REBECCA ROBERTS, host
Coming out of the holidays in an economy that can hardly be called a boom, a lot of us could use some help getting a better grip on our finances. That's what drives Michelle Singletary. Her personal finance column, "The Color of Money," is carried in more than 100 newspapers across the country. She's the author of two best-selling books on personal finance, and her latest book is called "The Power to Prosper: 21 Days to Financial Freedom."
In it, she lays out what she calls a financial fast. She joins us in just a moment. But first, we want to invite you to join us as well. If you want to try a financial fast and have questions about how, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255, or you can send us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michelle Singletary joins us now in Studio 3A. Welcome to the program.
Ms. MICHELLE SINGLETARY (Author, "The Power to Prosper: 21 Days to Financial Freedom"): Thank you. My pleasure.
ROBERTS: Let's jump right in. What is a financial fast?
Ms. SINGLETARY: Well, it's a time where you spend - in this case - 21 days, and you can't buy anything that is not a necessity. So that pretty much limits it to about food and medicine. You can't use your credit card for 21 days, and you also can't use your debit card. So no plastic for 21 days.
ROBERTS: Now considering a debit card is cash, why not?
Ms. SINGLETARY: That's interesting you should say that, because a debit card is not the same as cash. Lots of folks think it is. But those people who are constantly getting those $35 insufficient fund fees know that it's not. And I work a lot with individuals one-on-one, and I see their bank statements. And I see all of these charges from the debit cards, where they have gone over.
And so people are swiping their debit card just like they do their credit card, and they're getting in trouble. And they find themselves, during the month, cash poor because they don't keep track.
And so what I want you to do for one - for three weeks, 21 days, is just limit yourself to cash so that you can get that feeling, that sensation of actually spending real money.
ROBERTS: Now, does that include paying cash for your utility bills?
Ms. SINGLETARY: Well, you can still - if you've got it set up online, like my husband and I do, you can still do those kinds of things. I'm talking more about everyday consumption. So, someone asked me, well can - should I cancel my subscription to the newspaper? Absolutely not. I still need a job.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SINGLETARY: So you're not going to cancel your subscription. You're not going to not pay your rent. I don't want you to get kicked to the curb. You know, those big things you want to keep in place, but you do want to look at your consumption. You can't go to the movies. You can't eat out. You know, none of the luxuries and the, you know, the Starbucks and the going by and getting your breakfast and lunch at work, and things like that.
We're going to shut all that down for 21 days, three weeks, and take out that plastic from your wallet. And I'm telling you, your life can change. I mean, people have been just transformed when they realize how much they spend, how much time they spend even thinking about consumption.
ROBERT: Well, in that vein, you say no window shopping. No window shopping?
Ms. SINGLETARY: No window shopping. I think of it as like - now, excuse this example. It's a little extreme. But as an alcoholic, don't go to the bar, you know? And if you're a shopaholic, don't go to the mall. I mean, I want to remove you from that sensation because, listen, it is very hard to resist that temptation when you get into the mall. There are the lights and the smells and everything, and it's just all developed so that you can spend. So in fact, if a mall is on your normal commute, I say find a different route so that you're not even tempted to go in there.
ROBERTS: Now, in addition to just proving to yourself you have the discipline to do this, what does a financial fast accomplish?
Ms. SINGLETARY: You know, what it does is that it makes people really, really deep down think about how they're spending their money. And listen, this fast isn't about getting more stuff. It's not like at the end of it, you'll have more money to buy that big-screen TV. What I'm trying to do is get you to really focus on your financial values. I have so many people say, I want to send my kid to college, and yet they don't have a dollar saved for that child.
And yet that child has PlayStations and games and sneakers, and closets full of clothes and toy bins overflowing with toys. And you know, there are people who want to tithe to their church or give during this disastrous time in Haiti, but they don't have the money to do that.
And so what I'm trying to do is put you in a position that you can put your money where your values are, because many people aren't doing that. You want to know what your values are, open up your checkbook, look at your MasterCard statement, and you'll see where your values are. Is it really eating out? Because that's what most people are doing.
ROBERTS: And why 21 days? Where did that number come from?
Ms. SINGLETARY: You know, I developed this in my church. I belong to a church in Prince George's County. And I do what's called the Daniel Fast, where you fast and you just eat fruits and vegetables and meat - I'm on that right now. Love a hamburger right now. But also, you know, people have studied this and realized that it takes about 21 days for you to change a bad habit. It's -there's something about that length of time that really sort of gets into your psyche. And it's just enough time for you to change, and not so much time that you kind of go a little crazy.
ROBERTS: You mentioned that this plan came out of working in your church, and the book "Power to Prosper" does include Bible verses and suggestions with a religious connection. Why was that important to you?
Ms. SINGLETARY: Well, you know, I wanted to give people something else to hold onto. A lot of times, we can't change because we have no inspiration. It's just us and the world telling us to still spend. And what I found - and I tried to carefully pick these verses so that it's not offensive to anyone. I mean, even if you're not a very religious person, you can still follow this fast and get them because the verses are very common sense.
You know, one of them is from Proverbs, which says: The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender. And what does that mean? That means that when you're in debt, you are in bondage. And people who are listening right now who have credit card debt and student loan debt and medical debt and all kinds of debt, they know. They feel it. They feel it on their shoulders. They feel this bondage. And I tried to pick scriptures that will give you inspiration to get out of that bondage, to get you out of that position of being a slave.
ROBERTS: Do you think the advice works, removed from that context?
Ms. SINGLETARY: You know, it doesn't for me. You know, there's lots of plans out there, and lots of people have tried these plans and failed. I have found this to be extremely successful. I've done this for years through my church. This is a test, a proven fast. This is not something I just dreamed up. You know, I've been doing it for several years, and I have found that people have changed their lives. You know, single mothers, for the first time paying off credit card debt. Couples, you know, sticking together. You know, normally, couples are fighting about money. When they do this fast together, they're now on the same page. So I know it works.
ROBERTS: We have an email that says: I don't understand why you can't go to the movies. What if you pay cash and it's part of your budget?
Ms. SINGLETARY: Because I want you to stop consuming. I want you to stop - saving money. And it's interesting, people who have that entertainment as part of their budget and still have debt, I want you to shut this stuff down and concentrate on your debt. And instead of paying for stuff, I want you to also see how much money you have available to apply to your debt. Because when you stop spending for 21 days - I mean, the unnecessary spending - and then you look back months past where you've had all this money, you think, you know what? I do have enough money to attack this debt. You know what? I do have enough money to put in my kids' college fund if I stop eating out so much, if I - you know, maybe go to the movies once a month or every couple of months, or, you know, just stay at home and watch the movies that you have.
ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Lindsey(ph) in Denver, Colorado. Lindsey, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
LINDSEY (Caller): Thanks for taking my call. My question is about how you start. We've talked about going all cash just to kind of keep an eye on things, but it's difficult to do once you're already using the credit card. And we don't run a balance every month, but we're using the cash kind of after we've already spent it. And so I'm just wondering how your expert recommends getting started if you're already using the credit card.
Ms. SINGLETARY: You know, that's a great question. Take the credit - where is the credit card right now, Lindsey?
LINDSEY: It's in my wallet.
Ms. SINGLETARY: Yeah, yeah. Take it out.
Ms. SINGLETARY: Yes. See how that hesitation - you're like, whoa. What am I going to do? Oh, my Lord, you know? Oh, how can I not have a credit card, you know?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SINGLETARY: If you've got the cash, then you've got that emergency, you've got that backup. You see how tied we are to that plastic, that you can't - for that moment of hesitation, you're thinking, this woman is crazy. So listen, get this book because every day, I give you a way to do what you want to do. And so with this book, you read just one chapter a day, and there are tasks at the end of every chapter. And one of it is you got to remove that plastic from your wallet because if it's in your wallet, you're going to use it. Right, Lindsey?
LINDSEY: That is right. But I'm curious, at the beginning, when your cash has already been used to pay your credit card, what do you do?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SINGLETARY: Well, that's why you're going to shut down all your spending except for the necessary spending.
Ms. SINGLETARY: You see why - you see, that's why I'm going there, because what you're doing is you're spending the cash already. You're paying the credit card bill, and then you're still doing more spending. Well, if you stop the spending, then you're sort of on even ground.
ROBERTS: Lindsey, thank you...
LINDSEY: Thank you.
ROBERTS: ...for your call. And also, if you started, you're not spending yesterday and you don't want to go purchase a new book...
(Soundbite of laughter)
ROBERTS: ...you can go to npr.org. We have some links to how to do a financial fast on our Web site. You can also read Michelle's take on "The Perils of Plastic." And, you know, even if you pay off your credit card monthly or stick to a debit, what the - debit card - what "The Perils of Plastic" are from her perspective.
We have an email from David in Fresno, California, who says: At what point will individual decisions for prudent saving result in enough reduction in consumer spending to slow the economy?
Ms. SINGLETARY: You know, I get this question a lot. And so, essentially, what they're saying is if people follow this fast, our economy is going to screech to a halt.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SINGLETARY: Well, here's the fact of the matter: Most of the people listening right now won't take the 21-day challenge. They don't have the resolve. They don't have the courage. They're not going to do it. They're stubborn. You know - and I say, you know, listen. Everybody's not going to do this fast at the same time. People are going to start it at different periods of time.
And what happens is - I'm not saying don't ever spend, ever again. I'm not saying don't ever use your credit card again. And so there'll be a tier effect. And listen, I do the fast a couple times a year, and guess what? Hmm. I took a vacation for two weeks. I built a deck on the back of my house. So I'm still contributing to the economy. I tithe to my church, which is then used for community projects.
You know, I'm sure my church is going to give a fundraising for the Haitians right now. And so it's not going to put a stop to our economy. What it will do is get people on the right road to financial freedom. That will free them up to spend in the areas of our economy that makes more sense for us. We cannot continue to have an economy based on this kind of shopping that we've been doing.
ROBERTS: You mentioned, as part of the fast, no gifts?
Ms. SINGLETARY: That's right.
ROBERTS: What about charitable contributions?
Ms. SINGLETARY: Well, you know, that's an interesting question that had not come up during this time. I would think that that would be OK right now, particularly with so much need. For example, I don't stop tithing during the fast. So I think that is an exemption to the fast. But when it comes to birthday parties and weddings and anniversaries, you can't take a gift if it comes up during the - cash. And I get a lot of pushback from this, as well.
But, you know, as a mother of three kids who've been to a lot of birthday parties, you know, what do these kids really need? Most kids - I'm talking middle America, I'm not talking people, you know, really struggling. But most of us know when we go to these parties, those kids don't need anything that you're bringing to their party. And most people who are getting - wedding have already set up their households, and they're already doing their thing and they don't need my crockpot, you know?
And so you can't promise to get them a gift later. So what I say is, you know what? If time is the most valuable thing we have, why not give of your time? If they have children, why not volunteer to watch their kids? Come over, cook them a meal? Or you know what? Just sit down and have a lovely evening with them.
You know, and you're going to get some raised eyebrows and people are going to maybe fuss you out, but that's OK because what you say to them is, I can't bring a gift. I want to celebrate this occasion with you, but I'm on a financial fast to freedom, and I hope you understand.
ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's take a call from Kris(ph) in Olympia, Washington. Kris, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
KRIS (Caller): Thanks for having me on. I enjoy Ms. Singletary's column. I've read it in Richmond, Virginia, when I lived there. And I guess - the book sounds fascinating, and I'm going to go out and get it. But I was curious. I know in my group of friends - it seems like in a couple, usually it's one part of the couple, you know, the husband or wife or whatever, who takes responsibility for the finances. And we all know that finances are a big part of marital arguments and that sort of thing. I'm curious what you can say to people who recommend making a conversation or a partnership, ways to get couples to work more as a team on finances.
Ms. SINGLETARY: Oh, that's such a great idea. And Kris, if you get this book, get your friends in your group to get it and do the fast together, because you're going to need someone to help you with this. But in the book, I talk about - there's a chapter on marriage and how to get on the same page, is essentially what you're saying. And one of the things is that - what I find is when couples do the fast together, they end up having all kinds of conversations about money because throughout the fast, I ask you to talk about this with your spouse.
And so that's one way. If things are really troubled in your marriage in terms of finances, you really ought to get some help, get some counseling, because you can't do it on your own, particularly if both of you - one is a spendthrift and one of you is a saver, it becomes really hard to do that.
KRIS: Right. Right. Well, thank you very much.
Ms. SINGLETARY: You're so welcome. And if you do the fast, Kris, let me know. Send me an email.
KRIS: I will. And I'm going to suggest the book to my book group.
Ms. SINGLETARY: Oh, that'd be great.
ROBERTS: Kris, thanks for your call. We have an email from Sheryl(ph), who says, I use my credit card for everything to get the points. I get a free rental car every year, saving about $300. I pay my bill every two weeks in full, so I haven't paid a credit card fee for over 10 years. I also get high fees from ATMs because I don't belong to a typical bank. Would I still benefit?
Ms. SINGLETARY: You will still benefit, because here's the thing: There have been several studies - and I'm not talking about some sort of, you know, obscure studies. I mean, you know, MIT did a study that shows that when you use plastic, even when you pay your bill off every month, you still spend more than when you use cash. So that $300 rental car that you got, listen. The credit card company knows you spent three or $4,000 more than would you have spent had you used cash. So I don't know. Three hundred versus three or $4,000, I'm going with the three or $4,000 in my bank account, you know?
And so the thing is, I'm a very frugal person. And even when I use a credit card, I know that I'm going to buy that extra shirt that I wouldn't have bought if I just had that $20 in my wallet. And so I encourage those who are good stewards over their money, like the email person - and try to fast, and you will see that you still can save.
ROBERTS: And after the 21 days are done, what do you do next?
Ms. SINGLETARY: Well, you know, I encourage you to get into a financial literacy program. And at the end of the book, I encourage you to do a 30-day spending journal. So for 30 days after you finish the fast and you're back spending, you know, keep track of what you're spending. And so there's some tips to kind of keep you on that road to prosperity. And when we do it in my group, we continue to have workshops on credit and debt and things like that.
And if you're in real trouble, I really encourage you to find a group or an organization in your community that does financial literacy classes. So that will help you continue after you do the fast.
ROBERTS: We're about out of time. But I want to ask you, if you would come back again in 21 days. And some of our listeners might have tried out the fast, and we'll check in with them.
Ms. SINGLETARY: I would love to do that. And if people go to the Washington Post Web site, washingtonpost.com, there's a link for YouTube videos. And so I'm asking people to post their Youtube videos of what they're doing to get through the fast. And I think it'll help other people who want to do that. So it's washingtonpost.com. You just type in The Power to Prosper, and you'll find out all the information.
ROBERTS: Michelle Singletary - the book is called "The Power to Prosper: 21 Days to Financial Freedom." Thank you so much for joining us.
Ms. SINGLETARY: Oh, it's my pleasure.
ROBERTS: And a reminder to you all to stay tuned to NPR News for updates on the earthquake situation in Haiti throughout today and tomorrow.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts, in Washington.
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