Reader Mailbag: How Many Questions?

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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. Replacing cable
2. Do-it-yourself wills
3. My no-generic items
4. Money goals after retirement
5. Tipping tip
6. Frugality and building relationships
7. 401(k), Social Security, and taxes
8. Selling a used car
9. Freezing baby food
10. Which card to pay off?

In case you are wondering, I get somewhere between 150 and 200 questions a week for the reader mailbags that I do. I can realistically only answer 20-25 of them.

When I get a question, I usually read it. If it’s someone going through something life-altering or very urgent, I’ll answer directly to them immediately. If not, I file it away in a folder. When I get ready to assemble a reader mailbag, I go through that folder and decide for each mail that I read whether a question makes for good mailbag fodder. If it does, I put it in the mailbag column I’m writing. If it doesn’t, I archive it. I usually do not get through everything in the mailbag before the column is full, so I leave the rest for next time.

Sometimes, I’ll pull out a question, start answering it, and find that it goes on for several paragraphs. I usually spin these off into their own posts.

If I don’t get to a question you asked, I apologize. It’s simply a matter of numbers. I could almost do nothing but reader mailbag posts at this point and still not answer them all. I usually just pick the ones that I like for some reason or that I think will provide an interesting answer.

I noticed you talked about possibly going “Cable-free” in your most recent entry. I agree! I use Netflix to get a movie fix, but there is also a great program called “PlayOn”. It works with the PS3/Xbox 360. It lets you stream Hulu, CBS, and a few other types of programs straight to your TV through the PS3. A little application gets installed on your PC, and then streams to the PS3. Check it out, I think you can get a free 2 week trial, too, before you buy. When I bought it, I think it was $30. One-time fee, no subscription. However, I have heard rumors of possibly free content on Hulu turning into paid content, so I don’t know how that would effect this program.
- Josh

The current generation of home video consoles – particularly the PS3 and the Xbox 360 – do a really good job of streaming media to your television for a very low cost. Netflix, for example, offers a streaming service with every subscription, even the $9 a month one (which gets you one disc at a time and unlimited streaming). If you have one of those consoles, it lets you access a good chunk of Netflix’s library while sitting at home – you just choose the item you want and you’re watching it within a minute or two.

There are several options out there for streaming other kinds of media to your PS3 or other console, too, like Hulu.

A friend of mine recently bought a Playstation 3 because of these arguments. He has no intent of playing games with it. He’s using it to watch Netflix ($8.95 a month) and Hulu (free) on his television at his convenience, as well as watch DVDs and Blu-Ray discs. Considering he’s doing this at the same time as getting rid of his cable box (that had a DVD player in it, since he doesn’t own one), he estimates his break-even point will be in about five months and he’s not going to miss any programming that he actually cares about. Sounds like a good move to me.

Is there a simple, frugal way to do a will for yourself? I have a few assets, no spouse or children. I would want my estate to go to my sibling,
- Mary

You can certainly write a will yourself. All you essentially have to do is list your assets, name your beneficiaries (your sibling), name your executor, and have two witnesses sign it in front of a notary. The difficulty with this is that if anyone chose to challenge this will, the witnesses would have to testify to your state of mind, and lawyers are creative folks who will find a reason to challenge if someone is paying them to find it.

I don’t think in your case you have too much to worry about, but you might want to consider using a service like LegalZoom as a compromise. They’ll help you set one up for a pretty reasonable price.

I know you have experimented in finding ways to save money – making food at home and making your own laundry detergent for example. A few weeks ago I recall you saying you hadn’t found a way to make a cheap shampoo so this created a question for me – What are some of the items you do not buy used or make or refuse to use the generic of? I know some people find it gross to wear shoes from the thrift store but I find that they can be a good buy for nice shoes. I personally love soda so while I am cutting it out if I’m going to buy a drink its going to be a big name brand.
- Katharine

I won’t buy generic garbage bags. I’ve had too many disasters with garbage spilling all over the floor due to cheap bags.

I am very picky about dairy-based food items. I won’t buy them if I can’t clearly see that they don’t have rBGH or other added growth hormones in them. I’ll often choose organic milk because of this.

I strongly prefer local produce when in season, to the point where I’ll happily pay more for something grown locally that morning rather than something grown far away a week ago.

If I’m buying pure luxury items, I don’t skimp. For example, I figure if I’ve decided to have a good beer, I’m not going to go cheap and get something awful. I’m going to get something tasty.

I think that largely covers it, at least in terms of the examples I can think of.

Everyone agrees that during our working years it makes sense always to try to spend less than what’s coming in. But what happens after retirement? My wife and I have small pensions, I have Social Security (she may start collecting in two years, or may wait), and we both have saved money in various retirement vehicles. The usual advice I’ve seen is to take out no more than 4% of savings each year. But that’s with the goal of preserving principal, as I understand it. We could live comfortably now taking no more than that (though we expect our medical expenses to increase as we get older). We do not have heirs we need to provide for. The causes and family we care about we’d rather help now while we’re living.

Our question is: How do we set money goals now? A lifetime of frugality means we don’t want to throw away the money we’ve slowly acquired, but we also don’t want just to sit on it. There aren’t a lot of material things we need and don’t have. We could travel more, we could go to more concerts and theater, we could buy art, but we don’t feel stongly impelled to do so. We’re lucky to be happy with the things we have!
- Michael

If you’re happy with what you have, don’t spend it. Hold on to it, make sure that you’re both sustained through any lifespan that you might have, and then give a large gift to a charity in your estate.

Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t help a charity now. For example, some charities can borrow against such pledges for improvements now without taking a dime from you or can move forward with projects based solely on pledges. Other charities offer charitable annuities, where you give them some lump sum of money and they give you payments for the rest of your life. I know, for example, that Consumer Union (the makers of Consumer Reports) do this.

My concern would honestly be that you have enough money to splurge on stuff for the sake of splurging now, only to find one of you alone in fifteen years without enough money to make ends meet. I don’t think that’s a fate either one of you want. I’d consider an option that allows you to give while you’re alive without abandoning your security.

I live on Long Island, NY and when out eating with friends, we just double the sales tax on the bill. Our sales is 8.625% and that would bring the tip to 17.25% which is great since we usually tip between 15 and 20%. If the service was lousy, go back to the 10% rule!
- Barbara

That’s a good strategy in a locale that has a good interest rate, so I thought I’d share it.

One thing I’ve seen recently is that some restaurants are starting to add a 15%, 18%, and 20% calculation to the receipt to aid in tipping. I am actually strongly in favor of that as it makes such calculations much easier.

I usually give the low one – 15% – for bad service (unless something degrading happened). I give the high end for great service.

I became frugal months ago, I like it and I feel I’m doing the right thing.

But people doesn’t see it this way, they see it as something bad, when people know I’m frugal they start to dislike me.

I don’t care about people’s opinion, but you always suggest building relationship with other people, everything goes smoothly until they know I’m frugal, then they start to have this bad image about me.
- Al

I don’t think there’s a need to bring up one’s frugality in an environment where you are establishing a relationship with someone unless it’s a “frugalites anonymous” meeting.

I’ve often heard that you should avoid talking about money, politics, sex, and religion when you’re first getting to know someone because those issues are sensitive and rife with disagreements. Frugality would fall under the money category.

You can certainly talk about some of the techniques that you use for things in life, but you don’t need to lead with them. Just focus on other areas of conversation and if you feel uncomfortable talking about something, lay low during that part of the conversation.

I have a question about my 401K that I wonder if you have any experience with. I currently contribute 17% of my check each week. That means I max out the yearly $16,500 contribution sometime in September every year. I also meet the Social Security tax limit at about the same time. This means for about the last 10 weeks of the year my weekly pay check is about $400 per week higher. However, I have been wondering if I would be better off tax-wise reducing my weekly percentage to have a smaller amount taken out year round. Or does it all equal out when my yearly federal taxes are done?
- Danielle

I don’t believe it would make any difference at all in terms of the total taxes you pay. However, it might result in a situation where your employer is not withholding adequate amounts from your paycheck over the course of the year, but most employers usually strive to withhold enough to ensure their employees get a refund at the end of the year, so your result would likely just be a change in the size of your refund (or the amount you pay in) versus the size of your checks throughout the year.

Another difference it would make is in terms of equaling out your paycheck over the course of the year. Depending on how you budget, that could be important, too.

I don’t think it’s something to stress out about in any case. The amounts we’re talking about are very small in terms of your annual income.

I have an older British sports car that I’m no longer interested in. I would like to sell it, and use the money to help replace my older everyday vehicle.

I know this is silly, but for some reason I dread the whole selling process. I ran an ad on craigslist, and I got a bunch of tire kickers that I really didn’t want to deal with. The result is that I’m now procrastinating in my efforts to sell the car, which doesn’t solve my problem.

The car is in decent shape and running order, but it is also old, so it has flaws that would be normal for a 35 year old car. I also keep thinking of small improvements that could be made to the car, and these become excuses to not proceed with the sale.

I’ve thought about trading this car in, but I’m assuming most dealers don’t want to buy an older car, and they also won’t give me even a fair price for it.

I believe this car is worth $7-8K, but I’m willing to take less to sell the car, so I’m not being stubborn about the price. I did turn down a sight unseen offer of $5K.

This all leads to my question for you: Do you have an recommendations/advice/strategies for selling a used car?
- Jay

The biggest thing you need to do is to determine the price that you minimally expect to get for the car. You seem to expect more than $5,000 but you’re willing to take less than $7,000.

My suggestion would be to figure out what you want to get out of it, add on about 15%, then list the car widely. If it doesn’t sell for what you want, keep trying.

I would also make sure that you’re not overvaluing the car. What is the car’s blue book value? Use KBB and get a good estimate.

We are expecting our third child this December and I am already starting to get the nesting urge! I consider myself pretty hand in the kitchen and cook all of our meals at home. I am not, however, confident in my freezing abilities and I would love to begin thinking about preparing some frozen meals for the cold winter months when I’m A) too pregnant and exhausted to cook or B) have just given birth!! I am looking for information such as: what containers work best for freezing, how long do frozen meals last, what recipes work well for freezing, can you freeze contents that you put in the crock pot, etc. I guess I’d love to see kind of a “Freezing 101″ post!!
- Carrie

I have indeed frozen baby food in the past and it does work. My intent is to have a more detailed post about this when our youngest gets old enough for baby food (probably this winter), but for now, here are a few tips that address your specific points.

You can freeze stuff in about anything. We’ve used baby jars and ice cube trays in the past and both have worked just fine – just make sure you label stuff. The frozen food usually works well for about three months, from our experience. You can freeze about anything that would be all right for a baby to eat – just avoid the potential allergy foods. We’ve frozen stuff prepared in a crock pot before without any problem, as crock pot food is usually cooked at least as well as other foods.

The real key is to just make sure it’s pureed to a point that your baby can eat it. The younger the child, the more smooth and water-like it needs to be. Don’t hesitate to add water to any puree you make.

Good luck! Look for a better guide this winter!

I have just transferred a cc debt ($4800) to a new card with 0 interest for 18 months. I have another cc with about 4k on it with 16% interest. I have $300 a month to put toward these 2 debts. How should I divide the amount between the two?
- Henry

The first thing I would do is figure out what happens when that balance transfer expires. The big question is what happens if you haven’t paid back all of the transferred balance. Are you responsible for all of the back interest or not? You may have to call them to find out if you can’t get this information from the documentation.

If you will get dinged for that back interest, compare that interest rate to your 16% card. Which rate is higher? Pay down the higher debt.

If you won’t get dinged, pay down the 16% card first.

Got any questions? Email them to me or leave them in the comments and I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag. However, I do receive hundreds of questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

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73 thoughts on “Reader Mailbag: How Many Questions?

  1. @Danielle — In this instance, Trent is incorrect. Most employers do NOT try to ensure you withhold enough to get a refund, in fact, employers don’t do anything for you.

    YOU have to choose the number of withholding allowances, not your employer. Then they withhold according to YOUR instructions. The burden is on you, not the employer.

    That said, it should not make a meaningful difference. It will make no difference in the amount of your tax bill, but it might make a small difference in the amount of your refund/amount due. Probably not enough to matter much.

  2. @Jay (with the British sports car) – Check to see if there’s a local/statewide car club for your make of car. I know the one we belong to (Minnesota Triumphs) allows you to put an ad in their monthly newsletter and online, even if you’re not a member. That way your ad is directed to people who are already interested in that make of car, and you might have better luck than Craigslist.

  3. Trent, ya silly goose — you totally misunderstood Carrie’s question. She wasn’t asking about frozen BABY food. The baby will need 6 months before he/she needs that. She’ll probably be back on her feet by then.

    She is asking about freezer meals for her OWN family to eat!

    Carrie, I am also pregnant and due in December with baby #2. With our first child, I froze things like soups, spaghetti sauce, taco meat, cooked chicken, meatloaf, things to make fajitas and other simple things like that.

    Because I don’t have a big freezer (just the one above my fridge) I used the good-quality freezer bags. I froze things FLAT so I could stack them easily. I had a month’s worth of meals in there, plus room for ice cream! :)

    I say try doubling some of your favorite recipes and freezing half, and eating it again in a few weeks to see how it reheats. This should give you plenty of time to put together a good list of meals for your freezer.

    There are lots of good freezer meal/once-a-month cookbooks at the library to give you more ideas.

  4. Please reconsider the advice of DIY legal work. A simple will isn’t that expensive and is worth paying a few hundred dollars for peace of mind that it is done correctly. If someone wants to challenge a will, they will. Wouldn’t you rather know that it is done correctly? Most will packages from attorneys also include advance medical directives and financial power of attorney forms. All of these can be state specific, so I urge people to seek professional help in drafting these documents. The online services aren’t substitutes for actual review by a lawyer and may not be up to date with the constant changes in state law. You can call around to several attorneys and price compare.

  5. Employers don’t care if you withhold $1 a paycheck or 90% of it. They will take out whatever you tell them to. Same with state taxes, most states have a form to adjust your withholding.

    Danielle’s question doesn’t say what percent she wants to change. If she means a smaller amount of her 401k taken out each pay period, it won’t make a difference as far as her overall tax picture at all. It’s just a question of annual cash flow for the last 3 months of the year.

    Also, did I miss something or was Carrie asking about freezing any food? Like, adult food, not just baby food?

  6. Another comment for Danielle- if there is any matching of money from her employer into the 401k, she might want to reconsider the amount she puts in to it and make sure her contributions go thru the full year instead. Where I work, the employer will match 3% each payperiod (2 weeks)- but if you max out early, you get nothing those last however many weeks/months. If she did what she does where I am, she would lose out on 2 months of employer matching 3%! Not a huge amount of money, but if she dialed it down to only contributing say 15 or 16% into the 401k, she would still be elgible.

  7. Regarding the old British car question- Try looking around for an antique car club for the brand of the car. People there are interested in those types of cars, happy to talk about how much the car is worth, plus maybe there’s someone who would be interested in buying the car.

  8. Trent, I’m not sure if you’ve answered Carrie’s question. I understood her asking for recommendations for freezing food for adult meals. Just to give my experience on freezing meals – things that I find freeze well include pasta sauces, chili, soups, and stews. I usually freeze them in Ziploc containers or reused yogurt containers, making sure to leave a little bit of space at the top because the liquid expands when frozen. Make a big batch your meal and freeze it for future meals!

  9. I think @Carrie was looking for some advice on freezing food for the family, not baby food per see. I would recommend the freezer bags designed specifally for the freezer & when labeling, be sure to date them. If you are going to make a lot & put in a deep freeze, it might not hurt to write up an inventory list & hand on freezer, you acn then cross off when eaten.

  10. Yeah, I think Trent completely missed the boat on the freezing question. She didn’t even ask once about baby food. She asked about freezing meals for her (adult) family to eat while right before and right after giving birth.

    I lived mostly alone this past year and worked until 7 each night and was usually too exhausted to cook, so I would cook a few big things every couple of weekends, freeze the meals, and eat off of them during the week.

    Ziploc bags and plastic containers that seal tightly will freeze your food well (the less good the seal, the less time you can leave your food int eh freezer without it losing quality). Pre-made dishes with meats, veggies, beans, rice, sauce, and any combination freeze great. Soups feed great. A few veggies lose their texture when you freeze them (eggplant, squash, etc.) but if they’re cooked in something it shouldn’t be too noticeable. The only thing is discovered that did not freeze well at all were dumplings. Pasta doesn’t do terribly well either, although if it’s encased in sauce somethings you can get away with it.

    Crockpot to freezer works great! I can think of very few things that cook up beautifully in a crockpot but wouldn’t hold up well to freezing. (If it doesn’t hold up in one, it doesn’t really hold up in the other.)

    Stews and soups freeze better than anything, if you’re looking for a general category of recipes.

    A couple of months is a good rule of thumb on how long meals are good before degrading in quality.

    Good luck!

  11. Regarding cheap shampoo: You can wash your hair with baking soda and apple cider vinegar. You add anywhere from 1 tsp to 1 Tbsp of baking soda to 1 cup of water (depending on how oily your hair is – more BS is more drying), and 1 Tbsp of ACV to 1 cup of water. Get your hair wet, pour the BS mixture in and rub it in, rinse, then pour in the ACV mixture and rinse. It may take a few days for your hair to acclimate but it works very well.

  12. I also double the tax for tipping since it works out neatly here with the tax rate at 8.5%. However, if I am unhappy enough with service to reflect it in a tip, I’m unhappy enough to complain to a manager. This doesn’t happen often, because I’m pretty easy to please. The reason for this policy is because my sister is a waitress and typically when someone leaves her a small tip or no tip, she blames the customer for being cheap, and doesn’t consider it a reflection on her performance. I figure that’s a pretty common attitude among waitstaff.

  13. When you freeze meals, be sure to clearly label each container with the content AND amount/# of servings. What is recognizable as you put it in the freezer will be a great unknown several months down the road.

  14. I use the post-401k paycheck boost to help pay for the inevitable holiday-time expenses. Traveling around Thanksgiving and getting gifts for Christmas is a lot easier with the extra bucks coming in for the last couple months.

  15. @valleycat1 – very true on things becoming recognizable. I was all excited for the frozen carrot-orange soup I took to work one day, only to discover it was butternut squash curry soup. Still delicious, but definitely now what I was expecting.

  16. Trent, as an attorney, I can’t agree with your will advice…the requirements for creating a valid will vary from state to state, and there are often considerations that a licensed attorney will bring up that would otherwise be overlooked. Check with a local attorney, and be specific when you ask about how they charge for wills…oftentimes, you’ll be surprised that you can get a will for a flat fee. I would be particularly careful in situations where you have kids or real estate or any significant assets. A good attorney can draft a will that meets your local requirements AND can adapt to typical life changes, like more children being born…so you may not have to redo it all that frequently. I can’t say it strongly enough–don’t mess around with this! It’s SO important and well worth having a professional’s help.

  17. (And to be clear, I’m not in private practice and typically don’t do wills, so this isn’t an attempt to drum up business! I just have seen many people try to cobble together their own wills.)

  18. @Mary – Each state’s notary laws are different. I know in my state a notary is NOT allowed to notarize a will. It is one of the few things we were required to turn away. Before relying on Trent’s advice, just check with a local notary. You may have to have it done another way. You may be able to use legal services through your employer for example. My employer allows one will and one house closing per employee for free as a benefit and I do not work for a lawyer or anything like that. Ask around I’m sure you’ll find something.

  19. The freezer labeling and invetory list are good ideas for Carrie too if she has family helping out during the end of pregnancy/begining of new baby. Don’t want her husband putting the stew in the oven and the lasagna in the crock pot when she requests chicken for dinner. Don’t forget casseroles. Also sometimes you can make up enchiladas, burritos, tamales, etc as well as roasts and some chopped veggies. I keep chopped bell peppers and onions in the freezer to shorten cooking prep time.

  20. Here’s another explanation for Danielle. My husband’s company temporarily stopped their 401K contributions for a few months during a transition/merger period and we got slammed with taxes because the money he took home put us into another tax bracket. So Danielle, like everyone else said, I’d look into this very carefully and would definately spread it out throughout the year. I’ve never heard of an employer that watches your money for you.

  21. Carrie, do an internet search on “investment cooking” and you will find a wealth of information. I used to do the crazy sessions, cooking all of the meals for an entire month over one or two days, but I have switched that up to cooking 3 nights a week or so, doubling most recipes and freezing the extra, with an occasional cooking frenzy based on a great supermarket bargain on chicken or something. I freeze in zip lock brand freezer bags and label them with a permanent marker. We usually eat stuff within about 3 months.

  22. RE: Being frugal and making friends

    Think the person who wrote in needs to give examples of how they’ve interacted with others, cause I rather doubt that he just announced he was “frugal” and got ditched It’s more like what you do, your behavior, that might annoy people. And that may or may not be connected to one’s spending choices.

    For instance, some people prefer to just split a check equally when dining out. They may resent/not like it when someone suggests that each person pay their actual share. (There are ways around that, including asking the server, in advance for a separate bill.)

    It also has to do with activities, etc. If you meet a group of people who do X and it costs Y and you don’t want to spend that, well, this, not being frugal, is the root of it. You can’t enjoy and/or share in their activities.

    Of course, they could also feel that they are being judged by the “frugal” person, which, quite frankly, is often the case. Nobody should have to explain their spending choices to anyone but their spouse and/or main family members as it is part of their family’s business.

    Then there is the issue of appearance, of one’s person, one’s home, car, etc. Some people don’t want to be around people who look poor. Harsh? Well, most people won’t say that, but it’s true. Now, being frugal and looking poor or unkempt do NOT go hand in hand, but there are some people who quite frankly, look like they walked out of a thrift shop (and some of those folks are actually millionaires who simply don’t care about appearances. I recently attended an event in NYC where people were in suits, nice evening attire except for one gentlemen in a rumpled polo shirt and old seersucker, unpressed jacket. The irony? He was the billionaire who sponsored the event.)Or even like someone who is homeless.

    Being frugal alone may not be the reason this person is having trouble making friends. One of my closest friends is careful with money (aka frugal), but he is not cheap and you only know this about him after you really know him. He’s got friends all over the globe. So, it’s not the being frugal bit that may be keeping this person from friendships. That may just be a smokescreen.

  23. Kelly Blue Book isn’t going to have a value for a British sportscar made in the ’60s-’70s-’80s. There just aren’t enough of them out there to determine a market to the KBB standards.

    Contact a British car club. Check out the SOL email list. Use eBay. That’s where you’ll find the knowledge and skills to get it sold.

  24. I would not advise doing a will on your own. what seems to be clear in layman’s terms is not always clear in a legal sense. This is one place it is better to pay a lawyer for a simple, legally valid will.

  25. @Carrie

    Congrats on your new addition! I thought you might like this website http://onceamonthmom.com/ they have monthly freezer menus with shopping lists, recipes, etc. and they even suggest what containers to use. There is a whole section on baby food too when you are ready for that. You can also check out http://lifeasmom.com/ for more great freezer cooking tips and recipes. I’ve used both of them and been pretty happy with the results.

    Good luck!

  26. @Josh,
    It’s rather easy to hook up an actual computer to any modern PC. Just get a nice component case and add a good hard drive, blue ray player and various other items and you have yourself a Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, DVD or any other media player for around $600. It sounds a bit high but consider the fact that this device is easily upgradeable as opposed to consoles which you will need to replace, plus has more options and can serve as a media server for the house.

  27. As a former bartender and server, I really appreciate the tipping tips. I tip a standard 10% unless service is horrible, but I will tip up to 30% if the server does something above and beyond that makes the experience memorable.

  28. Regarding @Jay:
    My Dad had an old MG that he wanted to sell but he also didn’t want to deal with the hassle. He contacted one of those “we’ll sell it for you on ebay” places that specialized in selling vehicles. For a reasonable set fee, the guy created a very professional listing (complete with pictures & even a video of the car), dealt with all the email questions, and even met with potential buyers. It worked out great and my Dad was more than happy to pay the fee to not have to mess with any of it.

  29. @Gal 0 #19. Do you mean hook up a computer to a TV? I’ve been wondering if this can be done. I don’t have a blue-ray or X-box or any other thing, but I have a laptop…

  30. @ Carrie, you can go onto some of the recipe sites and search for “once a month cooking” (OAMC) or “freezer”. My favorite shared recipe site used to be recipezaar.com, now it’s called food.com, I haven’t used the new format at all, so it might take some exploration.

    for 101 information, check out http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/how/freeze.html
    (general information and produce specific information)
    http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/focus_on_freezing/index.asp (food safety and storage time chart)

    My experience: zipper freezer bags have worked best for me when packaging meals for more than one. They lay flat for freezing and storage. Inexpensive plastic containers work better for take-to-work meals: freeze in a re-used container such as a large yogurt, then pop it out and put the food into a microwave container (I do this with the corningware pop-ins mugs).

    Also keep the recipes/cooking instructions handy for anything you freeze so it’s easy for husband or someone else to help cook.

  31. @ Carrie – you don’t say where you live, but there are various places across the country where you can do this (or even have it done for you for pickup or delivery). I use Let’s Dish but there are others too.

  32. Carrie, google Once A Month Cooking or Freezer Cooking. It will give you a ton of ideas and recipes that you cook ahead of time and freeze. I finally started doing once a month cooking at home and I made taco meat, spaghetti sauce, pizza dough, and more. It has saved my sanity the last few weeks.

  33. @Michelle: You can definitely hook up a computer to a tv. My laptop hooks up via a cable (don’t know which one, sorry, the hubs is in charge of that) and my husband BF doesn’t have a monitor for his computer. The tv is the monitor.

    I second the comments regarding Jay’s car. He definitely needs a collector rather than a normal buyer. Try going to car shows in your area. My father has a 48 chevy truck & attends these things. There are huge car clubs & networks of collectors of old cars. If you find a car show you can just ask around & they can get you hooked up w/ the right folks.

  34. There’s a book called Fix Freeze Forget that I borrowed from the library. It relies on the big chicken and beef packs from places like Costco. I think it would be great for someone planning ahead for pre and post-birth. One of her key suggestions is to print out the cooking directions and stick them to the bag so you don’t have to hunt down the lasagna heating instructions later.

  35. @Carrie: “Once a month cooking” is another fantastic search term to learn about freezing meals. Many of the sites it connects you to will be full of great tips and tricks. I don’t do the once-a-month-cooking thing, but I do use many strategies from it to freeze meals when I do cook in bulk. My wife loves chicken pot pie, so I make 6 at a time and freeze 5 of them.

    @Michelle: Your TV and laptop need to have matching video and audio connectors. If your laptop and TV are new enough to each have an HDMI port, then this easy. It’s doable with other formats – use an internet search or the staff at your local electronics dealer for details.

  36. @Danielle: PLEASE BE CAREFUL! Make sure you check with your HR department on how they match your contributions to your 401k. For example, say they match 3% of your pay when you contribute 6%. This match is most likely being applied monthly, which causes the problem. That means if you only contribute in 9 of the 12 months (because you max out your 401k), you’re missing part of your company match.

    My old company did this, but my new company figures this out and adjusts the matching contributions at the end of the year to make me whole (although I spread my contributions out evenly to make sure they don’t mess up the math).

    On a related note, the conversation with HR may be an interesting one, because you’ll likely be talking to someone that has never maxed out their 401k in their entire life, and may not even be in the 401k plan at all! :-)

  37. What do you think about online tools for car loan refinancing as a means of saving money? I’m thinking specifically of MoneyAisle.com, which I read about in AOL’s Walletpop

  38. @ Gal @ Equally Happy

    Yes, I am definitely aware you can connect a PC to a TV :) A lot of people already have an Xbox 360 or PS3, so that is a sunk cost. All you would really have to pay for is the PlayOn program. The average PC user would not have the patience/knowledge to configure and maintain a home theater PC, or “HTPC” for short.

  39. The only problem with doubling the tax is if your state doesn’t charge tax on alcohol. If you just double the tax, then you aren’t accounting for the alcohol.

  40. The laws for holographic wills (handwritten wills) vary from state to state. The advice Trent has provided for Mary will not be correct in all states. For example, in many states a holographic will (completely in the handwriting of the maker of the will) does not have to be witnessed at all. Some states do not even recognize holographic wills.

    And another note, will contests are very seldom successful but a document must meet the standards to be considered a will before it can be admitted to probate. So if the document Mary creates does not qualify as a will there won’t be a will contest but it won’t matter because her property will not go where she has elected anyway–it will go to those people the state has established by law as her intestate successors (usually spouse, children, parents, siblings, in that order).

  41. I freeze in glass containers. From Pyrex. Freezing in low grade plastic leaches carcinogens into your food. It’s also not good to microwave in plastic. Both freezing and boiling leach carcinogens.

    Maybe Henry should pay off as much as he can on the zero percent card and pay minimum on the 16% card. Try to get the 16% card transferred in a zero percent offer too. What a mess. I’m supposing the cards have been cut up or are not being used now, right?!

  42. Mary, about the will, you should really consult a lawyer or at least Legal Zoom. Find a lawyer who will give you a consultation for free. Many will. A free consultation from a lawyer is better than a free consultation from a blog writer any day.

    Trent, you’ve GOT to stop giving legal advice. Seriously! You do this way too frequently, and you clearly don’t know what you’re talking about!

  43. @ Danielle Question #7 – I used to do the same thing and max out my 401K contribution early. I thought it was a great ‘saving plan’ to have a larger paycheck the last couple months of the year when I had extra expenses due to the holidays. But I found out I was actually reducing my total company match funds because our company matches based on a percentage of your salary and not how much you are contributing into the 401K. By lowering my 401K contribution percentage I then got the company’s matching funds for the full 24 paychecks (full year) instead of only 20 paychecks. Check how your company determines any matching funds and make sure your set up takes full advantage of it.

  44. #21 Michelle:

    Before I put together my Home Theater PC (HTPC), I had my little netbook attached to my big LCD TV. It looked great. Now my HTPC is also my DVR for local over-the-air programming, plus it has a Blue-ray player.

    If you sit far from the television, you might consider getting a bluetooth keyboard/touchpad combo to use as a remote. I still use that with my HTPC.

  45. @Danielle, as others have mentioned, you may miss out on some of your company match if you max out contributions early. We just discovered that very problem a few days ago and immediately rectified it.

  46. For those who give a lower tip due to service — you should also make it known (either to the waitstaff or manager) why you were unhappy and that’s why the tip was lower. If not, they will probably just think you are cheap and not change their behavior.

  47. @Danielle and @Trent – Trent your advice is just incorrect. Employers don’t “try” to do anything with your taxes, except take what you give them on your W-4 form, cross reference that info with your salary in the withholding tables of IRS Pub 15, and send the money to the IRS as you requested.

    There is some risk of over- or under-withholding if you have a variable paycheck throughout the year. The aforementioned tables assume that you will get that paycheck all year. (That’s also why bonuses sometimes appear smaller than one might expect.)

    And potentially missing a 401(k) match is another issue.

  48. Trent, I really enjoy reading your site. You are insightful and intelligent, and you practice what you preach.

    However, I agree with Leah W. I mean this gently and in love, but please stick to frugality topics. You are (obviously) not an attorney, so you need to stop giving legal advice, or you may get sued. I’m in law school, and estate law varies WIDELY from state to state. I’m not licensed to practice law in any jurisdiction, but I do know enough to know that limited information over the internet does not form a good foundation for legal advice, especially from a non-lawyer.

    Also, you did misunderstand Carrie. She was not asking about freezing baby food, but rather about freezing food for her and her family for late-pregnancy and postpartum consumption. Other commenters have made good suggestions for her, so I will leave it at that.

    Best to you,
    Lori

  49. I agree re legal advice. I AM licensed to practice law in a couple of jurisdictions, and I still would never give out legal advice over the Internet. Terrible idea.

  50. @Carrie – I third of fourth the advice to google “once a month cooking” or “freezer cooking”. One thing I never considered was freezing components of a meal, like cooked taco meat, or even a gallon ziploc with a quart ziploc of taco meat, ziploc of shredded cheese and tortillas all inside the larger bag for a pre-made taco kit. Then you just add any extras that don’t freeze well (like lettuce & tomatoes). Or freezer uncooked pizza dough again with cheese & toppings in separate bags. Try wwww.moneysavingmom.com for her posted on once a month cooking, or Life as Mom, here’s an example post of hers: http://lifeasmom.com/2010/07/freezer-cooking-dinners-and-pizza-kits.html I was so glad I did this for both of my kids.

  51. Regarding which card to pay off, it makes the most financial sense to pay off the highest interest rate card first, of course.

    Unfortunately, financial behavior often has little to do with sense. For many (if not most) people trying to pay off debt, focusing on the smallest debt first might be the best option, since you’re likely to see progress sooner, and consequently stick with the full debt repayment.

    Whatever you choose, start now and stick with it. “Debt free living is worth every penny!”

    Todd
    Director of Education
    National Financial Eduction Center

  52. Yep. Professional Responsibility 101 — you are not a lawyer; do not give legal advice. Sometimes I think the general public needs rules of responsibility.

    I HOPE to be licensed in a few months. Bar exam in 12 days. (I know; I should be studying.)

  53. @Carrie: Searching, as others have said, with “Once A Month Cooking” or “Investment Cooking” or “Freezer Cooking” will bring you many sites with recipes and advice. As someone who gives talks on how to get started with OAMC though, I would recommend that you start with what you already know your family will eat. For the next month, concentrate on emptying your freezer to make room – get rid of all the stuff that you do not need in there. Then, as you cook during each week, double or triple it and freeze the extra. Meatloaf triples easily, and can be frozen raw or cooked (just label it!), a whole chicken cooked in the crockpot freezes perfectly in a large freezer bag, when you make chili or stew, soup or spaghetti sauce, double it and freeze the extra. Look up “dump chicken” recipes for chicken that marinates in the freeze – you will still have to cook them, but I have dropped them into the crockpot frozen, and they come out great since they are kept moist by the marinade. Enchiladas and lasagne freeze very well, both cooked or assembled and frozen raw to put staight into the oven (hey, Stoffers does it). In fact you can get some good ideas about what freezes by checking out the frozen food aisle in the grocery store, but you are controlling the ingredients and making it healthier. Your library may have books under “freezer cooking”. You are smart to think ahead! And a year from now, you might want to start freezing baby food too, and again, I would start with what you are already cooking for the rest of the family – make extra veggies and before you season them, puree and freeze.

  54. Jay: NADA price guides may help you value your car. They do prices for classic cars. I’m guessing you’ve got a 1975 MGB or Midget and if so yes it is probably worth $7k if its in decent condition. And if someone offered you $5k sight unseen then I think your price of $7k may be realistic. You might see if there are local dealers that specialize in classic cars who might buy it from your or sell it on consignment. They might try to low ball you though but it would at least be another data point and option to sell it. You could advertise your car for sale in Hemmings. Its a national print magazine and website with classified car ads. Otherwise I think holding an auction on eBay with a minimum or reserve price that you’d be OK with might work. That would give you a lot more potential buyers than just your local town. But you’d have to deal with getting payment, paying a % to ebay and shipping.

  55. As others have said, KBB is not a viable choice for an old car.

    Past this, the value may not be accurate. This may vary from place to place, and it may change from time to time. But a few years ago, when settling a total loss claim on a car, the insurance company settling it told me not to even bother quoting the KBB price. In my area, at least, the value was way too high.

  56. 30, 37, 39, 40 I agree. In addition, tax advice (such as that regarding the withholding amount!) shouldn’t be given either. The right answer most of the time is: “Consult a CPA”.

    And I mean CPA, not tax preparer like H & R Block, Liberty Tax or Jackson Hewitt. They’re bound to screw up your taxes. The people get a 2 week training course and are “qualified”. If you have ANYTHING more than a W-2 I’d say no!

    Seeking the advice of an Enrolled Agent may work, but you need to check references. Both should be checked out very carefully with state societies, etc.

  57. Leave Trent alone! After all, he’s entitled to a bit of “daddy brain”. But they’re right. She said nothing about baby food. My advice for freezer cooking is to make a menu for a month or two and then cook either all or most of your food in one or two days. The other commenters were right. Google OMAC. You will get thousands of ideas. Do it while you still have the energy,though. Oh, and I’ve had good luck with a food saver.

  58. Look up the British antique car in Hemmings price guide. That said, make sure you are not overvaluing the limited interest vehicle. The idea about selling on ebay through an ebay seller who specializes in cars is a good one. You may end up being sorry to have turned down the sight unseen five grand. A quick, clean sale is better than dragging the project out for months or years, wasting your psychic energy, not having the cash, not having the space where the car sits, being emotionally tied to a car you don’t want.
    Al, How do people KNOW you are frugal? If you dress nicely from thrift shops or yard sales, they can’t tell. If you furnish with gently used furniture or antiques, they can’t tell. If you drive an older car and it’s clean and well maintained, they can’t tell. Is it possible you’re forcing some of the less charming aspects of frugality on people who are not interested?

  59. @Carrie If you are looking to freeze a lot, get some containers that stack well (and preferably fit well in your freezer with no odd gaps). Personally I don’t like freezing in sandwich/ziplock/whatever bags, for two reasons: one, the food might freeze in an odd-shaped lump that fits perfectly just now but is impossible to fit in if you rearrange your freezer in a month, and two, the plastic sticks to the food and is difficult to remove. Even worse, especially in the corner of the bag, the food freezes around a bit of the bag so I have to cut as much of the bag off as I can and then try to fish the remaining bits out during the cooking process or on my plate. They are not pleasant to eat if you miss a bit!

    Also, and I haven’t personally done this, but I have heard about it, for the really efficient person who freezes: grease the container, one of the low-cal oil sprays should work. Freeze the food in the container. The next day, take the frozen block of food out of the container, pop it into a food bag and return it to the freezer for storage. It should now stack easily with other food you have frozen in the same manner, and it saves all your containers from being tied up with longterm storage, and is of course easy to remove from the food bag.

    Rice shouldn’t be frozen, even in a sauce. Completely aside from the freezing process damaging it, it is very ripe for bacterial growth, so in the time between cooking and being cool enough to freeze it will pick up a LOT of bacteria. All of which get frozen just waiting for it to warm up. And cookery-wise, reheating tends to focus only on the sauce being hot enough, which leaves the rice as it was before. For the time and trouble involved in reheating the rice to get rid of them, it is easier to cook fresh every time.

    Anything with a reasonably high water content though, like meat, sauces and veggies are completely fine to freeze because in the reheating process (or the cooking process of course if it is frozen raw) the water will boil and that will kill the bacteria within it. Bread is also completely fine to freeze either cooked or as dough (if for example you want to make pizzas and freeze before they are cooked); the same applies to pastry. Most dairy is completely fine to freeze from a health point of view, too, but it tends to break down a bit due to the freezing process, so if you freeze milk with six days until the useby date, after it defrosts you will only have five days that it is good for (however long until the useby date take one day off). Cheese is fine in a meal because it will melt in the reheating process but don’t freeze a whole block of it (not a high enough water content). Cream sauces need a bit of an extra stir during reheating but after that they are fine. Don’t freeze eggs.

    If you would refriedgerate something cooked and reheat it the next day like a stew, soup, etc, then you will probably be good to freeze it. If however its something you have cooked and wouldn’t normally reheat the next day (pizza is the best example), then freeze it before it goes in the oven.

    If you are still struggling, walk around the freezer department of your local supermarket and think about what they freeze, at what stage they freeze it, whether it needs ‘reheating’ or cooking from scrath etc, and then copy thier examples.

    I hope this helps! Congratulations on the baby!

  60. re: Mary – NoLo Press has a will guide complete with a disc of prewritten forms. All you do is fill in the blanks, modify as necessary, print and notarize! Perfectly legal in my state. I checked it out from the library. I had my CPA notarize it while I was there for my mid-year tax review, which is included in the (very reasonable – pays for itself) annual fee for completing my taxes.
    re: Danielle – Every year, I take my total taxes owed for the previous year and divide by the number of expected paychecks for the current year. I then let HR know exactly how much (State and Federal) to withhold per paycheck. Some years, I get a little back, some years I pay a little. I stay out of the penalty zone and keep a lot more of my paycheck this way.
    Also, several people mentioned to check your company’s matching rules. My company matches one paycheck at at a time. The matching money gets into your account faster, but you could be missing the match at the end of the year if you stop contributing in September.

  61. #34 Josh – is right. My husband was an excellent waiter back in his college days, and worked very hard for tips. He started working at a place where the service had basically gone to pot and most waitstaff received very low tips. He worked his behind off and on some nights, made more tip money than all the other waitstaff combined. He had to put up with crappy waitresses not doing their jobs for their tables, and the customers would flag him down to get refills etc. And when the customer would leave the tip, the waitress would get all of it, even though they did not do the work. And when the other waitstaff saw how good my hubby was, they complained that he was stealing their tips! Even though he was out on the floor, zooming around the kitchen getting plates, working his tale off trying to please the customers, and everyone else was in the back, sitting around, talking about the latest party they went to/were going to, only coming out when absolutely necessary – and sometimes not even then. Luckily management had noticed the difference in quality and came to his defense. But it still didn’t motivate them to work harder, after seeing that it did pay off. And he suspected they started stealing his tips, but he could never prove it. I’m glad THOSE days are behind us!

  62. Another reason to consult an attorney for wills: they will ask the questions that you won’t realize should be asked and answered.

  63. For Carrie,
    I’d recommend checking out “Dinner is Ready” by Deanna Buxton. The tagline is a complete guide to freezing 30 meals in one day, but there is a ton of useful information for the freezing/thawing process that you can adapt to your needs and recipes are sorted by process (slow cooker, oven, stovetop and assembly).

  64. @Danielle: the same thing happened to me last year — I hit the maximum 401(k) contribution before the end of the year — and my company was actually nice enough to send me a note suggesting that I contribute 6% to an after-tax, non-retirement account to take advantage of the full company match for the rest of the year. I don’t know if other companies have this option, but you could check. It won’t make a difference in the total amount of tax you will pay for the year, though, because it will be the same $16,500 tax deduction no matter how you spread it out.

  65. @Carrie:
    One other tip on preparation for the end of your pregnancy — pay attention to your changing taste preferences and consider whether or not you are going to be breast-feeding your baby as you prepare those meals for the freezer. I nursed my babies and they all had different reactions to things I ate. As you don’t know what will affect your milk/baby, (if you are going to nurse) you might consider some shelf-stable, easy to fix items as well, that you could enjoy again once the baby is weaned. I suggest soups, pastas, canned beans, tuna-fish, peanut butter. Having easy-to-fix things on the shelf, as well as the freezer, means you don’t have to SHOP to fix something nutritious and quick!

    And congratulations!!

  66. +1 to what someone said about putting the frozen foods in baggies after they are frozen. I did this successfully with meat loafs and muffins. Froze them in the pan they would be cooked in, then took them out of that pan; later when I cooked them, back in the same pan they go. I even put 3 meat loaves in one pan for this process.

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