washingtonpost.com
Color of Money Book Club

Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, December 17, 2009; 12:00 PM

Personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary hosted a live discussion on Thursday, November 19 at Noon ET with with Jodi Newbern, author of "Regifting Revival," The Color of Money Book Club selection for December.

In her column about the book, Singletary says, "Newbern has written a fantastic how-to guide that just may win over many opponents of regifting. The glossy 161-page book is part persuasion, part regift manual. She promises -- and delivers -- a "definitive source for all things regiftable."

A transcript follows.

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Michelle Singletary: Welcome to all. Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas.

This will be my last chat for 2009. It's been a great year thanks to all of you who read my columns, chats and eletters.

I know it's been tough for year for many, but keep the faith that 2010 will be better.

So let's get started.

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Syracuse, N.Y.: What a fabulous book!!! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.... very amusing and useful at the same time! Makes a great gift. Thank you Jodi. :) My question is: can I regift the dreaded label maker?????

Jodi Newbern: Is this Elaine?? If it's the one I gave you....absolutely!! Be sure to include a "(Re)Gift Receipt"--! BTW, you can also graciously regift the book--- just make sure to remove any bookmarks, crumbs, grocery receipts....and even better yet, add it along with a "Regifter Starter Kit" you make up yourself with some of your own regiftables--including the label maker!!:)

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Columbus, Ohio: Michelle,

Most financial folks recommend 3-6 months of living expenses deposited into a savings or money market account in the event that they lose their job. I'm wondering if you NEVER lose your job, you have all debt (except your house) paid off and you retire - what should the money be used for?

Michelle Singletary: This is really a good question. It's why I recommend you have an emergency fund AND what I call a life happens fund.

You save in the life happens fund of the things in life that happen -- car repairs, school stuff for the kids, home improvement, etc.

Then you don't feel so bad leaving your emergency money to just sit. And sit it must. It's your security blanket. I've never lost a job and yet I continue to keep an emergency fund.

And guess what, that fund isn't just for when you lose a job. I tapped into it when I took extended maternity leave (three times for my three kids).

We've used it for when we needed major home repairs.

So an emergency can be more than a job loss.

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Richmond, Va.: I always feel a little, well dirty and slimy, when I regift--like I am dumping my unwanted things on someone else. Yet I still do it. How do you advise people to deal with this emotional dilemma?

Jodi Newbern: ooohhhh, dirty and slimy would not be how I want to feel when giving a gift to anyone, unless I had just picked them up a lizard or something...(you could probably come up with a way to graciously regift that, too, if you thought about it...) If you regift as if you are dumping your unwanted things on someone else, then you are...just regifting. When you look at the things that you are considering regifting, do you look at them as stupid stuff you got from people that you can't stand, or "stupid stuff" you received from people that probably meant well, but didn't quite get it right--(even caring people can be clueless gift givers...that's why you should give them a copy of the book...!) Most of the things I get that are "regiftable" are because they are not right for me-- after all, someone made them, marketed them and bought them so they must be right for someone...! So just because you think they are stupid, doesn't mean they will be for someone else. And if they really are stupid (I get alot of those from my rela---well, um-- some people, and they make great "Perpetual Presents" or items to give with humor to like-minded people.

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Dupont Circle, D.C.: I recently realized that I have a few things lying around the house that could easily be regifted but I also feel so bad. Some of this stuff is just so impersonal, like "Here. I gave no thought whatsoever." At that point I feel like a card with a nice sentiment is the better gift. But I also kinda want to get rid of some of this stuff. (They are perfectly nice things, just not relevant to the receiver, you know bath sets, decorative bowl, that sort of thing.) Thoughts?

Jodi Newbern: Giving our "unneeded items" that are lying around as gifts with no thought whatsoever is just regifting. The kind of regifting that anyone can do, and that's why people can have such a negative feeling about it, especially if they've been a "victim" of that type of regifting. In that case, a card with a nice sentiment would be better...! But if you look at it a different way----

Anyone can simply regift the stuff they don't want, but "gracious regifters" are those who take regifting to a classier and more personal level, and seriously strive to make a "regiftable" gift a suitable item to give as a present to a person they care about. The way that you regift (or present the present!) is more important than why you are regifting in the first place.

There are no bad regifts, there are only bad regifters.

Hopefully one day, everyone will recognize the difference.

In the meantime, don't feel bad about "finding new homes for your dumb stuff"-- this is the explanation of my 10 year old--!!! If you can afford ($$ and time) to go out and personally shop for meaningful gifts for everyone that you want to give a gift to, wonderful!! Then why would you want to regift anyway?? "Recycle your unwanted gift waste" in other ways. (You may want to be a "gracious regift getter" in that case...!) BTW, in my book I have quite a few ways to make perfectly good "impersonal things" into perfectly acceptable regifts that you can give anyone "graciously", and without regrets!! (thanks Michelle!)

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Question: Can you please have a wonderful Christmas?

Your articles are a gift to me. Thank you and many blessings on you and your family!

Michelle Singletary: Oh, how very lovely.

Thank you so much. It makes all the long nights writing and worrying about what I will write about worth it!

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Frustrated in D.C.: Dear Michelle, I do appreciate your advice. However, you say to pay off all your significant debt before making any major purchases, such as a house. That means I'll be 50 (right now I'm 30) before I pay off my student loans and can buy a house! There goes my motivation to pay off my debt! What to do? My budget is already trimmed and I'm not saving any money for the future.

Michelle Singletary: I know what I'm proposing is tough. And it's different.

But it can be done and before you turn 50. Just recently I had an award ceremony for the financial ministry I direct at my church. During the program, one participant, whose husband is an educator, testified that they had gotten rid of $60,000 in student loan debt in TWO YEARS. This was debt the husband thought he would take to his grave. They weren't earning boatloads of money.

How did they do it?

The wife took all her bonuses and helped apply it to the debt. They cut their expenses -- like skipping taking vacations. They participated in the 21-day financial fast I developed (in this you don't spend money on anything that is not a necessity). They stop using credit cards.

Two years and $60,000.

Many of us cried.

What I'm asking you do to is move into your home as debt-free as possible. Get rid of that student loan bondage and when you get that house it will be so wonderful.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Shouldn't it be part of the economic stimulus plan to discourage regifting?

Michelle Singletary: How about making it part of the plan to not contribute more to landfills?

How about making it part of the plan to save when you might spend?

I do see where you are going, but people have to be concerned about their own economic stimulus plan.

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Hilton Head Island, S.C.: Do you mention on the tag that you re re-gifting?

Jodi Newbern: There's no need to bring up the fact that you are giving someone a "regift", unless you want to. If you are truly regifting graciously, they probably wouldn't even know or care. You're not trying to deceive them...or are you?? :)

The only way someone would know it from the tag (if you didn't tell them) would be if you included the original tag-- or crossed something off....! (don't do that!!)

Michelle Singletary: I totally agree with Jodi.

Honestly, I don't know why people think they have to tell people a gift is a regift.

When you give a store-bought gift to you confess where you got it, how much you spent or that you got it dirt cheap?

No.

It should not matter to the receiver who or where the gift came from.

If, as we proclaim, it's the thought that counts, keep the information about the gift to a minimum.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: In past years our family (around two dozen) has brought gifts for a "gifting game." We draw lots and choose a wrapped gift, or steal one that is already chosen. The person who gets their gift stolen can select another unopened, or steal, etc. The only rules are (1) no stealbacks, and (2) after a gift is stolen twice it is "frozen."

In the past we've always brought new gifts, but this year we've decided to bring "gently used" gifts, and supply a small verse on the package to give a hint (and make the game more fun). This is a great activity after the holiday meal, and I thought I'd share it with everybody else.

Jodi Newbern: I love this!!!! There are lots of variations to this "game", and I'm with you, it's alot more fun when you bring "regiftables". We play a version where the gifts are "anonymous" until the very end, and then we all try to guess who brought what. That is especially hilarious when someone brings something totally out of character for them...like when our friend who is a ministers wife brought an "adult toy box" that she had actually been given!!

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Frustrated in DC: You are going to be 50 anyway!!! So 50 with a brand new house and little debt or 50 with a house and lots of debt.

Michelle Singletary: Amen!

Lots of folks with homes right now are in trouble because they couldn't handle the mortgage and student loan debt and credit card debt and car debt...and....

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Toledo, Ohio: As one that has regifted, Ive always wondered if my regifting of a personalized shirt to my old high school friend, Howard, was in any dis-tasteful. I should add we did at the time have the same initials.

Jodi Newbern: Distasteful?? Absolutely not! Lucky for you you didn't have to come up with a clever reason to justify the different initials...that can be tricky.... but regifting of an old shirt may be gross if it contains any stains, such as upchucked Irish whiskey...

Michelle Singletary: Hey Jodi, they had the same initials so I think that was very clever rather than distasteful.

Really, what is wrong with giving what you don't need?

I know. We still think something has to be from the store or new or whatever.

Hey, you could be my kids. Until they got older, I used to dig in their toy bin and find things they hadn't played with much, wrap it up and put it under the tree. They never knew and squealed just the same.

And I rejoiced all the way to the computer to transfer money into their college funds!

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Mtn City, Tenn.:: Several of my friends and I have a gift swap before Christmas where we all bring unwanted gifts and swap them for other people's unwanted gifts to either regift or keep for ourselves. This lessens the chance that a gift will inadvertently go back to the original giver. One woman's trash is another's treasure!

Jodi Newbern: Great!! "Regift Exchanges", "White Elephants", "Sneaky Santa's" and all of these types of parties and get-togethers can be so much fun, and the themes are only limited by the creativity and humor of the people involved! Whatever you call them, they serve several purposes, and they're not bad for anyone so what could possibly be wrong?! (by the way, I love Michelle's term "regifting without regrets"!!)

washingtonpost.com: Today's e-letter: Regifting Revival

Michelle Singletary: Yup, I regift with no regrets all the time.

But I will caution that there are some people you just can't do this with. They are the ones that measure your love by a particular present or where it was purchased (Saks, etc.).

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Odenton, Md.: I regift all the time, I love the challenge of remembering who gave me what so that they don't get it back. And it has saved me money this year in particular (laid off in April). The best is that a friend of mine from out of state regifts and I caught her a few Christmas' ago when she regifted a book her sister had given her because her sister wrote in it! One of these years, I'm going to write in it and send it back...Just not sure when!

Michelle Singletary: LOL.

But was it a good cookbook?

I love cookbooks. So I would just laugh and use it anyway.

Sounds like you have the right spirit for this.

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Washington, D.C.: I wrote a few weeks ago about my imminent unemployment and thank you so much for your help!

I know this isn't related to your book club, but hope that you can help me.

I've budgeted, have savings and am ok- except I am extremely worried about COBRA costs- which could put me under.

I know Obama is considering extending the COBRA relief for employees who are laid off into 2010. Is there a reputable source/Web site where I could go to check the progress/status of this?

Michelle Singletary: First, you are so welcome.

And keep checking www.washingtonpost.com.

The House just passed a bill that includes an extension for the Cobra subsidy. Waiting on the Senate now.

I'm praying it happens before the year ends because based on my e-mail there are a lot of people in your boat.

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!!: Hi, Just wanted to say THANKS. Every time I get the shopping urge I think of Michelle and what she would say about wasting my hard-earned cash on stuff I don't need when I have debt to pay off. We just paid off 1 car loan, $1700 left on a SINGLE credit card (down from $5000 on three cards) and getting close to $0 on my husband's car loan. It can be done so don't give up!!!!

Michelle Singletary: WOW.

Good for you.

And I'm told I sit on a lot of people's shoulders whispering, "Is it a need or is it a want?"

Just my mission, my calling, to get more people where you are which is just steps away to financial freedom.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: In response to the person who wondered why they would keep a reserve fund if they had no debt and the house was paid for, I can assure you that this fund brings peace of mind. There can be lots of unexpected events in life, and it's nice to know that those that require some extra money aren't going to cause extra stress.

Michelle Singletary: That's exactly right.

At times, before I had a life happens fund, I used the money to pay cash for my husband to finish his MBA.

We've used it to help relatives in need.

Think of it as your peace.

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Virginia Beach, Va.: Jodi, Have you ever received a "regift" that you gave someone at a previous Christmas? If so, how did you "graciously" accept it? Sandra

Jodi Newbern: Sandra, personally I've never received a gift back from the person that I originally gave it to-- at least not on purpose! (That would be a "Perpetual Present") If I ever did, how I reacted would depend on who it was that gave it to me. If I truly thought they had the purest of intentions, I would probably not say anything if I thought it might make them feel bad, but if they had a sense of humor, I might be able to make a joke about it--- besides I could always regift it myself....!!

Michelle Singletary: Totally love Jodi's answer.

The thing is in life and money, keep a good sense of humor.

I know I do.

And passing it on to my children. One Christmas I was regifting a stuffed animal to my toddler son (it had been up in his closet forever and he never played with it). My oldest daughter caught me and threatened to tell her brother.

It was actually a funny, funny scene. I think I promised to take her for ice cream if she didn't rat me out.

Humor.

It works.

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Madison, Wis.: My husband and I are committed regifters and have been for several years. We feel that if we receive a gift that we will not use, there is no shame in passing it along to someone who might be able to use it. We do put some thought into who we regift it to.

Jodi Newbern: Then you can proudly call yourselves "Gracious Regifters!!!" And that is not a term to be taken lightly, by the way. Soon people all over will aspire to be labeled as such! Congratulations!!

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Lancaster, Pa.: My wife used to fold up one of my shirts I already owned and give it to me for Christmas. She was right: I could never tell the difference.

Jodi Newbern: Too funny!! My mom still wraps up a shirt that she gave my dad about 50 years ago for Christmas. Over the years it has come and gone out of style, size...! But it's a tradition, like with your wife. And look how fun of a memory it is!! (If you couldn't tell the difference, then she might be the "original" Regifting Goddess.... I bow to her!!)

Jodi Newbern: By the way, that shirt gift was what I call a "Perpetual Present". I just love those, and they are almost always part of great stories!!!

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Cincinnati: Just a hint for anyone re-gifting books: be sure to check the first few pages and endpapers to make sure the original giver hasn't inscribed the book with a personal message to the recipient! Several years ago my then boss gave me a book, and it wasn't until I contributed it to a friend's yard sale that we discovered that the author had signed it, and had included a personal note to the original purchaser, who was not my boss, but a friend of hers (I recognized the name). So I was actually the 3d person to receive the book! It netted me .50 in the yard sale, personal inscription and all.

Michelle Singletary: Or if you are a personal finance columnist for The Washington Post who gets boxes and boxes of free books, take out the press releases (hee, hee).

Although now I can't give personal finance books, even ones I buy because people KNOW I get free books and just assume I'm regifting.

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Landover, Md.: In addition to re-gifting, consider donations. Just donate money to the altar fund at your church in their honor. You get the tax write-off, they get their name mentioned in the bulletin, and if they complain, they look churlish.

I make a point of doing this with my atheist family members. They always send a 'thank you' card.

Michelle Singletary: Good idea.

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? : I have a 20-something niece who incurred a significant hospital bill a couple of years ago (no health insurance). Her uncle loaned her $$ to pay it after the creditors started calling her (she works but has no savings and likes to buy things). She made a couple of payments back to him but then stopped. Since then she's bought a new car (nicer than his!!) and is planning a not-cheap vacation. Should I butt out? Say something? Knock some sense into her? The uncle knew he probably would never get $$ back (and thankfully does not need it) so he's written it off. But I am embarrassed for her and feel I should say something to her or her parents.

Michelle Singletary: Really interesting question.

If you have a good relationship with the niece, yes I would say something. Not in an accusing tone but something like:

You: So niece, I've notice you've made a lot of purchases and you are planning a nice vacation. That might not look so nice to the uncle you owe money to. What do you think? If it were me I would want to pay back (uncle's name) because he was so generous to help me out.

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Beaverton, Ore.: What about regifting something where I don't have the original box (hey, it was Trash Day, and I was in a hurry), but where it's obvious that the thing SHOULD be in an original box -- can this be graciously regifted?

-Owner of one unwanted but brand-new clock radio-

Jodi Newbern: Hmmmm... trashed the original box...maybe that fresh mountain air got to you...but Alas! Have no fear! "The box got damaged in shipment" may work, or if it's something the gift getter might actually want, you could box it up is something that they don't have or could use --at least yet -- like a box that previously contained adult diapers or something. Better yet, if there is something they really want but are not going to get, like a cool new electronic gadget... see if you can find an empty box and put it in that!! (you can seriously go to Best Buy or Radio Shack and ask for boxes!)

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Emergency Fund: Hi Michelle, I started a regular savings account and a life happens fund this year. Next week I have to dip into the life happens fund to pay for some car repairs. Thanks to your advice, I have it, instead of having to charge it on my credit card. I also have a savings account for the first time ever and I like watching it grow. My financial resolution for next year is to halve my credit card debt...I can do it!

Michelle Singletary: Yes you can do it.

You are already doing it.

Good for you.

Hey to help in the new year you might want to get my new book, "The Power to Prosper: 21 Days to Financial Freedom" (Zondervan).

In the book, I challenge people to go on a 21-day financial fast in which you don't spend on anything that is not a necessity. And you can't use credit or debit cards.

Taking this 21-day challenge could take you the rest of the way.

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Gift swapping: The only downfall is that you usually end up with another item you don't need or want and have to find a place for until the swap next year.

Jodi Newbern: Sure, maybe, but it's still fun and you can always give it to someone else or regift it yourself, or donate it to charity... BTW, if you give someone something that you received or bought-- it is NOT a regift UNLESS you give it to someone AS A GIFT!

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Regift: I re-gift all the time. I have a drawer in my room that I put all of the stuff with, and a sticky note as to who gave it to me. That way, I make sure that the great chunky necklace and earrings that my cousin gave me (beautiful set, just not my style) would go to the cool sister-in-law on the other side of the family, as opposed to the cool sister-in-law that might be at the same event with the cousin!

Michelle Singletary: In Jodi's book she has a guide to how to keep track of the gifts and who gave them to you.

I have a closet with such presents. They really do come in handy when your kid is invited to another birthday party.

Often I find things in the closet that my kids never played with. For example, people are always giving my son trucks. He rather have books. But he has friends who love trucks.

Problem solved.

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Baltimore, Md.: Hello, Can you explain the 21 day fast? It sounds like a great way to start the new year after all the holiday spending. Thanks.

Michelle Singletary: Would love to.

For 21 days you shut down all consuming that isn't necessary. So you can't go to the movies or eat out or pay for a play or buy any clothes, etc. Basically I'm trying to reset you financially.

You also put away all credit cards (some people who have done it have frozen their cards). And for many/most that also means no using debit cards, which can get you in trouble too.

So for 21 days you use cash (for gas, groceries) and stop shopping.

And yes, women that means no getting your hair and nails did (although many participants cheap on this part).

I'm not advising you give up shopping or even using plastic forever. I'm just trying to break the habit of always buying even when you don't need stuff.

Every day of the fast I have an assignment for you from saving to spending to budgeting. And giving!

People who have done the fast, even those who are good with their money, find they save because they never realized how much they mindlessly spent.

Get the book. I lay out the whole plan.

"The Power to Prosper."

http://www.amazon.com/Power-Prosper-Days-Financial-Freedom/dp/0310320380

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Martin from Ohio: I happen to be the one that gave that guy the shirt in Toledo, and now am appalled to hear/read of this re-gifting. What advise would you give to me (if I was truly appalled)?

Jodi Newbern: Gee, Martin, I would advise you to "let it go"...If your friend was truly a "gracious regifter" (and the jury may still be out on that one...!) he would have taken a picture of himself wearing (or using, holding, pointing to, etc. whatever the gift was) the shirt before he regifted it, and gave it to you with his hearty "thanks" (and/or a written note of appreciation) so that you would think that he truly appreciated it... Good advice for everyone!! (hopefully no pictures resurface many years later...)

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Bowie, Md.: Michelle -- I used to read your column and listen to you on the radio and think 'this chick is beyond frugal.' But now I must say, I get it! I've just recently paid off all my credit card debt in a year ( $10,000), started an emergency fund that is almost fully funded, and looking forward to a future of building wealth and not debt. Yes, I had to go without on a few occasions (e.g., who needs bi-weekly pedicures in the winter when no one sees your toes?), but I started to value the little things in life more than the big, lavish things that would get me in debt. Thanks for singing the same tune for so many years, because I finally got it. Have a wonderful (and debt-free) holiday season!

Michelle Singletary: Sniff, sniff.

Now don't make me cry before Christmas!

Finally is better than never.

Congrats on finally getting it.

Now I challenge you to pass on what you've learned. Help change the financial legacy in your family, or among your friends or in your church or community.

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??: You donate money to your church in your athiest family members' name? How is that a gift for them? At least give to a charity they support! I'm glad they're gracious enough to send you a thank you card...

Michelle Singletary: I missed the atheist part of the question. Typing too fast.

I actually agree with the poster that you might want to give to a charity they would support.

Not because they are atheist but because you want the gift to be something they appreciate.

I don't think you should use a gift as a way to preach to someone.

But it does say something wonderful about the family or friends who appreciated the thought by sending a thank you card because churches do serve the community (if they are doing it right) and that is a gift for all of us.

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DC: "Landover" could learn something about tact from her athiest relatives and friends. Trust me: you don't want to turn gift-giving occasions into a passive-aggressive war. That's how you end up getting donations in your name made to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Jodi Newbern: Oh, oh...that's not a legit charity...???

Seriously though, sometimes I think that "gift giving" of any kind can become a little skewed from the real purpose we give gifts in the first place. Or are supposed to, anyway. I also think that the word "gift" takes on such a generic meaning at times that lots of things that should not be considered "gifts" are termed as such. There are many times that "gifts" may be given for reasons that are far from the generous and loving reasons they should be....

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Holiday Shakedown: I wish re-gifting was my problem. What do I do about all the people who line up expecting extra Christmas tips from me for doing their job? What about work--where so far I've been subtly pressured into spending almost $100 on three different events/purposes? (I need to keep my job.) For instance, shouldn't the Post be in charge of rewarding their delivery people for jobs well done? I already tip every time I pay, but now I just got my tip envelope from my carrier. When did I become part of the compensation process beyond paying my bill (which seems to get larger and larger for a smaller and smaller paper)? I feel that each year I end up spending more money on people I barely have a personal connection to.

Michelle Singletary: You don't have to tip if you don't want to.

I agree there is a lot of pressure to tip for various service people.

But it is your choice.

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Washington, D.C.: This is the second year that my friends and I are doing a book swap for Christmas. We each take a book that we already own and adore, wrap it up and then the others select a book by size and if they like the paper or not. After everyone's opened their presents, exchanges can be made.

I love this idea because you're not spending any money and since we all love and collect books, it means a lot to give up one that's loved.

Jodi Newbern: Terrific idea!! See, it's not so hard (or so awkward, tacky, cheesy, tasteless, cheap,etc.) as some people still think!

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Baltimore, Md.: Hi Michelle,

I noticed you mentioned your new book. Where and when is it available. Thanks.

Michelle Singletary: The book is in bookstores Jan. 4, but you can order it online now.

http://www.amazon.com/Power-Prosper-Days-Financial-Freedom/dp/0310320380

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: There's a story today about how people are paying with cash and not credit for their holiday purchases. I'm doing the same -- the reason? Macy's, Lord & Taylor, Kohls, Sears and the bunch have all jacked up their interest rates in recent months -- some up to 29.9% (didn't that used to be called usery?). Credit card rates have also been reset to higher levels (and I have great credit!). Why aren't news media including this information in their stories? Who wants to pay this kind of juice just to buy Junior a new toy?

Michelle Singletary: I believe we have been reporting people are using cash more and scaling back.

I certainly write about the need to do that.

It's a nice turn of things, really. I think you can give and still stay within good limits.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Re Landover donating to a church for atheist friends -- that doesn't seem to be very much in the spirit of a thoughtful gift. Charitable donations are a great idea, but why be so hostile? Donate to a charity you know your relative would like to give money to. Leave the passive aggressiveness for a different time of year that isn't dedicated to celebrating someone who was accepting of different people.

Michelle Singletary: Jodi and I covered this, but here's another point on the matter.

So we all agree.

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Apollo Beach, Fla.: We have a $50 limit on gifts in our family. I come across really nice deals all year long ("Free gift with purchase" type of stuff). My question if you get it for free or at a discount should it count towards the limit? I ask because I'm always accused of going past the limit. How do you politely explain you got a $50 item for $5?

Jodi Newbern: That is a really good question. That comes up a lot, especially in families. This would be an example of where it would probably be advisable (if it became an issue-- in my family it's pretty much assumed it was a lot less than retail...!!) to tell them that you got a really good deal, or else how you got it in the first place. Once again, it is the reason for giving not the gift itself that really matters. I think the "problem" arises when others feel like they are being "out done" or perhaps feel bad that the gift they gave were so much less by comparison.

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loversville: Help! Things with my boyfriend and I have gotten very serious. He told me that 9 years ago he filed Ch 13 (he'd been in an accident and unable to work for several years, thus creating debt). Now he spends what he can afford and balanced his check book monthly. He has one credit card with a $500 limit, no debt, rents, owns his car. I have stellar credit, pay mortgage on my condo, own my car. What do I need to know if we get married? Is that even a good idea from a financial point of view? BTW, we're both mid-40s. I have retirement funds, he has $0. Are there any books/resources you can point us to?

Michelle Singletary: It actually sounds like your boyfriend is trying to be responsible.

So at this point, if you think you two are headed for marriage, try going thru a premarital course with a strong financial component.

This will help you sort thu all your issues and concerns.

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White elephant swap: Our family did this every year for as long as I can remember. Someone put in a VHS rewinder that I got stuck with. I put it in the next year and someone else got it. Sure enough it reappeared for a third time the next year. It bacame a family joke for many years after and we had great fun trying to hide it in various packages because nobody wanted to get stuck with it.

Jodi Newbern: See how much fun "Perpetual Presents" can be???!! Many times they are more fun and memorable than the most expensive of gifts!

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Desperate, Va.: Hi Michelle! I love your chats and your advice....and I am in desperate need of it today.

We (husband, myself, and 1 year old) are owners of a home that is worth less than the mortgage (about 30K at this point). FWIW, We have owned the home two years and we are both in our late 20's. Good news? We have been contributing 17% to 401k/retirement savings for several years and have about 4 months in an emergency fund. We are not behind on our mortgage payments, have no debt other than our mortgage (30 year, fixed)....Bad news? We are still really tight financially. We've stopped contributing to a savings fund and we're really struggling on where else to cut back due to increased day care costs and my husband's non-elective 20% pay cut at work (thankfully he wasn't laid off!). And of course the mortgage is creeping up due to increased taxes. We can't afford to have someone stay at home to cut day care - won't be able to make ends meet. We're just trying to figure out what the future holds, as we're both also miserable in our jobs and would love to spend more time with family and (hopefully) more children. We considered a few options - renting our home for not quite 100% of the mortgage but we would live rent free in my parent's older home (that is practically vacant). Or trying to stick it out and hopefully sell in another year or two? Its very frustrating...and I know that many Americans are in similar if not worse positions. We deeply regret purchasing this home and if we could go back would have chosen a more simple lifestyle that allows us more freedom to save and enjoy the more important things in life. Any advice as we seriously consider our next move? Many thanks.

Michelle Singletary: First, what your house is worth is not important unless you plan on moving or if you need to move because you can't afford the mortgage.

But that doesn't seem to be your issue.

You need a good budget. Not clear if you have one.

For now with daycare cost, you may want to cut back on that 17 percent for retirement to give yourself some breathing room.

And I bet there are other places you can cut too.

If you have four months in an emergency fund and your jobs are fairly stable (even if you don't like them) start stockpiling cash in the life happens fund.

Aim for maybe $1,000 to $2,000, which will help with the unplanned for expenses.

But again if your mortgage is reasonable stop worrying about what it's worth. Could you rent for far less than you are paying for the home?

If not, stay put. Don't jump ship with the jobs until you get things financial stable.

Hang in there. I think you are stressing yourself out over things you really can control.

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Baltimore, Md.: Hey, Michelle!

I'd be happy to receive a re-gifted finance book from you. I know you would pass along the good ones...

Michelle Singletary: So Baltimore, (my home town), send me an e-mail and I'll send you a book.

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Refinancing my house in Atlanta: I am considering a streamline refi to lower my interest rate.It would be lowered 1% and cost me nothing. Home sales in my neigbhorhood are at a standstill except for a few foreclosures that were sold at 30% -50% of what they were worth? What's holding me back? I've heard if I get an inspection, my house may be worth more than what my mortgage company thinks. Am I being silly? I do admit to being afraid of change.

Should I do it?

Michelle Singletary: Let's see. A refinance that will cut your mortgage payments and that won't cost you anything?

Hmm.

Do you just like worrying for the sake of worrying?

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St. Louis, Mo.: Hi Michelle, I believe my money philosophies are very similar to yours...some one recently pointed out to me that I create an "illusion of scarcity." I believe there is a lot of truth to that. I have very specific savings goal that I make every month and some months run tighter than others. The months things are tighter...I tighten the belt and spend less in other areas and still reach my savings goals. Do you create an illusion of scarcity?

Michelle Singletary: I love, love that phrase.

I sure do.

It's like the old saying, "Plan for the worst and expect the best."

It's having faith without fear. But faith doesn't mean you don't cut back, get rid of debt and live below your means.

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Bethesda, Md.: Michelle - I make $53,000 a year. I have a car payment of about $320, rent is $850 and I have $7950 over 3 credit cards, and a $5200 loan with monthly payments of about $190 (I used this loan to pay off two credits cards and closed them.)

I have $4500 in a money market account and after all my loan payments, rent, utilities etc., I can put away about $500 into savings each month.

Should I try to use some of the money in my money market to pay off a couple credit cards and then start saving again? Or is it better to make small payments and take my time paying off the credit cards? I am 24..if that has any meaning.

Please help!

Michelle Singletary: If you are secure in your job I would stop putting money in saving and aggressively pay off ALL that debt.

Or you could put $100 in savings and use that $400 plus whatever else you can squeak out of your budget to pay off the debts.

Do it now. Do it in the New Year.

And, please know you can do it.

It will take time. So don't get frustrated.

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loversville: I guess what I meant was - will my credit score get lowered if we, as a married couple, buy things together or have a joint credit card?

What courses might you recommend or how do I find a good course?

thanks - yeah, I think he's pretty responsible. Just unfortunate circumstances.

Michelle Singletary: You don't have combined credit scores when you get married. There isn't a joint credit score.

You keep your good credit scores. It keeps whatever credit scores he has.

Now if you have joint accounts (credit card, car loans, home) how you pay on those accounts get added to EACH of your credit files, lowering or benefiting however you handle those accounts.

As far a counseling check with your church, community groups, community college and online.

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Michelle Singletary: Well, again the time has come for me to sign off.

It's been such a wonderful year. And I appreciate all the testimonies from people who I've helped get their financial lives straight. But I'm just the messenger. You did all the hard work. So before the year is out pat yourself on the back. Take time to appreciate your efforts and say to yourself, "Job well done."

And if you wish you had that kind of testimony, stop making promises and ACT.

Make 2010 the year you get your act together financially.

I truly believe in the program I've laid out in my new book, "The Power to Prosper."

I've worked on this for years with the ministry at my church. It's a fast that works. People have gotten out of debt. They have saved for the first time in their lives. Marriages have been healed.

There are lots of scriptures to guide you. Even if you aren't a believer, it's a program that can help put you on the path to prosperity. It's just basic sound advice in a manageable 21-day program to start you on your way.

My goal has always been to help people feel what it's like not to be so stressed about their financial life.

So go have a wonderful holiday. I wish and pray for so much for all of you.

See you in the new year.

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