Color of Money Live

Feb 23, 2012

Need advice about how to handle your personal finances? Whether your struggling to save for retirement, get out of debt or talking about money with your spouse, Post personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary offers advice to help solve your personal finance issues. Join her Thursday, Feb. 23 at noon ET for a live online discussion. Her guests will be Roberta K. Taylor and Dorian Mintzer, co-authors of Michelle's February Color of Money Book Club pick, "The Couple's Retirement Puzzle: 10 Must-Have Conversations for Transitioning to the Second Half of Life."

I'm so glad you are joining me today. And I'm pleased to have two guests Roberta K. Taylor and Dorian Mintzer to talk about their book "The Couple's Retirement Puzzle: 10 Must-Have Conversations for Transitioning to the Second Half of Life." But hey this book isn't just for people about to retire or in retirment. 

Anyway let's get started.

Michelle, my husband is leaving teaching (bad conditions) this year and has three years until he collects a modest pension. We have $70,000 in the bank and owe $50,000 on our second mortgage with a monthly payment of $600. I make enough to cover both mortgages if we live carefully and we are considering paying off the second mortgage. Is this a good idea or should we wait until he draws a pension, keeping our savings for contingencies.? We have no other debt other than our primary mortgage. Thanks!

I would probably wait until your husband's pension kicks and and you have lived on just your salary as the main income for those three years. Saying you will live carefully and actually doing it is two different things. So test it out. If you are handling everything comfortably AND you have  retirement savings other than the $70,000 at that point pay off the second mortgage, which I'm assuming is at a higher rate than the first. 

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Michelle, I'm interested in paying down my mortgage a bit. My 401 (k) isn't doing great in these bad times, and I'm early enough in the mortgage that I'm still mostly paying a ton of interest, not principle. So I'd like to pay it down enough that I can drop my mortgage payments, then have more to invest elsewhere and set my home up  as a rental in a few years thanks to lower mortgage payments. I have been able to confirm with the bank that I don't have any fees for pre-payment, but that they reserve the right to apply my prepayment to the accrued and unpaid interest on the prepayment amount, before applying it to the principal. I haven't been able to get a good description of what this means, and before I do anything, I want it in writing from them. But have you seen this before? Thanks so much!

First, I'm assuming youa re not saying you are going to take money out of your 401 (k) to prepay the mortgage especially if you are younger than 591/2.

So if you are asking just about making extra mortgage payments, look at your loan agreement. Then if you still aren't sure what the bank is talking about because I'm not either, go talk to the loan servicer or the lender. Get the person to spell out just what they mean. Perhaps they mean if you get behind on your mortgage for any reason, any extra payment will be applied to the mortgage. 

I once had people tell me I should aim to have about six months salary in the bank as a safety egg in case the worst ever happened. Is that still a good number? And if so, how does one reach that level in this (the DC) area when they're in their 20's/early 30's. I'm 30, and have about 3-4 months worth... and this after working for 8 years, not wasting my money, taking a reasonable vacation now and then, not buying everything I want.

I think the goal of having six months of living expenses is still legit. And frankly if you have a high-paying job I would aim for 12 months. Why? Because in working with people who had good jobs and then got laid off in the recession they found it very hard to get another job at that old salary level. Many had to take huge pay cuts. And their job searches in many cases more than a year. But look it can be a slow process accumulating all that money. And frankly you are doing very good. I know people who have six-figure salaries who don't have one month's of living expenses saved for an emergency. 

Michelle, I'm getting married in a couple of months, and my fiancee and I have agreed to combine our finances for our marriage. Though this is turning out to be a bit more challenging than either of us anticipated, since we'd both been on our own for a long time prior to our dating and engagement. As such, we both managed our finances and budgets very differently, and we're having some difficulty trying to reach a workable middle ground. Its not that either one of us manages our money badly. It's more a matter of neither one understanding how the other manages their budget (and in all fairness, we're both a little set in our ways from all those years of self-sufficiency). Any suggestions on how we can come up with a solution?

Sounds like you've already taken the first step. That's great! Now make a time to sit down together with the goal of listenng to each other and understanding what's works for each of you. Takes turns talking about your approach and hwo ti helps you manage your finance. When one of youis talking the other needs to just listen and maybe jot down a few key points. When you've both had a time to share,  talk about how you might compromise using the best suggestions fro each of you. It's great to start talking about these things now. Remember, as long as you're able to have a conversation and listen to each other, the rest is a work in progress. Good luck! Roberta

Hi Michelle! I've got a question for you but I guess it could also be one for Hax. I'm 30-years-old and in a federal job. I like with decent career potential. I'm a few years out of grad school and I'm feeling behind on my financial life. I've only got about $12,000 in 401(k), about $12,000  in emergency/life happens savings and about $35,000 in student loans to pay off. I'm paying a good chunk in rent and my paycheck barely covers the bills plus a little bit for savings. I see all these people around me considering houses, starting families, etc and I feel like there's no way I could take that stuff on in the next few years. At a certain point, I don't want money to completely drive my life decisions though. What should I do? Any tips? I do expect promotions over the next few years but, knowing how previous promotions have gone, I think they'll probably just be a drop in the bucket. Would love your advice.

It's quite normal to feel anxious about your financial standing. And I bet part of what you are feeling is the weight of that $35,000 in student loan debt. That's a lot of money. But you are very solid with your savings. So here's what I suggest to give you some peace of mind:

-- Make sure you have a good budget cutting out anything that you really don't need.

-- Figure out how much of that $12,000 in savings covers your monthly living expenses. Is it three month's worth, two, five? If it's three month's worth. Stop saving in the emergency account and apply any money you can save every month to the student loanss.

-- Also put about $1,00 0 or $2,000 in a life happens fund for the things in life that happen such as car repairs, etc.

-- Stopping looking at other people's grass. You may see from the outside that people appear to be doing better than you but trust me you NEVER know. They may be up to their eyes in debt and stressed out. 

I think you are doing fine. Just get on a good plan.

Sorry I can't join the chat live but I hope you can answer my question. My husband and I would like to refinance our mortgage under a more favorable rate. When we bought it two  years ago, we put over 20 percent down, but with the recession the value of our property has dropped by about 10 percent. We're not underwater, but our loan now accounts for over 80 percent of the house value, and the banks require us to have a loan less than 80% of the house value to get the favorable rate. We've made every payment on time, have great credit, and good income. This all seems very unfair. Is there anything we can do besides take out a second loan at a higher rate? Thanks so much - for answering and for ALL the advice you always provide us!

So many homeowners are feeling your pain. The bad news is you may not be able to get the best rates right now unless you are willing to bring money to the table so that you borrow less. In other words that 10 percent difference. And no I would not recommend you borrow that money. I know how that might be tempting but then would you really be saving money if you now have another loan with interest?

You could try just making one or two extra mortgage payments a year (or more if you can afford it) and that will reduce the number of years you have the mortgage. It will also bring down the prinicpal and perhaps in time to take average of low mortgage rates which hopefully will be around for awhile. 

The other thing you might do is keep shopping around. 

This is a variation on the "irresponsible parent" question. I am one of 5 children, ages 63 to 50. Our father died many years ago, our mother last fall. She owned her house free and clear but had few other assets. Since she died without a will, everything goes to the 5 of us equally. 4 of us are doing reasonably well; some have children in college and the recession has hurt, but we are all solvent with a bit set aside. However, one of our sisters moved back home "to get back on her feet" after a bitter divorce 30 years ago, and never left! She never paid rent or held anything other than an occasional part-time retail job. Our parents and then our mother even took her to Europe and bought her a car! She says Mom intended to leave her the house, but even if the rest of us concur, there's no way she could pay the taxes, insurance and utilities out of her zero income. None of us wants her living with us. When we used to ask Mom "What will happen to sis when you die?" She would say, "I know you'll do the right thihg." But what is the right thing? By mooching off our parents for years, she has already decreased everyone else's share in the estate. No way we're going to let her mooch off us as well. She says she helped look after Mom in her declining years, but that's ridiculous. Mom did all the cooking, cleaning and laundry up to the week before she died; and she hired someone to mow the lawn and do yardwork. Can you give us any guidance? Thanks so much.

When family issues are involved it can be very tough. One possibility is to have a family meeting and talk together about how you can support each other through this. Let your sister know you want to help but there are limits to what you can or are wiling to do. If that seems totally out of the question you may want to think about hiring a family mediator. This can be enormously helpful in situations where there is a lot of anger and disparity. Google "family mediators" to see who is in your area. There is also an association of family mediators that you can use as a resource. A good book is Mother Always Liked you Best. Roberta

I agree that you all need to meet and try to talk lovingly about this. But you are right to feel that sister is trying to take advantage. She is and she's been good at it. So if the rest of the siblings aren't feeling this anymore -- letting her live rent free -- then come up with a plan. Tell her she either has to pay rent with the help of a roommate perhaps or you guys will have to sell the home. Now since all five of you have to approve the sale you may need to get an attorney and take this issue to court. I know. That means it could get nasty. But by enabling her to live without any responsibiliites you are doing just what you mother and father did. You are treating her like a child when she is a grown woman who needs to take responsiblity for herself. The right thing to so it make her be responsible. You, the siblings, are not her parents.

Hi, Michelle. My husband and I have the opposite problem of that addressed in your last Sunday's column. Due to the recession and high health care bills (no insurance), we are really struggling. Our parents and better off sibs are helping, bu t even so, we may lose our house. We have no cable, cell phones or any fancy gadgetry. We buy clothing at Good Will and clip coupons like crazy. We have an old computer and an even older laptop for our 4 children, not nearly enough for their needs. Their schools have media centers, typically with about 25 computers, and the local library has 12. They typically do other homework while waiting for these to become available, but sometimes the demand is too great. We're doing our best to improve our situation, but this is really, really hard.

Fed up with spoiled daughter, dad shoots her laptop

I'm so, so sorry for your situation. And I know this must be tough for the children. I've worked recently with a number of families in the same situation. One woman got divorced (not her choice), lost her very well-paying job through no fault of her own, then lost her home, had to pull her kids out of private school. It was hard for her children too. They never were as selfish as the teen I wrote about. But they kids are okay. Their parents keep loving on them, explained the situation, loved on them some more. The mother is not back employed in a great job and building back up her life. 

You can do this even if you lose the house. What's important to those kids is you. Not the stuff. I know it doesn't seem that way and they may complain or feel sad but they will and can survive. Just keeping doing the best you can in your situaiton and for your family.

Michelle, I am considering taking monies from my401(k) to purchase an investment property. What are some of the things I need to consider before doing this?

Don't do it. If you are not older than 591/2 you will pay taxes on the money you pull out PLUS a 10 percent penalty. 

And think about it. You put this money away for your retirement. What if the investment property -- another type of investing -- doesn't go well? 

Have you done the math to determine if the property will yeild better returns than you may be getting with your 401 (k) money?

Do you have money reserved for the upkeep of the property? Will the money you pull out of the 401 (k) allow you to buy the investmetn property outright? If not , have you factored in the interest you will pay. Again weighing that against what you are earning now on the account? Do you have set aside if you lose you renter?

There is much to consider.

Hi Michelle! Currently I'm saving about 10 percent of my gross income in a retirement plan. Is that enough? I'm 32-years-old. The rest of the money I have that could go towards saving more for retirement I am using to pay off my student loans more quickly. Thanks!

Try using the retirement ballpark caculator at to see if you are saving enough.

Michelle, I have no debt, earn a good salary, have a sizeable savings account and a 401(k)account. My problem is I am very risk scared so my savings are in a regular bank account and my 401(k) is in fixed income. How do I overcome fear of investing? Where should I look to lear more? What would you recommend a new investor invests in to start? Thank you very much for any advice.

It's okay to be scared. Heck at times I'm scared. But you know what my fear kept me from enjoying the high swings in the market. In my 20s I had all my investment money in bonds. Bonds! I was investing like I was near retirement. 

Ultimately, you should be comfortable with how you invest. And if having your money in fixed income helps you sleep at night than I'm okay with that. But would you like to try and get an even better return? Could you stomach a little bit more risks? If so, pay to sit down with a fee-only financial planner and have the professional look over all your holdings to see if you could tolerate more risk and the upside that can bring.

I am finishing up my last week of work, after having received a layoff notice three weeks ago. I'm not in the least upset by this move, as I've not enjoyed my job for the past six years. I really can't afford to be off of work indefinitely, but I would like to take a few months off - to re-charge mentally, physically, and to re-discover my spirit that was drained from me after an ill-fitting job. My delimma: what now? What are the immediate things that I need to do in light of this layoff? Call my CU to see about a temporary deferrment for my car payment? I'm not against selling my vehicle and purchasing a cheaper used vehicle. Call my credit card companies to see about lowering my interest rate during this layoff period? What else should I consider? I'm one of "those" people.....who do not have an emergency fund already in place. I know, I know.....

I'd like to respond to the the "What now" part of your question. If I'm understanding correctly the job was not a good fit and, in fact, was drainng in man ways. It sounds like you have the right idea in giving yourself some time to recharge and re-energize. You can also use the time to start thinking about what you would really like to be doing next. What did you love to do as a kid? What are your strengths? What's most important in your life riht now?  You might want to take the time to do some reading about things you're interested in. Work should be something that we enjoy and gives us a sense of fullfilment not something that drains our spirit. Life is too short to spend time doing things that don't fuesl us. In terms of the nuts and bolts, sounds like it would be helpful for you to tak with a financial planner about how to preserve your resources and plan for the future. 

Last year I made about $5000 freelancing, and so far haven't paid any taxes on it. I took a first pass at my taxes last night, and Turbo Tax is telling me I owe $1800!!! Doesn't that seem excessive? Do you think that could be right? I just found out I might owe penalties for not paying taxes quarterly (nobody told me!) so do you think that could be why I apparently owe 36 percent of the money I made? Or should I go to an accountant?

Without knowing everything about your tax situation, yup about right if you add in the underpayment penalty and state taxes (I"m assuming). And yes my friend we have a pay as you go tax system. So you are penalized taxwise if you don't pay enough into the system during the year. So sorry you didn't know that.

Now, you could sit down with a live person to see if you missed any deductions and to get a second opinion. If the cost isn't much might be worth it.

To the family with the sister: This was going on for 30 years, and everyone knew this day was coming. If your mother told you she counted on you to do the right thing, then you should do it. That would be, you probably should sell the house and set the sister up in possible a subsidized housing situation or with roommates somewhere, and assist her in finding some job to pay the bills. After 30 years, obviously she'll be lucky to find anything. But if your intention was to split your parents' money evenly and move on, you should have thought of that over the past 30 years.

I understand you tough (and hopefully love) response. But I get why they didn't address this earlier. Sometimes family peace is worth the price. Clearly this woman's parents were in the business of enabling her. The siblings were off living their lives, doing the best they could and I bet complaining or grumbing about the sister. But it wasn't their problem yet. Now it is. The question is do they have the backbone to see this through if they are not willing to support the sister. And frankly it might be the best thing for her to have her siblings make her act like an adult, especially is none of them are planning to take her of her in her older age.

Check with or Craigslist, you may be able to land a free older computer.

Thanks. And ask around if any friends or family have old computers they are willing to give you. 

Good luck.

Thank you for taking my question. I have been looking for a financial planner/advisor but it seems they all want a large sum of money (at least $100K) in order to establish and manage a portfolio for you. I'm a single, 40-year old and think I've done OK managing my money on my own (no debt except a mortgage which will be paid off early, fully funded 1-year emergency and life-happens accounts, contribute the maximum to my 401(k) and IRA accounts). Is there another type of financial professional that can review my finances and provide advice on what more I can do to grow my money?

There are a number of planners who will work with you and perhaps just charge a one-time fee of maybe $1,000 to $1,500 for a comprehensive financial plan. Here's one two places to check for fee-only planners. 

-- This is an independent network of financial planners.

-- This is an organization of fee-only financial planning professionals.

Michelle, hope you can give me some help in thinking about a situation. After being our of the workforce for a little while, I just got a job, which takes our household income from roughly $180k to roughly $340k. We are in our mid-30s. We have a lot of student loan debt (roughly $200k). We have an outstanding mortgage of about $100k. We have about $500k saved in retirement funds and another $50k saved for our kids' college funds (they are 3 and 6 years old). We have fully funded liquid savings accounts (about one year in expenses). We have no other debt. Here is our dilemma - we don't know whether to stay put in our current house or move. It is in a "hip" part of town, about 900 square feet, not in a good school district. Our older kid currently attends the public school, but it is overcrowded, is poorly maintained, and teachers don't have resources to spend on kids like her, so we are thinking seriously about private school next year. To make our house more "livable", we'd probably need to spend another $50k (add space, add insulation, bring up to code, etc.). We can also buy a much better house in a good school district, but our monthly mortgage would more than double (roughly $1500/month to $4000). While I know you would say to pay off our student loans before we buy a nicer, house, our current situation is not working for us. What would you do? Our jobs, as far as we can see, are stable and well-paying. We know we'd probably like to move in 5 years or so anyway. One of us wants to move to a nicer house now, take advantage of interest rates and low housing prices, get the kids situated in a new school sooner rather than later, not pay for a reno to an old house that we are going to leave pretty soon, run the risk of maybe over-improving the house for the part of town. The other one of us would rather pay for the reno (by the end of the year we'd be able to do it in cash), stay here for another 5 years, and use the second salary to pay off our debt and more adequately fund the kids' college funds and our retirement/savings accounts. In 5 years, the thinking goes, we'd buy a nicer house from a much stronger financial position. Any help from you or the rest of the folks out there on what to do? We are fortunate in many ways - we paid very little for our current house, so one of us thinks staying here is sort of like printing money. The other one says why throw more good money away on this house, when we can buy another house and stay there for 20 years? We are looking for any helpful opinions we can get! Thanks

It's not that I don't understand and sympathize with your situation. I have three kids and I know you want the best for them.

BUT (and you knew it was coming). You have $200,000 in student loan debt.

$200,000 in debt

$200,000 in debt

$200,000 in debt

With such great savings and a really good mortgage, don't you continue living on the one salary. Take every penny from the new job and apply it to the student loan debt. In two years  or less you can get rid of the student loan debt. 

Your kids are still very young. You've got time to do this right. 

I wouldn't spend $50,000 on renovations with that debt.

I just wouldn't put that strain on your budget with a house and private school tutition with that much debt out there.

You are in a really good position betther than like 97 percent of the rest of America if you have the patience to get all that you want. But really you can't afford it now. You will. But not now.

I'm baffled by the chatter who suggested that the siblings have to take care of the sister because they "should have seen this coming." Wow. And, honestly, I'd bet that the mother thought the "right thing" was to keep coddling the sister, as she had. So, in that sense, I don't think the siblings should feel any obligation to honor that particular wish, which was both unfair to them and (even further) damaging to the coddled sister. Your advice struck a reasonable balance between enabling her and cutting her loose right away.


I highly recommend seeing a fee-only financial planner. I met with one in Montgomery County, and was very pleased (and my financial situation is less rosy than the OP's).

Thanks for the input.

Based a lot on your advice to get rid of debt, I just paid off my student loans after "only" 9 years. FREEDOM! Thank you!

Woo Hoo right back at you.

Wonderful. Wonderful.

And a great follow up to the advice I just gave the couple who wants to buy a house with $200,000 in student loan debt.

P.S. What if one of you loses one of those great jobs? Don't want you to operate out of fear but just saying. 

My best friend has a good income but no savings due to a long history of too much consumer credit. All of those credit cards are paid off and have been for about a year, but he still has no savings to speak of (I mean a few thousand dollars ... not enough for a down payment in this environment). I am thinking of helping him buy the condo that he rents. I know that there are dangers associated with lending to friends so I have thought of two approaches. One is for me to *give* him the down payment with no expectation of repayment. (I do not live in the US so gift taxes are not an issue.) We would then structure the ownership so that I would own a proportion of the condo until such time as he sells it or pays me back. (But there would be no *requirement* to pay me back for as long as he owns the condo.) In this instance he would obviously be aware of my involvement. The second approach would be to just buy the flat and have him "rent" it from me. The idea here is that, one day down the line, I would transfer the deed to him (once he had repaid me through rent). I could structure the transaction without him knowing because the condo is already managed by a rental agency who would be happy to carry on. In this instance he wouldn't be aware of my involvement. My thought behind his not knowing is that if he's not aware of the loan, there would be less stress. I'm not so relaxed about money that I want to give him the money without some kind of ownership stake, but I have enough to buy the condo for cash, I own my own condo, and I put away plenty in savings every month besides. What are your thoughts?

Wow. Can I be your friend? Got three kids to put thu college and I handle my money very well. 

Okay, just kidding. Seriously, what a dear person you are.

First, you got the right idea. Don't lend any money. Don't put yourself in the position of wanting or having to have any money you might up for the condo back. And really think about if you want to be the landlord to a friend. What if he falls back to old habits and can't make the rent. What then?

A ugly situation is what.

BUT, let's watch your friend for a few more years. Before you jump in to be a savior, let him grow financially. See if he has really learned his lesson and can save and live within his means. If after that you still want to help then talk to him about the condo. Let him be part of this decision.

Maybe this is getting a little far afield--but I was recently laid off too, although the financial situation is pretty good. I too plan to take a little breather after 35 + years of work that I didn't find too thrilling. I'm wondering how to address the break in employment when I do interview. In our work-oriented region I'm afraid of being branded a slacker.

Having worked 35 years I doubt anyone would see you as a "slacker" but I understand your concern. Do you know what you want to do next?  What would be thrilling? It's a  great time to begin to think about what you really want to do in the next part of your life. Talk with people who are doing what you might want to do.  People love to talk about themselves so spend some time exploring and gathering information. When you do decide you're ready to interview, you can authentically talk about your interest and desire to do the work you're applying for.

I know what this poster is going through. My sister moved back into the family home in the late 1960s. She always worked, but I don't know if she paid rent or expenses. When my dad died in 1981, it was a comfort for her to be there with our mother. But when mom died in 2004, leaving all money and property to be divided equally between my sister, myself and our brother, it was almost impossible to get my sister (7 years my senior) to face the reality of the situation, especially as by that time she was doing only occasional child care. Sadly, the situation resolved itself when my sister died of heart failure at age 67 in 2007. I have sometimes wondered if she died simply because she thought it was the easiest way out of something she could not face.

How very sad. I'm hoping it wasn't the situation.

But another testimony of how it's so important to help your children become good money managers. Failing to do so could be burden to other family members.

Wow, looked up and time is up.

Thank you so much for joining me today on the chat. 

Good questions. Some sad situations. Thanks for those of you who weighed in.

Take care and see you back here next month. 

And as always be financially safe.

I think my husband and I have had a lot of the retirement conversations (before we saw the book to tell us we should do it!) I think we are on track: no debt; emergency fund; maxed out retirement savings; have our home refinanced to a 15-year mortgage that will be paid off before we retire, etc. But one of our big goals for the past 10 years has been to have a condo/townhouse in a particular spot we like to vacation. I have been following real estate prices for years and have watched them drop back to where I think it's a deal. We've run the numbers, and we think we can afford to buy now (with @ 30-50% down), and then rent it out and basically have the tenant mostly pay the mortgage. But the debt scares me. So I guess my question is: am I completely loco nuts to be thinking about buying a place now???

Great to hear that you and your husband talked about retirement. You're  in the minority.  It sounds like you've planned well financially and have your ducks in a row.  Having a condo/townhouse in your special spot sounds like a dream goal.  Taking risks can be scary but thik of it this way. Twent years down the road are you going to look back and say we should have bought that condo?  When we were developing material f or the book we had several focus groups. One was a group of elders. When asked about regrets a  92 year old gentleman in the group said he wished thathe woud told peole that he oved them, and he wished he had taken more risks. Go for it and enjoy!

Thanks again for joining me today.

In This Chat
Michelle Singletary
Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, "The Color of Money," which appears in The Post on Thursday and Sunday. Her award-winning column is also carried in more than 120 newspapers. In her spare time, Singletary is the director of a ministry she founded at her church, in which women and men volunteer to mentor others who are having financial challenges.

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