Questions About Bill Priorities, Adult Children, Rice Cookers, Pension Plans, 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. Prioritizing bills in emergency
2. Pantry clean-out advice
3. Furthering education without eating weekends?
4. Adult children still taking
5. “No buy” November
6. Water bottle smell
7. Rice cooker recommendation?
8. Pension plan frozen; now what?
9. Millennials save half of paycheck?
10. Board game boxes
11. Extra 529 money
12. Why so serious?

As I’ve mentioned before, April, May, September, and October are the busiest months of the year for us. The reason? Those months are soccer seasons here and all three of our children play in various leagues. Our oldest takes it very seriously and works on his skills all the time.

As October winds down, so does fall soccer (there isn’t really winter soccer here in Iowa unless you play an indoor game), which means our schedules get a bit of a breather for a few months. In terms of flexibility of schedule, winter and summer are far easier for us than spring and fall.

On with the questions!

Q1: Prioritizing bills in emergency

In April my husband lost his job. His unemployment recently ran out. He has been looking for work all the way along but there aren’t many positions in this area that use his skill set so he has started to apply for more entry level positions that pay less so we’re going to have to get used to less income even when he does find work. Right now our income is low enough that we are having to choose which bills to pay. We have already cut almost everything extra like Netflix and cable and we only have internet because he needs it for job searching. Next month we are going to have to skip some bills. I’m realistic and know that families go through this some times but it is an emergency for us. I am trying to find advice on how to decide what bills to prioritize after sudden income loss but I can’t find good resources. Can you help?
– Amy

Prioritize your rent or mortgage, your utility bills, food, insurance, and medical expenses. Those should come before any debts, period. Everything else can wait in comparison. You should dump any and all bills related to entertainment and cut your cellular plan back to the bare essentials.

If your income covers all of that and you can still afford bills, start by paying off debts with collateral, like your car loan. You can’t really afford repossession at this point.

Credit cards (and other uncollateralized debt) should be the absolute last thing you pay. They should be paid, of course, but not paying those debts has the least negative impact on your life.

If he has student loans, he should contact them immediately about forbearance and put them on pause for a while. Yeah, you’ll accumulate interest, but at least you won’t be doing further damage to your credit while you find a job.

Q2: Pantry clean-out advice

We recently cleaned out our pantry as per your suggestion and found a lot of “forgotten” food items in the back. We put everything we want to keep back in the pantry and threw away a bunch of stuff, but we tried to put that forgotten stuff near the front so we wouldn’t forget it again. How do you keep that forgotten stuff from accumulating in the back of the pantry?
– Marilyn

I don’t think there’s a magic way to do it. We have that same problem sometimes, where some ingredients we bought for a meal end up getting pushed to the back because our plans abruptly changed.

What we usually do is that when we clean out the pantry, we keep all of that “found” stuff actually out of the pantry for a day or two and we make about two weeks of meal plans using all of that stuff. I don’t even really worry about matching that stuff to on-sale items from the flyer, although I do check the flyer when doing this.

My advice? Pull out all of that strange stuff and make a big long meal plan using most of it. Identify what you’ll eat each day that uses some of those found items as ingredients, then get what groceries you need to supplement the next several days of meals.

Q3: Furthering education without eating weekends?

Do you have any suggestions as to how I can bolster my education without eating up every weekend for years? I would love to get a masters degree in my field but to do so seems to require devoting a lot of weekday evenings and many weekends for years and that’s a commitment I just don’t want to give. I value my weekends with my family. Not sure if there is another way to do this.
– Adam

You may want to start by talking to your boss at work and the HR department if there is one. Some employers are very supportive of their employees seeking higher education and may be willing to financially help you to do so, even allowing you to go to classes during the workday (with some adjustments). Your employer may ask that, in return, you agree to continue to work there for a while after getting your degree, as they want some return on their investment in you.

Another approach is to go at it slow, taking a single class at a time on a weekday evening. You’d basically be taking classes with other working adults aiming for a higher degree, but you’d be going at a bit of a slower pace, so you may find that over time the faces you saw in your first class or two are different than the classmates you have later on. That way, you’ll mostly only be burning a few evenings a week and your weekends will be free.

My wife earned her masters degree several years ago by taking evening classes a couple of nights a week couples with a full Friday evening and a full Saturday about once every month. It worked well for us and didn’t take her away from too much time with the kids.

Q4: Adult children still taking

I read an article you wrote that I found when I googled “how to get back what you give”. Anyway I agree with everything you said. My question is, when the taker is your child how does one not have hurt feelings? I don’t want anything really from her except maybe appreciation for all the things I happily do for her and her family. It’s making me a little bitter.
– Amanda

I think the article Amanda is referring to is this one.

Here’s my perspective: I look at the things I give my children as just that, gifts. They don’t have to give me anything in return. This isn’t an exchange or a quid pro quo. It’s a gift, and a gift given doesn’t need anything given in return, not even appreciation. I may, in the future, feel like that with my grandchildren.

Having said that, I would like them to show appreciation for it, but what I really want from them is steps toward mature and independent adulthood. Again, they don’t have to do that. I look at the things I give them as laying down rails along that path, but that doesn’t mean the train is obligated to roll down that path.

When they’re fully independent adults, that relationship will likely change, and if it does, we’ll probably talk about it. I know I had a few conversations like that with my parents where we both acknowledged I had grown up and was now independent and my relationship with them going forward was more of a mutual one rather than a parent-child one. They’re still my mom and dad, but they don’t take care of me any more and haven’t for two decades; at this point, I’m probably closer to taking care of them, though they have been a wonderful source of advice throughout my adult life.

If your child is too young to be able to be fully independent of you, I strongly encourage you to reconsider what you give them to be a gift, one that doesn’t need anything in return, ever.

However, it sounds like in your case that your children are old enough that they can start becoming fully independent of you and you’re beginning to resent what you’re giving and they’re taking. If that’s the case, and it sounds like it is, then you need to nudge them down that path toward independence pretty hard, and that starts with a very clear conversation. Sit down and let them know that they’re fully independent adults now and you need to have your own independent life, too, and start dialing back the giving. If it means that they’re going to struggle a bit to adjust, so be it.

Also, know that most adult relationships aren’t strictly tit-for-tat. If you sit down and make up a balance sheet for every relationship in your life, you’ll find that almost all of them aren’t perfectly balanced, and you’ll also find that the ones where you expect equal exchange aren’t going to go well. Most of the relationships in my life, of close friends and family, are ones that I view as ongoing gift giving (time, stuff, energy, etc.) that they sometimes reciprocate or mutually beneficial activities (we do stuff together). That’s what my relationship with my parents is like now – they drastically dialed back the giving and I give them more now than I did when I was a kid, and it’s all okay. I would expect the relationship would fade if one of us stopped giving at all, as adult relationships do, but accept that you may sometimes give more than you get, as you do in other human relationships.

A final note: you really need to completely forgive and forget regarding your children taking what you give. They’ve done this their entire life, so it feels natural to them. That’s what a parent-child relationship is – you almost always give more than they give in return, particularly when they’re young. You are their giving tree, to refer to the Shel Silverstein book. If you no longer wish to be that giving tree, then you need to make that clear to them, but you shouldn’t begrudge that earlier relationship. Begrudging the resources your children consumed before you transitioned into a relationship between adults is nothing but poison for you and for them.

Q5: “No buy” November

Have you heard abut “No buy” November? Some of my friends have been talking about it on social media. Basically it is a pledge to not buy anything that isn’t absolutely essential for the month of November, so anything outside of basic food, emergencies, transportation, and paying the bills is something you can’t spend money on. Thought you might want to share it with your readers.
– Adam

This is essentially a 30 day no spending challenge, which is something I can definitely get behind.

My only concern is the choice of the month. With Thanksgiving, many people often wind up with a few extra expenses, particularly if they’re involved with planning a big holiday meal for friends and family. While this is a challenge I’d definitely take on in some months, November (and December) are months when I’d probably skip it.

This would be a great challenge for any month that didn’t have a holiday in it that might nudge you toward extra expenses. For some, November might be that month, but give a bit of thought to what you’re doing for Thanksgiving first.

Q6: Water bottle smell

We drink a lot of bottled water because it’s so much colder and appealing coming out of the fridge than out of the faucet where it’s always kind of lukewarm. We followed your advice of switching to reusable water bottles and washing and refilling them and this works really well for the most part. We have a lot less trash to deal with. But there is a problem. After a few weeks the bottles started to have a funny smell to them, and it was all the bottles, not just one. It’s hard to describe, my husband calls it “plastic musty” and that’s not bad. Is there any way to get rid of that funky odor?
– Amy

Sure is, because I’ve experienced it too and I figured out how to get rid of it.

Just put a few teaspoons of white vinegar in the water bottle and slosh it around thoroughly, then just let it sit for a while. You may want to rub down the outside with white vinegar, too. Then, after a few hours of sitting, just run it through the dishwasher. Odor gone!

As soon as I saw the phrase “plastic musty,” I knew exactly what you guys were smelling, because that smell will sometimes appear in my Nalgene bottles. I don’t think there’s anything wrong or unsafe with them if you smell that odor, but white vinegar kills it, at least in my experience.

Q7: Rice cooker recommendation?

Do you have a recommendation for a rice cooker? I’ve started making a lot of meals served over rice and I am getting tired of cooking it on the stovetop as it takes forever and I seem to mess up the timing sometimes. I want something where I can add a certain amount of dry rice and a certain amount of water and hit a button or two and it beeps and the rice is done, so basically a rice cooker.
– Nadine

If you’ve never used a rice cooker before, I’d check out the secondhand stores in your area. Hit Goodwill, Salvation Army, and the like and see if they have a rice cooker on their shelves. A rice cooker is an item that people often buy, use a few times, jam in the pack of the pantry, and forget about it until they’re clearing things out and then they just donate it. I would strongly encourage you to start secondhand.

We started with a secondhand rice cooker, picked up at a Goodwill in the early 2000s, which we used for a good decade. Eventually, we began to really desire a few specific features and it seemed like the heating element in the old rice cooker was beginning to fail, so we decided to invest in a good one since we used it frequently.

We ended up buying a Zojirushi NP-HCC18, which we found at about 50% off after several months of shopping around. It has been wonderful for us, but even though we use it probably once or twice a week, it’s still almost feature overkill. I have taken to making oatmeal in it in the mornings, too; not just rice. The “porridge” setting is perfect for that.

I absolutely would not spend the money to buy that rice cooker, however, until you’ve bought a secondhand one, used it a lot, and been able to clearly identify what features you would want in an upgrade. If you find that you don’t really use the secondhand rice cooker that often, then you will have saved yourself hundreds of dollars.

Q8: Pension plan frozen; now what?

I have worked at the same company for about 25 years. Recently the company announced that they were freezing our pension plan meaning that it will no longer get any benefit. Instead they are offering us a 401(k) plan where we have to contribute out of our paycheck. This feels like a ripoff. What should I do?
– Adam

From what I can tell, Adam must be an employee of GE, who recently froze their pension plan and replaced it with a 401(k). It’s worth noting that it’s a pretty good 401(k), as GE is matching contributions almost one-for-one up to 8% contributions. If you put in 8% of your salary, they’ll match it with 7%, adding up to 15%.

From what I can see from the outside, Adam, it looks as though your pension plan is frozen, not dead. It just won’t keep growing in the future and the benefits are locked in place. Instead, if you want to keep growing your retirement, you need to contribute to the 401(k) instead, which is what I’d do in your shoes.

It’s worth noting here that the 7% they’re offering to match really isn’t that different than the amount they were putting into your pension plan on your behalf. They’re switching to this because now it’s optional and they believe that many employees won’t bother to sign up or won’t want to sign up for this new plan, thus saving the company money in the long run.

Trust me, you’re better off signing up. If you don’t, you’re leaving that 7% on the table.

Q9: Millennials save half of paycheck?

Do you think this article is true? CNBC article Do millennials need to save half of their paycheck to retire?
– Brandy

My sense is that this article is a pitch for buying deferred annuities. If you go down to the bottom of the article, you’ll find that the person making these predictions about retirement savings is actually selling deferred annuities, thus they are financially motivated to point out the upsides of those investments and the downsides to other investments. Thus, the rest of the article, which focuses on downsides to investing in a 401(k) that’s heavily invested in stocks, is pretty negative.

Here’s the truth: no one knows what the future holds for certain. The best thing you can do is to save as much as you can for retirement and invest as diversely as possible. For most people, that’s done pretty effectively by contributing a lot to their 401(k) at work and simply choosing the Target Retirement Fund option that’s offered. Most Target Retirement funds offer some mix of domestic stocks, international stocks, bonds, and other items to diversify your investment as much as possible.

I think that saying things like “millennials need to save half of their paycheck” does no one any favors. Most people are just going to react with a “it’s hopeless” attitude after reading something like that.

Is it accurate? I think it’s overinflated by people who want you to invest in whatever their pet investment is. I think there are some points that are made that are probably correct. I think that everyone should save as much as they possibly can for retirement. I don’t think that millennials have to save 50% of their paycheck.

Q10: Board game boxes

Do you keep board games in their original boxes or combine them to save space?
– Joe

I understand the desire to do this. If you have quite a few games, it can be tempting to combine them to save space, or to find more efficient ways to store them.

Most of the time, a game box is pretty efficient for storing a game, meaning it’s easy to identify what the game is from the outside of the box and the pieces fill up the box. Thus, for the most part, I keep them in their original boxes, with a few exceptions.

If a game has an expansion (meaning more pieces and cards for the game), I’ll usually combine it into the main game box if at all possible.

If a game uses up only a fraction of the box size and there are other similar games to it, I may combine them in the same box. I have several different abstract games (think games like chess or checkers) in two boxes.

Q11: Extra 529 money

I am 24 years old. I graduated from college in 2017 with an engineering degree and have a good job. Thanks to some good planning and some scholarships and a lot of gifts along the way from my parents and grandparents, I managed to graduate with no debt and with some money remaining in my 529 college savings account. What should I do with it? I could withdraw it for other purposes and take the tax hit. What benefits are there in just leaving it there?
– Kelly

If you don’t have any immediate strong reason to take the money out, I’d leave it there.

For starters, if you leave it there, you leave the door open to someday being able to use that money for graduate school or to go back to school for a different degree entirely. There’s no taxes on withdrawals for that purpose.

Another thing you may want to do with it is hold onto it for your own kids. If you have a child, you can change the beneficiary on the account to your child with no tax implications in most cases. There’s a good chance that if you’re several years from having a child and the account has much money in it at all that the account will grow enough to pay for a significant part of your child’s college education.

Basically, unless you have a really strong reason to get that money, I’d let it sit for now. Use it as “funds of last resort;” otherwise, sit on it for future educational opportunities for yourself or for a child.

Q12: Why so serious?

You seem very serious all the time. Do you ever lighten up and laugh?
– Mark

In real life, I laugh a lot. Life is an incredibly funny experience.

On The Simple Dollar, I’ve learned over the years that a lot of people find their way here because they’re in a real financial jam, and I try to be careful to not make light of that situation. Sometimes I’ll add a bit of humor to a post and then later decide that it might be seen as ridiculing someone genuinely seeking a helping hand, so I delete it.

I do slip a little humor in here and there, but I don’t want this to be a personal finance comedy site. As a result, my writing does come off as serious at times, but I’d rather err on that side than err on the side of making people feel like their problems are trivial sources of humor.

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.