Reader Mailbag: Friends After School

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. Alternative sources for student loans
2. Early writings
3. Reusing packing materials
4. Is newspaper gift wrap okay?
5. It won’t sell on Craigslist!
6. Home equity for credit cards?
7. Savings bond question
8. Protections against wallet loss
9. Financial traps in America
10. Store credit cards

On a typical day, my two oldest children arrive home off of the school bus at 3:30. I usually try to greet them at the door and give them a snack and talk to them about their day, and many days we engage in some kind of project together. (About once every two weeks or so, I hear them come in the door and realize I didn’t set my phone alarm to remind me as I was in the middle of writing.)

Anyway, every once in a while, one of them has a friend over for the afternoon, usually sticking around through supper. Those are the interesting days, because I usually try to think of a project for everyone to do or a game for them to play.

For example, two days ago, my oldest son had a friend visiting for several hours after school. The four of us (me, my son, my son’s friend, and my daughter) sat around making paper snowflakes for perhaps half of the time that the friend was visiting, with most of the rest of the time filled with meal prep and dinnertime.

I’ve found that, again and again, everything goes better if I can get everyone engaged in a project. If you find yourself watching several children by yourself, try to channel them into a project – everything goes much more smoothly if they’re all working on something.

Q1: Alternative sources for student loans
Do you have advice regarding where to look other than Sallie Mae or the Student Loan website ran by the government for tips regarding repayment arrangements, legitimate companies that can facilitate affordable repayment arrangements, etc. I am trying to see what all of the options are when it comes to repaying student loans. I have no objection to paying them back, but it should not be unreasonable to ask that I should be able to afford the loan payments and continue paying my other bills like rent, lights, car note, etc.

Any advice/tips are appreciated. If there are any reputable agencies that help people set up affordable payable arrangements that someone can point me in the direction of, that advice would be greatly appreciated also. I was already told by Sallie Mae to contact the student loan govt. website for income based payment arrangements, but I want to have some other options in the event they decide that they want me to pay more than I can rightly afford.
- Ronald

First of all, there are quite a few loan servicers besides Sallie Mae if you’re having a bad experience with them – here’s a partial list. Many banks and credit unions also deal with student loans as well, particularly larger ones.

From your description, it sounds like you need a loan consolidation of some kind so that you can get your monthly payments under control. Most student loan consolidations set you up with a new ten year loan that encompasses all of your existing loans (essentially, the new loan pays off all of the old ones, then you just owe the new one). This almost always results in a lower monthly payment.

My honest suggestion for a place to start would be with credit unions in your area. Stop into a few of them and see what solutions they can provide for you. If they can’t help, they’ll usually provide pointers for where you can go next in your journey. Good luck!

Q2: Early writings
You have said before that you had many failed blogs before The Simple Dollar. What were they and why did they fail? I’d really enjoy reading your other writings.

- Joan

I had several. I had a short story blog where I was pushing myself to write a 1,000 word short story every day. I then had a book review blog where I wrote two or three book reviews a week. I also wrote a video game blog for a while. All of them were slowly building an audience, but I struggled to come up with consistent content.

My most successful material before The Simple Dollar was a parenting blog I started in 2005. I started writing it just before our first child was due and kept up with it until he was about six months old and it was starting to build a nice audience (smaller than the one for The Simple Dollar, but large enough that I was very happy with it). I stopped writing it because there were some people stealing some of the content and using it in a way I found really uncomfortable, and I’ve avoided situations like that with The Simple Dollar.

Honestly, I miss the book review blog and the short story blog the most, but with my commitments to The Simple Dollar and other writing agreements, I simply don’t have time to give them the focus they would need.

Q3: Reusing packing materials
I work in a large medical facility, a laboratory that takes up a full city block. In other words, it’s huge ! We waste so much in our lives, both personal and professional; it’s good to stop sometimes, and just think…. things frequently disposed of here that I reuse include: packing supplies such as bubble wrap, inner packing boxes w/out labels make for good gift boxes ( all this is very clean, by the way- no “cooties”), large, clean plastic bags that hold smaller objects in them( these make for great trash can liners, I haven’t bought garbage bags in years), small foam rubber sponges that hold little glass vials( again, clean !), I use them to clean countertops, etc. and sometimes bring them to an animal rescue that I volunteer at to clean kennels. When I saw sponges at the local Big Lots store sell for approx. $1.00 each, I was surprised, that’s rather expensive!

- Jenny

While reusing packaging is fine, I would be hesitant to use those sponges for cleaning areas where food would be handled. They’re not made to be food grade and are likely leaving behind some chemicals you wouldn’t want to ingest. I’d happily use them when washing a car or a garage surface, just not a dinner table.

That being said, reusing packaging is almost always a great idea. This is a great time of year to reuse boxes, too, as many gifts are easiest wrapped if you put them in a box first before wrapping them as it is much easier to wrap a box than a shirt or an oddly-shaped item.

Just be careful what you use around food or places where you serve food.

Q4: Is newspaper gift wrap okay?
I was at the store and I couldn’t believe the prices on wrapping paper. It seems dumb to spend $10 on paper that’s just going to be torn up. Is it okay to just use newspaper instead?

- Jeremy

I personally don’t care what gifts are wrapped in. I’ve received gifts “wrapped” in plastic Target bags before. I look at it like you do – it’s just wrapping that’s going to be discarded.

Having said that, some people will probably think it’s “cheap.” If that bothers you, then buy the wrapping paper. It doesn’t really bother me.

Since we don’t currently subscribe to a newspaper, our solution for wrapping paper is to buy it on or about December 27th, when stores have their wrapping paper stock on steep discount. We buy enough to cover the next year (at least) and it’s usually quite cheap.

Q5: It won’t sell on Craigslist!
What do you do with stuff that won’t sell on Craigslist? I posted a video game collection on there several times and I never get a call. I don’t want to sell it on ebay because of the scammers.

- Sam

The problem is likely that your price is too high for what you’re selling.

If you’re selling a big lot of games all at once, you’ve got to expect that the people looking at it are not going to want all of the games you’re selling. They may want some, but they may already own some in your collection. You’re going to have to offer bundle pricing on the lot to sell it.

If you’re selling them individually, you’ve got to undercut used game sellers in your area at the bare minimum. If someone can just go to GameStop and get the game for the price you’re using, they’ll probably go with GameStop because they’re an established business and they can bring the game back if there’s a problem.

Almost always, if items don’t sell on Craigslist, the pricing is the problem.

Q6: Home equity for credit cards?
We purchased our home last year, September 2012. We have about 36,000 in credit card debt. In your opinion do you think it would be a good idea to take out a mortgage this early to have one or bi- monthly payments to pay off the debt? I was curious what your thoughts were on this.

- Janice

I’m assuming that you’re considering a home equity loan here to pay off your credit card debts.

For me, the only question that matters is whether or not you’re still accumulating credit card debt. If you are, you’re spending in an unsustainable way and it really doesn’t matter what you do because debt is going to keep suffocating you. You have to live within your means, period.

If you are not adding to that balance and haven’t done so for a while – at least several months – consolidating all of that debt with a home equity loan is a reasonable choice. It drastically lowers your interest rate which can help enormously.

However, it’s all pointless if you’re still racking up debt and, with that much credit card debt, you guys clearly have a history of doing that. If you’re still adding to the debt, it doesn’t matter what you do.

Q7: Savings bond question
My mother-in-law gives our two sons savings bonds each year. We were saving them for education but I researched them a little and they really aren’t earning very much. Does it make sense to cash them now and put the money into a 529?

- Denise

If your children are young – under eight or so – I would make this move. If the children are that young, then most their bonds are likely locked in to a pretty poor savings rate, plus you’ve got more than ten years before they head off to school, which means you can be more aggressive with their college savings (at least for a while).

Cashing a small handful of savings bonds won’t generate much taxes, so I wouldn’t worry too much about that.

What if they’re older? If they’re nearing college age and these bonds are EE or I bonds (likely, they are), I’d just use them all during the first semester of their college experience. It’s probably not worth it to make the switch, even though they’re not returning really well.

Q8: Protections against wallet loss
My husband seems to lose his wallet on a really regular basis. He’s lost it each year that we’ve been married (four years). He’s just forgetful about it for some reason.

My worry is identity theft. What can I do to minimize the risk of identity theft from his wallet issues?
- Terri

You should make an inventory of his wallet contents and update it whenever he replaces or adds a card.

Don’t worry about things like customer rewards cards. You want to worry about things like a driver’s license, credit cards, insurance cards, and so on. Make an inventory of all of that stuff.

You should probably keep the phone numbers for each credit card on your inventory so that you can call them to cancel the card if he loses his wallet again. You might also want your insurance number so you can request a new insurance card.

Q9: Financial traps in America
My husband is moving his company to US (San Francisco) soon, which means we (him, me and almost 2 year old) will be moving over for at least a few years. Neither of us are American.

Do you or your readers have any suggestions for getting settled without getting caught in financial traps? Particularly bank accounts and the like. His company has rented a flat through AirBnB so we have a little breathing room for accommodation, but with no US history of any kind (credit, renting etc) I’m expecting some challenges.
- Linda

I’m assuming your stay in the flat is a short one while you find permanent housing.

In your situation, I would highly recommend that your husband ask for some assistance in his new workplace. Not only will an experienced hand with the San Francisco area be able to help you on the specifics far more than I will, it will also provide a great chance to start building strong workplace connections. Make dinner for this helper a few times to thank this person for his/her help to help cement that bond.

One good guide to start with is the personal finance guide from WelcomeToUSA.gov.

Q10: Store credit cards
Whenever my wife shops at a store and she hasn’t done so yet, she signs up for the store credit card to save on that purchase and, if their program allows it, save on future purchases there. She actually has a box with all of her credit cards in it and she will go through them before she shops. This makes me uncomfortable because her identity is out there in so many places. Should I encourage her to cancel some of them?

- Ed

In a word, yes. It’s probably not healthy for her credit to have so many open lines of credit and she has a lot of open windows for identity theft.

I would suggest that she cancel any cards connected with retailers she hasn’t used in the last several months, along with cards from retailers that don’t offer any rewards for using the card. Those cards are essentially useless and increase identity theft chances without providing benefits.

This should eliminate a lot of the cards without disrupting her routines very much. You may find that you have a fight on your hands if you cut back any more than that, as people generally don’t like to change their routines, but even those steps should reduce her identity theft risk without getting rid of any cards that are actually useful to her.

Got any questions? The best way to ask is to email me – trent at thesimpledollar dot com. IĆ­ll 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 many, many questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

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