Questions About Financial Coaching, Letterboxing, Bag Dumps, 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. Certifications and financial coaching
2. Selling valuable items through mail
3. Starting college advice
4. Thinking of quitting my job
5. Restaurant bloat
6. Most important characteristic?
7. Going out of business sales
8. Receipt surveys
9. Snowball method best?
10. Letterboxing?
11. Instant Pot?
12. Bag dump

I go through periods in my life where it feels like everything’s clicking on all cylinders for a few weeks. I’m incredibly productive, feel great about myself, and everything’s going well.

Suddenly, though, something will throw sand in the gears and everything grinds to a halt or close to it. Everything’s out of whack. I go from feeling super-productive in all aspects of life to feeling like I’m barely keeping up.

Then, even after whatever caused the “sand in the gears” resolves itself, it takes a long time for me to build back up into that sense of everything clicking on all cylinders.

I would love to master some strategies for not being so disrupted by unexpected events. I haven’t figured it out yet.

Anyway, on to reader questions…

Q1: Certifications and financial coaching

I thoroughly enjoy numbers and the application of numbers when I get to help people with taxes, personal finance and financial planning. Can you recommend a certificate or training I could pursue along this route? Not interested in this as a full time job but as a side gig to help out those just getting going in life.
– Jim

There are a number of financial coaching certifications that you can earn, from the APFC certification to the Dave Ramsey Financial Coaching certification.

The thing is, “financial coaching” is an unclear term. You may find some value in going through these materials on “financial coaching” to help you clarify what exactly it is that you’re wanting to do and practices for getting started.

Be aware that many people will want to have a certified financial planner help them and not a “financial coach.” A “financial coach” seems to be a comparatively low-threshold entry into the field and doesn’t offer the same fiduciary requirements of other certifications, so some clients may not be interested.

Q2: Selling valuable items through mail

I have a collection of trading cards that are worth a fair amount. An online buyer has proposed buying these cards from me for an amount I found agreeable. I sent him high resolution scans and so on and we worked out an arrangement.

The next step obviously is the exchange of cards for cash. The sale value is around $15,000. What is the safest way for me to send cards without getting scammed?

The buyer gives many indications of being reputable with various communities, but that’s a big risk! Suggestions?
– Erik

In a situation where you’re selling items with that much value, I’d use an escrow service. Most large banks will act as an escrow service, which is about as reliable as you can get.

Here’s how it works. After an escrow agreement is signed, the buyer sends their money to the escrow agent. Then, you send your items to the buyer, usually via a service with strong documentation like FedEx. Then, the escrow agent sends the money to you.

Almost all large banks will act as an escrow for a fee. Given that the buyer seems to have a positive reputation and you’re both very clear on the items being sold, this is a secure way for this transaction to occur.

Q3: Starting college advice

Hello! I am a high school senior headed off to college at the end of the summer. I am going to University of Wisconsin Madison and I have a number of scholarships that are paying for most of my tuition for four years with som additional help from grandparents and parents. I am hoping to complete four years there without any student debt.

My grandfather sent me links to a couple of your articles about getting the most value out of college and I read a lot of things on your website. I was wondering if you could help suggest to me what I could be doing to put myself on the best financial track during my college years. Given that I should have no student loans, what should I be doing?
– Travis

The number one thing you should do is extract every droplet of value out of your college experience. College is an amazing time to explore ideas, build relationships with peers and with professors, get a stellar education, learn how to learn independently, and figure out what you want to do with your life. That’s a tremendous value, and many, many students end up wasting it with excessive partying, not taking classes seriously, hiding in their dorm room watching movies and playing games, and so on.

The absolute best investment you can make in your college years is to use the time effectively. That doesn’t mean college should be four years of “no fun.” It means that, for example, you should actively seek out a lot of friendships, but that you shouldn’t waste your time with relationships that aren’t helping you grow. Seek out friendships with people both similar to you and different from you who are invested in getting a lot of positive value out of college and don’t waste your time with people who get drunk every day or play video games all day long. Connect with your professors, too.

You should treat your classes almost like a job, putting in adequate study time and project time, but wall it off. Set hours for yourself and focus within that time. Get started on projects and studying early so that you’re not stuck in some kind of cramming nightmare later on. The best time for this is gaps between classes when there’s not much to do on campus anyway; just find a quiet place and study or work on projects. Turn off distractions (your phone, for instance) when you’re doing this.

One great way to spend your evenings hitting almost all of these notes is to get involved in on-campus organizations that are related to your area of study or other areas of interest. Colleges are a hotbed of people organizing into groups around interests and building relationships within those groups. Get into a lot of groups. Learn a lot of stuff. Build a lot of lasting friendships.

The finances are easy for someone in your shoes. Avoid spending money as much as humanly possible. Rely on the terms of your room and board plan as much as possible. If you eventually decide to live off campus, get a tiny room and spend most of your time elsewhere. Treat it as a place to lay your head. During a large stretch of college, I could carry all of my possessions on my body, and that would be even easier to do today. A part time job is great (if you want to do that), but focus on jobs and internships that generate positive career movement rather than anything that makes money right now. A job that’s good for your career but pays minimum wage trumps almost anything that pays better at this time in your life. Given that everything is paid for, focus on things that build you rather than earning money right now.

The two most valuable things you’ll get out of college is the ability to learn things on your own (and a passion for doing so, hopefully) and a lot of valuable relationships. The degree itself will help you get your foot in the first door, but it’s the practice you get learning how to learn and becoming passionate about that kind of learning that will make the actual difference in life. Don’t sweat the money – just live cheap and put any money you accumulate into savings for post-college expenses.

Q4: Thinking of quitting my job

I’m 31 and single. During each year I’ve worked at this job, I’ve saved more than 50% of my income either in 401(k), Roth IRA, savings accounts, or a brokerage account. I don’t need much stuff to be happy so I just don’t buy much stuff.

Right now, I’m pretty confident I could live through my thirties on what I have in my brokerage account and savings. I just feel completely tired of my job and my career and want to figure out what’s next for a few years.

I know the obvious answer to this: it’s foolish. If I stick with this through my thirties, I can probably get away with not working for the rest of my life. So I feel like my choice is to take my thirties off or take the rest of my life off after my thirties.
– Megan

My only real suggestion to you is to try to figure things out at least a little bit before you quit. Have some sense of what’s next before you just walk away.

It sounds to me like you’re just fed up with going to work, but that you have no sense at all in terms of what you’d do without that routine. If you don’t have any real visions of what else you would do, you’re likely to just start drifting in life, and while there’s some appeal to that, you run a very strong risk of essentially being unemployable when you’re 40 and run out of money.

Keep going to work for now, but rather than viewing it as the centerpiece of your life, view it as a way to support yourself while you figure out what’s next. Step back from the aspects of the job that you hate and don’t worry too much about the consequences of that; after all, you have money in the bank. Use your newfound lower-stress free time to figure out what’s next for you, but don’t just toss the job into the trash until you know what you’re going to do next. Just turn the tables from living to work into working to live.

Q5: Restaurant bloat

You haven’t ever mentioned one of the best benefits of eating at home! Over the last year, I’ve basically stopped eating at restaurants. I eat lunch in the breakroom with the “brown baggers” nowadays and make my own meals at home. Anyway, this week I had to go out to lunch twice to entertain a client (paid for by the office) and I felt absolutely bloated and lethargic all afternoon. What I hadn’t realized before is that I have been feeling a lot better in the afternoons lately after switching to bringing my own lunch! It’s cheaper and I feel way better too!
– Tammy

I actually noticed the same thing. For a time, I ate out 1-2 meals per day and I considered how I felt after those meals to be normal. I usually felt really lethargic after lunch.

Now, most days, I eat home-cooked beans and rice or home-cooked leftovers for lunch and I don’t really have that feeling of an “afternoon crash.” I actually feel really good most afternoons. My mental focus goes off the rails by mid-afternoon, but I still have energy so I find other things to do.

It’s cheaper and I feel better. That, to me, seems like a double win.

Q6: Most important characteristic?

I’m writing a paper about people who become wealthy and people who do not. What do you think is the one characteristic that distinguishes the two?
– Mark

This is a great question that I actually spent some serious time thinking about for the last few days.

I think the answer is that people who accumulate wealth have a strong internal locus of control. In other words, they feel in control of their lives and feel as though their personal choices determine their outcome, and because of that, they recognize that they must make good choices if they want a good outcome. Almost universally, I’ve found that people who find success at almost anything have a strong internal locus of control. There are lots of ways to say this – you’re proactive, or you go after things instead of waiting for them to come to you.

How do you cultivate that? I’m not really sure. I think that a lot of reflection on life and looking at your own choices and connecting those choices to results is really important. I think a willingness to accept that your choices have a huge impact when it comes to results is important. Many people never do those two things, and in my experience, success is rarely found by them.

Q7: Going out of business sales

Last year the Sports Authority chain went out of business and the store in my area had some great sales right before they closed, with some stuff going at like 80% off. Now American Apparel is going out of business and there’s a chain near me. Are “going out of business” sales worthwhile? It seems like they still kind of fall under the idea of you’re not saving money by buying stuff you don’t need or want even if it’s cheap.
– Nikki

You nailed it with that last sentence. Even if something is 90% off, it’s still money spent on something you don’t really need and didn’t even really want.

Now, if you’re already planning on buying some clothing items and you notice that a clothing store is going out of business, it might make sense to go there and get some discounts. I’m not really a customer of American Apparel – I wouldn’t have shopped there anyway – but if it were on your radar and you were already needing some clothes items, it might make sense to look there.

However, if you already have plenty of clothes, why would you ever go to a clothes store unless they were literally handing out free stuff with no strings attached? Don’t spend money on stuff you don’t need and don’t really want, either. Just don’t bother with it.

Q8: Receipt surveys

A lot of times when I go shopping, there is a survey on the receipt for some kind of discount or for an entry into a drawing. I save them intending to fill out the survey but forget most of the time lol. Is it worth doing these things?
– Kim

I think if you’re getting something for free, it’s worthwhile, especially if the alternative is browsing social media on your phone when you could be filling out the survey.

I have a friend who fills out the survey at Subway every time he goes there to get a free cookie, for example. He just fills it out on his phone while he eats. According to him, because of the cookie, he just gets a 6″ sub and a free cookie instead of the 12″ sub, so he saves a couple of dollars each visit because he fills out a one minute survey on his phone.

I’ll usually do the survey if there’s a freebie or a good discount that I get for doing it, but I do the survey almost immediately (like when I’m sitting at the table) or I don’t bother with it.

A tip, though: unless they’re actively being bad workers, give them perfect scores. Giving 4/5 stars is often enough to get an employee harangued by their manager and most service workers are earning minimum wage and actually doing a good job for their pay.

Q9: Snowball method best?

Did you see this research study from Harvard?

The study found that the self-motivation that comes from paying down a large percentage of a debt kept people on board with a debt repayment plan for longer. Thoughts?
– Kenneth

I absolutely agree that the snowball method is the best strategy psychologically for paying off debt. However, it’s often not the best strategy mathematically.

Now, which one is more important to you? I think it has a lot to do with how an individual person is wired. If I followed the snowball method, for example, I know I’d be hard on myself and feel as though I were wasting money by using a bad payback method. That’s because I’m a hard-wired numbers guy.

If you’re not a strong “numbers person,” I’d agree completely that the snowball method makes a lot of sense for the reasons stated in this study. I don’t think any method that can get people to pay off their debts is “wrong,” because different strategies work well for different folks.

Q10: Letterboxing?

Has your family ever tried letterboxing? It’s kind of like geocaching which you’ve mentioned many times. You “geocache” to the first clue, then follow a series of clues to find a letterbox. In this letterbox is a stamp, which you stamp your logbook with, and then you use your own stamp to stamp the letterbox logbook. It’s pretty fun.
– Connie

I have honestly never heard of letterboxing until this email. I checked out AtlasQuest, which seems to be kind of a community hub for letterboxing, and now I’m definitely intrigued by this. This seems like a great family alternative to geocaching and this is going to get added to our summer list of things to do.

The only catch is that you need to have a rubber stamp, an ink pad, and a log book to do it. We’ll have to go find an interesting rubber stamp as a family so we can dig in.

Thanks for letting me and the readers of The Simple Dollar know about this cool, (nearly) free activity!

Q11: Instant Pot?

Do you have an Instant Pot? Is it worth the price?
– Maggie

I do have one! I received this Instant Pot as a gift for my birthday last year from my mother- and father-in-law.

I quite like it and it has become our “everyday” slow cooker, though if you do use it regularly as a slow cooker I strongly recommend the optional slow cooker lid. We also use it regularly for cooking rice. I really like the ability to saute onions in there as the first step in making a soup or a stew. It’s also been nice for rapidly cooking some meals, as you can pressure cook things surprisingly quickly.

It’s not going to be a good pressure cooker if you’re pressure cooking a lot of things at once. If you’re going to be a high-volume pressure cooker, I recommend getting a larger pressure cooker. However, if you’re just doing a few jars on occasion, this will do the trick wonderfully.

Is it worth the extra price over a regular slow cooker? I think if you’re going to regularly cook rice with it and don’t have a separate rice cooker, it’s probably worthwhile. I’d say we use it about 25% more than a regular slow cooker because of the pressure cooking feature and I expect that to ramp up some more during the summer.

Q12: Everyday carry bag dump

Do you have an everyday carry bag? If so what do you carry in it?
– Andrew

I sure do. I use a North Face Recon II backpack as my “everyday carry” bag. It holds almost everything I need to do almost anything outside of the home.

By default, it contains the following:
+ my laptop and laptop charger
+ charging cables for my Kindle and my phone
+ a six port USB hub for charging several devices at once
+ a large rechargeable battery for recharging my phone or Kindle on the go (this one, specifically
+ a small handful of pens that vary from time to time (currently a Retro 51 Tornado and a few Uniball Signo 207s and Pilot G2s)
+ a large notebook and a few backup pocket notebooks
+ an empty Nalgene water bottle
+ a few basic toiletries in a bag – deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, a razor, some shaving soap, some aspirin
+ a Leatherman Juice multi-tool
+ a small flashlight that I got as a giveaway somewhere
+ a pair of in-ear headphones
+ a container of breath mints
+ several healthy snack bars

Other items go in and out of the bag, but all of this stuff is basically a constant.

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.