Questions About Camping, Potlucks, Allergies, Kindles, 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. Finding time for home cooking
2. The “perfect” potluck dish?
3. Free campsites?
4. Receipts and renters insurance
5. Sell house or rent it?
6. Advice for shut-ins?
7. Portable office?
8. Frugal allergy solution
9. Fridge in garage cost effective?
10. Cleaning out grandpa’s house
11. Breaking Kindle book buying addiction
12. Strong pay for difficult job?

As we sit at the midpoint of 2018, I can’t help but spend some time reflecting on the half year that’s past and the half year to come. In fact, I spend a good hour yesterday doing exactly that.

My conclusion? As is often the case, I’m doing really well on a couple of goals and initiatives, and doing not nearly as well on other ones. Most years, I set 3-5 goals – for 2018, I set 4, of which 2 are doing great and 2 are not.

So, the question becomes what I’m going to do with the rest of the year. Do I try to recover those two lagging goals? Do I accentuate the positive and make sure the two that are succeeding continue to do well?

I decided to stick with the latter. I decided to drop the goals that weren’t doing well and reconsider them at the end of the year, and instead focus on the two that are doing well and make sure that they carry through until the end of the year.

It’s much easier to focus hard on one or two things than to split your focus even more than it already is.

Q1: Finding time for home cooking

I enjoy your posts on making food at home and it obviously saves money but it seems impossible in terms of time. I’m at work from 7:30 AM to 5 PM every weekday and often later. My husband doesn’t get home until 6ish either. We have two kids in child care that I drop off and pick up on my commute. I get home at about 5:45 PM most days and I’m dead. Husband gets home between 6 and 6:15. About all I want to do is either order delivery or cook something from the freezer and delivery tastes a lot better.
– Angelina

There are a lot of things you can do.

For example, one thing you can do is start making stews or other simple things in a slow cooker a couple of nights a week. Stews are incredibly easy – you just dump a bunch of vegetables and cut up meat in there and just cook it on low all day while you’re at work. You can cook a pot roast or a whole chicken with vegetables in much the same way – just put everything in in the morning and cook it all day. If you get one with a timer or use an outlet timer, you can have it start at like 10 AM or so so that it doesn’t cook the vegetables into oblivion.

Another thing you can do is make a casserole or something on Sunday evenings and just make 2 or 3 extra pans. Make lasagna, except make 4 pans at once and freeze the other three. Do this every Sunday you can and fill your freezer with those kinds of meals. You can easily freeze such meals in Gladware containers. Then, 1-3 nights a week, grab one of those frozen meals and move it to the fridge. Two days later, when it’s fully thawed in the fridge, throw it in the oven.

That takes care of most evenings and requires minimal effort in the evenings, not any more than you’re doing now. It just requires advance planning.

I find that the “I don’t have enough time!” issue is mostly the result of not planning ahead a little bit. If you know that you’re going to come home dead in the evenings and not want to cook at all, plan ahead so that you don’t have to cook.

(And there’s nothing wrong with takeout or delivery at least once in a while.)

Q2: The “perfect” potluck dish?

Summer is here, and we (my husband, me and two children) go to BBQs and evening get-togethers, and in the wintertime we go to dinner at a friend’s house probably once a month (we are very lucky to have such a network). Usually it’s asked that you bring a side, dessert or drink (or sometimes a main dish if it’s a big potluck). To save money, we try not to bring a six-pack or store-prepared sides and I try to make something instead. But I haven’t found the “perfect” potluck dish that is both inexpensive and gets eaten (easy to make would be a major plus as well). I was wondering if you had any creative ideas or portable food recipes that are low in cost yet still tasty?
– Amy

I don’t really have a “go to” because it depends on the crowd at the potluck. I like to bake, so often we’ll bring bread items, but that doesn’t really work for something that’s super quick (though it is easy).

We often bring things in a small slow cooker for such events. We’ll make it at home, then bring it in the slow cooker so it can easily sit out with the other foods and be eaten as desired. A few things we’ve done that seem to go over well are a small batch of chili (we usually do it very low liquid as people often put some on hot dogs) or spinach artichoke dip or buffalo chicken dip – any kind of dip will do as long as you bring along things upon which to put the dip (i.e., tortilla chips).

Another good option, if you have access to cheap strawberries, is to bring chocolate covered strawberries. You basically just pat the strawberries dry, dip them in heated chocolate, lay them flat on a baking tray, and stick then in the freezer for a while until the chocolate is hard. After that, just keep them in a big container in the fridge. I guarantee they’ll vanish.

When I was a kid, my parents would bring ham and cream cheese roll-ups. They were my favorite. Just take some deli ham, spread cream cheese on them, then roll them up and slice them. Some people put a quartered dill pickle in the middle of the slice.

Q3: Free campsites?

I found this website that lists free campsites ( Have you ever used a free campsite while camping? Seems like they would fill up super quick and you would run a risk of not getting a spot if you were traveling.
– Jeremiah

I have camped at free campsites in the past, but it is a bit of a risky proposition. You will sometimes show up and find them to be full or find them to be in utter disrepair. On one memorable occasion, I’ve found them full of sketchy people (apparently I came across a cult reunion or something). However, when they work, they work well.

You should expect that free campsites will probably not be highly maintained. You probably won’t find convenient fire rings or sometimes even clear spots for camping. There will sometimes be trash-related issues and the restrooms may be completely unavailable or poorly maintained. However, the cost is free – you just show up and pitch a tent – and that can make up for a lot, especially if you’re fairly self-sufficient.

The best success I’ve had in terms of quality free camping experiences have been in US National Forests and Grasslands – they call this “dispersed camping” and offer a nice guide. For the most part, if you’re outside of recreational areas, you’re allowed to camp anywhere you wish within National Forests and Grasslands. Most of the time, you’ll just park in one of the parking areas and carry your gear into the grasslands or the woods. You may have a park ranger check on you at some point, but you’ll usually be off by yourself. Be aware that the expectation is that you will leave no trace and the link above offers some guidance on that.

Q4: Receipts and renters insurance

Is a profound declaration with all the stolen goods in case of theft out of an apartment enough for the renters insurance in order to pay for the damage, or do you need receipts also to be able to accept the damagepayment?
– David

You don’t need the receipts as long as you’re honest about the list. Insurance adjusters are extremely adept and clever about figuring out what constitutes an honest list of possessions and whether someone’s making things up.

The best approach, however, is to do a regular photographic or video review of the contents of your apartment or house, capturing all of your significant possessions. It’s probably good to do this once a year or so and save the pictures on your phone or elsewhere. This makes it easy for you to assemble a list later on.

Naturally, receipts are pretty clear evidence that you owned an item. I would keep receipts for major purchases around anyway, because it never hurts to have them and they don’t take up a whole lot of room.

Q5: Sell house or rent it?

My husband and I have a 7 month old and would like to move out of the city to the burbs. We have great credit, owe a bit on our car and heating system. No credit card debt. We have two options: sell the current house and dump the money into a low mortgage amount and payment, or keep the current property as a rental. Take a HELOC, buy the new property. Rental has enough profit that out monthly mortgage cost from our 9-5 paycheck will stay the same. I see the rental as a way to have passive income and two mortgages paid off in 15 years, with the rental highly appreciating. I’m interested in your thoughts.
– Alison

Are you planning on managing this property yourself? That includes the process of finding someone to rent it, doing background checks on them, handling any and all renter issues that come up (repairs, renters who refuse to pay, evictions, etc.), and so on.

If you are, then you’ll probably make money doing this, but you’ll sink quite a bit of time into it – more than you probably expect. If you aren’t, then the management company will devour a lot of your profits in the form of a significant chunk of the rent plus the costs of significant repairs (depending on the arrangement).

I don’t think you should assume that renting out the property will guarantee you enough money to cover the mortgage. It has a good likelihood of producing enough money to mostly cover the mortgage most of the time if you put in your sweat equity, or cover some of the mortgage most of the time if you hire a management company to take care of the property.

Now, if that still sounds good to you, go for it. If not… I wouldn’t. I have seen firsthand how much work it can take to deal with even a single rental house and I have no interest in ever doing it.

Q6: Advice for shut-ins?

You must have some other readers in my position. I am essentially shut-in and relatively elderly (67.) I live alone except for my feline companion, and have calculated that I am by myself 97% of the time. I use a wheelchair and due to particular physical disability, can only use a Paratransit van for transportation. (Because of the hills in San Francisco, and the fact that the elevator in my building is out of service 5% of the time, I cannot count on being able to get out, although I do try to sit in the sun outside the building’s doorway when possible.) Therefore, many thrift ideas are out of the question for me. For example, I cannot go to a dollar store or to Costco, and have to rely on home delivery services.

Recently, my 17-yr-old cat passed away from cancer and I had to invest nearly $2K on the transition to a kitten, even with shelter adoption. (The house-calls vet is very expensive.) Note that I live in one of the most expensive cities in the country, San Francisco. I felt very badly about reducing my savings so much (in order to repay my credit cards within the coming two months, I have only half of my former savings left) but absolutely -especially since several of my disabilities are mental illnesses, having company is an imperative. I make everything I can from scratch – bread, broth, even ketchup! I don’t part with a dollar w/o careful consideration, but as I have implied, everything has to be delivered (generally, I use Amazon. I invest in Prime only one month out of every few yrs, and make the most of it with many deliveries quickly. The new kitten is an example of such a time for Prime use.) I occupy myself as a writer of self-help works for people with brain injuries like me and/or mental illnesses like me.

Do you have any ideas for me and those others who are shut in? I live on Section 8 housing and have Medicaid and Medicare. Food Stamps are not worthwhile since I can’t get to the stores. I do get Food Bank home delivery weekly. I am a client under scholarship of a wonderful social services agency that visits me monthly. Many thanks in advance.
– Connie

It really, really, really,/em> depends on the specifics of your situation, particularly what your disability enables you to do, and that’s why it’s hard to give “blanket advice” for all situations. The disabilities and specific conditions that shut-ins face vary widely, and those varieties of conditions drastically change what that person can take on.

What is your current financial situation? What debts do you have? What family support do you have? What community support do you have? What physical activity are you capable of taking on? Those answers vary greatly from shut-in to shut-in, and those answers drastically change what advice I can give.

Quite honestly, you’re probably in a far better position to assess strategies that can help shut-ins improve their financial situation.

Even given all of that, I have one big suggestion for every shut-in: make it your daily goal to improve your situation in some fashion, even if it’s just a tiny improvement. What can you do today that will make tomorrow (and the days after that) just a little bit better than today? No matter how difficult your situation is, there is always something you can do to improve tomorrow (and, ideally, subsequent days). Maybe it’s something as simple as getting a bit of exercise, or taking care of a task you’ve been dreading, or preparing for an upcoming event. Whatever it is, take on that task today instead of putting it off, and make sure that at least once a day, you do something to make tomorrow a little better than today.

Also, question every single thing you take for granted in your life. What is it that you actually need? What is it that actually provides genuine value to you? If you’re not sure, try going through days without various elements. Turn off the television for a day or for a week. Turn off the internet for a day or for a week. Don’t eat prepackaged food for a day or for a week. Don’t get delivery for a day or for a week. See how it goes. See if the things you just take for granted are really requirements in your life.

A final tip of advice is to make sure you’re getting every kind of assistance you’re eligible for. A great place to start with this search is The search can be a little overwhelming at first, but invest the time to actually do this and you may find a surprising number of things that help.

This is one of those situations where I’d love to help, but the variables are so many that it’s impossible to give good advice that works for even a significant percentage of shut-ins.

Q7: Portable office?

You’ve mentioned before how you use your backpack as a portable office. Could you explain what you mean by that?
– Aaron

At all times, I keep all of the material that I need for work that I’m not actively using at home in my backpack. This usually includes a few personal finance and other books I’m reading that might relate to Simple Dollar articles, my laptop, my tablet, a few notebooks, headphones, power cables for those devices, a water bottle, and all of the other odds and ends I might need to work almost anywhere I might go.

The reason for this is that I can just grab that bag at any moment and go to the library or a coffee shop or some other environment and be completely ready to take notes, brainstorm, or write articles. I’ve worked in all kinds of environments – in the woods, at an interstate rest stop, in what seems like half the public libraries in Iowa, and so on.

My “portable office” is one of those trusted elements in my life. I know it’s always going to contain what I need for work, so when I want to work somewhere outside the house, I just need to grab that bag and I’m ready to go.

So, what are the specs? It’s a North Face Surge II backpack. It has an older (circa 2012-2013) MacBook Pro in there with a charging cable and a more recent iPad with a charging cable. I have a Nalgene water bottle in there. I have an external mouse in there – a cheap generic Amazon one for when I’m doing things on my laptop that go beyond what I want to be doing with a trackpad. I have a legal pad in there and a smaller notebook with some pens. I currently have four books in there – one is a dog-eared copy of Your Money or Your Life that’s been in there for years. I have a toothbrush and a small tube of toothpaste and some dental floss and a stick of deodorant in there. I have some aspirin in there. I have a few granola bars in there. I have a couple of mix-in packets for my water bottle in there. I have a small flashlight and a multi-tool in there. That pretty much covers it.

Q8: Frugal allergy solution

Do you have any frugal solutions for allergies? I get them in the spring and early summer really badly. I used to take prescription Claritin but can’t afford it any more. All I find online are weird homeopathy solutions that don’t work. Suggestions?
– Gina

The first thing I’d do is see whether or not your health insurance covers immunotherapy shots. If they do, head down to your doctor and see about getting the shots. This is a permanent (or close to it) solution to allergies.

Another solution is to try a store brand version of an over-the-counter allergy medication. For example, Zyrtec is just cetirizine hydrochloride, and these are cetirizine hydrochloride tablets for less than $20 for a year’s supply.

The only harmless natural solution I’d try is local honey, which usually has a ton of the local pollen in it and also is naturally soothing to the throat. Start drinking local honey in a cup of tea each morning and see if that helps.

Q9: Fridge in garage cost effective?

I enjoyed your recent article about buying a new fridge. My question is whether or not a refrigerator in the garage is cost effective, which you didn’t really address. If you have a free fridge, is it cost effective to put it in the garage for additional cold storage?
– Jasper

As I mentioned in that article, the energy cost of a 20 year old fridge is about $120 per year. Add on top of that the fact that such a fridge is already past its average expected lifetime and there’s a decent chance it will fail in the future.

That being said, if you are primarily using it to support bulk buying of refrigerated items and otherwise using it to store things that won’t spoil, there really is a good chance that such a fridge will be cost effective. All you need is for that refrigerator to save you about $2.50 a week in bulk buying, on average, for it to break even in terms of cost, and then beyond that it basically just provides a free (or even money saving) convenience.

Want to buy 20 pounds of peaches to make peach cider and you found a cheap bulk buy, but need to keep them cool for a while so that they don’t go bad as quickly? That’s the kind of thing that a garage fridge can help with. Want to keep a lot of bottled water and soda and beer cold for a party? That’s the kind of thing that a garage fridge can help with.

In other words, if you can think of lots of good use cases in your life, it’s probably worthwhile. If you can’t think of many uses, it’s probably not.

Q10: Cleaning out grandpa’s house

My grandpa died suddenly a few months ago. I am his only living relative (his only son was my dad, who died a few years ago) so I am his executor. He left everything to me which wasn’t much after all debts were paid but I do own his house free and clear. The problem is I don’t want to go in there and empty it out. I’ve tried three times and I can’t do it. I want to get rid of 99% of the stuff and save just a few possessions and then sell the house but every time I go in there I can’t deal. I considered hiring a service but I know I’d wind up losing things I’d regret if I did that. Suggestions?
– Marcus

Honestly, I’d talk to a few of your closest friends about it. Tell them flat-out what you’re going through and ask them for help in cleaning out that house.

Get them to do most of the work in going through the house while you focus entirely on evaluating things. Keep or not to keep? That way, this doesn’t turn into a lonely project for you.

A good friend will definitely step in and help with a task like this, so I’d definitely start with my innermost social circle.

Q11: Breaking Kindle book buying addiction

I am very good financially except for one thing. I buy waaaaaaay too many Kindle books. I am an avid reader and use the library but I still find myself often buying interesting books on my phone almost without thinking about it and then the credit card bill comes in and yikes. I don’t realize how many I’ve bought. Do you have a good solution for this?
– Tammy

From this, I’m getting that you would like to buy a few Kindle books a month, but you often fall into the trap of buying too many – or more than you planned for, anyway.

In that situation, I’d recommend getting a reloadable prepaid Visa card and using that as the primary form of payment on your Amazon account. Load it up each month with whatever your Kindle budget for the month is and buy away. Whether it’s $10 (and you’re the queen of the Kindle Daily Deal

The advantage here is that when the prepaid card empties out, Amazon will just decline the transaction and then you have to wait until you reload it. (In fact, you can actually automate that reloading – on the first of each month, transfer some amount onto that prepaid card for Kindle stuff!)

Or else stop using Kindle. That’s another option.

Q12: Strong pay for difficult job?

Your recent column from 6/23 on finding meaning and purpose in financial progress and Drew’s article on satisficing from 6/27 really struck a chord with me. I work for the government in a job I really enjoy most of the time, with good pay and mostly good work-life balance (when it’s good, it’s good; about 1-2 months/year it is horrid). My wife and I have a decent sense of what we’d like our future to look like, and a plan that should get us there.

However, the timeframe for arriving at that future seems so far away. I could probably get a job working for private companies with a salary that would make our planned future happen much sooner. Ideally, I’d do that for 2-3 years, and then return to my current job (a fairly common occurrence at my agency). During that time, we would keep our spending in check, so as to not get addicted to the higher pay, and I’d be focused on learning as many lessons for future governmental work as I can. However those 2-3 years would likely be bad, in terms of stress, life balance, and not feeling good about the work I’d be doing.

I’m kind of stuck between staying or going. Do you have any suggestions for how to approach this decision
– David

If you have a very strong likelihood of being able to fall back to your current position, then I’d go for it. You have a light at the end of the tunnel and as soon as the other opportunity gets to be overwhelming, you can bail. You’re not signing yourself up for something painful with no other options. You have options.

Here’s the truth: I’ve been in a couple of really miserable working environments. A big part of that misery is that many of the people there didn’t really see good options for themselves, so they were stuck in a difficult situation with an onerous boss. Having an “out” from that situation makes it far more tolerable, and by having this fallback position, you’ll have an “out” from day one.

If I were you, I’d jump at this chance. Just be very careful to not let your lifestyle inflate because of it. Right off the bat, lock yourself in to the salary you had before and use every other dollar to build a firm financial foundation. That way, when you “fall back” in a few years, it won’t feel like much of a change, but you’ll go back having a much stronger financial foundation. Get rid of debts. Build a big emergency fund. Make giant contributions to retirement. Then fall back to the previous job when things get overwhelming.

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.