Editor's note: The Deseret News has identified six heroes of 2014 — men and women making an impact in our six areas of emphasis. Michelle Singletary is our hero in the arena of financial responsibility.
Michelle Singletary doesn’t fritter money away on impulse buys or momentary wants. She brings her lunch to work. She doesn’t go in for unnecessary haircuts or extra pampering. And though she writes an award-winning personal finance column for the Washington Post and has best-selling books to her credit, she's not much for new cars or clothes shopping, either.
Her credibility lies in her personal experience and the choices she makes.
"When I give you advice, I’ve seen how it works and I practice it. I live it,” says the 52-year-old journalist, wife and mother.
In her column, three books and in-person counseling, she teaches sound money principles to an audience that includes readers, workers, churchgoers and prison inmates. The concepts are based on common sense, biblical principles, years of study, and the heartfelt belief that debt is bad and everyone can improve their situation.
For those who are knee-deep or more in debt from living in a hyper-consumer, pay-later world, her counsel can be a bitter dose of medicine.
“A lot of people think she’s kind of hard-nosed,” says Adrienne Alexander, affectionately. “Some people call her cheap. But when you begin to apply the things she teaches, you understand. Making sacrifices pays off."
Alexander knows. She was a financially strapped single mom when she met Singletary, who had started a church ministry called Prosperity Partners to help people learn about debt and riches and how to correct bad money-related habits.
Singletary taught Alexander to budget and live below her means, to contribute to her 401(k) at work so she could get the full employer match. Nine years later, Alexander, 38, pays for her daughter’s college room and board, has supported a friend through hard times and is weathering her own layoff.
“She changed my life. She changed my daughter’s life,” said Alexander, who became a Prosperity Partner mentor. “I’m not only practicing the principles myself, but did those things with my daughter. It’s not just for me, but the generation coming after me.”
No silver spoon
When Singletary was 4, she and her four siblings seemed headed for foster care because their parents couldn’t care for them properly. Her maternal grandmother, “Big Mama,” wouldn’t hear of it. She took them in.
They lived in a row house in Baltimore, supported by a woman who had only a high school diploma and strong work ethic. Their grandpa, “Papa,” had a drinking problem. Big Mama earned about $13,000 a year as a nursing assistant, but would not accept government assistance except for medical care, as several of the children had chronic health issues. Singletary’s juvenile rheumatoid arthritis was so severe at one point that she couldn’t walk.
“I watched her manage her money,” says Singletary. “We were poor, but we always had enough food on the table — maybe not enough for seconds, but we definitely didn’t go hungry. She clothed us well and took us to church. She modeled the behavior that you didn’t have to have a lot of stuff and if you didn’t make a lot of money, you could still make do.”
Big Mama was “old school, a drill sergeant and guardian angel all in one,” she says. Those are traits Singletary would later adopt as she mentored those who need help sorting out their finances and priorities.
She wanted to go to college, but could not convince her grandmother, who feared the government, to fill out the financial aid forms needed to pay for it. Instead, a high school guidance counselor pushed Singletary to apply for a minority academic scholarship offered by the Baltimore Sun. She won the award, which covered room and board and tuition and provided a job every summer while at school.
“That scholarship created a different legacy for my family," says Singletary, who has been able to help her relatives in hard times.
She studied radio, television and film and minored in print journalism. Her career has involved all of them. She graduated into a job at The Evening Sun, chasing fires on the police beat, then zoning, then religion — a natural for a gal who loves both God and the English language.
Many of the churches she covered ran businesses and she wrote about them, which caught the eye of the business editor, who recruited her to a team that was young, creative and hungry to tell great stories. “We tore it up. We were just out there breaking news stories.”
Singletary's assignment was bankruptcy, and anyone who thinks that sounds boring should consider this: It’s as close as you’re going to get to going through someone else’s wallet without having to mug that individual or steal corporate financials. Poring over public court documents, she peered in the pockets of the Baltimore Orioles and Macy’s. She talked to bankruptcy judges who were used to being ignored, so they were happy to add to her financial depth.
Singletary wasn’t looking for change when she was wooed away by The Washington Post to cover banking and bankruptcy. Soon after taking the job, she was asked to write the Color of Money column. It’s carried now by more than 100 newspapers, including the Deseret News.
She’s been married for 23 years and she and her husband, Kevin, an engineer, have three children, 19, 16 and 14.
Advice reflects values
Singletary’s advice on financial matters stands out from that of most money-savvy experts. She includes tithing in her budget, for instance, and she makes no bones that it’s the first thing she does. She also quotes scripture.
“If you ask my advice, it comes with my values. I never apologize for that. I am a black-and-white kind of woman. I believe in God. I go to church every Sunday. I am active in my ministry," she says. "When you ask me, you are asking a person who tithes, a person who believes that God does not want you to be in debt. So while I try to temper it so it’s not offensive to anyone, if you’re asking me, that is what you get.”
When she has speaking engagements, the talk doesn’t change depending on whether it’s in a church or secular setting. She believes in biblical principles like generosity and not carrying debt.
“You don’t have to have debt. No, you don’t. You can disagree with me, but I’m right," Singletary says. "This is not just stuff I think works. I’ve seen it. I also know what doesn’t work.”
Singletary would never tell a woman to skip the hairdresser if that two hours is all she gets to relax. She won’t kibosh a premium coffee, a treat she jokingly says is OK if “that keeps you from slapping your coworkers.” But you can’t do it all.
She forgoes a lot of things so she can have her own “non-negotiable,” a two-week annual vacation at a five-star resort with her family. She’ll scrimp for that.
Portia Williams is a single mother who met Singletary while working at a hospital. When she invited Singletary to her wedding, “she sent me some things to do before you get married, and it was interesting. I began to question whether I was really ready to settle down right then.”
Williams ended up leaving the relationship, but along the way Singletary became a good friend who helped her figure how to fix her broken finances. Williams hated advice like “get a roommate” to cut expenses. But she did it.
“I realized I had to be a big girl. If I was going to survive this financially and emotionally, I needed to get into the right situation.”
She, too, completed the Prosperity Partners Ministry program and has stayed close to Singletary.
“Michelle was the first real guidance I had on life. The tools she taught me I am using full force. You have to say no at times. I have guidelines and boundaries to keep track of my budget.” Williams now lives briefly with her mother while she builds credit and saves to buy a house. She’s almost there.
Singletary also has a prison ministry, showing inmates what they’re going to need to do financially when they get out of prison. She loves teaching inmates about finances, both at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup and with her husband at the men’s Central Maryland Correctional Facility.
“It’s so wonderful to see people who have been thrown away do well. I get that these are people who’ve done some horrible things, but they are also people who got lost," Singletary says. "We can’t throw them away. Most of them are going to come out and if we don’t figure out how to reintegrate them into society, they’re going to go right back in. I tell people to think of it selfishly, if they can’t do it with open hearts. If we can reform them, they are not going to be out robbing and selling drugs.”
One challenge they’ll face is temptation to cut corners. They have been without, living in small cells. They will emerge into a gotta-have-it world and will need self-control.
During prison workshops, Singletary and her husband role play how conversations might go. She challenges prisoners to halve already-meager commissary rations to get a sense of budgeting.
It bothers her that it’s so hard for former inmates to find work on the outside, making it hard to avoid trouble. "We have to figure out how to employ them. They can’t be singled out for the rest of their lives if they’ve served their time.”
Home and heart
The woman who often turns mentoring into friendships is dedicated to family life. Before her mother died, the two women reconnected. One of her brothers is very involved with her prison work. It's all tied together, her relationships forged and strengthened by her faith, her financial health freeing her to bless others with part of her bounty as she feels moved to do so.
At home, Singletary relaxes, but doesn’t relax the rules. Their family life has a lot of structure, she says. Fridays they watch movies at home, with popcorn. She and Kevin have date nights. Much of their life centers around First Baptist Church of Glenarden.
Besides Prosperity Partners, they meet with four couples regularly and hold each other accountable for their marriages. She and Kevin are learning what it takes to be better disciples, which means being better people. She calls her life a lot of fun.
"I'm not on the front page. I will probably never win a Pulitzer," says Singletary. “But I hope what I do matters to readers.”
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