Color of Money Live (August 21, 2014)

Aug 21, 2014

Washington Post nationally syndicated personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary answered questions in an online discussion.

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Thanks for joining me today. Lots of questions already, so let's get started.

My agency encourages telecommuting but I know I need more structure to do a good job. You may not throw a load of laundry into the washer during working hours, but I think you're in a very small minority. In the past month I've skyped with co-workers soothing a crying baby, lounging by the pool and preparing the evening meal. They tell me I'm crazy not to want to work in my jammies, earn a ton of comp time, and take my kids to the doctor without having to take leave. What evetually might win me over is the money I would save on dry cleaning, transportation, child care, dog walkers and the like. I realize people goof off at the office, too, but not to this extent.I don't want to come across as a Goody Two Shoes. It's more like "different strokes for different folks." This is how I feel most comfortable and, nless a lot more accountability is built into the pgrogram, I don't expect ths to change.

There are usually pros and cons to everything. Sure, I throw a roast in the oven for dinner or take personal calls while I'm working from home. But people in the office also often take care of personal business too. It's hard not to do it at home or the office when the people and things you need to get done happen during working hours. 

For me the key is are you getting your work done at a bar that is excellent? If you can get it done and take care of other things, that's fine by me. I was a supervisor and had an assistant who had child care issues and asked to work from home at least one day a week. I told her no problem. As long you she got her work done and it was good, I didn't care that she had her son at home because he had health issues. The point is we should all be flexible. Teleworking works for some, not all. Be open. Try it. If it doesn't work for you or your manager, it's not right. 

Hi Michelle, If I get a quote for car insurance and the company checks my credit history to give the quote, does that affect my credit score? I know that when your credit history is pulled for a loan application, that lowers the score temporarily, but I'm wondering if it is the same for other purposes.

The rules on when a credit pull counts varies depending on the credit scoring system used. I would ask the company what scoring system they are using and whether the pull counts as a "hard inquiry." Some systems factor in people will shop for insurance, a car and a home and batch such inquiries so that they don't greatly impact your scores. 

Hello Michelle. My father is in a nursing home and currently, my sister and I are seeking to move my mom from their home into a senior community (her desire). The market value of my parents' home is approximately $450K. My mom took out a reverse mort. several years ago. She owes approx. $300K. My sister and I (both in 50's) would like to buy the home and make it a rental property. It is in a very desirable neighborhood in NW DC., just outside Takoma Pk. House needs some renovations. While we could split a monthly mortgage payment, both of us would have to dip into retirement savings for down payment and renovations; however we feel the investment would pay for itself. (Each of us also have mortgages on our own homes.) Would purchasing and renting-out our parents' home be a wise investment or too risky given the fact that we would have to dip into our retirement savings and are not far from retirement ourselves?

My initial reaction is don't do it. There are just so many ifs and the the biggest factor is you don't have the cash without pulling from your retirement. I especially wouldn't do it if you have to pay a penalty to pull the money out of your retirement accounts.

And you would be adding a mortgage payment to your budget. What if you or your sister come into financial trouble and can't make the mortgage

What happens where there isn't a renter? Do you have enough funds set aside (separate from your own) to pay the mortgage during a period you might not have a renter? What about repairs going forward? Will you have enough money to set aside for that? How will the property pay for itself? Can you charge rent high enough to cover the mortgage and have some leftover to save for future repairs, not having an tenant, etc.

Too much risk for me.

Hi, Michelle. I own a small general store where telecommuting is not an option, but my brother manages a company where it might work. He wants to be a good employer, help the environment, and perhaps save himself some money, but even after consjulting with experts and other companies that are doing this has been unable to come up with a plan that he thinks would work. He trusts his employees but other employers have confirmed that there is just so much opportunity for abuse. Other than installing video cameras in theirr home offices -- a possibility he absolutely would not consider -- there's really no way to prevent this.

I would do a trial period. See how it works. There are many, many people who telework and it works fine. What's so hard about putting in measures to make sure people are doing their work. If you get their work and it's great, you know. If you can't reach people and they aren't turning in things, it doesn't work. I mean really, I've worked decades in an office and now regularly from a home office. People goof off at work and at home. You can be looking right at a worker in the office and he or she still not perform well. You can not lay eyes on a telecommuter for works and his or her work is superior. 

I say try it and see.

Michelle, thousands of vacation home owners in Ocean City are freaking out over the possibiity that the City Council will ban short term (weekly and 2 weekly) summer rentals due to alleged noise and other problems. This would leave us up the creek without a paddle! Mine brings in over $20,000 after expenses which pays part of our home mortgage and allows for occasional vacations and nicer cars (OK, we could do without the latter). We asre going to try to organize to fight this but may not be able to prevail. I hope I don't have to contact you again to ask how to handle ths if the proposal is adopted!

I hadn't heard about this plan. Seems unfair but I don't know all the facts.

I will say this. It's why I tell folks that if they are going to have a second property/vac home, you should pay cash for it. So much can happen, as you are finding out to change your finances. Nonetheless, I hope things work out for you.

Liked your column on "work martyrs". I was especially interested in how many people thought no-one could do their job as well as them. As a volunteer in a non-profit, we are encouraged to start training a replacement when we get to the point where you believe that no-one can do the job as well as you can. In the corporate world, this is not the case. How do we encourage employers to find more value in having people cross-trained rather than use this as a reason to get rid of people? Thanks and love your columns.

Totally agree. I had to work on this myself. I'm a work horse and a perfectionist. So things I could delegate, I wouldn't. I run a ministry at my church and I'm trying to make sure people on my leadership team could take my place. The fact is we are all replaceable in our jobs. Perhaps the person won't do it as well as you do or like you do, but somebody will and can do your job. So take time off. 

Can home buying, even in DC, still be viewed primarily as an investment?

 I have never thought of my primary residence as an investment. It's my home. If it increases in value, oh well that's great. It's a place for me to live. 

I just think far too many people go into real estate investing without knowing what they are doing or having the resources to manage a properties. Can't tell you how many people I counsel as part of the financial ministry at my church who have gotten into financial trouble because they bought second, third and even fourth properties as investments. Mortgages on all of them and then the economy tanked. They didn't have savings, lost tenants, moved, etc. Now they are broke trying to invest in real estate.

It seems like a lot of the questions about if it works or not are based on the metrics you're using to evaluate performance. If you want to be sure someone sits in front of their computer for X amount of time; well yah, then you have problems evaluating if people are being honest about it without video. If you want X amount of work done at a certain level - you can evaluate that with no problems for telecommuting workers (and in office ones too).



All I can say regarding teleworking is that you have a federal government job, and a supervisor finds out that you were providing child care, preparing dinner, or lounging by the pool while on duty, you would have your telework privileges taken away pretty quickly. Private employers can be more lenient than those who pay employees with tax dollars.

Look, if we are going to apply the measure that you can't do ANYTHING personal doing work hours, a lot of people --in an office and working from home -- wouldn't have a job. If I had a teleworker -- federal or private -- who took 10 or 15 mins. to put a chicken in the oven so their kids could eat before 9 p.m., I wouldn't give a rat's behind about that. But if that same worker wasn't performing, I have a problem. We all have lives outside our jobs. Our kids get sick, we need to walk away from the computer to clear our heads, grab a snack, make a call to set up a doctor's apt because the office closes at 5 p.m. so you can't call after work. Or whatever. To me, it's about flexibility while also maintaining excellence in your work. Like I've said, not every job is good for teleworking. But for those jobs that are, we ought to give people a chance to prove they can work from home.

I would love to have the option to telecommute. I live 25 miles from the office and that is a minimum of 2 hours spent on the roads getting to and from work. Unfortunately, telecommuting isn't an option for any government contractor in our office while it is for the government employees. If you ask me, I would look at the amount of work done and its overall quality vs counting the number of small chores that someone gets done. I know that a frustrating traffic jam on the way into work will impact my mood for the rest of the day. I would surely get more done if I didn't have the stress of a commute. The biggest challenge I see is the interaction with co-workers. I know from past experience that when tasks at the office are assigned, those who are remote are often forgotten and those in the office given the lion share of work that needs to be completed.

All good points. You particularly make a good point about staying connected to the office and co-workers somehow. 


I liked the comment about "cross training" so it becomes teamwork. Unfortunately, my daughter had to be out from work for over 2 months due to health issues. Upon her return, her co workers were angry that she didn't profusely thank them for doing her job. It seems that she's the one who took care of the nitty-gritty details each day and they discovered it while she was gone. She asked why they didn't hire a temp and they said they wanted to learn how to do her job. What do you think about this situation?

Her co-workers are so wrong. I mean really, the girl was sick. I can see they might have been frustrated realizing how much she did but really, grow up. Teamwork means sometimes you do more for a down team member.

I have an almost 3 year DC and work at home a few days a week. My DC is in day care 5 days per week and has been since 6 months. I often listen to people say they work from home X number of days, so they only need day care for Y number. I only wish these same people could see what an active toddler is like for an 8+ hour work day.

True. Even though I worked at home, I couldn't keep my little ones home with me. It would have been a nightmare trying to get things done. I wonder if they are getting their work done. 

Managers in my federal office are generally so distrustful of telework that those of us who can get an occasional ad hoc day go above and beyond from home. Regular telework is not allowed. But, the managers were more than happy to give me a part-time schedule. So now, they get a lot less of my time than I would have been willing to give them under a regular telework schedule. Their loss. Oh - no history of abuse here in the office. They won't even try it. Office superstars (childless, single, win tons of awards) can't get it -- they've tried. Even though they expect everyone to work from home above and beyond the 40 hours a week, so they know we can work from home. And yes, I am working month by month, year by year, saving like a demon so I can get the hell out. Morale is horrendous here.

So sad. So limiting. Shame on those managers and actually not adhering to the law that says they should try.

Michelle, I'm interested on your reaction to something that happens to me quite frequently. I dont' really need advice, because its obvious that I should just shut up - I have long thought that money matters weren't to be discussed outside of direct family or when ever it's absolutely necessary to disclose financial information. And I think that trickles down to asking someone how much something of theirs costs, I was just taught to not do this. But I've realized that people can still get an idea of how much something is by where you purchase it. So here's a situation I run into at work mostly. Other women I work with (who I will assume make a similar amount of money as I, since our department keeps fairly standard salaries, although I would have no idea of their total financial situation) and I will have conversations about clothes or what we did over the weekend, which is frequently shopping. Through the normal course of the conversation it will come out that I do quite a lot of shopping at an expensive store. I agree that its expensive, but clothes are where I focus my money - I'm hard to fit and I find it easier to spend more money on good clothes that can be tailored to fit me and will last a long time (in more than one case, they last decades). I understand that people love a bargain and are proud of going to discount clothing stores and finding a deal. That's just not my thing, I'd rather a saleswoman help me pick the clothes and really just assist me overall and so I find myself paying more for the service. The reaction I get is as if I were throwing money all over town just for the fun of it. I get funny looks, comments about how much my husband makes, or jokes about how I must think their clothes are horrible in comparison. Then all the sudden I'm the office snob and I shy away from all conversation to avoid this particular one again. One man in my office pulled me aside recently to ask where I shop because his young daughter was entering the workforce and he admired how I dress. I told him the truth, that I often shop at this store and when I was first starting out, I got a personal shopper at this store and she helped me build this wardrobe. Now I get jokes about how I can probably never retire or send my daughter to school. I totally get that not everyone spends the amount of money I do on clothes, just like I get that some people like buying fancy electronics on which I would never spend money. But neither one is right or wrong, it's just what people value more.

I understand. If it were me I would:

-- Not talk about where I shop or what I get. In fact, avoid money conservations all together. I have a similar problem only in the other direction. People call me cheap but they don't mean it a nice way. They use it to mean I'm a miser, which I'm not. I give a lot of money to a lot of people to help give them a hand up -- college, downpayment on a home, when they have downsized out of a job and need help, etc. I just don't spend on things I don't value. So for me it would be expensive clothes, cars, etc. But I wouldn't make assumptions about you based on that. 

-- Realize it's their problem if you know you handle your money well.

-- Tell them I said, you can buy whatever you like from whatever store you like as long as you have all your financial ducks in a row.

You situation is exactly why I don't fuss at people who buy say Starbucks coffee everyday.Your money. Your choice. Besides if getting that particular cup of java is your way to settle your nerves so you don't slap somebody on the job, get your $3, $4, $5 coffee. I don't care.

I just say you can't have everything, but you can have the things that you value, which is what you appear to be doing. 

My brother-in-law has been taken care of his whole life. He has a history of bad choices and an inabilty to make smart financial decisions. His father has now died, and he will inherit the house he lives in and a significant amount of money. How do my husband and I prepare for when the inheritance is gone and b-i-l comes back to us for help with paying bills and taxes?

One word.


You don't have to do anything you don't want to do and which will enable an irresponsible person to continue to be irresponsible. But it's not completely his fault if others bail him out.

Let him fall, if he falls.

Sometimes that's the lesson people have to learn to become responsible. 

So no need to prepare other than love him and be prepared to say no.

Regarding the woman in your column who says she has to work 15 more years to pay off her twins' loans, this is a prime example of why NOT to co-sign on college loans. Why aren't her kids paying their own loans? ?

Well, they do have their own loans. 

I would have advised staying at home and commuting or going to community college or working a few years to save up for their college education. 

But I understand that parents want the best for their kids and sometimes make choices I wouldn't.

So, i've been following the McDonnell trial (I'll spare you the throw-wife-under-the-bus- legal strategy) and all I keep thinking is: greedy people go broke. For what I can see is people with ridiculous high incomes spending MORE than what they make. I mean, you make a quarter of a million dollar a year and that isn't enough? What rich people DO to go broke?! I can see a poor person going broke because of illness or job loss but these people seem to have a lot of fun on their way to bankruptcy. What's your financial take on this trial?

My take is your take.

I wrote about their situation. Part of the problem was the vac home or was it homes? Investing when they didn't really have the means for that. (Just answered a question about real estate investing)

They were reaching beyond their means. I mean really borrowing and begging for your daughter's wedding. And the daughter allowing it or knowing about it. All greedy. But they are not alone. See it all the time. People in certain positions, jobs, cities, etc. trying to live the high life. Lesson for us all.

I think it really depends on the type of job and the person. My main concern is about the isolation of working from home. I don't have a ton of social interaction at my office, but I still see people during the day, get the occasional coffee or lunch with coworkers, etc. So again, this comes down to an individual concern.

True. But there are ways to make sure you have interaction. 

Not a reason to say no to it. 

My hubby works from home and gets more done that way. I have an employee who works 9-5 at the office, sits at her desk all day, but I've seen her playing Candy Crush, have 5 G-chat windows open at once and texting. So don't let the LOCATION drive the decision - people can do plenty of personal stuff sitting next to you in the cubicle.

So, so true!


I have been telecommuting for almost 4 years now and when I say I can't imagine ever having to go into an office to work again - I can't. I am sooooo much more productive working at home than I could ever be in an office: I don't have constant interuptions of people coming into my office to ask for things, no office chatter to deal with, Im not frozen alive by the office air conditioner, and there is absolutely no commute. and the BIGGEST plus for me? I'm not sitting at my desk, in front of my computer at 6:45 pm PRENTENDING to be working (like surfing the net or facebooking...) because you are afraid to leave because others are at their desk "working" and you don't want to be perceived as the one who doesn't 'work hard'.

Love this telecommuting testimony!

Man, the chat time seems to go by too fast. I'm so sorry if I didn't get to your question. I read them all. I promise. Some end up in future columns. If you have a pressing question, tweet me at @SingletaryM.

Thank you so much for joining me today. 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 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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