Color of Money Live: Think more, spend less

Dec 07, 2017

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

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Thanks for joining me today. I know there is a lot going on (Sen. Al Franken resigning) but there's still our personal financial lives to deal with.

I've got a great guest to talk about my new favorite book "Dollars and Sense." It's on behavioral economics but in a way that is so easy to understand. I was intrigued by so many concepts in this book, especially the idea that we are too sale driven.

So let's get started. 

Hi Michelle, Do you have any thoughts on investing in digital currency? On one hand, the returns look amazing. On the other hand, I feel like it's probably quite risky. But I also know very little about investing -- I contribute to my 403b to max out my employer's contribution, and that's about it. Your take?

People are asking me more and more about bitcoins. It's highly, highly risky. I wouldn't do it. 

Look there is always risk in investing but this is way too risky for my blood.

I have a question of which is better - saving that 6 months of living expenses or paying off my student loans? A little context: I'm a government employee with a little under $30,000 in loan debt with 3 loans averaging 5.25% interest. I'm eligible and enrolled in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program so my payment is capped at $208 a month. I'm contributing 7% of my salary to my regular TSP and have about 3 months of living expenses saved up. After re-analyzing my budget, I realize I have about $500 left after fixed expenses including my student loan payment. Question is, do I use that towards building that 6 month emergency fund or put it all towards my student loans or some combination? While I plan on being in a job that qualifies for PSLF for the next 9 years (what I have left to qualify for forgiveness), I'm not sure if the program is going to be around then.


Read Michelle's column: All I want for Christmas is a gift of a student loan payment

First, there is a lot of talk about the forgiveness program going away or changing. If you are currently enrolled any change may not impact you because you will likely be grandfathered in. 

And if you think you will stick with your current job, then sure boost your emergency fund. 

But that's a lot of ifs. 

Me, if I had the extra money, I'd want the debt gone because you have to spend a decade paying on it. .

I'll be honest. I have mixed feelings about the program when it's used by people who can afford to pay off the debt. Because somebody -- taxpayers -- absorbed the debt others don't pay. Then again, I know that many people chose public service and as a result make less than they could in the private market.


How or what process can I follow not to overspend during the Christmas holiday, especially on myself! It's too tempting to find an item for someone and also to buy one for myself,

Great question and very timely. 

There are a couple of factors that make us overspend during the holidays. Being aware of them, and how they impact you, is an important first step to better decisions.

The first factor is the emotions of the holiday season. It feels special. It IS special. So we get emotional about it - about visiting family, buying gifts, pretending to like eggnog.  When we get emotional that means we're less rational, especially with spending. Buying things feels like fun! It's like a game. We can put holiday spending into a different category - a different mental account - than normal spending.  It's like having a gift certificate or casino chips - we have "holiday spending" that feels different than normal money. It's play money. So we spend it more easily and with less thought. DON'T DO THAT. Money you spend in December is the same as money you spend in February or May.  It just feels more fun... more tempting.

The second trick of the holidays are all the sales. SALES. 50% off!  Buy one get one half price... Sales are very deceptive because they make us think about relative value.  "Compared to the $100 this sweater USED TO BE... $60 is a relatively great deal!" We shouldn't think about what something used to be - or, more common, "how much we're saving."  We not saving anything... we're spending. So try to ignore all the sales pricing and language and just look at the final price you have to pay. Is it worth it to pay that much for that item?  That's the choice you have to make ...What it used to cost doesn't matter at all.

Those things should help slow down the holiday spending in general... as for buying something for yourself, too... Well, why don't you just get it for a friend and then borrow it ;)  You get to visit your friend and the money you don't spend could be used to bring over a bottle of wine.

happy holidays!

Okay, Jeff's answer just blew me away. That's how the book goes. Doesn't it make you look at a sale differently?

Hi Michelle--looking for guidance. In Sept 2018 I will begin collecting SS at my full entitlement age. While reading the SS online site, I noticed that my adult (27) year old son may be entitled to collect SS (he is on the autism spectrum and attends community college part time, has never held a job). Do you know if this is correct? Or should I make an appt at SS office and talk to someone about this? Thanks for all you do.

I have a son who is the spectrum as well. Definitely make an appointment and see if he's eligible. But you may find that he's capable of earning a living and won't qualify. 

I can't find a way to listen to the live chat. Help!

So sorry. This is a text chat. So if you sent this question you are on the chat. But you read the questions and answers rather than listening to them. 

I just saw a question pop up so I guess I have my answer no audio just follow the typed conversations/answers


I have a bagful of U.S. coins, the kind with sets or single coins in little sealed clear cases, that were left after my mother died. Is it worth trying to sell them? If so, how? Would it be better to hang on to them longer? They are all years, going back to the 1970s.

I'm not into coins as an investment or collector so I'm no expect. But you can search online for reputable coin collection sites that will help answer your questions. 

What is the best way to keep strategies for spending wisely on the forefront of our brains during our every day lives?

When we wrote our book, we didn't want to create a bunch of stressed out people who are always obsessing over every financial decision. That's not a healthy way to live.

What we'd like is for people to be aware of the financial mistakes they do make - like falling for sales prices or overusing credit cards and other financial technology, being tricked by fancy language, etc. - and either creating systems for automatic, thought free better spending habits - i.e. only keep a certain amount of money in our checking account, because that's what we consider our discretionary spending, and if we "hide" some of our money from ourselves, we'll spend less - or to stop and think, now and then, about our choices.


Broadly speaking, there are three types of financial decisions: 

1. Little ones. Buying a pack of gum. Don't stress about that.

2. Habitual ones.  Spending $15 on lunch every day. $150 on cable every month.  Stop and think about those every now and then.  Not every time, but once a while, think about if that's a wise habitual choice, then adjust, then go back on automatic.

3. The big decisions. Buying a house or a car... These are the ones where we should hold up, take a breath, stop and think. Because, sadly, it's the big decisions where we don't think... and the little ones where we do. 

Say you're renovating your home for $60,000... (that's a bargain in some places).  Your contractor comes to you and says, "Hey, for another $2000, you can have, uh, um... something italian!"  Frequently, we'll say "Sure!" because a) we're already spending so much, what's a little bit more and b) it's hard to measure the worth of something italian.

But then we go to the supermarket and spend 15 minutes deciding between the regular tomatoes at 99 cents and the organic at $1.05. A lifetime of tomatoes wouldn't add up to something italian (insert your own pasta sauce joke here).


So, long way to get to...

a) learn about your mistakes so you're aware of them going forward

b) don't stress about every financial choice.  But do really think about the big ones, think about the habitual ones now and then, and go ahead and splurge on a $2 pack of gum...


I got nothing more. Love it. And I love the way Jeff and this book thinks because it's about well thinking.

I never tell people not to get Starbucks coffee. But to hear other financial experts tell it you won't have enough money for retirement if you keep buying the cup of coffee. 

It's not that purchase alone. It's the big decisions that tank you. If getting that coffee keeps you calm and keeps you from slapping your co-woker, get the coffee. In the end, it will save your job.

But then think, "Do I need to buy lunch every day?" A tuna sandwich isn't likely to calm your nerves. But those lunches add up to something that isn't really important to you so the money could be used to boost your retirement savings. 

It's all about thinking about what you value and putting your money there. 

How to fight to keep the CFPB as a citizen?

Write and call your Congressional representatives. You have a voice. They sometimes listen when it's added to so many other voices. 

What are the biggest takeaways from the book?

I've found that every reader has his or her own unique takeaway, something that really resonates with him or her, that really nails a mistake that hits home.  We use a lot of stories and examples and usually one or two or five of them stick.


That said, what I hope is a big takeaway is that money is really hard to think about.  For everyone.  Don't assume everyone else knows what to do with money except you. That's not true.  We all have these human failings around money.  The best thing we can do is be aware of those failings... We're not going to change human nature. We shouldn't try to.  Instead, if we're aware of our human nature, we can create systems and nudges to encourage better (financial) behavior. 

Instead of allowing and credit card companies and car dealerships to use human nature to make us spend more, let's understand human nature so we can set up ways to make us save more, or, at least, to spend smarter.


My takeaway: Think more before you spend.

And you are not dumb about money.

There are just so many more people schooled and employed to trick you to spend more. When you know how they trick your mind, you can better protect yourself. 

Like the idea that we are "saving" so much money on sales.

I got off that train a long time ago but not before thinking I was this great bargain shopper. Not!

 I was still spending thinking I was saving.

I need to put the book on my reading list - it sounds great. I have to tell this story about when my spouse and I were shopping for furniture 20 years ago. The internet was in a nascent state, so comparison shopping was difficult. You could identify furniture stores on the web, but you would have to cold call them to get quotes. So, we found a dining set we liked, got the style numbers, and we called around. It turned out a store near Richmond could give us a great deal, but there would be a delay in delivery of a couple of weeks. So, spouse and I went to a local (now out of business) furniture store in Fairfax County. We asked to speak to a salesperson and asked for a quote on the dining set. It was much higher than the quote we'd already received. We told her so, and asked her if they could meet their competitor. She looked at us in great confusion, and said, "But it's on sale." HA! We ordered from the other place as soon as we got home, and we still laugh about that utterly inane response.

That's a great story! 

"But it's on sale" is kind of the retail equivalent of rattling a set of keys in front of a baby. OOOOH SHINY TOY!   Don't fall for it.

Nothing wrong with thinking for yourself ;)

Michelle, I need you advice on finding a new financial planner. We've actually been with a trusted planner for over 20 years, but we're finding her just too expensive. She charges 0.65% of total assets under management on an annual basis, and that now amounts to about $12,000 per year. I think she's done a good job for us, but I also believe we can get financial planning services for much less. I'm looking for someone we can pay on an hourly basis who can assess our portfolio on a quarterly basis (or on an as-needed basis) and who will make recommendations. We've got a pretty good nest egg in brokerage and IRA accounts, but it's not a complicated set up. We're mostly in mutual funds and ETFs, with maybe 15% of our holdings in individual stocks. Any advice on what kind of planner I should be looking for and how to go about finding someone?

You are on the right track. Fee only. 

Try the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors to find a fee only person near you. 

Will you be doing more great columns like the recent one where points were cited from Ariely and Kreisler regarding sales being bait, and how one has to keep in mind that (in spite of the sale price!) one is never really saving when spending (and this would be most especially true when the item(s) is not actually NEEDED, merely wantedm because of the 'attractive' sales price being offered? I think such advice for us all is very helpful, Michelle. Thanks for all that you do.

Yeah Michelle, are you going to be doing any more columns about ME ME ME?

(That column was great, btw, and 99% of it was because of Michelle, not our book).

Pro savings tip:  If you can't afford the book, read Michelle's columns. ;)


Definitely planning more columns. I literally just told Jeff I need to do another column on this sales thing. 

I've already told two groups in my church -- couples and money & Prosperity Partners (a year long program) that I'm teaching from the book next year. 

So yes, look for more. Go to my Twitter page @SingletaryM and look at the photo I took of my copy of the book. I have dogeared and post its notes throughout. 

I work for a social services agency (think low-paying). This year, there is no expensive holiday party (we have thousands of employees so it wasn't lavish, but it was expensive!). Instead, eligible employees sent in their info and management will draw 10 names. Those winners will get $5,000 paid directly towards their student loans. Since most people hated the party, nobody will miss it. Plus, some people will get a really nice gift!

That sounds great. Not only does it eliminate the pain of an awkward holiday party... and not only do 10 people get the great pleasure of $5k towards their loans... but it sounds like everyone else also gets the pleasure of being part of this new system, of (in)directly helping those 10 people get their great gift. 

A great use of recognizing people's preferences and needs and truly spreading the joy.

But... what did you do with the unused wine?  Asking for "a friend"

Oh please, please email me and tell me what agency. I would love to do a column on this GREAT idea. Please!!

My email is 

I recently bought a car - spent more than I really wanted to because I have a bad back and the cars I had picked out made it worse in just the 10 minute test drive. I'm comfortable with the purchase I made (in cash) because I keep my cars forever and I still have about 9 months of gross pay in savings/investments. But then I found out I may need to have a medical procedure. One that may not be covered by insurance. That's over 10K. I feel like I thought about all the right things and I still got bitten in the butt. I don't know what the question is, maybe is there a way to reframe this in my mind?

I know where you are going. You spent more and now feel like it wasn't a wise choice. 

But it was. Why

-- You paid cash and that says a lot to me right there. You are not reckless. 

-- You had a good reason for paying more. And that's okay. With the information you had at the time, you made the best decision for you.

-- You can't go back in time and because you can't you shouldn't beat yourself up for a decision you made with the information you had at the time. Had you known you would have an out-of-pocket medical expense this high "maybe" you would have picked a different car. But maybe not. Maybe you still should have done what you did.

-- You re good saver and you have the money I'm assuming in your savings. And that's why you saved for emergencies. For times like this. 

I got you.

And you don't need to fret about your car decision. 

"When we wrote our book, we didn't want to create a bunch of stressed out people who are always obsessing over every financial decision. That's not a healthy way to live." That's me. I actually have gotten stomach pains over it. I leave it to my husband. How do I overcome this and be involved our family finances without feeling sick?

My suggestion would be to pick your spots.  You can't obsess over everything, and it's hard to try to tackle a family's entire finances. Instead, start by picking a few things - cell phone plan or dining out - and make that your project, save a little bit, and gradually it'll add up.  It's like planning a wedding - I wanted to help with everything, but was overwhelmed and intimidated. So I was in charge of the band (jazz swing) and the cake (ice cream wedding cake!).  I contributed, but didn't stress myself - or my wife - out.


The other thing is, I would repeat: It's totally normal to be confused and uncertain about financial matters. Almost everyone is.  Know that.  Learn what you can - from our book or friends and family - and take baby steps. No one is a financial master and learning is AOK.

I totally agree with Jeff. As much as I know, I still make mistakes. But I had to stop beating myself up. I had to let some stuff go. 

I'm still a work in progress but obsessing creates stress and stress creates health problems and health problems cost more money!

Please please please answer this question Ms SIngletary. Mom retired and moved out state. When she’s bored my opinion she wants to return where she retired from and have week long visits with me. I’m single and enjoy my life. I think mom ABRUPTLY moved because of finances. Poor planning. She lives with her other child who is married and kids have left home now living their lives . I feel stressed when she wants to visit for 3 to 4 wks and I feel as if she expects me to entertain her every weekend. Am I wrong? She worked 40+ yrs retired, sold (she said) house, and think I’m supposed to be happy for long visits. Really the first wk is great but after I want my house back. I have no more kids no pets and I’m financially secured but I don’t want a roommate. Help!!! She does absolutely nothing when she’s here unless WE go out.

Okay, so this is Vegas right? I mean this is our forum and what's said here stays here -- even though I know it's online and available to a lot of people.

Still, can I tell you I'm going through something similar right now. Literally.

Person came for Thanksgiving staying through New Years. Can't do a lot so I, my husband and last kid home haver to help --  a lot. (Meals, getting up and down stairs, around, etc.)

But you know what. It's just a tiny part of the year when you take it all in. This person means the world to me. She's been there when even my own mother wasn't.

Do I like the longggggggg visit. With my lifestyle and obligations, not really. But I love her and she's older, has health issues and I'm not sure how much longer she has. So honestly, I'm sucking it up for the extended visit. 

Now if there's some plan you don't know about to move in that's a whole different story. 

And I'll add this. You can say no during the extended visit. If you have things you want to do, just say I can't take you out or got out with you today or this weekend. Within the visit you can set boundaries. 

Your comment "Don't assume everyone else knows what to do with money except you" resonates with me. I believe I am frugal (if not outright cheap): I have money in the bank, don't carry any credit card balances, and have no major debt except my mortgage. Still, I see friends and family taking fancy vacations and acquiring stuff I would not allow myself to buy without fearing I'd have to work until I die or develop a taste for cat food in order to retire. Of course, I can't know what they owe, but can you provide any guidance or reassure me about when spending makes the most sense?

I'll do a slight redirect on your question, but I think it's highly relevant. 

What you're seeing in your friends - vacations, stuff - is their CONSUMPTION, their SPENDING.  That's just one direction for money to go. You're not seeing their savings, their investments, their insurance, their planning for the future. You're seeing what they're doing today, not what they're doing tomorrow.

One of the great things about money is that it can be used for anything, now and in the future.  (That's what makes it hard to think about). 

But we only really see spending. We don't see savings.  It's invisible.  Human nature is to compete, so we compete on what we see... spending, not savings. 

The solution is, simply, to make savings more visible. To make conversations about saving happen as often as those about spending.  To make savings SEXY!

That's a challenge. We don't like to talk about it.  One study showed men are more willing to discuss whether or not they use Viagra than how much they've saved.  Think about that.  What's more personal? A teeny, tiny, malfunctioning... savings account. Or, the other. 

Point is - you're only seeing some of what your peeps do with money.  We, as individuals, families, communities and cultures should do more to highlight, discuss, and learn about everything else we can do with it, too.

Michelle, I'm 65, and in the process of dejunking my house. I'm finding so much stuff (clothing, books, shoes) I bought and rarely used. I could kick myself, because I could have invested that money. Take heed, Gen Xrs and Millenials. You can do with less. Thank God I didn't buy a house with a non interest loan.

Did you find any wine? 

Any boots? My most comfortable pair have a hole.

Seriously, don't kick yourself if otherwise you are just fine financially. As frugal as I like to think I am, I have stuff I don't use as much as I should. I have clutter. I spent money I could have saved.

But I also have lived. And lived well. 

Don't sweat it!

Jeff, can we say something here about helping seniors to not get caught up into unnecessary holiday spending for the grandchildren? It is very confusing for those of us who are technology-challenged, when we are in a store shopping for holiday gifts, and all these ideas have been "thrown" at us to buy, buy, buy! A word of caution is indicated for us, I think, as this can swiftly become a danger zone. Thank you!

I don't think seniors-to-grandkids is a unique situation - I think the temptations are there for spenders of every kind.

I do think, though, that emotions may play a stronger role when we're thinking about buying gifts for grandkids... and the emotional impact of money can lead all of us astray.

Again, my advice is to be aware of that.  To understand that you're tempted to overspend because it's for your grandkid.  You may then still choose to do that - it's hard to put a price tag on happy giggling babies, but it's worth something - but just make it YOUR choice, not the marketers.

Not the OP, but thank you so much! I got a lump in my throat reading your response to the person with the bad back who just bought a car. You truly are kind, and embody the "I will bless you, so that you will be a blessing to others."

Now you making me cry!

I know I fuss a lot but I really want the best for my readers -- you!

We are really all in this together. 

Anyway thank you for your kind words. You made my day!

Thanks for your tips. I do have a business, so I manage all the finances for that. And I even planned three big events for the family. So I can handle such things. Just not everyday bills, repairs, problems, retirement, etc. Oy ... there goes my stomach! lol

I get it. Really I do. I often stress out my husband. 

But I'm trying follow this from Maya Angelou "when you know better, you do better."  

Do you have any suggestions for keeping spending strategies (saving) in your minds forefront while shopping?

Beyond the stuff mentioned earlier here (& in the book) about being aware, watching out for "sales", etc.... here's one specific idea.  No silver bullet, but works for some.


IF - big IF - you have an amount you want to spend / don't want to go over... put that on a pre-paid debit card and only use that for shopping. That's your limit.  And when you reach into your pocket for your other credit card or to call a friend to bring you some money, that will at least make you stop and think about how you're breaking a promise to yourself.  (You could leave other money at home, too, but I don't want you to call ME when you're stranded at the mall without bus or cab fare. I ain't got time to pick you up!)

I actually recommend you have a financial accountablity  buddy, someone you can call to talk you down. Mine is my honey. We talk all the time about purchases. Although mostly he's talking me into spending because if it were left up to me, I wouldn't buy much at all. The babies would have been naked. 

Can you suggest a financial book for my grandson, who is off to college next year? He’s a smart kid, but spends what he has as soon as he gets it, unlike his money-wise parents and thrifty older sister. If it’s entertaining, all the better.

Read my column for Sunday. I have just the book for him. 

Cash. Clerks look at me like I'm crazy after they say "credit or debit?" Cash. I know exactly what I'm spending, at that moment, and what I'll have left in my holiday gift buying budget. When it's gone, it's gone. I hate the mall but it's easier to control my spending when I'm in a store or at a craft market (support your local artisans!) and using cash. And no big bills in January!

Using cash is certainly one great way to control spending because we really feel that pain of paying - remember Michelle's column that paying should be painful... We're aware of it more acutely, and with that awareness comes an opportunity to stop and think and assess whether it's a wise choice or not.

As technology advances, and things like Apple Pay and swipe cards make spending "easier," don't forget they're doing just that... making spending easier. Not smarter or wiser or "better for the consumer."  Easier.  Quicker, less noticeable, less painful.  That sounds nice, until you remember it's your money they're talking about.


We can't stop the technological advance and it's not always possible to pay with cash - try buying a home with bills  - but doing so when we can is smart.

Thank you, Michelle and Jeff. Michelle -- love, love your column. I wish I could send you a pair of boots. Watch for Bearpaws. They do sell for a very reasonable price when you can find it and they're so comfortable! No Uggs for me.

Thanks. And it's the Bearpaws that have a hole. But they are so comfortable and warm. Just can't wear them when it snows!

Rather than buying "stuff", give them a low key experience. -Take them to get a haircut -Pick up their friends and go to a movie -Go to their school events. -Show them how to cook something. -Show them how to change a tire. Or better yet have them show you how to do something. Make a memory that will be warm and fuzzy for everyone.

Love these ideas. They will still want stuff. But later when they are older they will appreciate the low key experiences memories.

When I began Social Security I received the same information about my autistic son. We did go through the application process and it was denied because my son, like the letter writer's, had gone to community college and was working part-time so he wasn't considered "disabled." You can try, but don't get your hopes up.

Thanks for sharing.

I think this is a TERRIBLE idea. The party presumably was for all employees. This lottery system rewards ten people. What about the other 90 employees? They not only don't get a party, they get ZERO. The company should either give every employee the same amount as a bonus, or stick to doing nothing.


I disagree.

What say ye all? 

Send your comments to since I have to close up the chat now. 

I'm with the "Spend less" person to which Jeff asked if wine was found. Lol! I have so much stuff too and am mad at myself for buying them ... it took my father's passing 10 years ago to learn to stop buying stuff unless it's something I use every day. So much better about what I buy. I'm trying to get rid of stuff now! My daughter is the other extreme. She only buys stuff when she HAS to. She spends money on experiences. I told her she can't do those experiences barefoot and naked!


Great questions, comments and so many laughs today. 

I see your comments and questions and so sorry for those I didn't get to. But Jeff has agree to answer some leftovers. Look for the answers in an upcoming column. Thanks and see you right back here next week. 

Quick thank you to all the readers for their really insightful questions and for taking the time to be with us today.  I hope you get a little something out of this and the book to nudge you to a better financial future. 

And to Michelle, it's been a revelation! Sad I hadn't come across your work before the last month, glad I have now.  I hope your readers treasure your honest and informed advice.

Readers and Michelle alike: Stay in touch!

Just want to defend SOME sales! Trying to guide my adult niece (estranged from parents) and one of the things I've been teaching her is about sales and necessities. Know your prices. Buy your laundry detergent only when it is on sale (preferably with a coupon) and buy the bottle BEFORE the other one is empty. You don't run out and you don't pay full price. Same with TP, shampoo, soap, etc. Don't be fooled by club prices and multi packs, but if you like a brand of pasta, buy two boxes when it's on sale. She's learning to shop the sales for NEEDS not for WANTS.

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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Jeff Kreisler
Jeff Kreisler is a Princeton-educated lawyer turned award-winning comedian, author, speaker, pundit, speechwriter and advocate for behavioral science.
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