Good Life

Penn State grad helps generations plan for the future

Ash Toumayants, founder of Strong Tower Associates, poses in his office on East College Avenue in State College.
Ash Toumayants, founder of Strong Tower Associates, poses in his office on East College Avenue in State College.

The baby was on the way. The business was underway.

Stress, it was safe to say, was running high.

But for Ash Toumayants, those first few months of 2012 changed his life. For good.

“When you look back at stuff like this,” he said, laughing, “you realize I was pretty crazy.”

Four years later and Arielle now has a 5-month-old brother, Mark, and Dad has another office. She doesn’t know who is the busier boy.

For now, though, Dad may take the title. The founder of Strong Tower Associates, a financial and retirement planning firm with locations in State College and Lewisburg, helps others prepare for the future, managing portfolios, navigating health care costs and unspooling the tangled ball of yarn that is personal finance.

“I found out I really enjoy math,” Toumayants, 35, said. “I really enjoy strategic planning, and I really enjoy being around people.”

Now Toumayants, a Penn State grad, and his team try to alleviate the stress of keeping the ledger favorably tilted. He says it takes smart yet small decisions here and there, lifestyle changes that couple ambition with self-restraint.

So when the big things happen — like the birth of your first born — you’re ready.

“A lot of financial planning is looking at the big picture stuff,” he said, “and not just looking at what mutual fund to buy.”

Q: Rewind to January 2012. You’re looking to get your business going and the baby is on the way. What was life like?

A: I had just gotten married about two years before that and so we’re trying to figure out life together. (Noelle) was expecting. Our daughter was born in April, and I started the business in January, and so my wife was really pregnant when I started, and I had another “baby” to take care of with the business. She was just great about it, honestly.

I started this firm with three other representatives at the time and three other staff as well, so there’s payroll to meet. It’s not just a matter of feeding myself. It was a little crazy (laughs).

Q: What can I take from your book on retirement planning for multiple generations?

A: With Generation Y, millennials, obviously student loans are a big problem for a lot of college grads. But another problem is this cultural shift of doing what you enjoy as opposed to doing what is profitable or doing what will generate a good income for your family. That shift change is a little dangerous.

I’m a fan of Mike Rowe, the “Dirty Jobs” guy, because his big thing is you don’t wait for a job that you’re passionate about before you do it. You do a job and you bring your passion to it. I think millennials need to be very mindful of technology disruption, and whatever career they’re in, they kind of have to always be learning. Because for a lot of younger people, technology is going to change so rapidly. They have to make sure their job is still going to be there.

Q: How about for Gen X? What challenges do they face?

A: Their biggest problem is that they’re saddled with too much debt because some still have student loans, but also it’s the lifestyle. This particular generation has experienced these lowering interest rates, and it’s gotten easier for them to borrow more money. So you see a lot more people who are in their 30s and 40s who live in really nice homes, but have really pathetic retirement accounts. Whereas a couple of generations before, the average house that was built in the 1950s was about 1,200 square feet and people had really good pension plans. Whether it was they did a good job of saving or the government made those promises, the point is they lived modestly. Whereas the average home is about 2,500 square feet (the median size of a completed single-family home in 2015 was 2,467 square feet, according to the Census Bureau, or more than double the size of homes in the 1950s) so there is more cost to that. People are carrying very large mortgages for an extended period of time, and that is hampering their ability to save.

Q: What can employers do to help their employees understand financial planning?

A: Employers have a fiduciary responsibility to do what’s in their employees’ best interests. A lot of 401(k) plans are overpriced, and (employees) just don’t know what they’re paying in fees. The same is true for teachers. The 403(b) plan that teachers have access to are primarily provided by variable annuity companies and again, they’re very pricey products that are not always in the person’s interest. So I think figuring out how to help them find the best investment vehicle would be good.

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy