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Savings Guide 2006

Start saving

  Sage advice on starting and maintaining a savings strategy.
Building your emergency fund
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"Then we have this idiot box, the TV, with somebody yelling, 'Zero-percent interest, buy this now!' People get overwhelmed. They know they're not supposed to spend the money, but they do."

Limiting your access to the emergency fund may help. You need to have immediate access to some of the money, but not all of it.

As you're growing your emergency fund, consider keeping it in a money market account or fund until you have about two months of living expenses. Move one month of expenses to a one-month CD. When the CD matures, roll the principal and interest into another one-month CD.

All the while, continue making regular payments to the emergency fund money market account. Eventually, you'll have another month of living expenses that can be used to invest in a two- or three-month CD. If you are opting to set aside six months of expenses, continue the process until you can comfortably purchase a six-month CD.

Paying your future self
Before you can stash it aside, you need to get started building it.

Whatever financial situation you're in, the first step in building an emergency fund is to figure out where your money is going, according to Tom Grzymala of Forensic Analytics LLC, Keswick, Va.

"People don't know where they're spending money," says Grzymala. "If they're bringing home $70,000, they can only account for $50,000.

"Generally, maybe 20 percent of the folks have a handle on what they're doing financially. Many don't have the foggiest. Use something like Quicken to keep track of where your money is going. It tells you whether it's going to food, clothing, shelter or pizza," he says.

After seeing where your money is going, it's a lot easier to decide where you can cut.

If you're concerned about being laid off in the near future, it's all the more critical to build the fund as fast as possible.

Taking a loan from your 401(k) to quickly build an emergency fund is generally considered a bad idea. If you lose your job, you'll have to repay the loan immediately or pay taxes and penalties on the amount withdrawn.

Loans from IRAs generally must be repaid within a short period -- usually 60 days -- so don't even consider that.

A controversial move that may be appropriate if you're fairly young is temporarily stopping payments to your retirement account.

"Contributions to a retirement fund are important," says Grzymala, "but I'd rather have three to six months' cash reserves than borrow from a 401(k), lose my job and then have to pay penalties.

"Rather than taking $100 and putting it into the retirement fund, use it to pay off that 14 percent loan -- at least for a short period. The future is nice to plan for, but take care of the now."

Some experts say they'd only stop contributions as a last resort. You'll miss out on the tax-deferred growth and you may be giving up a matching contribution from your employer.

Another consideration might be your Roth IRA. You're allowed to withdraw the contributions at any time without penalty. Unfortunately, you can't replace that money because current Roth rules limit annual contributions. But using those funds could get you out of a temporary bind without resorting to more drastic measures.

-- Posted: Oct. 1, 2006
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