Questions About Credit Reports, Bar Soap, Side Gigs, Lawns 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. Free weekly credit reports!
2. Bar soap versus body wash
3. Alternatives to lawn and mowing
4. Side gigs while at home
5. Unlimited withdrawals from savings accounts?
6. Moving from reading to doing?
7. Advice for entering college
8. Why buy treasuries?
9. Quit paying rent?
10. Favorite foods I miss
11. Coronavirus journaling
12. Preparing for fall at home?

A few days ago, I had a small amount of leftover onion, leftover asparagus, fresh basil and fresh oregano, all already chopped up. I was going to just throw it into my bag of “leftover vegetable scraps” for stock, but I decided, for fun, to try to think of something else to do with it, and that’s when I discovered vegetable scrap herb pesto.

Basically, I took all of that stuff, tossed it in a blender with some olive oil and Parmesan cheese and a bit of salt and garlic and lemon juice and a Dijon mustard, and blended it until it was a green paste. I didn’t really follow any recipe guidelines, just cranked up the blender.

It was actually really tasty. I ended up using it spread on some toast and it made for a really really good lunch, and considering that the pesto was made from stuff I was going to throw out with just a tiny amount of a few other things, it was a great bargain.

The point? There are a lot of uses for little bits of leftover raw food. Don’t just toss it out.

On with this week’s questions.

Q1: Free weekly credit reports!

You should mention to your readers that is offering a free weekly credit report from each of the three bureaus until next April. If you want to get a good look at your credit report, now its the time!
– Jenny

That’s great news! is the official government source for access to your credit report, meaning it’s the one site that’s not routing your legal access to your credit report through some sort of extra “offer.”

Normally, allows you to access your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus once per year, but due to COVID-19, it’s changing that and allowing people to see their credit report weekly.

This is useful to everyone, and particularly useful to those who may be experiencing financially trying times right now. Reviewing your credit report and keeping it accurate can help you with finding jobs, renting apartments, getting good insurance rates and many other important financial matters. This offer is well worth taking advantage of.

Q2: Bar soap versus body wash

What lasts longer, bar soap or body wash?
– Amy

In terms of my own usage, bar soap is so much cheaper than body wash, it’s not even remotely comparable. A single bar of soap, depending on the size, lasts for somewhere between 75 and 150 showers (depending on size and whether my wife is also using it, since we share a shower). A single bottle of body wash, while much larger and heavier than the bar of soap, lasts for fewer showers — 40 to 75 or so, by my count. Given that a container of “bang for the buck” body wash is more expensive than a bar of good “bang for the buck” bar soap, the balance is far on the side of bar soap.

The issue is that, per shower, you simply use much less actual soap from a bar of soap than you do from a bottle of body wash. The body wash simply runs down the drain in much greater quantities than the soap you get from a bar, plus the usual opening on a bottle of body wash causes excess body wash to often run out. You can control the “excess body wash” issue by putting the body wash in a pump bottle which controls the flow much better and wastes a lot less body wash, but I still use a larger percentage of a bottle of body wash per shower than the percentage of a bar of soap that I use.

Bar soap is less expensive per use, and it’s not even close.

Of course, if you’re comparing a bar of really expensive fancy bar soap to store brand body wash, you might end up getting the cost per use pretty close, but assuming you’re going for “bang for the buck” stuff at the store (for me, that means something like Dove Men’s body wash or Irish Spring bar soap, or else something on sale), the bar soap is cheaper per use and it’s the only thing I’ve bought for years.

Q3: Alternatives to lawn and mowing

I live in a residential neighborhood and I’m absolutely sick of lawn care. I hate mowing. I hate having to put weed killer and fertilizer on just so my yard doesn’t look like a weedy terrible mess next to neighbors. Hate all of it! What is the best option to minimize wasted time and money on my lawn without just letting it go to weeds?
– Erik

It really depends on how much conformity of your lawn is expected or mandated in your neighborhood and how much you’re willing to invest upfront in having a lawn that doesn’t require mowing.

For example, you can use xeriscaping practices to convert your yard into a space that just contains stepping stones and small succulents in between the stones. There will be almost no ongoing upkeep work once this is done, and certainly no mowing, but it will take a lot of work to transform your lawn into that state (and some expense), and it may clash with your neighbors.

You can also hardscape your backyard with concrete tiles, basically eliminating a lawn. So, you could have stepping stones and succulents in the front and sides and a hardscaped backyard.

Those options would break you free of the need to mow and fertilize and de-weed your lawn. You may want to talk to a landscaper as to how to make this work best within the constraints of your neighborhood so that you don’t violate any homeowners association agreements.

Q4: Side gigs while at home

What kinds of side gigs are even available under a stay at home order if you don’t have a lot of computer skills?
– Danny

Side gigs for people who are in stay at home situations are heavily geared toward information economy workers — people who can program, do graphic design, do project management tasks or more. That’s just the reality of the situation.

There are things you can do to earn some money while at home without those skills, but they’re not nearly as efficient. Here are a few things you can try.

You can go through your lesser-used possessions and sell items online that have individual value. You can use Mechanical Turk to earn a few bucks during idle time (you can do it while watching television pretty easily). You could offer online tutoring in a subject you’re familiar with.

Unfortunately, without specialized training in particular fields, it’s really hard to make significant money as a side gig at home. My recommendation for you is to either invest this time to start building a passive income stream of some kind or else invest it in improving your career options through education and professional relationship building.

Q5: Unlimited withdrawals from savings accounts?

Can you explain what this means? They were talking about it on the news but didn’t explain it very well. Federal Reserve press release
– Jim

The normal rule for savings accounts in the United States is that you’re restricted to being able to make six withdrawals per month. There are good reasons for this that center around ensuring banks have enough in their accounts to cover the money they’ve loaned to borrowers, and it can help prevent 1930s-style “runs” on banks where people are afraid the bank will fail and are trying to pull out their money.

However, in the current financial situation, many people are suddenly needing to tap their savings accounts to get by, and in some situations people are tapping their savings several times a month, not to make a run on the bank but just to get by.

So, the Federal Reserve temporarily halted that rule. The Federal Reserve has the power to do that because they establish what rules banks have to follow in order to have access to the Federal Reserve System, which ensures that they have money in moments where they’re running short.

Q6: Moving from reading to doing?

The struggle I have whenever I read something about improving myself is that I just read and read and never really do it. It’s like I decide that I don’t know what to do so I read a bunch about it and then eventually I lose the will to do anything and move on to something else. What’s the solution for that?
– Kevin

For me, the solution is almost always immediate action. If I’m curious about how to fix an issue I notice in my life and I go read an article or a book about it, as soon as I’m finished with that article or book, I take immediate action, period.

What can I do today to start implementing this? What can I set up over the next week to implement this?

For me, usually this takes the form of a “30-day challenge.” I define something I can do each day for the next 30 days to move me along the path that I’ve been learning about. I define that as early as possible and start doing it, with the understanding I can revise it later if I really need to.

Don’t worry about making that 30-day challenge line up with the calendar. Rather, focus on defining that 30-day challenge and starting it as soon as you’re doing reading an article or a book about what you want to improve. That doesn’t mean you stop reading; you can certainly read more, and this may cause you to modify your plans.

Don’t wait around. As soon as you have your first concrete actionable idea on what to do to fix your problem, start doing that and keep doing that. Use further reading solely to refine the actions you’re taking.

Q7: Advice for entering college

I am graduating later this month (not having a ceremony) and attending college in the fall which I hope is not virtual but if it is that’s okay at first. What is the best approach for getting the most out of college?
– Ben

Select a major that lines up well with your skills – the subjects you did well in during your high school years – that you think could be compelling and lead to a range of career options. Don’t choose something strictly because it will make money, but rather use that as a balancing factor.

Talk to people in the field you’re aiming for right now and ask them what you should be doing in your college career to maximize your value in that specific field. What are people looking for when hiring people in your field out of college?

A lot of fields center around internships, so you should focus your freshman year on setting yourself up to secure an internship in the summer.

Talk to people. Talk to your professors. Join organizations related to your major and talk to people there. Go to any and all events with people in your field. (Many of these things will be socially fun, too, if you dig into them.)

For me, the key to college was settling into a really productive routine during the days, so that many of my evenings were free for fun. If you have gaps between classes during the day, use them for studying rather than goofing off. That gives you the breathing room to do other things in the evenings and weekends. You really have to figure out how you’re most effective at self-teaching, because that’s really the number one skill you’ll learn in school — how to learn material for yourself with less hand-holding than before. How do you motivate yourself to do the reading?

Good luck!

Q8: Why buy treasuries?

When my grandpa retired he had all of his retirement in the form of treasury notes that he would roll over each year. He made enough off of the interest on them to live really nicely and actually buy more each year.

I started looking into this and I don’t get it. It looks like you currently earn a 0.3% rate on treasury notes. I can get 0.5% – 1% in savings. I looked back over the last several years and the returns just aren’t great on treasury notes. Is this not a viable option for retirement any more?
– Gerry

Not really, unfortunately. Treasuries (which include treasury bills, treasury notes, and treasury bonds, which are similar investments issued by the U.S. Department of the Treasury) are about as rock-solid as you can get in terms of investment. They would only fail if our nation is literally failing, at which point you’d have much bigger worries than your treasury notes. I view them as being more stable than savings accounts for large quantities of money.

The problem with them is that the annual rate of return is very heavily pegged to interest rates at the moment you buy them, and interest rates have been really really low for a very long time. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, interest rates were much higher and treasury notes were much more of a reasonable investment, and that was the time frame when your grandfather was probably investing in them.

Unless your goal is to have an absolutely rock-solid stream of income, with the understanding that it’s going to come in at a very low rate, then they’re probably not worth investing in right now. For some, particularly large institutions, there’s value in that. For retirement accounts for ordinary people, it’s not the best option.

Q9: Quit paying rent?

I was attending university until spring break when they canceled classes and went all online. I decided to leave school in May anyway and go to trade school. I rented an apartment there and paid April rent but I am considering just not paying anymore and sending the keys back. What are the consequences of this?
– Brian

It depends on the terms of your lease and the laws in your state. You may owe damages to the landlord beyond the missed rent and the landlord may take you to court to get them. There will likely be some damage to your credit score.

The issue is that right now, a lot of people are missing rent and it’s hard to tell how the courts will react to all of this. Again, it will vary from state to state.

Your best approach is to give your landlord a written notice of your plans to leave before the end of the lease and, ideally, provide a new tenant for the landlord. The best time to do this is with as much notice as possible, but that ship seemingly has sailed.

Basically, it depends entirely on how much the landlord is willing to put into legally chasing down what you owe them and how the courts and law in that state are dealing with evictions and walkouts in the wake of coronavirus. You might owe nothing and only be hit with some damage to your credit report. You might owe full rent and additional damages and be taken to court for it. It might be somewhere in the middle, like with a landlord harassing you a ton and trying to work out some sort of smaller payment to make things whole.

Q10: Favorite foods I miss

The hardest thing for me during the stay at home is that I am missing a lot of foods that I liked. So what I have been doing is figuring out how to make them at home. I look up recipes online for them. Then I order the items with my grocery order and pick up the groceries. Then I make my version of that item at home. There is a little burger place here that makes this dipping sauce with their fries that is delicious and I figured out how to match it and found some fries that are really good too. Way cheaper and I can do it!
– Monica

That’s awesome! I’m willing to bet that the dip was some variant on “fry sauce,” which is just an amazing condiment. I actually make batches of it and keep it in a squeeze bottle in the fridge — my mix is 2 cups mayo, 1/2 cup ketchup, 1 tablespoon pickle juice, a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, and a dash each of paprika, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, mustard powder and finely ground salt. I mix it thoroughly and it is amazing!

You can imitate a lot of things you find at restaurants if you’re willing to figure out how to do it and put in the time to do it the first time or two. For example, I’ve made these imitation Texas Roadhouse rolls and cinnamon butter before and they’re pretty much as good as what’s in the restaurant, a lot cheaper and I can make them whenever.

Just think about a food item you’re really missing right now, then look up online how to make it and grab the stuff from the grocery store. You’ll probably find that it’s cheaper to make at home and arguably better (though the first time might not be quite right as you’re learning). Usually, the savings comes from making several batches or servings of that item at once, so for example if you’re trying to imitate a really great cup of coffee, the cost of making just one cup of it will be high, but you’ll likely have enough stuff to make a bunch of cups of that coffee and that drives the price way lower per cup than the price at the coffee shop.

Learn how to do it yourself and you’ll never go back.

Q11: Coronavirus journaling

I started a coronavirus journal in an old notebook on March 13 and have written a page every day about things I have noticed and things that have changed and how we are dealing with it. I have really found it valuable not just in helping me process what’s going on but also as kind of a record that I hope to be able to give to my kids someday. What is the best way to store a notebook without paying for some kind of service? I just used a spiral-bound notebook.
– Tammy

The Library of Congress has some good advice on this. Basically, with a typical spiral-bound notebook, you’ll want to store it somewhere perfectly flat, not at an angle. You’ll want to store it in a low humidity spot away from the light. In terms of convenient home storage, you’ll probably want to put it in a plastic storage box with a lid, probably with other stuff, but make sure it’s nice and flat. You can go further — the directions are on there — but it involves things like buying book storage bags and so on.

As you go, it might be a good idea to make digital copies of each entry. You can just take a picture of each page with your phone as you go (in other words, take pictures of each page right away to “catch up,” then take a picture of the page each day when you finish the entry) and then store them somewhere. You could back them up using a free Google Photos account, for example.

This will definitely be a wonderful thing to share with your children and grandchildren and other descendants someday, not just as a history of coronavirus, but as a snapshot of your life right now.

Q12: Preparing for fall at home?

I have three kids just like you and their school has been canceled for the rest of the school year. Our governor just announced that teachers should be planning for the possibility of distance learning in the fall. This got me to thinking about what I can do over the summer when they’re not in “school” to set things up so that we could do this at home in the fall. I am able to work from home indefinitely as I do medical coding and I worked from home before all of this. Husband works at a lumberyard. We have been making this up as we go but I want to get a good plan in place before fall starts just in case it’s needed.
– Kelly

This is something we’ve discussed in our own home, and our plan is to simulate a school day for our kids as best we can.

Basically, what will happen is that I’ll get up early and work for a few hours, then I will take the kids downstairs and essentially function as their “study hall teacher” in the basement at a big table while they do their online classwork. Sarah is a teacher, so she would need to teach from home in this scenario and she could do that on the main floor.

When their “school day” winds up, we’ll all unwind together.

This basically means that Saturday will become a full-on workday for me and probably a long one.

I don’t know how much flexibility you have in terms of your working hours with coding. My suggestion would be to get in a pattern of staying up late or getting up early to do your medical coding work, then being a “study hall” teacher during the school day portion of the day (perhaps getting work done at a slow rate). Your partner would have to step up and handle some things like meal prep and household chores in this scenario.

In our area, there have been conversations about having distance learning in the fall as an option for students where they’re encouraged to stay home if possible (it seems like a lot of possible plans are on the table). Since that’s something we could pull off, doing this with our kids is something we’d strongly consider.

I hope, like I’m sure you do, that schools are able to operate normally in the fall, but it’s not a bad idea to plan ahead. This definitely has personal finance implications for families, because it may alter how they’re able to do work, and it also may be shaped by the presence of for-profit situations where kids do distance learning and practice social distancing while parents are working (I wouldn’t be surprised to see these kinds of things pop up).

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.