Reader Mailbag: Long Book Series

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. Investing for retirement while overseas
2. Avoiding product placement
3. Managing digital photos
4. Frugality and striving for excellence
5. Finding a financial advisor
6. Political volunteerism
7. Replacing a crock pot lid
8. Chasing a pro sports career
9. Rental questions and challenges
10. Favorite writers

I enjoy reading long book series. When I read for escapism, I enjoy escaping into a very full-formed world, and I typically find that long series tend to create a richer and more detailed world than a single book.

The problem is that when you sit down to face a series, it can be almost overwhelming. For example, The Wheel of Time is a fourteen book series that adds up to somewhere around 12,500 pages, according to my count. That is a lot of reading.

My solution is to break up series. I’ll read one book in a series, then follow it with something completely different – usually nonfiction. Then I’ll move on to the next book in a series.

That way, I don’t get burnt out or overwhelmed by a book series.

Q1: Investing for retirement while overseas
My family is American but we currently reside in Germany. We will be overseas for at least the next 3.5 years. Our finances are in good enough order except for our retirement. My husband is a pastor and the church that he works for has no retirement plan. We have a Roth IRA that is poorly funded but as far as I can tell from my reading, we don’t qualify to contribute to this while all our income qualifies for “foreign income exclusion.” We put away money each month for retirement but currently it just sits in our savings account. Could you recommend some other options for investing this retirement money?

- Charlotte

Unfortunately, as American citizens living abroad and not earning a domestic income, your retirement options are limited.

You’re able to invest in anything that you’d like, such as stocks and bonds and real estate, but you can’t make those investments in a tax-advantaged retirement account. You’ll have to make them separately through a brokerage account and you’ll have to pay taxes on dividend earnings and, eventually, on the profit made from any sale.

If I were you guys, I’d go that route. Consider it a “different” part of your nest egg. You’ll have to make small tax payments on the dividends or other income as you go along, of course, but when you choose to sell those investments, you can do it at any time without any extra tax penalties.

Q2: Avoiding product placement
I’ve been reading your blog for a long time and one of the things you’ve really made me think about is the amount of product placement on television shows. When you actually watch for it it’s so obvious that a lot of programs are just loaded with commercials inside the shows! They’re embedding a desire for products right into your head! How do you avoid this?

- Shawn

If you watch much modern television, you don’t avoid it. Product placement is everywhere.

You can turn off the television, of course. If you’re not willing to take that step, the best thing you can do is be conscious of the product placement. For me, it’s the advertising that I’m not consciously aware of that tends to be brutally effective. I find myself sometimes recognizing brand names and I have no idea why… until I realize that it’s probably from a product placement in a show I was watching or an ad that I wasn’t focused on at the time.

If you’re not sure about this, spend an hour watching your favorite show but look for every name brand product that you can clearly see or that you observe the characters using. That’s product placement, and it’s a pretty effective and subtle form of advertising that goes on all the time.

Q3: Managing digital photos
How do you manage all the photos you’ve stored on your digital camera/smartphone? I’d like to get into the practice of printing photos/making photobooks, so they don’t accumulate & I have tangible mementos, instead of scrolling on my phone or on Facebook. Any suggestions?

- Cindy

I sort them all by date, actually. I have a folder on my computer for photos, and within it are folders named 2013, 2012, and so on. Within those folders are folders numbered 1 through 12 (for the month).

For newer photos off of my digital camera, I just pull them into the appropriate folder based on the date they were taken. For older photos that I’ve scanned, I just use my best guess.

To sort them by person, I use Picasa, which is free and does a good job of automatically tagging people by their face.

I back all of this up regularly to an external hard drive. I also use off-site storage for just the photos as well. It’s an archive that I don’t want to lose.

Q4: Frugality and striving for excellence
One thing I’ve noticed is that if you focus hard on striving for excellence in just one or two things outside of your life, it’s often very frugal. My younger brother focuses on three things with ALL of his time: his classes, staying in shape, and competing in Starcraft II tournaments (and doing some writing and videos related to that). He barely spends any money at all, is pulling down a 4.0, and seems to have a ton of friends through exercise and Starcraft.

- Andrew

I completely agree with you. Focusing in on just one hobby, particularly one that doesn’t require much financial upkeep, is a great way to stay frugal and to get very good at a particular skill. It sounds like your brother has found a hobby that matches him, and he’s also figuring out some ways to even earn some money at it, and that’s a great thing.

I often go “deep” on a specific hobby for a while, and I often find that it’s a great way to build friendships, too. I have many friendships that have lasted for a long time because of my period focusing on a specific hobby, far beyond my time with that hobby.

A little bit of focus never hurt anyone.

Q5: Finding a financial advisor
I recently became a stay-at-home mom (and with that, a new parent). Incidentally, we also moved across the country for my husband’s career around the same time. I want to rollover my 403(b) to a Roth IRA, set up a 529 for our child, get term life insurance for my spouse outside of his employer, etc., so I want to find a financial advisor to help me accomplish all of this.

I wish I had done all of this before we moved when I lived in a bigger town and had older, wealthy people in my life to ask for a recommendation. Now, I live outside of a metropolitan area and don’t have any people in my community who have attained financial success that I’d want to emulate nor do I expect that any of them use a financial advisor themselves, anyway.

I’m looking for someone who is a Certified Financial Planner and who provides their service for a set fee. A trusted friend’s cousin is a CFS and offers a free first consultation but beyond that he is paid on commission based on my investments. On the one hand, I’m inclined to not use him since he’s a CFS not a CFP, and based on the payment structure that may direct me to invest in his preferences instead of my best interests. On the other hand, I have known of this guy through my friend for some time and he seems like a completely stand-up person, and our take-home pay is very modest so any out of pocket fee would be a significant expense for us. Plus, Google searches and LinkedIn trolling doesn’t seem like a much better plan to find someone. What should I do?
- Kelly

My personal instinct is to avoid commission-based financial planners. I’m not quite as concerned about the specific certifications that the person holds because, honestly, there’s an alphabet soup of them out there, though a CFP is certainly a solid certification.

If you’re looking for a fee-based financial planner in your area, I’d start with professional groups such as the NAPFA. Go through their listings and contact planners in your area, asking them if they’re fee-based or commission-based. Find some names that match, then research them as best you can via your social network and the internet.

If you have any friends that might be able to help, ask them privately. A good friend will often recommend a good service provider if they know of one.

Q6: Political volunteerism
I am extremely upset with the results of my local elections especially the congressional race. Since I don’t really have the money to start supporting candidates, I’ve decided to spend more of my time volunteering at a local level for elections to help get out the vote. I know you do this as you’ve mentioned that you do volunteer work in politics. How do you get started?

- Sam

I edited Sam’s note a bit to eliminate partisan elements, because the advice I’m about to give applies regardless of your political standing.

The best route you can take is to get involved with the county office of your preferred political party. You can easily find their contact information on the internet. Contact that office, whether by phone or stopping in during their office hours, and volunteer your efforts.

As you get more involved, you’ll eventually discover local candidates that align closely with your values. Don’t be afraid to work hard for those campaigns. You’ll find your efforts have more direct impact with local and state elections than with national ones.

Good luck! Political volunteering can be very empowering and very fun, and the only expense I’ve had is that sometimes I get myself so worked up that I fill out a donation check.

Q7: Replacing a crock pot lid
My favorite crockpot is nearly 30 years old. The plastic lid cracked. I started using a glass lid from one of my pots and pans that is a perfect replacement for the old, cracked, plastic one.

- Sally

We actually started doing this as well to replace our broken crock pot lid.

Trust me (and Sally) – breaking a handle on a lid isn’t a good reason to go buy a new pot. If you have a few lids around, you can probably find one that fits just fine.

We actually use an enameled cast iron lid for our crock pot cover now and it works very well.

Q8: Chasing a pro sports career
Long time reader. I’m about to graduate college with a degree in sports marketing. I believe that I am going to be selected in the upcoming Major League Baseball amateur draft somewhere in the middle rounds. I am trying to decide whether it is worth it to give a baseball playing career a serious shot or whether I should focus on my sports marketing career. The baseball career has been my dream but it is incredibly risky. 1% of all players drafted become consistent major leaguers. If I try that path then I know I will be spending long years playing in the minors and will likely never make the majors no matter how hard I work. Should I do this?

- Max

Assuming that you’re single and without children, I would highly recommend that you give baseball a serious shot, and give it your all. If you have family concerns, your answer might be different – it really depends on your partner’s commitment.

For starters, the experience of playing professional sports will help in an indirect way with sports marketing. It’s practically an ongoing internship on how the marketing of sports works if you pay attention to what’s going on around you. Watch how the teams you play for get local media attention and attract fans to the park. Get involved if there’s an opportunity.

If you do manage to make it to the majors and stick there for a while, be smart with your money and you’ll be set for life. If not, you’ll likely never regret the experience. If you never give it a shot, though, there’s a very good chance you’ll spend a lot of time later in life wondering “what if…”

Q9: Rental questions and challenges
I am a 56 year old divorced woman who makes a fairly tiny income as a freelance writer and part time community college teacher. I own a rental house that used to be my residence. It has a positive cash flow and I plan to have it paid off in 15 years so it can provide retirement income of approximately $1100/mo. I also own and live in a small townhouse that is paid off.

My significant other owns multiple rental properties in the city as well as his own place in the mountains about 90 miles away. He wants me to move into one of his rental houses with him (where he’d live part time) and either sell or rent out my townhouse. This is because he feels my place is unsafe (it is in the inner city with more crime than is optimum). At first I was enthusiastic but now I am having second thoughts. We have been disagreeing about how the finances would be handled and have had some major disagreements about this and other things that have been a surprise to me (decorating, who would use which rooms and how, how often company would come over, etc., etc.). We have discussed my paying rent but I feel that would be throwing money away and would rather do a lease-to-own arrangement. Initially he thought that was a good idea but then changed his mind.

If I rent out my townhouse, I would be making approximately the rental amount from my townhouse but being a landlady is a hassle, as I’ve learned from my other rental property. It seems that the moving-in idea shifted all the power around into an uncomfortable position for both of us. We talked about my paying for half of expenses (utilities, taxes, insurance — there is no mortgage) which would be affordable for me and although he initially agreed, I could see him becoming resentful of it not being enough money.

Do you think renting my place out and paying approximately the same amount to live in a house that’s not mine is a wise move? It is in a nicer location but there would be more of a commute and it wouldn’t be “mine.” We’ve discussed my buying in at some point but there have been disputes about how much I would have to pay to buy in, etc. He makes a lot more money than me and is not short of funds in any way.
- Erica

I absolutely would not sell your townhouse. I would consider renting it out for a while if you feel comfortable about cohabitating here, but that’s up to you.

Some of the elements you describe here indicate a relationship with a lot of potential fault lines. I would not dive deeper into this relationship without an easy “escape hatch.”

As for the rental arrangement you’re looking at, it doesn’t seem like a good deal to me. You’re still going to have to pay the mortgage on the townhouse, with rent on top of that. It doesn’t really gain you anything financially, but gives you the headache of having to deal with tenants or to hire a property manager.

The only way I’d even consider this is if I was very confident about the relationship, and the comments in your email would indicate to me that, at the very least, you owe it to yourself to do some real soul-searching concerning your relationship with this guy.

Q10: Favorite writers
I think it’s awesome that you still find time to read a book or two a week and set a strong example for your kids for reading. Who are your favorite authors?

- Rhonda

There are about ten different authors I can think of that, if they write a new book, I’ll be at the very least highly interested in reading it. There are also quite a few late authors for which I’ve read all of their works.

Living authors I would list include George R. R. Martin, Jeffrey Eugenides, Brandon Sanderson, Marilynne Robinson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ernest Cline, Dave Eggers, Walter Isaacson, Harper Lee, and Zadie Smith.

Dead authors that I’ve read the complete works of (to my knowledge) include Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and John Steinbeck. Others for which I’ve read almost everything (everything I’ve found so far, anyway) include Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman.

That would be a reasonable list of my favorite authors. If you asked me to name a single favorite, you’d get a different answer from me each hour.

Got any questions? The best way to ask is to email me – trent at thesimpledollar dot com. 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 many, many questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

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