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Your Financial Future

What I’ve Learned

Take these five tips to heart. If you’re divorced, you get six.

I started writing a column on planning for retirement with an ulterior motive—overcoming my fears that I might not be financially prepared myself. When I was offered a generous buyout by the Washington Post, I realized that I hadn’t paid any attention to what my life and my finances might be like after I left my longtime job.

Blame it on starting my career as a journalist at age 20, but I seem almost incapable of getting things done without a deadline looming. Company coming? I’ll finally do those extra spit-and-polish chores to make the house look nicer. Calls to make to report a story? Hey, deadline is still two hours away. Why hurry?

Although I didn’t intend to—and didn’t—retire after I took the buyout, I realized that I might someday, so maybe it was time to pay attention. I was lucky that the Post offered me an opportunity to write a column similar to this one for two years under a post-buyout contract and even luckier that the AARP Bulletin offered me a chance to write it for another two.

But now I’m moving on, taking a job as a writer and editor for PolitiFact.com. Another characteristic common to journalists is a short attention span, and I needed a new challenge.

Having benefited so much personally from writing the column, I want to talk about some of the most important lessons I’ve learned and urge you to take them to heart.

One of the first things I learned on the job was that I was eligible to claim Social Security benefits under my ex-husband’s earnings if they turned out to be higher than my own. I had no idea that I—and any other wife or ex-wives of 10 years he might have—had this alternative.

My first reaction was a feminist huff: I’ll take my own benefits, thank you. On sober second thought, I remembered that he had vastly out-earned me most of the time we were married. So when I get ready to draw Social Security, I’ll take a look at both benefits and take the best one.

Based on the reaction I got from readers, I wasn’t the only clueless ex-wife out there. I even heard from divorce lawyers who said that it’s worth sticking it out for a few extra months if you’re close to 10 years.

That particular lesson doesn’t apply to everyone, but here are a few other recommendations.

Five favorite tips

1. Create an emergency fund that can tide you over for six months to a year. Invest in something safe and unsexy, like CDs or money market funds, that allow you to get your hands on the money quickly if you need it. That way, if you lose your job or face an unexpected drain on your finances, you can avoid raiding your retirement savings and possibly paying a penalty or having to sell assets at a time when the market is down. This can be a financial lifesaver.

But don’t just count on your savings. If you face an unanticipated financial crisis, take a look at your life and your home and see what assets you can monetize. In other words, sell the second car, take the clothes to the consignment shop, drop the cable service, shop around for cheaper insurance and have a yard sale. You won’t miss the stuff, and it beats going deeper into debt.

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