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.

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