Reader Mailbag: Late Night Writing

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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. Figuring out fuel efficient route
2. Leaving poisonous family situation
3. Road trip with kids
4. Maximizing retirement without 401(k)
5. Inexpensive board games?
6. Thinking games with kids
7. Unhappy with living situation
8. Unhappy with job
9. Wish lists and gift giving
10. Hiding cash and telling others

Right now, my days are filled with family obligations, so I’m writing deep in the night.

The house is quiet. I can hear cars on the highway in the distance. I can hear when people stir in their sleep. I can hear a coyote in the woods.

It’s peaceful. Time to get started.

Q1: Figuring out fuel efficient route
I drive two or three times a week to my daughter’s house. I have a choice of two routes. The first is 14.5 miles over back roads and surface streets with 12 traffic lights along the way. I try to time my speed with these lights, but I always end up stopping at about half of them. The other route is 20 miles by freeway. I know that gas mileage is better for highway driving than for city driving in general. Do you think the longer highway drive is more economical than the shorter drive over surface streets?

- Connie

It’s really hard to tell from this description which route is more economical. My guess would be that the 14.5 mile trip is more economical, but the gap won’t be enormous.

The big reason is that acceleration is very costly in terms of fuel efficiency, and when you stop at stoplights and then accelerate when the light turns green, you’re burning quite a bit of fuel (with most cars, anyway – not all models are the same).

Given these two options, I’d probably choose whichever one got me there in the least amount of time. If they’re close, then I would go with the one that’s shorter in terms of distance.

Q2: Leaving poisonous family situation
A few years ago, my wife and I decided to separate. At that time, we decided to continue to live together in order to provide two parents for our kids. Since then, the friendship my ex and I once had has really deteriorated and she’s basically spent the last several months being extremely negative towards me, often in front of the children. This has started to rub off on them and they’ve begun to mimic their mother’s behavior. Should I move out at this point? I’m not sure what to do. Could you help me out working through some of the personal and financial consequences of this?

- Geoff

If I were in your shoes, I would contact a marriage counselor. That person is an expert in these types of issues and will guide you both to the best solution for both of you.

Unfortunately, unless your spouse recognizes that her anger and dislike of you is spreading unfairly to the children, moving out won’t really change anything.

If you decide to get a divorce (I’m not sure if you have), consult a lawyer before you make any other move. Don’t move out or anything else.

Q3: Road trip with kids
I have three kids – an eight year old, a six year old, and a three year old. During Thanksgiving week this year, we’re going to go on our first long family road trip, driving from Wyoming where we live to my hometown in southern Georgia. Yep, a LONG trip. I know you have three kids and regularly take road trips. What suggestions do you have for making this trip tolerable?

- John

Every time you stop for a meal, let your kids out of the car and let them run. Go to a park in the town and encourage them to get some vigorous exercise. Our children get stir crazy after a while in a car, and letting off some steam in a park has made all the difference.

When you’re in the car, have plenty of healthy snacks on hand. You’re going to want foods that distribute their energy evenly, so stick with fruits and nuts and the like. Also, have plenty of beverages – stick with water.

When you stop for gas, everyone goes to the bathroom. Everyone. No excuses. If you don’t, you’re going to be stopping a lot more than you’d like.

For in-car entertainment, it really depends on your kids. We have several albums of music that our whole family likes, so we just play all of them and sing along as much as possible. The adults keep their eyes open for interesting things along the roadside, too.

Q4: Maximizing retirement without 401(k)
My former employer ceased operations in June and the company 401-K, also ceased to exist at that time. I was making the maximum contribution and was hoping to get to $16,500 for the year. I started a new job on Sep. 10, 2012 but I will not be eligible to participate in the new company’s 401-K plan until January 1, 2013. I want to still make the maximum 401-K contribution for the year and also gain the tax advantage of doing so. What are your recommendations? Can I open a SEP IRA and still claim the full tax advantage of my contribution? I am in a pickle as you can see because my old company 401-K no longer exists and I cannot participate in my new company’s 401-K until next year, even though I want to.

- Marvin

Your best avenue for maximizing your pre-tax retirement contributions for the year really depends on your income level, among other things. You’re going to want to contact a financial planner here and show that person all of your financial records.

I would suggest doing that well before the end of the year so that you’ve got time to decide which option is best.

Which financial planner should you use? I highly recommend using one that is fee-only. If they’re commission-based, they have financial incentive to recommend certain options to you regardless of whether they’re the best options for you.

Q5: Inexpensive board games?
How do you find inexpensive board games? I visited a board game shop as you suggested, but all of the titles were seriously expensive!

- Monica

I often shop online for games. There are many online stores, such as Coolstuff, that have very strong prices for board and card games online.

Board games are frequent gifts from my wife and children, so I often get new games that way. I also trade away games that I end up not liking.

In any case, I almost always try before I buy. The best way to do that is to seek out a boardgaming club in your community or to go to a board game demo session or a board game night at that shop. Get an idea of what you’re getting before you put your money down.

Q6: Thinking games with kids
What games do you play with your children to encourage their critical thinking skills and problem solving skills?

- Leon

Any game that involves making a series of decisions is a great way to encourage critical thinking. (In other words, anything beyond Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders.)

For us, the key part of using a game as a way to encourage thinking is to talk about the decisions. Most of the time, game decisions are really straightforward, but at least a few times a game, it’s much trickier.

It’s during those times that I often talk through the decisions with my child. We look at the options and try to figure out which one is the best one.

This is almost pure critical thinking and it’s going to serve them well in life. Just make sure to play games with them that involve making decisions.

Q7: Unhappy with living situation
I am not happy with my living situation: I live with my room-mate in a two room apartment and I want out (or him). My girlfriend lives approx. 800 miles away from my city, we see eachother quiet often though. But still, I want to have her around all the time (and so does she).

I don’t have much stuff, in fact some minimalists would be jeaulous of me. I don’t own any furnitures except my desk, chair and bed, I have a Mac, iPad, iPhone, my books and clothes. I want to come home and my girlfriend, having our own space the way we want it and nobody who tells us what to do or how to do it (as my room-mate does!). Moving into another apartment within my city isn’t an option right now! And here is what I am thinking: If I move to her city, I probably won’t get paid as much as I would here. One half of me believes that I deserve to get a job with a decent/fair salary. I have one degree in media econimics, and very soon a second in online marketing. I also did work in different but related jobs for almost 5 years. The other half of me wants the life of a minimalist because it loves the simplicity, so with that I wouldn’t need that much money. Than again, I have never had a good salary because I was also studying to get good education. During my study I struggled really hard with my financials, and now I want to have money so I don’t need to worry about it all the time. I am open to move to different city aswell, and my girlfriend and I talked about that. She said that she would try find a new job in the same city and move there with me (but not right away).
- Carl

It sounds to me like you’re struggling to figure out what’s actually most important to you. Everyone has different values and different things that are important to them and it’s often a personal journey to figure out what those things are.

What I’m not sure about is whether you’re minimalist due to not having any money or because it’s an actual lifestyle choice. It sounds like you’re proud of it, but at the same time you want to discard it.

I would suggest that you should choose your path based on where you think you’re going, not based on where you’ve been. Move towards where you want to be in five years.

Carl has a follow-up question.

Q8: Unhappy with job
I am not happy with my job: It is no challenge for me anymore because I adapt quickly, and learn new things very fast. In result, I get bored. It is a trainee position, which isn’t paid very well (or fair). It is also limited until the end of February 2013. But the company is paying for my study, and if I quit now or after I got my degree in November, I will have to pay for the study (4000€). Either way I would have to pay unless I stay until March 2014, and even though I would love to take a new job, I thought to myself: “Why not trying to make the best of it right now and maybe figuring out if it’s possible to do more or other stuff that would qualify me for a different position AND a larger paycheck.” The problem is that I am unsure about what my superiors have in mind about me. They could simply offer me any job they want, and if I don’t take it I would have to pay the 4000€.

- Carl

There’s no reason you can’t do both.

You’re not going to want to leave the position you have unless there’s an offer on the other side that’s much better. So, shop around. See what’s available to you and whether or not you can secure an interview. Applying for another job doesn’t mean you have to take it.

Hunt for a new job while you have this one. If the right position pops up, take it. Otherwise, be glad you have something to fall back on.

Q9: Wish lists and gift giving
Before this Christmas, my siblings and I tried really hard to come up with gifts to genuinely surprise each other. Sometimes, they’d be great. Other times, they would be disastrous, but hilarious.

Now, one of our sisters wants us all to just make Amazon wish lists. I don’t want to do it at all. I think it takes away the fun of everything and eliminates the ability to make homemade gifts. What’s your take?
- Ron

Speak up. If this is how you feel, then you shouldn’t keep it to yourself. Make it clear that you liked the way it was done in the past.

It may be that your sister wasn’t comfortable with the previous gift giving situation. Maybe she felt bad about choosing gifts that weren’t liked, or maybe something she put a lot of effort into was made fun of because it was “disastrous, but hilarious.” Something made her feelings on the subject change.

I’d just ask her why she wants to do it a different way, but ask her in a one-on-one situation. If she has a reason like the above, then I’d back off for a year and let it be a simpler year for gift giving.

Q10: Hiding cash and telling others
I don’t like to keep all of my money in financial institutions, so I keep some of it hidden away on my property. The problem is that I’m worried about what happens when I pass away. What’s an appropriate way to let my children know where the money is if I pass on?

- Mark

I would include an envelope with instructions to the money’s location along with your will, and perhaps have the will refer to the envelope.

If you’re unsure exactly how to do this in a legally appropriate way, I’d contact your family lawyer. The lawyer will likely have a similar suggestion, one that’s in line with state laws and regulations.

In any case, if you’re this worried about the state of financial institutions in this country, you should also be concerned about the value of the dollar and diversify your holdings. Consider holding real estate or other things that will hold value regardless of currency swings.

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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