Q&A: Mortgage payoff or emergency savings?

Dear Liz: My husband was laid off recently, and he quickly took a new job with a 25% pay cut to continue insurance benefits and the same retirement program. We regularly pay $500 to $1,300 extra on our house payment. We cannot keep that up. However, with his severance package and vacation day payout, we now have more in our bank account than we owe on our mortgage. If we paid off the $80,000 mortgage now (house is valued at $600,000), we’d have an emergency fund of only $10,000, but we could replenish those savings slowly each month with no house payment. We have no other debts. How do we know when is the right time to pay off the mortgage?

Answer: Think about what would happen if you paid off the mortgage and your husband were to be laid off again or you suffered some other financial setback. The $10,000 left in your emergency fund could be depleted quickly. If you don’t have stocks or other assets you could sell, you might have to raid your retirement accounts or turn to high-cost loans.

This is why financial planners recommend having an emergency fund equal to three to six months’ worth of expenses if possible — and why using your savings to pay off a low-rate debt might not be the best use of your money.

If you’re determined to pay off your mortgage, consider setting up a home equity line of credit first. That will give you a relatively inexpensive source of credit in an emergency.

How small businesses can help workers save

Donna Skemp of Bend, Oregon, struggled to save before she signed up for an automatic savings plan offered by her employer’s payroll services company. Now, some of her pay goes into a federally insured, interest-paying savings account that she can access any time with a debit card.

“It’s painless, and it’s so easy,” says Skemp, accounting and office manager for the nonprofit Every Kid Sports, which pays sports registration fees for children from low-income families.

Skemp is lucky — more than one-third of private-sector workers don’t have access to workplace savings plans via payroll deduction. Many small-business owners may think such plans are too expensive or complicated to administer. In my latest for the Associated Press, find out why that isn’t so.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How Free Money bank promotions can boost your savings. Also in the news: Apple’s new credit card is generous if you use Apple Pay, how to reclaim tax breaks you may have missed in recent years, and matching your kid’s IRA contributions to incentivize savings.

How ‘Free Money’ Bank Promotions Can Boost Your Savings
A good way to build your emergency fund.

New Apple Card Is Generous, but Only Through Apple Pay
Regular rewards are on the skimpy side.

Reclaim Tax Breaks You May Have Missed in Recent Years
The clock is ticking.

Match Your Kid’s IRA Contributions to Incentivize Savings
Encouraging savings early.

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.