For my last post before summer break (I will be back posting in September, as usual), I want to talk about the saying, “no good deed goes unpunished.” That old saw holds up in personal finance, too, in that there is a lot of great advice out there, but unless it fits your finances specifically, it could backfire.

Here are three pieces of excellent advice in certain circumstances:

  1. Pay more to your mortgage each month
  2. Save for college
  3. Save more to your retirement plan to reduce your taxes

All three pieces of advice are excellent IF you have the cash flow to do it. If you don’t, all three can get you into a mountain of credit card debt.

If you do not have enough cash flow to pay for all your monthly expenses plus some full discretionary money (everyone needs some!), plus some savings for Annual Needs and a small cushion, then you could be “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” You could be saving $200/month to your child’s 529, paying $500/month extra to your mortgage and maxing your retirement, but if you do not have $200+$500 ($700) EXTRA each month AFTER maxing your retirement AND paying ALL your monthly expenses, saving for Annual Needs, and having a small cushion, you will inevitably have to charge expenses that come up like plumbers, kids activities, birthday parties and other lifestyle expenses.

All that good saving could squeeze your cash flow each month and force you to charge regular expenses that come up. Instead, KNOW if you have an extra $700/month after paying for all your monthly expenses (including some full discretionary funds to cover your child’s activities and birthday parties), saving for Annual Needs and having a small cushion. Only once you know you have enough left over, can you confidently follow any or all of the advice listed above and NOT risk amassing more credit card debt.

Think about whether you are saving more than you can afford to each month. That happens to well-intentioned people everywhere, especially if you are in a cash flow heavy period of your life (e.g., kids in daycare or college). If you are saving more than you can, reduce your savings and make sure you can handle your monthly expenses. It’s more important. Look at your monthly expenses, you may be able to trim some to free up more money for saving (woohoo!), but if you can’t, don’t follow the good advice listed above (however, you should always save at least 15% total to retirement including your employer match, but anything over that can be trimmed, if necessary). Instead, make sure you don’t get into more debt due to monthly expenses.

There, I said it. Don’t save… until you know you can.