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I love it when readers ask me questions. And believe me when I tell you the questions pour in and on every topic imaginable—even how to cut the cost of online dating. Today, I pulled the following three letters from the EC mailbag:

multi-ethinic arms outstretched to ask questions.

 

Dear Mary: We are better off than most. We have no credit-card debt, we have several hundred dollars in cash stashed away in a safe in our house and we have about $5,000 in savings. Our 401(k) accounts and Roth IRAs have a total current value of about $50,000. My husband is 41 and I’m 35. We have two kids and college 529 college savings plans for them. Our mortgage is our biggest payment. Should we pay down our mortgage with extra income or put the extra money into our retirement accounts? Peggy

Dear Peggy: Before you’re ready to do either—pay down debt or invest—you need at least enough money in your emergency fund that to keep all the bills paid and food on the table for at least six months without any income. That money should be in a safe place where you could get your hands on it in say 36 to 72 hours, which could be in your home safe, but I’d rather it be in a savings account in a bank or credit union. While your $5,000 in savings is a good start, it’s not nearly enough. I’m thinking more like $30,000. Am I right?

Once your emergency fund is safe and secure, it’s a tossup on whether you should aggressively invest in paying off your mortgage or invest in the market to build wealth for retirement. I’m sure we could find plenty of experts to argue both options.

I would advise you concentrate heavily on paying off your mortgage debt. There is no better investment than a repaid debt. Not only will you get a guaranteed rate of return, eventually you will pay it off completely. That house will be all yours. You can live in it mortgage-free, while that asset grow in value. As investments go, that’s hard to beat.

MORE: Invest in Your Debt—It’s a Sure Thing with a Solid Return

Dear Mary: I work hard every day and don’t have the energy to get out in the evenings. I spend my free time with longtime friends, so I don’t meet single men. I know several people who have found partners online. I’m determined to find a man for myself before the end of the year. Online dating services may be the way, but they can get pricey. Are there coupons online for special deals? Belinda

Dear Belinda: There are. Google “Online Dating Coupons” and you’ll turn up a love boat load of online coupon codes for any number of dating sites. Please do not take this as any kind of an endorsement from me. Be careful out there, hear?

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The most important thing you can do to make your personal economy strong is to have an umbrella—a Contingency Fund with at least enough money to pay all of your bills for three to six months without a paycheck. Call it $10,000.

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SAVE 10% OF YOUR PAYCHECK. It may sound like a lot, so if you can’t do 10, start with 5% or even 1% percent and build up. Deposit the money automatically into your Contingency Fund; you won’t miss what you don’t see in the first place. Okay, you’ll miss it for the first few weeks, but soon you really will not miss it.

GET RID OF NON ESSENTIALS. Give up the little things, such as cable TV, eating out, gym membership and entertainment.

CUT VARIABLE EXPENSES. You can’t cut off your utilities, stop eating or give up driving. But you can reduce the cost of the food, energy and fuel you buy. Opt for the cheapest supermarket and gas station. Turn out the lights; run only full appliances.

QUIT SMOKING. This suggestion requires no explanation. Although it does beg the question, who can even afford to smoke these days? At about $7 for a pack of smokes (U.S. average) that’s a $2,555-a-year habit. And in New York City it’s double that. Yeah, $14 a pack.

STOP PAYING BANK FEES.  If you’re paying a $7.95 (or higher) per month fee for the privilege of maintaining an account, stop! Open an account at an online bank (they pay better interest rates anyway), like Ally Bank, that doesn’t charge a monthly maintenance fee for checking or savings accounts. Or check with a local credit union for free personal checking accounts. Some banks even offer free business accounts.

PULL BACK.  Stop sending more money than required each month to your credit card companies, mortgage lender or any other creditor. It’s admirable that you’re being diligent in repaying the debts, but if you continue to do this while living without money in the bank, you’ll be setting yourself up to fall even deeper in debt.

CLEAN OUT. Take a look through your cupboards and closets. Identify everything you haven’t used in the past six months. Turn what you don’t need into cash on a website like eBay or Craigslist or hold a yard sale.

ADJUST WITHHOLDINGS. Use the 2019 Federal Withholding Tax Calculator to make sure you aren’t having too much or too little income tax withheld from your pay.

INCREASE YOUR INCOME. Get a second job. Or third. Work more hours at your current one. Get creative by making money doing things you already love to do, like dog walking or selling handmade items.

GIVE UP YOUR LANDLINE.  About 45 percent of American adults still pay for a landline phone service. Are you in that group? Basic service costs at least $25 per month in most markets.

TAKE YOUR LUNCH TO WORK. Have you figured out what you’re spending per year on eating lunch out? At $10 a day, you’re spending $2,500 after-tax dollars on lunch. Just think of all the dinner leftovers you throw out that could easily be tomorrow’s lunch.

STOP AT THE MATCH. If you are contributing to a retirement account like a 401(k) or 403(b), don’t stop now, but limit your contribution to the amount your employer matches. Ask your employer how to adjust your contribution. Once you have save to your goal, you can always change your contribution again.