Reader Mailbag: Sandboxes

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. Laundry soap question
2. LED bulbs
3. Anticipating marriage
4. Ultra-frugal clothes washing
5. Applying for multiple credit cards
6. Teaching children simpler tastes
7. Paying estimated taxes
8. Engagement ring
9. Budgeting for bulk
10. Cheap. Healthy. Tasty. Fast.

Our children love to play in the sandbox. The only problem is that, over time, our sandbox has developed some issues.

The previous owners of the house built a sandbox and lined it before they added sand, but now that liner has started to fail and the sandbox is starting to mix with mud.

What we need to do is empty all of it out, put in a fresh new liner, and fill it up with sand again. We have a source for sand, thankfully.

It’s a doable project, of course. It just makes for a long afternoon of shoveling that I’m dreading.

Q1: Laundry soap question
I just saw your laundry detergent recipe and Im about to try it myself! I saw the article is 2008, did you find any improvement to make in the last year? and I was also wondering…. how many grams soap bars did you use? because I already shreded many soap bar leftovers and I need to weigth a certain quantity to know it equals a bar. Also .. would you recommend using hard or softer water?

– Andrew

I shoot for very close to 100 grams or 3.5 ounces. Normal bars vary from 3 to 4 ounces and anything in that range is okay.

I don’t have any real improvements to suggest to the recipe. It is very important to note that different kinds of soap will produce different liquid consistencies. Some soaps will make a watery end product, while others will make something that looks like Jell-O. Don’t stress out if the consistency isn’t exactly what you expect.

I’d just use whatever kind of water that your washing machine uses. If it’s fairly hard, hard water is fine in the soap mix.

Q2: LED bulbs
My husband and I saw a demo of LED bulbs at the hardware store and we’ve finally decided to switch. Does it make more sense to replace all of the bulbs at once or just replace as they burn out?

– Shari

Unbelievably, the cheapest route is to change all of your light bulbs immediately. Old incandescent bulbs use so much energy that it’s cheaper just to get them out of your sockets.

Remember, a 75 watt bulb drops to 10 watts (or so) of energy use with an LED, so it doesn’t take too many hours of LED use to recoup the cost of just getting rid of that old inefficient bulb. It depends on what you paid for the incandescent, but you’re usually paying for that bulb with between 30 and 100 hours of LED bulb usage. If your incandescent bulb has more life than that in it, then you should yank it.

That doesn’t mean you should toss them. Give them to someone in your family who will use them. It’s free light bulbs for them, after all.

Q3: Anticipating marriage
In September my fiance and I are getting married. I feel that we need to take this time to become more financially mature, but I’m not sure how. I am a full-time graduate student and my fiance is an office worker and also a full-time student, he is our soul source of income. Typically we break even each month, although we could save more if we really tried. What should our financial concerns be until our wedding?

– Adrian

The best thing for you guys to do is to sit down and have regular conversations about your goals.

Where do you want to be after five years of marriage? How about at the ten year mark?

Yes, some of this will be about non-financial goals, but even those have financial implications.

If you need a starting point, I suggest you read Smart Couples Finish Rich by David Bach.

Q4: Ultra-frugal clothes washing
A friend of mine has a bucket and a special plunger that he uses for washing clothes. He fills up the bucket about a third full with cold water, mixes in some soap, adds clothes until it’s about three quarters full, then uses the plunger to mush the clothes around in the water. He does this for like five minutes, then dumps out the water, adds soap-free water, does it again, does another rinse with soap-free water, and then hangs the clothes out to dry. They seem really clean and fresh. It seems pretty cheap, but the loads are pretty small and it takes time. Do you know about this?

– Jenna

I’ve actually seen this before. The plunger you mention is actually this thing, which is designed specifically for this purpose.

The procedure you describe is accurate, too. You can do two or three rinses depending on what your needs are.

You still need a clothesline (or a dryer) for this to work, but it eliminates the energy cost entirely from laundry. If you use cold water from the tap, you’re saving between $0.50 and $1 per load, but you’re also adding several minutes of labor to the equation.

Q5: Applying for multiple credit cards
I just closed my credit card with Citi. I am looking to apply for a new personal credit card and a business credit card.

Are there any advantages to applying for both at the same time? Any disadvantages?
– Adam

There will be a very minor reduction in your credit score due to the multiple credit history checks, but if your credit is solid, it won’t make a difference at all.

Once you do have those two cards, your credit score probably will change a little. It may go up or go down depending on the other credit you have.

Why would it change? Your total credit limit will have increased and your debt-to-credit ratio will have changed, too. Both of those are factors in credit score calculations. Here is a list of credit cards to help you in the decision making process.

Q6: Teaching children simpler tastes
My kids always seem to come home from school or from time spent with friends and want things that are expensive. They want a 3DS or an iPad or something else that costs a lot of money. How can I teach them to be content with the stuff they have?

– Sienna

Be content with the stuff you have, first of all. Do you buy new stuff frequently?

In so many ways, you set the tone for the choices your children make. As they become more and more independent from you, the things they saw from you during their childhood pop up again and again.

Aside from that, I’d also suggest being very limited in how you “give in” to their material desires. An occasional gift for a holiday is fine, but they do not need the latest and greatest of everything.

Q7: Paying estimated taxes
I have a tax question… I’ve been using Turbo Tax for about 3 years now. For the last 2 years I’ve been paying State (California) estimated taxes. This year Turbo Tax wants me to pay Federal estimated taxes as well. I’ve decided not to do this, as I don’t want to give the government a free loan, but would rather save up and pay taxes next April 15th. Is it ok that I don’t pay the estimated taxes (anymore for State)?

– Vincent

If you don’t, they’ll penalize you.

If you choose not to pay the estimated taxes, you face a financial penalty for doing so. This IRS document spells out the details, but suffice it to say that unless you’re doing very well with that money you’re not paying to the government, it’s better to pay the estimated taxes each quarter.

I usually struggle with this and end up paying a small penalty or filing a form requesting an exception to the penalty because I have difficulty estimating my income with a high degree of accuracy.

Q8: Engagement ring
I am thinking of proposing to my girlfriend later this year. Problem is that I went and looked at engagement rings and they were ridiculously expensive. I think it’s insane to spend thousands of dollars on a piece of jewelry. That’s money we could use on setting up our financial future. What do you think?

– Nicholas

I agree, but you need to make sure that your girlfriend is on board with this. If you get her a ring that’s far different than what she expects, you’re going to have problems. Non-financial problems, but problems nonetheless.

The best solution is to talk to her about it a little. Get a sense of whether she considers a “big” ring to be a really important thing or whether she’d rather you guys save your money for something else.

If nothing else, this discussion will give you some insight into her mindset, which will help you figure out if she’s the right one for you.

Q9: Budgeting for bulk
We just implemented a system for budgeting around bulk purchases that is working rather well. We have a $400/month budget for food. Whatever we don’t spend goes toward making some bulk purchases (an end-of-the-month Costco run). As we make more and more bulk purchases, we have more and more to spend on them because of what we already had in the pantry. We think this is a good way to budget for bulk items if you simply don’t have wiggle room to increase your food budget. What do you think?

– Fiona

This makes a ton of sense! I really like it!

It does a very effective job of slowly moving you into bulk buying on the things that make sense to buy in bulk. So, for example, one month you might only spend $360 on food, so you have $40 for bulk buys at the end of the month. Those bulk buys lower the spending next month to $330, so now you have $70 for bulk buys. That cycle continues until you’re buying everything in bulk that makes sense to buy in bulk.

Even better, it helps with strict budgeting. For many families, keeping those food costs under control can be a real effort. This is a great alternative.

Q10: Cheap. Healthy. Tasty. Fast.
It seems like every food I find misses out in some area. It’s expensive or it’s unhealthy or it tastes like cardboard or it takes forever to prepare. What can I eat that is cheap, healthy, tasty, and fast?

– Jenny

Fresh fruits and vegetables is the place. A banana, for example, is cheap, healthy, tasty, and fast. Stir fry with a medley of vegetables is cheap, healthy (provided you don’t dump a bunch of sauce on it), tasty, and fast. Steel cut oatmeal from a crock pot is cheap, healthy, tasty, and fast.

If you really want to hit these four factors hard, buy things that you like only from the fresh produce section of your grocer. Eat a lot of them raw and look for simple ways to prep them. Most of your cart should come from the produce section.

If you stick to that, you’re going to be eating a lot of things that are cheap, healthy, tasty, and fast.

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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