Open Season

Michelle Singletary
Thursday, October 5, 2006; 12:23 PM

It's that time of year again -- open enrollment. In today's column you'll find information about a great resource on how to choose the right health plan.

For more information on navigating your health benefits, click here for a free guide, cosponsored by the Financial Planning Association.

Speaking of health insurance, this month's Color of Money book club pick is "The Insurance Maze: How You Can Save Money on Insurance -- and Still Get the Coverage You Need" ($18.95, Kaplan Publishing) by Kimberly Lankford. Lankford, a columnist at Kiplinger's Personal Finance, has been covering the industry for 10 years, so she knows her stuff.

If you missed my column, you can read it here.

And don't miss my chat with Lankford at Noon ET on Oct. 26.

A Time Zone Mishap

There was a time-zone mix up last week with my chat guest, Chris Balish, author of "How to Live Well Without Owning a Car," September's book of the month. Balish lives on the West Coast and well, you can guess the rest. Since Balish, who doesn't own a car, missed the chat because of the time difference and not a missed bus (as some smarty-pants readers quipped), here are his answers to some of the questions from last week's online discussion about his book:

Q: I am disappointed that Chris Balish is not "appearing" on this discussion so I looked him up on Google. Apparently he lives in Santa Monica, which is just up the coast a bit from San Pedro. Santa Monica has an excellent municipal bus system as well as service from the Southern California Rapid Transit District. Does he actually live without a car in Southern California?

Balish: I too, am disappointed that I could not be at the live chat. My apologies to all. Yes, I live car-free in Santa Monica, Calif. For those of you outside of Southern California, Santa Monica is a small city within Los Angeles County, about 10 miles from downtown L.A. I do not own a car, and I have not owned one since 2003. Many people told me that living car-free in Los Angeles is not possible. That's completely untrue. Los Angeles is a great place to live car-free, partly because driving here is so incredibly frustrating. Many people here quite literally spend their lives in their cars -- if you consider three to four hours a day a significant part of your life. I know I do.

I get around by combining mass transit with riding my bike, carpooling, using car sharing and renting cars when needed. It works great. I go everywhere at a fraction of the cost of owning a car. I'm saving more than $800 a month by not owning a car. Folks, that's almost $10,000 a year, every year. Which reminds me, some people say owning a car provides freedom; I think NOT owning a car provides freedom. If I owned a car I would not be able to afford to live here.

Q: I estimate my cost for a car to be about $170 per month. But I also wonder about getting access to a rental since I live so close to a Metro station. I drive to church, to stores and medical appointments. I buy gas about once every two months.

Balish: First off, owning a car for $170 a month is pretty unlikely. Cars come bundled with dozens of unavoidable expenses that quickly ratchet up that total cost so quickly and silently most people don't even notice it. My guess is that this person's actual cost to own a car is more likely around $350 a month or more because it's usually twice as much as you think. Incidentally, you can't do this math in your head. Just adding up your car payment, gas and insurance doesn't even come close to the true cost of car ownership.

To find out what your car is really costing you, go to and download the first two chapters of my book for free. Then fill out the Car Cost Worksheet. I bet you will be shocked by what your car is really costing you. Keep in mind, automobile companies spend $20 billion dollars every year on advertising to convince Americans that cars are affordable. Car commercials that promise "A brand new car for just $199 a month!" are so misleading they should be illegal. Then how come they can say it? Because the cost to buy a car is very different from the cost to own a car.

Q: How do I cope with nasty comments about not driving a car. You'd think I was some kind of criminal. I have a valid driver's license and have never been to jail as I don't break laws...except not having a car.

Balish: "I have been the butt of more than a few car-free jokes in my day. But in my experience, all are harmless and very few are mean-spirited. In fact, I can't remember ever hearing a "nasty comment." One wisecrack I hear occasionally is, 'Chris, when you go out on a date this weekend, are you going to pick her up on your bicycle?' My standard response is, 'No, actually I'm saving so much money by not owning a car we're flying to Cancun for the weekend. Think of us on the beach as you're sitting in traffic.'"

He Pays, She Pays

There was an interesting question in Carolyn Hax's Tell Me About It column a couple weeks ago. Here's the reader's question:

Q: A guy I dated for six weeks broke up with me because he claimed I took advantage of him by allowing him to pick up the tab for four dinners out. To quote his breakup e-mail, 'I even went to the bathroom when the check came to give you a chance. But when I got back to the table and saw the check was still there . . . my heart sank and I got a cold sweat.' I believe in paying my way in this world, but I also believe a real man enjoys treating a woman -- because he can, it's a way of taking care of his date, and because it's part of the early dating stages. Am I too old-fashioned? Is it 'Dutch' all the way these days?"

Hax: You actually do have a point: He didn't respect that you were generous to him in other ways. And he actually does have a point: You've been going out for a while, and you let a check just sit there?

So what would you advise? Who is right in this situation? This reader says, "It's the guy that should 'take care of his date.'"


Honestly, I thought this issue was settled long ago since so many women claim to be independent and able to bring home their own bacon to fry. But perhaps I'm wrong. I have been out of the dating scene for awhile (celebrating 15 years of marriage next month - to the same man I might add).

But what do you think? Who should pay when a couple is first dating? Or how should you split the expense of dating once you're snuggling with that one person. I'm particularly interested in hearing from the men out there, especially since I have a son. Send your thoughts to In the subject line put "Dating and Dollars."

Home Buying 101

If you are looking for the perfect home to end your renting streak, read Elizabeth Razzi's article "How to Make Your First Time a Charm" (Oct. 1). Being a first-time home buyer can be daunting and overwhelming. To help simplify the process, Razzi takes you through 10 steps to ease your buying experience.

If buying a house isn't quite what you're looking for, maybe you want a condo. If so, "Some Points to Consider in the Quest for a Condo" (Oct. 1), by David Alan Coia, might be helpful.

Book Reading

If you live in the Washington Metro area, then come on down to Largo, Md., this weekend. I'll be participating in the Second Annual Capital BookFest, which runs from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday.

I'll be reading from my latest book, "Your Money and Your Man: How You And Prince Charming Can Spend Well and Live Rich," 4:25 to 5:15 p.m.

This one-day book festival, presented by The Washington Post, features several Post authors, panels, writing and publishing workshops, poetry performances, live music, children's storytelling, and exhibitors from the Washington Metropolitan area. For more information go to

Paragons of Parsimony

Here is another batch of homemade money-saving tips from this year's Penny Pincher of the Year Contest:

To avoid the high cost of high school senior photo packages, Janice Dent of La Plata, Md., decided to take matters into her own hands. "It's easy to snap a digital photo, crop, touch up and print for a fraction of the cost. You can be creative with it, too -- for example, she wanted to have her picture taken near a landmark on her future college campus."

Angela Madura of Woodstock, Ill., does what I do. She maintains a gift closet. "I have not actually had to buy gifts for teachers, weddings, or birthday parties in years. When I find an appropriate gift on closeout, clearance, or even free with rebate it goes in the closet. I buy crock pots, crystal, toys, candles, toiletries, cutlery, baby clothes and even jewelry and tools this way."

Carol Piscini of Rochester, N.Y., has a solution to make paper plates last longer. "I cut paper plates in half - lots of times you really only need half. This makes everything last twice as long and is less wasteful."

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

© 2006 The Washington Post Company