Color of Money Live with guest Sean Martin

Feb 27, 2020

Welcome to a weekly discussion about your money hosted by Michelle Singletary, nationally syndicated personal finance columnist for The Washington Post.

This week, Michelle will be joined by Sean Martin, graphic designer and consultant for Homefile, a financial planning organizing system.

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Thanks for joining me today. The topic is organizing your financial files. My guest is Sean Martin, whose family have produce "Homefile" a financial organizing system you can find at

If you have every had a relative pass away and you were responsible for finding their financial files, you definitely know how important it is to have a system that helps people find your papers.

We can also talk about the stock market. Still declining but I'm not in a panic. Concerned of course but not selling.

And as always, love your Thursday Testimonies.

Let's get started.  

I’m not finding the organizer files available online... can you please post a working link? Thank you.

Our updated Homefile Organizer kits are currently just available on our website,    We're working to get them on Amazon as well.  I'll also be sure to update our site with more details of whats included in our kit.   

I included where to find the system but it appears some of the papers that carry my column may have cut that out. 

If you haven't read the review of the system here it is: Get your financial files in order. Those who may need them later will be grateful.


My parents taught me to buy stuff on sale. So all the panicky buyers selling check out the bargain basement buyers shopping right now.

I would like to listen to the questions and answers so that I can learn more about Homefile. Is that something that I can do?

Hi, right now the chat is only a "text" discussion, meaning people just write in their questions and either myself or the question respond back in text. 

I'm new to your column and love the advice I've read. How do I register to listen to your Feb. 27 event? Thank you.

You are at the right place now. This is a live discussion with Q&A. No voice or video. 

I am not sure I am on this call. If I am just acknowledge with a yes

If you sent in the question you are at the right place. Just read. Or send in a question for my guest about organizing your files. Or you can ask me any personal finance questions. I'll try to answer as many as I can. 

The US is probably not going to have a complete shut down of the economy. We wouldn't put up with it. But there may be localized disruptions of people going to work and/or school. What happens if your child can't go to school and you have to find child care while you can go to work? Will your office be closed as well and you will be able to do it yourself? Will your office pay you if you can't go to work. The answer might be different depending on whether you are an employee vs. a contractor. What about gig economy workers? Will employees have to use up all their leave if they have to stay home? The answer is - as it so often is - have savings. More important than having a supply of masks. More important than having a full gas tank - where are you going if there is a local, voluntary quarantine? But gig workers and contractors in particular need a financial cushion in case there are places where work and/or and school are disrupted. And I wouldn't count on employees being totally covered either.

I can feel your anxiety. Right now we aren't sure about a lot of things. Clearly in China and other countries with more cases it is disrupting daily life. All you can do right now is prepare for an emergency like you would any other disruption in your income or work life. 

What involvement did you and your siblings have with updating the system? 

As a graphic artist, I had a big part of designing the layout of the initial prototype back in 1990.   Over the years I've refreshed the system to keep the record keeping requirements up-to-date.    My brother Kevin and his wife Greshen took over the company from our parents in 1999 and ran it until my wife, Lynn and I took over in 2007.    My sister-in-law, Laura, who is a graphic designer as well, actually designed the latest streamlined version.

Hi Michelle! Not to contribute to hysteria, but are there things I can do (not face-mask-related) to prepare for Covid-19? If there's a general isolation order, for instance, and schools and workplaces shut down for a couple weeks, what do I need to have in my house already? I've got a grocery list of dried beans and canned goods already in the works, as well as a supply of Clorox wipes. What should I do financially? Have a cash supply? Thanks!

This actually a really good question. We all should have an emergency supply kit anyway -- canned food, water, flashlights, etc. And if you can't go out you probably don't need cash. I would make sure I was saving and building up an emergency fund in case you have to take leave without pay for an extended time at home if for some reason there was a quarantine. Financial institutions may give folks a break on making certain payments but you never know. Fortunately for a lot of workers technology allows for working remote. I would think it might be much like when a major storm hits and you get trapped at home. Think about any of those times and what you wished you had at hand. 

Your late mother told me that financial success is often linked to being organized. Do you think that's true? Why?

Absolutely!   It's less hectic if you're able to easily locate your financial documents.  When files become seriously overcrowded and disorganized they cause us stress. You have a clearer understanding of your financial life if it's all right there at your finger tips.  

You won't miss deadlines and pay penalties.   You're less likely to miss out on tax deductions if you're organized and have documentation for everything.

She use to say, "Clear that desk!  File those Piles".    

Hi Michelle, Is it a good idea to borrow money from your thrift savings or 401K in order to get a down payment to purchase a home? I am 40 years old and currently renting and would like to buy a home this year.

I think if you have to borrow from your retirement fund you aren't ready for a home. I'm a believer in pots - meaning money set aside in various pots designated for certain financial goals. I have not touched my retirement pots for anything -- nothing. Why? Because you will need a lot of savings for retirement especially if you don't have a pension. and who knows what's going to happen to Social Security solvency. It's not "broke" but it's underfunded and facing a funding crisis in the near future, which could mean benefit cuts -- maybe. And even if not, the average monthly payment is barely enough to survive. So this means you need your savings. And you need to leave it alone to grow. Right now even with the market down if you're regularly investing, you'll get shares at a reduced price. Let that retirement money ride. And sure, you are paying yourself back. But you are removing money that could be working for you while you are trying to pay yourself back. 

Another thing -- which I've seen happen a lot - should you lose your job or leave your job that loan becomes due in 60 days otherwise it's treated at a distribution and at your age an additional 10% penalty. 

So, no don't borrow from your retirement. Save for the home. Save for the downpayment. 

Is there a link or dial-in number?

Our website is   You can send us questions through a form on our Contact page on the site.   We're a small family business continuing our mission to help individuals gain control of their finances. 

I would also suggest not skepticism on "buying on sale". This isn't random stock market fluctuations or as the Post story suggests a "correction", this is a reaction to a potential pandemic that could do real possibly long-term economic harm. There's a real possibility the stock market isn't going to pop right back up again. It could get worse before it gets better. I'm also not suggesting cash out and run for the hills. If you've got a plan (and hopefully you do), stick with it.

Right. It may be more than a correction. It may not be. This is much like that housing crisis. It got bad. Then it got worse. Then it got better. And then much better. People who ran locked in their losses. Those folks who were well diversified and didn't panic recovered all their losses and then some. 

As for what to do practically read: How to prepare for coronavirus in the U.S. (Spoiler: Not sick? No need to wear a mask.)


Please remind your faithful to not check their balances every day during this week of uncertainty and craziness. Ride it out, baby. Don't panic. And thanks for what you do. :-)

Really good point. I haven't looked at all. And I don't plan to in the near future. Why? Because I'm not going to change anything. I'm diversified and investing according to my risk tolerance and I won't need the money for at least another 8 years. 

Are instructions on how to use the system included with the package or are there just 22 file folders?

There is a handbook packed with easy to follow instructions on how to set up your system.    The Divider cards have clear directions on what to "FILE HERE",  "DO NOT FILE HERE" and "WHEN TO REMOVE".   

After an incredibly long waitlist, our child is finally in a daycare we can afford, and we will be getting $1000 back each MONTH. As a couple we have a 3 month emergency fund, save 10% (with match) for retirement, and put all additional savings towards a 529 and the downpayment on a new car (which we'll need in maybe two years). Other than paying off our existing car (we have no CC or student debts) is there anything else we should be doing with this money? We've lived on a strict budget for two years, I hardly know what to do with this new found wealth!

Congrats. I know what this feels like after three kids needing daycare.

If it were me, I would do the following

-- Start boosting the emergency money to six month.

-- Make sure I have a separate "life happens" fund for the things in life that happen like a major car repair because of what I'm recommending next..

-- Save to pay cash for the next car. If you have relatively secure jobs hold off on building up the emergency fund any further. Put about $1,000 in the life happens fund. But then take that $1,000 a month and pay off the existing car. Try to keep it as long as you can.

-- Once you pay off the existing car start saving the $1,000 month toward the new car. In just a few years you'll have enough to buy it with cash. 

Best location for financial documents, file cabinet, reference notebook, electronic?

It's all your preference.  Your system can be set up in any kind of file container from a portable file box, a four drawer file cabinet to the latest filing container to pop up on Pinterest.   In addition to a container, you will want to have on hand, a box of hanging files and manila file folders (available at your local office supply store or online).

I finally got my paper financial files in good order. However, I found that's now only 1/3 of the battle. My online financial files - some scanned, some emailed, some receipts, some notes of my own - are all over the place in different folders, in Evernote, in Google Drive, in Excel. I am working on them now, and I do have one tip - make your folder organization parallel both paper and online. BUT, that leaves a lot more to decide. One program? Is the cloud safe? Is it better to keep it on just the desktop? How to do online organization?

All good questions and really up to you. Just leave a bread crumb trail for whomever you've designated to handle your affairs. I'm putting together a notebook that will include hard copy statements and a printout of where to find things online. 

This latest loss in the stock market has me wondering if we will at least partially be returning to "safer" savings methods, even if they don't grow as much. What do you think? I had a few years in the workforce before the 2008 recession. Then it took me a decade to recover that money. Now it's going away again. (I'm not dumping it or anything - it's just I wonder how much "correction" I can handle over the course of my work life.) Like most people my age, I have no access to a pension and am therefore mostly invested in the stock market through my workplace retirement account. Therefore I'm hyper-aware that my retirement is on me and extreme losses create extreme chaos.

So what you are asking is whether interest rates will increase to the point where they keep pace with inflation. That would mean banks paying folks at 3% to 4% for safe deposit accounts. I do not see that in the future. Investing means having a stomach for the ups and downs and yes even over decades. But when all said and down considering the big swings up and the low downs -- like now -- you still come out ahead (based on past performance and the period you select) at a about 5% to 6% return.

This is what I'm so hard on carrying debt and why you need to live below your means. If you don't carry debt into retirement and manage it well while working, your retirement income doesn't have to do as much lifting. Pay off your mortgage before you retire. Don't overuse credit during your working years so you have more money to invest.

You can't control health care expenses or even know what they will be, but you can go into retirement with less stress if you aren't dragging a lot of financial baggage.   

I ordered the Homefile, it arrives tomorrow. I have my own filing system but feel it will be helpful to have a thought through system. Can you talk about what files end up going where... safety deposit box vs. home file vs fireproof box, etc.

Originals of wills and trust documents should be kept in a fireproof box or safe in your home or other location.  We recommend you DO NOT keep your original Will in a safe deposit box at the bank which could be sealed upon a person's death.  There's actually a whole chapter in the handbook that discusses safeguarding valuable records.

Last year my 83 year old Mom reorganized her financial and legal documents, showed me where they were, and gave me a list of her important internet login information. It was great work by her, and gave us both peace of mind.

What a wonderful gift your mom gave to you! 

Like you, I am also years away from needing to draw on investment funds, so I am in the "ride it out" camp. But there is a small minority of people -- mostly those who are about to retire -- for whom the correction is, or could be, a big deal, and they should NOT automatically accept "ride it out" as the advice. Personally, I would hope that this correction would make all of us ask, How would we handle a sudden drop in the market right around the start of our retirement? And how should we prepare for that, to make sure we are maintaining a good risk-reward balance?

I addressed this very point in my last column. Again, read: The coronavirus is tanking the stock market. Here’s what not to do.

I'm also going to address it in my next newsletter, which comes out on Monday. Sign up here.

My husband and I have lost all of our parents. Only one had the financial documents in order. None of them shared family history about objects in the house. That left us doing a lot of guessing about the worth, both financial and emotional, about objects. So, my husband and I are starting a death binder. It will include financial info as well as pictures of objects with family history or financial worth. I’m hoping that makes it easier for my sons to know what to do with “stuff”.

Morbid sounding but what a gift: Death binder.


There’s an additional issue with taking out loans from a 401(k) besides those discussed. The funds that are loaned out are tax advantaged, i.e., contributions reduced your tax burden in the years you contributed. The earnings are also tax-deferred and compounding while in your 401(k). When you take out a loan, those funds are no longer earning AND the repayments are out of your income on which you’ve paid taxes. Using taxed income to repay a 401(k) loan makes those loans VERY expensive and the compounded earnings may never be recouped.

Good point. Thanks.

...don't do it. I did and when I was laid off in April 2009, I still had a loan balance that I had to pay off within 60 days. In a time of stress, it was one more thing to deal with. Please learn from my mistake. BTW, I am back at the same company (financial services firm) and now in excellent financial shape, but it was hard lesson to learn.

Thank you for your testimony!

What type of and how large of a filing cabinet is required? Letter size or legal size?

You can use any size filing cabinet.  The kit should accommodate letter and legal size paper.  We recommend the hanging files that fit in a file box or a large four drawer cabinet.  It all depends on how much paperwork you need to file.

Last week I had the 'lucky' opportunity to flex my Life Happens Fund when my car decided to have a tantrum. I was able to completely cover the repair, although I am now considering opening an extra savings account specifically for car expenses. Better news is that I got my taxes off in the mail yesterday. So nice to not be rushing on those!

Thank you for sharing this. 

On Saturday I'm getting on a plane and flying to Mexico for vacation. I kind of hope while I'm away there will be a US blockade and I'll have to stay away for a couple more weeks.

Just make sure you can afford to stay on vacation -- more hotel bill, lost time or on leave without pay - otherwise it won't be as much fun as you think. 

This product puts your whole financial life in one box. That makes it easy for heirs; it also makes it easy for anyone who has access to your stuff to steal your entire identity. Do you have any advice on keeping all this secure?

A major consideration is safety.  Along with theft, moisture, fire and floods can also damage or destroy records.   You may want to consider obtaining a locking file cabinet or a fire-proof/resistant safe for your irreplaceable records.

I call my parents' The Book of the Dead after the Egyptian book. Just a bit of (admittedly bad) humor to make us all more likely to do it.

Humor always works for me! I love it.

My mom, who passed a few years ago, had Payable Upon Death (POD) set on her bank account and had her IRA Beneficiary named. I was a co-owner on her checking account. I could pay her final bills with her checking account and the IRA was transferred to me in 3 days with just a Certificate of Death to the financial institution. My only stress was loosing her.

I'm so sorry for your loss. But having you affairs in order is such a gift to those you leave behind.

Thank you so much for joining me today. So sorry if we couldn't get to your questions. But I'm here every week. And I often use leftover questions for a column. 

Take care and see you next week. 

In This Chat
Michelle Singletary
Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, "The Color of Money," which appears in The Post on Wednesday and Sunday and is carried in more than 120 newspapers.

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Sean Martin
Sean Martin is a graphic designer and consultant for Homefile, a financial planning organizing system developed by his parents, certified financial planners J. Michael Martin and his wife Mary E. Martin, who passed away in 2007. Martin and his brother, Kevin, have worked on keeping the “Homefile” organizer going in their mother’s honor.
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