Questions About Financial News, Family Travel, Expense Tracking, Back Pain, 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. Family travel expenses
2. Finding cash on the ground
3. Considering health insurance options
4. Financial news sources
5. Healthy and super cheap lunches
6. Mother moving in
7. Detailed tracking of expenses
8. Does coffee grinding save money?
9. Replayable family board game suggestions
10. Need to keep insurance policy?
11. Handling back pain frugally
12. Meditation is a time waste

I mentioned last week that I had a “theme” for next year in mind already, and a couple of readers wrote in asking what that theme was. If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of an annual theme, it’s something I picked up from the Cortex. The idea is that you have a central “theme” for a given year rather than specific goals. That theme should guide you in the decisions you make and can help you set some specific yearlong goals or shorter goals, but it’s not necessarily a goal in and of itself.

My theme for 2020 is “black belt.” A big part of the reason for that is that, as I’ve mentioned a few times, my family gradually joined a community taekwondo class several years ago (some of us joining before others) and I’m aiming to be able to test for my black belt in December 2020 (possibly February 2021). That will require a lot of work and practice throughout the year.

The theme goes deeper than that, though.

I’ve realized in the past few months that there are several things in my life that I do well, but I could do much better if I “leaned in” on them a little and improved with some deliberate practice and care and thoughtfulness. Personal communication with others is definitely one, as are some spiritual and meditative practices, some dietary practices (mostly eliminating some bad things from my diet), and a few other specific things. I want to lean in on those things in the coming year in a deliberate and careful way so that I can be even better at them.

Anyway, on with the reader questions!

Q1: Family travel expenses

I will be meeting up with my sister, her husband, my brother, and his 2 kids in Houston for the holidays. We decided to split a (large, pricy) Airbnb. I asked how they wanted to split the cost and got no response, so I ended up wiring my brother 1/3 of the cost. This strikes me as a little crazy because I am only one person and the accommodations are for 6, but I couldn’t think of a tactful way around it. This happens all the time with my family, I end up paying double for things because I’m the only single sibling, and I feel like questioning it makes me look cheap (they’ve made little snarky comments in the past if I question something). I really can’t afford to keep doing this, but I also don’t want to stop traveling with my family. Any suggestions?
– Amanda

This kind of reflects our own situation, to an extent. We have three children, but my wife has a sibling with one child and another sibling with no children, so such issues have been minor issues in the past. For the most part, we have agreed either to pay “per head” for a large shared space (as it’s us that really needs the bigger space) or we go to somewhere where the space is evenly divided, like a hotel, so we pay for a room the same size as theirs that’s more crowded.

What we’ve learned, however, is that much of the difficulty isn’t really about the number of kids, but the relative incomes. There have been wide ranges of relative incomes over the years, and that difference in income has shaped a lot of these discussions.

What are the relative incomes in your situation? If you’re the one amongst your siblings who makes the most money (or close to it) or are perceived as making a lot of money, your siblings probably feel as though an even split is reasonable and equitable. Their perception is probably not just steered by the number of spouses and children, but the amount that each of you makes and thus the amount of discretionary income you each have. Without children, you’re likely perceived as having even more discretionary income.

I think that if your income is similar to their household income or is perceived as being similar to their household income, I’d just roll with it. If you don’t, the conversation will often turn into an emotional argument about money. If it’s not and you’re making substantially less than their household incomes, I’d address the concern from that angle – it’s expensive for you and you can’t pull off a full 1/3 share.

(It should be noted that my wife often does things with just her sisters and in those situations the expenses are usually evenly divided amongst the three of them unless one of them is really hurting for money, then the other two have helped out.)

Q2: Finding cash on the ground

What do you believe is the right thing to do if you find cash on the ground?
– Jenna

If it’s a small amount, $10 or less, and it has no identification, I don’t hesitate to pocket it. It’s such a small amount that the person that dropped it will virtually never bother to backtrack their steps to find it, so I view it as a found item. This is the equivalent of finding a coin on the ground and picking it up, to me.

If it’s a larger amount, and usually more than $10 is enough for me, I hang out near the spot for a bit if I have some time to see if anyone comes to claim it. If there is a very obvious place nearby to return it, like if I’m in a business and there’s a customer service desk or a checkout stand, I’ll return it there. Similarly, if there’s any identification at all with it, I’ll contact that person. If those options don’t work and I’ve waited a bit, if it looked as though the money had been blown about a lot and was probably irrecoverable by the original owner, I’d keep it; otherwise, I’d secure it with a rock or something and just leave it, as perhaps the original owner will come back or else someone who needs it more than I do will find it. This is what I’d do for amounts up to $100 or so.

I’m really not sure what I would do if I found a large amount, like a roll of several larger bills, without any identification in a public place like a park with no one around and no obvious place to return it. If it was a large amount, I’d probably feel safest just contacting the police and turning it over to them.

Q3: Considering health insurance options

I work for [a large company] and annual enrollment just started. I’ve been married for two years and our first child just turned one with plans to have another soon. When I was single I always opted for the high deductible insurance plan but now with a family I’m second guessing it. I put $5k a year in a HSA so the high deductible has never been an issue but how do I know if going a more standard insurance coverage route would save me money?
– Mack

I honestly can’t give you the perfect advice without having a thorough medical history of each of you, the specifics of your plan, and a crystal ball to see into the future. The truth is that choosing among health insurance plans is a guessing game, because the right answer depends so much on what happens in your life in the future, and that can’t be predicted.

In general, I think it is a wise choice to have a low-deductible plan if you have a young child. If the child grows older and participates in sports, stick with a low-deductible plan, but if they’re getting toward their teen years without major health issues and without sports participation, you can probably switch back to a high-deductible plan.

Here’s the thing: this might wind up being entirely the wrong call. Your child’s health might be perfect and require very minimal medical visits, in which case the high deductible plan would have been a little better financially. The thing is, the downside of that not being true and adding financial worry on top of medical worries about your child is bad enough that the extra expense of a low deductible plan is probably worth it, given the myriad of medical concerns that can potentially strike younger children.

Given what you’ve written about your situation, unless there’s a serious financial stress in your life that would be made worse by going with the low-deductible plan, I’d go with the low-deductible plan.

Q4: Financial news sources

Where do you go for financial news?
– Brock

I don’t read the “financial news.” My learning about personal finance comes largely from books and research articles. I completely avoid all cable financial news and financial news websites, aside from an occasional cursory glance to see what kinds of things those sites feel are popular with their readers.

I’m not a day trader or someone in the financial industry, so the portion of the news that might be relevant to those careers is lost on me. Most of the rest of the financial “news” revolves around stockbrokers pitching individual stocks or individual mutual funds, and I have no interest in that either because I invest using a “buy and hold” index fund strategy that basically does not care at all what the news of the day is.

The principles of personal finance are timeless. Sure, a new tool might come along occasionally or there might be an interesting new book on money issues, but the daily grind of financial news is not something I find much value in.

Q5: Healthy and super cheap lunches

What do you suggest for healthy and really cheap lunches I can keep in my desk at work? Used to keep packets of ramen noodles but I’m realizing how unhealthy they are but other things are all way more pricy.
– Adrian

I assume that you’re looking for shelf-stable stuff you can keep around to eat when you don’t have leftovers or other options.

Some of the things you can keep in a locked drawer in your desk that are generally inexpensive and should last a long while include crackers, nut butters, tuna, hard cheeses, dried fruits, nuts, granola, and oatmeal. Oatmeal, crackers, and tuna are definitely cheap; the others can be cheap if you’re patient and shop around. You should also snag lots of condiment packets to keep in there – mayonnaise is great to make simple tuna salads with, for example.

You should also watch for loss leader sales on things like healthier soups.

With those, you can assemble any number of small meals. Oatmeal on its own is a good small meal and can be sweetened easily with dried fruit or with honey packets. You can mix tuna with a mayo packet and a relish packet to make a simple tuna salad. Nut butters go great on crackers. Dried fruits, nuts, and granola go with anything and serve as a good snack.

Q6: Mother moving in

My 76 year old mother is moving in with us. She is in reasonably good health but can’t afford to make ends meet on Social Security so she is selling her house and moving into our guest room. We have had some halting conversations about how to make this work but we don’t know where to start and guides online don’t talk about real numbers.
– Adam

The reason specific numbers aren’t discussed is because each situation is very different and it’s hard to apply cookie cutters to situations like this.

I would suggest that the first thing you should do is talk to your own partner about what you think is a fair arrangement here. What do you think is reasonable? Should she live rent free? Should she just contribute to food and household supplies? What do you feel is right?

Then, on your own, I’d ask your mother what she thinks is the right thing to do. How does she feel she can or should contribute with her Social Security money and her income from her house?

If the ideas she has is within the bounds of the idea you have, then you’ve already solved your problem, and it’s likely that they will be. It’s only if they’re not in the same bounds that you’re going to have problems.

If you are operating in very different bounds, it depends on where the “out of bounds” are. If your mother is wanting to contribute far more than you think is necessary, then kindly tell her so. If you think your mother should contribute more than what she thinks, then you’re going to have to work on a compromise. The latter situation is the only outcome here that’s even potentially troublesome, and it’s actually fairly unlikely.

Q7: Detailed tracking of expenses

How much detail should a person go into when tracking expenses? I made a budget using a process I found online and it was helpful for finding some bad spending I was doing but it is a lot of work to track all of my spending each month and I don’t trust tools to automatically do it for me. Does it continue to be worth the effort?
– Aimee

For me, what I eventually ended up doing is automating enough of my finances so that I’m automatically hitting my savings goals and paying my bills, so that the amount left over is my flexible spending amount for things like food and household supplies and small unexpected things (like, say, getting my daughter’s musical instrument fixed).

I found that careful tracking of expenses helped me figure out how to do all of that because it really helped me figure out the numbers, but once I figured it out, I basically just set up a bunch of automatic bill payments and automatic transfers and I don’t really worry about tracking each expense.

However, if I do notice that the leftover flexible money is really being stretched, I usually recognize that bad spending choices is the culprit and I’ll spend some time going through and categorizing expenses. I usually do a “thirty day challenge” at that point where I watch all expenses carefully and track everything just to figure out what’s going on, and I’ll dig back through previous months by going through credit card and bank statements.

Q8: Does coffee grinding save money?

Does coffee grinding save money? Doesn’t seem like it does.
– Darren

Grinding your own coffee beans at home doesn’t save any money compared to just buying ground coffee at the store. Most of the time, coffee beans and ground coffee weigh the same and cost the same, so you don’t actually save by grinding beans yourself.

So why do it? The reason to do it is that the coffee you get from freshly ground beans is more flavorful. It’s similar to why there’s a bolder flavor when you use fresh herbs in a recipe rather than dried herbs, or how bread rises better if your yeast is fresh. Grinding coffee beans and then immediately making coffee with it will typically result in a tastier cup with a stronger coffee flavor and much greater distinction between bean varieties. I also find it’s less likely to be bitter if you use fresh beans.

If you’ve become used to the level of coffee quality at a coffee shop, you’ll get far closer to it at home if you use up beans quickly after buying them and grind them just before using them. If you’re trying to transition away from expensive coffee shops and immediately switch to a big bag of ground coffee, you’re more likely to find the coffee quality lacking – it’ll often taste bland in comparison. (Of course, that depends on the quality of your local coffee shop.)

If you don’t have a grinder but want to try it yourself, you can often ask a coffee roaster in your town to grind the beans for you.

Q9: Replayable family board game suggestions

What are some good repayable family board games I might find in a thrift store? I’ve started looking but it’s usually just lots of copies of Scene IT! and Trivial Pursuit.
– Amy

It depends a lot on the age and attention span of your kids.

If you have younger kids, if you happen to see any bright yellow boxes that have a HABA logo on them, they’re almost always excellent quality games for children. I’d say they work well for kids eight and under. My family really loved My First Carcassonne (also sometimes called Kids of Carcassonne) when my kids were younger and I’ve seen that several times, too.

If you have older kids, I’d look for some of the really popular newer games from the last 25 years or so. For a very light game with minimal rules, look for Apples to Apples – I see it pop up a lot. For something that requires a little more thought and attention, look for Settlers of Catan (sometimes just called Catan), Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, Pandemic, Splendor, or Azul. Those are all at least somewhat findable in thrift stores and have been big with my family.

I go to thrift stores a lot and always scan the games there. I see most of those titles pop up somewhat frequently and they’re all pretty good.

Q10: Need to keep insurance policy?

Do you need to keep full paper insurance policies? What identification do you need to keep?
– Adam

At the very least, you should have a digital copy of your policy somewhere, along with the material needed to contact your insurer and access your account. The full physical copy is never bad to have, but not having it won’t invalidate your policy (after all, someone who lost their home in a fire would not be able to claim insurance).

What about proof? The summary of the policy, plus your account information, plus the records from your bank showing payment can demonstrate that you do have such a policy. This is something that any legitimate insurer would fight in any way – they’ll just want to get the policy paid out if you’re eligible. The insurance industry is very highly regulated – if you have a policy and you’re due to receive a benefit, you’ll receive that benefit.

I keep copies of all of my policies on my phone at all times. I think that’s more than good enough.

Q11: Handling back pain frugally

I have suffered from back pain for many years. I have gone to the chiropractor many times and it helps for a while but the pain always comes back. Are there any other options I can try without going in for back surgery that I can’t afford? My general practitioner always wants to refer me to a back specialist.
– Marty

There are a lot of real back issues that you may be dealing with, but many recurring mild and moderate back pain issues are often a matter of weak back muscles, often brought on by weak core strength and excessive sitting and bad posture. The best thing you can do to handle that is to strengthen your core and your back and stretch them thoroughly.

The number one thing I suggest that people with back pain do is to get in a daily habit of stretching / light yoga. There are many, many great positions and stretches out there that can really help with back pain if you make them into a daily practice.

I’d start by simply doing some simple stretches on your bed each day – a nice soft place to do it so that if you struggle, you’re on a soft place. This is a nice video for getting started. Another thing I strongly recommend is going on daily walks. Aim for a daily mile-long walk for starters, and then add to it over time.

If you find that these things aren’t helping you, go see your doctor.

Q12: Meditation is a time waste

I feel that meditation is a waste of time and you are kooky for talking about it. I kept hearing about how people had these grand transformations because they meditated so I went to a meditation seminar and learned the practice and did it faithfully for 30 minutes a day for three months and never noticed anything beneficial other than it was boring. What a giant waste of time.
– Mark

I actually went through a similar experience. I first read about meditative practices several years ago and decided to try a simple one as a “thirty day challenge,” setting aside 30 minutes a day to practice a really simple breathing meditation where a person just focuses on their breathing for thirty minutes.

I noticed nothing at all for the first three weeks. I mean literally nothing. I was tempted to quit right then, but I stuck it out because I’m pretty stubborn about thirty day challenges.

On about day 26, though, I had a really, really good session, the first one where I noticed anything at all. I was sitting in a sunny room and it was like all of a sudden I became really really hyperaware of everything around me. I could feel the sun all over my skin and I could feel every little bit of carpet on the floor on my feet and a pair of birds chirping and a bunch of other stuff. It lasted for a few minutes and then kind of faded out, but I remember it vividly. I’ve since learned that a lot of people who meditate in earnest often have some kind of experience like this early on.

After that, what I noticed is that I was subtly more aware of everything around me, but at the same time, I could focus a little better, too. I seemed to be able to fall into a “flow state” faster and more effectively than before and I was able to shut out distractions better than before.

What I’ve found since then is that if I keep it up as a daily practice, my ability to focus on tasks very slowly grows over time, as does my sense of awareness of things around me. However, if I abandon the daily meditative practice, it all slowly slides away from me. I also find that if I’m on a long run of good days with a good meditation session in them, I feel a lot more relaxed all the time. There are some other interesting experiences I’ve had when playing around with longer meditation sessions, too, but I think those vary widely depending on the individual person.

For me, the changes were mostly subtle, but they grew slowly the longer I stuck with it, and I can definitely feel the impact that meditation has if I stop for a while as I can really feel the backsliding rather than directly feeling most of the positive changes I get from it.

All I can say is this: I encourage everyone to give a simple meditation practice a “thirty day challenge.” Just do it for a short period each day for 30 days, whatever length works for you, and spend that time sitting in a comfortable spot where you just focus on your breathing and gently bring your mind back to your breathing if you find it wandering. 15 minutes a day should be fine. If, after 30 days, you notice no changes, it might not be for you. For me, it’s been helpful, and it’s free to do, so if you don’t get any value out of it, you don’t have any money invested in it, so it’s not a big loss if you try it and don’t get anything out of it. I try lots of free activities that don’t click with me, after all.

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.