Reader Mailbag #95

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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 was the best Christmas gift you received this year?
- Andrew

The most sentimental gift (by far) was a custom-made cookbook prepared by my wife and kids, including pictures of them and a ton of good recipes of many of their favorite foods (chosen by them). Never mind the photos – reading the recipes was fun because of how they connected so well with the person that selected them. For example, I saw the “chicken nuggets” recipe and immediately thought of my daughter, who for some inexplicable reason claims all of her food to be chicken nuggets. Broccoli is chicken nuggets. Scrambled eggs are chicken nuggets.

The most useful gift was probably also food-related. My parents gave me an 8″ Global chef’s knife, which will (aside from our paring knife) pretty much replace every other knife we own. It’s incredible to use.

Almost all of my gifts were excellent this year, though. Perhaps I’m just getting easier for other people to figure out.

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).
- John

I’m not sure what you mean that it’s not going to help people save. Essentially, all the program does is give you a somewhat bigger bill now to reduce the size of your bill by even more in 2011 and beyond. I don’t think it’s intended to help those who can’t afford the higher rates.

If you are truly in financial hardship – whether it’s caused by a rate increase or not – you should look into the assistance programs offered by your power company. In this case, you’d be looking at this.

If you’re asking whether or not I would sign up for such a program in general, I would call them and ask to see specific numbers and estimates, but if it is what it appears to be, I would sign up. It would effectively be a 7.5% return on your money in what amounts to a savings account.

What was your favorite book of 2009?
- Jamie

It was easily Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. It’s simultaneously a great portrait of 1970s New York, a collection of moving stories, and a thoughtful reflection on the role of chance in human life. I’ll read this one multiple times again in the future.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention The Magicians by Lev Grossman, a wonderful fantasy novel that really draws on the impact that the stories we read as a child can come back and affect us as we grow older. I enjoyed it because it avoids the usual fantasy trap of making the heroes idealized versions of ourselves and instead makes them realistic people. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell might be my favorite fantasy novel of the last decade or so, but this one isn’t too far off the mark.

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?
- Ashley

For one, I don’t believe buying a primary residence is ever a great investment. It’s too illiquid and too subject to local housing market fluctuations to ever be thought of as an investment.

If you “barely have enough money to scrape together a down payment” and are buying in the D.C. area, that means you’re going to be taking on a pretty huge mortgage. Never mind the low interest rate – your monthly payments are going to be enormous no matter how you slice it. Tack on top of that your home ownership costs (maintenance, etc.), the other services you’ll need, and the inevitable emergencies (like the inevitable exploding toilet) where you can’t just call a landlord and instead have to foot the bill yourself and you’ve got an enormous cash outlay that, based on your own comments, sounds like it might be beyond your means.

Live cheap. Build your career into something high-earning and stable. Save up enough so that your life won’t go into high-wire mode as soon as you sign the mortgage. Don’t worry about “taking advantage” of the current housing market.

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?
- Lenore

Regardless of any “stiffing,” that was incredibly rude and unprofessional of the waitress in question. Unless the restaurant is a place that enforces a gratuity on the bill, she has no right to any tip. You give that tip at your own discretion.

Yes, it’s courteous and customary to tip for good service. Yes, many waiters/waitresses rely on tipping for income and need that money. That still doesn’t excuse the behavior.

I would likely have told the manager of the incident. An employee with that little respect for customers (and that little amount of discretion) would likely be a staff liability.

I would also not return to the restaurant for a while, but I would not be opposed to returning after a period of time (and some staff turnover).

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?
- Brenda

Most of my fiction can best be described as “what if” fiction. Usually, I try to change one fundamental piece of information about how the world works, then try to look at ordinary life through the eyes of a normal person in this world.

For example, I wrote a novel-length piece of work a few years ago about the invention of an engine that allowed us to travel between stars, but to do so consumed enormous amounts of pure, salt-free water. Eventually, we no longer had enough water for everyone to drink, there were enormous wars fought over water, and a lot of people had left Earth to visit other stars but were basically out of contact. From there, I tell the story of three brothers (actually pretty closely based on myself and my two brothers) and how they grow up in this world, with outsized dreams of space travel and leaving Earth but with a devastating reality around them.

My last short story that I completed to a reasonable level of satisfaction revolved around a single woman a year after the discovery of a way for people to reproduce asexually with ease and essentially raise clones of themselves from infancy. She chose to become impregnated with her clone, but now feels it was a very poor choice.

That’s just the kind of stuff I like to write.

Is investing in non-hybridized seeds worthwhile?
- Kenny

As with any investment, you have to ask yourself two big things. First, what’s your goal with the investment? Second, what’s the risk of the investment?

Non-hybridized seeds can be really worthwhile – if you’re an avid gardener. The big advantage of non-hybridized seeds is that they allow you to harvest seeds each year, then plant them the following year. You can even do your own plant breeding if you so wish. This is valuable if you’re into gardening or have beliefs that revolve around avoiding hybridized seeds.

There’s a risk, though. You can’t just let seeds sit for a large number of years – they simply won’t grow. You have to grow them regularly to maintain your seed bank.

If you don’t live in a place where you can easily grow your seeds, non-hybridized seeds are a waste of money. You need to be able to replenish your own stores or else the seeds will go bad after a few years.

Have you ever considered starting a “Simple Dollar” fantasy baseball league where you participate with a number of readers? You could set it up on Yahoo! Sports yourself, join the league, then allow people to sign up by giving out a code on the site.
- Allie

That’s actually a pretty good idea. I usually participate in three (yes, three) fantasy baseball leagues in a given year and it looks like at least one of my regular ones is now defunct due to the number of people who are either unable to play or have chosen to resign.

If you would actually be interested in participating in such a thing, leave a comment for this mailbag. If I see a lot of comments, I’ll start one in March. If I don’t see many comments, I’ll just let this sleeping dog lie.

Is there ever a situation where you think it’s appropriate to take out a loan instead of paying cash?
- Bill

I have no problem with home mortgages if you’re in a situation where you can get a low-interest loan and your payments are low compared to the rental costs of something comparable in the area.

I also don’t have a problem with taking out a loan with no interest at all as long as you already have the cash to cover the debt. Keep the cash yourself in a separate savings account, set up automatic payments from that account, then just let it be until the loan is paid off. You’ll have cash left sitting in the account.

In much the same way, I have no problem with credit card use as long as you pay the balance off in full each month.

The real problem with any debt is the interest you have to pay. That interest is basically a huge price for impatience – one of our most dangerous human impulses.

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 night. 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?
- Arthur

Again, this is a question about investment. I think you need to sit down and ask yourself what the reward for this investment of time actually is.

It seems that you want your child to be in touch with his/her heritage, which is a noble goal. The real question is how highly that goal ranks in comparison to the also-important goal of spending a lot of time with your child.

I can’t answer that question for you because each one of us values different things on a personal level. For me, I would value the time I spend with my child. I would probably do something like purchase a copy of Rosetta Stone and spend some time each evening doing the program with my child, learning the language together. While it might not be as enriching as actually taking the classes, it would still teach some of the language and, perhaps more importantly, it would allow you to do it with your child.

Got any questions? Ask them in the comments and I’ll try to include them in a future reader mailbag.

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71 thoughts on “Reader Mailbag #95

  1. I was very glad to see Trent’s comment that purchasing a primary residence is not a good investment. I think that too many people view a house as an investment rather than a home, which I feel contributed to the housing bubble and mortgage crises.

  2. You DO realize that you have to publish your short story now, right? *wink* *wink* I’d be interested in reading it

  3. I’d also like to mention to the 25 year old DCer, if you are not married and considering buying a house with someone, be very careful. The divorce rate is nearly 50%, and that’s for people who made the “til death” commitment. If marriage or at least some sort of deep, heavy commitment isn’t in the near future for you guys, maybe you shouldn’t be committing to a 30 year loan. And yes, you probably think you will be with boyfriend forever, but you may not be.

  4. I would be interested in fantasy baseball and/or football. Other than Yahoo, you can also look into running it at ESPN or CBS sportline.

  5. @Ashley: I agree with what Trent said (don’t stretch to buy a house, because there’s almost certainly some expense that will crop up that you haven’t accounted for), but I’d like to add that this might not be as good a time to buy a house in DC as you think it is.

    First, house prices in the DC area are still very, very high compared to where they were before the bubble. In other cities that were hit by the bubble, prices have fallen a lot further and a lot faster. This suggests to me that prices in DC still have a long way to fall.

    Second, low interest rates do not necessarily make it a good time to buy. In fact, they might make it a bad time to buy. Low interest rates mean high prices (because people can take on a higher debt for the same monthly payment); conversely, high interest rates mean lower prices. If you buy when interest rates are high, then you can refinance when rates fall and get a lower monthly payment. But if you buy when interest rates are low, you are saddled with a large debt no matter what happens.

    Third, the tax credit is not such a big deal. If you give $8000 to everybody who buys a house, then everybody is willing to pay $8000 more for a house, so house prices are artificially propped up by $8000. To put it another way, that $8000 isn’t really going to you – it’s going to the person who’s selling you the house.

    Finally, bubble-like levels of appreciation are not coming back any time soon. Which means two things. One, if you do buy now, you’re not going to see your home’s value increase by 10+% every year. In fact, it might even fall, as I’ve explained. Two, if you don’t buy now, you don’t have to worry about being priced out of the market forever. Houses are only worth what people are willing to pay for them. Those people include you and lots of people like you. Prices cannot sustainably rise so high that nobody can afford to pay them.

  6. Here’s a question; I’ll try to be succinct:

    I’ve just started cello lessons and have rented the instrument for $37/month for two months. The music store I rent from will credit me half of the total rental money paid toward a purchase should I decide to do so in the future. The purchase price for a starter cello from them is in the neighborhood of $650.

    I could alternately purchase a starter cello online for about $400 (about 10 months of rental cost), but without the rental credit.

    If I love it (so far, so good!) and continue to play, at what point in time would it be better to purchase a cello, and from which source?

    Just having trouble wrapping my brain around the math. Thanks!

  7. Regarding the Chinese-learning question:
    I think that the best plan would be to make this a family thing. Is your wife willing to learn? If you both learn Chinese, then you will be able to incorporate it into your child’s life. I have been raised speaking English and I do feel that a part of my heritage is missing because I don’t speak the language of my parents/ancestors. I understand it because it’s spoken at home, but tonal languages are not my thing. You could buy language software and make this part of your family time. It would mean that you would still be able to get home to see your daughter before she sleeps.

  8. Regarding the waitress, it depends on her tone. If she were genuinely interested in what she did wrong to not receive a tip, that’s one thing. Tips are generally used to let a waitress know how she did (or a waiter how he did). Not leaving a tip is usually a sign of severe dissatisfaction, and she may have been asking to know what she did wrong to avoid it in the future. (It sounds as if she was insulted and snotty about it, though. But it could be the perception of the person writing.)

    I’d participate in fantasy baseball.

  9. Some notes on tipping straight from a waitress of ten years:

    When eating out in the U.S., please keep in mind that servers usually get paid only $2.65 per hour, especially in your favorite locally owned restaurants. Tax is taken out of our measly paychecks for any tip that leaves a paper trail – i.e. credit card slips – often leaving our paychecks very very small. My bi-weekly paychecks are usually under $20. We literally live off of the tips you give us.

    I enjoy eating out, but am also necessarily frugal. I tip 15% for service that gets it all done, but isn’t exceptionally notable. You get the food to me before it’s cold, but maybe I had to wait a while for my ketchup. I tip 20% when the service was perfect. I’ll tip more if I particularly enjoyed the conversation or if there was some extra reason that the server had to go out of their way. The only time I tip less than 15% is when the service is inadequate or the server is rude.

    If you tip a good server less than 15%, do not expect to get good service at that restaurant again. We do keep tabs and we talk to each other. A good server also knows when they don’t give a table their deserved attention.

    I agree that the young lady’s behavior was unprofessional. If she chose to address the issue, she should have done so calmly and with respect. She could have asked to give the table to another server or had a manager mediate the situation.

  10. Re: the DC house purchase.

    Don’t buy a house right now. It’s too risky to put all your money into a long-term loan, even if you do think you can cover it all. What happens if you break up? What happens if one of you loses a job? Can one of you cover all the payments on your own? What happens when the roof needs replacing? Do you know a good plumber? A good carpenter? A good roofer? A good painter? Can you do any of those things yourself?

    If you do choose to purchase a house with your boyfriend, please make sure to get a contract written out between the two of you first. Who will pay what, percentage of ownership, survivorship rights, what happens if you break up or want to move, etc. It is MUCH easier to have those conversations before you buy than after. And it’s a huge stressor on a relationship.

  11. @heather t: Something you might want to consider is that extremely inexpensive musical instruments (in which category I would include a $400 cello) are often of such poor quality that they’re basically unplayable. If you buy online and you don’t like the cello you receive, can you return it for a full refund and still get your rental credit at the music store? Or, is there some way you can try out the exact instrument you’d be buying online (same brand, same model, same bow) before you buy it? If not, I’d rule out the online source. It’s more important to end up with an instrument that you enjoy playing than to get the best possible price.

    As for when to buy, I’d say you should do it as soon as you’re absolutely sure you want to continue playing long-term.

  12. For the question about whether it’s ever okay to take out a loan rather than paying with cash, surely Trent’s answer is that it’s okay if you think you got a good deal on a new Prius.

  13. Whoa! Does anyone else actually live in DC? I do. And while I agree think Ashley has raised some red flags (“barely scrape” being the biggest one), there’s no guarantee that buying here equals a hefty mortgage.

    You can buy a nice starter home in my neighborhood, just outside of the DC limits, within the Beltway, on the Metro line for less than $250,000. That’s not cheap, but assuming Ashley and her boyfriend are professionals with federal jobs, that’s not unreasonable, either.

    As for prices having more to fall? That’s difficult for any of us to say, but I review monthly sales price data for my day job, and they’ve stabilized in the zip codes I review. It may not be true for the whole metropolitan area – but it will be true for some places.

    As Trent suggests, Ashley needs to do an analysis of her expenses and figure out what she can afford. But that’s true whether you’re buying a home in Des Moines or Dallas or DC. It isn’t necessarily any riskier just because we’re in a big city.

  14. Faculties,

    We’ve been over this. The loan’s interest rate was 4%. Trent’s been earning 3 or 4 percent in savings and in CDs.

    He was willing to pay a tiny (really tiny) piece of interest to keep money liquid.

    It’s not a big deal.

  15. I was going to write a reply to Ashley about buying a house but Johanna (#6) took the words right out of my mouth.

    Don’t freak out that you’re going to miss a huge opportunity. Housing prices likely aren’t going anywhere interesting for some time.

    Johanna (#12) also beat me to the punch on the musical instrument question from Heather (#7).

    Instruments and your appreciation of them are HIHGLY subjective, though really cheap ones normally suck.

    I would keep renting the one you have for just a bit longer, play a few other ones from the the shop you’re renting from, and if you think you like the one you’ve got, try to cut a deal with the shop to buy your rental from them.

  16. Tips are not optional. If you aren’t willing to go tip, you should stay home and make a can of soup. We can actually LOSE money by serving bad tippers.

    Servers make just over $2 an hour, and that’s just so the employer can take taxes out of it. And we are expected to pay taxes at a rate of being tipped on 10% of the gross sales, if the tip was in cash. If the tip was on a credit card, we got taxed on the whole amount or 10% of the meal price (whichever is higher, if it’s less than 10% it was assumed you were tipped in cash). That is, if you buy a meal that costs $10, we’re expected to recieve $1 tip and pay taxes on that. Additionally, if you go all out and spend $100, we’re expected to have recieved $10 in tips (at least) and pay taxes on that. At my restaurant, I was also expected to give 1% of my tip to the bartender (doesn’t matter if anyone I waited on ordered a drink), 1% to the busser, and 1% to the prepper. So if you Spent $100, I would need to have received a tip of $13 to break even.

    I feel so bad for any server that gets you “optional tipping” jerks.

  17. @Abby: Define “stabilized.” It is true that prices across the area have not fallen for several months now, but that doesn’t mean they’re stable. It could also be a suckers’ rally.

    When it takes two professionals with federal jobs to afford one of the cheapest starter homes available, that’s a really good indication that homes are still overpriced.

  18. Tipping is optional. You don’t pay taxes on money you don’t make, therefore it is impossible to “lose money” on bad tippers. Just claim the real amount you got in tips on your taxes. I’m sure every time you get tipped in cash over that 10% you claim every cent as income, right?

  19. @gexx: Your numbers don’t add up. Paying taxes on $10 does not mean paying $10 in taxes, because the tax rate is not 100%. Let’s say you pay at most $3 in taxes (including federal, state, local, and payroll). Then on a $100 order, you break even with a $6 tip.

  20. Kat- you are wrong about it being impossible to lose money on bad tippers. Most restaurants now take 10% of your total amount on your sales out of your paycheck in taxes to make sure you are paying taxes on your tips, so when you don’t get tipped it actually costs you money. And in most nice restaurants, you also have to tip out to the bussers, expediters, hosts and bartenders. My son has been a server at McCormick and Schmick’s all through college and gets very upset when he’s stiffed because he assumes that he did something wrong.
    I also would be interested in the waitress’s tone. If she asked to find out genuinely why she didn’t get tipped, then, no problem. I don’t think it’s unprofessional to ask. After all, if you were the only one at your company to not get a yearly bonus, you certainly would ask your boss why you were stiffed. She’s just checking with the boss- the tipper.

  21. Kat- you are wrong about it being impossible to lose money on bad tippers. Most restaurants now take a minimum of 10% of your total amount on your sales out of your paycheck in taxes to make sure you are paying taxes on your tips, so when you don’t get tipped it actually costs you money. And in most nice restaurants, you also have to tip out to the bussers, expediters, hosts and bartenders. My son has been a server at McCormick and Schmick’s all through college and gets very upset when he’s stiffed because he assumes that he did something wrong. And you are assuming that most servers are tax cheats with your comment- all the servers I know do claim what they make in tips- after tipping out to the other restaurant workers.
    I also would be interested in the waitress’s tone. If she asked to find out genuinely why she didn’t get tipped, then, no problem. I don’t think it’s unprofessional to ask. After all, if you were the only one at your company to not get a yearly bonus, you certainly would ask your boss why you were stiffed. She’s just checking with the boss- the tipper.

  22. Michele, do you file a tax return? If so, then no, you do not “lose” money on bad tippers. You just pay excess tax on that day and then get a refund in April. Just like every other worker who pays excess taxes during the year. And every time you get more than a 10% tip you don’t pay taxes that day for it, you are supposedly putting that extra tip money in as income on your tax return and then paying that tax in April.

  23. Agree totally with gexx, all the “tips are optional” people are way over the cheap-not-frugal line and not someone I’d be comfortable eating out with. Yeah you’re not going to get arrested for not tipping but it is absolutely unacceptable in the world I live in (and before the “but they don’t do it in Europe” whining starts, I’m originally from a no-tip culture but live in N.America now).

    That said, the waiter’s outburst in this case seems over the top and distressing for the customer but “family chain restaurant” and the “wondered what I did wrong” dialogue implies emotional teenage staff to me so probably best to let it go – forgive the kid and don’t agonize over having done something wrong either.

  24. Like Arthur, I am also Chinese married to a non-Chinese, and we have a new baby in the house. Unlike Arthur, I do speak Chinese about like a third grader. As a researcher in second language learning here are a few thoughts:

    I agree with both what Trent said and like the #8 comment. When people ask, I tell them that language learning comes down to aptitude and motivation. Aptitude is hard to measure and let’s assume not something we can do a lot about. Motivation, on the other hand, does vary a lot. I’m really good at learning languages (high aptitude), but I spent about 6 months having a private tutor come to my house and give me lessons in a new language and have very little to show for it. Why? I was at the time, living in a country where this language had been so stigmatized that everyone in my region spoke a different language that I already spoke. Other than curiosity I had no need to learn this language. I used it on the street exactly once for 20 seconds. Also, I had a full time job that took quite a bit of energy. In other words, low motivation.

    To Arthur, I’d say keep doing what you’re doing which is to spend quality time with your child. Like #8 suggested, figure out ways to incorporate your Chinese heritage into your time together. You will do a lot unconsciously, but if there is a Chinese community center in your area consider becoming more active in it. They usually celebrate the big holidays in some way and it’s good to observe how Chinese people interact with one another.

    Don’t worry overly much about her language learning particularly how old she has to be when she starts learning. There’s a lot of research on age and language learning and it’s valuable for researchers to know. But as a parent of this particular child, you don’t know yet what will grab her interest and you can only shape her world so much. Enjoy her and incorporate Chinese learning when it makes sense for the both of you. Like you could both go to Chinese school together when she’s 5, or as suggested, with your wife too.

    I have 20+ cousins, some with two Chinese parents and some with only 1. Some of my biracial cousins speak pretty good Chinese from spending time overseas in their 20s. Other cousins, with two Chinese parents, don’t speak Chinese despite years in Chinese school. Different kids have different interests at different times in life.

    Or you could be like the linguist who only spoke to his kid in Klingon where early exposure to Klingon was clearly a priority. But it really seems that you want your daughter to “be Chinese” and feel that speaking Chinese is part of that. I know I feel that way for my daughter. For all of us in bi-ethnic relationships, I think it’s a learning process that we don’t get “right”. For now, spend time with your daughter, make friends with other Chinese or hapa kids/families, and enjoy every moment possible.

    Congrats, Arthur. It sounds like you’re doing great.

  25. @Ashley,
    Having to ‘scrape together a down payment’ means you can not afford to buy real estate right now. Never purchase anything with someone who is not in a legally committed relationship with you. If the boyfriend and his income vanishes, you will need to keep that roof over your head and your financial standing intact.

  26. The thing about tipping is that it should be optional. Tipping should be for cases where the service was exceptional, or the customer believes that the server deserves a little something extra. Restaurants should be paying servers a decent wage, without expecting customers to directly pay them.

    We have left the restaurant business get to the point however, that not tipping a server is like cheating them, since most restaurants do not even pay minimum wage.

    Personally, I’d like to see that trend change. I would like to see a boycott of any restaurant that does not pay their servers a decent wage or who takes any cut of the tips. I’d also like to see servers be able to refuse to work for any restaurant that does either of those things.

    Unfortunately, I think we’ve let the situation get to the point that reversing it would be very difficult. While I am not a fan of unions in most cases, I wonder if this is a situation where a union might be very helpful in addressing this issue.

  27. I remember hearing that if a waiter doesn’t make enough in tips to reach minimum wage, then his employer had to make up the difference.

    Anybody in the industry know if this is correct?

  28. Arthur –
    I am half Chinese. Neither my mom or I speak it. Though at times I wish I knew how it has never been a big priority to me (esp. since my mom didn’t grow up speaking Chinese). A great way to connect to heritage is through food. My mom always served a lot of authentic Chinese food and as an adult that is what I appreciate the most. Your child will be eating before speaking so why not spend the time learning to cook “real” Chinese food.

  29. @Ashley

    Not sure how your relationship is like, you could be with your childhood, high school, college sweetheart, or someone you’ve met a year ago, but it’s important to get the financial trust down to a science long before buying a house. When renting it is easy to just split rent, but how would that work if the house needs repairs? What is the split on it?

    If you need to scrape together a downpayment, that makes sense, most major cities are really expensive. But over time, it doesn’t break ‘even’ for at least a decade considering how much you had to sacrifice for the downpayment and upgrades to the home. The other advice is spot on to wait it out a bit to see if finances are more comfortable before committing to something so big.

  30. Back in ’99 we had just moved to a college town and were eating at a local micro brew pub. I overheard a waiter who just came off shift bragging to his friends that he made over $100,000.00 last year in income including tips. We tip 20% of the after tax total regularly, so I could believe him. Of course that is most likely an the other end of the scale for income. But the service industry does tip well if you are in the right location such as a doorman at a high end hotel. It is because of the decades of people not accurately reporting tips that the IRS decided to assume 10% of the bill was being paid as tip and requiring wait staff to declare at least that much.

  31. #28 Ryan – they do. But if that happens “too often” (read: ever) then you get fired because that *must mean* you’re a bad server. Where I worked, after my 4 months there I was the senior server because we kept getting stiffed by the vacation crowd who hadn’t budgeted for tips (making $15 in tips on a Sunday night full dinner shift is a pain in he arse, thankfully my Saturday-hustle-my-arse tips just barely brought me up to minimum). The only reason I stuck it out was because it wasn’t worth the hassle of finding another job before going off to grad school

    And to those who say to claim the “real” amount of tips if you get stiffed, if your numbers don’t add up with the restaurant’s, you get audited. And guess who hires bookkeepers. (hint: not me.)

    Oh, and Chick tracks, motivational messages, movie tickets, or postcards don’t buy groceries.

  32. About the waitress, another quite likely possible explanation is that another server stole the tip off the table. I waitressed full time for a year, and it happens even in small restaurants among co-workers you would have thought you could trust.

  33. When I was very young and just starting out in the job market, I had an eye-opening experience regarding tips. On my first day, the supervisor at one of my very first jobs took a co-worker and me out to lunch as a “welcome to the company” gesture. Our waitress was terrific, so my supervisor left a generous tip on the table before we left. He let us exit ahead of him, and we were a little way down the street when we realized that our supervisor was not behind us. We went back into the restaurant, and our supervisor was still inside, shouting and cursing at another couple that had been eating at a nearby table. He loudly threatened to break their arms as they sheepishly kept repeating apologies. He made quite a scene and the other diners just gawked. He then took the tip, which was now in his hand, and gave it directly to our waitress, who was standing near him. We then left the restaurant. It turns out that as we were leaving the first time, my supervisor happened to turn around and saw the couple reach over and take our tip from the table, effectively stealing it from our waitress. This infuriated this normally gentle, kind man (and was probably why nobody came to the couple’s rescue during his tirade). This may have happened to you, Lenore, only the thieves may have gotten away with it, leaving the waitress to believe that she had been “stiffed” when there was no money at the table. Even though that happened when I was very young, I still make sure the waitress/waiter sees me leave the tip on the table, or I give it to them directly.

  34. concerning the waitress – first of all I would suspect a thief because we never forget to tip. It’s like locking your car door when you get out – you just do it, you don’t think about it. I’ve never not tipped – it just doesn’t happen. So if that happened to me I’d tell her straight out – someone stole it.

    Then I probably would not return to that restaurant as I wouldnt’ feel comfortable. Or if it was a favorite place – it’d be a while before I returned. I’m not the type of person who would mention it to the manager – that’s just how I am. But it might not be a bad idea to talk to the manager because 1) that kind of comment from wait staff is not professional and 2) there may, in fact, be a thief on staff and the manager knows it and needs to take action.

  35. On Tipping
    The waitress was “unproffessional” in bringing it up, sure. But if you tattle, she could lose her job. I couldn’t live with that on my conscience. She’s just human, she may not have intended to blurt out her feelings, but things happen. If she were your friend in real life, you wouldn’t over-analyze exactly how or when she spoke.

    Also, the way to move on from a bad situation is to communicate. Did she communicate in the most effective way? Perhaps not. But isn’t it better to know that there was a problem than wonder why one waitress hates you, if it’s at a favorite restaurant.

    One can wish that tipping culture was different, but I think most people that enjoy this blog live in reality. Reality is, tipping matters.

  36. I haven’t made time to participate in a fantasy baseball league since my daughter was born (she’ll be 3 in March) so I can’t say for sure I’d participate. Even if I don’t, I think it would be neat to see a weekly update of who is getting their rear end handed to them. :>) I say go for it!

  37. RE: Tipping

    Two thoughts. If you know that you always leave a tip, the first thought is theft–either another customer or another waiter.

    The second, and maybe I’m just cynical but I’ve seen a lot of theft in various guises at retail establishments: Is that this young woman was “conning” you. She knew who she could guilt into giving another tip, bigger tip, etc.

    Something about her demeanor just did not seem sincere. If you really felt you had a rapport with someone and you really were hurt by their behavior, and if you really had any respect for them and were acting professionally, you would 1/probably not say anything and 2/if you did, in a far more polite and truly inquisitive not harsh or judgmental tone.

    She sounded like she was putting them on the defensive from minute one and that made me think: She’s conning them.

    I’ve seen worse than this so to me, sorry, it’s not at all impossible.

    Frankly, I would have told her 1/Your manner is unacceptable. 2/We want another waiter or we are leaving and 3/We are sharing this with management based on your inappropriate attitude.

    You don’t shame or guilt people into tipping. That shows that frankly she is not worthy of a tip that second time.

    And I would tell management that you suspect something IS going on. Let’s see how well she responds to all of that.

    Professionals do NOT accost customers. EVER.

    If they really had a problem, she should approach management who may, at their discretion, find some tactful way to query the family about their satisfaction at the previous visit.

    And management should know in case there is thieving going on. Plenty of waiters steal from each other as do customers

    I’ve seen it myself and twice had to stop waiters . Now, I either personally hand the tip (never leave it. NEVER) or sign the cc receipt in front of them indicating their tip.

  38. I think I’m living in a time warp…I swear I’ve seen this exact waitress story/question before on this blog. Is it just me?

  39. For everyone who thinks tipping is optional, you’re a cheap-skate. End of story. No if or buts. You’re a cheapskate and you are fine with making others pay for a part of your meal. Many restaurants split a percentage of the server’s tips with the bar, bussers, and host(ess). So if you stiff them, they owe money for providing you service. If you can’t afford to tip relative to the service, then you can’t afford to eat there. If the service is average, give them the average 15%. If it’s exemplary, give them more and give them less if they sucked. No matter how crappy the service is, they provide you some service, so scale accordingly, not stiff them entirely.

    If you have a problem with the service, speak with the server or manager. Let your voice be heard. Don’t do something passive-aggressive by stiffing them. If the server doesn’t want to hear it, then make sure the manager knows. If the manager doesn’t care, don’t go back and spread the word that they suck.

    Also, if the food sucks, don’t stiff the server over something they don’t prepare. Have it sent back, and if it’s not to your liking, then get them to get you something else or comp your meal. This is not something to be abused. If the food truly sucks, then get it fixed. I went to Applebee’s (yeah not a great place to go for steak, but it’s where we ended up) and they had to remake it 5 times (raw, well done, well done, medium-well, and got finally the medium-rare I ordered). I told them I’m not going to pay for it if they can’t make it right, after the second time. I had full intention to pay for the meal when the waitress gave us our receipts, but the manager came by when she was collecting our credit cards and he said he’d comp everyone for the trouble, because we were there for like an hour waiting for my steak, and everyone already finished eating. We left the waitress a 25% tip (of the original amount, and not the $0 charged, if anyone was going to bring it up) for her troubles, given that we were there for almost 3 hours, and we were thirsty after an afternoon football game. I/we didn’t hold it against her that the kitchen can’t cook. Guess what, we got awesome service every time we went back, even when we only tipped normally afterward. Build a relationship with places you frequent.

    Tipping is not optional. It is how it is, and restaurant owners will not give servers a “fair” wage because the law says it’s already fair. You want to boycott restaurants that don’t give server’s a fair wage? Well, that rules out EVERY sit-down restaurant unless it’s a family restaurant where they employ their own family, but still not a certainty.

    Now, if a server approaches you genuinely, then I don’t see a problem. They want to know what they did wrong, and it shows they are willing to learn from your mistakes. If that’s unprofessional, then how do you learn from your mistakes?

    If they came up to your in an accusatory tone, then it’s their fault period. Servers are there to provide a service, and no matter how crappy you are to them or how crappy their day is, smiling and being respectful is a part of their duties.

    Not knowing the server’s personality, it could have just sounded badly. I’m an upfront person, and I say things straight out without sugar coating words. Before they got to know me, some of my friends thought I was a rude person, until they realized I say things exactly how it is. There are never double/hidden meanings to what I say.

    This waitress could have put you on a personal/friend level and is less formal with you. I tell the bartenders at the bar I frequent every once in a while for a football game to treat me as a friend, or formally as a customer, their choice. I’ve got some I have gone out with after work, and others who stick to a bartender-customer relationship. Given the college age of the waitress and the quotes you’ve given, I can only assume you are in the former category. Maybe not as friendly as I have, by going out for a few drinks, but pass the line that separates us from “regular” customers.

  40. Why would you not remember not leaving a tip? It’s like not actually paying the bill, or as someone else pointed out, not locking your car.

    I am in 100% agreement with #39.

  41. My friend’s kid is half Chinese and took Chinese in college. He said it was incredibly difficult, and he quit after one semester. Their family has a great food tradition, however, and they have been to China and Taiwan several times to visit relatives. (On a side note: My Japanese friend went to Japan with her mother and her daughter, 1/2 Japanese, and it was pretty amusing that the biracial person in the group was the only one who spoke Japanese.) Anyway, I think the suggestion of learning along with your child when she gets older and following Chinese traditions might be enjoyable to both of you and wouldn’t take time away from your daughter now.

  42. isn’t tip an acronym for “to insure promptness?”

    it makes sense to me that your server will remember how you tip- it’s the whole point. you want your server to remember you as someone who tips well, so you get good service.

    i’m sure it was an awkward conversation all around- and she was probably stunned to see you again. i agree w/ #37- it’s good she told you what happened, although she could have said it more diplomatically. but again, she must have been shocked to see you again and just blurted it all out.

    as a customer i’ve never been in that situation, so i don’t know what i would do if i were you. but if i liked the place so much i was a regular, i think i’d keep going. and you never know- she might end up being your favorite waitress, and you might end up being her favorite customers.

    i like to take the approach in life that i can’t go back and undo an unpleasant experience, but i can follow it w/ many pleasant ones. over time it can make whatever fell short just fall away.

    but if it is too unpleasant to think about doing, then there are a lot of other restaurants out there. but since you were/ are regulars there, i hope you give it another try.

    i bet when she talked to the other waitstaff they totally stood up for you and told her you’d never stiffed anyone ever- that would explain why she was so hurt- she thought you liked everyone but her.

    i bet something happened to your tip like what happened w/ #35. or maybe someone’s kid took it.

    i hope you don’t let this one unpleasant experience steal a part of your life from you. being a regular is nice- it really is. it’s nice for everyone- the people at the restaurant, too.

    there’s a show on npr i like to listen to- the food shmooze. i remember one of the regular guests talking about how at the restaurant they had a couple who came every week on the same night, and when they didn’t show up one time, everyone was worried to death about them. they even debated phoning them to see if they were ok.

    i waitressed for years, and i had regulars i was just crazy about. i bet if you stop going you will be sorely missed.

  43. On the rare occasion that we eat out, we always tip well and always have. Having worked in Food Service nearly 30 years ago instilled that in me. Oddly, I made more per hour in wages than the $2.65 that is paid now – how this is tolerated or even legal is beyond me. Tips are supposed to be above and beyond the restaurant’s pay, which should be AT LEAST minimum wage. I don’t mind tipping, but I don’t want my tip to be paying what the employer should already be covering.

    Years ago, we used to dine out several times a week, sometimes several times in a day, and we always tipped generously. I agree that if you can’t afford to tip well for good service, stay home (which is what we now do). I can only think of one time when the service was so poor that the server didn’t deserve even the minimum 15%. In this case, she was downright rude and annoyed by any request we made. But I have never NOT tipped, especially in this case. I wanted to make sure she didn’t think it was an oversight – so I left a $1 tip, which was more than she deserved, but I wanted to make sure she knew we didn’t forget.

  44. Regardless of your opinions about tipping, most chain restaurants have an employee policy that tips are NOT to be discussed, under any circumstances. Not with your co-workers, and certainly not with your customers. Now, I work in a restaurant and I know that servers talk to one another, and somehow or another, everyone always seems to know who the bad tippers are. But there is NO excuse to interrupt someone’s meal and demand why they didn’t tip you the last time.

    If you are concerned about your service and what you did wrong, there are other ways to ask. “Are you happy with my service?” or “I’m so glad to see you when you come in, I hope you’ll continue to ask for me and let me know if there’s anything I can do to make your meal better.” Not “Where’s my tip?”

    The customer in question should have spoken to the manager on duty. Even if they did accidentally forget the tip last time, or it got stolen, servers should not be confronting customers during a meal about their money.

  45. Re learning Chinese
    Trent, aren’t you the one who mentioned LiveMocha a few months ago? It’s a free site, available 24/7 and Arthur should check it out!

    One of the languages they offer is Mandarin Chinese (I don’t think they do Cantonese). There are 4 courses (levels) and there are all kinds of extra ways to learn (flashcards, conversing with a variety of native Chinese speakers, submitting written exercises to be rated by your peers, etc.). A 3 month old baby can easily snuggle in Arthur’s lap as he works through the courses.

    Arthur, it also depends on where you live. Is there a Chinatown in your city? If so, take your baby there and walk around on a regular basis, letting her hear all kinds of conversations. If not, tune into a Chinese language radio station or find some Chinese language movies or TV shows online. (This, not so incidently, can be an excellent way to learn. I once had a boss who grew up as a francophone in Quebec. He learned English as an adult by watching TV shows with a French-English dictionary at hand.)

    When your daughter is interested in watching videos think “Ni Hao Kai Lan” instead of the ubiquitous Dora & Diego. Kai Lan is a little Chinese cartoon girl with a grandfather and a few animal friends. They use about as much Chinese in the episodes as the Spanish in “Dora the Explorer”.

    When she’s older you can look into Chinese school or calligraphy classes in the afternoon. It’s not as intense as immersion but you’ll meet other families who are trying to do the same thing.

    Finally, if your folks speak Chinese, have them speak to her exclusively in Chinese. If they don’t live nearby, they can phone or Skype. The best way for a child to become truly bilingual is to have at least one person who is fluent in the desired language speak it to the child on a regular (ideally, daily) basis.

  46. Kenny: Is investing in non-hybridized seeds worthwhile? Are you confusing non-hybridized seeds with genetically modified seeds? A hybridized seed is merely the result of purposeful cross polination, a natural event. If you buy non-hybridized seeds and plant two or more varieties of any produce, the seeds from these plants will not breed true the next season, they will be hybridized seeds due to cross pollination. This is true for beans, watermelons, tomatoes, corn, ANY KIND OF PRODUCE. Only if you live on a very large piece of ground, and keep the vegetables segregated from others of the same type (each type of tomatoes alone in one bed, etc.), cover all flowers with some protective shield, and you self polinate each plant by itself will you CONTINUE TO KEEP THE SEEDS NON HYBRIDIZED IN THE YEAR AFTER PLANTING. There is nothing wrong with hybridized seeds, they are NOT genetically modified. Frankly “investing” in non-hybridized seeds seems like a waste of money. In many cases, if I want to plant for instance, butternut squash, I buy a squash at the market, removed the seeds and dry them, and eat the squash, getting more seeds than I need for free. For specialty things like the best tomatoes for home gardens, buy your favorite varieties as seed or plants. “Investing in non-hybridized seeds”, if it costs a premium, generally is a way for the seed growers, or more likely, some middleman advertising type, to hold you up for a premium price, and take more of your money for seeds no better than other seeds.

  47. This is to follow up on my TIPPING question to Trent. Several people asked about the server’s tone. “Why did you stiff me?” were the first words out of her mouth, and her voice was definitely raised with an exclamatory cadence like, “Merciful heavens!” She seemed perplexed, accusatory and a bit indignant.

    It’s been over a month, and I still haven’t returned to that restaurant. I seem to be dining out less overall, so maybe she did my wallet and waistline a favor.

    I want to re-emphasize that I did intend to leave her a tip. Tipping is automatic as locking a car for me too, but nobody’s perfect. I walked out of a buffet once without paying and didn’t realize till I got home and had more cash in my purse than expected. All of us make mistakes, some of which we never even realize. If I made one with her, I’m sorry, but I think she was out of line to bring it up in that exasperated manner.

    Tipping is optional in the service industries because it’s supposed to motivate employees to go the extra mile. I never received a tip in my social service career, but I always smiled and went out of my way to help and show respect to our clients. I refuse to tip someone rude or grossly negligent. If the service is downright despicable, I’ll leave a penny.

    I don’t think it’s in a waiter’s best interest to condemn a customer for not tipping, especially if it happens infrequently. If you carry a grudge, your attitude and performance may suffer. That’s a great way to make sure you never get a tip from that person. Today’s cheapskate can become tomorrow’s spendthrit depending on circumstance. Being efficient and kind with everyone, even co-workers, pays off in the long run.

  48. @ Ashley: I have owned a home in Washington, DC for nine years now. When I bought my house, I used the programs that are available through the city. You might want to try the Housing Counseling Agency, DHCD and Housing Finance Agency in DC.

  49. Just because the housing market in DC hasn’t fallen as much as the rest of the country doesn’t mean it will fall more. Housing is somewhat tied to the job market and the job market in DC is probably more stable than in other parts of the country due to government jobs.

  50. @Christine T.: True, the job market in the DC area is more stable than in many other places. But the point is, housing prices have *not* been stable. Over the last decade, they have shot up.

    The Case-Shiller home price index for the DC area is 179.71. That means, as I understand it, that a house that sold for $100,000 in January 2000 would have sold for $179,710 in October 2009 (the most recent month for which they have data). Those numbers are not inflation-adjusted, but the total inflation over those ten years has not been anywhere near 80%.

    Now, has the DC area become a dramatically more attractive place to live – in a way that *no* other city has – so that homes here today really are worth 80% more than they were worth ten years ago? I didn’t live here ten years ago, so I don’t know for sure, but it seems unlikely to me. (Certainly, there were government jobs here ten years ago too.) And if fundamental values *haven’t* increased that much, then (unless houses were *under*valued in 2000 for some reason), it seems to me that prices are likely to fall.

  51. My question is this. During high school and part of college, I worked every summer at a fast food place, at the counter. I served and did most of the prep. I walked constantly, I worked very hard physically, and had to be pleasant with difficult customers. Why is it that my employer was required to provide me with minimum wage? Simply because I didn’t walk to someone’s table? Did I ever get a tip? Occasionally, but this was before the days of “tip jars”. I have confronted “servers” with this question, and have NEVER received a sufficient answer. My employer had NO CHOICE but to pay me the minimum. Same when I worked as a clerk for a large department store. I provided very individualized, repeated, sometimes lengthy service for the customers who walked in, but my employer had to pay me the minimum wage. No tips – all my income was taxed. When I find that I must eat at a “sit down” place, I do tip 15-20% – but I actually try to avoid these places – I feel like I’m subsidizing the business by being forced to make up the difference of the serving wage vs. the wage paid to employees elsewhere, and most of the time, the FOOD IS NO BETTER, especially at chain establishments. Several years ago, my MIL had cancer surgery that took ALL DAY. As our grop finally found a neighborhood place for dinner, someone in the group left a tip – apparently – it wasn’t enough – as the server came running down the street after us demanding to know why the tip was so low – like yeah – her tip was our BIG concern that day ! I’ve been soured ever since.

  52. This may have been mentioned already but it is very much possible for a server to lose money on a non-tipping table.

    All of the following is based on several years of restaurant experience at several different restaurants, mostly in the Toronto area so there may be a few differences to your local area. One big difference from the American’s commenting is the rate of pay, when I last served we made a whopping $5.85/hr which is ridiculous but a darn shade better than $2. To my knowledge there is no obligation for the restaurant to top off your pay to the regular minimum wage if you don’t earn it in tips. I may be wrong about that but if such an obligation exists I never heard of anyone honouring it.

    Any question of taxes aside, most restaurants require the server to “tip out” to any or all of the kitchen, the bussers, the hostesses, the bar and the expiditer (not sure about that spelling).

    Yes, they have to tip the kitchen even if you didn’t order food and yes, they have to tip the bar even if you didn’t order drinks.

    It’s usually calculated as a percentage of their sales for the shift. At my last serving job before I got out of that business we had to pay 1% of sales to the kitchen and 1% to the bar. We were also expected to give something to the hostess and the expo if they were booked for that shift (slow shifts they weren’t booked) but that was informal and not a specific percentage. So if I sold $1,000 I was expected to give the bartender $10 before I left and management collected $10 for the kitchen as well. These tip outs are generally expected regardless of what you make in tips for the evening even in the unlikely event that you made nothing.

    If I made less than $20 in tips for that shift I would be paying cash out of my own pocket to the other staff.

    If you were a $100 table and left me nothing I would owe $2 out of my own pocket for the privilige of having served you.

    All of that said, I still don’t think the waitresses behaved appropriately I just wanted to show that yes, as a server you can theoretically work a shift and walk out poorer than when you walked in.

  53. To arthur:

    My husband is first generation American and speaks conversational Greek (native heritage). I am American and understand some basic Greek. We don’t speak Greek at home. My inlaws watched the kids and speak some Greek but they speak a lot of English, too. I pushed to have the kids learn Greek (my husband remembers how he hated going). We go to a Greek Orthodox church and are relatively involved in all things Greek. This year is the first year of Greek school for the kids. I think it’s great for them but it’s a huge commitment. We leave every Friday immediately after school and get home at bedtime. The kids (ages 5 and 7)complain about going even when it’s at our church with kids they know from Sunday school. Once they are there though they are OK. They are really learning alot. The program goes for 8 years. This is a big commitment that I believe in but I wonder how long we’re going to be able to do this and how much the kids will learn/retain if we only speak English at home. The kids have to miss out on other group things as well as parties because of Greek school. I am thankful that there are various cultural venues for my kids to learn about their heritage: large family, greek church and greek language classes at their church. Non the less it is a huge commitment and I’m not sure what they will get from it ultimately. We are going to Greece this summer for the first time with the kids. We’ll see how that goes.

  54. Trent, my husband and I are 27 and purchased our first home about a year ago. We’ve been meaning to purchase term life insurance now that we have a large monthly expense and need each others’ incomes.

    Everything I’ve read suggests basing the amount of the policy on your income and expenses, both monthly and funeral-related. My husband, however, wants to purchase a policy in the amount of the mortgage on our house, so that the surviving spouse can pay off the mortgage right away and have no worries about keeping the house. As we live in a HCOL area, this is quite a sum. If we just purchased what we need to pay expenses individually, we could probably get a policy for half as much that would last either one of us a good decade or more.

    What do you think about the value of paying off the house outright after the death of a spouse (a house we dearly love, that will meet our needs for possibly decades to come) compared to the cost of a policy double the size?

  55. Tipping IS and SHOULD be optional. That doesn’t mean that I feel like I should tip $0 every meal I eat. The point of tipping is that you tip based on the quality of the service. If I get good service then they get a good tip but if I get bad service then they get a bad tip. If I get horrible service then they get NO tip. The tip is not mandatory and should sometimes be 0%. I usually tip 15-20% but rarely I’ll tip 10% or less and once in a great while I’ve left nothing. If a tip was not optional than that would mean I’d have to give money every time even if they spilled a beer in my lap and forgot my order twice and thats not how the system works.

    For the people claiming that a low tip means they lose money then they are wrong. You claim your tip income on your taxes so what you have withheld from your paycheck is not the end amount you actually pay on. Plus its almost a given that wait staff do not accurately claim all their cash based tips. I’m sure there are some super honest people out there who claim every unaccountable cent they get in cash but I haven’ met one yet.

    By the way at least 7 states pay 100% minimum wage for wait staff including the biggest state California and Oregon and Washingon which all have minimums >$8. So its not a given that wait staff makes only $2.13, sometimes they make $8 or more plus your tips.

  56. “For the people claiming that a low tip means they lose money then they are wrong. You claim your tip income on your taxes so what you have withheld from your paycheck is not the end amount you actually pay on.”

    Actually.. I think I am wrong about that come to think of it. If the employer reports tips on the W2 then that is reported to the IRS as income and you can’t really change it on your income tax return.

    However if employers report assumed 10% and average tips are 15-20% then they’re already under reporting tip income to the IRS.

  57. to #58 heidi-

    what if you insure your husband for what you feel you would need- income and expense wise, and your husband insures you for what he feels he would need to pay off the house?

    then you don’t have to come to an agreement, but you both get what you need?

    i think the premiums might even be similar this way- usually it costs less to insure the wife, but if he’s insuring you for a higher amount than you’re insuring him, the premiums might be almost even.

    and i like it that you two agree you need life insurance. my husband insists he’s not going to die anytime soon. he drives me nuts.

  58. I can relate to your reader about the teaching your kid Chinese even though you aren’t fluent (that will be me when I have children). I think maybe you can do that later by enrolling them in a Chinese immersion program at a school (I know someone who did that with their kid for Japanese). If you want to start early, you can probably find a daycare that works the same way.

    I don’t have kids but i have a nephew who is doing the Chinese daycare thing and it’s fun to hear him speak little words in Chinese. Good luck!

  59. Jim,

    “If the employer reports tips on the W2 then that is reported to the IRS as income and you can’t really change it on your income tax return.”

    Not true. If you keep a Daily Tip Report, as the IRS recommends, then, no, your W2 allocated tip number is not used, the number you claim to have gotten in tips is used. The irs website explains this quite well, if you want to research more.

  60. Kat,

    I know next to nothing about this.

    Digging around on the IRS site it seems that the answer might depend on the situation. Traditionally employees report their tips to their employer and then the employer files that. However it seems like there are now newer systems called the Tip Rate Determination Agreement (TRDA) and the Tip Reporting Alternative Commitment (TRAC). For these the employer may be reporting a minimum tip level. One doc from the IRS says : “The employer, as a participant in the TRDA, has agreed with the IRS to a tip rate for the employer’s establishment. To stay a participating employee, you must report tips at or above the tip rate determined by the agreement.”

    If you read that last part it says you must report tips at or above the tip rate. So if the restaurant in question is in this agreement with the IRS then they require the staff to report a minimum tip level. That minimum level is probably the 10% number that other commenters mention.

    The program is relatively new since it was first introduced in 1993 and as of 2004 the IRS site says they had 47,000 individual establishmnts in the system. I’m sure theres many more restaurants than that in the USA. One site I found cites a number over 700k.

    So some people may be required to report a minimum tip % and some people may be left to the pure honor system of the employee reporting everything. Least this is how it looks to me.

  61. I have known dozens of “couples” who are unmarried who bought a house together. In ONE case, the couple actually married; they divorced later when he cheated with her sister.

    One of the best houses we got dirt cheap because of the pre-marriage “divorce.”

    Unless there is a marriage certificate, just say “no” to a mortgage!

  62. I’d be up for the fantasy baseball league if you need another.

    I agree on the mortgage advice too, just rent cheap, save your money and at least get a good emergency fund established. The transaction costs alone on a home are so expensive. Not to mention once you get in the home you’ll start noticing things you NEED to change.

  63. TIPS:
    Any ‘old time’ ‘traditional’ waitress will agree that no tip could mean the customer simply forgot, and let it be. Or, it could be a tightwad and mentioning it will just irritate him and accomplish nothing, except of course to motivate him to talk to her boss.

    Such a waitress would also likely tell you that a two penny tip is a sure sign of an unsatisfied customer! I left such a tip in an all-night diner where I was treated like dirt. As I walked to my car, I heard the “plink, plink” of pennies hitting the window of the diner never turned to see where it came from.

    Personally, if my bill was $30 and I only had $30.50 in my pocket, I’d call the waitress over and tell her so, and promise to make it up to her on a subsequent visit.

  64. @heather t:

    If you choose to stick with the music store, the price is 650 + $19 for each month you rented (19 is half of the rental price that you will never recover).

    If you rent for a little while and then buy an instrument from someone else, the cost will be 400 + 37 for each month you rent.

    If you rent for x months, you can set it up as an algebra equation to see when the break-even point is:
    650+19x=400+37x

    If you solve, you’ll break even in about 10 months. Before 10 months of renting, buying the $400 instrument is cheaper. After 10 months, it’s cheaper to buy it from the rental store.

    If you want to know your total cost, plug the amount of months you’ve rented before you decide to pull the trigger in for x in each of the above formulas. You’ll be able to figure out how much time you can afford to figure out if the cello is right for you.

  65. After reading about your various fantasy baseball leagues the past two years, I would love a chance to play against you and my fellow readers.

  66. I would love to be in a fantasy baseball league. I’d be willing to play anywhere, but currently am a user of ESPN and CBS Sportsline

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