Color of Money Live: 'The gift of a no-gift Christmas'

Dec 13, 2018

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So glad you could join me today. 

Just 13 days left to Christmas. Are you staying within your budget?

And let's get those year-end Thursday Testimonies in. 

Let's get started.

In the last few years, I've really been encouraging my young adult children to NOT buy gifts for us (parents)....that we really don't need anything from them. We are trying to keep them debt-free as they begin their adult/working years. To no avail--last year my oldest purchased nice gifts for us. I've also tried to do the same with in-laws/siblings/nieces & nephews --we just don't need more stuff! My middle child is on the "Zero Waste" bandwagon now, so she is definitely campaigning for no more stuff.

Read Michelle's column: Five reasons to give for why you can’t buy them Christmas gifts

Why is it so hard for people to accept that you don't want or need gifts? 

Anybody out there who ignores this request? Why?

In our family we've scaled way back to. We know do Secret Santa, which everyone is loving. It came about because my college-age kids were like, "Mom, we are in school and we don't have money to buy gifts for everybody." 

Less shopping has definitely reduced our stress during the holidays. It's wonderful!

While my husband and I can afford whatever we choose to spend on Christmas (ok, there is a lot to unpack in that phrase), not everyone in my extended family can do what we have been doing for years: my parents, my and husband's siblings, all nieces and nephews. Last year on of my sibs proposed only giving to our own children and any family members with whom we actually spend Christmas (we are far flung). Sigh of relief here. I had not realized how burdensome this random shopping had become. So yes, go to a no gift Christmas, or if you cannot quite bring yourself to it, set a low gift limit. We had been doing $20-30 per person for years, but even that had become a burden as our family expanded, psychic if not financial.

I totally agree. But a no-gift Christmas is a hard sell. I proposed it to my pastor once -- half joking.

Joking back he said, "You want the congregation to run me out of this place?"

 

lettuce that I had bought just before they announced the contamination. I just couldn't bring myself to do it. I guess I was hoping they would id the location in just a few days and I would be able to call the store and confirm the stuff I bought was OK. This weekend, I noticed the edges turning brown and some slimey spots. Time to toss, right? First I called the store (it was the house brand) and asked if they were offering refunds even though I knew it wasn't their fault. She said YES! Returned them Monday morning for $6.49. Which I will use to buy other green vegetables, because I am being good. Just goes to show that you have to ask.

I advocate all the time to just ask. 

Hi Michelle - My husband and I paid off our student loans this week!!! I know we don’t know you personally, but you have been such a source of support and encouragement that you were the first person we wanted to tell:). Thanks for all that you do!

WOW! I'm so proud of you and so honored you picked me to tell first. This is just fantastic.

How much debt did you have? 

Tell us more. What does it feel like to get that monkey off your back?

Just a reminder that lots of stores will do price adjustments for items you've recently bought, but go on sale/ better sale later (usually the next week). I was able to get about $30 back at a couple stores. Not a lot, but it's still $30 back in the bank.

Shoot, $30 is a lot of money to me. 

Good tip. 

When driving to meeting, heard you on npr! I was so glad because the gentleman before was making my head spin with index fund talk. Thanks for talking about normal investors/people saving for retirement. I did have a question relayed to that show (I tuned in late). Aren't there boutique type index funds that have social responsiblity as part of their mission? I remember a news story about a convent that took the time to develop ethical choices in their pension and it became a thing. Are they around? Would you recommend them? Im still "young" enough I can see current volatility and portfolio drop as a "discount sale" for quality investments.

Listen to Michelle's discussion on WBUR.

Thanks for listening. Some of what they were talking about was over my head too.

There are some socially responsible funds. Would I recommend them? I might but I don't endorse any one fund.

But I'll say some studies have found the fees can be more because there is more managing going in to pick the stocks to stay true to the socially responsible mission. 

So you have to look to see how much more they cost. And whether you are okay with that because of your values. 

Sometimes you pay more because you are following your values and I think that's okay. Just be sure you understand this and adjust your savings accordingly so that you still have enough saved/invested for retirement. 

My mom would have to answer NO to at least 2 of the five questions on your list today. (I wrote in before about how she has a shopping addiction.) When she asked what I want for Christmas, I knew immediately---a set of my late grandmother's recipes. I know my mom and my aunts have these, but haven't shared with us (grown) "kids" yet. Honestly, there is nothing I could want more than this, so that I could maybe recreate some of the great items grandma made for us growing up.

As I was deciding about writing a no-gift Christmas column, I wondered how I could get people to buy in. That's how I came up with the list. 

People are always asking me when is it okay to splurge/spend. 

The list helps put things in perspective and prioritize your financial responsibility. 

For example, how can you tell me you can't pay anything on your student loans if you're spending $500 to $1,000 for Christmas? Keep in mind when it comes to at least federal student loans when people don't pay they are guaranteed by the federal government. That's you and me. 

I'm all for helping people truly down and out but not folks who are buying cars every five or six years, taking vacations, etc.  but are in default on their student loans. That's just not right. 

I was talking to a mother who was asking about how to get our of the $100,000 she borrowed for her daughter -- now a teacher -- to go to an out-of-state school.

She isn't paying on the loans. She couldn't afford to, she told me. 

So I asked:

-- Have you been taking vacations? She put her head down.

-- She had paid off a car. I asked her, "Where is that money?" She put her head down. If she no longer has a car note why isn't that money directed to helping pay off the student loan?

-- Got cable? She put her head down.

I say all this to say, if we know people have these kinds of debts give them permission NOT to buy you anything for the holiday. 

And when people say, "You don't have to buy me anything" take them at their word. 

 

Every year my (somewhat small) family creates and exchanges Christmas wish lists and then everybody can choose what to buy each other from those. We're all reasonable people so they are never anything crazy. Most of the time it's stuff we need, or consumables, and maybe a few "wants". But it's still fun because you don't know which items from the list you're going to get, and if you put something like "socks" or "tea", you'll definitely be surprised at what people pick out. And it's fun behind the scenes with a flurry of elf-y texts and emails like "I got Grandma the slippers!!" "Did anybody buy Uncle Tim a coffee maker yet?" while taking care to exclude the person in question. :)

I like. 

Even when the kids were young we tried to limit gifts and got useful stuff like clothes (girls are more thrilled with that). It blows my little mind that parents read a kid's letter to Santa and somehow think they are obligated to fork over $500 plus per kid just to make them happy. This year instead of more stuff no one needs we have shortened the list to cash for kids because houses are expensive! And as parents we are asking for a dinner out within their budget. Extended family has all agreed to forgo gifts. No wonder people get depressed in January - the credit card bills come due!

And another survey found, not surprisingly, that many people can't pay bills in December. Why? They've diverted the money to holiday shopping. 

Crazy town!

At an early age as kids we gave presents to our folks, sibling, and grandparents--nothing costly but potholders we made, aprons, socks, etc. something that was inexpensive. Over the years as our finances grew we enjoyed giving as much as receiving. We made a great effort to find something that our family members would like and use. As adults there came a time when our finances were better than the folks and we gave them things they wouldn't buy for themselves. Our family never overspent for Christmas nor did we regard gifts as stuff; we never went into debt. I miss the fact that I no longer can get my parents gifts.

I'm not sure why you can't still give your parents gifts if you want to.

What we are saying is stop the madness if you're in debt.

For families for whom giving presents is affordable, do it. Go for it. We still give our kids things from their wish lists. Granted it's a shorter list but they get something substantial. 

We can have a balance between gifts and no-gifts. 

I just want those who know they are stretched to be able to say so and not feel guilty or obligated to give. 

When my oldest brother’s had just graduated college and us youngest were just staring we switched to a secret Santa amoung the siblings, so 5 siblings plus 2 significant others now, our mom assignees them and we create a group text and suggest things we want, sometimes posting a amazon link to make it super easy. Then we collectively go in on a bigger gift for our parents, like a nicer workout jacket our mom would never buy for herself or a family portrait session. And we ended extend family gifts for everyone over 18 so the young cousins get something, but there is no obligation amoung the adults to buy each other gifts. It can be hard to scale down presents, but if you can blame it on something like broke college students, I think it goes over easier.

This is the second year of our Secret Santa thing like you guys. And everyone is loving it. So much less financial pressure on the younger adults. And we make it a game too. Someone opens their present and tries to guess who was his or her's Secret Santa. It was sooo funny. This year, we are adding a White Elephant game. That's when you bring a wrapped gift that you have but is unused -- so new to the person. People pick presents not knowing what it is. Then others can steal it. Oh the fun and fussing that goes on. 

 

Can you redirect your children to an experience you'd both enjoy - dinner together, theatre, monster truck rally? Or ask them do something for you in an area of their expertise - make you dinner ... ? Consumable gifts are popular too ... for a reason.

When it comes to asking for gift, you can make suggestions is you've all agreed to go to a no-gift policy. Just have to be careful about this. Don't want to seem like you are dictating what folks should get you.

In the aftermath of 9/11, one of my nieces suggested that instead of giving gifts, each member of our family donate to a charity supporting the victims and their families. I cannot being to tell you how wonderful this has been, and not spending the money is only part of it. There are few activities I hate more than shopping, and doing it in a store that is crowded and usually hot is just unbearable. Not giving gifts also removes the headache of trying to find the “perfect” gift for each family member. I still buy gifts for the children in my family, and participate in a Secret Santa gift exchange at my office, but that’s about it. A gift-free Christmas is the greatest gift of all.

What a wonderful idea from your niece. And I like that it started as a suggestion. Thanks for sharing.

And love this line: A gift-free Christmas is the greatest gift of all."

Now, again. It's not an indictment of people who love giving and this part of Christmas. It's just an alternative for people who would rather not shop. 

I was reviewing my budget for the 10th time week and decided to just look at how much debt I was in back in July. And to my surprise, my total debt has gone down $7k. I mean I knew I was trying to pay down my debt, but to see it go down that much in a few months was a total surprise. I'm thankful, because some days I feel like I have more month than money... So with that being said... This year will be a no-gift-giving Christmas for me. I absolutely LOVE gift giving, but I just can't do it. And while I feel bad about it, I know I'd feel even worse trying to rob Peter to pay Paul because I overextended myself yet again!

Good for you.

And it only has to be for a season.

I will add, share what you are doing with friend and family just in case someone might have a hurt feeling. You don't have to say how much debt you have, etc.  Just, "This year I'm really trying to get my finances in order so I won't be giving gifts. I hope you understand." 

I failed to take advantage of a qualifying life event to increase my life insurance I have as an employee, due to the stress of said qualifying life event. And I am under-insured, at only four times my salary (1x through work; 3x in private policy). I have an elementary aged child. A set amount (specified in divorce agreement) of the proceeds of insurance will go to my former spouse in the event of my death, to cover the additional costs of raising the child. The kid would get the remainder, in addition to the remainder of my assets (house, retirement accounts, etc). In this situation, how many multiples of my salary should I have for life insurance? Others recommend 10x salary, but I won't be leaving a SAH spouse, and my child will not be left without a parent entirely.

So, first you can make the changes next open enrollment of course.

I can't answer your question because I don't have enough details. Find an independent insurance person and have him or her go over your financial situation to see how much insurance you should be carrying. 

for the year have a terrific excuse to keep Christmas reasonable this year. If there is a shut down, it won't impact this year, as the final paycheck of 2018 will be covered by work completed by December 21st, but there could be issues in January. Debt and delayed paychecks (or missing for some of the contractors) don't mix very well. Also, everyone should remember that the withholding and tax code changes may mean your tax liability won't match your withholding the way it used to. You may owe where you expect to come out even or your refund may be smaller than it used to be.

Good point with the uncertainly about the shut down. 

We don't really have much of a relationship with extended family (cousins, etc), and the grandparents are all deceased, so holidays aren't expensive at all in my family. For me, it was pretty much the same way growing up, too.

Still big or large, do what you can afford. 

Just a note of caution about promising or asking for experiences, if the main reason is to save money. I've seen a lot of folks mention going out to eat as a good gift. But if my husband and I take my parents out, that's easily $100+ for an evening. That's fine if they're saying they'd like that in lieu of something else tangible, but it doesn't necessarily save us much money. I like the poster who suggested making dinner!

Good catch. Totally agree!

 

Yes to the Secret Santa. My parents have always given gifts to their adult children and now several spouses, and we pooled together to get them nice gifts. But this year they let us know that as retirees, they would need pull back from giving gifts, and we likewise should not get them a gift. So we gladly added them to the gift exchange that us siblings have been doing since childhood. One brother in law is in charge of drawing names, and making sure spouses do not get each other. We have a limit of around $30. Every one has a gift under the tree, but no one has to spend too much. And the kids still get presents from everyone!

Big fan of Secret Santa. Oh and look online for for web sites that make it so easy. This year I'm using "Elfster." I love it so far. I'm the family manager. I put in all the names and emails and conditions (we all agreed on what that would be such as a dollar max). The system draws names for you. And, as manager, I could go in and make spouses didn't get each other, etc. Plus people could put items in a wish list including direct links to the things they wanted, which ensured right size, color, etc. 

I can send messages to the group like to the trifling people who hadn't signed up. It's pretty cool. 

I think she is saying that both her parents have died so she misses buying them presents.

Oh, sorry. I may have misread that. 

Got it.

I find myself a little appalled by the idea of asking for a refund for contaminated lettuce two weeks after the recall. I'm not sure whether it's because I don't think it's the store's fault that it sold contaminated lettuce, or because I think that it's hardly the store's fault that lettuce is starting to turn two weeks late. I guess I'm less interested in the specifics of this issue, but rather asking a larger question: Where should we draw the ethical lines in trying to save some dollars? How can I tell whether I'm using the refund policy (or whatever) in the right way, or am crossing the line to exploitation? (Personally, I just threw away the lettuce in my fridge, and felt blessed that that didn't create a hardship for me.)

For a moment I though the same thing but I read that she could still use the lettuce but since it might have been contaminated anyway why not ask about replacing.

Yet, I agree with you as well. I think it's not right to wear a dress for example and then take it back to the store because the retailer has a generous return policy. 

Often when I'm in doubt of whether I'm doing something right, I consult my gut. 

My gut will groan and then I know it's not right. Of course, I have what I think is a pretty good moral compass. 

My former boss loved having a secret Santa at work. Some years I arranged my holiday vacation to avoid it. Because of money limits I spent more time trying to find a gift for work than I had to for people I really cared about. Boss hated it if we didn't participate. Secret Santa should be banned at work.

I'm with you. If you do Secret Santa should be among friends at work. 

Michelle, in your column about the regrets of retirees, you said that the top regret is "having to rely too much on Social Security." What does that mean? I'm counting on Social Security to be one of my income streams. How much is "too much" reliance?

What the retirees I believe were saying is they didn't realize how much they hadn't saved and that S.S. was not nearly enough. A lot of people don't realize what their S.S. will be so they overestimate what they believe they are getting. 

When it turns out not to be as much as they expected, they have to rely too much on a check that isn't enough. 

Particularly if you live close to someone, it would be a fantastic gift to offer some kind of service. A certificate for a deep car cleaning, for example!

I want my husband to give me a gift certificate for foot rubs from him! He gives the BEST foot rubs. Afterwards he wraps my feet in hot towel. 

Forget the bracelet, give me some foot rubs!

I agree - this is for people who won't take no gifts seriously and get you something anyway. My thinking was it would go something like this: What can we get you mom? I don't want anything dear. But we have to get you something! Well, how about we do something nice together, you choose - I love spending time with you.

I like this. Good idea.

My parents have passed on. Dad at 95 nine years ago. Mom many years before.

Okay, thank you for the clarification. 

I just started reading you a few months ago and I am so glad. Your advice to use different pots of money has finally made our budgeting get on track. We now have a little over 3 months of emergency (7 if we cut back), life happens, a gift fund for holidays and birthdays, a charitable giving plan, a fund for those pesky annual expenses (taxes and insurance), 529's for each child with enough to cover the first 2 yrs for each (5 and 3 yrs old) and a vacation fund. Also we got a fee only financial planner last month and are growing all our savings with emergency fund being the top priority. Our goal is to have 10-12 months saved up by the end of the year . I finally feel like we have a plan to grow our savings and know where our money is coming and going. THANK YOU!!

Now this is a great Christmas gift for me!

When you guys send me your testimonies I see them as the wonderful presents. Makes staying up late to write or struggling over how to say something just right all worth it! 

Any ideas on what goals to start thinking about for the new year? As a testimony Thursday, I paid off my house as this year's goal! Yay!! (I live in a much cheaper housing community than the DC metro).

Mortgage free how wonderful!

As for goal setting, just thing about what you want to do with your time and money. That's where I start. My husband and I are still on a mission to pay off our only debt, which is our mortgage.

Spend some time thinking about what you can do with the mortgage payments you no longer have. Could you boost your retirement savings? Give more? Help others? 

Just be intentional about your goals.

I always point out if I'm not charged something at a restaurant. Usually it's a soda - something very small - and the server just waves it away. I get to be ethical and still get the discount!

Me too!

If buying toys at a store, check their website for lower prices. I used google to find out what local store sold a Nerf set and found it at Target. I confirmed on the Target website which stores had it in stock. I could have used the option to pick it up in the store, but figured it would be just as easy to go there and buy it. At the register, I was surprised it was more than $10 more expensive than I remembered seeing on the website. I went to the service desk and they refunded the difference. They said their website sometimes tries to compete with Amazon.

Always check and ask!

It probably goes without saying for Michelle and many of her fans, but "it never hurts to ask" is a good idea, but especially if you ask for help rather than demand compensation. Retail workers often don't have a lot of latitude, as those of us who have been there know all too well, but when we do have it we'll extend whatever we can to those who treat us like a person, and feign complete inability or ignorance to those who treat us like peons.

Totally. Ask nicely. Do not demand. 

It is less than once a year that I am with my adult siblings. We agreed to no more gifts and on those rare occasions we are together, we go to a nice dinner and enjoy time together.

Time is a good present.

(Just be sure the dinner doesn't bust anyone's budget)

When I asked Post TV columnist Hank Stuever during one of his recent online chats if he could provide a list of his top 10 network TV shows (because the ones he chose were all on cable or other pay platforms), he just got all snarky with me. But I think there's enough good programs on the free networks to watch (we're able to get them with antenna only). How about we make our own list?

I think the cut the cord movement is right on for people trying to save.

For me on Network: I love 

Big Bang

60 Minutes (Love, love, love that show)

Voice

blackish (and not just because of the black cast)

The Kids Are Alright

I Feel Bad

Also struggle to find the line with refunds. I had a big unopened bag of dog food from Costco, and had to change the dog to a different kind of food. Several people told me that I could just return it to Costco because of their return policy, but I assumed it would just be discarded. So instead of getting my money back, I found someone else who I know could use it. Sometimes have to balance being smart with money with your other values. That said, I would return the lettuce, it was within their recall policy, and would be discarded either way.

I love that you guys are thinking this through about what is right and wrong in saving money. 

I have the same type of inner conversations with myself. 

My husband and his siblings finally convinced their parents that Christmas joy isn't tied to the size of the credit card bill! Everyone agreed on reasonable limits! Yay!

Love. Love. Love this.

Cut back on Christmas spending, not on the Christmas spirit.

Well said!

Hi Michelle! Please provide your valued opinion about what I understand is a common plight. My daughter has had a significant health problem this semester, and is withdrawing from her out-of-state private college. She has already borrowed $2500 (unsubsidized), and it's not at all clear that she'll be back in school within 6 months; there's a lot for us to sort out. We foresee significant medical bills, of course...so I am wondering whether you think we should pay off the $2500 now using her precious 529 funds. Thanks, Stretched

I'm so sorry about your daughter and her health issue. 

I think given the situation you should pay off the debt. Just make sure she had qualified expenses to match the withdrawal.

I wish you the best. 

A few years ago my nephew, recently out of college and underemployed, wrote thoughtful cards to family members as his Christmas gift. The card he gave me is one of the most treasured gifts I have ever received and still makes me choke up! He thanked each person for what they had done for him; in my case, he thanked me for spending time with him when he was young, and for making him feel important and valued. It is an incredible gift to know that my efforts were received as they were intended, and it deepened our relationship. I highly recommend this kind of gift - it will be remembered and valued long past most material gifts!

Kiss him for me!

The last few years I have begun giving homemade items, (different each year including eye pillows, condiments, fruit cake, homemade pizelles this year), to selected people on my list. Most of my kids make more than I do but I know that few people need a bunch of unnecessary junk. My grandkids have so much stuff that I just started giving them gift cards to book store. Only other people who are getting anything are some relatives in poor financial situation, (they get Target cards). Also,as I am retiring at the end of the month, I had an opportunity to candidly say to coworker organizing party and gift selection, that I really don't need any more stuff but a gift card to Wegman's, Costco, Giant, MOM, (the stores that I already shop in would be much appreciated).

Be true to your financial self. That is what you've been doing.

Hi Michelle, I am a 24 year old who recently paid off all of my student loan debt. I have several pots of money (Roth IRA and individual savings accounts for travel, future grad school expenses, future house (I live at home), etc.) and have no debt other than minor credit spending I pay off each month. I recently went back through all of my savings accounts and was pleasantly surprised to realize I have saved about $12k in total so far. It might have taken a few years but I am happy to see the 'fruits of my labor' so to speak! With my large debt (the student loans) paid off, I am working to continue to save and see these accounts grow.

Bravo to you! 

 

Michelle, I am nervous. Today I meet with my financial adviser to set up my first year's retirement "allowance" from my retirement accounts. I've been retired for 5 months but decided not to take any distributions until 2019. The decisions feel like throwing straw into the air. E.g. do I set up a "cash buffer" of several year's expenses, or just manage that from asset allocation. This economy is uncertain. I guess I should tell myself I can always make changes. I trust my F.A. - but I know they don't have better track records than anybody else. Still, they know the paperwork and procedures and really ease the way.

You are doing the right thing getting professional advice. And yes, you can change if circumstances change. 

There won't be another open season for years. Per OPM, the 2016 open season was the first since 2004.

If that is the case, you can still talk to a life insurance person and purchase any other term life insurance coverage you need outside the job. 

But she doesn't like eating out a ton. I spent a good long time on the phone with her figuring out her fantasy meal. Fortunately, by brother and sister-in-law are better cooks than I am, because I couldn't have pulled off everything. We all chipped in to pay for it. I had to travel to their place. But it was a heck of a lot less expensive than anything remotely similar would have been in a restaurant - never mind the fact that no restaurant in the world would have served that particular mix of dishes. Lobster meat on a bed of lettuce; chicken kiev, asparagus and Grandma's Friday potatoes; and brownie sundaes with peppermint ice cream it was.

Amazing what you can come up with when we think outside the shopping box!

Hi Michelle! As an adult child of an otherwise wonderful mom who refuses to stop giving me gifts after years of pleading with her, I have come to the realization that it is more important for her to try to make me and my sisters happy with gifts than it is for her to honor my request (my sisters do not like it either but are less vocal). Gift--giving is very important to my mom and she takes a lot of pride in what she selects. Unfortunately for her, I am extraordinarily picky, so I do not like 75% of her gifts. In the past few years, she has at least reduced the amount of stuff she buys me, so I will take it as a victory. I think her need to give gifts comes from a place of love (at least for my mom - I can see it being a passive aggressive gesture if the gift is terrible), because she truly wants to make me and my sisters happy. So, it reflects my mom's kindness, which is how I look at it now, but it was frustrating for years because I felt like so much money was wasted when the only gift I cared about receiving from her was spending time with her - eating, laughing, sharing memories of her childhood, and talking :)

Read Michelle's column: Make it easier for those who want to show love with gifts

There are people whose love language is giving gifts.

My son is one of these people. Read the link of a column I wrote after I realized I had to let him give me gifts. 

And remember it's not how much they spend or that it wasn't something you like. It's the process of thinking about what the person feels you might like. That's what they are doing when they are operating in their love language. 

So even if I don't like the gift my son gets I love that he cares so much in trying to find the right present for me. 

Thank you for joining me today. Lovely conversation. Great questions.

I'm so sorry if I couldn't get to your comment or question. But please come back next week.

Take care.

On my list are SNL and Stephen Colbert's late night show, both of which you can also watch online for free later! And it's not network, but I like the Daily Show, which is also online for free.

Okay, had to sneak these in before leaving.

I'd add on commercial network TV, "Young Sheldon," "The Conners" and the "Will & Grace" reboot. On PBS, "The PBS NewsHour," "Nova," "Frontline," "Great Performances" (umbrella series) -- and of course "Washington Week" moderated by your WaPo colleague Robert Costa (and previously by my hero Gwen Ifill).

And these shows.

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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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