Color of Money Live

Sep 05, 2013

Let's talk money.

Join Washington Post nationally syndicated personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary for a live online discussion on Thursday, September 5 at noon ET.

Her guest will be Robert L. Deitz, author of August Color of Money book club selection, "Congratulations, You Just Got Hired: Don't Screw It Up."

Deitz is a professor of public policy at George Mason University.

-- Today's e-newsletter: Positive pregnancy tests being sold on Craigslist?

-- Michelle's Mailbag - Labor Day lesson: Hard labor can pay off (such as your bills and mortgage)

-- Scammers exploit the confusion over new health insurance law

-- August Color of Money Book Club column

Thank you for joining me today. Joining me today is Robert L. Deitz, author of “Congratulations, You Just Got Hired: Don’t Screw It Up.” So if you have some employmnet questions ask away. He retired from the CIA in 2012 and is now a professor of public policy at George Mason University. So he has lots of experience (and I'm sure stories to tell).

So let's get started.

Hi Michelle and Robert, Robert, I've just reserved your book at the library and cannot wait to read it! I'm a headhunter and I work with managers all across the country. I've noticed a huge trend in hiring young/green professionals and passing up mid-career and capable folks. This TERRIFIES me, as I'm in my mid-30's myself. Do you have any advice for people needing/wanting to make career changes in mid-life? Thanks!

To my mind, the best was to make a career change is to show in the job you now have how good and, perhaps, how indispensable you are.   Managers wil be tempted to replace older workers with younger ones if they do not feel that the older worker adds anything.  In fact an older worker may have many important qualties -- judgment, experience, for two -- that younger workers cannot match

where is the link to watch this live at noon today?

So sorry. You can't watch. Just read. This is a text chat only.

I used to have a video chat but no more. Perhaps again one day. 

Hi, Michelle. My husband and I both work, no benefits, with an annual combined salary of around $65,000 a year. That's simply not enough to make it in the DC area. We rent a small house in Bowie but have no savings, retirement fubnd, or college fund for the kids. We live carefully, have no electronic gadgets, only one car, basic cable and use Netflix for movies.  We're trying to save up for a computer so our kuids don't have to rely on the library. I know we're lucky there are so many free sights and activities in the DC area, but I would love to take my daughters to the ballet or take a family trip to NYC. Perhaps we should not have had 4 children, but we both come from large families and we love them all dearly. Metro from New Carrollton to the Zoo costs $40 and a family Bay Sox outing is nearly $100 (you can't bring in your own food). Their classmates go to Europe and have zillion dollar birthday parties and we have trouble putting food on the table. I feel like such a failure.

Many years ago I worked with a woman who told me one day how she was dreading the weekend when she and her husband had to clean the house:  toilets, vaucuming, etc.  I told her they had to engage a clearning person.  They did so.  Now when I occasionally run into them, the first thing they say is how glad they are that they got outside help.   It frees up their weekends and provides a cleaner house than they ever managed on their own

Can I be a little hard on you? Take what I'm about to say in love because that is how it's given. Okay?

So here goes.

You really need to stop feeling sorry for yourself. You say at one point that you are lucky. And you are. Cling to that.

I deal with so many people with no roof over their heads, no good spouse, kids, jobs, etc.

The fact is the life you have with its financial limitations is the life you chose -- four -- I'm sure beautiful, wonderful -- kids, living in high-priced DC, etc. I'm not skipping over your not having benefits. That's huge and can be a problem if what you mean is that you don't have health insurance. Hopefully when the new health care marketplace goes live on Oct. 1 you will get that if you don't have it.

But there are plenty of free things to do including just being with each other in your home, in the park, playing board games, etc.

You are NOT -- I repeat NOT -- a failture because you can't take your kids on big vacations or give them big birthday parties. And trust me, many of those families are probably going into debt to live large. Additionally, the kids who are spoiled with lavish stuff are spoiled rotten. 

What you can give your family is priceless -- a good, safe, loving, fun home. You can't buy that. It's not at the zoo or a baseball game.


How do you suggest approaching a new hire who is acting and/or dressing in a way that is causing eye brows to be raised?

This is always tough, because:  a) one doesn't want to hurt the feelings of new employees and b) it can get tangled up in gender issues.  I would suggest that a person of the same gender take the person aside and quietly discuss appropriate office dress.  Years ago in my law firm a very, very smart lawyer dressed kind of like a slob.  A senior of the same gender took him aside and told him that to make partner he had to polish his shoes regularly and had to wear ironed shirts.  He did so, he made partner, and he is now a very important and very successful lawyer in Washington.  Tact is, in this context, the key.

What's your take on professionals, many young, losing their jobs or getting in trouble for what they post? Is that really fair if what they are doing is on their own time? Should we all resign ourselves to the fact that snooping about our private lives is what employers are going to do before or after they hire us. Seems like right up your alley given your CIA background -- snooping I mean.

To my mind it is hard to refer to employers "snooping" when people place their "private lives" on social media for all the world to see.  Is losing a job because of what one puts on social media any different from losing one's job by doing something socially unacceptable in public?  I don't think so.

Hi Michelle, I am in the 2nd year of a 5 year$30,000 debt repayment plan with my local Consumer Credit Counseling Service. Prior to enrolling all of my debts were paid on time but I was truly drowing in debt. Lucikly I set my payments up so they are all received either early or on time. What type of impact will this have on my credit? .

If the companies agreed that your new payments would be accepted and posted as if you were making regular payments, it shouldn't impact your credit rating. Double check with the agreements you have with the creditors. Ask the credit counseling agency.

But let's say, the companies are reporting that you aren't paying "as agreed." For now, so what. You were drowing an this is your lifejacket. Take the hit for the next five years and then work hard to get back your good credit name. And the best way to do that is to pay your bills on time going forward.

Not sure if this is in your field, but here goes. My brother has racked up huge credit card balances due to health care costs. If he doesn't make it, can the credit companies come after his father or siblings?

I'm so sorry to hear about your brother. I've experience a lot of death over the last two years (my younger brother died from lung cancer) so I know some of what you are going through.

So let me put you at ease. Unless your father or siblings co-signed on any of the debt, you are not responsible for the health care expenses. The key here is to not obligate yourself for any of his bills. If you don't, you are not responsible should he pass away. And don't let any bill collector tell you otherwise because some might. They try to play on people's guilt. Again, unless you co-sign for the debt, it's not yours to pay off.

The book seems to advocate a cautious approach to being yourself at work, but too much of that makes you unmemorable, doesn't it? How or when is appropriate to reveal you personality?

Great question.  My wife tells me that I am loud and noisy.  I am that way as a teacher, and I was certainly that way when I was in the government and in a law firm.  The cautious approach, to my mind, is the way to start.  Once you have your "sea legs," get to be known and trusted in the office, you can begin showing more of what makes you unique.  One just doesn't want to start that way on the first day of work.  Moreover, one may have a boss that dislikes certain personality traits, one or more of which you may have.  It is worth going slow and finding that out before you alienate him or her.  For example, your boss may not like big, loud personalities.  As a consequence, you may have to modulate your personality.  I certainly did with a boss I once had.

Bob: I loved reading your book. I know you are a lawyer, as well as a professor. Do you think law schoold have a responsibility to perpare graduates for law firm/office rules/ropes as part of the curriculum? -Sophia - South Hero, VT

This is an issue with all professional schools:  business schools, law firms, public policy schools, etc.  How much of their curriculum should be focused on substance and how much on practical issues, like how to behave in an office.  It seems to me that schools should offer practical job advice in, at a minimum, non-credit seminars so as to acclimate their students to life in the real world, which can be really rough.

I totally agree except I think the classes should be required.

Really, I've hired some young folks and I spent a lot of time training them on things -- dress, how to answer the phone, take initiative, be on time -- that I had hoped they would have learned in college.

I see the opposite but I'm in the government. Ageism is a terrible thing, but I found that good employers never replace someone "old" who is valuable and a good worker.

I agree.  To get rid of an older worker who is a serious contributor to the output of the office in favor a younger, cheaper employee is penny-wise, pound-foolish.  It is, as an old friend puts it, stumbling over quarters to pick up nickels.

Where I live, my public library has free passes to the zoo as well as all the museums (we have to pay admission fees to ours!). Maybe the mom of four could investigate her library to see if they offer free passes to the zoo or other things.

Thank you. And to take the point further, if you have financial limitations you do have to search harder and work harder to get things. But let's say there aren't many free things or museums where you live. Make your own fun. Do a "staycation" where you turn the house into a resort and have fun.

I grew up poor. I didn't go to the movies until I was in my late teens. Same for eating out or doing much of anything. It made me stronger. It made me creative. It kept me frugal. Did I wish I could do more things. Sure I did. But now that I can, I appreciate things much more. I try not to take things for granted. 

Robert, I've added your book to my reading list, but haven't gotten to it yet. I find as a mid level career person (inching my way closer to 40) with a supervisory role, some of the "kids" I interview are absolutely ridiculous in their demands and want of a huge salary (sorry, I do require that people get to work by 10am - I know that is harsh). They also seem to think they are doing us a favor by interviewing them. In working with the current recruiter, I have let her know after two shots to schedule, if they can't accommodate then it is an automatic no. In your research did you find something similar in trying to teach these new grads how to fit in at an office if they are ever hired? Any thoughts on why there is this shift?

I and colleagues have noticed what you describe.  Back in the dark ages when I was applying for jobs, I was always polite and deferential and did not view my employment as an entitlement.  I too have also increasingly noticed the assumption that a job should immediately pay a high salary.  In the seminar I lead on this issue, I do occasionally find students who believe they are "all that" and who believe that whatever employer hires them should be grateful.  I don't know the origin of this attitude, but I am very confident that harsh world realities will someday bring them back to earth.  I think your "rule" with the recruiter is exactly right. 

Hi Michelle - my current commute is pretty bad (about 90 minutes each way), but my housing is inexpensive and I am able to make great progress on paying off my (ugh) five figures of credit card debt. The commute was really okay when I only had to work 40 hours a week, but my boss is now requiring 70 hours a week due to "economic conditions" (I'm salaried, so longer hours don't mean more money). So now I'm gone about 17-18 hours a day on weekends and I'm completely wiped out - I don't think this is sustainable. I was thinking I should probably move closer to work, perhaps getting a small studio within walking distance of my office. I won't be able to pay off my debt as quickly, but on the other hand, at least my schedule will be sustainable, and I can try to look for other ways to improve my income and prospects. What do you think? I'm not sure how much longer I can get by on 4-5 hours of sleep a night, and if my work performance suffers and I end up losing my job, then I'd be much worse off than if I spent more money on rent.

Trust your gut and it's telling you to change the situation. So I agree with your plan. Yes, the debt payoff will be slower but you won't literally crash. The debt will get paid off. Take care of yourself first!

Really?? For this family of six that makes $65,000 a year and can't put food on the table? Are you out of your mind??

I certainly am not advocating trading food on the table for a cleaning service.  What I am suggesting is that leisure is a good that may be more important to a family than that next big flat-screen TV.  Like every other decision that families face, this kind of decision entails trade-offs.

I know it stinks. I'm doing fine as an adult, but I remember my mom and dad raiding my piggy bank to buy groceries. They did teach me valuable lessons, though, about family and being smart with money. Be smart about money (stay out of debt!) and teach your kids that living within your means is not shameful. As for family activities, what about a local high school ball game? My kids like seeing that. Same goes for high school plays and such. Think outside the box. Good luck to you. (And Mr. Deitz, I really have to hope your boneheaded reply to that family, suggesting they HIRE help was intended for someone else. Really.)

Please no name calling. Mr. Deitz is my guest. You treat guest with respect even if you disagree.

And I respectfully disgree with him as many of you have. The family's probblem isn't finding time to clean or making time for themselves. They have an income issue given the things they want for themselves. 


How is it helpful to suggest to someone who is struggling financially that they should hire a housecleaner?

I apologize for my answer.  I misread the question and missed the part about struggling financially.  I need to take my own advice about reading an assignment completely and carefully.

See, there was no need for name calling. 

To get to a lot of questions I often do the same thing. Read over things. 

You guys okay now?


Robert, I think you misunderstood the question about going to the zoo on weekends. If they don't have $40 in metro fare for a trip to the zoo, I'm guessing hiring a cleaning person is out of the question.

I agree. I did misread the question.

Would he care to comment on the disaster he left behind while he was at NGA? Ironic that he would write a book on employment...

This is a question for a different time and a different forum, but one that I would be very happy to answer in that different time and different forum.

Really, isn't what you say in your book common sense so why do you need to say it. Don't people know this stuff -- what to do and what not to do in the office?

Good, basic question.  For the most part, what is in the book is indeed common sense.  But it turns out that lots of people never learn common sense.  Every "rule" that is in my book I have seen violated repeatedly over the years.  It is also true that new employees do not know, for example, how to dress, because they come from families where dressing a certain way for work was not a requirement.

Heck some older workers don't know how to behave.

As my husband often says, "Common sense is not often common."

I wrote in a few weeks ago regarding whether to put 10% or 20% down on a house we are purchasing. I also had about $49,000 left in law school loans, and $115,000 or so in cash. (I also have nearly $125,000 in retirement savings.) We decided to put down 20% of the $270,000 home, and will pay off some of my private school loans (around $20,000 probably). It makes no sense to pay off my federal loans - if Congress ever passes a budget, my agency will assist with those. We need to put $10,000 or so into the house within the first few months, and we want to maintain cash reserves, so we are not going to pay off all of the private student loans. But overall, we are very comfortable with this plan. And we are very happy not to be throwing around money on PMI every month!

As I often tell folks, you always have the choice to ignore my advice. 

I hope your plan works. I hope you don't lose your job or that a budget is passed OR that your agency agrees to participate in the program to pay off the debt because even if a budget is passed they may  not.

So if all goes as you plan, you plan may work. But if it doesn't you have all that debt and now a house with all the expenses that go with homeownership. There are a lot of "ifs" in your play.

Paying off debt is a sure thing.

Just saying.


What?? Now I think you're really off your rocker. Any family of 6 making $65k a year in this area, has no health insurance, and can barely afford Metro, is no way able to pay for a cleaning person!! What are they supposed to trade off - food? Shelter?? Unbelievable. Get a grip.

As I have previously mentioned, I misread that question and my answer made no sense for that situation.  My apologies.

This is the last one I'm publishing. He apologized. He misread the question.

But really, why can't some of you ask what he meant in a respectful way? 

As a Millennial I have to defend my generation. As with all generations, some of us are self-absorbed entitled people who are not fun to supervise or work with. There are many others (like myself) who dress appropriately, show up on time, are team players, and take all the grunt work handed to us with a smile and a willingness to help. We also use our digital native skills to help co-workers and contribute to our offices. We don't suck!

I couldn't agree more.  I have hired and been very happy to work with many millenials.

Go head you millennial speak for your people!


Question for Robert: I made a career change several years ago and now work for a nonprofit related to education. I never anticipated entering this field, but my skills are a perfect match for this job and my employers are happy to have me.Working in this field means that everything - EVERYTHING - I do must be acceptable for viewing by a five-year-old, so I am extremely conservative in my use of social media and I manage my online reputation by posting almost no public communications whatsoever. Unfortunately, this has eliminated my ability to pursue the income-generating creative projects that have always provided a second income. I recently turned down an offer to work on a movie (as a technical crew member, not an actor) because a public credit for a film with "non family-friendly content" could cost me my job. I'm losing money and feel increasingly stifled, but my regular job pays a decent salary and I really don't want to give it up. What are your thoughts?

This is a very hard question, and I am not sure that I can be terribly helpful.   I assume that you cannot use an on-line alias to pursue projects that would provide a second income.  (As you know, many writers have used noms de plume to publish works that they could not, for one reason or another, using their real names.)  My only suggestion, and it is not terribly creative, is to try to post communications that you self-censor so as to:   a) demonstrate your skills but that b) do not offend your primary employer.

I know how to dress, speak, write, and overall, behave appropriately in a work environment. I did NOT learn it in college class. My husband, how did not go to college also knows how to behave appropriately. It is learning manners from your parents, working in high school & college, observing, asking questions if need be, and common sense.

I agree that one can learn all of the things you mention from parents, from schools, from observing others, etc.  But sometimes people are more willing to learn things from a book than from parents, teachers, guidance counselors, etc.  Moreover, there are other things in my book that one is unlikely to learn from one's parents.

I'm 28 and after a professional degree that left me about 80k in student loan debt. I was making the minimal payment right now that is $500 month. I just finally got a permanent job making 40k. I moved back home with mom and dad and plan to stay here long-term. I want to increase my student loan payment so I don't pay so much in interest but also make smart decisions about saving for a house in a few years, a rainy day, etc. Please advise! What percent of my paychecks should I plan to put toward my loans?

All of it except the bare minimum you need to survive living with your parents.

I mean that. If you were my kid, I wouldn't charge you rent or expenses in exchange for you geting rid of that $80,000 as quickly as possible.

So take just about all of your net pay minus what you "need" for whatever -- the key word being "need"-- and apply it to your debt. In a few years, you will be free of that monkey on your back and ready to venture out on your own including buying a home one day.

Hi Michelle, What advice xaan you give and sorry to hear about your brother, I unfornately have been diagnosed with the same condition this year and on top of that was just told a week ago that the contract I am working under will not be renewed. So now I will be out of a job also. What should I do at this point, my wife does work and luckily I am on her health plan. Would an employer hire me knowing that every three weeks I have to go for chemo treatments and don't know how long I will be off? I know I don't have to disclose that but. . . . It was suggested to apply for Social Security Disability and I am not sure if this is a good idea. If it helps I just turned 50 and now collecting long term disability from my eployers insurance company. The only debt between us is the mortgage and a car payment. We pay off our credit card bills monthly, have both a savings account and a life happens account, but what can I do now. Thanks

So so sorry about your situation.

If you can afford it, can you stay out of the workforce and focus on your health?

Getting disabilty from Social Security may be tough but look into it. Just know it may affect your long term disability payments. Not sure so double check. Talk to your health professionals to see if they can recommend you to a social worker who can help walk you through your options.

It's a good thing you and you wife have managed your money well and it's good for times like this where you may be better off mentally and physically just trying to get well.

I do hope things go well for you.

Submitting early to say that this month, I paid off my undergrad and grad student loans--all $26,000 or so--that I've been paying for 14 years. When I started, the interest rate was 8%! I consolidated some years ago and although the interest rate was most recently 1.5%, we just decided to wipe that payment out. When I looked at the envelope as I was putting it in the mail, I saw that the stamp was a "Freedom Forever" stamp. How fitting. Now we can take that monthly payment and put it toward my newborn's 529.... LOL!

Oh how wonderful!


Love it. 

Thanks for sharing. And love that you already have a great purpose for the money that won't be going to that monkey that was on your back. 

Dear Michelle, My husband and I both work outside the home, though we have good work-life balance for the DC area. We have a child and we make a moderate income. But with our parsimonious lifestyle, we consistently save for retirement, a college fund, and a little additional savings on top of that too. We are on the fence about using a cleaning service. I don't mind cleaning and would prefer to do it ourselves rather than have an outside service. But there's only so much time in the day, and the time spent cleaning will take away from hours spent as a consultant, doing home maintenance, and social/leisure time. On the other hand, I think it would be good for our child to start taking on more responsibility and to help with tasks that a cleaning service would do. From a purely economic perspective, my husband and I make hourly rates that are higher than what cleaning services charge. From that standpoint, I'm thinking that the cleaning service would actually be better for our finances. I know this is a personal decision, but I'm interested in your perspective. Thanks!

Go for the service. But as a compromise because I see you are still struggling with this, just have the service come in every other week or once a month. That way you get some help and free up some of your time.

It's okay to hire help if you can afford it. I do.

Hi Michelle, Bonjour Bob! I have read your book and I must say it is full of precious advice for young professionals. As a recent graduate, I am a little shocked by all the office horror stories I hear. It appears to be a new management trend to promote incompetent people to the detriment of the hard working staff. Do you think this trend is the result of an erosion of management standards? Or more worrisome, would this be the result of an erosion of the "American Dream" itself? Will still working hard and producing excellent work pay off? Thank for your time and answer :-) One last question, if you have time. If someone works in a terrible work environment to the point where that person wants to quit his job most of the time. Should that person accept a 10,000 dollars less job offer or try to wait it out for something better, hoping things won't get worse?

I am reluctant to conclude that the office environment is any worse today than it was 2o or 30 years ago.  I simply do not have enough information.  I suspect that incompetent people have been promoted from the beginning of the office.  I firmly believe that hard work will be rewarded most of the time, but there are no guarantees, of course.  $10,000 seems like a lot of money to forgo.  But if that new job with a lower salary offers the opportunity to advance and if that new opportunity seems really interesting  and if the current work environment is truly poisonous, then it might be worthwhile to move.  This gets to a much larger issue:  what is the importance of money relative to other aspects in one's life.  We all know people who have decided to earn less money so as to spend more time with their families; or people who have chosen to earn less in exchange for a more interesting and psychically rewarding job.  The issue is always one of trade-offs:  how much money do you really need and what else matters in your life?

Mr. Deitz, how does one overcome age-ism in the workplace? I'm in my sixties, energetic, well read, hard working, professional. Have been out of the workplace for a couple of years while I cared for my mother who was seriously ill. She has now passed. But getting back in the door has been a struggle -- and I have bills to pay. I get the feeling that when a potential employer sees my work record, my resume hits the round file (wastebasket). Thanks for your insights!

This is a very difficult problem for a number of reasons.  Some employers will assume that older workers will have high salary demands, may not be able or willing to work as hard, and may be set in their ways.  My only suggestion is to continue searching.  What at least some employers recognize is that older workers are frequently more reliable and less needy and require less supervision than some younger workers.

One thing I also want to suggest -- teach your children to be good friends. I also grew up without a lot of money in comparison to my peers, but my parents made sure that we were connected to our community -- in our church, our school, and our neighborhood. And that meant that when other families who had a lot more than we did had extra tickets or needed a friend, they often asked us to come along or offered those to us. We paid them back by having them over for cookie bakes or a backyard barbeque, etc. I'm still friends with those people today, even though we've all moved across the country. It really can take a village.

I really, really love this posting.

It's what I practice. My husband and I are always there to help folks. We took a friend of my daughters on vacation wtih us. She a lovely young woman who was having a hard time with issues I won't disclose. She and her mom were so grateful. We picked up all her expenses. We just wanted her to have fun. She's off to community college (a great choice) and we agreed to pay for her books. 

It does take a village.

In 1999, I turned right on red at a light where that is not allowed. I was stopped, arrested, and spent the night in jail. I plead guilty and was fined. Now, because of my criminal background, I can't get a job. I have a doctoral degree and an extraordinary record of accomplishment, but no one can get past the background check. Is there anything I can do?

I assume that you pled guilty to a traffic violation.  Taffic violations are not crimes, so I am stumped by the fact that it is holding up your employment.  I suggest you speak to a lawyer.

You are entitled to see the record that employers may be using to deny you a job. Perhaps the record is wrong. Start there. Make sure it's right. And if it's not work to get it right.


When does your next Prosperity Partners session began?

The ministry I run at my church to help people with financial issues starts up again after a summer break this coming Sat. at 10:30 p.m. at First Baptist Church of Glenarden (Ministry Center).

I have a cleanings service come in once a month. It really helps with the big chores - the bathrooms, baseboards, really cleaning the hardwood floors, etc. You'll still have to vacuum every now and again and keep the kitchen clean in between. These are things you can start teaching your child to help with. I can't even begin to tell you how helpful having the service come just the once a month has been. I'd have them come twice, but I can't afford it.

Good compromise.

Really the times seems to fly.

Thank all of you for participating today, especialy Bob. Great forum and glad we cleared up the cleaninggate :)

If you don't please subscribe to my weekly newsletter. It's a hoot. I try to highlight recent personal finance news the good, bad and ugly. Stop by my Monday Mailbag where I answer questions I couldn't get to during this chat or highlight questions that I did answer.

Finally, I hope you follow me on Twitter (@SingletaryM)

I'm back next week same time. Same place.

Have a great and financially safe weekend.

In This Chat
Michelle Singletary
Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, "The Color of Money," which appears in The Post on Thursday and Sunday. Her award-winning column is also carried in more than 120 newspapers. In her spare time, Singletary is the director of a ministry she founded at her church, in which women and men volunteer to mentor others who are having financial challenges.

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