She Loses Sleep Over ‘Money’

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By: Dave Astor

Personal-finance columnist Michelle Singletary often talks to her children about one of the subjects she knows best. She recalls telling her 10-year-old daughter, “It’s my full-time job to make sure you’re a good steward over your money.”

To which her daughter replied: “Can’t you make it a part-time job?”

But “part-time” is not in Singletary’s vocabulary. She writes “The Color of Money” column for The Washington Post and more than 140 other newspapers, does an electronic newsletter and online chats for the Post, authors books such as the January-published Your Money and Your Man from Random House, contributes commentaries to National Public Radio’s “Day to Day” program and Howard University’s “Insight” radio show, and hosts TV One’s “$ingletary $ays” show, on which she visits people in their homes to dispense personal-finance advice.

“I’m involved with so many things, I barely sleep,” she notes wryly. “But this is my mission in life ? my calling, as my pastor would say.” But Singletary emphasizes that her twice-weekly column is the center of her multitasking work life. Indeed, the research and writing she does for “The Color of Money” often gets repurposed for her other media activities.

The column ? which Singletary tries to make uncomplicated, conversational, and occasionally autobiographical ? started in the Post in 1997 before entering syndication with the Washington Post Writers Group two years later. Since then, “The Color of Money” has evolved while retaining a number of bedrock principles.

Some of the evolution is a result of changes in her life. “I’m more concerned about the cost of raising kids and the cost of college,” says the mother of three. “And although I’m at least 20 years away from retirement, my concern about that is growing, too.”

But the column also reflects core beliefs Singletary has held since she was raised in Baltimore by a grandmother who made do with few funds. Singletary believes in saving money, spending wisely, and avoiding credit-card use as much as possible. “A study found that people tend to spend 30% more with a credit card even when they pay it down every month,” says Singletary, who called credit cards “that plastic devil” during a February Post chat featuring humorist Dave Barry as her guest.

Singletary also strongly believes that couples should put their money in joint accounts. “It fosters communication,” explains the columnist, who majored in communications at the University of Maryland and earned a master’s in business at Johns Hopkins University.

Today her readers send her as many as 1,000 e-mails in response to a single column. Pieces about Social Security always get a big reaction, as do her monthly reviews of personal-finance books. Those review columns give readers a chance to win free copies of the book.

One thing Singletary has gleaned from her feedback is that many readers are struggling, even if they don’t buy frivolous things. “Health-care and college costs are high, and people are downsized out of their jobs,” she says. “I get depressed, I have to tell you. A lot of people are in trouble.”

Before starting her life as a columnist, Singletary worked as a reporter for The Evening Sun of Baltimore and the Post (which she joined in 1992). She says the highlight of her reporting career was helping to cover Nelson Mandela’s 1994 election as president of South Africa. She also observed a Soweto family as they voted for the first time. Singletary had traveled to South Africa from West Africa, where a National Association of Black Journalists fellowship had brought her to write about small, female-owned businesses ? a topic clearly of interest to someone who would become a personal-finance columnist three years later.

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