Mailbag: Questions About Job Searches, Extracurricular Activities, Temptations, Condiments 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. Looking for new job
2. Extracurricular expenses
3. Basic end of life questions
4. More questions about fuel tracking
5. Handling the next temptation
6. Major redesign of life article
7. The “extra condiment packet” question
8. Snow removal strategy
9. Pocket notebook update
10. Relentless bills
11. Soup recommendation
12. Fantasy sports as cheap hobby

With the dawn of December comes the holiday gift-giving season for many families, and questions regarding gifts often dominate mailbag questions during December. Rather than having each mailbag this month drowning in questions about gifts, I’m going to instead spin them off into a small number of articles on their own that address most of the common questions I’ve already seen (and have often seen in other years).

On with the non-holiday questions!

Q1: Looking for new job

How “down low” should you be when you’re looking for a new job? I’ve heard that you should say nothing to your current employer until you turn in your notice, but how can you do that when you need them as a reference?
– Andrew

Great question. I think it depends on why you’re moving on.

Is the reason you’re moving on mostly due to factors outside of the workplace? If that’s true, I think it’s okay and even beneficial to be more open about the change at work. You can give plenty of notice and you’re likely to get good references from your employer. This also keeps the door wide open for future employment down the road. So, if you’re moving out of the area or if you’re making a notable career change, then you’re probably fine talking about it at work, especially if you give plenty of notice.

However, if you’re leaving because you’re unhappy at work, whether it’s because of salary, promotion opportunities, workplace issues or whatever, you’re better off keeping your cards close to the vest and not talking about it.

I’ve experienced this from lots of different angles. In general, if you’re leaving because you’re moving away or because of a career change, it’s better for everyone involved for you to be open about that change. This gives you time to wind down your job, set things up for your replacement and even make the transition smooth. I’ve seen situations where people have actually helped with the hiring of their replacement and even trained them, and then when they left, the transition was about as friendly as possible and the door was definitely open to them in the future. I’ve also seen the opposite, where someone popped up with a two-week notice and they were basically told to clean out their desk and leave the building immediately and the bridge was completely burnt.

It comes down to this: why are you leaving? Are you leaving because of an issue with your employer? Or is it because of issues beyond your workplace? That should guide you toward how you should handle things.

Q2: Extracurricular expenses

My daughter (7th grade) wants to be in several extracurricular activities at once. I don’t mind the schedule so much but the expense is kind of ridiculous. How do you handle it with your kids? You have two of similar age if I recall correctly.
– Bill

I have two middle-school-aged children. We encourage extracurricular activities provided that they keep their grades up. We basically allow them to each have one that they can be in regardless, but then additional ones require certain grade performance to stay in them because they need to demonstrate that they’re taking care of business on their studies before they can be in other activities.

As for the expense, we simply say “no” to activities that are just enormously expensive. Our daughter, for example, wanted to be in a rather expensive extracurricular recently and we simply told her no, that we would support other groups but the expense of this one was simply too much. We have a rough extracurricular “budget” for each child that enables them to be in a few activities and covers things like a musical instrument, but beyond that, there’s no need.

Now, if a child was extremely focused on one extracurricular and was really trying to become highly skilled in that specific activity, we might rethink it, but that’s not been true for any of our children yet.

My advice? Set a budget for extracurriculars, be open about it with your child, and stick to it. Say that you’ll pay $X per semester for extracurriculars and they can decide what clubs they want to be in based on that budget.

Q3: Basic end-of-life questions

I’ve entered the last quarter of my life and have a recent will and end of life paperwork in order. Recently my son asked me a few really good questions: How and what should he do when I die about my house and other assets? What is the best way to settle my estate? He also asked if I could make up a list with people I’d like him to directly contact to notify of my passing. It would be helpful to have a lesson on how and what to do when faced with taking care of estate matters after the passing of a parent.
– Marc

The questions your son is asking are good ones, but there aren’t easy answers to them. My honest advice would be for him to stop by the library and pick up a good guidebook on how to be an executor, like The Executor’s Guide: Settling a Loved One’s Estate or Trust by Mary Randolph. He will probably want to pair this with a book that’s specific to your state, as the specifics vary a little bit from state to state.

I’m assuming, of course, that your son who is asking these questions is the executor on your will. If not, he won’t be the person handling at least some of these issues; your executor will be. Any property of yours will be handled by the executor following the terms of your will to the best of their ability.

The list of people to contact is a really good idea and one that I will actually suggest to my own parents in the near future.

Q4: More questions about fuel tracking

Last week you advised a reader to track their fuel and maintenance for their car in an app. What are the benefits of doing this?
– David

I use the Road Trip app to record my car’s fuel and all maintenance done to it.

The big reason why I keep track of my car’s fuel is so that I can get some solid reliable data on its actual fuel efficiency. By that, I don’t just mean how many miles per gallon it gets, but how efficient it is with different fuel types. I’ve learned through the use of this app, for example, that 10% ethanol gas is not worth it for my car because the loss in fuel efficiency is so great, even if that 10% ethanol gas is 20% cheaper.

I’m currently trying to determine exactly what type of fuel is actually the most cost-efficient in my car, which actually isn’t very hard provided I record the data each time I fill up, noting the current odometer, the type of gas I bought, the amount of gas I bought, and the current price. With enough data, I can get an average fuel efficiency for each type of gas and then use that to figure out really quick which fuel is the most cost-efficient. (It’s never the ethanol blend.)

With maintenance, I have reminders for my full maintenance schedule in the app. Whenever a reminder pops up, I know I need to make an appointment or do that maintenance myself. Sticking to the maintenance schedule extends my car’s lifespan significantly, and entering the current odometer reading whenever I get gas causes the app to check and see if any maintenance is needed soon. It all works together.

Q5: Handling the next temptation

Here’s a situation that comes up often for me and my wife: We are tempted to buy by x, y, and z, but then when temptation Q comes up, we tell ourselves, “I already resisted buying x, y, z and so saved a bunch of money, so now it is OK to get Q.” Perhaps an idea to flesh out in a post. In other words, I give up some things (some of which I honestly would not have done in any case and so did not really sacrifice, or some of which were just to overambitious to begin with) and then I convince myself that I did something financially virtuous and so I can now splurge.

Sort of like having a feast to celebrate a month of dieting, except that the “month of dieting” was only in your head and was not actually any real thing you did, just things you wanted to do (and I want to do hundreds of things a day) but did not do, even though most of those I could not do even if I tried.
– Adam

I struggled with this for quite a while, and I think the solution to this conundrum is to have a monthly “free-spending” or “hobby” budget. Within that budget, you can spend money however you like; when you hit the limit, however, you have to wait until the next month to splurge.

I adhered strongly to this for several years and still do to an extent. I found that during most months I came in significantly under my budget total, often saving it for one or two big splurges during the year.

More importantly, I found that a lot of temptations simply faded away over time, or I became more careful about the things I wanted. Things that tempted me 10 years ago have no interest at all for me now. I attribute that mostly to being careful and thoughtful with my free/hobby spending for so long. It made a lot of lesser temptations simply vanish.

So, my main advice for you would be to give yourself a hobby budget and then start asking yourself not just to avoid splurges, but which splurges provide the most value in your life. You’ll find after a while that the lesser temptations just kind of fade away.

Q6: Major redesign of life article

Any thoughts on this article? Are mid-career sabbaticals a good idea? We Need a Major Redesign of Life (at Washington Post)
– Jenna

I feel like this article throws a lot of interesting ideas at the wall regarding several real problems in our culture, most significantly our relatively long and healthy lifespans compared to our forebears and the changing nature of employment. While I think most of them do make sense, they require some significant cultural shifts to work for most people.

I love the concept of a mid-career sabbatical or mini-retirement, but the problem is that it’s very difficult for many people to walk away from their careers for a few years and then just jump right back in. Ask almost any stay-at-home parent how that goes. It doesn’t go well.

I think a model where you effectively have two or three careers in your life, followed by some retirements/sabbaticals in the middle, might make sense for some people, but those people need to be high achievers to really pull that off.

In short, this article is great food for thought for people who are already high achievers, particularly those relatively young who might be interested in a different path than working until their golden years and then retiring.

Q7: The “extra condiment packet” question

When you get takeout or delivery food and there’s extra condiment packets in the bag, do you save them? What do you do with them?

OK more questions on the topic. Is it OK to ask for extra condiments if you don’t think you’ll probably use them on that meal? And what about when they have a big bin of them sitting out? Is it okay to take more than you need?
– Andy

If I’m in a restaurant and they have an open bin of condiment packets, I’ll grab as many as I think I’ll reasonably use on the meal. If that means I wind up with one or two extras, then I don’t feel bad about pocketing them. I would object to grabbing more than I think I’ll reasonably use on the meal.

If I’m going through a drive-thru and they ask if I want condiment packets, I always say yes. The number thrown into the bag is wildly variable — sometimes it’s not even as many as I want with the meal I have, while other times I have 10 extra packets.

Basically, I think it’s completely fine to take packets if they’re offered, and if there’s an open bin of them, I think it’s fine to take as many as you think you might use while eating that meal. Beyond that, it crosses a line into basically taking condiment packets that don’t belong to you.

If I wind up with extra condiment packets, I usually save those extra packets. I have a big Ziploc bag in our pantry with a bunch of assorted condiment packets in it. We usually use them when we’re traveling. For example, I recently went on a short trip where I made sandwiches in the hotel room a few times and I used a bunch of mustard and mayo packets that I brought from home.

Q8: Snow removal strategy

How do you handle snow removal? I recently moved to SE Minnesota and the snow is already ridiculous.
– Jerry

If the snow is about 4 inches or less, I use a snow shovel and get some exercise. I usually make the kids get out there and do it with me, taking turns with the shovels we have.

If it’s more than that, we have a snowblower. Without a snowblower, removing more than 4 incges of snow from our driveway would take quite a while and likely cause some unwanted back pain.

In a typical winter, we use the snowblower five or six times. We usually get about five snowfalls that are small enough to be handled with a shovel and five or so snowfalls that require the snowblower, though winters can vary a lot. Some winters seemingly require endless blowing, while others can go by with maybe one or two snowblower runs.

I don’t think things like a heated driveway are really necessary. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have a snowblower if we didn’t have a wide driveway and a healthy section of the sidewalk to clear. The exercise from shoveling is pretty good for me (as long as I lift using the knees and not the back).

Q9: Pocket notebook update

Do you still use a pocket notebook for recording notes during the day or have you switched to an app?
– Kelvin

I still use a pocket notebook. The big issue is that I haven’t found an input method that’s faster for a small diagram or a few words of text than simply opening a notebook and writing it down. By the time I open a note app on my phone and start jotting things down with the keyboard or with my finger, I’m basically already done with using my pocket notebook.

I still vastly prefer simple side-stapled notebooks like Field Notes makes, though I have a motley assortment of those types of notebooks bought at various sales.

As for a pen, I still use Uniball Signo 207 or Pilot G-2 pens. They don’t leak in my pocket and always write well.

Q10: Relentless bills

I get so frustrated by relentless bills. Whenever I start to feel like things are doing okay another bill comes in and another and another. It feels like you’re on a long treadmill.
– Andy

That’s modern life for you. There’s basically no way off of that treadmill unless you adopt a very contrarian lifestyle off the grid.

The cycle of things like energy bills, insurance, food bills and so on are just a staple of modern life. You’re either paying them yourself or someone is paying them for you, or else you live completely off the grid and subsist on your own grown food or food given to you. Those are the options.

For me, the key is remembering what I get out of those bills. I pay the energy bill so that the lights stay on. I pay the insurance bill so that if our house burns down we’re not in a financial disaster. Remembering what I’m getting out of the bills makes them more palatable and less like a pure obstacle to overcome. It also helps me realize that some bills are much less necessary than others if I do feel overwhelmed.

Q11: Soup recommendation

What’s your recommendation for a cheap soup that is at least kind of healthy but still tastes good? Ramen is so ridiculously unhealthy.
– Erica

Honestly, I don’t really buy soup very often. My recommendation is to get a bunch of small resealable containers at the store, make a batch of your own soup at home that you like, and then fill up those containers and pop them in the freezer. Pull them out and heat them up when you want something to eat.

Two soups that work really well for this, in my experience, are chili and chowder. Both of these freeze really well and both are easy to make in large quantities. I’ve also made a killer potato soup that reheated really well, and my parents often make a bean and ham soup that reheats well from frozen.

When you make it yourself, you can control exactly how healthy it is and you can also decide what’s in there for your own taste preferences.

Q12: Fantasy sports as a cheap hobby

Just wanted to suggest starting a dynasty fantasy football league (or baseball or basketball) with some friends as a cheap hobby. I have a league with a bunch of friends and we each pay $20 as an entry fee each year. The amount of time I put into researching and planning and trash-talking is pretty incredible, but it builds a bond with those guys and gals and the $20 entry fee is paid out to the top three each season so after a while it’s fairly break-even. All of the tools for playing are free, too. Just thought I’d suggest it.
– Joel

I play a lot of dynasty fantasy sports for the exact same reason — it’s a very cheap hobby for the amount of time I put into it and the amount of camaraderie I get out of it. I’m currently in a dynasty baseball league, a dynasty football league and a dynasty basketball league with three distinct groups of people.

For those unaware, fantasy sports is basically a game where you pretend to be the general manager of a sports team. The players on your team are real players playing in that sport. You draft players and trade them, just like a real team would, and you accumulate points for your team based on the actual on-field performance of your players. So, if I have a fantasy baseball team and I have Mike Trout, he’s going to accumulate a lot of points for me. The same is true if my fantasy basketball team has LeBron James on it.

A dynasty fantasy sports league is one in which you keep your players from season to season. When players get old and retire, you just lose them, but you replenish through an annual rookie draft and through trades and through free agent signings (basically, a big pool of all of the players who aren’t on anyone’s team). There are lots of varieties of this.

The key to making this a worthwhile hobby is to do it with friends. It’s a great way to keep a bond going with some friends who aren’t nearby or to build a bond with office mates or new friends. Some people will play it really competitively, while others will just try to get their favorite players, and still, others will just be in it for the camaraderie and trash talk. It’s super inexpensive, too.

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.