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Two families pull ahead by investing 'hidden' assets

FOR some people, saving money is as much a part of their routine as buying groceries; they don't think about whether they can do it, they just find a way to do it. For others, however, saving to achieve long-range financial goals just never seems to happen.

Three years ago, James and Karen Burns were making about $45,000 a year and had a cheap 10-year-old mortgage, two children, and almost no savings.

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''Every time we put three or four thousand dollars together, we'd go on vacation or do something to fix up the house,'' said Mr. Burns, a sales manager at a printing company. ''I saw other people - some who were making less than us - investing in this or that. I just couldn't do it.''

Today, with an income of $50,000, including Mrs. Burns's salary as a bank teller, the couple have a new mortgage that has added almost $300 to their monthly payments. But they also have $27,000 in three separate investments and $ 7,000 in a money market fund where they only had $1,500 before.

While these investments are just beginning to show returns, the Burns family is poised for real financial growth in the future. Now in their late 30s, Mr. and Mrs. Burns are in a position to provide for their sons' college educations and build an estate.

Doing this with their income, however, is not easy. Most of the effective savings and investment strategies used by financial planners today are just not available to people earning less than $60,000 or $70,000 and who have a mortgage , like to take vacations, and have children they expect to put through college. ''If you're making less than $50,000 in this country, you're spending it all,'' says Thomas J. McFarland, president of the New England Financial Planning Group, a Burlington, Mass., firm that has been working with Mr. and Mrs. Burns for the past three years.

But the Burnses did have something they could use as a financial grubstake to get them started: their house, which had appreciated handsomely, thanks to inflation and Mr. Burns's do-it-yourself home improvements.

''We took out a second mortgage, which I was dead set against,'' Mr. Burns recalls. ''At the time, I was thinking, now wait a minute. I'm going from an 8 -percent mortgage up to a 14- or 15-percent mortgage. But once you talk with someone about it, you see there are advantages.''

With 10 years of equity in his house, Mr. Burns discovered, ''it's almost like putting money in the bank. I have been saving money. And if I take it out, the interest I'm paying on the new mortgage is tax-deductible. Also, it freed up almost $25,000 for investment.

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''Then, the secret is investing it properly - not fiddling around with it, putting it into stocks and bonds and whatnot.''

The new mortgage actually raised $50,000, twice what the Burnses put into investments. The other $25,000 is being used for home improvements which will further enhance the value of their house. The new monthly mortgage payments are almost $900, about $300 more than they were paying before. ''This is not uncomfortable for us to handle. It's extra money I wasn't saving,'' Mr. Burns says.

He says his primary concern now is providing for the education of his children, who are 10 and 14 years old, meaning the oldest will be needing to pay college tuition in three years.

''Let's say it costs $5,000 a year to send a kid to school these days, which I think is a pretty conservative estimate,'' Mr. Burns says. ''Am I going to have that $5,000 in three years? $5,000 is easy to save, but I've got to think about a four-year plan.''

''When we begin with a client,'' Mr. McFarland says, ''we want to arrive at a strategy. We ask the people what they want to do. They may say educating kids is the most important, but they're not going to stop going out so they can educate their kids.''

To help reach this goal, Mr. McFarland recommended splitting the $25,000 from the new mortgage and putting $10,000 in a leasing program, $10,000 in a real estate program, and $5,000 in a mutual fund. The early benefits of these investments were seen last year, with $1,500 in tax savings from the leasing and real estate programs. ''That alone was worth it,'' Mr. Burns says.

The goal for the oldest son was to raise as much cash as quickly as possible. The mutual fund and the real estate program are expected to help with this. At 10 years of age, the younger child has more time, so the leasing program is being used as a tax shelter now, but when it begins generating cash flow, the Burnses will make a gift of the program to the boy so the income will be taxed at his lower rate.

The boys will also benefit from a $30,000 inheritance from Mr. Burns's aunt, who passed on recently. Of that, $16,000 will go into insured certificates of deposit for the oldest, and $4,000 will be put in a balanced mutual fund for the youngest. The remaining $10,000 will be invested by their parents in a cable television limited partnership.

Mr. Burns admits he would not have taken out a new mortgage on his home, would not have made these investments, and would have wondered how he was going to meet education expenses without professional guidance. It also helped that Mr. McFarland was a personal friend.

''I really appreciate what he's done. I don't think I, not having a financial background, would have even known about these. Where does the average person go to learn about investments, leasing programs, and things like this?''

Beyond building up family savings and meeting education expenses, Mr. Burns's longer-range goals include saving for retirement and providing an inheritance that he can leave to his children.

''I don't want to put my money into taxes. I'd rather be putting it aside in tax-deferred programs.'' To this end, he has an individual retirement account and a salary-reduction plan where he works, where part of his contribution is matched by the employer.

Mr. Burns admits he is ''not perfect'' when it comes to saving and spending. ''I still live kind of comfortably. I still go out and buy crazy things.'' He will buy a television if he wants it, or go out to dinner occasionally, even use his charge cards now and then for small items - though not to buy $300 or $400 worth of lumber for the house, as he once did. ''I don't want you to think I sit around and just save my money and not spend anything. We still enjoy ourselves.''

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