One of the best financial planners I've ever known was my grandmother. Big Mama, as I always called her, never earned much, but what she did make she tried to spend as prudently as she could. She raised me and my two sisters and two brothers on a salary that probably never reached more than $13,000 a year.

"I may not have a lot of money, but I sure ain't going to die poor," she said.

And she didn't. When Big Mama died, she owned her home, had paid off her car loan, had a beautiful collection of Sunday-go-to-church hats and a small savings account that supplemented her Social Security check.

My grandmother was an example of the bedrock financial principles of the older generation of African Americans. These tough-minded, conservative practices helped get my generation of middle-class blacks where we are today.

Big Mama had two credit cards her entire life -- one from Sears and another from Montgomery Ward. They were used to finance just three purchases -- the stove, the refrigerator and the washing machine. That was it. No discussion. No exceptions. Everything else was on a cash basis. On one rare occasion when I asked her to use one of the credit cards to buy me a dress for a special day at school, I received such a tongue lashing that I never asked her again.

"Child, I ain't going into debt to buy you some dress," she said, ending the conversation.

Big Mama didn't believe in paying bills late.

"The white man ain't going to put me out on the street or turn off my lights just because I didn't pay my bills on time," she said, referring to this mythical white man whose goal in life was to take as much money from black folks as he could.

In fact, she didn't even trust the post office to deliver her bills. Whenever she could, Big Mama would make the payment in person so she could put it in the hands of a clerk.

And she always paid off her car note early. One time she paid it off so early that the car company got its records mixed up and called to say her payment was past due. Let's just say I felt sorry for the bill collector on the other side of that telephone line. By the time Big Mama got finished with him, he was practically offering her a new car.

Big Mama didn't believe in eating out.

"Girl, we've got good food right here in this house," she said when I asked if we could stop at a fast-food restaurant. "Besides, you don't know what those people put in that food."

And, my grandmother believed strongly in home ownership.

In fact, one of the worst arguments we ever had was when I decided to move out on my own a year after graduating from the University of Maryland. While I loved Big Mama dearly, she nearly drove me nuts.

I proudly announced one day that I had found a one-bedroom apartment for $300 a month. I thought it was a fair rent. Big Mama went ballistic. To her, I was just wasting money. Why couldn't I just live with her until I got married? In her mind, I was throwing my money away, and at the end of the year I wouldn't have anything to show for it but rent receipts.

"The white man is getting rich off you," she said.

By the end of my lease, I was almost ready to move back in with her, just so she would stop harassing me about renting. Instead, I looked around for any piece of property I could afford. Fortunately, I stumbled onto an apartment building that was going condo in West Baltimore. To purchase one of the two-bedroom, one-bath units, all I needed was a good credit record (no problem since I was Big Mama's granddaughter), a $2,500 down payment and income of less than $28,000. I easily qualified.

I took Big Mama with me the day I signed the loan documents. She cried. All day long she told everyone we met -- the grocery store cashier, the gas station attendant, the bank teller -- that her grandbaby had just bought a home.

Big Mama passed away two years ago at age 82, but one of the most important things she left me was a strong, basic education in money management. To her credit, she died with no debt because one of her principal rules was to treat every dollar as if it were her last. That way, she said, you might think twice about spending it stupidly.

Her financial legacy is so ingrained in me that one time when a travel company gave me $10 worth of quarters to play the slot machines as part of a bus trip to Atlantic City, I took the money and bought lunch and a souvenir. In my head I could hear Big Mama saying: " Shell {the name she always called me}, don't throw away good money.' "

Big Mama taught me how to save. She taught me how to plan for unexpected expenses. In fact, my friends and family have crowned me the "Queen of Free" because of my ability to negotiate. My life has significantly changed since I left Big Mama's house in West Baltimore. I've been to college, obtained a master's degree in business from Johns Hopkins and achieved a middle-income status that I never enjoyed while growing up with her.

Still, I'm finding it hard to venture past much of my grandmother's financial advice. Big Mama didn't believe in taking risks with her money, and in many respects neither do I.

Yet I know that my generation has to take the next step. Money managers, accountants and Wall Street types preach that to become wealthy or at least achieve financial stability you have to make your money grow -- and that sometimes means taking prudent risks to get a better return. That's especially true for blacks, according to Brooke Stephens, author of "Talking Dollars and Making Sense: A Wealth-Building Guide for African Americans."

"There is a difference between making money and building wealth," she writes. "And, we have never had a chance to discover what that means. Along with learning new job skills and taking on new professional roles and career paths, African Americans must make the effort to develop a new perspective on money and how to use it in their lives."

One critical first step is to begin saving more money, and putting it to work at higher rates of return. That means looking carefully at the full range of financial options -- stocks, mutual funds, Treasury bills, money market funds -- and deciding which one best fits your needs.

Big Mama, of course, wouldn't agree. She never even had a checking account, much less a fancy money management account that would pay her interest. In Big Mama's opinion, the only safe investment was a passbook savings account. Up to the day she died, she still carried a tattered, red savings passbook held together by a rubber band.

Stephens and other financial advisers say it is important to have a will. Not according to Big Mama.

"When I die, y'all know what I want you to have," she said. That was the extent to which she would discuss a will. But, sadly, when she died two years ago, many of my relatives had different opinions about what they were entitled to.

Most important, financial planners recommend developing an investment strategy.

"My money is good right here in the bank," Big Mama said. In fact, when my brother received an insurance settlement after a truck hit him when he was 10 years old, Big Mama parked the money in a low-interest savings account. She never touched a penny of it until it was turned over to me to help take care of him more than 17 years later. I never expected her to invest the money in the stock market, but even putting it in a CD or Treasury bill would have significantly increased the value of the settlement over the years.

Big Mama feared anything new. She didn't understand a lot about the financial world. She didn't trust most financial institutions. For her, the future was too uncertain to afford taking risks with her hard-earned money.

"Money management and financial planning may sound like intimidating terms that apply only to the rich, but if that is what you think, you're wrong," Stephens writes.

She's right.

I know better than anyone how hard it is to move beyond the conservative financial advice preached by my grandmother's generation. Now, however, it's time to learn how to thrive financially, not just survive. And that's what I'll be exploring in my column that will appear regularly in this section. I'll be looking at the range of financial planning issues confronting African Americans -- and anyone else who realizes that, regardless of who you are, the color of money is always the same.

I'd welcome your suggestions and personal experiences. Please write me at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or e-mail me at singletary@washpost.com CAPTION: Granddaughter Michelle absorbed the bedrock financial principles of older African Americans. CAPTION: IN BLACK AND WHITE (This graphic was not available)