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Retirement Saving Should Be Priority

Question: I’ll be done paying off my car in a couple of months. What’s a good strategy for redirecting that money once it’s paid off? Should I use the whole amount each month to start saving for my next car, or would I be better off splitting it up and putting it into several savings “buckets” such as retirement, emergency and my next car? I’m 35, have an emergency fund equal to four months’ living expenses and only one other debt, a very low-interest student loan.

Answer: If you aren’t already contributing to a retirement plan, you should be. If you aren’t contributing enough, that should be your priority even before you pay off your debt.

Market researcher and Yale University professor Roger Ibbotson has found that people who start saving for retirement after age 35 have an extremely difficult time “catching up.” They’ve lost a crucial decade or more, and often can’t set aside enough to offset their late start.

If you are on track for retirement and are comfortable with your emergency fund, saving to pay cash for your next car is a reasonable course.

Question: I know a high balance on a credit card hurts your credit score and that it’s best to keep balances low and pay them off each month. But does the same theory hold true for installment borrowing such as auto or student loans, which obviously have a higher balance in the beginning of the loan repayment period?

Answer: Paying down installment loans will help your credit score, but typically not as dramatically as paying down balances on revolving debt such as credit cards.

The leading FICO credit scoring formula is much more sensitive to balances on revolving accounts. The wider the gap between your available credit and the amount you’re using, the better.

Question: My life insurance policy of $500,000 will end in four years, when I’m 63. My wife’s policy ends at age 62. Our kids are 28 and 25 and successfully launched with careers. I also have a $180,000 life insurance policy through my job that expires when I plan to retire, also at age 63. My wife and I have long-term-care insurance policies. We have $170,000 in an active investment account plus $1.4 million in our 401(k)s. Our kids also have trust funds that they will get when they turn 30 of about $80,000 each. Should I buy more life insurance for 10 to 15 years? Our estate, which is in a living trust, will pass to the kids. Our house is worth about $1 million.

Answer: The first question you need to ask when it comes to life insurance is whether you need it. If you have people who are financially dependent on you, you typically do. If your wife has sufficient retirement income should you die, and vice versa, then you probably don’t.

So-called permanent or cash-value life insurance is often sold as a way to pay estate taxes, but again, it doesn’t look as if you’ll need that coverage. Congress increased the estate tax exemption limit for 2012 to $5.12 million, and that amount is tied to inflation going forward.

Still, this is a good question to pose to a fee-only financial planner, and you should be seeing one for a consultation before you retire in any case. Retirement involves too many complicated, irreversible decisions to proceed without help.

Question: You recently answered a question from a reader who found an old refund check that couldn’t be cashed. You pointed out that checks typically must be cashed within six months or they’re worthless. But your reader should check the unclaimed-property department of his state.

Each state has laws that all companies must follow that typically require them to turn over or “escheat” amounts from uncashed checks, dormant checking accounts, unclaimed utility deposits and other accounts. The consumer should write a letter to the company that issued the check (sent certified mail) with a copy of the front and back of the check to find out whether they escheated the funds. The consumer should also check Unclaimed.org and talk to the state that the company is based in along with his current state. Please encourage him to keep the check and not give up. Unclaimed-property laws are not well known, and they are there to protect the consumer.

Answer: Thanks for your suggestion. Not all companies follow the laws regarding unclaimed property. If this company had, it presumably would have referred this customer to the appropriate unclaimed-property department when he called asking for a replacement check. Still, checking the state treasury departments on Unclaimed.org is relatively easy and certainly worth a try.

Liz Weston is the author of The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy. Questions for possible inclusion in her column may be sent to 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, Calif. 91604, or by email at liz@lizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.