Reader Mailbag: Happy Halloween

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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. Wedding gift conundrum
2. Cheap and healthy lunches
3. Refund concerns
4. Prayer and personal finance
5. Unsure about next investment steps
6. Child’s expensive birthday requests
7. Getting rid of documents
8. Inexpensive couple’s therapy
9. Which crockpot should I get?
10. Completely unsure about future

When your home has three young children, Halloween becomes a major event, with lots of planning and preparation and costumes and candy and anticipation.

The big day is finally here. Tonight, we’ll be out walking around town for hours, collecting piles of candy, and, most likely, wearing both parents and children ragged.

What do we do with all of that candy? I’m actually going to write a bit about that later today…

Q1: Wedding gift conundrum
My best friend is getting married in a few weeks and has an online gift registry.

I asked him if he’d prefer an actual product from the registry, a voucher for the registry, or cash. He said that he’d prefer cash to use towards his honeymoon.

As much as I prefer experiences over things in my own life, I feel strangely torn about this. Rather than give money that will be pooled with other people’s and pay for his trip, a (selfish) part of me wants to get an item from the gift registry so that they’ll think of me whenever they use it.

What should I do?
- Pete

You asked him what he would find most useful. He answered you honestly. It feels to me like they made a registry because they felt obligated to, but they could use the cash most.

That doesn’t mean you have to give him what he asked for. You are the one giving the gift. It’s a decision you have to make, and I can’t tell you what the right decision is here.

However, if I were in your shoes, I’d probably just give them cash after asking that question.

Q2: Cheap and healthy lunches
I eat leftovers about half the time, but quite often we don’t have any leftovers for me to take the next day. What do you do in this situation when you just want a cheap and healthy lunch?

- John

I usually just do the best with whatever we have on hand. I’ll dig through the refrigerator and try to use up anything that will go to waste if I don’t use it. If that doesn’t work, I’ll look in the pantry, focusing again on things that are perishable.

Even if I have a perfect grocery list, I usually wind up with an extra fresh item or two that needs to get used (for example, I’ll buy carrots and end up with more than I need).

If you need to take these to work, look for them the night before and just figure out what you can make out of them. Don’t worry about making a “perfect” lunch – instead, focus on making a great dinner and look at lunch as a small secondary meal.

Q3: Refund concerns
I am having a dispute with a company in Florida. I paid $2539.19 for a product that does not work, and now the company say it’s not a fault on their end but my end. I want a refund and they want to only pay a certain portion back to me, about $2359.19 plus I have to spend almost $300 in shipping just to send back part of the product. (the rest of the product is online streaming – it’s the streaming part that never works).

Is this even legal? Are there any laws that govern this? Where would I look to find those laws, so that I can get a full refund? It’s a lot of money!
- Archie

What does your purchase agreement say? Does it clearly say “all sales final”? If it does, then you’re out of luck.

If it doesn’t, it should outline a clear return policy, which you should follow to the letter. If they are still giving you trouble, then they’re violating a contract, which is a legal matter.

The difficulty with paying for internet streaming video or audio is that it’s easy for them to claim that the problem is with your internet connection and that you’re not fulfilling your end of the agreement. This has actually happened to me in the past.

Your best bet is to take a copy of your purchase agreement and other documentation to a lawyer. My guess is that you have limited avenues to do anything, though.

Q4: Prayer and personal finance
Do you think that prayer helps people fix their financial issues? I have been a Baptist all of my life and I’m curious about your feelings on prayer and money.

- Leon

I have no interest digging into the specifics of the theology of prayer. I’m simply commenting on the practice of prayer here.

Having said that, I think prayer helps regardless of whether or not there’s a higher power listening to your prayer. Prayer encourages mindfulness and causes you to take a calm moment to focus on a particular problem in your life.

That type of focused mindfulness and mental calmness invites better behavior in your life, whether you directly see it or not. Often, it’s just a nudge in the right direction, but enough little nudges add up to profound change.

Q5: Unsure about next investment steps
I graduated college in 2008, I was very fortunate to be a pretty decent poker player and came out of college with my loans paid off and a car paid off. I worked at my first job for almost 5 years while living at my parents, paying nominal rent to them, and saving some money. I contributed up to the match in my companies 401k and put about 2-3k/year into my Roth IRA.

I recently moved to San Francisco (from NY) with my girlfriend for a new job. New job pays more, but we’re living on our own, in an incredibly expensive city. We are each putting half of our monthly net to rent, utilities and food. I don’t see that situation improving much for a little while, but I am still able to save some. Here is where I am in 2013:

After taxes I’m probably making ~55k/year. I have $9k in my 401k, and 15k in my Roth IRA. I’m contributing up to the match on my 401k at my new job (6% @ 50%match), and I’ve maxed out my Roth for this year. I have 70k in the bank making ~ 1% APY. I don’t know what to do with the 70k, and I don’t know how to best invest my 401k/Roth funds at the moment – should I just put it in a target year fund for now until I can do more reading?
- George

A target retirement fund is a very good choice for the situation you describe. In fact, for the most part, I recommend them to everyone, because I consider the drawbacks (occasionally higher fees) to be less important to most people than the benefits (automatic rebalancing according to sensible logic).

I think you’re in reasonably good shape financially. With the $70,000 sitting in the savings account, I would consider investing some of it and leaving the rest there for other purposes, such as an emergency fund and any major upcoming expenses you know of.

How should you invest it? I’m investing my excess savings with Vanguard, putting most of it into their Total Stock Market Index fund. Mostly, I’m just letting the money build until we’re ready to purchase some land in the country.

Q6: Child’s expensive birthday requests
I recently talked to my son about what he wanted for his birthday. He only asked for four things, which is a completely reasonable list. The only problem is that each item on the list is really expensive – large LEGO sets and the like. I can afford to get him one item and my parents say they’ll get him another one, but my wife’s parents can’t afford this stuff, nor can the aunts and uncles who might get him a gift. Any thoughts?

- Tony

My honest suggestion is to look for supplemental items to the big gifts and suggest those to any other potential gift-givers.

For example, if he wants a big LEGO kit, there are probably small ones that will supplement it well. If he wants a video game system, there are probably inexpensive games that will supplement it.

I can’t really suggest specifics since I don’t know exactly what your son has asked for, but I would focus on supplementary gifts here that will add a little more “oomph” to the big gifts.

Q7: Getting rid of documents
My husband developed this method to get rid of old check copies because the carbonless copy chemicals are so unpleasant to handle/shred/burn. Put the papers loosely in a five gallon bucket until about half to three-quarters full, then use the garden hose to fill the bucket with water. Wait a day or so. Put the longest drill bit on and drill the papers into paper mache. Dump out the bucket and start again. It’s easy and cheap and the papers can never be reassembled, plus if you want to you can make something out of the paper mache.

- Anne

This is a really good idea, actually.

My wife and I have done something similar to this in the past to get rid of shredded paper. We let the “pulp” completely dry out and then used chunks of it as firestarter for campfires.

As you mentioned, the pulp also works really great as the basis for paper mache if you’re doing a paper mache related project.

Q8: Inexpensive couple’s therapy
My wife and I have discussed marriage counseling, but when we actually shopped around a bit for a counselor, we were stunned at the prices. Most of our arguments are about money so we don’t really think that an expensive counselor will help. Ideas?

- Andy

Most successful marriage counseling comes down to re-establishing communication between the partners because, at its core, that’s what marriage really needs. It requires an open and strong communication channel between the two people.

If I were you guys, I’d spend some time reading about fixing marriage issues and see what they have to say. Most of the suggestions – at least from my experience – will be to simply have conversations about things and how to handle emotional surges during those conversations.

I do not know what has prompted you to seek a marriage counselor, but I will tell you this. No matter how much you want to pile the blame on your spouse, there is no troubled marriage that isn’t caused by both people, whether they see it or not. The very first thing you should do is ask yourself what things you’ve done wrong in this marriage. These things should not involve your partner. They should be on you. What are you doing to be the best possible partner?

I guess what I’m trying to say is that a sincere effort to work things out yourself will go a long way toward fixing problems without a counselor. A counselor mostly just massages and pushes you toward these things anyway.

Q9: Which crockpot should I get?
I never owned a crockpot. Do you have a suggestion as to a good one to buy?

- Jane

Most of the ones on the market are good ones. It really depends on your needs at home.

If you’re a single person or a couple without children that will never entertain using the crock pot, I’d suggest getting a small three quart crock pot like this one. It’s great for making small meals and small batches.

If you have a larger family or if you will be using it for entertaining guests, you should get a larger one. This one is an excellent large programmable model.

If you find a great deal on a non-programmable one, that’s fine – just get an outlet timer and you can essentially make the pot into a simple programmable one.

Q10: Completely unsure about future
My biggest problem is that I really have no idea what I want to do in the future. I’ve never been a planner at all and I’ve always just kind of rolled with whatever life has handed to me. It’s worked well for me, but it doesn’t really go hand in hand with planning ahead.

- Paul

For people like you, I mostly suggest making sure you’re saving for retirement (through your work’s 401(k) plan or through your own IRA) and then keeping most of the rest of your money pretty liquid, meaning I’d keep it either in a savings account or in an investment account.

Flexibility is the thing you need, so I wouldn’t invest the money into things that would be potentially difficult to turn over at the drop of a hat.

What should you specifically invest in? It really depends on how much risk you can tolerate. If you’re not going to get bothered by ups and downs each year as long as you’re consistently spending less than you earn, investing in stocks is a good idea. If that bothers you, then keep it mostly in cash, as that will maintain a balance and grow slowly.

Got any questions? The best way to ask is to email me – trent at thesimpledollar dot com. Iíll 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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