Reader Mailbag #89

Each Monday, The Simple Dollar opens up the reader mailbags and answers ten to twenty simple questions offered up by the readers on personal finance topics and many other things. Got a question? Ask it in the comments. You might also enjoy the archive of earlier reader mailbags.

I’m 34 years old; live and work in Washingon, DC for a non-profit organization I’ve been with for 10 years. My salary is quite good, and the benefits are great. Those benefits include a current 13.5% contribution to a 403b (they start at 7.5, then add a point for every two years of service, add a couple of points when you cross each decade threshold, etc) without needing an employee match. So, confession: I don’t contribute to it on my own at all. In the early years, I was wasteful, and now I’ve been focusing my money on getting out of debt first and foremost, and rebuilding my emergency fund (which has gotten tapped to pay for mother’s funeral, emergency veterinarian bills, etc in the last year).

Am I making a mistake not contributing some of my own cash as well? I feel like 13.5% of my salary puts me in good stead over the long-term, and that there will be time enough to contribute more in a couple of years when I am out of debt. My parents both died long before retirement age, too, and I am not planning on having kids who can inherit the retirement money if I have the same fate…).
– Karen

First of all, your benefits are stellar. There’s simply no other word for an organization that puts 13.5% into your 403(b) for you without you having to contribute to it. That’s a benefit most of us would kill for.

At this point, you need to step back and look at the big picture. Are you on pace for the type of retirement you want? I’d take a look at a good retirement calculator.

Two key questions worth thinking about: when do you intend to “retire” from your current career, and at that point, how much of your salary will you need? If you like to work, your intended retirement age will probably be higher than it would be if you can’t wait to retire. If you want to try a second career in your retirement years, your percentage will be lower than if you want to spend your retirement traveling.

Many will argue that you can’t know this. My belief is that the truth is somewhere in the middle – people usually know if they’re of the type who’s happier working and being productive and who’s happier with pure leisure time, but the specifics of your life can change.

Run some appropriate numbers through that calculator and aim a little on the high side. Of course, with 13.5% already being saved, you’re probably fine no matter what you do.

My question, which is prompted by your fall cleaning post, is whether people have been able to find a market for their stuff in this economy, or, to put it a little more optimistically and pragmatically, what strategies have people used to sell their stuff? My neighbor and I have a yard sale in late spring every year, but this year, for the first time ever, we hardly sold anything, making the whole event seem like a waste of time. Along the same lines, I am wondering whether people have found it harder to sell stuff on EBAY, or whether they have had to change their strategies for such sales.
– Barb

My experience in buying and selling on eBay and Amazon auctions, as well as a semi-frequent thrift store visitor, is that the secondhand and discount marketplaces are thriving right now and that it’s a perfectly good time to sell used goods. Most of the economic downturn is coming at the expense of more upscale retailers.

People tend to focus more on bargain-hunting when the economy is down, but rarely do they make true changes to their behavior. They might choose to shop for the thing they want on eBay or Craigslist or at a thrift store, but they’re still going to buy an item if they want it. A retail economic downturn usually means only a 10-15% drop in sales, which means 85-90% of the items they were selling before are still selling.

In short, if anything, now’s a better time than usual to dive into selling used stuff, because there are plenty of buyers out there.

My boyfriend and I are traveling to Prague in the Czech Republic over Thanksgiving weekend and are trying to figure out the best way to exchange money. Is it best to a) change cash in the US to travelers’ checks, b) change US cash in Prague to Czech crowns, or c) take out cash in the form of Czech crowns from local ATMs while there? I also have about 40 Euro left from my last trip to Europe that hasn’t been changed back to US dollars.
– Valerie

Your best bet is to look at your various conversion options before you leave and choose the one that gives you the most crowns for your dollar now. Your best option depends heavily on the policies of the bank you use compared to other options.

Depending on your credit and personal responsibility, it might make the most sense to simply make most of your purchases on a credit card. Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted in Czechoslovakia and you are simply billed for the amount. Be sure to tell your credit card company that you’re traveling before you leave. Assuming that you pay the bill in full when you return, this is a safer option than traveler’s cheques.

One guaranteed piece of advice: avoid currency exchanges at the airport. Their rates are atrocious. I would also probably advise doing the currency exchange there because your options are more limited than they are here in the States.

You’ve talked before about how you don’t like consumerism. How does that affect how you buy Christmas presents for your children?
– Ed

I’m more of the philosophy that you get children a small number of quality presents instead of piles of unnecessary stuff. I also am a big fan of gifting experiences to people.

So, for example, I would have no problem wrapping up a picture of Disney World or of Yellowstone and giving that as a gift along with a promise of a family vacation there. That would be one of, say, three gifts they would receive.

I have no problem with giving gifts or receiving them. However, I’m not a big fan of giving gifts or receiving gifts that are unwanted and just result in more “stuff” for people to manage that they don’t really value.

So, for all of my friends and family reading this, if I ever give you a gift that you don’t want, absolutely feel free to take it back or re-gift it. Please don’t keep unnecessary stuff in your home.

I’m a public school teacher, and as you can imagine, this was a bad year for our union to be re-negotiating the contract. Bottom line is, I’ll be bringing home less money per week next year than I am this year, and I’ll be getting fewer benefits. Though many teachers are well-paid for their efforts, young teachers like me typically start out very low on the pay scale. Next year will be tough.

To sort of “make up” for the wage reduction, our employer has offered us a new health plan called an HSA. Until now, I just had the option of a PPO. It’s an intriguing concept. The language in the contract states, “50% Employee Contribution to deductible, 10% Premium Share cost.” Deductible would be $3,000 for a couple. For a healthy, young couple like my husband and I, who are not planning to become pregnant any time soon, this sounds like it could be a better option for us. However, it’s hard to get straight answers from anyone around here. Many teachers do not understand the program, and the employer and union are talking it up, and perhaps exaggerating its usefulness, in order to try to make the teachers feel like they didn’t get the short end of the stick with the pay reduction.

Could you give me the lowdown on HSAs? I understand the basics. What would be the risks in going with an HSA plan? What would be the benefits? Who would you see as the optimal candidate for HSA, and who would be a person that should stay with a PPO?
– CT

In a nutshell, HSAs are just savings accounts that your employer deposits money in that you can withdraw solely for health-related expenses. This is usually done through a reimbursement system or via a debit card that accesses the account which can only be used at health-related businesses.

In general, HSAs are a solid option for younger workers who are in good health. The older you get – and the more known conditions you have or know you will develop – the better off you are sticking with the PPO.

Given that you’re young and healthy, it’s likely that the HSA is a reasonable option for you. However, it does carry a risk. You’re basically betting against a very expensive medical emergency in the next year or two. While that’s potentially a good bet for you, it becomes a much worse bet for people with pre-existing conditions and people who are older.

When you just close your eyes and let yourself dream, what do you dream about? If everything goes perfectly for you, where will you be in ten years?
– Adrian

I dream of being a best-selling fiction writer. I dream of having a house out in the country with a large office for writing, a small barn in the back, and some woodlands there. I dream of happy, healthy, and curious children.

More than anything, though, I dream of not being afraid of what the future holds. Even with all of the positive changes in my life over the past few years, I’m still afraid of what might come. I haven’t reached the level of financial security I’d like to reach.

My husband and I put aside money into a few mutual funds to save for a house shortly after we were married (about 6ish years ago). The money is in 3 Vanguard index funds: an S&P 500, a long-term bond fund, and a European fund. We are getting closer to buying a house (probably 3-4 years away now). How do I decide when to take the money out and put it in something more safe. Honestly, with the rocky stock market, I don’t think we’ve made any money at all on our investment. It’d be nice to get some more stock market gains seeing how low money market accounts are now, but I don’t want the money to be too volatile, as we would really like to put down a large downpayment on a house once my husband finally gets a real job (i.e. finishes his postdoctoral training and gets onto the academic market).
– Amanda

The real question to ask yourself when deciding whether to move money into something more conservative is to ask yourself whether you can tolerate the worst possible outcome.

For some situations, like retirement, the worst possible outcome – losing 20-30% of the investment over the next few years – is intolerable. For others – perhaps yours – it’s not nearly as vital.

If losing some of that money you have now would really hamper your plans for the future, move it into something more conservative. If that house you’re talking about isn’t an absolute requirement within four years and you’d be fine if it didn’t happen right then, leave it there.

My biggest problem during my workday seems to be uneven energy. I seem to run out of steam at about eleven and so I go eat lunch with some people. After that, I feel almost exhausted for a big part of the afternoon.

I know the solution to this is eating breakfast, but I can’t get into a routine of eating breakfast. I don’t like most breakfast food. What is your breakfast routine like?
– Payton

I usually eat breakfast with my kids each morning. We usually eat something different every day. One day, it might be oatmeal; another day, it might be scrambled eggs. We might have a bagel or toast for breakfast along with some fruit.

Don’t worry about tying yourself into a “traditional” breakfast food. Eat whatever sounds good to you that’s reasonably healthy and provides some energy. If it’s fruit, great. If it’s a salad, great. If it’s a beef and bean burrito, great. Just find a food that works for you in the morning.

I need to have surgery on my left jaw joint. I’ve had various appliances and procedures over the years, all of which have helped (or not) to some degree, but now things have degraded to the point of constant pain and not being able to eat more than pudding (and even that hurts, believe it or not). However, I just found out (literally on Friday, three days ago) that my employer’s health insurance has a specific all-encompassing exclusion for jaw-related treatments of any kind (I have paid for the smaller procedures and appliances out of pocket in the past, so I didn’t realize there was such a total exclusion that would zap me now), and this surgery will be $11,200 minimum. My oral surgeon already sent off an impassioned plea to the insurance company, which was met with a total denial because of the exclusion. I’ve been told there’s no point in appealing, again, because of that exclusion. The dental plan also will not touch it. I can get along awhile longer without the surgery, but the pain and inability to eat much will only get worse, so at some point I pretty much have to have the surgery. I refuse to go the narcotics route.

My husband and I are very lucky at this point in our lives to have the savings that would allow me to pay for this, but it would still be a huge hit. Another possibility is to charge it all on a rewards credit card – we still pay the full amount a month later (I will not carry the balance!) but would get, what, $112+ back. woo! Another possibility is to apply for a no-interest medical loan, which I know about because we investigated that avenue when my husband needed gum surgery last year. Typically there is a period of 6 months to 12 months (depending on the loan and the credit rating) to pay the loan back before any interest or finance charges start kicking in. So that would allow us to parcel it out over x months without having to pay interest. But we still end up paying $11,200 in the end.

Short of quitting my job, divorcing my husband, giving away all my assets and applying for medicare/caid, is there any other option I’m not seeing? Or any other way to handle the finances that might make it less painful in the wallet?
– Cindy

You’re likely far more informed about your options in this situation than I am. However, three things pop into my mind.

First, have you sought out multiple opinions on the subject? If you have not sought a second opinion on your jaw, you might be missing out on a treatment option that drastically reduces your costs and gives you the results you want. Your oral surgeon could be one of the best in the world, but he still might be missing some detail.

Second, have you simply tried negotiating? Tell your oral surgeon that it would be difficult to pay for the procedure. Offer to barter what skills or time you have in exchange for some part of the payment. See what’s possible.

Finally, have you looked at any form of third-party dental insurance? There may be forms of insurance that will cover your procedure. It might not be a bad idea given your spouse has also had oral issues.

Whatever happens, good luck!

Peyton Manning or Tom Brady?
– Evan

Drew Brees.

Got any questions? Ask them in the comments and I’ll use them in a future mailbag.

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  1. Jules says:

    The best way to exchange money overseas is to just use your ATM card to get cash. It’s (reasonably) safe and secure, and unless your bank is evil, you won’t get dinged with fees–at least, I’ve never been dinged with fees for withdrawing money overseas, irrespective of which bank or credit card I used. With credit cards, there’s a risk that you’ll get hit with an exchange rate fee every time you use it, so call up the credit card company and (preferably) get their policy in writing.

  2. brad says:

    regarding hsa.

    a few things could have been better worded in the explanation.

    the hsa is, as trent mentioned, a savings account with a bank. the money deposited into that account (either by your or employer) is yours to keep forever, it doesnt expire at the end of the year like an FSA (flexible spending account). money placed in the account is non taxable. the money in the account can gain interest (which is non taxable). when you withdraw/spend the money, this is non taxable as well, provided you spend the funds on qualified medical expenses.

    ct, it sounds like your questions actually revolve around the insurance plan, not the hsa. the HDHP (high deductible health plan) is what your insurance is called. (so your choices are ‘ppo’ or ‘an hdhp that is coupled with an hsa’)

    im 21 and have had the hsa for the last two years. thanks to good health, a generous contribution from my employer, and my own savings, im heading into ’10 with an 1800 balance, with another 1k being deposited from employer in jan. for me its worked wonderfully.

    if you dont forsee any medical expenses you can take a risk and get on the plan.

    BUT, the only way to make it work is to save the difference in premiums from your ppo towards the hsa. (traditionally, hdhp’s are substantially cheaper than ppo’s. however, if you simply spend the difference you will not have it available when you need it, which is when you have any sort of health care service).

    ct, theres alot more info on pro’s and con’s of hdhps that can’t really be explained in a three paragraph post, so let me know if you have any further questions.

    (additionally i work for an insurance company, so ive got a fairly good knowledge of the hdhp)

  3. Johanna says:

    @Valerie: When I was in Prague, I found that withdrawing cash from ATMs was a pretty good option. ATMs in Europe typically don’t charge fees, although your bank might charge a fee for the out-of-network withdrawal. If they do, just make a few large withdrawals instead of several smaller ones. Really, though, I found that the prices there were so cheap (compared to Western Europe anyway) that I didn’t feel it was worth the effort to stress over getting the absolute best exchange rate.

    It’s always a good idea to have a backup source of funds. For example, you might take a few hundred dollars in cash so that if your bank suddenly freezes your ATM card for suspicious activity (this can happen even if you’ve informed them of your trip), you’ll have some money you can use until you get the situation sorted out.

    Take the euros along. Not only can you bypass one round of currency-exchange commissions by changing them into Czech crowns directly (rather than into dollars and the dollars into crowns), many places in Prague accept payment in euros.

    A final money-saving tip: If you’re in or around the Old Town and need to take a taxi (back to the airport, for example), avoid the ones parked in the Old Town square. Their rates are exorbitant. Just walk a block or two in any direction, and you can easily find a taxi for 1/3 to 1/2 the price. They all have their rates written on the side of the car, so you can check.

  4. John says:

    Hi Trent,

    Our local power company is offering this interest based savings plan to help pay for future bills when they jack up the rates in a year.

    Is this something worth participating in you think? They are offering 7.5%, which seems generous but I feel like if you have the money up front to contribute to this ahead of time, than it’s not really going to help you save.

    What I mean is, if you have a lot of extra money to throw at this program, than it’s a great thing but it defeats the purpose of helping those that won’t be able to afford the rate hike (like me).

    Here’s the link:

    https://www.firstenergycorp.com/vpp/index.html

    Thanks!

  5. jennie says:

    Good advice about currency exchange. Traveller’s cheques are not worth the effort or expense.

    Before you go, contact your bank to inform them of your trip and to make sure your credit and ATM cards will work overseas. Many European countries are moving to a chip & PIN credit card and retailers may be reluctant to accept a signature card. ATMs are probably your best bet but make sure you have a 4-digit PIN since many machines won’t accept any more than that.

    Also, try to use up all your Euros before you come home so you aren’t dinged exchanging them back to dollars.

  6. Raphael says:

    Hi,

    I hate to be a pain in the back but since I am an Austrian citizen I feel obliged to do right by my neighbours and point out that there is no Czechoslovakia any more. In fact there has not been since 1993. Now there is the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

    Sorry for the correction but Europeans are easily offended if Americans do not know their geography.

    All the best

    Raphael

  7. Mary says:

    @Valerie – be sure to research your credit cards before using them overseas. Many cc’s charge an international transaction fee – this is on every purchase. This can add up to a lot, so be sure to check this out. Sounds like a great trip!

  8. Kat says:

    Wouldn’t it be really hard to get new dental insurance to cover a preexisting condition that isn’t currently covered under any of her insurances? I can’t see an insurance company allowing you to start an additional coverage with them (not your routine health benefits) with them and immediately turn around and have a $11g surgery that was already planned? She would probably have to completely switch to a whole new insurance carrier, not just an add on, which is difficult and may not be even possible if her health insurance is coming from her employer.

  9. Mama in CT says:

    About HSA accounts – we have one and swear by it. We are a family of 4 which includes a child with a chronic medical condition who has undergone 3 heart surgeries. When comparing the cost between the PPO and the high deductible plan we are saving money regardless.

    We pay a very small premium every 2 weeks ($65). Our deductible is $4000 / year (family) and out of pocket max is $5000 / year (including deductible). So worst case scenario, maximum out of pocket including premiums is $6612. If we have a healthy year? $1690!

    Comparing that to the PPO plan, the premium is $170 every two weeks – so assuming everyone stays healthy? I’m out $4420 per year.

    HSA plans are a great bargain. You still pay what is reasonable and customary. And we’ve found that every provider is willing to accept payment plans.

  10. Daniel says:

    @Karen I’m so jealous of your 13.5% 401k employer contribution. I get no match. Still, it sounds like you are in fine position since you are not planning on having kids.

    However, I think you need to reevaluate. If this isn’t student loan debt and you’re making a nice salary AND you don’t need to contribute towards your retirement, you should get rid of that debt as quickly as possible. It sounds like you have no reason to be in debt.

  11. Johanna says:

    @Cindy: Have you looked into options for getting a tax break on the $11,200? If you have access to a flexible spending account at work, you can use that to pay for medical expenses with pre-tax money, although if you haven’t funded the account for this year, you may have to wait a whole year. If that’s not an option, you can deduct on your income taxes the portion of your medical expenses that exceeds 7.5% of your income.

    In negotiating with your surgeon, ask (if you haven’t already) if there’s a discount available for paying cash upfront. Often there is (to the tune of 5% or so). Also ask if $11,200 is the amount that he or she would receive from the insurance company if the procedure had been covered. If it’s not, ask if you can pay what the insurance company would pay. Insurance companies typically negotiate deep, deep discounts for themselves on almost everything – I’m not an expert, but I’ve read that it’s worth asking if you can have those same discounts for yourself.

  12. brad says:

    @ #4 kat

    kinda like sideswiping a semi and running it off the road, totaling your car in the process then immediately dialing statefarm and being all “hey guys, i just got in a super bad accident, can you go ahead and sign me up for some coverage that started yesterday?”

  13. Marta says:

    Please bear in mind that Czechoslovakia doesn’t exist anymore! It has split into Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

  14. Kristin says:

    Peyton Manning or Tom Brady?
    – Evan

    Drew Brees.

    BEST. ANSWER. EVER.

    Geaux Saints!!! 9NO!!!!

  15. Sam says:

    To Valerie, regarding exchanging money.

    Trent is right, you can pay with credit/debit cards in most shops/restaurants in Prague.

    Nevertheless, you may still want to have some cash on you. As Jules says above, it may be best to just withdraw your money, depending on your bank’s charges. Or it may not. You can always compare that with the rate you would get in an exchange here.

    I live in Prague, and my advice would be to use the exchange in Kaprova St (if any). As far as I know they offer the best exchange rates. (Just search for “Kaprova 13, Prague” in GMaps.) It’s 100 metres from the Old Town Square, which you will be visiting anyway :-)

    Today they are giving you CZK 16.70 for your dollar, and selling you a dollar for CZK 17.30 (http://exchange.cz/index2.php). That would mean the fair rate is somewhere in the middle, say 17.00. If you were to withdraw from ATM here in Czech Republic, your bank would probably give you Czech Korunas at a rate better than the exchange place, but slightly poorer than 17.00, let’s say 16.90 (check with them).

    Thus – if you convert $100 in the exchange place, you get CZK 1670. If you withdraw CZK 1670 from an ATM, your bank will charge your account 1670/16.9 = $98.82 plus whatever other charges. Which is better? You won’t know until you check with your bank.

    But then, you fail to spend all the 1670 in cash and end up with some left-over Czech Korunas. Unless you have a nephew collecting European coins, that makes your exchange rate even poorer. (Points for the card.)

    One more note: you may want to use public transport from the airport to wherever you are staying. It’s reliable, reasonably fast, and much cheaper than a cab. Thus, you will need at least 2 tickets at CZK 26 to get to the centre from the airport. How do you get them? I guess there is no other option than the detested exchange offices at the airport. You lose at the rate, but you may save CZK 500 for the taxi… (And don’t forget to stamp those tickets when you hop on the bus ;-)

    Enjoy the stay!


    To Trent: we have Czech Republic and Slovakia over here now :-) Two distinct countries. Says a Slovak living in Czech Republic :-)

  16. anotherben says:

    Drew Brees. Cha-Ching!

  17. MegB says:

    I agree with Johanna on the money exchange issue. When we went to Prague, it seemed like there is an ATM on every corner, so finding a way to get money was never an issue for us. The exchange rate was also pretty good across the board, especially compared to Western Europe.

    Enjoy your trip! Prague is one of my favorite European cities.

  18. Q says:

    I wouldn’t rely on credit cards overseas because they are starting to use these special “chip” cards that use an electronic chip instead of a magnetic strip to make purchases. When I was over in England last fall only major purchases could be made with my credit card and that was after I made a fuss about it. ATM’s still work the old fashioned way over there, however.

  19. Shannon says:

    @Cindy I had a similar problem with my jaw and found a miracle cure which sounds like a joke but isn’t. This is it: open your mouth less wide when you yawn. I don’t know if you have already tried this and it didn’t work, but if you haven’t give it a try. I went from at least one day a week of serious jaw pain and occassional locking up to maybe one day a month when it’s noticeable at all.

    @Valerie I agree with everyone else about using ATMs. You get a good rate and don’t have to pre-order the money or anything like that. I will give a word of warning, though, specifically about Prague. In six years living in Europe, that was the only city where I was hit with a really large withdrawal fee that I wasn’t warned about and only discovered on my monthly statement — at the time the equivalent of about $12. This only happened at one out of four ATMs that I used there. I would just recommend perhaps opting for ATMs run by international banks. Banks that end in Gmbh are German and probably pretty trustworthy.

  20. Joanna says:

    I’ll fourth using the ATMs to get money internationally. I’ve traveled extensively for work to Europe, Latin America & Asia and have always used ATMs. Only twice did I encounter an ATM that didn’t accept my card, once in El Salvador & once, of all places, in Canada! (I’m from the US.) And I’ve never been charged a fee either. Credit cards, however, often do charge a conversion fee, so you’d probably be wise to make a quick call.

    Have a wonderful time! I’ve heard such good things about Prague but haven’t yet visited myself. Enjoy.

  21. Joanna says:

    Oh, Valerie, one more thing. Johanna’s right about potential out of network fees for the ATMs, but sometimes you can even get those removed. BOA charges them and, while visiting family in Puerto Rico, my husband used an ATM & was charged fees. When we got back he called and complained because Puerto Rico does not have BOA branches or ATMs. And, much to my shock & surprise, they removed them!

  22. Johanna says:

    I don’t think it’s accurate to say that credit cards charge conversion fees but ATM cards don’t. When I was in Europe this summer, I made an ATM withdrawal and paid for a hotel by credit card on the same day. I was charged $88.11 for the 60-euro hotel bill, which works out to $1.4685 per euro, and I was charged $294.11 for the 200-euro withdrawal, or $1.4705 per euro. So it’s almost the same. The “official” exchange rate for that day was $1.427 per euro, which means that both the credit card and the ATM tacked on a 3% fee (and hid it in their exchange rate).

  23. Robin Crickman says:

    Cindy who needs jaw surgery might want to explore
    medical tourism. I have read that people who live
    in the southern border area often go to Mexico for
    dental work. Some go to other Central American or
    Caribean locales. Prices can be as much as half
    the USA cost for the procedure. Many of the
    medical staff are US trained so quality can be
    just as good as at home.

  24. Johanna says:

    To clarify, then, what I meant by “ATMs in Europe don’t charge fees” is that you don’t get charged a flat fee from the bank that operates the ATM, like you do in the US.

  25. Ashley says:

    I have a question for you. I am 25, and my boyfriend and I are looking at buying a house in DC. We barely have enough money to scrape together a down payment, but really want to take of low interest rates, the tax credit, and low housing prices in our market. We’re young and are pretty good with saving, and I am sure that we will be able to build up an emergency fund again, but do you think it is foolish to use all of our money like this, even if it is for a great investment and the timing is right?

  26. Maggie says:

    I had a friend that had difficulties getting approval for a surgery, and she was told that the insurance company (at least hers)routinely denies everything WITHOUT EVEN READING IT. As a result, I would recommend escalating your inquiries to the next level, especially if your jaw problem leads to medical issues in other areas that they would then have to pay for. Worst that happens, they deny again, but at least you tried.

  27. To answer the breakfast question.

    Running out of energy happens when blood sugar levels get low. This happens if you ate simple (fast) carbs (fruits or sugary cereals) and few complex (slow) carbs (oatmeal,…). If you are used to eating many small meals (3 or more each day), the body will be used to running mainly on blood sugar from the food stream. This is likely the cause of your ups and downs. What happens after lunch is that you probably eat a lot of fast carbs again (white bread). This spikes the blood sugar which in turn spikes your insulin. High levels of insulin makes you tired.

    The solution is
    1) Eat more complex carbs for breakfast. Eat more vegetables for lunch.
    2) Eat even more meals, like at 11am. Then eat a smaller lunch to avoid crashing. Eat at 3p when you get hungry again, etc. (This is the optimal strategy for heavy labor.)
    3) Alternatively, you can simply skip breakfast (lunch too even). Your body will then turn to liver glycogen and bodyfat for its energy source which is fine as long as doing light “work”, like walking or shuffling paper.

  28. Peter says:

    Hello Trent

    Thank you for the informative posts. I am a frequent reader, the reader mailbag threads being the most interesting to me. I am however astounded that you would refer to Czech Republic as CZECHOSLOVAKIA! Czech Republic has been an independent country since 1993. Here a thread from Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Czech_republic .

    -Peter

  29. Peter says:

    To Valerie:

    Using your ATM to withdraw money (there are ATMS on every corner) or using your credit card is your best bet.

    I would not recommend travelers checks or other forms of payment, because you will be charged fees plus you might not be able to exchange them for cash at every bank.

    If you would like to bring cash and exchange it, make sure you carefully check out the exchange rate. There are many “exchange offices” in Prague where you are charged commission (usually 2%) plus their exchange rates are very bad. You can easily tell if their exchange rate is a ripoff by seeing that the difference between SELL and BUY exchange rate (usually posted on an electronic board outside of the door) is greater then 1.5 crowns. Some exchange rate offices post their rates @ $100 increments to make it look like you get a good deal.. Make sure you calculate before you exchange.

    There are many exchange offices which do not charge commission fees, the best I have found is in Kaprova street (close to the old town square), they are called Exchange SRO http://www.exchange.cz/index_en.php …). As you can see, the current exchange rate difference of buy and sell rates is less then 1 crown (US $). They do not charge commission. Another exchange office is close to Venceslav’s Square: http://www.alfaprague.cz/ .

    Also be aware of people who are on the street asking you if you want to exchange money. They will usually offer you a very good exchange rate, but the money they will give you, will not be Czech crowns, but some useless devaluated currency from the some former republic of Russia. Here are sample pictures of what the banknotes look like: http://www.cnb.cz/cs/platidla/bankovky/ .

    Have fun in Prague, its a great city!

    -Peter

  30. Kristen says:

    Your answer to the question of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady made my morning! :) As a Purdue graduate I couldn’t be happier for Drew Brees and the Saints this year!

  31. Desi says:

    Doctors from Mexico are actually trained much better than US doctors. I got my jaw surgery at a border town from a very elite doctor. It was extremely inexpensive and I had much better treatment than my husband had for his simple hand surgery.

  32. Desi says:

    Also, write to your insurance commissioner.

  33. Kat says:

    Good idea about the flex xpsnding. Flex spending limits are usually $5,000 per person (that’s the IRS’s max, some companies won’t let you max out), if you and your husband both max out the Flex Spending, you can have $10g untaxed to pay for it. And then you can use your reward card to pay for it, and get the points, anyway. Maybe you can get the surgeon to lower his fee. Usually insurance companies don’t pay 100% of the billed amount anyway (check your insurance receipts, they usually have what the doctor billed, followed by what the insurance company actually allowed, this is why some doctors don’t take insurances, they get more money by charging the patient), so he will still make extra even giving you a discount. Get a couple of second opinions, until you find one who will do it discounted and you feel comfortable with.

  34. MegB says:

    To add to Joanna’s list of problem countries when using an ATM, we had trouble getting cash in Argentina. Fortunately we had enough cash with us to get through the trip. We’re quite experienced travelers, but that really threw us for a loop.

  35. Jamie says:

    Uummm Trent Czechoslovakia doesn’t exist

  36. Livia says:

    Keep up your fiction writing dream! You’ll have to post some of your writing sometime. BTW, my “Brain scientist’s view on creative writing” blog is really starting to take off! Thanks again for your tips on book reviews.

  37. SimplySara says:

    @ Cindy – Have you talked to the person who handles benefits at your work? That person may be able to help you with the insurance company and at least get partial coverage. When my supervisor became ill and needed an emergency surgery while traveling on business, it was the benefits administrator who helped him handle everything when the insurance refused to pay for the service for the first six months the claim was out. We learned that employers do have some say over which claims are approved. Also, if you haven’t received a second opinion, I would do that before going to the benefits administrator.

  38. Roger says:

    More on HSA (Trent – really wish you would post a well-researched article on the HSA)…
    Contributions are tax exempt – this includes Federal, FICA, Medicare/medicaid. Depending on the local tax laws, contributions are also exempt from state and local taxes. A handful of states only allow the state exemption if the HSA contribution is done through a payroll deduction (Alabama comes to mind).
    HSA funds can be used to purchase OTC medications, band aids, etc. Keep the receipts.
    Certain banks will allow you to invest HSA deposits in mutual funds (just like a 401k). When you turn 65, you have the option of using your HSA account like an IRA (the medical purchase restriction is removed).
    Per Federal guidelines, FSA money can be rolled into an HSA as a one-time event (make sure your employer allows this). You also have the option of funding up to your max HSA contribution for the year through a one-time IRA transfer (IRA, not 401k).
    Remember, 401k contributions are NOT exempt from FICA/medicaid (7.65%).

  39. SG says:

    Prague is in Czech Republic, not in Czechoslovakia. Czech Republic and Slovakia separated in 1993.

  40. Rick says:

    Karen

    Even if you had to give up a match it can still make sense to pay off high interest CC debt first:
    http://ponderingmoney.com/2009/10/30/which-wins-401k-match-or-high-interest-cc-debt/
    then make the contributions later.

    A 13.5% contribution is a great start, you may not have to contribute more! It really depends on how long you work and how much your investments return. You may find this post useful…
    http://ponderingmoney.com/2009/11/04/funding-retirment-is-painfulunless-you-start-early/

    -Rick Francis

  41. Faculties says:

    Most credit cards charge a 3% exchange fee on top of the charge for purchases in foreign currency. I’ve heard Capital One has a card that doesn’t — you might check into that. (I am not employed by Capital One.)

  42. triLcat says:

    actually, medical tourism might not be a bad idea – if you don’t want to go to a 3rd world country, look into (yes, this sounds crazy) Israel.

    Dental care tends to run about half the cost in Israel, and medical care in Israel is considered among the best in the world.

  43. Colleen says:

    January 1, 1993 — nearly 17 years ago now — the split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia was made official, according to my historian husband who studies the two entirely separate, independent countries. There has been no Czechoslovakia since. In fact, there wasn’t a Czechoslovakia for most of history — only from 1918 to 1992, excepting the years 1939 to 1945 when Germany occupied the Czech lands and Slovakia maintained an independent wartime state, although the Allies didn’t officially recognize it.

    My husband and I lived in Bratislava, Slovakia, for 9 months and Prague, Czech Republic, for 3 months, from 2007 to 2008. European ATMs are definitely the way to go for currency exchange. European ATMs never charge you fees for use (unlike American ATMs unaffiliated with your bank). Your bank may charge fees for withdrawing from an out-of-network ATM; our credit union charges $1 per transaction for out-of-network ATM use but refunds all these fees at the end of the month because we have a platinum account with them, so we were lucky there. Check with your local credit unions to see if they offer similarly favorable plans, of course. Otherwise, many banks do give you a few free out-of-network withdrawals each month, so check with your bank. Plan to make a few large withdrawals instead of lots of small ones to minimize fees from your bank if that will be an issue.

    Other ATM things to think about: Make sure your card has a 4-digit PIN, as some European ATMs apparently can’t handle longer ones. ATM cards with Visa or MasterCard logos, as most have these days, should be fine for use overseas.

    Credit cards are OK to use overseas, but Europe is often not as plastic-friendly as America. Fewer places take credit cards (we visited a big, fancy department store in Germany that had ATMs throughout the store for use before making a purchase as they didn’t take credit cards) and some have minimum purchase requirements. MasterCard was the logo we saw most often, but Visa is also common, AmEx less so. But the worst thing is that your credit card company will charge a hefty foreign transaction fee, which can be a fee plus a percentage of the purchase, as well as charging you the highest published exchange rate. Still, using a credit card for certain big purchases, like hotel stays, can be a good idea in case you need to contest the charges. We had to cancel a reservation for a hotel in Budapest, and though we canceled according to the hotel’s posted policy, they CHANGED the policy right after we attempted to cancel to try to get out of refunding our money. Our credit card company reversed the charges for us so we didn’t lose anything.

    Traveler’s checks are an outdated means of carrying money. It can be difficult to find places that will accept them or change them for you. Currency exchange kiosks are indeed a big rip-off. Also, while it would seem obvious, don’t expect to be able to pay for anything with American currency in Europe. We took a European cruise on an American cruise line and many passengers simply expected that Europeans would accept American dollars. Nope! The Euro though is accepted in some places in the Czech Republic, though, such as at big-box retailer Tesco in Prague. Plus, surrounding countries like Slovakia, Austria, and Germany all are on the Euro, if you take any side trips.

    Have fun on that trip! Prague is a beautiful city.

  44. Stella says:

    RE: Selling stuff in tough times

    There are indeed people out there looking for “bargains.” However, the problem today is that many people, knowing that most people selling stuff probably need the money, are unwilling to pay asked-for prices (even if reasonable and fairser)and are not just negotiating prices down (even on ebay) but flat out unwilling to buy unless you seriously discount whatever price you offer something at.

    We’ve heard similar stories from various family members all over the country (including wealthy areas) that people at tag sales, garage sales, and other sales are just walking away and expecting to pay literally nothing for whatever is on sale.

    We know people who have simply stopped trying to sell anything on ebay (or craigslist, where people are just outright nasty sometimes in “bargaining”) in the current economy because they were literally losing money on each ebay sale (given the fees, etc.) because they could not get prices that reflected their own costs and the actual “value” of the items.

    It’s not a great time to be a seller, but for those buyers willing to bully desperate people, as many are, it’s a “great” time.

    It’s one thing to get a discount. It’s another to take advantage of the need of a seller.

  45. Kevin M says:

    I had a HDHP with an HSA for awhile when I was single and it was great. I banked the savings between that and a HMO/PPO style insurance plan and had about 1/2 my deductible saved up in the first year – $600. The biggest benefit IMO is that you get the insurance company’s negotiated rates instead of the ultra-high “regular” rates. Even without co-pays I was still only paying about $50 a doctor visit. The tax deductible contributions are also nice.

    The only downside I found (upon getting married) was coverage for maternity was a pretty expensive add-on.

  46. spaces says:

    @Cindy — Have you checked your spouse’s insurance plan, to see whether your sx would be covered there? If it is, you could get on his plan during the next open enrollment period. Assuming ERISA applies to his plan, you shouldn’t have a problem with the condition being pre-existing if you don’t let coverage lapse.

    Hopefully someone will correct me if I’m wrong.

  47. CathyG says:

    re: health insurance and HSAs.
    If you are doing the math to decide whether to save money on the premiums and use the HSA to pay the higher deductibles, be aware that usually the premium is PER FAMILY but the deductible is PER PERSON. It adds up quickly if more than one family member has medical expenses that year.

  48. Valerie says:

    Thank you all for the thoughtful responses! Matthew and I appreciate your advice and recommendations. I do use BOA and am fiscally responsible (0 consumer debt), and Matt uses Wachovia. We can’t wait for our trip!

  49. Valerie says:

    And I wanted to add that Reader Mailbag is my #1 favorite money blog column of them all. I always look forward to Mondays and having it pop up on my Google Reader!

  50. Sunshine says:

    I am usually a cold granola w/fruit or hot oatmeal person for breakfast. Occasionally, though, I go through fits and want something different. Sometimes I have a PBJ sandwich, other times, I’ll make a sandwich with whatever cold cuts we have on hand. I love tuna salad with pretzels and egg salad with potato chips. In other words, eat whatever you want for breakfast; it’s your choice.

  51. Andrew says:

    Czechoslovakia hasn’t existed for quite some time!

  52. Brittney C. says:

    @ Cindy: Same thing happened with my jaw surgery a few years ago. My parents were able to get a small discount by paying the surgeon with a check instead of a credit card, so it’s definitely something worth asking. Good luck!!

  53. Shevy says:

    @Payton
    I don’t know what sort of things you usually eat in the morning (or when) or what you have for lunch, but the exhaustion thing sounds very familiar to me.

    I’m a lifelong sugar addict. I was already eating heavily sugared cereals or regular cereals with a couple of heaping spoonfuls of sugar before I started school but my folks had trouble getting me up and going in the morning, so when I started Grade 1 they began giving me a cup of instant coffee with 3 teaspoons of sugar as well as my cereal to wake me up! As an adult I spent years drinking 2 litres of Coca Cola per day.

    Over the years I noticed that a breakfast of carbs and sugar or caffeine and sugar left me exhausted (if not falling asleep) by 11. A high carb or very sweet lunch will leave me nodding at my desk by 3 pm.

    My solution? Kathleen DesMaisons and Radiant Recovery. Step 1 is breakfast. Eat a high protein breakfast with a complex carb within one hour of getting up every morning. What you eat is up to you. On the breakfast group people detail everything from typical breakfast food (eggs/sausages/whole wheat toast) to cottage cheese and Triscuits to high protein drinks (containing an appropriate carb) to burritos or chili or turkey sandwiches. Some folks make food in the crock pot overnight! The key is having enough protein for your body weight. All the info is on her site or in her books.

    Maybe your problem isn’t too much sugar, caffeine, bread, pasta, etc. but check it out anyway. The breakfast group is always a lot of fun. I’ve never seen such imaginative breakfasts anywhere else.

  54. bethh says:

    To the person with the 11,000 bill looming. All I can say is, if it works and you’re no longer in pain, that will be the best money you ever spent in your entire life. Good luck to you.

  55. Jim says:

    Regarding the HSA plan:

    Without knowing your other options and all the details of the costs its hard to say if the HSA is your best choice for certain. You really have to compare the costs of the HSA plan to the other insurance plan options and see if its better for you or not.

    You need to ask stuff like : What is the monthly premium costs? What are the deductibles, copay and coinsurance rates? What is your minimum cost for either plan? What is your maximum out of pocket costs in a year for either plan? What are your likely medical costs? Is the coverage terms the same between both plans?

    I’ve had an HSA plan for a couple years and compared to the other options we’ve got the HSA is the best but that won’t always be the case.

    If you can figure the minimum and maximum out of pocket costs for all your options and the HSA is the cheapest in both min & max cases then its probably your best choice. But if the HSA is cheaper in minimum cases (little health costs) but more expensive in maximum cases (higher health costs) then its a judgement call on your part based on whether you want to risk it to save some $ on premium costs.

  56. CC says:

    I’ve had an HDHC/HSA plan for almost two years now, and I love it. As Trent points out, there are risks, but if you plan ahead and contribute to your HSA regularly (mine is through paycheck deductions and is matched by my employer), you’ll be fine. High deductible plans still have maximum-out-of-pocket amounts, so you won’t be left high and dry. Plus, in most plans, preventative care (yearly check ups, vaccinations, etc.) is free, so the only money I usually spend on healthcare throughout the year is toward my $5 monthly premiums…or whatever incidentals I pick up at the drugstore and buy with my HSA debit card. AND my HSA reduces my taxable income. I can’t say enough good about it.

    A note about using credit cards when traveling: Capital One credit cards, and now Schwab credit cards (I believe) do not charge conversion fees when used overseas. They are a great option for frequent travelers, but be SURE to call the credit card company before you leave and speak to a person about your trip. I used the automated system once and it didn’t work – my card was denied in a difficult situation, and it caused a huge headache. The representative who finally sorted it all out said that the automated systems are not very reliable.

    Also, call your bank before you leave and ask them how to access money overseas. Bank of America has plenty of sister banks around the world that will be fee-free and allow you to check you balance. Or go with an online account like Schwab (again) and they never charge fees, no matter where you are.

  57. Vince says:

    If I am not mistaken a HSA has to be completely liquidated with in the year or the money is lost. It has to do with the money being pre-tax and the IRS. Our HR folks recommend trying to forcast those expenses you expect (i.e. medical costs, glasses, perscriptions, etc.) to incur. Many people at our company use this to supplement costs our PPO does not cover.

  58. David says:

    @ Valerie

    Get a sense for the currency rates before you go. Knowing what the acceptable current range is will help you know if you’re getting a good deal or not. Avoid exchanges in airports, touristy areas and places like Tesco, Cora or Auchan.

    I’ve had better experience rate-wise with my credit card (Capital One) than with the ATM which hit me with nasty fees, in addition to a 3% exchange rate surcharge. Check both your bank and credit card policies before you go. Make sure your card will work in foreign ATMs, not all run on the same networks.

    Take the Euros and exchange them before the dollars, you’ll get way more for them. Especially with the current rates.

    DO NOT buy travelers checks. Most places will not know what they are, let alone accept them.

  59. bonnie says:

    For Cindy’s case–
    I too had TMJ for years and years (am in my early 40s now and had it since my teens, it seemed to start when I had braces). I tried various dental appliances, none covered by either dental or health insurance. The pain was low level but constant, and would intensify at times. While seeing a holistic doctor for what I thought was a totally unrelated condition (allergies) she had me tested for food allergies. I found out I was “intolerant” to a variety of foods, including dairy products or beef, in essence, anything from a cow! After removing the items from my diet, and taking vitamin supplements, my allergies were somewhat better—but my jaw pain is entirely gone! It went away very slowly about a 6-8 months after I stopped eating beef, even “organic” beef, and now a small amount of pain comes back every time I eat beef–maybe once a month at most. This result was entirely unexpected by my doctor and I, and the pain went away so slowly that it finally dawned on me that it was almost gone. If you find a holistic / naturopathic doctor who uses blood tests for food allergies or elimination diets it *might* help. I still have cracking of the jaw that worsens when I intentionally or accidentaly eat other items I am sensitive too, but am not in pain anymore. I wish you luck.

  60. Mel says:

    Some advice from someone who’s spent the last 2 years living and working in Prague:

    1) Avoid the currency exchange booths at all costs. Especially the ones advertising 0% commission. My suggestion would be ATMs (Czech word is ‘bankomat’) and credit cards. I have a friend who’s been here longer than I have and still uses her US bank as her primary account (I think I pay more in fees to my Czech bank than she does). You will need to carry cash with you – very few restaurants accept plastic. Supermarkets and most big shops tend to accept it. If they do take plastic, both Visa and Mastercard are accepted. As has been mentioned, Euros are accepted in some places but I think at a higher rate and the change will always be in crowns.
    a) I would normally expect to pay about 150-200czk for a lunch around the Old Town (where I work), although on weekends it could be a bit more. Dinner I would expect about 1000czk for 2 people including a beer or two each (usually about 35czk for 500ml).
    b) There are 1, 3 and 5-day transport passes for 100, 330 and 500 czk. They work for all transport inside Prague, including trains and the furnicular / cable car up Petřín hill. MAKE SURE you validate your ticket on the first trip of the day in the small yellow boxes in Metro/train stations and trams/busses. The ‘controllers’ (people checking tickets in trams and stations, you probably won’t see them) tend to be able to spot tourists who have forgotten to do it.
    c) If you get a chance, go to Vyšehrad (‘C’ metro line – the red one, station is ‘Vyšehrad’ and it’s a short walk).
    d) Be prepared to smell of smoke. There are very, very few non-smoking restaurants and bars. Many have a ‘non-smoking’ section but I wonder why they bother.
    e) For an authentic Czech experience, go to a tearoom (‘Dobrá Čajovna’= Good Tearoom, Václavské Náměstí 14). For some reason I’ve never worked out, Czechs take their tea *very* seriously.

    2) Someone mentioned taxis – the common and very good advice is always use ‘AAA’ taxis. They’re yellow and have a horizontal logo (there’s another company calling itself ‘AAA’ with a similar but sloping logo and different coloured cars). But public transport is excellent, even to and from the airport (Dejvicka end of the green Metro line, there are signs to the airport bus stop and it’s bus 119 – standard ticket is valid).

    3) Sorry for the long comment and have a wonderful time! :)

    4) Trent, repeat after me: Czech Republic. Czech Republic. Czech Republic. Please! :)

  61. Sam says:

    Cindy,

    You can try getting your jaw done abroad like in “medical tourism”. For instance you can get it done in India or other country for a fraction of the cost as well as you can tour the region.

    All the best

  62. deRuiter says:

    ATMs usually give the best rate for changing money. Paying for BIG things like expensive hotel stays, buying a rug and shipping, etc, are best on credit card in order to dispute charge if necessary. WHEN TYPING IN YOUR PIN (4 DIGIT ONLY!) PUT YOUR OTHER HAND OVER THE KEY PAD SO NO ONE LURKING NEAR BY CAN STEAL YOUR PIN AND CLEAN OUT YOUR ACCOUNT. Many banks will allow only one overseas withdrawl per day. Inform your bank and credit card companies in advance that you will be overseas. If an ATM doesn’t work, try another one as some networks are fine and others will not accept your card. Beware of freestanding ATMS or those outside gas stations, best bet for safety is one inside a bank, will not be a counterfit ATM set up to steal your pin and account number. Always carry some American cash and also carry, separately, your financial info: credit card and ATM numbers and telephone numbers in case cards are stolen you can contact compaies right away. YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE A WONDERFUL TIME. Bring your Euros. I often exchange American dollars with friends overseas who are planning a trip to America, we both save the exchange fees. I also do this with friends who return from european vacations and do not plan to go back soon. Anything to save a fee!

  63. Mel says:

    @deRuiter – US dollars are worthless in Europe except to be exchanged. I don’t know of any places in Prague that will accept them.

  64. Pattie, RN says:

    CINDY—while you are saving for the jaw procedure, please at least think about better pain control. Unless you are an alcoholic or addict, narcotics are used to control PAIN. Taking them does not turn people into addicts or abusers. I have been on a daily opiod analgesic (narcotics is a legal term, Opiods is the medical term) for over five years for an orthopedic problem that can’t be fixed surgically. Without the pain control, I would be on disability instead of holding down a great job. I do not get any “buzz” from the meds, just pain control , which is the point. As I tell my patients, there are NO GOLD STARS for martyrdom.

  65. Lenore says:

    Trent, I had something happen that was so bizarre I just have to run it by you.

    We’re regulars at a family chain restaurant, and we got a server who had waited on us only once before. I was glad to see her because I remembered she was very friendly, complimenting what I wore and telling us about her music studies at a nearby college.

    The first words out of her mouth were, “You stiffed me!” What??? We gaped, stammered and tried to recall if it was true. “I thought we got along great, so I couldn’t believe it when you didn’t leave a tip,” she said.

    “No way!” I said. “I know we liked you, and we always tip here anyway.” I was recalling snatches of our conversation and a general warm, fuzzy feeling about her being a humanities major like myself. There was no way we intentionally stiffed her. I even began to wonder if another server stole the tip.

    “You must have forgotten,” she said. “I actually cried about it because Mitch (another waiter…and now suspected thief) told me you always tip him well. So then I felt terrible and wondered what I did wrong.”

    “Nothing!” I said. “We really do like you. We are SO sorry, and we’ll tip you double this time.”

    “No, you don’t have to do that. I shouldn’t have said anything. It was probably my fault for talking so much that I distracted you.”

    Maybe she was right. It was our oversight, and we were awful to doubt Mitch for even a moment. When we finished our meal, we left a $7 tip for $16 worth of food and still felt vaguely guilty as we walked out to our car.

    Then it hit me. Can you believe the audacity of this woman? The guilt trip she sent us on has soured us against returning. It would be awkward to see her again knowing she expects and keeps tabs on tips and might confront us if we forgot, chose not to leave one or didn’t give enough by her estimation. I have never had this happen before (perhaps because I tip routinely and as generously as I can), and I’m still amazed.

    Having worked in a restaurant, I know how hard it is and believe in rewarding decent service. I realize servers are paid hardly anything and depend on tips to get by. But gratuities are still optional, and I think it’s inappropriate to take a customer to task for not leaving one.

    Any thoughts, Trent? How do you think most of your readers would have handled the situation?

  66. forex robot says:

    Great read, you can always learn something new about forex!

  67. getagrip says:

    @ Valerie

    I strongly recommend having a second Visa/Mastercard as back up. Don’t use it, but have it stashed. Despite my primary card being from my local bank, despite being assured they had an entry on file saying I would be in Europe for three weeks along with the specific dates, after two weeks they froze my card because, and you have to love this, they called my house and I didn’t answer the phone confirming I was in Europe.

    They froze the card the morning I was taking my family to Gatwick to catch our flight to Frankfurt and I was trying to get subway tickets to get to the airport. Needless to say I didn’t have a phone, the cash on hand, or the time to try and straighten it out, so having the second card proved a lifesaver.

  68. Joanna says:

    There is no such country as Czechoslovakia! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Czechoslovakia

  69. Ryan says:

    I have to disagree with you. Definitely Manning!

  70. Mel says:

    Actually, I have to second getagrip about the backup payment, however it is (cash, extra card, whatever). We once almost missed a flight (evening flight to the main city, flight home early next morning) because of a problem with my credit card. It had worked earlier that day, but as we were at the hotel checkout it completely failed, still no idea why. We had 2 other cards, but neither worked overseas. It looked like our only option would be to stay until the card worked. Then I had a great idea – I called my sister: “Hi, can I have your credit card number? Thanks, bye!”. Fortunately she didn’t ask questions, they accepted the number and it all worked. Great story, but *very* stressful time! We were greeted by name at the (tiny) airport when we finally got there!

  71. GayleRN says:

    For the person with the jaw problem. The fact that you cannot eat makes it a medical problem of monumental proportions. Enlist the aid of your medical doctor and document the weight loss, lack of a proper diet, cost of special foods etc.

    Also contact the insurance commissioner with copies to the various people you have contacted within the insurance company.

    Keep working your way up the insurance company ladder. documenting every contact. Get it all in writing. Always ask for any phone calls to be followed up in writing.

    Ask your employer why they bought a policy with this exclusion which is obviously affecting your ability to function at all. Sometimes the insurance company can be moved by the thought of losing a large account.

    And last but maybe not least contact an attorney.

    Good Luck

  72. Jason says:

    A couple more comments on high deductible plans:

    1) In my experience, the biggest difference between the high deductible and the PPO is cash flow. When you do utilize services under the high deductible plan, your bills are much higher. For example, a general office visit costs about $70 instead of a $20 copay. The consideration I used when I switched to the high deductible plan was, “Can I afford to pay the entire deductible if I have a catastrophic loss on the first day of the plan?” (It has happened more than once to my co-workers)

    2) Deductibles run on a calendar. This only becomes an issue if your benefits do not renew on January 1. For example, my company’s benefit year begins September 1. The first year that I moved in to the high deductible plan, I had the full deductible from 9/1 to 1/1 and then the deductible started over 1/1. Fortunately, I did not have much utilization in the short period.

    Most high deductible plans are priced to provide significant up front savings over a PPO. As others have suggested, the way to be successful is to put the savings into your HSA. Personally, I did not utilize any of the money in my HSA for the first 2 years I was on a high deductible plan so I would have at least one deductible’s worth of savings in the HSA.

  73. Tyler K says:

    Cindy… From my experience with my dad some hospitals are willing to negotiate what you pay. My dad had surgery on his spine. Neurosurgery, lots of CAT scans, and a couple days in the hospital isn’t cheap. After talking with the hospital we only paid the insurance company’s price. Which is quite a bit lower. They also allowed us to make monthly payments.

    So talk with the hospital they just want to get paid something.

  74. Evita says:

    About breakfasts…. I cannot eat within 2 hours of awakening but need the food (I am mildly hypoglycemic). So I make myself a breakfast shake to drink: low-fat milk (or soy milk), whey protein powder, a piece of fruit all blended together. Plus nuts on the side. No more mid-morning crashes anymore!

  75. flybabymom says:

    Regarding the last 2 questions in your mailbag, I’d like to offer a couple of suggestions.
    1. Your point that breakfast needn’t consist of traditional breakfast food is right on. The lack of energy mid-morning is a classic hypoglycemia symptom, and a meal lower in simple carbs (think cereal) and higher in complex carbs & proteins (think burrito in whole grain wrap) is an excellent idea.
    2. I’ve experienced a great deal of facial, head & neck pain over the years. One thing that’s helped immensely is a nightshade-free diet. Nightshades are tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant & peppers, and tobacco. This includes paprika, Tabasco sauce, etc.. It’s not easy to do–one has to COMPLETELY avoid those foods for a minimum of a month, then eat them only once or twice a week, with 3 – 4 days between–but if you find that you are, indeed, sensitive to nightshades the pain relief makes avoidance entirely worth it. There are a number of books available about this diet, how to do it, and the benefits to be gained by those who suffer from chronic pain.

  76. Elizabeth says:

    Hi Trent!

    Just wondering if you’ll be doing a post in the coming week about what your plans are for Thanksgiving: if you’ll be travelling, if you’re staying closer to home for your wife’s health (Congrats, by the way!), or having the family to your place.

    I know you live more for the experience with family than an extravagant meal, but I’m guessing that some kind of special foods will be making their way to the table. When I was growing up, money was tight, but somehow (through “anonymous” gifts from friends or careful planning) my family had the best memories and meals around Thanksgiving.

  77. Brenda says:

    Trent you have mentioned your dream of publishing non-fiction. What type? Murder & mayhem? Sci-Fi? Romance? Touchy-feely? Are there any authors you emulate?

  78. Amy says:

    For the jaw surgery bill, I agree with all the suggestions above around using tax-free money and negotiating cost and paying cash. For the FSA (saving out money tax free ahead of time, IRS limit of $5k/yr), you have to elect it ahead of time for the following year, assuming your employer has this option, and then you must spend it all in the planned year or you lose it. I mention this because I had a huge dental restoration a couple years ago and found out some things are covered and some are not.

    My dental insurance covered my veneers (which were not done for cosmetic reasons), but I could not be reimbursed by the FSA for my part of the cost because IRS rules consider the veneers to be cosmetic only. You can visit irs.gov and check which medical/dental/etc items can be reimbursed. This would also apply to claiming any medical expenses on your taxes above 7.5% of your income.

    I think I saved ~$1600 that year in taxes by saving out that $5k tax free and getting it reimbursed. My total out of pocket was around $7500 that year and the restoration over 1.5 yrs was ~$30k (good insurance!)

  79. partgypsy says:

    I have to agree with Barb there is something going on thrift/garage sale/craig’s list that there is an oversupply of furniture coupled with an underdemand for non-new furniture. My MIL has a storage pod of nice furniture (some of it antiques) and two places she contacted are so full they are not accepting new pieces. Two others were closing/going out of business. Last year I posted a couple things on Craig’s list and sold them within a week; I posted something this weekend, no responses. I did a search of the item (crib) and over 4 pages come up.

  80. Tanya says:

    I agree on the above suggestions of withdrawing money with an ATM card in Prague. I travel a lot and always do this.

    Travelers’ checks are nothing but expensive and time-consuming … plus you can’t use them in many places. Credit cards have much more potential for local fraud … this is compounded by your increased likelihood of signing for an inflated price because you are doing rate conversions in your head.

    Use the ATMs of the big local banks. Their rates are almost always the best. Check with your American bank to see if they have a deal with any banks. Bank of America does have relationships with a number of big banks abroad and therefore they do not charge any fees. If I am in a country that BoA doesn’t have a deal with, I get out a couple of hundred at a time and sometimes store cash in the hotel safe – if I think that is safe. When using the ATMs be extra careful – try to go to ATMs that are on bank premises (i.e. not on their own), don’t get money out at night, keep an eye on what is going on around you, don’t wave your cash around, etc …

  81. littlepitcher says:

    Garage sale demand is weak, correlating with the state of the economy. Paradoxically, economic insecurity cuts into secondhand sales, because customers keep cash in their pockets and buy new at the big-box stores on the credit cards, figuring that they can sell the new stuff if times get really hard.

    If you have good–not discount store–items, not clothes, then a regional flea market will get you more customers than anywhere else. If it’s the same-old-same-old that every garage sale in the city has, box it up and give it to a family whose house has burned, then take a tax deduction.

    About that tip: Kids are known to steal tips off tables, as are other restaurant employees, even managers. Day before yesterday, I would have said cut her some slack. Yesterday, a vendor told me of leaving a $5 tip on a credit card for an inexpensive lunch, then receiving his statement and finding that the server had changed the amount to $25. If you are a regular with this server and request her table, notifying you of the absence of gratuity is sensible on her part. If not, be wary of both her and the other servers.

  82. Sharon L says:

    Cindy: are you on Fosamax or Actonel? They will affect the jaw bone,and some others in some people. I second the fighting the insurance company. If you are on a bone strengthening drug, you should talk to an attorney as this side effect is known and you might be eligible for relief.

    I also second the use of pain medication as you need it

    Giving money to a family whose house burned down is NOT eligible for income tax deduction You have to give it to a non-profit organization. You may be able to give it through the non-profit, though.

    Re the HSA: Young teacher, you may not PLAN on becoming pregnant now, but I have a friend who has three children. The first despite the birth control bill, the second despite condoms and the third despite an IUD. After the third she had her tubes tied.

  83. steve says:

    @Payton,

    anytime you consciously change your eating habits it takes some mental effort and willpower. Start small and work your way up. For example, just have a protein shake and a piece of fruit for breakfast (or, even easier, a piece of fruit blended with the protein shake).

    Your body will get used to the new habit over several weeks. But you have to consciously decide to add this to your schedule, whether or not you feel like it.

    It can feel weird to eat when you don’t feel like it, but a small amount of food isn’t burdensome and will build a habit. If you note positive results in your day, that will reinforce your decision.

    I’ve had to deal with this issue myself in a different way. I recently started barbell training according to Mark Rippetoe’s book, Starting Strength, and the nutritional part of the strength training program is increasing both my calorie intake and my protein intake. It feels like a job because I’m not currently used to eating that volume of food and my body doesn’t call for it (at least, at first it didn’t), so I had to “force” myself to eat on a schedule every three hours to fulfill the dietary recommendations. I wasn’t at first used to eating the amount of food that was necessary/prescribed, but as the weeks have gone by and I’ve seen the desired results from following his advice, seen that it works, and gotten positive reinforcement from the results, which makes it easier.

    The same thing will happen to you if you just start having breakfast *whether or not you feel like it*. Then you can evaluate the effects and decide whether to continue.

  84. angela says:

    Peyton Manning or Tom Brady?
    – Evan

    Drew Brees

    Love it!!!! I’ll take Drew any day, he is on fire!!!

  85. Karen says:

    @#5 Daniel. Believe you me, I know how lucky I am with my company! :) As for my debt, yes, the bulk is from my graduate degrees. I also paid a lot of money supporting my uninsured and unemployed mother for several years before she passed away. That being said, I could have been more skillful. I never learned about managing money, and it showed. I’ve made great strides and the debt has been my focus for some time now. Every so often, though, I start to worry that I should be doing more for the longer term, although I do appreciate now that getting rid of debt is both a short term AND long term favor to yourself.

  86. arthur says:

    Hello Trent,

    Long time subscriber, first time caller.

    I’m a new dad, my daughter is great. She’s 11 weeks now. I’m fortunate that we have all of the financial stuff in order. I do have a demanding job, but I make it a priority to leave by 5 to spend time with my daughter before she sleeps for the night.

    I’m ethnically Chinese although I never learned formally. After my daughter was born I now have this overwhelming desire to teach her Chinese but I will have to learn it too to keep it up (my wife is not Chinese). Otherwise she will fall into the same trap I fell into as a child.

    My question is, I firmly believe I can learn Chinese with 2 hours a week private lessons, plus 30 mins homework a week. But, I also cannot bear being late to see my daughter, and the thought of cutting out all this time for me to learn something, no matter how beneficial is driving me insane. What’s your take? Is this a quality investment of time, or shall I just enjoy my daughter and our time together?

  87. kareninottawa says:

    You wrongly called the country Czechoslovakia. The Czech Republic and Slovakia are two separate countries, and have been since 1993.

  88. arthur says:

    @ arthur …that is 30 mins of homework a night…not per week

  89. Laryssa says:

    Trent,
    Heads up–“Czechoslovakia” has not existed in almost 20 years. Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic.
    Just sayin’.

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