Questions About Marriage, Side Gigs, Healthy Eating, Gratitude 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. Investing and DACA
2. Skipping Roth contributions
3. Does marriage make sense?
4. Too tired for side gigs
5. Emergency fund size
6. Healthy eating is expensive?
7. Tap Roth IRA balance?
8. Safety in stranger’s advice
9. Three paycheck months?
10. Rent is throwing money away!
11. Food kits
12. Spirituality, gratitude, and finances

For most of last week, my daughter was rather seriously ill. She had a fever for several days as the result of a very nasty ear infection. After getting some treatment for it, she’s doing much better and is pretty much back to her normal self, but she was in significant pain and really lethargic during most of the last week.

Because of my flexible schedule, I took care of her most days, checking on her every half hour or so, making her lunch, insisting that she drink plenty of water, keeping track of when she had taken pain relief, keeping a pad for her ear warm, and so on.

I don’t mind doing this – in fact, I’m happy that I am able to do such things with ease – but it meant that I had to make a lot of hard choices about what things got done and what things did not.

This brings to mind two key things.

First of all, I have made a number of carer choices along the way to allow myself the kind of flexibility where I can just go do this when called to do so. This has meant sometimes choosing less pay in exchange for more flexible options. I don’t have to go into an office. I don’t have set times to work. Those are nice perks and I’m willing to trade a little income for them.

Second, a big part of having that kind of self-employment flexibility – a big part – comes from good personal time management and good discipline. Being able to choose when I work means that I’m also free to choose not to work and to choose to do other things. It takes discipline and good time management to stay on task when I’m not in an office with a boss hanging over my shoulder. Again, there are perks, but it requires self-motivation to be able to pull it off.

On with the questions.

Q1: Investing and DACA

I’m 27 and very new to investing apart from the 401k company. I have one Acorns account, one Swell Investment account and one savings account on my bank. But as am learning more and more I feel more confident to open a betterments or wealthfront account and hopefully later move to a brokerage account to buy stocks. My situation is a little different from other people, I have DACA, which means am not 100% legal in the United States. And now with the news that DACA could be gone it makes me worry about how should I continue to invest and think about my finances. I want to contribute more to my employer 401k but I don’t know how long would I be there. And I want to know if there are other options to keep investing internationally.
– Joe

Your options for international investing depend heavily on where you’re going. You need to study those companies and what kind of offerings they have for people in your situation. In general, larger brokerages are more likely to seamlessly continue to work as you move overseas. Most nations have some sort of brokerage options available in them.

Your 401(k) plan won’t disappear if you leave the United States. Rather, it will just sit there and continue to grow and, when you reach retirement age, you’ll be able to tap it and receive income from the United States at that time. It’s effectively deferred income for you.

If I were in your shoes, I’d keep contributing to the 401(k) for now and keep any other investment money in cash for the moment while you study up on what options are going to be available to you.

Q2: Skipping Roth contributions

My husband and I are both 45 and have been contributing the max to each of our Roth IRAs annually. We are debt free other than about $85k on our mortgage. We are thinking about diverting our monthly Roth contributions ($1,000) to our mortgage principle (in addition to what we already pay on the mortgage monthly) to get the balance down to about $40k in the next 2 years. Then we would use cash we have saved (non-retirement money) to pay the balance and be debt free. We would then begin contributing to Roths again as usual. Would missing that 2 years of Roth contributions hurt us when the outcome is no more debt? I know there are some tax advantages but I still think that not having any debt would far outweigh some tax savings for a couple of years. Thoughts?
– Sarah

Unless your home mortgage is really high interest (above, say, 7% or 8%) or you’re underwater on your mortgage (meaning you owe more than the house is worth), I wouldn’t do this.

If you take away your Roth IRA contributions, that means that your retirement savings are going to grow far more slowly than they would if you just left that approximately $24,000 in contributions in place.

Stay put, whittle down that mortgage debt, and maybe make an extra mortgage payment wherever you can. It might take you another year or two to pay off that mortgage, but your financial state when it goes away will be far stronger than if you stopped with the Roth contributions.

Q3: Does marriage make sense?

I am a scientist in my late thirties. My boyfriend is a nurse in his mid thirties. We’ve dated for year and we just learned our finances are quite different. He has about $12,000 in a retirement account and $4,000 in a savings account. He was a professional athlete and engineer and went back to school to be a nurse. He has $85,000 in debt (mainly from school) and is considering grad school to earn a masters degree in nursing. I’m worried about his financial situation. I’ve saved more for retirement, I have savings in investments. I am financially able to meet some life goals like own a home, raise kids and pay for a decent education etc. What are your thoughts? Marriage material? Important discussions to have before making any next decisions?
– Denise

If you’re trying to decide if this guy would make sense as a life partner, don’t focus on the debt load he’s carrying but on his day-to-day financial choices. Is he consistently making frugal choices? Does he spend less than he earns? Does he make choices that chip away at that debt, or does he coast by on minimum payments? Does he spend lots of money on unnecessary things, or is he largely sensible with his spending?

If he has good day to day financial practices, then I’d consider the financial area to be good enough. People sometimes have to go into debt in order to secure their future. Educational debt isn’t a blight on a person for the rest of their lives provided they’re making good choices to eliminate it.

Trust his behavior, not his debt list.

Q4: Too tired for side gigs

I appreciate your articles about side gigs and I see the benefit but they just don’t work for me. When I get home from work I am so exhausted I can barely see straight. I make a quick dinner and basically veg out and go to sleep. On days off I want to do something for ME not just run around giving away my time earning more money.
– Sal

For some people, side gigs are a really fulfilling way to spend their spare time and earn money along the way. It can provide them a window to spend their time doing something that’s really meaningful to them, providing a lot of pleasure.

Others may have jobs that aren’t personally draining or offer a lot of free time, which enables them to devote a lot of time and energy to that side gig.

Side gigs aren’t a good fit for everyone, though. Sometimes life doesn’t afford that spare time or energy.

Q5: Emergency fund size

I am 33 years old, single, not dating, no interest in marriage or parenting. I live in an apartment with $1400/month rent. I make about $88K/year. Don’t own a car as I use the subway. How big should my emergency fund be?
– Kevin

I would try to have two months of living expenses saved up in that situation. That’s the “big goal” though – for now, shoot for $1,000, which is enough to handle smaller emergencies.

You want to eventually be able to roll through a job loss without skipping a beat, which is why two months of living expenses is good because it gives you time for a new job search without freaking out about paying the rent or eating.

My preferred method for doing this is signing up for an online bank account at somewhere like Capital One 360 or Ally and setting up a savings account there that’s linked to your primary checking account. Then, set up a weekly transfer of a small amount – say, $20 or $40 – that slurps money from checking into this new savings. Then, just forget about it until you have an emergency. When you do, transfer as much as you need back to your main checking account and pay that bill!

Q6: Healthy eating is expensive?

How do you balance out the fact that eating healthy is really expensive with the fact that the long term health care costs of eating bad are also really expensive?
– Dana

Eating healthy isn’t expensive. It’s just not as convenient as most unhealthy options. That lack of super-convenience creates the perspective that it’s expensive.

Constraints of time and energy as well as a desire for particular flavors often guide people toward unhealthy foods. It’s far easier to drive through a drive-thru and order a cheeseburger combo meal with an extra treat on the side than it is to go home and make a healthy dinner for yourself, even though the meal at home costs less.

I have a number of solutions I use to ensure that we’re eating healthy at our house. I have meal prep days (where I prepare a bunch of meals at once and freeze them at a point that makes them easy to finish at some point in the future, usually just by thawing). I use a slow cooker and a rice cooker. I have a repertoire of very simple meals that I can practically prepare in my sleep. I pre-prep some of the more time consuming elements of meals on Sundays or on lazier evenings for use later in the week (like cooking dry beans).

Those strategies cut into the time needed in the moment to prepare a low cost healthy meal. Mostly, it’s all about offloading effort to less intense times or using devices that can take care of some steps for me automatically.

Q7: Tap Roth IRA balance?

My wife may need some major medical care in the future and the deductible for that care is far above what we can afford out of pocket. We will be incurring some medical debt either way, but is it better to take on more medical debt or to use contributions to a Roth IRA to keep the debt lower?
– Dennis

What does your retirement picture look like if those contributions go away? Is retirement something you’re still on track for? Try to make a model of what retirement looks like without the Roth IRA contributions. How much money will you have? What will that look like on a monthly basis.

No matter what, be in contact with the medical service providers and lenders. See if you can work out a payment plan you can live with, and only tap your Roth IRA if there’s nothing that can be done. Communication is almost always key, and many medical service providers will work out a payment plan with you that you can tolerate. Don’t just tap the Roth IRA as a reflex action.

On a side note, I think that when people are having to make choices like this, something has seriously failed in our system. Getting ill shouldn’t mean losing everything you’ve worked for. I’m not going to argue about what the best solution is, but I know that any solution that bankrupts people for getting sick isn’t the best solution.

Q8: Safety in stranger’s advice

Why is it that I feel safer asking advice from a random stranger on the internet even knowing the question might be shared to thousands of others?
– Dennis

This simple question explains the popularity and success of the reader mailbag, I think!

I point to three factors.

First, such questions are anonymous. The negative implications of the question you’re asking don’t reflect on you as a person. You can ask the question without people in your life knowing that you’ve put yourself in that position.

Second, online questions are often asked of targeted communities of people with knowledge in that area, or else they’re addressing a specific person that they trust on some level. For me, I’m not a “random stranger” – there’s a ton of my writing available for you to judge the sincerity of my advice and see that you’ll get that same sincerity.

Third, people are often reinforcing the ideas they already have or have heard from other places. They’re simply wanting the “wisdom of crowds” to reinforce what they’re already thinking. This is actually true for most reader mailbag questions if you read closely.

Q9: Three paycheck months?

My wife and I are both federal employees which means we receive a paycheck every two weeks. At the start of the year which was of course because of a resolution we decided to start budgeting and made a budget based on two paychecks for each of us. We are looking ahead to March and it looks like we will receive three paychecks that month, which is something we really didn’t think about when budgeting. Do you have a suggestion for how to handle it?
– David

I was once in your shoes. I was paid every other week, and this resulted in some months where I was paid a third paycheck. There are a lot of ways to handle this.

One method is to simply use the entire third paycheck to pay off debt. The drawback of this plan is that you would effectively have a four week gap between “usable” paychecks at some point, because that check in the middle went to debt repayment.

Another approach: use half of the second two paychecks in March solely as an extra debt payment. This way, you don’t have to go four weeks without usable income, which might cause issues with on-time bill payment. You’ll have two “half-paychecks” instead of one full one, in other words.

Extra debt payment on highest interest debt is incredibly effective way to use that “extra” paycheck. The only thing that might trump it is if you have no emergency fund and no high interest debt, in which case I’d sock away that check in a savings account somewhere to help in the event of an emergency.

Q10: Rent is throwing money away!

Can’t believe you would advise anyone to rent! Rent is throwing money away! Why would you ever just hand money to a landlord for nothing!
– Jim

On the other hand, owning means handing money in interest to your lender, handing money in insurance premiums to the insurer, handing money to the homeowners association, and handing money to the local government in the form of property taxes.

It also means that when your water pump fails and completely destroys the downstairs carpet, you’re going to be paying for that out of pocket and handing money to the carpet store. If a toilet breaks, you’re going to be handing money to Home Depot. If your air conditioner dies, you’re going to be handing money to the HVAC person.

The “handing money to a landlord” logic only makes sense if you ignore that you’re likely handing over even more money in a home ownership situation.

There are situations where buying makes sense and others where renting makes sense. It depends a lot on your personal financial stability and the nature of the real estate market you’re in.

Q11: Food kits

Do food kits really save money? I was doing the math on one and it seemed like the individual ingredients were about the same price as the kit.
– Ash

It depends on what you mean by “food kits.” I’m assuming you’re referring to prepackaged meal kits that you can buy at the store, like Hamburger Helper and the like.

The truth is that many such food kits are more expensive than buying the same ingredients separately. The kits just offer convenience – all of the ingredients are right there along with a very simple recipe and so you don’t have to shop for several things or find your own recipe.

The extra expense is convenience. That’s usually what you’re paying for. Most such kits involve a seasoning packet and maybe a few other ingredients like a small pasta pouch and the expense is surprisingly high.

What if you like a particular kit? You can find very close approximations of most such meal kits with a simple Google search. Once you know what’s in them, you can modify them for healthiness and other factors.

I do admit a big weakness for ready-to-go soup kits, though, but I often assemble them myself. I’ll just put all of the needed ingredients in a quart Ziploc or a jar in the pantry and have it ready to go to the point of just adding it to water and boiling it for a little while.

Q12: Spirituality, gratitude, and finances

several years ago, my family was forced into a conscious money ‘diet’ due to the economy as well as some theft going on by my husband’s secretary. He’s self employed and made a very nice living. We had three teens when the economy caused him to lose a good part of his income. Then, we discovered his secretary was stealing. After firing her (she had no assets to get from her so not worth the civil suit and no stomach for a criminal prosecution), I stepped into the secretary role, giving up my own beloved part time job. Our oldest kid was poised for college. The younger kids were nearing that time. wWe had to make some severe financial decisions and quick.

The younger kids were pulled from their private schools and oldest kid went off to college. I was not a happy person, but it was not my husband’s fault and he continued to persevere. What I learned was to take care of myself first so I would not feel deprived by the loss of financial security, most discretionary income, and forced frugality. Taking care of myself included time for myself written in granite during which I usually walked several miles. It also included increasing my spiritual connection with the God of my understanding AND a gratitude journal. My gratitude journal is simple. Every day (evening for me as i am not a morning person) I write down 5 things for which I am grateful that day. Can’t repeat myself in a week – otherwise it’s always grateful for the health of family and the smile on my husband’s face. There are ALWAYS at least 5 things to write down. I keep the pieces of paper a week or two then burn most of them. The ones I keep are unique and go into a jar where on days where I find it difficult to be grateful, I will pull out one of those unique ones and be grateful for the memory.

I am not a fan or much organized religion – but that does not keep me from having a great deal of spirituality.
– Joan

This is a great story.

Spirituality can be a great guidance. One can gain great value from religious readings, prayer, and beliefs without being an active member of organized religion. You don’t have to be part of a church or a mosque or a synagogue to gain a lot of personal benefit from focused prayer or reading of religious texts or doing charitable work.

Find things that speak to you, comfort you when you have fallen, and call you to be a better person. For some, that’s found in organized religion. For others, it’s found in a simple prayer done in a comfortable chair at home

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.