"Prove it to me." That's what Michelle Singletary, Washington Post financial columnist and author of Your Money and Your Man, tells people when she hears the "I have no money" excuse. "The first thing I do is have them look at their bills." Everyone knows how much they spend on big-ticket items such as rent and car payments, but Singletary says her readers are stunned by their ATM receipts—and all the money they can't account for.
Their problem, she thinks, is that they are unable to distinguish between what they need and what they want. Singletary admits that she tells people this all the time. "When I said it two years ago, people weren't listening," she says, but since the real estate bubble burst, they're suddenly more interested in freeing up some money in their budgets. The key, she says, is to prioritize ruthlessly. "I've talked to people who have no job, and yet they pay for Internet access and ring tones on their cell phone," she says. "They say, 'Don't you have a cell phone?' And I say 'Yes, but I have no debt, and the last car we bought we paid for in cash. If you can't say the same, then you should have a basic cell phone with a bill close to $20 a month.'"
Singletary often sees another, linked problem in people who don't have extra cash: an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. "People say, 'I deserve a vacation because I work hard,'" she explains. "And you do work hard, but you don't deserve a vacation if you don't have money to pay for it." Nor does she buy the excuse "My child deserves better than I had." "Any parent whose kid has a cell phone and no college fund should be ashamed of themselves," she says. "Is it a need or is it a want? Keep that phrase in your head and play it like it's on a broken tape recorder, and you'll find that you don't spend as much."
Singletary is proud to be a varsity cheapskate. She laughs when reminded that she dressed her infant son in his older sister's clothes. "What did he know; he was a baby," she says. "He's not going to be scarred." His family has an emergency fund that will cover a year's worth of living expenses, takes two weeks' vacation each year, and tries to avoid any debt beyond a mortgage. His reward will be growing up in a secure financial environment.
Next: When you say, "I'm up to my ears in debt!"