Reader Mailbag: Educating a Child

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. Alternatives to Mint
2. Party games
3. Shopping for insurance
4. Cutting your own hair
5. Renting or buying
6. Entertainment by default
7. S-corporation versus LLC
8. Bragging about money
9. Blogging baby steps
10. Using abundance of lettuce

The education of your child begins at home, regardless of where they go to school.

This is particularly true during the summer, as our two oldest children are enjoying their “summer break” right now. A big part of the focus of our summer has been maintaining and building on the things they’ve learned in the past year, with them taking the lead.

Our oldest child enjoys flash cards, as he’s trying to master a large body of sight words to aid in reading. We’ve been making progressively more difficult sets of “sight word” flash cards for him. Almost every evening, you’ll find him spending some time with his stack.

Our middle child is really focused on fine motor skills – grasping a writing utensil, writing clear letters, and drawing identifiable pictures of things. More than anything, this takes practice, so we’ve been encouraging her at every chance to draw a picture or write a letter.

In both cases, the improvement over the summer has been impressive. If you do a side-by-side comparison of where they were at two months ago compared to now, both have shown real improvement in one of their weakest areas. It’s happened because not only have they taken to the activities, but we’ve set things up that they enjoy doing and encouraged them to do them.

Q1: Alternatives to Mint
Can you recommend an alternative to Mint.com for tracking spending, investments, and savings? I love Mint’s feature set but I’ve been stuck in email support limbo for months on a number of bugs on their site that I just can’t stand anymore!

– Connie

The only successful alternative I’ve found to Mint.com is Yodlee Money Center, which matches many of the features of Mint.

There have been several alternatives over the years that I felt did a very good job, but couldn’t compete with the inertia that Mint.com had. My personal favorite was Wesabe, which is unfortunately now defunct.

Mint does some things very well. However, I don’t use them. I don’t feel they bring enough usefulness to the plate to overcome my concerns about information security. It’s not that they have a poor policy. I just that I don’t feel good sharing my personal information with anyone unless I’m getting significant value out of the trade.

Q2: Party games
Do you have any suggestions for board or card games that work well with large groups of people? We’re going to be hosting a family reunion and plan to have some board games there, but we’d love to have a few that would work well to get large groups of relatives involved.

– Amanda

If I’m playing games with a large group (more than ten people), I usually think of one game – The Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow.

It’s essentially a group deduction game where you’re trying to figure out which people in the group are the werewolves and which ones are not. Everyone gets a secret card telling them whether they’re a werewolf or not, and then the game proceeds during “day” and “night” rounds. During the “day” rounds, clues are revealed as to who the werewolves are. During the “night” rounds, one of the villagers is eaten by the werewolves and removed from the game.

I really enjoy this one. It can work with a very large group and it’s simple enough that anyone can learn it. It usually ends up being a pretty fun and unique experience.

Q3: Shopping for insurance
My husband and I have been married for 3 years and have a 1 and 1/2 year old son. We’re trying to reduce our expenses so that I can work fewer hours and spend more time at home with our son. One of the bills we’re looking at is our car insurance. We have an expensive plan with State Farm. We have never done any price comparisons so I’m planning to shop around. My husband, however, is very nervous about going with “cheap” car insurance. When he was a teenager, he nodded off at the wheel on a long drive, ran off the road, flipped the car, and one of his passengers (his friend) was injured. My husband was covered under his parents’ insurance at the time and it covered everything but left some emotional scars. He is now, of course, much older and wiser and more responsible, but he also knows that accidents happen. Any advice for choosing car insurance that will help him feel safe but also fits in our budget? Any other suggestions to keep insurance costs down? We drive older, safe cars (2000 Silverado, 2005 Highlander) and we both have clean driving records. We also own a home – we hear a lot of commercials about “bundling” home and car insurance for more savings…is this wise? Where do we begin?!? Many of the big companies claim they give you the competitor’s pricing, too. Can I rely on that or do I have to call ALL of them?

– Shawn

My experience with insurance offering “competitor pricing” is that they don’t compare the price of the exact same plan with other competitors.

Most insurance companies do not offer exact duplicates of the plans offered by others. There are usually lots of variations and packages and the like.

When a company does “comparison pricing,” they are indeed showing you the price of a competitor’s package that includes every feature you’re wanting, but often that competitor’s package is one that’s not an exact duplicate of what you’re looking at. The big reason is that Progressive asks you questions that let them very accurately determine exactly how much to offer you for your insurance, but because they don’t have the actuarial formulas for the other companies, they can only offer estimates of what the other companies would offer (and it makes sense that those estimates would be on the high end). There’s nothing at all wrong with what Progressive is doing – in fact, I’d say they’re doing the best they can with what they know.

If you truly want to get all of the prices, you should shop around.

Q4: Cutting your own hair
I can’t understand how you cut your own hair and make it look decent at all. How do you keep it even in the back? How do you trim neck hair? How do you have any styling that’s not just the same length everywhere?

– John

Mirrors, mostly. I stand in front of a bathroom mirror and use a handheld mirror to examine the back of my neck to ensure that I can trim things well back there.

As for even trimming, clippers do that very well. Just keep running them over the same areas and you’ll get the effect you want. I usually clipper the sides a bit shorter than the top and use a “fade” brush to cover the uneven area between the two.

It looks fine, in the end. It takes a little time, especially at first, but it’s worth it to do hair cuts at your convenience for pretty much no cost.

Q5: Renting or buying
My husband is in the Navy and he recently got a change of duty station and we will be moving to Key West shortly. For a rental we can expect to pay about $3,000 a month. We know my husband will be there for 3 years and then we will have to move again. At the end of 36 months in rent we would have paid $108,000. This seems like a ton! With interest rates so low we would be able to get a lower monthly mortgage if we purchased a home in the price range of $400,000 and would only pay about $1900 a month. Are we better off renting for 3 years or buying a house? We know for sure we will only be there 3 years so we would need to sell at the end of 3 years, but it seems lie with renting we are just wasting our money when we could be putting it into equality for a home.

– Jeanine

My usual rule of thumb is that you should look at the monthly costs of renting or buying and go for the one that’s lower. Sometimes, that’s renting. Other times, that’s buying.

In your estimate, there’s an $1,100 difference, and that’s probably enough. However, you need to also consider property taxes (which will add up to a significant amount, especially in a state with no income tax), homeowners insurance, and any homeowners association fees. You’ll also be responsible for your own home repairs and improvements, which would likely be covered in a rental.

My gut says that it would end up being pretty close. In that case, I’d probably lean towards buying, because you’re building some equity that way.

Q6: Entertainment by default
My wife and I have a theory that people tend to have what we call a “default entertainment” that they use to fill their time when they don’t have anything else urgent to do. For many people, it’s television, but it can be any number of things.

I think that one big way for people to be frugal is to have a “default entertainment” that doesn’t cost anything or costs very little. That way, when you fill your empty time, you do it with something that isn’t going to put you in a hole.
– Gerald

I actually agree with this quite a bit.

For me, I have two hobbies that fill my empty time: reading and playing games. If I have unused time for self-entertainment, those are the options I choose. Television is not one of them.

Reading and non-electronic gaming require very little energy at all. I can read in any room with a tiny LED light that uses less than a watt of energy. With board games or card games, I do need some lighting in the room, but that’s really the only expense. In both cases, there is an initial purchase, but no upkeep costs for a book or a board game (though there is a small upkeep cost for lighting).

With television, you have the initial cost of the television purchase (and perhaps a DVD player purchase, too). Most people also subscribe to a cable or satellite package. Thus, there’s the very high initial cost (a TV and a DVD player costs more than a book or a board game or a deck of cards) and the rather high upkeep cost (television programming, plus powering the television, DVD player, and cable box).

My philosophy is to go cheap on entertainments that aren’t your default. Sarah’s default is usually television (she watches more programs than I do), so we keep the service around for that reason. Without Sarah, I would happily remove cable service and likely remove the television as well.

Q7: S-corporation versus LLC
I am curious why you would choose a S-corporation over an LLC? I am starting my own business in the Fall, an afterschool program and I am required to carry insurance because I deal with students after school without the support of the school nurse. I was told to start an LLC and shop around for insurance. Any advice would be greatly appreciated since I am in the process of starting to advertise my services.

– Charlie

This article spells out the differences between LLCs and S-corporations pretty well.

They are actually pretty similar, but there are some advantages to each type. The biggest reason I usually suggest the S-corporation is that it usually results in a better tax situation than the LLC. As the linked article puts it:

S corporations may have preferable self-employment taxes compared to the LLC because the owner can be treated as an employee and paid a reasonable salary. FICA taxes are withheld and paid on that amount. Corporate earnings after payment of the salary may be able to be treated as unearned income that is not subject to self-employment taxes. For more information and whether this might apply to your particular situation, please contact your accountant or tax adviser.

If you plan things ahead of time, the tax rules on an S-corporation can save you some tax money. Given that most of the other features of the two are pretty similar, I would choose an S-corporation by default because of this unless there are specific reasons not to.

Q8: Bragging about money
My older brother loves to brag about how much money he makes and all of the stuff he owns. It gets really old. How can I tell him how to stop talking about it without causing more problems? We’re frugal people and someone bragging about their three new cars is rather grating.

– Angie

This seems like an obnoxious behavior.

If I were in your shoes, I’d take your brother aside and say that you’re really proud and impressed with his achievements, but that telling everyone about them all the time tends to undermine them and makes his personality less likeable. Suggest that he might see more success if he cools it on bragging about his current success, as that bragging can easily grate people and drive them away.

After that, I suggest just changing the subject quickly if it comes up and maybe giving him one of those “raised eyebrow” looks that siblings can pull off. (I’ve seen my wife and her sisters pull off a lot of communication with just a glance and a facial expression twitch.)

Q9: Blogging baby steps
Here is to hoping you have a suggestion for an adult student, age 38, finishing up college. As an an English major with very good writing skills, what side jobs are available? I would love to edit others peoples’ writing for a few sheckles. I see opportunities for my services all the time, but cannot think of a ways to approach said opportunities. Ex: a letter to a homeowner’s association that was in desperate need of an editor. Oy. With all of my studies, I do not have the time to develop the huge network and I imagine this type of work involves. I plan to start blogging to increase my web presence. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

– Annie

One approach I would take is to make sure you’re involved and available where editors are hired. The first place I would stop is a site called Media Bistro.

You should also keep your eyes on Craigslist, as there are sometimes posts there for people seeking editors.

Blogging will help with an online presence, but it won’t bring clients straight to your door. You should combine it with social media interaction with people, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Q10: Using abundance of lettuce
Most years, I plant a lot of lettuce because it never seems to grow very well. Whether it’s rabbits or what, about 80% of my lettuce never seems to make it to harvest.

This year, all of it lived, which is great. The problem is that now we have absurd amounts of lettuce. What can we do with this stuff before it spoils?
– Colleen

The first thing you need to do is give your lettuce the longest life possible after harvesting it. The second you get it in the house, separate the leaves and rinse or soak them in water to remove all dirt and pesticides, and then dry them thoroughly. You can use a towel to dry them, but a “salad spinner” also works. You can also make a “homemade” salad spinner by putting a bunch of the lettuce in a mesh bag, taking it outside, and twirling it until all of the water comes out. When you’ve done that, wrap the lettuce in paper towels or dry handtowels and store it in the fridge.

As for using it, there are a lot of things to try. Lettuce is great on most types of sandwiches and can form the backbone of salads.

However, when I was growing up, the most common way of eating lettuce was to serve it as a side dish in the form of wilted lettuce. Essentially, you just make a hot dressing out of some sort of fat – bacon drippings are often used, but you can use the oil and droppings from other things you cook – and pour that hot dressing onto the lettuce, wilting it.

I’ve heard good things about braised lettuce, too, but I’ve never tried it.

If you still have excess lettuce, I would give some away or trade it with neighbors and friends that have gardens. My wife has traded harvests with friends and neighbors many times (watermelons for pumpkins recently, for example).

There isn’t a good long-term way to store lettuce that I’ve found, but there are certainly a lot of uses for it.

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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