Updated on 09.19.16

Questions About Checklists, Birthday Parties, Firewood, Shaving, and More!

Trent Hamm

Reader Mailbag

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to summaries of five or fewer words. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Working two jobs at once
2. Checklists?
3. Birthday party gifts
4. Building professional network without spending
5. Uses for old tablets
6. Cold brewed coffee?
7. Depressed after financial turnaround
8. Retiring lean or not?
9. Dealing with greedy adult child
10. Cheap sources for firewood
11. Dollar Shave Club thoughts?
12. Garden update

I find that the older I get, the more and more I see my parents in my own behaviors.

When I was little, I used to think it was kind of goofy how my father used to read a book in bed until he literally fell asleep still holding the book some nights. I find myself doing the same thing.

When I was little, I often thought my mother was overly cautious about simple things like crossing the road or walking through a parking lot. Now I admonish my own children in almost the same exact way as my mother.

When I was little, I thought it was weird how my parents sometimes reacted with even stronger emotions than I did to my childhood successes and failures. Now my heart melts when I see a great picture that my daughter has drawn or see my son set a personal best in the 5K and earn a trophy in his division.

When I was little, I never understood why my mother or father would spend hours on weird little projects like cleaning out the refrigerator or caulking windows. In the last few months, I’ve spent hours cleaning out the refrigerator and caulking windows.

When I was little, I didn’t understand at all why it was such a big deal to my father when I would get involved with his hobbies as it always seemed to fill him with joy. Now, I don’t share all of his hobbies, but I share some of them, and I’m personally filled with joy when my children share in my hobbies with me.

During my teens and early twenties, I wanted to believe I was really different than my parents. Now, I see that I’m very, very much like them, in a lot of ways.

Q1: Working two jobs at once

I currently have an IT job where we work in bursts. Most of the time we don’t do much, but if bad things happen we get very very busy for a while. During the downtime we’re allowed to do whatever we want – no restrictions on computer or internet use on our individual workstations.

I have the opportunity to pick up a second job of sorts that involves some programming that I can easily handle. It’s very project oriented meaning they don’t really care too much when I work as long as I meet deliverable deadlines.

Is it ethical to do work for the second job while at the first job?
– Andrew

If your company has a clear policy of doing whatever you want during downtime and you think that the downtime plus time you use at home is enough to fulfill the demands of the second job, I’d say go for it.

My sincere suggestion is to keep living exactly as you are and take the entire proceeds from the second job and bank them for the future, whether it’s paying off debts, saving for a big future expense (like a car or a house), saving rapidly for retirement, or some other goal like going back to school or launching your own business.

This isn’t to say that at some point your primary employer won’t change policies. You may find yourself with a contract that’s difficult to fulfill if you suddenly have more responsibilities at work or the usage policy on work computers changes.

Q2: Checklists?

In a recent post, you mentioned using a personal checklist for developing daily habits and you’re rolling these out to your kids too? Could you talk more about them?
– Stephanie

A little over a month ago, I printed off a personal checklist of basic things I want to achieve every day. Most of them were geared around establishing a few new positive habits, such as keeping my office organized and getting more exercise.

My “reward” for completing that checklist each day is that I add $2 to my hobby budget for the month. I started this by reducing my hobby budget each month by $40, so in order to get back to my “normal” budget, I have to nail the checklist for at least 20 days, and if I do it every day for the full month, it means I have an extra $20 for hobby spending. It’s a really minor motivation, I know, but you’d be surprised how much it really helps.

I actually laminated this personal checklist and I check off the items with a dry erase marker each day as I do them. They’re simple things, like go on a mile-plus walk three times a day (three checkboxes), do my fitness ladder twice a day (two checkboxes), properly put away five items in my office (five checkboxes), and spend 15 minutes on a household cleaning project that’s been neglected (one checkbox).

Since this has helped me greatly in establishing a daily routine, we’re in the process of rolling out a similar checklist for our children. Rather than a financial reward, though, the idea will be that they don’t have free play time until the list is complete. The list won’t be long enough to deny them significant free play time each day, though.

Q3: Birthday party gifts

We live in an area where there is a strong custom for children to have birthday parties and for the invited guests to bring a small $10-15 present for the birthday child. I don’t mind spending the money for the gifts, but when it comes to hosting our own party, my husband and I are pretty uninterested in having our child receive a pile of cheap unwanted gifts. Most of them will never get played with and it encourages greed.

First, what’s the easiest way to get this message across to parents? Second, how do we talk to our child about this?
– Janine

There is a similar custom in our area, but we simply don’t worry about it. Our method for keeping it sensible is to have very small birthday parties with maybe 3-4 close friends who are actually good at picking sensible gifts that our children would like because of that close friendship.

If you’ve decided to have a “gift-free” birthday, my suggestion is to find a way for children who are coming to not come empty-handed, as that can cause some real awkwardness in a family that’s used to a gift-giving culture. Put a note on the invitation saying something like “in lieu of a gift, please bring a handmade birthday card!” or something to that effect so that the children coming to the party don’t arrive empty-handed if that’s outside the local cultural norm.

As for talking to your child, focus on all of the stuff your child already has and whether or not it makes sense to get any more things, especially when it’s stuff that he/she may not even like or want. Our children understood that train of thought pretty clearly when parents in our area have chosen to have “gift-free” birthday parties.

Q4: Building professional network without spending

So I’m trying to follow the usual career advice of building a professional network of people in my career path in my area. I’m also trying to pay off my student loans as rapidly as possible.

The problem is that everything everyone else does outside of work is ludicrously expensive. They go to $25-$30 lunches and go out to this really expensive bar after work sometimes. A lot of them seem to go skiing on the weekends and have tons of ski equipment and go to ski resorts together.

This all just seems incredibly expensive to me. How can I build some strong professional relationships with these people without abandoning my student loan progress?
– Jim

The answer is that you probably don’t.

My gut reaction is that you’re looking to build relationships with a fairly small subset of the people in your field in your area. These are probably your workplace’s version of a clique, a group of people who socialize together and probably invite newcomers to the workplace to join them in an effort to build their networks.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that these people are the be-all-end-all of people in your field or even in your area.

I’d suggest looking around the office for people who work in your field but maybe aren’t a part of that expensive routine and try to connect with them. Look for professional groups in your area and meet up with them. Try to find people on LinkedIn or other such social networking sites who live in your area and work in your field and connect with them.

Instead of paying a huge admission fee to connect to the “easy” group, put in some legwork and connect with other people. You’re likely to build strong connections there because you went out of your way to make those connections.

Q5: Uses for old tablets

Do you have any suggestions for uses for an old tablet computer? Our newest cell contract gave us a free new tablet so I upgraded mine and now I have an old one (iPad Mini 1) just sitting around. It doesn’t have much secondary value. Looking for uses for it.
– Monica

One great use for it is to put it in “picture frame” mode, as shown here. Plug it in and put it on a side table somewhere and you have yourself a great little digital picture frame. Just load it up with pictures you want and let it sit there showing them off.

Another option is to simply load it with recipes in your preferred recipe app and leave it in the kitchen as a slender cookbook. You could also throw a music or podcast or audiobook app on it for something to listen to while cooking.

You could also put a home security app on it and use it for home security purposes. You can monitor your home while you’re away to make sure it’s secure.

Those are just a few options, of course, but I’d be happy with a tablet for any of those purposes.

Q6: Cold brewed coffee?

Could you explain the cold brewed coffee thing in detail please? I don’t understand how you can have coffee without a coffee maker of some kind.
– Nancy

It’s pretty easy. All you need is a water bottle and a fine mesh sieve. You also need a coffee grinder if you want to grind your own coffee from the beans, though already-ground coffee works okay, too.

All you do is put 1/2 to 2/3 cup ground coffee into the water bottle along with 2-3 cups cold water (the exact amount varies depending on the type of coffee bean you’re using and how strong you want it – the less water and the more beans, the stronger it is). Let it sit in there for at least 12 hours – I often leave it in there for longer than that.

When you’re ready to drink it, get a couple of large glasses and put the sieve on top of one of them, then slowly pour the coffee mixture out of the water bottle through the sieve into the cup. Clean the strainer real quick, then put the sieve over the other cup and strain it again. You can strain it as often as you’d like, but I find that two usually does it and further strainings don’t really help. You can also use a coffee filter here for the straining or a cheesecloth.

The coffee you have there is really concentrated, so you’ll want to dilute it with equal parts water. You should have enough for several ordinary cups of coffee when you dilute it.

After that, just add whatever flavorings you want. Add some ice if you want it cold. Heat it up if you want it hot. It’s coffee – and good coffee, if you ask me. I honestly prefer it to coffee from the coffee pot.

Q7: Depressed after financial turnaround

In 2014 my hubby and I decided that we were sick of nonstop bills and started turning our finances around. We cut back hard on all of our spending and sold some stuff and paid off a lot of credit cards and now we are almost debt free except for our mortgage and a bit of student loan which will be gone by the end of the year.

But before this we had an exciting life. We went on trips and did stuff with friends and we stopped doing all of that to save money. Now we don’t see any of our friends hardly ever. We mostly just sit around the house and it’s depressing after a while.

I see the benefit of financial turnaround but it was not worth losing our social life. I want my life back.
– Angela

For starters, even when Sarah and I were being as tight as possible with our spending, we never just “sat around the house.” We were constantly going on walks, going to the library, going to community events, and so on.

We did have to reboot our social circles during that process, but we maintained at least a few friends and found a lot of new ones. We actually have a larger social circle now than we did when we were young professionals spending without a care in the world. It just took longer to find them.

Just try doing stuff. There are countless things to do outside the home that don’t involve spending money that do provide a great opportunity to meet people.

Q8: Retiring lean or not?

I’m 55. I was recently offered an early retirement package at work that if I couple it with my 401(k) and Social Security starting at age 67 should allow me to “retire” with about a 35% drop in annual “income.” I live pretty well and could cut a few things. Trying to decide if this is right move.
– Leon

First of all, remember that if you retire, you’re going to cut out all expenses related to work. You won’t have a commute, so you’ll spend a lot less on gas and wear and tear on your car. You won’t have to buy work clothes, either. There are probably other work expenses depending on your job, too.

Second, even though your income drops by that much, your take home income won’t drop by nearly that much. You won’t pay as much in income taxes, nor will you have to contribute to your retirement plan any more. I wouldn’t be surprised if your take home pay is just a small drop from where you’re at right now.

Not only that, if you decided you wanted more money, you can always get another job.

Given all of that, I’d probably retire now if you think you can pull it off. Retiring “lean” doesn’t sound like a bad thing to me to be honest.

Q9: Dealing with greedy adult child

I’m 72 years old. Right now my will has my entire estate going to my only son. He has basically cut me out of his life. I have seen his children twice in the last ten years and I’ve only seen him twice in the last few years and both times the visit seemed to mostly be about checking on my financial status. If I call him he tries to get off the phone as fast as possible.

I don’t want to give him a dime. How do I change my will without him knowing?
– Nathan

If I were you, I’d contact an estate lawyer with your situation. Explain what’s happening and talk to that lawyer about a plan that will ensure your money goes elsewhere.

You’ll want a plan for what you’re actually going to do with your money, though. Maybe you want to give it to a charity of some kind or set up a scholarship fund of some sort. Have a plan in mind for what you want to do with the remaining value of your estate.

I know of an older couple gave their entire estate to a trust for a little girl who lived across the street from them who visited them every day. The girl was given almost $2 million which was put into a trust for her. No one knew for sure why they did this, but the speculation was that the little girl had brought them a lot of joy in the last years of their life and they wanted to repay it. Is there anyone young in your life who is kind to you and could really use a helping hand in life? That person might be a good recipient.

You’ll also need to pick someone you trust to help make sure that your wishes are fulfilled after you pass on, and I’d strongly suggest not using your son here. Who in your life could handle this? Give that some thought, too.

One final thought: talk to your son. Part of this might just be two people who don’t know how to communicate very well. It is often hard for fathers and sons to talk openly about things, and that can sometimes lead right to a narrowing of a relationship over time.

Q10: Cheap sources for firewood

Do you have any suggestions for inexpensive places to get firewood? The price for wood around here is crazy expensive. We have a wood fireplace in our new home but we don’t have any woods of our own to cut and everyone charges so much for wood! It’s crazy!
– Janine

First of all, cutting a cord of wood and delivering it is a lot of work, no matter how you slice and dice it. A full cord is 4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet of almost solid firewood, which means someone had to fell the trees, cut them up, load the pieces up, and then deliver them. It’s also a resource that takes a long time to replenish. If you add in the additional cost of seasoning the wood (meaning the wood fills up space on the land somewhere while it dries out), you’re talking even more. For comparison’s sake, a typical pickup truck can carry about 2/3 of a cord of wood in a full load.

Depending on where you’re at, wood can easily go for $300 per cord delivered these days, and more than that if there’s a seasoning guarantee of some kind on the wood. That’s a lot of money, especially considering that if you’re using the wood furnace for heating, you can burn through that cord in 2-3 weeks.

What’s the solution? There isn’t one, sadly. With prices in that range, you’re hitting the point where it’s not really profitable to go much lower, and if you find substantially lower prices, it’s probably “black market” wood that likely came from someone’s wood storage.

What you really have to decide is whether it’s worth it for you. Is that crackling fireplace every night worth, say, $15 in wood costs?

Q11: Dollar Shave Club thoughts?

Do you have any thoughts or recommendations about Dollar Shave Club and its competitors?
– Marcus

I think they’re generally a better deal than buying cartridge razors at the local department store. I think they’re a worse deal than using a safety razor and buying individual razor blades.

Shaving with a safety razor is very different than shaving with a cartridge razor and offers a lot of risk of cutting yourself if you’re not careful. However, if you are careful and learn new techniques, that is probably your best bargain in shaving.

Having said that, I’ve tried both Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s and both offer good products. I felt that Harry’s offered better razors and DSC offered better shaving products (like shaving cream and butter) and better shipping options. The two offered fairly comparable prices. I honestly shave in the shower using shower soap, so I would choose Harry’s out of the two services (though both are good).

Q12: Garden update

How did your garden do this year?
– Tony

In a single word, disastrously.

Here in Iowa, May is really the month where you want to plant your garden and our May was a complete disaster from beginning to end, with overstuffed schedules, personal emergencies, weddings, special events, and so many other things. It was so bad that Sarah and I have jokingly described it as the “lost month.”

Our planting was haphazard at best and we didn’t really prep our garden very well. We’ve managed to get some things from what we did plant and our perennials did fairly well, but our garden – and garden output – was simply tiny this year.

We’re going to plan a lot differently for 2017, that’s for sure. I don’t want to repeat this gardening experience.

Got any questions? The best way to ask is to follow me on Facebook and ask questions directly there. I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag (which, by way of full disclosure, may also get re-posted on other websites that pick up my blog). However, I do receive many, many questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

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