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Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Personal Finance Columnist
Thursday, December 4, 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.

This Story

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: Good afternoon all. I hope despite all the continued bad economic news you are holding up.

I am. Concerned but keeping the faith.

So let's get started.

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Arlington, Va.: I was online last night looking at some financial guidance websites, and I was floored to find that some of them want you to pay a yearly fee to get access to the content! (nice website, btw).

I need to straighten up my financial files, and I remember in one of your chats you mentioned how long to keep your financial paperwork. Can you repost it? Or point me in the right direction? I have about 10 years of saved stuff that could probably hit the shredder. Thanks!

Michelle Singletary: Good question. I can't so quickly find the column where I wrote about that but go to www.bankrate.com.

In the search field type in saved documents

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Chesterfield Township, Mich.: I am embarrassed to send this email.

My husband (46) and I (50) live in the Metro Detroit area and I lost my job in April 2008 (automotive supplier.) Between us we have $135,000 dollars in credit card debt. We bought our home in 2000 for $260,000 and currently have a mortgage of $160,000, with 14 years remaining on the loan.

I need advice for how to get out of this debt. The only monies we have are $52,000 I rolled over from a 401K into an IRA account. I appreciate any advice you may have.

Thank you.

Michelle Singletary: Oh you poor dear. I'm so sorry for your situation.

I don't need to fuss at you for racking up all that credit card debt. I know you've probably beat yourself up enough already.

So here's what I would do:

-- Contact ALL the credit card companies. Be honest about your situation and asked to be transferred to the dept that handles workouts.

-- If you don't get anywhere with the company go to www.debtadvice.org. It's a credit counseling site that will direct you to an agency in your area. They may be able to help you get on a debt repayment plan in which you make just one payment. But it will take years to dig yourself out.

-- Do what you can to bring in any income. Take whatever job you can get. Two jobs if you have to. Just to make sure you have enough to hang onto your home and to make for the absolute things you need -- food, transportation, lights, etc.

-- Don't use any of the retirement money. By the time you cash out you won't net nearly enough to make up for the penalties you will incur.

Finally, take every day one day at a time. If you have to choose between food and paying a credit card bill, eat.

But you have to stop using credit. Don't even use it to buy food, etc. As I said take whatever job you can to cover the basics but don't pile on more debt.

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washingtonpost.com: What financial records to keep, how long to keep them (Bankrate, Sept. 13, 2005)

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Atlanta, Ga.: What do you think about a website like mint.com (that takes all your financial data and puts it together)? Do you think it's secure?

Michelle Singletary: They say they are. Me I'm paranoid. I think the sites have some good information but I would rather keep my data on my own computer.

You don't need any fancy software, website. Just open up a word document and start listing income and expenses.

It's nice to have all the charts and stuff but if all you need is a basic handle on what's going on with your budget simplicity is the way to go.

Now if you want more of the bells and such I like Quicken and use that.

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Anonymous: Michelle,

Bravo for the excellent article. I've been so disturbed by what happened at Wal-Mart. What is wrong with our society? We are so consumed by material goods, which seems to have gotten so much worse in the last decade when people think they can buy anything they want even if they can't afford it. The incident made me step back and look at my own actions and try to spend more this Christmas giving to charity.

washingtonpost.com: Attention, Shoppers: Where's Your Humanity? (Post, Dec. 4)

Michelle Singletary: Thank you and thank you.

Thanks for the kind words about the column and thanks for not just reading the column but doing what you can do make a difference!

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Augusta, Ga.: My son is a U.S. Marine at Twentynine Palms, California. He has recently returned from Iraq. They had a marine ball last month and my son spent all his cash on his girlfriend and helping his buddies get their girlfriends to the dance. He is 20 and just figured out that he has no cash to come home with. I work for Denny's and just get by. Do you know of any groups that might help him get a ticket home for the holidays? I thought it's worth a try. Thanks.

Michelle Singletary: Okay, what I'm going to say is harsh. And Lord knows I appreciate what those in the military have done and will do for our country. But mama, you need to teach that young man a lesson. Don't you send him a dime to come home.

Between now and Christmas talk to him about setting side part of his pay to come home. If you can't save enough well then maybe next time he will learn that you need to save and not go over what you can afford.

I understand the desire to be generous but he's got to learn to take care of the basics first, like making sure he has enough money saved to go home and see his mama.

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Colorado Springs, Colo.: In February, I am moving to a new job in DC and want to buy a house in Northern Virginia. I know there's a lot of inventory right now. Is it going to be easier or harder to buy a house with about $140K for a down payment and great credit.

Michelle Singletary: Oh I would say easier!

Just find a really good real estate agent and I would also take your time. Why not rent for a year and get used to the area to make sure you end up in just the right place.

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Credit Score: How do I interpret my credit score? I pulled my score (for a nominal fee of course), but the question is now what. Is it an indicator of how well I live up to my past financial commitments? Is it an indicator of how well I would live up to new/future financial commitments? Or is it just a (successful) marketing ploy to get money for individuals and companies?

Michelle Singletary: It's a way for lenders to determine how much of a risk you are. It's like a SAT for how well you pay your bills and how much debt you keep around.

The better your credit score (700 or better) the more likely you will get the best credit deals for a car, home, credit card.

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Tucson, Ariz.: Michelle, Loved your column on the shoppers who trampled a man to death for stuff they don't need. I've cut back like most people on spending because I need to save more. Reading the paper everyday it appears if we don't buy stuff, the economy tanks. But on the other hand, isn't it better for our economy if we all had big savings accounts?

Michelle Singletary: For now worry about your own economy in your own home.

Don't spend a penny for the holiday if:

-- you have ANY credit card debt that you are carrying over month to money

-- you don't have at a minimum at least one months of living expenses saved up

-- you are struggling to pay your bills -- mortgage, car note, cable, etc.

-- you don't have a college fund set up for the kids, even with just $50 in it

-- you have other debt you are sweating (i.e. student loan debt

If you don't fit any of those bullet points then spend what you can afford with cash you've saved.

We all should be concerned about the economy at large but it would be idiotic to spend in the name of helping the economy if your own personal finances are not in order.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Nolo Press has a really nice book called Get It Together that helps you organize your records. I know you can just use a Word doc, but for $24 I am glad to have a list that reminds me of all the things to include.

Get it from the library if you must, but it really helps to have a memory jogger.

Michelle Singletary: I don't mind recommending that. There are others like it as well.

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Washington, DC: Thank you for your article about the trampled Wal-Mart worker. What a sad and tragic situation. It has really made me so angry with people who would do such a thing.

My prayers go out to his family and a call for those that caused this horrible incident to search their conscience and their souls.

Michelle Singletary: Thanks.

And prayer does work.

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A corporation that was thinking about its workers and that man's family, and not just about its bottom line, would have closed the store at least for the rest of the day.: I would love to see a store be the leader and announce they're no longer using the old Black Friday gimmicks. No loss leaders, no opening at 4 a.m., no camping out. Just good prices with good service. The stores feed the fire. If one would have the nerve to say no, others could follow.

Michelle Singletary: Amen!

You know my 13-year-old had asked me and her dad if she could go to one of those sales. We both just stared at her like she was crazy.

I like my sleep more than a sale.

I'm with you on this.

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Reston, Va.: Michelle, my husband and his older sister are at odds. He is now power of attorney for his ailing and rapidly declining 89-year old father. In reviewing his father's detailed financial records, he discovered that his father wrote checks totaling over $100,000 in three years to his sister for a new tech business. The check register says 'loans', but there is no documentation anywhere, nor promissory notes. When he asked his sister, she said it was all gifts and got very defensive. She had prepared the father's tax returns before this year. Well, my husband is extremely hurt that his father never told him about this funding, but also, he knows that gift tax implications are involved. It's way too much money for gifts! So, does he expose his father and his sister to tax penalties by amending his father's returns since 2005? Does he stay quiet and assume the IRS will find out eventually? He also feels that since the register indicates loans, that the money should be deducted from the residual estate, so she would receive less than half in the future when an estate would be eventually settled. She disagrees and said she deserved the money because she was starting a business, not remodeling, and it has no bearing on the original idea to split remaining assets when their dad died. Ideas to solve the impasse?

Michelle Singletary: Wow. Talk about family drama.

I'll answer you by asking, going forward after your father-in-law's death do you want peace or justice?

If you choose peace, let it go. The dad if in his right mind had every right to give or loan that money to the sister. If he really wanted it back he would have the paperwork to prove it was a loan. He either didn't want to do that or just didn't bother. Either way, you can't prove it now.

As for the tax implications, dad gave give away lots more than that before hitting the ceiling of paying a gift tax. You just have to deduct it from his lifetime cap.

Go to this link at IRS to read more about the gift tax

http://www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0,,id=107815,00.html

Also read IRS Publication 950, Introduction to Estate and Gift Taxes. A person can give up to $1,000,000 in gifts that exceed the annual limit, total, in a lifetime, before he or she starts owing the gift tax.

Your husband can amend the tax returns but that shouldn't be a problem. It is the father who pays the tax not the sister.

If your husband wants justice he can make a stink and try to collect the money using the check notation of a loan.

Me I would choose peace.

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Maryland: "I would love to see a store be the leader and announce they're no longer using the old Black Friday gimmicks."

I've got one for you. Costco. No loss leaders. Members got a coupon book mailed to them the week before, with some deals. All deals were good for 3 days - Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We went Friday night around 5, and it was busy, but not terrible. Seems a better way to do things.

Michelle Singletary: Thanks.

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Military finances: To Marine mom: it's not only okay to help your Marine learn to deal with his finances, but it's important. Military personal who get into serious financial troubles can lose their security clearance. It's better he learn this from you now than from his command later.

Michelle Singletary: Thanks.

It's something I've been pointing out in the year-long series on the military families I've been helping.

In fact, mom if you're still online go to the biz section for the Post and read the series and then e-mail it to your son.

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For Augusta: Maybe the Marine's buddies could pitch in and help him get home for the holidays, since he helped them and their dates.

Michelle Singletary: I see where you are going.

But I wouldn't do that. He gave them money and it wouldn't be nice to turn around and say, now help me.

He needs a hard lesson here.

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I pulled my score (for a nominal fee of course): Not of course! Under federal law you are entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each of the reporting companies once every 12 months. Go to Free annual credit report

Michelle Singletary: You are right and you are wrong.

You are right that everyone is entitled to a free credit report from the three major credit bureaus every 12 months.

The only official site is www.annualcreditreport.com (IT IS THE ONLY FREE ONE)

You are wrong that you are entitled to your credit score for free. The poster was right in saying "of course."

You have to pay for your credit scores.

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Atlanta, Ga.: I recently found out my husband opened a secret savings account to deposit personal money. Having personal money to spend is not the issue as we both agreed that each person needs to have their own allowance to spend as they like. I like knowing I can spend my money on hobbies or girls night out while he spends his money on golf. The issue I have is this; he never told me he opened this account or wanted to until after I discovered it. Am I wrong to be upset about this because it makes me believe he could have other hidden accounts?

Thanks

Need Advice

Michelle Singletary: You should be concerned. I would be.

So talk. Calmly. Find out what's going on if he will tell you.

If he won't, you may need couples counseling. And I would start looking at all the finances, including credit card bills.

Don't panic yet. But be on alert.

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Crofton, Md.: My husband and I are on the verge of declaring bankruptcy, losing our house and moving cross country to stay with my in-laws, who fortunately are well off and have a large home -- in a small town in Eastern Colorado! So our lives are going to change a lot.

I think I know your answer to this question, but we are planning to give our children (7, 5, and 4) a blow-out Christmas as a reminder of when times were better. Since we're going to lose it all anyway, why not give them one last happy memory before it all goes downhill?

Michelle Singletary: Okay, I won't blast you right off. You're hurting and I know that.

BUT, please consider what you are thinking and how it will look to the family taking you in.

What you are considering doing is so irresponsible and sends such a wrong message to your children.

Besides you will be spending money that doesn't belong to you. You will be spending money that belongs to the creditors you owe. Think about that. Behind all those bills are companies and working for those companies are people just like you who depend on customers paying their bills so they get paid.

It is immoral for you to blow off putting that money toward your debts or saving it for basic life expenses to buy Christmas gifts for kids who probably don't need a thing you will buy.

Be an adult and do the right thing here. Read my column last Sunday about having a talk with your children if you can't afford to buy them things this year.

Show some integrity in the mist of your financial storm.

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Military finances: The military itself offers all sorts of programs to soldiers/airman/marines on just this thing! Its a huge concern in the military and there are numerous programs available. All the marine has to do is ask his commanding officer about it OR go to this website to start:

Military Homefront

I agree with your advice to his mom. Hard as it may be, let him learn his lesson (and send him cookies!)

Michelle Singletary: Thanks for the link. I just love it when you guys help me out.

This makes this forum so interactive and useful to all.

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Washington, DC: Three months ago, I started a habit of making an extra payment on my student loans every time you do a chat. It has been so rewarding and in a weird way fun to celebrate "Michelle Day" by lightening my load a little. I encourage the other chatters to have their own regular "Michelle Day" activities. Thanks for helping us all with you wisdom and for hosting a place where anonymity allows us to share our troubles and our triumphs and encourage each other to do a bit better each day.

Michelle Singletary: You are going to make me cry.

Love the Michelle Day idea!

If others decide to take on this challenge let me know. I may do a column on it.

And I appreciate your words of encouragement. Last chat I got yet another nasty note that I didn't post from someone complaining this forum, my advice was too simple. That all I should do is post a blank page on the Post site and say save, don't get into debt, etc.

Like that's all it takes to motivate people, to change lives, to encourage, chide, push, care.

If this was so simple then no one would be in financial trouble, would they?

And no I will not ever say debt is a tool that can be used wisely. Debt equals bondage ALWAYS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Debt has to be used I know that. But I will continue my mission until I have no more breath to breathe to get people to understand that debt can be a death trap. That you should think long and hard before taking it on for anything including a home or college. If you view it as bad you will take on as little as possible even if the means a smaller house or you go to a community college or live at home or God forbid work a year or two and save for it.

I will continue to show people who are new to budgeting how to do it.

My advice is not for the stupid (as this person suggests).

Even those who are good with their money can be better. I can be better. I never stop learning.

So thank you for the Michelle Day. You made my day!

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Washington, DC: Any suggestions on college saving vehicles? Do you use a 529? Suggestions on books or websites would be great. Thanks.

Michelle Singletary: I am still contributing to my kids 529 plans. Got three in Maryland.

Good website www.savingforcolege.com

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For Crofton:: Wow. That is so irresponsible that 'wow' is really the only word to describe it.

A Christmas they'll never forget? Give each of your children the gift of a savings account that they are in charge of, and a small deposit to start them off. Give each of them lessons in budgeting, living with in their means, and saving up for things they want instead of asking someone else (the child's version of credit). If they already have savings accounts, buy them bonds.

This Christmas, don't buy them fish - buy them nets. They will thank you in 20 years.

Michelle Singletary: Seems a lot of you got up in arms about Crofton.

I appreciate the honesty and it's why I didn't cuss the person out.

But heed our words mom or dad. Be a good example to your kids.

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Peace or Justice: Michelle,

Can I just say how much I loved your answer to that chatter in an awful family situation? It's amazing what letting go can do, especially in the face of grief and loss. The anger and outrage and need to make something right is so strong, but it will never ever be right. I just really liked your answer to that one.

Michelle Singletary: Thank you.

I meant it. Something's being right can cause so much more grief, especially when money is involved.

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"Since we're going to lose it all anyway, why not give them one last happy memory before it all goes downhill?": Oh my god, please, for the sake of your children, reread this sentence you just wrote. Your kids are about to have their lives uprooted, which is traumatic enough. Please do not teach them that money is a prerequisite to happiness. You can have a perfectly happy Xmas without a "blowout," and you certainly aren't doomed to misery without money. You know this. Now live it, for your kids.

Michelle Singletary: Another plea I hope you hear.

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re: Crofton, Md. verge of bankruptcy: I'd also suggest this reader think about whether the "blow out Christmas" is really for the kids or for the parents. The children are young; they won't remember this years from now. What they will remember is how mom and dad talked with them about money and taught them to be smart and frugal.

A big blow out Christmas is not going to alleviate the guilt the reader may be feeling over the bankruptcy. And, how can spending money you don't have feel good in the long run? If you know you won't be paying it back, how is it any different than going into a store and simply stealing the items?

Michelle Singletary: What a nice way to put it.

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Chicago, Ill.: Michelle, great article on the Wal-Mart incident. As someone who has worked in event security and general security for quite a while I have to say that there is no excuse for any event to have a situation like the one that occurred at Long Island. I don't understand why Wal-Mart didn't spend the money to have extra security on hand for crowd control or why they weren't willing to pay the local police to provide crowd control. It's very dangerous to have uncontrolled crowds like that. And when these events happen, it's almost always due to a lack of security and crowd control or an attempt to use untrained staff or not enough staff.

Michelle Singletary: I totally agree.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Michelle,

Love your chats. I have a question regarding what I need to pay off first. I currently have $15,000 in student at a rate of 5% and a car loan for $12,000 with a 10% interest rate. The car was my mother's but I have now taken over the car and the payment. So the car loan is not in my name. I want to pay off the car loan due to the high interest rate but I need to pay off the student loan to increase my credit score. Which one would you recommend I tackle first. Help!!

Michelle Singletary: Pay off the car loan first.

First because it has the lower balance but also because I believe unless you refinanced it, the loan is still in your mother's name. It would be nice to release her completely from that obligation as fast as possible.

And really who cares about your credit score right now. You don't need to take on more debt with $15,000 in student loans and a $10,000 car loan.

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Washington, DC: Similarly to the brother who just discovered his sister had received a lot of money from his father, my aunt begged, borrowed, stole, and coerced money from her elderly mother. It went so far that there was no money left for my grandmother to live on. She now lives with my mother.

This experience has left me with the lesson that any time a sibling is assisting or taking over any accounting tasks for a parent, there ought to be an annual accounting to the other siblings (or close family members). This should be standard practice!! I know this will not stop all wrongdoing, but I think it might bring some actions to light sooner rather than later.

Michelle Singletary: Good idea.

Although man that opens the door for a lot of second guessing.

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Virginia: Hey Michelle, just wanted to share a success story on holiday spending. My husband and I started putting money aside into one of those ING accounts months ago. Last weekend we went shopping (with a budget) and it just felt so nice to know we had the cash to shop and we weren't putting ourselves in the hole.

Michelle Singletary: Good for you.

Thanks for sharing.

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Cheverly, Md.: Not a question, just a comment. I come from a blue collar background and am very careful with my money. My husband and I should be safe, as we have government jobs, decent savings and what should in time be good pensions, though even that may be a reach given the way things are going.

But both of us come from the Cleveland area, where dear friends and relatives are hurting so bad. They've worked for years at tedious jobs and now have either been laid off or had their hours, pensions and/or health care cut. On the one hand it seems appalling that the government is going to make money available so that more people can go deeper into debt, but if it helps my hurting relatives by enabling people to buy more appliances, I can't say I'm against it.

Michelle Singletary: I appreciate your compassion.

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College Park, Md.: Your column says it all about spending. We think we can have manageable debt and controllable spending. It is not controlled: people will take the risk of hurting (or killing) someone, or being hurt, as less than the risk of not spending money in a way that they have reinforced to by retailers and credit card companies. Who do we think marks up prices only to "slash" them so that you feel like you're getting a deal? As if these companies are taking our money at a loss? It's called Black Friday because making huge profits puts companies into the black ink in their accounting ledgers, even if consumers go into the red.

Michelle Singletary: You said it.

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Arlington, Va.: Michelle, I recently discovered your chats and really appreciate the advice you provide. I am in my late 30s and my husband and I are divorcing. We have about $110K in joint IRAs and mutual funds and I have about $50K in my 401K. I also have about $5,000 in credit card debt which I have been paying down. I have no emergency fund. What is the best way to accumulate an emergency fund while still paying down my credit cards? Should I consider suspending contributions to my 401K temporarily until I build up a 6 month emergency fund? Thank you.

Michelle Singletary: I would definitely cut back on the retirement savings -- at least cut back to a match if there is one.

And always again look at your budget to see where you can cut to help put money toward an emergency fund and debt.

Also if you have pretty secure job you don't have to pile up all the three to six months living expenses now. Stop at one month and put the rest toward the debt to get rid of it faster.

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Maryland: Its me, the poster from you last chat. The first poster, saying recession proof jobs belong to gob'ment workers. I guess I was right, I just was informed YESTERDAY my job at the small bank I work for is being eliminated! In other words spread out among other employees. I really need help ... even from other posters. I was offered a much lower position-entry level (the position I started out in 5 years ago) with my current pay but as an hourly employee NOT salary. Not a set schedule & I would have to work weekends, a different location, & none of the perks I have now. Email, private phone line, work independent etc., come & go as needed. I'm getting to old to go back to a job I started at 5 years ago. Its like being punched in the stomach. I have been in my current job 3 years. There are 9 people who came to my department after me and they will be there when I leave. My employer states it has nothing to do with ME but the position. I'm not buying it. My instinct is to simply walk away with my dignity. But, my wallet could use the income. HELP!

Michelle Singletary: I'm so, so sorry. It's a story I'm hearing just about every week.

For now, keep a job. With the ability to set your own hours you could look for something permanent while still having some income, especially if you get to keep benefits.

I know you are mad, hurt, angry. Grieve but keep getting paid something until you can get something better.

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New Jersey: Managing savings. Michelle, if I remember correctly, you are an advocate of a two-tiered savings strategy -- emergency savings, and "life happens" savings. I actually have (or aspire to have) 3 tiers, the third being planned purchases. (My big one now is a furnace. I know I am likely to need one in the next few years) But don't the three get jumbled together UNTIL you have emergency savings in place? I am trying for a year's expenses in emergency savings, have about 8 months, but it's hard to keep them separate mentally or physically. Last year I replaced my windows, which I had been saving for, but it took some of my emergency savings too.

Basically, I feel I'm just shoveling money into savings (and feeling grim about the return I'm getting), until I hit that magic year's number and can think of additional ways to categorize them.

Michelle Singletary: I understand your thinking but I find the two work just fine.

I've tried this for a number of years not just for myself but with others in a ministry I run.

The thing is build up the emergency fund and then stop. If you want a year that's fine. But then stop.

Then put all the extra funds into the life happens fund. That can be for everything else planned or unforeseen: car repairs, new deck, furnace, vacation, extra school trips for kids, etc.

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Reston, Va.: Hi Michelle. I was hoping that you could help me understand something. Part of the reason that the nation is experiencing this credit crunch and economic downturn is because the Fed kept interest rates so low in an effort to stimulate the economy. The result was skyrocketing housing prices and super low interest rates. People used their homes as ATMs, or assumed far more mortgage debt than they could reasonably afford. This gave us record high foreclosures, short sales, and toxic mortgage assets. Venerable financial institutions suffered significantly.

So now the Treasury is suggesting forcing reduced 30-year fixed mortgages (capping at 4.5%) on banks in an effort to get us out of this mess? Seems like we're not learning from history. Am I off base?

(Of course, if they offered a 30-year fixed refi at 4%, I'd be first in line. But I would refinance at my current mortgage balance ... my house isn't an ATM!)

Michelle Singletary: You are not too far off base.

But the difference is at least that the new mortgages would be fixed.

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Washington, DC: Just curious after the earlier question - Do you think that all of your readers know the difference between a credit report (all of the information a bureau has in a listing) and a credit score (the rating you get based on the information in your credit report)?

(I hope the tone doesn't sound snarky, just meant to be helpful)

Michelle Singletary: You are being helpful and many people don't know the difference, which is why I pointed it out.

Thanks.

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: First let me start off by saying I LOVE your column. I'm a 25-year-old single female living in Upper Marlboro, Md. I make $60k/year, own my own home and I'm drowning in debt. I have about $30k in credit card debt (including a 13k consolidation loan). Making several payments to different vendors is becoming overwhelming and I feel like if I can get all my debt under one umbrella, I can tackle it better. However, with the recent credit crunch, it is hard for me to get a consolidation loan right now. Can you give me some advice on the best way to tackle this debt? Should I tackle the smallest balance first and pay minimum payments on the rest until I clear each one, or should I tackle the biggest debt first? My student loans will become due at the end of next year and I want to try to get a hold on this before those kick in. Please help!

Michelle Singletary: Pay the debts with the lowest balances first. Make minimum on all others. When that debt is done, roll that money to the next debt on the list.

If it at some point gets too overwhelming go to www.debtadvice.org.

Also PUT THOSE CREDIT CARDS AWAY. NO MORE CREDIT FOR ANYTHING.

And you don't need another consolidation loan. The first didn't help.

So stop using debt to try and solve a debt problem.

Hunker down and do the time. Slowing pay off the debt.

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Re:Maryland: Its me, the poster from you last chat. The first poster, saying recession proof jobs belong to gob'ment workers. : Thanks Michelle, while swallowing my pride I will work on getting that gob'ment job.

Michelle Singletary: I'm not really saying the only job to get is a government job.

There are plenty of good jobs out there. Hard to find these days but not impossible.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Michelle, good article on Santa, but it's easier said than done, especially when many of your children's friends, relatives and classmates are going to be receiving gifts you cannot afford. Last year my four year old said, after seeing her Christmas gifts, "I guess I wasn't as good as" some of her friends who got more. As Catholics, we've been taught that the harder life is on earth, the better off you'll be in heaven; but that's an awfully hard concept to get across to your children (and to us adults as well, I might add).

washingtonpost.com: Hard Times Are Hitting Santa, Too (Post, Nov. 30)

Michelle Singletary: But what's the alternative. To always give in to peer pressure and go broke.

Look, kids will make you feel guilty. Do you think my kids haven's said similar things to me and my husband.

Every once in awhile (rare but it happens) I feel guilty.

But then I'm the adult I know that I love my kids and provide well for them. You know your little darling 4-year-old is a good kid. Tell her so after she makes that kind of statement.

It's not true. You know that.

Their job is to get us to spend wildly on what they "want."

It's in the kid handbook they get at birth.

Our parent handbook says we have to say "no" to train them up to be good stewards over their money.

So take the heat now. Get used to the, "I'm going to put you in a nursing home looks."

It worked for me with my grandmother. I vowed many times to put her in a nursing home when I didn't get want I wanted.

But later when I had my own bills to pay and I understood what she was doing denying me I loved her more. I took care of her and I would have never put her in nursing home (if she didn't need it for health reason).

If you love your children right. If you encourage them right. If you provide a drama-free home, they will get it later and thank you for it.

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Richmond, Va.: Work can get to you, but whatever you do, DON'T give up those health care benefits! When I slipped and broke my elbow, the bill from the hospital was $45,000! Then 6 months of physical therapy. What if ... ?

Michelle Singletary: Good point.

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Do you think that all of your readers know the difference between a credit report (all of the information a bureau has in a listing) and a credit score (the rating you get based on the information in your credit report)? : I assumed that my credit report includes my credit score. Does it?

Michelle Singletary: No it does not unless you pay for it.

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Michelle Singletary: Folks I'm way over. You guys would take me to closing time.

I'm so sorry if I didn't get to your question. I do every week now answer leftover questions in my letter. So please sign up for it.

Thanks again and see you in two weeks.

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