Personal finance: It's the economy and we're not stupid

Michelle Singletary
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 8:44 AM

Despite the despicable election ads from partisan red and blue politicians, we, the voters, know what's important.

It's not who is or isn't a witch that matters. It's the economy.

Nearly 40 percent of voters in a recent Washington Post poll named the nation's fiscal situation as their top concern in the days leading to the election.

As the Post's Sandhya Somashekhar wrote, the Iraq war topped the list of voter concerns on election day four years ago. But now it's the economy that has supplanted such worries. In the Post poll, fewer than five percent of voters described "the situation in Afghanistan" as the most important issue affecting their vote for Congress.

Now that the election is over, I hope the name-calling and the witch hunts will end and our elected officials will come together to help continue to fix the economy.

I want to hear from you. This week's Color of Money Question is: What do you think it will take to improve the economy? Send your responses to and put "It's the Economy and We're Not Stupid" in the subject line.

Is law school worth it?

Not too long ago, there were a lot of people who thought getting a law degree was their ticket to prosperity. But pricey law degrees are not offering the financial return many recent law school graduates expected, according to the non-profit group National Association for Law Placement.

Annie Lowrey, an economics and business reporter for, reported recently on a new study which found that although the employment rate for the class of 2009 was 88.3 percent, about a quarter of those jobs were temporary and did not come with the salaries needed by most new lawyers to pay off crushing debts.

That statistic is enough to make recent or current law students wonder whether law school is worth it.

Graduates "cannot earn enough income after graduation to support the debt they incur," said Richard Matasar, a dean of New York Law School in 2005. "Even those making the highest salaries find that the debt that they have accumulated while in school may tax them for years."

Still, the demand for law degrees hasn't waned. The number of law degrees granted is up 11.5 percent since 2000.

This trend provides a great lead into November's Color of Money Book Club selection, "Debt-free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents" by Zac Bissonnette.

In the book, Bissonnette debunks the myth that parents, students or both should pay what it cost to attend the best schools. Here's my review, in case you missed it. I'll be continuing this conversation in my online chat with Bissonnette on December 2nd at noon ET.

Housing Headache

Even people who have not lost their jobs are worried about making their mortgage or rent payments. A recent poll by The Washington Post shows concerns about housing payments have spiked since 2008 despite some economic improvements.

Fifty-three percent survey respondents said they are "very concerned" or "somewhat concerned" about having the money to make their housing payments. Worries are more intense among those with lower income and among African Americans reports Post writers Ariana Eunjung Cha and Jon Cohen.

And why are people still so worried? The answer, for a lot of people, is jobs, or lack thereof.

"The unemployment rate is still very, very high," said Karen Dynan, a Brookings Institution scholar who worked as an economist for the Federal Reserve and for George W. Bush. "So if you think of it as being about the odds of someone losing their job and not being able to find another, there's good reason to be concerned abut not being able to make mortgage payments."

Reponses to Firing Goes Wrong

I received lots of comments on last week's Color of Money two-part question. I wanted to hear what you had to say about the recent firing of Juan Williams from National Public Radio. Williams was fired over the telephone following some comments he made on Fox News's "The O'Reilly Factor."

I wanted to know whether you thought NPR had an obligation to sit down with Williams in person to discuss terminating his contract.

"In my opinion the CEO of NPR and the person who made the phone call should both be reprimanded," said Tod Engelskirchen of St. Michaels, Md. "As a retired manager, I had to terminate many people for performance. It was never a quick and dirty thing. There were always conversations well in advance. There was always an attempt to change performance. However, sooner or later you have to pull the trigger if it does not work out. This was always done face to face. In every case I, as manager, took some of the blame as I was not successful in making the required performance change happen."

Bill Harris of North Rigdeville, Ohio thinks an employer has no obligation to have a sit down with an employee in order to terminate them.

"As far as I am concerned an email, phone call or whatever is convenient at the time would be an acceptable means of firing an employee."

Eva Lyons of Wilmington, Del. believes even when being fired, the employee should be respected.

"If you have violated the conditions of your contract as an employee, my obligation as the employer is to sit down with you, explain your termination clearly, and then sit there and listen to what you have to say before you leave. That's one of the downsides of being the boss but it's a human obligation. Yes, I've done it before, it's not pleasant, but I would hope for the same courtesy if the tables were ever turned."

In part two of the Color of Money Question of the Week, I asked: What was the worst way you have ever been fired from a job?

"I once worked leasing apartments and a year into this position a district manager came to our site to take us all to a wonderful nearby restaurant for lunch," one reader wrote. "After wining and dining us, we came back to the office only for her to briefly glance over at me and say, 'Your services will no longer be needed here as we are downsizing.'"

Therese Dolan of St. Louis, Mo. was fired by her boss on her 52nd birthday.

"The worst part was that she knew it was my birthday," Dolan said.

Melissa Woringer of North Falmouth, Mass. tells a story that shows firing can be done right.

"Years ago my husband was head of an engineering department comprised of several other engineers and technicians," she wrote. "One technician was just not fitting in - he was smart and talented, but just couldn't work with the team - an essential component of his job. My husband brought him in and told the technician, 'Look, I know that you're really not happy here and you also probably know that I'm not happy with you here. Suppose we take the next four weeks and you try to identify exactly what would be your dream job, and I'll do all I can to help you find it. At the end of the four weeks, you have to go one way or the other.' The tech did figure out his dream and they found a way to get him into the perfect company."

Now that's great way to leave a job!

Tia Lewis contributed to this e-letter.

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