Updated on 05.22.17

Questions About Housing, Soap Flakes, Gift Cards, Thermoses 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. Dealing with housing boom
2. Binge watch television with library
3. Soap flakes?
4. Very long life planning?
5. Cord cutting and TV room
6. Thermos and food safety
7. Bar or liquid soap
8. Unwanted gift cards
9. Where do I shop?
10. Old 401(k)
11. Fidget toys
12. Politics and moving

It is so easy in life to assume that some things will always remain the same. The sun will rise in the morning. That perfect couple you know will always be married. The job you’ve had for what seems like forever will keep going and going and going. You and your child have this perfect bedtime routine that you do every night.

Then, suddenly, you blink your eyes and all of it changes. The job you thought you’d have forever is almost a decade in the past. That perfect couple is divorced and incredibly negative toward each other. You no longer share that perfect little routine with your child.

Life goes on, though. If you lament what was great in the past, you miss what’s great right now. You miss out on the connections you can make with new coworkers. You miss out on different friendships that work differently than before. You miss out on new routines with your older child.

The past is beautiful sometimes. But so is the present, just in different ways. And the future is also beautiful and different yet.

Q1: Dealing with housing boom

The city I call home has gone through a housing market boom and single family homes are now selling for close to double what they were 5 years ago. It makes me so frustrated that I have changed careers and earn more (so does my husband) but that during that time housing costs skyrocketed beyond our means. How do I squelch the frustration of “missing out” and enjoy the life of a renter in a city I love? (I’m not yet interested in leaving the city for cheaper suburbs).
– Jill

So, let’s be clear here for a moment. You feel that you’re “missing out” on something by having to rent in a city and you also don’t want to move into the suburbs, so this thing that you feel you’re missing out on is home ownership near the center of a city. Your sense of “missing out” comes from the sense that you’re having to choose between two things you want – living in a city environment and actually owning a home. In the past, you believed that you would be able to make enough money to not have to choose between the two, and now the cost of home ownership in the city means that you can’t choose – you either have to live in the city and rent or live in the suburbs.

In situations like this, you simply have to decide what you value more and when you feel regret, remind yourself of what you’re really choosing. If you choose to live in the city and rent, whenever you lament home ownership, remember that you get to live in the city instead. If you choose to buy a home in the suburbs, whenever you lament not living in the city, remember that you chose to own your own home.

Having both of those options means earning more income, and that likely requires lifestyle and career choices that would squelch what you get for enjoyment from living in the city or from home ownership, because most high-income careers come with high stress.

So, you’re effectively choosing two out of three: the career-life balance you have now, living in the city, or home ownership. You can have two of them. Choose the two you like the best and don’t lament having the third, because having all three is basically impossible.

Q2: Binge watch television with library

Your answer about the cheapest way to binge watch classic TV shows was incomplete. My local library offers DVD’s of most TV shows. FREE! Doesn’t get better than that.
– Jerry

The library is always a good resource for many forms of entertainment product – books, movies, audiobooks, and so on. If you’re looking for a particular series and are willing to wait a little bit to pick it up, this is an absolutely free source for binge-watching almost every worthwhile series in the last ten year that’s come out on DVD or Blurry.

However, it does miss some things. There are some well-regarded series that haven’t been released on DVD or Bluray – The Man in the High Castle immediately comes to mind. There’s also the “wait” factor, meaning that your choice is sometimes shaped by whatever series happens to be available at the moment. There is constantly a wait list for many of the highly-regarded series at my local library.

However, given those things, the local library can be a great source for free binge watching. You don’t even need internet access to enjoy it.

Q3: Soap flakes?

What are “soap flakes” used for your laundry detergent? Simply ground ivory bar soap? (Really? Cause that’d be too easy!).
– Sally

You can literally just buy a bag of soap flakes at the store. That’s all you need.

If you want to take a bar of soap and make your own soap flakes, go for it. Ivory soap works fine, as does any other bar soap – I probably wouldn’t try a glycerine-heavy soap. Just get a box grater and use one of the finer sides to turn the bar of soap into flakes. A bar usually makes a couple of cups, in my experience.

Buying a bar is a little cheaper than buying flakes, but you do have to then grate the bar, which takes a bit of time, and I seem to have a tendency to grate my knuckles as well… ouch. So I’ve switched to just buying bags of soap flakes when I make homemade laundry soap.

(As a quick reminder, I just mix together one cup of soap flakes, one cup of washing soda, and one cup of borax into a Gladware container, shake it around thoroughly, and then keep it closed in the laundry room with a tablespoon in there. I use one tablespoon of this mix per load. It costs about 3 cents per load and seems to do a great job.)

Q4: Very long life planning?

Everyone in my family has very long life spans. I am 24 and I still have 4 living great grandparents, which is something that people can barely believe. They are all in their 90s. I have two other great grandparents who lived into their 90s too and my other two died accidental deaths. So my genes point toward a very long life and medical advancements are only going to help that.

Knowing that 90-100 years old is completely reasonable for me and 100+ is fairly likely, what should I do different with my retirement planning? I talked to my grandparents about this a little bit and they mostly said that holding out for maximum Social Security was part of their plan all along and they are supplementing it with lots of savings from after their kids left home.

I would like to start now and let compound interest grow and maybe cut back when I have kids. Should I be planning to save extra given the long life span?
– Charlie

I think the biggest difference between your situation and someone else’s situation is that you should aim a little higher in comparison to your cost of living than others. I agree with your grandparents that waiting for maximum Social Security is a wise move.

The thing to remember is that, compared to others, you won’t be able to draw money out of your retirement account quite as fast if you want the money to last until the end of your life. In general, it’s suggested that people can withdraw money at a 4% rate through retirement and the money will last until end of life. Given your extended lifespan, that’s going to be more like 3%.

Let’s use a more specific example. Let’s say you have $1 million in retirement at age 67. With a normal lifespan, you can pretty safely draw out $40,000 a year and it will last for 30 years, which takes you to 97. Lasting beyond that, if you’re withdrawing at 4%, isn’t highly likely. If you think there’s a decent chance you’re going to live past the 30-year mark, you should shoot for a 3% withdrawal rate, which means you’ll be taking out $30,000 a year. If you need $40,000 a year, you’ll have to save up $1.33 million to be fairly confident that it will last.

How do you get there? The biggest step you can take is to start saving now rather than later.

Q5: Cord cutting and TV room

What I don’t understand about the whole cord cutting thing is the TV part of it. I like going into the TV room and sitting in a comfy chair and watching a big TV across the room as it is easier on my eyes than watching a computer screen close to my face. I can see it for young eyes but not for my old ones!
– Stephen

You can purchase a number of devices that will hook up directly to your television and allow you to stream Netflix or Amazon Video straight to your television. In fact, many newer DVD and Bluray players (and new televisions) have those capacities built right in. If you’re not in the market for that, you can buy a Fire TV Stick which plugs into an open HDMI port on your television and allows you to stream Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, HBO Now, and several other services directly on your TV.

It really depends on how new your current television is. Does it have HDMI ports on the back of it? If it does, then you can get a number of devices that will stream video. If it doesn’t, then it may be trickier and will probably involve an upgrade of your DVD/Bluray player (or of your television itself).

There are definitely options for watching steaming video on a television, though, in ways that end up roughly emulating cable television.

Q6: Thermos and food safety

Hi! I live in NZ so this might be the wrong season for you but I’ll ask anyway! I picked up a soup thermos at a sale recently and am wondering about food safety. Seems like you wouldn’t want to use it to hold food more than a few hours because of bacteria growth but then I see people talking about using them to store lunch and pack it in the AM, meaning it sits there for 5-6 hours. Is that safe?
– Juli

In general, you want to eat food that’s being stored between 40 F and 140 F (5 C and 60 C) within two hours. If it’s within that range, it can grow bacteria quickly and it can give you a food-borne illness if eaten outside of that time range.

So, how does a Thermos keep food safe? In general, it’s because the food in a Thermos is above 140 F / 60 C. When you put food in there, you want it at the point where it’s basically boiling. Put boiling soup in there. You also will want to heat up the thermos itself. The easiest way to do that is to pour boiling water right into the thermos while you’re heating up the other food. Then, dump out the boiling water and then add the hot food. The thermos is already hot so it’ll keep the food hotter, too.

My usual game plan if I’m using a thermos to keep food hot is to start boiling water in a tea kettle about 20 minutes before I’m ready to go, and then start heating up the soup, too. The tea kettle gets water boiling faster than the soup raises to boiling, so then I dump the boiling water into the thermos. When the food is done, I dump the really hot water and put the hot soup into the thermos and go.

Often, the food is still practically too hot to eat five hours later, but the thermos keeps the moisture inside so it’s not dry. I’ll sometimes have to sit the thermos out in the cold for a bit to get it down to an edible temperature.

Q7: Bar or liquid soap?

Which is cheaper in the shower? Amount of soap is cheaper with a bar but doesn’t a lot of it just “melt away” in the soap tray?
– Dean

It entirely depends on how much soap you use from the liquid soap bottle during each shower. You really don’t need more than a few drops, but I know very well that other people in my own house use a lot more than a few drops per shower. If you squirt giant gobs of liquid soap onto your washcloth (or other tool for bathing), soap is flat-out going to waste.

I often use pump dispensers when in the shower. I’ll take my preferred liquid shower soap (i.e., whatever is on sale) and put it in a foam pump dispenser in the shower. Two or three pumps onto my washcloth and I’m good to go. This means I go through shower soap pretty slowly, which means that I rarely buy it. I haven’t calculated how much this saves me, but I do know that this makes a bottle of shower soap last a lot longer than even several bars of soap.

Just look for a hand soap dispenser that converts the hand soap into a foam. This works well with many different liquid soaps that people use in the shower, and it cuts down significantly on how much you use.

Q8: Unwanted gift cards

I received three gift cards for Christmas. I actually used one of them for a bookstore in town, but the other two are basically useless as they are for restaurants that I don’t like one of them and the other isn’t around here. What do I do with these cards? Regifting seems cheesy.
– Megan

You can sell them online on places like Craigslist or eBay or Cardpool. While you won’t get the full face value of the card, you will definitely recoup some of the value of the card.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with re-gifting a gift card that you’ll find difficult to use, though. Passing that card along to someone who can put it to good use is a splendid idea, in my opinion, and I would not object in the least if a friend of mine re-gifted a gift card I had given them if they didn’t have a use for it.

You may also be able to directly swap it with a friend in the area who might have some gift cards to trade you for it. Write to a friend who lives in an area where those businesses are available and see if they’ll swap you for some gift cards they might have laying around the house. If you can turn a gift card that you won’t use into one you’ll probably use, that’s definitely a win.

Q9: Where do I shop?

Where do you shop for groceries and household stuff?
– Jill

I mostly shop at Fareway for groceries and household supplies. It’s the discount grocer closest to where I live, so I do most of my shopping there.

Having said that, Fareway is definitely a discount grocer and there are sometimes esoteric products that they don’t have. For those, I’ll shop at Hy-Vee or Target, as those are the next two closest options.

I occasionally shop at warehouse clubs, but since a Fareway opened much closer to me, I haven’t gone nearly as much.

Q10: Old 401(k)

Worked for [a company] from 1999 to 2008. Had a 401(k) there because my boss strongly recommended it because of company matching. Haven’t touched it since though they send me annual statements. I started consulting in 2008 and didn’t do any retirement savings until the last few years in Roth IRA. Is there anything I should do with my old 401(k)?
– Jesse

There’s really nothing wrong with just leaving the money there. The only disadvantage to leaving the money where it is is that the 401(k) might not be managed by a fund manager with commitment to low costs. If your 401(k) is managed by Vanguard or Fidelity, I really wouldn’t worry about it at all.

You may be able to roll it into your Roth IRA, but you’ll have to pay taxes when you do this. If you can afford what will probably be a fairly hefty tax bill right now, this might be a really good option, as then all of your savings will be post-tax and you’ll be able to control it.

I would not cash it out under any circumstances. Whether you let it sit or roll it over into your Roth, you’re better off leaving it in some kind of retirement vehicle.

Related: Is Your 401(k) Leaking? Seven Hidden Fees That Can Sink Your Retirement Fund

Q11: Fidget toys

Thoughts on these new fidget toys? Do they help with focus?
– Stephen

I think they can help with focusing, but I also think mindlessly twiddling a pen cap helps with focusing. I think doodling helps with focusing. I think tapping my left foot helps with focusing.

In other words, I don’t think fidget cubes or fidget spinners are completely useless devices, but I do think they serve a function that’s already met by other things. I think that something that directs one’s fidgeting in some way can help a person with attention issues or mild anxiety to focus a little better, and a fidget toy falls into that category. They are fairly soothing to manipulate with your hands.

I also think this just happens to be a fad right now. They’re brilliantly marketed and a way to sell a lot of tiny bearings at a surprisingly inflated price.

Q12: Politics and moving

My wife and I moved into a new neighborhood two years ago. At first we got along well with our neighbors but during the 2016 election cycle many of our neighbors put up election signs for candidates and other political initiatives that left us feeling very uncomfortable. We did not put up any signs. Also, our conversations with our neighbors revealed some sides to their personality that we did not like. We started finding ourselves basically avoiding being outside to avoid conversations about politics with them and late in the election cycle my wife had a really uncomfortable interaction with a family down the block. She wants to actually move because she feels uncomfortable here. Thoughts?
– Cam

I heavily edited this note to minimize actual political content, because the purpose of the note is to talk about what to do when you politically disagree with your neighbors to the point of being uncomfortable, not to debate specific policies.

In general, I think shutting yourself off from people with differences from you is a mistake for everyone. Even if you strongly disagree with some of the views that someone else might hold, that doesn’t mean that the other person is bad. You have no idea how or why they came to the conclusion that they did and by avoiding that person you’re making some pretty large assumptions about that person.

The truth is this: The vast majority of issues on which people disagree today are minor ones that are amplified to a comical degree. Disagreeing about nuances of funding issues doesn’t mean that the other person is a cold-blooded murderer or a thief in the night – that’s just ridiculous. Someone who doesn’t agree with you politically isn’t evil or part of some conspiracy. In fact, they likely actually agree with you on 95% of the moral issues you could bring up, but they tend to amplify those 5% of disagreements to the point that they can’t get along. Almost all people all over the world agree on a lot of values, yet as a society we tend to focus on our differences and make these huge moral judgments based on those minor differences.

Don’t give into that. We all lose when we get into that. You can stick to your values, but it’s your values that are at fault when you won’t listen to or respect other people who think differently than you. You can’t grow as a person when you surround yourself with an echo chamber, or when you talk negatively about anyone who disagrees with you. You can’t solve a problem if you just shut down and treat anyone who disagrees with your pet solution as some kind of monster.

The political stances of your neighbors aren’t keeping you from swapping vegetables with them or watching each others’ houses when you travel. They aren’t keeping you from inviting each other over for a barbecue or buying an item when their children have a school sale. The only thing that’s keeping you from such things is your stubbornness and unwillingness to look beyond five issues you disagree with because you happen to be coming from different backgrounds.

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.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *