Smart Money Podcast: Getting Ahead of Your Next Money Crisis With Michelle Singletary

Sean Pyles
Liz Weston, CFP®
By Liz Weston, CFP® and  Sean Pyles 
Edited by Kathy Hinson

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Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions.

This week’s episode is devoted to a conversation with Washington Post personal finance columnist and author Michelle Singletary. Liz and Sean discuss her new book, “What to do With Your Money When Crisis Hits,” and how her experience as a Black woman informs her writing.

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Our take

How you respond to a money crisis when it hits will depend in part on how prepared you are. Take time to understand the various crises that could arise — job loss, medical bills, being sued by debt collectors — and your best recourse to resolve them. If you don’t have enough money to cover all of your bills after a job loss, for example, know how to triage your bills so you can keep food on your table and the lights on.

Change can help you grow from a crisis. You might need to rework how you manage your money to resolve an emergency, so use those lessons to improve your overall personal finances. If you found that you had to tighten your budget to cover an unexpected expense, for example, see how you can continue to live below your means to beef up your emergency savings.

When it comes to race and money, realize that our country’s history of discriminatory practices is long — and continues to this day. While practices like redlining are illegal, many Black homeowners still receive lower home appraisals than their white counterparts. And even credit-reporting models carry biases that make it more difficult for people of color to achieve the highest scores.

Our tips

  • Expect a crisis. Sooner or later, money troubles will come your way. Preparing ahead of time can help you act swiftly and make smart decisions in the moment.

  • Grow from your troubles. When the dust settles after your emergency, take stock of what happened, why and how you can come out stronger.

  • Racial discrimination is our country’s past and present. Knowing how racial disparities play out in areas of lending and personal finance can help you understand the troubles that many Americans face today.

More about managing money crises and racial discrimination on NerdWallet:

Have a money question? Text or call us at 901-730-6373. Or you can email us at [email protected]. To hear previous episodes, go to the podcast homepage.

Liz Weston: Welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money podcast, where we answer your personal finance questions and help you feel a little smarter about what you do with your money. I'm Liz Weston.

Sean Pyles: And I'm Sean Pyles. To send the Nerds your money questions, call or text us on the Nerd hotline at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-NERD or email us at [email protected].

Liz: To get new episodes delivered to your devices every Monday, hit that subscribe button. And if you like what you hear, please leave us a review.

This episode, we have a very special guest, personal finance columnist and author, Michelle Singletary. Michelle's award-winning column, "The Color of Money," is syndicated by the Washington Post writers group to media outlets nationwide. She's also the author of several books about money, including her latest, which is called “What To Do With Your Money When Crisis Hits: A Survival Guide.” She also recently authored a 10-part series, “Sincerely, Michelle,” to tackle issues surrounding the wealth gap for Black Americans.

Welcome to the podcast, Michelle.

Michelle Singletary: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

Sean: It's so great to have you. It really is an honor to have you on. I really enjoyed your book. It's a great emergency field guide about how to manage various money challenges, like how to handle bills when you lose your job or how to get better at money management in general, and even about how to overcome fears about investing. And early on in the book, you declare that you manage your finances as if you're in a perpetual recession, which really stood out to me. Can you discuss what you mean by that and how it's benefited you?

Michelle: Yeah. When people hear that, they go, "Your life must suck," and that you're always worried about money. And I did want to be bold with that statement and it is absolutely true. But let me explain what I mean by that. So I'm not living my life in fear, but I'm just living my life so that I prepare for a life, because life happens. And I'd liken it to, if you're in a fire station and the men and women who work there, they're always working on the equipment, making sure everything is ready when they get that call for a fire. That is what it's like living in a perpetual recession. You know that something's going to happen. You hope that it doesn't, but you need to be prepared for it mentally and physically. And so that's what I mean by that, that I know that there is going to be another crisis.

It's not a matter of if, but when. So the book is called “What To Do With Your Money When Crisis Hits.” And I think people might think, well, I'm not in a crisis, I don't need this book. But it's not really about everybody who's in a crisis. It sort of sets you up for how do you develop the mindset that something is eventually going to happen? And maybe it's not devastating for you, but it still could impact you or impact the people that you know. One of the reasons why we structured it the way we did — an FAQ and short chapters — is because I wanted people not to be overwhelmed. So when you're in a crisis, you get kind of overwhelmed, and telling people to read a 200-page financial book, it's not going to go. And so, it's just not going to happen.

And so you can flip through it. And it's for old, it's for young. It's for people mid-career, starting out, teenagers. Just flip through and find the section that resonates with you. But there are a lot of resources that you need to go to to fill out the things that I'm telling you. And one of them is NerdWallet. I mean, you guys do an amazing job at giving really smart information that is very accessible. I think that's what differentiates you from other sites. It doesn't talk over people's heads. It doesn't talk down to people. And I try to do that same thing with this book.

Liz: You mentioned the firefighters, and that resonated with me because I've read books about people who survive disasters, plane crashes, all kinds of bad things happen. And a lot of people don't survive because their brains try to figure out what's happening and they can't compare it to anything they've ever been through, and so they literally freeze. What firefighters do is they practice. They practice scenarios, they practice different things happening so that they can be ready for anything. And what you're talking about with your book is exactly the same thing. Even if you're not in crisis right now, you will be at some point. Things will happen. So, go through the steps so that you know what to do when it does hit. So I love the fact that you brought that up.

Michelle: Yeah, that is so on point. That's exactly what I'm talking about. You've got to be ready. You've got to have a plan.

Liz: Make your brain do push-ups.

Michelle: That's right. And I hate push-ups, too.

Liz: Got to do them anyway.

Michelle: You know, my husband and I live on the income that we made several years ago. So every time we get a raise, we still live like we did before we got that money because something could happen, we could lose our jobs — which one time did happen. My eldest child got very ill and almost died. And both of us had to take off several months and went through all of our leave, both of us, because we always had someone in the hospital with her. But we were prepared to stay there for as long as we could. That's what I mean by living in a perpetual recession. So not maybe an actual recession, but anything that can disrupt your income.

Liz: I love that example of what you were able to do because you had that financial flexibility that you created by putting aside extra money. But Michelle, how do you resist that? How do you resist lifestyle inflation? More money's coming in. Don't you want to live large?

Michelle: I think it goes back to my childhood, which started off pretty rocky. My parents abandoned me. My siblings and I ended up going to live with my grandmother, and she just taught me how to just not inflate my lifestyle because she couldn't. She was an assistant at a hospital. She didn't make a lot of money. My grandfather who lived with us was an alcoholic, so his money didn't always come home. And so she just taught me to sort of prepare and just not want more. The one thing I appreciate is that — now not then — is that she never apologized for what she couldn't give us, that we didn't have a better life, that she couldn't get us the fancy sneakers or clothes. I never stepped foot in a restaurant until I was in my teens and in college.

Liz: Wow.

Michelle: And so she never said, I'm so sorry for what I can't give you. I'm so sorry, I can't do that. She said, this is all that I can give you and you need to be appreciative of that because, quite frankly, we would have ended up in foster care. And I remember that, so that as my husband and I have done well, and we have done well, I remember what that was like. I remember that this is all fleeting. We know. And if nothing else, young adults know this, and this is the one thing I so appreciate about them. Companies are not loyal to us. Even the best of companies. When they're in layoffs, you guys know what happens is their stocks go up. What is that? So you realize that you can't inflate your lifestyle because you've got to have some cushion. And because of my background, I understand that things happen. We just don't inflate our lives on it. That doesn't mean that we live in a hovel.

We live in a two-story four or five bedroom house on almost an acre of land. We take a two-week vacation every year to a nice resort. But everything else kind of goes. We don't eat out a lot. We don't have a lot of clothes. We keep our cars for like 20 years. So we pick and choose what is of value to us, and then everything gets thrown in, right? Everything. I mean, if you saw the car I drive, you'd go, "That child does not work for the Washington Post. She is lying." But I don't care.

Liz: But it runs, right? It runs just fine.

Michelle: It runs just fine. I don't care if you look at it and think, what? Why did she not get a new car? I don't care what you think. You guys could ask me, do I care? Go ahead. Ask me. I guess I don't. Because I love this. I love you, Sean, but you're not going to put my kids through college. You are not going to pay my mortgage. And so I just keep that in mind, and that's how I don't inflate my lifestyle.

Sean: I think that helps a lot. And a focus on gratitude for what you do have instead of what you don't have and then continually longing for that, because you're never going to catch up to this figment in your mind of what someone else does have in their life.

Michelle: That's exactly right. I mean, the phrase is keeping up with the Joneses, except the Joneses are just broke. You don't know that they're broke. I get peer pressure. We think peer pressure is only for children and teens, but we adults have a lot peer pressure. From social media, from television, from marketing ads. I get it. So I'm not mad at people who fall for that because it takes a lot of discipline to stay on track. So I talked about how I did it from my background, but let's look forward to the future. How do we stay on track? So we have three children. And we knew, my husband and I, that we wanted to put them through college with no debt, nor did we want to take on debt. And so every time there was that temptation to get a new car or shop every weekend, we just thought, what would happen in the future if they had to take on this debt?

So we just kept that in mind. And we said no to them. We said no to ourselves. And all three of my children — I'm going to cry — two are out of college and we have one more to go and they don't have any debt. And my middle child, a male, has autism. And so we knew it'd be a struggle. We knew he had to take longer. And it did. It took him five years. And as a result, he was able to graduate because we had the money for tutors and all the things to help him graduate. And he did. He graduated with a math degree in May 2021. And that's from all the times we said no, and we didn't inflate our lifestyle.

Sean: And throughout the book, I really appreciate that sort of tough love approach that it seems like you took with your kids and you take with your audience too, where you answer one question where it's, “I know I need to save, but don't I deserve to treat myself every so often?” And you basically say, “The answer to your question is no, you don't get a splurge until you have a decent start on your emergency and ‘life happens’ fund. You will thank me later.” And I love that so much.

Michelle: Yeah. I get a lot of pushback from that. You love me, but yeah, I wrote this column and I knew it would be provocative. And so I deserved all the pushback that I received. But I wrote a column with the headline, “You don't deserve a vacation if you're in debt.” And boy, did I get feedback! You would have thought I slapped somebody's child or stole their dog. But I wanted to bring people in to say, hey, I didn't say don't treat yourself to some time off. You can have a staycation. You can walk in the park and take time off. But if you've got a whole bunch of debt, you've got to service that debt. And I know that means denying yourselves those nice beach vacations or ski vacations or whatever floats your boat. And I'm not going to tell you, because people will say, well as you're saving, then you could stop and give yourself a little treat. You don't get no treat. No. No. Because here's the thing. You are in trouble. And you're in trouble for a reason. And sometimes it's because of health issues and you lost your job. But a lot of times it's because you overspend and you didn't have that discipline.

And so now you're going to tell an undisciplined person to stop what they're doing, to treat themselves. What's likely to happen? They're going to fall back. And this is an extreme example. And I'm certainly not saying people are alcoholics. But when someone's an alcoholic, you don't go, you know what? Every once in a while you can have a drink. Because you know the psychology and the physiology of that disease is that you have to say no. And so what I'm telling people is don't stop while you're on that treadmill. Keep it up. And if you are suffering through it, that suffering will be a reminder when you're done not to go back there. We don't like to suffer. We don't like to deny ourselves. But it is in that denial that you learn discipline.

Liz: You mentioned alcoholics. There's a 12-step group for people who are dealing with debt called Debtors Anonymous. And that is part of their message is going through the pain of dealing with your past is what will help you avoid repeating it, which is a good message to get out there.

Michelle: That's exactly right. And it's only for a season. People act like I said you can't take a vacation for the rest of your life. That's not what I said. And you know, just for a season. Now, maybe it'll be a couple of seasons, but if you just pause with the spending and just save and pay down your debt, you will get to the point where you can treat yourself. And boy, will that treat be much better if you aren't dragging debt behind you.

Sean: Right. That's a great point. And also, while people are paying off debt, they can continue to save for different goals, like a "life happens" or an emergency fund. And then when they begin to make good progress on those, maybe open another account for a vacation fund, so when that debt is paid off, you have a fully funded vacation just waiting for you.

Michelle: That's right. Absolutely right.

Liz: One of the things that stood out to me when I was reading your book, Michelle, is that you were talking about things that actually happened versus what's supposed to happen. What I am referring to is dealing with illegal evictions. And we at NerdWallet had been writing about how to deal with the issue when you can't pay rent or you can't pay your bills. And we were talking about what landlords are and aren't supposed to do, and you just kind of drove a pickup truck through that and said, this is what they're doing. They're illegally evicting people, and here's how you cope. And I love that. And I also wanted to get a feel about what your advice is to people who are working through a money challenge that they weren't supposed to encounter, that's not fair. How do you deal with that?

Michelle: When you find yourself in a situation where things didn't go as planned through no fault of your own, don't feel guilty about it. So, in the beginning of the book, I talk about how you pay different bills if you've lost your job. And I have spent my entire career telling people, pay your bills, pay them on time, no matter what. But there is a difference to that, and you've lost your job and you don't have any income. But people try to pay everything when they only can and should pay a few things, to keep the lights on, food on the table. And I really wanted to tell people, it's OK to say “I don't have the money to pay that credit card bill. I don't have the money to pay that student loan.” And you call your lenders and you tell them that. Even your landlord or your mortgage company. You've got a little bit of breathing room if you own a home, because it's going to take a while before the foreclosure process.

So you've got some breathing room to say “I can't pay this right now.” Renters, not as much time, depending on the state that you live in. Some states longer, some not, but you've got a little bit of room. So if you've got $200, you’ve got to put food on the table and keep the lights on, and you might not be able to pay your rent. And I wanted to give people the freedom to say “I can't do this,” and be OK with that. And don't worry about your credit score, for goodness sakes. We can help you fix that later on. And so mostly what I tell people is to not feel bad, don't beat themselves up. Even if you weren't doing all the right things. In times of trouble, you don't wag your finger at people, even those who may have been financially irresponsible. That's not the time. That's not empathy. And I never do that. I'm not going to shake my fingers at people.

Sure, you should have done better. You know that. I don't need to tell you that. It's a struggle. And there are a lot of reasons why you don't handle your money well, and a lot of it has to do with how you grew up and what happened to you as a child and all of those things that created baggage for you to make you overspend or make bad decisions. I mean, there's a large part of the book I talk about decision-making. And we don't often talk about that in our space, right? We talk about the decisions you should make, but there's not enough discussion about how to make a better decision — the steps that it takes to do that.

Sean: I want to get into that a little bit, because one of the central themes of the book was change, around changing your mindset and your habits around money. And can you talk about why change is important when navigating a financial crisis?

Michelle: Well, because you can't change what you don't acknowledge. So anyone who goes through any substance issue or something like that, you have to understand why do you do what you do? Where did it come from? What happened to you? And then you've got to change your mind. Many people don't have a money problem. They have a money management problem, which is the result of issues. We've got issues. We've all got issues. I've got issues. I may not be an overspender, but I can't spend to save my life. I mean, it's a good thing we're doing a podcast because if it was up to me, I'd be buck naked. I hate wearing clothes.

And so I spent a lot of time trying to get people to revisit why they do what they do. It's like, for example, when people will always ask me, what is the best budgeting app or tool? Give me a recommendation. What's new, what's good, what's out there? And they're always shocked when I say it doesn't matter. Just pencil and paper. And I say that, so, say you buy an exercise bike. And it's the top of the line. It's just got videos and all kinds of stuff. It's so cool. It's going to help you lose weight. No, it's not. It's going to become a clothes hanger if you don't have the mindset to get on that bike. So it's not the tool that makes you a good budget manager, it's your mind, because you have decided that I'm going to budget better, and now you're going to get the bike or the tool to help you with that. But it's not the tool itself. It's you and your mind that makes the difference.

Liz: And it seems like sometimes it just takes getting fed up. I'm thinking about weight loss, and money management is the same thing. You just get tired of being in the state that you're in. You get mad at it and then you decide to take action.

Michelle: That's right. That's exactly right. And that's OK. I do financial classes at my church and I help couples; my husband and I teach couples. And some people will come at the beginning of the session and they're all geared up. And then when it comes down to actually do work, they start missing classes. You never see them. They're not there yet. They haven't fallen far enough to want to make a change. And that used to really upset me like I failed, or I should run after them. I don't run after nobody now. If you come to one of my classes and you drop out, that's on you. You're not ready for it. You're not ready for it. And so you're absolutely right. Sometimes you have to let people fall before they get up and make a change.

Liz: Well, this is kind of a sidetrack, but a lot of parents have real trouble with that as their kids are growing up and as they're supposed to be adults and financially independent. What advice would you give those parents who just can't seem to stop whipping out the checkbook?

Michelle: Yeah. Oh, that's a hard one, because people love their kiddies.

Liz: Oh, we do.

Michelle: And y'all don't want them to suffer at all. I say, let them suffer, suffer, suffer. And my kids know about that, right? I mean, it's so funny. I have to tell you a quick story. So we were talking about our estate, because they're now all over 18 and we were talking about our estate and what happens to us and finally sharing out information about how much we have and things like that. And so my youngest heard how much we have and she was like, "Oh, I'm rich." I'm like, "Uh-uh, uh-uh, uh-uh. You ain't rich honey. No, not until we die." And then she kind of looked at me. And she was like, "Hmm." I said, "What was that?" And so, I say that in a comic way because they never knew how well off we were. We raised them as if we didn't have as much as we had. But parents don't want their kids to suffer. Now, why don't they want them to suffer?

A lot of times it's because they grew up poor or without, and they didn't want their kids to have that feeling that they had of going without. Or maybe they grew up having money and they just don't know what it's like to make your kids work for something. But I'm telling you, you do so much damage to your children when you don't put limits, when you don't pull back, and when you give them too much. Listen, I'm going to tell this story. It's so bad. Don't judge. Don't judge. So if you're a parent, you usually have a big bin or box or a laundry basket of toys, all toys, right? The top layer of toys are the toys that kids play with. The bottom level, they don't play with. And so I would take the top layer off and dig down and find toys that they didn't play with and wrap them up and put them under the tree.

Sean: It's new to them.

Liz: I love that.

Sean: Yeah. I think it goes back to how you raise them. And I have this story where my mom had us kids making our lunches in first grade. And when I tell that story, people's jaws drop. And yeah, there were some days where my lunch was an apple and a cup of pudding. And I was pretty hungry by the end of the day. And that taught me, oh, I better make a PB&J. I better learn how to make myself be self-sufficient at a young age. And I'm very thankful for that. I think it's how I am where I am today.

Michelle: You got to do that. I love that your parents did that. I mean, it's just those little lessons. And you weren't going to be starving. I mean, you were hungry, but you weren't going to be starving, and that's the difference. There was a time where, when my kids were little, they didn't really have a lot of clothes because they grow out of them so much and we didn't see the point of it. And so they had maybe two pairs of shoes, one for church and one for school, and a couple of outfits and we rotated them. It didn't matter to us. It didn't matter to them, they didn't know. Only mattered to other people looking at us. We didn't care what they thought. And so my eldest daughter, I had a pair of sneakers that she just decided she didn't like them anymore.

I don't know why. She just did. And she wouldn't put them on. I don't know. She must've been about five or so. And she just wouldn't put them on. And she only had that one pair. So I said, "OK, well, I don't know what you're going to do because you only had this one pair." And so she put on her socks, I packed the shoes into her little bag, and she went to school with just her socks. Now, when she was walking into school, I could see all the mothers looking at me, judging me. And I looked at them. I say, you can judge me if you want. She's only got one pair of shoes. And I said, by recess, she's going to put the shoes on because she's going to want to go outside." Sure enough, she did. She put the shoes on and went outside to play with them.

Uh-uh, you're not playing with me. Uh-uh. No.

Sean: Oh, that's so funny.

Liz: Both those examples, Sean, yours and Michelle's with her daughter, it's kind of consequences parenting. You give the kid the room to make a mistake and live with the consequences, and the lesson sticks.

Michelle: That's so great. That's so funny. That's what my parenting teacher told us. We took a parenting class. And she was helping us. And I was like, "Oh, I can't let my baby do that." And it worked. The whole consequences thing. And it made them, all three of my children are good money managers. I mean, actually they are so good. They're so cheap that I feel bad now.

Liz: You think you overdid it?

Michelle: I overdid it. But my oldest is 26. She has this pair of sandals. And we were at the beach recently for our vacation. And I just have, she said, "Mom, can you hand me my sandals?" I looked at the bottom of them and I was just like, "There's a hole in these!" And she was like, yeah. Well, I said "Baby, you can get some sandals. You're working now." And she said, "No, they're fine. They're fine. It's dry during the summer. It's not really raining that much." And my husband looked over at me, and was like, "See? That's you. That's your fault."

But I'm happy, because here's the thing. She might not get those new sandals, but she loves traveling. So she saves her money for what she values. So she saves to travel. She travels and does what she likes.

And she's OK wearing those funky sandals because it doesn't matter to her.

Sean: She's making her own choices.

Michelle: She's making her own choices, but she's making it based on her values. And she'll eventually get a new pair when they're totally crazy and it does rain. But I love that about them. And so I'm not saying I'm always perfect, because I want to shut things down all the time. But together, my husband and I have been able to figure out a system where we let them decide and they do end up making the right decision because we've given them the tools to make better financial decisions.

Liz: Yeah.

Sean: Another thing I wanted to talk about from your book was your section on scams, which I was very happy to see in the book because so many millennials in particular think that they are impervious to scams. And you highlight a stat from the FTC that found that younger Americans, people from 20 to 29, actually reported losing money to fraud more often than those older than them. So can you talk about why you wanted to include this in the book and what your advice might be for those who think that they are not at risk at all of scams?

Michelle: I absolutely wanted to break that stereotype, that myth, that only seniors are susceptible to scams. These scam artists are really good at their jobs. They are really good at scaring people and talking to them and figuring out how to get their personal information. And the reason why is because young adults put a lot of stuff online on their profiles, when they were born, where they've been. And so when the scam artists call them, they have a lot of that information that they've culled from all these different sites to make their pitch sound believable.

Liz: And it's easy for anybody to fall for that, as you pointed out. It's not something that anybody's immune from. So I was really glad to see that as well.

Michelle, you wrote a wonderful moving series of essays called "Sincerely, Michelle," and it touched on the issues of the wealth gap. And I would love to know why you decided to do that? What prompted you to be so open and to reveal so much about your history and what's happened with money?

Michelle: Well, like so many people, I was horrified by the killing of George Floyd. And as a columnist, I'm live on the ground reporting on what's been happening across the country in terms of race relations. And I'm just going to be really honest with you: The last decade I say of my career, I've just sort of hunkered down and just did my work and let things happen to me or not happen to me and just didn't worry about it in terms of my race. Because I just got tired of fighting. I got tired of complaining and feeling bad about myself because someone wonders, how did I get at the Post? And I felt like I couldn't stay silent anymore. Sometimes you suffer in silence and you have these things happen to you, and you don't want it to be part of your career story.

And I just decided that I had to tell the truth about the things that have happened to me along the way, because people look at my career and go, wow. Look at where you are and what have you done! I'm at the Washington Post, I'm a financial columnist. In the section, there were three or four black people when I got there. There's still just three or four black people. And I just didn't speak on that. And I thought, you know what? I've got to put my voice in there. I got to let people know what it's been like during my career. You know? I mean just the microaggressions and people whispering. And we see this played out with what's happening at ESPN with the whole anchor issue, white anchor, Black anchor, and a white anchor thinking a Black anchor took her job.

And so I decided that I just wanted to write this series and sort of walk people through how systemic racism is still here. It is the result of years and decades of institutionalized, sanctioned discrimination by the federal government. And I started the series off about when I got the job at the Washington Post. Thrilled about it, but then people would ask me, where are you from? Well, how did you get there? And really what they were saying is, did you take a job from a white person?

Sean: Right. Sizing up your credentials in a way they wouldn't the white columnists.

Michelle: Exactly. And I let it go and I let it go. And I tucked it in and I tucked it in. And finally, I asked my editor who had hired me, who recruited me, did you hire me because I was Black? And he said, yes, just like that. That's what I did, too. And he said, come into my office and let me explain. And so by the time I walked into his office, I'm trying to fight back tears and there's this lump in my throat and my heart. And I was just thinking, wow, wow, so I guess they are right. And then he said, listen, I hired you because you were Black. I hired you because you were a woman. I hired you because you came from a low-income background, and that's the perspective we need around here. I hired you because you're getting a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University. I hired you because you are a really darn good reporter, bankruptcy reporter. And at that time, there were really large corporate bankruptcies and they needed someone with that expertise. And in my head I was thinking, well, dude, why don't we start with all of that?

Sean: Kind of buried the lead there a little bit.

Michelle: You buried the lead! He said, I hired you for the totality of who you are. And so then I said, well, why would you just say simply yes when I asked if you hired me as Black? And then he said, and I asked him this as I was writing the series. I said, what was that about? He said, because I wanted to say yes to you because I wanted you to know that your Blackness was an asset to the Washington Post. And I wanted you to see that, that who you are culturally, ethnically, is an asset to the Washington Post. And so yeah, I hired you because you're Black and all these other things, too. And it just made me realize, I didn't take some white person's job. That was MY job. I got my job. And that's what I want to say to people. Whenever there's this idea of quotas and they're hiring a Black person because of this, there are always decisions about who you hire and you factor in a whole lot of things.

I love using examples, as you can tell, because I think it helps people understand. If I mess this up, just understand I'm not a football expert. My husband would be aghast that I'm using this example. But on a football team, if you've got a really good quarterback and you need a good offense, you don't have people say, well, why don't you hire another quarterback? And you say, well, I already got a good quarterback. I need an offensive line. But the offensive line, the defensive line, my offense, all of that, the kicker, everybody. Together, you have a winning team. You need Blacks, you need women you need people who are neurodiverse, meaning maybe someone who has autism.

And there's a whole range of people and experiences that make for a winning team. And so that's what diversity is about. It's not quota shopping. And if you hire the wrong person and they happen to be Black, whose fault is that? It's not the hire, it's the person who hired them. And there are qualified people out there. You didn't look hard enough. And so that was the first part of the series. And then I talked about credit scoring and how racism was baked into credit scoring. And so just sort of walked through all of those sort of financial issues that have a race component to them.

Liz: Well, I love the fact that you did talk about your background, because a lot of people writing about personal finance are like me. Grew up middle class or upper middle class, whatever, and have never experienced being poor and never been really up against it. And I think that perspective is hugely important.

Michelle: I did want to tell people that because I didn't come from money. And I have money now, but I didn't always have money. So people sometimes say, oh, it's easy for you to say because you got the job at the Washington Post. I wasn't born with a job at the Washington Post. It's like, what are you talking about? And I actually know hunger. Not the kind where you open up the refrigerator and there's food in there and you go, there's nothing to eat. I'm talking, you open the refrigerator and there's a box of baking soda in the refrigerator and nothing else. And so I went from being abandoned to with my grandmother who was great with her money, but money was tight, to being a student. Even though I was on a full scholarship, I couldn't call home for money. My grandmother couldn't afford to get me clothes for college and the other things that you need.

I had a full ride and I still, of course, needed money even to get back home. So listen, I know suffering and financial suffering. I know what it's like to be in need. And now that I have more, I remember that. And so, I think that I come from a place of, I know where you are if you don't have any money and hey, I know where you are when you do have money. Don't come at me talking about you can't find room in your budget to save when I know that you can. So when I have seminars, people try to kind of, oh, "I don't have any money." And I'm thinking, you make $150,000 and you're talking about not having no money. Come on now. Come on now.

Sean: In your book and in the series of columns, I found your personal perspective and your background as you just explained so powerful. And I think it really helped shape and connect the dots between your hard work and your experience and the opportunities that you've had, the 29 years you've had at the Post, with the systemic issues that are still getting in the way around redlining and credit scoring and people being averse to investing. It really exemplifies how this is not just an individual person's problem. It is a systemic countrywide issue that people are dealing with every day. And a lot of white Americans were able to look away for a very long time. And now hopefully they're not able to anymore.

Michelle: When I wrote the series, we braced ourselves for the racist things that would come. And they did. I mean, full on KKK crazy stuff, right? But you know what? Those weren't the emails or the notes that bothered me the most because I feel like those people are just broken and they don't have the capacity to understand how racism has impacted our country. What really hurt me to my core was people who were highly educated and should know better, should know the history, and saying the things that they were saying to me. And the thing that people often said was, well, that happened long ago. And my ancestors didn't own slaves. And it was all about them.

And here's the thing: One of the historians that I was talking to said that when you look at slavery by generations, it wasn't so long ago. It's only in my lifetime that I would have had the right to vote or to live where I live or to have the job that I have. And so that's not that long ago. And my children are still facing racism, even in the colleges that they attend. Professors talking down to them or not giving them the same grades even though they worked in a project group, they did all the work, but the white students get the better grade than they did. Things like that. So it's not that long ago.

Sean: Right. It's present-day, really.

Well, as a final question for you, if you could give everyone one piece of tough love advice, what would that be?

Michelle: Oh, that's a good one. The one piece of advice that I would give people is to hate debt. I really have to say that. And I'm very dogmatic and I'm not an "it depends" kind of woman. I'm going to tell you straight up, "don't do that, do this." And sometimes I take hits for that. And I hate debt. I hate debt. I hate debt. I hate debt. And I joke that if debt was a person, I'd slap it. So I want everybody to hate their student loans, their home loans, all of it. There's no good debt and bad debt as far as I'm concerned. It's only debt. And people are like, "Oh, well, that's not sophisticated, and you got to talk about leverage and all this kind of stuff like that."

And I would say listen, those people who can effectively use leverage because they got debt, because they've got money and stuff, they're not going to listen to me. They're already doing what they're doing. I have to be zero tolerance because if I tell those people who were on the fence, who know they shouldn't be doing something, "Hey, it kind of depends," which way you think they're going to go?

Sean: That really speaks to the power of your perspective and you knowing your audience, who is reading and receiving your advice, so you can tailor what you're saying for them.

Michelle: That's right. I don't want to cosign bad decisions. Liz, you can attest to this, right? Most people who ask you a question, they already kind of know what they want to do and they just want you to cosign this bad decision. And so they'll ask me all kinds of ways. I said, you could keep asking me 10 different ways. The answer's still going to be don't do that.

Sean: They want you to give them permission.

Michelle: Correct. They want me to give them permission to make a bad decision. And I just can't do it, just can't do it.

Sean: Because that's not your job.

Michelle: That's not my job. That's exactly right. It's not my job. It's my job to be tough on you. And I get that you're going to end up doing what is best for your life. But my job, and my pastor always jokes, I'm way over here — I'm extreme. And he says, if you can move people to the middle, they're going to be so much better.

Liz: Oh, I like that.

Michelle: And so that's why I don't equivocate. I'm very, "don't do this, do this." My heart's desire is to help those who need someone to practice tough love with them.

Liz: Oh, I love that.

Sean: Well, thank you so much for talking with us, Michelle.

Michelle: Oh, thank you for having me.

Liz: And that's all we have for this episode. Do you have a money question of your own? Turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373. That's 901-730-NERD. You can also email us at [email protected]. Also, visit for more information on this episode and remember to subscribe, rate and review us wherever you're getting this podcast.

Sean: And here is our brief disclaimer, thoughtfully crafted by NerdWallet's legal team. Your questions are answered by knowledgeable and talented financial writers, but we are not financial or investment advisors. This nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes, and may not apply to your specific circumstances.

Liz: And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.