Color of Money Live

Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Personal Finance Columnist
Thursday, March 13, 2008; 12:00 PM

Need advice about how to handle your personal finances? Whether the struggle is saving for retirement, organizing your bank files, talking about money responsibility with your spouse or loved one, Post personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary offers her advice and answers your tough questions.

A transcript follows.

Read Michelle's latest columns, check out her Color of Money Book Club selection archive or sign up for her weekly e-mail newsletter.


Michelle Singletary: Welcome.

Let's get started.


Virginia: After reading your articles, I retired with no debt at all with a $73,000 annual federal pension and $400,00 savings, thank you.

Michelle Singletary: Wow!

That's wonderful.

And you are welcome.


Arlington, Va.: Michelle, I was surprised at your advice to the poster who wanted to reduce wedding costs. I absolutely agree that people should stick to a wedding budget, but I was raised to believe that weddings are not just about the couple, but about the families being joined together. So the guest list is the LAST thing to cut, not the first. If the poster has siblings with spouses, and the intended has siblings with spouses, and they have any grandparents still living, asking them to trim a guest list of 100 to 20 is not just going to happen without a lot of bruised feelings. If the poster can't afford to feed 100 people, then it's probably worth trying to see if they can trim to 75. But frankly, I think it's more frugal and more fun to have a low-cost punch and cake reception for everyone than to go to a restaurant with 20 favored guests.

Michelle Singletary: A wedding ALL about the couple. The only two people being "joined" together IS the couple. The onlookers are just extra.

Let's be honest here. What we are really talking about is the reception -- a party. Depending on the church or venue for the ceremony you can invite as many people as you want.

The costs comes from feeding everybody and renting a place for them to sit while they eat.

I stand by my advice. If you can't afford to feed 100 or 75 or 25 people you can still get married.

This goes deeper than having auntie or grandma Moses to the wedding. There is no "right" to have all these people view your nuptials.

Do what you can afford --that's all I'm saying.


Lombard, Ill.: What's the better option -- a conventional 529 plan or the prepaid tuition option?

Michelle Singletary: I like the 529 savings plan.

Not prepaid.


Washington, D.C.: Michelle,

We just finished paying off our credit cards - hooray! I think some readers may need some encouragement so I thought I'd share a few of our "secrets" to success. We started about six months before getting married, but I'm sure you'll agree that it's never too late for any of these tips:

1. Put everything on the table financially. Debts, assets, everything. We did it in a factual way - leaving the emotion out of the picture in deciding how we were going to tackle it. (Before we did this, I knew that Quicken had a debt reduction calculator where you can input your debts, interest rates, minimum payments, etc., so that was used for that part of the discussion. It's hard to argue when the numbers speak for themselves!)

2. Teamwork - three parts:

a. We both were of the mind that married = all money is combined (assets -and- debts)

b. He knew that I was on board to pay down the CC debts (some were mine, most were his) and that doing so together would make it happen a lot faster.

c. We could both be the "bad guy" when shopping ("no, we really don't need X")

3. In creating our budget I analyzed our spending habits. After tallying up how much we spent at Target we immediately put a moratorium on going there. Can't overspend if you don't go. Same for Costco.

4. Small apartment = less space to put stuff. No desire to live in (more) cramped quarters means less accumulation of stuff.

5. Recognizing where we learned our financial habits (often our parents) - and making a conscious effort to learn from their mistakes -and- successes.

6. Take advantage of procrastination - I'm a sucker for a deal but if I put off getting to the store, chances are good that I've missed the deal, at which point I won't bother going, and thus won't spend the money at all.

7. Write your financial goals down, with deadlines. Better yet, put them in a visible place at home as a reminder to stay on track. (For us, house hunting is contingent upon being CC debt free. Talk about a motivator!)

That's more than a few tips, but hopefully hearing them from someone who's been there will help others!

Michelle Singletary: All great tips.

And congrats to you!


Washington, D.C.: Michelle, we received a sizable tax refund this year (for the record it went toward credit card debt) and I know you've posted before on how to change your withholdings to prevent that from happening... could we get a link to that info? Thanks!

Michelle Singletary: Sure.

Go to

Type in "withholding calculator"

You should also read IRS Publication 919 "How Do I Adjust My Tax Withholding?"


Hagerstown, Md.: Hi Michelle, I know that paying one extra mortgage payment a year on a 30 year loan will reduce the loan to 22 years. How long will it take to pay off a 15 year mortgage making two extra payments a year?

Michelle Singletary: Good question. Not sure. I can't figure that out in this chat.

But go to and use the site's morgtage payoff calculator. You can input extra payments and it will show you how long it would take to pay off your mortgage.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Michelle,

I would like to save a copy of your article on budgeting on my computer but I can't find it by searching. I think it was from 2006 and it was on budgeting by percentage of income. Would you be so kind as to link to the article? Thank you. It Pays to Do the Math In the Budget Game (Color of Money, Sept. 10, 2006)

(the percentage breakdown is on page 2)

Also, here's Michelle's Budget Worksheet (pdf).

Michelle Singletary: Here you go.


Maryland: Hey, Michele, I want a $73,000 federal pension, too!

Michelle Singletary: You and me both!


Washington, D.C.: Hi Michelle. My mortgage is relatively small and I have a good interest rate, but I would like to pay it down as soon as possible and be completely debt-free.

When the issue comes up, people always tell me to hang onto the mortgage, arguing the merits of tax deductions, earning interest on the money that's freed up, etc.

None of that moves me (as I know it doesn't move you) but instead of launching into a detailed explanation about why being debt-free is preferable, I'd rather have a short, succinct comeback. Any ideas on how to respond in this situation?

Michelle Singletary: How about this: "I don't like being a slave."

If they don't get it they don't get it.

You see you are up against years and years of brainwashing. People believe that they should take a mortgage to their grave because that's that lenders and money changers want them to believe.

But you are a slave when you borrow money.

And the tax deduction issue drives me nuts.

I'm use a very simple example. Let's say you spend $1 in mortgage interest a year. You are in the 35 percent tax bracket.

Simply put, you spend a $1 to get 35 cents back.

But what if you kept your $1 (meaning you had no mortgage and thus no interest payments). Yes, you may have to pay 35 cents in taxes but which is higher 65 or 35?

If you pay off your mortgage there are other deductions you can take if you are just dying to have a deduction.

Let me giving the 35 cents to charity.


Anywhere DC: Michelle - I hope you can help with a little insight.

We're a family of 4 - mom, dad, grandma, and 8 month old - living in a 2-bedroom, 2-ba+den condo we bought at the bottom range of market in 2005. Baby is in our bedroom with us, and grandma sleeps in the other bedroom (den is really just a glorified closet). WE NEED MORE SPACE.

We have what I think is a medium amount of debt from some credit cards (which we try to pay off in chunks when we can) and student loans, a mortgage and home equity line (the way they set up our mortgage, essentially).

I -think- the best solution for us - because it's the most immediate - is to rent a place for grandma close by. We have savings and some investments, but the savings aren't large enough to make a down payment, and the investments are tricky b/c of tax timing. We looked into buying once before, but purchasing a second property is not cheap in terms of the mortgage for an "investment property" (as the lenders see it).

I suppose what I'm really asking for is your stamp of approval for renting a place for grandma even though it's "money out the window" on rent (v. trying to buy).

At the End of My Rope

Michelle Singletary: I think you have thought this out and if you can afford the rent or the portion of the rent you would pay for grandma go for it.

In life sometimes space and peace are priceless.


Washington, D.C.: I'm in my mid-twenties and have no debt, no car, and no mortgage. I put 10% (total with company matching) of my salary in a retirement account and save a minimum of $1,000 a month. I put that savings in an online savings account (now down to 3.10% APY) and have $30,000 in it. My question- what are my next steps to figure out what to do with my savings? I know I need goals but feel I need more information to set those goals. I planned to buy a home by the end of the year, but I'm wondering if there are better ways to invest my money. Any suggestions?

Michelle Singletary: You actually answered your own question.

Your goal:

-- to buy a home.

To make that happen look at everything

-- new budget with a mortgage and all the cost associated with owning a home

-- Reaccess your savings to make sure you are putting away the cost for things that happen when you own a home and YOU have to fix things.

-- Go online and find a good retirement calculator to make sure you are saving enough for the retirement you think you deserve.

But you sound like you are on a good track alreay.


Fairfax, Va.: A little more insight into why you prefer conventional 529 plan over the prepaid tuition option?

My guess is the prepaid tuition contracts require pretty huge (potentially soul sucking) monthly payments over an extended period of time - is that the reason?

I bought two of them - in 2000 and 2002 - and they are paid off, but I have noticed the costs have tripled since then. I have a 529 for non tuition related expenses that I am not obligated to fund with hundreds of dollars every month...

Michelle Singletary: If your kid decides to go out of state often the money the state will give you toward the out-of-state school isn't much when you factor in the interest they pay on those contracts.

They work best if you know without a doubt you kid will choose an in-state school.


Farragut Square: Michelle,

Would you please help me decide which debt to pay first, my student loan or my mortgage? (I have no other debt.) My $80K student loan is consolidated at 3.25 percent and must be paid over 30 years. My $200K mortgage is fixed at 5.99 percent, but I do not plan to keep my place for 30 years; I'd like to sell in 5 years. Extra payments to the mortgage will not reduce my monthly payment, although logic would seem to dictate that I pay off the higher interest loan first. However, I would love to get the student loan monkey off my back, and I could in 2 years.

Your thoughts, please?

Michelle Singletary: Go for the student loan debt first, especially if you know you are going to sell the home in five years.

By the way, I don't care if student loan debt has no's still a noose around your neck.

It limits your choices.


re: Hey, Michele, I want a $73,000 federal pension, too! : me three!

the main point I got from that post was that poster obviously has been saving for a LONG time, you don't accumulate savings like that in a few years. Lesson: start early so the bucks accumulate and the interest compounds. (a get a cabinet appointment if you can, aparrently)

Michelle Singletary: Got that point too.


Richmond, Va.: It's easy to have a nice wedding with lots of family and not break the bank. We had 85 guests for under $5,000, which included ALL costs: rings, dress, tux, food, photography, space, invitations, instead of $20,000-$30,000. The main savings? A light tea with scones and petit fours instead of a sit-down dinner and a band. Family was the upmost importance to both of us, so we saved on food, not seats.

Michelle Singletary: One way to save.


Washington, D.C.: Michelle, does it affect your credit rating at all to place a fraud alert on your credit report? I'm one of the many people whose name and SSN were exposed in the Georgetown computer incident--but I have excellent credit, and worry about hurting it with a fraud alert.

Michelle Singletary: Doesn't affect your credit rating at all. So go protect yourself.


Boston, Mass.: Michelle, how does a married woman protect herself financially in case she gets "Spitzered?".....

Michelle Singletary: Good question.

Not sure.

I always recommend premarital counseling. It's amazing the things that come out that may foreshadow certain behavoir.

Also, have your husband listen to "Cheapter to Keep Her." Great blues song with a great warning.


Anonymous: I have $35,000 in credit card debt. I have $100,000 in mutual funds. I'd like a fresh start and pay off the debt and use the mutual funds to do so--I don't want to touch my 401k. How do I determine which funds are the weakest performers and/or least tax/capital gains for income tax purposes?

Michelle Singletary: Talk to the company that manages the fund. They can help you determine your cost basis to see which funds to sell to get the money to pay off the debt.


Washington, D.C.: I am engaged and have been asked by others how we plan to handle our finances. (together like all else) Lots of friends tell me they keep everything separate, so I ask if they are a couple or two roommates. Then I recommend your column!

Michelle Singletary: Good answers!!!!!!!!


Washington, D.C.: Hi Michelle,

A few weeks ago you answered a question of mine on where to invest additional money for retirement -- many thanks. I have one follow-up question. I currently have 3 months of living expenses in a money markey account from which I can make fairl easy withdrawls, and a "life happens" fund in an online savings bank. Is this a smart strategy? Thanks!

Michelle Singletary: Very smart.

Keep doing what you are doing.


What?!!?: I KNOW you didn't tell that family living in that small space to go ahead and rent another place for grandma when they have "a medium amount of" credit card debt. If they can't pay off that debt now how on earth are they going to when they're trying to help or fully pay the rent on a second place?!

I understand the space issues but this just seems like they'll be digging themselves into a deeper hole - especially considering they'll probably also have to pay for furniture, more rental insurance, utlities, etc.

Pay off the debt and when you do think about MAYBE applying it to a rental for grandma (do they have retirement savings? college savings for their baby?)... and if you can't wait, take a second job and cut expenses to make the time go by faster ...

Michelle Singletary: You are right. I should have included a note to pay off the credit card debt first or at least get it down significantly by the time the baby is totalling interfering with nooky.

I was a little quick on the finger.

I wouldn't however tell them to wait until they start a college savings for the kid.

The point is with personal finance you have to have balance. If having the little one in their room will cause damage or stress to their marriage it's time to find grandma another place. Or perhaps see if another relative can help until they are financially able to help with her own place.


NYC: I am really happy that you encourage people to pay off debt. I have been living with it over my head for years. I have $150K in student loans and $15K in credit card debt. I am paying the cc debt down fast and furiously (used to be $30K). I also have $20K in retirement and am still putting some away (not enough but I am so worried about the credit debt!).

Anyway, I am single and live in NYC. I have a roommate and pay a reasonable amount of rent for NYC ($1600) for a lot of space/peace of mind/washer/dryer. Everyone is pushing me to buy but I don't want the hassle of having to pay for extra things (taxes, broken pipes, etc).

Any thoughts on how to effectively use my money?

Michelle Singletary: Stay on track to get rid of that debt. Right now that should be your main concern.


Waldorf, Md. : Michelle...I read your article this past sunday titled "Use Your Foolish Refund Wisely". Why do you think its foolish? and What can we do to keep more of our money? Use Your Foolish Refund Wisely (March 9)

Michelle Singletary: In short, when you overwithold you are allowing the government to keep your money without paying you any interest.

Instead it is wiser to figure out just the right amount of taxes that need to be withheld from your pay so that you either owe nothing or get a tiny refund.

That way during the year you can take that money and either:

-- pay off debt

-- invest it in a retirement account

-- invest it in an account for your kid's college expenses


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for the IRS info!

For Hagerstown - mortgage calculators, including several on making additional payments to the principal:

Michelle Singletary: I do like this site.



MoCo, Md.: Michelle, I have a couple questions for you. Background: I am changing jobs a bit unexpectedly and the change, although very good for my career and family, involves a 50 percent pay cut since I'm leaving the private sector to return to gov't. I had planned to make the switch in 6-12 months, after socking away more cash and eliminating all debt, but the stars aligned in such a way that it's happening now.

(1) We have about $10,000 in credit card debt hanging over our heads from an unpaid, long maternity leave.-- I had expected to pay it off fully with our tax refund, but that got decimated by AMT. So I'm going into this pay cut with debt. I'm planning on sticking it in an offer I got for 4.9 percent interest until paid off. Any other thoughts, besides get rid of the dang debt ASAP?

(2) Any general advice for drastic pay cuts? We have put together a revised budget, trimmed where we could and are preparing to tighten ... but I'm nervous. Mortgage + nanny will eat about 65% of our take-home pay.

(3) Any advice on tools to help track the monthly budget? I've thought of getting Microsoft Money, QuickBooks or something like that, but would love thoughts/advice on what would be the best tool to help us track finances through the month.

Thank you!!

-- Background: I took off 8 months to be with our children when our third was born, which was an incredible experience but also financially rough when some unexpected expenses came up. Hence the debt.

Michelle Singletary: It's no doubt tough to experience such a high pay cut but you are doing what you should do.

I don't have a problem shifting the debt as long as you don't use credit while doing it. And make sure to make your payments on time, all the time or that low rate will quickly go away.

As for your budget, go thu it again. Keep in mind mortgage/rent should be in the range of 28 to 36 percent of your net pay. Look into other child care options that may be cheaper. May not be any other options but check anyway.

Other than that all I can say is good luck, keep the budget tight and once you get rid of that debt you may be in good shape.


Falls Church, Va.: re: paying off mortgage or getting the interest deduction

The other point people seem to forget about is that a mortgage payment is front-loaded with interest; a very, very small amount of mortgage payment actually goes to paying off the principal for the first 10 years. As the years go by your interest deduction will decrease very substantially.

Michelle Singletary: True that.

And the notion that ALL these people keeping their mortgage in play and are investing the difference of any paydown is not backed up by any study I've seen.

People don't invest the difference. They spend it. Or life happens and the savings are eaten up.

I'm not suggesting that you become house poor -- dumping all available savings on prepaying your mortgage. You want to have good cash reserves, retirement savings, college funds, etc.


Reston, Va.: Hi Michelle,

I love your columns. My 63 year old mother had to refinance her home a few years back to pay off some huge medical bills. The house was almost paid for but when you have a heart attack and no health insurance, things happen.

She was hoping to get a reverse mortgage but is unable to because the value of the home has dropped. She currently has an adjustable rate mortgage which is about to reset to a price she won't be able to afford. She's hoping to get a 40 year mortgage to bring the payments down.

Not to sound morbid or anything, but since there's a good chance that she won't be around to pay anything in 40 years what are her chances of getting that 40 year mortgage?

Michelle Singletary: I'm so sorry about all that your mom has gone thu. In fact, this coming Sunday the Post's business section will focus on health insurance or the lack thereof.

What you can do for mom is help her explore all her options. Talk to a lender to see what she might qualify for. Keep in mind the standards are tougher now. They will want to see income from her, a good credit score, and savings.

Also, can mom sell the house, pay off the mortgage and use the proceeds to buy a smaller place or at least a place with a smaller mortgage?

Just look into every possible solution, including someone coming to live with her to help with mortgage payments.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Michelle,

It occurred to me recently that my current retirement savings allocation (8 percent of salary) was made when I was single and felt pretty wealthy, and now that I am married and have a baby on the way, it seems possible that some of that money might be better used for shorter-range saving goals (e.g. buying a house).

But am I getting ahead of myself with that train of thought? Certainly we also have debt (student loans, mainly) that ought to be retired before we start looking for houses. But my maximum employer match for retirement is at 5% of salary, so do you think it would be wiser to put the non-matched money in the bank now (or, first, toward debt) rather than in long-term savings?

Thanks for any advice!

Michelle Singletary: I would invest up to the match and use the extra money to pay down debt. Once the debt is gone you can begin to build back up your retirement and start saving for college for your child.


Fairfax County, Va.: Michelle, is it possible to get completely out of the records of the credit bureaus? We own our home without any mortgages or liens. No car loans. My husband and I are both self-employed. We do have credit cards for convenience, but we could easily do without them and use debit cards when we shop on-line. Maybe I'm paranoid from reading too many novels, but I don't like the thought that anyone with access could know everything about us.

Michelle Singletary: Heck, I'm paranoid.

If you want to highly restrict someone looking at your credit reports get a security freeze.

Go to Consumers Union web site to learn more about it.


East Bay, Calif.: Hi, Michelle, I'd like to start using a budget for our household expenses. I have been tracking our expenses for several months, but I'm not sure how to take the next step of setting up and living by a budget (and getting my husband to agree to it). Any advice?

Michelle Singletary: Earlier in the chat there was a link to a budget template on the Post website. You can use that.

Or go online. You will find any number of budget worksheets to help you put this all on paper.

But that is the important part -- to get the budget on paper. Doesn't mean you can't tinker with it.


Columbus, Ohio: Hi,I have been unemployed for the past six months. I have been late on most of my bills during that time. I was recently offered a dream job in Washington D.C. that would require me to relocate. I am going to accept the job but am worried that my credit will make it impossible to find an apartment. Any advice on how to handle this situation?

Michelle Singletary: It's true that finding an apartment will be hard if your credit scores are really low.

But talk to your employer. Often employers have relocation services and if you explain your situation they may be able to help you find a good place.

Keep in mind you may have to put down a large security deposit if your credit scores are low.

If your new employer doesn't have a relocation service, then just start calling. Explain to landlords the situation. Be upfront. If by chance you have any credit reports before the job loss,you can show that as evidence that you are a good risk but that you just hit a bad patch in your life.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Michelle,

I was also affected in the Georgetown security actually do I put a fraud alert on my account? Sorry if that's a stupid question... Special Report: Protecting Your Identity

Michelle Singletary: Read this.


mom of two teen girls: hold firm to your anti-wedding mania. you are too right. and it sidetracks those who want to plan a wedding, vs. those wanting to make a serious commitment. who do you think lasts longer??

Michelle Singletary: That's what I'm saying. That's what I know.

Didn't spend a lot on my wedding (bought a used gown, cousin drove me to the church and reception, friend played DJ as his gift to us)

This year will be married 17 years.


Norwalk, Conn.: Michelle - I need some encouragement. My husband and I are valiently trying to pay down debt and build up savings. Our child (now two) was born with special needs, so I needed to quit my job to take care of him intensively - cutting down on income - and his medical needs added unexpected non-insurance covered expenses.

After a year or so of burying our heads in the sand, we finally sat down and did the math and realized we'd burn through all our savings and increased our credit card debt and couldn't get out if we kept doing what we are doing.

We've cut our spending as much as we possibly can, and I've found a weekend job. I'm working 12 hour days Saturday and Sunday, and I'm beat. I never see my husband (he works full-time during the week), we're eating Ramen every other night for dinner, all my pants have holes in the knees and there's no money for more, and I'm so tired...

This will get better, right? Once we pay off some debt and build some savings, I won't have to keep working so hard, right?

On a plus side, we've had our first month with money left over at the end of the month in over a year, and all our bills are paid for this month - that does feel nice. I'm just blue.

Michelle Singletary: You poor dear. Really I do know what you are going thu. I had to take care of my brother, who was disabled. Spent a lot money out of my pocket for his care as well.

Keep the faith. Also, please be sure you have looked into every service you would qualify for. You may qualify for state aid to help with medical cost. Please double check.

If you can, find some time to be with your husband. Call a friend or family member and get them to watch your kid and just spend an afternoon -- even a few hours loving on him and he on you.

Find some local event that is free and just be with each other.

YOu have to do this so that the stress of it all doesn't wear down your marriage.

But most important stay encouraged. Find some community supoport. Get as much help as you can. That's what helped me when I was working with my brother. We got connected to a wonderful nonprofit that turned us on to all kinds of services (for free). It was also nice to talk to others going thu the same thing.

Good luck.


Arlington, Va.: I liked your column about how Lisa's in-laws bought more than they could afford. I suspect they're not alone. Why is it that when politicians talk about "saving" people from foreclosure, they barely acknowledge the fact that people spent too much on their homes based on their salaries? That is, after all, the real reason why housing prices doubled from 2000 to 2006. That and the fact that banks suddenly allowed people to borrow 6x their annual income with no money down. If You Lend, Be Prepared to Lose (Today's Color of Money)

Michelle Singletary: You are right about one thing. There is enough blame to go around. Everyone involved in this mess make mistakes.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Michelle, love your tough love finance advice. I'm about to take a major step in life and return to school. I've accumulated approximately 30k in savings over the past five years, and I'm wondering if I should use any, part, or all of that for tuition and living expenses or pay for that stuff with loans and hang on to my cash for something like a down payment in a few years. (And no, saving up in order to pay for a 2 year MBA program with cash isn't an option.) Thanks!

Michelle Singletary: Use the money for school.


Columbia: Michelle -- I want to ask for clarification. Could you tell me the difference between a life happens and an emergency fund? I know you say the life happens fund is for unexpected car repairs etc, but that would fall under my definition of an emergency fund. Under what situations do you think one is justified in tapping into their emergency fund?


Michelle Singletary: Emergency fund Use:

-- you lose your job

-- you get disabled and are waiting for disability payments to kick in.

-- you kid gets sick and you have to take off work without pay (nearly happened to me once)

-- you have a baby and decide to stay home a little longer even thou it's without pay

In other words, use that money when you income has been disrupted or you don't have enough in your life happens fund to pay for something like the rood caves in or you're in a major car accident and the insurance doesn't cover everything.

See what I mean.


Michelle Singletary: Sorry guys. There are so many more questions but I have to run. Got to finish writing my Sunday column.

Thanks to all you joined the chat. I don't take your participation for granted. As best I can I'll try to answer the leftover questions either in an upcoming column or in my eletter.

Have a great day. And save on purpose!


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