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Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Personal Finance Columnist
Thursday, October 9, 2008; 12:00 PM

Need advice about how to handle your personal finances? Whether the struggle is saving for retirement, organizing your bank files, or talking about money responsibility with your spouse or loved one, Post personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary offers her advice and answers your tough questions. She was online Thursday, October 9.

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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.

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Michelle Singletary: Welcome back. There are a lot of questions so I'll try to get to as many as possible. If I don't, please know that in my weekly eletter I try to answer those that don't make the chat today. So please subscribe to the eletter.

So let's get started.

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Arlington, Va.: Dear Michelle,

I've been waiting and waiting for your chat to cycle back around, so thanks so much for taking my question.

I just entered repayment for my student loans, and I really want to pay down the principle every month. However, my lender, Sallie Mae, won't let me do it! I've emailed them several times and even called, and the response I get is:

"All payments (including extra payments) are applied first to outstanding late fees (if any) and interest, and then whatever is left over is applied to principal. Therefore, payments are automatically applied correctly to principal and interest."

I guess what this means is that I'm stuck paying interest first, then principal. Frankly, I'm pretty miffed about this. Is it legal for a lender to refuse to let you pay down the principal? I did it on my mortgage and car loans without any problem.

Thanks again for your help. Love, love, love your columns.

Michelle Singletary: I'm glad you came back.

So I think you are upset for no reason. What you send indicates that yes, they will apply your payments to what you owe (interest, principal, fees if any) and then any extra payments will go to pay down your debt.

That's how I read it. What they are saying is if you have to pay everything you own first AND then extra money goes to pay down the debt.

So you CAN pay down your student loans. Others have, including those with Sallie Mae loans.

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Alexandria, Va.: Do you have any details on the mortgage bailout? My condo has lost value, but I'm up to date on my payments and had been making additional payments to further reduce the outstanding balance. I'm not upside down on the loan and probably won't need to sell for another 2-4 years, when my family outgrows the space.

That said, if somebody wants to "rescue" me and reduce my mortgage payment, that's fine with me. I appreciate that a lot of people are having big problems, but I feel like a sucker anyway for buying a home I could afford, understanding when and how my adjustable rate will change and paying my bills on time.

Michelle Singletary: Do I have details of the bailout?

Heck, our government doesn't have details.

But in your personal situation, you seem fine and no bailout for you.

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Bowie, Md.: My husband lost his job and I called the mortgage company to see if they could either defer my payment or modify my loan. I wanted to be proactive and find out if there was help before I just didn't pay the mortgage. I was told that they could not help me because I had not missed a payment. Should I miss a payment and hold what I have and wait to see if they will work something out with me then?

Michelle Singletary: NO. Don't miss a payment. Contact a HUD approved housing agency to see if they can get in touch with your lender to help you negotiate some breathing room.

You should also look into The HOPE for Homeowners program will refinance mortgages for borrowers who are having difficulty making their payments, but can afford a new loan insured by HUD's Federal Housing Administration (FHA).

Here's a link that will help:

http://www.hud.gov/hopeforhomeowners/index.cfm

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Arlington, Va.: Hello, I have two properties (primary/investment) and both have decreased in price such that selling is not an option. Both mortgages are becoming more expensive and I have tried to refinance but the value of the property doesn't help. Will there be or is there a program that would help reduce the mortgage payments? Or is my only option to foreclose one of the properties? Thanks.

Michelle Singletary: You may be able to get help for your primary residence but I'm afraid there are no programs I know of for the investment property.

Frankly there is little sympathy these days for people who got in over their heads for investment property.

See previous message for your primary home.

For the investment property if you find you can't make the mortgage or rent it to cover what you need you may need to sell. You could propose to the lender a short sell, meaning the lender will approve a sale for less than what you owe.

But keep in mind you will owe taxes on any forgiven debt.

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Sterling, Va.: Hello, sorry if this has been covered already but I am looking for some basic 401k advice. I ask this in light of the recent economic uncertainty in the US and possibly the world.

For 401k plans, are you recommending to people to 'stay the course', move more into bonds a bit, or other advice?

If it helps at all, I am a 39-year-old male so my retirement is not that close, unless of course I win the lottery.

Michelle Singletary: I recommend you keep investing BUT BUT BUT make sure you are well diversified meaning you are spreading your contributions among different sectors and asset classes, which include equities (stocks, bonds, and cash.

Check with the company that manages your retirement account. All of them have information on their Web sites about asset allocation.

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re: student loan repayment: My boyfriend had problems paying down the principle on his student loans as when he would send extra payments, they would only apply it to the next few months scheduled payments, not the principle. Then they just wouldn't send him a bill. He has spent hours on the phone with these people trying to straighten it out, but without much luck!

Michelle Singletary: I know this happens a lot and not just with student loans.

Often they don't even look at the directions on the check to see that you are trying to pay on principle. So without checking they just apply it to the next month's payment.

So unless you have a coupon that allows you to note extra payments for principal I would send in a separate check clearly indicating that the money is to be applied to principal. If the institution fails to do this complain to it regulator.

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Sallie Mae Question on student loans: Michelle,

I agree with your response to the person wanting to pay down principal on their loans. My student loans are at Sallie Mae, a certain amount is automatically taken out each month on the 23rd of the month. I was told when I called Sallie Mae (for this exact question) that if I made any extra payments to make them right around the 23rd of the month. That way my "regular" payment would pay whatever interest I owed (plus some) and then my additional payment would go straight to the principal. I have been paying extra for a while now, and if I check my account on the Sallie Mae website, I can see the principal reduced by the extra payments I make over the interest amount.

Michelle Singletary: Thanks for passing this along.

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Rockville, Md.: I assume you watched Tuesday's debate.

What were the best and worst ideas you heard?

Michelle Singletary: Honestly, I'm didn't really hear anything from either about who to fix what's wrong right now.

But then again nobody really knows because we are just so deep in this mess. Everybody is just guessing and with our mountains of debt.

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Northwest, D.C.: Hi Michelle, I am sure you flooded with questions today so thank you for taking the time to talk with us!

Here's my question: My husband and I had been thinking about buying a house for the last 6 months or so, and now we are really getting into it (comparing quotes from brokers, talking to a Realtor, etc). We have good, stable income of a little over $100k; bank savings of about $50k; about $60k in investments (that's falling these days, but not terribly so); and our only debt is a $50k student loan (locked in at 2% interest). We'd like to buy a place (about $300k) and stay there for 7-10 years.

Given the unpredictability of the economy -- we don't know what home values will do -- is buying still smarter than renting? Should we hold off and see what happens?

Michelle Singletary: And why aren't you paying off that $50,000 in student loan debt?

That's the question you should be asking.

You say your "only" debt is $50,000 as if that's not a big thing.

It is a big looming thing. Before I bought a home I would pay off that debt. You could keep half of those savings, make a great dent in that debt and then with that $100,000 in income pay off the rest and STILL be able to build back up your savings and go into your home debt-free.

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Washington, D.C.: This is just a follow-up from the question in your newsletter from the woman with the credit debt. Five years ago, I had major credit debt ($55,000) from medical bills, living beyond my means and paying for everyday expenses. I know you don't shill for companies, but I have to say that Take Charge America -- a non-profit credit counseling company -- saved me from total financial ruin. I am two payments away from paying off my credit and I haven't used a credit card in five years!!! I use a debit VISA when I have to purchase things online but otherwise, I use cash. The best part is that my FICO score is a little over 700 and my credit history is great.

I highly recommend credit counseling -- especially TCA. I am a changed woman.

Michelle Singletary: I think many of the non-profit organizations are helpful to people. You can do it yourself with the plan I laid out. But if you can't it's a good way to go as long as you don't sign up with a group that charges a great deal. And you must, must be sure they are making the payments and on time.

If you are looking for this type of help go to www.debtadvice.org

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Crofton, Md.: I have a question about IRAs. I rolled 401k funds into several traditional IRAs after leaving jobs over the years. I am wondering if it makes sense to leave them as traditional IRAs or convert them to Roths. I will have to pay taxes on the money when I convert to Roths, so should I convert them one a year for three years to spread out the tax penalty? There are three accounts, with $22k, $11k, and $6k.

The IRAs are savings account IRAs with a credit union. I would ultimately like to move each to investment mutual funds.

Can you offer any advice?

Michelle Singletary: This is a tough question.

You really have to crunch the numbers and see if it's worth the tax hit to switch. The benefit of a ROTH is you don't pay taxes on the money you pull out after retirement age per the law. But if you leave the money alone and let it grow (prayfully and hopefully) you may be in a lower tax bracket when you retire. The money you didn't take out to pay taxes then grows over those years.

And you can move that money within the IRA into mutual fund if you like already.

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Leesburg, Va.: Michelle: I know a lot of people are interested in the bailout and Hope for Homeowners program. I looked into it myself, but a few things for people to keep in mind:

1. This isn't a way for people who can afford a payment to get a lower one. 2. Any adjustment made to the amount you owe means that the lender will have a permanent interest in the equity of the home, even when you pay the loan.

So when you sell, part of the proceeds of the sale go back to the lender. This shouldn't be a deterrent to people who need the assistance. But it is a comfort to those of us who bought reasonable homes we could afford and don't want to feel like others are getting off with just a warning.

Michelle Singletary: You are right.

And they are looking for people for this program who are in need, like someone with a disruption in their income but who can show they will in the future afford the reworked loan.

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Student Loans: I have gone through the same experience with Sallie Mae. Here is what I do, and although the extra payments do not go completely to principle, I do have an extra cushion should something happen economically.

1. Pay only in full payment amounts. 2. Pay additional payments in full payment amounts. So, instead of sending in extra money to go towards principal each month, I send in a separate check ever other month. 3. When they stopped sending me payment coupons because I am over a year ahead, I made my own (4 to a sheet of paper and include my name, address, account number, and minimum payment amount - I handwrite in the due date). 4. This is easier then haggling with them about the payment distribution. If something happens and I am unable to make the payments for a month or two, there is no problem as my next due date is not for another 12 months or more. By making the extra payments, you are reducing principal much faster.

Have a great day and thanks for all of your wonderful advice (as always).

Michelle Singletary: Another way to pay down that loan. Sounds like a lot of work but if it works for you, great.

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Crofton, Md.: Hi Michelle. I am a member at two credit unions. I do most of my banking with Credit Union A, and have a small new car fund at Credit Union B.

Credit Union A currently offers 1% on my fairly sizable money market fund (this is my general liquid savings/emergency fund). Credit Union B is offering 1.6%. Is it worth jockeying money back and forth between the credit unions to keep the funds with whichever institution offers the higher rate, or are rates so low across the board that it's better to just let my money stay put?

Michelle Singletary: The difference in rate is so small I'm not sure I would bother.

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Crystal City, Va.: Hi Michelle - I really enjoy your columns. As of last night, my 401K is down by $17,500 which is a 14% drop (everything I put in this year +). I was well diversified (stocks, foreign, bonds, money market). But I can't take it anymore. I moved everything to a money market with no transaction fees and reduced my contributions to enough to still receive the company's input. The CFAs are telling everyone to stay put which is impossible. It took 10 years to personally build over $100K and I can't afford to lose anymore in retirement, which doesn't include the $60K down payment on a home purchase that's out the window due to depreciation.

Where EXACTLY is a safe place for your money? THIS IS CRAZY. I've lost $120K in 3yrs. I'm 42, single empty-nester with one income. I would have never thought I'd have so much money saved only to lose considering being middle-class (sigh). I just want to cry. I just want to cry.

Michelle Singletary: I think you panicked. Which is understandable. And ultimately if what you did makes you sleep at night or reduces your stress you have to do what you have to do.

My accounts are down too -- 401 k, 529s, etc. But I'm holding steady -- for now.

And your $60,000 is not "out the window." We have got to stop looking at our homes that way -- as an investment. You have a home. You put down a good down payment I assume to make sure you have a reasonable mortgage. You still have the home. So you still have your money's worth.

If you have to sell soon then I would fret about the down payment.

Finally. Cry. I know I feel like it even if I'm not in a panic.

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Debt Counseling: I am a renter and I am over my head in debt due to medical bills and paying my bills with credit cards when I was sick. Now that I'm better and trying to dig out of this hole, how will I retain a credit rating at all if I don't use credit cards anymore, don't have a mortgage or a car payment -- basically nothing that reports to the credit bureau anymore.

Michelle Singletary: Seriously, you are worried about credit right now?

You were sick. Now, hopefully you are well.

You don't need to use credit at all, especially has you climb out of debt.

Having a good credit rating just means you get to BORROW.

Your on time rent payments do count. Your on time utility payments do count. If you have a cell -- as most people do - those payments count.

So you don't need a credit card to build good credit going forward.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Michelle, I trust your judgment 100% on this topic. I am in love with my fiance, but he has bad credit and a judgment for a repossessed vehicle. Our salaries are just about equal, and additionally I have two children from a previous marriage. This is the only issue coming between us. We want to buy a house but I would have to come up with the down payment. Am I better off alone given this scenario?

Michelle Singletary: You are better off getting good premarital counseling that spends a LOT of time with the two of you talking about his financial past. If he's changed his ways and is a good steward of his money know then I wouldn't worry. But that's something you should explore and be sure of before you get married. And so what if you come up with the down payment IF he's handling what he has now well. When you get married it's about about coming together as one, right?

You trust him with your life and your kids if you are bringing into your life and theirs. So make sure you are comfortable about how he handles money BEFORE you get married -- and then buy a home together.

Together you can be an awesome team if you are on the same page financially.

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Anonymous: Hi Michelle : Please advise where I may register to be part of any upcoming AIG spa retreat weekends. I figure since my tax dollars are bailing them out, I might as well get a massage and some hot oil treatments.

Michelle Singletary: You and me both!

I just can't believe that story. And the company's explanation is just criminal.

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Baltimore, Md.: From what I've read it seems that the only people who can get help on refinancing their mortgages currently are those who are close to losing their house.

I have never missed a payment but know that when my ARM adjusts (if I can't refinance) I will struggle. I'll still be able to make payments, but I'll be VERY tight on cash. My credit isn't great-- around 600.

Are there any resources for me out there to make sure I refinance? As far as I can tell unless you have perfect credit or are in dire need, refinancing is hard to do right now.

Michelle Singletary: Really, you are on your own if you can't refinance.

The programs do target those in dire straights. You aren't there yet. Just tight. I'm not sure what to tell you other than cut more, try to bring in more income.

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Paying down principle vs. next month's bill: If your extra payment is applied to the next month's bill, isn't that an example of paying down the principle? I pay my car loan online and always pay extra, without any sort of explanation. I've paid over so much that my next bill isn't due until July 2009, but I just continue to pay each month and the "pay-off" amount keeps decreasing...am I doing something dumb here?

Michelle Singletary: That's one way. But I like to do it more cleanly by just making overpayments -- when I had such debt and indicating I wanted to pay on principal.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Michelle, I try very hard to follow your advice. We just had an unexpected death in the family, and I need to fly home for the funeral. I'd like to use some of my "life happens" fund to pay for the last-minute ticket so as not to carry my credit card balance over to next month, but I feel guilty. That's what it's there for, right?

Michelle Singletary: Right.

That's what it's there for for the things in life that happen such as death.

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Debt Options: Hi Michelle, I have a question about what to do with my debt. I have approximately $4000 in credit card debt. One of the credit cards charges a 16.9% interest rate and the other 10.99%. Would you suggest that I use the money in my savings to pay them off now and then build my savings back up again or just pay them monthly until their paid off without using the money in my savings? Or do you have a different suggestion? Thanks.

Michelle Singletary: Keep some of your savings for an emergency -- perhaps one month's worth of expenses and then get rid of as much of that debt as possible. Then use the money you were paying on the cards to build back up your savings.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Michelle, I keep reading about how sales are slowing and predictions for Christmas look like they'll be down.

I know this isn't good for retailers, but since when was it a bad thing for people to buy/consume less? Is it un-American now to be a saver rather than a rampant spender?

Michelle Singletary: Retailers should be worried because anyone planning to spend a lot this year for stuff nobody really needs is a fool.

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My parents: I am worried about my parents who are close to retirement age. They worked hard, saved, invested, and now, like everyone else, their investments have take a serious nosedive.

What advice do you have for the nearly-retired?

(My husband and I are in our mid-30s, and can afford, for now, to hold steady. I don't know about the parents.)

Michelle Singletary: Without more information I can't tell you what to tell your parents. What I would do is look at all their planned retirement income. Be sure they are diversified. If all that they need and have is in the market and they don't expect to have enough income from SS or a pension or savings for the first five years of retirement they may need to do some cashing out of the market.

But again, it's not wise to give a blanket statement about what they should do without knowing their full financial picture.

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For Washington - Funeral Trip: Ask your airline for a bereavement fare. It may not be much of a discount, but it helps.

Michelle Singletary: Thanks.

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20002: How can I get my credit score? I know there is the annual free credit report site which gives one free but does that have a score or just the report? And what is the safest website to go to? Thanks!

Michelle Singletary: Myfico.com to order your credit score.

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Davie, Fla.: Michelle, How does one get a FICO score from any one of these credit reporting agencies without having to pay a fee? It is amazing to me that the BIG Three: Equifax, Experian, and Trans Union hold such power over people's financial reputation when the credit reports I have received from these entities covering the same chronological time frame have conflicting information about the same subject, and multiple errors. They, the credit reporting agencies, are constantly marketing their services, and have a monopoly on this data gathering and reporting service. Where does the legal authority to do this come from - what laws, or governmental body regulates this arm of financial service?

Michelle Singletary: Vent if you must but you have to pay for your credit scores.

Sorry.

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Columbus, Ohio: I graduated from college in the spring, and would like to go to law school in a few years. I was fortunate enough to finish school with no student loan, car, credit card or other debt, and I'd like to be able to do the same with law school (or with as little debt as possible). To that end, I want to save as much money as possible in the next few years to go toward law school tuition. Over the next few years, should I put all my savings toward law school, or should I be saving for retirement, etc. as well? My employer doesn't offer any retirement savings plan, but I do have an emergency fund. I want to save responsibly, but I'm afraid if I'm also socking away money for retirement it will take me a lot longer to save up enough money to go to law school.

Michelle Singletary: I would save for law school. If you plan on getting a well-paid job as an attorney you will have a good income and lots of time to save for retirement.

But if you borrow what I've seen people borrow for law school, you'll spend 30 years paying off that debt.

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Aha moment: Thanks, Michelle, and everyone who wrote in. I was reading Sallie Mae's response as: "Any extra money you send will be applied to the interest you owe through the end of the loan." So, if I owe a total of $14500 in interest on a $50000 loan, I thought they meant that any extra money I send will just go toward that $14500 total interest.

Okay, I'm a big dummy. Thanks again!

Michelle Singletary: Not a dummy. Smart to ask.

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Cathedral: Hello there Michelle- Have always loved your chats and am writing first time. Okay, owe $5800, $3200 and $1500 on 3 cards, always pay on time and more than I owe, the same goes on all of our bills. Emergency savings is $4000 with various 401k's at above $10,000 (well hoping since last checked) Am expecting a severance package in January of around $21,000 before taxes. Mortgage is steady (and low) amount less than $1000 a month at 5% (yes a miracle). additionally, I do owe $48,000 on student loans, but I locked them at an incredibly low rate, thank god. My husband has no student debt. Husband makes over $42,000. Here's the kicker: am pregnant with first child due at end of April. What should we do with that severance package money? Lump sum or parts? I was thinking pay off the two lowest amount cards and put the rest of it in savings and checking? We have plenty of support family-wise for baby, but I'm concerned being out of a job and keeping on top of our bills without my income.

Michelle Singletary: If it were me, I would take $10,500 of the $21,000 and pay off every single credit card. Take the rest and build up that $4,000 to about three months of living expenses and then ATTACK that student loan debt with what is left. I don't care what the interest rate is.

Get out of DEBT, especially with a baby on the way.

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Baltimore, Md.: Hi Michelle, thank you for all your thoughtful, sensible advice! I love your column and chats!

My husband and I are both 30 and have a 2-year old son. But we have no wills and we're unsure where to start with estate planning. We own a home, but don't have much of an estate (we're just out of graduate school and working on saving- starting with an emergency fund and paying off our student loans from undergrad- no loans from grad school) or much to spend on lawyer's fees. Do you have any basic recommendations on where to start with a basic plan and appropriate documents? Is a will or a trust more appropriate? Thanks!

Michelle Singletary: Start with getting an appointment with an attorney. He or she can walk you through all that you need given your situation. You may have more to leave behind then you think. With a son it's important to take care of this ASAP.

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Debt Free: Michelle: I had written you in the June live discussion. We had just paid off our house.

Two months later, I lost my job due to a corporate restructuring. Being debt free is such a load off of our minds. There is more than enough to think about with the new job search, without worrying about losing our house.

Debt is bondage.

Michelle Singletary: Sorry about your job loss but your testimony is why I do this.

How wonderful that you don't have to worry about a mortgage payment now.

Good for you. And may you find a job soon!!!!

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Anonymous: I lost my job 7 months ago (I was the chief bread winner), now my husband is going to lose his job at Wamu, we have run out of cash and can no longer pay the mortgage. Hopefully my husband will get another job, however his earnings are insufficient to cover our mortgage/expenses. I have cut all that I can. I can't sell the cars because we need transportation. The value of my house has dropped here in Florida by about $200,000, thus I won't be able to get a buyer to cover the value of the mortgage. I put down 20%/$120,000 as a down payment, so I am not a slacker. I have a small IRA which is invested in 55% stocks/45% bonds, cash. I already took out $30,000 from my IRA to get us through November. I will have a big tax bill and penalties to pay next April on this withdrawal. Should I do a deed en lieu with the bank now and try to walk away from this mortgage that I cannot pay? If I do this, how will I be able to rent when my credit will be zip? Will my IRA be in jeopardy if I do the deed in lieu? Should I change the investment proportion of my IRA to be all cash? I'm sitting here watching the value plummet. I'm 58... I had hoped to work till I'm 70 but no one wants to hire a 58 year old woman these days. Help!

Michelle Singletary: Oh my you poor thing. I hope you saw my note earlier in the chat about the FHA Hope program. Try that and see if you can get help with your mortgage.

If you can't, you may have to so a "short sell." Try that first.

Most of all please know that what's important is your family, not the things in the house or the house.

You should still be able to rent. You just may have to pay a higher security deposit.

There's a lot else going on with the tax situation and your retirement account than I can handle in this chat. Try to find a financial advisor perhaps at the company holding your IRA to talk about your options. At 58 with little to no money you may need to preserve as much of that IRA as possible given the current market.

Most important, you can start over again, even at this point. Try what you can to save what you can but if you can't save your family. That's more important than any money, house, things, job, etc.

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Arlington, Va.: Hello Michelle, Would the Hope program be available to homeowners with an investment property? Thanks again,

Michelle Singletary: No.

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Washington, D.C.: Have you thought about doing this online show every week until the end of the year? I need to read you each week- you remind me and encourage me to keep on the straight and narrow (and avoid the daily Starbucks trap!).

Michelle Singletary: That's a thought.

I'll think about it.

Thanks.

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Michelle Singletary: Well folks I have got to run, already over. I'm so, so sorry if I didn't get to your questions. As I said at the beginning of the chat, I'll get to some in my eletter. If you don't subscribe please do.

Thanks for all who joined me today.

Finally, I know it's tough right now. And I certainly don't have all the answers for so many of you who are in financial trouble. I really wish I did.

But try if you can to remain calm and remember the things that really matter. I've been through a lot in my life. I was left by my parents, grew up poor, had health issues, helped take care of a disable brother, ailing grandmother, sick child, nearly died myself from a blood clot in my lung.

So I just put all that is happening in that context. No question having money is important to live. But you have to hold on to what's dear -- faith, family, friends.

Because this too will pass.

Take care.

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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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