Mailbag: Questions About Job Switching, Sharing a House, Tea, Roth IRAs, 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. Quitting my job
2. Used electrical items
3. Telling family about illness
4. Group living to save money
5. Resolution of better family communication
6. Library book sale question
7. Making tea cheaper
8. Roth end of year contribution?
9. Window scraping solution
10. Weird scam
11. Extra candy around the house
12. Speaking engagements

Each year during winter break, Sarah and I usually plan out our family’s summer vacation for the following year. Where will we go? What will we do there? How do we get there?

Usually, our trips are planned with a destination, some lodging, one or two big things we want to do that we kind of lock in with tickets, a bunch of random ideas and no set itinerary.

While we haven’t firmly decided on a location yet, New York City, Glacier National Park, Grand Canyon and Washington, D.C, are on our shortlist. Our children are very pro-NYC, but Sarah and I are probably more in favor of a national park this year.

It’s fun to plan and dream. On with the questions!

Q1: Quitting my job

Over the last few months the stress and pressure at my job has led me to decide to quit after the start of the year. I am a systems analyst. I have tapped my professional network for some quiet job leads and have some interviews coming up very soon. Some questions:

At what point should I tell my current job that I’m going to be moving on? Should I wait until I have an offer in hand?

What should I be preparing financially for this transition? This is my first job change after getting married and having a child which happened in fast succession in 2017 and 2018.

In general, how large should my emergency fund be?
– Bart

These are great questions and a strong sign that you are taking your responsibility to your new family seriously. Good work.

At your current job, I wouldn’t tell them about your job hunt until you’ve signed an agreement to work elsewhere. At that point, submit your notice at your current job. There’s no reason to tell them earlier if you’re leaving because you’re unhappy.

You should aim to make sure that there is no gap in your benefits as you move from one job to the next. As soon as you’ve got a job offer in hand, talk to your new employer about this to make sure there is no benefits gap.

I don’t really believe in saying that you should have a certain dollar amount in an emergency fund. Rather, I think you should aim to have a month of living expenses for each person dependent on you, including yourself. To fund that, I would set up an automatic transfer from checking to a savings account somewhere, transferring a little each week, and never turn it off. To get it going, you can definitely add more cash, but after that, just forget about it until you need it.

Q2: Used electrical items

I’m surprised that you recommend buying used electric items like toasters and slow cookers. I wouldn’t allow such fire hazards into my home.
– Erica

I don’t believe that there is significant additional risk in using used electrical items, no more than using an item you’ve used many times in your own kitchen. Most used electrical items are things that people used a few times, put in the closet for a few years, and then donated to free up space. That doesn’t constitute a fire hazard.

I probably would avoid any electrical item that looked old or heavily used at a secondhand store or a yard sale, but I rarely see items like that anyway. Sure, they turn up, but most of the stuff I’d actually pick up is more along the lines of “used a few times, then stored away, then sold.”

The wiring of most small appliances is so simple that unless I see a frayed cord, I don’t worry about them being a fire hazard. Most of them will throw a breaker rather than causing an actual fire hazard.

In short, the risk is so small that it’s just not worth worrying about it to me. It is a good practice to leave small electrical appliances unplugged when not in use, though, whether they’re new or used.

Q3: Telling family about illness

I was diagnosed with stage 3 renal cell carcinoma in mid-December. My doctor believes that it is treatable and I am to have two surgeries in January. I have decided not to tell my family until at least after the surgery and have been getting my affairs in order in case the surgery doesn’t work.

My lawyer is helping with the estate plans and has encouraged me to think carefully about when to tell everyone. I have read The Simple Dollar for many years and loved your honest advice to so many. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.
– Mary

Thank you for your kind words.

My opinion is that it really depends on the relationship you have with your children and what kind of people they are. Since this is not a terminal diagnosis, I think you don’t need to tell them at all if you don’t want to. You can also simply tell them that you’re having a minor surgery, too.

To be honest, I’d probably be much like you if I were in that situation. I strongly suspect I’m going to be very hesitant to tell my children about my medical concerns unless those concerns are very life-threatening. I wouldn’t want to worry them. If that’s where you’re coming from, and it does sound like what you’re thinking, it’s a completely acceptable and normal response.

I will say that if you do tell them, it’s probably a good idea to tell them (at least the ones you’re on good terms with) all at once or in very rapid succession. If you need a break between telling each child, ask the first ones you tell to not say anything for a day or two to give you time to do it. Telling one child and not another can end up causing other family conflicts, even if you don’t directly see them.

I guess, all I can say is what I would do in your shoes, with what I think my kids are going to be like as adults. I probably wouldn’t tell them of this unless it appeared to be life-threatening. I might tell them of the surgery, but I would downplay the severity of it.

If it turned out to be a terminal diagnosis, I would tell them sooner rather than later so they would have time to adjust, time to understand the estate planning and time to do anything with me that they wanted to do before I passed. I’d probably try to do something meaningful with each of them after that point.

Q4: Group living to save money

What do you think about the idea of “group living”? Basically my sister’s family and my family have been talking about the idea of living in the same house to save money. How would that be set up?
– Anthony

All involved adults can jointly own the house and can all be named on the mortgage. That way, the risk is spread out and you all have actual ownership of the house.

I would guess that some interpersonal problems would eventually pop up, but if you talk them out and you have a strong underlying relationship, they can work themselves out.

You may want to have some kind of agreement between all of you as to what happens if one family wants out of the arrangement. Likely, this would involve “selling” their half of the property to the others and having the house refinanced. I’d probably advise having a contract amongst you that specifies something like this, so no one feels “ripped off” in that kind of situation. This is basically just to guard everyone involved against something messy happening down the road.

Q5: Resolution of better family communication

My big goal in 2020 is better communication with my family. I feel that as my kids have gotten older and my own career has taken some twists that we don’t communicate as well as we used to. I am having a hard time turning that idea into something meaningful or practical. Hoping you’ll have some good goal advice.
– Barry

My belief is that changes like this boil down to daily effort. There are a couple of different things you can do to address this kind of personal change.

One thing you can do is give yourself a daily task of having a meaningful, good conversation with each member of your family. Simply add them to your to-do list or put a reminder in your phone until it becomes a normal habit.

Another approach, one that I follow for more nebulous things like “communicate better,” is to remind yourself of the change in behavior a few times a day and then score yourself on how well you did at the end of each day. This is the system proposed in the book Triggers and it’s been really successful with me. When I’m trying to change a particular behavior, I remind myself of the behavior I’m trying to change a few times during the day.

I’d give one of these two systems a try, depending on what you’re specifically aiming for and what works best with how you get things done.

Q6: Library book sale question

Our library has a “winter book sale” each January. The way it usually works is that on the first day, you have to pay a fee to get in and then all books are $1. On the second day, there’s no fee, but all books are still $1. On the third day, you can bring in a canvas bag and fill it for $1. In past years I have always gone on the first day to get a few books and then on the third day to fill up a bag with the remnants. What would you do?
– Carla

Are there still a lot of good books available on the third day? If so, I’d just go on the third day. However, if most of the books I would be interested in were gone after the first day, I’d go on the first day.

If I didn’t know anything about the library, I’d probably do as you have done in the past. I’d go on the first day and buy anything that really stood out to me. Then, I’d go again on the third day and fill up a bag with books. However, I’d be watching the selection carefully on both days and I’d use that to figure out my future behavior.

I don’t think I’d stop on the second day in either case. It seems like a “worst of both worlds” — you’re getting a picked-over selection, but it’s still $1 per used book.

If you easily fill up a bag with books you’re excited to read on the third day, then I’d just go on the third day. If you easily find good books on the first day, but the third day is pretty dull, then I’d go on the first and then maybe stop by again on the third.

Q7: Making tea cheaper

I am addicted to a certain brand of bottled iced tea. I buy it by the case at Costco and go through it in about a week. Even by the case, it is pretty expensive, more than $1 a bottle. That seems too expensive. I am trying to come up with a system that isn’t too much work to do it myself.
– Ana

If I were in your situation, I’d start by saving a bunch of the tea bottles I was using. In the long run, I’d aim to replace them with wide mouth dishwasher safe reusable water bottles because they’re much easier to clean, but this will do for a start.

I’d get a big pot and start brewing tea a gallon or more at a time. Figure out what flavors you like, find a homemade tea recipe that matches it, and make it in large quantities. When it’s brewed, pour it into bottles with a pourable measuring cup.

Then, just keep those refilled bottles in the fridge, drink them as you like, save the bottles and wash them (that’s why reusable dishwasher safe wide mouth bottles are good), and make another batch once or twice a week.

Trust me, making a gallon or so of tea doesn’t take all that long. You fill up a pot with water, get it to boiling, add the tea, let it boil for a little while, kill the heat, add the sugar, let it cool, and bottle it. It’s the kind of task you can mostly do while doing other things, because most of the time there is merely waiting (waiting for it to boil, waiting for the tea to boil, then waiting for it to cool). The actual tasks take maybe five or ten minutes, and it’s way cheaper than buying bottled tea by the case.

Plus, you have the freedom to dial down the sweetness or adjust the strength of the tea to your desire.

Q8: Roth end of year contribution?

Each year, Grandpa gives my sister and I (his only grandkids) $1,000 each as a Christmas gift. We usually spend it on something fun but this year I think I want to put it in a Roth IRA for retirement. I already have one that I contributed to a little a few years ago. Should I contribute the $1,000 right away so it counts for 2019 or wait for 2020?
– Dan

If you haven’t already contributed up to the max ($6,000) for this year, then you should put it in and have it count for this year! That way, when the window closes on this year (when you file your taxes), you’ve still got the full contribution window for next year.

This is always true with contributions with annual limits. If you can contribute immediately under the current annual limit, you should do it now so that you leave the next annual limit wide open for whatever may come.

Get that money into your Roth right away!

Q9: Window scraping solution

What do you use to scrape ice off of car windows? This is a new problem for me as I live about 500 miles further north than I ever have before. So far I’ve been using the defroster but there is ice on the window almost every morning. A neighbor gave me a cheap little ice scraper but it takes forever. Gotta be a better solution!
– Bart

I use this one and dearly love it. The only problem is that it really doesn’t work well unless you’re fairly tall. My wife hates the thing as it’s difficult for her to remove ice near the middle of her windshield.

So, for a more general recommendation, I’d point to this one in terms of bang for the buck, or else one similar to it in design. It costs about ten bucks, has a long arm, and doesn’t require much special leverage.

Although I don’t do this myself, I have friends that keep spray bottles of rubbing alcohol in their car and spray down their windows before scraping. This seems to reduce their scraping time by quite a bit, but I’m not convinced it reduces the total time you’re dealing with icy windows (you could be scraping when you’re spraying).

Whatever you do, don’t use a hairdryer or pour hot water on your windshield, and I’d probably avoid any ice scrapers with metal blades. Stick with plastic here. A good ice scraper will last many, many years.

Q10: Weird scam

The other day I got an email that appeared to be from my brother. It was just before Christmas. It said that he wanted me to pick up a few gift cards for him for Christmas gifts and to email the gift card numbers back to him. He wanted codes for Amazon gift cards. I didn’t think much of it but then when I hit the button to reply to send him the codes, the email address wasn’t his, something with a lot of weird characters in it instead. It turns out that the email was fake somehow, looking like it came from his address, but if you hit reply it was a different address. I would have been out a couple hundred dollars in gift card codes. Sneaky scam.
– Denise

I’ve heard about this email scam recently. Usually, what happens is that some bad agent has gained access to someone’s email or to a mailing list of people associated with a person and then the bad agent sends a fake email like that to everyone on that target person’s contacts list.

So, if someone managed to get access to your email, they’d just scoop out all of the contacts and send a bunch of automated emails that look like personal emails from a friend.

They always ask for gift card codes in the versions of this I’ve seen.

In short, if someone you know emails you and asks for gift card codes, give them a text or a ring to make sure it’s the real deal. It might be a scam.

Q11: Extra candy around the house

We have a lot of leftover loose holiday candy around the house and I really don’t want it around because I’ll just eat it and I don’t need it. What is a good thing to do with a bunch of loose candy?
– Abby

There are a lot of charities that would love to have your candy.

One place to start is with a charity that gives care packages to people in need, sick children, or overseas troops. Although this list is Halloween-themed, most of these charities will accept extra candy all throughout the year and many have places to give in most large cities.

You can also simply box up what you have and donate it to a Boys and Girls Club or a local nursing home or a local food pantry. Be sure to call them first and ask if they’d like such a donation.

Basically, I’d just donate it if I had extra candy laying around. However, everyone else besides me in my family seems to have a massive sweet tooth, so candy doesn’t last long here.

Q12: Speaking engagements

Do you accept speaking engagements? I’d love to have you speak at our library.
– Nicole

I have done many speaking engagements throughout Iowa, mostly at libraries and community centers. I don’t actively seek them out, but will definitely accept invitations from interested libraries.

I generally don’t travel for speaking engagements as my family life and responsibilities are rather complex, though I would be willing to do so in the right situation and with enough notice.

I have a very nice prepared slide deck for a half-hour long talk and an hour-long talk. Both cover my own story and some of the key principles I talk about on The Simple Dollar.

If you’re interested, just shoot me a message on Facebook using the link below.

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.