Color of Money Live

May 31, 2012

Join The Washington Post nationally syndicated personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary Thurs. May 31 at noon ET. Singletary will be discussing her May Color of Money Book Club pick, "How to be Richer, Smarter and Better-Looking Than Your Parents" by Zac Bissonnette. Bissonnette will be joining Singletary to take your questions about his book and discuss the financial challenges for young adults. Singletary will also be available to answer your personal finance questions.

I'm so glad you could join me today. And I'm excited about my guest today, Zac Bissonnette, who is the author of the May Color of Money Book Club pick, "How to be Richer, Smarter and Better-Looking Than Your Parents."  Good time to get in some questions about young adults and money, college debt or paying for college.

Let's get started.

We just paid off our mortgage and now, to quote a certain someone, we got that monkey off our back. We are grateful that we never had any student loan debt and thanks to my thrifty stay-at-home husband we have been able to live within our means. Since we pay cash for our new (to us) cars and do not carry a balance on our credit card our only debt has been our mortgage and we are free at last. Now we are able to maximize our retirement savings and we still have eight years to continue saving for our daughter's college education. Signs are good that our daughter will continue our family tradition of thriftiness. On vacation she complained that we didn't have the same cable options at home as we had at the cabin we rented. I told her that the entire cost of our vacation was about the same price as a year of extended cable and which would she rather have more TV or a family vacation. She thought long and hard and finally said, a vacation. Hopefully she will continue to understand that less debt will always equal more choices in life.

So happy to start the chat off with this testimony!

Hello! I had children in my late 30s and have two chidren who will be one year apart in school. My goal is to finish paying off my house (or get as close to it as possible) by the time the youngest is looking at schools. My thought is that any extra will go to college savings for the children, but since I will be so close to retirement myself, I need to have that house paid off or I will have to go live with them in their dorms. What do you think?

Hard to argue with this logic!

My one concern for you--and it's more of a broader financial planning issue than a college specific one--is that you also need to make sure you're making retirement contributions (401(k) at least up to the match and Roth IRA if you can) for a combined total of something like 15% of your income) in addition to paying off the mortgage. A.) You want to capture the match and B.) If you plow everything into the home you will end up debt-free (which is good!) but overweight in real estate (which is bad!).

Also: I think your kids would love having you live with them in the dorms! You can teach them your keg dance moves!

I agree with Zac that you need to also put money away for your retirement. Try to do both as best you can. But I have three kids and well who knows who might want me to live with them. So I'm hedging the odds by saving for my retirement in case they hold all the penny pinching during their childhood against me!

Hi, Michelle: I need some advice on what to do with leftover college funds. We are extremely fortunate to have saved an equal amount in CD's for both of our daughters' college education funds. Both daughters graduated, and have no debt, including no college loans. My youngest has about $6,000 left in her college account. My wife wants to give her the money for being frugal. I was thinking of helping the youngest pay for a wedding, or to help with graduate school tuition. Is there a better way to think about this blessing?

Ah! A nice problem to have! Are these 529 Plans? If so, you'll likely have to pay taxes if the money isn't used for educational expenses.

But in any case: I like the idea of giving it your daughter (Since you say she's frugal) and then letting her decide how best to optimize it--whether that be grad school, wedding, or really tacky jewelry (which seems unlikely given that she is frugal). . .

Ask your daughter if she's planning to go to grad school. If so, I would keep the money and earmark it for that.

Or you could split the difference, give her some and keep some saved for her to go back to school. OR hold on to it for a wedding. The thing is talk to your daugther. Get her input. She's been great and frugal so no risk her wasting the money by letting her know there's still more money on the table.

Michelle, please help the baffled. We have our retirement savings with a national financial planning/investment firm that charges a 2percent fee. We're heard this is too much. Also, our assigned manager has been AWOL and unhelpful. I want to switch to a local, trustworthy, non-publicly traded (accountable to us, not stockholders) person or firm that charges less. Guidance? How can we find such a thing? Thanks!

2% is absurd and is likely more than eliminating any value that the advisor may be providing. It's sort of like buying a weight loss pill that causes you to gain 20 pounds immediately: it better be one heck of a weight loss pill. . .


If it's just retirement savings and your situation isn't overly complicated, I would consider moving the money to Vanguard or Fidelity where you can manage it yourself using low cost index funds (target date funds make this super, super easy) and save tons of fees.


There are so many things with investments that we can't control. Costs are one of the few we can control and so there is no reason to be using a manager with a 2% fee.

I can't remember a certain company or fund but I do agree that if you aren't getting your money's worth, walk. 

Hi Michelle, I was hoping you could help settle something. I have a goal to pay off a car loan (hopefully by the end of the summer) and then use that money to pay off the rest of my student loans over the next 15 or so months. My husband will be starting his third year of law school next year and while he did have a large sum in scholarship money we still took out some loans. I will need to start paying those loans 6 months after he graduates next May. My husband wants to sell one of our two perfectly fine cars and get a new much fancier car which we would need to get a new loan for. Can you please give me the words to help me get him to see that a new car loan is a terrible idea? Our only other debt is our underwater mortgage.

Y'all gonna make me lose ma mind!

Please tell your husband:  If you are in law school on at least partly borrowed money and you have an underwater mortgage, you have absolutely no business driving any car nicer than the one Columbo drove in the later seasons of that show. . .


I worry a little bit that the whole law school thing is going to his head and that he thinks he's entitled to a lifestyle he can't afford right now. This will ruin his life if he doesn't get his mindset on that right.

Also: I talked about this in my book at some length but the gist is this: A brand new car will only make you happier for about two weeks. After that, you're back to being stressed about other things in your life (like your car payment!). So please, please, please: Don't do this. Maybe your situation will change in a few years once he's out of school and working. But you are so not even close to being able to afford a new much fancier car right now. Don't do this.

Ditto, ditto, ditto.

I'm can't imagine what your husband is thinking. But try this also. List ALL your debts including the mortgage. Show him the total amount. Then sweetly say, "Honey, I don't believe getting more debt is wise. Look at how much we owe already."

If he doesn't buy that you buy a car fresher that has a new car smell and put it in his car and refuse to sign any new car loan documents.

Are there more school systems including courses in personal finance or is that just a pipe dream that they would fit it in among the core courses? And is there any hope it would be a required course? In a near "perfect" world, young people would get some info from their parents, but . . . well, the topic of Bissonnette's book may tell all. PS: Pretty hard to be better looking that my Mom at 78- and her 90 year old BF (who retired at _55_ with a well-planned retirement)

As someone who finds older ladies fatall attractive (BETTY WHITE, HAAAAAY), I empathize with your last point.

The research in general is that personal finance courses in the schools don't work as well as anyone thinks. Luckily, there are some great books on this topic. Try Andrew Tobias' The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need and Ramit Sethi's I Will Teach You to Be Rich. You could also try my own!

I have paid off my house, contribute the max to my 401(k) and have a small investment account. I am thinking that I should take out some of my savings (but keep enough for 8 months of living expenses) to make a large down payment on an investment property. Any advice?

I love real estate and own investment properties myself. The combination of ultra low interest rates, incredible prices, and a vast selection makes this, I think, sort of an ideal time to invest in real estate.


On the other hand, think about whether you really want to handle the management responsibilities. If not, you can make a good bet on the housing market by investing in one of the REIT index funds. Google "Vanguard REIT Index Fund" (I have no deal with Vanguard or anything but I do use them for my own investments)

Hi Michelle, Our church and our daughters' private school are starting capital campaigns and are recruiting us heavily. While my husband has a good salary, we will also have three kids in college over the next 5 years. Any tips for deciding what to give? The church is asking for an amount that we will give each year for the next 5 years.

I believe in giving back and my husband and I give very generoulsy. But with these types of decisions I always start with what can we afford.

Budget for charity like you do anything else. 

Based on what you need to save for your retirement, your children's college, decide what you can give. Then give that and no more. They can ask. You can decide. And no need for guilt. Give what you can afford.

Speaking of being richer than parents I have one parent that had to be put into a nursing home because of dementia. I am debating on long term care insurance. Can you answer a basic question. Is this something that you pay until you have to use or end of the life. Or is this something you pay for period of time?

you keep paying the premiums on it. It's not really worth buying into unless you have significant assets because if you don't, you can just spend them down and then Medicaid kicks in. .. If you do decide you need it, it is often good to sign up for this insurance before you're 60 though because otherwise you may have trouble qualifying/higher premiums.

Instead of using the leftover 529 funds for some purpose other than education, we are keeping it in a 529 account for the benefit of our recently-graduated daughter's children, if and when she has them. Lots of time for the money to grow, and a nice gift to both our daughter and our future grandchildren!

Good idea. Lots of people don't know that you can change the beneficiary to someone else, including yourself if you are going back to school later in years.

Before finishing graduate school and moving to DC, I had no credit card debt and about $2,500 in savings. It's been about a year since moving out, and between moving expenses & a family emergency, I currently have $2,529.69 in credit card debt, all on the same card, and my savings are down to $1,865. I pay about $100 on the card a month, more if I can, and I have stopped using it. The interest rate is rather high (20.99%) and finance charges are about $45 so I feel like I'm paying off the debt so slowly. I also put about $50 a month in savings. My question, should I use my savings and sacrifice this month so I can pay off $2,000 of the credit card debt and rebuild my savings afterward? or should I just continue chipping away at the debt so I continue to have this small emergency fund? A little more context - I'm in my mid-twenties, live on my own, my rent is about $1500 a month and I pay $410 a month in student loans. These expenses are bit over half my paycheck. Thanks for your help!

The really cool thing with the credit card debt is that you have relatively little and so the interest costs of paying it down immedately versus keeping the savings are sort of immaterial. I would keep the savings just to have  buffer and then put as much as you can toward the debt from your income.

I also have to ask: Is $1,500 a month the absolute cheapest rent you can get? Esp. with the $400 a month in student loan payments, it is a very big chunk of your income. . . can you get a roommate? Move somewhere cheaper?

Hi Michelle, I'm in good financial shape but I have a dear friend who is 35 and doesn't save. At all. (Fortunately for her, her employer automatically contributes to her 403(b) for her, but very little. She has about $20,000.) I have tried to convince her of the importance of saving to no avail. Any advice as to how I can scare her straight? I'm really worried about her future!

Yeah, not good, not good. What is she doing with her money instead?

My advice would be to try to stay positive: Talk about how much lower your stress levels are with money in savings and a solid retirement plan. That way she won't go on the defensive. You're just giving your testimony and to that I say, PREACH IT SISTA.

Agreed. The moment you start sounding superior in the money management area she might tune you out. But if you want to share her straight just have her read the Post buisness section. Plenty of stories of people struggling or getting into a financal mess because they haven't saved. 

Hi Michelle, Thank you always for your great advice. We received a notice that we could possibly get rid of our $322/monthly PMI payment if we obtain an appraisal making sure of our house's market value. I don't think that will be a problem. The other option we have is to pay $6000 to our principle now and we would then be finished with PMI without any appraisal. Or we could wait and keep plugging away and have the PMI gone in six months. So, what do you think? Is it worth us putting in the $6000 now or paying $300 for an appraisal? Thank you!

Pay the $6,000 now if you can.

Before paying the lump sum be sure of at least one thing -- that you are planning to stay in the house for at least the next several years.  The other thing to be sure of is that the $6,000 will get truly get rid of the PMI and you might not know that without an appraisal. I'm all for paying off a home as soon as you can but don't want you to deplete savings you might need or pay on the house and then you move.

My son will be doing a service year with City Year when he graduates high school. He will be working as a tutor and mentor in a DC public school. He gets a monthly stipend, which he will use to cover living expenses (we will help him with rent.) He is going to open a new bank account ( he has one with Bank of America that he has used for savings - it will remain untouched) and use direct deposit. I assume he should get a debit card, but I want to be sure he doesn't get socked with unreasonable fees for a low balance, or for accidentally trying to withdraw more than he has. Any advice for which bank to choose or what questions to ask when he opens the account? Thanks!

Go with a credit union; if you don't know of one, use

Hello, I have an IRA with Fidelity that is a managed account. Pretty much I pay a fee for them to take care of it and earn me some money. In the past 2 years, the account has grown about 24k (11.6%). The fee is percentage based. I'm getting charged about 1.3%. So right now it's about $2000/year to manage this account. What I can't tell is, is it worth it for the return I'm getting?

Actively managed funds/managed accounts are not a good plan. Switch to index funds inside target date funds and you should be able to reduce the expense ratio by about 2/3rds. In the long run, there's basically an 80% chance that indexing will beat active management.

I have been financially prudent all my life (I am 56, raised by Depression-era parents). I save a lot, never carry debt (except for car, paid off early and low mortgage). I do spend on certain trips that mean a lot to me. On the whole, this is the most productive and least stressful way to go, and I do not regret it. But .... there are costs to living like this. I watched my working-class parents save a lot of money, get too old and sick to enjoy it, and then pass on, leaving me to regret their not enjoying it more. As I said, I am 56. I just made a home improvement that I have been contemplating for 10 years, waiting until I had my emergency fund full, had the money saved up, etc. But this waiting, and waiting, I wonder if I will regret that. And another cost is falling behind in technology - I have a low cost pre-paid phone, which is great. But I fall further and further behind my friends, who can manipulate phone GPS, entertain themselves in airports, pay from phones, etc. The disparity is increasing, and so is the temptation to pay the $100+ for such a plan, not to keep up with the Joneses, but to keep on top of capabilities that seem to be required.

Darn kids! With all their fantsy pants technology. Why, back in my day, we didn't have no GPS. If you wanted to get somewhere, you used a compass!


On the other hand, it sounds like you are doing great financially and so if you feel like you need a $100+/month phone plan to stay connected with your friends, maybe it's best to just suck it up and buy it.

Sounds like you're doing great though!

Me here, penny pincher. I got an iPhone. Still frgual but enjoying Angry Birds when people are talking LOUDLY on their iPhones.

Treat yourself. It's what you want to do and you can afford to so.

She eats out constantly, travels, and buys (inexpensive) clothes. I don't think she is stressed at all, actually, which is what worries me. When I've asked what she'd do in an emergency, she's said her parents would help her...

As one of my best friends in college--who modeled himself after Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City--used to say: "Bank of Mommy and Daddy, Always Deposits, Never Withdrawals!"

Some people are beyond help but the truth is--and this is going to sound new agey--but she needs to figure out what void in her life she's filling with this stuff. . .

Zac's answer doesn't really take into account married couples where one needs LTC and the other is healthy and has years of healthy retirement left. You'd have to spend down all of the joint savings before qualifying for Medicaid, leaving the surviving spouse struggling financially. Or at least that's my understanding.

This is absolutely true. Good point. Was thinking of singles. . .

As someone in exactly the same situation (had kids in late 30's/early 40's), I warn you to be careful that you don't go so "all out" to get the mortgage paid off that you skimp on having some cash in the bank (or 529) for college. I was determined to get our mortgage paid off but finally realized that I wasn't putting enough cash money aside earmarked for college. I am adamantly opposed to taking cash out of a house to pay college bills. And you can't, for example, sell off your dining room if you need money for college expenses. So you need to have a balance. We will have my house paid off by the time my husband retires.

Good plan. My husband and I are following a similar plan. Stuffing money in college funds and making extra mortgage payments when we can.

Hi Michelle, I'm considering going back to school to pursue an MBA so I'm more marketable at the executive level. I can afford to cover the cost and maintain my frugal lifestyle without any loans if I elect to cut my 401(k) contributions from 11 percent to 2 percent (employer kicks in additional 4 percent) for two years and pay as I go. I'm 37, married to a wonderful stay at home wife and have three boys ages 9, 6 and 2 years old. The numbers for my annual salary is $145,000, 401(k) balance $250,000, $25,000 in Roth IRA, $15,000 total for 529, $20,000 in savings, a mortgage of $2,000/month and auto loan $500. No other debt.

I like your financial picture. You are the man!

I would cut the savings to 401 (k) and NOT take on any grad school debt.

I could send her my bills from a minor surgery I had. Even with great insurance, if I hadn't saved, I'd be sunk. Between the surgery (over $5,000 out of pocket and the bills are still coming in) and the physical therapy (anyone elso know that copays don't count toward your out of pocket max - I didn't - $250/month not counting to the max!), it is painful. SO glad I had some savings!

Or send the friend the link to this chat. 

Hi Michelle, Thanks for taking my question. After being grossly under-employed for two years as a result of two bouts of cancer in two years I'm finally fully employed and earning just under 10 percent less than my pre-cancer salary. During my period of underemployment I fell behind on all types of bills. Nearly all went to collections. Since becoming fully employed three months ago I've repaid all the accounts in collections and one of the two credit cards in default. Last week I began a payment plan with the second company to pay back what I owe. FWIW, my pride wants to pay back the balance because the debt is mine. However, what I don't know is how does accepting settlement offer affect my financial future. If I accept the offer and get the debt off my books earlier versus taking longer and paying them in full how will that impact me when I go to pruchase a home in a couple of years? What will my credit report say? Thank you again for all your advice over the years.

So sorry to hear about this but glad things are looking up. You need to get them to agree to report the account as paid in full to the credit bureaus. Otherwise, the settlement will impact your credit score.


On the other hand: If you fell behind on all kinds of bills, your credit score probably took a big hit and trying to purchases a home in the next two years may be a bridge too far. . .

Dear Michelle, I am considering taking a new job that would include a pay cut of about $15,000 (from low $80,000 to about $70,000). My only debt is my mortgage, and I would still be able to make my payment. My lifestyle is fairly frugal, so if I made the change, I would save less. I have a healthy emergency fund, I'm currently maxing out my 401(k) and a Roth IRA, and invest a little extra on the side. I know that I could live with a lower salary, but I enjoy having a cushion and seeing my savings grow rapidly. I don't love the future I have at my current job, and the new job would have nice benefits for family life (on-site daycare). I'm hoping to have a baby within the next 18 months or so. What do you think? I want the new job, but I guess I also want to hear you say that it's ok to save less.

What the research shows is that career satisfaction is the number one predictor of life satisfaction: If you don't like your job, you are unlikely to like your life. So to that I say, switch to the slightly lower paying job that makes you happier. It'll probably make you a cooler mom!

The other reason I say this is that $70k/year is still a very, very solid income and not one that should leave you scraping by. If you were talking about a pay cut from $45k to $23k, it would be very, very hard to say "Go for it!" But if you can live on 80k you can live on 70k. You may also find that your increased happiness at work will decrease your need to seek fulfillment by buying other stuff. :)



It's okay to save less. It's definitely okay to want to go to work everyday because you enjoy your job. Sounds like you've weighed the pros and cons and you aren't making a rash decision. I love my job and when I don't I'll be looking to do something else even if the pay is less because like you I know how to live within my means.

Thanks so much. My question: My stepson just graduated from college. He has a job lined up and is extremely bright and responsible. However, he hasn't had the best role models when it comes to money. As his graduation gift, I'd like to give him a "starter's lesson" or short series of lessons with a financial counselor so he starts off on the right foot. Is there a standard type of product that we could look into, ideally with a pay by the hour advisor rather than someone with nothing more than a standardized sales pitch to offer? Thank you!


I think, frankly, that a book will be better. For a new college grad, much of the stuff a financial planner will tell him will be dry and inapplicable. . . Does your 22 year old really want to listen to a balding man in a sweater vest lecture him about term life insurance?

The thing I would recommend if you like the idea of something more structured than a book is Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace class. Google "Financial Peace University" to find one in your area.

Or get him Zac's book. He didn't push his own book but I will. It's great and your stepson won't be bored because Zax still has his hair.

So, on one hand, we are blessed: At least three parties (in addition to my husband and me) have started 529s for my 9-year-old stepson and my almost 2-year-old son. On the other hand, though: None of these parties will actually tell us what's in the 529s. We got the initial documentation and that's it. We've tried politely asking and have gotten no good response. (These three parties aren't even related--they're my late mother's widower, my husband's father and stepmother, and my uncle on my father's side--so it's not a weird family silence about money.) We would like to plan so we're not surprised in 7-8 years when it comes time for my stepson to be filling out his FAFSA. Is there anything we can do besides assume there's nothing in any of these 529 accounts, hope we can save enough, and be pleasantly surprised by any amount there turns out to be?

This made me laugh. Can you try explaining to these people that it really messes up your financial planning to have no idea what's in the accounts?

Try talking to them again. Explain it will help in your planning. If you still get no info, save, save, save because you are right you won't want to do very little and realize there isn't much money in the accounts.

What motivated you to write your book? And do you think the youth of today will listen to the advice when there is so much temptation to live above your means?

I think I'd have to be incredibly naive to think that everyone who reads my book will be inspired to change their lives by it.

I think it's probaby like any other normal distribution: A bunch of people will pick up nothing from it, many will pick up a few nuggets, and a few will really make vast improvements in their lives. . .

What motivated me to write it? Watching my parents struggle and never be able to have the life they deserved because of financial strain.

Hi Michelle, I know you take a lot of questions about getting a credit card to build your credit score and wanted to include my input. My advice? Fine, have one (you need one to rent a car for instance), but leave it out of your wallet. While I haven't gotten into any real trouble (paid off in full every month), I've spent much more with that option than with just a debit card.

You actually can rent a car with a debit card; they put a hold on your account for like $500 plus the cost of the rental. . .

My take has always been that if you don't have enough cash to cover a $500 hold for a few days, you really shouldn't rent a car. . . walk!

Hello again. These savings are not in a 529, but in CD's under our names. My daughter is engaged, and looking to get married next summer to her equally frugal fiance. She is a kindergarten teacher, and has been talking about grad school to raise her income.

Sounds like it would be a great gift to use the money to help with the wedding. 

My fiance and I are in the midst of planning our wedding and preparing for our life together. I have read a lot of personal finance books, websites and articles over the years but am still a little stumped about how to start combining our finances. In particular, how do we figure out a budget together? Do we need to just start living together and see how much we are spending? I track my spending currently; my fiance does not.

this is my favorite  book on this topic:


And it's on sale!

That is a good book. 

I don't know where to start but will try to be brief. My spouse of 25+ years has never made that much money and never been a saver. I've been fortunate to be the major bread-winner but for the past eight years have been dipping into funds that I hoped to have for college and also retirement just to keep ahead of the bills and put the kids through college. I do have a 401 (k) w/$325,000 in it but husband only has about $7,000 saved of which I invested $25000 one year to help our tax situation. He complains that we haven't taken a "real" vacation in a few years but I'm content to stay home or do staycations and am really starting to resent his lack of provding more than 25 percent for his family and also putting pressure on me to deal with emergencies and give him money when he can't pay his share of the utilities. I pay everything else (mortgage, college, gifts to relatives, Christmas, etc.) He thinks a vacation would be an investment in our marriage/relationship. I think he's selfish and stuck on instant gratification but that's another story. I'm thinking of selling the house, he'll take half so then I can watch him try to survive on his own. I just don't feel I should have to uproot myself and the kids but I am really resentful of him. I'm 12-15 years away from social security retirement. All he can talk about is wanting to retire in five years when he's 61 but I have no idea how he plans to do that.

I'm so sorry you are having so much strife about money. But maybe it's time you see a counselor to get at why your husband doesn't save. What makes him so selfish and clueless about your stress. And you can also examine your feelings about carrying so much of the financial weight. I just think if you both thought all the money coming in belonging to both you you and all the bills are both of yours you wouldn't see it as you carrying more of the load than you should. I think you have more issues than the money.


I know all of the financial advice says to keep investing even when the market is down, but how do you know that you're going to make it up someday? I have an IRA and 401(k), both in index funds supported by Vanguard, and even though I keep putting money in, my account balance continues to go down due to losses (consistently over the past 3 years). Am I doing something wrong? Should I keep putting money in these funds?

Well the S&P 500 is up a lot over the past three years ( . .


So if your indexing your accounts should be growing in value. . . are you sure about this?

What a great chat and guest. I'm such a fan of Zac. He's so financially wise to be so young. Reminds me of me :) 

Thank you all for joining me today.

Remember be financially safe. Til next time.

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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