Q&A: It’s easy to squander a windfall. How to make the money work for you

Dear Liz: I’m receiving a $150,000 inheritance soon. After I pay all of my debt, I’ll have approximately $70,000. I’m 51, single with no children and my net income is about $4,400 a month. I’ve rarely been wise or successful with my finances. I have no prior savings, don’t own a home and drive a five-year-old car. Do you have any thoughts for the remaining funds?

Answer: It’s never too late to get better with money. Now would be a great time to examine why you got into debt and what you need to change so that doesn’t happen again.

Windfalls tend to disappear pretty quickly, and it would be a shame if you found yourself back in debt in a few years with nothing to show for your inheritance.

Nonprofit credit counseling agencies affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.nfcc.org) usually offer help with budgeting, or you could book some one-on-one sessions with an accredited financial counselor or accredited financial coach. You can get referrals from the Assn. for Financial Counseling & Planning Education at www.afcpe.org.

Paying off high-rate debt such as credit cards is a great use of a windfall. Think twice about paying off lower-rate debts such as student loans or car loans, however. You probably have better uses for that money.

You likely need to start saving aggressively for retirement.

If you have a 401(k) at work with a match, you should be taking full advantage of that. (You might draw from your inheritance to replace some of the money that’s being directed into your retirement account.)

Otherwise, you can put up to $7,000 into an IRA or Roth IRA — the usual limit is $6,000, but people 50 and older can make an additional $1,000 catch up contribution. You can dedicate even more money for retirement by opening a regular brokerage account and investing through that.

A windfall also can help you create an emergency fund equal to three to six months’ worth of expenses, as well as provide a starter savings account for your next car.

Resist the urge to replace the one you have, though, because with proper maintenance you should be able to drive the one you have for several more years. Buying new cars every few years is hugely expensive and generally unnecessary since today’s cars can easily drive without major problems for 200,000 miles or more, according to J.D. Power & Associates.

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