Color of Money Book Club

Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, March 25, 2010; 1:00 PM

Personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary hosted a live discussion on Thursday, March 25 at 1 p.m. ET to answer your questions about money. She will be joined by the authors of her Color of Money Book Club picks for the month of March.Chosen in honor of Women's History Month, each of the selections is written by women. They are: Deborah Owens, co-author of "A Purse of Your Own: An Easy Guide to Financial Security;" Marianna Olszewski, author of "Live It, Love It, Earn It: A Woman's Guide to Financial Freedom;" Elisabeth Leamy, author of "Save Big;" and Carla A. Harris, author of "Expect to Win."

Read Singletary's column about the book.

Read Michelle's latest columns, check out her Color of Money Book Club selection archive or sign up for her weekly e-mail newsletter.

A transcript follows.

____________________ Hi everyone, thanks for joining us today. Michelle will be here shortly, but we'll get started with some questions for our Book Club authors.


Aldie, Va.: What percentage of my total income should I save for the future?

Marianna Olszewski: this depends on your situation, if you have paid off a significant portion of high interest debt and have an emergency fund in place (6 months of expenses in a savings account to be used if you have an emergency - job loss, health crises, etc.), and are contributing toward your retirement, then i would suggest approx 10% of your gross income towards savings and investing.


Alexandria, Va.: This is a little embarrassing, actually. I am expecting a HUGE tax refund because we bought a house last year. But we already have a rainy day fund, save $1500/month to retirement, have no credit card debt and 10 year old cars. What should we do with the $10,000 refund?

Deborah Owens: It's a shame you weren't earning a return on that refund all year but the good news is that you can treat this like a windfall. It sounds like you have all your short term needs covered so why not look at investing towards the long term in a growth or growth and income mutual fund?


Michelle Singletary: Welcome everyone. So sorry. Was running from a wonderful Women's History Month event. But here now. I have some dynamic women on aboard for the chat so please pick their brains.


Jacksonville, Fla.: Hi Michelle &; Crew - Love the chats and became debt free (except the house) in May 2009.

Here is my problem. My hubby (of 21 years) was laid off in August of 2009. Thankfully, I have a great job so we are doing fine financially (esp. since we became debt free last year). The issue is resentment. My husband is so mad about not working and he resents me and my job situation. I've tried to be supportive. I've talked to our pastor. Every day is a challenge - I went to lunch with my girlfriends and he exploded about me wasting funds. We have always had "our/joint" funds and I've always made slightly more than him - it's never been a problem in the past.

Any hints about dealing with an angry man that I truly love and adore?

And THANK YOU again for making me see the evil bonds of debt - we wouldn't have survived this five years ago.

Elisabeth Leamy: Woo hoo! Congrats on being debt free. This is just woman to woman advice as opposed to something from my book. I've noticed that men, even more than women, derive their self esteem from their jobs. Whenever I've tried to give career advice to my husband it did not go well! So you need to be supportive so he knows there's a comforting hand at his back --but not a hand that is going to push him! That's my metaphor for it.

Michelle Singletary: I totally agree with Elisabeth. Your husband is hurting and just lashing out because you are the closest to him.

Give him a lot of love and room. I'm sure you have done this but give him much support and let him know his worth isn't tied to his paycheck!


Huge blessing: Hi,

I wanted to confirm my payoff strategy with you. After taxes, I will be getting $17K---a huge blessing.

I have $15K in cc debt--very embarrassing. I'm trying not to pound my head against the wall thinking of all the nice things I could have done with the money (save, a trip, donate, etc.).

My strategy: to pay off the cc and put the $2K in the rainy day fund. I'm tempted to use the $2K for a few trips to see friends but I need a kick in the behind.

Thanks very much.


Elisabeth Leamy: Stick to your guns! That $2,000 fund will feel soooo comforting. THEN start saving in a special vacation fund once you are debt free. You've earned it!


Alexandria, Va.: No credit card, car, student loan or debt other than mortgage. Maxing out to 401k and contributing some to 529. Donating to charity, have a decent emergency fund and a savings plan to cover all capital expenses anticipated for year with a little left over. We are upside down on the mortgage, 30 yr fixed 6.5%, excellent credit. Should we agressively prepay the mortgage or do some sort of investment or savings? Assuming we get to 97- loan to value (the property qualifies for FHA) should we refinance or wait until we can get to 80:20?

Elisabeth Leamy: In most times a 6.5% interest rate on a mortgage is great, but we have historically low rates now. You should try to refinance now. You can probably get close to 5%. Here's my refinance rule of 5s:

Refinance if:

--You will lower your rate by at least .5 percentage points.

--You will not extend the length of your loan more than 5 years.

--You can recoup your closing costs in 5 years or less --preferably much less.


Boston, Mass.: Hi Michelle,

I am about to get the $8000 first-time homebuyer tax credit, and I wanted your advice on what to do with it.

My only debt (besides the mortgage, obviously) is about $10,000 in student loans, and as I am about to inherit $3000, the tax credit and the inheritance could pay them off entirely. Which would be a huge weight off my mind!

However, I only have $7000 in my savings account. I take home about $2000 a month (after putting a lot in my 403b), pay $200 to my student loans, and after regular expenses (I live very frugally and don't have a car) I only have a couple hundred dollars left at the end of the month. So if I had no student loans I could probably put close to $400 in savings every month, and make up the $8000 in a couple of years.

My fear is that if I pay off my student loans, some huge expense will come up and I will wish I had that $8000 or at least part of it. This seems unlikely, as my home is a tiny condo in a brand-new building. My friend who owns a home says the most expensive thing she can think of that can go wrong is needing something new plumbing- related, which she said would be about $1000. There is also the possibility that I might change fields and end up making less money.

What do you think I should do?

Elisabeth Leamy: I know you asked Michelle, but may I give my 2 cents? This is a CLASSIC dilemma many people face. Should you use savings to pay off debt? Or keep some savings for a rainy day? You will always save money by using savings to pay debt because savings accounts typically pay less interest than you owe on the debts. If you're uncomfortable depleting your savings entirely, keep $1,000 as your rainy day fund.

Marianna Olszewski: you seem to be in good financial shape and are asking the right questions and congratulations on putting money towards your retirement. i would suggest strongly to build an emergency fund, aside from your savings, first if you don't already have one, which is 6 months of expenses in an FDIC savings account, "just in case" something happens like losing your job or a health crisis. your student loans are at very low rates, i would think, so you don't necessarily need to be in a rush to pay them back. first build your emergency fund, make sure you max out your retirement account. you're doing a great job!

Michelle Singletary: If I can have the last word.

Get rid of the debt. You have a nice cushion so take that burden off your shoulders and see how straight you stand.

Then you can take the money you were using to pay on the debt and put that in savings.


Arlington, Va.: We just bought our first house. It's well within the range of what we can afford, but it will be a change not having as much savings since those much of those funds went to a down payment. And of course with homeownership comes home-related expenses.

Any general financial advice to new home owners?

Elisabeth Leamy: Congratulations! Buying a house is one of the biggest of ways to SAVE BIG because you are now paying yourself instead of somebody else. Now try to avoid going crazy spending a bunch of money furnishing the place. You need to get a feel for your new finances before you make commitments like that. (Empty houses are great for throwing parties!) After we bought our house we cut way back on vacations because we just enjoyed being home in our new place. That helped us save money for our home maintenance fund. Also look at ways to save once you're a homeowner. In my book, SAVE BIG, I suggest:

--Keeping an eagle eye on chances to refinance.


--Appealing your property tax assessment.

Among other ideas.

Michelle Singletary: I agree. Resist the urge to splurge. So many new homeowners are so eager to fill the place up that they go broke in the process.

Besides empty spaces are also good for dancing around yelling how little debt you have (except for the new mortgage).


Baltimore, Md.: Hi Michelle,

Hubby and I have been married over 5 years. We've always kept our finances separate, and contributed equally into a checking account that we pay our combined bills from.

Recently, we've been talking about merging our finances. What do you recommend as a primary location for our savings? He uses etrade and I use ING.


Deborah Owens: Congratulations on achieving the five year milestone! It is important that you both agree. Write down the advantages and benefits of each of the accounts and see which one wins. My personal preference is ING.


Laurel, Md.: I've read (past tense) in a number of personal finance columns and books that women in general are too conservative in their long-term investing and need to increase their stock market allocation. Is this still true?

Marianna Olszewski: I have read that too and being a money coach for women, many women, including myself, are on the conservative side with investments. I would suggest trying to find a good financial adviser and ask them about investing and your particular situation. the general (and this is only general) rule of thumb is using 100 minus your age and that's the amount that should be invested in stocks (which tend to be more volatile). for example if you are 21 then your portolio should be weighted 79% in stocks. As we get older we need to be a bit more conservative especially towards retirement age when our incomes drop, and thus less "risky" in terms of investing in the stock market which tends to have more volatility.

Michelle Singletary: By the way, I've also read and read that we conservative women investors also make out not too bad because we don't accumulate a lot of fees trading and moving stuff around. Fees directly impact your return, ladies!


Baltimore, Md.: Hi I am expecting a windfall that would cover 2 years of my child's college education. Does it make since to invest it in a 529 investment plan at this point? I currently do not have any type of 529 plan for my child. Thanks.

Deborah Owens: Wow!!! If the money is earmarked as college savings, than a 529 account is an excellent vehicle. I'm not sure how old your child is but if you can purchase the prepaid tuition plan it can give you peace of mind without having to worry about future cost and investment returns.


Purse of Your Own!!: I am reading it now and loving it. To be an true adult, every capable person over 18 needs to learn how to take care of themselves. I hear women speaking about I need someone (a man) to help me with my bills. This book is about making grown folks decisions and not living in the fantasy of Cinderella and the Knight in Shining Armor. Believe me when I say a real Knight wants an adult grown women. Think of it this way...Would you want to marry someone just like you?

Deborah Owens: I am glad you are enjoying the book. I wanted women to understand there is a difference between wealth and income and the importance of having a full purse.


Washington, D.C.: A lot of good advice is out there for young women who are in debt, and need to control their spending. However, what do you suggest as a starting place for a young woman, like myself, with "survival debt". Meaning - I lost my job due to the recession; (I have no more unemployment; I cannot find a full-time job; and my bills are at the point where they are not going to be paid so I can make it. With my savings almost depleted, where can I start? I am living below my means, and do not have any additional expenses above what is necessary to survive. I am seeing this is also happening with many of my female friends. Thank you.

Elisabeth Leamy: These are truly unique times. I think you should get creative to cut your expenses even further. Is moving back in with your parents an option? Or could you share an apartment with a bunch of girlfriends? (To cope with the inconvenience, think of it as an extension of your college years!) Next, start looking at jobs outside your chosen field. Could you sling coffees at Starbucks part time? Be a temp? It might seem like a step down (not knowing what you used to do...), but look for the good in whatever fallback you choose.

Carla A. Harris: 1) Reevaluate your budget, make sure that you are down to the basic necessities and that there is not any more room left for garnering additional funds;

2) Take inventory of your resume and previous experiences: What might you be able to do that may be different than your ideal job, that will provide you with current income? Do you have a particular skill with computer software, selling, writing business plans, tutoring, etc. where you can do something on a part-time basis that will add to your current income? 1/2 of the equation of "making it" is obviously managing your debt, but the other half is leveraging your skills, academic background into an opportunity where you can create current income.


Washington, D.C.: This is not meant to be a critique, but Michelle, I am not sold on these book talks because the authors often water down your very solid system. While I have not done the fast, I have read the book with great interest and am looking at different areas in my life that I might improve (maybe I will even get up the courage to do the fast itself).

Keep up the great work Michelle - it's what we need to hear, not what we want to hear.


Michelle Singletary: I hear what you are saying, but please keep an open mind about the people I bring on. In general, I tend to agree with what they say. I rarely (if ever) chose a book that is WAY off from my own perspective. I do that on purpose because, well, my book club and my chat.

So while we may differ a bit, overall the core advice is the same.


Silver Spring, Md.: Would it be smart to take out a new car loan for a few thousand dollars and then quickly pay it off in a few months just so I can keep a high credit score? I could pay cash for the car but I'm worried that my credit score will start to drop because the last time I paid off a car loan was 7 years ago. I only have 1 credit card (that I pay off in full each month) and a mortgage payment (that I've kept up with for the first 2 years I've had it). My credit score is about 790. I want to keep my credit score high for when we plan to move or renovate in a few more years. I think of it as paying $100 or so to elevate my credit score. What do you think?

Elisabeth Leamy: It's true that mix of credit is one of the factors in computing your credit score, but I don't think you should take artificial steps to this degree to try to gain a few points. You only need a score of 720 to get the very best mortgage rates, so at 790 you're an over achiever. Paying cash for a car is one of the ways people can save BIG. YOu're so fortunate that you are in a position to do so.


Bowie, Md.: Love the chats!! I would like to know what type of account is best for my emergency fund? There are so many choices: Bank savings account, mutual fund, CD, savings bonds??

Michelle Singletary: Thanks so much. Love you right back!

Try to find the highest yielding savings account or money market for your emergency money.

You could do CDs by laddering them (buying bonds with various maturities -- 3 month, 6 month, etc.) But just be careful you don't tie your money up for too long or invest it.

Remember, this is money you want to keep safe and liquid. You aren't trying to greatly grow this cash. It's just your safety net.


Washington, D.C.: Like most people, I have several credit cards that I rarely use but would like to keep. There seems to be a broad difference of opinion about how often I need to use them to keep them active. I have heard everything from once a year to several times every couple of months. Can you offer more precise guidance?

Elisabeth Leamy: Card companies are canceling credit cards like crazy. If you truly need/want all these cards, you need to use them at least quarterly. Once a month is better. One way to do this with less hassle is to arrange for some small monthly bills (gym, cell phone...) to be charged to the card. BUT you MUST pay them off in full or this advice is null and void!

Carla A. Harris: The reason that you have heard so many varied opinions is that it is different for different vendors. In my opinion you can keep the card "current" by using it at least twice a year, or once every six months. The question you should ask is, "do you have too many cards and are you exposed too much from a credit worthiness standpoint."

Michelle Singletary: Really you only "need" one card. But the best thing is to check with the card company. Some issuers are requiring people spend, say, $2,400 a year to avoid an annual fee. Others may just require one or two purchases to stay active. Call and check.

And by the way, don't be fearful of closing an account with a long history. Closed accounts stay on your credit report for many, many years. You only need to be concerned about how a closed account affects your credit scores if you have outstanding debt on that card and others.


529 question: I want to open a 529 account for my 3-year-old niece who lives in Maryland. However, I am unsure of the financial commitment this means for me.

Can I start something like this for $50 and then spread the word to other relatives? What is the yearly maintenance fee?

About $50 a year is really all I could contribute but I think it's important to get something started regarding savings and my brother and his wife and stretched very thin right now (one is unemployed, another kid on the way) and I want to help!

Carla A. Harris: I would advise you to take a look at the various 529 plans that are offered, each has a different starting amount and a different expected amount of contribution/year. I completely agree that you should get started and you might find that you are able to contribute more than you think. For example if you spend at least $10/week or various types of coffee/sodas/snacks, you might think that if you contribute that once/week you could contribute $40-50/month vs $50/year


Catonsville, Md.: Hi Do any of the authors address financial advice for those of us who are in over the age of 40 and are just starting out in retirement planning?

Deborah Owens: I'm sure all of the books can assist you and the key is to get started mapping out your plan for retirement right away.

Michelle Singletary: Deborah is right, all the advice in the books apply to women of all ages.


bank preference: As a person in banking, I just want to suggest that the poster consider other options besides just ING or e-trade. Go talk to a local community banker and see what they have on offer. The rates posted on the door aren't the only things available, and you can qualify for higher rates or decreased costs based on the value of the entire relationship you bring over. Something to consider.

Michelle Singletary: Thanks so much.

Definitely something to consider. To your point, I love my credit union!


Chantilly, Va.: Hi Michelle, I have student loan debt and a car loan, and I've been working really hard to pay off both. I have 3 types of student loans - a pretty sizable federal consolidation loan (fixed interest rate), a Perkins loan (lowest amount of the 3), and a huge private loan. I have been putting extra on my private loan for the past few years because it is big and the interest rate has finally come down, but it is variable. My car loan is at 2.9% and I have several years to go and I just started putting extra payments like $50 here and there when I can. I want to aim for getting rid of one loan at the very least for my own sanity. I have a life happens fund, 3 months of savings, and I contribute as much as I can for retirement. I just received a raise (my salary is much better now than when I first started working 4 years ago) and I want to put the extra money toward debt.

I am torn about what to do first. Save half and put the other half against one of these loans? Put all of it for debt instead of building up more of a cash reserve, which just scares me for some reason? And which loan should I aim for paying off first? I was aiming for my private loan because of the variable interest rate and the fact it could go up whenever. But it seems like I am climbing Mount Everest because it's just so much. But then I thought if I paid off my car I could put the money I am making on car payments towards my school loans and my car would be my own 100%. See where I am going - it's like a big mush. I appreciate any advice you could give me. Thanks.

Elisabeth Leamy: I'll be curious what the other authors think. There are lots of different strategies for attacking debt. Since in my book my mission is to show people how to save money --BIG money!-- my advice is to always pay off the debt with the highest interest rate first rather than the smallest balance.

Marianna Olszewski: You are doing well, so congratulate yourself. First, I would suggest paying the highest rate loan, which seems like this private loan, down first and making minimum payments on all your other debts. once the highest rate is paid you can move on to paying down the next highest loan w/ minimum payments on the rest. Your student loan debt is not "bad" debt so don't feel bad about that - you made an investment in yourself and your education, feel good about that. After you have an emergency fund (which you have, you might want to try for 5 or 6 months of expenses in it) and retirement savings, put the money towards debt. It's better to use that money toward high interest debt than putting extra money in a savings account at low 1% interests.

Deborah Owens: I am with Elisabeth. Paying of the highest interest rate first makes the most sense to me. It's like having a hole in your purse... You're putting money in but it's not adding up.

Carla A. Harris: You are on the right track, pay off the high interest, variable rate loan first, continue to build your cash reserve, particularly because of the environment that we are in. Then I would work aggressively on the car loan, since the interest rate there is probably higher than the Perkins loan, and then take it from there. I agree that in this environment, making sure that you have cushion in your "life happens fund", not a bad idea!

Michelle Singletary: Well, as much as I LOVE all the women I have to be the lone voice.

I would suggest you get rid of one of the debts fast.

Here's what you said: "But it seems like I am climbing Mount Everest because it's just so much."

What I've found working one-on-one with many, many people in debt for decades is that they need a psychological boost when paying down debt. I suggest you list the debts starting with the one with the lowest balance.

Knocking that off is like making it to the first peak heading to the top of Mount Everest. You feel like, "wow, I can do this." What often happens is next you get so energized that you rush to pay off the next on the list.

When it comes to money, really most of it is mental. If it were just about the numbers and logical then many people would not be in so much consumer debt.

So reach that first landing. Pay off something then move on down (our up to continue the metaphor) the mountain.

By the way, I did a column looking at a report from Consumers Reports that found either method, the one I use or the one the other ladies suggest, ALL work. It all depends on your motivation!


Arlington, Va.: Thank you for taking my question.

My husband and I are looking for our first house. We have no debt (no credit cards, no car payments, no student loans), earn about $160,000 a year in government jobs, and have $200,000 in savings. No kids yet. We're thinking that our housing budget is about $550-$575K, putting 20% down. Our current rent is $1,950, we contribute a lot to retirement, and save about $2,000 a month on top of that. Does that housing budget sound reasonable? The main thing I'm wondering about is child care once we have kids. Thanks so much!

Elisabeth Leamy: Congrats on being in such great shape! One way to figure out the price house you can TRULY afford is to make your monthly mortgage equal to your monthly rent. (You KNOW you can afford your rent, right? In this case $1,950.) I created a neat calculator on my website,, that shows you how much house your current rent will buy you. I ran it for you and it says you can afford a house that costs $353,130. If you put 20% down, ($70,626), you'd be taking out a mortgage of $282,504. I believe in buying below your means. And I don't believe in letting the mortgage or real estate industry tell you what you can afford because they have skin in the game! The more expensive house you buy, the more money they make! Plus they base their calculations of what you can afford on vague, theoretical formulas that may not apply to you. Good luck!


Washington, D.C.: A family member recently divorced and as part of the settlement he had to assume the $32K American Express debt. He/they don't have the best credit history so, when he went to his credit union to get a loan to payoff the debt (doing so for the lower interest rate) he was told he'd need a co-signer for the loan. I've been asked to be the co-signer. Besides the pitfalls of mixing family and money what are the downside of doing so. If he defaults does this mean that the lender and come after me?

Elisabeth Leamy: DON'T DO IT! No matter how much you love this person, there are other ways to express your love. When you co-sign, their debt becomes your debt. If your relative pays late (as he has done in the past) YOUR credit will be ruined.

Marianna Olszewski: It is always a hard decision to give/lend or cosign for a family member. I suggest if you are ok with giving "as a gift" money or cosigning knowing you might be asked to pay the loan if the family member doesn't and know you might never see that money again - then go ahead and do it. However, if you don't have the money or don't want to write it off as a possible gift to the family member, then don't do it. As an alternative, you can help him or her find ways of paying off the debt by spending less and be there for emotional support.

Michelle Singletary: Please, oh please, oh please, DON'T CO-SIGN.

Look at it this way: when you co-sign it's your debt. Pure. Simple.

You are not a back-up borrower. You are fully and 100 percent responsible for that $32,000.

And by the way, it's not just if he defaults. Your credit history is dinged if he's late paying. If he misses just ONE payment they can come after you FIRST. They don't even have to try and go after him/they first.

Don't do it.

If you have the money to "give," give. But don't co-sign.


Arlington, Va.: When contemplating early retirement (let's say, before Social Security would set in), what is a good rule of thumb for the amount you should have in the bank? Would 20x annual salary be enough (ie, 5% ROI each year to have the same salary you are making before retirement)?

Carla A. Harris: The way that I look at it is, 1) how much does it currently take for you to continue to live at your current level; 2) make a guess for how long that you think you might be around, and pick a bigger number than you think, because thanks to medicine and better health habits, most of us will have the opportunity to live a while. Then grow that number conservatively by 5% per yr for inflation and other cost of living increases.

Marianna Olszewski: It depends on your current situation. Can you live off your annual salary or do you need more money? I would ask yourself how much realistically you will need to live on for those years and make sure your investment portolio can throw off that much income for you. You sound pretty knowledgeable in this area. I would also talk to your financial advisor.


Rockville, Md.: I am a guy, but was very conservative in my retirement investing. Bottom line is I lost nothing in the stock market crash and retired on schedule.

I question the impartiality of the advisers who push for more risky investments. A small percent of something is much better than a large per cent of nothing.

Deborah Owens: Interesting point of few. My perspective is that it's important to have balance. There is risk in every choice....

Will your current savings grow enough to keep up with the cost of living.....You can invest for growth conservatively.


Washington, D.C.: Michelle, I submitted a comment a few weeks ago about what to do with my bonus money. I just wanted to say that I followed your advice and paid off two credit cards and almost paid off a third and it is like a weight lifted off my back!

I still have a ways to go in repaying student loan debt, but through following your advice, I'm into the principals on most of those loans too!

Thank you for your common sense advice and to those who question your approach on paying off the smallest amounts first - it really does work. Looking at that online statement and seeing a zero really makes you see how the end is in sight!

Michelle Singletary: WOW.

Seriously, this is not a plant testimony (smile).

Thank you so much for sharing. What you experienced is exactly what I've found in working with people. Getting a statement with a zero balance is so freeing.

And I can't wait to rejoice with you when you get the other debts paid off.


Health care: For some years now, my husband and I have made employment and financial/living decisions based somewhat on our family's need for health care. While I know you are likely not (yet) an expert on the new legislation, how should we be looking at the changes to be introduced in health care as we plan for future-out? Do you know of a good unbiased resource we could use to help us figure out how to position ourselves? I don't want to know about politics or morals, I just want to know what has been enacted so I can make reasonable decisions for my family. What does the health-care law mean to me?

Carla A. Harris: You are correct, I have not had a chance to completely familiarize myself with the implications of the new legislation and there a lot of details that are still being developed.

Michelle Singletary: You are in luck.

Click on the link and you will go to a tool to help you access how the new law will affect your family.

The one good thing about it is that in the near future your ability to get some decent, even if basic, health care won't be tied to your job!


Lanham, Md.: Regarding the question from Laurel, Md. about women being conservative investors....I am the total opposite. I am 27 and I have little to no money invested in bonds. Is this wrong?

Deborah Owens: You have the one thing money can't buy and that's time. Time for your money to grow and time for it to recover if the market goes down. However, one of the reasons for diversification is to have the fortitude to stay the course because your entire portfolio isn't exposed. As long as you don't have to sell you really haven't lost money.


Baltimore, Md.: Ms. Leamy, I must take exception to the idea that buying a house is a way to save big 'because you are now paying yourself.'

Really, at the beginning of a mortgage most of what you pay goes to interest! Plus there are people who just can't manage things well enough to maintain a house.

Elisabeth Leamy: Ah, but if you pay extra toward your mortgage principal each month you will save tens of thousands AND the place will be yours years sooner. On a modest $150,000 mortgage at 5%, if you prepay just $25 a month, you will save about $11,000 over the life of the loan. I know of no other savings technique where so little can do so much. And yes, there are plenty who argue you should invest for retirement first, etc etc. The VERY people you are worrying about who can't manage their money effectively, would do better with a guaranteed "investment" like a mortgage prepayment.

Marianna Olszewski: My rule of thumb is to buy a house if you 1. plan to live in it for four or more years and 2. you can "comfortably" afford the mortgage payments, house upkeep and other expenses. Your mortgage payments/taxes should be at least in part tax-deductible, also homes have historically appreciated over time so your home investment should appreciate.


Washington, D.C.: I'm single and 32 years old. I own my home, have no credit card debt, have an emergency fund, and am getting pretty close to paying off my student loans. I also have an employer-sponsored retirement account, and I'm keeping a budget. I'm looking to learn more about financial planning, and how to best manage the money that I'm trying to save. Is there a book that you would recommend to point me in the right direction? It seems like a lot of the books I've seen are very basic (how to get out of debt or keep a budget) while others are too advanced (investment jargon that I'm not familiar with). I'm hoping for something that's in between these extremes.

Thanks for any ideas!

Carla A. Harris: I recommend Suze Orman's book, Women & Money, owning the power to control your destiny.

Michelle Singletary: I would start with the books by Deborah or Marianna and Elisabeth. You know the ones I've recommended!

Also "Spend Well, Live Rich" is a good book written by a really wonderful person (me).


Montgomery Village, Md.: Greetings All.

"Expect to Win" provided me with much needed insight and inspiration. Thank you for this wonderful book!

Carla A. Harris: You are most welcome! I am glad that "the pearls" have been value added for you as they have for me!


Follow up from Arlington: Elizabeth, thank you for your response to my question. Can I ask for other opinions, too? Michelle - I would love to hear from you on this. (AND I LOVE YOUR WORK!) $350,000 in this area won't buy anything in a safe neighborhood within a reasonable commute from Washington with room for kids. We're both 30 and want to buy a place that we won't have to sell in a few years when we have a walking child in the house. I feel like we know we can afford $3,000 a month in a mortgage payment since we have so much savings and our monthly budget for rent and savings is $4,000. Also, we're contributing a total of about $1,200 a month to retirement.

Michelle Singletary: Honestly, it's hard to access what you should do based on the little information I have.

But I live in this area and with careful planning and a good real estate agent you can find something in that range that's decent. With so many foreclosures, there's so much more to choose from. Now you may have to look outside of Arlington or Va.

Find a good agent and really dig for some neighborhoods that may not be on your radar screen.


Waldorf, Md.: Hi Michelle, thank you for your advice. I currently have a credit card debt of about $6K. I have the funds in my savings to pay it all off. The question is should I dip into my savings to pay off the amount? Thanks.

Deborah Owens: I say crunch the numbers. How much interest are you paying on your credit card? How much are you earning on your savings? With savings rates so low, you are probably better off paying off the loan.

Elisabeth Leamy: Yup! Deborah has this right. It's simple math. If your savings account pays lower interest than your credit cards charge, you will instantly "make" the spread by using the savings to pay off the cards.

Marianna Olszewski: If your savings account is returning very little interest, say 1%, and you have an emergency fund and retirement funds in place, then by all means pay down the high interest credit card debt!

Michelle Singletary: I say also consider your peace of mind.

Don't worry so much about what your savings account is paying.

How much is that debt on your back costing?

And I mean to your mental state.

Be sure you have a good savings cushion and if you do, see how much of that $6,000 you could let go to quickly begin to get out of that bondage.

If it's $3,000 then go for it. Pay off the rest quickly and then quickly build back up your savings.


Washington, D.C.: Question to Book Club Authors: Best Advice Received and Top Advice to Give

Deborah Owens: Best advice. Learn the difference between wealth and income.

Top advice to give. Learn the difference between wealth and income.

Elisabeth Leamy: Received: My dad taught me that health insurance is for catastrophic problems, so I should pay for the low level healthcare myself and get the best policy I can afford -with a high deductible- to cover the big stuff. I have saved thousands by approaching healthcare coverage this way. And I know that I have a very generous plan if I ever have a major problem.

To give: My best general advice is to ferociously protect and promote your credit score. I had poor credit in my post college days. I calculate that by raising my score, I have saved $132,000 in the past 10 years because I was able to qualify for a much lower rate on my mortgage.

Marianna Olszewski: Best Advice Received is from my Dad - always pay cash. when you pay cash you know how much you are really spending, it's real, it's tangible.

Best Advice Given is invest in yourself and your education and follow your dream, you can have it all!

Carla A. Harris: Best Advice Received: Understand that YOU are the master of your own destiny, the real Captain of your own ship.

Top Advice to Give: Understand that Perception is the co-pilot to Reality, How People Perceive You Directly Impacts How they Deal with You, from Chapter 4 in "Expect To Win."

Michelle Singletary: Best Advice Received from my grandmother: Always ask yourself is this a need or is this a want?"

Best given: Debt makes you a slave!


new credit card statement: I'm going to grudgingly give praise to B of A. I got my credit card statement from them, and they've done a redesign of the statement. Right in the middle of the page, in a highlighted box, they showed the difference between paying only the minimum, and then paying what amounted to roughly twice the minimum, and the effect it had on how long it took to pay off the existing balance and how much interest you'd save. The difference was paying it off in 28 YEARS at the minimum, or doubling that amount and paying it off in 36 MONTHS and saving over $6000 in interest. You can't miss the box, and it's in plain language. So, way to go, B of A (still don't' like you for many reasons) for attempting to educate your customers on debt management.

Michelle Singletary: Um...hate to burst your praise, but B of A didn't do that because they are so great or wanted to help consumers.

The new credit card law that went into effect last month now mandates that credit card companies put that box on people's statements.

In fact, the credit industry fought that provision tooth and nail!


Herndon, Va.: Just a word on tighter access to credit now than in the past- we are expecting a baby and with that meaning we will have two kids, we decided we needed to replace my wife's old, high-mileage, breakdown-prone sedan. We make good money but have some credit balances. We were rejected by a major credit agency for our loan, and were thunderstruck by this, so we ran our credit reports, which were immaculate, other than the balances. We each had scores in the 850s from all three agencies.

We were successful later with another vendor, but only after putting some cash down on the car we purchased.

Elisabeth Leamy: These are, indeed, tighter times for credit. I think the outcome was positive. You were forced to put some money down. That's better anyway because it's not financially healthy to take out a huge loan on a depreciating asset like a car. My top choice is for people to pay cash for a car. (If you can't swing it now, I give 2 plans in my book for you to pay cash for your NEXT car). If you can't pay cash, you should make as big a downpayment as you can and limit the length of the loan to 2 years. Can't afford the car you want? Sorry. Gotta get a cheaper car.


Washington, D.C.: Credir scores: I pulled my credit reports this morning and got scores from two companies. One has my score at 786 and said this was a C rating - only "average." The other gave me a 728 but said I was above average. What gives? Which one to believe?

Elisabeth Leamy: The only score that truly matters is the "FICO" score developed by Fair Isaac Company. You can get that one at for $16. I suspect you pulled proprietary scores sold by the credit bureaus. Because the data in their reports on you varies some, your score will vary some. A tip top FICO score is anything 720 or above on a scale of 300 to 850.

Marianna Olszewski: i would suggest pulling the report from and looking to see if there are any discrepancies on the report first. I would make sure the score is the FICO score from


For Jacksonville - I was unemployed too: ..for nine months and I can empathize with your situation. I spent 6-7 hours, seven days a week looking for work. Is he talking to anyone (pastor, doctor, friends, ex-coworkers)? If he is sitting home every day, could he be depressed? Are there outplacement services available from the state? Are there networking groups available? Good luck and God bless.

Deborah Owens: Great advice. Most jobs are found by networking and referrals.

Marianna Olszewski: I was once unemployed for 9 months, it is a tough time. I networked as much as I could, took as much action as possible and kept my spirits up. I was also open to different opportunities and eventually took a job in a slightly different career, which led to starting my own business. Keep an open mind!


Re: Unemployed Husband: Hi Michelle and Co.: I was laid off from my job last year, and like the reader, we are managing financially because my spouse still brings home a good salary and we have no consumer debt. We haven't had to dip into our savings, but it's a relief to know that it is there, just in case.

I understand that people need a mourning period after a job loss. At the same time, the anger mentioned seems displaced and unconstructive.

For me, while I look for a job, it's been an opportunity to contribute to our household in other ways: I clean during the week, so we don't have to spend our weekends, when we have time together, doing chores. We have better home-cooked meals during the week, since I have the time to actually fix things. I am able to spend time on causes that matter to me.

Obviously, the reader knows better than I her own situation, but maybe re-framing the definition of work would be important.

And while I'm definitely ready to get back into the workforce and am actively looking for a job, I have to admit I am enjoying my time to work the way I want to.

Michelle Singletary: Thanks for the advice. I really appreciate your sharing your story. Hopefully it will help that wife.

But it's tough out here so I can understand how her husband may be acting out because he's just so frustrated.


California: So, I seem to be at the other end of the spectrum from some of the other chatters today. No windfall here. In fact, my husband, daughter and I are moving into a 1-bedroom apartment next week in order to cut our rent expenses by $300. Husband is unemployed and unemployment ended a few weeks ago. We have literally been skipping meals trying to keep ourselves afloat. We have no savings left (other than 401k) but our only debt is a car loan and my student loans.

So, my question, or plea, is how do we make the best of this savings on our rent? I feel like we've been living on the edge for so long and now maybe we'll have a little breathing room, but I'm scared about making the right decisions with this money.

Deborah Owens: This economic crisis has many people suffering and you are not alone. You have taken action to reduce your expenses and most people wait until it's too late. So congratulations are in order. I would suggest that you use the extra savings to accumulate an emergency fund until your husband finds new employment. Make sure that your husband is using Social Media sites like LinkedIn and Facebook to find employment opportunities.

Elisabeth Leamy: I'm proud of you. You know you are in a tough spot and you made a SMART, if tough, choice to address it. It pains me to hear that you and your family are skipping meals though. My first suggestion for your rent savings is to make sure you eat nutritiously. You need good fuel for the job search! Learn ways to stretch your grocery budget WAY further at and


seriously?: Listen I hate to be snarky, but a couple making $160K in this area with little to no debt and no's hard to really be concerned here. Your only "problem" is affording a $3K/month mortgage for a house costing half a million? Lord have mercy. Try scaling it back a bit. Once kids come along, that $3K monthly debt is going to be huge and you'll wish you had some of it available.

Michelle Singletary: So don't be snarky.

We all have our financial issues from low to high.

But you are right about making sure you have a mortgage you can easily afford if and when you might add other things to your budget. One kid, job loss, major illness can knock you back quite a bit. Whatever you do, don't get a house that costs more than 36 percent of your net monthly pay.


Silver Spring, Md.: I do not own a home, but I have student loans that are close to if not above what a home would cost. I am trying to figure out what bills to pay off first. I am wondering if I should put all my extra money to try to pay all my students loans off (which will take years), or if I should treat my student loans like a "mortgage" and follow a monthly payment plan. Since I am in the non-profit world, there is a program that allows some of my loans to be forgiven in 10 years. Thanks.

Deborah Owens: I believe you are on the right track here. The sooner you get started on your home purchase the more tax benefits you will receive and the opportunity to build equity. I don't have a crystal ball but it appears that we are in a buyers' market right now.

Michelle Singletary: I wouldn't take on another mortgage while I have a mortgage-like student loan payment.

All the tax breaks in the world can't help you if you are saddled with debt you can't handle. Besides, trust me, after three homes the deductions aren't that great when you consider the cost of owning a home -- repairs, mortgage interest, repairs, insurance, kids wrecking stuff that has to be replaces, repairs, etc.

Do what you can to get rid of that student loan debt before burying yourself under more debt.

Homes will still be there.


housing near DC: Oh baloney. $350K can get you a good place in a safe neighborhood well within a reasonable commute of DC - it just might not have the pretty granite countertops and such.

Michelle Singletary: True that.


Mount Airy, Md.: When someone dies, should you formally notify the credit bureaus as part of wrapping up their affairs/estate? Or does just canceling their credit cards and closing out outstanding loans effectively do the same thing?

Elisabeth Leamy: The credit bureaus get data from public records, so they will learn of the death eventually. Regarding any debts, if the deceased left money to cover them, great. But do not be railroaded into spending your own money to cover the debts of someone who has passed. Collectors will try. But you do not have a legal obligation to pay those bills, even if you are family. The deceased's person's estate does. But not you personally.


merging finances: When my husband and I merged our finances, we kept both accounts and simply made them joint accounts. Both have benefits such as his bank has many locations while my credit union has practically no minimum balance requirements and great loan rates if needed. We won't go into the fact that he can still balance his checkbook to the penny and I have never even tried. Twelve years later, it's all still good.

Marianna Olszewski: I suggest every woman look at the family finances and be aware of what you own, owe, what money is coming in and going out. Its important to take ownership of your family finances just in case. Things can happen unfortunately--death, divorce, health crises--and you might one day wish you had known more about the family finances.


Read 2 of the 4 books : I read "A Purse of Your Own", "Save Big", and on the hold list at the library for "Expect to Win". Many of the things in "A Purse of Your Own" I had read before. I've been reading about investing since I was 19 (now 34). My income was cut this year due to budget reductions (I'm a public librarian in a rural area). My best friend who lives on my property and helps with a set amount each month as well as doing yard/house work in exchange. I'm in the state retirement system in Ohio (OPERS) so when I retire (I'm a single mom) I will not get Social Security. I also invest in the state 457 plan. My problem is there seems to be no retirement need formula for my situation. No social security, 457 plan (not matched), and OPERS combined plan. Any suggestions on that front?

Many of the things in "Save Big" do not apply to me or I already do. I bought a house within my means and don't plan on moving, I only buy used cars, and use my flexible spending plan for medical expenses. Once it runs out, unless it's an emergency, I wait until the next year for any appointments. One thing I gained - I signed up for I only buy what I use anyways but now I have a better way to get coupons.

Elisabeth Leamy: Thanks for reading Save BIG! It's meant as a book you can return to as these different BIG savings ideas come up in your life. (Make your next used car a "dark horse car" and save an additional 20% over the already smart move of buying used! Since you own a home, consider appealing the property tax assessment, since real estate values have fallen so far.) For those that have not read all the ways to be a Guerrilla Grocery Shopper, this writer is referring to creative couponing, where you combine coupons with other incentives to get groceries for as much as 80% off-- even free. 2 more sites to mention:, where you can look up products you need and the site tells you where to find a coupon for them. And, where you can read blogs by grocery gurus who shop at your same store and copy their cost-saving moves!


Riverdale, Md.: I just heard Michelle speak today to an audience in Riverdale, Md.. She was great and I thought of a question after the event was over. I am all for Michelle's ideas saving money and I'm wondering what would be the most effective way for me to convince my wife that our spending habits have to change in order for us to get control of our debt? I'd rather not use divorce as a last ditch effort but it appears it may be coming to that. Thanks in advance for your help!

Marianna Olszewski: Great question, i would try to involve your wife in your family finances as much as possible. if you sit down once a week and go over the expenses, income, spending and she can take ownership of the family finances, I promise she will gradually change her habits. Another suggestion is asking her to keep a little "money diary" of her expenses, so when she (and you) buy something put it down in the diary, when she sees how much she is spending, she might tweak her spending herself.

Michelle Singletary: First thanks for your kind words. It was such a wonderful group.

And I agree with Marianna.

Do what you can to really involve your wife.

But what you don't or shouldn't do is use divorce as a weapon.

It is still cheaper to keep her.

Do everything in your power to try and work this out.

Try this. Go to the search page on the Post site. Type in "The Power to Prosper."

Download and fill out the net worth statement. Then show her all your debt liabilities and where you stand. Maybe if she sees in one place what's going on with your money, she will see the light.


Debt collectors: You are SO right about them. When my mother died she owed a couple of thousand in credit card debt. They found out who the next of kin were and the executor (my sister) and hounded her for the money - relentlessly. There was nothing in the estate - no insurance, no savings, nothing. I think they hounded her for over a year.

Michelle Singletary: Don't let them beat you down. Unless you co-signed for a relative, you are not responsible for the debt when they die.


Baltimore, Md.: Just before I started college, my mom opened up a new credit card (without my dad's knowledge) and put me down as a secondary user. It was in case there were any emergencies while I was away. I never used it and I don't think I ever even had the card. Over the years she nearly maxxed it though, and now that I'm on my own, the high balance is hurting my credit. We had my name taken off the account, but it's still on my history. How long would that take to go away, or do I have to file corrections with each bureau? Thank you.

Elisabeth Leamy: It's going to be on there for 7 years. You can try to get it "corrected" but it may not work since it was not an actual error.


Washington, D.C.: My partner and I have lived together for 5 years, but currently have no plans to get married. What is the best way to split costs on simple things, like groceries, furniture, etc.? Is a shared credit card, paid off in full each month, better than a shared checking account? Thanks!

Elisabeth Leamy: Why share accounts at all? But if you must, do the checking account because it doesn't affect your credit score. If you open a credit card together and something goes wrong and it doesn't get paid on time or at all by one or the other of you, your scores will suffer...


Worried woman: Hi Michelle, I'm a single woman in my mid-30s. I do not foresee that I'll have children, and I doubt that I'll ever get married. I am very worried about my financial future. While I'm certainly better off than many people, I also don't want to be eating Ramen noodles when I'm in my 60s, 70s and beyond. Currently I make about $53k a year here in the DC area. I share an apartment, my car is fully paid for, my only debt is a student loan that's about $6,800. I put 12% of my salary into my 401k, my company contributes another 13% of my salary on top of that (yes, very generous). However, for a number of years I worked much lower paid non-profit jobs and barely contributed towards retirement. Even with the amount I'm currently contributing, I am terrified that inflation and the cost of health care down the road will leave me shivering in a cold apartment I cannot afford to heat.

Carla A. Harris: No need to worry, continue to max out on employer sponsored retirement accounts, stick to your budget save, save, save. Once you have saved a good amount beyond cushion, start to look at mutual fund vehicles that will offer you a higher return than a savings account. Go slowly first and then accelerate as you learn more and feel comfortable enough to go beyond a basic saving account. As you are in your early 30s, you have the room, after cushion to take on a little more risk.

Marianna Olszewski: You are doing great. Congratuations on saving and maxing out your retirement and have no high interest debt. Continue to put money into retirement. I would also suggest maybe a fun part-time job that could add to retimement savings.

Deborah Owens: Ditto. You are doing great and your future looks bright from where I am sitting. Keep up the great work because it's not how much money you earn, it's how much you keep. And you are doing just swell in that department.


Co-signing: Don't do it. And I know how hard it is to love your sibling or friend and want to help because you think you can, but don't do it. Without a lot of soul-searching and a hard look at your own finances, don't do it. Unless you can afford to give that money away. There are other avenues to be explored before you sign your name on some contract with "promises" from your family/friends. Signed: Been there, been burned.

Michelle Singletary: Thanks, Been Burned, for the advice.


Little Rock, Ark.: Michelle, My husband and I are in our mid-40s. We have two children ages 7 and 9. We're debt free, except our house. We currently have approximately $150,000 in retirement savings-Roth IRA, IRA (no 401 K). I'm never sure which mutual fund to invest in or other investment tool options. Do we need to seek the help of a Certified Financial Planner or investment advisor? How would that affect the fees we pay? What are the pros and cons of investing yourself vs. hiring someone to help? Thanks, Linda

Elisabeth Leamy: You've gotten a great start. I think at this stage in your lives, it would be wise to get professional advice. If you want maximum flexibility, you could pay a CFP a fee to create a financial plan for you. You could then execute the plan yourself, rather than paying an advisor commissions on specific investments.

Michelle Singletary: I agree with Elisabeth.

I was in your place a few years ago and just wanted a professional to double check what we were doing. Best decision ever. We were fine but "SHE" helped in a number of area, such as recommending we boost our disability coverage and "SHE" got me to be a little less conservative since I have so many more years until I retire.


Michigan gal: I recently Googled my cousin's name for an unrelated reason (she was quoted in an article in a local paper and I wanted to look it up) and the THIRD search result was a sheriff's office posting that showed her home was in foreclosure. I had no idea. Please let your readers know that this info is VERY easy to find. It's also motivation to not buy more house than you can safely afford.

Michelle Singletary: Yup, lots of info out there.

But don't rush to judgment about your cousin.

However do call her and just love on her because I'm sure she's very stressed right now.


Cincinnati, Ohio: Often media recommends 4 months emergency funds. Having survived a divorce crisis myself, with a 4-month 'cushion', I can testify that is not enough! It went much faster than that due to periodic and unexpected expenses. Please advise people to include ALL annual expenses such as school fees, life insurance, etc. in their monthly average income. Wish I was like some of your audience here with a huge refund coming, but have no credit card debt and another 2 years to recover from divorce expenses. I did retain my pension and am continuing my voluntary contributions, though not to the extent that I would like. Thanks- good postings.

Michelle Singletary: You are so right. Often people say they have an emergency fund but they only have saved their rent/mortgage and car payment.

I recommend you total ALL it takes to run your house for several months. Include everything and aim to save that up for 3 to 6 months or more in this economy.


Alexandria, Va.: Re: Out of work resentful husband:

She needs to do more than just sit back and let him smolder. She's talking with her pastor, she needs to try HARD to get husband talking to him, or another professional, as well. Resentment can be a major block in a marriage, and anger, that is directed at a spouse over conditions that are outside of the spouse's control builds resentment on both sides.

Saw an interview on CNN, where the correspondent predicted a big spike in divorce in the next few years over just this issue.

Michelle Singletary: Good tips. A lot of you have shown concern for this reader and her husband.

How very nice.


Boston, Mass.: Michelle, wrote this note on Facebook and wanted to tag you, but couldn't figure out how to since your page is a fan page, not a personal page. Thanks for giving me inspiration--a 30 year old woman minister in the Boston area.

Celebrate with me!

I paid off $45,000 (plus interest) in student loans in four years. Now I am DEBT FREE. FREE FREE FREE!!! (Ahem...except for our mortgage.)

Thank you to my husband, for having the same financial values I do and being just as eager to get rid of debt. I really couldn't have paid off this debt so fast with just one salary. You are amazing and I give thanks every day to have a husband who is gorgeous, funny, and financially savvy!

Thank you to my parents, who provided a lot for me: they paid for my undergraduate studies completely so I could start grad work with a clean slate. They bought me a car when I was in grad school so I could get to my job. They paid for a big portion of my wedding. All huge financial gifts, really priceless. But most important they taught me the value of frugality, saving, investing, giving to charity, appreciating what I have, not racking up debt, and not living beyond my means. Thank you.

Thank you UUA Debt Reduction, for giving me approximately $8,000 of grant money over the course of 4 years. I put every check immediately towards my loans.

Thank you Harvard Divinity School, for giving me a free ride on tuition, meaning I only had to take out loans for my living expenses during the four years I was a student.

Thank you First Parish, for giving me not just a job but a place to live my vocation...and an income.

Thank you Michelle Singletary, financial columnist extraordinaire, who I consider a real prophet when it comes to the evils of debt. She speaks sound financial advice from a place of faith that continues to inspire me.

I just had to write this note because it feels SO GOOD. I'm proud of myself and also very conscious of the fact that I could not have done it alone. Thank you guys!

Michelle Singletary: Thank You!

You deserve all the freedom you now have.

What a lovely, lovely note. Bringing tears to my eyes!


Rockville, Md.: Want to retire?

It can be a three part process.

First get your assets to a place to give you an income for as long as you will need it. Best if it can adjust for inflation to increase as inflation increases.

Second, is to cut expenses. Situate yourself where you can olive for less and have means to get to what you need. Then last of all, provide for the unexpected. That means insurance, self insurance and funds for emergencies.

Be ready.

Have fun. Sunday's Color of Money: Do you know how much to save for retirement?

Michelle Singletary: Again, good points.


Michelle Singletary: Well I'm WAY over my time. Thank you all for joining me today.

I loved having so many great women talking about money.

And thanks to all of you who shared your stories, tips and concerns for others in the chat.

Take care and keep on saving and getting rid of your debt bondage.


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