Updated on 12.15.16

Questions About Yellowstone, Income Streams, Paycheck-to-Paycheck Budgeting, 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. Budgeting paycheck to paycheck
2. Dealing with toxic family members
3. Strategies for Yellowstone camping
4. Income streams and disabilities
5. “Life Leadership” and other MLMs
6. What is “late model used”?
7. Preparing lunches for work
8. 3DS for Christmas
9. When to replace a toothbrush?
10. Paring down a book collection
11. Roth IRA or TSP?
12. Goal “journal” for 2017?

This past weekend, my daughter and one of her closest friends went caroling on our block. They walked up and down the street, ringing on doorbells and singing to people. Along the way, people served them cups of hot chocolate, gave them candies, and gave them some applause.

Caroling is a tradition that I miss. It is a beautiful symbol of community spirit, as it involves a bunch of people from a community getting together and walking around outdoors singing together, often attracting the attention of people in the town.

It doesn’t really matter so much what the songs are, it’s just that sense of community that people once had that seems to be missing. That, to me, is the beautiful part of caroling.

I think, in the next few nights, we’re going to do this as a family, and I’m going to do my best to get a few neighboring families to go with us.

Q1: Budgeting paycheck to paycheck

Is there an issue with budgeting paycheck to paycheck? AKA I get paid every 2 weeks on Friday and that doesnt always line up with the months. My current timeframe is 11/25-12/23. Does that cause an issue when there are extra paychecks in a month? Am I somehow messing that up? When is the next time that will occur for me?
– Anna

If you’re in a job that issues a paycheck every two weeks, my suggestion is to budget for an entire month with just two of those paychecks. Make sure you can pay every monthly bill and all of your monthly expenses with just two checks.

Then, twice a year or so, you’ll receive a third check in a month. Use that check for irregular bills like insurance and property taxes and other things that don’t come up every single month. If those are all covered, slide that money into an emergency fund or use it to fund a Roth IRA.

That’s the best strategy to follow when it comes to a job that pays every two weeks.

Q2: Dealing with toxic family members

How to start. I have been reading your posts for a while and I love them. They have changed my life.

I can afford things I save for. I have money in the bank.

Problem is my family i.e. Relatives: parents and siblings are spenders. They value conspicuous consumption and treat me badly because I save.

I am a Kenyan woman. Black African and Christian too. I lived and worked for a company that had me relocate to the Middle East which I hated due to the racism. Thanks to your articles I could afford to resign and be jobless for a year. My family i.e. Parents and siblings saw it differently.

They treated me badly making snide comments because I was jobless including how pride comes before a fall etc. when I got another job they came borrowing me for money. If I don’t give them it becomes that I am proud. My question is how do I relate to them? I don’t want to spend much time around them since I feel they use me but they are my family.

How does one deal with toxic family members who are financially irresponsible ?
– Nina

Before I answer Nina’s question, I just wanted to say that this note is an almost perfect example of what an honor it is to write for The Simple Dollar. A Kenyan woman who has worked extensively in the Middle East is asking me, a white man who lives in the Midwest of the United States, a question about financial issues that shows some significant overlap in our life experiences, and that overlap is so clear because I know exactly what she’s talking about. The world is not as big as we sometimes think that it is, and people who may seem far different than us are often far more similar than we think if we are willing to open that door.

Nina, the thing to remember when they’re saying things like this is that they’re actually talking about their own lives far more than yours. Almost always, when people bring judgements like those to the table, they’re looking at your situation from their own lens. What would it mean in their life if they were unemployed for a year after being employed for a while? It would mean that they failed somehow. They view a period of unemployment as a failure, not as a success.

When they bring out those words of criticism, what they’re saying is that they’ve watched you make life choices that don’t match what they would have done and it led you to a state of unemployment, a state that they would consider a failure.

You should keep that in mind. Most comments coming from most people are actually comments about their own life and how your most superficial of life experiences would feel in their life. They’re not paying attention to the fact that you worked hard to earn this sabbatical – because that’s what this is. They see it as joblessness, a sign of personal failure, because that’s what it would be to them. The idea of a sabbatical isn’t on their radar at all, and it won’t be no matter how many times you repeat it. I’d just shrug it off and ignore it.

Now, as for the loan, you need to make it clear all of the time that you do not lend money to family members as you are not a bank and you do not want your familial relationship to turn into the type of relationship that people have with their lenders (which isn’t a happy, friendly one). That is your policy. You value family relationships too highly to tarnish them in that way. Stick to it firmly and do not budge going forward. That’s the only way to move past relatives constantly wanting loans. It never ends well if you lend money.

Q3: Strategies for Yellowstone camping

I’m struggling to post a comment so I thought that I would share this here.

We went to Yellowstone last summer and Zion this fall. I love a big vacation to Europe, but I don’t think of campo gas any less spectacular,only different. I am going to give you two suggestions.
1. Look to buy wood on Craigslist locally before you head into the park. We did that and bought an 1/8 cord for $40 on the western side of the park.
2. Don’t miss out on spending several days in the grand Tetons it is less well known, but spectacular and uncrowded. We stayed there for two nights and we should have stayed there at least 4.
3. Also there were a lot of mosquitoes so plan accordingly. We were unprepared for this, but thankfully there were not many other bugs.

Enjoy! It is an iconic experience.
– Max

Those are some great strategies for cutting back on the cost of a Yellowstone trip.

In past national park trips, we have bought 1/8 of a cord of wood on site. We stored most of it in the back of our vehicle and then filled our vehicle with other stuff during the night to keep critters away.

The mosquito tip is useful. We will make sure to bring along plenty of stuff to keep mosquitoes at bay. Our travel guides indicate that they get worse as the summer progresses.

Q4: Income streams and disabilities

I am in my late 30s, still living with my parents, on SSI disability, and in debt TO MYSELF for about $50,000.

How can I ever make a good income? There have been a couple of times when I lived on my own. But both times I had a roommate. Now I am trying to recover for a 7 month relationship where a young lady basically used me to help her with her 2 sons and help pay rent. Now I am trying to focus on my need for a better income- I want to be able to give her sons a few thousand dollars in 10 years when they are old enough for college. ( Their mom has NOTHING saved for them and does not have any desire to seek a better income beyond the $800 a month in SSI she gets.)

I have several ideas- such as: gems, silver, reporting scammers, being a sales rep/or helping people find what they are looking for, coins, food ideas, royalties for my inventions, 2 companies not competing against each other, classic t-shirts, 12 piggy banks, gold, Double Your Money, and others- yet it is hard to find a way to find what is a for sure way to make an income and not suffer lose.

How can I turn any of these into an on-going income?
– Fred

Many of the things you list are going to be hard ways to make an ongoing income. Silver and gems are extremely volatile investments, for example, so you’re almost as likely to lose money as you are to make money and it certainly won’t be an ongoing income. Many of your other ideas need a lot of cultivation.

The two questions you really need to be asking are (1) what exactly do you do well and (2) how can you turn that skill into something profitable. The truth is that there’s very little money to be found in things that anyone can do. It’s when people bring special training to the table or special skills or a ton of time invested up front without much income that money is made (like when someone writes a book – they’re not getting paid while they write, but when the book is finished and they publish it).

What do you do well? What do you have extensive knowledge about? Those are the things you need to start looking at. How can you use that knowledge? How can you share that knowledge? Start there, and then start looking at what you can do.

Q5: “Life Leadership” and other MLMs

Would you give me your opinions about “Life Leadership” founded by Orrin Woodward and Chris Brady?
– Max

“Life Leadership” is a MLM program that uses leadership materials and seminars as the item to be sold, much as, say, Pampered Chef uses kitchen goods and Scentsy uses candles. The goal of this program is to convince people to sell their good on their behalf in exchange for a cut of the proceeds and also requires the sellers to buy the goods to boot.

The material itself isn’t bad. Most of the time, with such systems, the item itself is quality enough that it can be sold by a decent salesperson. However, the thing is that a decent salesperson can make far more working for a legitimate company than they can selling items via multi-level marketing.

Don’t waste your time. If you’re interested in the leadership materials, most of it overlaps perfectly well with books by John Maxwell that you can check out from your local library for free. If you’re interested in getting involved to sell the stuff, if you’re a good enough salesperson to actually sell a lot of it, you should be a top performing seller in a large company making a ton of money that way. MLMs are never worth your time.

Q6: What is “late model used”?

What exactly does it mean when a financial article talks about a “late model used” car?
– Jill

A late model used car refers to a used car that was manufactured within the past few years. Generally, it means a car with a model year within three or four years of the current year. For example, in 2017, you’d probably consider all used cars with a model year of 2014 or later to be late model used.

Often, late model used cars become available because people lease cars and then move to a new car at the end of the lease, or they are habitual upgraders with a fair amount of disposable income to direct to those cars. Late model used cars are usually in pretty good shape and thus tend to sell at a relatively high price because they still have a lot of miles left in them. Some dealers will even offer some warranties on late model used cars.

I tend to believe that late model used cars are the best “bang for the buck” that you can get when buying a car. Most of the rapid depreciation of the value of a car happens in the first year or two after it’s sold for the first time as a new car, so you skip all of that, but you do get the majority of the lifespan of the car for less than the majority of the cost of the car. In my eyes, that’s a bargain.

Q7: Preparing lunches for work

I understand the cost-effectiveness of taking leftovers to work because that’s basically a free lunch but how is it cost effective or time effective to actually make a lunch and take it to work? I can get a decent lunch in the cafeteria for $6 so why make my own lunch?
– Dennis

If you can get a good lunch every single day for $6, that’s a pretty good deal, but it’s not one that everyone has access to. Sure, some people have cheap food options in their workplace; some people even have free meals. However, that’s simply not true for a lot of employees. Their food options often involve leaving to go somewhere to get food or paying a lot for delivery.

In those cases, making a lunch is often much more cost effective than buying one at work. Simply making a simple sandwich before work and tossing in a little container of baby carrots or something like that as a side is a great way to make an inexpensive and tasty lunch pretty quickly. Lunches like this were a staple for me when I used to work outside the home (nowadays, I just go downstairs to the kitchen for lunch).

I think, in your situation, the only way you’re going to save money by making lunch is by making a very simple lunch – a sandwich and a simple side with water from work to drink. If you get fancier than that, the cost is going to escalate to the point where it’s quickly more cost effective to just eat at your cafeteria.

Q8: 3DS for Christmas

I bought my son a $99 3DS on Black Friday as a Christmas gift. We have a $150 budget per child for gifts and thus I want to get him the most games for the buck for $50. He is a nine year old boy and I know you have kids that have 3DSes and you have a frugal mind so do you have suggestions?
– Trevor

Your best bet is to go to a local used games store and find some well-regarded games for used prices. You can probably get two or even three very well-regarded games used for $50. If you’re not sure what games are highly regarded, I would check this list from Metacritic, which are the highest rated games of all time for the 3DS. Pretty much anything on this list will be fun for your kid.

If you’d prefer to buy new games, I’d look at the Nintendo Selects line of games, which offers some of the true classics for the system at $20 or less. Pretty much all of the games in the line are really good games, though you can decide for yourself which ones match your child’s personality.

Between those two options, you can probably find three games that your kid would love under $50. Good luck! (Make sure you enact some screen time rules right off the bat… maybe starting on the day after Christmas.)

Q9: When to replace a toothbrush?

When do you know it’s actually time to replace a toothbrush? I tend to use mine until bristles start falling out and my GF says that’s completely disgusting and replaces hers monthly. Thoughts?
– Ansel

I personally replace my toothbrush each and every time I get a free one from the dentist, about every six months. Generally, the bristles aren’t falling out yet, but the brush does look pretty worn out at that point. I save old toothbrushes for cleaning purposes and for painting miniatures, as they’re very useful for both of those tasks.

I guess the question really is when exactly a new toothbrush is in order. I asked a dental hygenist that I know about this and she said that she replaces hers about every three months, when she can look close at the brush and see a lot of frayed tips on the bristles. The effectiveness of the brush drops rapidly at that point, as the bristles don’t clean the teeth nearly as well. That actually makes a lot of sense.

I just went and checked my brush at about the four month mark of daily use and couldn’t see a lot of frayed tips – some of the outer ones were kind of bent but most looked in pretty good shape. I’ll stick with mine for now.

Q10: Paring down a book collection

My book collection has completely overrun our bookshelves in the family room. I have agreed with my wife that my collection of books needs to stay of a size that fits on the shelves, which means I need to pare it down and sell off some books. Not sure how I’ll do that yet as I will cross that bridge later but now I’m trying to decide how to choose books to eliminate. I love them all!
– Chris

My honest suggestion is this: ask yourself if you will read that book again within the next two years or so. Be dead honest with that question. If the answer is no, then get rid of the book. You can always check it out from the library if you decide you want to read it again in five years or whatever.

I do this regularly with my book collection and, in fact, I have a big pile of them that I’m just waiting to trade or donate or sell off. They’re sitting in a couple of boxes in the garage, in fact. I’ve come to the conclusion that if they don’t sell during a yard sale, they should just be donated to the library to be sold during a book sale or disposed of by a librarian if they deem it to be of no value.

Most of the books I actually keep at this point are reference books – cookbooks, personal finance books, and other things I actively turn to regularly for some type of reference. My library is, more and more, becoming a part of my external brain.

Q11: Roth IRA or TSP?

Am I better off starting my own Roth IRA or putting money into TSP? New federal employee, unsure of options.
– David

If your agency offers matching contributions, then you should absolutely use TSP. I would make Roth TSP contributions, as your agency’s contributions will be traditional contributions.

If your agency does not offer matching contributions, then I would get a Roth IRA on my own, but honestly you’re not making much of a mistake by using TSP instead. It is really solid in terms of retirement savings. I would only get a Roth IRA because I could probably squeeze out a slightly better set of investments if I carefully studied all of the options.

You’re not making a bad move either way, to tell the truth. TSP is quite good.

Q12: Goal “journal” for 2017?

Have you ever tried a “goal journal,” meaning a book that’s filled with tools to plan for a goal for the future? I’m thinking of buying one for my husband who is very goal-oriented but sometimes struggles to really organize those goals. Do you have a recommendation for one?
– Mary

I’ve tried several, and the truth is that many of them are very similar and they all tend to be as good as the effort you put into them. If you take them seriously and try to use them as a tool to help you with goals, then you’ll find success with almost any journal.

For me, three stand out from the pack: the Volt Planner, the Panda Planner Pro, and the Passion Planner. All are variations on that theme and all are quite well executed. I’m a fan of all three, having used both the Panda Planner Pro and the Passion Planner in the past and excited to use the Volt Planner for a 2017 project.

I tend to like paper planners for the purpose of planning out a big goal than electronic planners. The plans I make on paper feel more concrete, though I do transfer calendars and to-dos to electronic tools once I really figure them out on paper. I think these would all make great gifts for an organizationally-challenged but goal-oriented partner!

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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