pay day - personal finances, budgeting, living paycheck to paycheck. (Mark Jensen/Istock)
Columnist

For the past three decades, I’ve been helping people become better money managers.

Starting in my 20s, I began passing along the financial wisdom I inherited from my grandmother Big Mama. It is because of my grandmother that I have always — from the time I began earning money in my first part-time tutoring job at 14 — had an emergency fund. Always.

I once asked my grandmother why she was so dogmatic about having a rainy-day savings account.

“Because it always rains,” Big Mama said.

Over the past 16 years, I’ve been the director of Prosperity Partners Ministry at my church, First Baptist Church of Glenarden. A new session of this financial program starts this month. And I expect, as in previous years, it will be standing-room only as people promise themselves to improve their financial health. Last year, more than 200 people looking for help jammed the multipurpose room at my church.

Here’s what my years of experience directing such a large financial literacy program have shown me.

There are people who barely make it paycheck to paycheck despite living as frugally as they can. Theirs is not a matter of overspending on frivolity. They just don’t make enough money to cover the necessities of life. In places like the Washington-metro area, the high cost of living can financially cripple a lot of families.

These folks have already cut cable. They don’t eat out. They don’t use shopping as a form of entertainment. Their kids aren’t attending pricey colleges. Health care and medication expenses are overwhelming. Duct tape and prayers hold their cars together.

When your housing costs take up 50 percent or more of your monthly take-home pay, it’s hard to save for an emergency because every month is a battle to pay all the bills. They’ve stayed near or in big cities because there are better employment opportunities, even if those jobs still don’t pay enough.

Many living paycheck to paycheck have had job losses or an illness has set them back.

I get so annoyed at people who seek to shame people for their failure to save more.

Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) angered a lot of people when, commenting on the partial federal government shutdown, he said: “Who’s living that they’re not going to make it to the next paycheck?”

Read more: Living paycheck to paycheck is disturbingly common: ‘I see no way out.’

Perry deserved to be criticized for his broad-brush stoke of federal workers struggling to make ends meet. His statement lacked empathy and a grasp of the economic reality of a lot of people living in America. His statement was tone-deaf to the federal employees left with the consequences of politicians using their pay as a political ping pong ball.

However, I also know there are a lot of people who have mismanaged their money. They have cable when they shouldn’t. They eat out — a lot. They’ve made the choice to send their children to colleges at any price — meaning they’ve relied on a lot of student loans that will take decades to pay off. They couldn’t fathom sending their children to community college first to cut the cost of a higher education.

They’ve taken cruises or vacations to the Caribbean when that money should have been saved. Their closets are full of clothes, purses and shoes from shopping sprees. The mall is their refuge. Their children have had lavish birthday parties fit for a prince or princess. Their homes look like museums. The truth is they do have the ability to save more, yet they’ve turned their wants into needs and that’s why they can’t miss a single paycheck.

I’ve worked with people whose total monthly credit card debt is almost as much as their rent. They could have done without much of the stuff they bought on credit. They have monthly car payments for luxury cars that have made me gasp. (Who has an $800 or $1,000 car payment and no emergency fund? That’s madness!)

I’ve helped people who have entrepreneurial aspirations but refuse to realize they aren’t good at being their own boss. They want to run a business or become a real estate magnate but haven’t done the work that will give them a chance for it to succeed. They don’t have a well-thought-out business plan. What they have is a dream. But dreams don’t pay the bills.

There are people who bought too much house and won’t downsize or get a roommate. Others cringe at the thought of sharing their living space even though they can’t afford to live alone.

Or there are parents who can’t save because they are enabling irresponsible adult children who waste their own money.

But here’s the difference between Perry and me. I say all this not to judge, but as a person who volunteers a great deal of her personal time combing through checking account statements and examining credit card bills of people clearly living above their means.

I’ve made a commitment to help people who are living paycheck to paycheck after making some monumentally bad financial decisions.

Read more: Here are some steps to take when your paycheck is stopped

I come not with condemnation but with an appeal for those of you who know you can do better, including employees affected by the government shutdown. The politicians are wrong to play this shutdown game at your expense, but let your furlough be the push you need to stop living paycheck to paycheck.

Because I believe in paying forward what Big Mama did for me, I’ve made it my mission to sing the praises of having a cash cushion. So, it’s time to take action.

Take a budgeting class. Come up with an aggressive plan to get out of debt. Trim your expenses so you can build an emergency fund.

If you’re tired of being in a panic waiting for your next paycheck, choose to make 2019 the year you embrace the truth of your poor financial stewardship.

Read more:

A little too merry with holiday credit card spending? Adopt a debt-payoff strategy.

The financial resolutions that will doom you to failure in 2019

Ready to pay off your credit cards? Try the ‘Debt Dash’ method

Color of Money question of the week

How is the federal government shutdown affecting your finances? Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Considering the sensitive nature of the financial information you may provide, I understand if you want to remain anonymous. In this case, you can identify yourself with just a first name and last initial. But please include your city and state. In the subject line, put “Living Paycheck to Paycheck.”

I also want to hear from you if you’re facing a lost paycheck and you don’t have an emergency fund. Tell the truth. Could you have done better with your finances? What will you change?

Live chat today

I’m live at noon (Eastern time) today to take your personal finance questions.

Let’s start the New Year talking about your financial resolutions. What do you hope to accomplish this year when it comes to your money?

And back by popular demand: Testimony Thursday. I want to hear your 2018 success stories. Did you pay off debt? Did you finally reach your goal of having an emergency fund?

To join the live discussion click this link.

Color of Money Columns This Week

Knowledge isn’t power. The right knowledge is power.

Stay informed about your money.

In addition to this newsletter, please read and share my weekly personal finance columns.

Here are some steps to take when your paycheck is stopped

How to break your bad financial habits in 2019

Newsletter Comments Policy

Please note it is my personal policy to identify readers who respond to questions I ask in my newsletters. I find it encourages thoughtful and civil conversation. I want my newsletters to be a safe place to express your opinion. On sensitive matters or upon request, I’m happy to include just your first name and/or last initial. But I prefer not to post anonymous comments. (I do make exceptions when I’m asking questions that might reveal sensitive information or cause conflict.)

Have a question about your finances? Michelle Singletary has a weekly live chat every Thursday at noon where she discusses financial dilemmas with readers. You can also write to Michelle directly by sending an email to michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested.

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