A reader who just got out of a decade's worth of debt wants to know what to do with her sudden surplus.

Question: Last year, we finished a debt management plan and finally got out of debt that was dogging us for a decade. Now we’re actually saving some money! But my hubby is mad. The interest rates we’re getting in our savings account and in a CD we signed up for are just so low.

My hubby wants us to take our savings and invest it in the stock market or buy some property. I’m not sure about that. What if we lose it all? He says a lot of people make money in the stock market, and real estate is a safe investment. What do you think? I don’t know who else to ask.

— Paula in North Carolina

Howard Dvorkin CPA answers…

First, congratulations on getting out of debt. I’m always surprised when I talk to people who say, “I’ve been in debt so long, there’s no hope of ever getting out.” You were suffering for a decade and now are debt-free. So it can be done.

Second, before we talk about investing, let’s talk about an emergency fund. As Debt.com reported a few weeks ago, “two-thirds of us can’t handle basic household needs if we lost our income for three months.”

So the first thing I’d do with your sudden savings is…nothing much. Yes, you’re likely earning a fraction of a percent in interest in a savings account. However, that’s money you can access immediately if there’s, God forbid, an accident or an illness.

I recommend you study your bank statements and make sure you’re getting not only the most interest, but that you’re not paying any fees. Stash your emergency fund in a bank where the money might not grow much, but it won’t be drained, either.

How much should you keep in an emergency fund? That’s a matter of some controversy. If you polled financial experts, you’d get a range of answers. For example, Dave Ramsey says three months of living expenses, while Suze Orman says eight months. Me? I don’t fixate on that number. Instead, I suggest you set aside a small amount per month, to build the fund over time.

When it gets somewhere between three and eight months, you can decide what to do with the surplus. My suggestion? The next step is ensuring you’ve saved for retirement. As Debt.com reported last year, retirement is now the nation’s biggest source of financial stress — even more than credit card debt.

You can start saving for your retirement just like you compiled your emergency fund: a little all the time. One young Debt.com staff writer started with just $25.

Only after these steps would I even consider investing. Between now and then, you can educate yourself on the pros and cons of specific investments — because investing isn’t going to make you rich quick. Anyone tells you otherwise, run in the opposite direction.

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About the Author

Howard Dvorkin, CPA

Howard Dvorkin, CPA

I’m a certified public accountant who has authored two books on getting out of debt, Credit Hell and Power Up, and I am one of the personal finance experts for Debt.com. I have focused my professional endeavors in the consumer finance, technology, media and real estate industries creating not only Debt.com, but also Financial Apps and Start Fresh Today, among others. My personal finance advice has been included in countless articles, and has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Forbes and Entrepreneur as well as virtually every national and local newspaper in the country. Everyone should have a reason for living that’s bigger than themselves, and besides my family, mine is this: Teaching Americans how to live happily within their means. To me, money is not the root of all evil. Poor money management is. Money cannot buy happiness, but going into debt always buys misery. That’s why I launched Debt.com. I’m glad you’re here.

Published by Debt.com, LLC