Questions About Checking Accounts, Nintendo Switch, iPods, TSP, 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. Great advice for job seekers
2. Old hometown checking account
3. Making your own seasoning mixes
4. Inexpensive Nintendo Switch games
5. Partner has extreme debt
6. TSP contribution questions
7. Uses for old iPod?
8. Job search not that simple
9. Value of authenticating sports cards
10. Financial independence and career plans
11. Advice for selling books
12. True hourly discretionary income question

I wanted to offer a little update on my switch to a standing desk for professional purposes.

About two weeks ago, I moved my main workstation to a standing desk. The purpose for doing this was to significantly reduce the amount of time I spend sitting in a given day, because sitting for your job all the time has some negative long term health consequences.

I did recognize that doing this fully cold turkey is a bad idea, and so I planned from the start to do it in stages. My plan was – and still is – to use the desk until I felt noticeable discomfort, then switch to a laptop in a chair for a while, then maybe alternate back later in the day. My goal was to simply raise my average time at the standing desk a little each week as I strengthen different muscle groups.

After a couple of weeks of doing this, I’ve found that the big impact has been on my lower back, with a smaller impact on my feet. I’m able to work for about four to five hours a day at the standing desk, with other work time spent sitting in a comfortable chair with a laptop.

What generally happens is that my lower back starts to get sore, not in a “something is broken” way but in a “this is a muscle that’s getting taxed due to exertion and needs a break” way. I’ll sit down for a while and it’ll feel much better. However, it’s constantly experiencing a low-grade soreness, the kind of soreness that happens when you exercise a muscle group. There’s nothing wrong here – if I felt something wrong, I would stop using the standing desk for a while. However, it can be a little uncomfortable.

I’ve had some very minor foot discomfort, mostly on my heels, but nothing significant and it honestly seems to be fading over the last few days.

It’s hard to tell yet whether or not the standing desk is improving my health in any notable way. I certainly don’t think it’s been bad, but I haven’t noticed a big health improvement. I do exercise most days, so that’s definitely a positive factor, but it’s hard to extract the benefits of standing with the other benefits of exercise. I think it’s very likely that there have been some minor benefits, and I likely would have noticed more if I didn’t already exercise.

It’s all about feeling healthy for as long as possible.

On with the questions.

Q1: Great advice for job seekers

I wanted to share some advice from my own experience as an interviewer [in a large corporate HR department]. The big thing is that you shouldn’t be hard on yourself if you interview for a job and don’t get it. Often, there is already a candidate that is pre-selected and the interview process is a mere formality. Someone thought you were a good candidate and brought you in, but you didn’t actually have a real chance at the job no matter how you interviewed. In fact, you should treat all interviews like that. Don’t get stressed about them, because there’s a good chance that there’s already an anointed candidate. I would say that 75-80% of the time, we already have our minds made up regarding which candidate to hire before the interview process begins and interviews virtually never change our minds. Sometimes we will interview someone great and put them on a list of people to call in the future but almost without fail those people already have a job when we call them back. So please don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t succeed at an interview! And don’t get overly stressed about it because there’s a good chance that there’s already an anointed candidate anyway. Just go in there and answer the questions and learn about the company and let the chips fall where they may.
– Alison

This is great advice, and in line with some of my own hiring experiences in the past. I have been on all sides of this coin at various points. I have been the anointed candidate in a hiring process. I have also been one of the “other” candidates in a hiring process (where I knew someone else was anointed for an absolute fact). I’ve also been involved with several hirings, some of which had strongly preferred candidates and some of which did not.

The thing is, you never really know which kind of situation it is when you’re interviewing. It may be a more open position where you actually have a good chance, or it may be a situation where you are one of the “other” candidates in an “open” process engineered to bring in the vastly preferred candidate with minimal questions.

I think the mantra of “don’t worry about it” is the right one here. Just go in there, answer the questions, ask some questions about the company, and move on and keep looking for the next interview or opportunity. If you’re the right candidate, they’ll call. Often, you won’t be, and it won’t be due to a fault of your own.

Q2: Old hometown checking account

I have left a checking account open at my old hometown bank for the last 20 years. It pays a very small interest rate – 0.05%. I have a balance of about $1,200 in there. I have always looked at it as a “last ditch emergency fund.” If anything seriously goes wrong, I’ll go there and use that money. But it’s just sitting there. Isn’t there something better I could be doing with it?
– Dana

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a “last ditch emergency fund” in a bank that’s not easy to access. That idea is fine by me.

However, it’s probably just going to sit there for a long time, so you might want to consider doing something with it that earns a better return.

The next time you’re in your hometown, stop by that bank and see what other options they have. Simply explain that this is an “emergency fund” for you and you want it in a place where it earns a little more, doesn’t lose value, and could be withdrawn in an emergency but isn’t likely to be withdrawn.

It’s very likely that they’ll suggest a certificate of deposit, which is akin to a savings account except that it earns a bit higher interest rate and there’s a small penalty for withdrawing it early. It won’t take very long at all for the CD to earn more than the penalty for early withdrawal and then, after that, it’s onwards and upwards. Make sure that the bank allows you to automatically roll over the CD when it matures.

Right now, with interest rates a bit higher than they were but still fairly low, I’d choose a medium term CD, something in the range of one to two years. That will give you a higher interest rate than a short term CD but won’t lock you in to these relatively low historical rates forever. Set it to automatically roll over, then forget about it until that “last ditch emergency” occurs.

Q3: Making your own seasoning mixes

Have you ever written an article about making your own seasoning mixes instead of buying mixes at the store? You can buy the component spices and mix them yourself and save a lot of money if you use seasonings a lot. I make an Italian seasoning and a chili seasoning and a toast seasoning myself.
– Margaret

Toast seasoning? You’re going to have to send me that one. I have a bagel seasoning mix that I like to use on buttered toast sometimes – I wonder if they’re similar.

Although I’ve mentioned seasoning mixes before and noted how it’s cheaper to make your own, I don’t think I’ve ever written a listing of the various spice mixes we have and how we store them.

I store most of my spice mixes in large baby food jars that we still have from when our children were babies. I usually make them by mixing other spices by the teaspoon into a bowl and then stirring them thoroughly so they’re mixed, then I fill up the jar with the spice mix. I use masking tape for labeling.

Using a mix is a learning experience. Over time, you start figuring out how much to put in stuff. Our chili mix, for example, usually takes a tablespoon and a half per batch, and a batch fills up our slow cooker about halfway.

I could write a full post about this if there’s interest, including some of my recipes. Just send me a message on Facebook if you’d like to see that.

Q4: Inexpensive Nintendo Switch games

My husband and I bought our son a Nintendo Switch for Christmas. It is his first video game console and he had been asking for it all year so it was really fun to see him open it. Both sets of grandparents got him a game for it so he has had two games to play. His birthday is coming up soon and we asked him what he wanted and of course he wanted a Switch game. We asked him for a list of the ones he wanted and it has 15 or so games on it. The problem is that they are all $50 or more. Why are Switch games so expensive? Our full birthday gift budget for him is $50. Can you help?
– Anna

This is a consistent challenge with Nintendo’s consoles, and it has been since the 1980s. Nintendo makes very high quality exclusive titles for their consoles – those are usually the ones that wind up filling wish lists for console owners – but they rarely go down in price until later in the console’s production cycle and the Switch is a pretty young system. Trust me – your son isn’t being “greedy” here. He’s probably listing most of the best games for the console, but they all happen to be expensive ones.

I would guess that in a year or two, Nintendo will have a line of some of their top titles from a few years prior as “Platinum” titles for a much lower price point – around $20 – but we’re not there yet.

So what can you do now? My recommendation is to visit a video game store that sells used games, like Gamestop, and see what they have available for the Switch that’s used. Switch games, as you know, come on small cartridges, so it’s very easy to test a game to make sure it works – you can ask them to test it before you buy. Getting a game used in the original packaging will still cost 50% to 75% of the sticker price and the selection may be a bit limited, but this is probably a fairly safe bet for getting one of the games he wants within your price point. A used Switch game is just as good as a new one in terms of someone focused on actually playing the games, so I’d look there.

Another approach would be to give him a gift card to the Nintendo eShop. There are a lot of very good downloadable titles for the Switch, and you use those gift cards to buy those downloadable titles. While this wouldn’t give him any of the games he specifically wants, it would enable him to get a couple of games at least, and there are some very good games for $9.99 or less on the eShop.

Q5: Partner has extreme debt

I recently discovered that my bride-to-be (June) has about $140K in student loan debt. She had said that she had “some” student loans in the past but I did not have any idea how much. I am very uncomfortable with being saddled with that much debt. This has caused a great deal of conflict between us over the last few months and I found this out during the holidays. I am not sure what to do.
– Daniel

The biggest factor I’d look at is her day to day behavior right now. Is she a frugal person? Does she watch her nickels and dimes? Is she committed – not in words but in actions – to getting that debt paid off? Is she making extra payments on that debt? If you see that, then I wouldn’t fret about it. On the other hand, if she seems to think that such a big debt isn’t a big deal, she spends money frivolously all the time, and she isn’t making much progress on that debt… I would think very, very carefully about this relationship, because that’s a value mismatch that’s going to chafe for years and years.

Beyond that, I would also consider what kind of field that her degree is in. Was the degree she earned in a field with a high income potential, or was it something that will never earn a substantial income? Also, I’d look at other factors, like whether or not parental support was promised and then denied.

If she’s aiming for a high paying career, such as medicine or law or some types of engineering, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. If she took out that much debt for a career path that has a very low likelihood of earning a high salary, I would be really concerned. I would also be concerned with that level of debt if there was also significant financial support from her parents – where did all of that money go?

The challenge with marriage is that you are financially tied to each other in a very deep way and her choices regarding the debt she took out for her education are indicative of the decision making process she will likely employ going forward – except now you’ll be financially liable for them.

Having that much debt – unless you are both high income earners – will significantly affect your life decisions for a very long time, likely for the rest of your life. It will delay your ability to have children that you can support financially, for starters. It will alter both of your career choices and possibilities. It will delay your ability to have a home of your own.

I guess, in this situation, what I would really look for are signs of financial maturity beyond that of the student loans. Is she focused on repaying that debt with or without you? Is she making the most of her degree? Does she spend frivolously?

I can’t answer for you whether this woman is worth it to you. She may be perfect for you in every other way, in which case you’ll be happier with her. However, having that much student loan debt, and given the alarm bells it sets off in your head, is a sign of likely incompatibility over financial issues, and that’s not a recipe for a great marriage.

As always, conversation is key, as is paying attention to her actions. What kind of steps is she taking (not just talking about, but taking) in her life knowing that huge debt is sitting there? If you’re struggling to answer that and this debt makes you this uncomfortable, this may not be the best situation for you.

Q6: TSP contribution questions

I am 36 years old, single, no children, no plans to ever marry. I just got a government job that I hope to keep for the rest of my life. Knowing that I am receiving FERS and Social Security already in retirement, how much should I contribute to my TSP to be able to have a comfortable retirement?Want to retire at 65 and have about the same amount of disposable income when I retire.
– Janine

For those unfamiliar, FERS is the pension plan for US federal government employees. TSP is an optional 401(k)-like plan for additional retirement savings.

Based on this, FERS should provide about 33% of your final salary when you retire. Social Security, depending on your income level, will provide somewhere around 30% of your income. That means you need to make up about 37% of your income from TSP.

If you contribute 5% of your salary to TSP, the federal government matches another 4%. Above that, there’s no matching.

Given all of that information, I ran some “back of the envelope” calculations and conclude that given your age and your aim to retire at age 65 with your full salary intact from your various retirement sources and that you want to be able to draw from TSP for the rest of your life, you should contribute 15% of your salary to TSP. This should enable you to withdraw enough from TSP each year to make up your salary shortfall when you retire at age 65 and the TSP balance should last for the rest of your life. You’ll want to invest TSP fairly aggressively – the target retirement options should work.

While I can’t guarantee that 15% will get you there, I can certainly say that it is extremely likely that it will either get you there or get you very close to your goal.

Q7: Uses for old iPod?

Found an old iPod in a desk drawer along with charging cable. Is there any use for this or should I just junk it? I powered it up and it turns on just fine.
– Adam

I don’t own an original iPod (I had one way back in the day but I sold it off circa 2007-2008), but a friend of mine keeps one in her car and listens to music with it every day using a cassette tape adapter. You could do the same thing with an auxiliary cable if your car has an AUX port.

Just load it up with mp3s of a bunch of music and/or podcasts that you like, keep it in your car, and listen to it during commutes. If you have a charger that hooks into the cigarette lighting receptacle in your car, then you can plug into that and keep it permanently charged.

My friend has hundreds of albums that she loved in her teens and twenties. If you like alternative or indie rock from about 1990 to about 2007, there’s a good chance you’ll find a ton to love on her iPod. Just fill yours up to the brim with stuff you like and you’ll always have something to listen to. You can fill it up with the full archives of a podcast and listen to the entire run of a podcast, too. Old iPods are great for these kinds of things.

In other words, use it for what it was intended for. Load it up with audio.

Q8: Job search not that simple

While I appreciate your regular encouragement to go find a new job if your current one is sapping you, it’s not always that simple.

I have been working as a legacy systems programmer for the same company for 16 years. Most of my day is maintaining old code, migrating it to new machines, and dealing with corporate [nonsense]. I literally hate going into work each day.

There aren’t any available jobs nearby that match my skill set. Trust me, I’ve looked. I can’t move because my daughter has particular health care needs and needs to be near a top notch medical facility. That also means I need good insurance.

I can’t just go into work and say, “Well, time to find a new job today!” That’s just a pipe dream.
– Terry

All right, so what jobs are available in your area that are close to your skill set? You’re obviously in a metro area of some kind. I guarantee there are programming jobs in that area. What’s actually available? What things are most similar to your skillset?

Once you know that, start honing your skillset at work so that you can make that leap. Learn how to write tools that will help you with the legacy coding you already do. Start trying to port your legacy code over to a new language for modern systems during your downtime. Use this as an opportunity to learn new languages and paradigms. Get involved with any and all local software development groups. Try to go to their face to face meetings and get heavily involved in any online spaces they have, being as helpful as you possibly can there. Build up some good relationships in your field, then just casually ask about positions that match your refurbished skill set. Also, keep your resume honed on LinkedIn so you can be discovered by people who might be looking for folks in your area.

Don’t aim for hopelessness. Aim for a light at the end of the tunnel. You can do this at any job. I had a job where I was literally shoveling dirt for hours and hours during the middle of the night by myself and yet I found ways to aim that toward my next step.

Q9: Value of authenticating sports cards

I have a bunch of sports cards mostly baseball and basketball from the 1960s. I have looked at selling some of them individually but when I look online almost all sales are authenticated cards in a special holder. I looked into this and it looks like you send your cards to an authentication service and pay them a fee and they put them in a special plastic holder with a tag that says it’s authentic and gives it a grade for its condition. Is this worth it for selling trading cards? Are there ways to sell cards without this kind of service?
– Marvin

You basically described the sports card authentication world pretty well. It exists because there was rampant fraud in older sports cards and other trading cards for a while, so some reputable dealers popped up and started offering authentication and grading services so that people would know exactly what they were buying. It’s become the de facto standard for any sports cards of significant value.

Basically, if the card is older than about 1975 or so, the player has any name recognition at all, and the card is in reasonably good shape, you’re going to make more money selling it after authentication than before, even including the cost of authentication. If it’s a no-name player or it’s beat up, you’re not going to make a whole lot for it anyway, as people will just want those to help complete sets and they won’t sell for more than pennies.

What I’d do is look for Hall of Fame caliber player cards from your collection (or, as a friend of mine said, “Hall of Famers plus Pete Rose”) and get those authenticated to sell individually. The rest, I’d just divide out by set and sell in bulk.

(I have an almost complete 1965 Topps set missing just a few commons that I’ve worked on for literally decades, so I’m fairly familiar with all of this.)

Q10: Financial independence and career plans

So how much “financial independence” would a person need to be able to have full “career independence” where you still want to have a career but you just feel empowered to make whatever choice seems exciting to you without really worrying about salary but still assuming you’re earning a decent salary to live on?

I make about $80K and think I can live well on about $40K so my savings rate is about 30% after taxes. How many years would I have to do this before money exits the equation as a career consideration?
– Barney

I think the real question you’re asking is “how much do I need to save so that retirement is fully covered?” This calculator is probably my preferred one. You’ll want to play around with different settings to see how long you’ll need to save to hit your goals.

The further you are from retirement, the lower your total savings goal will be. Also, if you assume Social Security benefits will come to you at rates similar to what’s available today, the lower your total savings goal will be. You may even be at your target in several years.

However, I’d still recommend that you save for retirement after you hit your goal number if you’re earning a good salary. This allows you to walk away even earlier if you just get tired of the rat race before a typical retirement age.

Q11: Advice for selling books

I have a collection of hardback books I want to sell. What is the best way to get maximum value for them?
– Tracy

First of all, it depends a lot on what books you’re exactly trying to sell. Are they novels? Cookbooks? Old Dungeons and Dragons books? Encyclopedias? You’ll want to go to eBay and try to get a sense as to what they’re actually worth.

You will probably get the maximum value from them by selling them individually. However, that is exponentially more work for only a fairly modest rate of return. You might be able to sell a lot of ten books for $20 or sell them each individually for $3, for example. Is that extra effort in packaging and shipping and tracking and communication for nine additional packages worth the $10 to you?

Another note: if you’re selling books, USPS Media Mail is your friend. It’s a highly discounted shipping rate that applies to sending books through the mail, and it comes with a tracking number. (It’s cheap because it’s slow and USPS knows a book can sit in a warehouse for a day with zero problems.) You should always use this when shipping books and magazines.

Q12: True hourly discretionary income question

I understand how this perspective helps to highlight the high cost of non-necessary spending now in terms of lost leisure in the future. But I think it overstates the cost of non-necessities in terms of hours worked.

In your example where your annual net wage is $34,000 and your annual work hours is 2,740 (so you net $12.41 per hour worked) and your necessities cost $24,600/year, you should account for 1,982 work hours (= $24,600/$12.41 per hour) as covering necessities, leaving 2,740 – 1982 = 758 hours for non-necessities. In each of those 758 hours, you net $12.41/hour, and that is the cost of your necessities in terms of hour worked. So a $50 board game costs you $50/$12.41 per hour = 4 hours, not 10.5 hours.

The key is to see that you still actually net $12.41/hour, regardless of whether those earnings go to necessities or non-necessities.

One way to see this is to realize that the approach in the post can lead to unrealistic implications for the hours of work required to purchase non-necessities. For example, suppose in your example above, necessities are only $10,000 year, and non-necessary spending is then $34,000 – $10,000 = $24,000. If your “hourly wage for non-necessities” is really $4.96/hour like the post says, then it would take $24,000/$4.96 per hour = 4,838 hours to earn that $24,000. But you earned the $34,000 with only 2,740 hours, so something is wrong.
– Max

Max is referring to this article from last week, Using Your True Hourly Discretionary Income to Make Smarter Purchases.

You’re just looking at the same issue in a different way. Rather than looking at each hour as being subdivided between essential expenses and non-essential expenses, you’re doing the same thing with the total hours over a year. In that example, then, 1,741 of the hours you work essentially earn you nothing in terms of spending money, because all of it goes to essentials. So, frugality in essence just means that you’re migrating some of the hours you work from your pool of hours spent on essential expenses to the hours you work for spending money.

My angle was different. I divided the income from each hour into essential expenses and spending money. The essential expenses gobble up $7.45 of the $12.41 you earn each hour, while your spending money makes up only $4.96 of the $12.41 you earn each hour. So, then, you judge whether an expense is worth it using just the $4.96, since it’s the only portion you can actually freely spend. In this case, frugality moves a little bit of money from the $7.45 essential expenses per hour pile to the $4.96 spending money per hour pile.

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.