The fiscal cliff

Okay, you’ve probably had enough of this fiscal cliff that we in the news media have been beating the drum about.

But do you really know what it is or how it might affect you?

Not to worry. A team of reporters for The Washington Post’s Wonkblog has put together a useful list of frequently asked questions (FAQ) to help you figure out this fiscal cliff mess.

The first question: What is the fiscal cliff?

“Much too much austerity, much too quickly,” The Post team writes. ”On or around Jan. 1, about $500 billion in tax increases and $200 billion in spending cuts are scheduled to take effect. That’s equal to about four percent of GDP, which is, according to the Congressional Budget Office, more than enough to throw us into a recession (more on that later).”

If you’ve got some time on your hands and want to save money by skipping lunch with your co-workers, it’s a great read that will make you a hit at the holiday parties when people start talking about the cliff and you chime in with what you know. They will be very impressed.

To see just how much the cliff might affect your family, check out The Post’s “Fiscal Cliff” calculation.

The calculator estimates how your household would be affected by the Democratic and Republican plans for dealing with scheduled tax hikes — and what would happen come January if no deal is reached.

For example, let’s say you are a married couple with two young kids and making nearly $72,240 a year. Under both the Democratic and Republican plans your taxes would increase by $1,396. But if no deal is reached by Dec. 31, your taxes would go up by $3,289.

Bet that got your attention.

Happy Birthday Great Recession

Has it only been five years?

Yes, that’s right. It was five years ago this month that the Great Recession hit the U.S. economy, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research Business Cycle Dating Committee.

Neil Irwin, a Washington Post columnist and the economics editor of Wonkblog, revisits one of the worst financial fallouts in history and gladly bids it good-bye.

“By his first birthday, though, our little recession had gone from being an adorable little imp to a pusillanimous fire-breathing demon from hell,” Irwin writes. “That fourth quarter of 2008 the U.S. economy shrank at an 8.9 percent annual rate. Many economists had viewed a collapse like that to be unfathomable. (The post-war record had been a 6.4 percent rate of decline, in 1982).”

I think Irwin sums it up nicely: “Happy birthday, Great Recession. May your birthday cake be poisoned, its candles exploding, and after the party may you get hit by a truck.”

So, for this week’s Color of Money Question: What did you learn from the Great Recession? Send your responses to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Be sure to include your full name, city and state. Put “Happy Birthday Great Recession” in the subject line.

Miss Manners

Miss Manners recently responded to a reader who wanted to know if she should offer her mother-in-law financial advice.

According to the letter writer, her father-in-law was recently jailed and his wife had a hard time getting the cash together to pay his bail and even had to ask her family for money. The writer says that her mother-in-law is close to retirement age and may permanently lose her husband’s income because of the arrest.

With that said, the daughter-in-law, who has a knack for personal finance, told Miss Manners that she was thinking about trying to help her mother-in-law get her finances in order but that she didn’t know if now was the appropriate time to offer.

So, what does Miss Manners say?

Stay clear of offering financial advice during this challenging time.

“If your mother-in-law had nothing to do with her husband’s crime, she is going to be freshly skittish about trusting even a member of the family,” Miss Manners wrote. “The poor state of her finances suggests an ineptitude that could hamper you in showing her that whatever you do is in her interest.”

While Miss Manners doesn’t discourage the daughter-in-law from reaching out, she believes professional help for the in-laws may be the best option.

I would agree. Some people’s personal business you just want to stay away from.

Is Your Financial House in Order?

In a recent column, I wrote about the passing of a close and dear friend, Juanita Ann Walker. How she lived her life is an inspiration for us all.

“My friend could have been the spokeswoman for the simplicity movement, which strives to get people to reduce their consumption and material possessions. Her place was so tidy and uncluttered that I wept. It made me ashamed of my personal living space, my cluttered office and my hoarding of things that long ago should have been tossed or donated.”

Just think about this: If you were to die, how long would it take for people to go through your stuff? How many hours would they have to take off from their jobs to find and organize your personal property? Could they find your will? Where would they look for any instructions on your estate? Have you written down in a secure place the passwords to your computer or phone so friends and family can contact people if you pass away?

Jane E. Brody of The New York Times wrote a great article on ways to declutter your life. So, let me ask you again, is your financial house in order?

Send your responses to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Be sure to include your full name, city and state. Put “Is Your Financial House In Order?” in the subject line.

Family Financial Fights

Money and family are often two things that don’t mix.

But I’m here to help. If you have some family financial drama going on, perhaps I can offer some advice on how to work through your issues -- or avoid them all together.

Send your Family Financial Fight stories to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Be sure to include your full name, city and state and put “Family Finance” in the subject line.

Mortgage Interest

For last week’s Color of Money question, I asked: “What do you think of the possible elimination of the mortgage interest deduction?”

Here are some of your responses:

“Cap the mortgage interest deduction or limit it to incomes below a certain level,” wrote Thomas Hodgson of Glade Park, Colo. “There are many middle-income families who depend on it. If it is eliminated it should be only for new mortgages going forward. This would allow home buyers and refinancers to take it into account in their financial planning.”

Robert Markle of Grand Haven, Mich., said he has always opposed the deduction’s “second home” provision, since no one needs more than one. Adding that he now believes that “phasing out the deduction entirely over a period of years makes sense. I am biased, of course, in that I have never benefited from it.”

“I definitely think the mortgage interest deduction should be addressed, particularly for those who own second or multiple homes,” state Nancy Merrick of Cary, N.C. “The deduction should also be capped at a certain amount so that low- and middle-income families still could receive the benefits from home ownership, and the wealthy could also have some tax deduction, but not at the excessive amounts now allowed for extremely costly homes and second or third homes. It also should be capped for those who own multiple properties for investments.”

Tia Lewis contributed to this report.

You are welcome to e-mail comments and questions to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name and hometown; your comments may be used in a future column or newsletter unless otherwise requested.

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