Reader Mailbag: Crayons

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. Speaking
2. Financial dishonesty
3. Kindness without spending
4. Teenager without ambition
5. Handling universal policies today
6. Extra school supplies
7. Refinancing house to buy car
8. Paid discount cards?
9. Seeing the world
10. Worried about grandchild

Our three children – particularly our middle child – use crayons constantly. Every single day, they’re creating some kind of epic drawing – a detailed landscape of a playground with children at play, a nature scene, Godzilla attacking our town, Mom and Dad playing Red Rover with their friends.

Their favorite tool for these drawings is the trusty crayon. The only problem is that, with so many drawings being produced, they literally wear crayons into oblivion and eventually need more of them.

I don’t mind buying them, but if you had told me a few years ago that we’d be buying a box of crayons every few weeks for years, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Q1: Speaking
Do you ever speak at events?

- Roger

I speak at events in the local area. I’ve spoken at several different libraries and a few professional meetings in the greater Des Moines area.

However, so far, I’ve been avoiding travel to speak. The big reason I chose to go full time with The Simple Dollar is to minimize (and ideally eliminate) professional travel. I got very burnt out on professional travel with my previous job, as it left me feeling some disconnect with my young children.

I would be willing to travel to speak if the opportunity presented itself where I could connect it with a family trip.

Family really does come first for me, even though there have been many opportunities to turn speaking into a money-making venture. It just has too high of a cost (from my view).

Q2: Financial dishonesty
A few days ago, I found out that my husband had been hiding $20,000 in credit card debt from me. I found some of the statements. I looked through the items and they’re all things like golf equipment and a lot of money spent at a local sports memorabilia store. In other words, I didn’t get the sense he was cheating on me.

I’ve been giving him the “silent treatment” for days now, but I’m now really wondering how we move forward from here. What do you suggest?
- Angela

I’ll be honest here: it’s now going to be very hard to trust that your husband isn’t overspending and hiding it.

Your best approach is to talk about it calmly and point out how it’s basically a shared debt at this point (since you both have to deal with the consequences of repaying it), but then keep a very careful eye on your checking account, looking for any and all unexplained withdrawals.

If it continues, I would suggest marriage counseling, because there are some trust issues going on here.

Q3: Kindness without spending
Since I’ve been so blessed I want to pass this onto others. My birthday is coming up and I plan to spend it doing one random act of kindness for each year I’ve lived. Now here’s my question – all of the suggestions out there usually involve giving money of some sort whether it’s paying for someone’s meal or giving money to a stranger. Money is important for those in need but I’m wondering if you have any suggestions for random acts of kindness that don’t involve money. My frugal husband will not be happy if we spend my birthday giving a significant amount of money to strangers. Do you have any suggestions for random acts of kindness that involve little or no money?

- Lana

Volunteer work is certainly one method. Spend your birthday working at the local food pantry or at the local soup kitchen. They always have things that need to be taken care of.

If you want something more direct, do what a friend of mine once did. In his city, they had a designated place for homeless people to sleep. He went to this area with a big pile of homemade sandwiches and distributed them. The cost per sandwich was very low, but the gift of the sandwiches put food in many bellies that day.

Either of these options meet your needs, though I’d probably lean more toward the volunteer work.

Q4: Teenager without ambition
My fourteen year old comes home after school every day and just plays video games for several hours. I’m not really a fan of this, but my wife is fine with it because his grades are strong and he’s not really up to anything bad. How can I encourage him to do something more productive with his time?

- Geoff

Talk to him about turning the video game playing into a profit-making venture.

If he plays computer games, it’s pretty easy to capture video of the gameplay. Have him collect that video, then edit it and perhaps add voiceovers, then upload them to Youtube with a creative name.

Boom – he becomes a content producer. If the videos are entertaining, people will watch them and he’ll slowly be able to earn ad revenue.

This way, you’re not creating a big war over his hobby and you’re also pushing him toward entrepreneurship.

Q5: Handling universal policies today
I have a whole life policy that my parents purchased for me as an infant in 1983 (death benefit $18,713, cash value $858.75) and a universal life policy I purchased as an adult in 2009 (death benefit $700,000, cash value $3,035). I also purchased a universal life policy for my infant son in 2009 (death benefit $50,000, cash value $257).

I don’t want to put my family at any risk upon my death, but it sickens me to think that I am wasting money by throwing it at universal life insurance policies when that money could be better invested elsewhere.

While I do understand from your posts that purchasing a term policy (for myself only) would have been a better decision in 2009, what is the best plan of action now that the policies have already been purchased? And what do you recommend doing with a policy that was purchased for me as a child?
- Jolene

The first thing I’d do is get term life insurance quotes on yourself and the child you wish to insure. How do those quotes compare to what you’re paying per month under the universal policies, minus the amount being contributed to the investment portion?

If it’s close, I’d stay with what you have now. However, I expect that, on the newer policies at least, it’s not close.

In that case, I’d replace the policies with term life policies and cash in the other insurance. Take that money and invest it. You’ll be able to find investments that come pretty close to matching what you get under the universal policies.

Q6: Extra school supplies
Every few days, my son comes home with a note from the teacher requesting some additional school supply. He needs a ruler. He needs some graph paper. He needs a calculator.

While we can afford it, it seems like the school is trying to nickel-and-dime us to death. What should we do to make them cut it out?
- Shawn

Sadly, you’re seeing some of the effects of repeated cuts to education budgets. At one local school, they have cut the paper budget so much that students now have to copy all homework questions from the chalkboard because the school can’t swing the cost of printing a worksheet for a classroom of children.

In terms of your child’s classroom this year, there’s probably not much you can do about it other than requesting that the teacher cut educational activities. It’s not as if graph paper, rulers, and calculators are going to some nefarious use.

The long-term solution is to provide more revenue to schools. We are 37th in the world in terms of education spending as a percentage of GDP. The fact is that we’re not supporting education enough to realistically expect it to be the best in the world.

Q7: Refinancing house to buy car
I was recently talking to my brother about finances and he suggested that I refinance my condo (bought 5 years ago at 5.75 interest rate) and that I borrow an additional $10,000 to replace my car.

I feel a little weird about that. My car is a 10 year old Honda Civic and I feel pretty sure that I can get at least 3 more years out of it. It currently has 155,000 miles on it and I’ve just put a $1000 into maintenance and tires. It definitely looks ragged – sun faded paint, but it runs just fine. So my questions are:

1. Should I look at refinancing my condo since interest rates are still low? I plan to be there for at least 5 to 10 more years. And where on earth do I start to look at refinancing? My mortgage company has been sending me invitations to talk – but why would they want me to have a lower rate???

2. What do you think of the advice to get an extra $10,000 as part of the refinance to get another car? I don’t know if that’s a good idea. I don’t travel that often, but when I do, it’s usually 300 miles one way for most of my destinations.
- Charlene

Don’t listen to your brother. If your car has years left in it, use those years.

If I were you, I’d simply start saving now to replace that car in a few years when it actually does need to be replaced. A hundred or two a month will make all the difference in the world.

As for refinancing, it’s a good idea if it reduces your interest rate, but it shouldn’t be used to squeeze cash out of your condo. The goal is to pay off the debt, after all.

Shop around for re-financing. Your bank wants you to re-finance with them because they’d rather keep your business at a lower interest rate than lose it to another bank.

Q8: Paid discount cards?
Are paid discount cards worth it? In our town, the local school district sells cards that give discounts at several local businesses, including $1 off the local pizza delivery and $1 off any foot long at the local Subway. How do I know if the card is worth it in the long run?

- Jim

Do you use the businesses on the card enough to make the card worth it?

If the card costs $10 and you have pizza delivered from the local place once a month, then the card is worth it – it will pay for itself. On the other hand, if you never have pizza delivered and never stop at the Subway, the card isn’t worth it on its own.

Often, such cards are sold as a fundraiser for the school district or for a specific club. For us, that’s a motivation to pick one up anyway, although we do get more than our money’s worth out of it.

Q9: Seeing the world
I’m facing a turning point in my life because I’m in a position where I can literally choose how I want to live and where. I’m young (24 years old), I have my own business as a Web Writer and I earn a good amount of money, I have no debts and I’m not tied to anything (no boyfriend, no family members in need, no job that ties me to a place).

I’m not sure what to do:

- on one hand, I would like to travel the world and experience the digital nomad life; I just need a laptop and an Internet connection to work
- on the other hand I would like to find a place that I can call home and start a life there (not in my small town, I want to move in any case)

My savings allow me to choose both options. What would you suggest to do? Settle down and save for my future or travel and use my money to see the world?
- Monica

Right now, you’re able to be a digital nomad. You don’t have anything tying you down – no love interest, no family, no job, no children. You have the option to choose either one.

In ten years, there’s a very good chance that the equation is different. You may have a love interest. You may have children. You may have family members in need. At that point, the digital nomad option isn’t really going to be available to you.

In other words, I’d suggest taking the path that’s only available to you at this point in your life. When the urge to settle down grows inside of you, then find a place to call home.

Q10: Worried about grandchild
I’m becoming really worried about my granddaughter. She’s three and a half and compared to other kids her age her verbal skills seem to be coming along really slowly. What can I do as a grandparent to help her improve without just throwing money at the problem?

- Joely

It’s hard to tell the full picture of the situation from this question.

However, from what I know here, I’d try to have the child checked out by a pediatrician, just to see if the situation is physical or environmental, and then ask for steps to take in either case.

You’ll have more impact if it’s environmental, as the solution there is to spend more time with the child, particularly focusing on conversation and communication. You can also push your child to communicate more with his or her child, as such issues can occur when parents are overworked and don’t communicate with their child enough.

If it’s physical, you can point this out to your child and encourage them to take whatever steps are necessary to improve the situation.

In either case, be watchful, but don’t be confrontational. Your granddaughter might need you more than you think, and severing ties with people because you’re upset will not help this little girl.

Got any questions? Email them to me or leave them in the comments and I’ll 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 hundreds of questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

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