Asking For Help During The Holidays

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Christmas this year comes as many Americans are unemployed, broke and behind on their mortgages. Our personal finance contributor has advice on how to ask for assistance if you're in financial trouble during the holiday season.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is Day to Day. Christmas is just two days off, and maybe you don't feel so jolly given the economy. Well, here to help you to find a little joy is Day to Day's personal-finance contributor, Michelle Singletary. I should say, the always-cheerful personal-finance contributor, Michelle Singletary. She's always cheerful.

MICHELLE SINGLETARY: That's right. It's a good time to be cheerful. I'm alive. I have a little money in the bank.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: That's a good starting point, at least. So, you have a little money, and maybe not as much as you've had in the past. How do you budget and not feel depressed about not having so much?

SINGLETARY: You know, it's interesting. I think the reason why people feel depressed and they don't want to budget is because they have the sense of entitlement. There's so much that they want that whatever they have doesn't seem to be enough. The way I do it, and the way I keep perspective given the recession, is to have, you know, life goals, life financial goals. What is that that you want out of life? To send your kids to college? You know, eventually buy a house, or if the house you have, to pay it off before you retire? And then when you have goals, you have perspective, and then you have something to budget for. And if that's the case, you don't feel so constrained by a budget because there is something that you're achieving or you're trying to achieve.

BRAND: So, does that purpose include buying gifts?

SINGLETARY: If you have lost a job, this has got to be one of those Christmases where it truly is the thought that counts. Honestly, there isn't anything any of us need, most of us. Now, I'm not talking about people living in abject poverty, but you know, middle class and upper-middle class, there isn't anything that I need or most of the people listening need.

BRAND: Well, let's say, you know, you're in pretty dire circumstances and you really do need to ask for help, either from members of your family or from a government agency or a nonprofit. Do you have any advice on how to do that and how to do that in a way that you don't feel too depressed about having to do?

BRAND: That's right. There is no shame in asking for help, either from government services or for your family. But when you do, there is a right way to do it. You ought to have a plan. Now, if you are asking for help and there is no way you can pay this money back in the foreseeable future, say that. Say, I need help and I just really don't think I can pay this bank anytime soon. If you're honest with people like that, they appreciate that. Now, if you do see that you can pay it back, say, listen, I can give this back to you in six months when I get back on my feet, when I get my hours back, when I get a new job. Here's how I'm going to pay you back. And then have a plan that you present to them.

BRAND: OK. So, what if you want to seek professional help in terms of counseling and you really can't afford it, you don't have the benefits, what do you recommend?

SINGLETARY: Well, first of all I think a lot of people have benefits that they don't realize that they have. If you've been laid-off, employers are required by law to offer health coverage up to 18 months, or a little longer, through COBRA. And many health plans have a behavioral-health section or benefit. And so, before your benefits run out, I would call them and many of them have, you know, initial counseling sessions that you can utilize. If you don't have health benefits, you know, there are a lot of resources in the community. Call your local social-services office to see if there's some free counseling that you can take advantage of. And listen, if you're in dire straits, and even if you can't get anything through the government, call a counselor in your community and just say, you know what? I really need help. I don't have the money, but can we work out a payment plan? Because I need to be sure to get through this crisis without losing my mind.

BRAND: Michelle Singletary is the personal-finance columnist for the Washington Post, where she writes "The Color of Money" column. She's also our personal-finance contributor. Michelle, thank you.

SINGLETARY: You're welcome.

BRAND: And stay tuned. A little later in the program, we'll hear from a psychologist who's got a very different view of spending during the holidays. She says it's good for you to spend money.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Day to Day returns in a moment.

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