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. Locking in gains?
2. Trustworthy sources of information
3. Giving up on old car
4. Making money from a hobby
5. Eating out is normal?
6. Preparing for automated workforce
7. Having control over your life
8. Frugal Keurig for the holidays?
9. Musical instruments for children
10. Starting a Roth IRA
11. Cheap juicing?
12. Preparing for presidential change
Based on some recent reader feedback, it’s probably worth taking a look at The Simple Dollar and who writes for it.
I’m Trent Hamm, the primary writer for The Simple Dollar. The majority of the content that comes out on The Simple Dollar in a week is written by me. I founded the site in 2006 and have been writing for the site ever since.
In 2011, I sold the site, mostly because management of the site was taking up so much of my time that I was no longer able to write, which was the part of The Simple Dollar that I enjoyed the most. Part of the arrangement was that I would stick around over the long term as the primary writer for the site.
However, it’s a pretty poor idea to have me be the only writer for the site. What happens if something happens to me and I’m no longer able to write? I might get sick or get hurt or just outright quit. So, naturally, they want to have other writers in place to take up the reins if something unexpected or undesirable were to happen.
(I’m not unhappy in the least with the owners of the site. They give me almost complete free rein to write about whatever I think is useful and productive personal finance advice. The only guidance I’ve ever received from them are some vague word count targets. They’re completely hands off in terms of editing or content of my writing.)
Sometimes, people read the site and aren’t aware that two different articles on the site are actually written by different people. Although the other writers and I tend to agree on most points, you’ll occasionally find some areas of disagreement, such as whether or not it’s a good idea to buy used furniture (I wouldn’t buy anything upholstered unless it came from a very reputable place, for example). You also might find changing viewpoints from the same writer over time – I know that I don’t fully agree with every personal finance perspective I had several years ago.
So, if you find a specific point that doesn’t seem to match up with something else you read in another article, check who those articles are written by and also whether they’re written on similar dates.
My brother was insisting over the weekend that everyone should be locking in their gains because the stock market is so high. He was telling everyone that they should move their investments into bonds and cash and real estate and keep them out of stocks until they’re quite a bit lower than they are right now.
This makes a lot of sense in the “buy low sell high” way but you have always advocated for “sit and forget it” strategy. What do you think?
Timing the market – the “buy low, sell high” strategy, in other words – only tends to look good in the rear view mirror. With the power of hindsight, we can point to the “highs” and “lows” of the stock market and know when we should have bought and sold, and when you make calculations based on those optimum dates, yes, you’re going to make more money than you would have following almost any other strategy.
The problem is that it’s essentially impossible to predict the “bottom” and the “top” as they are happening. Yes, the stock market is at or near all-time highs right now, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t continue going up from here. It might do that. It might go down. It’s essentially impossible to predict.
The best thing an ordinary investor can do is buy stocks and hold them for the long term and then sell them only when they actually need the money or when they’re following a long-term strategy to move that money into something less volatile. Unless you are a day trader or someone deeply focused on the daily shifts of a market, you shouldn’t be making moves based on the ups and downs of that particular market. In fact, the day-to-day values shouldn’t matter much at all to you.
You should just sit tight with your current strategy, in other words.
I’m feeling highly disillusioned with the media recently and find myself not trusting anything I read from any source. How do you find sources of information that you trust enough to actually use their information/advice for personal decisions?
In general, I don’t trust the “news” much at all, especially in terms of making personal decisions. I’ve found again and again that news tends to be inaccurate. It’s often written in a high-pressure deadline environment where people are racing to get a “scoop” and to grab the attention of a particular audience. It’s often not factually correct and written from a particular slant.
Instead, I tend to trust long-term analysis with a lot of sources much, much more. I tend to trust well-regarded books that are well-sourced or books that make an argument that explains their reasoning in depth. I’ll trust a book like Your Money or Your Life or The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing much more than I will trust an article hyping some “trend” at the Wall Street Journal. In terms of periodicals, I tend to trust the writing in feature articles much more than “quick takes,” as they’re usually much more in depth with a lot more research behind them.
Part of the reason for this is that I don’t make meaningful life decisions or make up my mind about issues without a lot of information, generally from several different sources, and I tend to trust books and long-form reporting more than anything else. If a source has a reputation of providing “news” and opinion that is slanted toward a particular political viewpoint, I tend to regard it less, to the point that I don’t bother reading it. Every news source has some biases, of course, but it’s pretty easy to eliminate ones that have excessive bias.
When do you know it is time to give up on an old car? I have a 1998 Mercury Sable with 190,000 miles on it. I use it for a 9 mile round trip commute to work. I have had several major repairs done to it but none recently. It seems to run fine. But I was talking to a mechanic recently and he told me without looking at the car that late 90s Sables rarely last that long and I should think about trading it. Seems like I should wait for warning signs from my actual car to do so. What should I do?
My honest suggestion is that you should either be confident enough about what’s under the hood of your car to do the maintenance work yourself or you should be taking your car to a trusted mechanic for all of your maintenance work (and that means not a “quick oil change” place). Following a maintenance schedule and paying attention to what you see under the hood and what you hear when you’re driving is the key to maximizing the life of a car.
You’re correct: there’s no real reason to trade off a car until there are warning signs of major problems or repairs in the future. A good repairperson will be able to tell you of those things in advance and you’ll be able to notice early signs yourself if you’re following your own maintenance schedule and listening and paying attention to your car.
Interestingly, my wife had a 1999 Mercury Sable that she drove to about 175,000 miles before trading it in on her current car, a 2009 Toyota Prius. It served her well until the last few thousand miles or so.
My favorite hobby in the world is to go hiking on trails. What I love to do is go to a fresh new state park, hike on trails until I find somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, eat a lunch out of my backpack, read for an hour or two, and then hike back. It’s a great way to spend a Saturday.
While this is almost a zero-cost hobby, there are some expenses involved. I am trying to think of ways to cover those costs. Any thoughts?
One suggestion that immediately comes to mind is to get a GoPro camera and attach it to a hat that you wear while hiking. Record video of your entire hike (turning it off when you stop to read) and then, when you have a free evening, edit it into a ten minute video or so giving the highlights of your hike. You can use simple video editing software to add basic narration to the video and some video captions and the like.
You can then take this video and upload it to Youtube, enabling ads. Label it with the name of your video series along with the name of the park and trail that you walked.
You’d be surprised how many views this kind of video would get. I often look for Youtube videos of trails and things like that when considering a trip to a state or national park and would probably end up watching your videos. For you, the only thing that would change is that you’d have a tiny camera on your hat and you’d spend some free time on weeknight evenings editing videos.
You could even make some “meta-videos” covering all of the trails in a particular state park and giving recommendations to new hikers while videos from the various trails are running. I’d definitely watch this type of video.
I used to think that your comments about eating at home to save money were kind of silly. I grew up eating at home and at my first job that’s what most people did. Everyone bought leftovers to work and we usually ate leftovers together in the break room.
Switched jobs in September and now everything is completely different. Everyone goes out for lunch every day. I bring in my leftovers most every day but I eat alone or with one old janitor guy.
It turns out that almost none of my coworkers ever eat at home. They eat out for literally every meal. The only time they eat at home is when they bring home some leftovers from a restaurant meal and microwave them. I suggested having a dinner party and they all looked around like I had suggested something insane.
Turns out that norms are different everywhere you go. I go out for lunch now about once a week just to talk to coworkers but I still would way rather eat leftovers and I do almost every day.
I worked in two different office environments over the years. One of them was pretty mild in terms of going out for lunch – it was perhaps once a week and even those lunches were moderately priced. The other was somewhat more frequent, but even then, leftovers weren’t seen as anathema. Having said that, I hung out with a young professional group for a while and almost none of them ate at home ever. I don’t believe they even took home leftovers at restaurants. I often ate dinner with them during my earliest professional years (transitioning slowly to eating dinner with Sarah after our marriage).
In other words, I don’t think it’s unusual at all to find professionals – particularly younger professionals – who just don’t eat at home or prepare their own food. Quite often, it’s a revelation to young professionals that it’s way cheaper to prepare your own meals at home rather than eating out, but even then, the idea that cooking at home is somehow hard adds resistance to eating primarily at home.
It’s not hard. It’s actually pretty easy. Once you become practiced, it’s usually easier to make something simple at home than to eat out. I’d far rather make most simple things at home than to eat out.
The problem is habit. Many people get into a habit of eating out for every meal and thus moving away from that habit is hard. It’s like breaking any other habit. People are creatures of routine.
I am 34 years old and currently work as a lab tech for [a large agricultural company]. I have been reading a lot about automation coming to more and more industries and it has me concerned in a lot of ways. I am worried to a small degree about losing my own job but in a much larger degree about what rampant unemployment in the future will bring about. What can I be doing now to prepare for an automated workforce?
There are several things you can do.
One big thing you can do is get yourself into the strongest financial position possible while jobs are still prevalent. If you have a lot of money in the bank, you can handle societal changes that might have a negative impact on your potential employment. You can just walk away.
Another thing you can do is pursue careers in areas that are hard to directly replace with automation. Creative careers are definitely one area where this is true. Software engineering will almost assuredly remain a hot field. I would avoid any career where automation is clearly on the horizon.
You should also diversify your career options, if possible. Start a side gig in an area very different than your current career so that if one of them falters, you can rely on the other one. It’s great advice for anyone.
I recently saw an interview somewhere where the interviewer asked the person what they thought success was and the person thought that success was measured by the percentage of one’s life that a person has control over. Made me think about financial success and how it gives you a lot more control over how and where you work, household chores, etc. Thoughts?
I agree completely with that sentiment. Almost every major professional and financial choice I’ve made in the last decade has been to expand the amount of my life that I have control over.
Right now, I have a job where I can basically write whatever I want and I have no set “hours” other than meeting due dates and word counts. I can work in a coffee shop in the morning or in my sweatpants in the basement late in the evening or whatever else I want to do. I am able to be at home every day when my kids leave for school and there when they get home from school, with the ability to focus on them.
To achieve that, I had to give up income. There’s no two ways about it – I would be earning a lot more money if I sacrificed some of that freedom and control. It’s not worth it for me. We live a life that doesn’t require a lot of income, so it’s a trade that works. I might not have tons of stuff, but I have a lot of control over my life. That’s a trade I’m extremely happy with.
So my mother has not subtly hinted that she wants a Keurig coffee pot for Christmas. Most days she only drinks one cup of coffee so having a full coffee pot seems like a waste. The thought of hundreds of more of those plastic cups in the landfills bothers me a lot as does the continuous expense (almost $1 per cup? at home? seems like a ripoff). Is there a better way to set up single cup brewing that’s easy for my mom?
For starters, Keurig makes a reusable filter that works in their coffee pots called the My K-Cup. You just refill it with whatever coffee you prefer, pop it into the Keurig coffee pot like a normal pod, and then instead of tossing it when it’s done, you just wash it, let it dry, and reuse it. Keurig makes an official one and there are many unofficial options.
Assuming your mother lives alone and is only ever going to make one cup at a time, I’d get her a very small K-50 pot, which is very inexpensive and works with the reusable K-Cups. It’ll fit nicely in almost any kitchen and does work with the disposable K-Cup pods if you so choose.
In other words, a good gift idea for your mom is to give her a K-50 and a couple reusable K-Cup pods so she can fill them herself with whatever coffee she likes. If she chooses to use the individual pods, that’s her choice, but you’ve given her a path to less expensive and more environmentally friendly coffee options.
My oldest child started in band in the fall and got a “loaner” instrument for the first semester but now he wants to continue and we’re faced with buying or renting an instrument. The local music store rents out instruments for $40 a month which seems expensive. We have found several other options. We have found used instruments on eBay in the $200-300 range. We also found new instruments in the same range but they seem to be imports and have some reviews where the instruments broke easily. A new high quality instrument is really expensive. Are there factors we are not thinking about? What do you recommend?
If you’re confident that your child is going to stick with it for more than another year, then buying is obviously the better choice. It only takes about eight months of renting at those prices to exceed the cost of owning a used instrument or a new low-quality instrument.
My honest recommendation would be to go used here. Look for a used instrument from a reputable eBay reseller that’s from a reputable manufacturer, or else see what used instruments your local music store has in stock. Most used instruments are in surprisingly good shape – they often come from people who played an instrument in school for a while and then gave up on it, so they’re not heavily practiced.
We’ve had two success stories following just this practice (both flutes) and so our home has two wonderful used flutes that cost us far less than a year of renting a flute.
My father announced at Thanksgiving that he’s starting a Roth IRA for each of the children for Christmas with $1000 to start. We are supposed to open an account before Christmas and then we will be gifted the $1000 for seed money. I have been thinking about a Roth for the 9 months or so I have read your blog. Recommendations for opening one?
In a word, Vanguard. They’re the investment house I trust the most.
I’m assuming that once you’ve opened your Roth IRA, you’re going to at least contribute a little to it. Even if you just contribute a tiny amount, like $10 a week or something, that money will build up surprisingly fast.
For a first investment with Vanguard, your choices are fairly limited with a $1,000 initial investment. If I were you, I’d put it into Vanguard STAR and then start contributing a little each week or month. When you get to the $3,000 mark, move it into either a Target Retirement Fund or into the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index (if you’re in your twenties, that’s a perfectly good choice).
Good luck. That’s a great gift from your father.
My brother got me a juicer for our holiday gift exchange (a Breville). While I like the idea of juicing in concept, it seems to me that it’s just cheaper to eat the fruit, right? I sat down and did the math on what you have to put in there to get juice and it seems like you’re basically just removing the pulp. It seems antifrugal to “juice” an apple instead of just eating one.
Choosing between juicing, blending, and simply eating the raw fruit mostly comes down to your preferred way of consuming it. Juicing fruits and vegetables makes for a juice – it’s going to be a relatively thin liquid that contains some of, but not all of, the nutrients in the vegetable or fruit. Blending means you’re drinking the fruit or vegetable in a smoothie form, often with enough water or yogurt or other things added to make it into a thick drink. Or you can just eat the raw fruit.
It comes down to personal preference. Personally, I prefer a thick smoothie versus juice, any day of the week. It’s more filling for virtually the same calorie count and I think it tastes better and feels better in the mouth. Some don’t like the thickness, though, and prefer juice. Others – like, perhaps, yourself – prefer just eating fruits and veggies.
Your brother probably gave this to you because he finds value in juicing or hopes that you’ll adopt a healthier diet than what he perceives that you currently have. Maybe it doesn’t work for your current dietary choices, but it is a caring gift.
I don’t want to turn this into a political shouting match but I am wondering what you think people should do to prepare for the upcoming change in presidency. Are there smart financial moves that people should be taking?
Regardless of your political feelings, the fact remains that we are about to experience a shift in personnel not only in the White House, but also in the House and Senate, and those shifts will have some impact on our lives.
The problem is that we don’t actually know yet what kind of impact those changes are going to have. We don’t know what bills will be proposed. We don’t know what laws will be passed. We certainly don’t know the long term economic impact of those changes.
My advicetoday is the same that it is after every major election: don’t change anything suddenly. Instead, wait and watch. See what kinds of actual changes are getting passed and assess for yourself if those changes warrant any personal finance changes for you.
I think that making financial moves in advance of what you think the next president might do is very premature considering that the new president has not taken any action yet and will not do so for more than a month. Be patient, stay with your current course of action, and only make changes if the changes in our nation’s policies actually warrant it.
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.