Suze Orman
Photo: Brian Bowen Smith
Q: I am a 24-year-old mother of two, and I'm getting a divorce. My salary is about $50,000 a year, and I receive no child support. I plan to return to school and will probably make only about $20,000 once I cut back my work hours. I now put 6 percent of my income into my 401(k), adding a percentage point per year. Should I keep putting money into my 401(k), despite my limited income? Or should I wait until I finish school?

A: I wish I could bottle up your spirit and share it with the world. After reading your first three sentences, I was sure you would ask how you could make it as a single parent on one income that is dropping 60 percent. But instead you're focused on building security. That tenacity tells me you can do anything you set your mind to.

But you need to be realistic. On $20,000 a year, you will already be stretched thin. So please don't shortchange basic needs to keep saving for retirement while you are in school. Look at school as a big part of your financial plan: By upgrading your skills, you give a boost to your future earning power. When you're back working full-time, you can refocus on retirement investing.

But if you seriously think you can save for retirement and support your family while you're in school, here's my strategy: As long as you have a large emergency savings fund that can cover eight months of living expenses, keep investing in a 401(k) if you get a company match. Maybe it can't be 6 percent of your salary next year (that would be $1,200 of $20,000), but even at half that, you would benefit from the company match.

If you don't have an emergency savings fund, or your employer doesn't offer a matching contribution, skip the 401(k) while in school and invest in a Roth IRA . It has no tax or penalty if you dip into your contributions to cover an emergency. Only your Roth earnings would be hit with a tax, plus a 10 percent penalty for an early withdrawal. So your Roth could do double duty: When things go well, it serves as a retirement account; in times of trouble, you can pull out your Roth contributions without tax or penalty. Any money you invest in a Roth should go into low-risk investments, such as a money market fund, CDs, or short-term Treasury bills. Once you're out of school, you can move your investments to stock exchange-traded funds or mutual funds; over the long term, stocks will help you earn inflation-beating gains. Over the short term, they are too volatile to use for a quasi-emergency fund. Good luck!

Ask Suze your questions about debt & saving money

Suze Orman's most recent book is her 2009 Action Plan: Keeping Your Money Safe & Sound (Spiegel & Grau).

Please note: This is general information and is not intended to be legal advice. You should consult with your own financial advisor before making any major financial decisions, including investments or changes to your portfolio, and a qualified legal professional before executing any legal documents or taking any legal action. Harpo Productions, Inc., OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, Discovery Communications LLC and their affiliated companies and entities are not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your financial or legal decisions.

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