Color of Money Book Club

Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, November 20, 2008; 12:00 PM

Personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary hosted an online discussion with author Laurence Shatkin and editor Sue Pines, the brains behind "150 Recession-Proof Jobs," on Thursday, Nov. 20 at Noon ET.

In her last book club column, Michelle wrote: "...some occupations and industries can withstand business downturns better than others. During a recession, people may curtail their shopping or hold onto their cars for a few more years, but the sick still need medical attention. Registered nurses ranked fourth on the list of recession-proof jobs. Physician assistants were 11th."

A transcript follows.

Read Michelle's past Color of Money columns or check out her past Book Club picks.


Michelle Singletary: Good afternoon to you all.

I'm so pleased to have Sue and Laurence here to answer any of your career-related questions. And with umemployment up and jobless claims up I'm sure there is a lot of uncertainly about your job these days.

So let's get started.


Maryland: The recession proof jobs belong to those who are fortunate enough to work for the federal gob'ment. Not only do they have great salaries and benefits for those without a college degree but also job security that the private sector can't compete with. Do you know how I can get one of those recession proof gob'ment jobs?

Laurence Shatkin: Look at for a searchable database of current job openings.


Anonymous: I know you focus on personal finance, but as someone who isn't fond of debt, have you written any articles or shared your thoughts on the bailout(s)/rescue(s) that are being financed by US debt? You can always find an archive of Michelle's columns here.

Here are some columns she's written on the bail out:

Treasury's Bailouts Are Getting Us Chumped (Nov. 20)

Bailout Needs a Bridge to Main Street (Sept. 25)

Michelle Singletary: Here you go. Also check out and sign up for my weekly e-letter. You will find lots of information in there about the bailout.


Debt Is Evil: Hi Michelle--I will be the first to admit I don't always agree with your advice or perspective on financial matters. However, I will agree with you that debt is evil. I just paid off $5800 in credit card debt. I had to make some major sacrifices, but it feels good to know I am no longer paying interest on items/services I purchased at least 5 years ago.

I am a 25-year-old who went into debt while in college. No, I wasn't living it up in Cabo for spring break or buying Chanel purses. I had to put living expenses on my credit cards to get though college.

Anyway, more than ever I realize debt (especially consumer debt) is such a trap and should be avoided as much as possible.

Michelle Singletary: Oh, I'm so glad you came over to the "light side."

And I feel I need to explain why I'm so extreme.

As someone who gives advice and her opinion I have to be extreme. If I'm not and say something like, "Debt is okay" or "Debt can be used as a tool" people who shouldn't even go there will see that as permission to well go there.

So if I give absolutes then it inspires people like this person to get out of debt and stay out of debt.

If you say to yourself all the time that "debt is evil" you are more likely to think not just twice, often if it's worth taking on debt.

That's why I'm so hard and so absolute.

Anyway, good to you for getting rid of this evil burden!


NoVa: Hi, how safe are federal government jobs now?

Laurence Shatkin: No job is 100% secure, but jobs with the federal government are more secure than most. They also tend to be more secure than jobs with state governments, because state governments can't run deficits the way the Fed can! You may have read news stories about states that are hurting for revenue right now, and some of them have been slashing departments. That happens much less frequently at the federal level. On the other hand, a new administration has new priorities and sometimes cuts certain departments and boosts others, so probably the safest federal jobs right now are related to the areas that the Obama camp has said it wants to boost: infrastructure, energy independence, education, health care.

Michelle Singletary: Hey, when I tell people I married well, they right away assume I mean I married a doctor or lawyer.

But I'm married to a federal "govment" worker. Hallelujah.

Love you babe!!!


Chump, USA: Thank you!! For always being level headed and giving me columns and quotes from your chats to send to my fiance, so that I have another logical voice of reason for him to listen to when I say reduce debt and SAVE!!! I have always disliked being in debt, find it icky and yucky!! I am personally debt free, and saving to buy my next car with CASH (in 10 years)!! Will have a mortgage when I get married, and my fiance's student loans and car. Have a plan to pay off the car when we get married. Still trying to convince him to pay off the student loans quicker... He still likes the "they have a low interest rate" argument. Anyway... Why I really wrote in...

Thank you for today's column!!! We are totally being "chumped" by the government and these companies!!!! Six figure bonus??? There are a lot of people who would gladly work for half of a six figure YEARLY salary.

Not that I REALLY think we should be bailing companies out, but... If we are bailing out companies who pay their execs way too much to push paper and sell services, insurance and stock, how come we can't bail out the auto makers who employ non-executive blue collar workers who actually MAKE products in the US that we can EXPORT???

What the heck is going on up there???

And why aren't other Americans SCREAMING about this!?!?!?


Michelle Singletary: I'm certainly screaming.

Did you guys see the hearings yesterday with the auto executives?

Pitiful...coming to Washington in their private jets to ask for a handout.


Anonymous: Dear Michelle, Please help me plan my budget. I am trying to decide between using about $200 per month in extra cash to pay off student loans faster or pay my mortgage down to get rid of PMI. I have about $20K in student loans at 3.6%. I am 'supposed' to pay $158 every month, but instead, I pay $200, so I overpay a bit. I put down 10% on my house, so I pay about $70 in PMI every month. I will need about another $17K in either appreciation (not super likely right now!) or increased payments to get rid of the PMI. I have no other debt. I have about 3 months living expenses, and a government job that I am very unlikely to lose. I fully fund my Roth IRA, and I put 10% in my TSP. If I reduced my TSP to 5% to keep the match, I would net about $240/mo after taxes that I could add to my debt reduction plan. I would prefer to keep my savings at this level since I am youngish and have no children. I expect that if I have kids, I will have to reduce my savings and would prefer to have a larger "money base" to earn interest on. But at the same time, I hate still having loans from college and grad school. Thanks for any advice!

Michelle Singletary: I would first get rid of the student loan debt throwing all the extra money toward that.

Getting rid of PMI is complicated even when you reach the mark of having 20 percent equity.

Besides, I typically advise people to go after the debt with the lowest balance anyway. And yes, for now I would cut back on retirement to get rid of the student loan debt. You still have plenty of time to jump that right back up.


Northern Virginia: Long-time fan... just wanted to share my situation: I was recently laid off with a very generous severance pkg (lump sum = 6 months salary, 4 months company-paid life/health insurance, outplacement assistance). It was voluntary (for a whole list of reasons), but with my broad IT, project mgmt, and analyst background, my spouse and I thought the risk was worth it since I have some of those recession-resistant skill sets and am better equipped than many to become re-employed in these tight times.

We haven't given up the cable TV or cleaning service yet, but we are eating out far less, watching what we buy at the grocery store, and cutting back on the discretionary spending (bookstores, nail salon, Starbucks). Christmas giving will be scaled back as well -- much to our teenage daughter's concern!

Sue Pines: Keeping your skills up to date is one of the ways to stay reslient in any economy. Key skills important in the recession-proof jobs are writing, critical thinking, service orientation, and others.

Michelle Singletary: Sounds like you are on the right track, although I might give up the cleaning service. Tough market out there and it might take you that 6 months or more to find the right job.

Still, you sound like you have a good plan


New Orleans, La.: Michelle: I'd like to clarify something from your November 6 live discussion about credit utilization. Baltimore, Md. asked if the percent utilization would matter if cards were paid in full each month and you said it shouldn't be a factor for people paying in full.

When I run my credit reports, the balance that would be used for utilization is the balance when the statement was generated. So if I ran up $1000 in charges and on my September statement and I paid the full balance by the due date, the utilization would still show $1000, not zero. So yes, utilization matters, even if you pay the balance in full each month.

Michelle Singletary: I think I explained what you said later in the chat.

But in case I didn't, you are right. However, in the long term, unless you are getting credit that month, if you pay off the balances every month, having that $1,000 is not going to tank your credit score enough to affect a good loan deal.


But debt CAN be used as a tool!: ...for example: a pick, shovel or bulldozer one uses to dig his or her own grave.

Michelle Singletary: oooh, I love this!



Hospital bills: Hi Michelle, Hope you take my question, even if not career-related. My child was in a car accident, thankfully he is fine. It was the other party's fault and we're trying to work out the medical bills. Except, the hospital keeps calling us constantly, asking us when we're gonna pay. I told them the other insurance company is going to pay so many times. Is there something I did wrong here or are they in the right? The accident was in October and they are threatening to set a bill collector on me. It's insane.

Michelle Singletary: First, so glad your chld is okay.

I bet the insurance company if paying is paying late.

I might contact the insurer who is paying and give them or fax them the bills and complain to the high heaven about the calls.

So try going to the party responsible for paying and complain all the way up the line.


Bethesda, Md.: Why is applying to the government so intimidating? One posting I'm looking at has some confusing language about applying for each pay grade and that my qualifications for one pay grade need to be at the next lowest pay grade plus something, but it doesn't really spell out what qualifications are needed for any pay grade! The posting seems to assume I already am working for the government even though the job is open to "regular" people. I feel like a rat in a maze.

Laurence Shatkin: I understand how confusing this can be. I remember applying for a job at a community college, and the application included space for an essay on why I believe in the "systems method of education." I had no idea what this was, so I phoned someone teaching at the college, and he said it meant basically not winging it. So I came up with something appropriate for the essay. I would do something similar in your case--if at all possible, talk to someone in the office or general area of the job you're applying for. They may understand what is being asked. You may also turn to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, (202) 606-1800, though I can't promise you that their phone system will be easy to navigate to the answer you seek. Good luck!


Falls Church, Va.: I hope you take my submission this time around. I am a follower of your advice and suggestions and want to get your response, especially, to my first comment and question.

1) I'm sure you have heard from those who are upside down and losing their houses, etc. I feel for them as everybody else does but I don't want to see them rewarded for their stupidity and carelessness, and not to mention their ignorance. (And please don't get on me for using these descriptives.) But how come there's no empathy nor sympathy for those who are upside down, but making payments, managing their credit debts, holding on to their jobs, and continuing to live frugal lives so that they never are in the position as those who are going through financial hardship and losing their homes? What rewards do you think should be given to "good" people? BTW, you did answer this type of question before and your response seemed to indicate "Good job for your good behavior, now be quiet. Is there more deserving rewards than that? And here's another question in-line with your topic discussion for today.

2) What future do you see for someone who has top secret clearance with skill sets in improving government operations and finding cost savings and cost avoidance of government spending?

Laurence Shatkin: I'd like to address part #2 of your question. I think you should have a good career future with this skill set. During economic hard times, businesses (and government) are going to look for ways to cut costs. Play up these skills in your resume and make a point of quantifying in dollar terms the savings you have achieved in your work.

Michelle Singletary: I'll address the first part of your question.

Look, I understand your frustration. I work with people in debt and in trouble, many because of housing issues and for mistakes they made. Some should have known better.

I often would love to just yell at them.

But you can't. You have to have compassion. So I help them do better.

As for those who are doing well, and have been all along, your reward, your "atta boy," or "you go girl" is the fact that you aren't facing foreclosure or you can still eat out or take a vacation. You got a job.

Your deserving award is that you aren't suffering. Why do you need someone to pat you on your back?

Encourage yourself (a great Gospel song by the way).

I'm serious. How can you watch as people lose their jobs or homes and not be grateful?

That's all I'm saying. I'm not saying, "Be quiet."

I'm saying be grateful.


Bethesda, Md.: Hello! I am applying for a graduate program for the fall and had a question re: lowering my 401K contributions (currently put aside 19%) now in order to have more cash to save up for next year and not have to borrow so much. I would put this extra cash in an ING orange account, but my concern is missing out on the tax benefits of putting gross income into a 401K for several months (since this extra cash would be net and then the interest taxed). Please help. Thanks!

Michelle Singletary: If this move will help prevent you from borrowing I would just put the money in an high yielding account.


Landover, Md.: It's very discouraging that in order to obtain these simplistic gov't jobs - no, not the rocket scientist positions, I mean mail room levels - one must complete 15 to 30 'ranking factors' and submit paperwork verifying that they've been to school, etc. Many employees have shared with me -a gov't outsider - that they've begun hiring internally to keep costs down. However when I follow up frequently, I'm told they cannot respond to individual applicants. It's a cycle of errors. My job is currently cutting back, I'd love to interview elsewhere however I'd put myself in jeopardy by the numerous in-person interviews needed, however I don't know how secure my position is currently.

We're all concerned.. what to do?

Laurence Shatkin: You're correct about how going for too many interviews can possibly jeopardize one's current job. You're going to have to make a judgment call about how much interviewing you can afford to do. Remember that some interviews are highly preliminary and merely serve as a first round of screening. It may be possible in some cases to convince the potential employer to interview you by telephone and not call you in until the employer is in a second round of interviews. However, under that strategy you lose some of the impact of a face-to-face interview. It's a tough call to make.


Chumps: Michelle: You are so right in today's column. The original bailout bill was 1.5 pages long, and vested all authority in the Treasury Secretary with no oversight, or reporting back to Congress.

Whenever I borrowed money for a car or house, it went directly to the lender, not through me. There was complete accountability.

For much larger ($700 Billion) sums, there is no such oversight. Today's column: Treasury's Bailouts Are Getting Us Chumped

Michelle Singletary: Well, there is oversight on what they are doing...still we are being chumped.


D.C.: I TOTALLY agree with you and Mr.Chumps, USA. I saw the CNN report when the auto execs were asked who flew here commercially. It was very appalling. I do believe we should let the companies fail. They are failing right now. They are laying off 10s of thousands with more to come. If one company failed WOULDN'T the others survive? Wouldn't it add to competition and hopefully lower prices? The auto industry ALREADY has a $25B loan in process, the bailout is them trying to piggy back on the $700B -whatever tree that's falling from- I think this is the 1st time in my life I've agreed with the Republican party lawmakers. Giving the big three a big bailout will only allow them to beg for more next year. We should spend on creating cheaper energy efficient transportation, not more SUVs and trucks. I can't afford the smallest hybrid -Honda Prius I believe- why should my taxes help make it?

Thanks for the vent moment.. we're in crazy times. I don't even know what lawmaker or congress person I can write to ask them NOT to vote for it. I live in DC -taxation, no representation.

Michelle Singletary: Vent baby vent.


Consumer debt: I have quite a lot of consumer debt. My credit score is pretty good because I always make my payments on time. But it leaves me with so little left over every month. I want to get rid of this debt, but the interest is killing me and I feel like I'll never get out from under it. I would like to work with a debt management counselor or get a consolidation loan, but I'm afraid of getting ripped off. Since I live so close to the margin on this anyway, I can't really afford to risk it. Where should I go for help? And what should I look out for?

Michelle Singletary: Go here:


Student Loans, Va.: Hi Michelle, In past chats you've mentioned paying off student loan debt (generally seen as "good debt" if there is such a thing) before making any big purchases, such as a house. How is one supposed to pay off a 20 or 30 year loan worth $30-40k without waiting until they are in their late 40s (for example) to buy a house?

Michelle Singletary: Seriously this is why we are in the mess we are in.

You pay it off by cutting to the bone and forgoing every extra. If you do that, it won't take 20 or 30 years.

You also do it by not taking on all the student loan debt in the first place.


RE: ITS ME THE 1ST POSTER-GOB'MENT JOBS: Has your hubby ever said people get hired through that web site mentioned: The info there seems so geared to those already with the gob'ment. do I get a gob'ment job? Is it "who u know"..?

Michelle Singletary: I've known folks who have got hired thru the site.


Anonymous: Washington, D.C.: Hi Michelle - My husband and I are trying the cash only/no credit card experiment (if we make a purchase online with a card, we have to put cash into the envelope to pay that before we submit the online charge). So far, it's going great - we are definitely spending less. Just thought you'd appreciate a report from the field!

Michelle Singletary: Oh wonderful. Thanks for the report.

And for those who are like, "What?"

I challenged people to spend a month or so just using cash to prove that you spend more when you use plastic.


re: government jobs: I'd like to think that this new administration will ensure that _qualified_ people hold those government jobs. If you don't do your work, you shouldn't keep your job.

Sue Pines: Being qualified is absolutely true in any industry and any job, especially now. When organizations look to make job cuts, the people who don't do their jobs well or well enough can be the first to go. In the book, Laurence Shatkin points out that you need to be the irreplaceable worker and be exceptionally productive. This may help you to hang on to your job.


Mt St Joseph High School, Baltimore, Md.: Dear Michelle, Good afternoon. In these times of economic turbulence and bailouts galore for mismanaged corporations and misguided individuals, why is there no discussion of the moral obligation(s) to pay back one's debtors? Did I miss the memo that did away with the 7th Commandment? Isn't the deliberate retention of borrowed goods ( i.e. money ) tantamount to stealing?


Michelle Singletary: You would have missed it if you haven't been reading my columns, chats or e-letters.

Been talking about this very thing for a LONG time.

But it's been said. People just haven't been heeding it.


Boston, Mass.: Hi Michelle, posting early in the hopes you get a chance to answer this question. I love your chats and columns so much. With good choices and your advice, my husband and I are doing very well on savings and budgeting (on a minister's and a teacher's salaries, too).

My husband and I sat down this summer and created an aggressive savings plan. Part of this plan was to start contributing the max amount to our Roth IRAs, which we had never done before. We're in our late 20s but we realized we should start saving for retirement. We have the money drawn from our checking into an ING account, so we haven't actually sent it to the IRAs yet.

Meanwhile--the stock market is tanking, and I'm wondering if it is better to apply those funds, in part or whole, to our one student loan (mine), which totals about $25,000 at 3.125%. We are also aggressively paying that down: it was over 45K two years ago when it kicked in after I finished grad school. But I could pay it down even faster if I applied those funds earmarked for the IRAs.

My Roth is worth less than it was worth a year ago (only about 15K at this point). Meanwhile I just want to get rid of that student loan for good! So far we've saved over 4K we could send to the IRAs or to my student loan. In the next few months we'll have saved another 4K.

Aside from a fixed, easy-to-pay mortgage we have no other debt.

So--should these savings go to retirement/IRAs or to retiring the student loan?

Michelle Singletary: I would concentrate on the student loans.

And even before the market began to tank I would have advised you to do the same.

Get rid of major debt like this first before you invest money you really can't afford to lose.

So switch gears, roll back the retirement savings and get rid of the rest of that student loan debt.

And by the way, good for you for attacking this and on a minister's and teacher's salaries to boot.

Bless you!


Atlanta, Ga.: Of course there are plenty of people who would be WILLING to take a 6 figure bonus, but most of them are not qualified for the job. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying ANY of the big 3 CEOs are qualified (WHO WOULD hire Nardelli after he ran Home Depot into the ground AND took $200 MILLION from them????), but seriously, you really would like someone who is qualified. And while some of it seems outrageous, it's seriously unlikely that anyone is qualified to do the job. Of COURSE, salaries over, say, $5 million a year, maybe another $1 million (MAYBE) might be (might be? IS) excessive. But not everyone is qualified and NOT EVERYONE -REALLY- wants the job.

It really -IS- a 24/7 job. No joke. That's why they have good compensation (well, one reason - the other is qualifications...). Some people don't want the job and would be amazed what the job entails.

Laurence Shatkin: There's an interesting concept in compensation that we may see more of in these times: the malus. (If you ever studied Latin, you know that this means "bad," just as "bonus" means "good.") It's the opposite of a bonus. Your pay is not fixed, but rather has a central figure that it varies from. In years when you have good performance, you get a boost--a bonus. In years when your performance is lousy, you get a pay cut--a malus. I wish some of these high-flying corporations had been doing that all along with their execs.


Bailouts: I also would like to point out that another group of people who have some responsibility in this mess is the shareholders. I've long been active in shareholder advocacy and would encourage others who are unhappy to do a Google search for organizations that can help educate them on how to join with other small shareholders (because if you have a retirement account, you're a shareholder) to make their voices heard.

Michelle Singletary: Good advice!


Bethesda, Md.: O/T, but for the person in last week's chat who was planning to spend $4000 on his very old car. If you belong to AAA, every month in October you can take it to one of their certified repair shops and they will check out the car and give you a detailed report on its condition. This can be a big help in determining whether to trade in the car and/or how much money to put into it. I realize we just missed October, but maybe next year? I'll try to remember to bring this to your attention next Sept. so more people can take advantage of it.

Michelle Singletary: Thanks for helping us think ahead.

And seriously love that you guys are regulars keeping up on the chatter from week to week.


Springfield, Va.: Hi Michelle, I love your chats and really depend on your financial advice! But now I'm having a problem with my husband's student loans. He received subsidized student loans for his undergraduate education, which we have been paying on for several years now. He recently started taking college classes again to get a Virginia teaching license and is now teaching high school history. While taking classes his loans went into deferment with no principle or interest payments due (but we kept paying down the principle anyway). Now that the loans are out of deferment, the loan company, Nelnet, is charging us quadruple interest. When he called them to ask about it, they said it was to make up for the time in deferment when no interest was being charged. Can they do this?? I'm not sure where to find information on this... Please help!

Michelle Singletary: I haven't heard of this.

If the loans are federally backed I would contact the appropriate gov't agency to check this out.

Try this site for help:


Logan Circle: Hi Michelle - My husband and I have to relocate, and it looks like we won't be able to sell our house before we go, so we'll have a mortgage payment here and rent in the new place. When we relocate in a few weeks I'll be leaving my job, and won't be getting a new one so I can stay home with the kids. So we'll be needing cash. My question is, should I forgo my 401k contributions for my final few pay periods before the move? The market is tanking so much anyway, it seems like it might be a better idea to just keep the money. My company contributes 10% of my salary to the fund (not a match, they contribute it whether I contribute or not) so some money will still be going in. So, keep investing in the 401k, or save the money since we're about to become a one-income family? Thanks!!!

Michelle Singletary: Yes, I would stop the contributions for the last pay periods since you need the money.


I'm saying be grateful: Yes, I'm grateful. And thank you for recognizing "Good" people. But is it okay to ask for a better deal than I have now, i.e. lower interest rate, lower monthly payment, etc.? Even though I'm doing well, I would like to live better. I do know that God doesn't want us to be deprived and He still does want us to enjoy good things as well.

Michelle Singletary: If you are asking should you try to refinance to get a better mortgage rate, sure if the numbers work out when you consider any extra costs.

Being grateful doesn't mean you don't try to cut your costs if you can get a better mortgage deal.


Central Virginia: Hey, Michelle! My parents grew up during the Depression so I was raised knowing how to cook and mend and fix things because I saw them doing it all the time. However, a lot of younger people haven't ever had to do that.

Have you thought of putting together a short list of books that can help people adjust to current conditions? The first one that came to my mind was, "How To Live Cheap But Good," and of course the cookbook, "Good Cheap Food." (Several of my favorite recipes are in that one, by the way.)

You and I were raised to be thrifty but some of the younger crew need a little guidance. What other book titles come to your mind?

Sue Pines: You're so right about younger generations not knowing basic skills. While Laurence and I don't create books on the topics you mention, we do try to guide young people in making good career and education choices that affect their prosperity. More education still connects to more job security. Also, in the book, Laurence includes recession-proof jobs for young people.


Germantown, Md.: I find it amusing that the people who want these high-paying, safe and secure federal government jobs can't be bothered to learn how to apply. Yes, the system is complicated. But it's no different than any other system in the government. If you can't or don't want to handle that, you need to think hard about whether a career in public service is really what you're cut out for anyway.

Laurence Shatkin: It's true that every industry has its corporate culture, and if you want to flourish in that industry or even get to the first rung on the ladder, you need to learn the way they do business there. There's an old saying that there's the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way, but it's true about any organization, especially a very big one. I once worked for a fairly large company and learned a lot by carpooling with some more experienced workers. The twice daily half-hour commute was an excellent time to absorb the corporate culture (and that of the larger industry) and learn what was going on beyond my own office.


Vienna, VA: For the people confused or intimidated by the applications for government jobs on USAJobs, there is another WaPo chat that runs monthly that deals with exactly that sort of issue. I believe his name is Derrick Dortch. He had a good post with some tips here.

Michelle Singletary: Thanks.


Re Hospital Bills: Also glad your child is OK. From the description, it sounds like your child was driving with someone else, not you. Are you sure it was the other party's fault? Was a traffic ticket issued? The issue of fault in this case may still be unresolved.

Does the hospital have an ombudsman to help stop the calls?

Michelle - Aren't there some federal protections in place to stop this harassment?

Michelle Singletary: Well, first it's not harrassment if they are trying to collect a legit bill.

But I do like your advice about checking to see if the insurer in fact thinks they should pay.



St. Louis, Mo.: My problem with the whole "auto bailout" is that so called experts are blaming unions and labor costs for the problems of the "Big 3". Not the fact that while gas prices were rising and Toyota and Honda were building hybrids, GM's answer was the Hummer.

Michelle Singletary: Good point!


Capitol Hill: How recession proof are Congressional jobs? Congress needs to continue operating regardless, yet can budget cuts lead to massive staff layoffs?

Laurence Shatkin: My understanding is that Congressional staff, like any business, has to fluctuate to meet the particular needs of the moment. I don't think that the overall budget for staff is ever going to change much, but at any given time a representative might need to take on, say, energy experts and lay off agriculture experts.


You also do it by not taking on all the student loan debt in the first place. : Michelle, some of us don't have a choice; our parents don't just have $30k in the bank for us to go to college. Some of us may not have been lucky enough to win a scholarship or have a rich uncle leave us money. So we borrow and try to make a better living for ourselves in the future by getting a degree.

Michelle Singletary: And some of you can go part-time, or to the community college or state school, or stay at home or . . .

You aren't "lucky" to win a scholarship by the way. You work for it as I did. Blessed maybe, but not lucky.

And I've never put down those of you who have borrowed to go to college. What I'm saying and will keep saying for those going forward is to really think hard and long about the amont of debt you are taking on. In many cases you can reduce it or cut it out altogether by making different choices.


Washington, DC: What do you think of the recent proposal to provide consumers a tax break on the purchase of a new car for cars valued up to $49,500? While I understand Detroit is in dire straits, I don't think Congress should be encouraging people to buy cars of up to $50K (and really, who NEEDS a car that costs that much?) that they may not be able to afford. Isn't that one of the reasons we got in this mess in the first place?

Michelle Singletary: As you indicate, adding tax breaks will encourage people to spend more on a car.

And you know the second it's passed dealers will be using that as a selling point.


Re: gob'ment jobs: I got mine via I had the skill set they were looking for, though my path was not especially traditional. I LOVE my resume. It's the best thing I've ever written. I made sure the original made it to HR, not just the gray, gob'ment version. They are serious about the KSAs. You really need to put a lot of thought into how your experience fits their needs, even if your experience isn't traditional for that job.

Laurence Shatkin: Taking KSAs seriously is good advice. People hire you for your skills, and they want to be sure your skills match the job's demands. I found a useful exercise is to make a list of the jobs you've had, and for each job to identify the main duties. Then for each duty you identify the knowledges, skills, and abilities you brought to bear. Look for patterns that indicate your strongest KSAs, the ones you can mention on the resume and in interviews and for which you can cite particular instances that can demonstrate your command of them. If you have trouble thinking in terms of skill concepts, go to, find an occupation that's similar to a job you've held, and see what KSAs are listed for the occupation.


Sterling, Va.: I recently became a stay-at-home mom with my husband being the sole bread winner. He "controls" all the money...meaning he pays the bills and pays me a small weekly allowance (which he says is what he gets weekly) but he has access to all the money. He has the bank account and only he has access to it, he has the debit and credit cards, I have nothing. I have to ask him for money if I need anything beyond my allowance while he can spend as he wishes (but he's not out spending but he has access to the money if he needs it). He either lets me have the money or says no, I can't have it because we don't have it...which I think we do. I feel very threatened and controlled by all this but it bursts into a huge fight whenever we talk about it. How do couples manage their money between them when only one is bringing in and managing the money? Thanks.

Michelle Singletary: Oh my dear, this situation is not good. Not good at all.

Is there any chance you can get this man into some therapy?

If you belong to a church or religious organization, seek help yourself.

What you are describing is scary. You have every right to know ALL about the money coming in even if you aren't "earning it."

Please seek help, if not as a couple, for yourself.


Dayton, Ohio: The person from Maryland (who talked about the security of a federal job) has apparently never heard of a RIF. As federal budgets are slashed and re-allocated, "layoffs" do happen.

Similarly in the defense industry (where I work), our industry seems to be more impacted by Congressional budget outlays. We're doing great right now but, we'll see if the recession causes the new Congress to cut our budgets as well. (The jury is still out.....)

Laurence Shatkin: RIFs happen in all industries, but in government less than in most. It may help to read the tea leaves about changes in government priorities. If you're in a field where government seems to be losing interest, try to move to private-sector employment. Of course, some private-sector jobs (such as defense) are funded mainly by government so, in cases such as these, job security is not a question of who your employer is, but rather where the money is coming from.

Here again, one could look for signs of changing government interest and try to shift to an entirely different industry. For example, an engineer working in defense might try to move to the field of energy. I realize that changing industries is sometimes difficult because the worker may lack knowledge and skills relevant to the new industry.


Cars...: I know you're a proponent of keeping the old cars running as long as am I. Here's the dilemma. I drive a 1994 truck that gets lousy mileage, has close to 170K miles, and a good body (little rust) from Northern Virginia to Burtonsville, Md., every day. Last month, I had to replace the fuel pump at about $500 including the rental and towing to get it home for me to work on it. (I fix my own cars whenever possible). This week, the transmission went. Without purchasing the transmission, it's already cost me $300 in towing and a car rental. The transmission will be about $1000+. We have the money in our life happens fund to pay for the transmission without going into debt. My wife is leaning toward buying a used car now that will get better mileage, then fix the truck to use for hauling wood, bikes, etc, in the spring. I think we should just fix the truck now, and not take any new debt until our youngest is out of preschool in July (reducing expenses about $1000 a month). My wife values your opinion and has agreed to live with your decision.

Michelle Singletary: Tell your honey, for now I agree with you.

With the economy the way it is I wouldn't take on any new debt.

UNLESS the truck is so unreliable that you think even after this latest repair you will get stuck again.

But if you feel you can handle the repairs, wait until you have more room in your budget or save more to pay cash or a hefty downpayment on the next car/truck.


Executive Compensation: Here's my suggestion. To get a ballpark estimate of what is reasonable, look at other people who who have reached the very pinnacle of their professions and see what they get paid. Exclude athletes and others who will have only a few high-earning years. US President, Nobel-winning scientists, top medical researchers, and so on.

I'm sure they all make a pretty penny, as well they should. But nothing like the CEOs.

Laurence Shatkin: One factor that some observers believe has inflated CEO salaries is the prestige of having a CEO making monster bucks. The board of directors feels that their company must be important because they're paying the boss so much. Ugh!


Madison, Wis.: Thank you for considering my question. Our daughter is about to graduate from a prestigious private liberal arts college, and despite my preaching through the years to her that debt is not the way to go, she has decided she wants to go straight-away to get a master's degree at another prestigious private liberal arts college to study Spanish Culture because she wants to be a foreign service officer.

"Why should I be afraid of debt?" I replied that she should spend a year working to pay off her $20,000 undergrad debt before incurring a greater debt, if that's what she wants to do. "Oh, but I'll make more money with a master's degree when I am totally fluent in the language from living overseas for a year, so it pays for me to get my master's first." We at this point said, "We have given you our best advice, we cannot contribute anything to your advanced degree, but you will be the one responsible for this debt and you are the adult making this decision."

Both of us mentioned paying off $70,000 (once she adds up everything for grad school plus her undergrad debt) is a lot harder and longer-lasting than paying off $20,000, but she is definite that this is the best way for her to prepare to be a foreign service officer. (Plus, I have told her she should study all about America if she wants to be an FSO, not another culture.) H-E-L-P!!

Michelle Singletary: Sometimes you can't help hardheaded people.

You've done your best. You've made a good case. Now let her hang herself with all that debt.

BUT you can't bail her out if she does fall. Then she will learn to listen.


And some of you can go part-time, or to the community college or state school, or stay at home or . . . : I stayed in my hometown in my family's house and went to a state school; I still have $25k in loans.

Laurence Shatkin: This is a good occasion for me to put in a plug for apprenticeship as a route to career entry. It's not just for grease monkeys anymore! Many occupations, including some in the health-care industry, are becoming apprenticeable. Apprentices are actually paid while they're learning, and they emerge from the apprenticeship with a portable credential and, in some cases, an associate degree for the night classes they've taken.


Fed-ville: I think it's important when applying for a federal job to talk to people who are in a similar job and get their input about how to complete the application. Yes, it is onerous, and yes, there is a little bit of "club-members only" to getting hired. Having said that, a job that is posted all-sources (i.e., non-feds can apply) is usually wide open for competition and the hiring folks really are looking to get some new blood on board. My general advice is to fill out every single blank, don't assume the reviewer will do any cross-comparison or looking around for information, and don't be modest-- don't lie, but don't underestimate your own skills either. And good luck!

Laurence Shatkin: Thanks for these comments. I agree heartily, and I suggest doing the skill exercise that I mentioned earlier as a way of clarifying skills and feeling confident about them.


Michelle Singletary: I tell you, each time the hour seems to go by faster.

A big thanks to my guests today. Remember to pick up the book. Could make a great holiday gift for someone facing a layoff or looking to change careers.

And as always, thanks to all of you who participate in the chat. I appreciate your comments and questions.

Chat with you later.


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