Sunday, May 27, 2007

The personal finance writer who irritates me the most

I grew up in Maryland reading the Washington Post, and it remains my favorite newspaper. I like the insider-baseball political coverage, the local tone (obsessive Butterstick coverage!), and the editorial choices it makes -- our Style section kicks NYT @#!, our fashion writer won the Pulitzer, and our advice columnist was named best in the country by Time magazine.

Which makes it particularly frustrating that the Post's personal-finance columnist annoys the hell out of me.

I keep trying. Today, I thought I'd take a look at "Color of Money" columnist Michelle Singletary's latest live chat transcript. Live chats are another thing I love about the Post, and I figured that I'd surely find a few things in Singletary's chat to admire or blog about.

Instead I found myself gritting my teeth. Constantly.

Singletary's basic financial philosophy seems sound: She loathes debt, and advises people to a) avoid it at all costs, and b) do whatever it takes to get out of debt, if you've succumbed and run it up. In our debt-laden culture, a stern taskmaster sounding dire warnings about debt isn't a bad thing -- most people (including me) could do with less yielding to temptation and more buckling down and saving money.

What frustrates me about Singletary's writing is her absolutism. She views debt as essentially a moral sin (direct quote: "Debt is evil. Credit is evil. You may decide it was necessary but it is evil nonetheless."), and counsels debt elimination as the absolute top financial priority for anyone in debt, No Matter What. And, further, counsels that people in debt should not spend one dollar on anything but basic food, basic shelter and life-sustaining necessities until every penny of debt is gone.

Take an example from this chat. A student about to graduate law school wrote in to say that she and her husband have saved like crazy to pay off their debts, and in three months they'll be in the clear for everything except her law-school loans. Now that they're reaching that milestone and she's about to start working and bringing in money, she realizes "we will be able to afford occasional new outfits or shoes, and other little luxuries." She wrote in to ask advice on how to wean off the austerity budget without going nuts: "how to enjoy little things while still staying on track with savings and keeping debt gone?"

Singletary's reply: forget about it. "I say you should stay on the crash diet until you pay off the student loan debt," she answered.

Another chat attendee wrote in to protest the harshness of that advice: "You cannot ask someone to never plan for a vacation, a new outfit, or a dinner out for the five to ten to twenty years it might take to pay off law school loans, (which run into six figures). She asked a reasonable question. Please give her a reasonable answer."

Singletary doesn't back off an inch in her reply. "Yes I can and have asked plenty of people to forget about vacations and eating out and whatever when they have six-figure consumer debt like student loans. It if takes years well so be it. You are not entitled to vacations, new outfits, dinner or whatever if you have massive consumer debt.." To top it off, she's snide: "Well, when you want to do my job apply to the Post."

If Singletary's absolutism were confined to debt reduction, I'd probably shrug it off as an overly aggressive response to a drastic problem. There's no question that too much debt is a dire and too-widespread problem, and I don't doubt most people are better served by erring on the side of austerity over indulgence. But her "my way is the only way" attitude carries over into territories where I see a lot more gray area -- most notably, the question of whether married/domestic couples should have joint bank accounts.

Some of her pieces on the subject are sensible and restrained. "Joined in Marriage and Finances" wisely observes that sharing finances doesn't mean you can't still each spend separately, and, a sentiment I particularly appreciate, "It's not true that a marriage has to always be a 50-50 partnership. Sometimes it's 80-20 or 10-90 or 0-100." I wholeheartedly agree with her advice to "accept that the day you get married is the day you stop being financially independent."

But I'm not convinced that joint accounts are the only acceptable financial arrangement for married couples -- and Singletary refuses to acknowledge that choices other than hers can ever be acceptable.

A particularly vivid example of this came in a chat in late 2005 on financial advice for engaged couples. Singletary opposes pre-nuptial agreements with the same vehemence she opposes separate bank accounts. A chatter wrote in to detail his financial situation and ask, "Are there other facts or legal issues regarding pre-nups we should consider?" Singletary ignored that part of the question and focused on her belief that pre-nups are a bad idea ("a prenup in my opinion is a plan to fail"). When called on that by another question-asker later in the chat ("Isn't this forum for information sharing regardless of what you personally believe?"), she blew up, and as she often does, got defensive and attacked: "I know the answer but you can't make me give the answer. And this is a forum for information AND my opinions. That's why they pay me to be a COLUMNIST. Look if you want information on a pre-nup you got to talk to an attorney and you know that. My tip is don't get one. And if you NEED one you don't need to be getting married."

The blinders of her own personal beliefs always circumscribe the advice she offers. In the recent chat, the one that had me gritting my teeth, an older chatter wrote to ask for resources to help sort through the financials of combining two finances later in life, when both partners in the marriage have substantial assets and kids from past relationships. 'Join everything' was, once again, her answer, with no recognition of the situation's nuances.

But where I really lost it -- and fired up this blog post -- was when I saw her response to someone looking for guidance on helping a niece about to gradate college make smart choices about the financial basics (car for transportation, work-appropriate wardrobe, security deposit and basic furnishings for an apartment, and so on). The questioner had advised the niece that if she really, really needed to put things on credit cards, she also needed to have a plan mapped out for paying off the charges, preferably within a year.

Singletary's advice was starker: "She can sleep on a bunch of blankets until she can afford furniture (and not on credit). I did."

You know what, Singletary? That's a reasonable option to suggest, but it's not the only option. Thriftiness is a valuable character trait, but it can cross over into miserliness. Money isn't a valuable thing in and of itself; the only reason any of us need to care about it is because of what it can provide to enhance our quality of life. Taking care of the necessities and laying down a decent savings cushion needs to be a priority, but I don't think anyone is best-served by making it their sole, relentless focus. The about-to-graduate law student isn't "entitled" to an occasional dinner out or vacation, but she's not asking anyone to magically provide them; she's asking about balancing priorities so that she can enjoy a few indulgences while building a firm financial infrastructure.

Life is unpredictable, and there's no guarantees about later. Selling out your future to indulge now is a bad idea, but putting all your eggs in the "later" basket strikes me as an equally risky choice. What happens if the law student continues living in austerity, eating ramen noodles and passing on investing money in experiences she'd enjoy like a bit of travel or fine dining, only to get hit by a car the year before that student debt is paid down? Financial decisions are balancing acts. Balancing acts are, pretty much by definition, tricky and fraught. An absolutist stance makes decisions easier, but it doesn't guarantee an optimal outcome.

I believe the role of an advisor -- whether that's a newspaper columnist, a paid professional, or a friend offering a sympathetic ear -- is to help the questioner more clearly understand their options and the consequences of each potential choice. Once the issue is framed and discussed, the advisor should step back and let the questioner make their own choice. Personal experience and views can be helpful in the discussion ("here's what I did/would do"), but insisting that everyone make the same choices you have or would isn't advising. It's bullying.