Web bonus: How personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary inspired one family’s debt journey

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On today’s main program, On Point talked with the wonderful Michelle Singletary, a nationally syndicated personal finance columnist at The Washington Post. Her column, The Color of Money, is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: We talked a lot about what Michelle has learned about Americans and their money over the past quarter century. And we also talked about her personal finance ministry. The multitalented Singletary does n’t just dispense money advice in her column. She preaches it from the pulpit at First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Maryland.

MICHELLE SINGLETARY [Archival Tape]: I don’t want you to think that I say, don’t get a mortgage, that’s not what I’m saying, because most of us can’t afford to get our home without a mortgage. And I’m not even saying, don’t get a car loan, although you do know that you can pay cash for your car, do you not know that? They will take cash. They will. Because we shouldn’t be getting loans for cars. You can save up for your car. I see y’all not getting me on this. But you can.

Because here’s a trick my grandmother told me. When you get a car loan, you only get one. Then after you get that one, when you pay that one off, you take the payments that you weren’t paying on it, you pay it to yourself. So then when you need a car, add another 10 or 12 years or 15 years, which is how long my husband and I keep a car, then you’ll have the money for a car.

CHAKRABARTI: But you know, a woman can preach. But does the congregation listen? Well, Jennifer and Tyrone Harris are also members of Michelle’s church. He is an educator. She works for the federal government, and they have two sons. They also had $230,000 of debt.

JENNIFER HARRIS: We had car notes in there as well, but the majority of it was student loans. It was undergraduate degrees for both of us, as well as graduate. And so that all combined to $228,000.

TYRONE HARRIS: I did not believe that we were ever going to be able to climb that mountain of $228,000 worth of debt. I felt like it was just going to be a part of our family, it was going to go on family vacations with us. It was going to go into a new house with us. You know, it was going to be at our funeral with us.

CHAKRABARTI: Insurmountable. That’s how Tyrone felt about the debt. But month after month, Jennifer would come home from Michelle’s classes and talk about all the things she learned, things they could give up to beat down that debt. But for Tyrone, an educator, there were certain things he was deeply reluctant to give up.

TYRONE HARRIS: One of the things that was really tough for myself, being an educator, and for my wife as well, was at the time we had our both of our sons in private school. And that was a major area that she felt like if we deleted, we’d have a better opportunity of getting out of this debt. So it was a really tough decision. It was something that we both were really nervous about. It’s one that we went back and forth with. Because as every parent, you want the best for your child. And they’re living in their private school. That’s probably the biggest decision that we made.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, things get mentally easier to confront when they go from the abstract to the concrete. They take shape. You can see more clearly how to chip away at it. Jennifer says all of that came into focus for them when they put pen to paper, or actually fingers to the keyboard in excel, and documented all of their expenses.

JENNIFER HARRIS: We literally listed everything and actually created a budget and stuck to it. There was a line item for everything, even entertainment and food and gas. Every little expense, every dollar we brought in, we made sure it was accounted for. It went somewhere meaningful for us. So that we could kind of organize ourselves and make sure we were on the right track.

TYRONE HARRIS: And she would say, Hey, if we continue at this pace in three months, this is how much will owe. You really saw the decrease in the amount that we owed. And it really made you want to work even harder to be like, OK, where else can we take our belts? Instead of five months, can we get this done in four months?

CHAKRABARTI: At the start of their journey, Tyrone had wondered if radical belt tightening would mean that they wouldn’t enjoy life the way they once did. So how does he feel now?

TYRONE HARRIS: I mean, life is not miserable. I’m definitely in a better place mentally knowing we can go to sleep and not worry about finances so much. It has also blessed us to be able to help other family members because we have the resources to support others who may need additional support. Our kids are doing great. They’re still learning and progressing. And so it was just a four year of buckling down, tightening your belt and staying true to the process and just maintaining.

CHAKRABARTI: So as you can see, they had to work hard, stay focused and disciplined and never let up on their goal. But after four years, Jennifer and Tyrone did it. They paid down their $230,000 in debt entirely. Now does that seem like an impossible dream for you? Well, you can ask Michelle Singletary herself about it. She set up a number where you can leave her from her your personal finance questions from her. It’s 1-855-ASK-POST.