SALT LAKE CITY — John McCool, director of media relations at TIAA-CREF financial services organization, flew in from New York and is excited about the financial planning event the company is sponsoring.
"It's going to be a full house," he says, "They have 250 people signed up."
Water bottles, cheeses, crackers and bite-sized fruits are on a table. National Public Radio volunteers stand ready in pre-faded NPR t-shirts. Indira Etwaroo, executive producer and director of branded events at NPR in New York, one of a few NPR representatives who came to Salt Lake City to shepherd the show on Nov. 12, is busy running sound checks in that nervous, focused and confident way event planners act when they know the crowd is coming at any minute.
McCool loves the setting at the Natural History Museum of Utah's canyon atrium — a cavern-sized cathedral of concrete with glass displays of butterflies, bones and rock art.
"This is amazing," he says.
The room is bright lights and echoes. The rest of the museum is dark and off-limits for the event — dinosaurs, including the museum's newly installed "King of Gore" Tyranosaurus, hide in shadows like unsecured debt.
Chris Keth, a freelance photographer taking pictures for the event, is jumping around the room, scoping out angles.
Then the doors open and people come streaming in.
The sponsor for the event, TIAA-CREF, recently conducted a survey that found 48 percent of Americans say it is difficult to know which sources of financial advice they can trust. Thirty-seven percent don't want to talk with anyone about their finances.
The crowds coming in to fill every seat, however, seem full of trust at this event — and want to talk about their finances in front of an audience. They each clutch 8 1/2-by-5 1/2 cards that were handed out when they came in. The cards identify the event as NPR's "Family Matters: Your Financial Lifetime" and have a prompt for a question: "We want to know what financial concerns keep you up at night."
Everyone is busily scribbling a question.
Dennis Barrett, 67, is originally from Houston, but now lives in Ogden. He sits near the stage that has four empty stools and four microphones, and writes his concern down on the card.
"I just have a new grandbaby," Barrett says, "and I'm just looking to see what the best place is to put some money into for her college education."
Stacey Foxwell is with the NPR event team and director of content administration. She says NPR is expanding into events. Usually, the national organization has left local affiliates such as KUER in Salt Lake City to run various local events. This "Family Matters" event is being run by the national organization, however, and bringing in some big names in the NPR listening world and in the personal finance world.
The team has just finished a similar event in St. Louis, and for the event at the museum have flown in David Greene, NPR's "Morning Edition" host. They also have NPR's "Planet Money" correspondent, Robert Smith, on board. Smith is originally from Utah, and his mother is in the crowd. He is even giving some of the guests a ride to and from the event.
Michelle Singletary, the popular personal finance columnist from The Washington Post, and financial adviser and author Louis Barajas round out the celebrity panel of financial gurus.
Sasha and Steve Wilcox are in their mid-30s and holding Axel, a bright-eyed 5-month-old baby boy. They say they are making a lot of financial decisions right now and looking for good advice on "everything."
"We are working really hard to get out of debt," Sasha Wilcox says, "but we haven't really created any savings yet. We are trying to prioritize our finances in our life."
"We want to find a financial adviser," Steve Wilcox adds, "but we didn't have the time."
The TIAA-CREF survey found one-third of Americans feel the same way — they just don't have the time to look at their finances, yet 46 percent want a trusted place to get advice.
"We heard on the radio about this event," Steve Wilcox says, "and thought let's go take a listen and get some free financial advice out of it."
The seats are, as McCool predicted, filling up fast.
Patty Harte, managing director of institutional relationships at TIAA-CREF, makes a quick welcoming speech and the show begins.
NPR's David Green calls the crowd "guinea pigs" for NPR's initial foray into live events. Smith with "Planet Money" joins him on the stage. "If you look at our bank accounts," he jokes, "you wouldn't want to take financial advice from us."
Reading from an audience poll, Smith says 70 percent in attendance have less than $10,000 in student loans, 16 percent owed from $26,000 to $100,000 and 3 percent owe more than $100,000. About three-quarters of the audience own their own home. Sixty-six percent are 10 to 25 years from retirement.
They introduce their two experts, Singletary and Louis, and are soon quoting questions from the audience cards and asking the person who asked the question to come to a microphone.
A woman who identifies herself as Catherine and who has three children wrote on her card she was worried about paying for college, retirement, travel, future health, kids' weddings.
"It's not that any one thing keeps me up at night," she says, "it is the overwhelming 'Is it all going to fall into place?'"
But she says she started putting away money for her daughter's college expenses the day she was born and, in general, everything is in place that needs to be in place, she says. "I knew we had to start saving (from) day one."
Singletary tries to assure Catherine she is in a good place.
"If you are still stressed and worried," Singletary tells her, "and people around you do not have as much as you have, imagine what they feel like."
Barajas says he would love to have 100 clients like her.
Another audience member, Patrick Frasier, says his financial savings are not as good as Catherine's for his 11-, 14- and 15-year-old children.
Singletary recommends that, like she does with her own children, he tries managing expectations based on what he has available for them.
"From very small," Singletary says about her kids, "when they had a sense that they could go to college, we're going to say — and we're going to say like crazy people: 'This (money) is all we have. If you want to go to a school that is more expensive, then you've got to find free money.'"
Singletary says she doesn't think people should get into debt to go to college and should do just about anything to avoid it. "I don't want you to start your life in bondage," she says.
Barajas says it is important for children to have skin in the game when they go to college.
Two students, Jane and Whitney, are next to the microphone and tell about their student debt. Jane says her $25,000 student loan feels like a normal amount of debt. "I don't feel like I'm drowning, yet," she says.
Singletary, continuing her theme against debt, worries that Jane isn't worried enough.
"I'm in no rush," Jane says.
Singletary pushes back.
"Take that (debt) to the curb as soon as possible," she says. "Studies show young people are delaying owning a home to much later because of the debt they have. They don't get married or do a lot of things until they are in their 30s or 40s because of the debt they have. I want you to make that debt feel like there is a stone on your back. Can you feel it? I need her to start saving for her retirement."
Barajas agrees, but recommends a sense of balance. "You need to balance this concept of 'can I enjoy life?' and 'can I invest in myself and my career?'"
It is a balance between sacrificing for the future and enjoying life in the present, he says.
"Use money for its highest and best purpose," Barajas says.
Other audience members come up with their questions about losing money on rental properties, about how much money is enough money for retirement (it depends), about divorce, about not making a big enough salary to retire comfortably.
Generally, although audience members have worries, from the advice given by the experts, they are doing pretty well with what they have already. NPR listeners that go to an event about personal finances are not, apparently, the worst people in America at finances.
Singletary tells people to write down a word: contentment.
"I think that if you are content with your life, some of that worry will go away," she says. "We can't predict everything, so be content with what you have. Just take a step back, take a breath and be grateful for what you have. Even if you don't have enough for retirement, even if you have student loan debt, even if you are not going to pay off your house by the time you retire, you still have far more than the vast majority of people on this world. So if you take a step back and be content, some of that worry will go away and you'll be OK."
After the event, Barrett talks with Singletary about how best to save for his grandbaby's college education. Because the growth is not taxed, she recommends looking into the 529 college education plans (such as the Utah Educational Savings Plan).
Barrett trusts the advice.
The crowd leaves the museum in a pretty good mood, followed by the NPR hosts and financial experts. Only the dinosaurs remain in the dark.
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