I always tell people not to beat themselves up when they don't understand the many personal finance issues we all have to deal with. If you don't know, ask.
As Thomas Jefferson said: "Question with boldness." With that in mind, here are some questions I couldn't answer during my regular online discussion at washingtonpost.com:
QI understand a 401(k) plan should be viewed as a long-term investment. My concern is, I'm young and every time I change jobs, I need to close my account and start a new one with my new employer. I'm worried if I don't stay with one employer for 20-plus years, I'll have a difficult time benefiting from the long-term hold.
AFirst, you are right and wrong. You are right to want to take a long-term view on your retirement investing. But you are wrong that you can't continue to increase your retirement investment portfolio as you change jobs. When you invest in a 401(k) plan, think of the account as a big pot. Once you've put money into that pot by buying mutual fund shares, it doesn't matter if you change jobs. You can either take the pot with you to your new employer or leave it at your old job, depending on how much is in the account.
You can also transfer the various 401(k) accounts to a rollover IRA, which is just a way to consolidate your retirement assets. With a rollover IRA, you can invest with any financial company and you have more choices of how to invest the money than with a typical 401(k) plan.
What I hope you aren't doing is cashing out the accounts when you leave those jobs. If you are, stop doing that because you're right -- you won't have much for your retirement. Not to mention that you will have to pay taxes and penalties. When switching jobs, talk to your 401(k) plan administrator or benefits office to discuss your options.
I'm 27 and a fairly new contributor to my 401(k). I have about $5,600 in it. I'm wondering if it would be okay to temporarily drop my contributions to 3 percent of my income -- the amount my employer matches -- and put the other 6 percent I've been contributing toward my emergency savings. I have only about $2,000 in the emergency account, which is about a month's worth of expenses. I also have $10,000 in student loan debt and $8,000 remaining on a car loan. I'm worried about what will happen if I become temporarily disabled or I lose my job. I wouldn't want to raid the 401(k).
You're right to try to build up your emergency fund. It's absolutely necessary to have a rainy-day fund because guess what? It always rains -- i.e., people lose their jobs or get sick and lose time from work. But be careful that your temporary solution doesn't become a permanent reduction in your retirement savings. And keep in mind what Oscar Wilde said: "There is nothing like youth. The middle-aged are mortgaged to life. The old are in life's lumber-room. But youth is the lord of life. Youth has a kingdom waiting for it." As a young person, you have a lifetime to get the right mix of saving for what you want now and saving for retirement.
Our financial planner is advising us to switch to a biweekly mortgage payment plan to accelerate paying off the mortgage. Is this good advice?
If your adviser is recommending you pay a lender to set you up in a biweekly plan, the advice is bad. Why pay a company to do what you can do yourself for free? Sometimes it costs as much as $300 to set up such a plan, plus a monthly fee. With a biweekly plan, all you're doing is making an extra mortgage payment every 12 months. In the case of a 30-year loan, you can cut the loan term to about 22 years and of course save mega money from the interest you won't have to pay. If you feel you're not disciplined enough, then have money taken directly out of your paycheck and deposited into your savings account.
I think I need a kick in the pants. My husband and I had been working really hard to keep to a budget. It was really hard, but we were doing it -- paying down our credit card debt, saving, paying for everything in cash. We just found out that I'm having a baby (happy but ill-timed). And my husband just lost his job. I just want to give up. I feel like it doesn't matter -- that the credit cards will just go back up to where they were, that our savings will be all gone. I'm just sad.
You don't need a kick in the pants. You need a hug and then a plan. With all the changes, you have to go back to your budget and see what can be cut. Your husband should get any job he can find to bring in something (he can work nights and spend his days looking for his preferred job). Try as long as you can to hold off using the credit cards to supplement your missing income. Just know that things will be tough but would be a lot worse had you not been managing your money as you have.
Penny Pincher Contest
It's time for my Penny Pincher of the Year contest. All you have to do is nominate someone with an original penny-pinching strategy -- a friend, a relative, even yourself. Edited versions of entries may be published. Only e-mail entries will be accepted. Send your entries by June 20 to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put "2005 Penny Pincher of the Year Contest" in the subject line. Include your address and daytime and evening phone numbers.
Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online at www.npr.org. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Send e-mail to email@example.com. Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please also note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.