Mailbag: Questions About Free File, Vegetable Broth, Winter Boots, 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. Thoughts on IRS Free File
2. Handling a dependent child
3. Making versus buying vegetable broth?
4. Winter boots
5. Snow removal
6. Credit card and eBay dispute
7. Smart plugs worth it?
8. Winter tire pressure concerns
9. Ice covering big windows
10. Closing old credit cards
11. Caring for my mother’s cats
12. Fiction

This past week saw both the first real cold stretch of the winter in my neck of the woods (with full days never getting above 0 degrees Fahrenheit or -18 degrees Celsius) and the first major snowstorm, and this seemed to bring out a few questions related to winter weather, which I’ve included here. If you notice a bit of a “winter weather” theme, that’s why.

So, let’s dig in.

Q1: Thoughts on IRS Free File

What do you think about IRS Free File for filing taxes? Does it do a good job? I made about $45K last year and a coworker suggested this to me saying I could use it for free. I have used Tax Act and Turbo Tax in the past.
– Marvin

To be clear, IRS Free File is a program run by the IRS where tax software providers are required to have a free version of software for lower income people. Its page, IRS Free File, links to several software packages and free file offers. Most of them require an Adjusted Gross Income of $69,000 or less, though some of them have a lower ceiling than that. Some also include free state tax filing if you’re in a state with state income taxes.

For example, TaxAct’s free file service requires that your adjusted gross income is $59,000 or less and you’re 56 years old or younger, you’re eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit or you’re an active duty military member with an AGI of $69,000 or less.

Most of those free options appear to be basically identical to the paid versions except that if you put in information that indicates you don’t qualify for the offer (for example, if you type in an income that’s too high), the program stops and asks for you to pay for it. If your return is straightforward, all of the packages will do a good job.

I’d suggest choosing one that you’re familiar with; if you aren’t familiar with any, I recommend TaxAct or Turbo Tax. If you’ve used software in the past, stick with that one, because it will import information from earlier returns which will save you money and time.

Q2: Handling a dependent child

My wife and I are in our mid-50s and about 10 years from retiring, hopefully. We have two children. The older one is almost 30 and fully independent and currently lives about six hours away from us. We provide no financial assistance to her at all. Our younger child is 24 and graduated from college in 2019. He could not find a job after school and moved in with us. He is still actively looking for a job in his field but his motivation is getting lower and lower. We insisted that he get a part time job and pay a nominal amount of rent while he lives here, which hasn’t been a problem.

We have talked a lot about where this is going long term and we have a lot of conflicted feelings. We both want him to be independent, but that isn’t going to happen unless he’s earning more money than he is now. He can’t even afford rent on a tiny apartment with his current income let alone any food or utilities or a car. If he gets more hours or adds a second part time job, it quickly becomes tough to find a job in his field because he doesn’t have time to apply and interview without losing one of those jobs.

We’re stuck. Do we finance an apartment for him until he finds a better job? Should he just keep living here? It’s going OK in terms of us all getting along and in fact it’s pretty pleasant most of the time. We do like having him here. But it is not good for his independent development as an adult.

What should we do?
– Ben

This is a surprisingly familiar story. I get questions from readers on a pretty regular basis along these lines — a child can’t find good work after college and now lives with us, so now what?

It always comes down to conflicting goals and desires. You want your child to be independent, but you don’t want them to struggle to eat or to have shelter. You want to move on toward retirement with your children independent of you, but you don’t want those children to have major life struggles just to get by. You are willing to support your child for a while, but you don’t want them to be dependent on you for the long term.

What’s the answer? There isn’t an easy one.

My belief is that, if the relationship is a healthy one, the three of you should sit down together and really talk all of this through. Your child is (or should be) mature enough to understand that you guys want him to be independent, both for your sake and for his, and he probably wants to be independent. Work together to come up with a plan that gets him there, even while he’s living at home. Sarah and I have already discussed how we’d handle this with our own kids — they’d have a list of expectations that centered around finding a job and handling some responsibilities of living at home and as long as they kept meeting those expectations, they could live here. If they choose to not meet those expectations, then they need to move out. It’s as simple as that. Our door is open to our kids if they’re using it as a stepping stone to better things. It’s not open to them if it’s a place to stop.

If that’s a conversation you’re unable to have with your son, then I would encourage you to have your son seek more employment, even at a low wage outside his career path and move out. Treat it as if they’re unwilling to take steps to move on, because having a real conversation about it is a big step in that process.

So, right now, sit down with your wife (without your son) and figure out what steps you think your son should be taking each day and/or week to find a job, to keep skills sharp, to bring in a little income via part-time work, to participate in the household upkeep, and to discuss what steps they’re taking. If your son is consistently doing those things, then your son is likely to find good work eventually, so it shouldn’t be a problem to keep the door open. If your son isn’t doing those things, then you should start nudging the child out the door strongly. That’s my opinion, anyway.

Q3: Making versus buying vegetable broth?

A lot of recipes call for vegetable broth or stock. I am wondering whether it is cheaper to just make 2-3 gallons of it at once at home and freeze it than it is to keep buying it.
– Anna

At my local store, you can buy store brand vegetable broth for $1.22 a quart. So, if you were to make a three-gallon stockpot full of it, it would cost you $14.64. You’d want the cost to be below that.

Stock is usually made out of a mix of whatever vegetables you have on hand. Whenever I make it, I usually start with a bunch of vegetable scraps from the freezer. Whenever we have vegetable scraps or vegetables that are starting to get old, I simply put those vegetables into a big freezer bag, all jumbled together. This way, the vegetables are “free.”

If you’re actually buying vegetables to make this, I’d buy a variety of vegetables as they go on sale and toss them in the freezer. You’ll want things like carrots and onions and celery and turnips and whatever else is on sale. You can also use things like canned tomatoes if there’s a great sale on them.

Basically, when you’re ready to make stock, you just dump all of the vegetables into a big stockpot, add some salt and pepper and whatever other herbs and spices you like (I usually just add some garlic, thyme and bay leaves), and fill it with water until everything is covered and there’s about three inches of water between the top of the vegetables and the top of the water. I then put a lid on it and raise it to a gentle boil and let it boil all day. To be honest, I usually do this in our big slow cooker because I can truly just start it and forget it. I usually let stock cook for a long time — between 12 and 24 hours. I’ll taste it a few times and maybe add some additional salt or peppercorns. Then, when it’s done (usually when the vegetables are complete mush or have disintegrated), I strain it and save the liquid. I typically wind up with a little more liquid than the amount of water I put in there — the water from the vegetables usually exceeds the water boiled off, provided I kept it covered.

If you’re using mostly scraps and extras, this is definitely cheaper than buying stock. However, it takes more work to make it. If you’re buying vegetables solely to make stock, I’m not sure you’re saving much money unless you got some amazing deals.

On the other hand, in terms of flavor, homemade stock usually tastes better to me. It’s usually much richer in flavor and a little thicker. I think it’s better stock by far than the stuff bought in a container at the store.

Q4: Winter boots

What kind of winter boots do you wear?
– Kevin

I have an old pair of Columbia winter boots similar to these, but they are getting seriously worn out and need replacement. I love them; they fit well and keep my feet surprisingly warm if I’m wearing decent socks underneath, and they’re effectively waterproof (you CAN get your feet wet if you trudge around in ice water or something, but if you’re doing that, you should be wearing rubber boots) — and I’ll probably replace them with something similar.

I’ll be honest, though: I would not skimp on winter footwear if you live in the upper Midwest (Iowa, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin). There are going to be times during the winter where it is incredibly cold, and if you don’t have good footwear that will keep your feet warm while trudging around ice and snow, you will very very seriously regret it at some point. You do not want frostbite or anything close to it on your feet.

If I’m going to be outside on a cold day, I wear them with two layers of wool socks to keep my feet warm, and that does the trick almost every time. If it’s so cold that such a combo doesn’t work, I’m not going outside.

Let’s look at another winter issue.

Q5: Snow removal options

Had our first big snow of the year and I scooped but I am coming to realize my back isn’t up to this anymore. I’m considering a snowblower, but also wondering whether it’s more cost-effective to just pay someone. There’s a guy in our neighborhood who clears sidewalks and drives during the night for $25 per storm which is what he quoted us. He clears when the snow finishes and then stops by to collect payment in the evening afterward. You put down a $25 deposit and then he doesn’t clear your drive anymore if you don’t pay him. Thoughts?
– Charlie

In a typical winter, how often do you get enough snow that it would warrant having it cleared? Let’s say it’s 4 times. You’d have to pay him $100 in a typical winter and it’s just taken care of.

Now, let’s say you invest $500 in a snowblower. It takes maybe a gallon of gas each time you clear it ($3/storm) and a little bit of additional maintenance (spark plugs and oil, maybe $20/year). Thus, in a typical year of four storms, you’re paying $32 to keep the blower going.

At that rate, it would take you about 8 winters to have the snowblower even start saving you money versus having the other guy clear it for you. After that, though, it’s about $68 per winter in savings to clear it yourself.

We have a snowblower and it takes us about 20 to 25 minutes to clear our driveway and sidewalks after an average snowfall, so let’s figure an hour and a half of clearing snow each winter, plus another half an hour of maintenance like getting it ready for storage in the spring and getting it going again in the late fall, easy stuff straight from the manual. So, that’s two hours a year spent on snow removal if you do it yourself. After eight years, that’s 16 hours invested.

My feeling is this: if you can get a good reliable snowblower at a good price, it’s probably worth it. If you have to spend more than a few hundred dollars on the snowblower, you’re probably better off paying your neighbor.

For the rest of the winter, I’d probably pay your neighbor, then watch the snowblower prices as winter wraps up. They’ll often go on sale near the end of winter, so you can snag one then at a good price.

Q6: Credit card and eBay dispute

Bought a Google Home Mini for my daughter for Christmas. It seemed to be in shrink but when she opened it up it was obviously used and wasn’t even the right color. I disputed it through eBay but the seller claimed that it was a legitimate item and refused to refund it. Did a chargeback with my credit card company and the seller is disputing it, so now it’s in some dispute process. Don’t buy electronics from eBay.
– Mari

Before you make a blanket statement like “don’t buy electronics from eBay,” wait to see how the dispute process turns out. There are several links in the chain here and everyone involved wants to figure out where the problem actually lies so they’re responsible for it.

Was it swapped out at the factory? Was it swapped out when Google was delivering it to the person that sold it to you? Maybe there’s another middleman you don’t even know about. Was it tampered with between leaving the retailer and reaching you? I’m pretty sure both eBay and your credit card company want to know the answer to this, and there’s at least some chance your seller is legitimate and is just caught in someone else’s scam and they definitely want to know.

Be patient here and let the investigation play itself out. Most of the parties involved here would prefer to figure out exactly where things went wrong, and when they do, that’s who will end up dealing with the consequences.

Q7: Smart plugs worth it?

Are smart plugs worth the prices? Seems like they would be really useful for things you want to turn on and off but can’t reach very well. How much energy do they drain just by being on? Can’t find good info.
– Alex

I was able to buy a single Amazon Smart Plug recently for $0.99, so I picked it up to try it out.

Basically, a smart plug is just a small device you plug into your electrical outlet. The plug itself has an outlet on it, so you can plug any device into the smart plug. The smart plug connects to your home’s wi-fi and there are apps for your phone that enable you to turn the power on and off to the smart plug. So, once it’s plugged in and wirelessly connected (which is pretty easy to do), you can just tap a button on your phone to turn the power on and off to whatever’s plugged into that smart plug.

We currently have a lamp that’s very difficult to reach plugged into one of these and it works really well. When we want it on, I just tap a button on my phone. When we want it off, I just tap a button on my phone. No reaching or crawling around or anything. It’s pretty useful.

I used a wattage meter to figure out how much wattage was being drawn by the smart plug and it appears to pull one watt constantly. That means, over the course of a month, it gobbles down about 730 watt-hours, or 0.73 kWh. Energy costs about $0.13 per kWh for us, so it costs about ten cents to have that smart plug plugged in all the time.

Is it worth the $1 initial cost and the $0.10 per month ongoing cost to make that lamp really usable? I think it is. I don’t think I’d feel the same way if the plug cost $25, though.

If smart plugs consistently get down in the $1 to $5 range, I can see myself using them in various places. If there’s a use in your home for which you’d pay a dime a month to be able to turn power on and off from your phone from anywhere in the world, then it’s worthwhile, but a $20+ initial cost is a turnoff for me. My recommendation: hold off until they get cheaper, then get a few if they’re useful to you.

And now a couple more winter questions.

Q8: Winter tire pressure concerns

Should you put extra air in your tires in the winter to keep them from going flat? Guy at the auto shop said that you should put some extra air in your tires when it gets cold so they don’t go flat. But won’t that make them overinflated and risk popping?
– Brenda

A normal car tire should be somewhere between 30 and 35 PSI all the time. I try to keep mine fairly close to 35 PSI if I can. Overinflation can somewhat increase the chance of a blowout, but the risk is pretty small unless you seriously overinflate your tires, so if you accidentally go up to 40 PSI, it’s not worth worrying about (at the same time, intentionally overfilling your tires to get better fuel efficiency ends up being a bad bargain, because one blowout eliminates all of your gains and causes a giant headache).

Tires lose about 1-2 PSI per month naturally. That’s normal and nothing to be concerned about. That’s why most oil change places and dealerships will check and air up your tires when you go in, because your tires will naturally be a few PSI lower than they should be and if that goes on for too long it can be a problem. Going down to 25 PSI isn’t a big problem aside from the fact that it makes your car a little less fuel-efficient.

Winter, however, is interesting. If you live in an area where the temperature drops 50 degrees Fahrenheit from early fall to early winter, then what you’ll notice is that your tires will drop in pressure. Basically, for every 10 degrees Fahrenheit that the temperature drops, your tires will lose roughly 1 PSI. Similarly, every 10 degrees Fahrenheit that the temperature rises, your tires will gain roughly 1 PSI.

In practice, what that means is that when it starts to get really cold, your tires will probably be a few PSI lower than they should be, so it makes sense to top them off if you have a local service station that has free air.

Why not just take it to a shop? Well, most shops are heated, so unless they happen to fill up your tires immediately upon arrival, your tires will warm up and appear more inflated, then they’ll cool down when you leave and appear less inflated. Some shops will slightly overinflate tires in the winter to compensate, but you can never be sure.

Your best bet is to just inflate your tires yourself on a pretty cold day. Just stop by a service station and use a tire gauge to check them and their air pump to fill them. Aim for 35 PSI (or whatever’s indicated in your manual). It only takes a few minutes and it’ll ensure optimal fuel efficiency and minimal risk of a flat or a blowout.

Q9: Ice covering big windows

Every winter when the weather gets cold our west window gets covered in ice and stays that way as long as it is below freezing. The frame around the window is metal so I’m not worried about wood rot but when it melts water gets all over everything. We can’t figure out why it is happening and every article gives 20 reasons why and it’s not helpful.
– Mary

I’ll boil it down for you: almost every time, the reason that there is frozen ice on the inside of a window is that there is a lot of humidity in the air inside the house (which is where the water comes from) and the window is made of poorly insulated glass.

The first thing I’d do is check any humidifiers you have around the house. Do you have any? If so, turn them down a little bit. If you don’t, consider running a dehumidifier near that window.

You might also want to take a rolled-up towel and sit it on the windowsill by the window each night. Have the towel close to the glass but not quite touching it. This will absorb some of the moisture and drastically reduce the ice buildup.

Another thing you’ll eventually want to do is to replace that window with a double pane or triple pane window, which should help.

A final thing: if you have a gas furnace, you might want to have it checked over because a malfunctioning gas furnace can sometimes emit excess water vapor. This is unlikely, but it’s a major problem if it is the culprit.

There may be other issues at work, but humidity and a single pane window is the most likely culprit. When I was growing up, we had a window that did this, too, and it was due to humidity in the house and the glass being single pane glass. Our house was small, so people taking a bath or a shower or someone running the washing machine would contribute a lot of humidity to the air. We’d keep a towel on the windowsill, but I still remember the frost patterns on that window on cold mornings.

Q10: Closing old credit cards

I am 48 years old, my wife is 47. We own our home and have paid off our mortgage. We don’t anticipate any reason for more debt in the future. We use two credit cards for our purchases due to rewards programs and have two others that we signed up for various reasons. They are all more than 10 years old. We don’t use two of them and think it is a good idea to close them to reduce identity theft risk. Can you think of any reason why we should not?
– Eldon

Given everything you state here, I can’t think of any reason why you shouldn’t close them. You might have a very small negative impact on your credit score in the short term, but it will be tiny and it should fade away. Depending on your total credit limit, though, it might actually be a slight positive instead.

The big reason to hesitate to close a card is that it can shorten the length of your credit history if you’re closing your oldest card and it’s less than seven years old. That’s not the case here. You might also be affecting your debt-to-credit ratio — meaning how much of a balance you carry compared to your credit limit — but if you’re keeping two cards, this shouldn’t change that much.

I think the identity theft risk of the two unused cards is more substantial here than any credit impact this would have. Close those two cards!

Q11: Caring for my mother’s cats

My mom has six cats. Her health is failing and she is considering going into a nursing home, but she is extremely concerned about what happens to her cats. I do not wish to have the cats as I don’t think I can afford their care especially the two older ones who have medical problems. I suggested taking them to a shelter and my mom got extremely upset. What should I do? I don’t have money to take care of them.
– Amy

If I were you, I would put out a message on social media and to all of your friends and all of your mother’s friends and relatives, asking if any of them would want to adopt a cat or two. It’s pretty unrealistic to expect someone to be willing to adopt all six, but you have a good shot at finding good homes for one or two at a time.

You might also put up some flyers in various places around the community, simply stating that you have a cat or two that need a good home. Include pictures and a bit of information about the cat and see what you can get. Try posting these on the bulletin board at the library and city hall.

I would also talk to the vet that your mom uses for them. He or she may have some leads or good ideas for finding homes for them in your area.

Can you keep perhaps one or two cats? Six would be overwhelming for many people, but consider keeping one or two — the ones you like the best or the one that your mother likes the most.

Q12: Fiction

What fiction do you read?
– Tony

I’m usually reading two books at any given time — one fiction and one nonfiction. People who read The Simple Dollar are generally more familiar with the nonfiction stuff — I read a lot of personal finance, philosophy, science and history.

What I don’t talk about too much is the fiction. I generally prefer sci-fi and fantasy novels, and I utterly devour them. I use the library a lot for this, as I usually won’t re-read novels very often. If I actually feel the desire to reread them, I’ll go ahead and buy a copy, because probably 20% of the fiction I read is re-reads, and most of those are ones I’ve read several times and deeply love.

I’d say my fiction reading is about 40% sci-fi, 40% fantasy of some kind, and 20% what I would call literary fiction. I don’t really enjoy straight-up horror. I will occasionally read mysteries and westerns, but those fall into the “literary fiction” group. I tend to be drawn toward fiction that has characters unlike me that I can empathize with and settings that make me think.

Right now, I’m re-reading The Expanse, a sci-fi series of nine novels and a few novellas that have been made into a television series. I read the first six a few years back and had to stop because the seventh hadn’t been published yet, but the final one in the series is set to be published this year so I’m hoping to line up my reading so that I’m ready to read it when it comes out. I don’t like reading one series nonstop all the time, so I’m mixing in standalone novels as I go.

I’d say that reading fiction is my main form of pure entertainment. I don’t watch much television; fiction is my replacement for it. I find it more fun to imagine the characters and settings in my head than to see them on the screen, for whatever reason.

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.