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Color of Money Live
Thursday, February 4, 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 your questions on Thursday, Feb. 4 at 12 p.m. ET.
Michelle Singletary: Welcome everyone. So far no blizzard where I am, so that's good.
Anyway, lots of questions so let's get started.
Marshville, N.C.: Hey Michelle,
I currently have two credit cards, one with a balance of $1,700.00 and the other with a balance of $2,400.00. I have a personal loan of $2,800.00, a car payment of $312.00/month with a $14,000 balance and a student loan of $15,000 which is now in deferment. I want to start the process of paying these bills off to possibly purchase a house a year from now. My question to you is where do I start first? I make at about $1,200.00 bi-weekly after taxes, but I feel I'm not managing my money right in order to pay these bills off. I currently have $3,600.00 in savings. Any suggestions?
Michelle Singletary: So let's total ALL this debt up to get the big picture
Credit Card No. 1 $1,700
Credit Card No. 2 $2,400
Personal Loan $2,800
Car Loan $14,000
Student loan $15,000
Total Debt $35,900
Total Savings $3,600
Where should you begin.
First, and please don't see this as dashing your dreams of being a homeowner, but you should start by putting off the idea that you will be in the position to buy a home in one year.
You have a little ways to go before you are in the position to buy (assuming you don't have any other non-retirement savings or you don't get a HUGE jump in pay)
If I were you I would:
1. Work on increasing my emergency fund. You have $3,600 in savings. How long would that last if you lost your job? You should aim to have at the very least 3 months worth of living expenses. So your homework is to calculate how much it cost to run your household for a month (rent, car payment, food, utilities, etc.)
2. Work on building up a "Life Happens Fund." This a separate savings account to pay for things in life that happen -- car repair, dental work, etc. How much you put in this account depends on who often you find you have to dip into your emergency money. But I would aim for about $1,000.
3. Start paying off your debts in the order that I just listed, starting with the debt with the lowest balance first. Make the minimum payments on the other debts. When yo pay off the first debt take that money and apply it to the debt next on the list. (And by the way do your best to get that student loan out of deferment because you are just increasing that loan by deferring the payments, keeping you in debt that much longer.)
4. Only after I've at least paid off the credit card and personal loan debt, put a little bit aside for the huge amount of money you will need toward the purchase of a home.
See where I'm going. Put yourself in the position to have a nice cash cushion, home down payment AND no consumer debt before you start the process of buying a home.
Pittsburgh, Pa.: Thank you so much. You not only give us wonderful, straightforward advice, but you also give us the tools to help ourselves (love the budget templates). I am worried about my brother. Currently the minimum payments on his CC and medical bills are about 53% of his take home pay. I expressed my concern, offered help, and a few weeks later, he asked for help. I tailored your budget spreadsheet and taught him how to use it. He promised to use your sheet and even try the fast for a week. Then we would get together in a few weeks to go over it. A few weeks came and went without him saying anything; when I brought it up he said that he stopped using the sheet because he "was having a bad month" and spent more than what he took in (due to car repairs/going out). I told him to forget about the bottom line for now, and let's just see where your money is going. He didn't want to hear it. Two questions - Do you have any advice on how to show him that even though he may not want to look at his finances, you can't change how you are spending until you see where you are spending? Or am I just trying to force a horse to drink after leading him to the water? Secondly, he is currently putting about 10% of his take home pay into an IRA. With so much debt and CC balances growing, should I suggest that he use his IRA money to slay the debt then contribute again? Cheers!
washingtonpost.com: The Power to Prosper
Michelle Singletary: You are a good sister. Bless you.
I can read concern all over your note. And I've been where you are trying to help a relative. Imagine what a failure I feel like sometimes when I can't get some of my own people to do right, all the while helping thousands of people I don't even know.
Sometimes people can't take advice from the people they are close to or grew up with. It's hard for them. Hard for you.
But you are doing the right thing. You continue to take information to him, volunteer to help. (By the way you are right about the IRA). So go ahead suggest that too.
Then just stand back and be there when he falls, because he will.
Perhaps then he will really want to be helped. See if you can get him to do the 21-day financial fast. Details about it are on the link attached to your question.
But yes, you can lead the horse, you can even try whipping the horse but until he or she is ready or has fallen hard enough, he or she won't drink.
Anonymous: Hi Ms. Singletary, my name is Stephanie Campbell, and I wanna first say how much I enjoy your show every morning on TVOne here in Savannah, Ga. I met you in Atlanta, Ga. at the For Sisters Only a few years back. Here's my question. I have a lot of debt and student loans. My income tax is taken due to student loans. I want to know how can I try to pay this down and be able to get a tax return. Student loan is: $13,589. and I have $16,000 in other debts. I have tried to stay on top of all this but, I can admit I do have a problem and it's DEBTS. I just bought your book "The Power to Prosper." Can you please give me some lead way to become debt-free? Thank you.
Michelle Singletary: First thanks for getting the book.
Now do the fast.
Do the daily exercises because if you follow it right, it will help you get the discipline to get out of debt.
I also hope you have taken and cut up every credit card. You can't get out of debt by continuing to use debt.
Next, if you are getting a tax refund every year and pretty much nothing has changed about your tax situation then you need to redo your W-4 form so you can get that money during the year. Then there won't be a tax refund to snatch.
You would have control over that money to pay down the debts yourself. Go to the IRS Web site and use the withholding calculator to figure out if you are having too much withheld from your check going forward.
I assume if they are taking your tax refund for student loans that you are in default. So try to correct that the best you can. Call your lender and see what you can do to put yourself in the position to be eligible for a repayment plan that might reduce your monthly student loan payment. But you have to be in good standing for that.
Richmond, Va.: Hi, Michelle. Will you be doing a book signing in Richmond in the near future? Keep up the GREAT work!
Michelle Singletary: Thank you.
Nothing planned yet but I would love to. I love Richmond and the newspaper there carries my column.
Washington, DC : Hi, Michelle. I loved your book, very helpful. The thing that really struck a cord in me was where you talked about cohabitating. My boyfriend and I have a son and have been living together a little over a year, with no plans on getting married any time soon (can't afford it). We just signed a 14 month lease so moving out is not an option right now. We both have a lot of debt. How can we manage our finances together even though we aren't married? We have a joint checking account to pay things like rent and that seems to be working okay.
Michelle Singletary: Tough question with a child involved.
My view on living together is very well known (and highly criticized) but based on my experience and the data such relationships often fail and at a high rate.
Me, I would keep my money separate if I weren't married to the guy. You can still pay the bills from separate accounts.
One thing stuck me in your note.
You say you can't "afford" to get married. But that's not true. You can. Getting married doesn't cost much at all.
Courthouse or taking your vows under whatever religion you belong to. What you can't afford is the BIG WEDDING & RECEPTION.
But with a son and debt, why bother with all that expense? What's more important at this point if you want to get married and get all the financial benefits of such a union?
You can afford to get married. You can't afford the party.
Washington, D.C.: Dear Ms. Singletary,
Several years ago, my housekeeper allowed her son, DIL, and grandchildren to move in with her, since they couldn't make it on their own. She told me that they were supposed to pay her rent, but they haven't, and she mentioned it to her son. He told her that he and his wife have talked about it, but meanwhile, she isn't getting paid. And then her DIL let her own brother move in, and then some other people moved in, and my housekeeper felt like she was being crowded out. So, I told her that she could move in with me.
She goes back every so often to pick up her mail, and she's had problems with one of her credit card bills, because it never comes. She checked with the credit card company, and they have her correct address. Since she doesn't get her bill, she doesn't remember that she owes them money, and she gets hit with late fees, and she has to pay a fee to pay them over the phone. I suggested that she pay the bills online, but she refused.
The last time she picked up her mail, the credit card bill was there, and she was shocked to see that the total balance was thousands more than what she had thought. She had always paid the minimum balance due, and since she never saw the bills, she had no idea what the total balance was. She did say, though, that she wondered why the minimum balance due kept going up and up. She told me that about a year ago, she gave her DIL her credit card number to pay one bill, and now it seems that the DIL uses her number every chance she gets. She recognized an amount charged on her new bill as something used by her son and his family. She talked to her DIL about it, and the DIL claimed not to know anything about it. With my housekeeper's permission, I accessed her credit card history online, and I saw that every month since she gave her DIL her credit card number, the DIL has charged hundreds of dollars to the account. My housekeeper suspects that the reason the credit card bill was always lost in the mail was because the DIL just threw it away to hide the fact that she had charged her stuff to it.
My housekeeper doesn't want to talk to her son about this. I think her DIL knows this, and that's why she didn't think there would be a problem with charging all of her stuff. I told her that she could dispute charges going back 60 days (unfortunately, I think she's on the hook for thousands of dollars), but she doesn't want to do that, because she doesn't want to get her DIL in trouble. I have a feeling that her son knows about this, since he hasn't had to pay those charges for the past year, but she can't believe that her son would steal from her. I told her that she should change her credit card number and that she shouldn't give it to anyone, not even her daughter, because who knows, her daughter might give it to the DIL.
She struggles to pay the minimum balance, and I don't think she will ever pay the credit card off. I'm just sick about this.
Now the DIL is claiming that the last 4 digits of her credit card number and my housekeeper's credit card number are the same, and that's how they got mixed up, but the DIL refuses to show my housekeeper her credit card.
Is there anything she can do?
Michelle Singletary: Wow.
What a boss you must be to get in the middle of this triflin' mess. I applaud you for trying to help.
Now do this for me. Show her this posting and what I'm about to say.
Dear Housekeeper (I would use your name but none given):
You NEED to kick those triflin people out of your house.
You need to close that credit card account ASAP.
You are being used. But really it's your own fault and I mean that with the most respect and concern for your situation. You were trying to be helpful and a good mother. But you now need to treat grown folks like grown folks.
Give your son and that DIL a notice that if you don't start receiving rent by let's say March 1, you will proceed with whatever it takes to evict them. Put it in writing.
Then back your letter and words up with action. Check with the DC gov't about how to evict folks from your home to make sure you do it right.
If you aren't going to live in your own house you at least ought to make the people who are there pay you rent.
Do this because you will be helping them grow up.
Now boss lady or man:
Give your housekeeper a kick in the butt by giving her a date that she has to move out. I know this may sound harsh but help her reclaim her home or at least get rent for it!
Annapolis, Md.: Loved this morning's column. A little known important point is that the EITC is also available for self-employed businesses which file taxes as unincorported sole proprietors. During a recession this is important. Same for Making Work Pay Tax Credit since it's available to an even wider audience of self-employed job-creators -- some 15 million!! (I also wrote a comment).
washingtonpost.com: An important tax credit that might not be on your radar screen (Post, February 4 2010)
Michelle Singletary: Thanks!
Old Saybrook, Conn.: What are your thoughts on index mutual funds vs. regular mutual funds? I am 55 now. Are index funds target dated too?
Michelle Singletary: I like index funds. The right ones anyway. Typically fees are kept low so you enjoy more of your returns.
And target date funds pick a point in the future in which you might retire and invest based on that future date.
Traverse City, Mich.: Hi Michelle: What a blessing your book is. I have never read a book so challenging & freeing at the same time, and truly life changing. Thank you!! My girlfriend and I have started a blog about this and want to also talk to our church THIS WEEK about your book for study. Our large church is putting together various groups and studies, the timing is perfect. What advice can you give us on how to do this? Our thoughts are to present the book and meet weekly with a group of women to dicuss/support others thru it. Any advice would be very much appreciated. Valerie Palchak
Michelle Singletary: Thank you so much!
And I would love to know more about the blog (send me details!!).
Really, I love your plan for how to use the book. Do just that. Get a group together and go thu it day-by-day just as you did.
And as I keep telling people, you can do the fast without the book. But the fast is more than just curtailing your spending or eliminating credit card usage for 21 days. Every day I tackle a different issue from giving to teaching kids about money to handling your money with your spouse.
I think you have a good plan.
Jacksonville, Fla.: Hi Michelle,
I purchased your book 'The Power To Prosper.' I am really enjoying doing the 21 day financial diet. I really needed a wake up call. One thing I have discovered that it is extremely hard to face the truth on how I have mismanaged my money for the past 9 years (day 7). However, this is all about to change. I have been notified that as of March I will no longer be with the company due to economy.
I have never completely learn to budget my money, but there has been challenges. However, I have never been without a job, and I am scared what's going to happen, especially when I have 2 children in college.
1.Do you think it's wise to use the money in my 401K to pay off my credit card debt?
2. I just started saving a year ago. How do I save when the unemployment benefits will barely meet my living expenses?
Michelle Singletary: First, I'm so sorry about your job loss. Just breaks my heart to hear about so many people losing their jobs. I spent the last year working one-on-one with someone helping her though a tough job loss. But she made it.
First don't rush to use your retirement money. The penalties are too great. It might come to that but see what you can do to make do before you resort to withdrawing the money especially if you are younger than 59 1/2.
And you won't be saving during this time. Use the savings you have to help you get thu until you can find another job. That's what the money is for.
So take small jobs, get a roommate, sell some stuff. Do what you have to do before cashing out your retirement.
Snow!: Given we'll likely be snowbound this weekend, I plan to pull together my tax forms (if not actually pay my taxes). I might be eligible for FreeFile. Is that the way to go?
Michelle Singletary: Most definitely.
Go to the IRS Web site and you will find a lot of information on free file.
And if you are snowbound great time to get your taxes done, or do that budget you have been promising to do for years, etc.
D.C.: Hi, Michelle! thanks for these chats. I have no consumer debt, but I do have one HUGE student loan (law school) of approximately $120,000. As a federal employee, I am on the income-based repayment plan (IBR) which limits my monthly payment based on my salary. In addition, the remaining debt is forgiven after 10 years as long as I continue to work for the government or other non-profit. That being said, I would like to purchase a home, save for retirement, etc. Should I keep working on paying that debt down to zero, or should I begin the savings for down payment, etc. now while knowing that in 10 years, the debt will likely be forgiven.
Michelle Singletary: If you are SURE you will stay put so that the debt is forgiven in 10 years (assuming you continue to make your payment and make them on time -- a key point), I might in this case start saving for a home rather than paying extra on the student loan.
BUT again, that is a lot of assumptions. That you get to keep the job you have, that you want to keep the job you have that you will not miss any payments and jeopardize the IBR payment rules.
Arlington, Va.: Michelle, I love your column, newsletter, chats and the idea of the 21-day fast. My fiancee and I are going to do it right after Valentine's Day. But I have to say, we are both really turned off by all the religion in your book. She prays, I don't. I go to church, she doesn't. But both of us feel the amount of God talk in the book is way over the top. I wish you had stuck more to finance for family's sake and less for God. And one thing we both agree on: Your comment about deferring to the husband because he's the leader of the family...Really? In 2010 people really still think that way? We're a partnership, and if we disagree, I don't win because of my Y chromosome. Consider doing a less religious version of the book. It would be a lot more accessible.
Michelle Singletary: I appreciate your comments. But you do know I did the book I wanted to do. I've also written two other books about money that have no religious overtones.
I've never hidden my beliefs. I wanted to write this book using biblical principles because the fast was developed out of a ministry I run at my church. Perhaps this book isn't for you and that's okay.
But I have heard from a lot of folks who are not religious --one reviewer who gave the book a rave review was Jewish -- who said they still got a lot out of the book.
And yes in this day when so many marriages are failing because there is no order or respect, I do believe my husband is the head of my household but that doesn't mean I'm subservient. We talk about everything. We are a partnership but even in a partnership someone HAS to take the lead. In law firms with many partners there is a lead partner. That's all I'm talking about.
Yes, there is God in this book. I won't apologize for that or change it.
But that doesn't mean the fast is any less workable, good, helpful.
Takoma Park, MD: I'm not sure if you've heard this one before and how you addressed it.
We purchased our home in 2006. We've not had problems with our mortgage. In fact, we try to pay additional principal regularly. We only recently started paying electronically, so for years we sent back the payment slip with a check. On that slip, provided by Wells Fargo, was a line for additional principal, where we would write the extra amount, which we added into our check. At some point we noticed that instead of that extra money going to principal, it was going to something else, so our next month's "amount due" would be less, but the principal would remain unchanged. After countless phone calls and who knows how much time, we got them to apply all that money to the principal. More importantly, we wanted to find out how to regularly send extra money to pay down the principal. Of course, this had to be done with a separate payment to a separate address. Frankly, that seems like downright FRAUD. It seems meant to intentionally lie to and mislead people to pay more interest. After a bit of a lull, we're paying extra principal again, so this is fresh in my mind and it really, really bothers me.
So, I guess this serves as a warning to other people, but it also makes me want to lodge a complaint. But to whom?
Michelle Singletary: I definitely have seen this happen. Complain to your bank as you have.
But you are right. Good lesson to others. Pay attention to your statement if you are making additional payments to the principal.
Thanks for the heads up.
Woodbridge, Va.: Michelle, I just learned about you! What you are doing is really wonderful. I've been living by the same principles you are teaching for nearly 50 years and it works! I've never made a high income but by living within my means, I have been able to tithe, share with others, and cover all the essentials...yes, and now and then, some of the wants. Keep it up -- you have come to the Kingdom for such a time as this!
Michelle Singletary: Why thank you very much!
It's what I was born to do!
Best bet for debt pay down-home equity or monthly payments: I've been paying down my credit card debt steadily the past 18 months and have made good progress but still have so far to go (19K) and was wondering if it would make sense to refinance my home mrtg.to access cash out equity (owned condo for 6 years with appreciation in value)to pay off debt or keep making monthly payments of $500 for the next 4 -5 years. thank you.
Michelle Singletary: Don't use debt to pay down this credit card debt.
Keep doing what you are doing.
You don't want to exchange unsecured debt (the credit card debt) for secured debt (home equity loan).
You are on the right path, stick to it.
Germantown, Md.: I really love the practical way you present the issue of budgeting.
I am a teacher and I am paid over a period of 10 months. How should I budget for the 2 months I don't receive a paycheck? Should I just divide the yearly salary into 12 months but keep the taxes and other debits to 10 months? Thank you for writing your new book.
Michelle Singletary: Yes, that's what I would do. Take my 10 month pay and convert to 12 months and budget accordingly.
I hear from lots of teachers who have trouble budgeting because of the 10-month pay thing.
It takes discipline to make sure it stretches for the two months you aren't paid.
London, U.K.: Dear Ms. Singletary,
I have been reading your column for years. I like your no nonsense approach to financial health. I appreciate your advice. Keep up the amazing work you do for all your readers. Thank you, Mary
Michelle Singletary: All the way from the U.K.
Wow. That's great and thank you so very much.
Rockville, Md.: "But I have heard from a lot of folks who are not religious --one reviewer who gave the book a rave review was Jewish -- who said they still got a lot out of the book. "
Man, did you just insult a lot of people by comparing the non religious to being Jewish.
Michelle Singletary: That was not my intention and if you know my work you would know that.
I was just saying that someone who is not Christian appreciated what I was doing in the book. It did not offend him.
I covered religion for many years for a Baltimore paper and I have much respect for other religious.
Sometimes I just get so hot some try to read insults into what is written in a chat forum. You are typing fast. You are trying to get to a lot of questions.
So let me be clear....people of various faiths, people who don't go to church, people who do, just people have found the book helpful.
Snow equals grocery store buying: Due to the quick accumulation of snow, we did not run out to the grocery store to buy anything on Saturday. Instead of we don't have this and that. We found frozen soups and other food we FORGOT we had in the frig and pantry.
We did fine and no one starved to death and we saved money by not spending.
Michelle Singletary: Good for you.
I'll be honest I wasn't as disciplined. I had to have me some UTZ potato chips.
I mean I cannot be in the house for two days with a teenager, 11 and 9 year old without my UTZ fix.
Columbia, Md.: Hi Michelle, love your articles.
My son, who's 25 has a Blackberry which he loves and he recently told me it costs $90/mo. for the plan he has. Basic phone service would be $60/mo. but he likes the internet access and texting which add $20 and $10 respectively. I was pretty surprised when he mentioned the $90 expense, saying that's over $1000/yr. But he's careful with his other expenses and says this is his one luxury. I've dropped the discussion because it's not worth arguing about and I wasn't trying to change his mind, but I was wondering what you think.
Michelle Singletary: I understand your concern, but if your son is managing his money well, I'm okay with his $90 bill.
But you know it at least started a conversation about money and budgeting etc. and that's a good thing.
To Save or Pay off?: I love your chats and am hoping for some assistance here. My husband and I want to buy a house but are not there financially yet. We have 15k in savings (emergency fund).
We have a consolidation loan for 12k,with a low interest rate, and 3k left on all vehicles. We have no other debt.
I'm not sure what to do.... Would you take the money that's in savings/emergency fund to pay off the loan and revamp the savings again, or would you continue to save and pay the loan as you go? The minimum on the loan is $350/month, but I usually pay about $800 to get it paid off.
Michelle Singletary: I would keep the savings especially in this economy and keep making the loan payments adding as more on it as you can.
Federal Way, Wash.: Michelle: I had the pleasure of meeting you when you were a speaker at United Way's Financial Literacy conference in San Fran. a couple of years ago, and have extolled your common sense approach ever since. I devoted an entire Saturday to creating my household budget using your template, painstakingly including every expense that occurred to me. I found this exercise in itself to be very revealing, and I appreciate the provided template. Here's what I also included: at the bottom of the expense worksheet I added a list of accounts and/or envelopes that would "shelter" money such as "Life Happens" or College Funds, or my discretionary cash. So every pay period, I know exactly how much to withdraw from my checking account (pay is direct deposited), and what goes in an envelope, and what gets deposited into a different account. The other thing that I did is on my home (computer) calendar, I've made a task to remind me that I will withdraw that amount each pay day, with details of what is going where. So now I have two different methods which, happily, jive with one another, to help me stay on task. After YEARS of being like the woman with an issue of blood (mine being financial), I feel I've found the blessing to help me be a wise steward of that which God has entrusted to me. Thank you. P.S. and yes, tithing is an integral part of my budget. Pam from Federal Way, Wash.
Michelle Singletary: Thank you so much. I love your idea of adding the accounts at the end of the budget template. You should send it to me. I love to see how people have improved on the budget templates I create.
NOVA: I'm submitting this early b/c I just read chapter 3 of your book - and the question got me thinking. I have a friend who has struggled to finish college b/c of finances. For a long time, she worked full time and went to school part time b/c that was the only way she could afford it. She has a year to go - but has to go full time because of the way her program is structured. She's been saving for a few years to do it, but still isn't quite there. Lately, I've been feeling more and more like I have the money and should pay for her tuition to allow her to go back next year and finish. She is such an amazing girl and has worked so hard to get this far, against a lot of odds. I get afraid b/c sometimes these offers aren't taken kindly. I'm not sure if I should offer, and how to go about doing that if I do. Any advice?
Michelle Singletary: On Day 3 (Chapter 3) I talk about being generous.
I think your heart is telling you the right thing. So make the offer if you can afford it. And what a wonderful offer it is.
I've helped relatives pay for college. My husband and I helped a young lady I met in a journalism program pay for some of her college expenses.
So tell her just what you just told me. If she accepts, pay the school directly.
Even if she feels it's too much, at least she knows you've been watching how hard she's been working and that's worth a great deal too.
Washington, D.C.: Refinanced in 2004 to ARM that ballooned to double digits. the payment has increased steadily from $2200 to $3200.00. The rate is 11.125% Bear Sterns, the investor, does not allow rate decrease. I am unable to afford the payment and not eligible for rate decrease. What is the best way to remedy this?
Michelle Singletary: If you want to stay in the home, could you get a roommate to help with the mortgage expense?
If you can't stay in the home than you may have to sell. If the house is worth less than the mortgage you would have to do what's called a short sell, meaning you sell for less than what you owe on the mortgage.
I'm sorry this is so tough for you. I do wish I had a better answer but as you now, you and millions of others are in this same boat.
Michelle Singletary: Well, the time has come to close out.
Thanks for all your questions. I also appreciate the comments, even those that make me want to cuss.
Please know that I do what I do to help people become better money managers. I do it based on my experience, research and yes, my beliefs.
As with any information, you should take what is useful to you. You are grown I can't make you do anything.
I can show you what I've found has worked.
And yes to the dismay of some, I mix money and values because they do go together whether you believe they do or not. Many people aren't just broke or in debt because they don't have enough money. It's all the issues around money.
Nonetheless every chat, column, eletter is an opportunity for us to debate, discuss and even disagree about personal finance but it still leads to conversation about money and that is always a good thing.
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.