Q: In 2005, at the age of 40, I made the difficult decision to leave my marriage of 16 years. At the time, I was in school with just over a year to go before receiving my degree. Fast-forward to today: I still haven't been able to find a full-time position in my field. I've got $17,000 in credit card debt, $21,000 in student loans, a car payment, and an interest-only, variable-rate home loan that will adjust in two and a half years. I take in about $37,000 annually. How will I ever be able to save for today, for retirement, for my sons' futures? I feel completely overwhelmed. Where do I begin, and how do I prioritize?
A: I understand that you feel swamped, but I'm thrilled that you recognize the need for a plan. Let's dispense with what I don't want you to focus on: paying for your sons' college educations. There is no more loving decision you can make than to build your own financial safety net so that you'll be self-sufficient later in life rather than being so strapped that you become a burden to your children.
Your overriding goal must be to stay current on all your monthly debt. Pay at least the minimum amount due on your credit cards each month, and keep up with the car payment. That should result in a strong credit score, which means you may be able to ask to have your cards' interest rates reduced.
Next, ask your mortgage lender what your payment would be if the adjustment hit today. If the answer scares you, I want you to consider selling now and moving into a rental. Don't sit and worry for the next two and a half years or pray that your income will go up. If you can sell and make enough to cover your mortgage and moving costs, I suggest you do it now. The move will give you a better grip on tomorrow by reducing your costs today. Assuming that renting will free up some money, I want you to open two accounts that will help you establish peace of mind: an emergency cash fund and a Roth IRA. When you find full-time work in your chosen field—and you will, stay positive—you can revisit buying a home.