McDonnells can be a lesson to everyone who’s ever wanted to live above their means

Michelle Singletary
Columnist January 24

When people face difficult situations, I try to find a life lesson, especially when it involves money.

That’s the case outlined in the indictments against former Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, who are accused of accepting gifts and loans of at least $165,000 in exchange for political favors.

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

I want to leave the politics out of this. We shouldn’t rush to declare the McDonnells guilty, because an indictment is not a conviction.

The McDonnells haven’t disputed that they received gifts and loans from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., a Richmond businessman whose largesse included a Rolex watch for the then-governor, a New York shopping spree for Maureen McDonnell to buy Oscar de la Renta and Louis Vuitton dresses and luxury accessories, and $15,000 to pay the catering bill for her daughter’s wedding. The McDonnells maintain they promised nothing in return for Williams’s generosity.

Nonetheless, their plight calls attention to the fact that many people — at all income levels and stations of life — get into financial difficulty (and legal trouble) trying to live above their means.

As former Va. Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) faces corruption charges, here's a look at other notable bribes in politics -- and how much it took for lawmakers to sell out. (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

I read the 43-page indictment and among the things that jumped out at me was this e-mail from Maureen McDonnell to a senior staff member in the governor’s office: “I need to talk to you about Inaugural clothing budget. I need answers and Bob is screaming about the thousands I’m charging up in credit card debt. We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this Inaugural is killing us!! I need answers and I need help, and I need to get this done.”

There’s something else I noticed. In the filing, the government says McDonnell and his children went golfing on Williams’s dime at an exclusive private golf club, charging him for their green fees, food and items from the pro shop. Golfing can be expensive, so I get the fees. I get the food. But I don’t get buying merchandise from the pro shop and putting it on the tab of your host on multiple occasions.

I teach a class at my church about kids and money, and what I tell the parents is that your children live what they learn. And what many are learning is that their parents are living far above what their income can handle. The kids benefit from what the parents buy them, but they also hear the arguments about the debt. They see the stress. Some learn that they don’t want to live their adult lives in debt like their parents, and they become thrifty. Others repeat what they see and become spendthrifts.

But I get it. I get that there’s pressure to live and look a certain way. If you are in a certain position, hold a certain job, live in a particular neighborhood, you feel even more compelled to have certain things. You get noticed when you drive a luxury car or wear brand-name clothes or shoes.

People make comments like “You are working that Louis Vuitton” or “That is a fierce car.” The compliments are endorsements.

Those of us who wear discount clothes or drive not-so-fancy cars for years seldom get compliments like “I want to be like you because I know you’re saving some money.” I haven’t gotten a single compliment for my non-North Face jacket that looks almost exactly like ones you find in the popular brand-name outerwear line.

I don’t care. Can’t afford to care. I have other financial priorities.

I’m invited to a lot of upscale affairs often requiring a nice frock to meet the dress code. I could spend a lot of money making sure I had a lot of different dresses and designer shoes that stand up to the standards of the other attendees. But I don’t. I wear the same few party dresses. I tell people that brand-name shoes will give you the same corns and calluses as discount shoes.

Would it be disastrous if someone noticed I was wearing the same dress at a different event?

Not to me. Sure, some people may whisper. Still don’t care. I’ve got kids to put through college and a mortgage I want to pay off before I retire. It’s a costly endeavor to spend to impress.

So are you mired in debt because of your desire to have a luxurious-looking life?

I look at cases like the McDonnells’ and check myself. When I hear about anyone, especially a movie star, professional athlete or politician, spending their way into trouble, I use it as a reminder that in the end it’s not worth it to live above my means.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or singletarym@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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