Use windfall to boost retirement savings

Dear Liz: What would you suggest that someone do with $20,000 if the someone is closer to 40 than 30, single, with $100,000 of student loan debt and a $250,000 mortgage? My salary is around $100,000 a year. I have an emergency fund equal to six months of expenses and I make an annual IRA contribution since my employer doesn’t offer a 401(k) plan. Should I accelerate my student loan payments, since the interest isn’t tax deductible for me because my income is too high? Or should I invest instead? If I invest, should I put it all in a total market stock index fund or is that too risky?

Answer: Even if you’re making the maximum annual IRA contribution of $5,500 (people 50 and older can contribute an additional $1,000), you’re probably not saving enough for retirement. You can check the numbers using a retirement calculator (AARP offers a good one at its website, http://www.aarp.org). If indeed you’re coming up short, then consider opening a taxable brokerage account and earmarking it for retirement. You can use a chunk of your $20,000 windfall to get started, but also set up regular ongoing contributions.

The bulk of your retirement money should be invested in stocks, since that’s the only asset class that consistently outperforms inflation over time. If you try to play it too safe and avoid stocks, your purchasing power is likely to decline over the years instead of growing. A total market index fund with low expenses is a good bet for delivering diversification at low cost. But leaven your portfolio with bonds and cash as well, since these assets can cushion market downturns. All the returns that stocks give you in good markets won’t be much help if you panic and sell in a bad market. People who try to time the market that way often miss the subsequent rally, so they wind up selling low and buying high — not a winning way to invest.

If you don’t want to try to figure out an asset allocation, look for a low-cost target date fund. If you plan to retire in about 25 years, you’d want to look for a “Retirement 2040” fund.

Once you get your retirement savings on track, then you can start paying down that student loan debt. Target private loans first, if you have any, since they’re less flexible and have fewer consumer protections than federal student loan debt.

Emergency funds: How much is enough?

Dear Liz: A lot of financial advice sites say you should have an emergency fund equal to three to six months of living expenses. What would be considered living expenses? Should you use three to six months of your net take-home pay or a smaller number? Is three to six months really enough?

Answer: Let’s tackle your last question first. The answer: No one knows.

It’s impossible to predict what financial setbacks you may face. You may not lose your job — or you may get laid off and be unemployed for many months. You may stay healthy — or you may get sick and your only hope might be experimental treatments your insurance doesn’t cover. Nothing may go wrong in your life, or many things could go wrong all at once, depleting even a fat emergency fund.

Having a prudent reserve of cash can help you survive the more likely (and less catastrophic) setbacks. Financial planners suggest that your first goal be three months’ worth of living expenses, typically defined as the bills that can’t be put off without serious consequences. That would include shelter, utilities, food, transportation, insurance, minimum loan payments and child care. Any expense that you easily could cut or postpone wouldn’t be included.

If you work in a risky industry or simply want a little more security, you can build your fund to equal six months of essential living expenses, or more. (The median duration of unemployment after the recent recession peaked at around five months, although many people were out of work for far longer.)

It can take many months, if not years, to build up even a three-month reserve. In the meantime, it can be prudent to have access to various sources of credit, including space on your credit cards or a home equity line of credit.

No matter how eager you are to have a fat emergency fund, you shouldn’t sacrifice retirement savings. For most people, saving for retirement needs to be the financial priority, with saving for other purposes fit in as you can.

How to make saving money easier

Dear Liz: What’s the easiest way to save money? I have the hardest time. I want to save, but I feel that I don’t make enough to start saving.

Answer: The easiest way to save is to do it without thinking about it.

That usually means setting up automatic transfers either from your paycheck or from your checking account. If you have to think about putting aside money, you’ll probably think of other things to do with that cash. If it’s done automatically, you may be surprised at how fast the money piles up.

The second part of this equation is to leave your savings alone. If you’re constantly dipping into savings to cover regular expenses, you won’t get ahead.

People manage to save even on small incomes because they make it a priority. They “pay themselves first,” putting aside money for savings before any other bills are paid. Start with small, regular transfers and increase them as you can.

Even military careerists need a Plan B

Dear Liz: I’m about to marry an active-duty military man. We’re in the process of marrying our finances, and I have several questions.

First, what is a good emergency fund for us? We run our household on his salary because I’m recently unemployed. I’ve always had a six-month emergency fund for myself, but because he’ll theoretically always be employed, should we have less savings in emergency funds and more in retirement and investments?

Second, along with my unemployment, I’m bringing about $15,000 in savings and $9,000 in student loan debt (at 4.5%). He has about $5,000 in savings and no debt at all. Neither of us has a retirement account or any other investments. I’m leaning toward paying off my debt so that we start on even ground, but I have a feeling that you’re going to tell me not to do that. What should I be considering at this time?

Answer: The military offers good benefits and generous pensions to people who make the armed services their career. But the pension probably won’t cover all your expenses in retirement. (Remember, if he retires after 20 years of service, he’ll get only 50% of his base pay.) Besides, there’s really no such thing as “guaranteed” employment, even in the armed services, so it’s smart to have a Plan B.

Your husband-to-be should be taking advantage of the federal Thrift Savings Plan, which works like a 401(k) for civilians, although there’s no employer match for service members. He can contribute up to $17,000 a year ($17,500 in 2013), his contributions are excluded from his taxable income, and the money grows tax-deferred until it’s withdrawn in retirement, at which point it’s taxed as regular income.

The Thrift Savings Plan also has a Roth option. Withdrawals from a Roth in retirement are tax-free, although contributions usually are included in taxable income. The exception: If your fiance is deployed, most or all of his income would be tax-free, so he would be able to make contributions to the Roth with tax-exempt income, said Joseph Montanaro, a certified financial planner with USAA. That’s a pretty great deal: no tax on the contributions going in, and no tax on the withdrawals coming out.

If your man isn’t deployed, he still might want to divide his contributions between the regular and Roth plans so that he would have different savings “buckets” to tap in retirement and thus more control over his tax bill.

He probably wouldn’t get a full military pension if he leaves or is forced out of the military before he has served 20 years. But he would be able to take his Thrift Savings Plan balance with him.

When you return to work, you also should start contributing to a retirement fund. If you don’t have access to a 401(k) or 403(b), you might contribute to an IRA or a Roth IRA.

Although you would be smart to pay off any high-rate debt, such as credit card balances, you need not be in a rush to pay off low-rate, tax-deductible debt such as student loans, especially if the rate you’re paying is fixed. Instead, focus on building up that emergency fund. The exact amount you need is more art than science, but a six-month fund would be prudent.

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Don’t count on plastic to cover big expenses

Dear Liz: I’m 27 and have no consumer debt, a decent salary and a boatload of student loans. I use my credit cards for most of my expenses to earn rewards points and generally pay off my cards each month. I also take advantage of the 0% introductory rate offered by many credit card companies. This grace period gives me a security blanket so that I can spread large expenses such as insurance or car repairs over several months without derailing my saving plans. Can I apply for these offers without wrecking my excellent scores?

Answer: Occasionally applying for a new card won’t affect your scores much. Typically such applications ding your scores by five points or less.

You should be budgeting and saving for large expenses, however, rather than leaning on your cards. (Car repairs, in particular, aren’t really “emergency” costs — if you have a car, you know they’re coming, and calculators like Edmunds.com’s “True Cost to Own” feature can give you a good idea of what they’re likely to be.) Those 0% offers often come with balance transfer fees or other charges that make the deals a lot less attractive than they seem at first glance.

Also, you should be in the habit of always paying your cards in full — always. “Generally” isn’t good enough, since you could easily be enticed into spending beyond your means, especially as you chase rewards points. Rewards cards are a good deal only if you don’t carry a balance. Otherwise, you can pay frighteningly high interest rates that offset any benefit you may earn.

Try, try again

One of the most frustrating things about money is that progress may not be permanent.

But it’s still progress—if you keep going.

Here’s what I mean. Say you make a goal to boost your emergency fund. You manage to save a few hundred bucks—and then your car breaks down, or you get a speeding ticket, or you need dental work. There goes the extra money.

That’s where a lot of people give up. Looked at another way, though, the emergency fund did exactly what it was supposed to: it was there when you needed it, and kept you from putting another few hundred bucks on your credit cards. If you keep saving, this small start can turn into something bigger.

In my MSN column, “Why you need $500 in the bank,” I told the story of Wendi Pendleton. Here’s the email she sent me a couple of years ago:

“I just wanted to thank you. During April 2008 I read a column about having a $500 emergency fund. I decided it was solid advice and trimmed my spending that month and saved $500. Realizing how much money I wasted I saved another $500 the next month and so on (and some months more than $500). Even after what would have been a crisis with dental work needed, and a car repair that would have stressed me before, I now have $12,000 in savings I am using as a down payment on my first house, something I never thought would be possible for me on my own. Thank you, you changed the way I looked at my money and spending and improved the quality of my life.”

My challenge right now isn’t saving money—we’re on track with that. My goals involve getting more exercise. The days I don’t get in a full hour’s workout can be discouraging, but my experience with achieving other goals has taught me that any exercise is better than none. When I hit a setback, like my recent bout with the flu, the important thing is not to throw my hands up in despair and retreat to the couch. The important thing is to get back out there, and try again.

I hope you’re making progress on your goals for 2012, including your goals with money. If not, well, maybe it’s time to get off the couch.

This post is a part of Women’s Money Week 2012. For more posts about goals and taking action, see Women’s Money Week.

Use windfall to pay down debt, boost savings

Dear Liz: I am closing a business deal that will net me just under $1 million. I have an interest-only loan on my home, two car loans and credit-card debt. My plan was to “clear the plate” and pay everything off, leaving me about $175,000. I am not worried about getting into further debt, as my wife and I are pretty grounded, but I wonder if I should be giving up the tax break of a mortgage. My wife and I make a fair income, so we will need advice on investment options as well.

Answer: You say you and your wife are “pretty grounded,” yet you carry a huge amount of debt, including a ticking time bomb of a mortgage.

Interest-only loans were quite fashionable in the boom years but make little sense for most people. That’s because the low initial payments ultimately reset much higher, as the interest-only period ends and the borrower must begin repaying principle.

Carrying credit-card debt is foolish as well, and a sign that you’re living beyond your apparently quite comfortable means.

Furthermore, you don’t say anything about your assets — whether you’re on track saving for retirement or if you have an adequate emergency fund. That would make a difference in how you should deploy this windfall. If your savings are inadequate, it would make sense to invest a good chunk of this money, even if it meant continuing to carry a mortgage. If you must have a home loan, though, it should be a traditional, fixed-rate version to avoid future payment shock.

The big danger is that you’ll pay off what you owe now, only to wind up deeper in debt in a few years because you haven’t changed your approach to money. Use some of your windfall to hire a fee-only (not fee-based) financial planner to review your situation. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors (www.napfa.org).