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10

Deal or No Deal -- for Real

Your shot at complete financial freedom is just moments away. Come on down, America -- it's time to play real-life Deal or No Deal!

First, pick one of these numbered cases, but don't open it up just yet. You're hoping for the big prize: complete financial freedom for life. Even if it's not the million-dollar payoff, it could be one of the other American dream deals: a cushy company pension plan, an unexpected windfall of cash, or a generous 90-something billionaire suitor with a weak heart. Or it could contain just one penny.

Case No. 16, you say? Then let's start playing.

Round 1: Pick six cases from beaming, individually spotlighted models. One by one, they'll reveal the contents that will whittle down the financial fate in your sealed bag. Your picks?

  • Case No. 17: An unpaid parking ticket.
  • Case No. 20: $32 in spare change.
  • Case No. 4: The billionaire with the fading ticker. (Ooof. Too bad that's off the table so soon.)
  • Case No. 11: Four 60-day late payments in the past three years on your credit report.
  • Case No. 9: A $20 bill you forgot about in your coat pocket.
  • Case No. 14: A brother-in-law who needs another short-term loan and swears this is the last one.

The phone rings, and it's the Banker. He's hoping that the big payouts are revealed early in the game, making it more likely that the prize in your case is a low-dollar loser. He's going to make you an offer for your case. If you take it, the game's over, and he keeps the contents of your case. If you don't, you'll have to open five more cases before you get another offer.

The offer? Credit card convenience checks! You'll have access to all of those unused lines of credit on your cards to spend as you please. And he'll even throw in a sweet low interest rate. (Unless, of course, you break any of the rules, in which case all low-interest rate bets are off.)

Deal or no deal?

No deal! Nice choice. In fact, when we cut to commercial, call your credit card and negotiate a lower interest rate. Yup -- you can save $756 with just one phone call. In the meantime, it's time to pick five more cases. Come on, crummy money situations!

  • Case No. 19: A $50,000 inheritance. (That's gotta hurt a little.)
  • Case No. 8: A clean medical bill of health in your 50s, 60s, and 70s. (Ouch. That could have saved you a lot of coin.)
  • Case No. 12: A rising-interest-rate environment while you hold an interest-only adjustable-rate mortgage. (Whew. Dodged that one!)
  • Case No. 2: Plummeting real estate prices just when you need to sell your home and relocate.
  • Case No. 1: A shopaholic spouse.

That's kind of a mixed bag. And the Banker's new offer: a company match on your 401(k) contributions. That's free money. Can you afford to pass it up?

No deal! All-righty. An employer-sponsored retirement plan and other tax-smart accounts could amount to an instant 80% return on your money, but you clearly think you're on a roll. So let's open four more cases and see whether you're on your way to big riches.

  • Case No. 15: A home equity loan.
  • Case No. 3: A sweetheart who loves to clip coupons and budget.
  • Case No. 7: 50,000 shares in Microsoft at $3.44 back in 1995.
  • Case No. 13: The complete and total collapse of Social Security!

Brrrrrrringggg! The Banker has upped the ante substantially. Here's his offer: college tuition paid in full for your three kids. You could press your luck and open three more cases or have college tuition costs covered. What should you do?

No deal! That's a toughie -- college savings versus retirement savings. It sure would be nice to have the education costs in the bag. But even those not wheeling and dealing on a game show would be smart to put their own future financial needs in front of their kids'. There's no retirement scholarship, after all.

  • Case No. 6: A $50 Starbucks gift card. (That's a lotta lattes, but not a lotta loot.)
  • Case No. 5: 10,000 shares of Starbucks when you first tasted its coffee back in 1998 at a price of $5.50 per share.
  • Case No. 20: $750,000 in your IRA at age 65. (Oh, nooo!)

A lot of good stuff went away in that round. The Banker's new offer: a GM company pension plan.

What? You don't want to have to work forever? (We've heard that one before.) You might want more, but the offers might just get worse. And your case could be worthless.

Remember, this is your financial future we're playing for. Deal or no deal?

Deal in reality
Had enough high-stakes betting? The good news is that real-life Deal or No Deal is a lot easier to play. The rules are less strict. For example:

  • The contents of your case aren't a secret. Your checking and brokerage account balances are just a mouse click or phone call away. So when you're faced with an offer, you can weigh it properly against what you've got.

  • You get to play the banker. You don't have to leave your fortune to chance. Every day, we face opportunities for boosting our bottom line (or busting it). Have you examined your paycheck lately? There may be a veritable fortune for the taking if you just make a few smart money moves.

  • You don't have to play all-or-nothing with your finances. You call the shots, and if the credit card, mortgage, home equity loan, or other terms aren't acceptable, you can shop around -- we've got money tips galore.

Real-life Deal or No Deal may not be riveting enough for the prime-time lineup, but it's certainly one with better odds for the average American.

A deal you can't pass up
Need a phone-a-financial-friend lifeline? Check out the Motley Fool Green Light service and get answers to your every money question. Our most recent issue doles out $1,576 worth of money-making and money-saving secrets. Test-drive this issue for free for 30 days and get tips on choosing the right type of IRA, what to invest in, slashing your home-improvement tab by 10% to 50%, and five money rules you should break.

A version of this article ran in February 2006. It has been updated.

Microsoft is an Inside Value selection, and Starbucks is a Stock Advisor pick.

Motley Fool Green Light co-advisor Dayana Yochim has never been a game show contestant, but she's pretty sure an itchy trigger finger would knock her out in an early round. Her portfolio holdings (she owns none of the companies mentioned in this article) and the Fool's disclosure policy are at your fingertips.


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