Mailbag: Questions About Mass Layoffs, Financial Autopilot, Cast Iron 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. Authorized signer on checking account
2. Mass layoffs at work
3. Financial autopilot is very boring
4. Cast iron is gross!
5. Stock market not realistic
6. Free tools for podcasting
7. “Stolen” reusable containers
8. Inexpensive family games for holidays
9. Different credit scores?
10. Cheap but durable backpack
11. Tips for razor blade life
12. 2020 reading list

Something I like to do each December is make a batch of homemade egg nog. I use this basic recipe from Serious Eats, mixing it together in a cocktail mixer, and I keep it in the fridge in a container.

My belief in the past had been that you should drink it fairly quickly after making it, but a friend of mine has persuaded me to let it age for a couple of weeks in the fridge, so I have some egg nog in the fridge in a few jars aging for a couple of weeks.

I’m sure many of you will want to know the cost calculations on this. It’s definitely cheaper to make it yourself unless you’re buying organic dairy products from a local farm versus buying the dirt cheap eggnog at the store (and even then, it’s fairly close). It’s pretty easy to do — you just put the ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake it for a while, then strain it so that any thicker parts of the eggs are strained out. I think it’s pretty tasty, too.

(Just make sure the eggs you’re using are pasteurized.)

On with the questions!

Q1: Authorized signer on checking account

I recently found out I’m an authorized user on my dad’s checking account, leftover from long ago. I called the credit union and they said we both have to come to their office in person (which isn’t easy for my elderly father) and he would need to close the entire checking account and open a new one just to have me removed as an authorized user. I’ve explained the situation and complained plenty. I don’t buy what they’re saying one bit as I bank almost exclusively online, but they’re not budging. My question is are there any negative implications to just staying as an authorized user on his account? I know it doesn’t affect my credit report. But could it have a negative impact on my ChexSystems report if, let’s say, he overdrafts? And should he pass away with debt or other financial issues, would I have any obligation to pay that if our names are connected on his checking account? I’m trying to gauge if I should put the effort to fight this or just let it go.
– Bianca

I did some research into this, including contacting a local bank and having a long conversation with the manager. In most situations, an authorized signer is not liable for anything regarding the account — that’s standard policy for banks today. However, banking practices haven’t always been as standardized as they are today, so the bank manager strongly encouraged me to tell you to check with the bank in question and ask them directly. Just simply state that you are an authorized signer on an account and what your concerns are.

Again, in normal banking practices, if you are an authorized signer and he passes away, your ability to sign related to that account also ends immediately. It is he who is authorizing you, and that authorization terminates at his death. This makes sense, as the account is now part of his estate.

Here’s another way to think of it: all of the risk is with him because he’s the account owner. You are not an owner, merely someone he gave permission to sign documents related to the account. It’s not your actual responsibility.

My recommendation would be to call the bank and ask these questions very specifically. You’ll likely be handed off to a branch manager who can answer those questions. Unless their policies are outside of what I understand to be the norm, you will be fine remaining an authorized signer on the account.

Q2: Mass layoffs at work

This morning a third of my department was let go. They were given two weeks severance, walked one by one to their desks to clear them out, and escorted out the door. I’m scared and everyone’s scared. I have spent today trying to figure out what I should be doing right now. I have $65K in student loan debt and $11K in credit card debt and no money in the bank other than some in my 401(k). My wife works but makes maybe half of what I do. Please help with specific advice on what to do.
– Jim

Obviously, you shouldn’t bet on your employer employing you for a lot longer. It’s very likely you’re going to be hit with a flood of work as you take up the slack from the terminated people, plus they’ve shown you how expendable you actually are. If I were you, I’d be looking elsewhere for work as soon as possible.

First, you have to cut back on your spending immediately. A lot of the more frivolous things you spend money on have to go for a while. Buy everything store brand. Eat most of your meals at home. Don’t go out nearly as much and have a lot of “date nights” at home. Enjoy hobby stuff you already have instead of buying new stuff. You need to channel that saved money into a savings account and build yourself a nice emergency fund so that you can survive for a few months without work. I strongly recommend setting up an automatic transfer from your checking to your savings account each week for a healthy amount — $50, perhaps — and never turning it off. In the short term, supplement it with even more so you can build it up quickly. That way, if you need to use it in the future, there’s always cash in there for emergencies like a sudden job loss.

Also, polish up that resume and start talking quietly to anyone you know in the field outside of your employer. Ask them if there are any openings at their organization that you might be right for. Beyond that, start getting involved in any local groups that are related to your field (if you’re not already) and stay involved, because it’s situations like this where the relationships you have with people in those groups can really prove useful. Look online and offline for these groups.

Those are the two most important things for you to do right now. You’ve got to get your finances in better shape while looking for a new job. Some of these changes — like a better grip on your spending and more involvement in your local professional community — should be permanent ones, lasting after you find a new job.

Q3: Financial autopilot is very boring

I think I’m where you’re at with having all of your finances on autopilot and it’s really boring. I have some money in my checking account that I can spend on whatever I want and everything else is automatically paid. I have every single one of my bills on auto-pay. I automatically put money into an emergency fund and a bunch into retirement all automatically. I just buy food and household supplies and fun things out of checking and I just wait. If I lose my job or something, I’d just go in and turn off a bunch of automatic transfers and move some money over from my emergency fund for a while. I used to stress so much about finances and now I don’t even think about it for weeks at a time. It’s actually pretty boring because there’s nothing really to think about, so I have time to think about other things in life and that’s actually kind of the problem because thinking about other things sometimes tempts me to spend that money and change things. It’s like putting together a LEGO kit — fun when you are building it but boring when it’s done.
– Ambrose

I’m very much in that same boat. Almost everything in our financial life is on autopilot. The only issue that ever comes up is when something automatic breaks. We have a healthy enough emergency fund that unexpected events don’t really derail anything.

It becomes a waiting game at that point and it’s easy to focus on other things. I’ve been trying to stretch the self-improvement principles I learned from all of this into other areas of my life, reading a lot of philosophy, delving into hobbies and trying frugal projects because it’s enjoyable for me to figure out optimal ways of doing things (in terms of both time and money).

I think the important thing is to find things to focus on that aren’t going to damage the financial system you have in place while also making you feel fulfilled. I have a number of things in my life that do this for me. I think it’s also helpful to really focus on gratitude and be grateful for having that kind of financial stability and the peace and lack of stress it brings because it’s fairly rare today.

Q4: Cast iron is gross!

So you’re telling me the shiny nonstick layer in a cast-iron skillet is just cooked-in oil and food bits and stuff? That is seriously gross!
– Amy

It’s not what you would think of as food, really. The shiny nonstick layer on a cast iron skillet is called the patina, and it’s basically fats and oils that have been heated above their melting and boiling points and cooled down many times. In that process, they undergo a number of chemical transformations that, in the end, cause them to oxidize and form tight bonds with the other fat molecules on there.

A good mental model is to think about what happens to wood when you burn it. It doesn’t stay wood — it turns to ash. Ash has very different properties and very different uses than wood — for one, you can actually use hardwood ash to make soap. It’s undergone significant physical and chemical changes — it’s not the same thing anymore.

The same exact thing is true with the patina on your skillet. It was originally fats and oils, but it’s been heated and cooled so many times that it’s not the same thing anymore. Like how wood transforms into ash, fats and oils transform into a hard, dry, shiny, nonstick layer that protects the pan from rusting.

Q5: Stock market not realistic

I would like to see an article explaining how believing that you’ll get 20%+ returns a year in the stock market forever isn’t realistic. The stock market has grown really nicely for a decade now but it’s cyclical and there will eventually be a downturn.
– Derek

I completely agree. The only problem is that no one knows when the downturn will hit. Will it be in a year? Five years? Ten? No one knows for sure.

I do know this: I stick to my long term stock market return prediction as being around 7% a year on average. The last decade has beaten that significantly, but long-term history has not. However, the last decade started at a very low point historically — 2009 was clearly a bottoming out of the stock market.

I strongly encourage readers to not believe that the stock market will return more than about 7% to 8% a year over the very long term. Individual years — or even runs of years — will beat that significantly, but then there will also be years like 2008 where the bottom falls out.

Q6: Free tools for podcasting

Want to start a podcast with a friend but all of the intro guides seem to list hundreds of dollars worth of stuff and services. I need free tools to get started and then upgrade from there as needed.
– Max

The first thing you’ll need is a host. For free, I’d suggest Podbean, which has a free tier that will be perfect for your first few episodes so you can see if this is something you want to stick with. You can record episodes for free right within the Podbean app on your phone if you wish, though the sound will be of the same level of quality that a smartphone mic picks up.

If you want to record on a computer, you will need an inexpensive mic of some kind. I’d probably get a very low-end Logitech USB headphone-mic combo. It won’t sound amazing, but it’ll be certainly good enough to get started and should cost you under $20. You can use the built-in mic in a computer if you really want, but it’ll sound extremely echo-y at best and there’s no software in the world that can fix it.

For a really good free basic sound editor on a computer, get Audacity. It’ll do a great job for you. If you want to talk to guests remotely, use Skype and have them record their audio using Audacity and then send you their file so you can sync them up.

That’s enough to get you started for free. As you do it and learn, you can decide for yourself what things you want to add to it.

Q7: “Stolen” reusable containers

After our big Thanksgiving family dinner I packed up leftovers in really nice Rubbermaid containers for some guests and they took them home. I assumed the containers would be returned but no one returned them and I’m out several containers. Sad that family members and friends would steal. How should I ask for them to be returned?
– Andie

I think it’s a giant stretch to think of these containers as “stolen.” Likely, they took them home, used them, ran them through the dishwasher, and stuck it somewhere, figuring they could just give it back to you the next time they saw you.

If you want it back urgently, give them a call. A much nicer approach would be to just ask them to bring it the next time you get together with them normally.

An aside: if it’s a really nice Rubbermaid container (some of them are pretty nice, especially when new), I understand wanting them returned, but if it’s an older container or a cheap one, like Gladware, it’s really not even worth mentioning.

Q8: Inexpensive family games for holidays

Do you have any suggestions for inexpensive ($20 or less) games that would be fun for a large family group? Want something to take to the holidays. A cousin brought Codenames for Thanksgiving and I want to “pay it forward” and add to the fun because everyone liked that. Looked at Target and there were infinite options.
– Viola

I’ll name a few good low-cost games that might click well with a large mixed family.

Monikers is a word game in which two teams of people take turns going through a small deck of cards several times. The cards each depict some noun on it — usually a person or a place — and a point value. Each person gets a minute to try to get their teammates to name what’s on the card without saying that exact word. Your team keeps the ones they get right. Ones you get wrong or pass on get shuffled back into the deck, then the other team gets a shot, and teams go back and forth until the deck is empty (with clue-givers rotating around). When the deck is empty, teams count up scores, then they play again with the same exact deck, except that now you can only use one single word as a clue. Once that’s done and you score again, you play through it a third time, using only gestures. It works because everyone’s already seen all the cards multiple times. It’s a great game, comes with a lot of cards for replayability, and costs around $20. Note that if you’re playing with kids, you may want to filter out a few cards, so go through the cards first.

Dixit is a game with big, beautifully drawn art cards. Each player has a hand of cards and one person is a clue-giver each round. The clue-giver chooses one of the cards in their hand and gives a clue about it — not too specific and not too vague. All of the other players give a card to the clue giver that best matches the clue, then the clue giver turns over all the cards and all of the other players guess which one was the clue giver’s card. If some — not all, but just some — of the players picked the right card, the clue giver gets 3 points and all correct guessers get a point; otherwise, the clue giver gets a -2 point penalty. Also, anyone who wasn’t the clue giver but had someone else guess their card gets a point. You play until someone hits 30, but it’s mostly hilarious to see the clues people come up with and to appreciate the art.

Skull is a simple game that takes the bluffing of poker and distills it down to the very basics. You have a stack of four beautiful cardboard tiles, identical on one side and on the other side, one has a skull and the other three have roses. At the start of a round, everyone puts a tile of their choice face down in front of them, then players go around the table either adding a tile to their stack or starting a bid. You start a bit by saying a number, then other players can overbid you until everyone passes. You resolve a bid by flipping over that many tiles, starting with your own, then flipping over those of other players from the top of their stacks. If you see only roses, you get a point, and the game is won by the first player to two points. If you hit a skull, you lose one of your four tiles at random, and you’re out of the game when you have no tiles. It’s a very simple and beautiful bluffing game.

Hopefully one of those three will match what your extended family might like! I personally vouch for all three of these being quite fun in a mixed group with people of all ages.

Q9: Different credit scores?

I saw part of a news report last night discussing how credit bureaus are now using a number of different credit scores for people. It was confusing because I missed the last half of the story. Do you know what they’re talking about?
– Jeremy

Sure do. The credit bureaus, which are the companies that collect your credit information and share it with other businesses so they can decide whether to lend money or extend credit to you, don’t actually maintain one single credit score for you. They actually maintain a bunch of different ones. Here’s why.

There are different kinds of requests that a business can make from a credit bureau when they want to know about you. They can get a copy of your credit report, or they can just get a credit score — a number that kind of summarizes your report. Up until fairly recently, there was one score that everyone used — the FICO score. That’s what most people think of when they think of “credit score.”

However, some businesses wanted a different score that was calculated a bit different. They might want a score that grades you with a much higher focus on not having defaulted on loans and a much lower emphasis on being 30 days late. Another business might want a score that really emphasizes timely payment, and another business might want a score that emphasizes the length of credit history. It depends on the business and what they care most about when lending to customers.

To facilitate that, the credit bureaus have gradually rolled out more credit scores for various purposes, emphasizing different things. You might have a really good credit score by one of those formulas, an OK one by another formula and a bad one by yet another.

So what can you do about this? Rather than worrying about a credit score at all, worry about what makes up a good credit score and get those things in good shape. Don’t be late on your bills. Always make your minimum payments. Avoid defaulting on any loans. Don’t max out your credit cards. Keep a long credit history by at least keeping your oldest credit card around, even if you don’t use it. If you do those things, you’ll have a pretty good score with any formula, at least with regards to the things you can control.

Q10: Cheap but durable backpack

I need a cheap but durable backpack. I just moved about a mile from a subway stop and I’m going to try using just subway and buses in 2020 and selling my car if it works out. I pulled out my old college backpack but the thing is falling apart and I can’t believe it didn’t rip out my last semester. Don’t need anything amazing, just something cheap and durable to carry a laptop and a book and some snacks and headphones.
– Barry

The first thing I’d do if I were you is check some secondhand shops in the area. Don’t just hit Goodwill or Salvation Army, but also check out some consignment shops and pawn shops. You might also want to check out any buy/sell/trade community Facebook groups and throw out a request. If you can get a $70 backpack for $20 with only a bit of use (most of the time, used backpacks for sale are ones people used a dozen times and stopped using for whatever reason, usually unrelated to the bag), that’s a good deal.

Honestly, in terms of a cheap new backpack, I’d get this Amazon Basics one for $29.99. I got a good look at one of these recently and I was amazed at the quality for $30. It’s not as good as my own, but it’s a lot less expensive and most of the quality. It had good, roomy pockets and the seams looked pretty well stitched for the price.

The Jansport Big Student backpack is pretty good, too. It’s a bit more expensive than the Amazon Basics one, but it’s roomier. You can often find this bag or a similar one at department stores like Target and Walmart, particularly during back to school periods. For example, the Trans By JanSport 17″ SuperMax at Target is very similar and is available at a number of Targets near me, if you want to go look at one. It’s usually the best backpack they sell for the price, in my opinion. I had a similar one when I was younger.

Those are all options that will get you a pretty sturdy and roomy backpack for under $40. Good luck with your 2020 resolution!

Q11: Tips for razor blade life

Here are some tips for keeping shaving cheap if you want to stick with a cartridge razor. First, clean it and keep it dry after every shave. Run water between the blades and get all the hair and any soap out then make sure it’s well dried with a towel after flicking water out of it several times. You can dip the head in alcohol too if you don’t think it’s dry. Run it backwards every two or three shaves on something like a pair of jeans, opposite of the direction it would cut, as that cheaply hones the blades and extends their life. I do these things and shave every day and sometimes twice a day with Harry’s and a single cartridge will last a month or so. Used to leave the razor in the shower and never rub it on anything and it would be dangerous within a week. Huge money saver.
– Tom

Great tips, Tom. In my experience, you can hone the blades a bit by just running them backwards on your forearm. I do it after each shower.

I usually shave in the shower like you seem to. I grab the razor out of the closet and take it in the shower with me. I shave using shower soap. Then when I’m done with it, I rinse it thoroughly in the shower water and set it up next to the soap. When the shower’s done, I dry off, then grab the razor, flick it dry a few times, and rub it on the towel. Then I run it backwards on my arm a time or two and stick it in the closet. I used to do it on my jeans after getting dressed, but I’d forget to do it half the time and it’s way quicker and gets similar results to just do it on my forearm.

I get similar results to you — a cartridge can last 30 or so shaves if I do this diligently. It’s the routine I’ve fallen into after a bunch of trial and error.

Q12: 2020 reading list

I hope to see an update soon to your reading lists and reading goals!
– Sandra


As I’ve mentioned before, my theme in 2020 is “black belt,” and while that obviously relates to my goal of achieving a black belt in taekwondo by the end of the year, it has a deeper meaning, too. It means that I want to “lean in” to some things in my life and approach them with systematic care and deliberate practice.

One big thing is that I want to spend more time doing focused reading of books, not just blowing through them for fun and rushing to the next one, but really extracting meaning and lasting value from them. I’m trying to build a daily system around this … a topic I’m going to address in a later post, probably this week or next.

Anyway, the point is that I’m intentionally digging into some material in 2020 that I consider challenging, not in the sense that it’s hard to read (though that might be true), but that it challenges ideas I’ve held and makes me think about new ones. I plan to try to develop a daily routine of reading for an hour or two in a very deliberate way so that I’m really absorbing the ideas and thinking about them, which probably means slower reading than I’ve done before.

I can name four that are definitely on my reading list at the start of the year: Aristotle’s Way by Edith Hall, Psychopolitics by Byung-Chul Han (recommended by a reader), and The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew Crawford (a reread).

Most of the books I pick to read come from a long list of books that I want to read. When I have maybe two or three left on my bedside table, I’ll go through that long list, pick one or two that seem interesting, and request them from the library. Sometimes, there’s a brief waiting list for the book and at other times the book has to be requested. That list is very long and full of books I tossed on there on a whim and most are likely never going to be read. I will sometimes just purge everything after roughly one hundred on the list, because I never make it down that far when looking for the next book I want to read.

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.