Financial expert Suze Orman
  • Build an emergency fund. Okay, so you're still feeling raw and maybe a little scared to go solo. Focus on giving yourself a security blanket. Figure out how much you would need to live on for eight months, and then sock that amount away in a savings account. Once you have those savings, you'll be taken care of no matter what happens—a layoff, a loved one's illness. If you received a payout in the divorce, you may have your peace-of-mind fund already. If not, don't stress. Just set up a monthly direct deposit—have the money transferred from your checking account into a savings account (EmigrantDirect.com, with a 3.5 percent interest rate, is a great place to store your cash).

  • Get the match. If you work for a company that offers a 401(k) or 403(b) retirement plan and kicks in a matching contribution, you must join and contribute enough to get the match. I've said it before: That matching contribution is no different from a bonus. If you find your plan's menu of fund choices intimidating, see if it offers an all-in-one fund (it's typically called a life-stage fund). This is geared toward your age and will have a mix of stocks and bonds appropriate for you. If there's no such fund, look for an index fund that mimics the performance of a large basket of stocks, such as the S&P 500 or the Wilshire 5000.

  • Fund a Roth. If your income is below $101,000 a year, you're eligible to fully fund a Roth IRA (this year you can put in $5,000 if you're under 50 and $6,000 if you're 50 and over). Assuming you have at least 10 years until you retire, a no-load index mutual fund, such as the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund, is a great choice. You don't get a tax break when you invest in a Roth, but when you retire and pull the money out, there will be no tax on your contributions or your earnings. So think of your Roth as a standby emergency fund.

Updated September 23, 2008