MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Back now with DAY TO DAY. As we heard earlier, both houses of Congress have passed the economic stimulus plan and President Bush says he'll sign it tomorrow. That will give tax rebate checks to millions of Americans. The checks start at $300; couples can get up to $1,200, plus $300 more for each child. The government wants us to spend that money to stimulate the economy, so I asked our personal finance expert, Michelle Singletary, what is the first thing people should do with this extra money?
MICHELLE SINGLETARY: You know, actually, I want to start with the last thing people did when we got a rebate back in 2001, people did what Congress and the president wanted them to do; they spent it. But this time around, you know, the economy is having lots of trouble, many people are having trouble paying their mortgages and credit card debt, so you really want to apply this money to debt.
Now, I know people are thinking, you know, you're crazy, I want to spend it, I want to help the macro economy. But you better help your micro economy. Get your own house in order. And I know that this is advice that people hear time and time again and it just washes over them, but I cannot stress enough how important it is that if you get this windfall, that you need to apply it to some consumer debt.
BRAND: Well, if you do indeed apply it to consumer debt and it goes to the credit card companies, would that also do the same thing? Would it also stimulate the economy because it's actually not going into a saving plan, but it's going to a company?
SINGLETARY: It's a possibility. I mean, the jury is out in terms of how helpful this plan is going to be in terms of giving people direct cash. For me, since I'm the personal finance person, I want people to just focus on their household and leave that macro stuff to the brainiacs. You need to look at this as an opportunity to perhaps get yourself out of debt or, in fact, save money you haven't been able to find to save in this tough economy. I always tell people the president of the United States has his house paid for, so you need to not listen to him when he says go out and spend. You can finally open up that retirement account that you've been promising to have for your retirement for ages and you just couldn't find the money.
And here's the thing. With the retirement account, you still have until April 15th to open up an IRA account.
BRAND: Michelle, is there a way to do both? Can you look after your own house while also taking care of the bigger house, the economy?
SINGLETARY: If you are not drowning in debt, if you have already set up your retirement account and you've been eyeing something you haven't had the money saved up for, like a big screen TV or that vacation that you've been putting off, certainly this may be the time to do that. This is a windfall and you can take advantage of that. But that's one category of folks, that things are set in place.
BRAND: Thanks, Michelle.
SINGLETARY: You're welcome.
BRAND: That's Michelle Singletary, our regular expert on personal finance. She writes the nationally syndicated column "The Color of Money." And to hear more from Michelle, check out her NPR podcast. Go online at NPR.org/colorofmoney. That's all one word. And if you have a question for Michelle, you can write to us. Go to our web site again, NPR.org, click on the contact us link; that's on the top of every page, and be sure to put Michelle in your subject line.