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Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, July 31, 2008; 12:00 PM

Personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary hosted an online discussion with Scott Christopher, co-author of "The Levity Effect: Why It Pays to Lighten Up" (Wiley), on Thursday, July 31 at Noon ET.

This Story

In her last book club column, Michelle wrote: "Right about now, there are a lot of workplaces that could use some laughter. The national unemployment rate in May increased a full percentage point, to 5.5 percent, compared with May 2007 before leveling off last month. Layoffs from the auto to housing industries have decimated companies and morale."

A transcript follows.

Read Michelle's past Color of Money columns.

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Michelle Singletary: Welcome to you all. Lots of personal finance news this week, huh.

Anyway, let's get started.

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Cape Cod, Mass.: I am confident I bring something to the workplace with my sense of humor and wit. I have a song in my heart and enjoy people. However, my experience has been that people that don't appreciate the gift of laughter resort to professional jealousy. So in spite of having the gift of levity, I find I have to move on frequently to other offices to avoid negative backwash over simply having fun with the people I work with.

Scott Christopher: Alas, the burden that true levity leaders share. This is why we start the book saying that levity has a bad image; this book was written to help the very people who villify you. If you can get copies into OTHER people's hands, that's the ticket.

Michelle Singletary: And if I can add. I'm a jokester myself and love to laugh.

So I just ignore the negative folks and laugh anyway. I was fortunate at one time to have a pod of co-workers, who like me, loved to play practical jokes. It was one of the best times I had at the Post. It made our work so much easier.

So don't change.

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Alexandria, Va.: I'm not so sure about humor in the workplace in the face of devastating lay-offs, but I do think a good sense of humor in general helps people cope with whatever life throws their away. I've noticed that people who are genuinely happy with themselves and sure of their own values tend to not get into much financial trouble. People who are anxious about keeping up with the Joneses, nervous about perceived status, depressed and anxious about what other people think of them, tend to spend money they don't have in the vain hope that it will make them happier, smarter, more successful and more popular. Doesn't work. Never has, never will.

Some folks would be better off paying a few hundred bucks for counseling rather than for a shiny new stainless steel refrigerator or some other status symbol. Better to be happier with yourself, and way cheaper, in the long run.

Scott Christopher: Amen. Can't add much to that.

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Alexandria, Va.: First-time poster. I love your columns and you have motivated me for the last 3 years to cut back on my debt. I just paid off my car and have worked down my debt although I've got more work to do. I read the Extreme Makeover foreclosure article a couple of days ago, and I think that exemplifies why so many of us who didn't get caught up in the craze and have been trying to save money are annoyed why taxpayers have to bail out irresponsible people (and lenders). It seems like I should have just been irresponsible too, and I'd have a house now.

Michelle Singletary: Hello first timer. Now because you are a first timer and you said such a nice thing about me I won't jump all over you.

I'll be nice.

BUT I will say this, you are much better off than the folks who are being bailed out. They aren't making off like bandits. They still have debt. They still have stress. Many of their marriages and relationships have been ruined.

Have a little compassion, even for the stupid thing that Extreme Makeover family did.

Being fiscally responsible ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS has its rewards.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Michelle,

O.K., so I have an opportunity of a lifetime to go on a vacation that costs around $2000. I have the cash, but it will be half of my life happens fund and it is the only savings I have right now. I have not been good about saving money (I am 50) but I really want to go. What would you do? Do I need to face reality and forgo the opportunity, or take the life is short live a little approach?

Thanks!

Scott Christopher: I know this isn't my wheelhouse, but I have a second. What does your "gut" tell you is the right thing to do?

Michelle Singletary: This is a tough one and I need more information. Write back if you can (identify yourself as Vac. Woman/Man so my producer can recognize your response.

So I need to know:

-- What do you do for a living?

-- When you say half of your life happens fund weould be depleted do you mean emergency fund? Or do you have a separate emergency fund?

-- How much would be left exactly in your savings because I'm not completely sure?

-- Do you have any other debt, i.e. credit card debt especially.

-- Where would you go on this once-in-a-lifetime vacation? Is the island or whatever disappearing from the face of the earth?

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Thanks for encouraging levity!: Hi, Michelle and Scott--

Love the idea of lightening up and letting laughter in during grim times. I have had some grim times in the past few years, related to an abusive husband and subsequent divorce which left my life in financial shambles. I wrote to you a few chats ago, Michelle, asking your thoughts on selling my 2BR/1BA condo that I share with my growing son, even if it meant taking a slight financial hit (I still come out ahead, b/c I saved and scrimped for 20 percent down and paid an extra payment each year for 5 years, and have no other debts). Well, I decided extra room for my son and me would help us lighten up ourselves, so put the condo on the market. We went under contract in 4 weeks, and are now looking forward to a slightly bigger (but still manageable in size and $) home where we will have more room to enjoy life and each other's company--and can hopefully brighten our lives as he grows. Thanks!!

Scott Christopher: I was raised by a single mom along with three other siblings. She joked and laughed her way through all the attendant trials of poverty. There is of course a higher power that sustains the great women of this world, especially those who CHOOSE to keep perspective and joy in the face of almost constant opposition. Keep it up. And congrats on the new pad.

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New mommy: Hi Michelle. Love your column. I just need some quick advice. My husband and I just had a baby and we are terrified about how our finances will change. Right now we are looking into insurance. One broker is telling us to look at 20 year term insurance with a return on premium another is telling us about universal whole life with a lot of caveats. What do you suggest? We just want something simple.

Michelle Singletary: I would go with term. And check the prices for term with and without return on premium.

You want to get the most life insurance for the least amount of money given I'm sure your other financial obligations.

And congrats on the new baby. How wonderful. Got three rugrats myself. The oldest is 13 now -- a teenager.

People please pray for me!

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St. Louis, Mo.: I work for a small commercial real estate company and as you can imagine things around here are somewhat tense and for the first time in several years we may not make budget, but the powers that be have always gone out of the way to make working here fun. A few weeks ago we just had Associate Appreciation week, with food, games and prizes. I've been in the work force for over 20 years, been here for 6 and this is the only company I've worked for that actually encourages its employees to have fun and be themselves (to an extent). Our favorite past time, practical jokes. I've come back from vacation with my entire cube covered in aluminum foil.

Scott Christopher: Thanks for sharing that. It's obvious your leadership understands that they must do "more with less" to reward and engage their employees. Building a culture of fun and levity is a huge advantage, particularly in industries like Real Estate that are taking big hits. When the ship arights and all is well again, they'll see the returns on their investments in fun.

Michelle Singletary: I love the foil story. Hey, why didn't you send that in for my e-letter!!!

Funny!

You work at a great place, cherish it.

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Killeen, Tex.: Levity in the work place is a good concept, however, I think you must laugh with caution while maintaining professionalism and integrity. Question: If you don't agree with your supervisor's bad taste political joke, what is the best way to respond?

Bert

Scott Christopher: Definitely DO NOT laugh or encourage bad taste jokes of any kind. Sure, it's true your supervisor can make your life miserable if you don't "suck up", but can you possibly imagine what grounds a company would have in terminating someone because the employee didn't find their boss's inappropriate jokes funny? Sorry, that may not make sense, but hopefully you get what I mean. (Typing like the wind!)

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Maryland: Hello Michelle,

I think laughter in the workplace is so important, I think we (Americans) have lost a lot of that because we are half scared with all the sexual harassment cases, political correctness and so on. Don't get me wrong now, some of these are valid problems but there is such a thing as being so critical that you have people afraid to say anything. As a middle aged/middle manager white man I feel my race and gender gets blamed for everything which is no laughing matter.

Scott Christopher: Your issue was a driving impetus behind the book...I got so tired of the PC tight rope, thin ice mentality. No less than 50 times a day I found myself thinking, but not uttering, the words, "geez, lighten UP, will ya?"

Michelle Singletary: Well if you are a good manager regardless of your lack of tan, then you don't have to worry about offending.

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Compassion for foreclosures: Hey Michelle - I think that a lot of the lack of compassion, and anger, from folks who 'did it right' as opposed to those who are now in trouble with their houses comes from the fact that Americans, as a whole, don't ever seem to learn from our mistakes anymore. I feel bad for those in trouble, but recent history has shown us that we get a bailout, or similar help, and we keep moving on like nothing happened. I think that is where much of the frustration comes from now. It's a "why help someone who is going to turn around and do the same thing once the economy turns around" mentality. I hope people will learn a valuable lesson by giving them help now, but I won't really believe it until I see it. Sad, but unfortunately becoming more and more true these days.

Michelle Singletary: I think some people won't learn but many will.

But regardless, we should show compassion always. My kids continue to get on my last nerve (especially my teenager) but I still love them and still show them the right things to do even when they continue to do wrong.

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Boulder, Colo.: So what do you do when you have a boss who thinks he is funny but is really a big jerk? He'd play practical jokes that were more mean than funny, and if you played a joke on him he'd laugh it off and then start plotting his revenge against you. You kind of had to laugh it off because he was the boss but there was nothing fun or funny about the jokes he'd play. I'm so glad I don't work there anymore...

Scott Christopher: I think you just answered your own question..."I'm glad I don't work there anymore." Sometimes, if it's not a good fit, it's just not a good fit. See other responses for more in depth info.

Michelle Singletary: And sometimes you rat the jerk out to human resources or higher ups.

But before you do, document, document, document.

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Humor in the workplace: The thing is, you have be able to understand that not everyone may appreciate your sense of humor, and folks who think they are funny often are just sarcastic. Jokes and levity have to be appropriate to the situation and the audience.

Scott Christopher: All types of workplace jesting, humor, and play MUST grow from relationships of trust and respect. You have to know and respect your coworkers and build from a trusting environment, otherwise all attempts at humor will come off as corrosive and misguided.

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D.C.: I agree that making jokes about a situation allows a person to look at a situation in its proper perspective. I joke about being broke all of the time. It's serious but there's too much good in life to keep in mind. However, shouldn't something be said about tact and discernment? When to joke, how to joke, with whom to joke... If a person has to keep leaving friends or jobs because of their sense of humor, is it really humorous?

Scott Christopher: The key problem is that many people think "a sense of humor" means they have to be "on" all the time. Too bad, really. When they embrace the overarching concept of Levity (which includes humor) they realize that it is indeed more about lightening up than yukking it up. It's more about being fun than it is funny. Especially when their brand of humor is abusive, inappropriate, or just really lame.

Michelle Singletary: And I hope you aren't just joking about being broke.

I hope you are doing something to save more. (sorry, I am the personal finance columnist here).

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Thank You Michelle: Love your columns and this chat. Three years ago, I had 35K(!) in debt from stupid expenses...meals, clothes, etc. I have paid off that debt, applied the extra money each month to my mortgage and will be free of that in 5 years. It wasn't easy nor was it fun but oh how great it is now! Thank you. Listen to this woman, follow her advice and you will have more happiness!!

Michelle Singletary: Clearly a person with some sense.

Thanks and I'm so proud of you.

Love testimonies!

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Boston, Mass., or thereabouts.: Michelle,

Been reading your columns for a while. I won't say I've always agreed with your opinions, but your advice is usually very sound. In the past year by cutting way back, I managed to pay off $18,000 of credit card debt and finish a car loan. On Monday, I will be debt free. Thanks for all your excellent advice on helping me to this stage - I'd be a liar if I didn't say that sometimes I heard a little Michelle-like voice telling me I didn't need whatever it was that I was wanting to buy on the spur of the moment. Next step -- emergency funds, mad money, retirement investments, and mortgage. Keep it coming! If you ever take a buyout, I will be desolate.

Michelle Singletary: Ah shucks. Thanks.

I heard a funny thing last night. I was at a meeting at my church and one of the ministers said he and his wife (who is expecting) want to get a wristband that says "WWMD."

In other words, "What Would Michelle Do."

I fell out laughing.

People tell me all the time I've gotten into their heads and they hear me asking while they are about to buy something, "Is that a need or a want."

So I'm glad to have been in your head. It's my calling.

Finally couldn't let you go without a you go boy/girl!

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Arlington, Va.: Levity and humor are absolutely necessary for negotiating life and work. I'm a firm believer in encouraging people to come up with humorous/outrageous ideas in brainstorming and problem solving sessions. One or two of those far-out ideas usually contain a real solution. Also, people who can laugh at themselves (allowing us to laugh at our similar foibles) provide the most welcome humor in the workplace.

Scott Christopher: Self-deprecating humor is usually the most valued humor in coworkers and bosses. Just always be careful to not "overdo" the self effacement; your people may start to actually believe you are as ignorant or cheap or out of shape as you claim.

Plus, the idea of allowing some levity in your brainstorm sessions and strategizing is awesome; people are at their best when they're relaxed and the blood is flowing, delivering more oxygen to their brains.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Are you aware of the MASH story? It was mentioned on the TV series, which was based on a true study, that the MASH units in Korea that created a more jovial atmosphere performed better and had higher rates of surgical success than did the MASH units that were run on a strictly military style. Allowing frivolity actually makes people enjoy work more, creates social cohesion, and improves productivity.

Scott Christopher: Thanks for bringing that example up. We generally like to use the MASH example when talking about using levity in "serious" industries, but it always seems like such a cheap copout to use a TV series as evidence. THANK YOU for mentioning the study. I'll be sure to research that. If you have any links or references to it, please forward them along.

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re: ALWAYS rewarded: I'm not so sure about that anymore. I was always bugging my sister about being responsible with her money (and in other ways), but she died suddenly at 19. Now I'm glad she was irresponsible and had fun and I feel bad about trying to get her to save and have less fun!

My mom is also pushing us to go on a "once in a lifetime" trip to Paris for the second anniversary of my sister's death. My mom has no savings, and I have some, but I keep stalling "it costs so much money!" My mom's argument is that you gotta live now, she'll pay it off later. I'm coming around to that view. As long as she pays her life insurance premium (or works at a job that has it) and doesn't go crazy with the spending, her estate could cover these extravagances.

It's just tough to find that balance in planning for a rainy day, which may never come.

Michelle Singletary: First, I'm so, so so sorry for the loss of your sister. I lost a dear brother in his early 30s. I was taking care of him. We were very close.

But having said that, your mom is wrong, wrong, wrong. She may be talking from her grief. Don't listen.

The fact is most of us will LIVE. And for that reason we need to live more responsibly. Your mom needs to save. And neither of you should take that vacation considering your financial situation.

Look I'm not about saving the life out of people. I'm not about saving until it hurts or you're miserable. The truth is you can live frugally and still have fun. I do all the time.

Been married nearly 17 years and the best fun I have with my fine, wonderful husband doesn't cost a penny (if you know what I mean).

People say to me all the time: What if I die? Then I saved for nothing.

But what if you live?

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Irony?: Michelle,I had to laugh this past Sunday when your column on "mental recession" mindset to get ourselves through tough economic times on the same page as the article on how couples are cutting wedding costs. Especially loved the couple who "downsized" their wedding from $40K to $30K and the bride is quoted as saying she is going to trim the guest list to only include those known to be "good gift-givers" (her words). How's THAT for contrast?

Michelle Singletary: I missed that.

But don't get me started. You know I get the most hate mail when I talk about people spending on these stupid weddings.

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Omaha, Neb.: I like my job, (doesn't really stimulate my brain but it pays the bills) LOVE my office because of the jovial nature I and my coworkers share. We have similar senses of humor and are always cracking each other up. Because of this, I come to work everyday with a smile on my face and have a great amount of dedication to our COMPANY and keep my eye on the Big Picture in everything I do. It's not just about a paycheck for me, because my coworkers bring me so much joy. With that said, I think it's also important to be sensitive to individual situations. If a coworker is having a tough time or personal problems, joking can be out of place, and a sympathetic ear is better.

Scott Christopher: And that sympathetic ear is also a part of levity (at least as I've defined it). Levity allows for serious and personal interaction. And the fact that you love your workplace and coworkers and not your job so much, is more piling on evidence of the necessity of fun at work. Studies quoted in the book show that absenteeism drops in workplaces that are ranked higher in fun and humor. Coincidence? nah.

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Laughter and Humbleness: Food is going up, gas is going up, the only thing not going up is my paycheck. I laugh because if I didn't I would cry and nobody likes a crybaby. I remain humble because as bad as I think it may be someone would jump for joy to have my so called "troubles."

Scott Christopher: As far as I'm concerned what you just described is the definitive answer to "what is levity?" Levity is the outward manifestation of an internal value---perspective.

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Killeen, Texas: Is now a good time to buy in real estate in Florida?

Bert

Scott Christopher: Now is not a good time for ANYTHING in Florida. It's nearly August! Ugh! They have mosquitoes there the size of eagles. And the heat...don't get me started.

Is this helpful?

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"What Would Michelle Do?": I first thought you were talking about Obama's wife.

Gotta stop reading WaPo's political chats.

Michelle Singletary: LOL!!!!!!

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Raleigh, N.C.: I like to joke, but my sense of humor is pretty dry, and at times sarcastic. I find myself holding back most of the time, which I'm fine with. No one wants a smart alec making comments about every thing. I do have a hard time when someone makes a joke that isn't funny, and everyone laughs like crazy. Yes, I get it, the guy with a new baby doesn't get much sleep! HAH! How do I learn to grit my teeth and join in on inanity?

Scott Christopher: I think we're cut from the same cloth. I've learned that just because my sense of humor is clearly opposite of someone else's doesn't mean mine is better or vice versa. Understand the Time and Place rule when launching levity (see the book) and remember that you don't have to blast into a full tilt laugh at what you consider to be patently unfunny. Just grin and bear it and understand that people are at least "trying" to keep things light. If it gets too annoying and it happens around your workplace often, invest in some noise canceling headphones :)

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Fairfax, Va.: How do bosses keep a sense of humor with employees? I found that I had to rein myself in once I was perceived in a managerial role. I miss being able to just joke around with people, but I feel I can't afford to be funny because now I really represent the company.

Scott Christopher: Don't fall into the trap of equating levity with a lack of credibility. Winston Churchill had one of the driest, quickest, and personable senses of humor of his day. Will Marriott mingles with his people, laughing and catching up with them. The higher you climb the corporate ladder the more impact your true personality will have on more people in a positive way. Don't cut it off...feed it! True, you have to use more judgment in your execution now, but you'll know what's best to say and how to say it.

Michelle Singletary: Oh what a great answer Scott.

At this time in the economy show your people you care by caring with them and laughing with them.

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Md.: Hi Michelle. I love your column and your chats. Sorry this question is not related to the book topic. But, I really need your help.

I am currently trying to save for a car. I do not have a car currently. I have $755 in credit card debt, which I plan on paying off within the next month. I am considering saving for a down payment for a used car and financing the rest. If I finance, I would try to pay it off as quickly as possible because I am trying to be debt free. I really need a more reliable source of transportation to go to and from work. I really value your opinion and would like to know what you would suggest in this situation.

Scott Christopher: Try to get on the Price is Right; they nearly always give away cars on the Showcase Showdown. I'm sure Michelle would say the same thing.

Michelle Singletary: Well, I would have to factor in the airfare and hotel to get to LA for the show. So I would advise against that route.

Seriously, you sound like you have really thought this through. So buy the used reliable car. I'm cool with your plan.

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Leesburg, Va.: Hi Michelle, Please remind "re: ALWAYS rewarded:" that the exchange rate is terrible right now. My husband and I took a once in a lifetime trip to Europe last year for two friends' wedding. It was amazing, but not worth how far behind we are this year with our finances. It became so hard to budget with the exchange rate. The same trip would have been so much less expensive a few years ago. I am so sorry for their loss.

Michelle Singletary: Good advice from someone who has been there and done that and is now in trouble.

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Sorry but I have trouble feeling compassion: Michelle, Fair enough that we should have compassion for those facing foreclosure. But I have to tell you, as someone who has had a high paying job (at $70K a few years back and now up to $83K), paid off all debts (student loans and car loan) over the past 2 years, and have saved up a nice bundle ($60K), it's hard to show others compassion. Why? Because I did the hard work. And I'm in a jam because despite my salary and savings, I still can't afford a decent place to live in Los Angeles. I make too much to take advantage of programs out there to support first-time home buyers. I'm not the only one in this situation, but it seems that no one is showing us any compassion. If they were, there'd be programs out there to help us buy.

Michelle Singletary:

So let me get this straight. You want to be in a home right now that you can't afford, with a credit rating in the toilet and stress enough for a heart attack.

AND you want a homebuyers program for people making nearly twice the average income of the typical American family?

Sorry, but would you like some wine with that whine.

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Stupid Weddings!: Michelle, I am so with you on weddings. Do you have a column or part of your website I can send to my mother to get her to calm it down and realize that we don't need to spend a ton of money? Fiance and I want a teeny wedding and no reception. Mom wants a blowout with all her friends and huge extended family. AHHHHHH! We've been engaged a week and I'm already freaking out.

Michelle Singletary: First, buy my book, "Your Money and Your Man" for yourself and then highlight the chapers on expensive weddings.

Then lend the book to your mom.

AND price out the expensive wedding your mom wants for you and then ask her if she would like to pay for it in total. And if not have your nice small affair.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: I realize this isn't an employment chat, but I wanted to comment on this:

"So in spite of having the gift of levity, I find I have to move on frequently to other offices to avoid negative backwash over simply having fun with the people I work with."

It's possible that I've misread the original statement, but I really came away with the sense of feeling sorry for the poster's former co-workers who had to tolerate something that drove them all crazy. Right now, I'm in an office populated by people who love puns. I have low tolerance for them - but puns are generally easy enough to ignore, the people here don't force them on me, and that is partly how they lighten their workload. It would be more difficult to ignore the "levity" if, say, the office loved whoopie cushions and hand buzzers and used those to lighten the day.

While I encourage people to have fun with their work, particularly during some of those tedious, repetitive tasks that every office has and must be done, there are also times I expect my employees to buckle down and get their jobs done. Quickly, without errors, and without fuss. I understand everyone works and concentrates in different ways, and so I don't object when people work the way that suits them best even if it appears that they're not concentrating - as long as the work is done (well and correct) I'm not going to argue with their methods. But if I have someone constantly joking around and distracting others, or isn't getting his work done, or is "simply having fun" with people who don't find what is going on fun or amusing, it does become a problem. If someone has to move on "frequently" for the same reason, I think it is possible that the problem is the person doing the moving, not everyone else. Everyone has gifts, but people need to learn when to use them and when not. Perhaps the poster would benefit from some career counseling, to find a better-suited occupation that will welcome his/her levity?

Scott Christopher: From my perspective the best levity in a workplace starts at the top. If a good manager can set meaningful and clear expectations of work performance and hold his or her people accountable...then the stage is set for some appropriate levels of letting off steam, refreshing some energy, or even just cracking the occasional wit. Nobody wants some goof off class clown handling finances, dealing with important customers or piloting the corporate jet. Chapter 7 of the book shows 142 ways everyday organizations are using levity to lighten things up appropriately and without distractions.

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Wonderland: A friend's daughter, "Lisa" age 20, still lives at home. She takes classes at the community college and changes jobs every month or so. When she gets a dollar in her wallet, she spends it on her nails, hair or music for her iPod. My daughter "Marie" works full time to earn money for school and for gas. Marie inevitably ends up driving Lisa anywhere they go -- and Lisa never contributes. Now Lisa wants to accompany Marie on a week-long trip that Marie has been planning all summer. When Marie said she could come as long as she chipped in for gas, Lisa went berserk. Lisa claims that since Marie is making the trip anyway, Lisa should not have to pay for gas OR a motel room, since she can bunk with Marie in the other bed. Worse, Lisa's mother is now furious with me for not telling Marie to let Lisa come along. What do I do? Lisa's mother is not a close friend, but I see her often. She's a powerful personality -- she usually gets her way. I feel the girls should be allowed to work it out for themselves (although I completely agree with Marie that Lisa should chip in). Marie feels sorry for Lisa, but she also feels Lisa has been taking advantage of her. What would you do?

Michelle Singletary: Wow. What a financial soap opera.

So let me be clear, I'm the type of mom that interferes.

Wonderland Mom, interfere here.

Tell Marie that Lisa is a lousy friend. She is taking advantage of your daughter so don't let it happen without speaking up LOUDLY.

Tell Lisa's mom her daughter is a brat.

If you can't do it, show Marie the transcript of this chat.

Marie should not take Lisa on the trip. And she should kick Lisa to the curb as friends go.

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Oh Michelle: It's "would you like some cheese with that whine" - that's funny. "wine with that whine" doesn't have the same play on words.

Michelle Singletary: Oh heck you guys know what I meant.

Stop whining that you did the right thing. Doing the right thing is your reward.

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Humor versus jokes: Another thing to keep in mind is that humor doesn't necessarily mean telling jokes all the time.

I have a colleague who likes to tell jokes. He gets this conspiratorial smile on his face, kind of winks, says "Well, I heard this one the other day." Then, pleased as punch with himself, he goes on to tell some really stupid joke. And then he, and usually he alone, laughs.

I guess it doesn't especially harm anything, but it makes him look totally pathetic.

So please remember that a quick off-the-wall remark about something that is going on at work is likely to go over well.

But trying to be a stand-up comedian at your day job, unless you're really good at it, just makes you look stupid.

Scott Christopher: I'm glad you qualified your remark by admitting that he really only harms himself and no one else. Lightening up at work means just that. "Well, if it helps him get through the day..." There is no shortage of wannabe standup comics who unleash their torture upon us. There is nothing wrong with cutting a conversation short or moving away from this person to actually get things done...usually they hardly even notice.

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Washington, D.C.: I recently got married and we merged our finances. I've always been a big saver and have not carried debt. My dear hubby used his savings to pay off debt so that we could start our marriage with only the mortgage as debt. We're saving together now.

However, how do I get past the feeling that the savings I built up over the years are "mine"? While we make joint decisions on our spending, I did catch myself saying "I didn't work my [tail] off to save that money just to lose it in a bad investment." If it's really our money how do I get past my emotional attachment to it as mine?

Michelle Singletary: Keep saying to yourself, "It's not about me, but us."

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Washington, D.C.: I'm posting early as I have an appointment during the chat. My parents are in the process of getting a reverse mortgage on their home in Florida (my dad is 80 and my mom is 78). My dad has told me and my siblings that, even if the value of their home continues to decline, there is some kind of insurance that he is getting to ensure that we would never find ourselves in a position where we, as their heirs, would end up owing the bank money from the reverse mortgage -- that is, if the value of the house is below that of the reverse mortgage. Do you know what he is talking about?

Michelle Singletary: I do know. He means you can't as the heirs be forced to pay more than the house is worth.

Got to www.hud.gov and read up on reverse mortgages.

I also hope your dad and mom have really looked at their deal. There was something in the recent housing bill that passed about reverse mortgages. Please have them look into this before they sign for their reverse mortgage. It reduces the maximum fees allowed for one.

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Rockville, Md.: Hi Michelle. In your column today you discuss the $7,500 tax credit. I'm trying to figure out why I would do this. My husband and I just bought our first home. It's our only debt. We can afford the mortgage payments and still make payments to ourselves (savings) and everything else for which we have responsibility. Is there any reason why we should do this?

Michelle Singletary: Nope!

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Another Vacation Question, MD: We are making about 175K. Have about 500K in savings including 401K/IRAs etc. Age 50. No CC debts or car loans except for the mortgage. Would like to take an expensive Alaska Cruisetour with family -- anticipated cost of 20K for 4. I know it is a lot but have never splurged like this before. Do you think it is wise? I am saving the max (20.5K) in 401K. Have an emergency fund and life happens fund of about 25K. Kids going this year to College and Grad school.

Scott Christopher: If you've never splurged before, ever?..then splurge baby. you're on the downside of OLD AGE. What are you nuts? Live a little before you die...look at you. You've got one foot in the grave for heaven's sake! See Alaska, see Ukraine, see the North Pole!

Michelle Singletary: As long as you aren't taking on debt to help the kids go to college or grad school, I agree with Scott. Take your trip.

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re: ALWAYS rewarded: I'm getting nowhere with the exchange rate argument. It's "once in a lifetime" because we have somewhere to stay for free even though I think that's really one of the easiest vacation costs to economize (hostels, voluntouring, house swap, couch surfing, what have you!). Also, I have never flown and, yes, that is part of the decision making.

I just don't know how to take the emotion out of it. It feels like it's really important to my mom and I squander my money all the time, why not squander it on something meaningful to her? The plane tickets would be about half my savings, but I could pay the entire trip out of pocket.

Maybe this is a good reason to become more responsible with my spending in general though, so as not to be a hypocrite! Thanks for the supportive response.

Michelle Singletary: Europe or wherever you want to go will still be there.

Shore up your finances and then take the trip when you can really afford it.

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You can be compassionate in how you phrase your answer...: Geez Michelle, for someone touting compassion, you were certainly rude to the poster who wanted to buy in L.A. It's one thing to disagree with him/her, but calling him/her a whiner and being plain mean with the tone of your answer wasn't very compassionate.

Michelle Singletary: First, compassion means understanding people who are hurting.

This person isn't hurting. They are whining that somebody else is getting something he or she isn't.

I was harsh because in this chat and others so many of you can't seem to understand how helping many of these down and out homeowners is the right thing to do and it helps us all.

I understand housing is expensive in LA. But this person has a good salary and has done a great job saving. Why whine? If you can't afford to buy in LA and it's that important to you -- move.

I can not and will not tolerate people saying things like I did the right thing so why isn't someone helping me out. Or I should have done a stupid thing and racked up debt and bought a house I couldn't afford so I could be helped now.

Idiotic. And lacking a complete understanding of what went down in this mortgage mess. To be sure people made stupid mistakes. But they were helped, duped, coaxed and preyed upon by the lenders, mortgage brokers, etc.

You should do the right thing and continue to do the right thing because it's the right thing.

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Michelle Singletary: Well, a very spirited and great chat.

Thanks to all who participated.

See you real soon.

And if you don't subscribe to my weekly e-letter please do. I continue our conversations there and try to inform you about important personal finance stories in the Post and elsewhere.

Have a wonderful weekend.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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