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Dr. Don Taylor, CFA, Bankrate.com advice columnistSaving when you're barely surviving

Dear Dr. Don,
I am a husband and father of two young toddlers. My net pay is just enough to scrape by every two weeks. With health insurance premiums well over $400 per month, my net pay is only enough to cover the bills. Every time I set aside money, I end up having to use it all for some unforeseen expenditure, and then some with credit cards (whose balances continue to escalate). Where does one in my situation begin to save?
-- Underfunded Mike

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Dear Mike,
Your question is one of the more difficult issues in personal finance. How do you work toward the future when you're having trouble getting through the week?

The key is to keep spending less than income. Easier said than done, but that doesn't mean it doesn't need to be done. Spiraling credit card balances aren't the answer. Credit cards just postpone the problem and have you spending money on finance charges that should be going toward meeting your family's needs.

Differentiate between what's necessary and what's nice in your monthly spending. Cutting out cell phones (or alternatively land lines), cable TV, dinners out, etc. brings down your monthly nut. Bankrate has a budget work sheet that you can download to put together a monthly spending plan. Talk to your employer's personnel department to see if there are ways of reducing the health-care costs while keeping family coverage. Taking advantage of flexible spending accounts to pay for medical costs with pretax dollars is one possible way of accomplishing this goal. 

The other side of the equation is to increase income. Take a second job, or a third. Don't think of it as forever, just until you can get the credit card balances down and build a bit of a cash cushion. If your wife doesn't work, perhaps she should. Bankrate's "Should my spouse work, too?" calculator will help with that math.

The answers aren't easy, but you've got to ramp up income, throttle back on spending or both to get to the point where you move past paycheck-to-paycheck living and get to the point where your income is also building toward your family's future.

If you've worked through all this and still can't see a way, it's time to ask for help. Your state government might be able to help with health-care insurance for the children, for example. A Bankrate feature, "Finding help in hard times," has some other ideas, too.

To ask a question of Dr. Don, go to the "Ask the Experts" page, and select one of these topics: "financing a home," "saving & investing" or "money."

Bankrate.com's corrections policy -- Posted: Aug. 28, 2006
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