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Cents and Sensibility: A cash counselor puts your money where your mouth is 

click to enlarge MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen

he Bible warns that “love of money is the root of all evil,” but playwright George Bernard Shaw suggested the lack of it is responsible for the world’s woes. As a woman wary of most extremes, Christine Moriarty disagrees with both ideas. The Lincoln-based financial planning consultant sees no significant rich- man-poor-man dichotomy when it comes to fiscal well-being.

“I have clients who are $30,000 in debt and others with $16 million in the bank,” says Moriarty. “Believe me, money doesn’t solve all the problems you might think.”

Are the best things in life really free? Or, in this time of plentiful credit cards, bankruptcies, Wall Street jitters and Enronitis, doesmoney continue to talk?

“The rich just have more of it,” the 39-year-old Moriarty contends. “They struggle with their comfort level and self-worth and what to do with what they have. The poor are struggling because they have different and more limited choices. Individuals in both groups are foggy and overwhelmed.”

She points to anecdotal studies of lottery winners and people who inherit vast sums. Five years later, most regretted their big windfalls. In many instances, the cash was quickly squandered due to lack of experience with managing money on a grand scale. Sometimes friends and relatives began “a feeding frenzy,” which led to hard feelings all around.

Moriarty believes acquiring more money does not necessarily solve the problematic “emotional relationships” people have with the elusive lucre. “Money is just a tool that helps us in this world,” she explains. “The confusion starts when we give it the ultimate power in our lives.”

People can recapture some of that power, according to Moriarty, if they follow several basic pointers for improving the money-and-me relationship: 1) “Stop using credit cards,” except when absolutely necessary; 2) Make sure to put some cash in a bank account, “even $5 a week, so you can build a good savings habit”; 3) “Figure out your priorities – if it’s family, friends and golf, then maybe stop eating out so you can pay for the golf”; and 4) “Think about the long-term future and look at the big picture.”

The big picture looks good for Moriarty. In June, she’ll get an award from the federal Small Business Association — it’s the Vermont 2002 Financial Advocate of the Year — as a result of a nomination from Senator Patrick Leahy. Moriarity spoke at several women’s economic conferences he sponsored in Randolph.

Moriarty’s holistic vision in money matters seems to reflect a combination of economic common sense and self-help spiritual wisdom. “I really do have a unique style,” she acknowledges. “I did a lot of personal-growth work that I can use in my business.”

Her worldview might be New Age, but Moriarty’s roots are solidly Irish Catholic. From a family that owned a Cheers-like neighborhood bar in suburban Boston, the Massachusetts native was “always good with numbers.” After attending the University of Vermont as a business major specializing in finance, she did not want to pursue a career in the corporate world — which at the time seemed like her only option.

While working for the school’s dean of students after graduation in 1984, Moriarty was intrigued to hear about a friend’s roommate who was enrolled in an American Express financial planning class. The money counseling seed was planted.

She then spent a year as a ski bum at Sun Valley before returning to Beantown to help out at the bar and toil in the urban canyons of high-stakes moolah: Moriarty was a profit-sharing coordinator for employees at a mutual fund company, and then an auditor of employee benefits at a certified public accounting firm. Mean-while, she took a correspondence course for a certificate in financial planning, got a “Series Seven” license that allowed her to sell stocks and bonds, and earned a master’s degree in business administration at Babson College in Wellesley.

After a dry period without a job in the mid-1990s, she was hired as a financial planner by a small accounting firm — which laid off her entire division after three months. A friend advised Moriarty to make use of a business idea that she’d devised in graduate school. On a shoestring, she opened Moriarty Financial Services in Needham to advise people about investment, retirement, education, tax and estate planning. It flourished.

But Moriarty had another goal. “Since the day I left Vermont, I always knew I’d come back,” she recalls. “So I moved to Lincoln in 1997, at first traveling to Boston for a few days every two weeks. All my income was there for about six or eight months.”

Moriarty soon built up a clientele in the Green Mountain State as well. Recently, she established a triumvirate of work locations. “It’s my Boston-Burlington-Bristol connection,” she explains. “Although I did — and still do — all my paperwork at home in Lincoln, I meet clients at my offices in those three places.”

Moriarity meets some clients in the Lakewood Commons complex on Shelburne Road, where she works one-on-one with older people about to retire, widows faced with paying the bills their husbands once handled, parents who want to begin saving for their children’s college expenses, or even twentysomethings whose parents are retiring without being able to afford such a luxury.

Moriarty has taught massage therapists how to set up their own businesses; co-hosted “following your dreams” sessions at the Kripalu Institute, a yoga retreat in the Berkshires; and talked to employees of large companies like UPS, Bank of Boston and Wyeth Nutritionals or cultural institutions like the Shelburne Museum.

Nowadays, Moriarty only visits Boston every other month. Her life is still very much on the road, however, with speaking engagements all over the country. Last weekend she flew west to give a speech on the benefits of fee-based planning for Metropolitan Life Insurance agents at a conference in Las Vegas — where money doesn’t just talk, it screams.

Although her stay in Sin City was likely to involve a little time in the casino, Moriarty is not a fan of gambling with investments. “I have always told people to be diversified,” she says. “No more than 10 percent should be invested with your own company. After the Enron collapse, I looked like a soothsayer. I was once an auditor, so my heart goes out to all those Enron and Arthur Anderson employees who lost everything.”

Does that debacle make her feel disillusioned with capitalism? “No. The laws on the books were not being enforced,” she says. “We can’t just blame the system, even though there’s plenty that needs to be fixed. There’s nothing wrong with money per se. There’s nothing inherently wrong with capitalism.

“We need to look within,” suggests Moriarty, sounding rather guru-like. “We have to become happier and more at peace with ourselves. What’s our responsibility? What can we change? My job is to educate people about how to do that.”

Nancy Fulton, a Jericho resident with a small publishing business, began consulting Moriarty about five years ago for help in retirement planning and other long-range strategies. “We just clicked,” she says of their initial meeting. “She asked me to consider both my material and non-material assets — like life experience, education and talents, who I was as a person.”

Last July, Fulton was also impressed by Moriarty’s public-speaking skills during a workshop called “How Much Joy Can You Stand?” at the Kripalu Institute. “She’s knowledgeable, humorous and has provocative ideas that are woven in with solid financial principles,” says Fulton. “She tells people that money is all about how you value yourself.”

Another of Moriarty’s clients set that price tag too high. “She was spending money like wildfire,” the financial planner remembers. “I got her to stop. A year or so later, she called to tell me that someone had accused her of being frugal. She was thrilled.”

Moriarty frequently sees couples with terrible communication skills regarding their money, artists who think they don’t have the savvy to manage their own finances, and people afraid to make any investments at all “because great-aunt Harriet lost her life savings in the stock market.”

She does recommend additional help for clients with seriously dysfunctional money habits. “I like to call myself a ‘financial coach,’ but you have to do all the actual work,” Moriarty says. “Some people need a psychologist; others need mediation. I’ve told clients to try therapy or to go to Al-Anon. I’m really clear on what’s my role and what isn’t. That shopper, for example, had already been in counseling, so she knew what her issues were.”

Moriarty suspects that any “sense of inadequacy” can create barriers between people and their money. Once a person understands that block, “you can examine it honestly,” she notes, “maybe even figure out why that pattern emerged in the first place… You position yourself for a new comfortable feeling around money and an attitude of abundance, no matter what’s in your pocketbook.”

Although she charges $115 an hour — the low end of the going rate for professional consultants of any kind — Moriarty proposes that “almost every person I see can save that much money within six months, if not sooner. Some clients come only once; others need to come every month for a year.”

In addition to her private practice, Moriarty teaches an undergraduate entrepreneurship course at the University of Vermont. Much of her free time is devoted to serving on the board of the Burlington Boys and Girls Club or volunteering with the Lincoln Library and the UVM Alumni Association.

She continues to ski, snowshoe, hike, run, meditate, do yoga and occasionally nurture her nascent wild side. Although always dressed for success in business settings, Moriarty confesses to recently buying a pair of pants with a dollar-sign pattern that glows in the dark. “Somebody told me about seeing them at Ames,” she says of this impulsive purchase, “and I couldn’t resist.”

A more sedate Moriarty emerges when talking about her philosphical book-in-progress, tentatively titled Moneypeace — which is also the name of her Web site. “Moneypeace. That is what I’m about,” she says. “Whether in money or in life, I believe in balance.”

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