smart spending

Building an emergency fund

"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," adds Grzymala.

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 If you lose your job, you'll have to repay the loan immediately or pay taxes and penalties on the amount withdrawn.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.

Tapping any retirement account for emergency funds is something you want to avoid unless there are no alternatives. You don't want your account to stop growing, or to give up matching funds and tax deferral, and you certainly don't want to pay penalties.

Budget-clipping tips
It's a Bankrate mantra, but one that works wonders when people stick with it: Quit using credit cards.

Credit cards are one of the most expensive forms of money. Unless you're in the habit of paying off your credit card bills each month, don't use the cards for anything you can eat or wear.

"Consolidate your debt. If you have several credit cards at 13-, 14-, 16-percent interest, fold them into a home equity loan and write off the interest payments," advises Grzymala.

Experts also differ a bit on that one.

"A home equity loan, that's borrowing," says Chris Cooper. "Use that option after using Roth contributions and, possibly, tapping into the equity in your life insurance."

Clearly, there are options that are riskier than others and an option that's appropriate and appealing to one person may make another person cringe.

Here are some tried-and-true suggestions for budget trimming that can work for just about everyone.

Mortgage rates are relatively low -- consider refinancing your mortgage and, while you're at it, your car loan, too.

If you live in an area that has good public transportation, see if you can get by on one car instead of two.

"Make your present car last. Good maintenance will enable you to replace it every six to eight years instead of every three years," says Grzymala.

"Do an energy check on the house. Replace cracked storm windows, renew the weather stripping. Don't renew subscriptions to magazine or newspapers you're not reading. Eat out less often, learn how to use leftovers. If you stop at Einstein's every morning for coffee, make coffee at home."

And, Grzymala adds, "When the 12 year old says, 'Where's my $10?' cut it back to $7."

It may not make you the most popular parent on the block, but you'll be doing your children a favor by teaching them to be frugal and to develop good spending habits.

Saving money on your own takes discipline but, like most other things, it becomes easier over time. The peace of mind that comes from knowing you have financial resources for when times are rough can be worth the sacrifices you make now.

-- Updated: Dec. 29, 2006

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