1980. The number has continued to rise since then, with recent Census Bureau data showing an 11.7% increase in the number of multifamily households from 2008 to 2010. The roughly 54 million people now living in multifamily arrangements represent the highest such proportion in more than 40 years.
But all that's old news to Rick Tonkinson, CFP and CLU. Since launching his Coral Gables, Fla.-based firm, Rick Tonkinson & Associates Inc., two decades ago, the former Peace Corps volunteer and commercial bank vice president and trust officer has focused exclusively on middle-class and blue-collar workers in his financial advisory and money management business. So he's had a ringside seat as this staggering demographic and economic shift has played out.
He's particularly well situated to assay its impact on the financial circumstances of the clientele he serves, and as he'll be the first to admit, it isn't pretty. Some of his clients have been forced to postpone planned retirements, or even return to work after retirement. "And it's not necessarily because of the performance of their portfolios," he says. "More often, it's a real estate issue."
Having to install a wheelchair ramp and a handicapped-accessible bathroom for elderly parents or an auxiliary apartment for adult children fallen victim to a historically weak job market is only one aspect of the "real estate issue" chipping away at some middle-class folks' retirement plans, Tonkinson points out. The recent implosion of the real estate market itself is another. Many working Americans have a big chunk of their long-term savings tied up in home equity. At least, they did until recently.
"A few years back, someone nearing retirement might have been looking at selling their house for $600,000 and buying one just as nice for half the money in another, lower-cost state, often to be closer to their kids and grandchildren. That $300,000 profit represented a significant piece of their retirement nest egg," he explains. "All of a sudden, half the value of their home is gone in the real estate collapse. People become gun-shy, reluctant to retire. They lose confidence that their plans will work out." A big part of Tonkinson's professional mission right now is helping such people get back on track.
Tonkinson's choice of business model was no accident or happenstance. Quite the contrary, it was a considered decision that grew out of his personal convictions and previous professional experience. It's worth noting that his decision to focus on this underserved segment of the saving and investing public has been a resounding success. With some 620 clients in 20 states and about $200 million in assets under management, RT&A's AUM and client roster have increased by 55% over the past three years. More important than all that to Tonkinson, however, is that he's been able to deliver on the vision that's driven him from the beginning, i.e., making available to the hoi polloi the kind of sound financial planning and money management that is too often the exclusive province of the very well-heeled.
In 1991, the first Gulf War was a factor behind a steep plunge in the stock market at the same time the banking industry was going through a period of rapid consolidation. Tonkinson was then a vice president and trust officer at First Union (later acquired by Wachovia, which in turn was acquired by Wells Fargo) and "didn't see much of a future in being a trust officer or bank employee," as he puts it. He'd moved to Miami ten years earlier and since then earned an MBA and Master of Business Administration degrees from the University of Miami, specializing in budgets and cash flow.
His career in banking made Tonkinson realize there was a direct correlation between the caliber of financial planning advice and service available to individual investors and the size of their net worth. What he describes as "regular, everyday people"-the kind of people he tended to associate with-would never have account balances robust enough to gain them entry into that rarefied world of private banking. As a former Peace Corps volunteer and a lifelong believer in helping others, it also ticked him off that sophisticated financial advice should be out of reach for most Americans.
Tonkinson decided it was time to hang out his own shingle, intent on making some degree of sound financial planning available to working stiffs trying to save for their retirement, but he admits to more than a little trepidation at the prospect of that undertaking. "I was 37 years old, and I worried I might be starting too late," he recalls. "I felt I had lost ten or 15 years of prime career time, and the thought of going from a vice president at a bank to starting at ground zero in a new profession was downright scary."