Suze Orman
Photo: Brian Bowen Smith
Q: I put my daughter through college and am surviving the current recession just fine. I'm a single mom who has always lived well beneath my means, spending half of my annual salary of $140,000 and investing the rest. If I retire from my federal job in three years at age 55, I will have an annual pension of about $100,000 (adjusted for inflation), plus a 401(k) of about $300,000 and an emergency fund of $45,000. My only real debt is $216,000 on my mortgage. I am happy about my financial decision making but am struggling with what to do next. I plan to help finance my granddaughters' college educations, but I want to start investing in rental properties and donating to charitable causes, too. I just don't know how to start!

A: You've done a great job with your financial planning, but you're about to enter a danger zone. Early retirement is so tantalizing, it's easy to miss a few cold facts. By retiring at 55, you could easily spend more years not working than you did working. The average life expectancy for a 55-year-old woman today is 83! That means half of women who are 55 will live even longer. So you need a financial game plan that will keep you safe for at least 30 more years.

As well as you are doing, the fact that you have just $45,000 in an emergency fund tells me you are in no position to invest in rental properties. First off, where will you get the money for a sizable down payment? In today's tougher credit markets, you cannot buy with no money down. You also need more working capital to cover your mortgage, property tax, and insurance costs in case a renter ever falls behind in payments, or if the property sits vacant for a few months. Retirement is meant to be enjoyed, not filled with stress. Given your finances, I do not want you to pursue becoming a landlord.

Besides, though you are in solid financial shape, you may not have as much disposable income as you think. You will owe tax on at least part of your pension income. If you leave work after age 55, you can make penalty-free withdrawals from your 401(k), but you will owe income tax on that money, too. A conservative strategy is to withdraw no more than 4 percent of your 401(k) balance each year so you do not run the risk of eating through all the money. That's $12,000 a year, or $1,000 a month. After federal, state, and local taxes, it's more like $650. So if we add it all up, my guess is that your total after-tax income (including your pension) will be $6,000 to $7,000 a month. Once you cover the mortgage (which I estimate is $2,500 a month) and living expenses, you should have a nice sum, but you need to spend it carefully.

While it is great to help your grandchildren and to support good causes, you also need to take care of yourself. That means scaling back what you spend on others and continuing to invest more in your security. Use any extra income to try to pay off your mortgage before you retire. And while you are still working, keep contributing to your 401(k); after you retire, you can look into an IRA. Finally, consider buying long-term-care insurance so you have added protection from medical costs as you age. Age 59 or 60 is the ideal time to buy a long-term-care insurance policy; you're typically still in good enough health to qualify, and the premiums are more affordable at that age than when you get older.

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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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