Questions About Job Stagnation, Braces, Employment Gaps, Slow Cookers and More!

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to five-word summaries. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Possible job stagnation
2. The cost of braces
3. Handling employment gaps
4. Recovering from bad credit score
5. Estate planning and memory loss
6. Figuring out loan forgiveness
7. Balancing job needs
8. Slow cooker breakfasts
9. Breaking attraction to sales
10. Taking kids to movies
11. Retirement savings or debt payoff?
12. Social Security survivor benefits

One of the hardest parts of winter for me are long runs of cloudy days where it’s too cold to really go outside for extended periods and there’s just no sunshine to be had. On about the fourth or fifth day of nonstop clouds, my spirit really gets down in the dumps.

I was feeling that way yesterday. I was actually outside taking care of a few outdoor tasks, even though the temperature was below zero, and I was feeling rather down in the dumps.

Then, all of a sudden, there was a gap in the clouds and the sun started shining. I could see that it was a pretty tiny gap as the sun was not shining on the far side of a field near my house, but for me, the sun shone for about five minutes or so.

As cold as it was, I just stood there in the sunshine for a bit. And, for some reason, I genuinely felt a lot better. The effect was largely placebo, I’m sure, but that doesn’t change how that one beam of sunlight really lifted my mood.

On with this week’s questions.

Q1: Possible job stagnation

I have had the same dead-end job for the past 13 years in a dead-end industry mostly because of the hours. Lately I’ve been looking to get a new job. I get by, and don’t have a lot of debt. I have went to school and volunteered, and work a second job in another industry. Have I financially crippled myself by staying for so long without a lot of growth? Are employers going to see the stagnation and think that I’m not a viable option?
– Kevin

It really, really depends on your industry. In some industries, experience is king and employer loyalty is highly valued. In other industries, certifications are where it’s at. Every industry has certain things that they put a premium on.

If I were you, I’d look at what the requirements are for jobs that you would be interested in. Do they match up well with the resume you’ve put together? Or do you not match very well?

If you find you don’t match well, start spending as much time as you can making yourself match up with what your field is looking for. Certifications, experience, projects, whatever it is – try to milk that from your current job if you can and, if you can’t, do everything you can to get it on your own.

You’re certainly not dead in the water with 13 years experience in your field. However, depending on your field, your resume may still need a bit of polish.

Q2: The cost of braces

I have a question regarding personal finances. We have four children and three of them need braces within the next year. We have decent dental insurance, but the total cost of the braces for all three combined will be upwards of $10,000. Two of the kids are high priority which means we’ll need to spend around $7,200. We’ve been to several orthodontist to get quotes, and this has been the best one so far. The orthodontist office can set us up on a payment plan for 20 months bring the monthly total to $360. Then, when that’s paid off, we start on kid #3 (another $3,000). Any suggestions or tips/tricks? At this point, we’re searching for additional streams of income to offset the cost.
– Donald

There’s no secret tricks to paying off debt, really. Assuming this is a zero-interest payment plan (which it seems to be), then you just need to keep chugging along through those payments.

The best thing you can do is start planning now for where that $360 a month is going to come from. Are there any bills or services you can cancel? Your cable or satellite bill? Your landline telephone? Those kinds of things can make up a healthy chunk of that $360.

On top of that, look at your daily routines. Are there any places that you or your wife spend money most days? Do you go out for lunch or stop for coffee or other things like that? Try to cut those out of the picture. If you do so, you’ll have a surprising amount of cash left to pay this bill.

When you’re shopping, try substituting generic products for the name brand that you use. Quite often, the generic product is identical to the name brand, leaving you paying good money for a colorful package and a name. Sure, sometimes the generic won’t work out, but it will more often than not and you’ll be saving money on those purchases.

If you spend money like the typical family, those things will add up to pretty close to the $360 you need each month.

Q3: Handling employment gaps

I have two gaps in my employment, 1) while I was home raising children and 2) while I was rebuilding my life during/after a messy divorce. I’ve read other articles that say you should acknowledge gaps… how/where do you do that, especially without divulging personal info?
– Sally

On your resume, simply have the dates during which you received education and worked at various places. If there are gaps, your potential employer will ask about them, and just give an honest answer to those questions.

That is a much better route than trying to put false information on a resume or trying to come up with some kind of bogus answer when that kind of question is asked.

No one’s life is a perfect fairy tale. As long as your other experience is good, the gaps won’t be all that important.

Q4: Recovering from bad credit score

I have a below average credit score. I applied to refinance my car with two other financial companies as the existing secured loan is 29%. My score went down 50 points. I have not missed a payment in 18 months and have full time employment. What can I do to increase my score and how do I go about finding another lender with a lower interest rate ?
– James

Whenever you apply for a loan, the simple application process has a short-term negative impact on your credit score. You appear to have applied for two at once, so the -50 is likely a short-term negative bump from that.

As for raising your credit score, that’s easy. Just make your payments on time for all of your bills and keep an eye on them for any hint of fraud. You might also want to check your credit report for accuracy; you can do that using the FTC’s website at

It takes time. It takes seven years for unpaid bills and other mistakes to disappear from your credit reports. For those things to disappear, you have to have patience.

Q5: Estate planning and memory loss

My mother is 70 and is losing her memory. I’m an only child and she has no one else to help her. I would love to help, but she refuses my offers and is in denial that she needs help. I’ve lived with her for the past three months, so I know the areas where she’s no longer fully functioning.

My main concern now is getting her affairs in order while she’s still of sound mind. She has a will, but no revocable trust, power of attorney, durable power of attorney, or living will. I’m not on her banking account and she doesn’t have it set up for payable on death.

My mother is stubborn, doesn’t understand the importance of these documents, and wants me to stay out of her business. What’s the best tactic to get her to be active in estate planning before her memory goes?
– Diane

I’d start out by making it clear that if she doesn’t have her affairs in order, the state or a local judge will do so and make decisions in their interests or in accordance to generic boilerplate laws that have nothing to do with her own wishes.

As for trust and “nosiness,” just encourage her to visit a lawyer. You don’t have to have anything to do with what she decides and sets up. She can simply have a lawyer help her with her decisions and guide her toward the estate planning she needs.

Other than that, there’s not much you can really do. These choices are hers, not yours. Your best hope is to use calls to authority, both positive and negative, to persuade her to make sensible choices for herself and her future.

Q6: Figuring out loan forgiveness

So for the last several years I have been researching programs that could potentially help me pay down or assist with student loans. I have never held positions where my loans qualify for this.

I have loans in the amount of $65,000 currently from undergraduate and graduate programs in social work.

I graduated with my master’s degree in 2004 and have been paying on my loans monthly with exception of deferment for a few years a couple of years ago due to financial issues (divorce, etc.).

I am currently working for a “for-profit” clinic for a large corporation where I have been for the last eight years and hold a contingent position at a non-profit organization (Rescue INC) where I have been for 16 years. My hours are sporadic though as a contingent employee, so that disqualified me.

I just accepted a position at [a university] as a Clinical Social Worker at their Counseling Center. I start in a couple of weeks. One of my goals is to get my Ph.D and classes would be paid so I would not have to add to my debt.

I was wondering if this employment position would qualify for me for any current loan forgiveness programs? I had loans consolidated years ago and various companies have taken over the loan over the years.
– Mary

Unfortunately, there are basically no options for private student loan forgiveness. Once you’ve consolidated any public loans you have with a private lender, you basically abandon your options for loan forgiveness.

Your only possible hope is through your current lender. Though it is rare, they may offer some programs that can help people in certain situations. Remember, this is a company with a primary interest in making money, not in making friends. Any programs they have are ones that end up helping them make more money in the big scheme of things.

Your best approach is to simply earn as much as you can, make extra payments, and get rid of the debt as fast as you possibly can.

Q7: Balancing job needs

I am having a hard time trying to figure out what to do with my career choices. I am currently working at a wine wholesaler that has a relaxed environment and I just got a $1.50 raise/promotion to accounting assistant. But the downside is they don’t allow vacations during Nov-Dec (because it is their busiest time of the year), they only give 56 hrs total a year for vacation/sick PTO, and eventually – once I start a family – I’m not going to want to be limited on financial-wellness/if/when I take my vacation time off (especially since my fiancé’s family lives in another state – so during the holidays we’re going to have to travel).

About two weeks into starting this job (in October) I had a phone interview with the VA and a month or so after that I got selected for the job and since then have been going through the process of getting the VA job- the background checks, answering essay questions, and so on. I am very close to getting an official offer- and since I just got a raise/promotion at my current job its making it hard to figure out if I should leave the more relaxed/stressfree (most of the time) job that has crappy time off benefits/time off availability to go to a federal government job that will give me more than double the PTO I currently have and I would be able to take off time around the holidays (not to mention I would be making $2.50 more an hour).

I’m honestly split down the middle- I love the wine business and I get wholesale prices on wine while working with people that are fun and I can be myself around.

But I also need the raise (my wedding is this year), and the ability to be sick and still take a week-long vacation.. but worried about the stress of being an advanced medical support assistant with the VA.

I made a pros and cons list, but I’m still stuck. (Sorry for the long message!!)
– Sara

You’re facing the challenge that a lot of people face in their professional lives. One job is better in almost every regard except pay and perhaps one or two other features, while the other job pays better and maybe has better leave. Which do you choose?

There is no ready-made answer to that question. My only advice is this: try to imagine what you think your life will look like five years from now. Imagine your life with your current job, and then imagine your life with your new job. What will the effects of stress be like? What will the effects of $2.50 an hour in additional pay be like? What about the different locations in which you might live? Try to think about the best outcomes and the worst outcomes and the most likely ones.

Almost always, I’ll tell people to choose the one that will have them in a better life situation five years from now in most cases. I’ll also say that $2.50 an hour and a little bit more leave isn’t worth a significant increase in daily stress, at least in my view.

Q8: Slow cooker breakfasts

After reading many of your articles on slow cookers it occurs to me that it might make sense to put food in the slow cooker overnight and have it for breakfast the next morning. Do you know of any breakfast foods that work well that way?
– Annie

Steel cut oatmeal! I absolutely love this in a slow cooker, cooked overnight and sitting on the table ready to eat in the morning! We usually chop up a couple of apples in there and add a bit of cinnamon – the apples disintegrate by morning, but the whole thing is imbued with an apple-cinnamon flavor. Most steel cut oat containers have a recipe on them for doing this in a slow cooker, so it’s a pretty normal thing.

I’ve tried other things in the slow cooker with varying degrees of success. I’ve tried breakfast casseroles a few times and I’ve never had one turn out really well, nor have overnight rolls. I’ve had friends report success on these kinds of things, so maybe I’m just picky.

However, steel cut oatmeal is just amazing. We try lots of variants on steel cut oatmeal, too – bananas, maple syrup, even things like almonds. It’s warm, filling, and has lots of fiber, too.

Q9: Breaking attraction to sales

My biggest financial problem is sales. Whenever I see a big sale I am just drawn to it. I feel like this is my chance to get something at this low of a price and if I don’t do it now I won’t ever have this chance again so I spend money. At that moment I feel like I am saving money but I know I am really not and so I decide I’m done with sales and then a month later I’ll see a sale and the whole cycle repeats itself. Suggestions?
– Mandy

I can certainly understand this kind of temptation. The idea that this is your only chance to get this item at this price can be really compelling.

For me, I just twist the focus to the item itself. I ask myself a simple question – if this were full price, would I even think about buying it? If the answer is no, then I have no reason to buy it at a sale price unless I can flip it for a profit immediately.

The truth is, neither you or I really needs new stuff. All of our actual needs are well met, so most of the stuff we buy beyond basic foodstuffs amount to a “want.” When you really realize that, it becomes a lot easier to just start saying “no” to a lot of stuff, and then it becomes a lot easier to resist sales.

Q10: Taking kids to movies

Do you ever take your kids to the movies? If so, how do you do it with out spending $100?
– Charlie

Our whole family – all five of us – went to see The Force Awakens a few weeks ago and it was undoubtedly expensive. We did a few things to keep the price low.

One, we went to a matinee film where the ticket prices were cheaper. This was good not only from a money-saving perspective, but also because our children get tired later in the day.

Two, we bought one tub of popcorn for all of the kids to share. The tub cost $6, but it was shared three ways, so the cost dropped down to $2.

Three, we brought refillable water bottles to drink. These can be refilled at the water fountains that are at every theater in the land.

Adding those tricks together, our total cost for our family was $38.50. The tickets were $6.50 each, times five, which added up to $32.50. The tub of popcorn was $6, bringing the total to $38.50.

Other than waiting for home video or eschewing the popcorn, that was the cheapest we could do.

Q11: Retirement savings or debt payoff?

My husband and I have almost $27,000 of student debt and a car loan that we’re actively working to pay off as quickly as possible. We’re in our late 20’s/early30’s and I’m also wondering if we should be saving for retirement. We both have 401k’s through our jobs, but I’m wondering if we should be putting even $50 per month or something like that into a Roth IRA in addition to that. Would it be smarter to open an IRA and contribute a small amount each month, or to roll that $50 towards our debt and put more into an IRA once those debts are paid off?
– Connie

It depends on how much you’re saving in your 401(k). If you’re saving less than 10% of your income at your age, then it would make sense to roll that extra money into a Roth IRA. If you’re saving 10% or more, then striving for debt freedom would probably be a better choice.

It’s really hard to give a precise answer, though, because it depends on a number of things. What are your spending habits like? If your salary goes up, does your spending go up too? Do you have a hard time adjusting if your salary were to go down? The more flexible and frugal you are, the more I lean toward paying off the debt. The less flexible and less frugal you are, the more I lean toward saving in the Roth IRA for retirement.

Given your description here – you’re trying to get rid of loans quickly – that means you’re spending quite a bit less than you earn, which means that you’re at least somewhat frugal, I would think. If that’s the case and you’re also saving at least 10% in the 401(k), I’d probably hammer on the debts.

Q12: Social Security survivor benefits

I’m trying to understand Social Security survivor benefits better and how they would impact the amount of life insurance I need. Background: I’m 33 with wife (30) and four kids (ages 3 months, 2, 2, 3). Can see the obvious need for life insurance.

Everything I read or see on calculators online seem to suggest that I need 1M+ on me (yearly salary in the high 5 digit range) and completely ignores SS survivor benefits. But based on my SS statement, it seems that if just I passed (probably worst-case scenario as my wife is a stay-at-home mom), she would receive $1,825 a month and each kid could receive the same (up to monthly max of $4,250). If she can receive 51K a year still staying at home until the 2-year-old twins are 18 (wouldn’t hit the max with just 1 kid under 18 at that point), then she wouldn’t need anywhere near 1M+ to continue our standard of living (mortgage is 150k, no other debt, 2 paid off cars both newer than 2010, more than 250k in retirement, 15k in college savings, etc…)

So my question is this, am I misunderstanding how survivor benefits work and she would receive way less than that 51k amount? Would that 51k be taxable? Would she or the kids still receive any of it if she went back to work as she wants to once the youngest is in school (teacher)? Just seems like the need for insurance is constantly being overstated as the primary need of it is to make sure my kids are taken care of until they can fend for themselves (18+) and SS seems to provide a large chunk of that.
– Sam

There are a few factors to consider here. For one, once your children reach age 18, your spouse will receive zero benefits from Social Security until age 60. Life insurance money can help bridge that gap.

For another, many people buy additional insurance policies to pay off all of the accumulated debt. If you have a big policy, your survivors could pay off the full home mortgage, all car payments, all loans, and so on, leaving them a debt-free life with that Social Security survivor benefit.

Another factor to consider is college. Your life insurance money could be locked away to pay for your children’s college education should you die. Remember, your spouse’s benefit will vanish when your children reach adulthood until she’s old enough to receive benefits. During that period, your spouse won’t likely be able to offer much help for the children’s college expenses.

Many people who buy large life insurance policies want to do so to replace the wages they would have earned had they lived, including the additional income they may have earned through raises, to ensure their survivors a really great life.

I’m not sure why many articles about life insurance don’t include the Social Security benefits, but there are many reasons why it makes sense to get a very robust term life insurance policy, especially if you’re the parent of young children.

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.