Color of Money Live (July 20)

Jul 20, 2017

Join Washington Post nationally syndicated personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary for an online discussion.

Our guest today was Lionel Shriver, who is the author of Big Brother, So Much for That, The Post-Birthday World, and the international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin. She has contributed to The Guardian, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

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

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I'm super excited about today's chat. My guest is Lionel Shriver. Her book "The Mandibles" was my Color of Money Book Club pick for this month.

It's a financial horror story. But one that isn't too far fetched. What if the US economy tanked beyond anything we've ever seen. 

How would you handle the crisis?

Of course I'm also here to answer your personal finance questions.

So let's get started. 

I already struggle with anxiety about money because Im working hard to get on top of things after unemployment. In a world like the Mandibles, stress would be through the roof. Any suggestions on how I can get a handle on and stop stressing so much about money?

Obviously, I wouldn't want to discourage you from keeping on top of your finances and living within your means.  But otherwise, I found a strange relief in the discovery, through my research, that money in the big picture is out of our hands.  We don't control what it's worth.  (Even the people who think they control what it's worth don't control it.)  Virtually overnight, currencies can become worthless.  There is freedom to be found in passivity--in your very helplessness.  Why worry about what you can't influence?  Also, THE MANDIBLES hasn't happened (yet).  So enjoy functional economy while you can!

Here's what I do. I plan for the worst -- or the worse I can imagine -- and hope for the best. 

Because as Lionel says, some things we just can't control. 

Can gold and silver really be confiscated by the govt? If so, in a scenario like the Mandibles, what do you think is the best investment or plan to prepare for economic collapse?

Yes.  The laws that enable government to seize gold in private hands is still on the books.  FDR nationalized gold in 1933.  Which makes it a rather poor backstop investment (my own plot to the contrary).  I am sorry to have to say this, but I am with Lowell on this one: there is no protection against economic collapse.  The "preppers" have a point: what you really need is food, water, farmland, and guns to keep other people from taking these necessities away from you.  But I am dubious that such preparations would be availing.  Sometimes I consider: it the shit really hits the fan, maybe I would rather be dead. Stark, I know.

The fact is, government can do anything, and it's government you'd need protection from.  Check out "civil forfiture," which Jeff Sessions thinks is such a wonderful idea.  It's legalized highway robbery.

Hi Michelle, Earlier this year, you advised me to take part of the money from an accident settlement and pay off my student loans. On Monday, I paid off the last $12.5K of my student loans ($38K taken out originally). YES, it feels great to have that monkey off my back 5 years early. (I already have an emergency fund and a life happens fund, thanks to you.) Thank you for the sound advice you've provided over the years. I tell everyone they need to read your column.

Thought I take a break from the doom and gloom for a Thursday testimoney.

So WOW! Very proud of you.

I know it's hard to let go of such a large amount of money even when you have debt. 

But oh how good it feels to get that monkey off your back.

And you can take all the payments you were going to make on that loan -- which includes the interest you now don't have to pay -- and boost your savings.

Bravo!

Michelle, last week's chat had some comments about teaching kids about money. But I have a problem. My 16-year-old son is very receptive to learning about household finances, but my 18-year-old daughter is not. To her credit, she doesn't spend a lot on herself -- she has had a part time job for 18 months and has saved more than 90 cents of every dollar she's earned -- but she doesn't have a clue about how much things cost and routinely turns down our offers to teach her. She is heading to college in the fall. My spouse and I have adopted the attitude that she'll ask us when she is ready, and this will happen once she has to figure out how to meet her expenses. We plan to say, this is your budget, and it has to cover clothes, books, and any time you want to go out for food or entertainment. But my inner control freak is looking for reassurance that this won't be a disaster, and/or advice on how to approach it. Thanks.

She will find out what things cost when she has to buy them.  I wouldn't worry.  

I agree, I wouldn't worry. 

Sometimes you just got to let them learn on their own.

She will. And she will because you have done your job as evidence by her savings habit.

Let go. It's okay.

And if she messes up, send her to me :)

If a person doesn't have great knowledge of stocks and bonds trading investments, etc... what's the best tree to climb in order to achieve success in that realm?

First learn about it. Take a class. Find out if the community college is offering a seminar. Check with local groups to see if there are any free workshops, etc.

Also go to this site: choosetosave.org. You'll find a lot of unbiased information about investing.

For kids go to FoolProofme.com, which is a free site that offers great money lessons for kids. 

Thanks for the column on setting ground rules for freeloaders. I certainly hope that this kind of approach will work, but just in case... what is my recourse if I don't get cooperation? Can I confiscate her goods and change the locks when she's out? Have her arrested for trespassing?

Okay, so let's try an approach that doesn't immediately involve the police or authorities. 

First see if the person will sign a lease/rental agreement. This will give you a chance to give the person a chance to find other housing options. Make the agreement month-to-month. Even if you are not going to charge rent get the agreement.

Then, after the agreed upon time of finding other options has passed, you can ask the person to move out. If he or she refuses then contact the authorities to see what are your options. You don't want to be in violation of the law by changing lots or taking the person's stuff. 

I actually ran into this situation. A renter in my condo was bouncing checks for his rent. He gave notice and moved out, leaving like a shirt and some hanger. So I had an old check that I legally cashed. The former renter was OUTRAGED. Imagine that. He tried to come back to live in my place. He was living with my brother (I had moved out). My brother, let him in. And then he called me crying and upset that the guy wouldn't leave.

I called the police on the way to the condo. Some young officer showed up and said I couldn't make the guy leave. 

I then asked that officer to call his supervisor who came over to the condo. Since the renter had moved all his stuff out and gave me back the keys who could not claim a space in my house. 

It was ugly but in the end settled. Because I had an agreement. 

What inspired you to write this story? Were there other books or sources that influenced your book?

I was inspired to write this novel when I idly calculated how long into this century I was likely to live.  If I survive as long as my paternal grandfather, I could be alive in 2053!  I was horrified.  I am terrified of the middle of this century.  So I asked myself why.  Population, for one reason, but also: I fear the collapse of the international economic infrastructure.  I read a stack of economics books that reinforced this concern.  The field has become almost bizarrely apocalyptic.  One of the best books was "Currency Wars," if you're interested.

Until I started reading your columns/chats I had not heard of "Life Happens" fund. I loved the idea and immediately started one. This month I had a few larger unexpected expenses, and I was able to pay them off without getting anxious about seeing my emergency fund or savings account dip down. I also didn't feel the need to cancel/scale back my vacation next month or start only eating ramen to replenish those accounts. Having this fund has helped my find balance in my spending/savings. Thanks!

I love the life happens too. 

And I do live what I preach. Went on vacation and the air in our car died. The bill would have made me cry -- had I not had the money in the life happens fund. 

I wasn't happy about the expense but I didn't cry because I didn't have to tap my emergency fund or skip the kayak tour! 

So glad you had your life happens fund!

Gratitude Thursday today for something that everyone is aware CAN happen but thinks really never well: our house at the beach was hit by lightning last week. Boom! Big hole in the upper part of the house (unfinished attic space). Scorch marks all around it. The Big Bang made some lights come on and some things go off. Things to be grateful for: we have good insurance and a healthy emergency fund, so we can replace our stove, which got fried, and the other appliances which we will buy to match. But one thing really saved us from this experience being a lot worse, and I haven't seen you mention it much: protect, not just financially but physically, as much stuff as you can. Our expensive electronics (big TV, amplifier, DVD player) were on surge protectors, and came through unscathed. Smaller stuff, like an older TV, our water heater, couple other things, were not, and they got blasted. We are grateful that no people or animals were harmed, and that both fiscal and physical precautions helped a lot to keep damage to a minimum.

Thanks for sharing your story. And I'm so glad no-one was hurt.

But you do make some great points. We have surge protectors for a lot of stuff but now you have me thinking I better check what else should we have on them.

So thanks!

I read this after seeing a comment about the book by George Will. I thought the book was compelling. Because Shriver brings the consequences of a financial collapse down to the human level, one can relate to the characters in a very meaningful way. These are my neighbors, this. Oils be me. What do you do when suddenly, your bank account is frozen, your investments no longer pay dividends, your cash on hand is useless, the government outlaws ownership of gold and goes house to house with metal detectors to seize anything held back, even wedding rings!! The question is: could it happen here, esecially considering the irresponsible spending of a feckless congress and administration?

I wrote that novel because I do indeed believe that it could happen here.  The national debt is rapidly becoming so enormous that we have to ask: is that money ever going to be paid back?  Really?  With entitlement burdens going through the roof?  Or isn't it more likely that the feds will inflate the debt away (which is also a form of default)?  Even if we don't have a "renunciation" of the debt as in THE MANDIBLES, the amount of debt washing about the world ($152T in 2015, 225% of GDP, and that's all nonfinancial debt) suggests there's too much theoretical value in relation to real value.  That means those of us saving feverishly for retirement are in danger of having what seems to be ostrich-size nesteggs turn into quail eggs.

This book scared me too!

But you know what scared me more?

Can I be assured that I won't do some things to survive? Steal? Cheat? 

You get to see people's true character in a crisis. 

That's even scarier than my retirement going poof! 

And I wonder how much people value do you have stored up.

In other words, would you be taken in by a relative? What kind of relationships to you have with folks? Could you lean on them in a crisis? Could they lean on you? Would you share a piece of your last piece of bread? Share your four-bedroom house with 10 relatives? 

It makes you think what kind of person are you when things get tough. And would you open your home to others in need?

I bought a tiny bungalow in 1998 (single female) using a 30 year mortgage. I started adding to my principal about 10 years ago. I just figured out that it will be paid off by December of 2020 when I'm 61 and boy am I excited!! If I can do it with a pretty modest income, so can you! That in addition to replacing my roof, gas furnace, and whole A/C system just last year (and had the money available to pay cash, thus getting a discount). Sure I'm driving a 14 year old car and eat out for dinner probably 3-4 times a year but, as you say Michelle, need to get that monkey off my back in order for me to retire!

Bravo!

I was just talking to my husband about paying off our home before we retire. It's a must. And it's a must because housing is typically your largest expense. Even when you factor in taxes and insurance, getting rid of the mortgage is a huge income boost in retirement. 

Do it if you can. 

Congrats to you!

I really enjoyed The Mandibles, having first learned about it from Ms. Shriver's interview in Reason Magazine some months ago. That particular interview led me to believe that the author wrote the book with the express intent of creating something unsettling, perhaps seeing herself as a kind of Cassandra, warning about the growth of our national debt. Is it, then, fair to say that she saw this work of fiction as a mission to benefit society by nudging public policy as much as it is an effort to tell a good story? Are there any other warnings/concerns, perhaps non-economic, topics that she has for us? Also, what are her thoughts on the economic implosion going on in Venezuela right now? As I've watched that unfold of late I can't help but think of her novel. In any event, thanks for a gripping and thought-provoking read.

Really pleased you enjoyed the novel.  And I share your fascination with Venezuela!  I read every article I can find about that place--which not that long ago was thriving.  Venezuela is THE MANDIBLES in Spanish.

Above all, of course, I wanted to tell a good story (and to entertain myself as well as other readers along the way).  But secondarily, sure--I did have a political agenda.  It sounds old-fashioned, but I am, I confess, morally offended by the fact that the current economic situation rewards debtors and punishes savers.  This runs against my secretly-Protestant roots. 

Otherwise, there is a stack of subsidiary issues that I slipped into the novel along the way, and they are sources of my real anxiety: shortage of fresh water, the disappearance of affordable fish, the dieback of the Arabica coffee bean crop, the growth of antibiotic-resistant microbes, food shortage, peaking human population ...  That novel is a festival of worries.

Please tell me there would be more warning signs or checks built into our system? As I'm reading your book right now, I'm also reading the news in Venezuela and, aside from the lack of domestic production of crops, the stories are frighteningly similar. Please tell me there are more checks and/or warning bells in the US system?

Well, the Federal Reserve would claim it has everything under control, and, for example, if inflation ticks up then they will raise interest rates and the problem will be solved.  But I don't believe the Fed is in any more real control than anyone else.  Along with other central banks abroad, they have effectively printed money in a quantity that is unprecedented, and they have no idea what the effect of all this made-up money is going to be.  If we have another recession, too--much less a depression--central banks have already used up most of their tools to boost the economy.  Interest rates are still risable.  But, as I noted in another post: it's all out of our hands.  Which is relaxing.  Enjoy your life now.

Okay, more scared after Lionel's answer.

But I like that she's warning us. Watch. 

Still save however. Keep doing what you're doing just in case the economy doesn't completely collapse. 

Have you ever read the Creature of Jekyll Island?

No.  I'm curious.  What's it about?

Haven't read it either but on quick search it's a history of the Federal Reserve. And how, as Lionel has been saying, the Fed isn't in as much control as we think. 

The novel was a tremendous read and very thought provoking. Most dystopian novel focus on a natural disaster, war, or epidemic as the impetus. I feel this book is fairly unique for using an economic calamity as the backdrop. Are there any other such books that inspired the author in this regard? Are there other books --fiction or nonfiction-- that she would recommend?

The dystopian novel has a long and impressive tradition, which is one reason I specifically wrote an economic dystopia; I was aiming for an unfilled niche.  I honestly don't know of any others, aside from a recent novel by Margaret Atwood about privitized prisons.  Ironically, I wouldn't especially recommend it, mostly because the plot doesn't stack up in economic terms.  If THE MANDIBLES makes you want to read more, I suggest nonfiction.  E.g., try the book ENDGAME.  Or PAPER MONEY COLLAPSE.  There's a great book on the German experience of inflation in the 1920s called something like WHEN MONEY DIES.

I think economic collapse is a likely source of mass calamity (think about how you would survive in a city for more than a week without functional currency).  Money is at least going to be a huge aspect of climate change and environmental degradation.

What difference in the "life happens" fund and the "emergency fund?

Emergency is for really dire stuff: You lose your job. You run out of sick leave and have to take unpaid leave for an illness.

Life Happens: Car repairs, dishwasher goes up. It's a separate fund so that you don't have to raid your emergency fund. The money in this account is meant to be taken out when needed. Then you fill it back up. You don't keep a lot in there just enough to cover something that could make too a big of dent in your emergency fund. Start with $500. You can then increase it to $1,000 to $3,000. 

I've read Porter Stansberry's America 2020. He predicts a financial melt down in America and gives advise on how to survive it: transferring wealth to gems, gold jewelry & gold, and importantly getting it out of the country. How likely do you think such a catastrophic melt down will occur ?

I think Stansberry's plot and some variation on mine are more likely than I wish.  But I'm skeptical about whether gems, jewelry, and gold are the answer.  If nothing else, you can't eat rocks and metal.  Real economic breakdown would completely reorder what we regard as valuable.  That's why in THE MANDIBLES the people with all the power, who get rich, are the farmers.  Whereas in real life right now, farmers (insofar as the US has any left outside of industrial agriculture) are wildly underpaid. 

Many brokerage houses, Schwab, TD Ameritrade, Fidelity Financial, have fee seminars and articles to read to help educate yourself.

They do. But I still like folks to go to sources that are unbiased, which is why you need to be very, very careful about going to seminars tuck alongside a free lunch or dinner. They tend to be sales pitches.

It only takes a few episodes of Judge Judy to learn the dos and don'ts about tenants, boarders, etc. and their possessions.

You got that right! Read the column because I offer tips on how to help someone who is moving in with you so that the person doesn't become a moocher. 

 

We know it's not worth a repair (we were hoping to buy a new one in a few more months after saving for it specifically), but we have a life happens fund to cover what we haven't saved.... I can't thank you enough for this idea. It's going to be more expensive than we had planned, but we're also totally okay.

And that's why I love the life happens fund.

You aren't stressed -- or shouldn't be -- about taking money out of this pot because it's an in and out pot. It's intended for such things. 

Good morning Michelle! Love your work. You'd actually answered a similar question I posed a few months back about what to do with a 100k inheritance coming my way - pay off debt, stack emergency fund, then sure I can redo my kitchen hooray! I was going to follow that pretty closely, but circumstances have changed. Money is still in the estate until 1 year of passing, so I have a month or so to reevaluate. The good news is that we're pregnant with our first child (we're 36yo)! And my company does not offer paid maternity leave outside of PTO, which I'll have approx 1 month. We also picked up a car note ($200/mo). So I've been playing with numbers, and would love your input on this: - $52k to pay off all debt but mortgage (this will free up $2k/month in debt repayments) - $22k to get up to 6 months wages in Emergency Fund (currently have $1k in a Life Happens Fund) - $5k to a Rental Property Emergency Fund (it historically has water issues every year or two) - $9k to fully fund my ROTH IRA for 2 years (have contributed 2k already this year) - Thinking about increasing my 401k contribution (currently 5% to get company match, have approx $200k in 401k) since I'll have that $2k/mo freed up from debt That leaves $12k of the inheritance. Do I stack our Baby Fund (currently $6k to use for gear, medical expenses, etc, and we currently contribute $200/mo), start/stack a 529 plan and/or other Child's Future account, save it for part time child care? (I plan to go back to work after 3 months maternity leave.) Also, if it matters, we eventually want 2 kids. Would love your input! Thank you!

Lots to unpack here in such a short time.

But in the end, I agree to hold on to the balance for baby money. 

And until you are used to the increase in baby expenses, especially if you will need daycare, don't boost your 401 k and Roth just yet. (Fund the ROTH for just this year if you like).

Sure you have an extra $2,000 a month but daycare for an infant could take up to $1,500 of that money. 

So slow the savings down just a bit until you are comfortable with who much the new baby will cost.

And congrats on the baby!

Michelle, So I'm hoping you can point me in the right direction. I love your chats and have tried to take what advice I can. I'm a survivor of domestic violence, parent of an amazing 2 year old and and am in the process of divorcing my abuser. Due to a variety of reasons, I currently have $30k in credit card debt, but majority of it due to my ex. Hopefully the divorce will mean he ends up with half that, but just in case he doesn't, I'm trying to plan next steps. I currently make about 2.5 times my ex, which complicates things. I have already started a debt management program for the credit card debt due to debtadvice.org and your recommendation. I max out my 401k company match as that's free money I don't want to give up. I put a small amount ($50/month each) in a 529 for my son, and in a Roth IRA as well for myself. I also own a house in one state I rent out and currently live in the house my ex and I own together. I pay all the bills including the mortgage. He is in another house his mom pays for. Additionally, my parents are loaning me money for attorney's fees. We have drawn up an agreement and had it notarized for future annual tax purposes so neither myself or my parents have issues with when it comes to the loan they made me. I also put a small amount in savings each month for an emergency fund as well as a life happens fund. Due to a number of things, these funds are low, but the savings are automatic, so it goes in no matter what. I have cut expenses and am doing everything possible to do free or extremely low cost activities with my toddler and friends since the support system and social network is so important. The one exception being swim lessons for my toddler as that is so important in Florida. Even that, the swim school is allowing me to do a payment plan. I also have 45k in student loans, more than I actually needed for school because my ex wasn't working most of the time and the extra was taking out for living expenses. I have a car payment, but also have a company car through my job. If I tried to sell my car, I owe more than it's worth so would still owe the loan company $5k after trade-in value. I am trying to sell the rental property, but my tenants are being the opposite of helpful for a variety of reasons (not the least of which the brother of the tenant tried to purchase, but lied about having a foreclosure on his record so that fell through). At least I'm making $100/mo even after property management fees and a home warranty. The rental property is in PA and I'm in FL, so the property management is a necessity for stress and other reasons. Obviously I'm in a financial mess, but do you have any advice or direction you can point me that might be able to help.

Wow. You have so much on your plate. So sorry about your marital situation. 

But honestly, it seems you have thought through much of what I would ask you. 

Stay on this track and I believe you will be okay. 

If you like you can email me if there is more but I don't think your situation is as messy as you think in terms of your finances. Because you have some plans. 

 

I just wanted to say hello to Lionel Shriver and thank her for being on the chat today. How exciting and cool! (And, of course, thank you, Michelle, for hosting the chat every week.)

My pleasure.  You know, it's great fun for novelists to be able to communicate directly with readers for once.  It's much more interesting than reading professional reviews.

I offer compliments on a wonderful novel. As I was reading it, I kept thinking it would be a great movie adaptation. Any plans?

Something's in the works for TV, but I still haven't signed anything.  Take it from me: you can't believe any adaptation will come to pass until you're sitting on the couch with a hand in the popcorn.  I think it would make a good film or series. But the competition for production dollars is stiff.

1st, I HAVE read a number of dystopian novels but only a few (the wildly gun-happy "Patriots" for example) that posit a complete looting/burning/warband leader breakdown. These scenarios seem to find more expression on the screen than on the page. Historically, such complete breakdowns have been rarer than slowdowns - and didn't happen at all with Y2K or with Peak Oil (yet). One aspect that makes such experiences easier is that it isn't just us as individuals experiencing the breakdown. We are all in the same situation, and we can more easily develop ways of coping when everyone is on the same level. If we are the only ones with only cold water, it's much harder than if everyone has only cold water.

In THE MANDIBLES, I tried to capture the way that economic decay, and the civil breakdown that comes with it, can often take place very slowly.  At the start, the changes are incredibly small (maitre d's no longer see restaurant patrons to their table, but simply flick their heads impatiently).  I hope that makes the plot feel, oddly enough, more frightening--because it isn't completely foreign, and there are no zombies in the streets.  You mention cold water?  The characters are like frogs in slowly heating water on the stove.

You raise a good point about all of us being in the same boat.  The question is whether we respond in a communal way, helping each other out, or in a Darwinian one, with every man for himself.  This is not just a sociological question, but a psychological one.  It's about character.  We'd all like to fancy that we would be the ones who would help others, but some of us would get an unhappy surprise re: just how brutally selfish we can be.  In fact, in the novel I tried to express how as matters deteriorate the circle of people to whom you can afford to be loyal starts to shrink, until you can't defend your neighbors, but only your own family.

Octavia Butler wrote some very insightful dystopian fiction, which won several awards. Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents reminded me of my life in Detroit in the late 80s/early 90s. The protagonists live in a "gated community" - the remnants of a suburb, surrounded by a self-built wall of junk to keep out raiders. One person has a job that pays money. One family has a working TV set, and they charge others to come into their house and watch it - until it dies. Detroit had a lot of people using up the last of their family resources - the last person with a house had 10 people living there: the last person with a job bought groceries for those people. I lived in a studio apartment with 5 people and 2 cars. Human capital helps, but eventually all the resources are gone. The only living-wage jobs in the city were in the drug trade, so that's what a lot of people did.

Thanks for sharing. And to your point of human capital. At least it helped for a while. 

How do you structure those two separate funds. Are they in different bank accounts? I have them both, but basically in a virtual way. They're lines on a spreadsheet... the sum of which is the amount of cash I want on hand.

I typically suggest having a bank account separate from the one you use for regular household expenses.

In this separate account you can make the checking the life happens since you'll be constantly pulling from it.

Make the savings component the emergency fund. 

But if having few pots for you works that's fine too. 

I just like pots and not just on paper. 

I have an advanced degree in economics. Relative to its mention in the chat, please be aware that "Creature of Jekyll Island" is a conspiracy theory book about the the Federal Reserve. Readers should use caution. The book is not grounded in facts.

Thanks for the input!

Michelle, as our experience showed us, it is well worth it to have what you can on surge protectors, but in looking at your own house, be aware you can NOT, by code, put any kind of extension cord on appliances like your stove, fridge, microwave. If they get blasted, so be it. Just don't store anything flammable (cloth oven mitts, towels, etc.) in the storage drawer of your stove. Nothing caught on fire inside our house (outside had scorch marks; we were saved by the heavy rain at the time). Keep flammable things away from anything that could spark a fire, like sockets, or heat-producing appliances.

Appreciate the tips!

My wife and I have small kids at the moment and are tighter on the budget with childcare, so trying to figure out how best to contribute to retirement for the funds we have available. We are contributing more than what my company matches to 401k, but not to the full max allowed. We are also contributing to a Roth IRA separately. Does it make sense to put additional contributions to the 401k due to taxes, or to the Roth IRA first as that may be after-tax but grows tax free? Thanks!

I favor the 401 (k) because it's taken pretax, which means less of your income is taxed. But you could split the difference so that you have a pot with money that isn't taxed when you retire. 

You can't eat a bar of gold -- what value is gold, really, if there truly is a financial breakdown? It has, according to Terry Pratchett, less intrinsic value than a potato. If you have land (and can PROTECT IT) you can grow food, but that can be taken too (read about the Soviet famine (1932-33) for a TRUE horror story). I would guess the only way to really prepare is to learn a valuable skill -- and hope it will remain valuable under whatever the limitations the future holds (will we run out of fuel and go back to using horses, or will we eat all of the horses? Should we prepare to be the village smithy, or Mad Max?). There's no way to prepare for every possible contingency, so I think I'm going to take my chances and NOT plan for the collapse of the U.S. Government, beyond, perhaps, a vegetable garden. You can tell me "I told you so" if I'm wrong (or maybe not, since the newspapers and internet will probably be long gone).

I completely agree with you.  I may be apocalyptic by nature (and like everyone else I find the theoretical vision of mass catastrophe enlivening), but I don't believe you can plan for worldwide disaster; I don't think you should, either.  Waste of energy, and most of all a waste of order.  However nominally, we have a functioning civilization, and while we do we should enjoy its fruits.  

I am concerned, however, that my own skills in a post-holocaust environment are going to be pretty low down the list in the barter department.  What, you'll give me that potato of yours, and I'll write you a short story?  You'll note that it's the likes of myself--artists, intellectuals--who are completely useless by the middle of the book.

Love your points.

So I'm learning to be a better cook. They keep cooks around!

I'm sure it's due to the current zeitgeist but for a lot of my peer group (upper middle class, mixed race, mixed politics, regular boring family folk, mostly GenX) that while none are crazy preppers, nor believe in a Mandibles-like situation - all see a diminished economic future and are preparing accordingly. Personally, our current finances are good, we have college looming for three kids but as of today, are blessed and have decent retirement savings for our age and so forth. This said, few of us doubt that in 10-20 years we will be faced, like it or not, with economic privation and distress. Our current economic path is a wreck as are our government finances. Personally, I plan on cashing out (or a forced retirement due to age discrimination), leaving my big metro area and living on 20 cents to the dollar I do now. Become frugal, either voluntarily or through necessity, pick one. My point - is this a widespread phenomena? Or am I and my peers the oddballs here.

I don't think you're alone.  I also find myself expecting that all of our economic prospects are diminishing, at least in the West.  Even in lieu of actual collapse, the national debt is a burden only sustainable with near-zero interest rates; the hollowing out of the middle class continues apace; and of course we keep reading about how a huge proportion of what are now decent paying jobs will soon be done by robots.  If nothing else, too, we're likely to have a worldwide human population nearly 50% larger than it is now in just over 30 years.  That is incredible.  All these people will want jobs and refrigerators.  Globalization has been great for poorer countries.  But this great leveling--the real end to "inequality"--means we in the West get much poorer, and stay that way.

George Will mentioned this book in a column. I read it and thought it was extremely compelling. At a very human level, she shows what happens to people when their bank accounts are frozen; their investments are bankrupt; their cash is useless: and the government goes house to house seizing gold (even wedding rings) Given the current irresponsible spending of a feckless congress and administration, how likely is this scenario? By the way, I loved the book.

I think most of us on the chat believe another major crisis could happen. How deep it goes? Nobody knows. 

Thank you all for joining me today.

And I'm so, so sorry if  didn't get to your question. I read every single question and comment. I saw a few I want to make into a column like the one about when to leave your day job for a startup business. 

I try to get to as many as I can. 

I've also asked Lionel if she will answer some offline. So stay tune to my weekly newsletters (hope you subscribe) and my column (hope you read and share). 

Again, thanks to Lionel Shriver for taking the time to answer your questions. And she wanted me to thank all of you who came to the chat for her. 

Take care. I'm away next week but back Thurs. Aug. 3.

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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Lionel Shriver
Lionel Shriver is the author of Big Brother, So Much for That, The Post-Birthday World, and the international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin. She has contributed to The Guardian, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Photo credit: Sarah Lee
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