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If life on a budget doesn't conjure up images of the good life, you ought to meet Larry and Deena Silver. The Oldsmar retirees, just back from a vacation in China, have been keeping a budget for nearly 40 years.

"We're living very comfortably, but we want to make sure that we don't run out of money and that we don't squander what we got," Larry Silver said.

A budget - or a spending plan, as some prefer to call it - can help you manage your money, whether it's a little or a lot. Having a plan is a way to focus your resources on achieving your goals, no matter what they are.

When the Silvers started budgeting as a young couple, their goal was to clean up their credit card debt and make sure they stayed out of financial trouble. Now that Larry Silver is retired from Raymond James & Associates, where he directed marketing, their goal is to make their savings last a lifetime. In their early 60s, the Silvers have no pensions and haven't yet tapped into Social Security, so their savings are all important.

How does it work for them? The Silvers keep both a monthly budget for recurring expenses and an annual budget for everything else. There are line items for everything from utilities to charitable gifts to Hanukkah presents to household repairs. Every check and credit card charge gets recorded in its budget category.

"Each month I subtract what has been spent from the total, and if we overspend in one area during the year, we have to find a way to compensate in other areas," he said. "Last year we had a lot of unexpected medical bills, so I shaved a couple thousand dollars off our travel and moved it into medical so at the end of the year we still balanced."

At the end of each year, they review their budget for the coming year with their financial adviser.

The biggest benefit of keeping a budget may be the check it provides on people's self delusions. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking we can spend whatever is left in the bank account after the bills are paid. A budget is a constant reminder that part of your income always has to be set aside for insurance premiums, tuition payments, vacations, car repairs and any other irregular expenses you have.

Silver said their budget helps keep marital peace because his wife is naturally more frugal. When he's tempted to splurge, he said he knows "if it's not in the budget, it's not going to happen."

Question: Are municipal bonds, muni bond funds and tax-free money market funds really tax free? Are they a safe investment?

Answer: The interests and dividends from municipal securities and the mutual funds that own them generally are tax free. However, income from certain types of these securities (known as private activity bonds) are taxable if you are subject to the alternative minimum tax. Capital gains are taxable if you or the mutual fund sell municipal securities at a profit.

Bonds and bond funds fluctuate in value, so it is possible to lose money if you sell. There also is the risk of default; the issuer might not be financially able to make interest or principal payments. Individual investors should avoid low-rated and unrated bonds and never have more than 10 percent of their money in the securities of any one issuer. Money market funds try to maintain a stable $1 per share value. Although that's not 100 percent guaranteed, they are considered safe.

Helen Huntley writes about investing and markets for the Times. If you have a question about investments or personal finance, write or Helen Huntley, Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. Read more questions and answers at