Q. Reading your column I am usually depressed at how much money people have invested. I only recently realized that retirement is around the corner and I am not prepared! Divorced and remarried 3 years ago, I am a 58-year old legal secretary with annual income of about $50,000. (My husband's income is in the $70,000 range with a company car but I am more concerned about what I can do at this point.)

We live in a 4-unit condo that I purchased when I was single for $87,000. I presently owe $79,000. The unit next door is under contract for $132,500. We also have a cabin in East Texas that my husband pays for. We plan to add on to it and move there after we retire.

We both contribute the maximum in our 401k's at our companies. I have all of mine in Janus Mercury, balance $21,000. I also have $20,000 in an Equivest IRA. After April of 2001 I can remove these funds without a penalty. I have sent $20,000 to E-Trade to open an account and I have around $40,000 in a money market account at a credit union.

I have no idea what stocks to buy. I suppose I should divide my portfolio between tech stocks and some long-term stocks, such as ATT, P&G, etc. Any recommendations?

---J.P., Dallas (by e-mail)

A. In marriage, even more than the rest of life, we can either hang together or we hang separately. Your first task is to sit down with your husband and try to put together a "Big Picture" of where you are as a couple and where you want to be.

Thinking about what stocks to buy is a waste of time. It will do nothing to give you the sense of control and participation that you need.

Here are the steps to take:

• Examine your current expenses and make a budget for the future based on that spending but assuming changes such as selling the condo and moving to the East Texas cabin. Assume that you have no mortgage debt. This will give you an idea of your target future income. The first thing you will learn is that after you net out your savings, FICA taxes, and income taxes, etc. your future income need will drop sharply.

• Contact Social Security and get an estimate of your future retirement benefits at full retirement age. Your husbands will be about 25 percent of his current earnings and yours may be about 35 percent of your current earnings--- but get actual estimates. You can do this on the web, although the estimate will be mailed to you.

• Make a plan to pay off one of the mortgages in the next six years. You should be in a position to own your home free and clear by the time you retire--- it will reduce your required retirement income substantially.

• The difference between your Social Security income and your Projected Spending (including taxes) is the amount that will have to come from money you save between now and retirement. At 10 percent, your current $100,000 will double to $200,000 in 7 years. Saving $10,000 a year and earning 10 percent will produce almost $100,000 more. This means that you, personally, could have $300,000 in financial assets by the time you retire. If you withdraw at a 5 percent rate, that means $15,000 of income in addition to Social Security. If your husband does a similar exercise, you can estimate how much he will accumulate by retirement. My bet is that it won't be so bad.

• Where to invest the money? Unless one of you has a defined benefit pension, I suggest a Couch Potato portfolio that is no more than 60 percent stocks, 40 percent bonds. It won't give you fairy tale returns but it will give you most of the growth you will need.

Again, getting involved in individual stocks is a distraction from your personal plans and decisions--- to get to a goal, you've got to have one and it must be very concrete.

Yes, I know this isn't simple.

Good luck! You're in better shape than you think.