Reader Mailbag: Bag Contents

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to five word summaries. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Inexpensive family reunion ideas
2. Stay at home parent prep
3. Dollar stores
4. Free software update
5. Beware gift card scams
6. Moving back in with parents
7. Staying motivated while being frugal
8. Frugality and food prices
9. Frugal dog ownership
10. Free spending accounts

I often go to the library to take notes and write. It’s a convenient place because I’m surrounded by books and research materials.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen several people do “bag dumps,” listing what they typically carry in their bags. Here’s what I carry.

I usually have my laptop, which is an old HP that they don’t even manufacture any more. I keep a Moleskine Large Squared notebook for note-taking along with a small Field Notes notebook that I usually just keep out on the table to jot down “spare thoughts” when my mind wanders. For writing, I keep three Fisher Space Pens in there because they never fail (and I seem to receive them as gifts). I also keep a small stationery pack in there – several blank cards and envelopes.

I keep a large assortment of cables and a USB AC adapter so that I can charge pretty much any device that I have with me. I also keep my Kindle in there – it’s a second generation Kindle that they don’t make any more (notice all of the old tech?). I keep an empty water bottle in there, too, as I’ll refill it at a water fountain and drink it wherever I might want it.

These items never leave my bag. You’ll also usually find some recent issues of relevant magazines in there, like BusinessWeek or Money or The Atlantic or The Economist, along with recent issues of Science and Nature.

Q1: Inexpensive family reunion ideas
I am hosting a family reunion this August in Sacramento after a significant family wedding in Malibu, California. We are making plans to attend a San Francisco Giants game, but need some low cost activities to cover the rest of the week. We originate from Detroit, MI, but are gathering from Florida, Michigan, Chicago, Il and Southern California. We have a backyard pool to help while away the days, but need more cost effective ideas. Considering a geocaching excursion.

– Danielle

Geocaching is a great idea provided there are at least a few GPS units to go around. If you’re in California, there are a multitude of amazing state and national parks to explore with a day trip that are either free or pretty inexpensive to visit.

With my wife’s extended family, reunions usually involve a lot of game playing, particularly 500. Card games only require the purchase of a deck of cards, so if your family plays them, that’s a great way to burn an evening. Set up a tournament or several rotating tables (winning team moves up, except for top table where the winner stays put; losing team moves down, except for bottom table where loser stays put).

A scavenger hunt can be a really fun idea. Pair a random townie with a random out-of-towner and then the pair spends several hours finding obscure items from a list. You can do a “photo scavenger hunt” where you have to take pictures of things with a digital camera. It’s a great way for people who haven’t seen each other in a while to hang out together and explore the town without much cost.

Depending on your family, a volunteer project can be a great thing to do. Spend an afternoon doing a large project for a charity, like reorganizing the local food pantry or painting a building.

Those are just a few ideas. Different ideas work well for different families.

Q2: Stay at home parent prep
My husband and I are planning on having three children very quickly and I am going to be a stay at home parent until they all reach school age. We have been saving money for this for a while so that we get used to living mostly on his salary and banking a lot. What else can we do to prepare?

– Aimee

You’ve already done the most important preparation. Knowing that you can live on just one salary is great (if you’re close, the change in taxes will get you over the hump). The money you’re saving is also great.

In terms of preparation, the best thing you can do beyond that saving is to spend time reading as much as you can about parenting and the items you’ll need, then pick them up slowly as you find them on sale.

However, do not get obsessed or paranoid about the things that can go wrong, as baby books often spend tons of time listing potential pitfalls that are individually extremely rare, making it sound like parenting is fraught with dangers. All that does is stress you out.

You’ll be fine. If you’re already living on one salary, you’re already 90% of the way there.

Q3: Dollar stores
Are dollar stores worthwhile? Their prices are cheap enough but some of the stuff there is just so low quality it’s practically useless.

– Cherie

Everyone’s mileage will vary. There are certainly some items there that are impressively cheap. I’ve seen laundry soap there as low as $0.04 per load that will probably do the job (it’s pretty hard to mess up laundry soap). In the last year, I’ve bought several items at dollar stores, such as candles and children’s socks.

The advantage of a dollar store is that if you buy something and it doesn’t work out, you haven’t invested much in the item and now you know to spend a little more on it.

However, a dollar store isn’t always the be-all-end-all of bargains. I have seen the same items at other stores for comparable or even lower prices, so don’t just assume everything is cheaper there.

Q4: Free software update
Hi, you did an article that I had saved that was dated 2006 about all the free software that you on your computer. Have you updated that lately?

– Charlie

I should probably write a full article on this, but here’s a list of the free software I currently use.

Chrome for web browsing
Dropbox for sharing documents easily from computer to computer
Evernote and OneNote for note-taking (still making up my mind which one to use)
Google Docs for word processing and spreadsheets (they work offline just fine)
Skype for voice calling

Those apps basically cover the majority of things I do on my computer. I use an ancient version of Photoshop for photo editing, which is the main piece of paid software I use on my computer.

Q5: Beware gift card scams
You should advise your readers to be careful when buying secondhand gift cards. There are many scams that people use with gift cards. For example, people often sell gift cards that are given at stores when stolen goods are returned. Also people will report gift cards as stolen after they’ve sold them to marks. Be careful.

– Dane

I haven’t had any of these things happen to me, but they certainly do seem plausible and I found some Google results that indicate that these things do happen.

My suggestion would be to use any secondhand cards very quickly so that they’re used up before something like this can happen.

Also, any time you find yourself in a situation like this, contact the company’s customer service department. They may not do anything, but it’s likely they’ll help you in some way.

Q6: Moving back in with parents
After college I got a great job with a small company that went great for a year but then the company went under and everyone was let go. I have been unemployed for four months but now I have a job offer that’s about two miles from my parents house. They have offered to let me live there for a while. What should we do to financially protect all of us?

– Jerome

You are in much better shape than most people who consider moving back in with their parents. You have a job, which means that you’re at least reasonably capable of living independently in the near future.

In that situation, I would suggest that you and your parents define a lease agreement of some kind in which you pay them some amount of rent (it could be very low) but, most importantly, specifies when the lease will end. You can always negotiate another lease later on.

This minimizes the sense of imposing and freeloading that can come out of this kind of situation. If those feelings come up later, they can be addressed in a future lease – or you can quite simply move out.

The arrangement needs to be very, very clear to both of you before you start, with both a monthly “rent” that is due along with a termination date.

Q7: Staying motivated while being frugal
I am having trouble staying ‘up’ while being frugal – rewards to myself don’t really fix anything; I just feel guilty whenever I consider saving for something unnecessary because, no matter how much I save, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be enough. Life is so uncertain and I don’t feel entirely secure from things that could very likely (and do) happen.

Specifically though, without going to extremes like hanging my used paper towels up to dry with a clothesline in my kitchen, I use a variety of strategies to make my money stretch as far as I can. I put so much money away in various savings accounts to create the illusion of scarcity so that I play a game with myself to see if I can make less go farther.

So, I do all of these various ‘clever’ things, and come out of the parking lot after a dentist appointment, only to find that some unknown person has hit my car without leaving a note. So, where does all that scrimping and saving get me? Nowhere!

This past year, we turned out programmable thermostat way down at night and used a little heater in our bedroom while sleeping (with the door closed). It’s a bit uncomfortable at times, especially if I have to get up in the night because I can’t sleep and the living room is freezing, but we manage. However, due to the extremely long and cold winter, we’ve saved nothing for our efforts. And don’t get me started on food prices…

It’s harder and harder just to maintain the status quo, and, especially when you see everyone else not even trying to save, and not that upset about their finances, it is very discouraging.

I know that, rationally, the expenses would hit whether I was saving or not, but it is just so hard to stay UP about things, when our challenges seem to fail to help us get ahead. I would just love to feel great about my efforts but, somehow, there seems to be a conspiracy going to on where someone ends up benefitting from my frugality and sees to it that I feel crummy…

How do you keep going when life gets in the way?
– Kevin

The first thing I would suggest is what your situation would be like if you weren’t frugal and those things happened to you. Imagine you were spending like you were before these changes and then those disasters hit you.

That’s what frugality gave to you. It turned disaster into a small bump in the road. When you have a smooth run in your life, frugality will enable you to build up savings and get rid of debt.

When I find frugality tough and I’m tempted to spend money foolishly, I focus entirely on today. My goal is to get through today without spending money foolishly. In those situations, I understand the big picture of why I’m doing it, but I’m not emotionally connected to it. That emotional connection comes and goes, but when it’s gone, I find that I’m able to keep moving forward by focusing just on today.

Q8: Frugality and food prices
Do you have any thoughts on this article from Yahoo about frugality and the food business? http://finance.yahoo.com/news/frugal-u-consumers-tough-food-companies-raise-prices-050702949–sector.html I found it fascinating.

– Aaron

The reality is that food is expensive. Right now, Americans spend a lower percentage of their income on food than they ever have. At some point, you can’t go any lower. There are only so many bushels of food you can get out of an acre of land.

Whenever we reach that bottom – and I think we’re pretty close to it – food prices are going to start rising faster than inflation. They have to because there are many layers of expenses in getting the food to your table and each layer has an inflation effect. Inflation hits the people raising the food, it affects the commodity companies that buy the food, it hits the food production companies that process the food, it hits the shipping companies that bring the food to stores, and it hits the stores themselves. All of those companies want to make a profit or there’s no reason for them to stay in business.

No matter whether we like it or not, food costs are rising. Our tool as a consumer is to be careful and choosy with how we spend our money and also to take more responsibility with the food that reaches our table by doing things like gardening.

Q9: Frugal dog ownership
What are some ways to minimize the cost of owning a dog while also treating them well?

– Leland

This is a really difficult question to answer because different people have drastically different ideas of what it means to “treat a pet well.” I have one friend who feeds his dogs using homemade dog food – he makes a batch twice a week and keeps it in his fridge and is extremely picky about it. Another friend feeds his dogs bulk food. I have yet another friend who, when faced with pet medical bills that she couldn’t afford, chose to have the pet put to sleep. Is that ethical? You’re going to get many different answers to that question, mostly because there are a lot of options in that situation all with different pros and cons and when you mix in personal ethics and morals, it gets really, really sticky.

My feeling is that if you feel you can treat a pet better than the treatment that pet receives at a pet shelter, then you should feel okay having that pet. You would be giving that pet a better life, so you shouldn’t feel guilty about not being able to give that pet the best possible life, which would be an option you likely couldn’t afford. You should also consider how you will handle medical issues up front and consider pet insurance accordingly.

Advice on saving on food and other elements depends heavily on the legal requirements in your community and your own ethics and beliefs about pet treatment. I can’t tell you whether it’s the best choice to buy high-end dog food or to make your own or to just buy bulk inexpensive food – that’s a decision you have to make. In any case, you can usually find online coupons and discounts.

The biggest tip I can give you is to shop around for your vet. Talk to pet owners that you know and find out which vets are recommended, what their prices are, and which ones to avoid. There are high priced bad vets, high priced good vets, low priced bad vets, and low priced good vets. You want one from the last group, but they’re not always easy to find.

Q10: Free spending accounts
My wife and I are finally trying to get our financial house in order, together. We have a question regarding how you allocate your fun/free spending money. Did you simply pick an amount? Did you use some sort of a percentage? How or when have you adjusted that amount?

– Jim

We use a percentage of our monthly income – a pretty small one. That small percentage gives us plenty of pocket money.

In a typical month, I spend probably half of what I have in free spending money. I put the rest of it aside for bigger things, usually meaning my annual trip to Gencon with friends, but sometimes for more expensive items. So, I don’t usually spend all of it each month.

Sometimes I make mistakes, usually by not keeping careful track of how much I have to spend. I make up for it in future months.

Got any questions? The best way to ask is to email me – trent at thesimpledollar dot com. IĆ­ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag (which, by way of full disclosure, may also get re-posted on other websites that pick up my blog). However, I do receive many, many questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

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