Singletary: Stories of financial triumph

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Michelle Singletary welcomes comments and column ideas. Reach her in care of The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20071; or singletarym@washpost.com.

I don’t know about you, but I need some good news.

I’ve been so worried about the financial destruction facing Hurricane Harvey victims — many of whom won’t have their losses covered because they didn’t have flood insurance. And now Hurricane Irma is barreling through northeastern Caribbean islands and Florida.

Almost every day since writing about a face-cream scam, I’ve received emails from women — mostly elderly — who are upset over being charged hundreds of dollars on their credit or debit cards for what they thought was a free sample. It’s a devious scheme, and it breaks my heart that many of the victims are on a fixed income. What kind of person would take advantage of folks like this? Just evil.

So this week I’m sharing the positive. During my weekly live chats, I encourage people to post testimonies of financial triumph. Their stories are always a welcome source of inspiration.

One 30-something reader recently agonized over whether to bail out a parent.

“My mother has never been financially responsible,” the person wrote. “It’s part of why my parents divorced. At the start of high school, I was in the physical custody of my father, but she provided almost nothing for me financially. When she did start sending support two years later, it was the bare minimum. About two weeks ago, she asked me for $7,000 to prevent her home (paid off but dilapidated) from being put up to auction for overdue property taxes. I felt bad about her situation at first. My mom is approaching 70 and is healthy/able-bodied. But she also told me years ago that she only worked enough to make ends meet. I’m saving for a house of my own and want to secure my own financial future.”

Does this story resonate with you? Keep reading because it ends well.

“I re-read some columns of yours about when to bail folks out and when to let them stand in the consequences of their bad financial decisions,” the reader said. “I finally told my mother I couldn’t give her the money. And what do you know? She found a way to stay in her home, although it will take some extra work on her part. Sometimes ‘no’ is the best answer.”

By always stepping in as someone’s personal ATM, you may be getting in the way of his or her financial breakthrough.

Lots of folks share about how it feels to get rid of debt.

“I paid off my mortgage on July 3,” one reader wrote. “THAT was Independence Day! Well, two weeks later, I received a check from the mortgage company, which was the balance of my escrow account. I wasn’t expecting that at all, and while I wanted to splurge, I could [hear] Michelle/Big Mama/my recently deceased mother saying, ‘save, save, save!’ So, I treated myself to an inexpensive treat and deposited the rest of the money. I realized the money would almost cover my first year of property taxes!”

This testimony shows the power of delayed gratification: “My wife and I just made a large payment to finish off my student loans from grad school! We paid off over $100,000 in under five years! We’re FINALLY planning a honeymoon — we’ve been married almost four years, but just now able to find both the money and time to take the kind of trip we really wanted.”

Here’s another testimony on paying down debt: “Earlier this year, you advised me to take part of the money from an accident settlement and pay off my student loans. I paid off the last $12,500 of my student loans ($38,000 taken out originally). YES, it feels great to have that monkey off my back five years early.”

Finally, I encourage people to create a “life happens” fund that is separate from their emergency fund. You tap the life-happens pot to fix your car or cover unexpected expenses, leaving your emergency fund intact for major setbacks such as a job loss.

“Until I started reading your columns/chats, I had not heard of a ‘life happens’ fund,” a reader wrote. “I loved the idea and immediately started one.”

Not soon after, life happened.

“I had a few larger unexpected expenses, and I was able to pay them off without getting anxious about seeing my emergency fund dip down. I also didn’t feel the need to cancel/scale back my vacation or start only eating ramen noodles to replenish those accounts. Having this fund has helped me find balance in my spending/savings.”

So what’s your testimony of financial triumph? In times like these, I never tire of hearing about the good stuff.