Web Extra: How personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary inspired one family’s debt journey

Feather today’s main eventIn The Washington Post, On Point spoke with the wonderful Michelle Singletary, a nationally syndicated personal finance columnist. His column, The Color of Money, is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Meghna Chakraborty: Last quarter we talked a lot about what Michelle learned about Americans and their money. And we also talked about his personal finance ministry. The multitalented singleton doesn’t just recommend money in its column. She preaches it from the pulpit of First Baptist Church in Glenardon, Maryland.

Michelle Singletary [Archival Tape]: I don’t want you to think that I say, don’t mortgage, I’m not saying this, because most of us can’t afford to get our house without mortgage. And I’m also not saying, don’t take out a car loan, although you know you can pay cash for your car, don’t you know? They will take cash. They will be. Because we should not get loan for cars. You can save for your car. I see you don’t understand me on this. but you can.

Because here’s an idea my grandmother told me. When you get a car loan, you only get one. Then when you get that one, when you pay that one, you take the payments you weren’t paying on it, you pay it yourself. So then when you need a car, add another 10 or 12 years or 15 years that my husband and I own a car, then you’ll have money for the car.

Chakraborty: But you know, a woman can campaign. But does the congregation listen? Well, Jennifer and Tyrone Harris are also members of Michelle’s church. he’s a teacher. She works for the federal government, and has two sons. He also had a debt of $230,000.

Jennifer Harris: We also had car notes, but most of it was student loans. It was a bachelor’s degree for both of us, as well as a bachelor’s. And it all came to $228,000.

Tyrone Harris: I didn’t believe we’d ever be able to climb that mountain of $228,000 in debt. I felt like it was going to be part of our family, it was going to be with us on family vacations. It was going to be with us moving to a new house. You know, it was going to happen to us at our funeral.

Chakraborty: Inaccessible. This is how Tyrone felt about the debt. But month after month, Jennifer would come home from Michelle’s classes and talk about all the things she learned, the things she could do to reduce that debt. But for Tyrone, a teacher, there were some things he was very reluctant to give up.

Tyrone Harris: Being a teacher, and also for my wife, one of the things that was really hard for me was that both of our sons were in private school at the time. And that was a key area that he felt that if we remove that, we’ll have a better opportunity to get out of this debt. So it was a really difficult decision. It was something that both of us were really nervous about. This is the one we went back and forth with. Because as every parent, you want the best for your child. And they are thriving in their private school. This is probably our biggest decision.

Chakraborty: Now, when things move from the abstract to the concrete, it becomes easier mentally to face them. They take shape. You can see more clearly how to overcome this. Jennifer says it all came to mind for her when she put pen to paper, or actually fingers on the keyboard in Excel, and documented all of her expenses.

Jennifer Harris: We literally listed everything and really made a budget and stick to it. There was a line item for everything, even entertainment and food and gas. Every little expense, every dollar we brought in, we made sure it was accounted for. It made some sense for us. So that we can organize ourselves and make sure we are on the right track.

Tyrone Harris: And she’ll say, hey, if we keep this momentum going in three months, how much is it going to be outstanding. You actually saw a reduction in the amount that we were owed. And it really makes you want to work even harder, well, where else can we take our belts? Can we accomplish this in four months instead of five?

Chakraborty: At the beginning of his journey, Tyrone wondered whether the radical belt tightening would mean that he would not enjoy life the way he once enjoyed it. So how is he feeling now?

Tyrone Harris: I mean, life isn’t sad. I’m definitely in a better place mentally knowing we can sleep and not worry so much about finances. It has also blessed us to be able to help other family members because we have the resources to support other people who may need additional help. Our kids are doing great. They are still learning and moving forward. And so it was just four years, of bucking up and staying true to the process and just keeping up.

Chakraborty: So as you can see, he had to work hard, stay focused and disciplined and never give up on his goals. But four years later Jennifer and Tyrone did it. He paid off his $230,000 in debt in full. Now does this seem like an impossible dream to you? Well, you can ask Michelle Singletari herself about it. She set up a number where you can leave her your personal finance questions. It’s 1-855-Ask-Post.

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