Mailbag: Questions About Coronavirus, Coffee, FICA, Dog Treats, Getting Things Done, and More

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to summaries of five or fewer words. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Concerned about coronavirus
2. Worried about employer stability
3. Coffee at home actually cheaper?
4. FICA explanation
5. Cheap dog treats
6. Repurposing junk mail
7. Making money at Fiverr?
8. Frustrated at late child support
9. Saving childhood art
10. Homemade bread too much work
11. Real ID questions
12. “Getting Things Done” refinements

I was thinking recently about the moments in which I regularly feel best. I usually feel best near the end of a day where I’ve done a lot of worthwhile things in many areas of my life — good professional work, parenting, social connections, relationship building with my wife, getting a lot of personal tasks done, being fit, eating well, and so on. I’m resting, I’m maybe a bit sore and just a touch tired but still alert, and I’m doing something I enjoy doing in the aftermath of a day well-lived. That’s the best. That’s what I want as often as possible.

On with the questions. Let’s start with the big question, one I’ve heard in some form several times in the last week.

Q1: Concerned about coronavirus

With the big drop in the stock market and all of the news reports about coronavirus, I am worried about what to do. What should a reasonable person do right now?
– Nate

The problem with something like coronavirus is that the potential directions in which it could go in the next few months are, shall we say, incredibly different. Two months from now, it could be essentially forgotten. On the other hand, two months from now, a lot of American business could be on lockdown with pretty much all public gatherings banned and a lot of people very ill (current data suggests that about 20% of people who get coronavirus get seriously ill, with some small percentage of those being fatal, but the other 80% get either no symptoms at all or only minor illness).

What do I suggest doing? I am not a public health expert, so I can’t really suggest what’s right for you, but I can share what our family is doing.

One, we’re definitely on the high end in terms of non-perishable foods in our pantry. We know we’ll eventually eat all of this stuff as a normal course of life, but we have a lot of pasta, flour and canned foods. Again, this is stuff that we will eventually eat over the next several months; it’s not extra stuff purchased that we won’t be able to eat. I think it’s reasonable right now to buy some non-perishable foods in bulk and just stick them in the cupboards with the intent to gradually eat them regardless of what happens over the next few months. You should consider the same with household supplies, too — have ample amounts on hand, but there’s no need to fill your entire basement with toilet paper. There’s basically no reason to go to extremes; even the worst-case outcome of coronavirus doesn’t mean some kind of “Walking Dead” scenario. It just may mean a few disruptions, like low quantities on a few items at the store and some travel restrictions.

Two, we haven’t locked in our summer vacation travel plans yet, something we’ve usually done at this point in the year. Again, it’s not a major issue to wait a little while to lock in travel plans for the spring and summer. It might cost you a little to wait, but it might save you a ton on anything nonrefundable if you wait and it turns out that summer travel isn’t advised.

Three, we’re sitting tight on all of our investments. Right now, the stock markets are freaking out mostly because, even if nothing else happens, there’s going to be some disruption of overseas trade throughout 2020 and that will affect the revenue of a lot of publicly traded companies in 2020. For the last month, a lot of ships that should have left docks throughout the world haven’t departed, and that means supplies and goods aren’t arriving. That’s not the end of capitalism, but rather it means that 2020 probably won’t be a great year for a lot of companies and many people invested in stocks do so for shorter-term gains, so they’re selling right now and moving into other things. When the coronavirus threat passes, there’s a vaccine and normal trade resumes, most of those losses will rebound as short term investors buy back in. It’s going to be bumpy for a while.

If you’re living off of your investments, I would suggest living lean for a while — that’s what I would do. Drawing money out of investments to live on should be avoided if the stock market is going through an abrupt downturn.

I don’t really have any other advice, other than things like practicing good hygiene. Wash your hands thoroughly and often — use soap and sing “Happy Birthday” twice in your mind while thoroughly scrubbing your hands, because that’s how long you should scrub. I’m maybe a little wary of super-crowded places right now, but I’m not worried about going to the grocery store or anything like that.

Even if coronavirus were “Walking Dead” levels of bad — which it most certainly is not — panicking and doing nonsensical things that would be disastrous in most outcomes doesn’t help. If the most extreme fears are true and anything were to happen that would significantly and permanently disrupt modern civilization, most of the preparation you would do wouldn’t help for very long anyway, so it’s not worth worrying or sweating about it, because anything short of spending millions on a self-sustaining community in the hills protected by armed guards wouldn’t matter, and in 99.999% of outcomes that would basically be useless. It’s one of those things that’s just a waste of time and energy to worry about. Any preparations you should do ought to be aimed at just making it easier to survive a short blip in normal routines.

There is a good chance that some elements of this answer won’t be perfect if you read them a few months from now, but it’s impossible to know exactly what the next few months will bring. This is just my best guess as to what to do.

Q2: Worried about employer stability

I am a waitress at a restaurant and I think the restaurant isn’t doing well. There haven’t been any paychecks missed yet but there are fewer customers than we usually have and the bar isn’t getting restocked and shifts are low. Love the place and the people here but when is the right time to jump ship? Better to leave now or to wait until the place goes under?
– Andrea

If you’re feeling like the place is on its last legs, use the fact that it’s still in business and you’re still earning an income as a safety net while you apply for other jobs. Don’t just quit. Apply and interview when you’re not at work and then turn in your notice if you lock up another job.

If you wait around to do this until the restaurant goes under, you either have to get another job immediately or go through a period with no job which can be really rough if you don’t have some kind of safety net.

If word gets back to your boss that you’re interviewing elsewhere, simply tell him that you need a paycheck and you’re worried about the place going under and that if hours are dropping for everyone, you leaving means he can give the other people more hours.

Basically, I’d start job hunting now, but I wouldn’t quit right away either.

Q3: Coffee at home actually cheaper?

So my morning coffee routine is to get a large coffee at McDonald’s which comes out to $1.61 each day. There’s a McDonald’s about three buildings down from where I work so I just go there first. Read your advice about making coffee at home but I am not convinced it’s cheaper.
– Andy

It looks like a large black coffee from McDonald’s is about 18 ounces, and you pay $1.61 for it. That’s about $0.09 per ounce. I’m very confident that my own coffee routine is cheaper, so let’s do the math.

I typically make cold brew coffee using a cold brew coffee maker similar to this one. Let’s assume it’s $30. It doesn’t need any filters or anything.

My usual ratio is to use about 1/2 cup of coarsely ground coffee (about 2.5 ounces) to 32 ounces of water. This makes, surprisingly, 32 ounces of black coffee at about the strength I like. The best inexpensive ground coffee I’ve found is Eight O’Clock Coffee, which you can get 24 ounces of ground coffee for $10. That makes 10 batches of this coffee, or 320 ounces of coffee, or a cost of $0.03 per ounce of coffee.

Now, we do need to include the cost of the coffee maker in this. If I use it 200 times, that brings the cost per use down to $0.15 per 32 ounces of coffee, or about $0.02 per ounce. That brings it up to $0.05 per ounce. I’m also heating it in the microwave, which is less than $0.01 in energy per ounce. I’m not going to calculate the tiny cost of refrigeration. I’ll round up generously and call this $0.06 per ounce.

So, at McDonalds, the cost is $0.09 per ounce. If I use my usual method at home, making it with Eight O’Clock ground coffee and my cold brew coffee maker, it’s about $0.06 per ounce. For my morning 18 ounces of coffee, making it at home saves me about $0.54 versus a large coffee at McDonald’s, a savings that slowly rises the more times I use my cold brew coffee maker (since I’m calculating the cost of the coffee maker per use).

For me, that’s worth it. Eight O’Clock is my preferred inexpensive coffee; I’d rather have cold brew made from those grounds than McDonalds coffee, even at the same price. If I were to use more expensive beans and grind them myself, I’d make a far better coffee (and probably one strong enough that I may have to dilute it), but the cost would still likely be less per ounce than McDonalds.

What about the time? My time investment is pretty tiny. I put half a cup of grounds in the filter, fill it up with water, and stick it in the fridge for a day, then I pour the coffee in a pitcher, put the grounds somewhere, and put the coffee maker in the dishwasher (or make another batch immediately). If I want it hot, I microwave it for 60 seconds or so; usually, I prefer it cold. That’s it. I’d spend more time at the counter at McDonald’s.

For me, things would still fall on the side of making it myself. Sure, it’s only $0.50 a day, but I like my own coffee better and $0.50 a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year turns into $125 a year.

Q4: FICA explanation

Can you explain why a guy at work pays more in income tax than I do but I get more taken out in FICA than he does?
– Andy

Most likely, you make a little more than he does but you also have more dependents than he does. I don’t know this without seeing your full stubs, but that’s a very likely explanation.

When your FICA tax (that means your share of Social Security and Medicare, basically) is calculated, the IRS uses the gross amount you make. If you make $40,000 a year, your FICA tax is based on that number, regardless of how many dependents you have.

When your income tax is calculated, the IRS uses a much more complicated formula to estimate your income tax. This formula includes how many dependents you have. If you’re married and have two kids, you likely have four dependents, whereas a single person might only have one dependent. The more dependents you have, the smaller the percentage of your check is taken out for taxes. It’s expensive to have more people under your roof, but you do get a bit of a breather on your taxes because of it. (Don’t try to fudge this number or else you will regret it seriously when it comes time to file your taxes.)

So, let’s say you make $42,000 a year and your friend makes $40,000 a year. Because of that, your FICA tax is going to be a little bit higher than his. However, you might have four dependents and he has one dependent, so the actual amount you would end up getting taken out of your check for income taxes on is less than the amount he gets taken out.

Q5: Cheap dog treats

What’s the best brand for cheap dog treats?
– Alison

The best brand for cheap dog treats is to make them yourself. You can just buy some chicken breasts or chicken thighs when they’re on sale, cut them into small pieces of your preferred size, spread the pieces on a cookie sheet, bake on the lowest setting in your oven (170 F, probably) for two hours, then store them in the fridge in a closed container.

If you want some treats that are fine at room temperature, you could buy an inexpensive food dehydrator and dehydrate the cooked chicken pieces per the directions on the package. (The reason lots of pet treats are made out of chicken is that chicken is pretty good for a dog in terms of health and it’s inexpensive.)

You can make a whole lot of treats at once this way without a whole lot of effort.

If you want to just go buy some treats for your pet, I’d honestly ask your vet for suggestions on inexpensive treats that are good for your dog. The difference among breeds is pretty wide.

Q6: Repurposing junk mail

I wanted to share what I do with junk mail. I will run junk mail through a shredder and stuff it in a big trash bag I keep in the garage. When I mail packages that shredded stuff is perfect packing material that didn’t cost me a cent! A lot better to reuse that stuff than to buy bubble wrap or something!
– Kenneth

This is a great idea if you have a paper shredder already! It keeps you from just putting shredded items in the trash or recycling.

I actually do a lot of trading and selling by mail and this is a great idea. I usually repurpose packaging material in any packages I get — the bubble wrap with big bubbles just goes into a couple of big black bags in the garage and then I pull out pieces when I need to ship something.

If I do receive shredded paper as the packing material in a box, I usually wind up using it for kindling for campfires (we often have backyard campfires, and we go camping all the time in the spring, summer, and fall).

It’s always better to find clever ways to get a second use out of stuff!

Q7: Making money at Fiverr?

Can you actually make money at Fiverr? A friend says he makes some spare cash in the evenings on there but I looked at it and it looks like you are investing hours to make $5.
– Billy

If you are really skilled at some niche task that others might want to buy, you can do well on Fiverr. For example, if you’re a whiz at Photoshop and graphic design, you can go on there and offer to make logos for $10 or something like that and churn one out in 30 minutes while watching Netflix.

It’s not very efficient if it’s a skill that you don’t know very well or something that’s really time intensive. You’re going to want to do tasks that might take someone that barely knew what they were doing several hours but you can do fairly well in 15 minutes.

I tried using Fiverr for a while under an assumed name to do research for an article and I found that it really only was efficient for me if I was doing short pieces of writing as quickly as I can. That’s something I have practice doing because of my daily writing schedule, but I know that most people write at a slower pace than I do. So, I decided there wasn’t enough there to really make an article about.

Q8: Frustrated at late child support

My ex-husband is consistently late with his child support. He basically never pays on time and will get months behind and then pay a bunch at once to catch up. Its really hard to stay afloat if he’s not paying for months but the police act like they can’t really do much until he’s further behind. They have some definition of how late he has to be before they do anything and I think it’s a year or a lot of money. I called my lawyer, too, and he says there isn’t much he can do. Do you have other ideas?
– Dani

I would try contacting the Department of Human Services in your state and see what they can do. Depending on your state and how late he is, there may be some things they can do, such as garnishing his wages.

However, he may just be skirting the legal limits of what he actually has to do in terms of paying you, staying just inside any legal remedies in your state. It can feel punishing to you, but if your state has a significant grace period for late payments, he may be staying within what he’s legally allowed to do. Again, I don’t know the exact specifics of how late he is or what the laws are in your state.

In terms of daily life, the best thing you can do is to try to figure out how to live assuming there is no child support coming in, then hold onto any child support money that arrives and use it for emergencies and big expenses that would be difficult to cover otherwise. You need to figure out how to survive a normal month (with no surprises) without any child support.

Yes, it’s a bad situation, and the person who isn’t paying you isn’t doing things right by you or that child (or children), but he seems to be falling short of criminal negligence. That means you have to figure out how to make it work, unfortunately.

Q9: Saving childhood art

How much art did you save from when your kids were young? I have a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old in a good daycare and they send home multiple pieces of art each day. They’re cute, but it’s a lot of paper and I’m already seeing that I won’t look at most of it again. They also send home order forms sometimes so that art can be made into mugs and ceramic stuff. I feel bad tossing all this stuff but storing it will take a lot of space and art products are expensive.
– David

We saved just a few pieces of art from their early years, ones that we thought were particularly good or interesting in some way. We have on the order of 10 to 15 pieces of art for each kid from their preschool and early school years, all saved in a scrapbook of sorts.

We bought a very small number of “art products,” as you describe them. Our daycare also sold such products on occasion. Most of the time, we skipped them, but we bought a few. Our kitchen table trivets, for example, are ceramic versions of some of their art. We purchased perhaps two items for each child over the years.

I feel like anything more than that is diminishing returns. If we save all of their art or even a lot of it, it all goes unappreciated. We’re better off just saving a few key pieces for future appreciation and recycling the rest. It saves on space and allows us to actually appreciate the best stuff.

Q10: Homemade bread too much work

Been following your homemade bread recipe. It is cheaper and the bread is really good but it is too much work. Is a bread machine a better option?
– Amber

I think Amber is talking about this article. I still make bread like that fairly often, but we did get a secondhand bread machine and use that even more often. The two loaves are really comparable, which makes sense since I use basically the same recipe both with and without the bread machine (this is my default bread machine recipe).

The bread machine is less work than making a loaf from scratch, as you just dump in the ingredients and hit a couple of buttons. The slices are kind of big and there’s a big dimple on one end of the loaf, but aside from that, it does a good job and it’s really easy to clean up — we just stick the bucket in the dishwasher and then put it back in the closet. I probably use it twice a month.

I think, with anything like making your own bread, you’re balancing time, savings and quality. Different people have different things they value in that equation. Homemade bread is going to be less expensive than store bread and, in my opinion, is better in quality, but it takes time and we all have limited time. I tend to make it, not for the savings, but because it’s a good loaf of bread. A bread machine is faster, but I sometimes make it without a bread machine because I think the non-machine loaf is just a little bit better still. The savings here is just a perk, though I honestly don’t compare my homemade bread to overly soft store brand bread, so the savings is actually pretty nice.

In short, if you like having homemade bread but really struggle to make it consistently, look for a secondhand bread machine at Goodwill, Salvation Army or another secondhand store or a yard sale for a fraction of the price of a new one. I think it’s been worth it for us.

Q11: Real ID questions

I went to get my driver’s license renewed and they practically demanded that I get a Real ID driver’s license. Didn’t have the documents with me and seemed like a bunch of hoops and intrusion. Why bother?
– Blake

The biggest impact for most people is that starting in October, you’re going to need a Real ID-compliant identification document in order to fly within the United States. A passport qualifies, as does a military ID.

So, if you don’t have a passport or a military ID and you intend to fly within the U.S. after October, you’re going to either need to get a passport or get a Real ID driver’s license or another form of Real ID-compliant ID card.

That’s really the only impact of Real ID for the vast majority of Americans. There are some federal facilities that require some form of Real ID identification for entry, but only a tiny sliver of citizens are affected.

The process is pretty easy. If you have a passport, a W-2 or 1099 with your full Social Security number on it, and two different bills with your name and address on it, that’s all you need. Just stop by your local driver’s license office and get the Real ID star added to your license. There are alternate options if you don’t have those documents.

Q12: “Getting Things Done” refinements

Do you still use the whole GTD system for keeping track of stuff you need to do?
– Mark

I use ideas from the system, but I don’t think I ever used the full-on GTD system for myself. It’s probably easiest to just write down what I actually do these days.

Basically, I always have a pocket notebook on me or Evernote and a task manager on my phone (more on that in a second), so whenever I think of something I need to do, I write it down in one of those places — my notebook, Evernote or directly into my task manager, whatever happens to be most convenient right at that moment. That way, I don’t really have to think about it anymore.

Once or twice a day, I go through new notes in Evernote and also my pocket notebook and do something with all of the new notes in there. Sometimes, they’re things I should do. Other times, they are just things to remember or to look up. Maybe it’s just an addition to my calendar. Basically, if it’s something that’s a task I can finish in a minute or so, I do it immediately. Otherwise, I add it to my task manager tool or calendar or some other place.

Right now, I use Omnifocus as my task manager. I’ve tried a few others, but I like that one the best for how I work. Todoist is another good option, as are Things and Ivy. Whenever I want to record something I need to do later, I add it to Omnifocus, usually giving it a few tags so I can find certain kinds of tasks later. I’ll tag things with things like “#home” or “#in-town” to indicate location. I’ll give things that need to be done by a certain time a due date. Simple stuff like that, just to help me find tasks that have things in common. If I know I’m going into the nearest large town, for example, I’ll want to see all of my “#in-town” tasks so maybe I can knock a few of them out.

I basically try to avoid having tasks for things that will take me less than fifteen minutes unless it’s something I can’t do right away, in which case I try to do it before the end of the day. I usually tag that stuff with “#short.” I also don’t typically record ordinary daily routine stuff in there; things like “do the dishes” aren’t things I bother with. It’s out of the ordinary stuff, both personal and professional.

At the start of each day, I go through all of the stuff in Omnifocus and mark three to six things as “Priority 1” tasks. I usually check my calendar, too, to see if there are any scheduled events today that I need to do anything for, or in the next few days. Those things marked as “Priority 1” are the things I most need to get done today. If I can do more, that’s great.

Throughout the day, I look at Omnifocus to see what I need to do next. This means I can focus more on doing stuff and less on trying to think about what I’m going to do. I offload most of those decisions about what needs to be done today to the two thinking sessions, at the start of the day and the end of the day.

At the end of any workday, I usually decide what I need to do during my next workday. I usually mark them down as “Priority 1” in advance, too. I do that because that’s when work is really fresh in my mind.

That’s pretty much all I do. I have a few checklists for regular routine things where I know I might forget a step. Other than that, that’s the end of my system.

The whole point is to get the thoughts about stuff I need to do and the next thing I ought to do out of my head and into another system that I trust. That way, such thoughts aren’t distracting me as I move through the things I need to get done today. That’s the core idea of GTD, as I see it; the specifics change with technology and with the specific needs of individuals.

Got any questions? The best way to ask is to follow me on Facebook and ask questions directly there. 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.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.