Platinum Portfolio at a Pewter Address
New tax cuts will leave the rich even richer, like it or not
WASHINGTON — Hal Rogoff and Laurie Kauffman are members of the highest tax bracket, yet reside among construction workers. They travel the world, but drive a used Dodge minivan. They fill their home with antiques, while living on a grubby street in a borderline neighborhood.
They do it because they crave diversity - bohemians with a platinum portfolio.
"It is better to live in jumbled communities," says Laurie, who makes about $500,000 a year teaching finance at Fortune-50 telecommunications firms and other corporations. "I like not knowing how much people make."
That contrary view extends to the tax package signed into law by President Clinton Tuesday. Thanks to changes in the capital-gains tax and the estate tax, the couple will keep hundreds of thousands more in their denim pockets. A cause for celebration?
"It's pathetic," says Hal, who would rather Congress use the money to save Social Security.
"They can keep my money and solve my problems," chimes in Laurie. "They should use the money to shore up the infrastructure - to fix the schools or address crime."
But then the couple have never been mainstream. Take their neighborhood.
When friends and colleagues chose wealthier urban areas or the suburbs to start families, Rogoff and Kauffman settled in largely minority Columbia Heights, a community where security has to do with safety, not a stock.
That choice has involved sacrifice. Laurie wishes she could take an evening stroll, and longs to be able to allow Zakkai, 7, and Ezra, 5, go for a bicycle ride without being watched so closely.
Hal notes that many of his neighbors haven't finished high school and yearns for a few more kindred souls. But the community has had its benefits too. Staying put has enabled the couple to live by its philosophical code and save thousands due to lower property values.
It has also provided balance to Laurie, who toils in the world of corporate pinstripes and pt lunches. "If I moved to a suburb, I would feel like I was giving up part of my soul," she says.
The couple has written its own rules in other ways too. Laurie works long hours and travels to clients, while Hal stays home with the kids. The couple owns no TV, instead taking their youngsters on day trips to Washington museums. They have forgone such middle-class mainstays as owning an expensive home and car, while investing in mutual funds and stocks.
In each case, the couple has swept away social preconceptions and ruled on merit. For Hal, that meant leaving his job as a computer consultant to focus on parenting. He also spends his days arranging his wife's business trips, planning vacations, and tending to the couple's finances. In the end, his decision - an unorthodox one for a male baby boomer - came easily.
"It creates a tug-of-war for me to have a schedule that is set by forces beyond our control," he says. "We decided to take advantage of what Laurie's success has offered us."
Indeed, Laurie's one-woman operation is flourishing. In the past five years, her income from New Worth Consulting Inc. has exploded to $500,000 per year, with much of it coming from larger telecommunications and health firms that hire her to help sales staff learn about their customers.
Laurie got her big break 11 years ago after hearing about an opportunity with MCI from a friend at a downtown sushi bar. She dove in, spending hours crafting a proposal tailored to the firm. She made the cut, but there were two other finalists: a leading accounting firm and a team of professors from the Wharton Business School.
Her muse came through during a jog one day. During her presentation, she would offer brief hands-on tutorials. The rest is history. She still jokes of buying a T-shirt saying, "I beat Wharton."
Others might attribute her success to discipline, pluck, and ingenuity. But, in a self-effacing appraisal, Laurie credits something else: "I showed a lot of creativity, but a huge element of it was just straight luck."
Fortune or not, she now looks ahead with confidence. "Even if something terrible happened, ... because of our education and our access to technology, if anyone is going to figure out a way to survive, it's going to be us," she says.
Certainly they will benefit from the new tax package, whether they want to or not. The most obvious new break for people like Hal and Laurie - or more accurately their children - is the shift in the estate tax.
Collectively, Hal and Laurie could keep up to $2 million in untaxed assets in the three dwellings they own under the new law - an increase of $800,000. That change alone saves the family more than $300,000, estimates Rockville, Md., accountant Joel Maller.
The couple would also benefit from two changes in the capital-gains tax. The new law reduces the tax from 28 percent to 20 percent for upper-income investors. Excluding their three properties, about half of their $600,000 in assets lie in mutual funds and stocks that could produce capital gains.
As they acquire more money in the next few years, more capital gains will follow - likely yielding tens of thousands of dollars.
The new rule on primary residences also helps the family. The change allows a couple to exclude from taxation a profit of $500,000 instead of $125,000. That means Hal and Laurie could discount all $160,000 in profit if they sold the Capital Heights property today for its estimated $350,000, saving nearly $13,000.
Financial analysts say the changes could encourage more investment in capital gains and less in bank accounts, treasury bills, and other more secure sources.
But Hal does not anticipate shifting strategies until after the couple acquires more safer investments. A reader of The Wall Street Journal but not Money magazine, Hal describes himself as "an educated taxpayer" not a "tax maven."
He and Laurie are smart with money. They time vacations to coincide with Laurie's business trips, which are usually paid for by clients. They deduct for Laurie's office furniture. She recently incorporated her business, a change that enables the family to deduct for health insurance.
But Hal doesn't spend hours poring over computer spreadsheets. Nor will he likely do so with the new tax code, something they couple views with bemusement. "Just at the point I'm putting more money into investments, suddenly I'm going to keep more of it," he says. "We didn't really need this - it's kind of a fairy tale for us."
KAUFFMAN AND ROGOFF FINANCIAL PROFILE
* Laurie Kauffman's business, Net Worth Consulting Inc., brings in $500,000 a year after expenses.
* Hal Rogoff stays home with their two children and manages the couple's finances.
* The couple owns three homes:
Primary residence in Columbia Heights, Md.: worth about $350,000. (Paid $190,000, plus about $160,000 on repairs.)
Former Washington residence: Bought in 1989 for $100,000.
Vacation home on the Eastern Shore: worth $100,000, about twice the original cost.
Rental income from two houses and two ground-floor apartments in their current home: $20,000 a year (before expenses).
* Assets, excluding homes: $600,000. About 50 percent in stocks and mutual funds, 15 percent in cash and money-market accounts, and 35 percent in fixed-income CDs and treasury bills. About $340,000 of the above is in Individual Retirement Accounts.