Please stay green.

We asked two Houston-based financial planners, Cameron Penney of Penney Financial Group and Matt Goff of Goff Financial Group, to answer our burning personal-finance questions.

I have no retirement savings. Am I doomed?

Matt Goff: No, but you are doomed if you wait until you’re 65. There is a point where it’s too late. When your working years are behind you, that’s not the right time to start saving. Time and future earnings potential is your greatest asset.
Cameron Penney: That’s not uncommon. Most of the time when you’re young, you’re focusing on paying back student loans, building up some sort of emergency savings, buying a house, maybe getting married and having kids. There’s a lot of expenses in that time period. It just means you’re going to have to be more aggressive in your saving over time in order to hit those objectives.

Should I get a credit card, or are they evil?

MG: A credit card is a piece of financial technology. Like any technology, it can be used for good or bad. I personally think it’s good; I like cash-back credit cards because you’re essentially getting money back on your purchases. People should use credit cards to build up a credit history, but they have to be responsible about it. You should pay off your balance every month. Never, ever accumulate an ongoing balance on a credit card in which you’re paying interest. That’s a very bad thing to do.

How do I improve my credit score?

CP: The best thing you can do is pay bills and get rid of debt. Using credit cards is actually a good thing for your credit; you just don’t want to be at a high usage rate. If you’re using 75 percent of the credit available to you every month, they’re not going to like that.

If I’m planning on having kids someday, should I start their college funds right away?

MG: The first thing I would suggest: Pay off any consumer debts, like credit cards. Pay off any high-interest debt you have. Second, build a cash reserve equal to at least a year’s worth of spending needs. That rainy-day fund will protect you from taking on a lot of debt if you have a break in employment. Third, take full advantage of any company-sponsored retirement plans, especially if there’s a match. And fourth, establish college funds, such as a 529 plan, an account that grows tax-free, so long as the funds are used for qualifying educational expenses.

CP: It’s always a good thing to save some, but there are other alternatives. You can borrow for an education. What I don’t like seeing is people trying to save a lot of money for their kid’s education, but their retirement has taken a backseat. You have to do both at the same time. You really can’t borrow for retirement.

When can I tap into my retirement?

CP: If you have a 401(k) with a company and you retire with that company, you can tap into that as early as 55. The typical number is 59 and a half; IRAs are typically 59 and a half. Pensions vary by company. Social Security can be taken as early as age 62, and as late as 70.

Do I deserve a daily $4 coffee?

CP: We all like nice things—and we could all do with a lot less than we think. I do think there’s a balance between saving for the future and enjoying life. The problem is, we don’t want to enjoy life so much that we forgo future benefits of saving early and often. There’s always going to be trade-offs between our choices. If you’re saving and you’re on track to retirement, have your latte—every day if you want. Have two. That’s your discretion, because you’re on track.

MG: If you build the habit of living below your means, as your income increases, you will be less inclined to raise your spending level to your income level. Slow down your pace of spending—if you can get an extra year or two out of that couch, if you can drive that car safely for an extra 15,000 miles, if you can pay somebody $40 to fix something versus replacing it with something brand-new, do it. Extend the life of the products you already have.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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