Mailbag: Questions About Moving, Disney World, Spotify, 529s, Holiday Lights, 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. Struggling with moving decision
2. Prioritizing family options
3. Planning Disney vacation next summer
4. Choosing a 529 plan
5. Stuff to avoid secondhand
6. Spotify or Youtube for music?
7. Pet ownership decisions
8. Risk of cheap holiday lights?
9. When promised help doesn’t arrive
10. Dinner party without seeming cheap
11. Amazon and ethics
12. Holiday traditions?

Last week, we had an interesting home issue that I thought was worth sharing, but probably not worth a full article.

At several different times, I caught a whiff of a burnt smell, usually in the upstairs of our home. I’d sniff around and never quite be able to figure out where it was coming from.

A few nights ago, I woke up in the middle of the night and the smell was really strong. It was coming from the vents, mostly on the top floor. I ran downstairs and there was a really loud noise coming from the air handling system, so I immediately turned the furnace off, covered up the kids with an extra blanket, and waited until the smell dissipated. A repairman came by the very next day.

I am so lucky that I woke up when I did or else I might be writing about a house fire. (My gut suspects that if there was a fire of any kind, it would have been contained where it was, but it’s not something I really want to test.)

On with the questions.

Q1: Struggling with decision to move

I reside in Brooklyn NY, possibly the most expensive city in the US to live in life-wise. My partner has his business in the city and will not be able to move. I freelance and work mostly in the city. My commute usually takes about an hour during rush hour since I have a huge kit to carry and I cannot take the subway so I HAVE to take a cab to work. We are located in the most ever-changing hip neighborhood two stops in from the city.

Things have changed a lot since 11 years ago. I now have two young kids. My condo has appreciated double the purchase price. My partner really wants me to get rid of this 910-square-foot two-bedroom two-bath condo with a backyard and possibly buy a townhouse with one rental unit deeper into Brooklyn, farther away from the city. He is frustrated with the small condo and he wants more space. I understand it’s small, but it’s pretty nice for a NY apartment. I bought the condo at $465K and we definitely can get a million; we will be listing at $1.2M hoping for about $1.1M. I have about $230K left on the mortgage. I put him on as half-owner so we don’t have to pay the sales tax on the $500K profit ($250K each). Since we are both freelancers we usually write off our tax to the max but in the year 2018, my partner didn’t write any off and we had to pay $50K in taxes to be preapproved for $800K mortgage.

There are kid-friendly activities in my neighborhood, classes, sing-alongs, play yards with a diverse group of gentrifiers. Schools are better here but it’s really a crapshoot because we have to apply to schools in different zones anyways because the one we are in isn’t amazing. There are a dual language Japanese-English school 10 minutes away from me that I am hoping to get into since I am Japanese in different zones. If we do live deeper into Brooklyn I still will apply to that school, we will just be far away from it. I personally am OK with the space right now because the kids are so young and there are so many kid-friendly activities in my neighborhood.

The thing is NY real estate is insane and if we did wait couple more years, it’s just going to be more expensive if we ever decide we want to get a bigger space. By then the townhouses we are looking at will be well over $2M while currently, they’re about $1.5M. Due to our jobs, we don’t really see ourselves moving to the suburbs and even though my commute already takes about an hour (on a subway it will be like 30 mins) and his is a 20-minute drive, it just does not make sense for us to move farther away into the suburbs. The school systems are worse deeper in Brooklyn and aren’t gentrified at all. The only hope is the dual language school we have priority to get into because my kids are half Japanese.

My question to you is what do you think we should do? So many people think I am crazy for getting rid of my condo in such an amazing neighborhood to move farther away in a non-gentrified area. It will one day become gentrified but will be another 10 years at least, it’s slowly already happening for sure.
– Megan

From what I can tell from your story, the sole reason you’re moving away from your current location is that your partner wants more living space, with a smaller secondary concern of some tax complications if you stay. Aside from that, you seem to like everything about your current location better than the new one. You don’t like the schools there and the commute appears to be longer, too. You seem like your current community quite a bit. For you personally, it seems like you want to stay.

I would suggest that you sit down with your partner and each make a pros and cons list about where you’re living versus where you’re moving. What are things you like better about where you live now versus where you’re considering moving? What are things you like better here?

Make those lists individually and then share them with each other. I suspect, for you, almost all of the positives will revolve around staying put. There may be some negatives for you, but this message seems to be almost entirely positive. With him, the space is clearly an issue, but perhaps there are other ones, and maybe he doesn’t see as many positives in the area as you do.

It should be pretty clear after you share those positives and negatives, where you guys should be going forward. If most of the positives are on one side of the ledger, that’s what you should go for.

Remember, this isn’t a game to “win.” You need to decide together which option is the best for both of you. Be honest in what you like about where you live and what you don’t like, and what you like about where you’re potentially moving and what you don’t like. Listen to what your partner is saying, too, and take it seriously.

Given my understanding of real estate in that area, you’re likely to see significant growth in value at either location. If the new area gentrifies, then your new property will definitely skyrocket in value, too. It is extremely difficult to predict which property will see the most value increase, but I suspect both will see a significant increase over the next decade. I would not make predictions of property values the defining factor in this decision; rather, focus on what will make a better life for you, your partner and your two children.

Q2: Prioritizing family options

How do you prioritize what the best choices are for spending money on your family? Is it more important to live in a nice neighborhood or to save for college? Should we travel when they’re young or save more for a good retirement? We should be doing all of these things but the dollars only stretch so far.
– Brent

If it becomes a choice between options like this, Sarah and I lean toward good public schooling while living in a relatively good area, love, good attention, guidance at home and saving toward our own retirement above the other options.

Our belief is that a stable childhood with love and attention in an area with good public schooling and relative safety is the most cost-effective thing we can provide for our children for their future. We also strongly value retirement savings for our own future, as this ensures that we are very unlikely to become a burden to them in our old age. They may worry about us, but those worries shouldn’t be financial ones.

Obviously, it would be nice to do all of the things that you mention in your question, but when doing all of those things is beyond your financial means, I would prioritize a good home life, good public schooling, a good neighborhood and your own retirement savings — with a good home life above all else.

Q3: Planning Disney vacation next summer

Husband, 7-year-old and I are going to Disney World next summer. We have been saving for a few months and are now trip planning. Read lots of articles on how to keep costs low but thought you might have some ideas.
– Bonnie

Our family went to Disney World a few years ago. We learned several things about keeping costs low.

First, get lodging outside of the Disney parks. The prices are much better and many offer a shuttle into the parks. Many of them offer free breakfast, too, which can save a lot.

Eat as much as you can outside the parks, because the food prices are really high inside the parks. The best approach is to bring in a lot of food yourself in a backpack. For beverages, bring in empty water bottles or sealed containers of other things.

Decide on your souvenir budget before you leave and stick to it. A good idea is to bring along your full souvenir budget in cash so you have to make decisions regarding that budget.

Unless you’re only going to be there one or two days and are trying to jam as much as possible into those days, don’t bother with paying extra for Park Hopper. You can easily spend a full day at a single park. Depending on your package, it may be even cheaper to pick your park for each day in advance.

There are a few ticket discounts out there, but they aren’t big ones. We scoured and scoured the internet and were only able to save maybe 10% on our actual tickets. It seems like Disney keeps the ticket prices pretty tight. The tickets themselves were the one area we found to be very difficult to save a lot of money.

Good luck! We really enjoyed our trip!

Q4: Choosing a 529 plan

Every state seems to offer its own 529 plan and people can enroll in whichever one they want. How do you choose among so many?
– Eric

There are a few factors that should help you narrow things down.

First of all, you’ll want a college savings plan, not a prepaid tuition plan. A prepaid tuition plan locks that person into attending a particular school or group of schools, of which, many end up not being a great choice. A college savings plan contains money that can be applied to any school.

Second, if you’re in a state that has a state income tax, find out what 529 plans have deductible contributions in your state. Some states allow you to deduct 529 plan contributions from any state’s plans, while other states require you to use the plan from that state.

Finally, do some side-by-side comparisons. I trust Morningstar’s recommendations for the top 529 college savings plans as a starting point. I wouldn’t say that you must choose one of their “gold” plans, but if you can choose a “gold” one and still get an income tax deduction for your state, that’s the best choice.

Q5: Stuff to avoid secondhand

You tell everyone to buy everything secondhand! Is there anything you shouldn’t buy secondhand?
– Mark

I would not buy electronics secondhand unless there was some kind of guarantee or warranty associated with the electronics. For example, I might buy a certified refurbished computer or game console from a retailer.

I wouldn’t buy mattresses, upholstered furniture or stuffed animals secondhand due to the risk of bedbugs or other things that might come into your home with it. Basically, if it has stuffing, I won’t buy it used.

I wouldn’t buy children’s safety items secondhand. I’d avoid buying secondhand cribs, car seats and safety helmets. That’s mostly because I don’t know the history of those items and it’s important that they protect my child.

I sometimes see strange things like makeup at secondhand stores. I’d avoid it. I’d also probably avoid secondhand shoes. Those are more due to germ avoidance than anything.

Aside from that, I’m pretty okay with buying almost anything secondhand. If it’s an electric item, I’d plug it in first and make sure it works.

Q6: Spotify or YouTube for music?

What’s the advantage or reason for subscribing to Spotify? Right now when I want to listen to music I just go to YouTube and search for the artist I want and it autoplays a bunch of their music and then autoplays other music and if it goes into something I don’t like I just search for something else. I can make my own playlists, too. There are ads sometimes, sure, but there is very little music I want to listen to that I can’t just find for free on YouTube.
– Jeremy

Ad avoidance is definitely one reason people subscribe to Spotify. I think another big reason is that it’s very good for helping you discover new music that you might like. They bake in a lot of features to help with that. Some people get Spotify as part of a bundle with other content services like Hulu, so the cost for Spotify itself is low for them.

I think if you listen to music a lot — multiple hours a day — you might get a lot of value out of Spotify. If you don’t listen to music that much, then your described strategy of listening to YouTube is a perfectly good one, and it’s free.

When I’m working, I listen to non-music things that help me focus, and when I’m in the car, I usually listen to NPR or podcasts. I generally only listen to music when I walk (and only sometimes I walk without audio, and other times I walk with an audiobook or podcast) or when I’m cleaning, and Spotify doesn’t bring quite enough value to me for just that purpose.

Q7: Pet ownership decisions

I have had a small mixed breed dog for 10 years. I take him to the vet regularly for his shots and everything, but he’s never had any health issues.

Last month he stopped eating very much. His appetite went down to about 20% of what he normally eats. He has always self-regulated his food and I would just refill his food once a day, but now it’s every 3-4 days. I started to notice he was getting even skinnier and he was sleeping all the time. He used to patrol the apartment constantly and now he just sleeps next to me all the time. I took him to the vet and he has chronic kidney disease. The vet laid out treatment options and they’re all incredibly expensive, more than I can really afford. But I feel utterly horrible at the thought of just putting him to sleep.

He doesn’t seem to be in pain and the vet thought that any pain he’s experiencing now is minor and that he probably just feels tired and not hungry. I asked what would happen if I didn’t get any treatment and the vet said he would just slowly get worse, vomit often and eventually experience significant pain before dying.

I’m not sure what to do and am hoping you’ll have some advice.
– Mac

My honest advice would be to determine how much you can reasonably afford to give your dog treatment, then contact the vet and ask what is most effective with the amount you can afford.

Most veterinarians truly love animals and will want to give them the best care that they possibly can, whether it’s actually treating the disease or providing palliative care. I would really lean into your vet’s advice here. You just need to be realistic with your vet about what you can afford.

For now, cuddle with that little dog and make sure that the dog knows how much you love him. Let him snuggle right up next to you as much as he wants because that closeness is likely making him feel a little better.

Q8: Risk of cheap holiday lights?

Do you think it’s risky to buy Christmas lights from the Dollar Tree? I used some to decorate my apartment and my brother said that cheap lights are a giant fire hazard.
– Tess

Most holiday light strands are made quite cheaply in overseas factories. I think, given their simplicity, that they’re all relatively safe if you use a few sensible precautions.

First of all, don’t use incandescent bulbs, which are much riskier. Instead, use LED bulbs, as they glow while producing far less heat and using far less energy. Check and make sure the lights you bought were LED lights (they probably are these days, but make sure).

Don’t overload any extension cords with lights. Ideally, you have only one or two strands plugged into a single extension cord for indoor use.

If you’re doing outdoor lights, all of the strands should be designed for outdoor use.

I’d also recommend getting a timer for any holiday lights so that they automatically turn off and you don’t have to remember to flip any switches or unplug anything when you leave or fall asleep. It’s a bad idea to leave any light strands running constantly, both for energy use and safety.

If you’re doing those things, I think you are fine. Better strands are more likely to last for many years, but with proper use, I don’t think either is a significant fire hazard.

Q9: When promised help doesn’t arrive

I graduated from college in May 2018 and it took me 12 months to get any kind of job in my field. This job doesn’t pay well but it is a good resume builder so I’m happy. When I got the job, I needed a car to get there so my father said he would help with car payments and that I should get a good reliable car, so I did. I got a 2016 Toyota Corolla that I love, currently with 37K miles on it.

My father helped at first, giving me $200 a month, but he told me he was “short” in September and hasn’t given me a dime since. I am really struggling to keep up with the car payments and would have bought a cheaper car if I had known he wouldn’t come through. I talked to him about it and he just said times are tough for him right now.

I’m not sure what to do next. I seem to be a little underwater on the car so I can’t just sell it and pay off the loan. Any ideas?
– Amy

In your situation, the first thing I would do is call my lender and see if there are refinancing options that can lower your monthly bill. If you’ve made the first eight or so payments in full and on time, there’s a good chance that they will refinance your loan resulting in a lower payment that you might find easier to keep up with. If your current lender won’t work with you, stop by a credit union in your area and see if they’ll help.

Another option is to go back to the original dealership and see if you can trade in the car for something less expensive. Simply tell them that you’re struggling to keep up with the payments on this car and want something you can more easily afford.

Most other options are going to hurt your credit. You obviously have the option to start lagging on your car payments, but that will hurt your credit and eventually lead to repossession. You can also simply buy a cheap car from another dealer and then just return this car or allow it to be repossessed.

All of those choices are valid options. I’d probably start with calling the lender.

For other readers who might be thinking about arrangements like this, be very wary. Make sure that you don’t put yourself in a really problematic situation if the help doesn’t arrive as promised. If you would be in a real financial jam if someone didn’t come through on a personal spoken promise of financial help, don’t go through with it.

Q10: Dinner party without seeming cheap

I want to have an “end of the year” dinner party and have some friends over between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, but I was thinking about the cost of it and it seems really expensive. I know I could “pot luck” it, but that seems kind of tacky too.
– Abbie

My honest suggestion? Make a couple of different soups and some rolls and have that be your dinner.

Soups are incredibly inexpensive to make. They can be made in a slow cooker and can sit out for hours, allowing people to get food whenever they arrive, so they’re very convenient in terms of letting you mingle with guests. You can easily make two batches for different dietary needs, too, as long as you can borrow another slow cooker. Soup is really warm and filling on a cold winter’s night, too.

When you send out the invite, simply say something like “If you want to bring something, please bring a bottle of good wine” or something similar that’s appropriate for the event you’re having, and then simply open those up to share. That way, all you really need to cover are the soups (and whatever you want to accompany them with).

This is pretty much what Sarah and I do when we host dinner parties, particularly in the winter. We have a couple of soups in a slow cooker with bowls and spoons and accompaniments out for people to eat when they arrive. People can just grab a bowl and a spoon and serve whatever soup they like.

Q11: Amazon and ethics

What are your thoughts on buying from Amazon from an ethical perspective?
– Mary

My feelings on this mirror this good article from Current Affairs. I agree that Amazon’s chase for efficiency definitely walks an ethical edge, but I think that simply existing in the modern world means that we’re interacting with unethical companies on a daily basis, and that’s a difficult thing to effectively resolve. Either we live as hermits (and even then, it’s likely not absolute) or we accept that we’re likely dealing with unethical businesses.

Furthering the problem is the fact that Amazon’s most profitable business isn’t selling goods through its website, but rather their web services. Amazon Web Services powers a lot of the websites and services on the internet. To say “I reject Amazon and won’t use it” would largely require an abandonment of the modern internet.

I genuinely don’t know what the right answer is. I don’t think anyone does.

I do believe that the “wrong” that’s being committed here isn’t the act of purchasing from Amazon or from using Amazon’s products, but in how Amazon treats its workers. Because of that, I think the best long term solution is to fix Amazon. I am not an economist or a political scientist, but I believe that there are reasonable ways to do this that benefit everyone involved, from the investors to the employees to the customers.

Basically, the issue is society, not Amazon. As long as we as a society are OK with any company treating their employees as Amazon does, companies will treat their employees like Amazon does.

As for boycotting, I generally save that for companies that appear to be intentionally doing harm rather than just being ruthlessly efficient. I think Amazon is pretty clearly in the ruthlessly efficient camp, even if they debatably carry it too far at times.

Q12: Holiday traditions?

What kind of holiday traditions have you established with your kids?
– Natalie

We have an advent calendar that we open faithfully throughout December. The wells are really big and contain a small treat for everyone in the family, usually something like a Hershey’s kiss. We usually open it after dinner.

We have a lot of extended family gatherings for the holidays. These used to be very gift-oriented, but over time we’ve slowly dialed down the gifts and they’re more like a big dinner party. When we drive to visit extended family at those events, we usually listen to a handful of holiday albums that we all know by heart and we sing along.

My daughter’s group of friends, who are all into singing and choral music, usually go out caroling. It’s a little anachronistic, but they usually get a lot of support from the houses they walk by when they’re singing.

We usually open presents all together on Christmas morning, and then Sarah and I make some kind of special meal. Usually one of us will plan the meal and the other will be an assistant for making things; this year, I’m on the meal planning lead.

I usually try to cook chestnuts. I usually burn them. I’ll pull them out, decide they’re not done yet, put them back and keep repeating this until they’re burnt. Burnt chestnuts: a family tradition.

When I think of “Christmas traditions with my family,” those are the things I think of.

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.