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Your January personal finance questions answered, Part 1

These questions and answers were originally part of a live chat that occurred on Boston.com on Jan. 29, 2013.

Question: I feel like I need a financial planner but don’t exactly have wealth to manage. What do you suggest for those of us with a lot of debt and not a huge income?

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Debbie Levenson: There are a number of options if you want planning help without “wealth” to manage. You might try to find an hourly planner from an organization like Garrett Planning Network (www.garrettplanning.com). There are also many great books available to help you learn on your own—a few that might make sense are Suzie Orman’s “Nine Steps to Financial Freedom” or Beth Kobliner’s “Get a Financial Life.”

Question: What is the average net worth of a single male, age 30, in Boston?

Levenson: Great question. You want to see how far ahead you are of the average, right?

It is hard to find net worth statistics by age and geography but there is a website called www.stackmeup.com that claims to provide net worth comparisons.My guess would be that the average net worth for a 30-year-old in Boston is below $20,000. Sad, but probably true.

Question: I’m not sure if this is your area of expertise, but my husband and I are trying to buy a house this year, and after our recent wedding, we’re finding it difficult to save a large down payment. Is there anything you can suggest? How much of our savings should we put into a down payment on a home?

Levenson: Congratulations on your wedding, Liz! Unfortunately it has become tougher to buy a home these days as the requirement for minimum down payments has risen.

Typically, I am hearing mortgage folks requiring 20 percent down, which can be tough when you are saving as newlyweds. Be very careful about using too much of your “emergency fund” toward a down payment. There are always additional, unexpected costs involved in buying a home. If you can put down 20 percent and still keep three to six months worth of typical expenses in a savings account, then you should be fine.

Question: I want to retire in about 10 years. What’s the best type of planner to work with if you want to make sure you are setting aside the right amount to meet all of your goals?

Levenson: You are wise to start thinking about working with a planner 10 years before retirement. At this point you probably have a number of ways in which you can impact the outcome.

I would look for a fee-only planner as one way to find someone who is objective. You can find fee-only planners at napfa.org or at garrettplanning.com. Look for someone who will be paid either hourly or as a straight percentage of assets under management.

Question: Do you know if there are any inexpensive (or better yet, free) financial planners that are available to help college students or recent grads?

Levenson: I wish there were. Unfortunately planners need to make a living, too. College students may be able to find some assistance from the financial aid office of their school. Or, you might try reading some beginner planning books. Financial planning is not rocket science. It generally comes down to being thoughtful about spending and saving, and protecting yourself appropriately via insurance.

Question: In your opinion, would it be wise to use our savings to pay off our credit card debt from wedding expenses or to slowly pay it off month by month?

Levenson: It depends on the rate on that debt. Often credit card debt can be very expensive, with interest rates of 10 percent and above. Without knowing more it is tough to be specific, but if you have adequate emergency savings set aside beyond what is needed to pay off a high interest credit card, then I’d root for the payoff. In my view one should avoid putting anything on a credit card that you are not prepared to pay off when the bill arrives. Only the credit card companies win when you pay high interest.

Question: Are there any online tools that you would recommend for financial planning?

Levenson: Some of the large brokerage firms have good planning tools on their websites — e.g., Fidelity.com. Some of the online tools I’ve seen benefit folks were mint.com (to track spending) or quicken.com.

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