Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Why a rainy day fund is as crucial as emergency savings. Also in the news: How to deal with a credit card issuer who has you seeing red, how to make money on Upwork, and 5 personal finance tips from billionaires.

Rainy Day Fund Is as Crucial as Emergency Savings
Handling all levels of crises.

Credit Card Issuer Got You Seeing Red? Try These Tips
Demanding answers.

New Freelancers: How to Make Money on Upwork
Earning some pocket money.

5 Personal Finance Tips From Billionaires
Learning from the best.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

how_to_build_an_emergency_fundToday’s top story: How two extra years in college could cost you close to $300,000. Also in the news: How a financial advisor can help with life insurance, tips for paying off student loans if you didn’t finish college, and why 66 million Americans don’t have an emergency fund.

2 Extra Years in College Could Cost You Nearly $300,000
An incentive to graduate on time.

How a Financial Advisor Can Guide Clients’ Life Insurance Decisions
Seeing the bigger picture.

Tips for Paying Off Your Student Loans if You Didn’t Finish College
Strategic repayment could save you money.

66 Million Americans Have No Emergency Savings
A recipe for disaster.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Detroit stationDebt collectors are spying on creditors through social media, what consumers can learn from Detroit, and is it time to become the boss?

Are Debt Collectors Stalking You Online?
That friend request you just accepted might not be someone interested in playing Candy Crush with you.

3 Personal Finance Lessons Learned From Detroit’s Bankruptcy

Control your debt before it takes control you.

6 Ways to Prepare for Unexpected Financial Events
Expecting the unexpected could be the thing that pulls you through.

5 Basic Money Errors Retirees Make
From giving away money to relatives, to not keeping a budget, these mistakes can tarnish your golden years.

Making the Jump to Self-Employment
Are you ready to become your own boss?

How much cash should you keep on hand?

Dear Liz: A few years ago I finished paying off my debt and now am in the very low-risk credit category. I have savings equal to about three months’ worth of bills and am working to get that to six months’ worth. I’m wondering, though, about an emergency that may require me to pay in cash (such as a major power outage that disables debit or credit card systems, or the more likely event that I forget the ATM or credit card at home). How much cash should a person have on hand? Is there a magic number?

Answer: There’s no magic number. You’ll have to weigh the likelihood you’ll need the green, and the consequences of not having it when you need it, against the risk of loss or theft.

Many people find it’s a good idea to tuck a spare $20 into their wallet for emergencies, and perhaps another $20 in their cars if they’re in the habit of forgetting their wallets or their plastic.

Cash for a disaster is another matter. Power could go out for a week or more, or you may need to evacuate and pay for transportation and shelter at a time when card processing systems are disabled. A few hundred bucks in cash probably would be the minimum prudent reserve you’d want to keep in a secure place in your home. You may decide that you need more.

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.

Are you ready?

A big storm is threatening the East Coast, and my buddy Elizabeth Razzi had some good advice yesterday for getting ready:

 “From my experience, most important prep includes doing ALL the laundry, making milk jugs of ice for the fridge, clearing leaves from drains and having a good supply of ground coffee for the French press.”

At the same time, Ann Carrns over at the New York Times’ Bucks blog was wondering about “Keeping Cash on Hand, Just in Case.” Carns asked whether it might be prudent to have a stash of green in case hackers took down an ATM network. Of course, the more likely scenario is that nature will be the culprit: hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, blackouts and other disasters can make getting cash tough.

I’ve kept a stash of cash handy ever since I lived in Alaska, land of extreme weather and earthquakes. Up there, I also learned to keep a two-week supply of food, water and fuel at home, to carry emergency supplies in my car and to always keep the car’s gas tank at least half full. (You can learn more about emergency preparedness at www.ready.gov, among other sites.) Our supplies include camp stoves for cooking, since both gas and electric lines can get disrupted. You can get single-burner camp stoves for about $20 and propane cylinders for around $5.

We’re so used to modern conveniences, from a ready supply of electricity to a steady supply of ATM cash, that it can be hard to imagine what we’d need to survive life for several days without them. If you’ve ever flipped on a light switch when you knew the power was out, you know what I mean—our brains really aren’t wired for disaster. But taking a few minutes to gather some supplies, check flashlight batteries and tuck away a little cash can make getting through any disruption, by nature or otherwise, a lot easier.

What emergency preparations have you made? What do you still need to do?