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A growing portion of the American work force doesn't receive regular, fixed paychecks. Instead, they rely on commissions, consulting fees or performance-based pay -- all subject to variations from year to year.

That variability makes it much more difficult to make financial plans for the workers and their families.

For instance, taking on a big liability in a year when income is high can lead to disaster when the worker hits a year of bad earnings.

Saving for retirement also is difficult. Not only isn't there an employer-provided pension to rely on, but the amounts that can be contributed to a retirement account every year will vary, perhaps by large amounts.

A young professional couple working in real estate-related businesses in the Buffalo area has had to contend with a big change in one income and unpredictability in another this year, as higher interest rates hurt the real estate business.

The wife, 35, who recently changed jobs, expects to make about $65,000 this year -- a healthy income but almost $42,000 less than she earned in 1994.

Her husband, 30, who is self-employed, just finished paying off start-up costs for his business. Recent estimates of his 1995 income, which was only $8,600 last year, have ranged from $20,000 to as high as $50,000.

They also have about $267,000 in debt on their home, a rental property, a summer home and a car, and that debt must be serviced every month, regardless of their current income.

By shifting their investment emphasis, building an emergency fund and prudently saving for retirement, this couple should be able to cope with their variable incomes and prosper, says a team of financial planners assembled by the Western New York chapter of the Institute of Certified Financial Planners.

Close management of their cash flow -- the money that comes in each month from income and goes out to pay bills and make purchases -- is the key to their success or failure, says Michael Giokas, who runs Giokas Financial Services in Williamsville and headed the planning team.

The couple should take two actions at once: Assess and control their spending, while redirecting the savings from any spending cuts to building a liquid emergency fund that will help them make ends meet when their incomes fall or are disrupted, Giokas says.

Although they have built up about $33,000 in savings in the past few years, much of it is tied up in tax-deferred retirement accounts, mutual funds and an annuity.

Only about $2,500 is available in personal savings and checking accounts for emergencies.

That isn't nearly enough, the planners say.

"They have a little more than a week's expenses in liquid reserves," says Anthony J. Ogorek, a certified financial planner in Williamsville.

"If the income stopped for the two of them, there would be problems, since they are spending $8,100 a month," he says.

The usual recommendation is to have three to six months worth of liquid savings to draw on in case of an emergency. Erring on the high side is preferable when income is highly variable, as is the case with this couple.

At minimum, a crash savings program to put together reserves equal to at least one month's worth of income is essential, the planners say. Working toward a fund of $20,000 to $40,000 should be the ultimate goal, Giokas says.

A quick boost to their reserves could come from either big expense reductions or sales of assets, the planners say.

A rental property that is worth about $110,000 and carries a $60,000 mortgage could be sold to provide an immediate fund, says Robert C. Monin, who runs Amherst Financial Services.

Some of the proceeds could be used to pay off smaller debts, which would free up cash flow to further increase savings, he adds.

Such a sale probably isn't in the cards, however.

"They are looking at things completely differently than we do," the wife says. "Then we'd have capital gains to deal with, and the only way we would do it is to do a tax-deferred exchange for another property. My husband was thinking of buying another rental property. We are in the kind of business where that is the mindset, to acquire, acquire and acquire real estate."

The couple also could free up cash by reducing expensive whole life insurance policies that are costing about $2,700 per month, Ogorek says.

Because both husband and wife work and they have no children or other dependents, there isn't a need for the large amounts of insurance they carry, he adds.

Giokas disagrees: The wife's $150,000 in life insurance should be increased by as much as $100,000 because of the debts carried on the couple's three houses.

They also could use less expensive term insurance, which offers a death benefit but no tax-deferred investment buildup, both Giokas and Ogorek say.

Due to the variability of their income, they should take a close look at all discretionary expenses to identify those that could be cut or reduced if their incomes are squeezed, says Paul M. Eberz, a financial planner in Williamsville who runs Paul M. Eberz Associates Inc.

Expenses such as a house cleaner, boat, new clothes and an interest in a vacation time share unit all could be eliminated if a real estate downturn reduced their income, he says.

The wife has been putting as much as 15 percent of her income into a tax-sheltered 401(k) plan through her employer.

While the planners say she should consider reducing that contribution temporarily in order to put more into a liquid reserve fund, she should contribute at least $6,000 a year because her new employer will match her contributions up to that level by adding 50 cents for each dollar she contributes.

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