Reader Mailbag: Cornucopia

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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. Food costs while traveling
2. Holiday lodging
3. Non-frugal roommate
4. Fear of returning to school
5. Christmas becoming expensive
6. Can I trust financial advisor
7. Bookkeeping error results in windfall
8. Pocket notebook?
9. Patience when starting a blog
10. Teaching young kids life skills

One of my favorite things about fall is the natural decor that it provides. I think that fall leaves, small pumpkins, and small gourds are gorgeous on the table this time of the year.

My favorite, though, is a cornucopia. It’s simply a horn, usually made from wicker in my experience, that’s laden with these types of things, along with nuts and small fruit.

I just think it makes a beautiful centerpiece, plus it’s a useful one. People can snack from it if they so choose and most of the items inside are either natural (like the leaves and gourds) or, even better, they can be eaten (like most of the other items).

It’s not too hard to put one together, either. It just takes a bit of planning. If you want one for your holiday table, right now’s the time to start on one.

Q1: Food costs while traveling
I find when I travel I spend a lot of money on food. How can I arrange food that doesn’t spoil and is able to be taken on a plane? I also buy lunches for the three days I’m in port, and usually dinner on the way home (I travel around dinner time – the only possible time for me to travel).

- Tessa

Unless a meal is served on a flight, I usually try to eat a cheap meal after the flight and tide myself over on the flight with smaller items such as nuts, fruit, and other such things.

Those types of items can easily be purchased at a grocery store at some point earlier in the travel and stowed in a carry-on.

Part of the reason for this strategy is that I almost always work while flying. I’ll write or do some constructive reading and note-taking. If I’m doing that, I find that being on the verge of hungry is a help, as I almost always think more clearly when I’m nearly hungry.

Q2: Holiday lodging
This year, my brother’s family, my wife’s brother’s family, my parents, and her parents all chose to take us up on our offer to have Thanksgiving at our house. We more or less implied that we’d have room for them here, but we don’t have room for all of them. How should we handle this without breaking the bank to provide hotel rooms for all of them?

- Aaron

For me, it would depend on how you “implied” that you had room for them. If you flat out told them that they could stay at your house, they likely budgeted for the trip without accounting for lodging.

If I were you guys, I’d assign each family one of the non-master bedrooms in the house. If there are not enough bedrooms, consider using an office temporarily with an air mattress. I would then use every sleeping bag I have (and encourage visitors to bring them too) and have all of the kids slumber party in the family room.

If that still doesn’t provide enough room, I’d probably talk to the wealthiest family that was coming and ask for their help in getting a room.

Q3: Non-frugal roommate
We live with a girl in Sydney, who makes more money than us and it is “her” place we live at. However, she isn’t as ‘frugal’ with her use of the hot water and electricity as we are. Her boyfriend stays on weekends and has long hot showers (tiny tank meaning noone else can shower for hours afterwards), he washes and dries his clothes, when not using the dryer its using the heater, and they wash up in hot water 3 or 4 times a day. They leave all the powerpoints on and the lights. Since we are paying half I guess we could brooch the subject, but she can very quickly and easily turn around and say “if you don’t like it move out”. We don’t have anywhere else as good, or as cheap to live. Should we just suffer in silence? Of course we turn off the powerpoints and only wash up once a day (in cold water). But I am concerned about our contribution to the electricity bill.

- Angela

It’s going to be very difficult to divide up the energy bill in a way that you all think is reasonable. For it to be accurate, you would have to use separate electric meters. Both of you are going to argue that the other one is using more of the energy – and even if it was split based upon actual usage, it probably wouldn’t save you very much money per month. Let’s say her and her boyfriend are using 60% of the energy and your energy bill is $200 per month. If you split it there, it’s only $120 for her and $80 for you – and that’s assuming you’re also splitting the base fees at a 60%/40% split, which means you’d be expecting her to pay more of the cost to simply have energy available. I doubt that $40 a month is worth the fight here.

I’d be more annoyed with the use of all the hot water, myself. Rather than complain about the electric bill, I’d suggest to her that perhaps her boyfriend showers last when he’s there instead of first, because he uses the shower for so long that it leaves no hot water for anyone else. Suggest that she should go first as well so she gets some hot water because, honestly, that kind of behavior isn’t fair to any of the three of you.

If you angle the discussion about water usage right, you’ll probably get what you want on both counts (or at least an improvement) without having to argue about money.

Q4: Fear of returning to school
Over the last several years, my husband and I have paid off all of our debts and built up about $100,000 in savings. We have always funded our retirement accounts and feel good about our situation.

My husband has always dreamed of returning to school and studying history. Given our situation and the fact that we have basically lived off of my income for years anyway, I have encouraged him to do this. However, he won’t do it. Whenever I suggest it, he mentions a lot of reasons why not.

A big part of our reason for our money makeover was so that he could do this. I’m actually getting frustrated by it.
- Alice

There are a lot of potential things at work here.

First of all, it may be that something that was once a hazy dream no longer seems as great now that it’s actually possible. The idea of returning to an academic setting isn’t always a pleasant one for everyone. I’ll admit that I would love to do something like this, but not everyone would.

Another reason is that he may also be worried about you, and that’s something that’s going to be very difficult to get past. He may be afraid of simply eating away at your income without contributing anything for several years.

Making that kind of major lifestyle leap is scary and filled with risks. If the risks are too great for your husband to take, let it be. Just make sure he knows that door is open for him if he changes his mind.

Q5: Christmas becoming expensive
My partner and I are relatively frugal. He is one of six kids, I am one of three. When it comes to birthdays, his family like to all chip in for one present (usually $30) whereas I don’t get my family anything, as I get lots of things for them for Christmas. However, buying presents for five kids, six nieces and nephews, parents birthdays, mothers day and fathers day is all adding up. My partner has mentioned this to one of his sisters, however they think we are being “cheap”. How do we contribute to presents cheaply, but still get something decent. Neither of us are crafty, so we aren’t the best candidates for DIY.

- Lisa

My honest suggestion would be to shop constantly for these occasions, looking exclusively at sales as the year goes by.

Buy gifts when you see them on deep discount, toss them in the closet, and wrap them up when gift-giving occasions come along.

We do this to a certain extent ourselves. I’d estimate that the majority of our Christmas gifts have already been purchased and are sitting in the closet.

Q6: Can I trust financial advisor
My company has a financial advisor on staff whose job it is to help employees figure out financial problems – how to set up retirement and how to build a debt repayment plan and stuff like that.

Seems like a good deal, but I don’t know how I can trust this guy. If I am having financial troubles how can I know he’s not telling the corporate bosses?
- Jeff

Theoretically, there should be some sort of confidentiality agreement between yourself and this advisor. You should be provided with this when you meet with this advisor for the first time, it should be signed, and you should have a signed copy of it.

That agreement should tell you what he can and can’t share with the company. You’re going to have to read it yourself to figure that out, but I can certainly tell you that I wouldn’t tell this guy anything if the agreement wasn’t extremely clear.

Even with an agreement, he might violate it and tell your bosses, but if that happens, he’s going to be in legal hot water and open for a lawsuit.

If you have a clear confidentiality agreement, I’d feel okay in this situation.

Q7: Bookkeeping error results in windfall
Due to a bit of bad book keeping on my part, I realized that a check for $1,700 which I had been reserving for had already been cashed and paid for. For the last 6 months I’ve sat with that extra $1,700 in my bank account waiting for the check to be cashed… when I had already paid!

Now my question is what is the best thing to do with this “accidental windfall”. I have a decent debt repayment strategy going on now to pay off about $2,300 of credit card debt, which should make me debt free by February. I also have $1,500 in my emergency fund (one months expenses), which I would like to eventually get up to $4,500 (three months expenses)

My ideas are to either:
1) Completely pay off my highest interest debt ($1,382) and put the rest in my emergency fund.
2) Increase my emergency fund to 2 months expenses, and put the remainder towards my debt.

Which do you think I should do? Or do you have another idea?
- Mona

Assuming you’re single, I would pay off your highest interest debt and add to your emergency fund with the rest.

If you’re not single and especially if you have kids, I’d increase the emergency fund.

Why? You need a bigger emergency fund if you have more people that are reliant on your income.

Q8: Pocket notebook?
Do you have any recommendations for a pocket notebook? I know you use one for notes. What do you use?

- Lynn

If I’m buying one for myself, I’m just going to get one of those inexpensive top-spiral Mead pocket notebooks. I’ve bought them in packs of 20 before, paying about a quarter each for them.

However, I have a lot of family members who like to buy me pocket journals and notebooks as gifts. I’m always writing stuff down, so they kind of pick up on that and buy them for me.

My favorite notebook is a pocket Moleskine, but I quite honestly wouldn’t spend the money myself for one. I’ve received several as gifts, though.

Q9: Patience when starting a blog
I’ve seen several times where you’ve said that most people stop too soon in creating a blog. Could you write more about that? I remember your saying that if your blog is growing at about 10 percent readership weekly then, with patience, you believe you it can be a success. But, what if it isn’t? What is a realistic timeframe to commit to in starting one?

- Jeanine

I don’t believe that most blogs ever reach their audience cap. I think most blogs have an “audience cap” that’s a mix of factors – the topic the blog focuses on, the qualities of the writing, and so on.

However, it takes quite a while for a blog to reach that point. In my experience, it takes years of steady and consistent writing to get there.

Another factor is that the readership growth isn’t steady at all. You might have 100 visitors one week, 150 the next, 110 the next, 85 the next, 200 the week after that, and 160 the next week. If you plot that out, the readership is slowly growing, but it’s easy to give up when you see your readership drop from 150 to 110 to 85 over a two week span.

You have to be patient with blogging and you have to write consistently.

Q10: Teaching young kids life skills
How do you figure out whether your kids are ready to learn basic life skills? When do you start trusting them to do things like bathe themselves and to set the table and to make meals?

- Joan

My solution is to let them try as young as possible. Sure, they’re probably going to make a disaster of things the first few times, but that’s what a parent is for.

My two oldest children can bathe themselves, set the table for dinner, clean windows, empty and load the dishwasher, and lots of other things.

In each and every case, we had them try to do this when they were very young. They often failed. They’d take a shower and not get themselves very clean. They’d load the dishwasher in a crazy and haphazard fashion.

After each attempt, I’d tell them that they did a good job, then I’d look for one single thing they could improve. I found that if I just told them one thing at a time, they usually did that one thing correctly the next time (usually, not always).

Gradually, they moved to the point where they were able to do things on their own.

Yes, it means a lot of work for the parents. It means cleaning up messes and reviewing results of tasks you could have done yourself much faster. However, if you just do it yourself, the children aren’t learning anything.

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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