Q&A: How to build a cushion against all those pesky expenses

Dear Liz: We’re both retired and live on retirement checks. When expenses exceed our income, we draw from savings, but the balance is going down fast due to a new air conditioning unit, real estate taxes, etc. How do we put that money back and build a cushion in the checking account so our savings isn’t used to cover us month to month?

Answer: You need an emergency fund for truly unpredictable expenses, but you also should have a bunch of savings “buckets” to cover less regular but still predictable expenses. These would include property taxes, insurance, home repairs, car repairs, vacations, medical bills, holiday expenses and any other bill you face regularly but not monthly. You can track these buckets in a spreadsheet or set up separate savings accounts for each goal. Online banks typically let you set up multiple savings subaccounts for free.

Here’s how it works. If your next property tax installment is due in six months and you’ll owe $3,000, you transfer $500 a month into the property tax savings account to cover that bill. If you’re planning on a vacation in nine months, divide the expected cost by nine and transfer that amount to savings each month.

Estimating some costs can be tricky. You often can use last year’s spending as a guide, or seek out authoritative sources. Edmunds.com’s True Cost to Own feature, for example, can help you estimate repair and maintenance costs for many vehicles. With home repairs, Consumer Reports can help you calculate how long various systems tend to last and how much they cost to replace, which will allow you to save accordingly. Or you can just use the rule of thumb to put aside 1% of your home’s value each year into an account to cover maintenance and repairs.

You may not always guess correctly, but setting aside something throughout the year can help you meet these big expenses as they arise without having to dip into your emergency fund.

You may discover that you can’t set aside enough to cover these less regular expenses and still pay your monthly bills. If that’s the case, you may not be able to afford your current lifestyle and may need to trim some costs.

Q&A: How to start saving

Dear Liz: I have credit card debt, federal student loans and a car loan. I’m trying to save for a house, but I also know I should save for retirement. How do I figure out what to tackle first?

Answer: If you have a 401(k) with a match at work, take advantage of it first. That’s free money that typically equals an instant 50% to 100% return on your contributions. Then pay off the credit card debt. You normally don’t need to be in a rush to pay off federal student loans. Your car loan is probably OK to pay off as scheduled too, assuming you got a decent interest rate.

After the credit card debt is vanquished, beef up your savings. Eventually you’ll want a separate emergency fund, but for the moment you can earmark the money for your down payment, knowing you can raid it in an emergency.

If you don’t have a 401(k) match or even a workplace plan — about half of workers don’t — you should still save something, but your priority will be to pay off the credit cards as fast as you can. Once that’s done, you can open a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. The traditional IRA will give you a tax break, but withdrawals will be taxed and may be penalized. If you contribute to a Roth, you don’t get to deduct your contribution but you can withdraw your contributions at any time without taxes or penalties. This makes a Roth a kind of emergency fund-slash-house fund. Ideally, you would leave the money alone until retirement, but it’s good to have a Plan B until you can build up your emergency and down payment funds elsewhere.

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Is Saving Pointless?

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailRaise your hand if you’ve ever tried to build an emergency fund, then gave up after an unexpected expense drained away everything you managed to save.

If that’s you, then you’re likely part of the 47% of Americans who recently told the Federal Reserve that they wouldn’t be able to pay an unexpected $400 expense without borrowing or selling something. Some said they wouldn’t be able to come up with the money at all.

In my latest for NerdWallet, how your savings is what stands between you and the financial shocks that could send your life into a tailspin.

Q&A: Catching up on retirement savings

Dear Liz: I just found out I am cured of cancer. I thought I would be dead in three years and thus did not save very much. I’m 62, single, with no children and an annual salary of $85,000. I’m now contributing the maximum to my employer’s 403(b) retirement plan plus $6,500 to a Roth IRA. My mortgage balance is $380,000 on a 30-year loan fixed at 3.65%. I have about $380,000 in equity. I have about $30,000 saved outside of my $10,000 emergency fund. What should I do with it to get the highest return with minimal risk?

Answer: There’s no such thing as an investment that offers high returns with minimal risk. You get one or the other.

There’s also no such thing as “making up” for decades of not saving, short of an extremely unlikely windfall such as a lottery win or a big inheritance. This is why financial planners tell young people to start saving for retirement from their first paychecks and not to stop or touch those funds prematurely. Waiting until the last minute simply won’t work, and the longer you delay the tougher it will be to catch up — until catching up becomes impossible.

Still, at some point you won’t be able to keep working, so you need to save what you can. The more you save, the better off you’ll be.

Continue to take full advantage of your retirement savings options. Thanks to catch-up provisions, you can put up to $24,000 in your workplace retirement fund (the 2016 limit of $18,000 plus a $6,000 “catch up” for those 50 and over) and $6,500 into an IRA or Roth IRA (the 2016 limit of $5,500 plus a $1,000 catch-up). You’ve saving more than a third of your income, and several years of contributions like that will go a long way toward easing your final years. A balanced approach to your investments, with 50% to 60% in stocks, should give you the growth you’ll need to overcome inflation over the decades to come.

Your home could be another source of funds. Downsizing or moving to a lower-cost area could free up some of your equity to bolster your nest egg. Another option could be a reverse mortgage, but make sure you get objective, expert advice before you proceed.

Finally, it’s crucial to delay claiming Social Security as long as possible, since this benefit is likely to comprise most of your income in retirement and you want that check to be as large as possible. Try to put off claiming until age 70 when your benefit maxes out.

Q&A: Best savings vehicle for a baby

Dear Liz: I recently gave birth to a little boy. I am wondering about the best savings vehicle that would offer flexibility for when family gives him money. I don’t want to tie it up in a 529 college savings plan in case he doesn’t want to go to college or has other needs.

Answer: If you want your child to have a reasonable shot at a middle-class lifestyle in the future, some kind of post-secondary education will be necessary. It may not be a four-year degree; it could be a one- or two-year training program, and a 529 college savings plan can help pay for that. Money contributed to a 529 plan grows tax-deferred and can be used tax-free at nearly all colleges, universities and community colleges as well as many career and technical schools.

You will remain in control of the account and can withdraw money for other purposes if necessary, although you would owe income taxes and a 10% federal penalty on any gains.

If you really can’t accept any limitations on how the money is used, then you can open a brokerage account in your own name and invest the money there. Putting the money in his name could hurt his chances for financial aid if he does decide to go to college.

Q&A: Cashing mature savings bonds

Dear Liz: I have savings bonds that have achieved full face value. What should I do? Keep them indefinitely or cash them in to fund my Roth account or what? Am I correct that once they have matured, there’s no more money to be made off them?

Answer: You are correct. Once savings bonds have matured and stopped earning interest, they should be redeemed and the money put to work elsewhere. EE, H and I bonds mature in 30 years, while HH bonds mature in 20 years. You can find more information at TreasuryDirect.gov.

Funding a Roth is a great idea for deploying these funds. Other good uses are paying off high-rate debt or building an emergency fund.

Q&A: Budgeting for new college grads

Dear Liz: My son will be graduating from college this June. He is fortunate to have already landed a good job, starting in August, and will be managing his own finances for the first time. His company provides a full benefits package, retirement fund, profit-sharing, a hiring bonus and all that good stuff.

I’d like to give him some guidance on how to organize and allocate his income between living expenses, liquid savings, student loan payments, charities, etc. What do you suggest? With graduations coming up, this might be a good time to help us parents get our kids off on the right foot.

Answer:One of the best things new college graduates can do is to continue living like college students for a little while longer.

In other words, they shouldn’t rush out to buy a new car or sign up for an expensive apartment when they get their first paychecks.

Pretending they’re still broke can help them avoid overcommitting themselves before they see how much of that paycheck is actually left after taxes and other nondiscretionary expenses.

A few other rules of thumb can help them get a good financial start. One is to immediately sign up for the 401(k) or other workplace retirement plan.

Ideally, they would contribute at least 10% of their salaries to these plans, but they should put in at least enough to get the full company match. If they aren’t eligible for the plan right away, they can set up automatic monthly transfers from their checking accounts to an IRA or Roth IRA.

Graduates don’t need to be in a rush to pay off their federal student loans, since this debt has fixed rates, numerous repayment options and various other consumer protections. Private student loans have none of these advantages, and so should be paid off first.

If your son has both types, he should consider consolidating the federal loans and opting for the longest possible repayment period to lower his payments. That would free up more money to tackle the private loans. Once those are paid off, he can start making larger payments toward the federal loans to get those retired faster.

One budgeting plan to consider is the 50/30/20 plan popularized by bankruptcy expert and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

In her book “All Your Worth,” she suggested people devote no more than half their after-tax incomes to “must have” expenses such as shelter (rent or mortgage), utilities, food, transportation, insurance, minimum loan payments and child care. Thirty percent can be allocated to “wants,” including clothing, vacations and eating out, while 20% is reserved for paying down debt and saving.

Q&A: Saving for retirement

Dear Liz: After many years of unemployment, I finally got a full-time position. It is a state job with a pension. How much do I need to save for retirement? Can I focus on paying off debt and saving for college, and trust I will be OK in retirement?

Answer: Your long stint of unemployment should have taught you that no job, and no plan for your life, is guaranteed.

You may have to work for the state for years to become “vested” in the plan, or eligible for a retirement check. In order to actually retire, you typically have to stay employed by the state for a decade or more. Even then, your check in retirement may not replace a big chunk of your salary. Traditional defined benefit pensions tend to offer the highest benefits to those who work for the system for decades.

A lot can happen while you’re waiting for your pension to build. You could get fired or laid off or suffer a disability that limits your ability to work. The pension plan itself could change.

If your employer doesn’t pay into the Social Security system, that adds another layer of uncertainty to your future. You could wind up without a pension, or only a small pension, and less Social Security than you might have had with a job that did pay Social Security taxes.

That’s why it’s essential to save for retirement even with the prospect of a good pension. You may be offered a tax-deferred workplace plan, or you can save on your own through IRAs or taxable accounts.

Q&A: Prioritizing your financial goals

Dear Liz: How do you prioritize financial goals on a small salary? I am 24 and a college graduate with about $40,000 in student loan debt. Because I work full-time at a nonprofit educational organization, about half of my loans qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, so I currently only pay the monthly payment on a private loan and two other small loans. I earn a small salary, but I have always been drawn to jobs in service-oriented, nonprofit fields, and I am perfectly fine with the fact that I’ll never have a career with a six-figure salary. My problem is that after rent, utilities, student loan payments, groceries and other such monthly bills, I have very little money left over to divide among my different financial goals. I make a small monthly contribution to my company-sponsored 403(b) plan, but I’m also trying to rebuild my savings after paying out of pocket for an expensive root canal. I occasionally earn some extra cash from baby-sitting, and I live a fairly simple lifestyle — I own my used car, I walk to work — yet I feel like I’ve barely been making a dent in any of my goals — saving for retirement, rebuilding savings and paying off student loans. How can I leverage what’s left over at the end of the month to reach my goals? Would it be better to focus on one goal rather than all three?

Answer: Many people in your situation focus on a single goal hoping to make faster progress. They don’t fully realize what their single-mindedness is costing them.

Prioritizing debt repayment over saving for retirement is particularly costly. Not only do you give up potential company matches, but the money you don’t contribute can’t earn future tax-deferred returns. At your young age, every $100 you contribute could grow to more than $2,000 by the time you hit retirement age, assuming 8% average annual returns, which is the historical long-term average for the stock market. In fact, the younger you are, the more you give up by not contributing to a retirement fund. Ask any of your older co-workers if it gets any easier to save for retirement. They’ll probably tell you that they wish they’d gotten serious about retirement savings when they were a lot younger.

Building up your emergency savings may seem prudent as well, but you don’t want to do so at the expense of your retirement fund or instead of paying down high rate debt.

So here’s your game plan. Instead of divvying up what you have left after paying bills, start by paying yourself first. Contribute at least 10% of your income to your company retirement plan. Then investigate the possibilities of consolidating your private student loan into a fixed-rate loan, since rates probably will rise in the future. If you can lock in a low rate, it would then make sense to start building up your emergency savings. If you can’t, you might want to divide your money between savings and debt repayment.

It will be tough to swing all this. You may be able to make it easier by finding a roommate or a cheaper place to rent, or looking for more outside gigs such as baby-sitting until your income rises enough to allow you to comfortably pursue all your goals.