Questions About Babies, Houses, Jeans, Taxes, Sourdough, 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. Buying stuff for baby
2. Tax loss harvesting question
3. Nice hair cutting tip
4. Thoughts on “robo investment services”
5. Which slow cooker?
6. Home ownership challenge
7. Clearing out book collection
8. Saving money on work trip
9. Afraid of culture when moving
10. Is my cell service overpriced?
11. Buying long lasting denim jeans
12. Sourdough starter advice

We spent this weekend camping. It’ll probably be our final camping trip of 2017, but it was a beautiful and unseasonably warm weekend with bright weather all the way along. My oldest son asked to bring a few friends along with him, so we were camping with a cadre of preteen boys.

It ended up feeling almost like a Boy Scout camping trip. We wandered around on trails. We went fishing. We went rowing. We went swimming. We made roaring campfires. The boys stayed up most of the night horsing around and laughing and telling stories and so on.

I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Q1: Buying stuff for baby

We are three months pregnant and now have started to think more seriously on how we should plan our shopping for baby and mom stuff. Any pointers to propel us in the direction on how we can save money while planning for pregnancy and baby. A plan broken down in intervals of six months for next 3 years would be great or any website that can help us in doing that with checklist. Ofcourse having said that I am going over numerous products that we could use but want to be careful how we spend our hard earned money in an effective way while planning for this big event.
– Jim

I don’t think there is any kind of standard list that I can prepare for anyone. After having three kids, I definitely feel like we had far too much stuff and thus my suggested lists of what you’ll need looks starkly minimal. (I know this because I’ve talked to friends and family that have had babies recently and they basically didn’t even believe my suggestions.)

Basically, babies need to be warm, they need to eat, they need to be clean, they need a place to sleep, they need to be safe, and they need to be held. They don’t need much else. So, you need a few blankets and some baby clothes that fit, (maybe) a few bottles and (maybe) some formula and (maybe) a breast pump (depending on your feeding plans), a few cloth diapers and cloth wipes and a spray bottle, a safe car seat, and a small sturdy crib. The blankets and clothes can and should be bought secondhand.

Everything beyond those basic things is pure extra. However, many people buy lots of extra things out of convenience. Disposable diapers are a convenience purchase. Baby wipes are a convenience purchase. A breast pump is a convenience purchase (it provides enormous location convenience). A stroller is a convenience purchase (you can carry the baby, after all). A changing table is a convenience purchase (we didn’t even use ours at all for our third child, as we changed him on blankets and towels wherever we happened to be). I can’t decide for you whether those conveniences are necessary, other than to suggest trying other methods first before deciding that you need a particular convenience. Are you regularly doing something that requires this particular convenience item? You honestly won’t know until you have the child. Some things that seem essential to others might be completely useless for you, and vice versa.

Just make sure your baby’s needs are met. Are they warm? Are they safe? Do they have healthy things to eat? Do they get held? Are they clean? Take care of those needs and let the stuff you buy only serve those needs.

Q2: Tax loss harvesting question

My question is this: while the person in the example at the end of the answer wouldn’t pay long term capital gains tax on selling the $30,000 investment, they still have to pay income tax on the $30,000 as it would be considered income, right?
– Bill

Let’s say that you put $30,000 in a taxable investment – meaning not in a 401(k) or anything. Over the course of a few years, that $30,000 turns into $40,000.

You sell that investment. You get your original investment back tax free. You only pay taxes on the $10,000, and if you’ve held the investment for a while, it’s a long term capital gain. If your long term capital gains tax rate is 15%, you’re going to pay $1,500 in taxes.

In other words, you are only taxed on what you gain from an investment. You get your original investment back tax free – you can’t be double taxed on that money and you already paid taxes on it when you originally received it as income.

Q3: Nice hair cutting tip

The best way to avoid a mess while cutting your hair is simply to wet the hair before you cut it. Then, it clumps together and all falls on a sheet placed under the person whose hair I’m cutting – mine or a family member.
– Jade

That’s good advice, and it explains why many barbers and salons dampen people’s hair before cutting it.

Unless you have a complex hair style, it’s quite possible to cut it at home. As I’ve noted before, I’m a guy who prefers short hair that can pretty easily be cut with clippers, so that’s what I do at least some of the time.

Give it a try at home. Cut someone’s hair. See how it turns out. At worst, that person just goes to a barber or a hairstylist and “fixes” the damage. At best, you save $20 (at least).

Q4: Thoughts on “robo investment services”

I’m wondering what you think about the robo investment service United Income? It’s aimed at 50+ crowd. We’re in our early 50’s and are starting to feel overwhelmed by all that there is to tract as we begin to look at our retirement years. Apparently, this service will help you do this for a fee ranging between .05-.08% of your portfolio.
– Denise

My feelings on “robo investment services” are that they’re effectively index funds or target retirement funds with a higher fee. Often, the “robo investment service” charges a fee, then the things it invests in charges a fee, too, so it compounds.

Honestly? If I’m investing for retirement, I’m probably just going to open a Roth IRA with Vanguard and use their Target Retirement Fund. It basically does the same thing as a “robo investor” but cheaper.

In the end, an index fund is basically the same thing as a “robo investor.” An index fund just follows a few simple rules to govern your investments, just as a “robo investor” does. However, index funds are cheaper. I think “robo investing” is just something of a fad.

Q5: Which slow cooker?

I saw an older post on the slow cooker your family uses, but the post was a couple years old; can you point me to the slow cooker you currently use?
– Max

I no longer see the exact model that we use on Amazon (because, well, companies change models over time), but it is very similar to the Crock-Pot SCCPVL600S Cook’ N Carry 6-Quart Oval Manual Portable Slow Cooker. It’s just a large Crock Pot with a removable ceramic crock, and we’ve been using it consistently for about a decade.

We also have an Instant Pot which we sometimes use as a slow cooker, but strictly for slow cooking purposes, the Crock Pot works better. The Instant Pot has the advantage of working as a small pressure cooker and rice cooker, which is useful for many other dishes. We’ve often made something to serve over rice in our Crock Pot and then cooked the rice in the Instant Pot, for example.

If you’re looking primarily for something to just put stuff in and walk away in the morning and then come home to dinner in the evening, I’d get that Crock Pot I linked to above. It’s inexpensive and ours has worked flawlessly for a decade or so.

Q6: Home ownership challenge

I’m a 55 year old disabled woman with a home site on the Navajo Reservation and very low income…I’m looking for help in building a 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms house on my home site asap please.. I don’t have any collateral or any cash for down payment but willing to do low monthly payment to pay off.
– Sheila

My first suggestion for you would be to seek out assistance in getting a loan. Given your situation – your relative age and disability – you may have difficulty getting a loan through traditional means. However, both your tribal membership and your disability might make you eligible for programs that would help you get a loan anyway.

I would start by talking to tribal leaders about what programs are available for building on the reservation. They should be able to at least point you toward appropriate resources.

You may also be eligible for a HUD Section 8 loan for building a small home. I would contact your disability benefits office and ask about their home loans and grants.

Those resources should be able to help you build a modest home without overwhelming debt. Good luck!

Q7: Clearing out book collection

I have several shelves of books and one day I just realized I will probably never read 99% of them again and they’ll just sit there until I die. I would like to get at least a little money in return for them. What is the best way to do that?
– Denise

It depends on a few things. You may be able to donate them to the library, who may put them in circulation or sell them at a book sale. In those situations, the library usually estimates their value and gives you a receipt for them, which you can then use as a tax deduction. This is the easiest route and will save you some money if you’re already filing long form (if you have a mortgage and claim mortgage interest, you probably are; if not, you’re probably not unless you’re fairly wealthy).

If that doesn’t sound like it applies to you, you could make a long list of the books and put them up on Craigslist along with a photo of your shelves. You probably won’t get a lot for them that way, but it’ll be cash in your pocket. You’d want to price them somewhere in the range of $1 a book, with a discount if a bunch are purchased at once. You could also have a yard sale with a similar pricing scheme.

You can also take them to a local used bookstore, who may give you a small amount for them. This is probably a good approach for whatever’s left after selling via Craigslist.

If you wanted to invest more time, you could sell them via the Amazon Marketplace. You can sell them individually yourself, but it’ll be a lot of work to package and ship each book individually. A better approach might be to send all of your books to Amazon and have them do the work, but you’ll make substantially less by doing that. This would probably put the most money in your pocket, but it would also probably be the most work.

Personally, I’d donate them to the library if I were eligible to actually use the tax deduction from the donation.

Q8: Saving money on work trip

I was recently promoted at work, which means that I am supposed to travel for about a week once a month to visit installations. We receive a per diem bonus to cover food and fuel and incidentals and our airline ticket and rental car is already paid for, but when we’re actually there we have to buy our own food and stuff. Any suggestions on how to keep this cheap?
– David

Before you go, try to ensure that the hotel you’re staying at has a fridge in the room. This is an enormous money saver.

Put an empty water bottle and some granola bars in your carry on. Fill up the water bottle as soon as you’re through security. Eat the granola bars and drink the water instead of eating in the airport.

As soon as you’re at the location and have your car, stop at a grocery store and load up. Make sure that your room has a fridge, and then buy stuff to make simple meals at the hotel. Get stuff for lunches and dinners – things like sandwiches are perfect for this.

Take advantage of the continental breakfast at your hotel. Eat plenty, then snag a few extra fruits for snacks throughout the day. Use your water bottle throughout the day when you’re traveling.

If you do those things, you’ll keep the costs of traveling pretty low. Food is one of the biggest expenses while traveling, and if you can eliminate even half of the restaurant stops, you’ll save a ton of money.

Q9: Afraid of culture when moving

I have lived my entire life in and around New York, attended public school here, went to college here, so on. I have an amazing job offer in Des Moines, which immediately made me think of your site, which I have enjoyed reading off and on for years. I am mostly concerned about culture. As I am sure you know, Des Moines and other cities in the Midwest except maybe Chicago have the rep of being a cultural wasteland and there is nothing to do there. I’ve looked at Des Moines and found some promising things but I still can’t shake the idea that it is just three buildings in the middle of a cornfield. I guess I’m writing so you can convince me that it will all be okay.
– Stephen

I’m one of those people that feels pretty happy wherever I live. I’m fine living in cities. I’m fine living in small towns. I’m fine living in the country with no one else in sight. There are always things to do, no matter where I’m at. I’ve had great friends when I’ve lived in a city, when I’ve lived in the country, and when I’ve lived in a small town.

I guess I’m not sure what you mean by “cultural wasteland.” Often, that term seems to mean “a place devoid of things that I like.” Some people like a vibrant restaurant scene, so if they go to a place without a large quantity of independent unique restaurants, they identify it as a “cultural wasteland.” The same goes with art, or with music, or with people of different cultures. Some people define it as any area with a sufficient number of chain stores or restaurants.

For me, I think culture is mostly what you make of it. It’s about the people you seek out and choose to surround yourself with. The internet has made it easy to find communities and subcultures that match your interests and desires. Des Moines is large enough that you will be able to find a subculture devoted to pretty much anything you wish. There is a small but very vibrant music scene with a number of great bands and a solid annual music festival. There’s a surprisingly good restaurant scene – it’s not enormous, but you can find an interesting place to eat in the greater Des Moines area every day for a year without a repeat.

I guess the answer to your question is that Des Moines is big enough to have what you’re looking for if you’re willing to look for it. Granted, such communities probably won’t be as large as, say, the NYC dining scene, but the communities here aren’t nearly as segmented, either.

I’d say go for it. Give it an open mind, seek out communities related to your interests, and see what happens. If all else fails, you can always leverage that great job and move back to NYC.

Q10: Is my cell service overpriced?

How do you even tell if you’re paying too much for cell phone service? I know you can look at offers from other companies but their service is very different from place to place.
– Dana

So, here’s what I suggest. Go to OpenSignal and see what the signal looks like for different carriers in the places where you are most of the time – your home, your commute, your workplace, your common shopping locations, any places you visit frequently, and so on.

Basically, don’t even bother with companies that appear to have a lot of poor coverage in those areas. Don’t even try to compare them.

Instead, look at the carriers with good coverage in those areas. Visit each one of their websites and see what plans they offer that match your actual usage. If they’re cheaper than your plan, consider switching or using the other plan to negotiate with your current carrier.

So, for example, in my area, OpenSignal reveals that US Cellular and Verizon are good, but T-Mobile and Sprint are pretty sketchy. So, I’m mostly going to look at US Cellular and Verizon for offers, as the quality drop-off after those two is pretty steep.

That’s the general strategy I follow. (I only consider pay-as-you-go providers if they use the Verizon or US Cellular networks – ones that use Sprint or T-Mobile won’t work for me.)

Q11: Buying long lasting denim jeans

What are some tricks for buying jeans that will last for a long time? The ones I buy always seem to fall apart and rip.
– David

OK, first trick – don’t wash your jeans unless they’re actually dirty. When you take them off, inspect them. Do you see dirt or other smudges? Are there any noticeable odors? If so, then wash them. If not, then don’t wash them. Seriously, people wash clothes far too often and it is very hard on them. Wash clothes if they’re dirty. A pair of jeans you wear on a lazy day are probably not dirty.

The most long-lasting jeans I’ve ever owned are work jeans from Carhartt, like these. They last and last and last and last.

Having said that, different brands change their manufacture pretty regularly, so you’re going to want to inspect them. Generally, darker denim that feels stiffer to the touch in the store is going to last longer, because when denim feels softer and more flexible, that means it’s been washed, usually with bleach and other chemicals, that have broken down the fibers, meaning the jeans won’t last as long. Stiff jeans take some time to break in, but they last a lot longer.

Check the stitching everywhere and skip any jeans where the stitching looks uneven. Compare jeans of different types and choose the ones with more stitching, as they’re less likely to fail along the seams.

Yeah, it takes a little time, but you’ll walk out with jeans that will last for a long time.

Q12: Sourdough starter advice

When I was a kid, my grandma kept sourdough starter in a little crock on her counter. Each day or two, she’d take some of it and make bread, then add flour and water to what was left.

I’d like to start doing the same thing. I have read a lot about it but I am still unsure about what I am doing and want to know if there is a cheap/easy way to get started. I want some sourdough bread like grandma made!
– Virginia

All you really need is a big wide mouth jar with a lid, some flour, a wooden spoon, and some water. By big, I mean at least a quart jar, and preferably a bigger one. That’s really all you need to get this going.

Take 3/4 cup flour – whatever kind you like and add 1/2 cup warm water and mix them together in the jar. This should end up being a very very soft dough – add a little water if it’s not almost runny. Put the lid on loosely (so air can escape from the inside) and leave it on your countertop overnight.

The next day, add another 3/4 cup flour and 1/2 cup water. You may notice some bubbling in the dough, or maybe not. Either way, it’s okay at that point. Stir in the water and flour, put the lid back on, and wait another day.

On the third day, remove about half of the starter and toss it. You should notice that there’s quite a bit of bubbling going on in there – that’s fine – and it might even have a hint of a sourdough-y smell. That’s good. Don’t panic if it’s not quite there yet. Then, again, add 3/4 cup flour and 1/2 cup water, stir it, cover it loosely, and let it sit for another day.

Repeat this each day. Remove half the starter, add 3/4 cup flour and 1/2 cup water, stir thoroughly, cover. Each day, it should seem more and more and more like sourdough in terms of the aroma. It’ll probably get runnier, too. That’s all normal.

After about a week of this, you should have sourdough starter. You have to keep feeding it every day or two after that, which is what you should be doing if you want to bake every day or two. On days when you want to bake, remove half the starter and then use that removed portion to bake with, following a sourdough bread recipe.

What if you want to take a break or if you want to travel? Move the whole container to the fridge. You only need to feed it once a week when it’s in there, but the process is the same – remove half the starter, add 1/2 cup water, add 3/4 cup flour, stir, put lid back on loosely. That’s really all there is to it.

You can buy starters that allow you to skip the first several days of this process, but after that, you need to keep feeding it like this.

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.