Questions About Fast Food, Difficult Workplaces, Smoking, Refurbished Items, 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. Difficult workplace
2. Capital One 360 overseas
3. Handling fast food cravings
4. Car total cost of ownership
5. Bicycle for groceries?
6. Overpaid for consulting work
7. Wife’s smoking habit breaking us
8. Outdated books
9. Parents constantly ask for help
10. Why Vanguard?
11. Refurbished items
12. Youtube videos for financial advice

Our family went camping this past weekend as a bit of “last gasp of summer before school starts” celebration. It was a great trip with a lot of outdoor fun (including some excellent time in a fossil gorge) and a higher than average number of insect bites.

School starts this week. Everyone has that mix of worn out and rested that one feels after an active weekend outdoors. Let’s dig into the mailbag.

Q1: Difficult workplace

I’m in a situation where it’s very clicky-gossipy and my friends say it’s sexist against me. I don’t want to leave my job, I keep thinking I can turn it around. My family needs me to have the exceptional benefits, the hours are soft and the locations are beautiful.

I try the cookies, etc methods and get rejected with diets, etc. It’s almost hostile. I get left out of lots of “guy” meetings and projects to the point it may be hurting my career. My boss is a part of this and does not beleive my concerns. My direct questions are evaded with his head hanging so low as he looks at the ground I’m baffled.

I don’t know where to go for ideas to turn this around. Other women in IT have been telling me to leave, I really wanted to stay for another 6 years. I have been starting to put tiny feelers in other non-IT departments I deal with so I don’t have to leave…
– Diane

Diane sent in this question in response to my article from last week, Building Workplace Relationships in a Difficult Environment.

In regards to Diane’s situation, I’d point to one specific quote in the article: “”Yes, some negative gossipers manage to build circles of similarly negative people around them. Those groups are almost always disastrous in the workplace, and if you find such a cabal, it’s probably a good idea to move on to a new job as discreetly and quietly as you can.”

It sounds like something akin to this is going on in your workplace, Diane. There is a tight clique of negative people who are not open to building new relationships. When you encounter a workplace like that, it is almost always going to be bad for your career to stick around there for long.

If I were you, I would follow the advice of your friends and start looking around for a new position. This type of situation often isn’t the fault of the new person, but the fault of a culture that was allowed to take root and those who allowed it to happen.

Q2: Capital One 360 overseas

I will be traveling to Greece in about a month. Can I use my Capital 360 account to get euros there. If so, how do I do it (I bank digitally) and what are the fees?
– Alex

As far as I can tell from their online documents, Capital One 360 does not charge a currency conversion fee for international ATM withdrawals. There are three catches, however.

One, if you use your card as a MasterCard, the MasterCard network charges you a small fee, which appears to be somewhere around 1% of the transaction.

Two, you do still have to pay any ATM fees charged by the owner of the ATM. CapitalOne and AllPoint ATMs seem to be free of fees for 360 card holders.

Three, and I think this might be the kicker, I have seen in several places that the exchange rate that Capital One 360 uses on ATM withdrawals isn’t a particularly favorable rate, at least at times.

There is always a cost involved with currency exchange, no matter how you do it. I think if you stick to CapitalOne and AllPoint ATMs, you should be okay.

Q3: Handling fast food cravings

I’ve been trying to cook at home and eat healthier lately and have mostly been successful. I haven’t gone out to a sit down restaurant in more than a month. What has been tougher is fast food. I just crave it. Whenever I’m on my way home from work I just crave going through a drive thru and getting some fast food to eat. I like how it tastes and I like the convenience of eating it before I get home, taking the bag in the house, tossing it in the trash, and I’m done. How do I break that craving?
– Marcel

Honestly, this is one of those situations where discipline is going to make all the difference. You have to simply have the discipline to not wheel into that fast food drive thru after work – there’s no way around that.

There are a few things you can do that will help, though.

First, try to find a commute home from work that doesn’t take you right by your favorite fast food restaurants. Is there a different route home from work you can take that’s of comparable length but doesn’t take you near fast food joints?

Second, start preparing slow cooker meals that you start in the morning and will be done when you get home from work. Knowing that there is a meal sitting there for you ready to eat as soon as you get home, or slightly thereafter, makes things much easier.

Third, bring an “after work snack” with you to work in the morning. It can be something like a sandwich in a cooler or a frozen item that you microwave just before you leave. Pack it alongside your lunch. That way, you have something to eat on your way home and have no reason to stop for fast food.

Q4: Car total cost of ownership

What do you think about buying cars based on total cost of ownership? I have a friend that buys a new car every several years and uses the Kelley Blue Book five year total cost of ownership numbers to decide what to buy. Good idea?
– Darren

I assume that what Darren is referring to is the Kelley Blue Book five year cost to own awards, which estimates the total cost of ownership of various car types and gives an “award” to the lowest total cost in each class.

I think that this approach is a good one if you’re in a cycle of buying new cars and driving them for several years. However, I don’t think that’s the most cost-effective cycle for buying cars. A much more cost-effective cycle is buying a late model used car and driving it until significant mechanical problems start cropping up, then trading it in for another late model used car.

I would assume that you could use these awards as guidance for buying a car in that range, but you’d want to use the award winners from a couple of years ago rather than the current award winners.

I usually stick with cars from brands that have been highly trusted and marked as highly reliable over the last decade in Consumer Reports – Toyota, Hyundai, and Honda lead that pack. Currently, we own two Toyotas (a Prius and a Sienna).

Q5: Bicycle for groceries?

How exactly do you use your bicycle for groceries? You’ve written about biking to a grocery store a couple of miles from your home. Do you use a basket on your bike?
– Edward

Honestly, I use a backpack most of the time, with soft light stuff that might get crushed (like bread) in a bag hanging from my handlebars. I had a used set of pannier bags that either I didn’t have attached correctly to my bike or were flawed and I ended up tearing them to shreds very quickly. I found them on Craigslist really cheaply, so it wasn’t a big loss, but it was still frustrating.

Ideally, I’d like a fresh pair of pannier bags. Pannier bags are bags that hang over the sides of your bike akin to saddlebags, enabling you to store a few grocery bags of food for a ride home from the store. You simply install a rack on your bike – a pretty easy job – and then the bags fasten to this rack and hang in place.

When I did use the panniers, I’d just unlatch them from the bike and take them into the store with me. At the checkout, I’d literally just have them put groceries right into the pannier, then take them out and attach them back onto my bike and ride away. They would each hold about the equivalent of a very full grocery bag.

I’ve also seen people carrying groceries on a basket attached to the handlebars, a crate attached to a rack just behind the seat, and people pulling a small cart behind them stuffed full of groceries.

Q6: Overpaid for consulting work

I was hired to redo some internal software for a local business. We agreed on a total amount, half of which is to be paid up front and the other half is to be paid after work is completed. I worked closely with a two person office staff while setting this up and tweaked several things to their desired specifications and they were thrilled.

After the job was completed, I received a direct deposit for an amount equal to the total cost of the project, not the 50% I was due. I stopped by the office to get this straightened out and one of the office staff said that the extra amount was a “bonus” because I had helped them out so much.

I haven’t spent that extra 50%. I am nervous about doing so because I have never been overpaid like this before. How long should I hold onto this money? How do I file taxes?
– Charlie

In your shoes, I would sit on that extra money until I received a 1099 from them early next year for your consulting work. If everything is up front, it should state the total amount you were paid, 150% of the original agreement.

If that’s not what’s stated on the 1099, I’d stop by their office again and get it straightened out.

I am assuming that this is all on the up and up and that the owner of the business agreed to the bonus and this wasn’t a happy office staffer cooking the books here. This story sounds like there’s at least some possibility that one of the office staff loved the work you did and adjusted the paperwork without the full intent of the boss. This is a situation you want nothing to do with.

Basically, until I had a tax document in hand stating that the 50% bonus is actually yours, I wouldn’t spend that money unless I absolutely had to. If you do have such a document, you can point to that as saying that it was sanctioned by the business and that you contacted the office and were informed that the overpayment was a bonus. Be sure to accurately document when you contacted the office about overpayment.

Q7: Wife’s smoking habit breaking us

My wife smokes about a pack of cigarettes per day (before you ask, I don’t smoke but I don’t mind the smell probably because I’m used to it). I’ve wanted her to quit for health reasons but it’s always been a minor factor. Lately though we’ve been trying to get our finances in line and she basically just acts like her cigarettes are not up for discussion. I’ll note that she’s spending $5 a day just to burn cigarettes and she’s like “It’s $5 and it’s not breaking us!” What do I do?
– Calvin

My response in that situation would be to make up a monthly budget, add a line item for her cigarette monthly total ($5 times 30 is $150), and then add a line that says “Calvin – extra fun stuff – $150.” That goes above and beyond any other budgetary items for hobbies and entertainment.

If she complains about it, go straight back to the cigarettes. Offer to drop that $150 a month if she drops her smoking habit.

Either she’ll just agree to that arrangement (because of her addiction) or she’ll actually try to quit. In the first case, just take that $150 and do something financially smart with it – the specifics are up to you – or else literally use it as fun money. In the second case, support her strongly in her efforts to quit.

The moral of the story is that it’s financially unfair for her to burn $150 a month of your shared money. Either she cuts it down or you burn $150 a month, too. If you don’t do it that way, you’re going to build resentment towards her as you see the potential financial progress burning away, and that’s far worse than any financial consequence.

All you can do is lead a horse to water, and this is the most direct way I can think of.

Q8: Outdated books

What does one do with outdated books like old encyclopedias?
– Stephanie

One option is to just stick them up on Craigslist or Freecycle or your community’s Facebook Marketplace and offer them as a freebie to the first person that claims them. Almost anything that’s free on Craigslist gets claimed – I’ve seen things I would classify as trash get claimed by people.

Another option is to contact local social organizations in your community and see if they have a use for them. Churches and retirement homes may have a purpose for old encyclopedias or other books.

A final option is to see if there’s a scrapbooking club in your area – try checking Meetup. They can almost always use things like encyclopedias, as they’re a great source for images.

Q9: Parents constantly ask for help

I am 33/M/single with a good job. I live in Chicago about five hours away from my parents. They worked hard to raise me and I am appreciative of that, but they are constantly and I mean constantly asking me for money. They say or imply all the time that they invested so much in me over the first 25 years of life and now it is time for me to repay some of it. I don’t have any problem helping them a little, but I feel like they’re asking me to pay for HBO while I’m struggling to get my student loans paid off. I am starting to feel resentment and I don’t call them as often any more and now they call me more. Ideas?
– Adam

You need to have a heart to heart with them where you directly talk about this issue.

Given my own experiences, I am willing to bet that your parents perceive you as having an enormous income, probably far more than you’re actually earning, and think that you can easily afford to help them live a little better life. “He’s rich and he lives in the city and has this really great job…” is probably how their thinking goes. They see you making $120K a year or whatever and then think of the own bills they faced when they were your age and then perceive you as having a ton of money left over. I know that my parents sometimes think this way (though they don’t ask me for financial assistance).

The thing is, that’s probably not your reality. You’re almost definitely facing housing costs far higher than they think. You’re facing student loans that they’re probably not considering at all.

Another factor might be that your parents are struggling more financially than you think that they are. They might be really struggling to make ends meet and you’re the only “out” they have in that situation.

If you really trust and value your parents, you should spend a weekend with them and lay out all of your finances – both theirs and yours – and talk about things openly. They’re probably struggling more than you think, and you’re probably struggling more than they think. That kind of open conversation can really change the dynamic.

Q10: Why Vanguard?

Why do you always recommend Vanguard for investments? What’s wrong with Fidelity or Charles Schwab?
– Victor

There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with Fidelity or Charles Schwab. I mention Vanguard because (a) I agree with their core philosophy of low cost index funds, (b) I like how the Vanguard Group is set up as a business, (c) I use them myself, and (d) they have always done right by me.

Thus, when I’m actually giving advice from what I know works well for me, it’s going to involve mentions of using Vanguard for investing.

Fidelity and Charles Schwab are both good investment firms to use. Fidelity would probably be my #2 choice and what I’d use if I wasn’t using Vanguard, and Schwab wouldn’t be that far back, either. Much of my Vanguard preference comes from actually using them and being happy with the interactions and the results I’ve have with them.

Q11: Refurbished items

Are refurbished items a good buy or not? I sometimes see them at a lower price than the new version. Better to buy new or not?
– Blaine

I will happily buy refurbished items as long as they come with the same warranty as the new item. If they don’t, then I don’t fully trust those refurbished items. It’s as simple as that.

The issue comes down to the fact that “refurbished” may mean different things to different people. For some, a “refurbished” item means that one thing was obviously wrong and that thing was fixed and it was slapped in a box and sold again. For others, “refurbished” means it was adequately tested to make sure that it works well and the process is supported by a warranty.

I’ll buy the second kind of “refurbished” but not the first. It’s hard to tell which is which, though, so I tend to look at warranties. Is the warranty the same as a new item? If so, I’m fine with refurbished. If not, then I’m very wary.

Q12: Youtube videos for financial advice

I love reading your columns each day but my husband is more of a Youtube watcher. Do you make videos on financial topics? We couldn’t find any. If not, do you know of any channels that have a similar perspective?
– Jana

Although I’ve tried in the past, I currently do not make Youtube videos on personal finance topics. I found it really hard to make compelling video content about personal finance beyond just making cooking videos or basic how-to videos around the house, plus video editing is not really something that shows off my skill set.

The thing is, there really aren’t many good channels to watch out there that cover frugal topics. There are some good DIY channels that cover basic home repair and some good food preparation channels, but the only channels that really delve into personal finance with a perspective anything like mine are mostly just rebroadcasts of a podcast or radio show with either just a static image or someone sitting there talking with occasional charts.

The best channel for video content with a philosophy close to mine, in my opinion, is Beat the Bush. It’s not a perfect overlap, but the general principles are similar and it’s pretty solid video content.

In terms of audio content (i.e., podcast and radio rebroadcasts), check out ChooseFI, Afford Anything, and (sometimes) Dave Ramsey.

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.