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!

Q: I'm in my early 30s and have been living with my 45-year-old boyfriend for almost a decade. We own a house and have joint and individual checking accounts, Roth IRAs, a will, and power of attorney documents—everything you recommend. My concern is that my boyfriend isn't saving enough for retirement. At my urging, he started a Roth IRA but has invested less than $5,000 in it. He is anticipating a $150,000 inheritance from a relative to see him through retirement, which I don't think will be enough. I'm worried that I'll end up supporting us both.

A: Your boyfriend is being irresponsible. Anticipating an inheritance and receiving one are two different matters. Given that so many of us are living longer, combined with an increased need for care as we get older, the reality is that the money family members intend to bequeath can end up going toward their own living costs. If your boyfriend does eventually receive the inheritance, it could come when he's well into his 60s—is he prepared to wait that long? Even then, $150,000 isn't a windfall he can rely on to cover all of his retirement costs. To live off of the money, he will want to invest it conservatively in bonds to generate income and avoid eating away at the principal. I'm going to be generous and assume he'll earn 5 percent interest annually in a municipal bond (which is exempt from federal and often state income tax). At that rate, his $150,000 would generate about $625 a month. I bet that's not enough to pay for his living costs as well as all the expenses that come with enjoying one's later years (travel, going out more often, etc.).

Your partner needs to grow up rather than hope his rich relatives and conscientious girlfriend will bail him out. I get the sense that the good financial choices you've made together are the result of your planning and initiative, not his. It's okay for one person to be the leader, but both of you have to take responsibility. If he isn't up for that, you need to rethink the relationship—and all the money you put into it.

When he's ready to get serious about saving, I want your boyfriend to turbocharge his Roth IRA. The annual maximum contribution is $5,000 if you are under 50 years old and earn less than $101,000 ($159,000 for married couples); it's $6,000 a year if you're 50 or older. Pleas factcheck maximum contributions for 2012 since they change every year And tell him I said he'd better be taking advantage of any retirement accounts offered through his job, such as a 401(k). Many employers will match your contribution if you agree to have money deducted from your paycheck and invested in the account. That match is like a bonus; don't turn it down. Because your partner is getting a late start, he should put money in a regular taxable investment account and choose low-cost index funds or exchange-traded funds. Today's tough economic climate makes it more important than ever to minimize the fees you pay on your financial accounts.

Next: Saving for your child's higher education


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