Color of Money Live

May 05, 2011

Need advice about how to handle your personal finances? Whether the struggle is saving for retirement, organizing your bank files, or talking about money responsibility with your spouse or loved one, Post personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary offers her advice and answers your questions on Thursday, May 5 at 12 p.m. ET.

So glad you all could join me today. It's just you and me so let's get started.

Hi Michelle, I'm reviewing my finances and wanted to ask about a strategy for determining how much to put in a life happens fund. I came up with this: deductibles for car, health and rental insurance; cost of new tires; 5% increase for gas and electricity (since our state reps so generously granted the electricity providers free reign to increase the delivery charges AND rates for the next ten years). Do you think that's enough to start with $50 being added every month? I also paid off all my student loans! Yea!

I think you have it right on the money. The life happens fund is the pot of money you use so you don't tap your emergency fund. Everything you named wasn't about emergency spending but expenses you can plan for. So yup, put that money in the life happens fund and $50 sounds like a good start. Just be sure to add everything up, divide it by 12 to get a good idea if that $50 is enough.

I'll have my mortgage paid off by the end of May (home purchased in 2000, before prices got too crazy)! Now I just need to make sure I keep up the good discipline and put what used to go into the mortgage into long-term savings.

I LOVE that you will be done with that big monkey on your back. Congrats. Don't forget to send me an e-mail for my Debt Defeater feature. It's where I give an online, live pat on the back for folks like you who have buckled down and paid off a lot of debt.

So, you know what you have what it takes to keep saving that money because you've done it already.

The thing now is to decide what long-term thing you are saving for -- retirement, college fund if you have kids, etc.

Then that will determine where you put that money. And if I were you, I would continue to make that monthly payment -- the same amount -- to go toward those goals. You are already used to putting out that money. So just keep putting it out only now it won't be going to the bank.

My husband and I have 20K in our savings account. We are planning to buy our first house by year's end. My philosophy has always been to pay off current debt ASAP, which for now only consists of 10K left on a car loan. However, the car loan has an interest rate of 2.0%, whereas our mortgage will have a rate at least double that amount. Should we pay off the car loan in full now, or save that money to add to a down payment on our house? As much as I hate the thought of owing money on our car loan, I think we would really be better off saving the money for the inevitable mortage, which would be much higher in both amount and cost.. We are putting about 1K into saving each month and I don't know where it should go- savings for our house or paying off the car loan?

If it were me I wouldn't shop for the house until all the consumer debt was gone. So I would pay off the car. Then take the car payments you were making and add it to the $1,000 you are saving every month. Then build up the house fund until you have whatever you need including closing cost, downpayment, etc.

But make sure you also have a good emergency fund that includes whatever you expect you will be paying for the monthly mortgage. The $10,000 left in your saving may be enough for a minimum of three months (with the higher expected mortgage) or you may need to build that back up a bit before you buy. And don't forget the life happens fund. Because trust me there are a lot of "life" type stuff that happens when you get a house.

It changed my thinking on retirement and when I did retire five years ago, I was more confident. Do many people put off retirement because they do not have the million or more dollars so many "advisors" want them to have? What advice I remember the most was that I was too conservative in not keeping all my money in stocks. When the market crashed I was out of the stock market except for a few foreign stocks that made money.

I think the key to when you retire is planning. You clearly planned for how much you will need to retire. For some folks who want to live very well in retirement they might need $1 million. For others who don't have a mortgage or debt, they may be able to retire on much less if they have a steady stream of income to fit their financial needs. My grandmother retired with just $20,000, Social Security and a small pension. When she died she still had that $20,000.

At my worst I had over $30,000 worth of credit card debt. I lost my job, was unemployed for 7 months and underemployed for another year. I wisely got a roommate to keep my costs down during this time and I managed to slowly pay down the debt balance during this time despite a poverty level income. I got a job back at my original, modest-for-DC but reasonably good salary at the beginning of this year. Now I'm on target to be debt free by the end of the summer. I think I will celebrate by increasing my emergency fund by a few $1,000! You are an inspiration and I often hear your voice in the back of my head when I'm making financial decisions. Thank you!

You are so very, very welcome. When you reach your goal at the end of the summer, e-mail me at Put "Debt Defeater" in the subject line. I would love to profile you in my live video chat and sent you a free Debt Defeater tee-shirt. It's not much but if you were it you might inspire others to do what you did, which is a wonderful thing.

I'm glad I could be an inspiration. It's my calling, my mission.

Good luck and congrats on the job. I bet you will appreciate more that modest-for-DC salary a lot more now.

So, after 5 years of aggressively paying off my credit card, I only have $1k to go! Unfortunately, I have a close friend's international wedding to attend. I've been trying to save for the trip, but STILL can't afford it. Can I put this trip on my credit card? I'm so torn because getting rid of this debt has been SO hard and I don't want to back slide. Help please!

I will need you to send me a response back ASAP. 

So how close a friend are we talking about?

If we are talking almost like a sister or brother, I would do whatever I can in whatever time you have left to save to avoid putting anything on that credit card.

It's a slippery slope when you are so close. 

I want to tell you to go because friendships are so important but financial integrity is just if not more important. 

You said it. You can't afford it. And going ahead and going to the wedding by using debt is what got you in the mess you were in. 

I'm torn too. I can see it means a lot to you but my gut says to tell you don't go. 


I was given a free membership to a credit monitoring company when there was a security breach at my then-employer. After the free monitoring period ended, I've continued the service (around $8.00/month). I was contemplating adding my spouse, but got to wondering if this is even a worthwhile expense or if I should just be diligent in requesting our free annual reports instead. (We're about to do your fast, so I'm currently reviewing all our expenses!) Your advice is appreciated!

So first for the folks who don't know the fast is the 21-day financial fast from my latest book "The Power to Prosper."

I hope you are going to use the book because there will be a lot of information on a day-to-day basis to walk you through the fast.

As for the monitoring service. I had one once too. I just didn't find it very helpful. They only can inform you after your credit may have been compromised. Now it might be early enough to prevent a lot of damage but it's still after the fact. I dropped the service and just get the free credit reports every year. 

My husband and I are realizing that with a new baby, we had better get our financial plans (college savings, retirement, etc.) in line. Do you think this can happen by reading some books and getting more educated about our finances, or do you recommend sitting down with a financial planner? I have looked into a few financial planners in the area and they are not cheap ($1900 for 3 meetings!!!), and as diy-ers we'd rather take matters into our own hands, but is this a mistake?

Sounds like you don't need a financial adviser really but someone to just help you set up a budget and talk through your everyday money needs. Try going to a non-profit credit counseling agency. While they are most known for helping people set up debt repayment plans, they also have staff that can help you create a budget and talk about your financial issues that don't have to do with investing. A good financial adviser can do that too but mostly what you are paying for is investment and/or insurance advice.

So go to and look for an agency near you. Tell them you just need family financial budget planning help.

Then later when you've save some money because you have a good handle on your budget I would consider hiring a financial adviser to lay out a larger plan for your family financial needs.

Don't feel completely obligated. Your friend made the decision to get married where she(he?) did - and it's not a terrible thing if you miss it. You can decide it's too much to ask of a friend. That having been is a one time thing. If you had another year to save, would you/could you do it? If so - then perhaps buckle down even more - and understand this is a *one time thing*. I've done this with other stuff, and it made me even more determined not to slide back, making it easier to pay down what needed to be paid down - because I ensured it was a one time thing. But make sure you're not making excuses, etc...

Thanks for the added advice. 

For homeowners, would you include in the "life happens" fund the anticipated costs of replacing the roof, water heater, etc., or would you make a separate savings account/fund for each?

You could do that separately but the life happens fund is a good place to keep that money and wouldn't require another account. Besides with the banks today you have to be careful about monthly bank fees for any additional account. We keep money for such things in the life happens fund, which is set up and intended to be tapped often.

Hi Michelle! You and Dave Ramsey are my inspiration! I would like to obtain a career in Financial Counseling but I don't know what to do or how to start. I have BS in Accounting but I really can't afford to go back to school for a Finance Degree. I hate my job and I am on the verge of being fired. Please help. Helping others on the right path to financial freedom is my PASSION. Please help me to find a job with that means something to me. What do I need to do?

Perhaps you can utilize your talents in a housing counseling organization that provides financial help to individuals. Or a non-profit credit counseling agency. I'm not sure of the salaries but start looking around. I don't think you need to spend more money for school. Just look for organizations that need someone with an accounting degree who could work with folks. Even perhaps a bank or credit union. Many of the staff at banks and credit unions help their customers in ways you seem to be interested in. 

Dear Michelle, You hit the nail on the head. It's my oldest friend from high school (15 years and counting), but we are not that close anymore - we only talk about once a year. I guess I'm having a hard time justifying adding extra debt that I've worked SO hard to pay down. Thanks for your words of encouragement that I'm doing the smart (but hard) thing!

Thanks for the background because that matters.

So dear but not as close as before. I get that. I have friends like that. 

So really you have your answer but I understand why it's hard.

Don't go.

Send a lovely, wonderful gift. And/or when the couple gets back go see your friend and his or her spouse. Take them out to a lovely restaurant. 

You have come so far and this is the beginning of making hard decisions that will forever keep you out of the debt you were once in.

I feel your struggle. But you have a larger struggle that you've overcome. 

Do what you can afford. If your friend can't or won't understand than perhaps he or she isn't as good as friend as you thought.

Don't forget car and home repairs!! The insurance deductible is a good idea that I hadn't thought about, but I've had car repairs that cost more than my deductible, and which weren't something I could file a claim on. And for some home repairs, you may not want to file a claim to avoid being canceled (ask me about my $1400 roof leak. . . ).

Good advice. The thing is you have to have a place to park money you know you will have to spend in the future. It's a way to plan for it, so it doesn't force you to use debt.

Submitting this to you, Michelle, so I can advise my boyfriend. He has a large car repair expense coming up that is almost the equivalent of the car's value. He's considering taking on a loan for a new or used car or getting a lease. Unfortunately, he doesn't have the savings to make it happen without some debt, nor is going car-less an option for him. What do you recommend?

If the car is becoming very unreliable and he can't plan for repairs, then it may be time to look for a USED car.


I know I used caps. Not yelling really just wanted to make my opinion on that very clear. 

And if he can get a used car with a small loan that's not a tragedy. 

My mother passed away in 2005 and left me a nice sum of money (around $75,000). I had my kitchen refaced for a little over $5,000 but since then have not touched the money. It is now up to $83,000. I also have a mortgage (starting at $103,000 in 2002) that I've been making extra payments monthly, so it is now $66,900. Part of me wants to just pay it all off using my mother's money. Another part of me wants to just keep doing what I'm doing and pay off my mortgage, hopefully in about 5 years and keep my mother's money intact. Are there any advantages of paying it off now?? The mortgage is my only debt.

Mortgage free baby. Mortgage free.

Unless you have other more pressing financial needs -- no emergency fund, not a great amount in retirement or not saving well toward retirement, kids you have to send to college, I would be free of that mortgage.

Think of all the interest you would save in just those five years.

Don't hang on to that debt if you don't really need to. Then when you look at that paid-for home, you will think of your dear mother who thought enough of you to leave money that freed you of that debt bondage. What a fitting way to remember her legacy as we are about to celebrate Mother's Day.

Will you please explain home equity to me? Everything I have ever read says that people, like myself, should aim to build up and keep the equity in their homes. Don't use the home as a piggybank. Don't tap into the equity to send the kids to college, etc. I am perfectly fine with that method of thinking. However, ever since we purchased our home 20+ years ago, every single time we have completed a form for a loan, line of credit, etc. the BANK/CREDIT UNION people have looked, read the box checked HOMEOWNER and completely ignored or offered anything else. Oh, of course, you will want a HOME EQUITY LOAN. When my husband and I say that we DO NOT, they all but kick us out of the place. If the equity is so important to us, as homeowners, why are banks constantly trying to get us to tap into it? Aren't we doing the right thing in letting the equity grow? Or are we wrong to do that? Thanks so much Mrs. Singletary.

Don't underestimate what you know. You are right. They are wrong. They want you to tap into that equity because it makes them money.

Want to know you are right. Go and google foreclosures in the US. Many of the people who are in housing trouble stripped the so-called equity out of their homes and now they are about to lose their homes or have to so a short sale or walk away from their homes because the value dropped and now they owe more than the home is worth.

You are doing the right thing. That money in that house is only real free-of-loan cash when you sell. 

You have been using common sense. And you are winning.

...but what about paying taxes on the house? That continues, but we'll have to figure out how to do it ourselves once the mortgage company stops taking care of it. Does the county send us a bill? How does it work?

Yup, you are stuck with the taxes. But it's far less than a mortgage or the interest on that mortgage. 

How often you are billed depends on where you live. But the bottom line is, yes, you will have to plan to pay the taxes. Just make a monthly payment into a bank account just like you gave the bank extra to put the tax money in escrow. 

Hi Michelle, I hate debt, but I've found myself with $10,000 on a credit card due to some unexpected expenses, child care, etc. We make good salaries and our child care expenses will be going down soon, but our expenses are still high, leaving us with $500/month to put toward the credit cards. I don't want to take two years to pay them off- I want the debt gone now! I know about the 10 percent penalty for early withdrawal on 401ks, but I want a fresh start financially. We have about $80,000 in several different 401ks, plus we each have a pension and will have a fairly decent inheritance by the time we retire. All of that makes me think that since we're in our mid 30s, we're in decent shape for retirement and it might actually be okay to take out the money to pay off our debt now. What do you think?

I think you should leave that retirement money alone. Here's why:

-- "I don't want to take two years to pay them off"

-- I want the debt gone now!"

-- And I'm paraphrasing here: "I know I have to pay more money unnecessarily to get the retirement money but I want what I want now."

It's your wants that got you into credit card debt. I know you said some is for child care (although what did you put on the credit card for child care -- the day care fee?) Anyway, you didn't get into debt overnight so take the painful time to slug you way out of debt. Then you will hopefully remember the pain and won't do it again.

You only have $80,000 between the two of you. That's a lot of money and it isn't. So leave it along. Great that you are expecting to get an inheritance but what if that doesn't happen?

Don't settle for being in decent shape for retirement. Practice some good financial habits now like not withdrawing money from a 401 (k) and just giving the government an extra 10 percent of your money. Do the work to get out of debt. Then do the work to save for your kid's college expenses.

Work. Get rid of the "I want it now" mentality. You will be much better off for it.

Hi Michelle! I'm in serious debt. I have $90k in student loans (master's in social services field), I have a low credit score of 530, I did a short sale on my home, and I'm about to get married in August! I'm depressed about my finances because I don't make enough. How do I boost my credit score and still manage to take care of my finances (i.e.- pay bills) with a low paying job ($40k) without incurring any more debt? I'm thinking about credit counseling and possibly getting a low balance secured credit card. What do you think? I hate going into my marriage with this much debt. I feel like I'm in a financial crisis with no light at the end of the tunnel. Any suggestions you have would be helpful. Thanks!

First, stop beating yourself up. 

You did what you did. 

There is light. Because what's the alternative? 

Now you have to buck up and make better decisions. 

First, hope you aren't spending much on the wedding. If you are, than go back to beating yourself up (smile). 

Next, why are you worried about your credit rating right now? All that means is you can borrow more money at favorable rates. And why would you want to borrow any more money when you are nearly $100,000 in debt?

Forget about that.

Sit down with your intended and figure out how TOGETHER you are both going to handle what becomes both your debts when are get married.

Then slowing with much deliberation attack that student loan debt. That means cutting out a lot. No honeymoon that cost more than maybe a weekend stay at a local hotel. No eating out a lot. Keep your cars until you are on a first name basis with the local tow truck drivers.

See where I'm going?

You can do this. I've see it done. But you have to plan to put yourself on the road that leads to the light.

Michelle, Many people who expected a pension and some kind of health benefits in retirement are finding that they will get much less than expected due to state legislators cutting those benefits. In Maryland they are doing this to people who are already retired! What can we do?

Honestly I wish I knew. It's horrible. And I hope the person who wanted to raid her retirement fund reads this post. Pensions can change.

What can you do?

Change your plans for retirement. You might have to work longer. Cut back on your expected retirement expenses. Give up on plans to travel the world. Change.

It's a sad time.

I don't understand the retirement mentality. If I can't do exactly what i want (like, well, *I*'d want to travel the world) then why would I retire? I'd just work (probably less than for a 'real' job) - why not? What does one do all day when one is retired? Watch TV? I'll have plenty of time to do that when I really can't do what I want because I am unable to physically.

I think for many people retirement means using your senior years to get of of the grind. I want to retire but that doesn't mean I will stop working. I want to create and run an non-profit devoted to helping people with their finances. That's my next life job after my last kid goes off to college in about 10 years.

But you are right. For many people with the economy the way it is and less pension money for some, it means changing your view of retirement. For some that means working longer. But some may not be able to work, so they will have to budget better.

It's all about changing when you have to change.

Thanks for the advice. Hopefully checking statements regularly will give me a more timely heads up than the quarterly reports from the company. As for your fast, yes, we'll use the book daily, but being a methodical person, I wanted to read it before we did it. And I'm so glad I did - as I type, I'm setting up online banking and consolidating multiple pre-marital separate accounts (we had full access to each others, nothing hidden!) to streamline everything. I already feel better and we haven't even done the best parts of the fast yet! Thanks again for your truly sound advice!

Well checking your checking account isn't a guarantee to catch an identity theft but it's one of the ways. 

Anyway, so glad you are doing the fast. It's awesome, hard but so worth it.

And you are very welcome. I truly just want people to find financial peace. Makes life so much better.

How much interest is a person going to save if she already is only 5 years away from paying off a mortgage?  It is mostly principal in the payments at that point.

Enough. And why give the bank even another penny?

It's about freedom. 

Not being a slave.


Michelle, Questions for you about the life happens fund and regular monthly budget. Since you said in response to another question that you tap the life happens fund often, i wonder, do you have a line item in your budget for the life happens fund, or do you only use your budget for things you know you'll spend on and use life happens fund to cover the rest? The way I've set up my budget, I estimate average expenses for different categories over the course of the year. SInce I've been tracking my expenses for a couple years, it's fairly accurate. i know that some months i won't spend anything in some categories and will go over in others, but the bottom line is what I'm aiming to be under. What are your thoughts on the different set-up options?

I think you have a good plan. It works for you.

And yes, we have a line item to put a certain amount of money every month into the life happens fund. 

But your system sounds great too.

The key is to have a system. To prepare for the expenses. However you do it is okay with me. 

For the person who asked about taxes....Very easy to do - Find out what your annual real estate taxes are (use your County's tax web site as a resource or your annual assessment if you live in Fairfax County) and divide that total by the number of paychecks you get per year and put that amount of money aside in one of your accounts. Bill comes and gets paid from that account.

Good advice. Thanks.

Don't count on it too much. You never know. My cousins had some money coming to them too - until their mom needed to be in a nursing home. They sold the house, took all her money and whatever their dad had had - and it was pretty much all gone when she died. They didn't want to scrimp on her care (some people don't have a problem with that) - and so they weren't left with anything. You never know what's going to happen - don't rely on it.

That's right. You never know.

Don't do it. It took me 2 years to pay off $17k, those were the hardest and the best 2 years of my life. Because it makes you realize that you never ever want to be in that kind of situation again. I believe when people take out home equity or a consolidation loan or take it from a 401K, you don't FEEL it and then you just end up back where you started.


I love when people assume they will inherit some money from well-off relatives. I would not plan on it. Your relative could easily live into their 90s and/or have a long, drawn out illness (skilled nursing is about $300-$500 a DAY). Don't plan on getting an inheritance and if you do, it is gravy.

Again, right on point.

For the person asking about setting up multiple savings accounts (one for window replacement, etc.), here's what I do. I just have one savings account, but I track different categories in a spreadsheet that I keep. My monthly budget lists $xx for veterinary bills, $xx for travel, $xx for auto maintenance, etc. I add it all up and make one transfer to the savings account each month, but I track it separately in my spreadsheet so I know how much I have in which "account". Works for me.

Thanks. Another good saving strategy. 

For the person who wants to withdraw from the 401(k) partly based on the expectation of someone else's money: bad idea. You may not get that money. Your beneficiary may have a costly illness or get fleeced by an unscrupulous adviser or decide to leave money to charity or just live really long and need the dough. Unless you truly know with certainty you will come into money, such as through a trust fund, don't bank on it and certainly do not plan around it. Yeesh.

I hope the 401 (k) person is still listening.

We want you to do the right thing.

"Now I just need to make sure I keep up the good discipline and put what used to go into the mortgage into long-term savings. " Don't forget that some of your monthly payment went to taxes and insurance - and they continue each year (or semi-annually) even without a mortgage. I would open 2 new bank accounts. One the same day of the month you paid your mortgage, transfer the amount for taxes and insurance into one account and the rest into the other. The first account is where you store the money to pay your taxes/insurance and the other is for your long-term savings/investing.

Good advice again.

You guys are on a roll. Don't mind the help at all.


Great chat today. I hope I've helped those who had questions. And thanks for those who offered their two cents worth. 

Love the help.

Anyway, I'm very grateful for all of you who joined me today. 

For the mothers, Happy Mother's Day.

Remember to teach your children how to be money smart. 

Check out my video chat. I give a shout of to my grandmother, Big Mama. Miss her so but all of you are benefiting from her wise money advice. 

Take care and be financially safe!

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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