Doing all the right things — and feeling frustrated

Michelle Singletary
Columnist August 12, 2013

This online feature may include questions adapted from my weekly live chat. It’s also an opportunity for me to answer questions I couldn’t get to during the discussion. I may also respond to questions you send by e-mail to (colorofmoney@washpost.com), Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary.com).

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

Saving for college, but bitter about those who don’t

Q: Am I bitter to think that because I have always lived within my means, saved, saved for retirement and saved a little for my kids’ college, I will get no financial help to pay for college while my friends who have the big houses, new cars, travel and a mountain of debt will get the help? It’s not that I think someone else should pay for my kids’ education, but why does it seem like the responsible people don’t get the help, while the irresponsible do?

A: Since I’m about to send a child off to college in a few weeks, I understand your anxieties about paying for college. But you did the right thing so you have no need to be bitter. You saved the best you could and, trust me, you and your child will be better off. Be grateful your hard work paid off for your kid.

And the truth is, the aid offered to many families is often in the form of subsidized loans. Very few students receive enough scholarships and grants (including state and federal need-based and non-need-based aid) to cover all college costs. The following numbers are a little dated, but consider this: Of the students enrolled full time at four-year colleges in the 2007-08 school year, only 0.3 percent were awarded enough money to cover the full cost of attendance, Mark Kantrowitz, one of the leading experts on college financing, writes in his book “Secrets to Winning a Scholarship.” Only about one in 10 undergraduate students in bachelor’s degree programs wins a private scholarship, on average about $2,800 a year.

You really don’t know what’s happening in the financial lives of the friends you see living large. So stop looking at what you think is the greener grass of your friends or that they may be getting over on the system and getting more than you. You have no idea what manure they’re walking through to get that green grass. The reward of doing the right thing financially is not having the stress that your friends might be experiencing.

Don’t use your IRA to pay off credit card debt

Q: I’m in my mid-30s and have made some financial mistakes in the past two years (along with job changes). Basically I’ve got $12,000 of credit card debt and have no idea how to get out of it. Half of that is on a zero interest card. I’m tempted to take a withdrawal from my IRA to pay off the debt because I just feel like I’m drowning. I’ve exhausted my savings while trying to pay off the credit cards and really just want to get back to zero and start over. I know an early retirement account withdrawal comes with fees and isn’t a good idea, but I’m not sure what else to do.

A: First, breathe. I mean that. You are so frustrated with yourself that you are about to make a big mistake.

Don’t tap your retirement money. The penalties aren’t worth the short-term relief.

Go at this slowly. You didn’t get into debt overnight, and so don’t look for a microwave way to get out of debt.

I’ve seen people in far more credit card debt buckle down and get rid of it in two to five years. Plus I want you to feel the suffering so that it serves as a reminder not to put yourself in this position again.

So rather than tap the retirement money, look for ways to reduce your costs. If you have room, get a roommate, a second job, cut everything.

But most important be patient.

Financial planning advice for same-sex couples

Q: Do you know of any good resources for finding financial planning for same-sex couples? We live in the D. C. area. With the Supreme Court ruling this summer, I’m at a loss to figure out how this will affect my husband and I, especially with taxes. We’ve tried asking friends, but we’re all in our mid-20s, so nobody else has looked into this.

A: Although you have some unique challenges, you shouldn’t have any problem finding a good financial planner. Just be sure the one you select is familiar with recent changes in the law concerning same-sex couples. In fact, your planner should work with a tax professional.

If your equally young friends aren’t getting advice from a planner, try older co-workers. You can also find an adviser through the Financial Planning Association. You can search for a planner by city, state, Zip code or specialty. Check with the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, which is the professional association of fee-only financial planners. The Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards also has a search tool for planners. Be sure you ask how your financial planner is paid, which can vary from a commission, hourly fee, annual retainer or percentage of assets managed.

Follow me on Twitter at @SingletaryM, or connect with me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary.com.

Follow Michelle Singletary on Twitter at @SingletaryM, or connect with her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary.com.

Readers may write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20071, or e-mail michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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