Personal Finance: Prosperity for a purpose

Michelle Singletary
Thursday, March 11, 2010; 10:06 AM

So many of us admire openly rich people, the ones who display their wealth through things like fancy houses, cars and clothes. But often, those people are pretenders who are not rich at all, and our real admiration should be reserved for regular folks who have saved all their lives and are thus able to leave a financial legacy behind for others.

That's the story of Grace Groner, who lived modestly in a plainly decorated one-bedroom house and rarely made large purchases. But she did what experts tell people all the time: She invested for the long term.

In 1935, she made a $180 stock purchase. When she died at the age of 100, Groner left $7 million to her alma mater, Lake Forest College, according to the Chicago Tribune. The donation will be used to fund internships and study-abroad programs.

"She got her clothes from rummage sales," the Tribune reported. "She walked everywhere rather than buy a car. And her one-bedroom house in Lake Forest held little more than a few plain pieces of furniture."

Groner was definitely not a pretender. Instead of using her wealth for show, she used it to give.

Stop Acting Rich

Last week's guest for my online chat was Thomas J. Stanley, author of "Stop Acting Rich and Start Living Like a Real Millionaire." Stanley's research over the years has found there are many people like Groner who live modestly, but have millions.

It was a pleasure to have Stanley as my guest. Here are his answers to a few questions I didn't get a chance to post:

Q: I live in an area with lots of homes in the $1 million and up price range. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I've found out that a lot of the mortgages on these homes are in the very high 6 figures and up. And they are frequently interest-only, negative amortization, and/or adjustable rate mortgages. Are these people in homes that they really can't afford? Or are they following the (in my opinion, stupid) theory that it is better to keep a large mortgage and use their funds for investment purposes, or some combination of both?

Thomas J. Stanley: Most people who live in million dollar homes do not have an investment portfolio of $1 million or more (only 27 percent do). They are typically income statement affluent - high income, low net worth. People who are acting rich are actually impersonating people who are only income statement affluent, not balance statement affluent. Only 10% of millionaires live in homes valued at $1 million or more. In contrast, 28% of millionaires live in homes valued at under $300,000.

Q: Yes, houses are expensive, but how much would private school cost for three kids? How much house would that pay for if you lived in the better school district? When we were house hunting, we figured out real quick that a house in a bad school district wasn't a good deal: the $100,000 cheaper home in the "bad" area would have let us save $8,000 to $9,000 a year on the mortgage payments, but private school for our two kids would have run $45,000. And at least the mortgage ultimately gives us something back in terms of equity.

Thomas J. Stanley: Most of the children of millionaires attended public schools. That being said, we see this trend even in Atlanta. People living "in-town" to be able to say that they live "in-town," and being "forced to" send their children to private schools - spending an enormous amount every year. Instead, consider the suburbs...not as trendy, but certainly more affordable.

The archive of the chat with Stanley is available here.

Unemployment Benefits

With the numerous unemployment benefit extensions, some believe the expensive entitlement is a disservice to unemployed Americans, report Post writer Michael A. Fletcher and Dana Hedgpeth in Are unemployment benefits no longer temporary? (Mar. 9)

With that in mind, here's the Color of Money Question of the Week: Do you think unemployment benefits discourage people from looking for work?

I especially want to hear from people who have been receiving unemployment checks for six months or longer. Submit your answers to Put "Unemployment" in the subject line.

Credit CARD Act Impact

Under the new legislation, credit card payoff information is supposed to become clearer. Here are the provisions in the CARD Act requiring better disclosure of people's true debt load:

--Card issuers must include a warning in monthly statements that indicates that consumers who make only minimum payments increase the amount of time it will take to pay off their debts in full and the amount of interest they will pay.

--Issuers must disclose the amount of time it will take card users to pay their balances off in full if they make only minimum monthly payments. They must also share what the total amount will be, including interest, if they only make minimum payments. Furthermore, they must show how much card holders would have to pay each month if they wish to pay off the balance in three years.

--Card issuers must set up toll-free telephone numbers for consumers to get information about nonprofit credit counseling and debt management assistance.

Learn more about the Credit CARD Act of 2009.

My inbox was flooded with questions about the CARD Act. Here are a few questions:

Q: Harry Brooks of Gaithersburg, Md. asked: "What should people like me--who pay their bill in full every month--worry about or keep track of because of these changes?"

A: If you pay your bill off every month, there isn't much to worry about. Many of the changes under the CARD Act were aimed at helping people who carrying credit card debt over month to month. You may however, keep an eye on your available credit limit. Many of the institutions have drastically reduced people's line of credit.

Q: Cathy Duvall of Annapolis, Md. wrote: "I have several credit cards that I do not use except on rare occasions. I am wondering how much or often do I need to use them to avoid having them canceled for nonuse?

A: I honestly have no idea how often you need to use your cards to avoid being kicked to the curb by the issuer. Many credit card issuers have notified people their dormant credit accounts are being closed, but every lender is developing different policies. If you are concerned, checked with the companies issuing your cards.

Q: Shantel Brown of Houston, Tex. asked: "Is it legal for the credit card company to charge me an over-the-limit fee due to a late fee?"

A: Under the new rules, the credit issuer cannot charge you an over-the-limit fee that was triggered by a late fee. Under the law, companies can no longer push you over your credit limit with fees or interest charges. Those over-the-limit charges can only be assessed when a transaction or an extension of credit causes you to exceed your limit. Further, only one over-the-limit fee may be imposed during a single billing cycle. And you can't be charged an over-the-limit fee unless you have agreed to permit transactions exceeding your credit limit.

You may find the answers to more of your questions in this recent Color of Money column.

Color of Money Challenge

For this year's Color of Money Challenge, I am following Christine Foote and Stephanie Harris, two women who will be paroled soon from the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women.

Read more about these soon to be former inmates ready to rebuild their lives.

Upcoming Events

Please join me at one of these events. All of them are free, so if you are still doing your 21-day financial fast, these events are the perfect fit.

-- March 13, 2 p.m.: Book signing at Borders bookstore located at 420 Mitchellville Road, Bowie, Md. 20716. 301-352-5560.

-- March 19, 7 p.m.: The third and last part in the bible study based on "The Power to Prosper" at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden, 600 Watkins Park Drive, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20774. 301-773-3600.

-- March 20, 10 a.m.: Financial workshop at Greater Mount Nebo AME Church, 1001 Old Mitchellville Road, Bowie, Md. 20716. 301-249-7545.

-- March 27, 1 p.m.: Book signing at Barnes & Noble located at 7851 L. Tyson's Corner Center, McLean, Va. 22102. 703-506-2937 (This is a rescheduled event canceled because of inclement weather).

-- March 29, 7 p.m.: Celebration of Ideas Lecture Series, Fairmont State College, Turley Center Ballroom, 1201 Locust Avenue, Fairmont, W.Va. 304-367-4215.

Tax Time Tip

If you're unsure whether you qualify for the Child and Dependent Care Credit, here are some tips from the IRS:

--The child care must have been provided for one or more qualifying persons. A qualifying person is your dependent child, age 12 or younger when the care was provided. Additionally, your spouse and certain other individuals who are physically or mentally incapable of self-care may also be qualifying persons.

--The care must have been provided so you or your spouse (if you are married and filing jointly) could work or look for work.

--The payments for care cannot be paid to your spouse, to someone you can claim as your dependent on your return, or to your child who will not be age 19 or older by the end of the year even if he or she is not your dependent. You must identify the care provider(s) on your tax return.

Here's more information about the credit.

Tia Lewis contributed to this e-letter.

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.

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