New rules for your money

(Illustration By Tim Grajek For The Washington Post)
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Sunday, August 29, 2010

In this era of high unemployment, flat home prices and do-it-yourself retirement savings, some traditional rules of saving and investing are due for an overhaul.

Renting may beat buying. Buying wins hands down when home prices are rising. But when they're flat or falling, it makes sense only if you get a great deal, your monthly payment won't exceed rent on a comparable home by much, and you'll own the home long enough to recoup your costs for both buying and later selling your home.

Consider a Roth. Although the traditional rule of tax planning is never to pay a tax bill today that you can put off until tomorrow, Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k) plans stand that rule on its head. With a traditional IRA or work-based retirement plan, you get an upfront tax deduction, but every dime you withdraw in retirement is taxed at your ordinary income-tax rate. With a Roth, you forgo the upfront tax break, but all withdrawals -- including decades of earnings -- can be withdrawn tax-free.

Focus on dividends. Invest in stocks that pay dividends. Your options should continue to expand -- more companies are paying dividends, and many of the elite dividend-paying members of Standard & Poor's 500-stock index are upping their payouts to shareholders. True, dividends do not guarantee that a stock will be a winner. Some failed big banks used to pay high dividends, while high-fliers Apple and Google don't pay a penny. But during periods of market volatility, when stock prices tend to bounce around in reaction to political and economic gyrations rather than accurately reflect corporate fundamentals, dividends can provide a predictable income stream.

Personalize your emergency fund. The standard advice is to keep enough in savings to cover three to six months' worth of expenses. But a lot depends on the stability of your job and the predictability of your income. The greater the risk your income could drop, the larger your emergency fund should be. If you think your job is in jeopardy, aim to save at least a year's worth of expenses; ditto for individuals with erratic incomes, such as those who work on commission. Retirees should keep two to three years' worth of expenses in money-market funds, short-term CDs or other liquid investments.

Think McCottage, not McMansion. If you decide you're ready for homeownership, stick with the traditional (and temporarily forgotten) rule of thumb that you can afford a mortgage equal to up to three times your annual gross income. Most lenders will limit your total monthly housing payment -- including principal, interest, insurance and taxes -- to 28 percent of your gross income (and your total debt load to 36 percent). With a down payment of 20 percent and a 30-year fixed rate of 5 percent, a couple with a $100,000 income can afford a mortgage of up to $300,000.

Age 66 is the magic number. Although you can begin collecting Social Security benefits as early as age 62, your benefits will be reduced by 25 percent or more. Better to hold out for full benefits at your normal retirement age -- 66 if you were born between 1943 and 1954; older if you were born later. Once you reach your normal retirement age, you can continue to work while collecting benefits without fear of bumping up against the dreaded earnings cap, which trims $1 in benefits for every $2 you earn over the prescribed limit. In 2010, the earnings cap is $14,160. If you're willing to wait until age 70, you can collect the maximum retirement benefit for you and your surviving spouse.

Cut your credit-card debt, but not your cards. Minimizing credit-card debt is a great goal, but closing old accounts could hurt your credit score. About one-third of your FICO score (the credit score most lenders use) is based on your credit-utilization ratio, which is the total of your credit-card balances divided by the total of your credit-card limits. What counts is how much you've charged, regardless of whether you pay your balance in full each month. A good target is to use 20 percent -- or even less -- of your available credit.

Think single-digit returns. Reality check: You should be happy to get 6 percent a year if you've dialed down risk in preparation for retirement and downright joyous if your overall investments earn 8 percent annually over the next 10 years. Think of the past no-growth decade as a bridge from the unsustainable high returns of the 1980s and 1990s to an era of more-moderate performance. It's time to set a lower total-return target, not only for stocks but also for your other investments.

Save early for retirement. Paying off debt should be a top priority, but don't let your single-mindedness get in the way of your long-term goals. If your employer offers a matching 401(k) contribution, save at least enough to capture the match. Otherwise, you're walking away from free money. Ideally, you should aim to save 15 percent of your gross income for retirement (include your employer match in that calculation).

-- Kiplinger's Personal Finance

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