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Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Personal Finance Columnist
Thursday, January 7, 2010; 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 was online to offer her advice and answer questions about her new book, "The Power to Prosper: 21 Days to Financial Freedom," on Thursday, January 7 at 12 p.m. ET.

A transcript follows.

Download budget templates and journal activities from "The Power to Prosper."

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: Happy New Year!

I'm so excited to be back. I hope you all had a wonderful holiday.

So let's get started.

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Baltimore, Md.: Happy New Year, Ms. Singletary. I will be done paying off my car loan in two months (Happy Dance), but I would like to keep saving that money. Should I open a new account to save the money in? I am afraid if it's in my regular savings I will spend it on nonsense. Need advice please. Thanks.

Michelle Singletary: Great question to kick off 2010.

Definitely don't keep that money in your regular savings account. If you don't have an account for your emergency money or your life happens fund, set one up.

I have been making a car payment to myself for YEARS and I haven't had a car note in like 10 years.

It's a great idea I learned from my grandmother. Once she paid off her car, she kept putting that same amount of money away. That way she has funds for car repairs or to make a huge downpayment when she needed another car.

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21 Days oh my!!!: We have ended 2009 and are ok. I thought about doing the 21 days and decided against it. After the more down than up of 2008 and 2009, we stopped shopping, except for the grocery store. We paid extra on our car loan, increased our savings, and reduced spending overall. Visa did not know who we were except for repairs to the car that were paid in full. We ate up the extra food in the pantry or gave it to charity. I started cooking on the weekends so that food was already cooked for the work week. Yes I can make bread.

However for 2010, my resolutions are no more late fees from the library ....that should save me close to $150 (I am not kidding.)

Increase my retirement savings (oh my I hate to see my new net pay.)

Give to our favorite charities every month.

Give $20 to the college students in my family when I see them. (library late fees money put to good use)

So I am thinking instead of a 21 day fast it will really be a 21 days of giving.

washingtonpost.com: A 21-Day financial fast will improve your money management

Michelle Singletary: So for those in the dark, I've written a new book, "The Power to Prosper." The post ran an excerpt (link attached to this question).

I challenge people to go on a 21-day financial fast.

Lots of people can't fathom doing this.

In this case, I understand why you think you don't "need" it. But if you read the book, you will see the fast isn't just about curtailing your spending or giving up your credit card.

Every day of the fast I talk about a different financial issue. For example, on Day 3, I ask you to spend some time thinking about giving.

So, you see, the fast is about more than shopping or plastic. Every day there is an assignment. In one chapter, I talk about teaching your kids to be better money managers.

I still do the fast, sometimes twice a year. And I still learn something each and every time.

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Boston: Hi Michelle,

I'm a youngin', living at home with my parents. Recently, an opportunity has arisen to move in with a good college friend of mine at a nice place in the city that he leases with another person. Logistically, it's the same distance from work and reasonably close to "home".

Without getting into any other details beyond that, the bottom line financial factor: naturally I'd be paying rent (more than the pittance that my parents ask of me), utilities, buying food, etc. in addition to expenses that I'm already used to like a car payment, the last of my student loans, gas, etc.

My question is this: After I calculate what all of these things would cost me on a regular basis, do you have any recommendation for what's reasonable in terms of how much take-home pay it should eat up? The rent by itself, for example, would be about 35%. The financials aren't the only factor in whether I decide to take them up the offer or not, but they are the factor I am unsure of since I don't have a lot of experience in this area.

Other info: I'm not living on the edge in terms of a cushion. Being at home for so long has meant that if I had zero income tomorrow, I could cover bills, etc. for a good year from savings before having to look at cashing in bonds, CDs, etc.

Thanks for any advice if you have it, I hope I gave enough information.

Michelle Singletary: Sounds like you have really done your homework. If your rent is 35 percent of your NET pay (not gross) every month, you are within the right range for housing.

And if you don't have any debt and savings, perhaps it is time to leave home.

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Rockville, Md.: Please give some ideas on how to fight the holiday urge to give a gift back to coworkers who unexpectedly give something to you. I don't want to appear rude, but when you are trying to keep spending under control, you don't always want to reciprocate.

Michelle Singletary: You know a heart-felt thank you means a lot, really.

I think many of us have to learn to be better receivers. You received a gift. Send a thank you note. Period.

If you are trying to save, don't feel guilty that someone gave to you. It's okay not to give back.

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Fast-ville: I am looking forward to the fast because I think it will be very useful to be forced to pay attention to what I have been spending my money on. I am fairly financially comfortable and have no debt, and I think that actually contributes to me spending money-- $10 or $20 here and there just doesn't seem like much. And yet I'm drowning in 'stuff' that I don't need!

My question is how to balance spending and saving. As noted, I am financially comfortable (good job, contribute max to retirement, give to charity, paid off student loan debt, have emergency and life happens fund). I worry about the future and have a hard time spending money on stuff I might actually enjoy (like travel). How/where do I find balance between saving as much as possible for the future but still allowing myself to live in/enjoy the present? Should I set a particular % saving goal, and feel free to spend what's left? Should I set a "this costs money" goal and save a particular amount until I can pay for it? I am a good steward of my money (minus all that piddly stuff I buy and don't need!) but feel at times that I am not really allowing myself to enjoy things I like that cost money.

Michelle Singletary: Really good question and something I struggle with myself.

I love to save. Hate to spend -- even on things I've saved for.

But the thing is, if you've done all the right things -- paid off debt, emergency fund, life happens fund, retirement savings, give to charity -- give yourself permission to enjoy your hard work!

Take that vacation. I do. Every year for two weeks. Nice resort, too.

Took me years to not feel guilty about this, but I don't now. Interestingly that's a whole chapter in the new book. About enjoying your blessings.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm curious as to why you picked 21 days instead of 30 days. Is it because people are more likely to commit to 21 than 30 (a month seems like too much for most people)? Coincidentally, I had committed to stop eating out for 30 days a day before I read your article, so it was very timely!

Michelle Singletary: I based the fast on the Daniel fast in scriptures.

I've done this fast through my church (the Daniel fast) and noticed that 21 days really made a difference. It's just enough to drive you crazy but not too long to make you realize you need a change or that you can focus on something other than yourself.

So I tried it with people in my ministry. And it worked. Over and over again.

30 is good. 21 was just my inspiration.

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Anonymous: Hi Michelle, I have noticed my husband and I are very careful and motivated to save on paydays...but in between it's really hard to keep focused. I'm not saying that we go and splurge on things, just that it is hard to "keep our eyes on the prize" during daily life. How do you keep yourself motivated? We are doing well, and hopefully will do better, but sometimes it is just hard to wait for that day the car is paid, or we have X dollars in savings.

Michelle Singletary: Sometimes for folks who see some wasting of money in between paydays, I suggest the envelope method. That's when you put the cash in an envelope and spend from that. It gives you a visual clue that you are spending real money.

But you know we all go over. I do. When I'm traveling a lot or writing a book or tied up with a lot of ministry work, our family gets take out more than we should. So my husband and I often look at the budget and make note of this and try to correct it the next month.

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Youngin' from Boston: It is indeed 35% of net pay. Thanks for the advice, I appreciate it!

Michelle Singletary: Great. I think you are in good shape. You've crunched the numbers so if you feel you can comfortably do this, still save and stay out of debt, enjoy being away from mama and daddy.

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Washington, D.C.: Michelle,

When you qualify something as NET pay (rather than gross) do you include money you automatically divert to a 401k in the amount of your net take home pay, or no? This is a big factor for me, as I save 15% off the top for retirement out of every paycheck. Adding that back into my "net" pay would be a big increase in net (after taxes and insurance) pay.

Michelle Singletary: I do. Some don't.

I do net minus taxes and tithes. That's the net spendable income.

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Bear, Del.: Hey Michelle,

I love reading your weekly emails and your advice on money. I have found that it is rooted in spiritual sense as well as common (or Big Mama's sense).

The problem I have with money is that I know better when I'm sitting in front of my budget or bank statement but that doesn't translate when I'm in the store looking at a great book or shirt.

Anything you can suggest for that?

Thanks, Lauren

Michelle Singletary: Take the 21 day challenge.

You have to learn to discipline yourself. And I know that's hard.

But you can do it. Plan your shopping trips better. For example, generally I don't shop for entertainment.

I pick a day when I need to get stuff. I go that day. I go to the mall just a few times a year.

Treat it as a chore and that will go a long way to help you stick to your budget.

And when you go, take a list of what you need to get. Sounds simple but it really works.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Michelle, How do you broach the topic of frugality with in-laws? I host my in-laws for dinner once a week so that they can spend time with their son (my husband) and our grandson. It's casual but I cook or order in take-out. Now that we're expecting twins, I need to make some serious cuts in our budget. The financial cost of these weekly dinners are adding up (we can tackle the emotional cost another time). How do I let them know that we can't afford this anymore? Thanks for your thoughts.

Michelle Singletary: Tell them. Just like you did now.

Just say, we would love to continue the weekly meals but it's going to be a bit much with the twins coming.

Then suggest you rotate the dinners. They host. You host. Or make it a monthly meal.

Or how about they come over for dessert and coffee/tea. Or just come over on a Sat. afternoon to sit and play and talk.

Be honest. Share your concerns and see if you can come up with some ideas that will allow them to continue visiting but without the extra work or costs.

By now with all those wonderful meals and time certainly you should be able to have this conversation.

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Kensington, Md.: I am inspired to read "The Power to Prosper" and plan to purchase it this afternoon. I have already downloaded the templates.

Question: My spouse is the chef in our house and purchases most of the food. In my opinion, he spends far too much on food which I have raised with him. During the 21-day fast, how would you recommend I handle the food purchases that I don't feel are needed?

Thanks,

Karen

Michelle Singletary: Budget. Budget. Budget.

You may need to do the envelope system. Read the excerpt because the couple I profile had this exact same problem.

So you know what? I suggested she do the shoppping. He was banned from grocery shopping. They put in an envelope what they were going to spend for the month. They made a list. She stuck to it and after years of this issue they are through it.

It's so much better now.

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Waldorf, Md.: Hi Michelle,

Thanks for your chats...this financial fast is HARD. I am trying it but having much difficulty. It takes much preparation and willpower. It's worse than dieting:)

Michelle Singletary: Yup. Very hard.

But I think a lot of people are trying it without the guidance from the book. Here's where getting the book and reading a chapter a day makes it easier.

There are testimonies throughout of people who will inspire you to continue. There are assignments that make you think about what you are doing. There is a lot of encouragement from me.

Look, this isn't just about pushing my book. I'm doing fine financially. I wrote this book because I wanted to share a system that I found was working for a lot of people in the ministry I direct at my church.

It's like a scientist that has discovered a cure for something. You want to share it with people.

Plus I have the history with many of you. Every week -- twice a week -- I try my best to give you good advice on being a better money manager. This is my calling. I volunteer many, many hours to help in the community. I volunteer at the Jessup facility in Maryland to help inmates getting out manage their funds better.

I work with real people. I feel for what so many of you are going through. That is why I wrote this book.

For you.

In fact, we (Zondervan) and myself decided to publish it in paperback rather than hardback to keep the cost of the book down. We believe in this mission.

So stay tough. At the end of this journey you will be the better for it.

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how to fight the holiday urge to give a gift back to coworkers who unexpectedly give something to you: Maybe you could whip up batches of a few favorite homemade cookie recipes to share?

Michelle Singletary: I understand this suggestion. And it's not a bad one.

But again, we have to stop this tit for tat mentality.

Just be grateful for the gift. Let the person know and move on. If it's in your budget next year and you want to give because you want to give, give.

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To the Person Who Should Spend on Vacation: For years, I made little money. In the past 5 years both my husband and I have started making much more, but we still live basically as we did before. But we each have one hobby that we love, so we each put money aside to enjoy that hobby. This helps keep us in check. So go ahead and enjoy that vacation!

Michelle Singletary: Right you are.

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Minneapolis, MN: Hi Michelle,

I enjoy your column in the Post; I'm your student and use your advice on a daily basis. I've a question for you. Is it a good idea to keep all your money in one bank? I keep checking, savings and CD all in one bank. I'm concern these days community banks going under.

Your advice is appreciated; continue preaching.

Michelle Singletary: Good question.

As long as you are within the FDIC insurance limits, it's okay to keep your money at one institution.

However, I like having options. I belong to a credit union which often offer better rates on loans (when I got car loans).

Also, I like keeping my long-term money away -- WAY AWAY -- from the accounts I use for paying bills, etc. Just another strategy to keep me from spending it.

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Medford, Mass.: Can you recommend an iPhone app for budgeting and tracking spending?

Thank you!

Michelle Singletary: I haven't looked into that yet. Guess I should.

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Chicago: We are trying to decide between refinancing our mortgage to a cheaper payment or just paying the thing off (to get the cheapest payment of all--none!). We have about 8 years left on a 15 year mortgage. At this point, we don't get much tax benefit from the mortgage interest deduction. The current payment is about $1700--manageable but we feel like, given the current economy and future prospects, we want to hoard our cash. We could refinance to a 30 year fixed rate mortgage and lower our payment to about $800 per month. The current balance is about $145K. Is it better to go to a smaller payment to let us save more, or dip into savings, pay the darn thing off and be done with it? Thanks for your thoughts!

Michelle Singletary: Do the math.

Once you factor on the cost of refinancing and essentially resetting your mortgage, I bet you will find it's not worth it.

You have 8 years left, could you recoup your costs to refinance in that time?

And if you reset to 30, will you make HUGE extra payments to finish paying if off in 8 years?

If it were me and I was that close to paying off my mortgage, I would keep what I have.

In just EIGHT years you will be rid of the biggest bondage ever.

Just think about that.

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re: Take a list of what you need: Your suggestion to take a list of what you need is how we do our grocery shopping as well. I make a list before leaving the house, clip it to the grocery cart and then mark off the items as we load them in the cart.

That makes taking my kids shopping with me a much more relaxing outing as well. My kids have learned by now that if it's not on the list, it won't be bought.

Michelle Singletary: Totally do the same for all shopping trips.

And when I don't make a list, I always spend more.

It also makes the trip shorter because you aren't window or aisle shopping.

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Permanent money diet: Michelle: I love the idea of the fast and intend to do it soon. I was laid off earlier in the year and went on a kind of money diet: was brutal with my budget, and took stock of what I had been spending on. The upshot: I'm employed now, building back my savings, and getting back into my charitable giving, but find myself still on a spending diet, asking do I need it, or do I just want it, before I open my wallet. I figure the fast will help me re-commit to proving to myself that I can be a good steward of my money. To skeptics out there: it is an excellent idea!

Michelle Singletary: Just think if you could live well on the less you had, now how much more can you have with more income.

It's why I typically take my raises and bank them and continue living on my old salary. Since I'm used to the old salary, why inflate my expenses?

That's how you can pay cash for car, save more for your kids' college fund, give to your church or charity...etc.

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Arlington, Va.: Thanks for doing the chat!

My husband and I are expecting our first baby in June. We are so, so excited!

However, we are not financially prepared. I am the main income provider as my husband not only makes less money, but also has not been able to get much work over the last year.

I will be taking three months' maternity leave, but it will be unpaid with the exception of two weeks (vacation time).

While I make a good income, we have a lot of bills. And only $1200 in savings.

Obviously now is the time to buckle down and budget and get money into our savings account. We need to save enough for three months' worth of rent plus the health insurance cost to my employer. Then an extra few grand for incidentals.

Whew! That's a lot of money to us. Do you have any tips for how we can get there? I plan to cut our grocery bill in half, give a weekly cash "payout" to each of us as spending money (something small, like $35.)

Thanks for any guidance!

Michelle Singletary: Child, you need this fast and like yesterday.

In fact, you might need to stay on it until the baby comes.

Trust me, no income during this time is going to be rough. I did it. I took six months off, most of it without an income for each of my three kids.

Beans and rice, as Dave Ramsey likes to say.

Please, please start the fast and get this right. Otherwise, when you come off that leave you will be deep in debt.

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iPhone Apps: I use Spend 2.24. I don't recall if it was free or 1.99. I have 3 budgets - food, gasoline and save. If I have spare money in gas, I can use it for food, and the save category is to work as a buffer or for entertainment, with the weekly surplus to go in the bank. I've been pleased with it, overall.

Michelle Singletary: Thanks for the tip.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I have said "no," to a close family member who asked for $20K.

This person is in debt over their head. They would not tell me what the $20K was for or how it was part of a plan to help them out long term.

Over the weekend, this person cussed me out and told me it was "obvious I didn't give a s**t about" them.

I know you believe in helping out family. I am grateful for my good job and my great financial situation. I truly feel giving this person the money would be throwing good money after bad.

I really hate the tension and the inability to have a civil conversation.

I'd appreciate any words of wisdom you might want to share.

Michelle Singletary: You did the right thing.

And they cussed you out?

Please, don't make me lose my religion.

I totally believe in helping relatives out. But in a way that will help them in the long run. You were perfectly right to ask what the $20,000 would be used for (REALLY 20K?).

You were right to ask for a plan.

You were right.

Hang tough. Don't cuss back (although you have that right too).

Just tell the person when they mature and are really ready to get their finances together you will help by helping them budget, come up with a debt payoff plan, etc.

Hey I have an idea. Get them the book :)

Of course you might get cussed out again.

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"If it's not on the list it won't be bought": Just one problem with that. I was shopping with my brother before Christmas, one thing I noticed him saying, over and over: "you gotta treat yourself once in a while." It does take discipline, self discipline is the hardest.

And just one tip, my local library allows me to renew my books on line. I renew once, then take the books back as soon as possible. I also note the date on my Outlook calendar as a reminder. No more late fines.

Michelle Singletary: Good tips on the library thing. I had that problem a little with borrowing for my kids. They would lose the book in the house. Put a stop to that by getting a bag in the house and putting it on their bedroom door nob.

Anyway, you can treat yourself, as long as yourself is on the list and in the budget.

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Innate Trait?: Do you think some people have an innate ability to discern how much money is an appropriate amount to spend on an item and others don't? I recently was looking for slippers and couldn't believe the prices I was seeing. Finally found some perfect ones at Target for $8. But I have friends who feel spending $1,000 for a purse is fine. I'd rather throw up.

Michelle Singletary: Totally.

In fact, I set my own price limits for stuff. I won't spend more than x for certain things. I don't care what others are doing.

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Va.: Michelle, maybe you cover this in your new book - how do you actually prosper? We have all the bases covered and money in the bank, the only debt is the mortgage. How do we get to the next step, building wealth? Saving alone is not enough. We bought an investment property, have money invested in the market, and have our own company. What else? Do more of the same? Pay off the mortgage? Thanks.

Michelle Singletary: Do more of the same. Pay off the mortgage.

And maybe, just maybe, change your definition or prospering.

I have prospered. I have a great, fine, wonderful, loving, kind -- did i mention fine-- husband. Great kids. Get on my last nerve but good. Great friends. Good job that I love. Wonderful church family (hey FBCG), loving sisters, brothers, etc.

I manage my money so I don't fear when the phone rings.

I have several Scramble games.

My own teeth.

I am rich.

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Washington, D.C.: As a person who will randomly toss things into a grocery cart, when I go grocery shopping with a short list I take a handbasket instead of the cart. There's only so much that can go in it, so it helps me keep me on the straight(er) and narrow(er) path.

Michelle Singletary: I like this idea. I often still grab the big basket when I know I'm only getting a few things. Having that larger basket does make me add some things to my list (sometimes I write extras on the list while I'm in the store).

Good idea.

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Washington, D.C.: To the reader: Medford, Mass.: Can you recommend an iPhone app for budgeting and tracking spending?

Hi Michelle. I'm a long-time reader, first time chat participant. I've just started to let your message of "avoid the plastic" sink into my brain, and I came across the Mint app for my iPhone. You can register online at Mint.com & set up your accounts. (I've vetted all the reviews, security measures they take, etc., and I feel comfortable letting this system track my spending for free versus paying for Quicken or spending time putting receipts into a spreadsheet I developed myself - which didn't really work...) I signed up in September and my jaw dropped after the first month of tracking...

It also allows you to set budgets for each spending category, and will give you the green/yellow/red light on a daily basis regarding how much you're spending in each category.

I highly suggest you try it out. It's much better than sitting at your computer trying to decipher 20-day old receipts...

Michelle Singletary: Thanks.

And thanks for joining for the first time.

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Boston: Does that 35% of net pay for rent include utilities? Or are those other housing expenses considered separate?

Michelle Singletary: Just housing.

If you have a house it would include insurance, condo fee, etc.

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Expecting baby again: Well, we won't be in debt, because we don't have any open/active credit cards! We don't "believe" in credit anymore. The debt we do have is credit debt from before our marriage and school loans.

I will look into the fast. Thanks!

Michelle Singletary: I just want you to enjoy the baby without the financial stress.

So just keep that in mind as inspiration to really cut back before your leave.

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I think many of us have to learn to be better receivers. You received a gift. Send a thank you note. Period: For the chatter regarding gifting back. I gave a simple jar of homemade jam to a supervisor. She gave me a heart-felt thank you note, and it made me feel absolutely wonderful. And it also finally made me realize that it's not what you spend, but really, how personalized the gift is, and that small things can be cherished.

Michelle Singletary: Thank you.

This is what I'm saying.

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Dupont Circle, D.C.: I do something just like the fast every Lent, making sure that I don't purchase anything that I don't really need. It's actually quite the test since Lent falls during season transitions and I find myself itching for a new warm weather wardrobe and some new running shoes and what have you. But it definitely saves me a lot of money and reminds me to do without.

Michelle Singletary: Fast is much like that.

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Take a list of what you need - one step further: I make my list on an envelope, inside the envelope I put my coupons.

Michelle Singletary: Good tip too.

Just watch that you aren't still buying with coupons more than you would. Some of those coupons are so tempting, but would you really use all that you need to buy to get the savings?

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Salisbury, Md.: What percentage of your income should you spend on your monthly expenses? What percentage of my income should be my house note, care note etc.

Michelle Singletary: It's in the book. Or check out the free budget templates on the site. You will find suggested percentages for major expense areas.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Do you recommend that people should tithe from their unemployment check with money, when they aren't making ends meet?

Michelle Singletary: If you believe in tithing, yes you tithe from the income you are receiving.

You know I get asked this a lot.

I've worked with a lot of folks and NEVER, EVER have I seen someone going broke or not eating because they tithed.

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Reston, Va.: Michelle - Happy New Year!!!

Can you tell us about times when you've used your emergency savings? I guess I'm confused as to whether it's only supposed to be used when there are no funds coming in, or if you are in a situation where you need to spend the money - and have it on hand.

For example, we want to refinance our ARM to a fixed mortgage. Because housing prices have declined, our lender wants us to pay $20K toward the principal of the loan - reducing our debt %. Although this money is coming from our emergency savings (we'll be left with only a couple thousand - but it should increase over the next few months), I think it's worth spending the money to get our of the ARM that is will reset this summer. At some point I really think interest rates are going to increase and I'd like to be into a fixed rate.

Michelle Singletary: If you think that this money is better used to secure a better mortgage then I would use it.

But I am concerned that you would be greatly depleting your emergency fund -- which I set aside for job loss, major, major necessary home repair, etc.

I use the life happens fund for paying down debt or what you are suggesting for the mortgage.

However, if you really feel confident that you will build back up your cushion quickly and your jobs are pretty secure, I don't see a huge mistake in this.

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Washington, D.C.: As more of us are keeping our automobiles longer, are there any rules of thumb for when to discontinue purchasing collision insurance? I drive a 1998 Toyota Camry that's in good shape and hope to keep it for several more years. I suspect that I should cancel the collision insurance, or even should have some time ago. Would appreciate your thoughts on this.

Michelle Singletary: You can cancel it IF you have the money to replace the car or get another one should you have an accident in which its totaled.

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Hampton, Va.: I could not download the templates that you mention. Please advise.

washingtonpost.com: Hi Hampton. I'm Sarah, Michelle's producer. Do you have an up-to-date version of Microsoft Excel on your computer? It's needed to open the files. If that doesn't seem to be the problem, shoot me an e-mail at halzacks@washpost.com and I'll help you out.

Michelle Singletary: We are getting some notes that people are having trouble with the templates. But Sarah may have the answer. See her note.

It works for us and others. So check to see that you have the ability to download excel.

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Jonesboro, Ark.: About a month ago, my mom shared with me that her and my dad have little savings planned for retirement. When I probed for more information, she simply said "yes, we probably should check into some kind of investment soon" and brushed off my questions. I think she sees retirement as another sign they are aging and wants to avoid it because of that. What's the best way for me to bring the subject up and get them on a plan for true retirement savings?

Michelle Singletary: I so wish I had more time to answer your question.

For now because the hour is late, go to www.aarp.org/money. This site has a great money section including tips on addressing this with your mother.

See if she will start by letting you help her and your dad with a budget. They won't have money to invest or put away for retirement if their expenses are out of control.

So just start by offering to help them see what they can do to be better prepared. And you are right to be concerned.

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Collision cancellation: Does your answer apply to any year car or only older models? I can pay cash for a new car without hugely effecting my savings, should I cancel?

Michelle Singletary: The point of insurance is to cover a cost you can't. If you can cover buying a car that will get you to where you need to go --used or new you might consider canceling it. But please check to make sure you aren't required to carry it.

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Washington, D.C.: I am struggling to stay committed to my marriage, and it's been hard because my husband of 13 years finds it hard to participate in creating and maintaining a monthly budget with me. We both work and have similar salaries (actually he makes more), but he won't sit with me to discuss the electric/gas bills, or to come up with a plan for us to purchase a car, or to discuss saving for our three children's college educations, or to discuss saving for a home...the list goes on. I know it's because he wasn't taught these things growing up, but after a certain time, I believe we all have to take stock of our lives, and begin planning for our future...a home, college education, retirement, whether or not we'll have enough money to eat out over the weekend. These things all need planning and guidance. I feel that he doesn't love me or our family enough to take stock of his life and pull himself together enough to deal with these things. How can I get him to feel comfortable enough to communicate with me about these basic, essential tasks?

Michelle Singletary: Please don't give up.

Try counseling.

See if you can get at what's stopping him from being better with the money.

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Northern Va.: For those out there complaining about your fasts, I just want you to know that it can be done.

We conduct an "embargo" every so often where we don't allow any non-essential spending for the entire month. While we don't follow your steps to do something each day, we don't spend any money on non-essentials. This means no eating out, no movies, no shopping for new anything. (If it's absolutely something we need, we put it on a list and purchase it the next month...if we still find we need it. And by need I mean absolutely need, not want, like that new flat screen TV we need for the basement!)

While at first it's hard, just like any other vice, if you take it one day at a time, you can get through it. At the end of the month, we've always found our habits have changed and are relieved to see our bottom line has improved drastically. It can be done, people, you just have to want to succeed!

Michelle Singletary: It can be done is right!

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Michelle Singletary: I'm so so sorry. Time is up. There are so many questions I wanted to get to. So sign up for my eletter (you will find the link for it by searching for "The Power to Prosper.")

I'll try get to some of the leftover questions there or in my print column.

Good chat. Great questions. Wonderful comments.

I do hope 2010 will be a great year for you all.

_______________________

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


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