Reader Mailbag: Easter Eggs

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. Same ideas, different life
2. Credit card switch worries
3. Extreme Couponing
4. Take-home pay concerns
5. Hunting for mushrooms?
6. A big mess
7. Blogging jobs
8. Confusing frugality with cheapness
9. Gas cards
10. Staying on topic

One of the best parts of Easter is the Easter egg hunt. When I was a kid, I didn’t think there was anything better than hunting for those eggs. Now that I’m a parent, I wouldn’t trade the experience of hiding eggs and then watching my children search for them for anything in the world.

Q1: Same ideas, different life
But I’m often confronted with discrepancies in our lifestyles that make it hard to translate the wisdom into my own life, so I wanted to present you with a few of these situations and get your input. The big differences are: I’m single, I live in NYC and I’m a freelancer on one income. Here’s how that plays out in everyday life.

1. Entertainment: Entertaining in my home is not an option. There are plenty of great art/sport events for free in town, but those types of things don’t offer the same opportunities to just sit and converse, and they’re rarely good for groups of four to six people. I’m not as interested in attending these things as I am just hanging out with my friends, any thoughts?
2. Health insurance: As a freelancer, I am left to my own devices when it comes to health care. And New York State is really, really expensive. Buying private insurance will cost me upwards of $1100 a month for a policy that covers check ups, and a disaster policy is $200, with very limited in-network options, huge restrictions and high deductibles. I feel strongly that both policies are bad value. I’ve never smoked and take excellent care of myself. And the disaster policy won’t cover me if I’m traveling for work (which I do often) or if I am taken to the wrong hospital locally. So I don’t buy into it. I travel outside the country once a year for checkups and hope for the best when I’m back in the US. I’m 29 now though and this is feeling more precarious.
3. If you were a freelancer, what would your emergency fund look like? I’ve been very lucky in my work history and have only once, for two months, taken a break I didn’t choose. But I also wonder how much more than the normally recommended 3-6 I should have stashed away.
4. Eating at home- I’m single, groceries are expensive, and with the amount of traveling I do it actually ends up being more expensive to cook at home. (Plus no room for a big freezer) I don’t really have a solid question here, but if you have any tips for what you’d do if you found yourself in that situation, I’ll be grateful!

Thanks for your help and the steady stream of refreshing, optimistic and practical thoughts.
– Lizzie

Entertainment: Hang out with your friends, then. Find interesting things to do with them that don’t involve spending money (or at least not significant amounts of it).

Health care: The truth is that the way health care works in the United States works against full time freelancers. It is freelancers and the self-employed who would truly benefit from solid national health care.

Emergency funds: I am essentially a freelancer. My emergency fund is quite large, because I know that I can have drastic swings in income. I try to have ten or twelve months of living expenses in the bank at all times.

Eating at home: Fill your cupboards with essential things for any meal, such as spices and herbs and other elements of most meals. This way, you only have to buy a small number of ingredients for any meal. That’s really the best thing you can do – keep the basics covered so you don’t have to buy much to have a good meal. Chicken, for one, can be a key part of a huge variety of meals, with the biggest difference being the spices used.

Q2: Credit card switch worries
I recently cancelled one of my credit cards (the newer of my two cards) in order to pick up another card. I’m a huge fan of international travel, and British Airways offers a very good deal once in not-very-often for 100k miles for a new card (50k after first purchase, 50k after $2500 of spending within 3 months). It’s got an annual fee, which is much smaller than the value of the international flight – the way I see it, I don’t mind paying $95 as a fee for a $1000+ flight. Plus, I may just wait a year and then can this card, too.

I hadn’t used the cancelled card in over a year, and use my oldest (a Chase Amazon Visa) daily. I also pay it off once a week. I don’t really see a need for having more than two cards around.

Since hindsight is 20/20, did I just make a significant financial mistake? Or should it add up to approximately peanut-sized changes to my credit score? I have no plans to buy anything major requiring credit (i.e. a house) for at least the next four years.
– Michael

I don’t think you made a big financial mistake at all.

I’m guessing that this credit card swap didn’t change your debt-to-credit ratio much at all (your credit limit on your old card is probably close to the limit on your new card), and you didn’t reduce the length of your credit history, either.

Those are the two factors that are usually affected significantly by picking up a new card or cancelling an old one, and neither one is an issue here.

Q3: Extreme Couponing
I watched a show last night called Extreme Couponing. The savings shown are incredible, but the tecnique and time involved seem a bit overwhelming. What do make of it? Is it worth a try? I would love to read a post about it!

– Pedro

I DVR’d this, hoping for some good personal finance ideas. What I saw was something that amounted to exploitation television, like most reality shows.

For one, many of the “extreme couponers” engaged in behaviors that I consider to be borderline fraud. They misrepresented their discounts multiple times during the show. Beyond that, they were also often rude and pushy to cashiers and to other customers, which left a really bad taste in my mouth.

What really alarmed me, though, is that no one seemed to reveal how much they were actually saving. It’s hard to tell if all of those efforts really made a huge difference.

I didn’t really learn any tactics, either, other than it’s good to live in an area with stores that offer double coupons.

For me, it was no different than watching many other reality shows depicting someone doing something unusual. It’s entertaining, but not really enlightening.

Q4: Take-home pay concerns
My annual salary is $42,000 but I recently received a 3% increase effective April 1st. After my pre-tax 401k deduction of 6%, medical flex account deduction, and then taxes (not sure which tax bracket I fall into) my take-home pay is only an extra $37 bi-monthly. Is there any way I can increase my net pay and/or reduce my taxable income? I’m a divorced mom of 2 so I take 3 exemptions on my W-2. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

– Lacey

That’s not surprising, actually. Let’s do the math.

If you’re earning $42,000 a year and you got a 3% raise, that’s an extra $1,260 per year. That’s spread over 26 paychecks, so each paycheck – before taxes – gets an extra $48.46.

If you then deduct 6% for your 401(k) and, say, another 6% for your flexible health care plan, and, say, 11% for your taxes, you’re left with… are you ready for this? $37 more per paycheck.

Q5: Hunting for mushrooms?
You said recently that you spend some time in the spring walking around in the woods hunting for mushrooms to eat? Are you serious?

– Ellen

I’m absolutely serious. It’s a common thing in many parts of the United States to harvest morel mushrooms from the woods during the early spring months. In this area, it usually happens in late April.

Morels are a delicacy. They often sell for $20 a pound cash around here, and will often sell for much more during poor harvesting years.

I don’t sell them, though. I take them home, grill them, and eat them, often as an utterly amazing stir fry ingredient.

Q6: A big mess
I’m 26, almost 27, and have a number of debts. Currently, I have approximately 7k in a private loan at 7% ($200 a month), 15k in an auto loan that I’m upside down on at 6.99% ($265 a month), and about 101k in student loan debt, totalling about $800 a month (the consequence of very little financial knowledge and my parents falling in love with an expensive school, I wish I’d known better). I have about 600$ in savings, 2600$ in my emergency fund in a money market account, and around 1500$ in stocks and trusts. I also have around 4000$ in my 401k, and another 200 in a roth 401k I just started.

Last year I got a great job at a fortune 500 company, which now pays around 66k a year, plus a 5% bonus (about 3k a month take home after benefit deductions). There are some other great benefits I have gotten, which is why my retirement savings is where it is.

The catch to the job is it made me move about 2 hours from my friends, family, girlfriend and pretty much everything I care about. Every weekend I’d go back to my hometown. Well, last month my landlord sold the building I lived in in the city, and the new landlords exercised their exit clause on the lease. So, I was homeless. The company basically told me it wasn’t their problem which put a very bitter taste in my mouth. I moved back to my home town, and moved in with my girlfriend. I am now commuting 4-5 hours a day total (2-3 hours of driving, plus an hour on the train each way), and working around 10-12 hours or so. This usually entails getting up at around 5am, and getting home between 9 and 10pm, and doing to bed at 10. This leaves me with an hour or less to actually be me and have a life. I’ve asked about telecommuting but the director of my department says he wants everyone in the office. Since moving, I’ve calculated the cost of the commute at a little over $500 dollars a month – before considering wear on my car.

I may have a job opportunity as a systems engineer at a small startup in my home town, and the job and environment sound awesome. No matter where I look to work locally, I’m pretty sure it will be a drastic pay cut… close to 50%, but I won’t know for sure until next week when I go in for my interview. I’ve lived on this amount before I got the big pay increase, but it was ungodly tight. I’ve been working to pay off my debts, and just got my credit cards paid off. Still another factor is that I’m starting to think about a ring for my girlfriend, and I need to be able to afford that, or at least start saving.

I’ve got a massive pile of stuff to be sold at a yard sale when the weather gets nicer. I also have some family heirlooms that I’m selling, and a stack of books. If I do take a job in the area, instead of rolling over my 401k, I’m considering taking the disbursement (swallowing the tax hit), selling off all of my stocks, and pulling the remainder out of my emergency fund to pay off the private loan, which would give me back an extra $200 a month.

As someone who walked away from a high paying tech job, would you say the financial hit is worth the boost to happiness? Right now I’m theoretically making lots of money (though honestly its all getting thrown at debt). But – I feel like I’m just a mindless drone who works, drives, and sleeps. It’s hurting my relationship with my girlfriend, and I’m physically and mentally exhausted all the time. The closer job gets rid of the commuting costs, it gives me back literally hours a day (about 7-8 hours a day).

But at the same time, I feel like taking the chance will also stress my relationship with my girlfriend, since she is a teacher and they’ve been facing pay freezes and job cuts in all of our local districts. Her district just took voluntary pay freezes to avoid firings. Theoretically it would open the possibility of getting a part time job, but I’ll most likely be on call and I doubt a lot of companies will let me call off every other week so I can work my day job. Plus it significantly pushes back being able to look at a ring I really want to put on her finger. She has said before she’s willing to wait for me to get my finances squared away, but she doesn’t think she can wait a decade (the time I calculated to be debt free on my old pay scale).

I really just don’t know what to do. Any advice?
– Chris

For one thing, I wouldn’t stress out about waiting to get married until your finances are in great shape. Have an inexpensive wedding and merge your finances now. Ride this thing out together. It is far easier to overcome a hardship with a life partner in your corner than it is to go it alone.

Do not worry about a ring. Give her a fifty cent one you got out a vending machine, slip it on her finger, and tell her you want to replace it in about ten years with something amazing and you want her to be with you every step along the way.

If she’s sensible at all, she’ll be right on board with this.

Q7: Blogging jobs
I’m looking at Monster.com for job hunting leads. In my in-box, they sent some blogging-type opportunities. Does this type of opportunity look like a potentially good thing? I looked it over, and it looks like if I work it, it would work for me. It would not be something that wouldn’t require dedication. What do you think?

– Edward

Many blogs and other sites will pay people to write short articles for a small amount. They’re starved for content. Readers always want something new to read and if you want to keep your revenue up, you’ve got to give them what they want.

Now, is it a good moneymaking opportunity for you? If you can dash off short articles that are passable and do it quickly, you can certainly make money doing this. Is it something that’s sustainable over the long term? No. Will you get rich doing it? No.

I would view such a thing as a small avenue for side income, not as a lifestyle builder.

Q8: Confusing frugality with cheapness
You may have already covered this and I just haven’t seen it yet, but how do you deal with folks who confuse frugality with ‘cheapness’? For example, I say that I don’t want to go out for the EIGHT (8!) dollar beers, partly because I brew my own and partly because I have goals that I won’t reach with a $50/night bar tab. How do I convince folks that it’s not due to my being a cheapskate, but that I have my sights set on a much larger (and likely MORE expensive) aspiration?

– Fraser

The easy solution is to simply say, “This beer is terrible. I’m going to go drink my home brew.” Don’t make it about the dollars. Make it about the virtues of homebrew.

On the flip side, ask yourself what you’re gaining by hanging out with people who think it’s a wise move to drop $50 on a bar tab drinking $8 beers. I’d inherently wonder about their decision-making ability if they did this with any consistency.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing such a thing on rare occasion, but as a habit, I’d really question the people who were doing that and whether they shared my values.

Q9: Gas cards
I have a question regarding gas cards and if they can help with my credit score. Some quick background first: I graduated from college in 2005 with nearly $10K in credit card debt (spread over 4 separate high interest cards) and $18K in student loan debt. I also had a small bank loan for my car which was around $2500. I struggled to make ends meet and just trying to make the minimum payments on my maxed out cards. I would pay a card partway down and then end up using it for some “emergency”. After a few years I found out about a debt management program from a coworker and with that company’s help I had all of my credit card debt paid off in a few years. This was around summer 2008. All of the credit accounts were closed due to being on the debt management plan. I have not reopened any credit cards since then.

I now have a solid emergency fund in place and am thinking I would like to start saving for a down payment on a home sometime in the next 2-5 years. I want to make sure my credit score is as good as possible down the road and have been thinking about opening a credit card account so that I have solid history of diverse types of loans (I currently have less than 1.5 years on my auto loan). I know from reading your site and some books that about 10% of your FICO score can come from the different types of credit one has. Do you know if this means they want to see something more than credit cards, or does it mean that it is better to have several types currently open such as car loan, mortgage, and credit cards?

I currently have old (nearly 3 yr old) bad credit card history as well as the student loans and the car loan. Would it help me at all to open a new line of credit on a credit card? I know this can actually hurt your score short term, but am hoping the 2+ years between now and my goal timeline of applying for a mortgage would negate that negative effect. Also, while I am open to the idea of a new credit card (which I would be fanatical about keeping at a zero balance) I feel a lot of hesitation due to my previous problems.

Whew, now I am finally to the point! I have seen the offers for gas cards. The websites seem to offer 2-3 options – usually a “plus” or “preferred” card and a (X company) Visa/MasterCard. What is the difference in these cards? My ideal situation would be to use this new card exclusively for gas purchases and pay it down to zero every month. I don’t necessarily want to even have the option of using the card at the mall. Do the “plus” cards only allow you to buy from the associated (Citgo/BP/Exxon) company? And do they carry the same weight in terms of my credit score as a “normal” credit card would? I know you have endorsed a specific “Citi” card on your site, but I guess my inquiry is focused entirely on gas cards as that is the only area I trust myself to use a credit card responsibly.
– Brenda

There’s no real difference between the cards based on the words you used there. They’re marketing terms, nothing more.

You need to look at the details of the various offers to really determine which offer is right for you.

I do think it’s a good move to select a card that you would use only at the pump. Not only do such cards have pretty solid reward programs, keeping it pump-only keeps you from getting into too much credit card trouble.

Q10: Staying on topic
How do you decide how to stay on topic? Sometimes, you write stuff that seems way out there for a personal finance blog. Where do you draw the line?

– Lindsey

In my eyes, the key idea behind The Simple Dollar is that every modern life is built on a foundation of many elements, and finances are one of the cornerstones of that foundation. If you want to live a great life and follow your dreams and achieve your goals, you’ve got to have a strong foundation underneath that.

So, how do you build that foundation? Finances are a big part of that foundation. You’ve got to have your money under control. Hand in hand with that is the ability to earn money, which comes from having other aspects of your life under control. You’ve got to have some basic skills, and the stronger those skills are, the easier it is to make money in this world. Time management. Public speaking. Information management. Specific skills that apply to your career area.

All of these elements allow you to chase your dreams, whatever they may be.

All of the articles I write for The Simple Dollar focus on this house you’re building and the foundation upon which it rests.

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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  1. Melissa says:

    On Q8: I’m not sure why rudeness would be necessary to defend someone’s choices. You can always get a cheaper beer than everyone else, or you can invite people over to have some of the homebrew.

    People are allowed to make different choices than you do; you don’t need to insult them for it.

  2. jesse.anne.o says:

    Q1 – I’m in a similar situation and I think your answer missed the boat on 1 (and maybe a little bit of 4) given the context.

    For entertainment – ah, if it were only as easy as your answer. Real estate comes with a price, even if you’re just trying to occupy some privately-owned hangout space. In the summer this is much easier because you can do all the free outdoor movies, picnics in the park, etc. NYC is really great for public hangouts in the summer, even if our apartments are so tiny you’ll never host anything indoors. As for the fall and winter though, I’m also at a loss. Movies, free bands, most bars, etc. are hard not conducive to hangouts/conversations.

  3. valleycat1 says:

    Q1 – since you are unable to find a decent available health insurance option, that makes a large emergency fund even more important. You should be putting aside a set amount each month (which otherwise you would be paying into an insurance plan) with the intent of using it for medical expenses. I have been fortunate to have decent employer-related insurance & didn’t have to use it much for years, but after several surgeries & medical issues, we calculated that all those premiums paid over the years balanced out the expenses.

  4. kristine says:

    In my experience, coupons are for name brands, and I can always get that same price by buying generic, or in bulk, no clipping needed, no time spent monitoring stores coupon policies. I tried both, and it was a break even. I am not interested in name brands, except for very few items where generic did not measure up, so those became rare treat items.

    My brother was on a reality show where he bargained for a rifle. The producer handed him 1K, said go bargain for the best price you can on that rifle. After they said cut- the money goes back to the producer, and the rifle goes back to the seller. Most reality shows are incredibly staged.

  5. Kathleen says:

    Q8 – This starts out with good advice and then gets damn judgmental! Geez. People who regularly spend $8/beer might not have good decision making skills? What if they can AFFORD it? I know plenty of young professionals with no debt and six-figure incomes who can easily afford this. My husband and I could too, though we choose the home brew route. We don’t question or judge our friends for doing something different, though. Please, Trent, stop judging people for having different financial priorities than you have!!!

  6. kristine says:

    Trent,
    Can you recommend a great book with full color visuals on mushroom foraging? I know it can be hazardous if you do not know what you are doing. I go solo camping a lot in western MA, and see many mushrooms when I hike. I’d love to take home some in a basket, or just to my campfire!

  7. valleycat1 says:

    Q8 – next time you’re invited out, just say “thanks but I have other plans.” Then say that again the next time. You don’t have to say anything else.

    If you have the brewing capacity, offer to brew up a batch for your friends at $x/person to cover your expenses (which, I assume is less than $8 per glass) & then have everyone over for a potluck when it’s ready to drink. Or if you make a lot of different kinds of beer, invite them for a tasting session.

  8. Andrea says:

    Trent, I love the reader mailbag on Mondays and Thursdays – but mostly for the reader comments. I feel like the questions usually have multiple facets, and you choose one to quickly comment on and that’s it. For example, Question 6 was mostly about switching jobs, but all you said was get married! I understand why that provides *some* advice to the reader, but why not write a few quick lines about switching jobs? I think that is what he was looking for….

  9. Jonathan says:

    Q5 – As Trent said, morel hunting is a favorite springtime event for many people. I recently had someone ask for my permission to hunt for them on my property, and they drove an hour and a half to do it.

  10. Just wanted to back Trent up on hunting morel mushrooms. It was a big thing among my family in the area where I grew up. I never cared for them much, but it was a highly anticipated meal among my grandma and uncles and aunts.

  11. Teresa says:

    I agree that the extreme couponing show was for entertainment but was struck by the hoarding of products by the people on the show! Unrealistic for most people to even have access to that many coupons.

  12. Katie says:

    Okay, since nobody else has yet, I’ll ask – DVR? I thought you canceled cable?

  13. kristine says:

    Q6- Not to be heartless, but a company has a lot of employees. Unless they regularly relocate workers, they are not a resource for help in finding you an apartment. As far as not being willing to accommodate working at home-it’s the market. There are dozens of qualified people for just about every job out there right now, so there is no incentive to accept less than employer-optimal situations with employees.

  14. P.S. My family called morels “dry land fish”.

  15. Gimena says:

    @Q2: I also have one of these airline credit cards. I have been able to get teh fee waived for two years in a row. That means 3 years of miles with NO fee. Just call teh credit card company. It takes about 10 minutes once a year.

    @Q6: Personally I would NOT take the lower paying job. I would find a new apartment closer to the good paying job. My reasoning is that MOST of your raises in the future will be a percentage of your current salary. So if you start off low, it will mean lower pay for the rest of your career.

  16. kristine says:

    Q6-You might try getting an apt. with your girlfriend closer to the job. Or midway- so you each have a 1-1.5 hour commute. Splitting apt expenses might make it feasible, and you will be together about 4 more hours/day. But I agree, that as a teacher, her job is in danger. She should be actively working on a plan B. Make sure your discontent with your company does not show at work also, to protect that income if you decide to keep it.

    Spend some time crunching number for alternate scenarios- work at this job for X more months, get a crash-only apt near the city that costs peanuts, but is a bit of a dive, and go home weekends- spend weekday evenings on a second income to really boost the schedule, etc.

    You must also consider the scenario that you go home, money is tight, and your GF loses her job. You have to lay out a flow chart of various options/possibilities, and then run the numbers on the 5 most likely. Do this with your GF, and be honest about which are tolerable, and for how long.

  17. Tracy says:

    @Q6

    Other than the actual commute portion, how do you like your job? Are you happy with it? Is there a real reason you didn’t look for another apartment closer to it?

    Or maybe something in a halfway spot, where you and your girlfriend each shared part of the commute? Has she looked for jobs closer to your current work (considering it doesn’t sound like her job is in great shape at the moment, that might be the best bet)

    I found your “The company basically told me it wasn’t their problem which put a very bitter taste in my mouth.” very weird – are you talking about the company you work for? Or the new landlords? Most companies aren’t responsible for their employee’s housing situation, so i wouldn’t set up that expectation in your head for future employment.

    Considering how much debt you have, unless the new job pays close to what your current one does (including benefits), switching doesn’t sound like a good idea at this point.

    Q7

    If those are the jobs I’m thinking of, they’re a total rip-off … many of them are completely unpaid, with the idea that you’ll be ‘making a name for yourself as an expert’ as your compensation. Others will say things like ’15 dollars for 5 articles’ – which is ridiculous for a professional. It’s fine if it’s something you’re passionate about and would write about anyway, but real freelance writing jobs will pay you by the article or the hour, but it’ll be a substantial amount. Proceed with caution.

    Q8

    Seriously seconding that the response was needlessly judgmental and I agree that inviting them over for homebrew could be a much better an alternative.

  18. Des says:

    Q2 – You won’t get a $1000 flight for $95, you’ll get it for about $500. You will still have to pay the taxes, fees, and surcharges (fuel surcharge is a big one) on that ticket. Half off is still a good deal, but look out for sticker-shock when you actually go to redeem those miles.

  19. NewReader says:

    Q1 – I recently checked out a book from the library that was really helpful for me, and it might be helpful for you too: “The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed” by Joseph D’Agnese and Denise Kiernien.

  20. kristine says:

    Tracy, I also agree.

    I am surrounded by the very rich (we rent for a great school district), and cannot socialize within the local normal customs. We eek by. My daughter’s BF of 2 years is heir to millions, and his family takes my daughter to the country club and to dinner quite often. To reciprocate, we invite him for our fab spaghetti and meatballs, and send over banana bread once in a while. His parents are lovely people, and I enjoy seeing them at school. I do not feel bad about the disparity of offerings- it is all good will, and we do what we can do, without apology or judgment. The idea is to make people feel welcome, and liked, which can be done in many ways. Hubby and I are lucky in that we are homebodies anyway, (I paint, he reads) and prefer long lively discussions with each other to all other forms of socializing.

  21. Des says:

    Q6 – Huh? Trent, your answer to this kid doesn’t even match the question. He barely mentioned marriage – did you even read it?

    Here’s the thing, Chris – $66k is not THAT much money, especially if you’re working in tech. You seem to feel that you have this irreplaceable amazing job, but it really isn’t. That is a good salary, but it is not a drive-three-hours-and-ruin-my-personal-relationships salary. Not in your industry, anyway. Keep looking. It will take some time, but you should be able to find something closer without taking too much of a pay hit. $66k isn’t enough to buy golden handcuffs.

  22. Jonathan says:

    @Kathleen (#5) – I assume you’re focusing on this part of Trent’s response: “I’d inherently wonder about their decision-making ability if they did this with any consistency.”. I think this also needs to be taken in context with “I’d really question the people who were doing that and whether they shared my values.”.

    People like to get upset when you question how they spend their money. You are right, there are people who can afford to drop $50 on beer, and it is their right to do so. That doesn’t make it a wise financial decision, though. Yes, I am judging. Judging the behavior, not the person. Also, it sounds as though these friends are judging the OP for being frugal, and using negative terms, like cheapskate, to try to alter his behavior.

    The OP seems to feel that spending $50 on beer is excessive, especially since he is brewing beer at home that is likely as good if not better than then $8 bottle at the bar. Obviously his friends have different priorities, so I would also suggest he step back and look at whether or not he still shares values and goals with this set of friends. If their idea of having a good time is making him uncomfortable because he sees it as a waste of money and its preventing him from reaching his goals, why continue hanging out with them? Sometimes we have to realize that there are people in our lives who hold us back. We can either let them continue to hold us back, or we can let go and continue working towards our goals.

  23. Katie says:

    Sometimes we have to realize that there are people in our lives who hold us back. We can either let them continue to hold us back, or we can let go and continue working towards our goals.

    I guess, but if you genuinely really like people, spending different amounts on beer seems like a silly reason to stop hanging out with them. That’s a pretty superficial thing in the long run.

  24. Hannah says:

    Q1 – Lizzie says “Entertaining in my home is not an option.” In college, having 4-6 people all hanging out in your dorm room isn’t even considered crowded. Google Felice Cohen to see a video of a woman who lives in a 90 sq ft apartment in Manhattan and still entertains. If your friends are on the same page, they won’t be picky about your apartment.

    She also says “it actually ends up being more expensive to cook at home.” If that’s true, you’re either eating cheap and unhealthy, or you’re cooking the wrong recipes. If you’re committed to saving money,plan out meals ahead of time, so you can stock up on the non perishables, and then grab the perishables you need the day of. Don’t bother with recipes that require you to buy ingredients you can’t store.

    It seems to me that Lizzie is being a very close minded in the things she is saying she “can’t” do, and she needs someone to call her out on it. Everyone looks at frugality tips and says “that won’t work with my lifestyle” but that’s the point! If you can’t afford your current lifestyle you have to adjust your expectations.

  25. Gretchen says:

    Number 1 should have a huge emergency fund unless her health care plan involves declaring bankrupcy if she ever has, say, a heart attack.

    Mushroom hunters should go with someone else first as (I understand) a book won’t be enough.

    the beer answer was judgemental as usual. Invite them over. If they want to go out for $8 beers and you would not for whatever reason, just say no. You can decline things without being rude.

  26. Gretchen says:

    6 doesn’t answer the question at all either, which to me was more about the job than the girlfriend.

    I’d take the new shorter commute job and continue to look for something else. You don’t have to stay there forever or you can work your way up the line in house.

  27. J.D. Roth says:

    @Fraser in question 8:

    I think the best way to deal with people who think you’re being cheap is just to be honest with them. They’ll tease you (and may even judge you), but so what? Your self-worth isn’t defined by what they think; it’s defined by what you think. If your goals are important to you, just decide you’re going to put up with the teasing.

    Let me give you an example: On Saturday, I went to a bar to watch a soccer game. (I almost never go to bars, so this was an experience for me.) I had one drink. That’s what was in my budget, both for finances and fitness. My friends teased me when I ordered a glass of water on the second round. They teased me again when I did the same on the third round. And even the strangers around me made fun of me when I had a third glass of water on the fourth round of drinks. I just laughed along with them. Why? Because I don’t care if they think I’m being cheap or a stick in the mud. I know my financial and fitness goals are more important than a second, third, or fourth drink. (Another strategy I’ve used is to just nurse a single drink all night long.)

    You don’t have to stop hanging out with your friends, even when they buy $8 beers. You just need to learn to laugh off their barbs. I’ve actually had some of my friends come to me after nights out to ask me more about my financial and fitness goals. They tease me in the moment, but they’re actually impressed overall, and want to know more about how they can do the same.

    Good luck!

  28. Riki says:

    Q8 — This is actually a really good question and it ultimately boils down to “how do I enjoy time with my friends without spending a lot of money”?

    For me, the solution was a lot of different ideas mixed together. A very quick and completely non-exhaustive list of ideas:
    – Invite them over for your own homemade beer and alternate in-house entertaining with trips to the bar.
    – Drink less at the bar by saying you have to drive or nursing drinks slowly. Don’t make a big deal about it. Who says you have to match them drink-for-drink? I LOVE to go out with my friends but alcohol makes me pretty sick. Believe me, I have been to lots of parties or lots of bars where everybody around me was drinking heavily but I had one drink all night. Nobody ever teased me.
    – Heck, drink pop rather than booze when you do go to a bar.
    – Steer trips to the bar to happy hour or Cheap Tuesday rather than paying full price at 9 pm on a Friday night.
    – Stop worrying about what they think and do what works for you.

    I think the key is understanding that judgement works both ways. You don’t want them to judge you for your decision to spend less, but aren’t you judging them for spending money on alcohol? I would examine your own behaviour for anything that might come off as superior. This way, if you present an alternative, it doesn’t have to be about money and can simply be something different to do. For the record, there’s nothing wrong with spending $50 on a bar tab.

    Trent’s answer was very judgmental and rubbed me the wrong way. “This beer is terrible. I’m going home to drink my own brew” and “I’d inherently wonder about their decision-making ability if they did this with any consistency”. Wow. If you want advice about how to be a stay-at-home parent, make your own laundry detergent, focus all of your energy on your kids and over-analyze every penny you spend, Trent is the guy to ask. If you want advice on any kind of lifestyle that is NOT that scenario, the comment section is much more useful. The general theme of Trent’s advice is to make the same decisions he does.

  29. Josh says:

    Q3: Using coupons can save you a lot of money, depending on your situation. We live in the south and have a regional grocery store chain with the most favorable coupon policy I’ve ever seen.

    They always have a nice selection of items in the store that are marked down to half off, and the sale items are updated weekly. They will allow you to stack up to 3 coupons on any item, including sale items. You can use a store coupon, a manufacturer’s coupon (which they will double if it’s less than 50 cents), and a competitor coupon.

    If you collect all of the coupons and use them when your desired item is on sale, you can get some great deals.

    This week, we bought boxes of Triscuits (assorted flavors and varieties) for 35 cents each and bags of Kraft shredded cheese for 66 cents each. We get free yogurt all the time. A few weeks ago, we bought 20 boxes of pasta for a total of less than $2 (kept some, donated some). When we go grocery shopping, we save about as much as we spend, which is in the range of $20-$50 per week, depending on what’s on sale.

    If you have access to a store like this, using coupons could easily be worth your time.

  30. guinness416 says:

    I agree with JD. I’m from Ireland – pub culture is a huge part of my background, as you might tell from my username, and I and my friends and colleagues love it. But just about every night someone in the pub is drinking coke, or stops at one beer, or leaves a little early and simply shrugs and says “I need to save some cash” or “I don’t feel up to it tonight” and rolls their eyes and grins at any slagging. It really isn’t a big deal unless you turn it into a massive drama (and telling people you wonder about their decision making ability because they like Belgian beers or whatever is a good way to do that).

  31. Tom says:

    That coupon show was a bit frightening. I was excited to watch it, and got to tune in because the premiere was on a Wednesday when Modern Family was a repeat.
    The hoarding was scary. The cheating store policy by splitting up sales was made me cringe. But the worst part for me was buying and storing so much stuff just because they could use coupons. I don’t care how great a deal you get, there’s no need for 70 jars of mustard. That’s not very fair to the other costumers who can’t buy 1 jar (you know, customers like your neighbors).
    One or two people featured on the show were seemed more easygoing than the others. One guy bought a pallet of cereal that he intended to donate to his church’s food program, and one lady spoke about not buying things just because they were a good price. The rest of the show, as Trent said, just seemed like exploitation of people who might have a problem…

  32. Steven says:

    Morels are amazing. ’nuff said!

  33. Andrew says:

    A relative took on some “extreme couponing” as a charity project. Our hometown has a shelter that is always seeking donations for toiletries and hygiene products. For her the research and planning needed to find deals and coupons was enjoyable but it was very time consuming and would likely deter those with a casual interest. I tagged along on her shopping trip and she made a point to let customers with small purchases go ahead of her and always told the cashier “I’m clipping coupons for charity, so thanks in advance for taking a little extra time to help me check out”. Once or twice she asked for clarification if something rang up differently than expected but staying polite kept anyone from getting upset. All in all the savings were over 80%, so the return was there, but the time investment was somewhat serious. For her it was a great way to make a charitable donation (not picky about brands, not following normal household usage and just getting what had coupons and sales) and a fun project but is not an easy way to shop for normal household items.

  34. cv says:

    @Q1, Trent isn’t really the guy to go to for advice on being young and single in a big city. If you want to sit and converse, coffee shops are great, and you can often hang out for quite a while on a $2 cup of coffee or tea. Going out for inexpensive meals – trying different ethnic cuisines, for example – is also a good time, which may or may not be in your budget. Wandering around the city and exploring different neighborhoods generally gives a small group time to chat, too, as do parks and things.

    Also, living in cities I’ve been invited over for meals or hanging out in gorgeous homes, mid-size apartments, tiny studios, and everything in between. You say it’s “not an option,” but don’t say why, and you might re-think that. Maybe only invite 2 or 3 people over at once, at first, and see how it goes?

  35. Marle says:

    Q6: You can’t keep up with a 4-5 hour commute every day. Just can’t. Either get a new job or a new apartment.

    I think Trent focused on marriage because it seems that the letter writer’s biggest problem with taking a lower paying job in his hometown is that he won’t be able to save for a ring. Trent’s advice eliminates that problem. However, while I agree with Trent that weddings and rings shouldn’t be expensive, I’m not so sure if that’s going to go over too well with the letter writer and his gf. From the tone of the letter, they seem pretty set that he needs a ring he has to save up for, and that mindset is hard to break. Also, if they’ve been talking about marriage after he gets his finances together, suddenly changing that to “now” might be a hard sell.

    But, whether he gets married or not, he still needs to decide whether or not he wants to keep this job. Does he really like the job, or does he just want a job that he can save for a wedding ring with (which is a terrible idea, because either living long distance or being gone from the house the entire day are much worse for relationships than cheap rings). He also probably shouldn’t count on her moving with him. She didn’t in the first place, and she probably has a lease on her place that would be expensive to break. If I was him, I’d take the lower paying job and gradually talk to her about marrying cheaply.

  36. Dee says:

    Q6: Long Commute Question

    You need to move closer to your $66k job. You have too much debt to take a huge pay cut, especially when your girlfriend/future wife could lose her job.

    Your debts are $1,300 a month right now. That’s before you eat, pay rent or drive one mile. I like the suggestion others made of moving halfway. An hour isn’t that much of a drive (though I live in California so that’s my perspective). Taking on the amount of debt you did limits the choices you have. It may not have been entirely your fault, but that doesn’t so much matter now.

  37. Lise says:

    Regarding Q5: I collected morels as a kid, though I haven’t done it as an adult. I learned what they looked like from my dad, who probably learned it from his Italian grandmother. Morels are nice because they are very easy to identify and difficult to confuse with anything poisonous. Chanterelles, I hear, are the same.

  38. Sonja says:

    Q6: Chris has lots of debt, a long commute, unsure about his best career moves and can’t buy a ring. Trent advises Chris to marry the girlfriend and combine incomes. That girlfriend is someone’s daughter. Would you want your daughter to marry someone in Chris’s situation? He needs to sort himself out before he makes a lifelong commitment.

  39. Squirrelers says:

    For Q8, I see nothing wrong with very nicely communicating in some way that $8 beers are too expensive for you, and you’d rather not spend that kind of money. It’s honest, and shouldn’t be an issue for anyone who has a sense of money. If they think you’re a cheapskate because you won’t spend $8 on a beer, who cares? You’re not doing anything wrong by choosing how you spend your own money, let them reevaluate their own perspectives.

  40. Tracy says:

    @Sonja – I agree.

    Plus, even more than a parent not wanting their daughter to marry somebody in Chris’s situation, there’s absolutely no evidence that the girlfriend wants to marry somebody in his situation!

    Right now, the only thing we know about her is that she’s giving him time to get his finances in shape – “She has said before she’s willing to wait for me to get my finances squared away, but she doesn’t think she can wait a decade”

    My own instinctive reading of that is that if he doesn’t get his finances squared away, she’ll seek a different relationship, because that makes more sense to me (possibly because of my own biases) than reading this as him insisting he wants to be financially secure but her wanting to get married now. And if she’s ‘sensible,’ as Trent mentions, she’ll turn down the cheap ring and/or an expensive one until Chris has things more figured out.

  41. jim says:

    Q1 Lizzie : You need to shop around more for health insurance. There should be more than 2 options available to you. (I’m assuming you don’t have special health considerations that you didn’t mention)

    Q3 : I wonder if Trent is talking about the same TV show? Trent says: “no one seemed to reveal how much they were actually saving” If you watch the show called Extreme Couponing on TLC then the amount they save is definitely something they talk about a lot. They repeatedly say exactly about exactly how much the bills cost and how they save 95%-99% and paid $50 for $1200 of groceries or whatever the exact #’s are. They show the receipts. Its a major part of that show.
    I have watched the Extreme Couponing show a couple times. I don’t recall seeing anything that I’d consider fraud or rude behavior.

    Q6 : I don’t think that getting married right away is the solution to all your problems. It may just make things worse. Right now you have to decide if you want to keep the higher paying job in the city or move back home for lower pay. You could pay more for get another apartment in the city to reduce your commute and travel home on weekends, or you could live with lower pay and have no commute. I’d involve your girlfriend to see which she prefers. Maybe she wants to see you more as her #1 priority and maybe she isn’t as concerned with the debts. Maybe she is busy herself and ok with seeing you all weekend and thinks you need to get your finances in shape. Your girlfriend’s opinion matters more than the opinion of strangers on the interweb.

    Q8 Fraser : I disagree with Trents advice to say you prefer homebrews. Thats just a diversion. Use open honestly. Tell your friends you want to save money for whatever your goals are. Are your friends calling you a cheapskate in other circumstances? Or is it ONLY when they want to go out and you balk at the high cost of $8 beers? If $8 beers are normal in your town and you and your friends have healthy incomes then they are likely just giving you a hard time cause they want you to go out with them. How about you go out and just drink free water or a $3 coke and be the designated driver? Or if your friends are just total spendthrifts and call you a cheapskate for anything and everything then there will be no easy convincing them that you’re not a cheapskate. If they’re the spendthrift and you’re normal then they’re wrong and you’re right. You can’t just fix that. Or maybe you are a cheapskate and they’re normal.

  42. LeahGG says:

    While I don’t think an engagement ring should cost thousands of dollars, I think a vending machine ring is not realistic either. I know a few couples who got gold rings with cubic zirconia with the understanding that they’d upgrade the same ring to a diamond when they were doing better. That way you have a nice ring for under $300. You can also get a quarter of a carat diamond ring for that price range. My engagement ring is 20 points (1/5 carat) and I think it’s gorgeous because the setting is really nice.

  43. marie says:

    For Question 1, it’s hard to understand why you can’t entertain at home because you don’t give details on your living situations. If you are for example renting a room or something like that and have limited access to the kitchen/rest of the house, then I can understand more where you are coming.

    However, if you have at a minimum a bachelor apartment of 200 sq ft or anything larger, you should be able to have people over. Maybe get a folding table and extra chairs that you can put in a closet/storage locker that you can bring out when you have company or get furniture that is more compact. Get a kettle/coffee maker and pick up baked goods from the grocery store that you can freeze and heat up when you have guests.

    Also, it can be hard to entertain in a bachelor because everything is open and its harder to ‘hide’ your mess. This shows the importance of keeping the place tidy and uncluttered.

    As for cooking/groceries, cooking at home is pretty much always cheaper. Cooking for one IS tough and gets some getting used to, but it is worth it. If you dislike your tiny kitchen, try cooking once or twice per week only and get some pyrex containers to freeze leftovers in individual portions that you can heat up like frozen entrees. Also, if living alone you can have things like pb & j, cereal, grilled cheese at any time of the day just like in college because you only have to feed yourself. For things like soup, its easier to just buy canned than making a big pot that will be a pain to freeze etc. Make sure you have a toaster, kettle, microwave and blender. Also, if you are trying to eat healthy then its easy to pick up veggies and fruits every 2 or 3 days so you always have just what you need and it doesn’t take a lot of room.

    Obviously when looking for advice online, stay away from things like big containers of stuff, and bulk packages because in small apartments they take a lot of room and go to waste.

  44. Cam says:

    Re: Q1, an option for the free events is to show up early. Pack a picnic and hang out for an hour or two before the performance starts.

  45. Justin says:

    I’m glad not everything is strictly “this is how to save money here” or “this is where you should invest”.

    That stuff gets old- I know a lot of people still don’t get it, but I like that Trent relates every day kinda stuff to finances.

  46. Kelly says:

    Q1: For hanging out with friends, can you just have everyone over to our house, and everyone brings one snack or food for a dinner? You could play board games, watching sporting events, or just talk to each other?

  47. valleycat1 says:

    #42 & for Q6 re marriage – you don’t have to have an engagement ring or rings with diamonds, to get married. Although I wouldn’t go so far as a vending machine ring – you can get very nice gold wedding bands for a reasonable amount of $. (Trent overdoes the choice of two options sometimes. I’m sure he’d say for shock value, but he never tempers it with suggesting an half-way choice.)

    However, I agree with the others that you need to stay in the town where the current better paying job is,& get your finances in order – & hold off on getting married. The commute is crazy & downgrading your job to relocate is the same. What if things don’t move forward with the girlfriend – wouldn’t you kick yourself for sacrificing there? She’s said she’ll give you some time, so use it!

  48. Diane says:

    Q1: Very, VERY bad idea. I am self-employed and have never been without insurance. I am thin, healthy, exercise, don’t smoke and have no chronic conditions. I take no medications. My parents are in the 70’s and take no medications nor do they have any chronic conditions. I am the poster child for someone who doesn’t need insurance.

    Until one day I wasn’t.

    Two years ago I had a condition that was very treatable through surgery, and correctable. But it was dangerous while it was happening and cost me >$80K in surgery fees. I still paid $12K out of pocket. I could afford $12K. I could not afford $80K. Through insurance I also had the choice of the best doctors to address my condition.

    If you are self-employed, you NEED insurance. period. You could lose everything you have – and ALSO not have options for good care when sick if you don’t. Don’t be stupid.

  49. Johanna says:

    Q6: In addition to what everybody else said (either get an apartment closer to your job or a job closer to your apartment, quit whining about the bad taste in your mouth, and start acting like a grown-up), I take issue with Trent’s notion of what makes a “sensible” woman.

    I think a woman can be perfectly sensible and still be concerned about a partner who can’t (or chooses not to) afford to spend more than 50 cents on an important symbolic gift. Particularly if it’s accompanied by a promise that ten years from now he’ll have his financial head on straight, but he shows no evidence of moving in that direction.

  50. deRuiter says:

    Q2, British Air is NOTORIOUS for tacking on a “fuel charge” and other “convenience” feest to every so called free ticket. BA is the worst for scamming people this way. I have ff cards with several airlines and none of them ding you the way BA does. I’ve dumped my BA card because of them gouging you for the fuel surcharge. Every airline must charge you the fees on a free ticket, but BA adds the fuel surcharge when all other airlines do not. You will have sticker shock when you try to get your “free” ticket from BA.

  51. Nicole says:

    Re: beer: I wonder if what the OP is getting at is not the cost of the beer, but the value of it. In that case I think the judgmentalism comes in first not on his end or Trent’s end, but on the end of people who think that the beer is better simply by virtue of being more expensive — especially if it’s actually very average beer that has been marked up to match the image of the venue. My dad’s the connoiseur in the family, and I have a feeling that he’d agree that the degree of difference between a five-dollar craft beer and an eight-dollar craft beer is a lot less than between either beer and the cheapest swill available commercially. There are also certain beers he doesn’t buy until, as he puts it, “someone at the store went insane” or got fired and wanted to leave a nice parting gift for the manager. I don’t think those beers taste worse when on sale. To summarize: if you drink eight-dollar beer because that is your favorite and nothing else will do, by all means, go for it. If you’re drinking it to conspicuously blow some money for the perception of status, that’s a different thing…and if that’s the case, appealing to that sense of highbrow superiority might just make them intrigued enough to switch beers (assuming he’d rather not switch friends).

    @ Hannah: I agree about the space, but not the cooking. If I want to have healthful produce on hand and want it to last, it basically has to be frozen; I have tried with fresh ingredients and stuff almost inevitably spoils before I can use it, which is not cheap. But while frozen food can be had for a dollar or two a bag, I have a tiny freezer and can’t fit that much. Unfortunately I cannot just run to the grocery store every day either depending on where I have to be and the logistics of getting around. Eating out is something I have grudgingly grown to accept as an accomodation, and try not to do so extravagantly.

  52. Angela says:

    Q#3 I consider myself a super-couponer. Although I have only seen clips of the Extreme Couponing show, I have read much about it. As in everything in life, there needs to be a balance. What works for one person’s life, may not work for anothers. The other week I bought $48 worth of groceries for only 31 cents although it doesn’t work out that well all the time. I only buy what I know my family can and will use. Having an extra stockpile makes it possible for me to donate things to my kids’ school, our church or anything else that may come up. I love being able to do this. I probably spend two hours a week getting all my coupons together and matching up coupons with deals and sales. It’s a game to me but one that has lots of benefits.

  53. BarbaraB says:

    Q5. My 88 year old dad was lamenting this weekend about not being able to go mushroom hunting since he lost his eyesight. He really misses having a mess of morels fried up for dinner. There’s no way he’d pay the going rate for them.

  54. SLCCOM says:

    Q6: there is an alternative to getting a new apartment where the good job is: rent a room in someone’s house. Better yet, see if you can live with a senior who needs some help around the house in exchange for a room 5 nights a week.

    Don’t quit the good job for a start-up!!!! They go under so fast,and then what? I would consider consulting (for a nice fat fee) for the start-up company and see where it goes from there.

    Pawn shops have nice ring sets that can be easily resized. But no, a ring is not a requirement to get married.

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