Color of Money Live (May 23)

May 23, 2019

Send in your questions to Washington Post nationally syndicated personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary.

This week, Michelle is joined by Jeni Rogers who is the author of the book club selection for the month, “200+ Ways to Protect Your Privacy.”
Quick note: Michelle is away for the weeks of May 30 and June 6. She'll chat with you again after!

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

Stay informed.

Read & share Michelle Singletary’s Color of Money Column on Wednesdays and Sundays:

Follow Michelle Singletary on Twitter (@SingletaryM) and Facebook

Thanks for joining me today. I'm so happy to have a guest. Jeni Rogers is joining me today to talk about her book "200+ Ways to Protect Your Privacy." She's here to take your questions about how protecting your financial information. So ask away.

Let's get started. 

"Your saving and sacrificing doesn’t make you a putz. It makes you responsible, and there’s so much reward in living within your means, including setting a good example for your children. Whether it’s a surprise gift from a billionaire or need-based aid given to some other’s person’s child, don’t resent what others get. Financially and generally in life, doing the right thing has to be its own reward. It allows you to better control your fate just in case you don’t meet a generous billionaire." - Amen! So well-written! We are saving aggressively for our child's education because we don't want her to be saddled by debt. That feels great. As does seeing some hardworking students be freed from so many years of loan payments and not being able to get ahead no matter how hard they work. Thanks for helping people put this generous gift into perspective.

Click the hyperlink to read the column referenced in this question about Robert Smith's gift to the Class of 2019 graduates. 

I wrote this because it just reminded me of many conversations with parents whose children didn't get free money. They had saved but felt duped when looking around and seeing scholarships, aid go to others. 

I’m an early 50ish worker. My organization has been losing stability. I live cheaply, no debts except for a small mortgage, more than a year in savings etc. but I know jobs at my age can be hard to come by. A colleague directed me to the FIRE movement for non-traditional advice just in case. All the blogs I’ve read are so ...general. There’s little to no information on how they afford health insurance and if they will be expecting inheritances . There’s a lot of push to buy their books, things they advertise, etc ( which means it’s just a different job, right? They aren’t really retired). They all seem to have had a pile of money to start, usually from being in the tech Industry in the right way at the right time. And they make lifestyle choices (where they live, constraints on what they allow themselves to purchase or do) which, when I was growing up was called “being poor” (I know this from experience). I’m being kind of a grump about it because I need cold, hard advice on how to navigate if I can’t find traditional employment again, not smoke and mirrors from someone who got a million plus in stock options. Besides yourself, where should I look?

Actually not all FIRE devotees earn six figures and are in the tech industry. But you are right about the lack of details on how some do it day-to-day. Plus having health care if you retire early is a HUGE thing. Some of buying individual policies themselves. Basically what the FIRE folks do is what most do to save for retirement. They are mostly saving in equities. They are taking about 4% annually from what they have saved. They keep their expenses super low. Really what you are doing/did is what they are do. 

I read your column concerning the recent recipients of Mr. Smith's largess. I think I'm surprised you decided to give the complainers a voice, because I don't know what they have to complain about. No one ever promised them a rose garden. Mr. Smith didn't have to do anything for anyone. Is he now supposed to apologize to those who don't have huge student loans? This "what-about-ism" nowadays doesn't teach kids anything, except to make a big stink when something doesn't go their way, which in my book is called being immature. Thank you.

So what I try to do is always be open to have conversations about anything connected to money. Giving voice to those critical of Smith opens a dialogue about being grateful. It allowed me to not just focus on the Morehouse graduates' gift but talk to parents who complain about not getting enough free money after filling out the FAFSA even though they have the money saved to send their kid to college or at least to an affordable college in-state. Even the ugly issues about finances need to be talked about. 

Dear Michelle, Our first child is going away to college in August. Right now, she has a savings account and deposits paychecks there. What do you advise for a college student? Should she have a "checking" account with debit card and ATM? A checkbook? She will pay for books, outings, and non-essentials. This could even include train tickets to travel to her roommate's home for a getaway. I use a credit card for things like that but don't know what a college student does. Thank you!

I've got three kids in college. They mostly use their debit cards. No credit cards. You can order some checks but so much of what the student will need to get can be purchased with their debit cards. I also had them set up accounts at the banks where I bank so we could easily transfer money they needed for the things we pay for. They work during the summer and use their earnings for books and the personal items they need or want.

The forum at has a lot of people who can give detailed information based on their own experience pursuing or achieving FIRE. There's a pinned thread in the "Ask A Mustachian" board about how the ACA applies to early retirees, there's a thread for people pursuing FIRE on incomes less than $50k, and there's a Case Studies board where you can post details of your budget and get personal, specific advice about optimizing your situation.

Thanks for this!

But one of my biggest concerns with FIRE, which I actually like, is the cost of healthcare when you do it on your own. We are a family of five and the cost would be tremendous without the help of my employer. 

What are the top 3 things people can do to protect their information?

Hey Michelle!  Thanks so much for having me on the live chat today.

Great question! I think that privacy protection is something that intimidates or overwhelms people, but the truth is that there are many simple things you can do to help protect your private information. I would say the top 3 are:

1. Never enter or share personal or private information in online forms, over the phone, or on social channels if it's not absolutely necessary. Your private information is yours, and you're not obligated to share it anywhere or with anyone. The more sensitive the information, the more carefully guarded it should be. So details like social security number, date of birth, credit or debit card information, etc are bits of information that you should keep closely guarded.

2. Use complex passwords, and change them often! Opt for passphrases rather than passwords, and make them random and nonsensical-things someone would never think to guess. I know it's a bit more work to use intricate, different passwords on all of your online accounts, but it's worth the extra effort to keep your information safe. If you use the same password for all of your accounts (because let's face it, that's easier to remember) it only takes one of your accounts being involved in a data breach to compromise all of your sensitive data stored in your accounts. If someone can crack your password, and it's the same on all your accounts, they now have access to everything. 

3. Be mindful and embrace your instincts and good sense. So much of our personal data lives online, but you should trust your gut. If something looks weird, it's probably something to stay away from. 

Michelle - Thank you for the spin on the Robert F. Smith story. I actually didn't image that were any negative responses until I read your e-newsletter today. I'd like to share that most often (but not always) students who receive loans come from families who have incomes that would never cover the cost of college. My single mother has always had good credit, but even 15 years later, she wouldn't be able to afford to send me to college. What she could save - she gave to me and my younger brother for other needed college expenses. So, I am now saving in three 529 plans for my two children and niece for their college. If a billionaire paid off the loans of other students' debts 20 years from be it. Then those young people will be debt free like my family. I would not feel resentment because many of their families may never be able to afford to send them to college. I'm currently repaying my own student loans knowing that the reward was the lift out of poverty. My ask is that those Morehouse young men who have been relieved of debt - that they do not saddle themselves with other consumer debt and save, save, save for the future generations of their families and communities.

Very good points. And I think I may write a column to the Morehouse graduates because my fear is that now that they don't have the debt they may be tempted to overspend. It's just human nature. The more you have, the more you spend. 

So help me out folks. What would you tell the Morehouse graduates whose debt will now be erased? What did you do that you wish you hadn't?

I don't do social media. I just don't see the overshare impulse. Plus my job means I am not an entirely private person. Some people have (mostly in the past) gotten letters they really didn't want to get with my name as a contact person at the bottom. It seemed terribly risky to have those people be able to get much information beyond addresses and phone numbers just by googling. Heck even the address and numbers aren't great, but they are hard to avoid. But what else can I do. I never post in discussion boards under my own name and try to keep that minimal as well. I'm satisfied without having a personal "brand." I don't have Alexa or Echo. I don't let my insurance company watch my driving for a few bucks off. I don't send a random company photos of my grocery bills to get money back. I don't do al my shopping on Amazon and I pay cash for a lot of things. It seems like that should be enough, but it isn't, is it? I do leave my phone's gps on all the time, but I have no sense of direction, so I do need it fairly often.

Thanks so much for your question!  Here's the good're doing a lot of things right to protect your privacy! 

What you've experienced (unfortnately) is a very common form of spamming. Fraudsters will gather whatever details they can and send out emails or messages posing as you to phish for more personal data from your contact. I would suggest that you update all your password on every online account. Make them complex, hard to guess, and all different from one another. Then put a reminder on your calendar to change them every month. 

As for your GPS...I totally understand, I am hopeless with directions! But, don't leave it on all the time. That requires the location services on your phone to be on, which can broadcast information about where you are. When you're not using GPS, turn it off. 

I suspect that Mr. Smith is exploring a social experiment of sorts. He does not care about "what is fair" to the parents, but what happens when you put a group of college grads on a level footing where the poor kids who had loans on the same footing as the rich ones who's parents could send them without loans. It will be interesting if the school follows these students over time to see if this makes a difference. As to the complainers, It is his money and he can be "rich daddy" to anyone or everyone he wants to. Suck it up folks. Your baby does not get a head start just because you are rich this time!

A number of people have suggested following the Morehouse Class of 2019. I think that's a great idea. Going to send an email to Pew Research Center. I really hope they use this relief well to better their lives and their community, such as giving back to Morehouse. 


Click the link. I just did a column on the tax consequences, should there be any. From the CPAs I talk to it would be a gift and the graduates would therefore not owe income tax on the about of debt that is paid off for them. 

What would I say to them? Be thankful for this gift you have been given and try to pay it forward in some way.

Good advice. But help me go deeper with this issue. 

If you have student loans or had them, what could you have done or what would you have done differently if you didn't have the debt?

Michelle - In your column, I would give those Morehouse men the same advice that you outlined for all of us all in your book, 'Spend Well, Live Rich' because all those lessons still apply to them. Additionally, I would challenge each of them to take your 21-Day Financial Fast. If they can learn the lesson of saving and not overspending now...they can be like Robert F. Smith (financially) or more wealthy and I believe he did ask them to "pay it forward."

Thanks for the unsolicited shout outs.

I definitely hope they pay it forward. But when should the paying it forward start? Shouldn't they first make sure they have emergency fund, save for retirement, etc.? 

I really like the way this book was designed. It felt very easy to absorb the information. You also talk not only about what to do, but also how to think about these security issues. That's so important since the digital world is constantly presenting us with new issues. Any other suggestions for how to stay informed without getting overwhelmed by all the risks?

Thank you so much!  I am so thrilled to hear that you enjoyed my book, and that it's helping you!  

I totally understand. Protecting your privacy can be very overwhelming when there's news of security breaches constantly, and many from the large companies we're entrusting with our private, sensitive information. 

One of the reasons I wrote this book though, is to empower people by sharing all the things you CAN do and CAN control, both online and offline. 

Definitely stay informed. Watch the news for stories on data breaches, and even if you're not involved directly, change all your passwords every time you hear about a data breach. 

Your online bank statements and credit report monitoring tools are also very important. These are the places that you'll be able to first spot breaches or fraud. 

Finally, I would say this...don't feel obligated to share any of your personal data. A lot of people run into this, and I have had people tell me that they feel embarrassed or guilty when they opt not to share personal data. It's yours to keep private. Online and offline. 

Since Morehouse is male weren't the women at Spelman also included in getting the loans paid for?

No, it was just the Morehouse men as far as I know. He spoke at their graduation ceremony. 

for a 120K check and at least two new tires (blew one out a week and a half ago). It doesn't feel good. But it sure feels less bad than it would if I didn't have the money already saved up.

This is the beauty of having an emergency fund and life happens fund. When you car needs work you aren't scared to death or tempted to buy a new one (or new to you) because the lending industry makes it easier for you to get a large loan than a small one. 

Hi Michelle, I received a mortgage escrow refund check for $3,000. I’m trying to be responsible with this windfall and pay down debt. I have no credit card debt, but I do have student loans, a car loan, and a mortgage. Is the best idea to pay down the principal of the highest interest loan I have, which would be one of my student loans?

(Producer's note) related story: Debt dash method

Click the link for how to use that windfall (but definitely double check with your loan servicer before you spend the money. Mistakes happen."

Anyway, I recommend starting with the debt with the lowest balance. This is the debt dash method I teach.

I often give websites a false birthday. Does this really make a difference in helping protect my privacy? Or am I kidding myself?

Hey Michelle!  Providing a false birthdate in online forms and on websites is actually a great way to protect your privacy. While your date of birth may not be unique only to you, it's a piece of information that completes the full puzzle of a hack. Hackers can rarely get all the personal information they want from one source. Birthdates are used to validate many types of accounts or information, like credit cards, accounts, financial data, etc, so it's just one more piece you're handing over. The more hoops you give a hacker to jump through, the safer your information is going to be.

Live cheaply by sharing a group house; don't overdo happy hours and eating out; find cheap entertainment and cook group meals at home; avoid buying a car (if you live in an urban area); put money into automatic savings account (so you don't see it in your checking); avoid credit cards (unless you need one for plane travel, etc.); pets are expensive too (cute, but expensive) - so think twice about getting a pet.


Cashier: Can I have your phone number please. Me (pleasantly): No thanks. Never had an issue, we move right along.

Me too. 

My advice would be that, as soon as they get a job and start getting a paycheck, they make that monthly student loan payment.....into their savings account. Do that for a year or two and see how it piles up, just to make the habit. Then after a year or two, think about what it would take for a long-term goal like buying a house or a car or getting a lower paid job that is really appealing or doing an international vacation every other year or supporting siblings who are taking out student loans. Whatever. Adjust the savings plan up or down a bit to meet the goal. But start that savings habit immediately.

I like the idea of using the loan amount that they would have had to pay as a benchmark. 

I'm really turned off by the tweet screenshot in your article claiming that you don't need a college degree for a good job. While it's true that there are plenty of options for trader type jobs that I think people need to look more closely at and not simply go to college without a plan, it's absolutely not true that you can get any sort of office job without a degree. Maybe I have a chip on my shoulder because I graduate in 2010. There were no jobs, and I couldn't get any kind of office job for over a year with my degree. It's a nonstarter if you don't have one. There is no way I could have my career now without that piece of paper. I may not agree with it, but it's dumb to pretend like you can just build a career without a degree.

I hear you and for many jobs a degree whether it helps with the job or not is the opening bid. 

I just think a lot of people are frustrated that they were told just the mere degree will lead to a job or a good-paying job. As a result, many student overpay for their college education. You can get a job and sit across from someone who went to a much more expensive school and have 30-year student loans. But you went to a more reasonably priced school with no or little debt. And, you both end up at the same company, doing the same job. 

This is a great way to keep control of your budget. But check out your bank's policy if there are is fraudulent activity on your card. Unlike credit cards, there's not good federal protection. You're at the mercy of the bank - and the money is already taken.

(Producer's note) related story: Credit card vs. debit card: Wow Air’s shutdown shows which is better

Very true. Debit cards do not have the same protections as credit cards. But read the link because many banks will still help you out if something funky happens with your debit card. My daughter was one of those folks who purchased a WOW airline ticket and then the company went bust leaving passengers stranded. She used her debit card to buy her ticket. Under federal rules her bank didn't have to give her back her money. But the bank did!! All $300. 

you have a January b-day no matter when it is. Better to use the $5 when everything is on sale. Or target it for when the items in that store that you buy (like towels) are on sale.


I tend to differentiate the security of my passwords. All of mine are "rated" as strong by the websites, but I go to extremes on my financial passwords. My bank and credit cards accounts are the strongest while my discussion board ones are typical strong. I also tend to not let any site store my credit card info as a rule. Yes, I have to reenter it to pay a bill monthly, but if they get hacked it is not just laying there in my account info with them. And unless it is a financial account with a contract, they usually get a wrong birthday and other demographic info. Arby's really doesn't need to know the real details to send me a coupon, they just need a date to tempt me with a freebee.

Good strategy. 

The grads should pay themselves. Use the money they would have otherwise paid towards their student loans to start an IRA or other retirement/investment account. Being able to let that money grow over the next 40+ years is an amazing gift to themselves.

They too can be 401 (k) millionaires. 

Hi Jeni - how safe is storing your passwords in something like Google? I never do it for any financial accounts, but I do for many other things. What's the best way to store them?

Thanks for your question!  This is a good one, and one that I think many people will wonder about!

I know that storing your passwords in your browser is convenient, but it is not safe-especially if you use the same password for multiple accounts. The risk here is that if someone is able to access your WiFi, they can easily log into accounts with stored passwords.

If you need to manage multiple passwords for online accounts (both personal and professional) I recommend using a secure password software like LastPass. You can store all of your accounts and passwords and log in securely. These systems use encryption to protect your data, and it's convenient for you!

Hi Michelle - I'm now using a car that my partner was mainly driving since he has bought his own. I'm wondering two things - 1) Should we transfer the note to my name? 2) The remaining balance is about $4700 with 4.86 interest rate. Should I pull from savings and just pay it off, or stick to the $250 payment? I could add some on top of that so perhaps that's better in the long run to keep savings?

I would want the car in my name and I would pay the balance to make it so. If you have the cash to pay off the car in addition to having an emergency and life happens fund get rid of the debt. Don't keep it around like it's a Pet Rock.

About those passwords/pass phases. How safe are those apps that store your passwords because we have to have so many? What if that was hacked? Are they any safer really? 

Great question!  Yes, a reputable password storage app is a good solution for managing all the multiple passwords you need for work or in your personal life. What you want to look for is not just one that stores passwords for you, but one that encrypts the password data. 

You also need a strong passphrase for your password app...yes passwords for passwords!  Make it complex, nonsensical, and change it monthly.

I've been an avid reader of for many years now, and while the quality of advice can vary, there are a lot of very smart people there who have already had to deal with this themselves, and can advise you based on real-life experience. I've learned a ton from reading the comments there...probably almost as much as I have from Michelle!

"Probably almost." A dagger to my heart :)

Hi Michelle! Quick question. I have a low paying job working at a university. A perk of the job is free tuition for grad school, which I'm now eligible for. On the other hand, I really mean in when I say low paying job. Affording to live has become so stressful and traumatic for me. So now I'm stuck. Do I think of the long term future and what a master's degree could do, while my finances cause me chronic stress? Or switch careers for a higher paying one? Help!

First find out for real (by asking people in the jobs you want not the school) will getting that free master's degree really boost your pay? Because that is not always the case so you could be forgoing a few years of a much higher salary for something that won't advance your financially. 

If you are sinking because of the low pay, I'm go for the higher paying job and start saving for the possibility that you may need a degree. But then if you can get a job paying what you need you won't have to get the degree, right? 

And I'm speaking from experience. Got my master's degree in business. Although I learned a lot, it did not help get me a raise. 


Only give personal information with a call you have initiated and - this is important - where you have got the number from the web site. I was compromise in the Equifax breach and had a number of robo calls from credit cards. I was pretty sure the numbers they left were for the fraud department but I went through the main number nonetheless, even through it was a pain.

Yes this is exactly right!

for a long time. She had land, and was able to do things like maintain her well, and grow a lot of her own food. Then she got hurt. Really hurt. She had paid for her own insurance on the private market for years. They tried to deny her coverage. Then they basically made it impossible for her to renew. She had to go on a TV show to get the dental work she needed even though it was related to a severe injury to her face. Fortunately she was older and finally qualified for Medicare, but she lived for a few years without care she needed until that kicked in. It probably has permanently impacted her health.

A cautionary tale about the state of health care in our country.

I was told that a great way to create a password is to make phase into an acronym - so 'it was the best of times, it was the worst of times' becomes your password as 'iwtbotiwtwot'.

Great idea!

I choose a January birthday and then the earliest year the system will let me choose. I'm over 100 years old!

I bet you look good for you age!

the Post's tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler did some columns on password storage sites recently. i appreciated that he considered cost/benefits of each of them. here's one of the columns: 

Thanks for digging this up.

Although I am not able to protect my own information once breached from all these different companies that I've done business with, I find comfort in having frozen the credit of my two minor children. I took the necessary steps to verify my identify and provide written correspondence to Equifax, Experian, and Trans Union. At this point, I feel that is the least that I can do to protect their SSNs and credit.

This is a great idea to protect your children and their personal data!  I was actually hacked before I was 18, and my social was used for false accounts, so this is a good solution.

When your children are old enough to begin managing their own data and identity, make sure you teach them about all the risks and talk about what information is safe to share, and what isn't.

A question for your co-presenter today: Like many people I have a boatload of online financial accounts, and I keep a list of user ids and passwords in a file on my computer, with some stratagems so that a reader who comes across won't actually know what any of the important passwords are. I'm the only person who uses my computer. I have read about the various password 'lockboxes' one can use but (a) it seems like a certain amount of trouble to set them up and (b) the idea of having all my passwords somewhere in the cloud doesn't seem that great. Nothing is perfectly secure. What are you thoughts on keeping passwords safe?

You're absolutely right. Nothing is ever perfectly secure, and you've taken more measures than a lot of people to protect your passwords, your use of codes is actually very clever. The risk there is that if your computer is compromised, a hacker will be looking for files just such as the one you have saved. Even if they don't know where passwords go, they will try a variety of routes to piece it together. 

The password lockboxes are a viable and safe option, but you have to be choosy and do your research. You want to look for one that encrypts the information. 

Will these apps not be the first ones that hackers go after? How safe are these?

Yes these would be a rich source of information for hackers! However, the reputable password storage solutions have strong encryption in place. This means that if an account is hacked, actual information and passwords won't be visible. There's another layer of security they'd have to get around, which makes it safer than storing passwords in your browser or in a file on your computer. 

So companies have taken to calling you when they are responding to an issue usually entered on their website. Then they ask you questions of a personal nature to verify who you are. Very legitimate companies do this all the time. Sometimes I say I am not going to answer you. How do you handle this?

Great instincts!  You did the right thing by refusing to share information when you felt uncomfortable. You should always listen to your gut, and never give out any information on a call that you haven't made yourself. Meaning, if someone calls you claiming to be with a company (no matter how reputable) they may not actually be a part of that company. If this happens, don't share any details and call the actual company yourself to see if you've been contacted. If not, report it as fraud and block the number on your phone.

I am curious to know how you handle the question from the cashier in retail stores that ask for your home phone number or zip code? I always decline but seem to get the side-eye glance from the cashier and even customers. I'm tired of this response!

Great question!  You're doing the right thing. I know the look you're talking about, but do your best to ignore it. You don't owe stores any of your details. The fewer places your personal information is stored, the more secure your privacy will be. 

Are you prepared to go to grad school in the next 1 to 2 years? Is there a topic you want to study? Could you start this fall? The shorter your horizon, the more likely it's worth it. If it's a five year out sort of thing, go get a new job now.

I would argue not just a topic you want to study but a program that will actually, truly for real increase your income. Otherwise, got to the library and go after that higher paying job. 

I think what I would tell them would be to figure out what their loan payment would have been and then do something *other* than spend it--automatically transfer it into savings, add it to what you were going to save for retirement, etc. If you do it at the start of your employment, you won't miss it(same with retirement contributions) but it becomes VERY hard to carve money out of your budget once it's already there. I will (hopefully) finish paying off my loans next May and I will immediately increase my retirement contributions, what I'm putting in my savings, etc. but the extra money will NOT become part of my spending budget.

It's all about developing the habit of saving.

I've worked in higher-education fundraising for close to fifteen years. Smith has done no one any favors. He could have donated that lump sum directly to Morehouse to establish a massive financial aid endowment. Hundreds and hundreds of future students would benefit directly and see their debt burden reduced, and would not suffer any adverse gift tax problems.

His money. His choice. But I like your idea better. 

Hi Jeni. Thanks for your information about privacy. While I understand changing passwords on a frequent basis is ideal, it is more than overwhelming to keep track of. I have at least 50 (likely more) that I use regularly and have to keep a spreadsheet of my passwords. Wondering how you feel about saving login names and passwords in your browser using the auto-fill option and also Password Manager software. Any specific Password Managers that you are a big fan of?

I personally use LastPass, and I like it because it is convenient to use for passwords and offers encryption to safeguard your data from hacks. It's not entirely foolproof, nothing is, but it's much safer than storing passwords on your computer. 

Need to get my Sunday column done. But keep the security questions coming and comments about Morehouse. Jeni will answer offline and I'll put her answers in a column. Same with Morehouse. I'm planning to do a followup on how the graduates can pay forward the gift either to themselves or to the community. 

Thanks for joining me today. I'll be away the next two weeks. So see you back June 13. 

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.

Read recent columns
Subscribe to Michelle's newsletter
Color of Money Q&A Archive
Jeni Rogers
Jeni Rogers is the editor at Wheelhouse Enterprises, where she specializes in creating and publishing content in the business-to-business software and technology sectors, including the privacy and security industries.
Recent Chats
  • Next: