Updated on 03.31.16

Questions About Impatience, Razor Blades, Student Loans, Light Bulbs 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. Disposable razor sharpener
2. Work-at-home jobs while pursuing degree
3. Student loan payoff strategy
4. CFL or LED bulbs
5. Spooked by stock market
6. Handling impatience
7. Strategies for breakfast burrito batches
8. Uses for old cell phone
9. Trying to avoid divorce
10. Cheap sturdy shelving
11. Electric toothbrush?
12. Daily/weekly reviews on paper

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “deep work.” It’s something that’s been on my mind as I’ve noticed how my own work effectiveness varies greatly from situation to situation.

Sometimes, I can work really effectively and write lots and lots of content in just a few hours. At other times, I’m really not effective at all and barely get anything worthwhile written in an entire morning.

What’s the difference?

For me, I think there are really two key things at work. One is energy level. If I didn’t sleep well the night before, my ability to focus on anything is just awful. I’ve learned that getting a good night of sleep is absolutely vital if I want to do anything productive.

The other, though, is distractions. The more distractions there are, the worse my writing is. The biggest distraction of them all? The internet. Websites constantly distract me if I allow them to do so. Games can distract me, too, if I allow them to do so.

If I manage to get rid of those common distractions, I tend to be incredibly productive at work. I can often slip into a focused state where time passes by almost without notice and I get a great deal of work done – and it’s usually really good work, too.

The challenge for me is the same one I’ve worked on for years. How can I build a “recipe” for slipping into that “zone” of “deep work”? I have some of the ingredients, such as blocking distracting websites and turning off my phone, but it’s not a readymade formula yet. I’m hoping to figure out what that recipe is.

Q1: Disposable razor sharpener

What disposable razor sharpener do you recommend?
– Jim

I prefer the RazorPit sharpener, myself. It’s basically a chunk of strange-feeling rubber or plastic that you run your razor blade across a few times after you use it. Doing so will hone the blades so that you can get more use out of your disposable razor or cartridge.

It does not make disposable razors or cartridges last forever, but it definitely multiplies the uses you’ll get out of each one. This tool essentially just hones the blades – eventually, they will become nicked and dulled and you will have to replace them, just not nearly as quickly as you did without honing them.

This is a great “stocking stuffer” type of gift for anyone who shaves with a disposable razor of any kind. It just simply extends the life of the blades and cartridges, which can add up to a lot of savings for very little effort.

Q2: Work-at-home jobs while pursuing degree

I have a very good friend that currently lives in Saudi Arabia. He is looking for work at home jobs that he can continue to take when he comes to the USA to study for his masters degree in computer networks. My question is is this possible? How can you make this happen?
– Charlie

It’s possible, but I’d suggest that it’s not the best route for a person studying for a graduate degree.

A much better approach would be to focus instead on your coursework and on writing some papers and creating a great thesis. If you need income, look for on-campus ways to make money through teaching or other things.

If you really want to earn extra money in your spare time via the internet, you’re either going to be involved in building something long term, which means you’re not going to earn much for a long time but the earnings will eventually ramp up, or you can do things that will earn a little more than that immediately but won’t really ramp up. If you’re interested in the former, do something like start your own Youtube channel or your own blog. If you’re interested in the latter, check out a site like Fiverr or Mechanical Turk.

The sites that talk about earning thousands a month from home are scams. You can get there, but you’d better be bringing a lot of additional skill or experience to the table and the opportunity has to be right.

Q3: Student loan payoff strategy

My husband and I have student loans. We moved recently and he is going to school for his PhD in Biochemistry. Right now, he is scheduled for 3-5 years left in his program, and after that, he’s hoping for a post-doc program, where he will be paid roughly around 60k a year. In his PhD program, he receives about 23k a year pre-tax income. I work and bring home 28k pre-tax income. We have built up our emergency fund to a stable 3 months of expenses and I contribute about 4% of my income to a 401k. We manage to save about 10-15% of our income each month. We have no children, except our furry dog child, whose expenses are negligible in comparison to a real child.

After this, we still have a little bit of discretionary income after taxes. Since my student loans are not in deferment, I have been paying the minimum, plus an additional $100 each month towards my principle, just so that we can pay it down quicker. Right now, my loans are at about ~$24k at an average 5% federal loan interest rate. I will continue to repay these over the next 8 years. My husband’s student loans are in deferment and while it’s not an overwhelming amount of loans (~$30k), I’m wondering if the “additional” I’m paying towards my loans each month should go to his loans? While I don’t know the exact percentage on his interest, they were all federal loans between fall 2010 and fall 2013, so it’s safe to assume an average of 5%.

What would you advise?
– Michelle

If I were you, I’d compare the interest rate on the loans and throw your extra efforts at whatever loans have the highest interest rate. Since you’re married and the marriage is presumably stable, these loans are effectively weights around both of your necks regardless of the name on the actual loan.

I would make minimum payments on ALL of the loans that have lower interest rates and put as much of an extra payment as I possibly could toward that one loan with the highest interest rate. Get rid of it as fast as you can, then move on to the next one on the list, the one that NOW has the highest interest rate.

Getting rid of those loans gives you flexibility month to month. You’re lowering your monthly required bills so you now have a greater capacity for things like career switches and so on. The fastest path to this definition is to simply start hammering hard at your highest interest loan.

Q4: CFL or LED bulbs

I just read your article on CFL vs. LED bulbs. I am replacing outdoor (up) flood lights, I don’t know whether I should CFL or LED bulbs. Which do you recommend?
– Mickey

LED bulbs have improved so much in light quality over the last few years that I unequivocally recommend them over both CFLs and incandescent and halogen bulbs for home lighting.

The sole drawback of LED bulbs at this point is the upfront price. Once you get past that, they’re amazing. They have an incredibly long lifespan, they provide very nice lighting (which wasn’t true for them at first, but the technology has drastically improved), and they use very little energy.

We’ve basically converted all of the lights in our home to LEDs over the last year or two. Our energy bill is about as low as we can make it and we’ve yet to have to replace any LED bulb in our home – and we don’t anticipate doing so any time soon.

Q5: Spooked by stock market

I have been meaning to open an account with betterment for months with a $5K initial investment (already have a Roth IRA through vanguard and contribute to an employer sponsored pension), but the current market has spooked me. Is there any reason I shouldn’t go ahead and do it now?
– Denise

Assuming that you’re saving for a retirement that’s more than ten years off, you shouldn’t worry about the current ups and downs of the stock market, for two reasons.

For one, it’s basically impossible to predict when the stock market is at a “bottom” or at a “peak.” No one can reliably do this. Trying to “time” the market – which is what people are doing when they’re “spooked” and don’t want to invest in the market at the moment but intend to do it later when the market is “better” – is a losing proposition. Yes, there’s some chance that the market will go down more from where it’s at right now, but at the same time, there’s a chance you’ve already missed the bottom and you would have been better off investing two weeks ago. You just don’t know. Because of that, the best thing you can do is to invest as soon as possible. The sooner you invest, the more dividends you’re going to collect because you’ll already own the stock and the more likely you are to catch all of the rebound. Yes, there will probably be some “perfect” date in the future where you might have had a better balance if you waited, but there’s virtually no way to identify that perfect day.

For another, given that you’re investing for the very long term, the up and down volatility of the next few months won’t matter very much in terms of your balance when you’re actually ready to use it.

The best thing you can do, if the short term volatility bothers you, is to just not look at the balance very often. Just trust that it’s working for you because, frankly, it is.

Q6: Handling impatience

I’m on a path much like yours. About a year ago, I paid off all of my debt and now I’m saving about 40% of my income in various accounts. I believe I can retire in about 12 years at age 45.

The problem is that I’m really impatient for this to happen. I feel like there’s nothing I can actively do to make this process go faster and I almost get frustrated thinking about it. I’m afraid this will eventually turn into me doing something impulsive and undoing my work. Suggestions?
– Leon

I know exactly what you mean. I’m impatient, too.

It’s not so much that I think I need to have the rewards of my efforts today, at least not for me. It’s more that I think often about the virtues of what complete financial independence will be like and I really look forward to it, especially in the more stressful moments today.

I mostly handle this by really looking at the virtues of my life right now while automating everything for the future. I don’t really have to think about the steps I have to take to save for the future – it’s all handled automatically.

Instead, I try really hard to focus on the good things that exist right now. My children are young – they won’t be young forever. My physical health will inevitably decline, so I want to do things now like walking on trails and so forth that might not be available to me later on. I have a job that I enjoy 95% of the time. Those things will not all be true in ten or fifteen years, so I should enjoy them while they last.

Q7: Strategies for breakfast burrito batches

Got any good strategies/tips for big batches of breakfast burritos? You’ve mentioned making them in the past. I have made two batches, one of which turned out really good and the other was bland.
– Adam

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that almost any food that you freeze will taste bland unless you add more salt than you think is necessary. Go above and beyond your instinct when salting stuff and don’t be afraid to salt it more if it tastes bland after reheating.

Another trick I like to use is to use plenty of hot sauce in the burritos. If you don’t like heat, then use mild hot sauce. The flavor that hot sauce brings to the table is invaluable.

Another great tip is to make everything as dry as you can (except the hot sauce). Extra moisture is going to come from everywhere and can potentially make for very soggy burritos. Make your eggs dry, your meat (if you’re using it) dry, cook your potatoes to a crisp… you get the idea.

I also encourage you to make sure that whatever you freeze is wrapped really well and sealed off. I like to use resealable containers when I freeze things so that I can reuse them later and they do a really good job of keeping the food safe from the freezer environment.

Q8: Uses for old cell phone?

Are there any uses for old cell phones? I have a Galaxy S4 that’s just sitting here doing nothing. Ideas?
– Tom

One great idea that works for any cell phone is to simply charge it up and leave it in your glove box in the event of an emergency. Any cell phone is capable of calling for emergency help, regardless of whether it’s under contract.

If it’s a smartphone, like your S4, there are a lot of things you can do with it. You can turn it into a really simple home security system, for example. You can stick it in your kitchen and use it as a media player for when you’re preparing food – just leave it docked and maybe stick a small speaker on it so you can listen to Pandora or podcasts while you’re making meals. You can make it into a small digital photo frame for your desk. There are lots of good uses if you play around with it.

One use I’ve really liked for old smartphones is as a dedicated MP3 player for the car. One of my friends just leaves an old phone in her car hooked up to the car stereo. She listens to MP3s on it and also has it set to download podcasts when she’s at home and the phone is on her home wi-fi network.

Q9: Trying to avoid divorce

My husband and I have been discussing getting a divorce. We were married at age 22 (now we’re both 35) and we have no children which is part of the problem. My husband has always wanted children but it turned out that due to medical reasons having our own children is impossible. We have talked about adoption but I do not want to raise someone else’s child. My husband is really frustrated by this and wants to be with someone with whom he can have a child and now we barely talk. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want him to leave because he is a good man.
– Linda

First of all, I’m not sure I understand what you mean about “raising someone else’s child.” You can adopt newborn children and, as adoptive parents, the child is legally yours in an ironclad way. You won’t have a child ripped out of your arms. You won’t be raising someone else’s child. It will be your child, period. If there isn’t a deeper issue involved here, I strongly encourage you to consider adopting an infant.

I’m going to assume you’ve already investigated other techniques for having children as well, though I’m not sure what is available to you with your medical concerns.

In the end, I get the sincere feeling that the problem here is that you were both on the same page with having children, but after your medical situation, you changed your mind on the issue and your husband did not. If that’s truly the case, it may be one of those unresolvable situations.

I strongly, strongly encourage you to seek marital counseling. This is the type of situation where marital counseling can make a tremendous difference in terms of resolving your differences and your feelings and figuring out exactly how you can move forward from here.

This is not an issue that revolves around lack of trust. It seems that you both trust each other, but the problem is that you’re just in very different places in terms of the child issue. You need to work through this together if you love each other, regardless of what the eventual outcome is. Even if you end up needing to go in separate directions because of this, that does not change the fact that you love and care for each other, and you owe it to each other to figure this out together.

Q10: Cheap sturdy shelving

I want to install shelves in a spare bedroom for a “home library” but man is shelving expensive or what! How can you get shelves for cheap? Need shelves that can hold lots of books.
– Carl

It really depends on how cheap you want to go. If you don’t mind a mishmash of shelving, you can watch your community’s freecycle and grab any and all bookshelves that pop up. It won’t look consistent, but it will work.

The original shelving that I used in our first apartment was acquired by similar techniques. I knew of some shelves that were getting tossed from a building near my workplace, so I just snagged them and put them in my home.

The thing is, if you actually want shelving that’s strong enough to hold lots of books for a long period of time and you want it all to look consistent and look good, you’re going to likely have to pay for that. There are a lot of ways to make it a little cheaper – building it yourself from wood pieces, for one, instead of using kits or buying finished pieces – but it will never be truly cheap.

Q11: Electric toothbrush?

Do you think an electric toothbrush is a good idea? Is it worth the money?
– Daniel

I’ve used an electric toothbrush in the past and had great results with it. Specifically, I’ve used an older Sonicare model that worked for several years but eventually failed, and today I use a different one (which I’ll discuss below). I am firmly convinced that an electric toothbrush does a very, very good job of getting my teeth and mouth clean, better than a manual toothbrush.

Having said that, I am not sure that the cost of a high-end electric toothbrush is really worth it. I’ve been using an $8 Spinbrush for a while now and, honestly, it’s basically indistinguishable from the results I got with my old Sonicare.

Now, the real question is whether a manual toothbrush does a “bad” job. I don’t think that it does at all. I think manual toothbrushes get a person’s teeth more than adequately clean. I think that electric toothbrushes might get your teeth even a bit more clean than that and do a great job of creating a “clean feeling” in your mouth than manual toothbrushes don’t pull off. However, manual toothbrushes do the job in terms of controlling odor and getting your teeth more than adequately clean to prevent damage.

Manual toothbrushes have the added bonus of essentially being free if you get free ones from your dentist at regular checkups. Electric toothbrushes, even the relatively cheap Spinbrush I like, do have additional costs.

For me, the relatively cheap Spinbrush I use is a splurge because I like the clean feeling in my mouth. I consider buying a higher-end brush to be rather unnecessary and even this cheaper brush really isn’t necessary. It’s just a small splurge.

Q12: Daily/weekly reviews on paper

I’ve loved your articles on productivity and how you organize your days and weeks. I have a question about how you do daily and weekly reviews. Do you write these down on paper? Or do you do them electronically? How do you review things?
– Tom

I usually do a “double” daily review, which is usually on a piece of scratch paper. At the end of the day, I look for things that went well during that day – pointing out two or three things – and things that didn’t go so well, too, that I can work on down the road. This forces me to reflect on my day a little bit. I usually put together a to-do list for tomorrow on paper of things that are in the front of my mind, then I transfer those when I’m done to my actual to-do list manager, Remember the Milk. This takes about fifteen or twenty minutes, but I find it really worthwhile.

The next morning, I’ll review that piece of paper and, at the same time, try to identify what my big focus for today will be. What will I do today to make today great? Often, it’s something like “avoid distractions” or “eat really well” or something like that. This usually takes about five minutes.

For my weekly review, I basically do all of this same stuff, but I back it out to the scale of a week. I usually do this one electronically, though. I’ll go through my completed and uncompleted tasks and figure out what I did well during the week and what I didn’t do so well. I’ll usually come up with a big handful of tasks I want to accomplish in the coming week and add those, and I’ll also think about the “big picture” of what I want to do in the coming week and what my bigger life goals are and whether the things I’m doing connect to those goals. This usually takes me a major part of an hour and I find it incredibly worthwhile.

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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