On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Kojo For Kids welcomes Washington Post personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary to the show on Monday, November 16 at 12:30. Listen live by streaming the show on this page or by tuning in to 88.5 FM in the Washington, D.C. region. Kids can call in with questions at 800-433-8850.
Should a kid get an allowance? Should a teen get a job? What’s the difference between a smart purchase and a waste of cash?
We invite young people to bring their toughest money questions to Kojo For Kids, where guest Michelle Singletary will share her expertise on saving and spending.
Author of the syndicated “Color of Money” column for The Washington Post, Singletary first learned about personal finance from Big Mama, her penny-pinching grandmother and the inspiration for much of what she preaches today in her column, on television and in her best-selling books.
What’s your money question?
All kids and teens are invited to call in but we’ll also be hearing from the students from our school of the week, Anacostia High School.
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Michelle Singletary Syndicated Personal Finance Columnist, "The Color of Money;" @SingletaryM
KOJO NNAMDIWell, I can't say whether money really makes the world go around or not, but today, we're going to make the case that kids and teens need to understand money, and that the earlier they start the more prepared they'll be to handle their own money. So, if you haven't had any financial education yet, let it start today. And if you've already got some money questions on your mind, listen up. We've got just the person to answer them.
KOJO NNAMDIMichelle Singletary writes about personal finance in her "Color of Money" column, syndicated by the Washington Post. She shares her expertise not only in newspapers, but in her best-selling books and on radio and TV. Adults, you're welcome to listen, but on Kojo for Kids, it's kid callers only. Michelle Singletary, welcome to the program.
MICHELLE SINGLETARYOh, thank you. I'm so glad to be here.
NNAMDIGood to hear from you again, Michelle. We'll talk about money in a minute, but, Michelle, first tell us a little bit about when you were a kid. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
SINGLETARYSo, I grew up in Baltimore. I was raised by my grandmother, who we always called Big Mama. And everything I know about money, the basics of what I know, came from this woman who was from North Carolina, who only graduated high school, but was an amazing money manager. She taught me to save. She taught me to hate debt with a passion, and to save something from every piece of money that I get. And I am what I am today because of the lessons that I learned from my grandmother.
NNAMDIYou say Big Mama didn't have a lot of money, but she had some very strong opinions about money.
SINGLETARY(laugh) She did.
NNAMDIWhat were they, and how did they get you interested in thinking about being smart about money?
SINGLETARYWell, I want to just start with debt. My grandmother hated debt with a passion. And so, I remember one time, she would pay her bills so early, that sometimes, the company would get confused. And so, one time she paid her car note early, and they called her, you know, complaining that maybe it was late. And I tell you, I wouldn't have wanted to be that person on the other line, because my grandmother just railed them out.
SINGLETARYAnd she, you know, pay your bills on time. You know, every paycheck that you get, save some money from it. You know, shun debt. And just to prepare yourself for the emergency that is always going to happen. My grandmother said, you know, you need a rainy day fund, because it's always going to rain. And those are the lessons that I've used for myself and for my readers.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call, if you are a kid. Do you have questions about saving or spending money? What would you like to know? 800-433-8850? Michelle, you tell the story about when you got one of your first jobs as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, and Big Mama's reaction when you tried to tell her about a very exciting event you were assigned to cover. Can you share that story with us?
SINGLETARYOh, my gosh, I love that story. So, I was working for my hometown newspaper, the Baltimore Evening Sun. And there'd been a big fire, and they sent me as this new reporter. And I had my first front page story in my first week on my first fulltime job. And, of course, the person I wanted to tell is my grandmother, the person who raised me.
SINGLETARYSo, I called her, and Big Mama, I got a front page. And before I could get it out, she said, did you go up to the HR department and make sure that you took money out of your first paycheck to put it in the bank? And I was, like, oh, no, I didn't. And she hung up on me. She just, like, hung up. And I thought, okay, something just happened, and she accidentally shut the phone down. And I called her back, and I said, I got a frontpage story. She said, did you go upstairs and make sure that you put money from your paycheck into, at that time, my credit union account? And I said, no. Click up, she hung up on me again.
SINGLETARYAnd so, you know, I'm not a fool, so I went upstairs to the HR Department (laugh) in the middle of the workday. My editor was, like, where you going? I'm like, my grandmother told me to go upstairs. And I went upstairs, and I made sure that I made that allocation, that I took money out of my check to put it to my savings account. And then I called her back and told her I did it, and then she listened to my great story about being on the front page of the Sun. (laugh)
NNAMDI(laugh) She said, well, now you can tell me your story, now that you've done it.
SINGLETARY(laugh) And I'm, like, a grown woman, right. (laugh)
NNAMDIRight. Hey, not to Big Mama.
SINGLETARYBut I'm so glad she did that. I'm so glad she was so determined to make sure that I saved. And it has been a Godsend for me and my family.
NNAMDIWell, we've heard from 14-year-old Nels, from D.C., who writes: Wouldn't it be a good idea if we were taught to do our taxes in high school. Michelle?
SINGLETARY(laugh) Sure. But I honestly have to tell you, (unintelligible) taxes even now. So -- but, yeah, you know, the thing about doing your taxes, which is a really great question, or a point -- is that it makes you do your numbers. You know, when you have to do your taxes, you have to look at how much income you had coming in. You have to look at your expenses.
SINGLETARYSo, forget the whole idea of, you know, you're trying to do your taxes to get maybe a refund. What it does is it makes you pull all your documents together. And lots of times, people kind of give those documents to a tax person, and then just sign the form. So, they're absolutely right. You know, doing your taxes is a good start to looking at your finances.
NNAMDIMichelle, speaking of kids, you got sick as a kid, and it also led to your very first job. I'm sure that's not how you would hope most kids get their first jobs, but what happened?
SINGLETARYYeah, I developed juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which is a kid's form of arthritis. And, as a result, I couldn't walk for some time. So, I had to learn to walk again and get physical therapy, and I could not go to school. So, I was homeschooled, through a state program. And there were other children who had leukemia and other illnesses that couldn't go to school.
SINGLETARYAnd so, as a way to connect us to each other and to have the older children help those others who were at home -- and it's really lonely. You know, now, it's sort of normal, with the COVID.
NNAMDIYeah, the rest of us are getting to know it now, yes.
SINGLETARYExactly. But can you imagine being a kid in grade school, and you're home? And I was home alone. My grandmother had to work. And I'm just -- you know, I didn't have a computer. We were doing it by phone. And so, I became a mentor and tutor to the other children who had illnesses. And they paid us, because they wanted us to also kind of get the idea of what it's like to earn money. And so, that's what happened at 14. I got a job as a mentor.
SINGLETARYAnd then, during the summer, I would tutor the same children who had had illnesses, and they had a summer program for us. And that's how I began to earn money and save money. But I was always a good saver. I was, like -- you know, somebody gave me, I think it was $5 on Christmas, which was huge back then, which will tell you how old I am. And I had that same $5 a year later at Christmas, because the moment that I got it, I said to myself, I can use this for Christmas gifts next year. And I tucked that money away. And sure enough, I did use it for Christmas gifts the next year.
NNAMDIThis is the Michelle Singletary that I have known for at least 20 years. (laugh)
SINGLETARYI know, it's like blood. I can't help it. (laugh)
NNAMDIHere is 14-year-old Bella, from Washington, D.C.: I'm a freshman in high school. Do you have any advice about getting a job during high school to earn some money for my future?
SINGLETARYOh, that's such a great idea. You know, I -- first of all, most importantly, always, always make sure that you're doing well in school. And if you -- if working is interfering with that, don't work. Because that's your number one job, is to do well in school. But once you come of age and you can get a job -- and my children, you know, we allowed them to get jobs by the time that they were 14 or 16, whenever it was okay for our area.
SINGLETARYAnd then just make sure that when you do that, you're saving that money for college and not -- because oftentimes, we allow young adults to get jobs, and all they're doing is spending it at the mall or the movies. And they don't really learn any lessons. For me, getting a job should be part of teaching someone how to handle money and save, not just to buy something or be a consumer, because that just sets you on a really bad path.
SINGLETARYSo, I know the kids are listening and the parents are listening, but if that's your goal, to just let them have money to spend, then I don't see the point of letting them work. Because they can do stuff around the house. You can teach them other ways to be responsible if, really, what you're doing is letting them work to be a consumer.
SINGLETARYNow, if working is showing them how to be responsible and on time and save for college, save for books and things like that, then, sure, that is a good way to start them off by allowing them to work.
NNAMDIMichelle, what's your advice to kids who want to be smart about money? What are the most important things kids should think about?
SINGLETARYYou know, just -- it's hard, when you're a kid, to think down the road, because you're so, like, in the moment. But I think the most important lesson, which is what I try to teach my children, is that whatever you want to do in life, try to live within your means. And so, you start there.
SINGLETARYAnd, for example, my youngest one, my youngest wants to be a teacher. And so, I'm teaching her how to handle her money well so that she can live on a teacher's salary. Don't listen to people who say, oh, you should do this, because you'll make money. You know, that's not what it's all about.
SINGLETARYYou want to have a happy life. And don't get pushed into a job just because someone told you that's where the money is. Figure out what matters to you. What do you like to do? What's going to make you happy? And then figure out how to make money from that. If it's a job that's not going to pay you six figures or something like that, then now is the time to learn to live on less.
SINGLETARYYou know, you have all this -- you know, your friends are buying stuff and they're upgrading, and you want to upgrade, but you just sort of have to be okay with what you have. And that's what we've always wanted for our children. Be okay with what you have, so that whatever you decide to do in life, you can live on that salary.
NNAMDIThe column you write for the Washington Post, which also appears in newspapers across the country, is called "The Color of Money." Why is it called that?
SINGLETARYYou know, a lot of times people think it's called that just because I'm African American. And that was a part of why we picked it, but really, we picked it because the color of money is green, and everybody needs money. Young adults need money, old people need money. (laugh) And so we just wanted to say this column is for you, no matter what color you are, no matter how old you are. And that's ultimately why we picked that. The color of money is green, and we all need it.
NNAMDIYou talked about when you probably really want something, that it's probably not a smart idea to buy it. You've got to be able to let yourself hold off and be okay with not having it. But some kids see other kids getting whatever they want from their parents. However, you say those kids who get a lot of stuff from their parents might not be as lucky as they seem. Why is that?
SINGLETARYYeah, I do. You know, we -- and I get it. I'm a parent now, and I was a kid a long time ago. And you want stuff, but where does it end? I run a program at my church, and one of the things that the parents have been telling me is that the parents who gave their children everything they wanted is they don't have an appreciation for anything. And they are now spendthrift adults, because you gave them so much. There's nothing to look forward to, nothing to keep them from overspending, because they want so much.
SINGLETARYYou know, when I was growing up, I would complain, like most kids, that my grandmother didn't get us something. And she'd never apologize for what she couldn't buy us. She said, I want you to suffer. (laugh) She did actually say that. Like, I want you to suffer. And I thought that was so cruel. Like, why would you want me to suffer? But what she was saying is that if I can only buy you this and you keep pining for that, you're going to be unhappy. And then you're going to spend and go into debt to get that thing. And once you get that thing, you're not going to be as happy as you think.
SINGLETARYAnd so, she was trying to teach us to realize that, no -- listen, those kids who are listening, I did not come from money. My grandmother who raised me didn't make much money. And so, I get that these friends and stuff having things and you want it, but she was teaching me to be okay with not having it. I didn't have the trendy sneakers, and guess what? I lived through it. And I'm a better person for it now. And I did the same thing with my children.
SINGLETARYNow, we could give our kids pretty much anything they wanted, but we purposely, my husband and I, did not do that. We wanted them to suffer. And, you know what, now, as young adults with their own money, they don't overspend. They save like crazy, because they aren't used to having a bunch of stuff. So, when their friends are buying stuff, they're like, ah, don't really need that.
SINGLETARYAnd that's kind of what you want to do, you know. But it's hard. It's really hard when you see your peers getting stuff and you already might feel like an outcast. You know, you might be overweight or underweight or light or dark or short or tall or, you know, you don't have the right hair, you don't have the right house, appearance. And so, you buy stuff, you want stuff to fit in.
SINGLETARYBut I'm going to tell you, as an older adult, you never fit in. It never stops. You always are trying to keep up with people. And it's not just kids that have to deal with this. Adults do it, too. So, if you just say to yourself, I'm okay where I am, and I have to be okay where I am, you'll save yourself a lot of money and a lot of heartache.
NNAMDIDon't need to be keeping up with the Joneses. Give us a call at 800-433-8850, if you're a kid. Do you have a job? What do you do with the money you earn? Let us know, 800-433-8850. Michelle, I often hear the advice for kids that if you get some money, say a gift from a relative, you should save a third, spend a third, and give a third to charity. Is that a good way to help enjoy a little bit now, but still be smart with your money?
SINGLETARYYeah, I think that's a great cut. You know, in fact, actually, with our kids, we used to throw in taxes, too. (laugh)
NNAMDIThat's true. That's true.
SINGLETARYYou know, just so they can practice what it’s like to have taxes. But I think splitting it up that way -- you know, you don't want to make them save all of it, because then they're not going to want to save it all, because savings seems so, you know, hard. You want to make sure that they think long-term. So, maybe they want a bike. So, oftentimes, with our children, if they wanted something more expensive than I wanted to buy, I said, okay, I'll pay for some, and you pay for some. And so, whatever money they get, they would use some of theirs for that more expensive thing they wanted.
SINGLETARYAnd then I'm a big believer in teaching children, from the start, to give to charity. I mean, my husband and I tithe, so if you believe in that, fine, but show your children the importance of giving to others. Make that critical, because when you are thinking about other people and you give, it takes the focus off of yourself. And you will raise better adults if you make sure that that split is save some, spend some and give some.
NNAMDIIf you're a kid, we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you have questions about saving or spending money? What do you want to know? Have you ever argued with someone over money? Have you ever used money to solve a problem? Tell us about it, 800-433-8850. Michelle, back to shopping. Going shopping and buying things can be fun. Adults sometimes call this retail therapy, and say shopping can change a bad mood or help them feel better if they're having a tough time. Is it okay to shop just for fun?
SINGLETARYNo. I hate shopping, (laugh) so I think it's horrible. (laugh) Actually, I'm laughing, but I'm totally serious. You know, listen, we don't have any problems in this country teaching our kids how to shop. They learn it on their own, because we're a consumer society. But I think you should not fall into that trap, because, again, it is an outside stimulus that makes people feel like they need to do something to feel good about themselves.
SINGLETARYSo, for example, when my children were growing up, one of the things -- one of the rules we had was they could not go shopping for fun or hang out at the mall with their friends. If they were going to go to buy something, they had to buy it and come back. In fact, even when it came time to go to the movies, we would select movies that weren't part of a mall, so that we could just go to the movies and there wouldn't be this temptation to shop.
SINGLETARYNow, I'm not saying they never went to the mall, but it was rare that we took our kids to the mall to just hang out. We'd rather they play sports or, you know, sit around and play games with their friends or read. So, we didn't make the whole mall thing a part of our lives. You wouldn't see us, you know, weekends on end just hanging out at the mall, even if it wasn't a holiday, or, you know, Christmas or, you know, something like that, or their birthday.
SINGLETARYSo, no. I hate it. I hate it. I make shopping like a chore -- like shopping a chore, so that I don't overspend. I try to, you know, pick a time, go and get out of there. Like, don't even eat in the mall. You don't want to be there so long that you're going to have to eat, you know. (laugh) It's not a good thing.
NNAMDIYou and I share something else in common -- I agree with you about the shopping thing -- and that is, when I was a kid growing up in Guyana, South America, I did not get an allowance. It's my understand that you, too, did not get an allowance when you were growing up. When I needed something, I had to ask my parents. Or if I wanted something, I had to ask my parents.
NNAMDIMy friends and I decided to put a basketball team together. And, obviously, in Guyana, basketballs were not as available as they are here. So, we had to save money, those who got allowances, to buy the basketball. And I had to ask my parents for my share to buy the basketball. And, eventually, after a few weeks, we were able to buy the basketball.
NNAMDIAnd shortly after we got the basketball, the guy who put the most money in, I think it was $5, he got to keep the basketball at home. He took it someplace, was shooting the basketball near to a tributary to the river. The basketball went over the hoop, into the tributary, floated down the tributary into the river and was lost forever. I have adult friends who live in this region who still resent what happened that day. (laugh) But that's a whole other story.
NNAMDIHere is nine-year-old Leo in Arlington, Virginia's question. Why did we start using money when we could just have things for free? (laugh) That's cute.
SINGLETARY(laugh) Oh, that's so sweet. So cute. (laugh)
NNAMDIYeah, I don't remember that time.
SINGLETARYI mean, it really is, I think, a good question. I mean, we used to barter for stuff. Like, if you had grain and you needed wood, you would trade the grain for the wood. I actually did like the bartering system. It's a little bit better, because you got what's needed, and not just what we do now, where we earn more money to buy more stuff that we don't need. And because we have to earn more money to buy more stuff, we work more. We don't have time to spend with ourselves or our children. So, that is a question that has a lot to do with the way we handle money today. It's a really good insight.
NNAMDIThe holidays are coming up, including Christmas and Hanukkah. And a lot of us give and get a lot of gifts, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza. Sometimes we spend more than we should. Any advice for kids on money and gift-giving?
SINGLETARYWell, first of all, I think every adult listening should make sure that their kids don't feel like they have to get them anything. Just relieve them of that burden and just say, hey, just come -- you know, if you're grandma, just come spend some time with me. You know, so just take that pressure off of the children.
SINGLETARYBut I get it. You know, people like to give gifts. I'm not big on that, but just spend what you can afford. Make a budget. If you're a kid, and if you only have $10, that's all you should spend. And if adults have a problem with that, too bad. Because, you know, they're going to be in debit, anyway.
SINGLETARYSo, I just feel we've gotten the holidays so wrong about all this overabundance. And I think, right now, with what's happened with the pandemic, I think it's made us all realize what is more valuable right now for all of us is time and being in the presence of people. And if we can just remember that, then when this is over, we don't have to worry about buying so much stuff, because the most valuable thing you have is your presence. It's your presence, not the presents, that matter.
SINGLETARYAnd if there are children listening, they may not realize it, but they want a bunch of stuff. But when you get older, what you remember is your parents spending time with you and loving on you and making you feel comfortable. And that's what's going to matter in the future.
NNAMDIThat's exactly right. We're almost out of time, so I'll read this, that we got from a grownup. Theresa's a grownup who writes in to ask: Will you please return and do another financial money matters show for adults, especially as it relates to the pandemic, Michelle?
SINGLETARYI would love to. I love talking about this. And just know I live what I preach, I've raised very money-smart children who actually (laugh) save better than me even now. But I think we do need to talk about this more in the context of the pandemic and beyond.
NNAMDIExactly right. Michelle, thank you so much for joining us.
SINGLETARYYes, you're welcome.
NNAMDIMichelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated "Color of Money" column for the Washington Post. Kojo for Kids was produced by Lauren Markoe, and our conversation about reopening area schools was produced by Kurt Gardinier.
NNAMDIWhat safety measures are we taking across the region, as COVID cases continue to rise? We're joined by Dr. Travis Gayles, Montgomery County's top health official, to discuss safety precautions in his county. Plus, what can we learn about D.C.'s history through it's early portrait? We sit down with Kim Roberts, editor of a new anthology featuring well-known and obscure writers from the nation's capital in the 18 and early 1900s. That all start tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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