Updated on 02.23.16

Questions About Fast Casual, Amazon Credit, BPA, and More!

Trent Hamm

Reader Mailbag

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to five word summaries. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Can’t save enough for independence
2. Challenges after quitting
3. Board game box repairs
4. Using Amazon credit
5. Starting a writing career
6. Stipend from parents
7. Toilet advice
8. Actually using a pocket notebook
9. Handling terminal illness
10. Restaurant complaints
11. Tipping at fast casual restaurants
12. Tipping at fast casual restaurants
13. Kids and electronic devices
14. BPA and used plastics
15. Free budgeting software

My son and daughter are in summer book clubs, where they receive rewards for reading a certain amount each week through a program at our local library.

Both of them – and especially my daughter – are so into the program that we’ve actually had to put a bit of a leash on them. My son really, really wants to read ahead on his book club book, and my daughter is plowing through novels that are quite a bit above her grade level.

If you have kids, check with your local library and see if they have a summer reading program. My kids – especially my two elementary aged ones – love it.

Q1: Can’t save enough for independence

I am 26 years old, single, and plan to stay that way. I love love love what you and other sites write about financial independence but I just don’t see how it can possibly work in my case.

I work as a dental hygienist and make about $48,000 per year as I just started working. I have an associate of science degree in dental hygiene and have a small amount ($7,000) in student loans that I am repaying.

My bills are: $800/month rent, $300/month food, $75/month student loans, $200/month utilities, $100/month cell phone, $50/month internet, $200/month going out with friends, $50/month insurance, $150/month car payment, $100/month gas. That adds up to about $2,000/month, but my real spending usually comes close to $2,300/month because of irregular stuff. I feel like I live pretty cheap.

My take home at work is about $3,000/month. This leaves me $700/month to save with, which is $8,400/year.

I figure I will need to be able to live off 4% of my investment per year, so about $30,000 a year to have my current lifestyle, so that gives me a total of $750,000.

According to my math, I don’t reach that total until my late 50s, no matter how I slice it. At that point, I’m not really retiring early, I’m just retiring.

I could cut back further in my life or spend all my spare time working more, but I would just be miserable.

If a single person making almost $50,000 a year can’t do this, who can?
– Jenny

You bring up some good points about financial independence, but I want to throw a few things back at you.

First of all, you’re going to be debt free before too long. That car payment is going to go away at some point, as will the student loan bill. That’s an extra $225 per month. Now, you probably want to save $100 of that each month for your next car replacement cycle, but that’s still another $125 per month that you didn’t have before.

You’re also going to receive some raises in your field. The national average salary for a dental hygienist is somewhere around $70,000 per year. Your salary is likely going to grow over time at a much faster rate than inflation, so you’ll be able to save more in the future.

You’ve already discarded the idea of money saving measures, but even in your little blurb, there are clear opportunities for saving money. If you’re paying $100/month for your single cell phone, you probably have an unlimited data package, so why not use that for your home internet and cut the internet bill? That’s just one idea.

You’re able to save right now, but it’s likely that you’ll be able to save more in the future, even the fairly near future. That moves your “retirement” date from your late fifties to your early fifties or maybe even your late forties, at least by my back of the envelope figures.

It’s not as bleak as you think. Keep working and things will get easier.

Q2: Challenges after quitting

About two weeks ago, I turned in my resignation at work. I gave a full month’s notice, turning it in on the first and leaving work on the 30th. I received an offer from another company in the area.

In the last few days, my boss has basically offered me everything I’ve ever requested at work in order to get me to stay. Two telecommuting days a week, a 60% increase in pay, and an additional 0.5 hours of vacation time accumulated per week. If that had been my original condition at work, I would have never applied for another job.

Now, should I take this offer? Should I take this offer to my new employer? Or should I do nothing?
– Daniel

Here’s the question: do you truly trust your boss? Do you think that he/she could have given you this offer at any time but chose to wait until his/her back was against the wall to give it to you? Or do you think your resignation gave him/her enough leverage against higher levels of management to be able to give you this offer?

Unless you’re pretty confident that the story was much like that second question, I’d leave. You need to be able to trust that your boss is really working in your best interests or, at the very least, strongly considering and valuing those interests against the pressures of his/her own managers, and if you can’t trust in that, you shouldn’t be working there.

For me, the bigger the company, the more likely I would be to stay. If this were a small company and your boss were the business owner, I’d be out of there, because that boss is basically knowingly paying you less than you were worth to the business in order to pocket more profits.

Q3: Board game box repairs

I know how much you enjoy board games. Do you have any tips for how to repair the corners that always seem to come apart? Regular tape doesn’t last too long.
– Kelly

My usual trick for split box corners is to use packing tape – the sticky clear stuff that they sell in big fat rolls at most stores. For most normal boxes, I put two pieces that wrap around that broken corner. This works for most box corner splits.

I find this is really good to do proactively. If you notice a corner that’s about to split. go ahead and apply the packing tape because that corner will split in the near future.

Trust me – a split corner can eventually lead to split edges and the box falling apart, and that can be a big problem with a game. Packing tape is the best solution I’ve found.

Q4: Using Amazon credit

I have about $200 in Amazon credit and I want to use it on something financially smart. What do you suggest?
– Alison

If I were in your shoes, I’d buy a copy of Your Money or Your Life (which is the best personal finance book out there, in my opinion).

I’d spend the rest on LED bulbs to replace the incandescent bulbs in your home. The LED bulbs will give you a drop in your energy bill and also eliminate the cost of bulb replacement for a long, long time, and they’ve finally reached a point where they’re basically indistinguishable from incandescents.

If I already had those things, I’d sit on the credit for a while and then use it for my Christmas shopping.

Q5: Starting a writing career

Do you have any suggestions for starting a writing career in my spare time? I can afford time each day for writing, so how can I make it happen?
– Jess

My first recommendation would be to assign yourself a daily block of time to focus on writing, ideally the same block of time each day if you can pull that off. My best block of time is the early morning, as I’ve found that I write best before noon. I tend to do the vast majority of my writing all in one chunk in the morning hours.

Pencil that time off. Make it uninterruptible. This is what you do between 6 and 8, period.

During that time, give yourself a daily word target. For example, try to write, say, 1,000 words of a first draft, or revise 2,000 words of a second or later draft.

Once you’ve got that in place, just write. Try to complete projects of various size. Don’t worry about how to share them or sell them at first; don’t bother with it until you actually have good stuff to share.

That’s really the secret of writing – workmanlike consistency.

Q6: Stipend from parents

I’m about to get married in August. I recently learned that my bride-to-be receives a stipend from her parents each month – $2,000 straight into her checking account (I think the amount is such so that they fall below their gift exemption for her, so each parent gives her $1,000 a month). They plan on actually increasing this when she’s married (I assume some would be a gift to me) and will probably increase it more if we have kids.

This feels to me like a recipe for living beyond our means. If we just assume that money is there and live accordingly and they change their mind about it then we are in trouble.

My wife saves about 15% of her income in her 401(k) but that’s the limit of her savings. I think things will go better if we bank all of her parents’ contributions for the future and just live off of what we make. That might require her to cut her 401(k) contributions.

I’ve talked to her about this but she seems to think this isn’t a big deal and that her parents will always give her the money and an inheritance when they die. Her dad is a multimillionaire and her mom is involved in politics. If you follow politics you may have heard of her.
– Charles

I agree with you, actually. If I were in your boat, I would try to live without the “gift” from your soon-to-be in-laws. I’d bank that money for the future and use it on things you’ll need down the road, like a house down payment and so on. Plus it keeps you from being dependent on that money.

There are a lot of reasons for that money to go away. A serious rift between you guys and her parents could cause that. A serious downturn in her parents’ fortunes could cause that, too. You shouldn’t rely on that income.

Even if you choose not to bank it, try very, very hard to never reach a point where you rely on that money. When you do, you cede a lot of power to her parents. You give them the power to dictate terms to you in order to keep receiving that money, and that will likely never end in happiness.

Q7: Toilet advice

We recently discovered a slow leak from our toilet tank that was quietly dripping down the side and damaging the floor from the base of the toilet. A plumber looked at it and said that we need to replace it. So we have questions.

First, do you know of any ways to repair a leak like this? We looked around online but couldn’t really find anything that looked reputable.

Second, can someone with basically no plumbing experience replace a toilet? That would sure save us some cash.
– Mark

The problem is that from your story I don’t know whether or not the plumber is giving you an honest assessment or not. It might be something simple to fix and he’s just trying to sell you a toilet, or it might really be something problematic. It’s hard to know.

The first thing I would do is get a second plumber’s opinion. Contact a different plumber in your area and get their input before you do anything. There might be a house call fee involved, but if it’s a new plumber, they’ll probably want to impress you to get future business so they’ll fix it for you if it’s just a minor issue.

If you do have to replace it, a toilet replacement isn’t that hard of a task if you do it slow. If I were you, I’d study up by watching some Youtube videos or checking out a book or two from the library and see whether or not you feel comfortable trying that task.

Q8: Actually using a pocket notebook

How do you actually use pocket notebooks? It seems like every time I use one it ends up being a complete jumble of notes and uselessness.
– Jim

This could be a full post. I’m going to summarize very briefly here, but if you want a full post on it, send me a message on Facebook and let me know.

I use my pocket notebooks to write down anything and everything I will want to know later – tasks, interesting ideas, pieces of information, notes from classes, and so on. It all goes in there.

Once or twice a day, I process it. I put that stuff where it needs to go. Tasks go on my real to-do list. I deal with the ideas and pieces of information in whatever way makes sense for them. For class notes, I like to re-copy them into electronic form as a method for studying them.

I usually draw a double line at whatever point in the notebook I’ve managed to process through. That way, I know that the next time I process the notebook, I need to start at that double line and work to the end of the notes, adding a double line there.

That sums up the basics. Yes, if you look at mine, it’s a jumble of notes, but I keep processing them all the time.

Q9: Handling terminal illness

I am 54 years old. I have a terminal illness I have not disclosed to my wife or to my three adult children. I have come to terms with it and have made financial preparations to make sure that my wife will be just fine financially.

Here’s my dilemma: I just want my normal daily life to go on as long as possible, but I know if I tell them they will want to do a lot of “special” things. I don’t really want to spend my last year traveling to places I really don’t want to go to because everyone thinks they’re creating something “special” for me or have a bunch of parties or anything like that. I just want to live my life like always, quit my job when my health makes it difficult, go into hospice if needed, and pass away. I want to say a few private goodbyes but that’s it. I’m not sure that telling them will really help their grieving process but I know it won’t help mine.

This is something I am really struggling with. It has been harder than dealing with the cancer news.
– Charlie

This is a personal and difficult question to answer. It has a lot to do with your family dynamics and personalities.

In my own situation, I would tell my wife much earlier than I would tell my children. Your wife is tied to you financially, emotionally, and otherwise, more so than your children are. Your children will not see a major change in their day-to-day life. Your wife will see a huge change.

If I were you, I’d tell your wife, then I’d hold off on telling your children for a while. I agree with you that a long waiting period for the passing of someone you really love can be more painful than a short or sudden period, but they also probably want to have some conversations with you while you are still of sound body and mind.

However, none of this translates to your own family’s dynamic. That’s what really matters here. I can’t tell you the right answer for your family, only how I would handle it in my own family.

Q10: Restaurant complaints

One of my best friends does something that bothers me a lot. We’ll go to restaurants and if there is even something very very minor about her food that she doesn’t like, she complains to the waiter and usually to the manager. Sometimes she’ll get her food comped for things like a dry bun on a sandwich.

She says if she’s paying good money for food, it should be good food. I find it embarrassing and try to avoid eating out with her any more. Thoughts?
– Natalya

It’s hard for me to say without knowing how minor the issues are.

If there is a serious problem with a meal at a restaurant, such as the dish not being what you ordered or something in it that poses any sort of health risk, you should immediately return it to the server. This should be automatic and a good manager will refund your costs.

But how small does the issue have to be before you return it? I think it’s a grey area and I think that you and your friends are in different parts of that grey area.

Yes, she may be trying to scam them, but I can’t really tell from your description. It just sounds like she’s picky and really observant about her food, which isn’t that big of a deal.

Honestly, if I were you, I would just ignore it when your friend does this. She has a slightly different view of restaurants and restaurant service than you do. Don’t let it be a big deal.

Q11: Pay per view purchasing

My friends and I go to a local bar for each UFC pay per view to watch the fights. They have a $10 cover charge during the pay per view. I can get a high-def UFC pay per view at home for $60. I have thought about just inviting ten or so guys to come over, charging them each $5 and a cold beer for the PPV and just watching it at home. It’s cheaper for my friends by $5 and about the same price for me except that my beer is free.
– Adam

This is a great idea. I had a friend in college that used to do this with pro wrestling pay per views. He’d invite 15 guys over to watch it as a group and charge everyone like $5 and that would get you two slices of pizza and two sodas too. He handed everyone a Solo cup with their name on it for water or other beverages too. It worked well for him – he made a little bit of money during most pay per views but he had some cleanup afterwards, and we all got a fun time and a meal for $5.

The only catch I can see is that if you’re only inviting 8-10 friends, you may end up eating more of the cost. I would charge your friends $10 and then spend most of the profit on beverages and food for everyone to share. So if 10 people come, you have $100 in your hand. $60 goes to the PPV, $30 goes to beer or pizzas, and $10 goes in your pocket for your cleanup efforts.

Q12: Tipping at fast casual restaurants

We often eat at fast casual restaurants for lunch – places like Noodles and Co. and Chipotle. Whenever I get my receipt there there’s always a spot for a tip. My friend always tips 15% but I don’t see the point. Why should I tip? They’re providing zero table service at all.
– Dan

I think it’s a fuzzy area, but I don’t think there’s a thing wrong with not tipping.

To me, a “fast casual” restaurant is just a fancy fast food restaurant, and I wouldn’t tip at Burger King, so I wouldn’t tip at Chipotle.

Tipping is something I do when there’s table service – meaning they bring your food, refill your drinks, and take your requests back to the kitchen – or when an employee does something exceptional to help me. Neither of those things happen at a fast casual place most of the time.

Q13: Kids and electronic devices

How do you handle your kids and their screen time? Do you limit it to an hour each day? Or do you use other strategies?
– Miranda

Most days, we don’t limit them. They do a variety of things on their own – coloring pictures, reading books, playing with analog toys, playing in the yard – mixed in with screen time activities, so it hasn’t been a noticeable problem.

Lately, we’ve been implementing family-wide “screen free Sundays” (with the exception of me if I need to work). That means no cell phones, no tablets, no computers, and no television. We find other things to do – reading books (we allow exceptions for the e-ink Kindles), going outside, playing board games, working on hobbies (I often brew beer on such days). It’s working well so far, and it’s actually been really great for the adults.

I don’t have any real problems with screen time as long as it’s part of doing lots of other things, too.

Q14: BPA and used plastics

How do you check for BPA when you buy used plastic items?
– Chloe

For those unaware, BPA is short for bisphenol-A, a component of many plastics that has hormone-like qualities that have made many health groups concerned about its use in products that would be used to serve food (such as drinking cups). Today, plastic items that would contain food or drink are often made with BPA-free plastics, but that wasn’t true for older items.

If this is something that concerns you (and I’m probably in that camp), just avoid buying secondhand plastic items that you would use for eating or drinking. Buy glass or metal ones instead.

Honestly, my primary concern with it would be in baby bottles and other items a baby or toddler might use. The long term health effects of BPA are still really unclear.

Q15: Free budgeting software

You Need a Budget looks cool but it is expensive. Do you have any good free options?
– Dan

My favorite free budgeting tool is Pear Budget, hands down. It does require that you have a spreadsheet program on your computer, but you can download OpenOffice if you don’t.

Pear Budget does most of the stuff that YNAB and other budgeting tools do, but it’s a free spreadsheet that does all of the calculations and stuff in the background. I used it happily for a long time.

There are many other free personal finance tools out there, such as Mint, but Pear Budget is my pick.

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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  1. Coriander says:

    Q12: We tip at our regular fast casual only. Its helps them remember us. When we need something special, they go out of their way to help us.

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