Questions About Jobless Partners, Reusable Containers, Standing Desks, D&D, 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. Time to save for retirement?
2. Speaking up more at work
3. Partner not working
4. No ambition
5. Good reusable containers
6. Jealous of coworkers
7. Standing desk and back pain
8. Finding a church replacement
9. Update on castile soap
10. Impostor syndrome
11. Inexpensive D&D
12. “Portable office”

After Saturday’s post about goal-oriented planners, several readers immediately contacted me and asked a bunch of great questions. Rather than having the mailbag be full of them, I’m writing a follow-up article that will address a lot of those questions that should be up later this week. Most of the questions were oriented around how I specifically use those types of planners and journals along with digital tools, so I’m going to spell it all out in detail.

I will say, in brief, that the reason I use such tools is that I’ve learned the hard way that spending a few hours each day “sharpening the axe” ends with a day being far more productive than if I just dive right into my perceived list of things I need to do that day. It might seem weird, but if I spend an hour or 90 minutes getting my day ready and my head in shape and maybe 15 minutes in the evening reviewing things and setting up for the next day, it makes the rest of my day far more productive, more than making up for that invested time. I’ll get into the details of it later this week.

For now, let’s dig into the rest of the mailbag.

Q1: Time to save for retirement?

I have been holding off on saving for retirement until all of my student loans are paid off. I’ve been making roughly double payments for the last three years and hope to have them all paid off in about eighteen months at this rate. The interest rates on the remaining loans are between 4% and 5.5%. Your recent article made me think that maybe I should start saving for retirement now and slow down to minimum payments on the loans. What do you think? I’m single, 28, male, make $48K per year, live in a LCOL area, career is pretty safe with plenty of job opportunity.
– Adam

If I were you, I would definitely switch to contributing as much as I could to retirement while still making minimum payments on my student loans, provided you don’t have any other debts (which is what I think was implied by your question). In fact, if you don’t have any debts with an interest rate above 9% or 10% or so and you have a reasonably secure job, I would be focused on retirement savings.

Of course, I’m also assuming you have an emergency fund of some kind, ideally one that’s continually funded by a 2% to 3% automatic transfer of your paycheck into a savings account somewhere. In other words, if your check is $1,000 every two weeks, you should be transferring about $10 to $15 every week into a savings account used as an emergency fund. I would prioritize that over everything, though that amount shouldn’t really affect the choice.

You have the beginnings of a solid financial foundation if you’ve got a good career and only some low interest student loan debt outstanding. Start cementing it with retirement savings and an emergency fund.

Q2: Speaking up more at work

One thing I would like to see you address is that a person feels more secure speaking up at work if they have retirement savings and some money in the bank for emergencies.

When I was in my twenties and didn’t have a dime saved for retirement and was still trying to pay off student loans in about 1995 or so I never said anything. I kept my head down and just did what I was told. I sometimes did unethical things I am ashamed of. I worked tons of weekends without pay.

I’m now in my late forties and I have enough in retirement savings that I could probably retire around age 60 without contributing more. I have a big emergency fund. I have no debt.

Because of that, I now speak up at work. I refuse to work without getting paid for it. I don’t do tasks I don’t want to do, especially stuff that should be handed to someone else. If something is wrong, I say something. I stand up for people who the bosses treat like crap. I basically lost my fear of speaking up and now I don’t hate my job and I think I make other lives better. I’m definitely a thorn in their side, but they’re hesitant to fire me because I kill it on a lot of important things.

Yeah, someday I might stick my neck out too far, but you know what? I don’t need this job. They need me. That changes everything. Saving a lot for retirement was the best thing I could have done for feeling good about my career.
– Tanya

I found the same thing, actually.

I changed careers because I was becoming unhappy with some aspects of what my job and career were turning into. I was only able to do that because we had achieved some financial stability and I had built other opportunities for myself.

I sold The Simple Dollar and became a staff writer because I was becoming unhappy with many aspects of the “business” of running it and I didn’t want to just be a manager. I was only able to do that because we had achieved even more financial stability.

Now, I basically have the freedom to write whatever I want and I’m unafraid to say things when something is bothering me. The worst that could happen is that they could say, “We don’t need you around any more,” and, honestly, we’d be fine financially if that were to happen.

Having that kind of freedom to just walk away is a game changer, and it’s part of why I so strongly encourage people to spend less than they earn and save for emergencies and for retirement and to get rid of their debts. The more money you have in the bank, the less control your bosses have over you and the more freedom you have to dictate your career.

Q3: Partner not working

My husband and I were finally back on track financially (we filed for bankruptcy last year after having massive medical bills and credit card debt from my husband having to have open heart surgery). I felt like we were in a good place and I was just starting to save 10% of our income when out of the blue he quit his job. He had been unhappy for a while and I told him to find something else, but he quit without finding another job. We were ok for the first 2 weeks or so. We are nearing week 4 and I’m worried about what we are going to do.

I make decent money. I bring home $1600/biweekly after taxes and insurance. He was bringing home about $1500/biweekly. I’m not sure how I’m going to make the house payment and car payments. Our house payment is $1200/month. We do have 2 car loans. Mine is $450/month and his is $530/month. I also have $400 in student loans/month. (Half of that payment is for a private student loan, so I can defer half that amount a month, which I’m going to do.) My check can make the large payments but then there isn’t money left for gas and groceries. We don’t have tv service, just internet. Only other major bills are gas and electric and daycare (3 kids, 2 in school, 1 at daycare). We are taking a break from daycare until my husband finds something else.

I just don’t know what to do when I can’t make payments. We only have $800 in savings. Not even enough to make one house payment. What can I do? I don’t have any credit cards to fall back on and I don’t want to have to do that. With having filed bankruptcy recently there is not a lot I can do. The only thing besides defering my federal student loans is to sell my husband’s car and get him a cheap car to get him by. We don’t live in an urban area, so no public transporation. He does not see the urgency in finding a new job and how this could really ruin us financially. I’m panicking and don’t know what to do.
– Amy

Your husband absolutely needs to get another job as soon as humanly possible, hard stop, or else immediately start addressing what’s causing him not to work. If you are not in a situation where your income can support the family, then he needs to be working or you need to make major lifestyle changes – that’s just how it is. This isn’t even a question. He should be out beating the pavement to find work several hours a day, even if he is a little burned out from the stress of his previous job. He’s very likely unwinding from the stress of his previous position, but that is not an excuse to throw an enormous unexpected burden on you or to put your family on a path to fairly immediate financial crisis. If he cannot do this, then whatever is preventing him from doing this (health? a mental crisis?) needs to be addressed immediately, because waiting around at all causes enormous undue financial stress on your family.

You need to make it abundantly and extremely clear to him that not only is this situation causing extreme financial strain for your situation, putting you in actual danger of losing things and damaging credit, but that it’s also disrespectful and unsupportive of you and your child. If you make that 100% clear and he’s still unwilling to either immediately find a job or, if there’s a reason he can’t work, addressing that difficulty, then there is a serious marital problem. Make this all 100% clear and talk it out now. Do not avoid this conversation.

I’ll be honest – I don’t have a whole lot of respect for relationships where one partner refuses to work without some sort of reason for it (genuine physical or mental ailment) and it’s not a situation fully accepted by the other partner. One partner not working by choice puts undue burdens on the other partner (they’re walking an extreme professional tightrope), and unless that’s a situation approved of by the working partner, I have a very difficult time respecting that. (There are many situations where this is a good solution for both, such as stay-at-home parenting and homeschooling, where such an arrangement comes from shared values – that’s most decidedly not what I’m talking about here. I’m also not talking about situations where both partners are fine with such an arrangement, like when one person makes a great income while the other partner pursues other goals, as long as both are okay with it – that’s okay, too. I’m speaking exclusively of arrangements like this one, where the financial responsibility is unbalanced. That’s a personal viewpoint, but it’s one that shades my advice here.

Q4: No ambition

I want to achieve a lot of things in life but I just have no ambition to do it. I get up in the morning and want to start making changes and I go “Today is the day it all changes” and by evening I’m sitting on the couch watching Netflix and eating most of a pizza and buying [stuff] on my phone. I am such a failure.
– Bradley

You’re not a failure. You’re a human. Humans are creatures of habit. These are your habits.

If you really want to change, when you wake up in the morning with a bunch of desire to change, turn off the wi-fi in your house. Just shut it off. Unplug your TV, take the cord, and put it in a place that’s really hard to get to. Make it so you can’t watch Netflix or browse websites tonight. Delete your credit card number from every online account. Delete the phone number of the pizza place from your phone.

When you’re on your way home, don’t just rush right home. Intentionally stop somewhere and get yourself the stuff for a really easy meal that you can make at home. Get stuff for several meals so it’s in your cupboard.

When that’s done, and you’re about to flop on the couch, and you realize that there’s no Netflix to watch and you can’t just browse on your phone over wi-fi, either, do something different. Go on a walk. Read a book. Anything that’s different than your usual routine.

You can have all of the intention in the world, but until you use that moment when intention is running strong to do things to break your usual habits, you’ll keep falling right back into those habits. That’s what humans do. So break them. When you get up and feel all motivated, use that motivation right then to make the bad, lazy habits later in the day a lot harder to carry through.

That’s the start of change.

Q5: Good reusable containers

Do you have any suggestions for good individual meal reusable containers that aren’t super expensive? I have used Glad stuff in the past but it seems to crack and become unusable after just a few washes and so it’s kind of a waste of money. Want stuff that’ll last for 100+ uses.
– Janelle

Gladware stuff is really the super low end for meal packaging, in my opinion. It works, but it only works for about ten or so uses and then the lids start to warp and crack. The sole advantage they have is that they’re so cheap. You get ten or fifteen uses out of them for less than a quarter, so that’s less than $0.02 per use.

The best ones out there that I’ve found in terms of reusability without being astronomical in price are the Rubbermaid Brilliance containers. I am really impressed with them. They are leakproof after a surprising number of uses and seem really sturdy, and they’re not overly expensive, either. They work in the freezer, fridge, and microwave really well. I’d suggest getting a variety pack, figuring out what sizes you like, and then get individual containers that meet those needs. The issue here is that a variety pack of 10 containers is about $15, so you end up spending about $1.50 per container. To get them as cheap as the Gladware, you have to use them about 75 times each. I definitely think they’re up for that, but I’m honestly not sure I’ve used them that much.

There are a lot of good glass meal containers, but… well… let’s just put it this way: I’ve had way too many of them break for me to feel good recommending them. I really like them when they don’t break, but there have been too many times when one of our family members is pulling one out of the fridge and it drops on the floor and shatters and then we have glass shards everywhere. It’s just not worth the risk to me.

Q6: Jealous of coworkers

I have been contributing 20% of my income to retirement savings since the day I started and also fully fund a Roth IRA. I want to be retired by the time I’m 45 or 50 at the latest. But almost every day I feel jealous of my coworkers. I have the oldest car in the parking lot and they are all going on trips and live in huge nice houses. I live in a 3BR fixer-upper that I spend my weekends refurbishing. Most days I would rather have their life.
– Alex

The first thing I’d ask myself is this: would you really enjoy having that shiny new car? It would be fun to drive it at first, but within 500 miles, it would just become an ordinary car that you commute with, except that you dumped many thousands more into it than the car you have. Would you really enjoy having that huge expensive house? It’s just a more expensive place to sit on the couch watching Netflix.

There is always a tendency to feel like the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, but the truth is that most of what we see are the highlights of other people’s lives. We don’t see the fact that the person with the expensive house just goes inside and sits on the couch and watches TV, they just do it at an additional cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Their life isn’t any better and, arguably, it’s worse in many ways because they have this huge bill to pay off.

Flip it around. How exactly do you think they’ll feel when you walk into work some day when you’re about 46 and you turn in your resignation letter and announce that you’re retiring. “What will you do?” “Oh, I don’t know, probably spend a month or two just unwinding and doing some stuff around the house, and then in the spring I’m going to do a road trip to some national parks and to spend a week with an old friend in Montana. It’ll be nice to have no job to worry about or come back to.” Whose grass will seem greener then?

Q7: Standing desk and back pain

Our workplace switched to standing desks in April and I have been miserable ever since with constant back pain. Lots of people here feeling the same. How did you deal with this?
– Mark

I’m going to speculate that a lot of you who are dealing with a lot of back pain are finding every reason possible not to use the standing desks at work and finding other spots to work where you can sit, because that feels way better in the short run. I know that exact temptation.

Here’s the deal – the soreness and mild pain you’re feeling is your core getting stronger. The more you stand at your desk today, the more sore you’ll feel and the more your body is going to yell at you to sit down, but the easier it will be to stand tomorrow. The less you stand, the better your back will feel today and probably tomorrow, but the far worse it will feel over the long run.

My suggestion? Go to your doctor and make sure there’s nothing really wrong with your back. Then, I’d advise you to start doing some stretching every day, both before and after working at your standing desk as much of the day as you can. I really like this one and do it every day. Also, if you’re having a tough day, take a couple ibuprofen or acetaminophen (ask your doctor which one is preferred for you and your situation).

The thing is, I do still feel some back pain some days, even after using the standing desk for close to a year. However, for me, it’s more of an issue of my muscles feeling tired from having used them all day. The genuine pain I felt earlier on was due to my muscles feeling weak. Now, they’re plenty strong for this, but the transition was tough. The best thing I can tell you is to get over that hump and get used to it.

Q8: Finding a church replacement

I recently left a church I had attended for many years as I felt that my faith was growing in a different direction than the pastoral staff and the congregation at that church. There were too many fundamental things that we were just too far apart on. Now I’m really struggling to fill that community hole in my life. I have visited a few other churches and don’t think they’re a good fit either, but I yearn for some kind of community to be a part of. I don’t mind contributing financially to that community but I don’t want to feel like my contributions are just lining someone’s pocket or are being used for things I don’t agree with. Not sure where to go and I’m feeling lost.
– Amy

It does sound to me like you’re continuing some kind of spiritual journey outside of the church, which is a good thing. I’ll be the last person to suggest what answers you should be looking for or what questions to ask, other than to say that I encourage everyone to keep reading and thinking about spiritual issues and philosophies of life, as I think they’re an invaluable part of a balanced life, regardless of what you might believe in terms of theology.

What you’re really searching for, it seems, is community, particularly a community where you feel like your contributions are part of something that is a broad positive. If I were in your shoes, I would start looking at charitable work, as I think that’s very much in line with what you’re looking for. Charitable work – work in the community of some kind without benefit for yourself – is usually full of people who want community and who want to be involved with good acts in the broader community, which is exactly what you seem to be looking for.

Look around your community for charities and civic groups and give a few of them a trial run to see if they fit with you. Is there a Habitat for Humanity group in your area, for example? Is there a soup kitchen or a food pantry or a clothing pantry? You can most definitely find community in those who volunteer for such work.

Q9: Update on castile soap

How is the switch to castile soap going?
– Ed

Pretty well, actually. There are definitely some uses for which castile soap seems to work like a charm and other uses where I’m not a big fan.

I will say that I mostly just tested Dr. Bronner’s, but now I’m trying a few other castile soaps that aren’t as reliant on coconut oil, just to see if they’re different in terms of how they work as a body soap.

As of right now, I’d say Dr. Bronner’s is a great household cleaner for a lot of uses and it’s good as a hand soap, but I wouldn’t recommend that most people use it in the shower. I’ll get more specific later when I feel I have enough notes to actually make a meaningful post.

Q10: Impostor syndrome

Do you ever reach a point in your career where you feel like you’re not faking it any more and you’re actually competent at your job and not just hiding your incompetence?
– Marcia

This was just a brief excerpt of a longer conversation with Marcia about careers, the one part that actually felt like a reasonable mailbag question. What she’s describing is known as “impostor syndrome,” and it’s actually a really common thing. It’s the sense that you don’t actually have the skills that your job requires and that you’re producing work that’s much lower quality than you should be and you’re going to be found out as an impostor any day.

This is an extremely common feeling. I felt it when I was working in data mining. I felt it when I was first writing for The Simple Dollar and then again when I decided to do it full time. I feel it now with lots of projects I want to take on. I’m an impostor. I’m not good at this. I don’t understand why other people think I’m good at this. I don’t understand why people think my work output is good.

Rather than letting that feeling grind you down, look at it as an opportunity. People are happy with what you’re doing at the moment, so use that window of good job performance be an opportunity to hone your skills. Take extra classes. Read extra materials. Invest in yourself and your skills with every extra second of workplace time.

You’ll slowly stop feeling like an impostor and the tasks will move from overwhelming to merely hard to fairly easy. It just takes time.

Another factor to consider is that if everyone else is consistently happy with your performance, then your performance must be good. Either you’re wrong or everyone else is. It’s easy to maybe think everyone else is wrong at first, but as time goes on, it’s likely you that’s undervaluing your performance, not them overvaluing it.

Again, it takes time. Just keep building your skills and keep doing your best and learn to trust positive feedback. You get positive feedback because you deserve it, not because they’re misguided.

Q11: Inexpensive D&D

I have a 14 year old son and a 13 year old daughter who get along fantastically and have an overlapping friend group. One of their friends’ dad is starting a D&D campaign and supposedly to get started the kids need a bunch of stuff. They came back with a list of stuff they need like a bunch of special dice and a bunch of hardcover books. I don’t want to dump hundreds of $ into this when I don’t even know if they’ll stick with it but at the same time it seems like a fun social hobby where they won’t get into trouble. Do you know of any resources for getting started in D&D inexpensively?
– Amy

Honestly, they don’t need anything more than a pen and some paper, and they can probably get that from the person running the group. They can borrow the dice as needed and they can also likely show up early at their friend’s house to work on their character and choose things like items and spells (which is the big reason they’d need the rulebook).

If I were in your shoes, I’d just call the other parent and say that you want to see how this goes for a bit before you buy stuff and ask if they can just borrow dice and the “core rulebook” for the first several sessions.

If it clicks, you have ready-made things to buy as holiday gifts. You can get them a set of Chessex dice in their favorite color and get them each (or together) a core rulebook of whatever system it is that they’re using (probably D&D 5th Edition). You can stop at any local hobby shop that sells D&D materials and they’ll help you get exactly what you need and may have suggestions for other gifts that will excite your kids.

Honestly, tabletop roleplaying, when you stick to one system with one group for a long while, is a really inexpensive hobby. Your kids may just have a somewhat overinflated idea of what they actually need to play. I will say that a set of dice and a core rulebook are nice if you’re playing it consistently, but if you’re just getting started, you really only need a pen and some paper.

Q12: “Portable office”

Can you delve a little bit into what you mean by your “portable office”? I gather it’s some kind of bag that has a lot of working stuff in it?
– Mark

That’s correct. My “portable office” is a North Face Surge II backpack where I store a lot of my work materials when they’re not in use. I know that at any moment I can grab it and take everything I need to work with me to a new location.

So, what’s in there? I have a laptop and charger, several notebooks and a bunch of pens, usually a personal finance book I’m reading and some kind of self-improvement book I’m reading, a bunch of miscellaneous chargers, an empty reusable water bottle, a few granola bars, a few toiletries, a small first aid kit, a multi-tool, a mini flashlight, some ibuprofen, a change of clothes (most of the time), and a small amount of cash in small bills and change for incidental things. I usually keep my iPad and stylus in there, though it often finds its way to other places around the house.

That’s more than enough to make sure I’m good with almost any work-related task I might want to do anywhere when used in conjunction with what’s in my pockets, which is usually just a small wallet with minimal cash, my phone, and some keys. I often take this bag to the library – probably twice a week – and a few other places where I sometimes work, such as, when the weather is nice, park shelter houses. I work at home the majority of the time, but it’s a narrow majority, I think.

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.