Mailbag: Questions About Tax Refunds, Price Books, Clotheslines, 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. Tax refund concern
2. Stay at home decision
3. Hanging your clothes to dry
4. My price book
5. Don’t make retirement your goal
6. Coronavirus?
7. Buying a dishwasher
8. Hummus question
9. Library late fees
10. Handling small windfall
11. Can’t find work
12. Dead tired in the evenings

Durning 2020, the United States is taking a census of the population. You’ll likely receive some forms in the mail to fill out and, if you don’t fill them out, a census worker will visit you to walk you through them.

This seems like a burden, but it’s actually a very helpful thing in a lot of ways. The government — federal, state and local — uses census data to identify communities to target with a lot of different services, from police and fire coverage to educational programs. Businesses use the data to determine if a community will be a good target for new businesses — a growing community will often attract businesses of all kinds. It’s used by the CDC to aid in flu prediction and disease outbreak modeling. The census is also used to determine how many representatives your state gets in the House of Representatives — if you don’t get counted, you actually hurt your state’s voice in the federal government.

I strongly encourage people to fill out their forms as soon as they get them and to take the questions seriously. It takes half an hour every ten years and the data has a subtle but strong impact on their lives.

On with the questions.

Q1: Tax refund concern

Last year I got a $1,200 tax refund. This year I am only getting $300. How can the government rip me off like this?
– David

Your tax refund is the total amount of money that your employers gave to the government to cover your income taxes minus your total tax bill. If, for last year’s bill, your employers put $3,000 aside and your tax bill was $1,800, then you got $1,200 back ($3,000 minus $1,800). If, for this year’s bill, your employers put $2,100 aside and your tax bill was $1,800, then you’re getting $300 back ($2,100 minus $1,800). Of course, this year’s situation might be that your employers still put aside $3,000 but your tax bill went up to $2,700, giving you just $300 back.

In other words, it’s hard to exactly tell what changed. Did you switch jobs any time in the last year or two? If you did, that’s the likely culprit, because if you signed up for a new job and filled out your initial paperwork differently. There is a form you fill out called a W-4 that gives your employer information about what taxes to withhold depending on how many people live in your household, and you should update it if there are changes.

So, I doubt anyone is ripping you off. Most likely, you had some change in your job or some change in your family arrangement over the last year, resulting in either less money withheld for your income taxes or simply more taxes (or both), and that caused your lower income tax return.

Q2: Stay at home decision

I’m a 38-year-old woman living in Chicago, married with two pre-school-aged children. My husband and I both work full-time and make very high incomes. We have a wonderful nanny who cares for our children during the day Monday – Friday. My job pays generously and has very predictable, reasonable hours, which is rare in this industry. However, I don’t particularly enjoy it. I find the day-to-day tasks extremely mind-numbing, but I admit it is (on paper) more meaningful than most jobs.

Lately I am finding myself deeply dissatisfied with the life we’ve settled into. I hate leaving my kids every day to go to a job that doesn’t challenge or excite me. I spend more time commuting to and from work than I spend with my kids in the morning or evening. And when I am home, I’m usually trying to make breakfast or dinner, or get ready for the day, not spending dedicated time with them. At the same time, I feel bad (as the only parent in our small firm) that I leave at 5 p.m. on the dot and my colleagues all work longer hours. It feels like I’m taking advantage of an already generous situation.

More and more, I’m tempted to take a few years off while my kids are little. We hope to have another child and the idea of going back to work after maternity leave yet again makes my stomach turn. It probably wouldn’t be an issue financially. Other than our nanny, who is worth every penny, we don’t really live an expensive lifestyle despite our salaries.

But then I think, in a few years, my kids won’t need me home all day. What they will need is money for college and parents who have well-funded retirement accounts, and all the other benefits that come with me continuing to work and save for our family’s future. I know if I leave now, my salary will take a serious hit when I re-enter — I doubt I would ever build back to this position if I stayed home for a few years. The industry changes quickly and my skills would atrophy.

I also worry about our nanny, who we would have to lay off if I stayed home. She is in her 60s and although I’m sure she would find another family, the idea of putting someone out of a job — especially someone who means so much to our family — later in life makes me feel terrible. I feel responsible for her and want to do right by her.

In short, I don’t want to leave my kids every day for a job that doesn’t challenge or excite me, but any job I would enjoy more would inevitably require more of my time and/or pay significantly less. What I really want is to be with my kids all day, but it would torpedo my career and put our beloved nanny out of work. My husband is wonderful and supportive of whatever decision I make, as long as we figure out the financial aspect of it, which I think is doable. But I don’t know what to do.

Should I just snap out of it and be grateful for our situation? How do you decide whether there’s a more fulfilling life out there when you’re in a fortunate circumstance already?
– Emma

Define “fortunate.” It seems from your message that you have more than enough income to live the life that you want to live and that going to a situation where your husband’s income provides all of the income for your family for several years is easily doable. Yet you’re making yourself seemingly quite unhappy in order to chase more income, of which a significant part pays for a nanny and another significant part goes to taxes.

If that’s true and your financial state is such that you’re really not worried about your finances (in terms of day-to-day life, not necessarily the long term) from living on one salary for a while, then I’d suggest that you should immediately make the switch if you feel like it is the right call for your family and your husband is supportive. This time when your children aren’t in school yet is a time you’ll never have back, and if you’re yearning to do this and don’t do it, you will regret it on some level for the rest of your life. You should do this. Worry about the career when things change a little and you’re ready to return to it. I would suggest planning on doing so when your children are all in school, setting that as a clear date when you re-enter the workforce.

The best thing you can do for the concerns you have, I think, is to give some lead time at work and then also give your nanny some lead time to find a new position. Sit down with your employer, explain that you want to take a few years off simply to raise your kids and that you’re not running to any sort of competing job, and that you’re happy to stay on for a month or two until things are in place to transition to a new employee. Do this with absolutely minimal burning of bridges. Meanwhile, give your current nanny a similar notice, so that your nanny can prepare for this transition.

I’d absolutely go for it. You can figure out what’s next in your career in a few years. If you transition away from your current job as gently as you can, you may even find a door open for you there when you return.

Q3: Hanging your clothes to dry

I think you should strongly encourage readers to hang their clothes to dry during the winter months. Many homes get very dry during the winter and hanging your clothes to dry takes advantage of that because they dry quickly when they are hanging and that adds some moisture to the air which traps heat a little and means that your furnace runs less. Just hang your clothes up somewhere before work and you come home and they’re dry. Find a spot to string up a clothesline. It only takes a few minutes.
– James

Everything James says here is accurate. Many homes that are heated in the winter can become quite dry; even homes that have certain spots that collect a lot of condensation can be very dry elsewhere. Adding a little bit of humidity to the air can help it retain heat, which can mean a little less work for your furnace. Air-drying clothes in your home can both add a bit of humidity to the air and save you the cost of running your dryer, and it’s pretty easy to do if you have a good spot to hang a line.

One good place to do this is in a bathroom overnight or during the workday. There are usually multiple places in a bathroom where you can hang a cord across the room, so a cord that’s tied off with loops on either end so that it’s the right length to hang up easily when you want it and take down when you don’t is a very efficient idea. Get a bag of clothespins and simply hang up the line and hang clothes on that line before you go to work or bed, and take them down when you get home or wake up.

Obviously, you don’t have to do this every time, but when you do it, you’re usually saving at least $0.50 by not running the dryer and likely saving even more by the addition of humidity to your air.

You can get a very long cotton clothesline for $5 at many stores and a bag of clothespins for a similar price. If you use them ten times or so, you’ve broken even, and everything after that is savings.

Q4: My price book

I found you as I was looking for unit price lists and I came across your blog on keeping a price book. I am all for NOT reinventing the wheel. Would you be so kind as to share your price book with me? I realize that prices are different based on location, but I value learning from those who have already done what I am looking to do. I believe in living within my means and believe I have handled our finances well….but there is always room for improvement.
– Anna

I don’t actually have our old price book anymore. I assembled it in 2007-2008 as a way to compare stores and figure out where we should shop, but over time I came to realize that the only two grocery stores that really competed on price were Aldi and Fareway, and the closest Fareway is 10 miles closer to our home than the nearest Aldi, so we just shop at Fareway.

What’s a price book? Basically, it’s a few sheets of paper – I kept mine in a simple report cover like this one —on which you have listed your 25 or so most frequently bought grocery store items. Next to that list of items are a few columns, one each for a few local stores you want to compare. This forms a table in which you can write the price of each item at each store.

For example, I might have a row that says “store brand skim milk” and another row that says “store brand trash bags” along with columns that say “Hy-Vee,” “Super Target,” “Fareway,” “Aldi,” and “Wal-Mart Supercenter.” In the spot where the Hy-Vee column and the milk row intersect, I would write the price of store brand milk at Hy-Vee.

At first, I used this as a tool to figure out where I should shop each week based on my grocery list. I’d look up the ten or so items on my grocery list that matched the price book and then shop at that store.

However, I realized fairly quickly that I was either shopping at Aldi or Fareway almost every week, and when a Fareway opened closer to my home than any other grocery store, I just started shopping there almost exclusively, only going elsewhere if Fareway didn’t have items I wanted.

Q5: Don’t make retirement your goal

I’m 67. I retired early in 2019 and had lots of plans of things I wanted to do. A year later, I’ve done many of them and the rest don’t seem appealing anymore. My days feel empty and I spend most of my time sitting at home reading. I am trying to find work in my old field again just because working is better than retirement. Don’t make it your goal to retire.
– Eric

From this description, it sounds like you had great plans for a yearlong sabbatical from work, but not for permanent retirement.

I think that if you don’t have long term lasting plans for retirement, like working at a charity or getting involved in local politics or something like that, retirement would be dreadfully boring. I think that a lot of people go into retirement with good plans that fill several months or so, but when those run out, what’s left? Some people are content with that life, others are not.

I think you’re doing the right thing trying to find something to fill your hours with that feels valuable to you. I also think it’s very good advice for everyone to give serious thought about what retirement will be like. Some people won’t be happy in traditional retirement; it’s just not how they’re wired.

Q6: Coronavirus?

What should people be doing financially because of coronavirus? Sounds scary.
– Bronson

I wouldn’t do anything in terms of investments as a response to the coronavirus, because it’s impossible to predict how it will play out. Just keep on doing what you’re doing.

In terms of personal finances, I’d say that people with emergency funds will probably weather anything that might happen from coronavirus easier than most. It never hurts to have some nonperishable meals in the cupboard, either; a few boxes of spaghetti and some jars of pasta sauce and some canned items are always good to have on hand because you can eat them as you go anyway.

However, I wouldn’t do anything extreme to prepare for coronavirus or any other potential global crisis. Almost any level of preparation you do will either be completely unnecessary or wildly inadequate. If coronavirus — or any other global issue — were bad enough to completely disrupt global supply chains or agriculture, almost any moderate preparation anyone would have done would likely be insufficient.

Q7: Buying a dishwasher

We need a new dishwasher. Our current one has rust in several places and seems to struggle to get anything clean. Recommendations?
– Benny

In terms of bang for the buck, I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Bosch dishwashers. We used to have a Bosch where we lived previously and it was hands down the best dishwasher we ever had. A friend of ours has one and she’s a similarly big fan.

We’re still using a much cheaper dishwasher that we bought not long after moving in, but I find it constantly frustrating and have been considering replacing it for years. It’s just the frugal part of me that won’t replace something until it’s dead that keeps me from doing it.

As for a specific model, it changes all the time, so I would stop by your library and check out recent issues of Consumer Reports to see what they recommend. The last time I checked, several months ago when I almost talked myself into a new dishwasher, they were very high on two Bosch Ascenta models.

Q8: Hummus question

Found your hummus recipe interesting. I thought olive oil was a required ingredient?
– Adam

For hummus, what you really need is pureed chickpeas, a bit of tahini, a bit of cumin, and a bit of some sort of fat or oil. Olive oil usually serves this purpose, but I find unsweetened yogurt does a pretty good job and I actually prefer it.

Most cookbooks seem to suggest using olive oil. I just heard about the yogurt suggestion a few years ago on a cooking show, tried it, liked it, and stuck with it. It seems to be popping up in a lot of hummus recipes these days, like this one.

For those unaware, you can make really good simple hummus at home by using a can of chickpeas (also sometimes labeled garbanzo beans) and a small amount of tahini (I usually use somewhere around a couple of tablespoons), a similar amount of yogurt, and a tiny bit of cumin (maybe a quarter or a half of a teaspoon). I don’t exactly measure it; I usually just ballpark it and get it made quickly. Just blend all of that in a blender and you’re good to go. You can add some salt, too; I like it without salt, but everyone has their own preferences.

Q9: Library late fees

The big reason I don’t use the library is late fees. If I forget to return a book, they start tacking on late fees of $0.25 a day and within a couple of weeks I might as well have just bought the book myself.
– Derek

You absolutely have to pay attention to due dates when using the library. I go to the library once a week and have a routine of checking which books are due each week before I go. I keep all library books in the same three spots in our home (either on my bedside table, on my work desk, or in my backpack) and so I just go to all the spots and check all due dates. I also put reminders of due dates in my phone so that each Tuesday at 8 AM my phone alerts me as to all books that are due that day.

If I know I’m not going to be able to make it to the library on a Tuesday, my local library has the capacity to renew books online so I do it that way.

Since I started really leaning into that system, I haven’t had any late books in a very long time. It doesn’t handle every situation, but it handles almost everything that has happened for me for quite a while.

Q10: Handling small windfall

A few days ago, I received a check for $3,000 from my grandfather. He sent checks of identical size to each grandchild. The included note said that he wanted to help us all out and that we should use it for something that will help build a good future.

I’m not sure what to do with my money. I have a few options. My highest student loan is 5.5% and has several thousand dollars left. I have a Roth IRA but only contributed $2,000 last year so I could do that. I also will need a new car in a year or two so I could save for that. What is the best option? I’m 26, single, no credit card debt, already have an emergency fund, about $40K in total student loans.
– Cammy

If you have no other retirement savings other than the $2,000 in your Roth IRA, I would probably put it in the Roth IRA. If you haven’t filed your taxes yet, count it as part of last year’s contribution.

If you already have a lot of retirement savings and the Roth IRA is just a supplement to a good workplace retirement, I’d probably pay down the current debt with it unless your credit is disastrous, in which case I’d save for the car.

The honest truth? None of these are bad choices. You are not making a mistake no matter what you choose. My recommendations are best guesses as to what will minimize your expense and risk going forward.

Q11: Can’t find work

Last May I quit my job due to unresolved sexual harassment issues. I thought I would easily be able to find work but since then I have not been able to find anything. In November I had to take a job at Target to make ends meet and my dad is giving me $500 a month to help. I spend 20 hours a week applying for jobs and have only had two interviews and both went badly.

I don’t want to be dependent on my dad forever. He is wonderful but I feel like I am keeping him from retirement or other goals and if I ask him he’ll just say it’s fine. I also just don’t like the sense of being dependent.

How do I get out of this rut?
– Jane

If I were you, I’d start by getting in touch with people in your field that you know and have positive relationships with. Ask them if they know of any jobs you’d be suited for in the field. That’s exactly how I’d start.

If that doesn’t pan out, I would start expanding your search a little. Look for jobs in other cities or other areas of the country in your field. Start including entry-level positions that you may feel as though you’re overqualified for. Similarly, start applying for jobs that might not be the absolute most perfect fit for you. See if there are any local job fairs.

I would still give your current career more time before giving up on it. Just expand the job search and try some additional angles.

Q12: Dead tired in the evenings

Every workday when I come home I am just so dead tired that I don’t feel like cooking anything. I usually just grab some food on the way home and flop on the couch and watch TV and play with my phone for a few hours then go to bed. I basically do no housework or anything during the week and do it on the weekends. I have tried to cook at home on weeknights but I feel so exhausted and overwhelmed that it’s not worth it.
– Tess

My honest suggestion for you is to get a slow cooker and start making one-pot meals that you can start in the morning before you go to work. When you get home, supper’s sitting there waiting for you, ready to eat, and then you can just stick the crock in the fridge and have the rest for leftovers the next night or two. Seriously. It’s way cheaper than getting takeout every night and you can make some really tasty stuff in the slow cooker. I actually have a pot of chili in ours right now as I write this.

Start with making a big pot of beef stew. You just buy some stew meat at the store along with some vegetables to cut up and some beef broth. Here’s a recipe. The prep time for that isn’t very long at all especially if your stew meat is already cut up.

Get a programmable slow cooker that cooks the meal for most of the desired time then switches to “keep warm” mode (it’ll finish cooking in that mode, very slowly). So, if you put the stuff for the stew in the crockpot at 7 a.m. and won’t get home until 6, have it cook for seven hours then switch to “keep warm” which will keep it warm enough so that it’s safe but will cook so slowly that it’ll be fine when you get home (in fact, the “keep warm” time will actually help the flavor and soften the stew meat).

Try other recipes in the slow cooker, like a pot roast or a twelve bean soup, and see which ones you like and keep those in rotation. Eat the leftovers on later nights, too, so you only have to do this twice a week or so. Trust me – it’s really really nice to just go straight home after work, open the door, and have that initial smell of a really yummy finished meal ready to eat hit you in the nose.

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.