Questions About Bed Sheets, Used CDs, Health Insurance, and More!

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to five-word summaries. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Health insurance and job switching
2. Hosting guests at home?
3. Balancing retirement and college savings
4. Wonderful money free weekends!
5. Time to become a homeowner?
6. When to toss old clothes
7. Should I save for college?
8. Smoothie ideas?
9. Long-lasting sheets
10. Starting community board game club
11. How to sell used CDs?
12. Getting rid of insurance salesman
13. Buying “haunted” house
14. Delicious free cooking tip
15. Roth IRA and taxes

Board gaming is, perhaps along with reading and going on long walks (when the weather is decent), my favorite hobby. I participate in multiple groups that play board games of all varieties, from quick five-minute card games to behemoth 10-hour long economic and war games (and everything in between).

My oldest child seems to have an interest in this as well. He’s constantly roping his younger siblings into playing games like Memory and Mouse Trap, but lately he’s been wanting to learn many of the games that I play with my various game groups.

So, over the last few months, I’ve been teaching him some of the less complex ones, like Ticket to Ride and Lords of Waterdeep. I’m looking for games with fairly short rules that require at least a little thinking and planning, but don’t require tons and tons of advanced strategy in order to do well.

He has really latched onto Ticket to Ride. When we first started playing, I gave myself a vicious handicap and I still won, though it was close. The next time, with the same handicap, he trounced me. Over time, I’ve gradually lessened the handicap until, yesterday, he defeated me with me using only a very small handicap. Next time, no handicap at all.

(By the way, I believe in playing games with children by giving myself a handicap to start and then playing as well as I can to overcome that handicap, rather than “going easy” on them. People, even children, do not like it if they found out you “went easy” on them, so I simply say the truth: The handicap is to make up for the difference in experience right off the bat.)

I strongly encourage people to play games with their family, especially ones that require a bit of thinking and planning. Not only is it a lot of fun, it’s also incredibly enjoyable to see your children begin to develop a high level of critical thinking and planning ahead.

Q1: Health insurance and job switching

I work at a job where I receive health insurance for our family as a benefit. My wife owns a small business. With health insurance being able to be deducted from taxes, would it be more beneficial to obtain our health insurance through her small business and seek an increase in salary from my job or is it best to keep it as it is?
– Leon

It’s actually hard to tell from this brief question which is better. It depends mostly on how much your employer is actually helping out with the cost of the insurance.

The first thing I’d do is figure out how much of my out-of-pocket pay is going toward health insurance at work. If you didn’t have a plan, how would that affect your pay? At the same time, your wife should try to get some quotes on health insurance options. Remember that you can only deduct the cost of those premiums if neither of you are eligible for an employer-subsidized health plan, so you won’t be able to deduct it from your taxes.

My guess is that your employer’s plan will be cheaper overall for you guys (we certainly found this to be the case in our own situation, where my wife’s insurance is heavily subsidized by the employer), but I can’t guarantee it. You really should look at the options available to you before making the call.

Q2: Hosting guests at home?

Here’s my background: my wife and I got married too young (age 19) and we mutually agreed to separate and then divorce a few years ago. This left me living by myself in a nice three bedroom house. One unusual aspect of the house is that it’s kind of like a duplex with one side consisting of a one bedroom place and the other with two bedrooms. I basically live in the one bedroom side and rarely use the other side except when I have guests.

I have been thinking of renting out the other side as a short-term rental for vacationers to earn money. Do you think this is a good idea? How do I even get started doing this?
– Mark

This could certainly be a good way to earn some money, especially if you’re living in a completely separate area from the (potential) rental and that separation is locked.

The place you would want to start is VRBO, which stands for Vacation Rentals By Owner. This article provides a lot of the basics that you need to know about doing this. You could also try renting it out through Airbnb.

One important thing to note is that you’ll need a special vacation rental insurance policy, which means that your insurance will definitely go up from doing this. Ideally, you’ll make much more than that from renting out this property, especially if you’re in a major city and anywhere near interesting areas that tourists might want to see.

Q3: Balancing retirement and college savings

I’m reasonably frugal and have set a goal of saving $1,000 per month. Most months I beat my goal, so I have an emergency fund as well as an RESP and RRSP (I’m from Canada). I am also trying to pay off a loan at 6.75%, now down to $25,000 and on track to be paid off in two years. This is in addition to my savings. I have just received a $12,000 tax return and am wondering if I should use some or all of it to pay down the debt rather than investing it. There are significant benefits to both the RESP and RRSP, and the debt is not a credit card; on the other hand it would feel good to get rid of the debt an extra year early and put that money into investments. What is your advice?

More information: My 14-year-old son will (I hope) one day use the RESP. I save $5000 per year and have had it for two years so between deposits, the government grant, and interest, it is at $13,000. I have about $35,000 in the RRSP. I also have a decent pension from my job, but it would be foolish to rely on that. I am about 30 years from retirement.
– Nicole

First of all, the RESP and RRSP are tax-advantaged savings plans for Canadians. They somewhat parallel 529 college savings plans and 401(k)s respectively.

As for the numbers, it sounds like you’re on a reasonable pace for retirement. Assuming you’re keeping up with that pace, I’d use the big tax return to eliminate debt. You can put some of it into the RESP depending entirely on what you personally feel appropriate.

If you hadn’t already had a solid start for retirement, it might have made sense to use this tax return as a bit of a catch-up.

Q4: Wonderful money-free weekends!

I just wanted to thank you for inspiring our New Years resolution which has been better than I ever dreamed. My boyfriend and I decided to commit to 40 money-free weekends in 2015 and so far they’ve all been “money-free” and they’ve been GREAT! It is so relaxing just to get things done at home, watch unwatched movies, read books, make a from-scratch meal together, walk around the neighborhood. We used to go out on Friday and Saturday and I don’t miss it at all. Thank you so much for the idea!
– Kathleen

You’re welcome! Sarah and I have found money free weekends to be rather transformative, too. We still do them on a regular basis – in fact, as I type this, we’re in the middle of one.

On Saturday, we made a batch of home brew using some ingredients my in-laws gave me for Christmas. In the afternoon, we walked around the neighborhood as a family, then played board games. In the evening, we made a big pot of soup and then took care of some household chores.

I’m writing this early in the morning on Sunday, but our day ahead looks fairly similar.

The thing is that it’s at least as enjoyable as anything else we might do if we opened up our wallets.

Q5: Time to become a homeowner?

I’m planning to by an apartment and my total savings can cover 80% of the down payment. If I use all of them this means I won’t have emergency fund for the next 4 to 6 months. What should I do? 1. Make the 80% down payment and build a new emergency fund over the next months. 2. Get a bigger loan to cover the remaining amount and an emergency fund. 3. Wait half an year and make the 80% down payment while having an emergency fund. Note: I’d like to pay as much as possible as down payment because the interest rates on mortgages here are quite high, it just doesn’t make sense to have 10 or 20 or 30 years of mortgage.
– Norah

Given that you’re in a country with high interest rates, I’d wait until I had both the down payment and the emergency fund before buying. I completely understand not wanting a large mortgage when interest rates are high – that’s completely the right move.

In general, your best move would be to get whatever mortgage has the lowest interest rate. Given that the actual balance will be pretty low, a very short-term mortgage with a low interest rate will still have pretty low payments that you should be able to handle.

In the United States, interest rates are really low so a 20% down payment is usually reasonable, especially for a first home. I’d always encourage people to have an emergency fund before buying, though, regardless of the local economy.

Q6: When to toss old clothes

When do you decide that old clothes should be tossed? I have a number of shirts and jeans that I am perfectly happy wearing but my wife says I shouldn’t wear them in public and I think she throws them out sometimes.
– Kevin

Honestly… I rely on my wife, too.

Back when I worked in an office, I worried a lot about what I wore to work. Now that I work from home, it’s not an issue. I don’t have to dress up at all for work.

Because of that, I don’t really worry about it too much. If it fits well, I consider it good enough most of the time. My wife usually lets me know if it’s worn out and, if it is, it goes to Goodwill.

This is probably a good list for figuring this out, but it’s all still pretty subjective.

Q7: Should I save for college?

My wife and I had our first child who will be entering college in 2033 assuming all goes well. I assumed that the smart move was to open a 529, but the more I read about the changes in higher education, the less sure I am that the current system of superexpensive college education will even exist in the future and that it will soon price itself so high as to not be worth it for most people and that things like MOOCs will take over. What do you think? Is it still worthwhile to save for education or not?
– Nathan

MOOC refers to “massive online open courses,” or college-level courses in which all of the material is available online and many people can go through the material simultaneously. These have become popular thanks to sites like Coursera.

I think there will still be a significant portion of Americans who attend college after high school in 2033. It may actually take the form of a MOOC of some kind, but it will be much more standardized and accredited than what exists today and it’ll likely cost more.

I don’t think the concept of higher education will vanish, in other words, but I do think some lower-cost alternatives will emerge. The cost of college education increases at a rate that’s far, far greater than inflation and that’s just not sustainable. We’re going to soon reach a point where college education isn’t worth it for many people.

Q8: Smoothie ideas?

Love the discussion about smoothies from the last mailbag. What smoothies do you and your kids like?
– Alexandra

Generally, I just go to the store and buy whatever fresh fruits are on sale, along with a veggie or two that’s on sale. I usually buy a bag or two of frozen fruit as well.

Most of our smoothies take the form of combining equal amounts of two different kinds of fruits along with a smaller amount of a vegetable. I then add some kind of frozen liquid (almond milk if it’s on sale, green tea if it’s not) and a pinch of sweetener (usually honey). I just blend it until it’s smooth.

In other words, we really don’t have a structured recipe. I have found that my kids really like almost anything with bananas in it, but I think that’s more of a personal preference than anything.

Q9: Long lasting sheets

Do you have any good recommendations for long-lasting bedsheets? We received two sets of great cotton bedsheets with high thread count for our wedding and I thought they would last forever. One is already gone and another is worn after just three years.
– Mark

If your sheets were high thread count (more than 500) and single woven, they should have lasted longer than three years, at least in my experience. We have sheets that are most assuredly not high in thread count and they’ve lasted a decade or more. We still use at least one set of sheets we received for our wedding in 2003, after all.

The only reasons I can think of for such dramatic wear is daily washings on a harsh washer cycle. Even then, I don’t know if it’s enough.

I don’t know if there’s any real secret other than looking for thread count and whether or not the cloth is single woven. I will say that bedsheets tend to get very expensive and that at some point you’re better off buying one cheaper set that will last, say, half the time of a set that costs ten times as much.

Q10: Starting community board game club

I have been reading The Simple Dollar since 2007 and it was because of you that I started visiting a game store that had a board game night and got into the board game hobby. Over the years, I have slowly collected about 50 games mostly from gifts. In January, I moved to a smaller community with only one gaming store that has a really limited board game selection and no interest in hosting a game night. I would like to start one in the community. Do you have any suggestions on how to get started? I mostly just want a free evening once or maybe twice a week where people can gather to play games.
– Orin

This is actually something I worked on for a while in my community. I came to the conclusion that most of the people who might play were already drawn into groups in other communities and decided instead to join two groups from other towns.

My suggestion to you would be to start off by seeing what kinds of meeting rooms would be available to you at your local library, at city hall, or at any other potential place for community gathering. Is there a restaurant that has a slow night that might be willing to let you use a separate room on those nights (assuming that at least some of the people in your group order food and/or drink)? What about a coffee shop with a separate room?

If you can find one, then do a ton of footwork to establish the group. Put up an entry on Meetup about the group, including the date and time and location of your meetings. Put flyers everywhere you can think of in your town – city hall, the library, the post office, the supermarket, and so on. If there’s a town Facebook group, post about it there. You can also look for gamers from your community on BGG.

That’s really all you can do. Hope for the best.

Q11: How to sell used CDs?

I have a lot of old CDs I want to sell but the used CD and DVD store in this town went out of business a few years ago. What is the best way to sell used CDs?
– Denny

There are a few websites, like decluttr, that will buy them, but you won’t make a whole lot.

My recommended approach is to sell them all for a dollar or two each on Craigslist. Make a giant list of all of the CDs you want to sell, then offer them on there for a dollar each (or $2 for double albums). If that’s too little for you, feel free to up the price, but you probably won’t get much more for them unless there’s something unique or special.

It’s unfortunate, but there just isn’t a huge market these days in old CDs. I have a bunch of them I’d like to sell, but at the low rates I can get for them, they haven’t been worth the effort yet. Right now, they are all sitting in a box in the garage waiting for a yard sale.

Q12: Getting rid of insurance salesman

One of the people who lives on our block is an insurance salesman. He’s a nice enough guy except that I made the mistake of mentioning to him that I had actually thought about getting a life insurance policy in the past. He keeps asking about it and is kind of becoming a nuisance. I don’t want to be rude here, but I don’t want to be pushed into buying either. The big reason I am not buying is that I am a single woman and have no children and don’t plan on having any so I don’t see the point of having a policy.
– Bianca

Tell him exactly that. You are single with no dependents and no intent to ever get married or have children, so life insurance isn’t really useful. If he tries to pitch them as an investment, say that you already have a retirement plan and have no need for it. Thank him for his time, but tell him that he’s just barking up the wrong tree here.

If you’re not direct about it, he’ll keep thinking that you’re somewhat interested based on your first statement to him. You need to be incredibly clear that this was a past thought and not necessarily representative of your thinking right now.

I have been frustrated by such clingy salespeople in the past. You just need to be direct – you’re never going to buy, so they should apply their efforts elsewhere.

Q13: Buying “haunted” house

In December, I got a new job at a bank in [North Carolina]. I moved into an apartment in town in January, with my wife moving out in a few months when the school year finishes (she didn’t want to quit mid year). We don’t have kids but hope to soon.

I have been shopping for a house in town and found a great one that’s actually priced pretty cheaply. I was about to buy it but then several coworkers told me that the house is “cursed” or “haunted” or something. Apparently, someone was killed there about a decade ago, then new people bought it and fixed it up, then one of their family died there, then another couple bought it and then the wife in that couple got cancer within six months of moving in. That guy moved out nine months ago and it’s been sitting on the market ever since.

The price is a really good bargain, but the rep of the house is scary. What do you think about things like this?
– Charles

I really don’t believe in the idea of a property being “haunted.” What I think happened here is a statistically improbable – but not impossible – series of events that indicate nothing about what’s going to happen in the future.

If I were you, I’d jump on the bargain. This sounds like a significantly underpriced house.

You may find that in the future there are a few people in the community who are leery of accepting invites to your home, but that will fade over time. Still, that little drawback isn’t worth skipping out on this kind of thing.

Q14: Delicious free cooking tip

Here’s a great tip: whenever you have to cook something in a skillet and then add it to a dish you’re preparing, put a little bit of water in the skillet while it’s still really hot. The water will boil and some of the cooked bits that were stuck to the skillet will come off into the water. That stuff is delicious. Add it to whatever dish you were making. I suggest using about 1/8 cup water and using that as a substitute for 1/8 cup of whatever liquid is in the recipe.
– Vin

This is a great idea that works really well for almost any meal that involves liquid and something prepared in a skillet. The remnants of anything cooked in a skillet is almost always delicious and a bit of cool liquid can remove that wonderful flavor and add it to your dish.

I often saute onions and garlic (and sometimes green and red peppers) in the skillet and I always follow that with a bit of wine in the skillet. That liquid is just gold in almost anything I might put it in.

I have even been known to save that kind of liquid and use it later in a soup or something. It’s just fantastic for adding flavor to dishes.

Q15: Roth IRA and taxes

In 2014 I opened a Roth IRA and contributed about $2,000. What do I need to do with this account in terms of filing income taxes?
– Alan

You don’t really need to do anything at all. Your Roth IRA was funded with after-tax dollars, so you don’t need to pay any additional taxes on your contributions.

The IRS does ask for records concerning the contributions just so they’re aware of the age of your Roth. This is important for ensuring that you’re eligible to take tax-free withdrawals down the line. A good tax software package makes this easy.

In terms of owing money, though, you owe nothing extra just because you made contributions this year.

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.