Q&A: Help your son by helping yourself

Dear Liz: I’m a new mom and want to start saving for my son’s college/car/other life expenses while also planning a secure future for him. If I only had, for example, $300 a month to put toward this goal, what would you recommend I spend it on? Life insurance? Savings accounts for him? Savings accounts for my household? A 401(k)? Stashing away money under the mattress? Something else I haven’t thought of yet? I just want to make sure I’m doing the very best for my son and our future.

Answer: Congratulations and welcome to the wonderful adventure that is parenthood.

This adventure won’t be cheap. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the cost of raising a child to age 18 is now $233,610 for a middle-income married couple with two kids. Your mileage will vary, of course, but there’s no denying that your income will have to stretch to cover a lot more now that you’re providing for a child.

Your impulse will be to put your son first. To best care for him, though, your own financial house needs to be in order.

Begin by creating a “starter” emergency fund of $500 or so. Many people live paycheck to paycheck, which means any small expense can send them into a tailspin. Eventually you’ll want a bigger rainy-day fund, but it could take several years to build up the recommended three months’ worth of expenses, and you don’t want to put other crucial goals on hold for that long.

Once your starter fund is in place, you should contribute enough to your 401(k) to at least get the full company match. Matches are free money that you shouldn’t pass up.

You probably need life insurance as well, but don’t get talked into an expensive policy that doesn’t give you enough coverage. Young parents typically need up to 10 times their incomes, and term policies are the most affordable way to get that much coverage.

After life insurance is in place, you can boost both your retirement and emergency savings until those accounts are on track. If you still have money left over to devote to your son’s future, then consider contributing to a 529 college savings account. These accounts allow you to invest money that can be used tax free to pay for qualifying education expenses anywhere in the country (and many colleges abroad, as well).

Keep in mind that post-secondary education really isn’t optional anymore, particularly if you want your kid to remain (or get into) the middle class. Some kind of vocational or college degree is all but essential, and the money spent can have a huge payoff in terms of his future earnings.

The emergency fund you can eat

Cash can help you survive an emergency, but saving as much as financial planners typically recommend — three to six months’ worth of expenses — can take years. You can build an edible emergency fund a lot quicker.

A well-stocked pantry can help you survive a natural disaster or extended blackout, get through a stretch of unemployment, ensure you always have something tasty for dinner, and save you money, if done correctly.

The key to doing it right: Store what you eat, and eat what you store.

In my latest for the Associated Press, how to create an edible emergency fund that will help you survive a variety of disasters, both big and small.

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