Color of Money Live

Oct 13, 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, October 13 at 12 p.m. ET.

Thanks for joining me today. 

So much news going on. President Obama's job packaged voted down. Realty Trac just reported the number of homes going into foreclosure increased. Hedge fund founder gets a guilty verdict. Lots going on in the finance world.

Anyway, let's get started.

How many people know a good credit union can do this for free? How much of a problem is it for the average person to join a credit union?

Here are some sites to search if you want to search for a better banking relationship

And for credit unions 

Since I have an ING Savings Account, I was able to open a checking account very quickly. I just transferred money from the saving account. I have received the free debit card with a Mastercard logo and 50 checks for $5.00. If you're ok with online banking - this may be for you...visit to learn more.

Good place to check.

How can I better educate myself about the process of buying a house? First time buyer here. I would even be interested in a short sale or foreclosure, for the right amount.

Good question. If I were you I would find a really good housing program at a HUD-aprroved housing group. Many have first-time home buyer programs that will walk you thu the process. Start there even before you start thinking about buying a home in a short sale or foreclosure, which could come with a lot of issues.

I'm very fortunate - my parents have recently come into some money and have agreed to pay off my grad school student loans in full (about $50,000 left, divided between Citibank and Sallie Mae). What's the best way to go about this? If they give the money to me and then I pay it, won't that incur a gift tax? Would it be better for them to pay Citi/Sallie directly, and if so, can I just substitute their checking account info for mine on my online payment account? Anything else we should be aware of? Thanks for your help.

You are right that the gift tax is owed by the donor. For 2011, the annual gift tax limit is $13,000. 

You should have your parents check with their tax professional about how best to give you the money.

You wouldn't want them to get into tax trouble by trying to hide the fact that they are giving you $50,000, would you?


I want to switch banks and am considering ING. Should I be wary of transferring my savings out of a brick-and-mortar bank and into an internet bank?

As long at the internet bank is FDIC insured you should be fine.

You need to just consider what services you need and whether a bank without wall best suits your needs. It may. For example, if you go to the ATM a lot that could cost you. 

We are fortunate enough to have the money to send our son to college (although that will mean forgoing other things, such as "bucket list" travel). The problem is that he has ADD and other issues, and cannot seem to get it together in school. His SATs are quite high, so he will get in somewhere. But his GPA is low and even as a senior, he has not gotten it together to put his studies before fooling around. I saw your reference to college grads not finding employment. This makes me even more worried that I will just be throwing money away. But what are the options for kids who don't go to college? And please don't say the military!

I think you should do some research and find out if there are  find some colleges that cater to students with special needs. I have a special needs son and I'm already starting to do the same research. Perhaps you could have your son attend a community college and stay at home where you can help him with his focus and organization issues. 

As what other options are there other than college? There are a lot. Perhaps your son may be good at a trade. Then check out schools for that. Talk to the high school counselor or a career counselor at a local college or community college. 

Here's a link to an WSJ article that may help start you on your research


My husband and I had our first big fight about money last night -- mostly it was just him telling me I am unreasonably stressed out about the amount of debt we are in. It's true that the stress isn't going to help anything, I know that. I have $17,000 left from undergrad, $50,000 from grad schoo. We have already paid off $3,000 of that while in the 6-month grace period, and plan to put in another $3,000 before repayment starts to get rid of a high-interest loan ASAP. We also have $6,000 on his car that he bought before we were married. With the exception of the high interest loan that will be paid off within the next couple of months, the interest rates all range from 6.2 percent to 6.8 percent. We are accruing more than $300 a month in interest alone. I have a well-paying job and everyone seems to expect us to be comfortable financially now that I am done with school, but all I can think is that I can't even buy shoes for work while we're in this much debt, and you can forget about saving for a house. Please help! I feel like this monkey will never be off our backs.



Then start planning.

I would be freaked out too, honestly.

But you can handle this with a plan. And you could still buy some shoes for work.

Do a spread sheet with your husband on how you are going to apply extra money to pay downt the debts. Then incorporate that into your monthly budget. And in the budget you can have some fun money --not a lot-- but some.

I wouldn't be taking vacations anytime soon or even thinking about buying a home. No big buys or purchases or expenditures.

Just until you get the debt paid off. 

Keep in mind the gift tax exemption is per person--since the poster indicated his or her "parents" (plural) were giving the money, they can give $26,000. If the poster is married, the spouse can also receive $26,000.

Right you are. So the parents could give the son $26,000 this year and the $24,000 next year for the student loans.

Michelle, My husband and I are sellling our home in the spring and (happily) will net about $100,000. Our other debts include substantial student loans and our car loan. My question is do we pay off the whole student loan and leave some of the car loan or the whole car loan and part of the student loan? Month to month we would have more cash in our pocket by eliminating the car note since it's a shorter term but I was hoping to hear your thoughts. (We'll be paying down the debts either way and cannot wait!) Thanks!

As long as you have a saving cushion, I would pay off all the debt -- car and student loans. 

ALL of it!

Why hold back?

Then to build your savings back up, keep making those loan payment and car payments to yourself. You are already used to paying out that money so now capture it in your savings. 

I have an ING savings account. My only complaint is that it takes about 4 days to transfer money out of it. I direct deposit into it, which happens quickly, but if I need to transfer to or from my checking, which is with a credit union, I have to plan ahead. Since my savings have generally not been something I use to fund my life, that's been OK so far. However you want to think about how you use your bank. I have no experience with ING checking, so I can't comment there.

Thanks for the caveat.

Try the community college system  in Virginia and Maryland. They are excellent and provide a more hands-on, less of the mass lecture hall system. You won't waste tens of thousands on traditional college, but it'll give the student a taste of what college can be.


I live in Loudoun County and currently work in Arlington County. I have been in my home for more than 10 years and have less than 10 years left in my mortgage. I like knowing that once I finish paying off my mortgage, I can take those monthly payments and put the money into savings and finally start building the nest egg for retirement. But, with the current 25 mile commute, moving closer to work is an option. Cost of housing in Fairfax and Arlington County is more expensive which will mean going back to a 30 year mortgage. Moving would save me plenty of time and also save money on gas and car repairs, but the tradeoff is a much longer time until I can pay off the mortgage. How do I determine if the short term savings outway my long term ability to save. I used to work much closer to home, but there is no guarantee I will be able to find a job closer to home any time soon.

Do the math. 

Is the savings in gas/car expenses, etc.  worth another 3o years in interest payments.

Then deecide if  the commute is so horrible that you have to move. 

Sometimes the math doesn't work but you value your peace of mind more.

For the parent worried about throwing money away on her son's education because of his poor school performance, what about technical school? Is there something technical that you could pay for him to learn that he would enjoy and be hands-on (which helps people with ADD) and allow him to get a job in that field once completed? Maybe hold the money for him, let him start working and doing other things to get a feel for what he actually wants to do with his life because most likely he has no clue at 18 or 19 years old. My husband got a degree in Anthropologie that he never uses, but it did enable him to go back and get a masters in the field where he now has a job that he loves and pays well but it took him almost 10 years and a lot of frustration after college (and some low-paying jobs) to figure it out.

I believe I recommended this as well, but good advice is worth repeating.

I also like the idea of having your son work for awhile to see what he likes. I am not one of those people who think your child has to immediately go to college. 

The point is your son does have some options. You just have to so some work to figure out what's best for him. 

Michelle, I'm hoping you can weigh in with a tie-breaker here. We are paying down our credit card debt and recently transferred a balance to a 0% (no transfer fee, too) card for a year and have another card with a balance and a 9.9% IR. If we put the majority of our snowball towards the card with the 9.9 IR we can get it paid off in approximately 2 months. One of us wants to do that and the other thinks the minimum should be paid on the card with the unchanging IR and the majority of the snowball should go to the card that will go from 0 to 10.9 in a year (with all the interest that was accumulated over that time due as well). What do you think? Thanks!

I ignore rates and concentrate on the debt with the lowest balance. And it sounds like it's the debt on the card with 9.9% since you can pay it off in two months. If you can pay off a debt in two months, do it. Then aggressively attack the balance on the other card.

I am currently a graduate student with $17,000 in Stafford Loans and expect to gain an additional $28,000 over the course of the next year. Would you recommend beginning to pay the loans down now or set money aside and begin paying upon graduation?

I would recommend NOT taking on more loans. But since you probably won't listen to me on that point, I would try to pay on any unsubsidized Stafford loans since the interest is piling on. But if you have money to pay on the loans now, could you us that money to reduce the amount you have to borrow?

I have an online savings account and brick & mortar checking/savings. I keep the brick balance where I don't have to pay fees and throw any amount above that minimum to the online savings. I look at it this way: online = long-range. Brick = short range. I don't mind that the online savings may take several days to transfer back to me and I just let it sit and grow (albeit s l o w l y), but I want to be able to walk into a branch and pull out several thousand dollars if there's a family emergency.

Good tip.

I have multiple banking relationships as well. Each to suit my particular banking needs.

Re, the Wall Street protests: Sorry to say but I don't think anything will change unless we change the way elections are financed. We will continue to live in an oligarchy.

I hear you!

Just a quick vent: People who work hard are also penalized for choices. I chose no debt, a job that I don't love but takes care of needs and some wants while using personal time for my "passions" and outside work/income, I pay my taxes, live below my means, and I am beginning to feel a bit resentful of people who want everything just handed to them. It is not the responsibility of companies nor government to "provide" jobs to people. It is each person's individual responsibility to hone skills that are in demand. Sorry if that means you can't borrow $100,000 for an education in something you "love" but which has no job prospects. Sorry if that means that, as an adult, you need to take responsibility when you sign for things, borrow/use credit, buy a home, etc. Why is this so hard for people to understand? I don't believe it is your parents', your government's, nor your employer's responsibility to give you the life you want or ensure a secure retirement. It really is up to each individual. I chose to go without a lot of things I want, and I could buy them if I lived irresponsibly - like the woman at my church on welfare who buys new games for her Wii all the time. But, I chose to save, and it stinks to realize I am subsidizing the bad choices of others. People are given breaks for bad choices all the time - while people who are responsible end up paying for it. So, maybe this Occupy Wall Street movement should not be about the 99% but rather the 53% who pay taxes.


Feel better now?

You are right.

You are wrong.

Look why do you feel penalized? When you do all the right things you are reward by NOT having the drama and pain when you don't do the right things. So you are better off.

You are better off than the woman with the wii games. Don't you see that?

I think we have to have a safety net for people who don't do the right thing and for people who through not fault of their own fall on hard times. 

It's in all our best interest to have everyone working toward helping people become better employed and have basic needs met.

It really jumped out at me that the writer said he/she was going to "start" buildling a nest egg for retirement when the mortgage is paid off in 10 years. That is much too late! The time to start saving is as soon as you have your first job, if not earlier. Unless I am misreading something or the person has a pension or the like that was not mentioned, I would absolutely prioritize retirement over paying off the mortgage quickly or moving.

Thanks. I should have addressed that.

I agree that you shouldn't put yourself in the position of being house rich and cash poor. Meaning you have a paid for house but no savings. Perhaps the person doesn have a pension. 

But if not, you should start saving for retirement now.

This is about kids with not the best grades, not specifically about ADD and such, but it may still be useful:


Love all the help today. 

Truly a community effort!

Thanks for your advice. I have money in my savings to pay the current balance of my unsubsidized stafford student loans, however doing so would wipe-out my current savings. Do you think I should go ahead and may the loans or wait?

If you are going to have to finish school and that means taking out more loans then use the savings to avoid taking out any more loans. Hold back some for emergency but use the money to avoid further loans.


Husband and I are both over 60, and decided this year to start withdrawing from our 401 (k) plan. We can adjust the withdrawal amount just once a year, in December. With the decline in the market, would you suggest we adjust the withdrawal amount downward, and start using some of our emergency cash, or keep the withdrawal steady, and hope the market will improve over the next year? We were taking less than 4% of our total, but with the decline in the market, it would be about 6% now, if we keep the dollar amount steady.

I would recommend you sit down with a financial adviser and figure out how best to take your retirement money. There is so much to consider that I wouldn't want to try to give you that kind of advice here. You should have a master plan, one that looks at both short term and long term issues.

I'll preface this question by saying that I am really fortunate - I know and appreciate it. I've been able to save about 50 percent of my gross income in a savings account (so, about 9-11 months of living expenses). I can save about $1000+ a month and want to start investing, but have no idea where to start. Are there any good resources for a newbie investor to figure out how to get started? Thanks!

You are a perfect candidate to make an apt. with a financial adviser. Let someone help you come up with an overall investment strategy.

My husband and I are closing on our first house next week. To educate ourselves we did a few things. First of all I checked a lot of books on mortgages out of the library. It was great to read through everything they provided. Second we did a lot of market research via the website, We just spent a lot of time looking at what cost what in different neighborhoods. Third we worked with a realtor that my parents and many of our acquaintances had worked with who was willing to show us flaws in a house we may not have noticed and be very patient. He'd worked for a builder and been in the industry for 40 years so he knew so much! No class could have replaced items 2 and 3, although a class could easily replace the reading. But hey, the books were from the library so it didn't cost me a thing!

Great plan. Great advice.


It's that time.

So sorry if I didn't get to your question.

Thanks for all who joined me today.

I'll be back on Oct. 27 with by book club chat. Please join me. We will be talking about finding the work you love.

Take care.

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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