Questions About Dog Food, Roth 401(k)s, Minor Theft, Snowblowers 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. College savings gift from grandparents
2. Inexpensive dog food
3. Reasons for talking about illness
4. Detail level of financial records?
5. Magic: The Gathering as investment
6. Minor thefts at home
7. Waste of a snowblower
8. Working from home too distracting
9. Roth 401(k) or regular?
10. Planners for 2020
11. Frozen mashed potato uses?
12. Suggestion for New York vacation

Perhaps it is the turning of the year, or even the turning of the decade, that is filling me with a sense of a fresh start or an inflated sense of optimism, but I really feel like this year is going to be a great year. I can’t wait to see what it holds for me, and I hope that it holds amazing things for you.

On with this week’s questions!

Q1: College savings gift from grandparents

I have a really good situation and I wanted to ask your advice on it. I am 21 years old and have three semesters left before college graduation. My parents saved a lot of money for me for college and I got a few local scholarships and thus my tuition and part of my housing and food costs are covered, and an on-campus job is taking care of the rest.

In past years, my grandparents had given me generous and thoughtful holiday gifts. They got me a MacBook a few years ago and last Christmas they got me Air Pods and 10 $50 gift cards to restaurants in my college town “for dates.” This year, though, they gave me an envelope with a check for $10,000 in it and a note saying that they hoped this would help with my last year of school to get me started on the right foot.

I’m honestly not sure what the right move is. What do I actually do with the money and what do I tell them? I talked to my aunt on the other side about this because she’s the person I always go to for advice and she actually directed me at you. I hope you can help.
– Ben

My gut reaction would be to stick that $10,000 in a savings account somewhere and forget about it for a year, and here’s why.

The absolute first thing I would ask myself is what you plan to do when you graduate. Are you going to directly enter the workforce? Are you thinking about graduate school? Are you unsure? If you’re where I was at that point in life, you’re probably fairly unsure about things.

Regardless of what you choose to do upon graduation, there’s a good chance that $10,000 in seed money will help tremendously. Going to graduate school? There’s a big bundle of starter money. Going into the workforce? There’s money to live on while you’re getting a job, or money to help settle into an apartment.

Here’s the truth: you should think of this money, along with your scholarships and the money your parents saved, as a single cup that’s overflowing. Your grandparents absolutely are helping you finish out your school years without any debt, and you can tell them that completely honestly. Furthermore, you can also tell them that you managed to get through without spending all of it and it’s helping with whatever that next step is for you.

So, what do you say when you’re updating them, or they ask about it? Tell them that it’s helping you get through these last three semesters so that along with scholarships and your parents’ help, you’re not getting into any debt. After you graduate, tell them that you actually still have some of it left and now it will help you with that first apartment or that job search or that car or the first semester or two of graduate school, whatever path you choose.

That gift was honestly given to help you build a foundation in life without debt, and as long as you stick to that premise, they’re going to be thrilled with what you were able to do with it. Just use it for something foundational (education, basic needs, a car if you need one) and make sure that you avoid debt going forward.

Q2: Inexpensive dog food

I have a small mixed breed puppy that I found abandoned in a park. Animal control said I could keep it. I didn’t expect to have a dog but I fell in love with the little guy. Had him for two months and have found that the food is more expensive than I like. I feed him Iams Proactive Health Smart Puppy small breed formula as vet suggested as inexpensive option and I get it in a 7-pound bag for $10. Vet said I should feed him 1/2 cup three times a day until he starts skipping a lot then cut it to 1/2 cup twice a day and probably switch to adult food. I’m buying two bags a month. Looking for cheaper options as I am on a fixed income and the vet visits already are hurting.
– Ben

Iams is already a relatively inexpensive dog food in the spectrum of things — it’s not the cheapest, but it’s not a high end food by any means. If it’s what your vet recommended, I’d stick with it as a value option.

My initial reaction is to get a bulk bag of it, but it appears as though this type of dog food only comes in seven-pound bags. When your dog gets to adulthood, the adult version comes in a 15-pound bag for $18, which should save you a couple bucks a month.

Another option, though I’d check with the vet first, is to just get the general “puppy” form of that dog food in a 15-pound bag, which costs $18. I’m not sure what the difference between the general puppy and the small puppy formulations are, but I couldn’t see a major difference in what I could find.

I’d definitely stick with the type of food the vet recommended, and when your puppy gets to adult size, I’d switch to the adult formulation and buy it in the biggest bag you can.

Q3: Reasons for talking about illness

I was wondering if I could make a comment on your advice to Mary who asked about revealing her cancer diagnosis to her family members. I am a genetic counsellor and I work with individuals and families who have inherited conditions. I often speak to patients who do not wish to share their health history in fear of ‘worrying’ their loved ones. But this can have serious consequences. Cancer can have a strong inherited component which means family members of an individual with cancer may benefit from increased screening. If family members are not aware of their family health history they could be missing out on life-saving screening. My advice to Mary would have been to ask her health care provider if her family members would benefit from increased screening based on her diagnosis. If the answer is yes, she should be aware of the risks she is putting her family in by not divulging her health history. I have seen time and time again, patients who do not tell their family important information because they want to protect them, and do not want to worry them. Subsequently, they are sitting in my office 5 to 10 years later after their child or sibling has passed away from a condition that could have been treated if identified early had they been having the appropriate screening, but were not because they did not know about the family history.
– Clara

This is an angle I hadn’t considered in my answer, looking at it strictly as Mary’s illness.

I think this is powerful advice for anyone thinking about an illness they may be suffering with and whether to discuss it with relatives. Find out whether that illness is hereditary or not, and if it is, this may provide an additional motivation to share your illness with them, so that they can take preventive action now to minimize the effects in their own lives.

Thanks, Clara!

Q4: Detail level of financial records?

On other finance blogs people share really detailed reviews of their finances. Do you keep records like that? Do you share them?
– Adam

Once a month, I check in on the balances of a few accounts and do a simple net worth calculation in a spreadsheet that I’ve been using more or less consistently since 2006. On occasional months, I’ll start digging in really deep, especially when my net worth doesn’t move as much as I expect it to given the stock market’s change that month and any big expenses that I know came through that month.

I don’t share those numbers for two reasons. One, the big one, is that it falls on the “too much information” line of what Sarah and I agreed long ago was appropriate to share on The Simple Dollar. Early on, I wrote a few articles that Sarah felt shared too much detail about the specifics of our family, offering details that didn’t need to be shared and put us at some risk of stalking and so on. Given that I have had a few people — I don’t know if “stalk” is the right word — but cross some boundaries over the years, this is a thing I try to keep abreast of. I speak pretty frankly about me and my own thoughts, but I intentionally get much vaguer when discussing my immediate family and even more vague beyond that. They didn’t ask and don’t deserve to have details that could adversely affect their lives shared with hundreds of thousands of people.

The other reason is that I think that sharing detailed finances like that causes people to make useless and negative comparisons with their own lives. My sense is that an article is much better off if it helps someone to decide to bump up their savings a little because it makes sense in their own lives rather than see my finances and income and savings rate and decide that it’s “impossible” or that their life is so financially different than mine that comparisons can’t be made. Basically, I feel like sharing financial specifics cuts off a lot of people (because one’s income is a lot higher or a lot lower, or one’s savings rate is a lot higher or a lot lower, or one’s spending is a lot higher or a lot lower than the reader expects) and causes negative reactions for little positive benefit other than appealing to voyeurs. What can I really say that’s useful and positive about finances that can’t also be said while not talking about exact specific numbers and the negatives that they bring on?

The second reason is much smaller than the first one, though. Simply put, I minimize the discussion of specific things that affect others in my life for privacy and safety, and specific financial numbers definitely falls into that camp. The other part is mostly observation.

Q5: Magic: The Gathering as investment

In 2009, I decided to start investing in Magic: The Gathering cards, seeing how some of the older cards had skyrocketed in value over the years. I decided to put $100 aside each month to invest in sealed booster boxes with the intent of holding and selling them in ten years. I basically bought a booster box a month since then.

In the last few months, the first boxes I bought reached “maturity” and I have been able to sell them for $550 each. My original intent had been to just reinvest this money, but this seems like a poor idea. What do you think I should do?
– Adam

First of all, investing in a collectible like Magic: The Gathering is inherently risky. If the game declines, the value of all of those cards decline. Adam seems to be investing with “hobby” money and not risking his financial future for this, and that’s the way to go if you want to do this. A 400% return on your money over a decade is really good and not something I would ever expect going forward. That’s about 15% per year, every year.

If I were you, I’d take half of the return and reinvest it, as you seem to know what you’re doing here, and take the other half and diversify it. For example, do you have a Roth IRA? If not, take the other half and put it in a Roth IRA each month.

So, going forward, let’s assume you can sell a box for $500 each month. You take $250 and reinvest it (maybe along with the $100 you’re continuing to invest? I don’t know if you’re doing that.). You also take $250 and put it into a Roth IRA.

At the end of the year, you’ve contributed $3,000 to your Roth and you have $3,000 in additional Magic product in your closet, probably somewhere around 30 boxes. If you continue to do this, you may have to rethink storage options eventually, or else scale it more towards the Roth IRA. For example, if you just keep investing $100 out of pocket in this way and put all of the returns into your Roth, you’d fully fund a Roth IRA each year.

If I were in your shoes, I’d probably go with a 50/50 split for now. Remember, this is all proceeds from hobby money, so it’s not like you’re basing your financial future on this.

Q6: Minor thefts at home

I have become convinced that someone with access to my home is committing minor thefts on a regular basis. Several times in the last few months, cash and small items have gone missing without explanation.

Do you have any suggestions on how to figure out who it is without putting in a big security system?
– Marie

Honestly, if I were you, I’d get a few Wyze security cameras ($20 a pop) and put them in a few places around your home where you think the thefts are occurring, but obscure them as best you can. Any time you notice something missing, review the footage. The footage is uploaded to the cloud so you can review it for 14 days, or you can buy microSD cards for a few bucks to give yourself some offline storage.

It will be fairly difficult to deduce who is doing this without some sort of tool to assist you and I think this is perhaps the most cost-effective option.

I will advise you strongly to set this up yourself and not let others know about them. This may take some work and time, but they’re pretty easy to set up and they work well with a smartphone. If you’re at least a tiny bit tech-savvy and have WiFi at home, this is what I would do.

Q7: Waste of a snowblower

I live in northern Illinois and bought a snowblower four years ago during a bad winter. Since then I have used it maybe three times altogether, and two winters I haven’t used it at all and I’m sitting here on New Year’s Eve and it’s T-shirt weather. What a waste. Any way I can get value out of it? No one is going to want to buy a snowblower used around here.
– Dan

A snowblower is just one of those things that’s really useless until that exact moment when it’s insanely useful. Just be patient with it.

Keep it maintained. Make sure you change the oil and gas regularly and do whatever it says for maintenance in the manual. Start it up a couple times a year to make sure everything is in good, working order. Keep it covered.

That way, when you do need that thing, it’ll start right up for you and get to work on that snow removal task.

Clearly, you live in an area where such snowstorms do happen sometimes. Just be patient with it.

Q8: Working from home too distracting

I have read The Simple Dollar for many years and hope you will have some advice for me as a long-time worker from home. I started working from home in May of last year and I find it really difficult to be productive. There are simply too many distractions around. I could be doing dishes or the laundry or reading a book or watching something on Netflix or playing a video game or walking the dog and there is no escape from it. I can only be productive when I am shoved right up against a deadline and that has backfired hard on me a couple of times. How do you manage to have an article up every day while working from home?
– Shane

I have a bunch of tricks up my sleeve.

For one, I have a block of time each day where I work. It starts at about 8 a.m. and lasts until noon or 1 p.m., when until I feel my focus slipping. That block of time does not move unless there is an absolute act of God involved or I’m on a vacation. I usually spend some time in the afternoon reading or going through emails and such, too, but I can jump in and out of that for the most part.

During that time, I turn off every possible distraction I can. My cell phone is in a mega “do not disturb” mode where the only thing that gets through are calls or texts from my children’s school or my wife’s phone — that’s it, everything else is blocked. I block all kinds of distracting websites on my computer. I turn on some sort of ambient noise or music to help me focus and listen with noise-canceling headphones. I have a notebook near me to jot down any stray thoughts I will want to follow up on later. I’ll often start a load of laundry or a load of dishes just before I start so I feel like something “productive” in terms of the household is happening during the early part of my workday.

Some days, though, the house really is too distracting. On those days, I usually go to the library and use one of its “study rooms,” which is basically an empty room with a table and chair. I go in with my laptop and a pile of personal finance books and magazines from the shelves and spend the day reading and outlining future articles, again with every distraction I can have turned off, such as having my cell phone in mega “do not disturb” mode. I’m not a big fan of coffee shops as I find them fairly distracting.

I find that stretching and a bit of mild exercise right before that work session tends to help, as does having some coffee and some tea on hand and drinking some of both as the session goes on.

I also find it very helpful to have a plan for what I’m doing work-wise for the next several days at least. If that’s possible at all for your job, spend some time planning out your tasks at least a few days in advance. Sit down and spend a bit of one day on a pure planning session.

None of those things individually make a big difference. It’s the combination effect of all of those little nudges in the right direction.

Q9: Roth 401(k) or regular?

New Year resolution is to start saving for retirement. Everyone says our work 401(k) is great and they do 1:1 matching up to 8% so I am signing up next week to contribute 8%. There is a Roth 401(k) and a regular 401(k) for our contributions and workplace goes into regular. Should I use regular or Roth?
– Lynn

If you’re eligible for it, and your workplace is putting money into the regular one, put your contributions into the Roth 401(k).

For the moment, the Roth 401(k) seems like a worse deal. They take the money for that after your taxes are calculated, so you won’t see any tax benefit right now. With the regular 401(k), you’d see a bit of a tax benefit immediately.

However, with money in the Roth 401(k), you won’t have to pay taxes when you take the money out of it when you’re retired. It’s going to mean much lower tax bills then.

Basically, putting money into a Roth is like paying for some of your retirement taxes today rather than in retirement, where you’ll be glad to have every dime. I’d definitely go with the Roth in this situation.

Q10: Planners for 2020

I am interested in the planners that you are using for the new year. Would you mind telling me about the one you are using?
– Anna

In October, I posted an overview of a bunch of goal-oriented paper planners and shared what I was using at the time. I thought now is a great time to update that a little.

This year, I’m using two paper planners and three digital tools.

I have a Momentum Planner that I’m using to break down my big initiatives for the year into daily steps. This is more of a “reflect on what I need to do today and tomorrow” kind of thing.

I also have a Hobonichi Techo that I’m using as a daily journal and habit tracker (I was going to use a Clear journal, but I got this as a gift and wanted to use it instead). I use the summary pages to track habits I’m working on and the daily pages as a brief journal of the day and a list of things I’m grateful for. I still do a morning “brain dump” but I’m currently doing that in a pretty ordinary notebook.

For digital tools, I use Google Calendar to keep track of all of my events and appointments, Things to keep my ongoing to-do list, and Evernote to keep track of all of the things I want to make note of and remember. I also keep a pocket notebook that I often jot stuff in but then move to one of these three tools once a day or so.

My goal is to get everything out of my head and into some kind of trusted system. I find that having to remember things is incredibly distracting and takes me away from the task at hand.

Q11: Frozen mashed potato uses?

After both Thanksgiving and Christmas I had a bunch of mashed potatoes leftover and decided to freeze them along with some other leftovers. I didn’t really think about what to do with them but now I have a bunch of freezer bags full of mashed potatoes.
– Ashley

You can basically use them for anything you’d use normal mashed potatoes for.

You can serve them on their own as a side dish. You can use them as a topping on a casserole like shepherd’s pie. You can make potato pancakes with them. You can make this really good cheesy mashed potato and egg skillet.

Probably my favorite use, though, is to use mashed potatoes as a soup thickener. Take some of the broth from a soup you’re making — two or three cups — and add half a cup or so of mashed potatoes to it, then blend it together. That’ll make the broth way thicker, and you can pour it back into the main soup and stir it in. Want it even thicker? Take out another couple of cups of broth, add a half cup of mashed potatoes, and blend it again, then pour that back in.

I will say that in my experience mashed potatoes freeze better if you initially added a little butter and/or cream to them on the initial cooking. The texture seems just a little off to me if you didn’t do that, but they’re still perfectly usable.

Q12: Suggestion for New York vacation

Suggestion for your summer vacation — drive to New York state. Camping is great, Allegany State Park is a particular favorite; the Finger Lakes are gorgeous; and, of course, Niagara Falls. Then tack a few days of NYC on. If you travel home via Pennsylvania and Southern Ohio, plenty to see there, too. Hocking Hills area, Ohio was great. Amish country/Lancaster, Pennsylvania is also reasonably priced and family-friendly.
– Julie

This note from Julie came in right at the time Sarah and I were piecing together our summer vacation plans, and this actually matched what we had in mind. We had decided on driving the trip, stopping one day to visit family, then going to the Finger Lakes for a few days, then New York City for several days, then driving back through the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area and visiting Gettysburg.

As with our other family vacations, I’ll be posting a listing of low-cost and free things we found that were worthwhile on those vacations after we get home. I usually like to actually do the things we discover first and list only the ones we found that were really worthwhile without much of a sticker price.

For example, last year we went to Colorado and previous family vacations included South Dakota, Yellowstone, and, yes, Disney World. If you’re planning a summer trip for your family, hopefully, these articles will help.

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.