Financial Planning: Build a Bright Future

Robert Goldberg doesn't have many money worries. He's single, earns $62,000 a year as a health care consultant and has few monthly bills. Still, he says, he "continually struggles" with budgeting. "I'm a consumer and I like nice things."

Goldberg, 30, travels, plays golf (and the saxophone), collects watches, enjoys the nightlife in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he lives, and hopes eventually to get married and buy a house. The challenge: how to live the good life now but still get a jumpstart on saving for the future.

1. So far Goldberg's best strategy has been to trick himself into saving. He contributes 6 percent of his income to his 401(k)—money that comes off the top of his paycheck before he can spend it. Because his contribution is made in pretax dollars, it lowers his taxable income. In fact, Goldberg could probably bump up his contributions without noticing too much difference in his take-home pay. As a bonus, Goldberg's employer matches 25 percent of his contribution—and that's free money.

2. In addition, Goldberg automatically transfers $200 a month from his checking account to his Roth IRA. With a contribution limit of $4,000 on Roth accounts for 2006, he could invest as much as $333 per month. Unlike a regular IRA, Roth contributions aren't tax-deductible. But Roth money won't be taxable when Rob retires and withdraws it. (For 2008 and 2009 the IRA limit is $5,000, or $6,000 for those who are 50 or older.)

3. Goldberg already has mutual fund investments in both retirement and taxable accounts. But their performance has been mostly mediocre, and expenses reach as high as 2.31 percent annually. He could save money on fees and boost his returns by shifting his Roth money to Bridgeway Aggressive Investors 2 and Masters' Select Equity, two of Kiplinger's favorite mutual funds suitable for his long-term time frame. Both are solid performers with expense ratios of less than 1.4 percent.

4. What Goldberg really wants to do is get a handle on how much spending money he needs so he can shift the excess into higher-yield savings accounts and investments. Michael Eisenberg, a CPA and personal financial specialist in West Los Angeles, California, recommends that he break down his cash flow on a monthly basis rather than use annual numbers. "Otherwise you don't realize how much is slipping through your fingers," says Eisenberg. Then he can set up separate accounts for each of his savings goals—not only retirement, but also a house and vacations. Says Eisenberg, "Focus on what's doable, then prioritize."

5. Goldberg, who takes home $3,140 each month, pays $750 in rent, plus a $220 car payment and $172 for auto insurance—a steep premium because he's a young single guy living in the city. He cut the cost of car insurance by increasing his deductible to $1,000. He could save even more by combining auto and renters policies with one insurer.

6. Once Goldberg is pocketing more cash, he can invest his short-term money in Vanguard Prime Money Market fund or ING Direct's Orange Savings Account, an online account. The Orange Account has no ATM access, so there's less temptation to pull out the cash—another trick in Goldberg's saving repertoire.

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