Reader Mailbag: Houseguests

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. Junk mail and postal employees
2. Defaulting on national debt?
3. Tax liens
4. Coffee frugality tip
5. Charity calling list removal
6. Worried about retirement
7. Car shop ramps up quote!
8. Smarter Bank?
9. Graduate without job; what’s next?
10. Telemarketing tips

Over the next month, we are having six different houseguests staying at our house over eleven different nights, with gaps in between and different people coming and going.

When you add in the fact that this is happening during Sarah’s most stressful work period, you end up with what feels like a very fully packed month, teeming with events of all kinds.

The key is planning and preparation, of course. If you keep on top of things, you can handle anything.

Q1: Junk mail and postal employees
I retired from the Post Office. The “junk” mail is what pays the salary of the Postal Workers mostly. You can do a lot of frugal things with the ones you dont want. First of all I take the pages and make decorate envelopes. Just get an old envelope like you mail a birthday card in gently pull apart and you have your template.

Give you catalog to kids to cut out and have Paper Dolls or play with.

You can tear out the pages and put around your plants and then mulch over them. It works as a weedblocker and eventually will go back to the ground.

I dont like getting them anymore than others but when I think it pays my former employees salaries or helps a big majority and they are in trouble (USPS) as it is with email and online bill paying I wish there was a list I could get on to get MORE coming to my home than not.
– John

There are a lot of uses for unwanted junk mail, and you mention some of them. If you do wind up with junk mail, it’s a great idea to find alternative uses for it.

However, the policies of the postal service have created this situation. They’ve kept the price of a postage stamp artificially low for a very long time. It has not nearly kept up with the growth in the price of fuel or of postal employee wages. They’ve chosen to subsidize that by appealing to companies who produce junk mail, because they need to keep the mail volume up.

The biggest mistake the postal service ever made is not matching the services of private companies like FedEx and UPS. They already have a strong infrastructure in place that could easily handle those services, but they chose not to do it. FedEx and UPS make a profit, so why couldn’t the postal service? They chose to stay out of the lucrative parcel business to their own detriment.

Shipping out lots of junk mail is the postal service’s business choice, but I don’t feel obligated to receive it.

Q2: Defaulting on national debt?
When I read about the consequences of defaulting on your debt, most of the consequences seem like they’re quite survivable. Sure, there’s some financial pain, but you come out the other side with a fresh start. If our national debt is that bad, what keeps us from doing the same?

– Jeff

It wouldn’t be good.

The way the U.S. government finances its debts is through treasury notes. These are considered the rock-solid investment for global investing. If you want a guaranteed return on your money over a long period, buy a treasury note. Defaulting on our debt means that the government has chosen to not pay back the money people have invested in treasury notes.

Pretty much every economic market in the world would choke. Other countries would abandon the dollar and many would begin to refuse to accept it when trading with them. The cost of everything made outside of this country – all of the goods from China, all of the imported oil – would skyrocket extremely quickly. A tripling in price (or worse) is completely realistic.

The easiest way to imagine this is by thinking of a person who has quite a lot of credit card debt but has a HUGE credit limit. They’ve become accustomed to being able to live on credit and right now they cannot pay their normal bills with their normal income. They have to use credit to cover the bills. Now, what happens to that person if all of the banks suddenly cut their credit limit? Well, they’d be eating beans and living in a shack for a while, and that’s what would happen to the U.S. if we defaulted.

Q3: Tax liens
Do you think tax liens are as good an investment as all of the ads say they are? It seems that we are in the middle of the property tax season. I have checked out my own county (Etowah Co., AL…12%) and find a lot of taxes were delinquent by the tax sale date. Also, even after the sale there are a lot of Business Personal Property taxes still due (about $40,000 worth). I just retired early (62)and figure that I have about $100 per month to invest in these liens. What do you think?

– Deborah

Most ads for tax lien investing neglect to mention that there is a ton of risk involved in such investments. There’s the underlying real estate risk, of course, but you also run the risk of municipal fines, condemnation of the property, government errors, legislative changes, court rulings, and personal bankruptcy.

You can get a great return on tax liens if everything works out (as you mention), but the risks are great as well and there’s a chance that you’ll wind up with nothing or only a partial return on your investment.

If you want to invest in these, I would not invest any money that I needed for retirement or other purposes. Use only money that you can afford to lose.

Q4: Coffee frugality tip
Sarah drinks coffee, right? If she does and uses any creamer in it, pass along this tip to her that I’ve been using for years. Instead of buying that expensive coffee creamer at the store, just take a small bottle, add some whole milk to it, and put a few drops of vanilla extract or peppermint extract with it. Mix it up and use that as creamer instead. It’s way cheaper than that creamer at the store.

– Nina

Sarah has actually done this quite a few times. She just takes a used creamer container and fills it up in much the way Nina describes.

There are a lot of different things you can add for flavor, like almond and peppermint and vanilla extract, or even a bit of chocolate syrup if you like a chocolate flavor.

For example, if she wants some almond-vanilla creamer, she just puts in three drops of almond extract and three drops of vanilla extract, stirs it well, and enjoys it with her coffee. It’s pretty cheap!

Q5: Charity calling list removal
How do I get removed from a calling list for a charity? The national do not call registry you mentioned didn’t work, nor did asking them nicely. Help!

– Chelsea

Charities generally don’t pay any attention to the national do not call registry. They aren’t required to.

Now, the charity should pay attention to your requests to be removed from their calling list. Make sure that they’re clear that they are talking to you, then politely ask to be removed from their calling list.

If you just pick up the phone and yell “Stop calling me!” and hang up, it won’t work. See the last question in this mailbag for more details.

Q6: Worried about retirement
I am 62 years old looking at retiring at 85 based on my status and what others say you need. Scared to death and running out of time. I am a teacher(11 years) as is my wife. I have a little savings less than 50K in IRA’s, myself a pension from the school system and penitence from a former employer, wife has a 401 with the private company she works for. Money is tight, we live check to check. Seems like we spend our money trying to still raise our children and not any additional money for savings let alone gas for our vehicles. 150 year old house we live requires maint Lawyers for a custody battle of grandson and bills from our son as he had a bad accident and getting himself established. We need to buy another car soon for my wife as hers has like 200K miles on it.

I didn’t plan earlier and I don’t really have a clear plan now. Late 30’s I had a little money, and some starting about 11 years ago. I was busy chasing carrots and didn’t catch any. I am thinking I will need to work past 66 a few years and file for SS to try help save a little more. Thinking I need to find a business but really fishing for ideas. I have some trade skills as a hearing aid specialist that could lead to some employment on the side. I am hoping to sell this house in about 7-10 years for bit of profit and downsize. We are tied to this area for awhile until our grandson gets older(15 more years)

I really go from positive to negative about my situation. I feel grateful for what I do have and where I am, but feel so frustrated that I didn’t do things different with regard to my career decisions but can’t go back so I have to work with where I am and what I have.
– Jim

There are a lot of people in your boat, Jim. I’m friends with or related to some of them.

The key is to focus on what you have and not on the opportunities you missed. You can’t do anything about the past, so stop worrying about it and regretting it. All you can do is affect what happens from here going forward.

Given your situation, your plans seem completely reasonable. I think you’re making the right moves now and that’s what matters. It does mean that you’ll be working until very late in your life, of course, but if you are doing something you love, that’s not a bad thing. I get quite a few emails from retirees who are struggling to find something to do in retirement. I don’t believe a full retirement is all it’s cracked up to be.

Q7: Car shop ramps up quote!
Right now, my car is in the shop getting some engine work done on it. When I first took it there, they gave me a really good quote (about $1,100 for everything), but now they have my car in pieces and say it will cost at least $2,000. I feel scammed. What can I do here?

– Larry

Your first step should be to figure out what the parts actually cost. Get a complete list of the work they’re doing and the parts they’re talking about replacing and then shop around for those parts yourself.

You should also be shopping around for labor quotes from other shops. Tell them what work needs to be done and what parts you have and that you just need the labor.

Once you have the total cost of doing it elsewhere (parts plus labor), go back to the first shop and play a little hardball. Don’t be afraid to tow your car to another shop to get it worked on.

They can’t hold your car hostage from you. If they are, contact your local law enforcement.

Q8: Smarter Bank?
What do you think about the Smarter Bank to help pay back college loans?

– Juliet

For those unaware, SmarterBank is an online bank that offers a program that helps with student loan repayment as a “reward” for participating in offers with various retailers. It also enables others to easily contribute to your student loan repayment.

The problem with this (and other programs like it) is that you have to spend more money to “save.” In order to get anything out of the rewards program, you have to spend money. SmarterBank isn’t really clear on how your spending will create these student loan savings, either. Will it be with ordinary purchases? Do you have to just use their “deals”? They’re not really clear on their website.

I’d sit back and wait on this deal.

Q9: Graduate without job; what’s next?
I graduated from college in May 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in communications, specializing in television media. I had hoped to get a job at a local television station, but so far I haven’t found a thing. I’m living with my parents and my student loans are in forbearance so I’m surviving. My question is what should I be doing now? Should I try to go back to school for a masters degree? Should I keep searching?

– Darren

It depends on a lot of things. Are there are a lot of positions available or are they rare? Are you reaching the interview stage or are you never getting a callback? Is this a career path you’re really excited about following?

If you’re getting a lot of interviews and there are tons of positions available, I’d keep trying. If the positions are rare and you’re not getting interviews, I’d look at a different path.

If you’re not sure how to further your current path in terms of education, study what sort of education people have that have achieved the career goals you’re setting for yourself.

Q10: Telemarketing tips
Telemarketers and Fundraising Centers are annoying- but you can make them less annoying by doing one pretty simple thing- answer your phone. Most centers use automatic dialing so they can cycle through thousands of phone numbers every night. They will call you every day until they reach you. So- there is NO sense in getting angry and a Telemarketer for calling every day when all you would need to do is pick up the phone and talk to the person.

Now when I say “talk,” I mean something pretty specific. If you just pick up the phone and say “thanks but no thanks”– the calls may continue. This is because the caller was unable to confirm who they were speaking to. Make sure you allow the telemarketer to introduce themselves, tell you who they’re calling for, and then confirm that you are the person they’re trying to reach. Proceed to ambiguous statements like ” now isn’t a good time.” Then tell them to have a great day and get off the phone. If you are particularly wary of the group calling you, request to be placed on their “do not call list.”

This is important because the government “do not call list” that you suggested in your post only really blocks you from true telemarketers. The list has two big exceptions: Non-Profits (like my University call center) and Political Organizations. So if you’re tired of University Y calling you- make sure you request to be placed on their separate do not call list.

You have no idea how many people get angry with college students like myself about the multitude of calls they receive. Unfortunately, when someone calls you every day it probably signifies that they want to get a hold of you. So my advice is: if you pick up the phone the FIRST time, politely decline and hang up the phone, your phone will ring much less and you will be much less annoyed.
– Ronnie

This is good advice. Just yelling into the phone that they should stop calling you and hanging up won’t do a bit of good because the telemarketer doesn’t know who they’re talking to.

Make sure they know that they have the right person on the line, then politely request that they stop calling you. Without at least some verification that they have the right person on the line, they’re not going to remove you. Rage certainly isn’t going to help, either.

It’s not in the interest of any business or organization to keep calling someone who is not going to buy from them or contribute to them.

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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  1. Izabelle says:

    Q1: Junk mail is a huge waste of natural ressources, including trees and fossil fuel. Tring to keep an obsolete industry alive just to save jobs makes no sense – workers have to evolve.

  2. Izabelle says:

    (Q1 is like asking people to stop taking pics with their iPhones to save the film-processors’ jobs)

  3. Johanna says:

    Q1: USPS doesn’t ship parcels? News to me. But UPS/FedEx can ship nothing but parcels…

  4. Johanna says:

    …whereas USPS must cover the less lucrative parts of the market as well.

  5. Andrew says:

    The Simplistic Dollar strikes again…

  6. Johanna says:

    Q4: Would never have guessed that chocolate syrup would impart a chocolate flavor to coffee. Thanks, Trent!

  7. Izabelle says:

    Q9: Unless you were specifically told that your lack of a Master’s degree is the reason you are not being hired, do not get one.

  8. valleycat1 says:

    Q 5 and Q10: If I pick up the phone & it’s someone asking for money, I merely say I’m not interested and hang up. 2nd call, I request that my name be removed from the call list. 3rd call or more, I simply hang up. Most of these places have one list with multiple callers & there’s no real way to get yourself removed.

  9. Jonathan says:

    I’ve found that one effective way to get charities to stop calling to ask for money is by simply telling them that I do not donate money to charities that call and ask for donations.

  10. jim says:

    I sympathize with USPS employees lack of job security but I don’t think more junk mail is a good solution for anything.

  11. jim says:

    It is the US congress that is mandating stamps only go up with inflation. Thats not the choice of the USPS. A lot of USPS financial woes are due to laws that hobble them.

  12. jim says:

    Don’t get a grad degree in communications. Darren don’t throw good money after bad.

  13. Jane says:

    Q1 – Trent obviously doesn’t understand the real challenges of the postal service. #1 they do send parcels like Johanna said. Ever heard of parcel post? #2 they are not allowed to raise the postage stamp much b/c of federal laws. otherwise they would do it in a heartbeat. #3 USPS would have a smaller profit margin if they were obligated to deliver mail 6 days of week to every home in the country.

    Q4 – I think you’re overlooking a key ingredient in store bought creamers – SUGAR!

  14. Jane says:

    In #3, I meant the UPS or FedEx would have a smaller profit margin.

  15. Joan says:

    #10 If someone keeps calling after being told not to

  16. Suzanne says:

    Q9: in a field like television, people are a dime a dozen. Take an internship or a low paying job with them and work your way up. Know that there is always someone cheaper behind you who will do the same thing. Get to know people in the industry, get your face and name out there. Trust me, it’s the only way.

    And forbearance is awful to deal with in 10 years for your field that is typically so low-paying. Take it from me, do everything you can to pay your student loan bill because if you don’t, $50K can turn into $300K really easily.

    Also, regarding nonprofit calls, if you tell the nonprofit to take you off their list, they will add you to the Do Not Call, Do Not Solicits they keep.

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