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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 21, 2006

Saving doesn't have to be painful

By John Waggoner
USA Today

You may be young, and you may be in debt, but you still have to save, even if your bills have piled up higher than the Matterhorn.

Just how much you can save depends on what's left after you've made debt payments. But saving $25 a week can help put you on the road to financial solvency and even retirement.

FIRST THINGS FIRST

If you're one step from bankruptcy, paying down debt is your most urgent problem. It's also your best investment. Suppose, for example, you're paying 18 percent or more on your credit cards. Paying off that debt is the rough equivalent of earning 18 percent on your money. Try finding that rate at your local bank.

Naturally, you'll get the most bang for your buck if you pay off your highest-interest debt first, says Gerri Detweiler, author of "The Ultimate Credit Handbook."

As a smart first step, consider paying off a higher-rate card that carries only a small balance, says Tim McIntosh, a financial planner based in Tampa, Fla. It will give you a psychic boost to cut up at least one card. Best of all, paying off one card will give you extra cash to start a savings account. (The monthly payment on a $3,000 credit card debt is about $120.)

If your debts are heavy because you've had emergency expenses, a savings account will help bail you out next time. Save just $25 a week, and you'll have $1,300 saved within a year. Then, if your tires go flat or your water heater goes cold, you can pay out of your savings instead of going deeper into hock.

Don't count on yourself to write a check each week to your savings account. Set up an automatic deduction program, from your checking account to your savings. Even better, see if you can arrange to have money shifted directly from your paycheck to a savings account.

Once you've built up some emergency cash, add to your company's 401(k) plan. You contribute to your 401(k) with pretax money, which makes it easier to save. If you pay 25 percent of your money to Uncle Sam, you have to earn $1.33 just to have one dollar left after taxes. But when you save pretax money, a dollar earned can be a dollar saved.

Saving in a 401(k) reduces your taxable income, which cuts your taxes and makes saving easier. Suppose your gross pay was $50,000, and you paid 30 percent in federal and state taxes. If you put 5 percent of your pay in a 401(k), you'd contribute $48 a week. Yet, your paycheck would fall by just $34 a week, according to Fidelity Investments.

Your company also may match your 401(k) contributions. Say you earned $50,000 a year and contributed 5 percent of pay to a 401(k). If your company matches 50 cents on the dollar and your money earns 5 percent, you'd have $3,847 after a year. In 10 years, you'd have about $56,000, if you got 3 percent raises yearly and earned 5 percent on your savings.

STARTING SMALL

If you don't have a 401(k) available, at least open a Roth IRA. You contribute after-tax money to a Roth, but you pay no taxes on your withdrawals at retirement.

You can take out your principal, penalty-free, any time. You also can make penalty-free withdrawals of both principal and earnings for the first-time purchase of a home.

There's one catch: No matter your reason for withdrawing money from a Roth, you must have had your account for at least five years.

Open a Roth at a bank, credit union or mutual fund. How you invest your Roth depends on how you intend to use the money. Suppose you're saving for a down payment for a home in five years. If you invest in a stock fund, you have the potential for a higher return: Stocks are up an average 10.5 percent a year since 1926, according to Ibbotson Associates, a research firm.

But within those averages are some deep craters. The Standard & Poor's 500 index, for instance, fell 45 percent during the 2000-02 bear market. Absorbing a 45 percent loss on your down payment could mean the difference between a new home and a new mobile home.

If you'll need the money in three to five years, play it safe and put your money in a bank CD or a money market mutual fund.

If you're investing for the long term, such as for retirement, stocks will give you your best shot at the highest returns. A few stock mutual funds will let you start an account for $100. But you have to let the fund company tap your bank account automatically each month until you reach the fund's normal initial minimum investment requirement typically, between $1,000 and $3,000.

When you have very little money to invest, you should stick with funds that charge no commissions, or loads. A few suggestions:

  • Ariel (ARGFX). This fund looks for out-of-favor stocks and waits until they return to Wall Street's favor. You can start an IRA with $250, or an automatic investment plan with $50. The fund has gained an average 13.2 percent a year in the past 10 years, Morningstar says.

  • T. Rowe Price Equity Index 500 (PREIX). Fund investors sometimes panic when their portfolio manager retires, but it doesn't matter to this fund: It has no manager. Instead, it tracks the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index. The fund is up 7.75 percent a year in the past decade.

  • Turner Midcap Growth (TMGFX). This aggressive fund looks for stocks of rapidly growing midsize companies. It's up an average 13.2 percent a year in the past decade.

    If you're young and just starting your career, you probably don't have much money to invest, particularly if you're deep in debt. But start saving now for retirement, and you'll thank yourself later. Money that compounds earnings over time is one of the wonders of the universe.

    Make a one-time $1,000 investment, and, assuming you earn an average 10 percent annually, you'll have $2,593 after a decade. After 40 years, you'll have $45,259.

    You'll need to save less than $20 a week to build up $1,000 in a year. If you're patient, even small savings now can bring big rewards later.

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