How much should you spend on rent?

Dear Liz: I am wondering about what percentage of your income should your rent be. Ours at the moment is 35% just for rent, not including utilities or anything else.

Answer: In high-cost areas, people regularly pay 40% or more of their income on housing. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

When you spend a big chunk of your income on rent or mortgage payments, there’s often too little left over to save for the future, pay off the debt of your past and live for today.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for what’s affordable, but limiting your housing costs to about 25% of your gross pay or 30% of your after-tax pay will help ensure that you have money left over for other goals. “Housing costs” include rent, utilities and renter’s insurance if you don’t own, or mortgage, property taxes, property insurance and utilities if you do.

If you’re much over these limits, you should look into ways to reduce your costs, earn more income or both. Otherwise, you’re likely to continue to struggle with an unbalanced budget.

Divorced? You may qualify for half of ex’s Social Security

Dear Liz: Many years ago I read about spousal benefits based on an ex-spouse’s Social Security earnings record. Is there a minimum length of time of the marriage to qualify? How do I apply for this benefit? I am within nine months of retirement.

Answer: You can qualify for Social Security spousal benefits based on an ex’s work record as long as:

•The marriage lasted 10 years or more.

•You are 62 or older and unmarried.

•Your ex-spouse is eligible to begin receiving his or her own Social Security benefit (even if he or she hasn’t applied yet).

•Your own benefit is less than the spousal benefit you would get based on his or her work record.

Any benefits you receive based on his or her record won’t affect what your ex receives, or what his or her current or other former spouses receive.

As with regular spousal benefits, the amount you get will be permanently discounted if you apply before you’ve reached your own full retirement age (which is currently 66 and will climb to 67 in a few years).

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Pink piggy bank and Stacks of money coinsHow to make the best out of credit card annoyances, tips on finding the best unsecured loans and how a little known settlement fee between credit card companies and retailers could save you money at the register.

10 Common Credit Card Complaints
From annual fees to lousy customer service, tips on how to manage the annoying side of credit cards.

Is Higher Education Still a Good Investment?
As tuition prices skyrocket, is a college degree still worth the expense?

Should You Get a Personal Loan?
Tips on finding the best unsecured loan.

How to Avoid Movers’ Scams
Moving is stressful enough without having to deal with shady movers.

Paying With Cash Could Earn You a Discount at More Retailers
How a swipe fee settlement could save you money at the register.

In case you missed it: the youth edition

Cut up cardsSpurning credit cards means younger people have less toxic debt but they may be doing inadvertent damage to their credit scores and costing themselves money. Learn more in “Why young people hate credit cards.

Read some smart answers to the awkward questions your kids may ask about family finances in “One way money is a lot like sex.

You’ve probably read that student loan rates doubled on Monday, but that’s not quite true. Read “Student loan rates: Facts amid the fictions” for the straight scoop.

Have a great weekend!

Friday’s need-to-know money news

House With Tree DamageHow to prepare for a disaster, avoid the financial pitfalls that come with a speeding ticket and how to get the latest iDevice without destroying your family budget.

How to Plan for Any Disaster
Preparing for the unexpected.

Do Employer Credit Checks Damage Credit Scores?
Understanding employer’s right to access your credit information.

5 Tickets That Will Ruin Your Insurance
Slow down to avoid paying extra.

5 Frugal Summer Activities to Beat the Heat

Staying cool doesn’t have to melt your wallet.

Don’t Let Gadgets Devour the Family Budget
Sometimes the latest isn’t the greatest.

Your financial independence day

Colorful and vibrant fireworksWorking just to pay the bills isn’t enough. We should be reaching for something more: financial independence.

Financial independence is when your investments and other sources of income provide you with a comfortable-enough living that paid work becomes optional. As we mark the anniversary of our nation’s independence, I like to review our progress toward this goal. The good news: we’re pretty close to financial independence now, if we were willing to live frugally.

Some people who use the principles of voluntary simplicity achieve financial independence remarkably early. I’ve talked to people who “retired” in their 40s or even 30s, trading the 9-to-5 for a more relaxed lifestyle where they worked fewer hours, or worked for pay only when they wanted to. (If you want to know more about voluntary simplicity, the book “Your Money or Your Life” is a great place to start.)

But my husband and I have decided on a different path—a lifestyle that involves more spending now with the understanding we’ll work a little longer. That’s the best fit for us, because we both love what we do and we like the idea of doing it for a long time.

We’re planning a “phased” retirement, cranking back on our work commitments gradually over time. We like T. Rowe Price’s concept of a “practice retirement,” which suggests that those who have saved substantially for retirement can start putting some of that money toward travel and other spending once they hit their 60s, as long as they continue to work and put off tapping Social Security, pensions and their retirement accounts.

We’re also working on a Plan B, in case we aren’t able to work as long as we’d like. About half of retirees leave the workforce earlier than they’d planned, usually for health reasons although also because of layoffs or the need to care for a loved one. Finding ways to have a smaller “nut” in retirement—a lower level of fixed costs—can really help if you have to leave work early. That’s one of the reasons we’re paying down our mortgage, so that we won’t have that bill later. One of my readers installed solar panels for the express purpose of reducing his utility bills in retirement.

If you got a late start saving for retirement or have suffered some big financial setbacks, your financial independence day may seem impossibly distant. But you may be able to move that date into sight if you’re willing to plan, make some sacrifices and stick to your guns. Start with “Your Money or Your Life” and build from there.

How are you doing on your path to financial independence?

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

creditThe mystery behind credit scores, why buy a dress when you can rent one, and what turns Americans off about haggling.

What Really Influences Your Credit Score?
The creators of the VantageScore, a rival to the leading FICO, discuss the formula behind the numbers.

Taking Control of Your Personal Debt

While the math may be simple, the choices can be difficult.

Should You Rent Your Next Dress?
Why pay thousands for a designer dress you’ll wear only a few times?

The Secrets of Super Travelers
How to travel like the pros.

Haggling Can Pay, But Many Americans Refuse to Bargain
Why Americans are wary of this worldwide custom.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Champagne glassesFinancial survival tips for before the wedding and after the marriage ends, freedom from credit card debt, and beating the retirement clock.

Engaged? You Might Need Money Therapy
Things you should know before you walk down the aisle.

How Does Divorce Affect Bankruptcy and Mortgage
Things you should know for when the walk down the aisle fails.

Declare Your Independence From Credit Card Debt
Life, liberty and the pursuit of zero debt.

How to Get Help From a Student Loan Mediator
Student loan battles don’t have to be fought alone.
What to Do When You Haven’t Saved Enough for Retirement
How to get by when time isn’t on your side.

“Mommy, are we rich?”

Child and cashMy recent MSN column, “One way money is a lot like sex,” has to do with the questions our kids sometimes ask–and how much discomfort we can feel about answering.

I argue that we need to get comfortable talking about money with our children, because these are incredibly important teaching moments.

Psychotherapist Thayer Willis, who’s quoted in the column, recommended a terrific book for kids that can help these talks: “The Table Were Rich People Sit.” Here’s what Thayer has to say:

“While I would not deny the importance of money when answering the ‘are we rich?’ question, I do recommend taking every opportunity to broaden the subject and get kids thinking about additional kinds of wealth in their lives. This book is a lovely tool for that with younger children (ages 6-9).”

If your family does have substantial material wealth, I’d recommend checking out Thayer’s books, including “Beyond Gold: True Wealth for Inheritors” and “Navigating the Dark Side of Wealth: A Life Guide for Inheritors.” She’s an inheritor herself and has helped many people come to terms with can be a many-edged sword.

Save or pay debt? Do both

Dear Liz: I am a 67-year-old college instructor who plans to teach full time for at least eight more years. Last year I began collecting spousal benefits based on my ex-husband’s Social Security earnings record. Those benefits give me an extra $1,250 each month above my regular income. I have been using the money to pay down a home equity line of credit that I have on my condo. The credit line now has a balance of $29,000. I have about $200,000 in mutual funds and should have a small pension when I retire. (I went into teaching only a few years ago.) Would it be better for me to split the extra monthly $1,250 into investments as well as paying off my line of credit? The idea of having no loan on my condo appeals to me, but I wonder if I should try to invest in stocks and bonds instead.

Answer: Paying down debt is important, but opportunities to save in tax-advantaged retirement plans are typically more important. Fortunately, you probably have enough money to do both.

First investigate whether your college offers a 403(b) or other retirement program that offers a match. If it does, you should be contributing at least enough to that plan to get the full match.

Your next step is to explore an IRA. Since you’re covered by at least one retirement plan at work (your pension), you would be able to deduct a full IRA contribution only if your modified adjusted gross income as a single taxpayer is $59,000 or less in 2013. The ability to deduct a contribution phases out completely at $69,000.

If you can’t deduct your contribution, consider putting the money into a Roth IRA instead. Roth contributions aren’t deductible, but withdrawals in retirement are tax free. Having a bucket of tax-free money to draw upon in retirement can help you better manage your tax bill, which is why some investors opt to contribute to Roths even when they could get a deduction elsewhere.

People 50 and older can contribute up to $6,500 this year directly to a Roth if their income is under certain limits. (For singles, the limit for a full contribution is a modified adjusted gross income of $112,000 or less.) If your income is over the limit, you can contribute to a traditional IRA and then immediately convert the money into a Roth IRA, since there’s no income limit on conversions. (This is known as a “back door” Roth contribution.)

Since you’re so close to retirement, you don’t want to overdose on stocks, but you still need a significant amount of stock market exposure so that your money has a chance to offset future inflation. You might consider a balanced fund that invests 60% in stocks, 40% in bonds.

Once you’ve taken advantage of your retirement savings options, you can direct the rest of your Social Security benefit to paying off your home equity line. These credit lines typically have low but variable rates. Higher interest rates are likely in our future, so paying this line down over time is a prudent move.