Reader Mailbag: Fall Camping

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. Dr. Bronner’s castille soap
2. Food magazine storage
3. Card for annual cruise
4. Handling parents with newborn
5. Early retirement and Social Security
6. Gifts without guilt
7. Not paying attention to advertising
8. Overuse of toilet paper
9. Windfall and debt
10. Distractions while working at home

As much fun as camping in the summer is, I actually prefer fall camping.

I love cool nights where you really want to get cozy underneath your sleeping bag. I love having some chill in the air as you gather around the campfire. I love the warmth of a hearty campfire meal on a cool evening, or a hot breakfast on a cool morning. I love the moderate warmth of an autumn day spent walking on trails and admiring the fall colors.

We’re going to be camping multiple times this fall, and I can’t wait.

Q1: Dr. Bronner’s castille soap
Does Dr. Bronner’s Castile soap actually save you money if you used it for a variety of household things? Even though its versatile, it can also be pricy.

- Shanda

Castile soap is convenient, versatile, environmentally friendly, has a wonderful lather, and makes for a great all-purpose cleaner.

However, most of the brands of castile soap you find in the store are expensive enough that they don’t save money compared to other products in a per-use comparison.

I’ll buy castile soap if I find it on sale, but I don’t view it as a big bargain. Is the convenience and environmental friendliness worth the extra cost? I think it really depends on the person.

Q2: Food magazine storage
Like some of your other readers, my wife and mother both love collecting food magazines. They save them in their closets, but after a decade or two, these old issues really build up.

How do you store your food magazines? You’ve mentioned subscribing to some before. Do you save old issues? What do you do with them?
- Jerry

For our old food magazines, I generally just remove the recipes that I think we’ll ever use again and make a digital archive of them with a document scanner. Then, I toss all of it.

The end result of this is that we have a folder full of searchable PDF files that include the recipes we actually want from older cooking magazines. There’s no physical space devoted to the magazines, just digital space.

The best reason, for me, is that they’re all searchable. I can just search the directory for the terms I’m interested in and find ones that match very quickly.

Q3: Card for annual cruise
Every year we take our grown children and our grandchildren (total of 14) on a cruise. We have a Carnival cc which we charge all of our bills on and pay off every month. We earn 1 pt for every dollar and then redeem those for a cruise. For instance, this year we had charged $60,000 and that gave us a $600 credit (not much but helpful). Can you recommend another card that we could still use for a cruise but would have better benefits?

- Diana

There probably aren’t cards you can directly transfer to a cruise for more credit. Instead, I’d suggest a card that saves you more money on things you already do, then save the difference.

Let’s say, for example, you do your regular shopping at Target and buy your gas at BP. If you get the store cards at each of those stores, you’ll save at least 5% on your purchases at those retailers. Keep track of how much you’re saving over the course of a year and it will far exceed the 1% you get for your cruise.

The trick, of course, is to not just spend that savings on other things throughout the year. If I were you, I’d save receipts and each time I saved money using one of those cards, I’d transfer the savings from the checking to the savings account. That way, you actually have that money on hand to pay for the cruise.

Q4: Handling parents with newborn
My wife and I are about to have our first son. Both of our mothers are hinting strongly that they want to visit us to “help” during the first few weeks, but we simply don’t want to take on the burden of having a houseguest while we’re dealing with establishing our new lives with a baby. What should we do?

- John

We had this situation ourselves, particularly with our first child. We simply told both of our mothers that we welcomed a short visit – one to two days – from each of them.

While they were there, we put them to work. They made freezer meals for us. They went on trips to the grocery store. They watched the baby while we were able to have a dinner out, just the two of us.

We kept them so busy with requests that they didn’t have time for the usual expectations of being hosted – and they were both actually thrilled with that. That’s why they wanted to visit.

By keeping the trips short, we didn’t get overwhelmed with guests and had time to ourselves. They also helped us take care of a lot of things during those harried first few weeks.

Q5: Early retirement and Social Security
Early Retirement: I actually haven’t seen anyone mention what I think is a very important consideration to stopping work early, aka early retirement.

If a person stops working 10-15 years before their full retirement age, they will find that their projected future Social Security benefits will dwindle away to almost nothing in that period of time. It is based on a 35-year work window, but subtracting years from the end of the picture is catastrophic.

So, if someone is using their current data, that annual report SSA sends you, and fails to read that very small print that says this projection is based on you continuing to work at your current salary until full retirement age, they may be in for a very ugly surprise if they are counting on that money in the future as income to offset continuing inflation of the basics of life.

I personally think Social Security will be there in the future, at a reduced amount (more than 25% less), but it may not be there at all for the individual who stops work too early – that of course could effect Medicare – how much of the Medicare cost you would have to pay for yourself would be another concern as it normally would be subtracted from your Social Security benefits before you received the remainder in hand (minus taxes – yes, you get taxed on Social Security at this time).
- Bill

The assumption generally is that if you’re financially able to retire much earlier than Social Security benefits kick in, you don’t really need those benefits too much.

It makes sense to me, actually. Why should the government give benefits to people who can clearly handle retirement already? It just taps an already overtaxed system.

I agree with you on the future of Social Security. I think it will exist, but I think benefits will eventually have to be cut. It’s probably Generation Y and the millennials (basically myself and people younger than me) who will wind up getting the raw deal out of it.

Q6: Gifts without guilt
Several years ago, I cashed out of an internet business that I started with three friends. I have enough money in the bank that I never have to work again nor does anyone in my immediate family and we can live very well.

I’m rather quiet about the money that I have because I don’t want it to cause rifts in the extended family. However, there are times when I really want to help out some of my family – particularly nieces and nephews – with their challenges. I would love to pay for my niece’s graduate school, for example, and I’d happily give my nephew seed money for the restaurant he’d like to start.

The problem is I can’t do this without causing problems with other members of the extended family. It’s all really bothering me lately. Do you have any ideas on how I can make this all work?
- Eric

If someone in your family is self-centered enough to get angry with you for giving a relative a gift to help them out in life, then you’re going to have a very difficult time maintaining a great relationship with that person anyway.

Honestly, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Help the people you care about and who could really use your help. If there are “consequences,” those consequences are coming from people that you shouldn’t allow to have much influence in your life.

I have given gifts to friends and relatives in the past. I really don’t care if it makes others angry about it. I have too many other things to focus on in my life than such pettiness.

Q7: Not paying attention to advertising
On the issue of advertising – I have just trained myself over the years not to pay attention to ads. In magazines I just skip right over them without even focusing on them more than it takes to see that it is an ad not an article. I have cancelled all catalogs that are not absolutely essential (use Catalog Choice to opt out). I sort through my mail and don’t even read or open advertising mail and when a commercial comes on TV, I get up and do a few minutes of housework – you would be surprised how much you can get done in little snippets, i.e. unloading the dishwasher, dusting etc. I agree with you – advertising is everywhere but I just don’t see it. I answer surveys online for extra money and it always cracks me up that I have no idea of brands when they ask you what advertising you have seen in the past month.

- Julie

You’re focused entirely on one form of marketing. There are much more pernicious forms out there.

In most magazines and newspapers, there is a ton of product placement and name-dropping right in the articles themselves. Articles are sometimes barely changed from the PR releases of major companies.

On television, almost every series is loaded with product placement, with items used by the characters or carefully positioned to show up in the camera shot.

All they want to do is get an image or a word or an idea in your head, and they’re pretty good at it. Tossing catalogs and ignoring newspaper ads is just the tip of it.

Q8: Overuse of toilet paper
My husband uses absurd amounts of toilet paper in the bathroom whenever he uses it. He has used as much as a fourth of a roll of toilet paper at once. I’ve told him countless times that it’s a waste of money, but he just says it’s worth it so he feels clean. How much is this costing us?

- Kelly

It depends on how much a roll of toilet paper is costing you. Amazon lists prices from around $0.50 per roll, for example. If that’s what you’re paying, then it’s costing you about $0.12 for those sessions.

Even though it’s not really that expensive, it is wasteful. There’s really not much of a reason to use that much paper.

However, if it’s something that is deeply important to him, it’s not breaking your bank.

Q9: Windfall and debt
I just found out that I have $5,000 coming my way in a few weeks, and I am trying to figure out what to do with it. I currently owe the same amount on a judgment, and wasn’t sure if I should pay that off, or make monthly payments of $500. The old debt is interest free, and will still be on my credit report even if I did pay it all off. So, what I need is some help figuring out what to do with this cash. I would like to save it and possibly invest a bit, but I don’t know where to put it that would offer me easy access in case of an emergency, but still also provide me with a return. I have also been considering starting a business, preferably one with low start up costs (I have several in mind, but don’t know how to go about that, either.) Any advice or insight you might be able to provide would be very much appreciated.

- Monica

If the old debt is interest free, I’d just open up an online checking account that pays interest somewhere, like ING Direct, and deposit the $5,000 there.

Once the money is in the account, I’d set up an automatic bill pay that pays $500 every month for the next ten months. Then, I’d forget entirely about that account for the next ten months.

At the end of that period, you should have $10 or $15 left in the account (given current interest rates). Transfer that to your current checking and move on with life.

Q10: Distractions while working at home
How do you work at home without endless distractions? I’ve started telecommuting two days a week, but on those days it feels like I can’t concentrate and can’t get anything done. There are too many things drawing my attention away at home!

- Tessa

I have a special place where I work where distractions are pretty minimal. I just close the door, turn off all phones, and dig in for a lengthy session.

If I find myself unable to be productive, I get up and do something else for a while.

For me, having a place that is the place where I work helps me a lot in keeping focused. If I didn’t have that, I would probably be rather unproductive, too.

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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