Our money goals and the obstacles we face reaching them can be very different, even among people who have age or interests in common. That's one of the things I've learned from readers who have volunteered for the Times Money Panel.
Over the past month, nearly 400 readers signed up to share their opinions and experiences with money. To encourage participation, the Times offered six modest prizes, a gift certificate and five sets of tickets to Tampa Bay events and attractions. Even though they were selected at random, the winners turned out to be a great example of the money diversity I'm talking about.
There's Sandra Pasco, 34, of Clearwater, a day care worker with no benefits who hasn't saved a dime for retirement. But that's not her money concern. Her goals are to buy a house and start a small business making DVDs for graduations, anniversaries and other special occasions. She'll be relying on a recent inheritance from her mother to get started.
Our winners included two 76-year-olds, but their age is about all they have in common. Helen McKay, a Pinellas Park widow, is focused on income and recently sold her stock mutual funds to buy bonds and bond funds.
Robert Rafferty of Sun City Center, who retired from the Army in 1975, has a freelance writing business selling ideas and captions to cartoonists. He invests his earnings in individual stocks. "If you have some spare money, the market's a good place to put it," he said. His holdings include General Electric, Microsoft and Polycom, his son's employer.
Two winners are workers who have encountered setbacks in their efforts to save for retirement. Rick Werling, 46, of Seminole, said he had to cash in retirement savings to pay the costs of a family health crisis. Werling, who works as a substitute teacher, says he doesn't recommend that to others, but he's glad the money was there for him when he needed it.
Greg Fox, 50, of Tampa, said a big part of his savings "went by the wayside" when he got divorced five years ago, but now he's building up his 401(k) with stock mutual funds. "I'm 100 percent in stocks," he said. "The only thing that's going to beat inflation is appreciating stocks with dividends." Fox is a chemist who does environmental testing.
Our sixth winner, Oldsmar lawyer Greg Valchine, has been saving diligently since he began delivering the Detroit News at 12, socking away $10 or $15 a week in a credit union savings account. Now 51, he is helping his grown daughter buy stock in her employer, Publix Supermarkets. He says he still takes his lunch to work four days a week to save money to buy I bonds, savings bonds that pay interest based on the inflation rate.
And that's just a sample of the money issues facing our panel members. You'll be hearing from many of them in future Times stories. Although the prizes are gone, it's not too late to sign up to be a member of the Money Panel at www.sptimes.com/moneypanel.
My girlfriend became ill and hasn't worked for a year but lives with me. Can I claim her as a dependent on my tax return?
No. This is a common question. You cannot claim a dependent if the relationship is illegal under state law. It may be outdated, but Florida law still prohibits unmarried cohabitation.
Could you please tell me the formula for figuring the Florida sales tax for my county? I thought I still had it from last year but cannot find it.
The sales tax tables and the work sheet for those who live in counties with additional taxes can be found in the instructions for Form 1040, available at www.irs.gov. Last year's table does not apply to this year's taxes.
Can I claim my daughter's preschool tuition on my taxes to increase my refund?
Preschool tuition can be used to claim the dependent care credit if you (and your spouse if married) work at least part-time or are a full-time student. Tuition costs do not qualify for this credit if the child is in first grade or older.
Helen Huntley writes about investing and markets for the Times. If you have a question about investments or personal finance, send it to On Money. We'll try to answer those we think are of greatest reader interest. All questions must be submitted in writing, but readers' names will not be published. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or Helen Huntley, Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.