Mailbag: Questions About Credit Card Destruction, NBA Viewing, Faucet Replacement, Hand Lotions 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. Frustrated by advantages of others
2. Social Security reduces retirement fears
3. Family’s takeout when I’m gone
4. Daughter’s 529 is barely growing
5. Finding time for daily routines
6. Destroying replaced credit cards
7. Following NBA without cable
8. Winter hand care is expensive!
9. Collectible investing gone bad
10. Replacing a faucet success story
11. Tax refund when debt free
12. Three book recommendations

This past weekend, I decided to record a family home video that showed what my kids do at their current age when they have free time at home. I actually thought it would be fairly dull, but I was amazed at what I found.

I caught my oldest son organizing a tabletop gaming day with some of his friends, working on his taekwondo skills on his own without any prompting, playing what seemed to be a roller hockey variant with a friend of his, playing a social video game with some of his more distant friends using a headset so they could talk to each other, and reading a book. I caught my daughter painting a picture, playing the piano, doing yoga stretching, doing her math homework (unprompted?!), and making a rather complex scripted home movie with a couple of friends. My youngest son spent a bunch of time reading, making a Minecraft map, building stuff out of Legos, romping with the family dogs and practicing taekwondo stuff with his older brother, too.

The kids are all right. They’re active. They’re creative. They’re curious. They’re social. They get some screen time, but they do a lot of other stuff, too. Best of all, they do all of this without us prompting them. I feel like a lot of the groundwork we’ve laid in terms of being curious, active, creative and knowing how to entertain yourself away from screens has really paid off.

My advice to parents: be who you want your kids to be, all the time. If you want your kids to have less screen time, stop looking at your own phone and stop watching as much TV. If you want your kids to be more physically active, be more physically active yourself. They won’t do everything exactly as you do, but they take a lot of cues from what they see you doing.

On with the questions.

Q1: Frustrated by advantages of others

I have a love-hate relationship with your mailbag and in life, I guess. I feel frustrated by people who have all kinds of advantages that I don’t have. “My parents paid for my college education.” I’m happy if my dad isn’t passed out drunk and he never gave a dime to my education and I haven’t seen my mom in years. “I make $200K this year.” I made $56K this year and that’s more in one year than anyone in my family has ever made. It is so frustrating to see people with so many advantages just wasting them when I would kill to have them and that frustration boils over sometimes.
– Victor

This is a snippet from the middle of a longer message with a lot of personal detail, but this is really the crux of what Victor was talking about.

Here’s the truth: you will always meet people who have advantages in life that you don’t have. They are everywhere. My parents didn’t pay for my college education, either; I paid for everything via a mix of student loans and scholarships. Yet I had a couple of good friends in college whose parents paid for everything. I have friends who make more than I do.

So, how do you deal with the feeling that life’s unfair? Remember that it’s unfair for basically everyone on earth. Everyone has someone in their life who had advantages that they didn’t have. There’s always someone you know whose parents were wealthier, who has more natural charisma, who has a better metabolism, who happened to be in the right place at the right time.

You cannot let that fact of life destroy your plans and progress. Letting the fact that someone in your life has advantages over derail your own choices is a giant mistake because it’s a drawback that everyone has. The only person you’re really competing with in life is yourself. You’re striving to do better than you did before. You’re striving to do better than the previous generation of your family did and set things up so the next generation of your family can do even better (I look at my life in this way quite often, actually.)

Rather than using other people as a metric, use yourself as a metric. Right now, what is your net worth? Your goal should be to beat that number as much as you can a year from now. Then, that’s your new number — beat that number.

Don’t worry about anyone else in that regard. They’re all dealing with their own hand of advantages and disadvantages and it’s essentially impossible to compare yourself to them.

Q2: Social Security reduces retirement fears

I used to be really freaked out about saving for retirement. The idea that having $1 million in the bank would mean that I could only safely withdraw $35K a year in retirement scared me half to death. In 2040 dollars, $35K a year is probably not enough to live on.

The thing I realized recently is that I also have Social Security. That’s on top of Social Security. Honest truth is that if Social Security completely fails we’re having big enough problems that my retirement savings probably won’t help much either and it’s out of my hands. So if I figure another $20K a year from Social Security, suddenly that’s $55K a year and that’s a lot better life.
– Barry

Almost everyone who isn’t significantly wealthy will be helped quite a bit by Social Security in retirement. That’s true for me, that’s true for you, and that’s true for everyone.

You’re also correct in saying that if Social Security completely fails, we’re having big enough societal problems that our retirement savings probably won’t help much either.

I think that everyone who is earning more than minimum wage and is working more than about 35 hours a week should be saving for retirement beyond Social Security. Social Security alone will keep you from outright starving, but it will mean a pretty threadbare existence. You should aim to have savings beyond that, and the earlier you start, the easier it will be (because savings when you’re younger has more time to grow).

Q3: Family’s takeout when I’m gone

I make most of my family’s meals. Whenever I am traveling for work, they just get takeout for every meal and there’s like $700 on the credit card.
– Alex

It sounds like your family just relies on you to cook for them, and when you’re not there, they either don’t know what to do or don’t want to bother, so they pay someone else to do it.

You either need to start encouraging others to prepare meals while you’re around so that they get used to it or have some meals mostly prepped that are very easy to finish while you’re gone or both.

For example, you could have a few slow cooker meals with all of the ingredients in a couple of gallon Ziplocs that they could just dump into the slow cooker. “Plug in the slow cooker in the morning. Add these two bags to it. Turn it on low. Eat at supper time.” Lots of meals can be prepared this way, like beef stew, for example.

You could also prepare casseroles that are literally at the point of just sticking them in the oven. “Preheat the oven to 375 F. Put this in the oven when it beeps, then set a timer for 40 minutes.” You could get some steam-in-the-bag vegetables for side dishes.

While this won’t get them to necessarily stop ordering takeout for meals while you’re gone, I’m willing to bet that this will replace at least some of the takeout, especially if you prepare stuff you know they love.

Q4: Daughter’s 529 is barely growing

I started a 529 for my daughter a bit late and have been putting about $1,000 a year into it. In 2019 it grew only 11% when other investments went up 20% or more. Feels like a ripoff.
– Stephen

Without knowing how you invested the money within the 529, I can’t give you specific advice. My guess is that it’s invested in something that’s more well rounded than a straight stock market investment, probably a mix of stocks, bonds, and cash.

In years where the stock market does really well, an investment like that is going to underperform the stock market because, well, bonds and cash don’t return as well as stocks can when they have a good year.

However, in years where the stock market doesn’t do as well, you’ll be glad your money is invested this way. For example, in 2008, the stock market lost 40% of its value, while cash and other investments largely stayed flat or even earned a little.

Let’s say your investment is something like 40% stocks, 30% bonds, and 30% cash. In a given year, cash will probably return something like 2%, a normal diversified bond investment can be anywhere from -2% to 6%, and a broad-based stock investment can be anywhere from, well, -40% to 30%. If everything has a great year, that investment will return 14.4% overall, which looks bad compared to stocks. However, if everything has a horrible year, stocks would drop 40%, but your overall investment would only drop 16%, which would be far better.

Basically, your investment probably doesn’t rise as much in great stock years, but won’t fall nearly as much in bad stock years.

My guess is that your daughter is probably close to college age, so the 529 investment recommendations were likely oriented toward something diverse like this.

Again, this is all my best guess without actually seeing the 529 account in question, but it fits with my own experience with 529 accounts.

Q5: Finding time for daily routines

I think there is a lot of merit to your ideas about making things into daily routines and focusing just on today but there is a big problem. My days that are just overstuffed with things to do and adding more to that daily to-do list means that something’s going to fail.
– Barry

I think this is a consistent problem for most people. If you add more things to do that take up time, people either have to drop something else from their life that’s consuming the time or something’s going to fail.

You need to ask yourself this: if you want to commit 30 minutes a day to something, what’s the least important 30 minutes you’re using each day right now? What’s basically useless? Is it time you spend in the evenings browsing social media? Maybe it’s time watching television. Maybe you go to the bar for a couple of drinks each night without getting a whole lot of value out of it. Maybe you lay in bed half awake for half an hour after your alarm goes off.

Whatever that least valuable time is, that’s what you should try cutting out of your life.

For me, it was television. I realized that if it wasn’t “appointment viewing” with my wife and family, it was basically wasted time for me. I’d watch stuff like Sportscenter and it would give me very little value in life. I started intentionally dialing it down and replacing it with other things.

Since then, I’ve been pretty careful at watching my daily routines, looking for habits I have that are just filling time and not bringing me value. I’ve become a lot more selective about things like video and computer games, for example.

Look at your time use. Assess what’s junk. Cut out the junk. Then you’ll have time for more important things.

Another strategy that works well for me is looking at behavior. You can change a lot about your life by just being watchful of how you act in certain situations. Did you do your genuine best to keep costs low at the grocery store? Did you do your genuine best to be social and friendly at a particular event? Try to evaluate those questions before and after those situations, and if it’s a frequently recurring thing, think about those questions every day.

Q6: Destroying replaced credit cards

What is the best way to destroy old credit cards, like when you get a new one to replace your old one? Feels like cutting them up isn’t enough because anyone with half a brain could still reassemble them.
– Danica

Cut them into lots of small pieces, making sure to really annihilate both the number on the card, your name, the chip (if present), and the stripe. Then distribute those bits into different trash bags. Put a few into the trash one day, then a few into the trash another day. That will render it basically impossible for someone to reconstruct your credit card.

Another good tip is to use the strongest magnet you have in your home and run it along the strip a few dozen times as well as on the embedded chip (if present).

You can always throw them in a fire. They do emit some smoke you shouldn’t inhale and give off a small amount of greenhouse gases when you burn them.

If you have a card made out of metal, it can be a little harder to destroy it. In that case, you’re better off sending it back to the issuer. Most companies that issue metal cards will also give you prepaid envelopes to send them back.

Q7: Following NBA without cable

Thinking of cancelling cable but I’m a big NBA fan and never miss NBA on TNT. Looking at options but I’m not giving up basketball to save.
– Derrick

Your best bet is probably a streaming package that includes ESPN and TNT as channel options. You have a few options there. Sling Orange gets you ESPN and TNT for $30 a month, which is probably your best bet, especially since you get a free Amazon Fire stick right now if you subscribe and pay two months up front. We used Sling for months after cutting the cord and it worked great for us. Hulu is another option for $54.99 a month that includes ESPN and TNT.

If you want to gorge on basketball, you can also get the NBA League Pass, which lets you stream all games from teams outside your market that aren’t nationally televised for a flat rate for the season. If you don’t live close to your favorite teams, this can be a great way to watch most of their games for a pretty reasonable price.

Aside from that, I don’t really have any good suggestions. There’s not really a single robust streaming offer from the NBA (or any other major pro sport).

Q8: Winter hand care is expensive!

My hands get seriously chapped in the winter and the only way I keep them from bleeding is through the use of a lot of different creams which are pretty expensive. I wasn’t really focused on my money until this winter and I realized I am spending hundreds of dollars each winter on just keeping my hands from bleeding and being rough. Not sure what I can do, just venting.
– Lynn

My hands get pretty rough in the winter, too. The best thing I’ve ever used for my own hands is Aquaphilic, a container of which would last me most of the winter. I didn’t have to apply very much and it really seemed to help.

However, I’ve noticed that if I use any cream or ointment on my hands, my hands tend to get used to the ointment and get really bad if I stop using it, so I gradually weaned myself off of it over the course of a few winters and now I don’t use anything. My hands still get mildly chapped in the winter but it’s not overly bad.

My honest suggestions? Drink lots of water in the winter. It really helps keeping your skin moisturized. Take shorter showers, dry your hands immediately afterwards, and then use your ointment/lotion of choice then, but only use a little. Switch to a more gentle hand soap, like castile soap cut with 3 parts water to 1 part castile soap, and pat dry your hands after washing. See how that goes for a while. That was the routine that gradually got me away from using Aquaphilic over the course of a few years (though the castile soap was a later addition).

Q9: Collectible investing gone bad

In 2009 I got the bright idea of investing in sealed packs of trading cards, buying them at low prices and sitting on them as sealed packs usually rise slowly in value over time as supply shrinks (people open the packs). The thing is you have to buy packs that people are still going to want. I bought a bunch of sports trading card packs that haven’t really changed in value over the last decade and some have actually dropped. Not sure if I should keep holding or not.
– Barry

This isn’t something I’m too familiar with, but I have invested a bit in other types of trading cards and I know that the quality of the set along with the continued relevance of what’s being depicted on the cards is vital. With sports cards, my understanding is that sealed boxes hold their value more if the set contains rookie cards for top players or other highly prized chase cards.

Thus, if I were to invest in sports cards, I would aim for sealed products that contain a lot of rookie cards, buying them very early on and hoping that some of the players in the set had great careers, or sealed products with really interesting inserts that people will want to collect. For example, if I were into baseball cards, I’d probably buy boxes of things like Bowman Draft or boxes of sets like Allen and Ginter.

In your situation, if the packs haven’t climbed in value or have gone down in value and they’re 10 years old or more, it’s likely that the packs don’t contain any rookie cards of major stars or don’t have any premium value due to interesting inserts. Further time probably won’t change that – it’s exceedingly rare that a player would suddenly blossom into a star eleven years after their rookie card came out. If I were you, I’d probably sell what you have, take all that money, and either do something that’s more traditionally sensible financially or think very carefully about how to reinvest it for a good return.

Q10: Replacing a faucet success story

Today I spent two hours and replaced a bathroom faucet all by myself! I got a few tools from the hardware store and bought the faucet from there and did the whole thing myself! Couldn’t be prouder!
– Tina

Awesome job!

The best part? Now that you’ve done this task once, you probably feel confident enough to do it again. If your kitchen sink faucet fails, are you going to call a plumber? Nope. I’m betting you’ll try it yourself.

Guess what? Now that you’ve successfully done it once, you’ll find it faster the second time because you’ll know what you’re doing. You’ll probably still use some videos to help, but it’ll all feel familiar. You’ll also have the tools you need to do the job.

Even better, you won’t be scared of similar household chores. What if your toilet is constantly running? It probably won’t seem as scary to open that tank and figure out what’s wrong. You probably have at least some of the tools you need to fix that, too.

All of those things will save you money. You’re not going to need to call a plumber for them now. You can do them yourself, on your own time, without a plumbing bill.

This is a huge win! Congratulations!

Q11: Tax refund when debt free

Since graduation, I have used my tax refunds to directly pay off student loan debt. I do not use credit cards. This year I am getting a return but I am debt free. I have a good 401(k) so no need for retirement savings. Also have a good emergency fund.
– Bev

What are some big expenses you know are coming in the next few years? Are you going to need to replace your car? Are you thinking about moving or buying a house? What about going back to school for more education?

If you see any big expenses like that on the horizon in the next few years, take that money and put it aside for those expenses. Having a big down payment on your next car can be huge. Your return can also be a good start on a house down payment, and it can also be a nice start on a 529 college savings plan for yourself.

If none of those apply, think about your lifelong goals. What do you want to do in your life? What big dreams or ambitions do you have? How can you use that money to help set the stage to fulfill those dreams or ambitions? Since I have no idea what those might be, I can’t be very specific here.

The best thing to do with that money depends a lot on what’s going on in your life and what your upcoming goals are.

Q12: Three book recommendations

Love your Books with Impact. Here are some suggestions if you haven’t read them already. Choose Yourself by James Altucher made me rethink what I was even doing with my life and I ended up changing careers. Can You Learn to Be Lucky? by Karla Starr changed a lot of the little things I’m doing in almost all parts of my life to improve luckiness. And Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach has really helped me not feel inadequate or like an impostor at work and at home as a parent. If you haven’t read these books you should read them.
– Amy

I’ve read both the Altucher and the Brach books and both are on my “to be re-read”, which means that they could wind up as a Book with Impact. I’m probably more likely to re-read the Brach book in the near future, as it has popped up in my thinking more frequently.

I’ve actually not heard of the other book at all. I’ve written about luck before and how to put yourself in luckier positions, but I don’t believe I’ve read a book-length exploration of the idea, so it’s on my to-be-read list.

I love good book recommendations like these, so if you have them, send them my way. The link below will get you there!

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.