Mailbag: Questions About Central Heating, Index Funds, Facebook Scams, Journals 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. Traps of parents moving in
2. Optimizing home central heating
3. Doctor overprescribes
4. Choosing a credit card
5. Mutual fund versus index fund
6. Is Amazon Prime worth it?
7. 529 gifts for grandchildren
8. Collection plate at Christmas service
9. Meatless burgers
10. Scam from Facebook sale
11. Frugality and intent
12. Hobonichi Techo?

For the next two weeks, my children and wife are on holiday break, which means that the house will be filled with noise and conversation and music and projects. During the day, when I’m alone at home, it’s so quiet.

In terms of pure work productivity, I prefer the quiet. In terms of making me feel like a happy person, I’ll always take the noise.

On with the questions.

Q1: Traps of parents moving in

My wife and I are both in our early 50s. Her parents are in their mid-70s. They have been absolutely wonderful to us throughout our marriage, but their health is starting to fail. They live about 30 minutes from us and we are going to their house two to three times a week to help with groceries or household chores or to straighten out their medicine and one of us calls them at least once a day. Her mother has mild dementia and her father has a bad hip and can barely get around the house.

After a lot of discussion, we have decided that we are OK with inviting them to come and live with us. Our plan is to talk it over with our kids this Christmas and make sure they’re OK with it, as we’ll be using the boys’ bedroom for them as it is on the main floor and would make it easier for them to get around, and then invite them to move in after that.

Are there any pitfalls we should be thinking about? We are not going to ask them for any rent or help with household costs. If they want to contribute, they can, but we don’t expect or require anything. I’ve read several guides on the topic but I just want to make sure we’re not missing anything big.
– Charlie

It sounds like you have a great relationship with them. It also sounds like you’ve considered whether your home is suitable for their current level of mobility. It also sounds like you’re very confident you can provide the help they need, at least for now and for the short term future. You’re taking other family members into consideration, too. It really sounds like you’ve walked through a checklist of things to think about before making this decision, so kudos to you.

Before you do this, however, I will give you some very strong advice to think about: although it might seem like they’re moving into an environment where daily life will be easier for them, it’s very likely that this transition will be much harder on them than it is on you. They’re likely moving out of the home they shared together for decades, never to go back. They’re moving half an hour away from their social network and it will probably be a stretch to see their friends again going forward. Making this decision means that they’re confronting their own physical and mental condition in a way that’s going to be very challenging for them, too. Their daily patterns are going to change significantly, too, more than yours will. It will be very hard for them.

As a result, there will probably be times where emotions run high during this, where they seem upset for reasons that don’t make any sense to you. You must understand that even if you’re taking a lot of effort to make things easy for them, these changes are going to be really hard for them, even if you don’t see the reasons at first glance. Be patient. Put love first. You know that they’ve been there for you in a positive way for many, many years. Draw on that when your patience runs low and you feel frustrated because that probably will happen at some point.

Be patient. Be kind. Understand that this is really hard for them, even if you’re really trying to make things work well. They are most definitely going to be struggling in ways that they don’t want to show you. You might feel unappreciated during all of this, but don’t view it as though they’re unappreciative — they probably are — but that they are really really struggling and don’t have a good outlet for it.

Also, understand that they may just say no and not want to do this at all. This is particularly true when you first bring up the subject but give it time. They may need to think about it a great deal and talk about it amongst themselves before taking you up on the offer.

Good luck. This is an awesome thing for you guys to take on.

Q2: Optimizing home central heating

Bought a house this summer that has central heating. In the past, I’ve only lived in apartments and houses with baseboard heating. I got my first energy bill in the winter and it is enormous. Looking for good advice on how to get the maximum value out of central heating.
– Darius

First thing: open every vent in your house wide open unless it’s in a room that you’re not using that’s closed off. Every other vent should be completely full throttle open. The only reason to ever close a vent is if it’s blocked completely on the other side for some reason or it leads into a completely unused room. The more vents you have closed, the less efficiently your central heating will work.

You should turn the ceiling fans in your house to “winter mode.” Winter mode means that the blades are running in a clockwise direction and it doesn’t feel like there’s air blowing on you if you’re standing under the fan on “low” because it’s actually pulling air upwards. Leave the fans on “low” all the time. This will gently circulate air around the room, pushing the hot air near the ceiling down to the floor level, without giving a sense of blowing air.

Another good strategy is to open blinds and curtains whenever there is sunshine directly on them but keep them closed otherwise. Direct sunshine will help heat your home, but exposed windows without sunshine can use all the coverage they can get. Keep them closed by default unless there’s sunshine on them.

Aside from just keeping your temperature on the low end of what you consider comfortable, those are the big things you can do with central heating to keep costs low.

Q3: Doctor overprescribes

I feel like my doctor overprescribes medicine and it is expensive and kind of worries me. Sometimes I think I get side effects from medicine and he prescribes me another drug for the side effect and then that gives a different side effect and there’s another drug for that and so on. I don’t know how to break through the cycle. He’s my GP and I have to go through him for everything for insurance or else I would just go to a different doctor.
– Mari

My first instinct is to see if there is a free clinic in your area that you could stop by to ask about this. Another doctor or even a nurse practitioner might have a good suggestion as to what medications you can start cutting from your regimen, particularly if you’re taking medications to treat side effects of other medications.

Barring that, you need to have a very frank talk with your doctor. Make it clear that you feel you are overmedicated and you want to start dialing back on the number of prescriptions you’re taking so that the medications only cover the life-threatening things, not the minor ailments. Look for alternatives for some of your medications on your own and suggest them to your doctor, asking if you can be unprescribed from a medication and try this home treatment instead.

Overmedication is not only incredibly expensive, but it’s also potentially harmful to you. If you’re taking a lot of prescription drugs, there may be some interactions that are causing long term negative effects.

Q4: Choosing a credit card

I need to establish a credit history but the number of credit cards out there is overwhelming. How do you choose?
– Alyx

There are really four big factors that differentiate credit cards: the type of credit card (Visa, Mastercard, American Express, etc.), the credit limit, the interest rate, and the rewards program. There are other factors, but they’re relatively minor.

Now, which factor is most important? Almost every retailer in America accepts Visa and Mastercard and almost all of them accept American Express, so that’s easy. The credit limit is only important if you plan on making big purchases or running all of your expenses through the card, which you should only do if you’re already pretty sharp with your spending, so don’t sweat that too much either for your first card. The interest rate only matters if you’re carrying a balance, which you should strive to avoid if possible, but it’s worth being aware of on your first card.

That leaves the rewards program, and it’s really hard to compare them without knowing how you normally spend money. Unless you have a really strong grasp on how you spend money, you’re usually doing well if you choose a Visa or Mastercard with a rewards program tied to a retailer or other business you use frequently. Do you always shop at Target? Get a Target card. Do you travel a lot and always stay at a Marriott? A Marriott card is a good choice. Do you use a warehouse club constantly? Their Visa or Mastercard is probably a good choice.

You can spend a lot of hours digging through credit card offers to find the “perfect” one, but I think that it’s pretty easy to find a “good” one and the gap between a “good” card and the “perfect” one isn’t very big. I’m a big believer in putting forth 20% of the effort to get 80% of the benefit, so just find a “good” card and go with it. In my experience, that’s often found by just getting a Visa or Mastercard associated with a retailer you normally use a lot.

Q5: Mutual fund versus index fund

Could you explain in really clear terms what the difference between a mutual fund and an index fund is? They’re both just collections of stocks and you can invest in “shares” of those collections so you don’t have all of your eggs in one basket, right. So what’s the difference?
– Barry

An index fund is a type of mutual fund.

So, what you describe above is a good description of a mutual fund. Mutual funds often hold stocks, but they can hold other types of investments, too.

An index fund is a specific type of mutual fund that distinguishes itself based on how it’s managed. Basically, an index fund is managed according to a handful of very simple rules that basically removes active decision making from the equation. An index fund might have a rule of owning every stock in the S&P 500, or owning every publicly-traded stock in the NYSE in proportion to the size of the company. No thought is really required to keep the fund in line with that rule – they just buy and sell shares in order to keep matching the rule as best as possible. Often, it’s partially or completely automated.

What that effectively means is that the management costs of the index fund are super low because there isn’t a team of human analysts trying to find investments. Index funds are designed to try to match the market average as efficiently as possible, whereas most mutual funds that aren’t index funds aim to beat the market through human analysis but do it with much more expense (after all, the fund is paying the salary of analysts).

I tend to prefer index funds, but almost any mutual fund is far better than stuffing money in your mattress.

Q6: Is Amazon Prime worth it?

I’m considering getting my husband a year of Amazon Prime for Christmas in large part because of Amazon Instant Video because he loves the Expanse books and there are some other series on there he will like I think. We buy a few things from Amazon but not much. What value do you think Amazon Prime has? I have heard that it encourages you to buy more from Amazon.
– Ashlee

Basically, Amazon Prime means that most items on Amazon come with free two-day shipping with no minimum purchase, and it’s one-day shipping in some areas on some items.

For us, what this means is that Amazon becomes a very valid comparison tool for comparison shopping. It’s rare that we need an item faster than two days, so buying something on Amazon becomes a pretty valid shopping choice for pretty much anything that isn’t a perishable food. In order to keep waste low, most of the time we just use the “Prime Day” option, which means that if you order things during the week, they deliver all of it at once in one box once a week.

I think it’s very useful, but when costs are similar (and they often are —Amazon might win by a little, but not overwhelmingly so), I tend to still lean toward buying items locally. I’d far rather buy a book from a local bookstore than from Amazon unless the local bookstore doesn’t have it. I’d far rather buy hardware from the local hardware store unless they don’t have what I need.

Q7: 529 gifts for grandchildren

Our first two grandchildren were born this year and we want to start saving for their college education while also getting them a “fun” gift for their birthdays and holidays. I’m not sure how to go about this correctly without making a tax mistake.
– Adam

The best approach you can take is for your children to open a 529 college savings account for each of your grandchildren. These accounts should have the grandchild as the beneficiary with their parents (your children) as the account owners. That’s going to be the most financially beneficial for them, unless laws change drastically. You can then contribute to those accounts.

During the holidays, I would write a check to each child with the word “for college” in the memo box. Then, ask each parent if they can open a 529 college savings plan for their child, if they haven’t already, and then put the money in it. Even if they don’t contribute at all to that plan, your contributions will grow for them over the years. In future years, you should be able to contribute directly to the plan.

Each state has its own 529 plan and most of them are pretty good. You’ll want to be sure that it’s a college savings plan and not a prepaid tuition plan (as tuition plans lock the child into a specific school and really don’t save all that much anyway).

Q8: Collection plate at Christmas service

My wife and I go to her parents’ church on Christmas Eve each year as part of their family celebration, though we’re not members. Every year, we argue about whether to put money in the collection plate. I think it’s completely unnecessary since we’re not members and never intend to join but she thinks we should simply because it’s a part of our Christmas routine, but it wouldn’t be a part of our routine if it wasn’t for pleasing her parents.
– Nick

Just put a small amount in there and view it as a gift to your in-laws if you’re uncomfortable giving to the church. They wouldn’t want you to go to this service if it wasn’t important to them, after all.

I don’t think any church absolutely expects a donation when they pass around the collection plate. Rather, it’s a reminder of the Biblical principle of tithing for the people who are members, because they are expected to, in some way, financially support the church. I do feel that it puts guests in a bit of an awkward position.

If you really feel awkward about it, put it in an envelope (they’re usually in the pews) and write on the envelope that you want the money to be given to the poor. Most churches give at least some of their budget directly to the disadvantaged in the local community, so that way you can help someone in need while also keeping everyone happy. Suggest that to your wife as a compromise, and quietly fill out a giving envelope during the service and indicate that wish on it.

Q9: Meatless burgers

Lots of restaurants seem to have meatless burgers these days. Any thoughts on them? They seem pricy but then there aren’t a lot of vegetarian choices at those restaurants.
– Amber

As a vegetarian, I’d say that most meatless burgers are perfectly tasty. I’ve tried a few different brands of them and have made many myself, and they all make for a perfectly good sandwich. None of them are particularly super healthy, but they’re not awful, either.

Here’s the deal: a lot of places that are really pushing meatless burgers right now, like Burger King, are not places that vegetarians would normally choose to go. In the past, a vegetarian in a group that wanted to go to Burger King would either have to be the person rejecting the choice, or go there and eat a side salad or something. The Impossible Whopper allows them to go along with the group and not make any issue out of it.

Among the options of prepackaged meatless burgers out there that I have tried, the Impossible Burger is probably the one I prefer (aside from a few places that make black bean burgers in-house) and the Beyond Burger is pretty solid, too, and Morningstar is fine. However, I’m still not going to choose Burger King when I’m choosing a place to eat on my own (I basically always eat at home or out of a lunch bag when eating solo), but as part of a group I wouldn’t object if others wanted to get their fast food on.

Q10: Scam from Facebook sale

I listed a Playstation 4 and some games on Facebook Marketplace recently. Someone agreed to buy the lot for $300 as I was asking $350 and was happy with $300. They asked if they could pay by check and I was hesitant but agreed if the bank was local. We showed up to do the sale and they had written the check for $400 and said “oops” and asked if I could just give them $100 to make up the difference. This felt really wrong so I walked away. What was the scam here? I am sure I was about to get ripped off but I don’t know how.
– Barry

The check would have bounced and you would have been out a PS4, a bunch of games and peripherals, and $100 cash, along with a possible bank fee. There’s a very, very, very high chance that’s what would have happened here. In situations like that, you accept cash only, period.

Basically, you would have taken the check to your bank and they would have made funds available for it, so it would look like $400 appeared in your checking account. A few days later, the check would bounce, meaning that whatever bank the check was written from would say that there wasn’t enough money in that account to cover the check and then give your bank nothing. Your bank would then remove the $400 from your account and most likely ding you $35 or so for trying to cash a bad check.

If you’re selling something locally via the internet, you should accept cash only or some kind of online payment that can’t be returned. Otherwise, you have a good chance of getting scammed.

Q11: Frugality and intent

I like reading The Simple Dollar because it feels like you and Sarah are real people and aren’t rich people being frugal because it’s fun which is what I feel like a lot of frugality sites are like.
– Adam

Here’s the thing: most frugality and simple living principles are things that almost anyone can do, regardless if they’re working a 30-hour week, minimum wage job or they’re a millionaire. The principles work in all situations. Yeah, there are some writers out there writing from a perspective where they started with more wealth than we did, and there are some out there with less, too (I used to read a blog that’s now defunct about a guy living in his van and spending about $6,000 a year), but we’re all using the same principles. Almost everyone out there writing about personal finance and frugality subscribes to some form of “spend less than you earn and do something smart with the difference.” It’s all just variations on that theme.

Most people who write frequently about personal finance and frugality, whether they’re someone living out of their car or someone with two million in the bank, are writing things with value that can be applied to your life. The thing to remember is that no one’s life is exactly like your own. What you need to look for are the things they are describing that you can pull out and use in your own life.

It may be that my life is more similar to yours than the lives of three or four other personal finance/frugality writers you’ve read and thus it feels more comfortable, and that’s great. However, that doesn’t mean that others are “faking it” or giving bad advice. Everyone at any income level may feel the need to cut back, to go minimal, to conserve their finances, and they’re all going to use different tactics to achieve the same principles.

In the end, what I’m trying to say is this: writing consistently about something is a lot of hard work, and it’s simply not work you’re going to do if you’re “faking it.” There’s real intent behind anyone who devotes a lot of hours of their life to writing about something. You might not find the advice they’re offering to be practical in your life, and that’s fine, but that doesn’t make them “bad” or “fake.” There’s no “real” or “fake,” there’s just different lives, and we’re all in this together.

Q12: Hobonichi Techo?

After reading your goal oriented planner post I wanted to suggest the Hobonichi Techo to you. While it’s more of a “diary” style with a blank page for each day, it has a bunch of pages at the start that work really well for daily habit tracking. It’s basically set up for goals!
– Daniel

The Hobonichi Techo is basically as Daniel describes it. It’s a blank daily planner/journal with a page for each day and a lot of additional pages at the front with full months and some pages that work perfectly for tracking up to ten daily habits.

I used one as a daily journal in 2016 and 2017 and stopped using it because I was overfilling the daily pages a lot and wanted more space. I held onto them and now, looking at them with fresh eyes, I can see how it would be really good as a habit tracking daily planner and journal. The daily pages are definitely free-form — they’re mostly just a page full of a blank grid with light lines — but the parts at the beginning would be great for habit tracking.

If I didn’t already have my planners for 2020 picked out and set up, I’d be interested in trying it for the year in this new light. Perhaps in 2021?

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.