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Moves That Save, And Parents Who Won't

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, October 7, 2007

Giving advice to people in financial trouble is like throwing dust into the wind. You toss it out and, depending on the wind's direction, it either gets carried away or thrown right back in your face.

People with money problems often want a magic solution, some instantaneous debt-reduction program that will save them. But the truth is, to make the most of what you earn, you have to make hard choices. You have to listen to good advice, and use it.

That's what one participant in a recent online chat did. I'd like to share that person's story and answer some other questions from that conversation.

"Michelle, many times when someone tells you they have nothing left over at the end of the month to put into savings, you have told them they should consider moving or getting a roommate," the person wrote. "I always thought that was extreme and kind of useless advice, until I did it."

I love it when people listen.

In this case, the person moved from what she described as a great apartment in a great neighborhood to a smaller apartment in a so-so (but not dangerous) neighborhood.

"Sure my family is now kind of crammed on top of each other in this little place, but it's not that bad really and it is $600 a month cheaper to live here," the person said. "We now have six months of savings in the bank and an account to save for a house down payment. We've started college funds for the kids, and we still had enough left over to pay in cash -- that's 100 percent cash -- for a new computer. No debt at all! My life is so much less stressful now."

I'm all teary-eyed.

Unfortunately, another chatter was facing lots of tears, but not from joy.

"My parents are in their mid-60s and have simply never been able to get their financial act together -- ever," that person wrote. "I am steeling myself for the eventual, 'We are broke. You have money. We need help.' Am I evil for not wanting to give them a dime, when I've warned them over the years that they've really got to ease up, not be so impulsive, and actually exercise a little restraint?"

Would this person be wrong to stand by and watch while financially inept elderly parents lose their home of 30 years? By the way, the parents have $34,000 in credit card debt.

Whether you preach, cry or beg, if you have parents who have spent a lifetime mismanaging their money, it's unlikely that they will suddenly gain some financial common sense as they age. All you can do is minimize the impact they will have on your own finances.

In a report about the struggles of caregivers to the elderly, AARP found that about 23 percent of caregivers said their assistance was creating a financial hardship.

I would advise this person to put aside some money to help her parents with essentials, such as food, utilities and medicine. You don't have to support their every need, just help with their basic necessities as best you can. If you have siblings, organize a family meeting to see if they can contribute on a regular basis.

And yes, you might have to watch as they lose their home. Just help them find an affordable place to live, which might mean coming to live with you. Sorry.

Finally, one person wanted to know when, if ever, it was okay to stop contributing to a retirement fund when you have credit card debt.

"I am 34 years old and work for the federal government in a position I really enjoy that pays well," the person wrote. "I have about $75,000 in my Thrift Savings Plan and I am considering stopping my contributions for about three months to pay off my $3,000 credit card bill. I want to be debt free! I can't come up with the extra money elsewhere. What do you think?"

If this person truly can't eke out another penny from his budget (which I doubt because there's often something that can be cut), then it wouldn't be a financial disaster to stop the contributions. A three-month hiatus from savings won't be the difference between him eating cat food in retirement and having dinner out once in a while.

However, be very careful about this strategy. The better solution is to cut expenses or increase income, or both. When people stop saving, they often don't have the discipline to start again.

If you know you're trifling and there's a possibility you won't return to saving, pay down the debt without stopping your retirement contributions. To thine own self be true.

¿ On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online athttp://www.npr.org.She also has a new personal finance call-in show that airs Sundays on XM Satellite Radio, Channel 169 "The Power," at 8 to 10 p.m.

¿ By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

¿ By e-mail:singletarym@washpost.com.

Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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