Reader Mailbag: Debate Night

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. Washing plastic bags
2. Blowing off steam inexpensively
3. Toothpaste use?
4. Starting over?
5. Why use Twitter?
6. Early Christmas planning
7. Rollover IRA question
8. Advertisements work?
9. Cloudy days and motivation
10. Improving credit quickly

Sarah and I enjoy watching the presidential debates, of which the third one happens tonight.

I only have one wish, though. I wish they were more open to third-party candidates. How would it be anything but a positive to be able to hear from the Libertarian Party candidate (Gary Johnson) or the Green Party candidate (Jill Stein) or the Constitution Party candidate (Virgil Goode)?

At the very least, they’d inject different ideas and questions into the debate, which would reveal more about Romney and Obama. A good performance from any of the third party candidates would likely bring them some support as well.

The real reason they’re not in the debate is that the Republicans and Democrats want to keep it a two-horse race and maintain the idea that there are really only two options. I think that’s to the detriment of the American public.

Q1: Washing plastic bags
I disagree about washing out the plastic bags. How about the value of decreasing the number of bags going to the landfill?

- Jeff

Washing out plastic bags directly decreases the number of bags going to the landfill. If one did not wash them out and reuse them, they would go into the trash and thus into the landfill.

Some bags are more sturdy than others. Sarah and I prefer to use canvas bags for grocery shopping and other situations where we need to carry several items.

For home use, I prefer to use bowls most of the time. In situations where a bag is called for, we try to use freezer bags, which stand up to a lot of uses and can be washed and used again if needed.

We don’t throw out many bags. I view each bag thrown out as a loss of money.

Q2: Blowing off steam inexpensively
I have a job that I sometimes love and that I sometimes find extremely frustrating. Whenever I’m frustrated at work, I usually go to a golf driving range and hit several buckets of balls and afterwards I feel better. However, hitting all those balls costs $20 and I do it two or three times a week! Do you have any ideas for a similar de-stresser that wouldn’t cost me hundreds a month?

- Wallace

There are a lot of things you can do.

I have one friend who blows off steam by practicing kickboxing in his garage. He has a large punching bag that hangs from the rafters. If he’s had a long day, he’ll go out in the garage and kick and punch the bag repeatedly. It’s not only a good workout, it helps him work out some of his frustrations. The only cost here is the initial cost of the bag.

Another friend I know channels his frustration into running. He runs after work, often doing interval runs where he’ll sprint for a while, then slow to a walk (or a complete stop) to catch his breath, then sprint some more.

I agree that the buckets of balls really add up over time.

Q3: Toothpaste use?
I’m trying to figure out a cost per use metric for toothpaste so I can figure out whether it’s cheaper to buy it in bulk or not. Any ideas?

- Arnold

You don’t really need to worry about the cost-per-use in this case. What you should be more concerned about is the volume of the toothpaste. Concern yourself about the cost per ounce.

On that same note, most people use far too much toothpaste when they brush their teeth. You really only need a tiny bead of toothpaste on your brush to get your teeth quite clean.

If you want to save money on toothpaste use, the best thing you can do is make sure you’re just using a small bead of toothpaste each time you brush.

Q4: Starting over?
I’m a financially stable (but very bored) 29-year-old female wondering when I should quit my cushy job and try something new. I have $180k in savings — about $178k invested in mutual funds and a mere $2k as an emergency fund. (I didn’t inherit this money, but my parents did pay my way through college and a master’s program.) I’m thinking of becoming a certified financial planner, a programmer, or some combination of the two. I’ve begun a CFP course; the classes are around $6k and the exam will likely be another $1k, for a total of $7k. I’m also looking at a range of developer bootcamps/schools that charge anywhere from $0 to $10k. In a worst-case scenario, I’d need about $17k for all of that, plus 6 months of living expenses ($12k), for a combined total of $29k.

I already have enough saved assets to make my career switch, but I’d have to sell some mutual funds or cash out my retirement savings. So it seems more prudent to wait until February or March, which is when I get my bonus (probably at least $22k after taxes). On the other hand, I sort of feel like I’ve already waited too long. I feel like I can always make more money in the future, but I can never get back the time I’ve spent waiting. Also, I’m almost 30, and I still don’t have a job that I like! What do you think — should I just take the leap? [Another alternative is to just continue programming and taking CFP classes on the side while holding down a full-time job, but it's starting to feel like a slog.]
- Mindy

Usually, it’s a terrible idea to jump into another career path without some sort of job waiting for you. In this case, though, you’re probably going to be okay. You’re single. You’re young. You have a lot of money in the bank. Those factors all work for you.

If I were you, I’d stick with the job I already have as long as possible, but I’d focus my energy on preparing for the next career. Spend your free time preparing for that career shift and shift back into a “maintenance” mode at work.

If you’re pushed into a situation where it really comes down to a choice between the two, go with the new career path.

Q5: Why use Twitter?
Why do people use Twitter? I don’t understand the point of it.

- Leon

I mostly just use Twitter to listen. It’s a pretty useful place to find out about breaking news and things along those lines.

An awful lot of people seem to use Twitter to just talk about themselves in a non-useful way. I don’t mind hearing about the lives of others if it’s pointing me towards something useful in my own life, but I don’t really need to hear details about people’s pets or what they had for lunch at Applebee’s.

I’ve never really been able to get into contributing on Twitter. Most of the time, I feel like I have nothing worthwhile to share in such a short burst, so I haven’t participated in a long while. I usually just read a few people’s Twitter feeds and that’s enough.

Q6: Early Christmas planning
I’ve suggested to my husband several times that we should already be buying Christmas presents, but whenever I suggest it he gets mad (I’ve still picked up a few items on sale). What do you think?

- Andrea

I’ve already purchased quite a few Christmas gifts, so I’m in your corner on this one.

I tend to buy gifts throughout the year, particularly when I find items on sale. I’d rather get people nice gifts than things bought at the last minute, but I also want to save money. My solution is to just wait on sales, pounce when I find them, and then keep the items hidden away until December.

I fully understand that some people think of Christmas as a December-only line item in their budget, but I usually think of it as a small amount all year long.

Q7: Rollover IRA question
Last September I was laid off and I took my 401K ( with Vanguard ) and rolled it over into a Vanguard Rollover IRA.

This past August, I was rehired by my “old” employer and I will be setting up a Roth 401K. When talking with Vanguard, they asked me if I wanted to rollback my IRA into my 401K? I do have a Roth IRA that I would put all of my yearly IRA contributions too.

My question is would this be worthwhile to do? If I did this, I could fund the former rollover ira with contributions from my paycheck along with the Roth 401K. That would then allow me to focus on the Roth IRA with money left over.

Or, I can leave the Rollover IRA where it is and contribute to both the Roth and Rollover IRA’s.
- Shawn

Unless your new 401(k) has investment options that blow away what you’re already getting, I’d leave your money where it is right now.

Most of the time, your best option is to put money where you have the best investment options. Generally, a 401(k) plan does not have the best options. However, it has an even bigger advantage – matching funds from employers. So, you should contribute to a 401(k) to ensure you get all of those matching dollars.

Without matching dollars, a 401(k) is generally not the best place to be because of the limited investment options. If you’re not getting matching dollars, you should max out an IRA first, whether it’s a Roth or otherwise. Thus, I’d leave the money you already have invested right where it is.

Q8: Advertisements work?
I see a lot of messages in your reader mailbag from readers who say that ads never work on them. I wanted to share a story. I thought the same thing until really recently when I found myself humming a company jingle when I saw their logo. Even though I fast forward through ads on television and don’t look at them in magazines, the ad had somehow stuck in my mind enough to make associations when I saw that logo. You can try to avoid ads all you want, but they still sneak in there. I still recognize lots of products at the store.

- Alvin

Advertising is far more prevalent than most people think. Sure, you can sit at home and skip the television ads, but it’s pretty hard to do that in an airport or at a friend’s home. Sure, you can skip ads in magazines, but your eyes have to look at it enough to recognize it as an ad, and that’s often enough to get visual recognition of the logo.

There’s also internet ads, commercials stuck on the front of YouTube videos, billboards, radio ads… the list goes on and on.

The worst kind, in my eyes, is product placement right within the programs. Ads are often indistinguishable from the show you’re watching or the article you’re reading.

The only way to avoid ads is to go on a complete media fast. No television. No internet. No magazines. No driving. Curl up at home with a thick classic novel.

Q9: Cloudy days and motivation
On cloudy and rainy days, I feel a complete lack of motivation to do anything. I don’t get much done at work and I’m just lethargic all day. Is there a solution here that I’m not seeing?

- Andy

On days like that, I’ll often bust out my light therapy lamp and sit it on my desk.

I let it run for an hour in the morning and it often makes a tremendous difference, particularly in the late fall and winter and on very cloudy days.

I find that the amount of sunlight I’m exposed to has a giant effect on my energy level and mood, but this light helps a lot in fixing it when I’m not seeing the sun enough.

Q10: Improving credit quickly
I am a 25-year old singe mother who has badcredit due to credit card frenzies at the unwise age of 18 and medical debt due to my daughter having surgery. Do you have any advice/steps to improve/repair my credit? This is hindering me from obtaining a home with a USDA loan because my debt-to-income ratio is bad.

- Charlotte

There’s really no magic trick here. You have to pay down your debts. The less debt you have, the better your debt-to-credit ratio will be and the better your credit score will be.

The big things to focus on are making sure that you’re making all payments on time – not just your credit cards, but your other bills – as well as avoiding adding any additional debt to your situation.

It’s going to take time. There is no magic wand to wave that will solve these problems. Focus on making each month reflect well on your credit situation and gradually things will improve.

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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