Reader Mailbag: Grilled Fish

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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. Settling with creditors
2. Hunting for sustenance
3. Turning finance passion into job
4. Primerica opportunity
5. Electric toothbrush worth it?
6. Disappointed with emergency fund
7. Website for task management
8. Cutting back on sugary drinks
9. Board game with willing friends
10. Making big to-do list

Few things are better on a pleasant late summer evening than a meal of grilled fish and grilled vegetables prepared and eaten outside. The smells, the sounds, the warm air and sunlight on your skin…

This is what summer is all about.

Q1: Settling with creditors
I am 54, divorced, was a stay at home mom/volunteer & scout leader/PTO president to a fairly high income wage earner …divorce occured with one in college and one in high school. I was unable to afford an attorney, he had a litigation attorney and claimed he was fired (4 times in divorce). Long story short – he got all the 401K and cash, I got the house and kids – this was early 2006. The house appraised high, I intended to keep it long enough to get my daughter thru highschool/first year of college with a semblance of stability and sell. Well – first the X never paid his share of college (65 % and I spent $4000 in litigation and finally gave up trying to force it) and the house value/market fell. So I attempted to stay for too long in a place that gave emotional security but was a financial drain (fairly affluent suburb, safe, outside of Chicago).

Meanwhile, I was working as a realtor which means the rather nice (80K) I earned the first year plummeted as well. Long story short:After floundering with real estate and making cash but not enough to live on selling my furniture (I painted/refinished first – fun and profitable but not for a living wage), cooking, writing, etc I decided to pursue my long postponed dream of becoming a lawyer to help the poor (yes, having been my own attorney in divorce was part of this).

Ironically, if I had not been flat broke and eligible for aid, and was earning income, this would not make sense but I made $5000 in 2010, so it seemed as logical as any other and yes, I kept job hunting up to the day classes started. Before starting: I finally sold last year, when my second child graduated from college but had maxed out an equity line that I lived on. I paid of the two mortgages and some bills. However, I was 3 months behind and that kept me from getting a loan for law school. The funds to pay off a credit card debt of $5500 and another of $12000 was used for law/living. (The student loans are not ideal either but since I will do public service law, there is a repayment plan with my school that covers 80% of the loan in 5 years).

The issue: The larger debt – American Experss, gave me 0% and a low payment option the day I called. I am still in good standing on this (no charges allowed fine with me). The other, Discover, made promises but kept pursing me instead. They sent a letter last week stating they are willing to negotiate – well actually its from a third party. They also claim that its $8300 with late fees, etc.

Questions: Settling is best – and better than letting it hang but I don’t have an income (summer grant for policy work, but no meat on the bone after rent/food). What is a reasonable amount to offer (they want me to offer first)? What about other issues: can and should I ask how this gets reported to credit agencies? Should I even care about that and focus on amount? I have a friend who would loan a portion of this to me for interest or sweat equity (consulting/bookkeeping for his business) – but that could be another problem.

First, though, is figuring out how to get this settled: Can I expect a lower amount and a payment plan? or one or the other? Does my “story” help or do they only care about money? What information do I share with them? Should it matter that its a third party and if so, do I attempt to work with Discover instead? It says “forwarded” not sold.
- Connie

When your debt is in the hands of a collection agency, which seems to be the case here, their prime motivation is to make a profit on your debt. Most likely, they purchased your debt from Discover at a low rate. In other words, they paid Discover some amount to take over the debt.

Their goal, then, is to get you to pay them more than whatever they paid Discover. Their primary tools in this battle are harassment by mail and phone and the continued pressure of the big negative mark on your credit report. That negative mark does ease over time, though, and goes away completely after seven years.

Most negotiators prefer it if the other side makes the first offer so they can assess where you’re at. The best response to that in a situation like this is to lowball them. Make them a very low offer and state that you can’t pay more than that. How little is up to you, but I’d start at the 20-30% mark. You can also negotiate how this gets reported, and you’ll also want to make sure you get a receipt.

This is a great collection of tips for negotiating with collection agencies.

Q2: Hunting for sustenance
What do you think of hunting for wild game in order to provide food for my family? Is it a frugal thing?

- Jamie

Provided it’s during an approved hunting season and you’re following all of the rules and regulations of the DNR in your state, it’s really up to you and your personal ethics. You can argue all day long about the ethical issues for and against hunting – they’re outlined well here. I grew up in a community where hunting white-tail deer was pretty much a way of life for most men and many women, but I also understand the ethical issues against it. I’m going to be the last person to tell you whether it’s right or wrong – that’s something you’re going to have to decide for yourself.

From my experience, hunting rarely recoups the investment put into it. There are situations where one can make a great return on it, but it involves borrowing all equipment from a friend and being placed in a perfect situation for hunting. The investment in gear, preparation, materials, and the cultural elements of hunting always seems to far exceed the value from the actual product of the hunt.

Having said that, hunting is very much a cultural and social thing. For a lot of people, it’s an enormous social event and a way to connect socially with other hunters. There is great value in that, particularly for people who are part of that culture.

As for me, I’d rather just stick to wandering the woods foraging for mushrooms. That’s more in tune with my diet and my desire to invest in harvesting food from the wild.

Q3: Turning finance passion into job
I have recently learned I have a huge passion for helping and educating people about finances. The reason I am writing you is that I am trying to find a way to turn this passion into a job. Ideally I would love to have an office where I charge a fee to do financial counseling rather than making comission off a product. So my first question is how do I go about getting started on the road to do something like this and what kind of education would I need or how would I build clientele etc…..

- Joel

It really depends on what you want to do here. Typically, personal finance advisors have a bachelors degree in a field related to finance – finance itself, accounting, economics, mathematics, or something similar. Many hold masters degrees or higher in these fields, though that’s not really required.

Most states require that personal finance advisors hold a license of some kind before beginning to practice. Which licenses you need depends on what exactly you intend to do. Much of the time, when a person wants to become a financial advisor, they tend to work for a larger investment house in their state and that firm helps them get their licenses straight. Quite often, independent advisors started off with a firm, though that’s not always true.

Technically, if you want to throw your shingle out there as a financial advisor, the minimum amount you’d have to do is to figure out what licenses you need in your state and pass the qualifying exams for those licenses. However, you’d find yourself in a situation where you’d really have to work your tail off to find clients because you wouldn’t have a relevant degree to show off, a connection to a large investment house, or additional certifications.

Joel has a follow-up question.

Q4: Primerica opportunity
My second question is that there is a possible opportunity for me to work with someone for Primerica. I respect this person and it seems like this would be a great opportunity that aligns with what I want to do (comissions aside). What do you think of Primerica and this opportunity for me?

- Joel

I am flooded with questions about Primerica and other network marketing businesses (Amway, Scentsy, AdvoCare, Mary Kay, Avon, etc.).

Network marketing (or MLM) is a pyramid-like structure where portions of sales proceeds go to the person who signed you up to be a salesperson in the program. Primerica’s product is financial products like mutual funds and insurance. Pampered Chef uses almost the same structure to sell kitchen goods. AdvoCare uses the same model to sell health products.

In my opinion, if someone is a good enough salesperson and recruiter to make a lot of money in a network marketing business, then they have the skills to make a ton of money in other businesses.

Q5: Electric toothbrush worth it?
Does an electric toothbrush provide enough value to be worth the cost? Does it actually clean your teeth better than the free toothbrush?

- Karen

Regular brushing and flossing do a very good job of keeping your mouth clean. The only advantage an electric toothbrush has is that it makes the job of brushing your teeth well a bit easier, as it handles some of the rhythmic motion for you.

I look at it this way: am I willing to learn how to brush my teeth properly? This video summarizes it well. If you’re actually doing this, then an electric toothbrush offers very little advantage. The problem is that few people actually brush their teeth correctly with a normal toothbrush, and an electric toothbrush makes up for poor technique.

It’s more cost-effective to learn how to brush correctly than to invest in an electric toothbrush.

Q6: Disappointed with emergency fund
Based on suggestions from you and Dave Ramsey and others, I’ve been trying to build an emergency fund equal to two months of living expenses. The problem is that I never seem to get there. Something always happens that eats up the money. This seems like an impossible goal. How does one ever even get there?

- Monica

You’re doing it right already.

An emergency fund is a pot of money that sits there to help you in case you have an emergency of some kind. It prevents you from having to go into debt to deal with an unexpected event.

That’s exactly what your emergency fund is doing right now.

You never complete an emergency fund. All you have is a dollar amount that, if you manage to reach it, you can start contributing more to other things for a while. Eventually, you’ll dip into your emergency fund, at which point you’ll go back to contributing to that fund again.

You’re already doing things exactly right. Don’t change a thing.

Q7: Website for task management
You mentioned once on TSD a website you use for organizing and keeping track of tasks. Is that correct? If so, could you remind me which website it is?

- Kevin

I’ve actually used several websites over the years for this, but I almost always eventually come back to using Remember the Milk.

Part of the reason for that is that I have my rather large backlog of projects and things I’d like to eventually work on saved in there, which would be a real pain to move into another system.

Another part of it is that I’m just familiar with how RtM works, and it simply does what I want it to do.

Kevin has another question, too.

Q8: Cutting back on sugary drinks
I liked your recent post about cutting back on sugary drinks, bottled water, coffee, etc. Generally I am quite good at that. With the exception of energy drinks–I tend to drink one almost every day. I simply can’t resist. Not only does this go against financial sense, as you pointed out, but it is also counterproductive for the one thing I value possibly more than my financial integrity–my physical fitness. While I am still in very good shape both financially and physically, I can’t help but think that the couple of dollars I spend on energy drinks every day plus the unnecessary amount of extra sugar in them is a bad habit. Any tips to keep myself from giving in everyday?

- Kevin

When it comes down to it, you have to make that choice in the moment to avoid the energy drink and drink something else.

For me, when I broke my soda addiction, the method I used to do it involved having an alternative drink in the refrigerator to grab instead of the soda. I would fill up water bottles with cold water, a bit of lemon juice, and a drop or two of honey and store them in the refrigerator. When there was no soda, I’d just grab one of these instead. Eventually, I moved to just filling up a glass of water with a bit of lemon whenever I was thirsty. The routine had been broken.

It all comes down to that decision in the moment. The most helpful thing you can do to get started is to make that decision as easy as you can.

Q9: Board game with willing friends
My husband and I have decided to start a weekly “board and card game” night at our house. It will feature a potluck dinner and an evening of playing games until everyone is tired. We have several friends who are really interested in this.

Do you have any suggestions for games that will work well with this? We’ve decided to buy two games beyond the small handful we already have in order to have some selection.
- Connie

Honestly, I wouldn’t buy the games immediately.

The first thing I’d do is go through the games I already had on hand and see which ones were enjoyed the most by your group. That will give you vital information as to what additional games to get in the future.

If you do it blindly, you’re going to be simply guessing what your group will like. You might hit it square on the nose, or you might completely miss it.

Play what you’ve got, figure out what’s a hit, and figure out what games expand upon what made those games a hit.

Q10: Making big to-do list
I LOVED your recent advice to make a giant list of everything I’d like to do and get it down on paper and then just do three of them a day. I’ve been working on this and it’s felt fantastic to get all of these ideas out of my head and down on paper. So far, I’ve felt really productive!

One question, though. It feels like I add more things to the list than I’m accomplishing. Should I organize my “big list” somehow?
- Thomas

It’s really up to you.

My big “to-do” list is full of either very small things that I would do all at once or the first or next steps in a larger project. I don’t include my daily routine things on here, nor do I include highly urgent things. These are things I’d just like to do or take care of over time. Each day, I strive to do three things from this list, and I usually just grab the top three.

There’s one other thing I do to the list once a day or so. I “bubble sort” the list. This is something that works really well in electronic form. All I do is compare each item on the list to the one below it. If the item below it is something I view as being more important than the item I’m looking at, I switch their places. If the two are in the right position, I start following the lower one down the list.

So, let’s say I had a list of five items.

ITEM 1
ITEM 2
ITEM 3
ITEM 4
ITEM 5

I’ll start by comparing item 1 to item 2. I think item 2 is more important, so the list becomes

ITEM 2
ITEM 1
ITEM 3
ITEM 4
ITEM 5

I then compare 1 to 3. I think 1 is more important than 3, so I leave them alone. I then compare 3 to 4. I decide 4 is more important than 3, so I switch them. I compare 3 and 5 and decide 5 is more important, so I switch them and I’m done. The list then looks like

ITEM 2
ITEM 1
ITEM 4
ITEM 5
ITEM 3

which reflects what I think is important right at the moment. Whenever I add an item, I either just add it to the bottom (if I’m in a hurry) or I go down the list and stick it roughly where I think it should be at the moment. This really works well for me.

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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