Mailbag: Questions About Life Insurance, Spring Cleaning, Retail Therapy, Daycare 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. Ceiling fan direction issues
2. Uninformed or focused?
3. Mail order seed recommendations
4. Will life insurance be viable?
5. Spring cleaning without yard sales?
6. Spending up during social distancing
7. Spending down during social distancing
8. Surviving unemployment, not thriving
9. Coping without shopping
10. Refusing to pay daycare bill
11. Add vinegar to laundry
12. Meaningful progress toward computer programming

As many of you know, I do most of my writing at a standing desk in a corner “cubby” in the basement of our home.

For the last several months, I’ve had a single sticky note affixed to my computer. It’s intentionally positioned to block just a bit of the upper left corner of the screen, just so I have to notice it a few times a day.

On it is one single word.


It reminds me of a simple truth of how I try to live my life.

If I can’t really justify why I’m doing something at any given moment, then I shouldn’t be doing it.

That doesn’t mean I never have fun. That doesn’t mean I never have downtime. That doesn’t mean anything like that. All of those things have a purpose.

What I’m looking for, more than anything, is that whatever I’m doing with my time, whatever purpose is behind it, I’m doing it in a way that really nails that purpose.

If I’m standing at my desk, why am I doing it? If I’m playing a board game, why am I doing it?

Is it a good reason? And is the exact thing I’m doing right now a really good way to fulfill that reason?

I try to keep that as a mental check in my mind most of the time.

Again, that question doesn’t mean that enjoying leisure is bad or watching a movie is bad. It just reminds me of why I’m doing it.

On with the questions.

Q1: Ceiling fan direction issues

So I tried experimenting with the direction of blades on the ceiling fan in our living room. It feels a little cooler when air is pushed down in the middle of the room but I can’t feel anything when the blades go the other way. Not sure this really works.
– Amber

Amber is referring to the common advice for running ceiling fans, which is that the blades should run clockwise in the winter and counterclockwise in the summer. In the winter, the clockwise blade rotation will push air upwards, causing the warm air that collects near the top of the room to move down the walls and circulate throughout the room. In the summer, the counterclockwise blade rotation pushes air downwards, causing the cool air in the main part of the room to circulate more and leaving the hot air up near the ceiling.

This isn’t a profound effect, but it is a real one. It seems to make about a 2-degree F (1-degree C) difference in the room where I work and in the bedrooms in our home. So, for example, if a room is at 70 degrees in the middle of the room with the ceiling fan off, running it on low with the blades going clockwise (winter mode) will raise it to about 72 degrees, and running it on low with the blades going counterclockwise (summer mode) will lower it to about 68 degrees. To me, the summer effect has a more profound impact on how the room feels, likely because it generates more movement of the air across the skin.

Thus, if we’re running ceiling fans, we can usually get away with having the house temperature 2 degrees lower in the winter and 2 degrees higher in the summer than we would get away with without ceiling fans.

As you noted, Amber, the effect is small enough that many probably won’t even notice it, and even those that do won’t notice a profound effect. Rather, what it does is allows you to run your heating and cooling systems less during peak seasons. If it’s 90 F outside, being able to raise your thermostat by 2 degrees means your air conditioner will run a lot less, and ceiling fans use only a tiny fraction of the energy that your air conditioner uses. It ends up being a pretty notable money saver.

Q2: Uninformed or focused?

So you don’t read the news during this crisis? How can you justify being so uninformed?
– Ana

First of all, I do pay attention to the news. I generally read the headlines and a few stories at several news sites about twice a day. However, aside from that, I make it a point to avoid them.

The reason is simple: there is very little news, even now, that is in any way actionable, and there is very little breaking news, even now, that will in any way change my way of thinking in a useful way. Often, headline news is factually incorrect, and many media companies shape headlines and articles to evoke a particular emotional response.

I mostly look at headline news to see what’s actionable for me, in other words, and there really isn’t a whole lot of it that is. In terms of what’s actionable for me during this crisis, it really only takes a few articles to understand it. Stay at home. Practice good hygiene. Wear a mask when out and about. Watch for some specific symptoms. My kids are going to be at home for a while, too. Those are actionable things, and they’re pretty easy to figure out from just reading a few articles.

Instead, I save a lot of my reading for longer, more in-depth analysis of things, and that takes time to write. It’s very rarely extremely current, and that’s okay. If something is important, I’d rather give the journalists and writers time to investigate it thoroughly and get their facts straight first. That’s the kind of stuff that changes my way of thinking and alters how I behave over the long term.

For example, there’s no way for me to really know right now how well different groups are handling their response to the pandemic. That won’t be figured out until later, and there’s no action I can really take one way or another until it’s time to vote in November. By then, there will be much better analysis of what different groups have done, and I can use that analysis to decide how to vote.

I’d rather curl up with a well-written book or a long, well-researched article on something I’m curious about than browse headline news, any day of the week. I get far more out of books and long-form quality journalism.

So, I don’t choose to be “uninformed,” I just put a low value on breaking news and a high value on long-form quality journalism that takes time.

Q3: Mail order seed recommendations

Do you have any recommendations for mail order seeds? I have a lot of gardening tools and some space but haven’t gardened in a few years and what else have I got to do? Just don’t want to go out.
– Annie

My single favorite seed supplier — and the only one we’ve used for many years — is Seed Savers. They distribute heirloom non-hybridized seeds, which means that you can keep the seeds from the produce that’s grown and, if you store it correctly, you can use those seeds to grow again in the spring. That’s a huge plus for me. Plus, they offer such a wide range of varieties! They’re also local (relatively) for us, as their headquarters are in northeast Iowa.

I asked some of my good friends who are gardeners where they order seeds from if they don’t acquire them locally and I heard two consistent recommendations.

Some use Burpee, and claim it’s because the seeds they offer are usually varieties that are easy to grow and produce a lot per plant. Burpee was my father’s preferred source of seeds when I was a kid; we’d usually get a box from them in the early spring.

A few other friends use Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and they all said they stick with Johnny’s because the germination rate of the seeds is high. That means that most of the seeds they use turn into actual plants. When you plant a seed, there is no guarantee that it’s going to be a viable plant, and the odds go down the older the seed is.

I can’t say for certain that these places are shipping seeds efficiently right now, so you need to check with them. Some places may have shut down due to changing restrictions in their area, while others may be backed up with a glut of orders.

Q4: Will life insurance be viable?

I am worried about my life insurance. I have a term policy with [a very large stable insurance company]. Will COVID-19 hurt the viability of the policy? Meaning what do I do if the company goes under?
– Jerry

Your life insurance policy is pretty safe, even given the apparent mortality rates of COVID-19.

Even if your insurer was seriously overexposed to life insurance risk and this caused the company to fail, the assets and liabilities of that company would be purchased for pennies on the dollar by a more stable insurer. They would take all of the policies of the failed company on themselves and things would proceed on as normal.

If we were in a situation where large portions of the insurance industry were failing, then the government would step in and back a few large players, similar to what happened in 2008. One of those backed insurance companies would be the one that would take control of your policy at that point.

If those scenarios are exceeded, you will have far more pressing concerns on your plate than the state of your term life insurance policy.

In short, the scenarios in which your policy isn’t valid aren’t currently happening, nor do they appear to be on the verge of happening. If they were, there would be much more profound effects on your life than the loss of your term policy.

Q5: Spring cleaning without yard sales?

I took advantage of extra time at home to do a bunch of spring cleaning and purging and made a giant pile of stuff to sell at a citywide yard sale in May. My town just canceled the citywide yard sale and says they will be prohibited that weekend. I don’t want to leave my garage full of stuff for months! What can I do with this stuff?
– Mitchell

Honestly, you’ll probably need to leave your garage full of stuff for months.

I would organize those items into the most efficient space you possibly can and get them out of the way for a while, until the opportunity to have a yard sale comes around again.

You may be able to sell some items through other means. Perhaps you could have a “virtual yard sale” where you sell stuff on social media, Craigslist or other places, and offer local delivery but only accept PayPal or Venmo payment. This would allow you to drop stuff off at front doors at designated times so that you can sell the item without violating social distancing rules. They pay you via PayPal, you arrange a time for drop-off, you put it on their front step at that time, they retrieve it after you depart.

Aside from that, your best option is to simply wait. Organize the stuff and put it off to the side until the time comes for an actual yard sale.

These next two questions are ones I’ve paired together because they tell such different stories about how people are handling social distancing from a financial perspective.

Q6: Spending up during social distancing

I have found this social distancing period to be very expensive. We have had to buy a lot of books in order to do our school’s homeschooling practice and we also had to hire a tutor on Zoom because I did not understand the math or science well enough to help. We’ve rented gobs of movies online and we have splurged on Easter gifts for the kids because our usual Easter plans were so disrupted. I can’t imagine how this would work for a lower-income family. We’re not rich but we are so blessed with what we have.
– Jenna

My only real advice to you is that, when you choose to spend money on services and online shopping, make sure that you’re doing it with a purpose in mind that can’t be found elsewhere.

For example, you mentioned renting a lot of movies online. Have you considered just signing up for a month of a new streaming service and binge-watching what’s on there? If you have kids at home, getting Disney+ for a month is less than $10 and would give you access to streaming almost all of the Marvel movies, almost all of the Star Wars movies and an absurd variety of Disney and Pixar movies, among lots of other things. That’s far less expensive than a nightly movie rental.

You mentioned buying a lot of things for your kids for Easter to “make up” for a special occasion that you’re missing. While I understand the idea of keeping a special holiday tradition alive, could you have found ways to make it special that didn’t involve buying a lot of gifts? Again, I don’t know what your exact traditions are, but there are many ways to celebrate without buying lots of gifts.

As for the homeschooling books and tutoring, without knowing what your school is offering in terms of education during this period, I can’t offer exact suggestions, but if you find yourself with those kinds of needs right now, emailing teachers and asking for ideas could have led you to less expensive solutions.

Whenever you feel a need to spend right now, try to identify what need it is that you’re solving and then ask yourself if there’s a lower-cost way to solve that need.

And now, for a very different take on a similar situation.

Q7: Spending down during social distancing

I ran the numbers for our March spending and they were way lower than February and I almost can’t imagine April being anywhere close to March. Social distancing is making us frugal! We’re eating everything at home, not going out anywhere, finding stuff to do here that’s mostly free or involves stuff we already have. I think even our energy bill is lower because we’re keeping AC and furnace off and just opening and closing windows and running the ceiling fan. Probably going to wipe out a credit card debt later this month!
– Kerry

Kerry is a longtime reader who keeps me up to date on her financial progress and I felt like this update was a good one to share here because it illustrates how we’re all handling the social distancing thing in such different ways.

My experience has been closer to this, though I have found a desire to buy some supplies for a few hobbies of mine. I’ve started thinking a lot about food preservation as a hobby and leaning more into fermentation, which has made me want to buy lots of glass jars and also consider a food dehydrator. Having said that, our family spending has dropped significantly. Yes, our grocery bills are higher than they used to be, but we haven’t eaten food not made in our home in more than a month, so that cost has dropped to zero. We’re not spending much money on entertainment or hobbies, either.

I think we’re all finding ways to deal with this in different ways. My only advice, in general, is to think about what you’re doing, but at the same time, be forgiving of yourself. Is the choice you’re making really the best way to handle this problem, or are you just operating on instinct and reaction? You don’t always have to answer that perfectly, but it’s a good idea to always think like that and notice where you are and aren’t doing things in the best way, and then in the future nudge yourself toward doing better. The perfect is the enemy of the good, but never abandon efforts to be a little better than you were yesterday.

Q8: Surviving unemployment, not thriving

For six years, I have managed a bar. When the order to close up happened the owner let everyone go saying he would call us when things could be open again.

I filed for unemployment and have been surviving not thriving.

My rent has been cut by 50% for the rest of the year meaning I can at least keep staying here while I get unemployment but I can’t afford much else beyond keeping food on the table and waiting until the bar can reopen if it does.

But at the same time, I feel like I am just waiting for the phone to ring and everything just relies on the bar reopening and everything going back to the way it was.

This is like a weird “staycation” except I can’t go anywhere, I really can’t afford to spend any money and the end of it is really unclear.

So I have been sitting here reading your site and wondering what is next for me.
– Billy

I’d encourage you to imagine what would happen if you knew that bar was never going to reopen and that eventually, your unemployment would run out. What would you be doing right now if you knew that was what was going to happen?

Now, imagine that most of the bars in your area don’t reopen so you can’t easily jump into another bar management gig. What would you be doing right now if you knew that was the scenario in six months?

If you feel like you’re just idling in place right now and burning away a “staycation” with an uncertain finish line, I would lean into those two answers. You have a ton of time right now to figure out what you would do in those scenarios and to start doing everything you can to make that answer as good as possible while you still have some money coming in, a roof over your head and enough food on the table.

The good scenario is that in a month or two, your bar reopens and the owner wants you back, right? The thing is, that event is completely outside your control. You can’t do anything to make that happen.

With the other scenarios, there are a lot of things you can do to make a better answer to those questions. So, lean into making a better answer to those questions and spend your time doing that.

Even if the boss calls you up in two months and you go back to that bar, this time wasn’t wasted because, at the very least, you really explored what your other options in life were.

This is an opportunity. Make the most of it.

Q9: Coping without shopping

Found your site because of your article about retail therapy. Describes me to a tee. I deal with stuff by browsing and shopping at stores and online just isn’t the same. I am having a hard time coping with the stress of everything. I work from home and have two kids. My ex is still working in a factory and we agreed kids should stay with me full time until this is over. We usually split custody. Everything is stressful and I am not used to the kids being here this much, as much as I love them. I deal with stress by shopping and that is not an option right now. Really struggling.
– Andrea

I’m not sure what “retail therapy” article Andrea is referring to, but my guess is this one.

This is an absolutely perfect time to experiment with some of the ways other people use to cope with stress and melancholy. There are a lot of things that people do besides browsing stores to help themselves deal with stress. Here are four things that I do that help me a ton.

First of all, I journal. I have a journal that I write in each day for about 20 to 30 minutes. I start off by listing five things I’m grateful for, then five things I want to remember about the last day, then I just write about whatever’s on my mind, usually filling up a page. Just getting it out of my head and on paper feels good.

I also meditate twice a day for 10 or 15 minutes. Of late, I have personally found a lot of value in mantra or short prayer meditation, where I just focus on a very short phrase or prayer for that entire time. When I started, I found it easiest to just focus on the in and out of my breathing. The goal in either case was to focus on that one thing and then, when you notice your attention going away from that, bring it back to what you’re focusing on. This helps calm me down, but I’ve found that it works best if you do it for a long chain of days and if you break that chain, the benefits drift away after a while.

My whole family does taekwondo and has done so together for years. I find it incredibly mentally soothing. It’s not really practical right now, but my instructor has been posting free private Youtube videos that walk you through everything you can possibly do to practice at home, and I’ve been doing those. Try finding some workout videos that are near your level and do those until you’re panting and sweaty.

A final thing I do to calm anxieties is to bury myself in my hobbies or in a focused task long enough that I lose track of time. If I can get lost in a book or a game or even in my work, I usually find that when I snap back to being aware of what time it is, I feel a whole lot better.

Try some of those things and see if any of them click for you. They may help you find a new way to deal with the anxiety and uncertainty and melancholy of the moment without requiring you to spend money.

Q10: Refusing to pay daycare bill

I’m working from home and my wife is unemployed right now. Our two school-aged children are also at home and we removed our youngest from daycare. Previously, our two older kids went to that daycare after school for a few hours.

At first, the daycare was really supportive, telling people that they would reopen as soon as they were able and everyone would have their spot. Well, it looks like someone got greedy, and they announced that they were going to bill people 25% of their weekly fee in order to “keep their spots” once the daycare reopens.

I feel stuck. I really like this daycare, but I think it is horrible of them to be billing like that at a time like this. There is a lot of daycare demand in the area and it was hard to get our kids into this one, so I’m not sure what we do. Should I refuse to pay it?
– Andy

It’s very likely that the daycare is in a situation with their landlord where, if they want to keep their lease on the building they’re using, they have to come up with some money. Since the daycare isn’t operating, this is their solution — try this or the daycare goes under. I’m not excusing it, but I am saying that the daycare itself may not be to blame here. I think that candor is probably the best approach that they could take in a situation like this, and if this were the case for them, they should be open about it and there probably wouldn’t be negative feelings — or feelings as negative — about it.

So, what should you do? I’m assuming that your wife is intending to return to work as soon as work can be found and is not interested in being a stay-at-home parent for a year or two until your kids are all in school and the oldest can take care of the younger ones for an hour or two after school. If your wife is on board with that, I’d cut ties with the daycare immediately.

Another factor to consider is the age of your youngest child, or the age you expect that child to be when they need to return to daycare. Is that child an infant? Or is that child nearing preschool age? The older the child is, the easier it is usually to find an opening for that child because the ratio of caregivers to children can be a bit lower when the children are older.

If your youngest is an infant, I would probably try to stick with this daycare that you like. If your child is getting close to school age, meaning that the child may start kindergarten this fall or next, I would probably lean toward moving on, because that’s a significant expense.

Q11: Add vinegar to laundry

I use a similar recipe to your homemade laundry soap. Suggestion: also start adding a teaspoon of vinegar to each load. It seems to make the clothes softer and smell better and I think it cleans better too. A big jug of white vinegar is just $3 to $4 and will last for years.
– Sara

My simple homemade laundry soap recipe can be found here; it costs about $0.04 a load.

I actually have a jug of vinegar in the laundry room for this purpose, but half the time I simply space it off when I’m doing laundry. I usually start water running, add the soap to the water, then add clothes and close the lid. Adding the vinegar is an obvious step in there, but I simply space it off.

I do think there’s a mild softening effect from adding laundry to the wash and it seems obvious that a bit of diluted vinegar would help with cleaning. Given the low cost of this, it’s well worth trying!

Q12: Meaningful progress toward computer programming

I will likely be unemployed for the next six to nine months but I am financially secure during that time. I would like to use this time to learn computer programming. There seem to be a lot of options for this. What would you suggest?

It needs to be entirely from home. It needs to be free or low cost. It needs to generate skills I can put on a resume that could help me get a job. I have a good PC at home to do this on.

Seems like there are many options but I want to avoid scams.
– Barry

In my previous “life” before starting The Simple Dollar, I was a computer programmer and data analyst, so this is somewhat in my wheelhouse.

Assuming that you also need some kind of structure and progression to your learning, my honest recommendation is CodeAcademy. They offer a ton of great material and you can go through the basic stuff for free, though to get into the more advanced stuff requires a $19.99 a month fee. You’ll probably figure out by the end of the free, basic material whether this is right for you.

If you do dive deep into this, my honest suggestion is to work on practical projects on your own. Take what you’re learning within CodeAcademy and use those skills to write programs that do things you’re interested in. You could set up your own website with a database backend for a collection of yours, for example; that’s a pretty good starter project.

The key is to turn what you’re learning into practical projects you can show others. Not only does it give you something to show off, but it also turns the skills you’re learning into something practical. It’s like the difference between taking a Spanish class and then having a lot of conversations with native Spanish speakers.

If you get through all of the material at CodeAcademy and have created some interesting things on your own, you’ll probably be able to figure out what’s next and how to fill those holes in your knowledge on your own. It’s really about mastering self-learning once you’ve reached that point.

Good luck!

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.