There are no stupid questions

Tina Haapala |

“Hey Doc, I’ve got this pain back here.”

Those of you in the medical profession have heard this and other conversation starters at parties, while shopping, in line at the theatre, and a myriad of other places.  While I rarely get some dude coming up to me showing off a growth on his arm, I, too, am asked questions from people in all sorts of settings. So I thought this topic might be good for the current mix of articles about what I’ve learned in the 20 years since I started Personal Money Planning.

Quite honestly, I don’t mind getting questions. There’s a certain ego-boost when someone treats you like an expert on some topic. The problems are with the answers.

To start, like doctors, I need to be very careful with any answer given. There are several reasons for this. First, I’m opening myself up to liability. Now, the odds that anyone can sue me for a casual answer I give them at the bowling alley is rather small, but it is possible.  Second, and related to the first, is that I likely don’t have enough information to go on.

If you ask me something like what the contribution limit for an IRA is, I will probably get that one right. Well, unless I guess your age wrong, because the answer is different if you’re under 50 than if you are older. Or you might not have any income. In that case the answer might be zero--unless you are married and your spouse has income. Oh, but was that earned income or was it investment income? You get the point…I’d have to spend a bit of time even with a simple question to make sure I’m coming up with the right answer.

“Is this a good time to be in (or out) of stocks?” is a common question I’ll get. My normal answer is that it is always a good time to be in stocks, unless it isn’t. When is the money going to be spent? What other resources do you have? Are you talking about a particular stock or the market as a whole? Which market? Oh, and what is your risk tolerance? Again, even a simple opinion can be hard to give.

Lastly, this is my profession. It’s how I get paid. It’s how I make my mortgage payment each month. While rare, some people do abuse on-the-street Q&A. Those are the folks who actually get a bit miffed if I invite them to call and schedule an appointment for a more complete answer.

These impromptu questions are just part of the business. Anyone with a recognized expertise has experienced it and had to learn how to deal with it. At least I don’t have paparazzi following me around.

Still, I don’t mind when people stop me in the store or lean over during an intermission at the theatre with a quick question. And, within limits, I will answer it as best I can. So if you pass me this week and are wondering what a target-date fund is or whether a 529 plan makes sense for your teen, ask away.

This article was published  in the Wichita Falls Times Record News on September 14, 2014.