Questions About 401(k) Options, Swappa, Net Worth, Water Bottles, Breakfast, 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. No Target Retirement in 401(k)?
2. Value of net worth?
3. Swappa for used cell phones?
4. Nervous retirees scared to spend
5. Thoughts on Linux?
6. Some thoughts on school supplies
7. Recommended water bottles?
8. Appropriate gifts for friend’s child
9. Digital magazine subscriptions
10. Cheap breakfast suggestion number one
11. Cheap breakfast suggestion number two
12. Meditation or prayer?

When I switched to a standing desk, I wasn’t sure what the effects would be like. After about six months of use, I’ve learned some things that might be useful if you’re considering one.

At first, the part of my body that would get sore quickly was my back. That faded over time, almost definitely due to improved core strength (which I’ll touch on in a bit), and now the part that gets sore is my feet, but only after several hours of standing desk use. If I evenly alternate sitting and standing time, I’m completely fine.

Having the desk at the exact right height makes a huge difference. If it’s even off by a couple of inches, I start to notice after a full day. Often, my shoulders will be sore or my neck will be sore.

I generally feel better than I did several months ago, or at least I think I do. It’s really hard to say that you feel a lot better on average than you did at some point in the past, but I feel like I have more energy to tackle things.

It hasn’t made a tremendous difference in terms of weight loss, but it does make a difference.

The biggest change I’ve noticed is that my core seems stronger. I seem to have better functional strength with things like lifting things and moving things around. My back and abdomen are stronger than before, and it’s just because of using a standing desk each day for most of the day instead of sitting all day.

I find that I can usually go for several hours (four or five) straight in the morning at this point, and then I alternate sitting and standing tasks in the afternoon. I usually end up clocking six to seven hours on a normal weekday at my standing desk.

I’m glad I switched. I think it has been a net benefit for me.

On with the questions.

Q1: No Target Retirement in 401(k)?

I was following your advice on signing up for a 401(k) and when I went to choose investments my plan does not offer any Target Retirement funds. Do you have a recommendation?
– Brad

Brad actually listed the options available to him, but it made it really easy for me to figure out what plan he was using and so I chose to trim out his list and instead give some more general advice useful to everyone that will point Brad to the answer he needs.

My general advice is that if you’re not going to be touching retirement money for more than 10 years, it should be in something aggressive, like stocks or real estate. If you’re going to use it in less than ten years, it should be in something safer, like bonds or money markets. For the most part, that’s what target retirement funds do – they automatically move money around for you. However, you can do this manually.

If I were signing up for a 401(k) plan today and didn’t really know that much about investing, I would look at my current age and the age at which I plan to retire. If they’re more than ten years apart, all of my contributions would be in a total stock market index fund, if available, or, if I wanted to be a little more diverse than that, I might have something like a 50% total stock market index fund, 25% real estate index fund, and 25% total international stock market index fund. I would avoid anything super risky like precious metals or cryptocurrency.

If I was less than ten years from retirement, I’d put most of it – somewhere around 60% – in a total bond market index fund, and the rest (40%) in a money market index fund.

What would I do if I were contributing for a while and suddenly recognized that I was 10 years from retirement? I’d use a retirement calculator and figure out how much I wanted to withdraw each year, then move that much to the safer investments listed above, then continue to contribute to the riskier investments. I’d have the money I intended to withdraw within ten years in a safe investment, while all other money was still aggressively invested. When I actually hit retirement, I’d take my withdrawals from the riskier stuff so that I knew that I had ten years of money for retirement living locked down in something safe, and only start tapping it if the riskier money ran out.

That’s the strategy I would use in such a situation. With a Target Retirement fund available, though, I’d just trust that to do all of the busy work.

(For those who are heavily into investing and retirement planning, I’m aware that this plan isn’t “perfect” and different investment philosophies will have different approaches, but this is a simple approach that can be easily understood and should work pretty well for almost everyone.)

Q2: Value of net worth?

What is the value in calculating one’s net worth? It’s not a realistic number. No one is going to liquidate all their stuff. So what’s the point?
– Alex

It’s simply a metric by which to measure your overall financial progress. It’s similar to using a person’s weight or BMI to track their health or fitness progress. Your weight or BMI doesn’t truly mean anything; it’s just a measurement that can be used to summarize your overall health.

Your net worth is just the sum of all of your bank accounts and investment accounts and major assets, minus your debts. It’s just a simple indicator of your financial health, and in general, you’re in better financial shape the higher your net worth is.

That being said, you’re correct that it doesn’t really have a practical meaning. It typically includes things you’d never liquidate, like your current home and your retirement accounts.

Just use it to chart how well you’re doing overall. It’s nothing more than that.

Q3: Swappa for used cell phones?

For cell phones, have you ever looked at Swappa? I like to have my phone paid for in full and don’t need the latest model. This summer, I upgraded from an android Samsung Galaxy 6 to a Galaxy S8 for about $230. It’s a little futzed to get the phone set up and make sure you get one that is compatible with your carrier, but the prices are great!
– Amy

Swappa is a buy/sell/trade site for electronic devices, kind of like an eBay focused on electronics. I haven’t used it myself, but have a few friends with good experiences on there.

Their advice is that if you use Swappa to buy something, treat it like eBay and stick to reputable sellers. Accounts with no sales or few sales are much more likely to be scammers, so if you buy from them, don’t pay as much as you would from a more reputable seller.

Of course, for sellers, this means taking a wash on items for your first few sales so that you have that valuable reputation and can earn more with later sales.

If you’re looking specifically for electronics, it’s a good alternative to eBay.

Q4: Nervous retirees scared to spend

Thoughts on this article?
– Jeremy

The article is like a lot of articles about retirement and financial independence that I read in the media. It basically argues that the only route to happiness is spending lots of money, and that there is no inherent happiness in contentment and security.

That may be how some feel, but it’s far from how everyone feels. Take me, for example. If a huge windfall fell on my lap, I wouldn’t want to radically change my day-to-day life. I like it – a lot. Rather, I’d use that money to secure what I have for as long as possible, providing it with stability and with some breathing room to explore new things without inflating my lifestyle.

For me, there is more value in contentment and in low stress than there would be in exploring really expensive opportunities. I actually wouldn’t want to live in a $5 million house. What would I do with it? How would I take care of it? I’d probably have to hire someone to help with the upkeep of the estate, and the property taxes make me cringe just to think of it. If I was enormously wealthy and such expenses were really minor, sure, why not, but I actually see negative value in taking on more and more expenses in life because I’m happy with where I’m at now.

I think that’s what this article is really talking about. Note that the people who aren’t accelerating their spending are people who were already spending $70,000 a year or more. Above that point, spending more money doesn’t really bring any more lasting happiness and can actually add stress to your life by undoing financial security.

There is a great deal of contentment and happiness and low stress in living a low-spending lifestyle and using your resources to secure the great things you have and keep worries at bay. I think the article misses that and attributes the choice of some retirees not to spend their money as a form of anxiety. While I suppose that might be true for some, I believe that for many – and this is from my own feelings, from retirees I personally know, and from retirees I’ve communicated with due to The Simple Dollar – the choice not to spend every dime they have in retirement isn’t borne out of anxiety, but borne out of having a life they like and a desire to secure it for as long as possible.

Q5: Thoughts on Linux?

I’m a big fan of your blog, especially the Q&A that you do from time to time. I had a topic that I don’t think you’ve explored much thus far – have you thought of promoting Linux as a frugal choice for those that want to reduce their computing expenses while also improving their privacy? I’ve been using Linux as my primary OS at home for 15+ years and have been able to extend usable the life of my computers by many years. In the past Linux has gotten the reputation as a system for techies and hackers, but more recent versions like Ubuntu make it really easy for regular folks to install/use the system. Also with the increased availability of web-based applications, most people can get their taxes / finances done using a browser like Chrome/Firefox, so application compatibility/support is less of an issue. Steam supports Linux fairly well, so there are a lot of gaming options available too. Overall, Linux seems like an option that would fit well with your personal finance philosophy.
– Larry

I have been a long time user of Linux, both professionally and personally, and I actually served as the president of a Linux user’s group back in my professional years. Linux is an alternative to using Windows or Mac OS on your home computer, and it is definitely a solid option for a home computer for the reasons you suggest. It’s free, and almost all software for it is free. It’s very secure. It’s surprisingly easy to set up. There is a wide variety of software available for it. It runs well on older hardware.

The only thing that keeps me from giving it a full-throated recommendation is that not all software is available for it, and so you’ll need to check on whether any key software you need has a Linux version or a good Linux alternative, and there are also moments where things go wrong and you usually can’t just “call your computer guy” to have them fix it; you have to apply some know-how and willingness to read and follow documentation online to figure out what to do next.

That being said, Linux is fantastic, and if you have an old computer and are interested in giving it a whirl, here’s a great guide for migrating from an old Windows computer to Ubuntu Linux (there are a bunch of different versions of Linux that are very similar, but I think Ubuntu is really good for a home user just wanting to try it out). Don’t do this on a computer that you’re using for anything important, but if you have an old computer and want to see what it’s like, there’s your starting point.

Q6: Some thoughts on school supplies

In my community I am very frustrated with how lower funding for schools is pushing more and more costs on to parents. It is a struggle to buy school supplies when the supply list asks for things like 48 dry erase markers and several boxes of Kleenexes. The school should supply those! I understand that they don’t have funding for that stuff. But my school supply bill for three kids was well over $100 and I didn’t buy any clothes or backpacks or anything like that.
– Adrienne

I don’t think anyone denies that school supply costs are escalating for parents, and that a good part of the reason is that some classroom costs are being pushed out to parents. Regardless of what you believe the reasons for this change are, the reality is that it hits parents pretty hard in August and September.

We’re in the same boat, also with three kids. We had to buy a lot of school supplies this year just to fulfill the school supply list, including a number of things that were clearly for general classroom use and not just for our own child’s use.

The best practical advice I can really offer to parents in this situation is to shop around for supplies. Particularly this year, I noticed that different stores had wildly varying prices on back to school supplies, with some stores offering the same exact item at a fifth of the price of another store. Different stores had very different loss leaders for their sales, so it was actually worth it for us to hit three different stores when shopping for supplies, and we could have done even better with a bit more advance planning.

Q7: Recommended water bottles?

We recently switched to an under-sink water filter that makes our tap water taste just fine, if a little warmer than I like. We previously have been drinking water bottles bought in bulk from Costco but I would like to switch to just using refillable bottles in the fridge. Is it a good idea to just reuse plastic 16 ounce water bottles? Or should we buy some better ones?
– Jana

As long as you thoroughly wash them between uses, the kinds of water bottles that you buy water in at a grocery store or gas station work well for many uses. Plus, it’s not a big deal if you lose one.

That being said, they do tend to wear out after a fairly small number of uses. Various things go wrong – after all, they’re really only designed for a single use, and uses beyond that are just a bonus, in effect. They just don’t stand up to the wear.

For reusable water bottles, I swear by Nalgene bottles. They’re easy to clean, are basically indestructible, and come in a wide variety of sizes and variations so you can get the one you want. I personally like the 32 ounce bottles with a narrow mouth, like these. I not only use them for water, but I use them for all kinds of cold beverages whenever I leave the house (like cold brew coffee). That’s my recommendation for a reusable bottle – provided you don’t lose it, it’ll basically last forever.

Q8: Appropriate gifts for friend’s child

I have been very close friends with my college roommate for about 20 years. I was a bridesmaid at her wedding and I was at the hospital when her daughter was born. At first it was pretty easy as I gave little toys and handmade things to her daughter for birthdays and Christmases. But now her daughter is getting older and I am unsure how I should handle gift giving. I see them all maybe once a month and text daily with them and we usually do something together for a few days maybe twice a year. What is an appropriate pattern for gift giving?
– Shauna

What do you feel is appropriate? That’s what really matters. Figure out what kinds of things would feel right for you to give on your own, without any concern about your friend’s opinion or anything else. This should help you set a dollar amount that’s right for you.

At that point, talk about it with your friend a little. Just ask what she thinks is appropriate. She might just say, “Whatever you want,” in which case you should go with your own gut. On the other hand, she might set an appropriate dollar amount or some other restriction, depending on her parenting approach.

If the two numbers are close, no big deal. If your friend suggests a number that’s way higher than what you’re thinking, then tell her that it seems really awkward to you and give your own suggestion. On the other hand, if your friend suggests too low of a number, what I would do is give a gift that matches the number your friend suggested, and then donate the rest quietly to a 529 plan for that girl.

In fact, a 529 might be a really good approach here anyway. Just continue to give small gifts and handmade items for holidays and other events, while quietly making a contribution to a 529 that you think is appropriate. Then, when she graduates (or is about to), tell her about the account. Just say that all along, when you were giving little gifts to her, you were also contributing to a 529 so that college would be easier for her.

The key thing is to do what feels right to you without trampling on what your friend wants to do as a parent. Likely, this won’t be an issue at all. Just figure out your desired amount and have a casual talk with your friend about it.

Q9: Digital magazine subscriptions

What are your thoughts on digital magazine subscriptions? I subscribe to a few magazines and read them pretty thoroughly and like to hang onto back issues. Most of the publications I subscribe to now offer digital subscriptions where you can download the latest issue and read it on a phone or tablet and most of them let you see the archives. In most cases it’s cheaper than the print edition and then they won’t take up space at home. I’m strongly considering switching most subscriptions to digital.
– Joe

You’ve outlined the benefits (well, most of them), but there are three real drawbacks.

One, if you don’t have internet access, you can’t get the latest issue. This is a minor issue for most people, but can be significant for some.

Two, you’re now reading on a device that requires electricity and, depending on how the subscription works, requires internet access.

Three, unless your publication allows you to download full PDF issues for offline reading, you have to stay subscribed to have access to back issues.

I have a couple of publications that I subscribe to that send out issues in PDF format. I keep them on my Dropbox account and read them on my iPad and it works really well. I can just search them for particular text snippets at my convenience. I also like having current and recent issues of publications on my iPad whenever I want them. Plus, they’re cheaper.

Basically, if you can get the issues in actual PDF format or another completely offline format, or if you have no interest in ever reviewing back issues, it’s a good idea. It’s cheaper and saves on clutter.

Q10: Cheap breakfast suggestion number one

My favorite cheap breakfast is a piece of toast or an English muffin with a little bit of butter and some everything bagel seasoning from Trader Joe’s on it. It adds up to maybe $0.20 or $0.25 a slice and it’s so delicious. Hits the spot right as I’m leaving for work.
– Mary

I actually do this sometimes, too! The big problem is that we’ve been out of our “everything seasoning” for a while and so I haven’t been doing it.

I actually like this best with homemade bread, as it’s a little bit thicker and seems to grab onto the butter better than bread from the store. It’s crunchier and butterier and the bagel seasoning is just perfect.

If you like quick savory breakfasts, this is a really good cheap option.

Another reader wrote in with a good cheap and easy breakfast option.

Q11: Cheap breakfast suggestion number two

The best cheap breakfast is a hard boiled egg in my opinion. I peel a dozen on Sunday and keep them in a jar and have two for breakfast most mornings with a sprinkle of salt and pepper on them. Takes no time at all and portable so I can eat one on the way to the car and the second on the way to work.
– Maeve

My kids love scrambled eggs for breakfast but don’t seem to be big fans of hard boiled eggs for breakfast, which is strange because I love both kinds in the mornings.

Some weeks, when I know that we’re not going to have a lot of leftovers, I’ll make a big batch of hard boiled eggs on Monday morning and eat them for lunch throughout the week. Lunch will consist of a couple of hardboiled eggs and an apple or something like that, to keep lunch cheap.

I love the frugal breakfast ideas! Keep ’em coming!

Q12: Meditation or prayer?

I am interested in why you suggest meditation instead of prayer as a way to calm the mind. I thought based on previous comments that you were Christian.
– Ava

For starters, my viewpoint is that prayer and meditation are complementary activities. I tend to think of prayer as asking and meditation as receiving. Prayer happens when you’re calling out to a higher power, whereas meditation is when you merely listen, whether for that higher power or for other things.

There are moments where I do find it useful to pray, but I tend to find other spiritual practices more useful when I feel like pouring out what’s in my mind and heart. An omnipotent and omnipresent God is always listening, after all. Am I listening back? That, to me, is the real question.

Furthermore, meditation doesn’t rely on any sort of specific spiritual tradition to be a useful practice. When you meditate, you’re opening yourself to lots of things, not just necessarily the voice of a higher power. It’s about settling your mind and being open to more things and being able to concentrate on little threads that life hands you when they might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

I tend to avoid discussing spiritual issues directly on The Simple Dollar because that’s not really what this site is about. I can say that, whether you tend to think of it as a practice for listening for a higher power or just a way to still the mind, meditation has been an incredibly valuable addition to my life, and I highly recommend it to everyone. It has helped me focus better on the world around me and on specific things when I need it to and live more in the moment and it has done wonders for quieting the endless monologue in my head. I think the experience and benefit of it is different for everyone.

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.