Reader Mailbag: Personal Finance and Personal Growth Books

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. Entertainment expenses and singles
2. Charity receipts
3. Daily shaving
4. Self-interest and self-reliance
5. To-do lists online and off
6. Cheap and healthy travel food
7. Wedding gifts and money
8. Financial management software
9. Book clubs without buying books
10. Starting a microbusiness

For a long time on The Simple Dollar, I reviewed a personal finance or personal growth book each week. That meant I was reading one each week.

I kept up that practice for years, but eventually I simply got burnt out on them. Not only had I read a lot of books, I was often having to dig pretty hard to find interesting new ones to talk about. So, I stopped the series.

Since then, I’ve read quite a few interesting books and I’m thinking of starting some sort of review series again, but it will probably be somewhat different than before.

The book that really made me rethink doing reviews, by the way, was Silver Spoon Kids.

Q1: Entertainment expenses and singles
I think its more challenging in certain ways when you’re still single and don’t have a family. Entertainment expenses are a large part of your budget and time.

You’re also trying out a bunch of new things, learning about other people’s interests, traveling with people last minute, dating people. Frankly it’s a bit chaotic.

What do you recommend in that situation?

I’m currently testing social accountability and having two separate credit cards (one specifically for entertainment expenses).
– Jay

I agree that a single person might have more entertainment expenses simply because they don’t have another person in their home as a constant partner for socialization. Even then, you still have control over how much you spend on socializing and how you spend that money.

Being single doesn’t mean you can’t have dinner parties where everyone brings an item. It doesn’t mean you have to go somewhere pricy every night. It doesn’t mean you have to own the newest of everything.

Be who you are. If you put up too much of a “front” while dating, you end up having someone who has false expectations about you, and that can end up in disaster.

Q2: Charity receipts
I decided at the start of this year that I would focus on supporting the charities that mattered most to me, and I’ve given a lot this year, enough to make a serious impact on my taxes. I’ve been saving all of the receipts in a folder.

Unfortunately, I’ve been told by a friend that a few of the charities I’ve given to might not actually be registered charities and aren’t tax deductible. How can I be sure whether a charity is a registered charity and thus tax deductible?
– Andrea

Go through your receipts and catalog them. Look up each charity and make sure that the charity is actually a registered tax-deductible charity.

If you find out that you’ve given to a group that isn’t a charity, chalk it up to experience.

There are some sharks in the water when it comes to charity. I generally don’t give unless I’m sure the money is actually going to something useful and good.

Q3: Daily shaving
I shave every day for work. Is it less expensive to use disposable razors or an electric razor for shaving?

– Jeremiah

The least expensive option is a straight razor, but I would be scared to death to use one.

The next least expensive option is a safety razor with replaceable blades. The best way to judge the cost here is to figure out the cost per blade replacement, which varies wildly. If you have a good safety razor that uses just single razor blades, they’re usually very inexpensive. However, using an older-style safety razor takes some practice.

An electric razor has an enormous up-front cost, but is very inexpensive per use, as you generally only have to replace the blade attachment once every few months (depending on the model).

If I were buying solely for myself, I would buy a older-style safety razor that uses individual razor blades. If someone gave me an electric razor as a gift, I’d use that. I’d generally avoid the cartridge-based razors that seem so popular now, as they’re pretty expensive per use.

Q4: Self-interest and self-reliance
We all act in our own self interest with regards to our family and hopefully we consider our neighbors and close friends family with regards to taking care of those around us. We also have some version of “ideals”, be it values or faith or belief system or even dogma handed down to us from someone else that we operate out of everyday. You probably know this intimately as the scripts that guide how people view and use money are deep ones that reveal these “ideals”.

I think the problem becomes when we believe or are led to believe that a candidate represents our “ideals” (as defined above). This is impossible and politicians will say whatever they need to to get elected. Even worse is that we believe that if 50.01% of the vote represents that perceived “ideal” that the rest of us should be forced to go along with decisions made at the federal level. Elected individuals in this country were never intended to force a belief system on local communities and those communities and cities and states should decide for themselves, except for literally a few item that are better handled at a national level.

The other problem is that politicians project this short term gain/ ideals for their benefit. They want that to be the question asked because it benefits them regardless of what you choose. All politicians that intend to stay in office for multiple terms are always focused on short term gains…earmarks here, bill sponsorships there all for the benefit of getting re-elected AND projecting the amorphous “ideal” that satisfies the largest group that they can assemble to win an election. THEY WANT US TO PICK RED OR BLUE and stand behind red or blue no matter what happens.

I do like your answer regarding life experiences and I wouldn’t expect your answer to necessarily go into detail or direction that I have. I also think its important that we as people have to focus on taking care of ourselves and others around us and stop expecting politicians to go around fixing everything and managing our lives. They simply cannot do collectively what we can do individually or as a community.
– Kevin

Most politicians that make it to a national level do so because they’ve shown an ability to work well with special interest groups and an ability to campaign well and connect with enough voters to win higher office. Period. Those are really the two qualifications needed to be involved with national politics.

Neither of those talents have anything to do with leadership or solving our nation’s problems.

I think the best thing for any person to do is to try to solve their own problems. If government can help you solve those problems, great, but I would never, ever expect that the government will solve your problems.

Q5: To-do lists online and off
I tried out Wunderlist as you suggested and I can see how it would be useful but I just don’t find it as flexible as an offline to-do list. I’ll stick with my pencil and paper, thank you.

– Jenny

I use a mix of things to keep my tasks organized. For a daily quick to-do list, I often do use pencil and paper. In fact, I really like using TOPS form 2170 as a desktop pad for this purpose. I often have one for today that I’ve torn off, along with one for tomorrow on top of the pad.

I usually use to-do list managers for managing the many longer-term projects and things I have going on. I usually have a lot of bigger projects going on at any one time that involve a lot of steps, and I try to keep those all going. Having a detailed to-do list manager helps with that.

A lot of days, I’ll pull a few of the “next steps” from those ongoing bigger projects and add them to today’s or tomorrow’s to-do list that I keep with pencil and paper.

Q6: Cheap and healthy travel food
I travel a lot. While my company does reimburse me a bit on expenses, I still find that I end up having to spend more out of pocket just to eat well. How do you eat decent food while traveling without spending a ton of money?

– Josh

I eat a lot of snack and meal bars when traveling, to tell the truth.

When I know travel is coming up, I keep an eye out for sales on snack and meal bars and I buy them if they meet a few dietary guidelines. It must have at least 3 grams of fiber, at least 5 grams of protein, 30% or less of the calories should come from sugar, and it shouldn’t contain any saturated fat (or very, very little).

There are actually a lot of bars out there that meet those requirements. You have to look at individual flavors, but Clif Bars, Odwalla Bars, Harvest Power Bars, and Luna Bars all do well. I also usually pack some unsalted nuts.

I usually use these things for all of my eating until dinner time, at which point I usually end up eating a meal out with my travel companions.

Q7: Wedding gifts and money
I recently got married and because the wedding was in Europe, most of my family was unable to come to the wedding.

My wife and I are minimalists and doing without anything but the bare essentials is an important part of who we are. My relatives would like to send gifts but we really don’t want stuff. My wife and I want to ask for money (which is completely normal in her culture) since we are currently saving to pay for an apartment and we really don’t want any physical gifts. My mother has said this is extremely rude and that the family will take it the wrong way.

What is the right way to navigate this? I would rather receive nothing than getting appliances we don’t want. I am thinking of telling my relatives that gifts are completely unneccesary but if they feel the need to contribute something they can either donate money to us to start our life together or donate to a charity of their choice.
– Mark

If you were in Europe and I were in the US, I would far rather send you some money than deal with the cost and headache of shipping you a gift. I would guess a lot of your relatives would be in the same boat.

Rather than crassly asking for money, I’d simply tell people to not ship things to Europe and instead just send a note so they can avoid the headache and cost of shipping to Europe. Some of them will take that idea and simply just send a note, but many of them will put some money in the envelope, too.

I think it’s bad form to dictate gifts in any way, but a suggestion like this would really relieve many of the people who were torn about sending you something.

Q8: Financial management software
What software do you use to keep track of your money? Do you use Mint or Quicken?

– Rodney

I use Microsoft Excel, actually.

For the most part, I just use a homemade spreadsheet similar to this one to keep track of my net worth. I used to track it monthly, but now I just do it quarterly.

For other specific calculations, I either make up the spreadsheet on the fly or look for a web-based calculator. Bankrate has a large number of useful online calculators.

Q9: Book clubs without buying books
I’ve been talking with a friend of mine about starting a book club in our town for women. We’re hoping to attract women that are like us who are smart, fun, avid readers.

Our big worry is that people won’t want the cost of buying books each month. Do you have any suggestions for minimizing the cost here?
– Janine

If I were you, I’d talk to the local library about it.

Many local libraries will work with local book clubs to stock several copies of a book that the club is reading. They’ll acquire copies through interlibrary loan and other sources over the short term so that club members can each check out a copy.

Beyond that, some of your club members will still likely buy the books because they want to mark them or because they like to assemble their own home libraries. I wouldn’t worry about having a copy for everyone.

Q10: Starting a microbusiness
I need tips on how to start my own business. I want to sell international clothing on a website. It’s on a website because it makes it available country wide. I would appreciate any tips you can give me.

– Megan

The project you’re describing sounds like a perfect fit for Etsy at this stage.

Etsy is a great way for people to get started on a side business making homemade items like the clothes you’re describing. (I’m assuming, of course, that you’re making them yourself.)

If you’re trying to import large quantities of clothes from overseas (which is also a possible business based on what you describe), you’re going to need a lot of help to get that started. I’d suggest heading down to your local library and looking for books on how to start your own e-commerce site and business.

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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