Reader Mailbag #90

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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.

What kind of Thanksgiving traditions does your family celebrate?
- Fran

My wife and I usually participate in three Thanksgiving celebrations each year: one with my parents and siblings, one with my wife’s parents and my wife’s siblings, and one with my wife’s extended family (my own extended family does a single giant holiday thing in December).

With my parents, we do things almost exactly the same each year, down to the meal plan. Each year is almost identical to the year before it. I am slowly usurping this by introducing single dishes that are different than what we had before – this year, for example, I’m making an unusual dressing. However, it will be served alongside all of the usual things.

The other celebrations are more laissez-faire – they change quite a bit from year to year.

The only “tradition” we really cling to is simply spending time with family at Thanksgiving.

Hi, recently my wife made the decision to return to school for her teaching certificate. We made the decision to take out a Stafford loan (unsubsidized) at a fixed rate of 6.8%, the duration of this portion of her schooling is 4 semesters.

This semester (the first), we had an excess of $3500 that was returned to us by the school she’s attending. Her school advised her to keep the money in an separate account for her final semester, as she won’t be able to work during it.

It seems to me that paying interest on money that’s just sitting in an account for 1-1/2 years is kinda crazy. There’s no way I could safely invest the money and get a return of 6.8%, so we’re effectively losing money each month by going this route.

My thought is to keep this money, refuse the next dispersion of funds (for semester #2) and use the $3500 to pay for the next semester of school. The only problem is that we’ll eventually run into the issue of her not having an income for several months. That said, we’ve got a comfortable emergency fund and no debt other than 1 vehicle and a mortgage. Any thoughts/suggestions/ideas?
- Gary

You need to directly contact the school’s financial aid office and speak to a financial aid officer, first of all. Explain your situation and state that you do not wish to ever have excess disbursements.

Many schools do this as a matter of course because that extra money is often used by the students as a stipend. This overpayment is often standard operating procedure.

Work with your school to get this fixed. Likely, there will be little problem using that money for a payment during a future semester.

I prefer to hunt and fish for most of my meat. This way, I know exactly where the animals came from, you could argue they lived a free and wild life, and I know that I personally harvested them as humanely as possible. Plus, they taste great and the meat from wild game is generally healthier for you than other sources!
- Josh

As a rule of thumb, I agree with you: the more control you have over where your food comes from, the better. If you’re actually the person who kills, dresses, packs, and cooks your meat, you know exactly whether or not preservatives are added and you know exactly where they come from. That’s a big positve step.

On the other hand, catching your own isn’t always the cleanest source for your food. For example, I’d far rather eat a farm-raised catfish than a fish caught by me in the Citarum River.

It’s all about knowing where your food is coming from. The more you know, and the more control you have over it, the better off you usually are. That’s why, for example, the USDA Organic label has such value – it improves consumer control over the source of their food.

I just recently finished my first historical novel (The First Man In Rome). I have to admit, it blew away my expectations. Do you ever read historical novels and if so, do you have any recommendations? I can’t wait to get my hands on another one.
- Andy

If you liked that one, you should undoubtedly continue McCollough’s “Roman Empire” saga with Grass Crown. There are three others after that one.

Historical fiction, like any genre, has great books and awful books – and one man’s trash can often be another man’s treasure. One good way to dig in is to look for some of the best examples of writing set in a time period that interests you. Here’s a list of great novels set in twenty different periods of history.

Myself, I absolutely love the novels of E.L. Doctorow. He mostly focuses on specific periods of American history, but he reviews them thoroughly and weaves them wonderfully into a great story.

The usefulness of automating your finances is well-documented on this site and others, but it strikes me that that same principle would be incredibly helpful if it could be applied in other areas as well, for instance automating shopping, doctor/dentist’s appointments, personal fitness, eating/cooking, and an infinite many other ways. Do you have any tips/websites that would be helpful to automate your life?
- Alex

If you truly learn how to use an online calendar – and I highly recommend Google Calendar for this purpose – it can do all of these things for you. You can carefully plan out almost anything with an online calendar.

It’s important to note, though, that you have to have the commitment yourself. Without the commitment, no tool will ever transform you into a success. All a good tool does is make the job you’re committed to doing that much easier, freeing you to do other things.

I live by Google Calendar, though.

Being such a cost-sensitive person (that even uses home-made laundry detergent) why do you use a dryer?! I really don’t get it, I only use mine a few times per year (a dozen or less, and only if I have tons of laundry at a time that I want to take care quickly), all the other times I hang the clothes outside or in the garage if it is raining, a small opening in each of the garage allow wind to enter and dry the clothes.

Knowing how much electricity a drying machine uses, I simply don’t understand how can you use it on a daily basis.
-Miguel

First of all, I live in northern Iowa. For about four months out of the year, the cold temperatures makes it impossible to hang out clothes.

What about the other months? We live in a neighborhood with a lot of young children. Our back yard is an open space, as is the back yard of several of our neighbors. This yard provides something of a “village green” that all of the children simultaneously use. There’s a shared piece of playground equipment out in the middle, but other than that, it’s just a sea of green.

Putting up a permanent clothesline where there would be any wind at all would pretty much bisect that open area, restricting the play area of our kids and a lot of their friends. It’s not something we want to do – the tradeoff for us is a net negative.

We often do use a temporary clothesline. When we do this, we usually do it when there are no kids out and about. We’ll string a single, enormous, very taut line from our porch to a playground area very far away and hang tons of clothes on it at once. On a windy day, this will dry a ton of clothes in just an hour. One of our neighbors does this sometimes as well.

I have so many ideas of different things to save for, but I’m not sure of the best way to approach it. In the retirement category, I’m maxing out my company match, so that seems right. I’m also putting $25/week into a Roth IRA with Vanguard. How useful is this if I’m hoping to become a stay-at-home-mom? Beyond retirement, I’ve got 2 months of bare-bones emergency fund in a Vanguard mutual fund (that I put $25/week into). With my credit union, I’ve got another 1.5 months of bare-bones E.F. in a money market. I recently read your post about doing a CD ladder for an EF, but do I transition to that & ditch the money market & mutual fund, or somehow do all of it?

After all that, there are liquid-but-not-definite plans for the future that will cost money. Saving for a wedding, saving to upgrade to a house from a condo (extra mortgage payments vs. saving??), saving for kids, saving for private schooling, saving for a boost toward college… Not so far in the future is the long wishlist of projects for around my condo for home improvement, which includes the junk heating/cooling system…

What’s the best way to save for all these ideas with different & undetermined lengths? Do you have a “bucket” for each one, just lump them all together, or only separate it as “emergency fund” & “other?”
- Kate

If your plans are liquid, I wouldn’t set up separate savings accounts for non-retirement goals that you’re not even sure are goals yet. Focus instead on the things that you’re pretty confident about and get those knocked out of the way first. Make sure your wedding is fully covered. Once that’s done, make sure you’re debt free. Once that’s done, save for a condo.

You’re far better off focusing entirely on one goal than splitting your focus among many goals.

Another suggestion about your emergency fund: I wouldn’t have it in anything that’s volatile, like that Vanguard fund. Also, the advantage of having a CD ladder for your emergency fund is that the CDs in the ladder will mature before you would ever need them. So, for example, you might buy a CD worth one month’s worth of living expenses that matures in three months, but you should have those three months’ worth of living expenses sitting there while you do it. Then, when there’s two months left to go on that CD and you have three months’ worth of living expenses in your emergency fund, buy a second CD. Then, when there’s one month before the first CD opens and you have two months’ worth of cash left in your emergency fund, buy a third CD.

For birthdays, it’s expected that everyone chip in a significant amount on a nice lunch for a person’s birthday in the department. There is really no option to decline – most recently, I got an e-mail at 8 p.m. the night before saying what food was already ordered for lunch the next day (food I don’t even normally eat) and that everyone had to pay $12 each. When I said I brought my own lunch and that I wouldn’t be eating, but that I would chip in a few dollars for the colleague who was celebrating the birthday and partake in the celebration, the person wasn’t willing to change the food order and didn’t understand why I felt “forced” to give. I suggested that if we clear the food selections with everyone first, that might help. And that as a department we should agree on a comfortable and affordable process for everyone. (There are many new people, including myself.) So far, this suggestion has been ignored. I’m afraid this can get out of control – in the six months I’ve been there, I’ve been “mandated” to give $20 for another birthday and $20 for a baby shower. There are 8 people in the department, so this is a nice chunk of money every year and I can’t afford it. Unfortunately, no envelope is passed around, so my most recent act was very much noticed. Do you have any suggestions for still making this a nice good will gesture without seeming like I don’t want to participate?
- Sandy

If you’re the only one who doesn’t want to participate in this, you’re going to have to buck office culture to make it happen. That usually won’t win you friends, especially when you’re new. I often view such things as simply an extra cost of working in an office, unfortunately.

However, if you’ve got a large group of new people, talk to all of them about it. See how they feel. If you all band together to opt out of this thing, it will go much easier.

Myself, I don’t view such “mandated” gifts as having any value at all. If someone wishes to give someone else a gift, that’s fantastic. When someone is “required” to give someone a gift, that gift doesn’t really have any value.

If you really insist on going through with this, your best avenue to get the ball rolling without starting a war is to make it bluntly clear that you do not want a gift on your birthday or for any similar event. Nothing special at all. If they want to celebrate, bring in a cake you make yourself. Then, suggest that everyone is happier with $20 in their pocket and suggest that this become a new tradition that helps everyone out – we keep our money, but we all get to celebrate.

After spending three month unemployed, and getting hired in a tough economy, I feel as though I’ve entered a sort of “AA” for spendthrifts. I making headway on my balances, and have plans outlined for saving, investing, etc. I’ve also noticed that the stress of going from unemployed to new employment has left it’s effects on my waistline. This got me to thinking about how control of personal finances has a lot of parallels to healthy diet and excercise, such as impusle purchases/treats, planning ahead, etc. What are you’re thoughts on this?
- Rachel

Personal finance, dieting, exercising – they’re all exercises in self-control in a society that seems to have forgotten what self-control is.

That’s a big reason why, quite often, people who succeed in this area often seem like a “AA” or other support group. They all know that they’re doing something that not only requires self-control, but it bucks a societal trend as well. They know that it’s a hard choice and they tend to have a lot of respect for others on that journey.

People will often encourage others to succeed in areas of personal success. Most people out there are genuinely good and supportive people. The negative ones – the ones who constantly criticize success and claim that you’ll fail – are the ones to avoid, because they’re often projecting their own personal failures rather than trying to help others succeed.

You picked very good topics w/ the public vs. private vs. homeschool education. I don’t know all of the particulars of this discussion. I am the product of a public education. I graduated in a class of twenty-two students, twenty-plus years ago.
I am now a returning graduate of a junior college completing an elementary education degree so I can go to a four-year college and be a teacher.
I have known several classmates there who were homeschooled with the majority public school graduates. I think the difference in the quality of student is mostly dependent on the student and their support system(parents). I do know that of the homeschooled students I know the schedule, meaning the education dense time, is more difficult to adjust to than the curriculum.

- Daniel

I agree strongly with this. I think educational success and failure is more related to the student and to the general environment provided by the parent (are they active readers? do they engage in intellectually challenging discussions and activities?) than any choice between homeschooling, public school, or private school. I think each of those three options works well for certain people in certain situations.

More importantly, I think the broad stereotypes of each of the three are wrong. Homeschoolers don’t sit at home all day getting browbeat by a Bible. Private schools aren’t a group of identically-dressed people hazing each other in horrible ways. Public schools aren’t gang-filled wastelands of intellectual emptiness. You can find exmaples of each that reinforce the stereotypes, but you can find enormously successful situations in all three.

There is no “best” solution for every child – anyone who claims otherwise (by shamelessly promoting one or constantly demeaning another one) is a charlatan or a fraud. Each parent is best served if they look seriously at all of the opportunities available to them (along with what they’re providing at home) and choose the best one for their situation.

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

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51 thoughts on “Reader Mailbag #90

  1. Re: historical novels. Colleen McCullough’s First Man in Rome series is exceptional, although after the first 4 or 5 books in it, I found them dragging a bit. But still, the first ones were outstanding. Other excellent historical novels are by Sharon Kay Penman and Phillipa Gregory. Sharon Kay Penman focuses on the Plantagenets and Phillipa Gregory on the Tudors. Both are excellent writeres, but Phillipa Gregory was the first writer to really give me the sense of what it was like to live in Tudor England.

  2. We don’t even own a dryer here in Utah (there is currently snow out on the ground). How do we survive? We have strung up several lines in our laundry room itself where we hang our clothes. You can make this work in any room in your house where you don’t mind clothes hanging out. Of course your laundry takes longer to dry but as long as you plan ahead, you shouldn’t have any problems. People in many countries outside of the United States do this because they can’t afford dryers.

  3. For clothes drying; you could hang them inside (which is what we do in our small apartment) or you could get a rotary clothesline outside which wouldn’t have the same impact on the play area for the children.

  4. Good old office celebrations! With an 8-person department, it seems you could get the topic on the agenda for a department meeting, asking to re-visit the ‘tradition’ now that there are several new people there who might have better ideas. If you know the office tradition, then by not saying anything you are tacitly accepting it, so it isn’t fair to the planner for you to opt out at the last minute. At the very least, you could let the planner know you want to be off the list.

    I was transferred 2 years ago to a 16-person department that was holding pot-luck or order-in luncheons almost weekly, though several people complained privately about the $ & time involved. We discussed options at several dept. meetings (since we also had several new people on staff) & now we have one monthly potluck luncheon, planned by the previous month’s honorees. If any given person wants to do more for a specific birthday or event, then it’s up to that person to get buy-in ahead of time from others if necessary, & it’s understood that it is purely optional with no repercussions for opting out.

  5. I have to reccommend Aztec by Gary Jennings, a great read for a historical fiction read of the Aztec Empire.

  6. Trent, I live in an area with harsh winters and many Amish and Mennonite families. They hang their laundry out year round. True, their wet clothes sometimes freeze on the line. But they just wait for a thaw and then go out and collect them. When the temperature is very cold, the air is also usually very dry (because cold air can’t hold much moisture), which helps compensate. You don’t need warm temperatures to dry clothes outdoors. Just a lot of intestinal fortitude! (Me, I line dry *indoors* year round.)

  7. I tend to view the monthly contributations as the cost of working in an office. My husband and I figured it cost us roughly $200 a year for the office parties and the “mandatory” donations at Christmas.

  8. Trent,

    My awesome brother lives in upstate New York and uses his clothesline all winter long. He says it takes a little bit longer for these “clothes-cicles” to dry, but when they do, and after they thaw out, the clothes perfectly usable!

  9. I agree with the assertion that there is no One Right Way when it comes to educating your children. I was homeschooled all the way from preschool through 12th grade, and homeschooling will be an option that my wife and I will consider when we have children. My older brother was homeschooled from about 2nd grade (prior to that, he went to a private school) through 12th grade, and he has no interest homeschooling his future children. My younger brother was homeschooled up through junior high, at which point my parents decided to send him to public school.

    In our time as a (mostly) homeschool family, we met all kinds of different opinions on the subject. Several people, especially when my parents first started homeschooling, when the practice wasn’t as popular as it is now, told my parents that they were ruining our lives. They said, to our faces, that we’d never make it in the real world, we’d end up as social retards, etc. Others told us that homeschooling was the only way, and that people who sent their children to public school just didn’t love them enough.

    All those people were crazy and wrong. Homeschooling can work out just fine. So can private or public school. It all depends on the child and your family’s particular situation. Anyone who tells you that they know the One Right Way for every child is a moron.

  10. One thing to consider regarding clotheslines – if you have allergies or asthma, it’s best to use the dryer, according to our doctor. When clothes are hung outside, they pick up all kinds of pollen and other allergens. Hanging clothes inside the house increases the moisture in the air, which can aggravate allergies and asthma.

  11. “The usefulness of automating your finances is well-documented on this site and others, but it strikes me that that same principle would be incredibly helpful if it could be applied in other areas as well, for instance automating shopping, doctor/dentist’s appointments, personal fitness, eating/cooking, and an infinite many other ways. Do you have any tips/websites that would be helpful to automate your life?
    - Alex”

    Check out “The 4-hour Workweek” by Timothy Ferris. True, some people think he’s a wonk, and maybe he is in some respects, but his notions about automating your life as much as possible aren’t entirely crazy and will possibly answer many of your questions. (the book definitely has some excellent websites listed for the types of automation you mentioned in your question)

  12. I think that “Sarum” by Edward Rutherford is one of the best and most engaging historic fiction novels ever. I’ve read it a dozen times. It’s the history of the Salisbury region of England told through 8 family lines over the period of 10,000 years. Even if you don’t think you have an interest in English history, you can’t help but love this book. He also wrote a similar one called “London” which is almost as good.

  13. Clotheslines! I remember killing an afternoon reading the last clothesline thread a long time ago, especially after it turned into a release valve for a whole lot of anti-American sentiment.

  14. My personal opinion: offices are where you do *work*, and maybe socialize a little bit; but it’s not up to the *Workers* to subsidize what should be business subsidized celebrations. Businesses can write it off as business expenses. Employees canNOT.

  15. For a combination of historical and alt-historical novel, try “Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus” by Orson Scott Card. Read it when you’re in a good mood, though, because the first half of the book can be a bit of a downer. (It’s very hopeful in the end, though!)

  16. Hi Trent,

    I have a couple comments about your clothesline situation.

    First, as long as there isn’t any precipitation, it’s perfectly feasible to hang your clothes out in cold weather. I grew up in Labrador & Newfoundland, and people used their clotheslines year-round. Clothes, in fact, freeze-dry! They’re stiff when they come in, but when they warm up, they aren’t wet.

    (Of course, I find this highly annoying, as did my mother, so despite my father’s insistence – when he was home – we only did it when we were living places without a dryer.)

    Second, about the laundry in the backyard thing, I have also lived in this situation. The block I lived on, in my small town when I grew up, was one big open space that all the families shared. We all had clotheslines too, though. The solution was a)to put the clothes out while the kids were at school and b)to have them really high off the ground. I don’t know what your backyard looks like, but if you have some kind of elevated porch or deck, that’s a good place to have to clothesline connected to. Put the other end on a tree or a pole similarly high up, and it won’t interfere with kids’ playing.

    Alternatively, you could do what my grandparents did with their teeny Belfast backyard, and use one of the clotheslines that looks like an umbrella.

    In sum, I urge you to reconsider clotheslines. There are ways around your challenges, and significant benefits. Clotheslines are low-impact and great money-savers, and the smell of clothes that dried in the sun is lovely.

  17. Hi Trent,
    I’m a regular reader who is employed at a university as a Scholarship Coordinator. I’ve been in and around the field of Financial Aid for years. Regarding “excess” in student loans, there are a couple of things to be aware of. First, I always tell students to figure out what you need. Schools package students for the maximum amount of aid available; however, students do not have to ACCEPT all of the aid. For example, a student maybe offered $2500 in loans, but can accept $1000 and will receive only $1000. Later in the semester, if something comes up and the student needs the money, he/she can request additional funds. Always be mindful of deadlines. If you must borrow, figure out what you need and borrow that amount–no more. Anyone who has paid back student loans knows that is a LONG drawn out painful process.

    Secondly, your lender will ALWAYS take your money. If the student doesn’t want the $3500, then contact the lender and make arrangements to pay it back. There is no restriction or penalty.

    In the world of student loans, students are a very small fish in a very big ocean. Keep meticulous records. Keep names, dates, and times of people you deal with at the loan servicing company and the bank. Financial Aid Offices are (regulated) vessels through which funding flows. Loans are contracts between lenders and students, so students should make informed and smart decisions. Don’t sign anything until you are comfortable with the terms and understand everything. The majority of financial aid administrators are huge student advocates and will happily help students who are interested and ask questions.

    Best of luck to your reader and his wife.

  18. What about the fact that clothes come in off the line very, very stiff?

    I use a line now and then when I’m home and the weather is nice, but I find they always come off REALLY stiff and uncomfortable.

    I’m using the home-made laundry detergent, too. My towels are very uncomfortable to my skin, and my clothes just don’t feel ‘right’ like they do when they come from a dryer.

    Am I just weird in this or is there an easy way to remedy this?

  19. Re: Office Parties

    I’m sure there are other people that feel the same as you do. My former office was pretty big, but we were divided up into units of about 8 people. When Christmas time rolled around, I mentioned that I didn’t really enjoy pulling names for gifts. It turns out that no one liked being forced to buy gifts for co-workers that they might not know very well. Everyone was relevied that they could skip buying a generic 15 dollar gift for the unit grab-bag. We did do a catered lunch party, but it was only about 10 dollars per person and was basically a “free” afternoon. As for birthdays, I’d try to see if your department would go cake-only. For 2 bucks a person you can get a decent cake from a grocery store. And I’d just give the money when it comes to baby and wedding showers. Those type of events don’t come up that often.

  20. I combat mandatory office donations. I tell the person collecting the donations that “I purchased a present for him/her already and I will not be donating.” I then follow through with the plan by buying a reasonably priced present and presenting it later.

    Of course, several people in the office initially did not like this idea, but I ignored them and stuck to my plan. And, now they no longer bother me with their nonsense and I give a gift that I can afford.

    A person should not be bullied into giving beyond his means…

  21. @Vicky

    The “stiffness” will go away as you wear the item, but if you’d rather not experience it at all you can take line-dried clothes and put them in the dryer for just a few minutes. That will loosen them up. It will cost a few cents to run the dryer for those few minutes, but not as much as if you were using the dryer for the whole drying process.

  22. Ah, thanks! I’ll have to give that ago when I do laundry to see if it makes a difference. That’s always been my pet peeve with line dried clothes.. I just can’t stand the rough texture on my skin!

  23. I have a question for the reader mailbag.

    If I have to get an auto loan to finance purchasing my next car, I can get one through my credit union (running about 5%, with an active checking account) or through the dealership (special 3%APR on 2010 models). I prefer your route if saving up and paying cash for a late-model used car. However, if one has to choose between loans, which is better – the credit union or the dealership? My parents always strenuously argued against dealership loans, and I had the vague impression it’s like buying batteries at the gas-station convenience store: you can do it, but you’ll pay a premium. OTOH, the dealership rates look awfully tempting. What are the pros and cons of each?

  24. @Vicky: No, you’re not weird (or if you are, I am too). When I lived in England, my flat had a washing machine but no dryer (this is not an unusual setup there), so I would air-dry all my clothes on a folding wooden rack. The stiffness drove me crazy, and like you, I found the towels to be the worst. The first thing I did when I moved back to the US was to wash and tumble-dry all my clothes and towels.

    Unfortunately, Des’s solution won’t work for me right now, since I live in an apartment building with a common laundry room, where it costs a fixed amount per dryer cycle, and there’s no option of paying for a partial cycle. But that’s OK – tumble-dried clothes are a luxury that’s worth the cost, to me.

  25. A gift is freely given. It’s NOT a gift if someone is making you do it. If choice is not a factor and you are subtly or not so subtly pressured, it’s not a gift.

    Applies to families, friends and co-workers.

    Usually there are one or two people who start these types of “traditions.” They mean well, but they are the ones being rude and inconsiderate of others.

    Try to find out who heads up these things (often the ones collecting) and have a candid conversation.

    Some of my closest friends are people I work with and used to work with. We NEVER did gifts at the office, just some cake or cupcakes and often someone made them. (When they were purchased, a boss usually sprung for it. The good bosses that is.)

    I don’t know how in this time and economy anyone could continue this kind of thing. Every dollar is important and you don’t have to be frugal to be in a situation where you really can’t afford it and having to say that (It’s simply not in my budget) is embarrasing enough. Some folks would actually rather be thought to be uncaring than too broke to spring for this craziness.

  26. I hang a lot of my clothes to dry in my basement with a drying rack. Most of my shirts and my husband’s button downs are air dried. I find that they last longer and don’t fade as quickly. I do, however, dry towels, sheets, underwear, and socks. I especially dry my son’s infant onesies and small clothing, because I find that if I dry them in the dryer, they immediately shrink and I get less use out of them. I have a retractable clothes line on our deck that I use for cloth diapers, since they need the power of the sun to treat stains, but I find it too much effort to lug all my wet, heavy clothes outside when it really isn’t necessary.

  27. If you’ve ever been to Colonial Williamsburg, I really liked the Williamsburg novels by Elswyth Thane. They’re old, probably out of print. I bought mine when the library sold off books that hadn’t been checked out in several years. And I went through some pretty serious withdrawal, since the librarian told me that if I checked them out even once, they’d come off the “to be sold” list.
    They follow one family through all the wars in US history until WW2. They are a product of their time, however, especially with regard to their treatment of the family’s former slaves. Not quite as bad as Mark Twain’s treatment and portrayal of Jim, but still a jarring note to a reader in this time period.

  28. Sandy, I have been in that situation. We would all go to lunch + pay for the birthday/ leaving, etc. person someplace where I could not eat anything on my vegetarian/ restricted diet + if I did not go, or otherwise (I went once + did not eat + did not chip in), I was looked upon unfavorably. I spoke to a supervisor and asked to be excluded from these activities citing finances and diet restrictions (she saw what I brought to lunch every day so she already knew that I did not eat like everyone else). It still was not looked upon favorably, but it was an out for me. I also had no designs on being with the company forever, so I really was not trying to impress anyone who might hold my future with the company in their hands.

  29. “Do you have any suggestions for still making this a nice good will gesture without seeming like I don’t want to participate?”
    Except you don’t want to participate.
    Let them know now, before the next party comes up. (It’s too late after the food has been ordered, I’d be ticked at that as well.)

    We have a walnut and cannot dry clothes outside. Oh well.

  30. I’ve always found indoor drying gets the job done very well and nothing is stiff. Though I grant if you have small children, one or more loads a day (I have one a week) and a small apartment a dryer may be necessary (also in winter things dry very quickly on the radiators)

    Re hunting for food. The drawback here is that this is not sustainable for all of society. A relatively small amount of meat can doubtless be hunted without harming the environment, indeed some culling may be necessary. However, this can only ever work for a minority of people (e.g. who live in the country). So the advantages of hunting can’t be considered a panacea to factory farming.

  31. Re: office parties.

    I work at a group medical practice that has “pods” or groups of six per doctor, and we have eight docs now. It has been tradition for years that every birthday and holiday we make food to bring in. This gets to be a bit much, as some months we can have several birthdays in a month! We used to do gifts for birthdays as well, but this was stopped last year due to the recession (thank goodness!).

    Now, onto Christmas. Every year we pool our money amongst our pod and buy the doctor a $100 gift (so as not to be cheap, I guess). EVERY pod does this in the practice. We have a Christmas party and do a gift exchange like a Yankee Swap and then give the doc their gift at the Christmas dinner (the company DOES pay for this).

    I guess I dread this time of year because of the obligatory gifts. I have been with this company for over eight years now and others have tried to change things, but it hasn’t worked. I consider myself lucky that I only pool my money for one doctor’s gift. We have several staff members who work for two or three doctors (secretaries, surgical staff) and have to go in on a gift for each one (which I don’t think is fair at all).

    My husband is recently unemployed and as much as I don’t want to participate in the gift swap, I will. Our limit is $25, which I think is kind of high. Last year, I gave a gift card, but this year I bought a present under $20 to swap, figuring they won’t know how much I actually paid.

  32. Office Parties:

    I recently left a “desk job” where the department was run by a narcissist who only did the gift exchange under the guise of wanting stuff for herself. She would buy crappy stuff for her name, but then put expensive stuff on her list.

    People tried to change it, but the narcissist in charge wouldn’t listen. I am relieved that I no longer work in this department because I’m not sure that I could even muster up some fake enthusiasm for this.

  33. If you just cheerfully (that’s important – be smiley and don’t seem irritated) refuse to take part in the office gift buying they’ll get the message. It’s been my experience that beyond one or two people, most are ambivalent about these “traditions” anyway, whether its their own birthday or someone else’s. If it’s that vital to team morale the cake should go on someone’s expenses.

    I have good memories as a child of often running around with friends under and through my parents’ and the neighbours’ clotheslines, spinning them around, hanging selected strange things off them, etc. We were outdoors kids and they were a toy to us. The clotheslines weren’t in the way – it was fun, even if my mum didn’t appreciate the odd towel being knocked into the mud.

  34. Gary – Or, take the money, then immediately send a 3500 check to the loan payment place. That’s what I’d do, because dealing with the fin aid office always gave me a headache. Plus, sometimes my new loans were at higher rates than the previous years loans, so I’d take the “new” extra and pay whatever had the highest interest rate.

  35. Another factor to consider in the dryer/clothesline issue is the extra time it takes to use a clothesline. Trent is always calculating things in terms of hourly savings. The energy guide sticker on my dryer estimates the energy cost at $44/year for 8 loads of laundry per week, which comes out to about 11 cents per load. How much time are you willing to spend hanging laundry on a clothesline for 11 cents?

  36. Re: automating your life, I recently came across a web site, alice.com, that automates shopping for household products. You can have it automatically ship all kinds of stuff (e.g., shampoo, toilet paper, toothpaste, laundry detergent, etc.) at a specified frequency. I haven’t used this service, but it looks interesting.

  37. I recommend the series of Historical novels by Edward Rutherford if you are interested in English history, especially Sarum and London – he tends to take one small area of England and tell the story of its history over ~4000 years. Really excellent, well plotted, interlinked vignettes.

  38. I bet it takes more electricity to iron clothes that line dry than to briefly dry them in the dryer enough to fluff the wrinkles out and the hang to dry the rest of the way. I’ll all for saving money, but I can not go to work looking like I slept in my clothes.

  39. Just a brief comment about the financial aid question – I was told by my financial aid officer that if I was approved for loan money that I did not feel we needed, I could refuse the disbursement of any amount, and I would still be approved for it, such that I could take it out later in the semester if I found I needed it. I wonder if there’s a way to use this fact to one’s advantage in a situation like that of the person writing in?

  40. I homeschooled my grandson for seven years. I made my own curriculum while supplementing it with many outside learning activities for which we paid extra so he could have a well rounded education including Art, Theatre, Latin, making pottery, and etc. He has taken dance lessons and was a member of a civil war reenactment group. Sometimes the group were playing confederant soliders and other times they were union soliders. He had to attend classes to earn a certificate to be around the cannons. He attended these activities with other homeschoolers. These activities were all costly. In addition, we had many field trips with other homeschoolers and their families including all ages of children and parents. My grandson is much more socially rounded than any of his friends in the school he now attends. We put him in school when he decided that he knew as much or more than I could teach him. Two months after he started school, he brought home a certificate honoring his English achievement. He also won the number one honor in reading for the time he was in school, and number three for the whole year. (I was appalled that the other children had all year to read and he was number three). As a new child in school, he was bullied big time in a school that was suppose to be bully free. I spent a lot of time in the office concerning the problem. The bullies were well known to the administration. Only ONE teacher took the time to try and stop the bullying, the OTHER TEACHERS never saw anything. EVEN WHEN THEY WERE LOOKING DIRECTLY AT THE STUDENTS. He begged me to go back to homeschooling him; however, I had let him know the decision was final when we put him in public school. He really liked all his teachers and made good grades. He got two certificates of honor when he gradulated from grade school. One on the honor roll and the other in Science. He is now in high school and again he really likes all of his teachers and the like him. He enjoys high school and is making good grades. His cousins (whom their father was always against our homeschooling) aren’t doing as well in school. Homeschooling was not our first choice; we were told by the school administration (NOT A DOCTOR) that he was too active and would have to take medication to attend school. Incidently, it was cheaper to homeschool him even with all the extra activities than it is to send him to public school. Homeschooling is definitely not for everyone, it is a full time job because the student is always asking questions any time of day that need to be answered. It is not a 8:00 A.M. to 3:30 P.M. job.

  41. As far as historical fiction goes, “Sarum” by Edward Rutherford is one of the best in the field, outlining the history of the Salisbury area of England over the course of 10,000 years and eight families. It took him 12 years to research/write it and it shows! He also wrote “London,” which is just as excellent.

  42. Vicky #13 – I guess I am the exact opposite. Since I was raised before driers were in common use, I am accustomed to the roughness and stiffness of clothes. But I do not have this problem now as I use vinegar for my softener and put it in my final rinse in a Downy ball. But I do hate, absolutely hate all the soft, smooth towels and wash clothes. I do not feel dry after using them. I feel the rough ones soak up the moisture from your skin better.

    I

  43. With student loans, the federal ones anyways, have a maximum limit you can borrow per year. That is why the financial aid department gives the entire amount out, that way you can figure out whether to keep it or not.

    Another thing to lookout for is the loaner’s/lender’s fee which is like 1% of the loan amount or something around there. You pay that fee up front by having a larger loan, but if you return the money within a certain time (I think it’s around 30 days) then that fee is erased.

    Also, student loans are normally the cheapest loans around, so if you have credit card bills, or will have debt going onto the card, then the Stafford loan might be a better choice.

    When I graduated, my rate was around 4%, with my first loan being around 2%, but my friends didn’t believe in “school loans” so they put everything on their credit card at 20+% interest rates. Yeah… where’s the logic?

  44. I wash only full loads in my washer and so I use the dryer some because I have too many sweats to dry in the space I have to use. But I too remember that you hung your clothes out to dry year round. I can use my line quite a bit in the winter though because I have a line in my carport that is open somewhat to breezes and warmth. I guess I switch to whatever works best for me each time I do my wash.

  45. Sorry if this is a repeat of anyone else’s comment – about “AA” for spendthrifts, there are actually such things – one is Debtors Anonymous and I think the other is Spenders Anonymous, both great tools for increasing awareness of your overspending and seeking solutions.

  46. I hang clothes in basement often & would like to hang out laundry on sunny days, however my husband has lots of bird feeders & we have trees so birds fly over the yard all day long– not good for the clean laundry:)

  47. Regarding the Stafford loans, some schools may allow you to make interest only payments during school (e.g, $20 a month) so you can avoid interest accrual. You also don’t have to use the entire six month deferral period after graduation either–my understanding is that you can start paying them off during the grace period. Checking on the school’s policy for loans and repayment would be best, though.

  48. Re: the mandatory gifts in offices. The office manager in my last company (office of about 20 people) was just horrid with this. She would get together with another of the managers shell out the initial cost for an expensive gift for the VP in charge of our branch. It continually got more outrageous each year (five) I worked there. The next to last year just took the cake and I rebelled. Office manager had shelled out $500 for two expensive, highly coveted seats to a local sporting event. She attempted to strong arm $50 out of everyone in the office, including several long-term temps who were living very paycheck to paycheck. It was no secret they were having financial troubles. The particular game was one VP’s dad had long wanted to attend, and he was dying of cancer. So office manager had a nice sob story to guilt trip people into giving (fellow did die about a month after attending game with his VP daughter).

    I’d been on medical leave for a month after surgery and came back six weeks before Christmas to find emails about the $50 “donation.” I refused. My gifts for the two people in my department and the VP were usually loaves of banana bread. When office manager got my email politely saying that I was not going to take part in the expensive gift, she went ballistic. She verbally abused me to my face, as well as to others in the office. I finally went directly to VP, telling her “X has bought you very expensive Christmas gift (without saying what it was), and as I have different plans for a gift for you, and declined to cough up $50, she’s gone off the deep end.” VP had a wee talk with office manager, who continued to make my office life awful in other ways (she did this with 1-2 others).

    Current office had quite a lot of gifting (everyone in dept. buying for everyone), but I’ve not taken part from day one. I say thank you, and then get rid of the stuff at home. I will do something like buy enough donuts for the office, which is appreciated.

  49. Question for a future week: I appreciate the idea of shopping bulk and then cooking and freezing, but this plan depends on two things: having a car to do the shopping, and having a good-sized freezer to do the storing. What frugal cooking advice would you give to someone who has neither? (I live in a city, so no car needed, and I have a mini-fridge with a freezer about 12″tall x 18″wide x 45″deep)

  50. Gifts in the office:
    I know these things are probably really hard to change, but I like what one company I worked for did. Each Friday there was a whole-company (40-odd people) meeting, with food organised based on a roster of 4-person ‘teams’ and paid for by the company. The last meeting of the month included a company-bought cake or 2 and birthdays mentioned.

    I also like what my sister’s company does. Each person brings something – eg cake, biscuits, muffins – into the office on their birthday. Some people make it, some people buy it. Each person only does it once a year (more if they want to, of course), and if they don’t for some reason there’s no hard feelings – I think often someone else will do it instead. People have even started asking my sister for baking lessons because of this (and enjoying learning to bake)! :)

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