Reader Mailbag: Old Notebooks

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. Online yard sale advice
2. Frugal allergy solutions
3. Complaining at the checkout
4. Childhood phase or lifelong passion?
5. A mechanic you can trust
6. Birthday gifts
7. Bills and ethics
8. Old magazines for reference
9. Gluten free frugality
10. Passively entertaining children

I’ve been a daily (or nearly so) journal writer since Christmas 1991, when my grandmother gave me a journal and a little book about journaling as a Christmas gift.

Up until about 1998, I kept those journals in paper notebooks. I switched to electronic journaling late in the year.

Every once in a while, I stumble upon that old box of paper journals that contain my writings and thoughts from junior high, high school, and my early college years. I remember the person that wrote those entries and I love him dearly, but there’s enough of a time gap that the person that wrote those entries seems like a different person.

Not too long ago, I found the first entry that really talked about the woman that became my wife. It was wonderful to read.

Q1: Online yard sale advice
I am overdue to follow your recommendation of having a yard sale to clear clutter. However, a lot of the stuff I have to sell is in the nature of specialty equipment. For example, a high end chain ring for a bicycle, good touring bicycle handlebars, foam rollers for physical therapy, stretching equipment for physical therapy. By way of background, I live in a large metropolitan area. Here are my questions:

I think this stuff is too specialized for a neighborhood yard sale but might go if offered on Craigs List or an internet forum geared for people with special interests. (E.g., bicycle touring forums or forums for sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis). Would it make sense to post to Craigs List first (so I can sell to local buyers & do not have to become involved in the hassles of shipping), then to the various internet forums, and lastly to Ebay if the items do not otherwise sell?

I have a PayPal account that I have used to make purchases before on EBay. If I sell via the forums or EBay is PayPal the best way to get paid with minimum fees and aggravation?

Also, how aggravating is EBay to use from a seller’s perspective? My time is limited and I do not want to get into a complicated process for relatively small sums of money.

If I have to ship items, my best choices locally are likely FedEx and UPS. (The local US Post Offices have limited hours and huge lines). Do you have a recommendation of one over the other for lower costs/ aggravation? I note that it seems like EBay wants sellers to ship via the US Postal Service.
– Kevin

You can absolutely use a sequence of tools for selling. I often start with Craigslist myself with many items and if it doesn’t sell there I move on.

Paypal is owned by eBay, so it works very well with the site.

I don’t find eBay difficult as a seller as long as I take precautions, using delivery confirmation and insurance and the like. You just need to take every precaution described in the eBay seller’s guide and you’ll be fine.

UPS is generally cheaper unless you’re shipping an expensive item that would require a good deal of insurance. In those cases, FedEx catches up quickly, at least in my experience.

Q2: Frugal allergy solutions
The corn pollen from the local fields is crazy this time of year and my nose runs constantly. Without dosing up on allergy medications, what can I do to fix this?

– Erica

Assuming you don’t have insurance to handle this properly, I have two suggestions.

First, see if your local department stores or drugstores sell generic Claritin. This has always helped me with short-term allergies and generic Claritin is surprisingly inexpensive.

Second, I’d replace my furnace filter with a HEPA filter that can filter out those allergens. It will cost a little more, but if you use it mostly during allergy season, it will really help.

Q3: Complaining at the checkout
Up here in Canada, we have a coffee and donut chain called Tim Hortons. Sometimes, they have a promotion where a small coffee and donut are $1.99 — $1.22 for the coffee and $0.67 for the donut — with the idea being that, if you ordered a larger size coffee, you’d pay to “upgrade” you coffee and then add $0.67 for the donut.

Yesterday, when I went to Tim Hortons, I bought a medium coffee and a donut and was charged full price for both! My friend argued that paying $0.95 for a donut wasn’t the end of the world and that I “shouldn’t make a fuss” for $0.28. My question is, at what point is someone “making a fuss” and at what point is it a person’s responsibility to argue for the correct pricing and potentially stop the cashier from making similar errors with future customers?
– Steve

I don’t think it’s “making a fuss” to say, “Shouldn’t this be $0.25 cheaper?” It’s a reasonable question.

It’s up to you to decide what amount is worth bringing up. To me, it really comes down to time. If I noticed that $0.25 issue right at the checkout, I’d mention it, but I probably wouldn’t go through the line again just to get my quarter back as several minutes of my time are worth more than a quarter to me.

I am pretty diligent about checking receipts and such right at the checkout, though. I’ve caught many things that way.

Q4: Childhood phase or lifelong passion?
Our six year old loves playing the drums. He’s been taking lessons on playing and my mother bought him a small drum kit which he plays in the garage with ear protection on. He loves it. He goes out there all the time to play. He also has a bunch of songs with just the singing and guitars and he adds in the drums.

My question is whether we should be spending money on this passion of his. Should we invest in a better drum kit or is this something we should think of as a childhood phase?
– Jerry

As long as your son is happy with his current drum kit, I’d stick with that kit. If there is a very clear reason to upgrade it, then you’re asking a different question.

It sounds like you’re wanting to upgrade this drum kit simply so your son can have “the best.” He doesn’t need “the best” at this point. He needs a drum kit that he can continue learning with.

If he reaches a point where he can clearly articulate why this drum kit is inadequate and is turning the corner into performing his music, then you’re looking at a different situation. It really doesn’t sound like he’s quite there yet.

Q5: A mechanic you can trust
While I thoroughly enjoy and read your blog daily, I can’t help but notice your tendency to insist on people tending to car maintenance themselves. While I agree wholeheartedly with the thought and certainly do what I can on my own, the reality is that not everyone has the space (i.e. garage or driveway). While we have a house, we have street parking only, so maintenance like oil changes just can’t be safely done owing to oncoming traffic. Unless I’m remembering incorrectly, you’ve also mentioned in the past going to Jiffy Lube or a similar business when you have a discount coupon, which surprises me given your overall concern for your vehicles and the sometimes spotty reputations of such places.

I should explain that I have the good fortune of a WONDERFUL mechanic whom I trust completely. I’m still driving my first car (for which I paid only $700), and I’ve had the same mechanic for four of the five years I’ve owned it. He runs a one-man shop: the guy who answers the phone and greets you at the door is the same one that will work on your mechanical baby. Despite being in the middle of the city, his shop has a small-town feel once he knows you. When repairs came at tight times (such as squirrels chewing through the brake line right after my fiance had emergency dental surgery), he told me to bring the car in and worry about paying him later. If the “Check Engine” light comes on, I can swing by and have him see what the problem (if any) is for free, and the same goes for checking/airing up the tires. To me, a $30 oil change is more than worth it to support a good mechanic who will tell me if something will soon need fixed or, as happened this last week, if something simply isn’t worth fixing. We thought the AC was out of freon; he found that it was actually $800-900 worth of leaks and hosing that would have to be replaced and flat-out told me not to bother. His reasoning was that the issue in question only matters a few months out of the year, didn’t otherwise impact the functionality of the car, and as I drive a twenty-five-year-old, 215,000+ mile machine, money like that was best saved for a “real” repair or replacement (perish the thought!). He wouldn’t even let me pay him for his time that day!

Has he gotten a few thousand dollars from us (new tires, radiator [cracked on a high curb], starter, brake pads, tune-ups, and oil changes) over the years? Yes, but even the big fixes were cheaper than a monthly car payment, and he’s proven worth every penny. When I hear mechanic horror stories from other people, I’m honestly taken aback. When I read yet another “do it yourself” car post on your blog, I just have to smile. I’m happy to do what our limited street space and my own mad MacGyver skills allow, but when that’s not enough, I’m happy to support a business I truly believe in.

I should note that I buy 80-90% of my clothing second-hand, both my fiance and I cut our own hair, don’t have cable, and are overall very frugal–a strategy that our beloved POS car is apart of.
– Laurie

I agree. If you’re not comfortable doing a task on your vehicle, a mechanic is well worth calling on.

I mostly advocate for people to do things like change their own oil and their own air filters and air up their own tires. These are very simple tasks that pretty much anyone can do.

Yes, it takes a little longer to do these things yourself, but it saves a surprising amount of money.

Q6: Birthday gifts
At what age is it appropriate to start minimizing or eliminating birthday celebrations? After grade school? High school? It seems like an unnecessary annual expense.

– Gary

It really depends on what you decide for your own family and what your own family customs are. There is no right or wrong answer here.

I know some families that scarcely celebrate birthdays at all. I know other families that maintain them well into adulthood.

There is no right or wrong answer. If you feel it’s time to cut down or eliminate a birthday routine, then you should do it. Don’t look for the approval of others.

Q7: Bills and ethics
I have a question that has some ethical issues to it. I recently purchased a cell phone with a plan from Best Buy. I was told I had 15 days to return the phone with no penalties. 8 days later, I found out I can’t use the phone internationally since it has no SIM card, so I needed to return it. Again, I was told no penalties for a return.

Fast forward 3 months. I received a Bill from the cell phone provider for almost $400 and was notified they were taking me to collections for bills not paid. I had never received a bill prior to this!

I called the phone company, and they advised me I didn’t get a bill previously because I was signed up for e-bill. This is impossible since they didn’t have my email address. To get a hard copy that actually explained the charges would cost me. They said they would credit some of the charges, but when they tried to explain the new total to me – nearly $200 of late fees, prorated charges and activation fees- the math just didn’t add up. I was on hold for over two hours while they tried to figure it out, and finally just got fed up. I told them to call me back when they figured it out, and have yet to receive a call.

I realize if I don’t pay this bill, it will affect my credit. I understand I might have prorated charges for the 8 days I used the phone, and that’s fine, even though I was told twice I don’t owe anything. But I do not feel I owe the other charges, especially if they can’t explain the total to me. I am leaving the country in two months and won’t be back for a long time. How bad is it if I just don’t pay? I would pay the portion I can understand owing, but I’ll just get taken to collections for the remainder, so what’s the point?
– Charlotte

You have to stay on the phone with them until this gets resolved.

Call them back up, stay on the phone until you reach a resolution to the situation, and deal with whatever that resolution is. It will probably take a long time because, frankly, it sounds like your situation is a bit of a mess.

If you don’t pay, then it will severely damage your credit. They could also probably take you to court over it, but given the mess that you describe, it probably wouldn’t be worth it for them.

Q8: Old magazines for reference
Do you save old magazines or old magazine articles that have good advice or good information in them? How do you save them?

– Claire

The only magazine I save full issues of is Make, simply because I read and re-read the issues for pleasure far more than anything else I receive.

For most magazines, I toss the issues after a month or two. If there’s an article that I want to save information out of, I copy down that information or, in some cases, scan the article and save it to my computer.

I think magazines are wonderfully convenient for browsing, but not really convenient for long-term home reference.

Q9: Gluten free frugality
I need to buy items that are gluten free but some of these items (especially bread and flour) are considerably more expensive than the “regular” versions. Even when I avoid gluten free versions of junk food (cookies etc) my grocery bill is still higher than I would like. Any ideas where I may find coupons or discounts or even sales on such items? I may say goodbye to bread forever if I have to keep spending $5+ per loaf.

– Annie

You find coupons and discounts on these items in the same place you find coupons and discounts on ordinary items: store flyers, online coupon listings, and manufacturer’s websites.

The only difference is that now you have a new filter for the coupons you use. If the item has gluten in it, you just disregard the coupon.

There are certain items that I won’t buy. When I see coupons or discounts for those items, I just ignore them.

Q10: Passively entertaining children
How do you passively entertain your children without just plunking them in front of a television? I spend a lot of time with them doing activities and other things, but sometimes I have to get things done.

– Aaron

I usually either send our children into the backyard or send them into a television-free play room with some open-ended toys. Sometimes, I’ll pull out the basics for an art project at the kitchen table and let them start on that.

Sometimes, I have to give them a “seed” to start with. I’ll pull out a giant box of blocks and tell them to make a castle. I’ll give them three balls and tell them to invent a game with them in the yard.

This keeps them occupied for a period – maybe a half an hour or so. I generally don’t get long uninterrupted periods when the children are at home and I’m watching them, but a half an hour is usually plenty to get a task done.

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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