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Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, April 29, 2010; 12:00 PM

Personal finance columnist

Michelle Singletary

This Story

will host a live discussion on Thursday, April 29 at 12 p.m. ET to answer your questions about money. She will be joined by Gail Blanke, author of "Throw Out 50 Things: Clear the Clutter, Find Your Life," the Color of Money Book Club selection for the month of April.

In her column from April 4, Michelle writes that spring, the season of rebirth, is as good a time to get busy throwing out the stuff clogging your home, office, mind and spirit. And Blanke's ideas can help you clean up your money mess or the emotional baggage that causes it.

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.

Submit a question now or during the discussion.

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Michelle Singletary: Welcome everyone. So glad that you could join me. So have you given away or thrown away your 50 things?

I'm still in the process but can't wait to declutter.

Anyway, let's get started.

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Jersey City, N.J.: I do need to get rid of things! But where I get stuck is when the things I don't need are still good for something, so I would feel guilty throwing them in the trash... yet finding a new home for them seems like too much work and I put it off. Any suggestions how to get past this?

Gail Blanke: It'll be much easier for you go let to if you can imagine someone who needs it using your "stuff" NOW. Your local community center would love your old things - so would the Goodwill! Btw, this goes for books, dishes, all kinds of things. Look in the Resource Guide in "Throw Out Fifty Things" for help! You'll feel like a million bucks when you clear the decks...

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Fairfax, Va.: Dear Michelle,

Thrilled to see you are chatting today, have a meeting at 12, so posting early.

I contribute the amount to get the full employer match. I have a bit of cash leftover after budgeting and paying bills. Should I contribute more to my retirement account, or pay extra to my mortgage? (We have an emergency fund and life happens fund). I ask, because the value of our house has dropped, (though we aren't underwater, the assessment by the county is exactly what we owe), and I thought maybe building more equity would be a good idea.

Thank you so much!

Michelle Singletary: If you have all other bases covered and you are confident you are saving well for retirement, I might put that money to making extra payments to the principal of my mortgage. The sooner you get out from under that HUGE burden, the better.

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New York: Dear Michelle,

I am having a dispute with a friend. She was declined for an auto loan a year ago, and her credit report shows she had some late payments on bills - which I think is the main issue. She thinks it is because she does not have a history of taking out and paying off loans (which is true too) and she wants to take out a loan she does not need, just to improve her credit score in case she wants to buy a house in a few years.

I say just pay your bills on time and don't take out an unnecessary loan. But there are websites that advise the kind of loan she wants to take out - I suspect they are out to make money, not to give good advice.

What do you think?

Michelle Singletary: I think your friend has a GREAT and SMART friend.

When this chat is over show her the transcript. Then point her to this website: www.myfico.com.

There she will see further proof what you've been telling and and what I'm about to tell her.

Do not take out any loans. Pay your bills on time, all the time and that is the No. 1 way to improve your credit score. Your friend should know that 35 percent of a person's credit score is made up of how they pay their bills. It's the largest piece of that pie. And the more recent she had late payments, the more negative impact it has on that piece of the pie.

In fact, taking out those loans could actually make her credit score drop, because the scoring system also looks at how much debt you have.

So you are right on the money on this point.

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Sterling, Va.: I realize this isn't related to the book club discussion & isn't exactly financial-planning related either, but...

I am about to be laid off. In fact, our entire location will close, as we've lost a contract.

My company has said that in this case- where an entire location closes- they are not obligated to provide/offer COBRA coverage. The company is not closing, just this particular entity.

Is this true? Can you point me in the proper direction for help? Is the Department of Labor a good place to begin?

Oh, and it will occur the first week of June, so we'll miss the COBRA subsidy extension.

I'm really beginning to freak out. Thank you!

Michelle Singletary: I believe your employer is wrong and you should definitely check this out. Here's what the Dept. of Labor says: "The law generally covers health plans maintained by private-sector employers with 20 or more employees, employee organizations, or state or local governments."

I also found this: "If there is no longer a health plan, there is no COBRA coverage available. If, however, there is another plan offered by the company, you may be covered under that plan. Union members who are covered by a collective bargaining agreement that provides for a medical plan also may be entitled to continued coverage."

So again, I think you were told some incorrect information.

If your company is going to continue to maintain coverage, then it appears you are eligible for COBRA.

Check out this web site:

http://www.dol.gov/ebsa/faqs/faq_consumer_cobra.HTML

For more information visit the COBRA Premium Reduction FAQs or call 1.866.444.3272 to speak to a Benefits Adviser.

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San Francisco: My friends and I do a clothing swap every few months. It's easier to get rid of nice things that just aren't good on me if I know that it could be going to someone who will be excited to have it. There are no expectations at the swap--if you bring 10 things and get 3 back, that's okay. In preparation, I go through my closet and drawers and pull things out in two categories: nice enough to swap but I never wear, needs to go to Goodwill. If there are leftovers in the swap pile, I take them to the consignment shop. It's just one area of my life, but clothes have major clutter potential, especially with all of the great sales that have been going on.

Gail Blanke: This is great. You might also want to make it a "Swap Party" where you try on other people's clothes; have a sort of fashion show - maybe add the accessories, etc. and have some fun.

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Bowie, Md.: Hello, I am so sentimental. I keep all of my greeting cards that anyone has given me. Of course I have photos, and some of my children's artwork. How do I pare down greeting cards? Thank you!

Gail Blanke: I understand; it's tough to let that stuff go. But you need to remember that the memories aren't in the stuff - even the cards - but in your heart. I've framed some of my daughters' notes and artwork, on the other hand. But at least I've gotten rid of the stacks of paper!

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savings or CD??: My dad recently wrote me a check for a rather large amount and told me to save the money in the event he needs it for nursing home. I want to keep that money seperate from my normal finances so I'm not tempted to use it.

Is it better to do a savings or a short term CD that I'd keep reinvesting if he doesn't need the money? I want to earn some interest.

Also how will this affect taxes, do I need to claim that money? The money is mine after he passes but now I need to keep it in the event he needs it for his care in nursing home.

Michelle Singletary: I would do a short-term CD, six months perhaps or maybe a year to keep it liquid.

As for taxes, it's still your dad's money at this point. If he did gift it to you while he's alive or after he passes, it counts against his tax liability, not yours.

And my dear, let's not use the phrase "tempted to use it." Always remember that it's still your dad's money. He's trusting you, so don't betray that trust.

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Methuen, Mass.: What a great concept this is. In my life, I've adopted a similar ritual and mantra. The ritual is a monthly culling on clothes, books and other personal items I haven't either used in a year or made a solid plan to use. The mantra is one I learned from a city manager I used to cover when I was a cub reporter in New Hampshire: Do it, delegate it or dump it.

I'm looking forward to learning more, specifically, about the "50 things" thing (though I boned up on it a little by reading Michelle's column), and how the physical act of jettisoning objects translates into improved mental well-being.

Gail Blanke: Love it. My mantra is: You can't grow if you don't let go. And just about EVERYTHING you throw out has a positive emotional benefit - whether it's a too tight sweater or a too small view of yourself. The emotional clutter has to go. It's spring and it's time to reinvent ourselves...

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Columbus, Ohio: Michelle,

When people say they have an amount in retirement (i.e., $100,000) are they including pensions, 401(k)/403(b)'s, Roth's and personal savings but NOT Social Security?

Thank You!

Michelle Singletary: Generally, I think people are not counting what they will get in Social Security since that's a monthly check.

And I think they mean what they've saved or invested.

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Canton, Md.: Hi Michelle, Love your chats. Just wanted to pass along some info I just recently received. There's a website called freecycle.org where you can donate unwanted items. They're mission is to recycle. The only catch is you must give the items away for free. Worth looking into.

Michelle Singletary: Thank you so much for the compliment and the tip.

I've heard of this site. Haven't used it but the folks who have say it's good.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I have SO much to get rid of as my house is much to cluttered. I get overwhelmed as I am trying to be more organized, but my two children -- both who have ADHD and I am a single parent -- also need to be more organized. I simply don't know where to start. I acknowledge that my surroundings are "cluttering" my mind as well!

Gail Blanke: Start small! Maybe spend 10 or 15 minutes. Just do a drawer (like that drawer in the kitchen...you know that drawer) and revel in how good it feels to clear it out! And then celebrate! You won't feel exhausted; you'll feel energized. I promise.

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Arlington, Va.: Does giving this book to my mom for Mother's Day send the wrong message?

Gail Blanke: No, I don't think so. You're definitely not implying she's messy - you're inviting her to "let go" of anything that would weigh her down or hold her back. This is a book about finding the energy and optimism that comes from clearing the decks and moving forward!

Michelle Singletary: I totally agree with Gail.

Now, if you do think your mom is messy or needs help getting rid of junk, don't put that in the card.

Just say thought you might enjoy this book recommended by this wonderful, smart columnist I read :)

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Arlington, Mass.: Michelle, Thank you for taking my question. This is more relevant to your column on student loans than to today's topic. My son is currently in the 8th grade; I have a 529 plan for him. I am preparing to refinance my mortgage to take advantage of a lower interest rate and also to get money for home improvements and repairs. I will be getting a 15 year fixed-rate mortgage. My question is: does it make sense for me to borrow enough additional money to make a 5-year contribution to the 529 plan? Some possibly relevant assumptions: The mortgage amount either way is well below the current market value of my home. The alternative to making a 5-year contribution would be to make maximum monthly contributions. The refinanced mortgage would be due to be paid off around the time that I expect to retire. No other significant debt at the moment, although I need to buy a car soon and will need to finance part of that purchase, so reducing cash flow is appealing. Financial aid is most likely to be in the form of loans that would have higher interest rates than my mortgage (even before taking into account the mortgage interest tax deduction). In addition, as your column suggests, there are be additional risks to having a larger student loan balance, although there is the separate issue of who would be responsible for those loans.

Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Michelle Singletary: It's great you are thinking ahead.

But I would not USE BORROWED money to invest. You increase your risks.

So no, I would not advise you to pull money out of your house -- increasing your mortgage debt load -- to invest. Bad idea.

Use actual saved money for the college fund.

And why?

Beside the debt thing and the increase risk them, the recent housing bust has seen we shouldn't bank on our homes to increase in value or hold value or whatever.

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Hyattsville, Md.: This was very inspirational and well-timed! I just wish my husband would get with the program. I won't purge other people's stuff; and he's more of a clutterbug than I am. Suggestions?

Gail Blanke: Yeah, don't throw out other people's stuff... But what you can do is throw out your own - and talk about how great it makes you feel. Letting go can become contageous when people exude the energy the get from tossing stuff out. My husband has a tough time throwing out books; when I suggested we take them to the local community center for someone else to enjoy, he ended up filling up 3 bags! And he felt great about it.

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Maryland -- College Costs: I have discovered there are several "talks" you have with your wonderful child. Most parents first think of the birds and the bees, which is true. Michelle would say the how to handle your money talk, true. I would add to that the money talk: affording college. We had the "college money talk" with our wonderful child. Basically we can only afford in-state tuition. Anything else is scholarships and no loans for the child or the parents.

Hearing about young adults with $200,000 worth of joint college loan debt, young adults thinking that they will have to pay for college loans like a HOUSE, aka 30 years of debt, is horrible. These decisions will have generational effects on college students today.

We had the college cost talk and it was frank, and it was not liked but understood that you don't go into college debt like a home mortgage.

Some parents may tough out their kids who are currently in college. But parents of incoming freshmen students are reconsidering the value of out-of-state tuition and staggering college loan debt.

Michelle Singletary: Love that you had the college talk. Had that too with my 15-year-old. She didn't want to hear it either. I'm a bit crazy so she wants to go as far away as possible.

Told her, if you get money, you can go anywhere. If you get partial scholarships you can go anywhere because we have enough for in-state tuition plus room, board and books to make up the difference.

No money. You go in-state. Period!

She sulked. Didn't work on me. We will not let her go into debt.

She said: I want to go away for college.

I said: You can go to University of Maryland, where I got a great education.

She said: It's too close to home. (We live in Maryland and about 15 miles from the school.)

I said: If you walk, that's pretty far away.

Talk over.

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Sterling, Va.- again!: Just wanted to thank you Michelle, for all of that information on COBRA!!! It gives me better piece of mind! And thank you for all you do- your biweekly chats, the newsletter, the column!

Michelle Singletary: You are so very welcome. Glad I could give you some peace.

So definitely follow up.

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Anonymous: I look forward to reading this book, and thanks for coming on. I do have a question about getting rid of stuff: let's say, hypothetically of course, that my mother-in-law gave me a beautiful statue. I appreciate the gift (because it was very thoughtful and probably expensive), and I like the subject of the statue. However, I just don't have the proper setting or space to display it, and I'm just not a big fan of displaying statues. Right now, it's just sitting around gathering dust and not being appreciated for what it is. What do I do? She's the type that will notice it if it's gone, and ask about it. If it matters, I've had the statue for about 6 years. I wouldn't mind storing it (maybe a child would like it someday), but I just don't know. Advice? (This will also help my mental clutter, because I feel so guilty--already--for even thinking of selling/storing it.)

Gail Blanke: Hmmm...this is a little tricky. Here's what I'd do: Display it the next time she comes over and comment that while you admire it very much it's just "not you." Tell her you're wondering if there's someone else who could appreciate it more because it seems a shame that it's "wasted" on you...or words to that effect. Maybe she'll have a thought about who that other person might be.

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Good luck to laid off worker (been there, survived and thrived): COBRA is expensive. I looked at it and opted instead for Bridge Insurance. It's very low cost, for big expenses only. So you don't go bankrupt if you shatter your elbow, but have no coverage for everyday doctor's visits. I went to all my docs (GP, dentist, eyes), filled up my prescriptions before my company coverage ended, and survived on Bridge Insurance until I found another job.

Michelle Singletary: Thank you for your concern. And yes, COBRA can be expensive. The point is to do a lot of research but do the best you can to keep some coverage.

Of course, in the near feature, with the new health-care reform, hopefully people can afford to continue good coverage when they lose a job.

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Silver Spring, Maryland --again: Thank you for your encouragement! I did enjoy how your book designated chapters per room so I can focus on which is most needy at the time. I simply want to set a better example for my children AND be able to find things more easily. Financially, I am doing fairly well, but I realize the "mess" is holding me back from the abundant life promised. Everything seems important and everything must be handled by yesterday. One day I WILL have a home I can be proud of so that people can stop by unannounced...

Michelle Singletary: How nice.

And I so know what you mean. My office. Oh my office. I'm the only one allowed in there.

So work to be proud and you are right it will set a great example for your kids.

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For the greeting card collector: I had the same trouble with my daughter's artwork. She's 6 and it seems we get a good 5-10 pieces a week in her "home" folder. (I guess it's good that her school hasn't sacrificed art?) What we've done is take a digital photo of every last piece that comes in, but only hold on to very few permanently--the make-work crayon drawing of stuff that starts with the letter of the week and the puppet made by gluing a clown cut-out on to a toilet paper tube get discreetly discarded.

Michelle Singletary: Wonderful, wonderful idea. Thank you!

I'm going to try this.

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Thin credit file?: I have no credit cards, and no intent to get one. I've never had one--I have a check card from my bank that hits my checking immediately when I use it. I paid off my last debt about four years ago. I don't have a mortgage or car loan. I do have monthly bills which I pay on time (rent, cable, phone, gym, etc.).

I've been told the lack of recent debt and the lack of credit cards is going to hurt me if/when I do try to get a home loan. Considering I'd be looking at my credit union for the loan rather than a bigger bank or firm, and that I want to put 15%-20% down, how much am I hurting myself, or am I really hurting myself at all?

Michelle Singletary: I don't think you are hurting yourself at all.

But to be sure, talk to your credit union. Find out what you might need to do closer to when you might want to buy a home.

Until then, stay debt-free and live without that bondage.

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Cleaning out "stuff": I had a junk room that was full of old decorative items, clothes, things from my deceased parents homes. A friend came to stay for the weekend and we cleaned it all out so now it is a usable room again. Most everything went to either Purple Heart or VA Vets. In addition to the cleaning I actually gained a room in my house that I can now make into an office. My advice is to get someone to help you - not only does it go faster but having someone who helps you make the tough decisions on what goes and what stays is priceless. All it cost me was a box of bags and fab dinner.

Gail Blanke: Yes!! There's nothing like a "clutter buddy" to keep you focused on what you love and need and let go of what just doesn't serve you any longer. A buddy will be tough on you with questions like,"Are you kiddng?? You haven't worn that in a decade!! Give it away!" Plus, it's a lot more fun. Remember to start tossing out the old regrets, grudges, negative memories while you're at it, okay?

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The College Talk: My parents were VERY upfront with me about the College Money Talk. My dad didn't want me to go into debt, and he had saved a lot of money for each of us (there are three kids) to go to college, BUT if we wanted to go to private school, we had to get scholarships. I knew that from the first month of high school. I got the scholarship and went to my first choice college. If parents are upfront with kids, even if they don't want to hear it, it makes it a lot easier on everyone.

Michelle Singletary: Thank. This makes me feel better.

Up front. Honest. Clear. That's the best kind of talk.

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Laurel, Md.: As a recent retiree, it was hard for me to gather the 50 things. But I did! Nevertheless I see that I have this issue - what if I run out of money and can't travel, then I will have to stay home and keep myself happy with art and crafts? So I am reluctant to get rid of any art and craft supplies!!! Dilemma!!! Any thoughts from Ms. Blanke? Also I hope I can figure out how to get "into" your online discussion in 30 minutes!

Gail Blanke: Let's not get carried away with "what if's?" Let's live in the present. Let go of anything that takes your energy, saps your confidence or curbs your enthusiasm - or just sits there taking up room...including arts and crafts! And while you're at it, let go of worrying about running out of money and fearing insecurity! With Michelle's help you can put your financial house in order along with your physical and emotional house!

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Baltimore, Md.: Hi Michelle,

The time has come for my husband and I to financially support our parents. His mother will be moving near us and we're prepared to buy a home, as an investment, and have her be our tenant.

She won't be able to pay us enough rent to cover the mortgage, so we'll have to cover rest. We look at it as helping family out, as well as owning property and not throwing money to another landlord (assuming if she rented from someone else, we'd have to help her out anyways).

So, could you shed some light on what we need to watch out for? I'd definitely want a renter's agreement in place. Given that it's family, things could get touchy if we don't handle it properly.

I look forward to your advice.

Michelle Singletary: I completely understand where you are coming from. Right now I'm taking care of my father-in-law in my home. And I'm happy to do it. And he really appreciates it.

Honestly, I'm not sure about buying a home for your mother-in-law. You have to take out a mortgage and that's more debt on you. You may be able to afford it now, but what happens if something happens to you or your husband? Then you are stuck with two mortgages, including one with a tenant that isn't paying the full cost of that monthly note. If you can buy the home outright, I would say go for it.

So have you looked into senior-type apartments? I have an aunt that I also help take care of and she sold her home and moved into an apartment in a senior living-type complex. The rent isn't low but it's not outrageous. This way she gets a place she can manage and there isn't the debt to deal with.

But if you are stuck on buying the home, you could get a rental agreement, but really, are you going to put her out if she doesn't pay? We aren't talking about a young adult that may be triflin' with his or her money. You are talking about a senior that may not be able to pay for a lot of reasons. And I doubt she will be having wild parties that would trash the place.

Instead, concentrate on playing out all the possible things that could go wrong with taking on that extra debt such as:

-- What if your mother-in-law gets ill and has to move to a senior assistant living arrangement?

-- Will you be able to find a tenant and then would you really want to be a landlord?

-- What if her health costs prevents her from paying you even the amount you first agree to? Would you be able to carry the full mortgage or more than you are already planning to pay?

-- What about other senior relatives? Will having this debt interfere with helping them out?

Work with the numbers and be sure you can afford this option. Finally, have you thought about having her live with you? Just asking.

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Washington, D.C.: My friend is contemplating filing bankruptcy because her income has been drastically reduced. Will she have to give up her vehicle (not paid for) if she files?

Michelle Singletary: If she files a Chapter 13 she can keep the car.

But generally, you can't keep a car if you aren't going to make the payments.

The question is, is she really bankrupt?

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: I can't believe I'm going to confess this, but --- I throw out the school pictures and XMAS cards people send me with photos of their kids on them. I used to have a big stack of these because it felt so wrong throwing away pictures of adorable children. However, I finally realized that unless I'm going to make a photo album of all of these, they were becoming...clutter. I keep the photos for a while and then discard them (or replace them with a new, current one.) I realize that while the photos are nice, what I much prefer is seeing the kids.

Gail Blanke: I'm so glad you feel it's ok to throw them out. Because it is! The sender of the photos just wanted you to see how great the kids are now, how old they are, etc. not keep them forever. You can always let the sender know how happy it made you to see those pictures...and then let 'em go.

Michelle Singletary: You've given me permission to throw out. Thanks. I was feeling guilty too.

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In-state school: Years ago I attended a state-funded school in Massachusetts and went on an exchange to a school in Montreal for 2 years. (tuition and other expenses were the same).

For those who want to get away from home...

Michelle Singletary: Great idea. I went to Maryland and then spent a semester abroad, studying in London.

I do plan to have my kids do the same. They are already thinking about the countries they want to go to.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you tell me how to determine when to get rid of books? I have way too many. Should I keep only if I am going to read it again?

Gail Blanke: I try to keep only the hardcover "classics" like "Great Expectations" or "The Sun Also Rises." Other hardcovers and paperbacks go unless I need to refer to them for some reason (like "Throw Out Fifty Things!") Take them to your local library, community center or www.booksforsoldiers.com!

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Family Christmas photos: I have a small cork board in the kitchen. Each Christmas I empty it and put up the new year's photos I get in the cards.

Michelle Singletary: Good idea. Love the ideas. Keep them coming. If I can't publish during the chat, I'll put them in next week's eletter, which I hope you all subscribe to.

If not there's a link in the personal finance section on the Post biz site or you can search for "The Power to Prosper" link on the Post site and you will see a link.

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Arlington, Va.: I have to admit, I missed Michelle's column and haven't read the book, but I want to now!

I actually threw out a bunch of stuff this week. Looking around my apartment, I realize much of my stuff are things that I want to catalog, organize, or put in a memory book, but I never seem to find the time to take care of these "projects." Any suggestions? Do I pare it down or just set aside some time to actually take care of this? Or should I just recognize that I won't get around to all of it, let it go and throw it out?

Thanks!

Gail Blanke: I'd recommend you pare it down to the barest possible minimum. If there are things you absolutely want to put in a memory book or whatever - set a date for by when you'll do that. If you really don't feel like committing to it, that's a great sign that you should let that stuff go. Don't worry, it's okay. Remember, the memories are in your heart; not the stuff...

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Ellicott City, Md.: Is there ever a good reason for keeping a regular IRA, or should I definitely convert it to a Roth IRA?

Michelle Singletary: The answer to your question is way too long for this chat. But it's not as easy an answer as some would have you think.

I'm trying to get to a column on this, but Google IRA conversion calculators. Input your information and a good calculator will give you an idea if it's worth converting.

One thing I will tell you, if you don't have the money for the taxes outside of the IRA, don't convert.

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Anonymous: -- Rule No. 1: If the item, memory, job or even person is weighing you down, get rid of it.

Any websites or other ways to get ideas and help with getting rid of a job that is weighing us down?

Gail Blanke: Yes, that's Rule #1, all right. And that goes for relationships and jobs as well! What helps is if you can create a vision of what your work would look like if it were really, really good. Then you can design a plan for how to positon yourself to go after it. Meanwhile, realize that the current job is "temporary." And use it as a stepping stone to the next one. Don't allow yourself to get too annoyed about how much you dislike it; save your energy for creating the new opportunity. There's lots of stuff in the book about this!

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I am a HUGE fan of the organizations (e.g., Vietnam Veterans of America, Lupus Foundation) that send you a large plastic bag in the mail, which you then fill with stuff, leave on the porch, and then they come and pick it up. They ask for a large range of items, so this is an excellent way to get rid of stuff. If you don't get the bags in the mail, I believe you can go to the organizations' websites to request a pick-up.

Gail Blanke: Yes, there are also a wonderful organizations called www.booksforsoldiers.com and www.bikesfortheworld and www.letmeplay.com/reuseashoe - for all your old sneakers. (They make playground "floors" out of them!)

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks, Michelle, for your excellent chats! My wife and I are planning to buy a house and start a family, and we're having trouble figuring out how much to budget for two (future) children, and how much we can spend on a house. Fwiw, we both have stable jobs and earn about $160,000 per year (gross, combined). What do you recommend?

Michelle Singletary: Whew. This is a hard one to answer in this space because there is so much to consider when adding kids such as:

-- daycare

-- all the stuff kids need

-- college fund

-- extra medical costs

But for the house, here's my rule. Do not get a mortgage that is more than 36 percent of your net monthly pay. Stay within that guideline and you should have enough to save and take care of those kids.

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Baltimore, Md.: I belong to my local Freecycle group, and I love it! I post a notice, I put the item(s) on my front step, and they disappear. Like magic! No transporting, no fussing with tax receipts, it's great!

Just search for Freecycle.org in your favorite search engine, and find a group in or near your area. -

Michelle Singletary: Thanks.

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Hyattsville, Md.: The College Talk

I agree about avoiding college debt. I teach at UM and it breaks my heart to see students from other states with perfectly good comprehensive universities graduating from our school with nearly $100,000 of debt. And now one of them is looking at law school!

Michelle Singletary: Wow. Thanks for sharing this note. I hope a lot of parents see it and show it to their kids.

And another $100,000 for law school?

CRAZY!

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Palmdale, Calif.: I threw out my job. It was very toxic environment. I tried counseling, but the boss just kept up his tirades. So now I'm retired and working on clearing up my home. We kept so much stuff being in the same house for 33 years. We still have our boys' toys that their children now play with. Where should I start in the clearing/cleaning up process? I'm ready!

Gail Blanke: Download the workbook from www.throwoutfiftythings.com. It's a great companion to the book and takes you straight through your house from your medicine chest to your attic to the far reaches of your mind - and helps you keep track and celebrate every step of the way. And remember, you don't have to do it all at once. Start small - and celebrate as you go! Sounds like you're really good at letting go of the "toxic" stuff. Keep it up!

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Retirement Savings: I don't include Social Security in my assessment of retirement savings because I am less than 30 years old, and the chances of it being there for me when I retire are not good.

Have a pension from a job too, but I'm not confident in that either.

The only thing you can trust is money you save yourself.

Michelle Singletary: I don't quite agree. I do think you should include Social Security when you do your retirement needs calculation. I do think it will still be there. Now how much is another question. But it's such a vital social safety net. It keeps so many people from living in poverty that I doubt it will go away.

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Baltmore, Md.: Hi Michelle,

I donate my children's books to my young neices and nephews and I donate Christmas and other holiday cards to St. Jude's ranch.

Michelle Singletary: Thanks for the idea.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Not an accountant, but in reference to the poster whose father gave him or her money to hold on to .... doesn't Medicare/Medicaid do a look back of 5 years to see if seniors get rid of assets to qualify for benefits? I might be missing something, but it seems like the father is trying to hide assets, maybe?

Michelle Singletary: Or maybe not.

Yes there is a look back period, but I'm not sure that is what's going on.

Hope not.

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Sterling, Va.: Just a comment: This winter my wife and I had a lot of interior painting done in our house and one of the painters' requirements was that we empty the closets for them. I was amazed at the amount of crap that we tossed and the clothing we could donate. I had no idea that my closet was so large. :-)

And yes, I found it to be quite satisfying.

Gail Blanke: Yeah, there's nothing like a paint job to get you into the throwing out mood. There were major leaks in the walls of our bedroom thanks to problems in the outside of our apartment building - so we had to have absolutely everything re-plastered and re-painted.I purged everything - including the medicine chest in the bathroom of all the old meds, old make-up, old points of view about myself. It was more than cleansing; it was totally freeing...

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Anonymous: comment: I have a habit of clipping recipes. Now there are more than my drawer can accommodate. So at age 64, I realize that it's not necessary to constantly clip & save. I pretty much know how to cook & bake what I like.(and if I don't by now, who cares!:o)) So I hope to have a nice, neat drawer and also break the recipe clipping habit! Thanks.

Michelle Singletary: I'm a recipe keeper too. Haven't gotten out of hand but I like the person who said scan the stuff and put in on computer.

I'm going to do that because a lot of my paper recipes have food stains, etc.

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Bethesda, Md.: Having a clutter buddy is great - particularly when it comes to clothing. Just last night I spent over 2 hrs with a friend as she tried on and "modeled" dozens of pieces of clothing. Some she knew she needed to get rid of (because they don't fit or are completely out of style), but just needed my extra encouragement to put them in a bag for our church's rummage sale. It was a fun and very practical way of spending an evening!

Michelle Singletary: Love it.

But it would have to be my very, very, very best friend cuz I can't fit a lot of stuff and I would be oh so embarrassed to model for most of my other friends.

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Anti-clutter: My mother runs estate sales in the DC area. At almost every house, she fills bag after bag of pictures, kid art, etc that the people kept for many many years.

It's either you get rid of it and enjoy your open space or somebody else trashes it later. Either way, it ends up in the trash.

Michelle Singletary: How true!

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Places to donate: When I moved last year, I donated a TON of stuff. I mean, a closet full of clothes that neither I nor my spouse could wear, a bedroom set that was just too heavy to move, tools we had duplicates of, housewares, even food. I chose several secular charities (Dress for Success, Rescue Missions, Food Banks, etc) and either dropped the stuff off or had it picked up. I also took pictures of everything to document and between 2008 and 2009 had about $5000 dollars worth of charitable donations on my taxes. Keep a good record of everything and take pictures in case you get audited. But it made me feel great and less encumbered.

One of the "big" charities was one (in NC) called TROSA (Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers), which is dedicated to proving a helping and AND EMPLOYMENT to those who were recently incarcerated for drug and alcohol offenses. The men and women who picked up my donations and worked in the thrift store were almost all on parole for drug offenses but were unable to find employment. I love their mission.

Michelle Singletary: I think your point is well taken. Do some work to make sure your stuff finds a nice place where people will really need and use it.

Make it a family project. The more we give away, the less impact on the environment.

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Detroit, Mich.: Can you point me to a website that tells me how long to keep important paperwork and what I can get rid of?

Michelle Singletary: Actually, bankrate.com has written a couple of great features on this. Just search for it on the site.

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Virginia: I hate having clutter, and some people might consider me unsentimental because I'm so quick to get rid of things. Why do you think people have so much clutter?

Gail Blanke: I refer to clutter as "the debris of indecisions." We look at something - a lamp, a pair of old shoes, a piece of jewelry - and worry about whether we should keep it or toss it. So we do nothing. We simply don't decide. Here's a simple fact: If you find you're spending time weighing the pro's and con's about whether to keep it or lose it, it's a sure sign that it has to go. This is our lives we're talking about - and we don't have time or energy to waste tripping over the debris of indecisions!

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Palmdale, Calif.: Hi girls, WOW, this is so fun. I've saved your April 6 column waiting for this day!

Michelle Singletary: How cool.

But remember when you are done, recycle the paper. You can always find the column online at this very site, copy it into your home computer!

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College money: You were so right to have the talk about what you are willing to pay for college with your daughter, Michelle. There are too many stories of kids who work hard to get into a top private school that they don't know their parents can't pay for -- it doesn't do much for the parent/child relationship.

Tell you daughter, though, that she has more options than she might think. My son goes to a small private college in Virginia on a merit scholaship. Our portion of the cost is almost to the dollar the cost of sending him to College Park (in-state). If she wants to go away, she can. Lots of information online.

Michelle Singletary: Totally going to keep all options open. But when the time comes, really comes, we won't go into debt. We want our kids to find a good college they like but not at the expense of being in bondage until they nearly need a walker.

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Baltimore, Md.: Hi Michelle - One of my financial goals for the year is for my husband and I to get our will done, to ensure our new little one is taken care of if the unthinkable happens. How do we go about finding a lawyer for this? Its not the kind of thing I'm comfortable asking other people about and I don't know where to start. Thanks!

Michelle Singletary: Get comfortable. Ask around. In fact, that is the best way to find a good attorney.

If you like, don't mind recommending mine in Bowie. Send me an e-mail (singletarym@washpost.com).

Doing the will is pretty simple really but so important.

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basic kitchen supplies: My local abused women's shelter sometimes need basic household stuff for women starting a new home.

Michelle Singletary: Thank you.

Folks, good place to send your the good kitchen stuff you don't use anymore.

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another recycling resource: Love Freecycle!

Also, earth911.com is a good resource for getting rid of broken items that would normally go in the trash- stuff like broken Christmas lights, potentially hazardous chemicals, etc. It's an easy stop, and it's surprising what can be recycled!

Gail Blanke: There are tons of great resources to help you donate, recycle, sell or just dispose of your stuff. Take a look at the Resource Guide in "Throw Out Fifty Things" and you find most of what you need. And if you have other great ideas, please post them on www.throwoutfiftythings.com. We're starting a movement of people letting go of the past and moving forward - and we have to help each other along the way!

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Washington, D.C.: I have a lot of clothes that I can no longer wear (or could never wear) and random "stuff" from college (mainly office supply type stuff) that has just been sitting around, and I want to get rid of it but I don't want to do it for free, because I have about $9500 of debt that I am trying to get paid off by the end of 2010. What is the best way to get rid of these things and possibly make a few dollars?

Michelle Singletary: In a word -- eBay.

Or okay, another four words -- garage sale, swap meet.

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Laurel, Md.: The '96 cadillac I've been driving for the past year has had one problem after the other. I recently bought a used car from a reputable dealer but had to take it back 3 days later. I'm now looking at new cars but can't afford a car i really like. I feel like I'm settling. Should I buy a new car that I really don't like but will be reliable and good on gas, or look for another used car? I currently rent an apartment but would like to own my own home. My real estate agent tells me to hold out a bit longer and get the house before I get the car. Will buying a car now really hurt my chances of buying a home?

Michelle Singletary: First, you can find a really good reliable used car.

Look at edmunds.com or consumerreports.com or kbb.com.

Second, if you are thinking about getting a house very soon (within the year), yes, taking on more debt could ding your credit score.

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Anonymous: Gail,

thank you for your time and wise advice....what you said about saving our energy for the life we are dreaming to create is MUCH NEEDED...it is easy to get bogged down by the crap..i am going to get your book. thanks again for sharing your energy with us and i trust you will continue to do so. you are awesome!

a firm handclasp,

me, anytown, USA (anywhere, world)

Gail Blanke: Thanks, my friend, that means a lot. Hope to "see" you on throwoutfiftythings.com of Facebook or whatever... Take care.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Different poster regarding the father who gave the daughter money to care for him.

If he wrote the check to the daughter the money is hers, not his, even if he stipulated what she's to do with it.

Your other SS poster is correct that Medicaid does look for gifts aimed at reducing assets.

PLUS - does this daughter have brothers/sisters? How might they feel about this arrangement.

I don't know whether $10K or $100K is involved, but I think the daughter ought to reconsider this gift and her Dad's plan for the end of his life. If the money runs out, does he expect her to put up her own money?

I say this is a call for a serious family conversation.

Michelle Singletary: I agree more talking should take place.

And yes, you are right, if he gave her the money and she opens an account in her name, only technically it is her money.

I'm talking morals tho. She knows what it's for. Keep that in mind.

But again, I do hope there is a lot of planning going on in this family as far as the senior dad is concerned.

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Fredericksburg, Va.: Hi Michelle and Gail, I have two sons who played sports as children. Both have moved away from home. The trophies(nearly twenty of them ) stayed. Any idea what to do with them? Is there some place to recycle these after taking a picture? Also where can we get a copy of your book?

Gail Blanke: You can get a copy of the book anywhere - and certainly on Amazon. In terms of trophies, trophy companies can recycle them; just check the yellow pages. Are your kids okay with your letting them go?? (Remember, don't throw out other people's stuff!)

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Michelle Singletary: As always seems like the time just whizzes by.

Well, both Gail and I have to run. Thank you all for your comments, questions and wonderful tips.

Take care and remember get rid of your stuff and free up your life.

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