Reader Mailbag #96

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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.

I recently found out that I am pregnant with my first child. I looked up your past articles on caring for infants inexpensively. You said that you invested in a safe crib and never regretted it. I was wondering what kind of crib that was and what your impressions are of different cribs. For example, my sister just uses a Graco pack’n’play and a friend of mine recently bought a mini crib. These aren’t as solid as the more expensive sold wood cribs though. Is a larger, more solid wood crib worth the mark up?
- Gwen

When our first child – our son, Joe – was born, we spent a lot on various things for him. We spared no expense on countless things from bottle warmers and wipe warmers to educational videos and several pounds of blankets.

The sturdy wooden crib is one of the few things I don’t regret in the least. We purchased a handmade wooden crib with a detachable front side that allows us to easily convert it to a daybed.

Right now, our two year old daughter is using it (after our son used it for years, he upgraded to a “big boy” bed when his little sister was ready for a crib). She jumps on it. She climbs on it. She’s bitten it. She’s shaken it. I’ve never worried in the least about the crib supporting her and keeping her as safe as possible. We intend to keep handing it down as well, with our next child taking it in the near future.

Get a good, stable crib. You’ll never worry about it collapsing – and it never will. It’ll last through every child you have and will likely have significant resale value when you’re done with it. You might want to start by checking Craigslist for options.

One question I’m looking into right now is home warranty insurance. What do you know about these services/companies?
- Beth

Home warranty insurance is offered by a plethora of companies. We had a policy ourselves when we first moved into our house, as the previous owners had purchased a year’s worth of coverage as bait to sell the home. We used it once, on our washing machine.

What we discovered is that, based on the prices they wanted for a single year of coverage and the deductibles of our policy, we were far better off simply putting that money into an emergency fund. On our one repair, we ended up footing most of the bill ourselves because of the deductible. Even taking into account every single repair that would have counted under such a warranty since it expired, it would have saved us roughly 10% of what it would have cost us.

Yes, it wouldn’t be bad to have if there were several major home crises at once – and I mean major. However, events that would cause such disasters often fall under a homeowners policy rather than any such home warranty insurance policies.

I’d skip it and get a big, fat emergency fund instead.

At the beginning of October I made the commitment to myself to get control of my finances and improve my health. I’ve made a lot of progress so far, but I’ve got a long way to go.
One of the ways I’ve made significant changes for both financial and health reasons is that I’ve stopped eating most of my meals at restaurants. I’ve committed to teaching myself to cook healthy food and to eat at home for nearly all meals. I’ve gotten several good ideas and recipes from your site, but I do have to questions:
1. What spices would you recommend to a novice cook to keep on hand as “basic spices”?
2. Where would you recommend that novice cook purchase those spices?

- Cormac

I actually wrote an article a long time ago about ten spices that make cooking at home much more pleasant for a beginner.

As for a supplier, the selection at the local grocery store will work to begin with. If you want to grow past that, I would recommend attempting to grow the herbs you want yourself. We grow several of our most frequently used herbs in our own garden and dry them ourselves for winter use.

If money is really no object, you could probably work out a relationship with a local greenhouse and just buy from them regularly. This would easily be the most expensive option available to you, but it’d perhaps be the least hassle while also providing you with ultra-fresh herbs.

Do you typically think up a post idea and then just publish it right away or do you let it marinate for a while and then maybe schedule out the post to publish at a predetermined time?
- Credit Card Chaser

I rarely just come up with a post idea, write it, then post it immediately.

My usual posting routine works like this. I maintain a big idea list and add ideas to it all the time (and also cut ideas that I didn’t like). When it’s time to do research, I grab a big pile of those ideas and hit the library, seeking out any answers I might need and collecting information.

When I write posts, I’m usually writing about a week in advance (on average). Thus, the posts I’m writing today often won’t appear for a week – with some variation on that, both ways. This gives me some breathing room against personal emergencies – I don’t like my personal concerns to affect a steady diet of articles for my readers.

On rare occasions, when something really strikes me or something is particularly topical, I’ll substitute a freshly-written article into the queue and move the article that was supposed to appear to the end of the queue – about a week away.

I am a graduate student earning my Masters degree in library science and I wonder if you have some tips for all of us. (Many of my grad student friends read you, which is how I heard about your blog in the first place.)

Most of us are fairly composed in our spending – we try to cook at home and I’ve personally cut back on things like going to the movies. However, we’re still people, so sometimes we spend too much at Target or eat out a few too many times.

I guess the crux of my issue is advice for managing expectations regarding debt and debt payment as a student. When I started school I had to buy a car; I did a lot of research and purchased a new Subaru Forester instead of a used car. I’m extremely pleased with my purchase and know I made the right decision, but I now have a car payment on top of a medium amount of undergraduate loans and a lot of consumer debt on credit cards. (I lived in San Francisco for two years and charged a lot. Plus, as a student I sometimes need to charge expensive items like car repairs or plane tickets.) I can pay all my bills every month and have enough to live on, but I feel a lot of anxiety about all my debt and the small balance of my savings account.

Is graduate school a time where the rules change and I don’t need to be as concerned with my “debt snowball” repayments or other expenses I’m racking up (like tuition)?
- Leslie

I think graduate school is a time to live as inexpensively as possible, keep your student loans in forebearance, avoid consumer debt like the plague, and prepare yourself as thoroughly as possible for your coming career.

One of the biggest mistakes that people often make during their educational careers is that they utterly believe they will have a good paying job when they graduate and they act accordingly now. During my years as a student and in the research world, the one constant I saw time and time again is that you can never rely on your future to go the way you intend it to. I’ve seen incredibly bright minds go jobless for years. I’ve seen people go through more than a decade of schooling, only to do a 180 and wind up in a completely different area.

If I were you, I wouldn’t worry about those loans as long as they’re in forebearance. Of course, I’d also pair that move with a concerted effort to live as cheaply as possible. From my perspective, going out to eat regularly and carrying significant credit card debt as a graduate student is more of a concern than student loans in a holding pattern.

At some point (maybe it was on Twitter?) you said that you set annual reading goals for yourself, like the number of books you intend to read this year. What’s your annual goal for 2010?
- Bill

This year, my goal is simply to devote an average of two hours a day devoted to personal reading – in other words, reading things not directly related to The Simple Dollar. Along the way, I’m going to alternate between fiction and non-fiction.

One big reason for doing this is that I view extensive reading to be a vital part of the personal growth of anyone who writes for a living. I also strive to read regularly in front of my children so they can observe that reading is part of a normal adult’s life. Beyond that, I simply enjoy to read.

I’ve actually penciled in a one hour reading session each weekday in the middle of the day, which should bring the goal within trivial reach.

I’ve made many goals like that in the past, and one of my problems always seems to be keeping track of how I’m doing with them.

Yesterday I sat down and wrote a small website to help me with that, and I thought that you might find it useful as well:
http://resolution-tracker.appspot.com/

- Eric

That’s an awesome tool – incredibly simple to use without needing any sort of login or anything like that. I’ve actually bookmarked three of them to keep track of some of my 2010 goals.

Is anyone else using this? If you are, mention how you’re using it in the comments.

Do you have a good recipee using the crockpot to go from dried beans to cooked beans? mine ended up overcooked and mushy?
- Marie

Cooking beans in a crockpot is really simple if you actually just convert the typical way of cooking dried beans to the crock pot. Based on your statement, my guess is that you didn’t pre-soak the beans. Here’s how I cook beans in a crock pot.

First, dump the beans you want to cook in the pot in the evening before you wish to cook them. Add enough water to cover the beans by three inches, then leave them to sit overnight.

In the morning, dump off all of the water and strain the beans – a colander works well for this. Then, put the soaked beans back in the crock pot and again cover them with water with about two extra inches of water on top. Then just cook it on low for eight hours. This will get most beans to a nice level of tenderness.

If you’re finding the beans too mushy after following these steps, you might be cooking a particular type of bean too long. Reduce the cooking time until you find the right amount for what you’re cooking. Alternately, you may want to extend the time for some beans that might still be overly firm after eight hours of slow cooking.

My boyfriend and I will be getting married in the next two years, so we have plenty of time to plan. The issue is this: his family will expect a traditional wedding, while I want a nature-oriented (definitely near water) and very simple wedding. In addition, my family and friends live across the country, so while his very large family would all be planning to attend, I would have five people from back home that we’d be flying in (and that would be a big chunk of our budget).

I’d like to have a simple ceremony – basic less than $100 dress, suit for him vs a tux, simple dresses for my bridesmaids and I don’t care if they match, simple bouquets, and just coffee and some sort of dessert afterward. They will also want me to register, which I disagree with for personal reasons (grew up very poor, and registering asked people I cared about to buy me things they couldn’t afford, in fact said I expected a gift other than their presence).

I know his family will flip, and even offer to pay for a more expensive wedding, but I do not want that. How do I best cope with their reactions?
- Monica

What I don’t see in this entire statement is perhaps the most important question of all: what does he want?

It’s clear what you want from your wedding – you want a simple ceremony, and you’re apparently willing to fight his family over this. But by doing this, you’re putting him in a difficult position of having to choose between what you want and what they want without any regard at all for what he might want.

Your first step in solving this situation is to sit down with your husband-to-be and figure out exactly what he wants from the wedding without injecting what you want over the top. Remember, it’s his day as much as it is your day.

If you are in agreement about what you both want for the wedding, then you’re in alignment. Talk to the family together – or even let him lead on it.

If you’re not in agreement, you have to settle that issue first. Talk through it and figure out a solution that works for both of you, then stand up for that solution.

It’s your – you and your husband’s – day. You’re inviting others to participate in that day. Keep that in mind and don’t bow to what others want. The only other person that really matters is your husband-to-be, so focus on that.

My husband and I are thinking of starting a CD ladder this year. We don’t have a whole lot to start with and so are looking at CD’s without a minimum startup amount. I have been looking around at rates and for the 1 year ING seems to be the best for for the 2-5 year CD’s Ally is the best. My question is, would you recommend having the one year at ING and the others at Ally? Or just going ahead with all of them at Ally even though it isn’t the best for the one year?
- Shawn

There are several issues floating around here.

First of all, you need to figure out exactly what your goals are with this ladder. Are you saving for a particular goal, are you supplementing an emergency fund, or are you merely investing in cash? These goals would change how you invest in the CD ladder. A particular goal will have a particular timeframe and you’ll need to orient the length of your ladder toward that goal.

The real issue at work here is whether or not the extra effort that will go into transferring the money between institutions (from ING to Ally, in this case, when the one year matures) will actually earn you enough to make it worthwhile. Given the fairly small difference between the ING and Ally offerings in one year CDs (as I write this) and the fact that you’re investing a small amount, I don’t believe it’s worth the effort at all.

Let’s say you’re buying a $1,000 one year CD. If you invest at ING and make an extra 0.2%, you’re only earning an extra $2 on your investment. If that extra $2 causes you to spend significant extra time cashing out the CD, transferring funds to another bank, then initiating a new CD ladder there, plus dealing with yet another source of interest income when you file your income taxes the following year, it’s not worth it, at least in my eyes.

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

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52 thoughts on “Reader Mailbag #96

  1. Happy New Year! May I chime in on a differing opinion on home warrenties? We have had American Home Shield coverage on our mid-century home since we bought it five years ago. When we first moved in, we were badly in debt and knew that any major repairs would be a huge roadblock in our plans to get out of debt and fix up the house.

    For about four hundred dollars a year, plus a $60 service call (used to be $50) we have had a stove repaired, gotten a new fridge, a new hot water heater, a rework of our AC handler coils, two bathroom exhaust fans, and a major repair on our washer….and that is just what I can remember offhand.

    We run the numbers every year and have saved anywhere from three to seven hundred dollars every year due to this coverage, and that doesn’t count the peace of mind that comes with knowing that a system failure won’t put us back in the five digit hole we used to be in. Just thought I should share our experience….

  2. @Cormac: If you have a few dollars to spare, I suggest that you consider getting some good-quality spice blends as well. Trent’s right (in the article he links to) that balancing the flavors of multiple spices yourself can be tricky – even if you follow a recipe, your particular spices might be stronger or weaker than the ones that the recipe writer used, and that can throw off the balance.

    Which blends you should get depends on what you like to cook, and what you like to eat. If you like Indian food, for example, it’s worth it to invest in a good curry powder, but if you don’t, then it’s not.

    If you have a Penzeys store (or other gourmet spice shop) near you, it’s worth it to make a visit, even if you don’t end up buying very much. Go around the store and smell all the different spices and spice blends (there should be jars out that you can open and sniff). Think about which ones you like and how they might fit with the dishes you cook. Buy small-size containers of a few of your favorites. Compared to the grocery store, they’re not cheap, but a little goes a long way.

  3. I got something in the mail the other day about a class action lawsuit against American Home Shield (we had an AHS policy on our house paid for by the previous owner- never filed a claim).

  4. @Marie- I use a cookbook called _Fast Cooking in a Slow Cooker Every Day of the Year_ by JoAnn Rachor for bean cooking. The best part of the book is the charts the author included for various beans, soaked or not soaked, pound or half pound, size of cooker, and how fast the cooker cooks. I bought the book because of the charts- most of the recipes in there are not for me. There are also charts for grains like oats, wheat, barley etc. You might be able to find it in the library; I bought a copy through Amazon. We eat a lot of beans in our house, and this book is very helpful in planning out how long I need to prepare the beans (I usually freeze the cooked beans in 2 cup portions).

    @Trent- Thanks for mentioning (again) about goals for money and budgeting. I started a new account in ING for a water heater when ours finally bites the dust, and I included the average cost of replacement ($1200 according to one website) in the account name so I know instantly how much I need to save up and how close I am to the goal. I just opened up another account for holiday spending in 2010. Now if I could only get my husband on board with a spending plan…

  5. This is for Monica, who wrote in concerning her upcoming wedding.

    Talk to your husband and figure out what he wants out of a wedding like Trent said. Make the decisions as for what and where and what to wear on your own. Keep your family informed, but it’s your and his big day, not his family’s.

    My husband and I (we’ve been married 7 months now) got married where we live, not where either set of parents lived because of our schedules, and it worked out nicely. Here are a few lessons learned:

    1. If you’ll have uneven guests on each family’s side (which we did, his family was much more represented partially due to the fact that my family isn’t as big as his) seat people evenly in the church. That whole his side/her side thing is ridiculous in my opinion.

    2. Don’t overdo it on decorations unless you want to. No one is going to remember whether you had an aisle runner or not without looking at photos, and to compromise some, just put pew decorations on the first two pews where close family members will sit (if you end up doing it in a church), not every pew. I promise people won’t feel cheated that their pews didn’t have flowers.

    3. If you don’t want a big dress, don’t do it! Price tags don’t make the dress (or shoes). I wore a $300 dress (I think?) and a pair of $15 white comfortable shoes. My sister (who did the huge blow-out wedding) wore a pair of white rhinestone-studded sketchers under her dress, and she was comfortable and happy in them.

    4. Every family member doesn’t need a corsage/boutineer (one of my boutineers didn’t even show up so we had to shuffle them, but it all worked out well in the end, and no one noticed)

    5. If you don’t want to force bridesmaid dresses on anybody, I’ve had a few friends who gave bridesmaids colors (i.e. one told hers to find a black cocktail-length dress, one had one in red, one in white, one in blue) and let them pick their own dress. It’s really handy if they can pick the style and price and get something that they’ll be able to wear again.

    6. Do it when you want it. My sister did the typical mid-afternoon wedding and dance all night reception. I had an 1130 wedding and a lunch reception. We had Texas style barbecue and drank colored sodas (root beer, blue cream soda, cherry soda) out of glass bottles. No DJ, just a computer and speakers and a bunch of CDs people could play. We had our first dance CD separate so we could choose when to do it, and we saved a TON of money on a DJ. You could do the same thing with an iPod too.

    7. Make everything ‘yours.’ Our color for our wedding was orange. My bouquet was a variety of orange flowers. Our favors were orange bandannas we bought for $.75 each from a fabric store and made hobo sacks with using flower seed packets (sunflowers, cosmos, and some other flowers of the same coloring), a chocolate or two, and some raffia. It’s your wedding, not your husband’s parents. Do it your way.

    8. Don’t be afraid to design your own invitations, announcements, etc. Heck, print them yourself if you want! We took a picture of the flower we wanted in my bouquet but couldn’t get (Indian paintbrush), lightened the color, and made it the background of invitations, announcements, and thank you cards. Print them yourself if you want to, or see if a local print shop can print them for you. No one will feel cheated if you use address labels for your return address, either (and it’ll save a ton of handwriting and time). Why do the double envelope thing? It’s kind of silly. Do postcards for your RSVP cards – you save on both shipping out the invitations and on the stamp you’d have to put on the card to send it back (postcard stamps were about $.27 when we set our stuff out, compared to a $.47 regular stamp).

    I hope these tips help – these were big money-savers for my wedding, and a lot of them came from a friend who had done them all for her wedding.

  6. Trent – when you have a long question, can you bold the entire question instead of just the first paragraph? It would make it so much more visually appealing, and consistent.

  7. @cormac: I would suggest hitting the bulk store for better price and variety on spices. My basics are chives, oregano, basil, paprika, cinnamon, ginger, rosemary, and also yeast for baking. The only downside is that you don’t really get containers as opposed as the bottles from the grocery store. However, spice racks are very easily found in second hand stores; I always see some there.

    @Marie (and Trent: You need to be careful when cooking beans in the slow cooker. I’m not sure about the details, but if the beans don’t hit a certain temperature, they are considered to be toxic. Might be worth looking into.

    @Monica: Talk to you husband to be and figure out what he wants. From there, you guys can agree, and honestly, its your wedding and you shouldn’t feel bad about who you invite and don’t invite. Also, if you choose to go with the small wedding that you want, you might choose to do another party or evening a few weeks after the wedding for all of his relatives who didn’t attend.

  8. @Cormac – check the bulk bins at your grocery store and food coop for spices. Although the prices look very high (such as $20/pound), spices are extremely light. You might spend $0.15 for enough basil to fill a spice jar, for example. Also, you can buy just one teaspoon if that’s all a recipe requires, and then if you don’t like it, you’re not stuck with extra.

  9. @Monica – a wedding is not just about you and your husband, it is also about your family and friends. (The marriage is just about you and your husband.) Try to compromise where possible.

    For example, let them pay for extras they really want that won’t spoil your wedding for you. Look for a semi-traditional venue that is also on the water. Let the people who want to buy you presents do so.

    Having a registry is not begging, it is providing a guideline for those who want to show their affection in a material way. You don’t even have to tell your friends about it (unless they ask). Also, you do not have to include only expensive things on registries. And you do not have to have them only at expensive shops—you can have them at places like Target and at JustGive.org.

    In sum, find out what everyone most wants and see if you can work it out. (For example, I most want to marry the right guy, have yummy food, have fun things to do, and not spend a pile of money; my current guy mostly wants good food and drink and a small guest list so we can visit with everyone; my mom most wants to be invited (and for it to be someplace she can afford to go).

    If his family becomes unreasonable, decide which things to take a stand on now and which things aren’t worth fighting over. In fact, you could even have two celebrations. You could have exactly what his family wants across the country. And then you can re-say your vows at a lovely informal reception with your five friends back home.

  10. For Gwen:

    Mini cribs are only good for the first few months. Pack ‘n plays, if used every day, will last for only one child–and are shorter and easier to climb out of. But they’re great for travel.

    Drop-rail cribs are getting recalled more and more frequently because they are DANGEROUS. A solid crib, with no drop-rail side, is an excellent investment if you are planning on having more than one child.

    I ended up getting both of my cribs for free from different friends who knew I was pregnant and looking into cribs.

  11. Spices: Just get one of the $20 multi-spice racks from Walmart. Yes, the spices aren’t as good/potent as fresh or even as spices from the grocery store, but you’ll get 20-40 different spices for pretty cheap and you can try them out.

    Spice Bonus: We saved the empty spice bottles to use when we collect and dry our own spices.

    Beans: The best way to cook beans is in a pressure cooker. From dry (NO soaking!) it takes less than 45 minutes to cook black or pinto beans. If you soak and use a pressure cooker, of course it’s even faster.

    Pressure cooker bonus: A pressure cooker will cook meat, veggies, and pretty much anything more quickly and more tenderly than boiling will.

  12. The point of the double envelopes is this:

    On the outside, you write the family name “Mr. & Mrs. John Smith”. On the inner envelope, you write “John, Mary, Sue, Tommy, & Billy” This keeps you from writing the names of all the kids on the outside (which is mess), but lets Mary and John know the kids are invited.

    I know you can write “and family”, but it’s also nice to invite everyone by name…

  13. For the spice questions: Here’s a list of one’s to start with: garlic, oregano, cinnamon, paprika, ground sage, savory, curry, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, chili powder, and ground turmeric. You should have all these on hand. We buy big bottles of cinnamon and garlic because we use them a lot. You can buy cheaply at Sam’s, Costco, small ethnic groceries (for paprika, for example) but you have to watch out if you buy too much at those places then it will lose its potency as time goes one. Keep in good containers in a dark drawer or cabinet to retain flavor over time.

  14. A note on student loans and graduate school. Trent used the term “forbearance” which is only one of several terms that are used by lenders to describe the various means of pausing loan payments. In the case of federal loans, particularly subsidized federal loans (i.e. Federal Staford loans), a forbearance indicates a pause in payments while interest still accrues, generally due to hardship. An “in school deferment” is probably what the reader actually should aim for… if her loans are subsidized, not only do the payments stop for the in-school period, but the interest stops accruing. This is another reason to not focus on loans while one is in school and focus on debts with interest charges.

    I am working on my second graduate degree, and while I was getting my MA, my husband and I were able to save a portion of what we would have paid to my subsidized loans in interest bearing accounts, and were able to make a significant dent in the principal amount in the last month of my deferment. My loans are back in deferment while I’m getting my PhD, and we’re working towards that again.

  15. imo, the whole reason for crockpotting beans is you don’t have to soak them. Cooking times will vary depending on the age of the beans, and it’s trickier to judge that in a crockpot.
    Lift the lid up and it takes a while to build the heat up again.

    What basic spices you will use depends on what kind of cooking you do. For instance, I use a ton of fennel seeds, but never (ever!) some of the ones on the must have list. So I’d agree with the cheap at first comment then go from there. (Dried spices are also not directly interchangable with fresh, so I’m not sure starting a garden in January is the best idea either.)

  16. @Leslie: In what universe does a student NEED to buy a brand-new car? Why was used not good enough for you? I wonder if maybe you’re missing the point of Trent’s blog (though I can understand why, with Trent himself financing fancy, trendy new vehicles left and right this past year).

    @Monica:

    Congrats on your upcoming wedding! As others have rightfully pointed out, your wedding should be about what YOU want, not what your future in-laws want (unless, of course, they’re helping to pay for it). That said, I have to wonder: why are you paying to fly people to your wedding? If they want to come, let them buy their own tickets. If they don’t value being there for you enough to pay their own way, then have them simply RSVP and say so.

    You should register, because it helps people avoid the awkward embarassment of having 2 people buy you the same gift. Also, offering “coffee and dessert” in lieu of a reception is considered rude. Wedding ettiquette dictates that your guests should offer you gifts roughly equal to the cost of their meals. That’s the implied covenant of the wedding gift/reception meal tradition. If someone gives you a $400 Kitchen Aid mixer, and you offer them coffee and a brownie, that’s a recipe for hurt feelings. If you cannot afford to offer a proper reception with your wedding, then I would suggest postponing the wedding until you can do it right. Maybe if you weren’t stretching your budget to buy plane tickets for your cheapskate relatives, you wouldn’t be forced into making these kinds of compromises.

    That said, there are of course many ways to tastefully save money. Rent your dress, don’t buy it. Allow bridesmaids to wear their own dresses instead of buying them for them. Just have flowers for yourself and your fiancee, instead of mini-bouquets and boutonnieres for all the groomsmen. Employ an iPod for the reception music. Have an outdoor wedding in a municipal park instead of an expensive church. Use your own car instead of a fancy limo or horse-and-carriage. Do your own hair and makeup. Have a relative make the cake in lieu of a wedding gift.

    Hope this helps, good luck!

  17. @Kevin

    If she doesn’t want gifts (and, therefore, the guests expense is zero) why would coffee and dessert be rude? I hate ridiculous rules like this. Weddings are so full of them, and people are so caught up in them, that I now decline as many wedding invitations as I am socially able to.

  18. I am also pro-registry, btw.

    I’m going to a wedding and it’s rude for me not to bring a gift. I’d prefer it be something you use (or want. They can be different).

  19. Re: the home warranty, you have to evaluate your situation. Yes I agree with trent that its not worth it to replace a stove or fridge, but I’m wishing I had gotten one after I just replaced the boiler system in my house. It was aging and I knew it needed replacement in the near future when I bought the house. I was hoping to get it to last one more season and diy in the spring. Of course it gave up the ghost the first day the temp went below freezing and I had to Lay out 3X what the home warranty would have cost to have it replaced by pros (couldn’t take time off work to DIY since it was an emergency). If you are in an older house where major expenses (roof, heating system etc) may be suspect it can be very much worth it.

  20. Eating at home is a great way to lose weight and save money! My weight and debt problem had a lot to do with my habit of eating out at every meal.

    I do still visit my favorite restaurants, though. For those occasions where you do get the urge to dine out, check out my article today on how to save money at restaurants (and lose weight!).

  21. For the engaged couple, whatever fallout may occur there’s no point being stressed out about it for TWO YEARS! Whatever you decide discuss and get it out there now, as soon as possible. Your inlaws may surprise you. And remember that whatever whining your potential guests may do, nobody really cares as much about your wedding as you do. I do agree with Des though – all the so-called “rules” and never ending offense people (on all sides) take at weddings are really tiresome, but apparently unavoidable.

  22. @Monica –

    Perhaps you could consider having the actual wedding at your “home”, and have it small like you want it, with only 5-10 guests (for example, immediate family only). Then have a “second wedding” with his much larger family.

    Engaged couples focus far too much on the wedding ceremony. It sounds to me like you need to talk to your husband about things like kids (how they are raised, religion, if you are having them), your future plans together (career, financial, retirement) and how you will deal with other family issues (holidays, vacations, expectations, etc). The wedding is only one day, the other stuff I mentioned is the day to day stuff you will actually have to deal with for literally decades.

    If you and your fiancee DON’T disagree about some of the above items, you likely aren’t really digging deep enough.

  23. @Leslie and other graduate students:

    I just finished my PhD and have 7 years of graduate school money experience.

    Looking at your question, do the rules change, I think you know the answer. The rules don’t change, if they did you probably wouldn’t feel the anxiety you feel about your finances.

    My encouragement to you and your friends is to be as miserly as you possibly can now. (You will feel miserly long before you actually cross into miser territory.) Be miserly together; it’s more fun than you think and you might study harder. Who knows? But your future self with thank you. If you can clear your credit cards before you graduate, you will be doing yourself a huge favor. Most of my time in Los Angeles in grad school, I lived on 12-15K/year (not including tuition and fees). I had roommates, didn’t go to professional conferences or fly home often, but I had a lot of fun and remember those years fondly. Running on the beach before the parking meters kicked in was probably my favorite free activity. An exuberant graduate student life does not have to drive you into a depressing amount of debt.

  24. “Is graduate school a time where the rules change and I don’t need to be as concerned with my “debt snowball” repayments or other expenses I’m racking up (like tuition)?
    - Leslie”

    As Trent said, graduate school is a time you should be minimizing expenses due to the high costs of tuition and low income. I don’t think that you can eliminate your debt on the pitiful salary grad students have. Your main concern is to prevent the consumer debt from accumulating.

    What’s been done in the past is in the past, and you’ll have to deal with it sooner or later. But now, the important thing is to figure out wants and needs, and to minimize both.

    For example, the car. Is it really a need or a want? To me, a car is not necessary, even if you need it to go to work. If you need a car to get to work, then determine how much you actually make after you deduct your car payment, insurance, and gas from the paycheck (insurance for an age 18 – 22 male is insanely high by the way). For me, I would profit ~$200 a month at most if I got a higher paying job, but needed a car to get to work. Instead, I got an on-campus job, paid minimum wage, and not many hours, but I got about ~$300 a month, and working far less hours than I would need to at the other job. To me, it was better to not have a car, because I could spend extra hours doing research and gaining experience, rather than waiting tables just to pay for the car.

    I’d touch on plane tickets as unnecessary, but it depends. If it’s to visit family, and you were always close to your family, then this could be a need for you. Some of my friends couldn’t stand to be away, and went home once a month.

  25. @Gwen – Due to circumstance (having to live in a hotel room for 6 weeks while waiting for a house) I have a lot of experience using a Pack-N-Play for a long period of time. My advice, DON’T. After using it for 6 weeks, I had severe back problems from all the bending over, and I started out as a healthy 23 year old. I ended up with a repetitive stress injury and have had to have physical therapy. I still have back issues nearly 4 years later. You will not regret spending the money on a nice crib.

    @Monica- Why don’t you register for really inexpensive things along with more pricey items? My husband and I registered at Target and Wal-Mart as well as Crate and Barrel and William-Sonoma. My family is dirt poor as well and they still wanted to get us something to celebrate our wedding. Look at a registry as more of a “your presence is enough, but if you would like to get us something here are some ideas” kind of thing. And take Trent’s advice, listen to your fiance. I didn’t, and it’s still a bone of contention in our marriage.

  26. For Leslie: (The MLS candidate)

    If you have Stafford loans, the government is now forgiving parts for MLS holders if you work in certain areas. The program is similar to the forgiveness already offered to graduates working in low income school districts, peace corps, etc. Incidentally, they passed the law like TWO years ago, and instituted it nearly a year ago and only now are my loan holders getting around to letting me know. Not that it does me any good (my masters is not in library science) but it might be worth it to check with your loan holders to ask for info. I also saw it online, but can’t remember where — if I find the link, I’ll post it. Might have been at dl dot ed dot gov.

  27. Monica – I agree with Trent’s advice…and most of the commenters. Your wedding should be what you and your future husband want. How you handle it may be a view into your future marriage. Making it solely your decision tells him what his new life will be like. Caving to his relatives and allowing them to pay for things you don’t want, could easily be the beginning of them running your married life.

    OTOH Kevin #17 is completely WRONG about needing to repay your guests for the cost of wedding gifts by spending an equal amount on your reception. Check any etiquette book. Have cake and coffee if that’s what you want and can afford.

    I agree with several commenters that a registry isn’t asking for a gift as much as giving guidance. As Michelle said, you can register at inexpensive places as well as more expensive. And you only give out registery info if requested.

  28. Cormac: In addition to your questions about spices, you mentioned that improving your health was also part of your plan for the New Year and future. In fact, some spices have health benefits that have now been proven, so including those in your diet would provide a double benefit: improving the taste of the food you’re cooking, AND adding to good health as well.

    I just saw an ad by the McCormick spice company – I believe they bought out the Schilling spice company(supermarket spices in red-and-white metal boxes) – which listed some of these “healthy spices”: Cinnamon, Ginger, Oregano, Red Pepper, Rosemary, Thyme, and Tumeric. There are other spices that probably have health benefits as well, but McCormick calls these the “Super Spices”. They have a great section on the web with all kinds of info on these spices (and others) and the benefits they provide, along with recipes, tips, and an antioxidant chart comparing the antioxidant levels of many spices and other healthy foods. I’m not sure if Trent allows the posting of links, so I’ll post it separately below – just in case.

    Additionally, in keeping with your resolution to improve your health, there is a book titled ‘Superfoods Rx – Fourteen Foods That Will Change Your Life’. There are also a couple of other “Superfoods” type books – including a Superfoods cookbook. Check out Amazon for an overview, then see if your library carries it. Adding these “Superfoods” to your diet and using these “Super Spices” for seasoning might really be a way to improve your diet and health without a big outlay of cost or effort. Good Luck!

  29. Leslie: Wow. I misspoke bigtime, and sincerely apologize. The loan forgiveness program I mentioned in my earlier post is for federal Perkins loans, not Staffords. So you would need to contact the university or your loan servicer for information. Again, sorry for the mistake.

  30. @Monica- I really liked a book by Denise and Alan Fields (Bridal Bargains).. I also asked my co-workers to save the Michale’s and Hobby Lobby coupons for me.. They usually have 40 or 50% off coupons in the Sunday paper..

  31. IMO, A wedding IS about what the two individuals want.

    The problem is that everyone else, especially family, gets involved with what “they” want. (FYI: It’s why so many people end up eloping or just doing the courthouse thing. They want to avoid the craziness that happens when everyone tries to “help.”)

    The couple should discuss their desires and when they have reached an agreement, let the families know that these are there wishes.

    If the family doesn’t like it, too bad. It’s NOT their wedding, contrary to what so many think.

    They are invited participants. (And this applies regardless of who is paying! Too bad that couples get caught up in the ultimate “gift with strings attached.”

    When you start compromising on what matters to you from day one –and letting others dictate the terms of anything–because either his or her family are battering you into compliance, THEN you are in real trouble. If you don’t get to say what you want for one day, you can see how the pattern will go afterwards.

    As for spices, once you know what you will use, you can look for local international or ethnic markets, where prices are usually much much lower than regular supermarkets plus the inventory is fresher and turns over much more quickly. Many of these sell online, plus there are places like SpiceBarn online.

    There are some spices, etc. worth buying in bulk based on usage.

    We buy things like dried shallots and dried minced roasted garlic in bulk and use them almost daily. It’s a really inexpensive way to flavor up all kinds of dishes.

    Penzey’s spices are incredible. But consider them a bit of a splurge. They are worth it, however. The quality is exceptional. (and its catalog is terrific as a primer in how to buy, store and use spices. Plus they have great recipes).

    The key is the quality and freshness of the spices. Don’t be penny wise, pound foolish. It’s not worth your money to buy the junk that is sold in dollar stores and flea markets, for example. You won’t get the benefit of real flavoring.

  32. The book Baby Bargains by Denise and Alan Fields is also really helpful.

    Besides a crib, the other thing I wouldn’t skimp on is a carseat. Not that you have to get the most expensive one, but I definitely would not get a used one.

    Regarding wedding registries – don’t register if you don’t want to, but I never took a couple being registered to mean that guests had to purchase from the registry. I don’t think you’re going to get away with no gifts either, most people would feel rude not giving a wedding gift and will give one anyway.

  33. One other thing to mention – I read that manufacturers may be discontinuing use of drop-side cribs soon. I guess because there have been so many safety issues with them. We have one that we’ve had no problems with but it sounds like soon solid cribs may be the only ones available. I’m not 100% sure if that is true because I can’t remember where I read it, but you may want to look into that.

  34. Monica – I think you and your husband should decide on the wedding you want for yourselves. I’d hazard a guess that your husband is supportive of your preferences (most men don’t care too much to generalize). I think your husband should be the one to explain things to his relatives rather than you worrying about tackling that. The wedding is about you and your husband not the relatives. Your relatives should be happy with whatever you decide to do and you’re not required to do things the way his family wants. However, doing a nontraditional wedding in opposition to family objection is sometimes easier said than done so you might want to compromise on some points and pick your battles for what you feel is most important. For example is it going to really hurt you or anyone if his relatives pay for a reception meal?

    Also, have you considered having your wedding where your relatives live? If your relatives can’t afford to fly in then maybe it would be more practical to do it there. Or you could have it in a neutral location thats easy for your relatives to get to.

    If you don’t want to register than don’t register. But be prepared to get 5 toaster ovens and 3 gravy boats. Registering is really to give people guidance. If you’re concerned that it gives too high expectation then only register for lower priced items.

  35. I have a question for a future mailbag: I too am recently pregnant and am searching for information on frugal parenting choices. Do you have any favorite parenting blogs?

    On wedding gift registries, when I got married I had planned not to register, but several guests suggested that they thought it was rude for us to expect them to figure out what kind of gifts we could use instead of our just telling them. I’m still of the belief that if it’s that hard they should not have gotten us a gift at all, but I found that having the registry soothed some feelings over an otherwise un-traditional wedding.

  36. I agree with the bit on getting a good crib. We got a relatively inexpensive one – not cheap, even, but not top-end – and my daughter managed to kick out a slat when she was less than 18 months old. Unless you plan to have only one child, err on the side of sturdy. And check Craigslist.

    We used a half-sized Pack’n'Play with a basinette for both our girls, and it was great for us. We had it in our room for a few months and were able to travel with it while allowing the baby to sleep in a familiar environment – especially important for the first, who experienced an international move and several weeks in various hotels between homes. I really appreciated that I was able to use it as a travel bed as well as a basinette, too, so I didn’t have to have as many items.

  37. If your store carries them, check out bulk spices. They sound like a steep cost since they’re priced per pound, but since you only buy a little bit to fill a regular spice jar they actually come out a lot cheaper than the pre-bottled ones. Plus you create less waste not buying more jars AND they can be a lot fresher if your store has good turnover.

  38. Trent one thing I havent seen as we flip over to the new year and you created your 2010 resolutions is feedback and reflection on how the 2009 goals turned out. I dont remember all of yours, but I do remember something about a rubik cube and standing on one foot or something. :)

    On the crib, get a used one. Especially if the prior family had only one child. There is plenty of good use left in it. Or you could borrow one from a family member.

    I ended up needing three cribs (long story); borrowed the first from a sister-in-law, got the second from a family who had a surprise 3rd child and had a 1x use, the third one (my surprise) I bought at a garage sale. It worked great.

    When I was done with it I sold it on craigslist for exactly what I paid for it 3 years earlier. It held up great and was ready for at least one more baby. Good luck!

  39. @Gwen: We just replaced our crib. Our 10 month old child was pulling up on the drop side of the crib and broke it! So, we bought a sturdy, all-wood convertable crib. She will use it untill we have another. As a bonus, when we were shopping, I noticed that the convertable cribs all had lower settings for the lowest matress setting. This is good because your little houdini won’t try to climb out of it as soon. Just my two cents.

  40. @Andrea, I wondered about the same thing.

    It’s no fun posting resolutions, personal challenges, 101 goals in 1001 days, whatever, if you won’t look back and reflect on your successes and failures.

    Sure, you don’t *have* to share that, but then why share those goals publicly in the first place?

  41. RE: crockpotting beans. I’d be really careful with cooking unsoaked beans, unless you want to produce a lot of flatulence. Part of the point of soaking the beans and dumping the soaking water is that some of the starches that produce flatulence end up in the water during the soaking process, so by dumping the soaking water, you’re removing some of those starches. You can also put a 1-inch piece of kombu (a Japanese seaweed) or a 1/2-tsp cumin in the soak water to help neutralize those starches.

    RE: Monica’s wedding. Congratulations! It sounds like you’re just starting to plan and you gave yourselves a lot of time. I just got married last year, so some of the planning stress is still fresh in my mind. Before announcing anything to your families, get together w/ your fiancee and envision exactly what the two of you would like in your wedding. If he’s anything like my hubby, he won’t have strong opinions about anything except the food, which gives you free range to plan.

    What are the 3 most important things that you want to focus on in your wedding? e.g. Is professional photography important to you or would candids shot by guests suffice? Do you care about flowers or would you like to decorate w/ candles? Since you’re thinking a cake & coffee reception, you may want to have a late evening ceremony and dessert reception, or a morning ceremony and light brunch reception. Whatever is important to you, be sure you know exactly what you are and are not willng to compromise on, i.e. if you compromised in a certain area, would you regret it in 10 years? If your families aren’t helping with the cost, then you don’t really need to give them a say. If they are helping with the cost, then at least when you sit down with them, you’ll already have a solid vision in your head of what you want your wedding to look/feel like and what areas you’re not willing to compromise on.

    Since you’re planning to fly in 5 of your relatives, I’m assuming they wouldn’t have the funds to come to your wedding if you didn’t pay for it. So, it may be better to just plan the wedding where your relatives live and have his relatives fly in. Or, if the big traditional wedding is really important to his family, let them plan and fund a second reception in their hometown and you and your hubby can just show up? Then, they won’t have anything to complain about.

    Regarding the registry, it’s unnecessary if you’re have a small wedding with only your close family and friends. However, if you invite any family/friends who don’t see you all the time, you should do a registry, because those guests are going to want to know what to purchase and often don’t have the time to hunt down a gift for someone they still think of as that 16-yr-old marching band enthusiast. Only people who ask are going to know where you’re registered, anyway, so don’t worry about registries not being appropriate for your family. If they don’t ask, they won’t even know that you’re registered.

    Also, most registry items are not expensive. You can register at Wal-Mart and Target for all manner of things, from measuring spoons to kitchen towels, to camping gear, etc. Just don’t register for anything you don’t want. I think nowadays, most guests give cash for weddings and the registry is mainly for the bridal shower. So, if you know that your family/bridesmaids aren’t going to throw you a shower, you may not need the registry.

  42. Leslie, Have you looked into what Library Science graduates earn? It’s kind of like social work, not one of the most stellar payers, and you are going to graduate with a large amount of debt. Plus, jobs of any kind are hard to find. You’d better curtail spending as much as possible. If you are charging airline tickets, you’re flying, you need an airline credit card from the airline you fly most. This way you accumulate frequent flyer miles, plus the 25,000 free miles you get when you sign up for the card. I never charge anything, including airline tickets, unless I can pay in full for them before the credit card payment is due. People will point out that you are paying interest on the credit card which is more than the value of the miles. Since you are charging anyway, and not paying the balance in full, you might as well get the free miles. In 11 months, when the credit card company is ready to charge you the first annual renewal fee, GET A CREDIT CARD FROM A DIFFERNET AIRLINE AND CANCEL THE FIRST CARD. Voila! You’ve got another free 25,00 miles, a card free for a year, and you accumulate more miles ON ALL SPENDING WITH CARD and you will have two free flights. Maybe you should consider not flying so much. You better consider a part time job in additon to Library Science when you graduate, to start snowballing that debt.

  43. I have found home warranties to be utterly useless. In fact, our current house had a warranty with it & every time I tried to use it, the claim was denied, but I still had to pay for the “service fee”. I would “Google” the name of any company that you are considering using & take a look at all the happy (or unhappy) posts. Trent’s idea of taking the $ & placing it in a psecial emergency home fund is a much better idea IMO.

  44. I have just signed up to use the resolution tracker for two items! It looks like a great tool. Thanks.

  45. Re: American Home Shield. Just say “no!” We had them and they were really, really good at denying claims. When we really needed power to my office, they took almost 2 weeks to get a “round to it.” I’ll have to check that class action suit!

    I’m glad someone has had a good experience, though.

  46. Could you please give advice on how to go about building a house using our own money? We are nearly debt free, what I mean is that my husband runs his own trucking company. He owns 1 truck, debt free, and has a lien on another one. We own our personal vehicles, some land, and the mobile home we live in. So how is a person ever supposed to come up with enough money for a house without going deeply into debt?

  47. #48, you might look at plans for houses made of straw, hay bales or old tires. Your husband might be able to barter his services for the services of the various contractors.

    That said, building a house isn’t an undertaking for the ignorant and untrained. You’ll need building permits, licensed plumbers, electricians, and probably some others. An architect is also important. S/he can spot a lot of mistakes in a plan early and save a lot of money in the long run.

  48. Wedding and gifts: I’m definitely in the ‘do what *you* (both) want’ camp, especially with gifts. Some alternative ideas: one friend had guests contribute to their honeymoon – this was handled by the travel agent, and you could choose how much you wanted to / could contribute. A family friend who’d been living with his fiance for a decade or so simply requested native plants as gifts. They’ve now planted these on their property, and they look amazing.

    Possible question for a future mailbag: I moved to my boyfriend’s home country a few years ago. We would like to start looking at some kind of investment (other than savings accounts), but don’t know where to begin. U.S. specific advice is irrelevant for us, so in general terms, what is a good way to start gathering information needed, and sifting through it?

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