Questions About Medical Bills, Shampoo, 1099s, Old Shoes, Savings Bonds, 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. Handling financially desperate father
2. Earning more versus spending less
3. Selling off old toys
4. Medical bill question
5. Shampoo isn’t necessary
6. Bar soap or body wash?
7. Saving money in bedside table?
8. Waiting for 1099s
9. Getting started with fermenting foods
10. Advantages of financial stability
11. Expired savings bonds
12. Replacing shoes

If you enjoyed some of the articles over the past year on how you can apply a particular life philosophy to finances and better living (like this one on stoicism and this one on secular Buddhism and this one on Epicureanism), I want to highly recommend the book How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy.

It’s a collection of essays on a number of different “philosophies of living,” including various religions and philosophies both ancient and new. Each one provides a good overview of that particular philosophy, highlighting the core ideas of each philosophy and how it functions as a value system for the modern world.

I’ve come to realize that a lot of ideas that have really worked for me in the past actually have ties to various life philosophies. For example, I often use the principle of least resistance in order to convince myself to make a particular change. I basically aim to eliminate as much resistance as possible to the way I want to behave. For example, if I’m trying to lose weight, I toss out junk food and have a bunch of  healthy meals at home that I actually like. That minimizes resistance to healthier eating. Guess what? That principle of least resistance is prevalent in Daoism, something this book showed me.

It’s a really fascinating book with a lot to chew on and, for me at least, it generated a long list of potential follow-up reading.

On with the questions!

Q1: Handling financially desperate father

My father is 69 and has completely trashed his finances. My parents’ divorce, the resulting credit card debt, the financial crisis of 2008, mental health (serious and medicated anxiety and depression) and his own personal failings resulted in him being barely employed since 2010. When I say completely stuffed I mean it — he owned a multimillion-dollar home, had investment properties, a large portfolio and anything he could ever want and in misguided hope and denial burned through every dollar he had — including all of his retirement savings.

He is on Social Security, which is barely enough to live on for most and certainly not enough with his current spending patterns and personal desires. Some of his choices I don’t agree with — he is holding onto life insurance which will time out when he reaches 70 for reasons I don’t fully understand. But some of his desires I think are very reasonable — he would like to live alone, not in a shared house which a Social Security budget would demand.

My brother and my extended family have given up on my father ever finding himself another job. I have some hope that it may happen sometime in the future, but it’s certainly not going to happen anytime soon. My father is too proud for some jobs, too anxious to move out of his comfort zone for others and not experienced enough for yet more.

My brother (26 years) and I (24 years) have been supporting his bad choices for a long time — either by believing his lies that he can, in fact, afford whatever it is he was spending on or by not cutting him off earlier to force him to reconcile with the unfortunate reality of his situation. In the way so many families do, financial boundaries were set up much later than they should have been. For my own sanity, I have given up trying to make him change his ways. He must change them himself. I need a long term plan for how to supplement the rest of my father’s life. As I have said, Social Security is not enough for a comfortable life — just existence — and I like my father enough to want to help. My brother also feels an obligation to help as do the remaining members of my extended family. Although we all have differing views on the best way to help.

The short term problem is that my father and I currently share a rented apartment which brings spending on housing down to a reasonable level. However, due to aforementioned dysfunction and the wish to live my own, independent life, I plan to move out when our lease is up at the end of this year. This would leave my father without a housemate with which to share costs. I suspect he would increase his spending in order to live alone rather than find a housemate.

Adding to this, my brother and I are both uni graduates who were not able to find work after our first degrees and had to return for our second. My brother and I both practice, in different ways, painfully necessary frugality. We expect to have spare funds in the future to give to the high priority item that is a parent’s health and happiness, but we are not able to invest anything now, and will not be able to make big investments in the short term.

In the longer term, we both will be receiving inheritances from our mother’s side of the family. I love my father very much, so using that money to sort him out would be a very good use of it for me, but again, I am not sure of the best method. Longer term, perhaps my brother and I could buy a home in which he could live rent-free and share the rental dividends after my father no longer needs it. Or perhaps we could just give him a monthly “allowance.” I would like something which would not hurt his already brittle self-worth, but neither do I want him to continue living in a protected bubble.
– Charlie

That’s a rough story.

The problem with situations like this one is that people who don’t want to help themselves will often just waste resources given to them. I’m a big believer in the idea that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. In short, I would not directly hand your father liquid resources. You can and should provide him shelter and food as long as it’s within your capability, but you need to be absolutely sure that the aid you’re providing isn’t undoing your future as well. You should be concerned with making sure his basic needs are met, and just handing him cash doesn’t achieve that.

If I were in your shoes, I would plan to provide him with non-financial assistance. Give him food and shelter, but don’t simply write him a check.

In the short run, consider committing to providing him with a few meals a week or, if you can, paying for inexpensive housing. Those are expenses you can split with your brother and it ensures that between your father’s basic income and you providing those needs, he shouldn’t be homeless unless he chooses to be, and you can’t make his choices for him.

In the long term, I agree with your plan of using the inheritance for buying a house and letting him live there rent-free until he passes, then renting out the house or selling it. If this is something that you’ll be able to do with your brother when the inheritance comes in and you’re both on board with that, then it’s a good move.

Remember that, in the end, you really can’t make choices for your father. You can provide him with food and shelter and a cell phone and such, but even then, it’s his choice as to whether to use it. I’m always hesitant to recommend simply giving cash to people; rather, use that cash you would give them to make sure their basic needs are directly met.

A personal note: in the past, I’ve found that giving someone you love a free meal each time they knock on your door is a great way to help them keep their head above water. Use the dinner table conversation as an opportunity to listen, not preach. If they don’t come to your open door, that’s their own choice; if they do, it’s usually a great opportunity to connect a little bit, even if they’re not ready to proverbially start drinking the water yet.

Q2: Earning more versus spending less

I think you have the wrong approach to financial success. You will find financial success far more readily through working to earn more than through crap like cutting your own hair.
– Bill

One, I do talk about both the “spend less” and “earn more” parts of the equation, in roughly equal measure. It’s strange — I get feedback like this after someone reads an article about frugality, but I never get it after people read an article about workplace success.

Two, not everyone is immediately capable of flipping a switch and earning more money. Many people are already working during almost every spare minute and simply deciding to earn more doesn’t cut it. A lot of people wind up in situations where they’re working 60 hours a week at two part-time jobs (then add in the commuting time and the time needed for basic self-care) and there’s basically no easy way for them to magically start earning more in any reasonable timeframe.

Third, the real issue with this question is the issue of low hanging fruit. With frugality, most people have a ton of low hanging fruit in their lives, meaning that they can make extremely trivial changes to start saving a lot of money. Buying everything in store brand fashion isn’t some sort of huge effort life change. Spending an afternoon caulking your drafty windows to save $20-30 a month on your energy every month is a good move even if you’re making $200K a year. Canceling subscriptions and expenses you don’t use just puts money back in your pocket. It seems to be easy for people to center on the idea that frugality means going to extremes to save just a dollar or two, and that’s just not true.

I write about frugal things that I try out and break down the dollars and cents of it sometimes simply because I want to know if it’s low hanging fruit or not for myself and I’m sure others want to know, too. Writing that “this change saves $0.15 a day, which adds up to $55 a year” lets people decide for themselves whether this is a worthwhile change for them. For me, if it’s easy, I’ll stick with a change like that, but if it requires continuous additional effort for only $0.15 a day, I’m probably not doing it. Yet, for others, it might not be any additional effort and it’s a good change.

In my view, the “low hanging fruit” of frugality is an incredibly efficient way for almost everyone to improve their finances, and almost everyone has at least a little “low hanging fruit.” However, once you’ve cleared out the easier stuff, trying to improve your income is probably going to be a more efficient use of your energy, depending on your specific life situation.

Q3: Selling off old toys

What is the most effective method for selling off old toys that my children no longer play with?
– Abbie

First of all, recognize that unless the toys are some sort of collector’s item, you’re generally not going to get a whole lot of value out of a used toy. You’re not going to sell a toy that was $20 new for $15 after it’s been used for a while. Rather, what you’re aiming for is to recoup a small fraction of the initial price. If you price it too high, it won’t sell and you’re back to square one with a bunch of wasted effort. In terms of maximizing return for the effort, the best thing you can do is price everything to sell, and by that I mean pricing most toys at $1 or less. If there’s a big special item you can price it for $5 or $10, but very few used children’s toys will sell for any more than that.

So, how do you sell? A good place to start is Craigslist or a local buy/sell/trade group on Facebook (if you do a search for your town’s name plus “buy sell trade” on Facebook, you’ll find it). Just post a big list of the items you’re selling with prices and a few pictures and include the phrase “OBO” as it will encourage people to make offers. After a week or so, take the items that don’t sell, cut the price by 50%, and re-list them. However, if you list everything high to begin with, they won’t sell and you will have wasted your own time and some groups will ban you. Be reasonable with your prices — would you have bought these toys used for the price you’re offering them for?

If you’re entering the spring yard sale/garage sale season, you can host your own yard sale to sell them off. Even better, you might be able to have a yard sale in conjunction with a friend so you have someone to hang out with. A couple of good friends of mine had a nice “shared” yard sale where, aside from a couple of higher-priced items, they just pooled everything and split the proceeds and then just spent the day together.

Also, don’t overlook the value of just donating them. There’s a lot of value in just ensuring that the toys wind up in the hands of a child in need.

Q4: Medical bill question

Received a medical bill for $2,700, insurance won’t cover. I called the office and they offered to set up an interest-free payment plan for two years but then said if I paid it all now they would offer a 20% discount charging me only $2,150. What is the best option?
– Danny

The best option is to pay it now if at all possible, even if you have to get a personal loan of some kind to pay it off.

The correct way of looking at this is that your bill is actually $2,150, but that if you take the payment plan, you’ll have to pay $2,700 in total. That extra $550 is basically loan interest. It’s roughly a 14% interest loan, by my back-of-the-envelope math.

If you got a loan at a credit union for $2,150 at, say, 6% for three years from a credit union, you’d be making a monthly payment of $65. If you take the medical payment plan, that’ll be a monthly payment of $75. If you have the $2,150 on hand, that’s effectively a $60 monthly payment, so if you take it out of savings and then put $60 back a month, you’ll have the money back in there in three years.

Pay it off now. Even better, negotiate a little. Ask them if they’ll accept a lump-sum payment of $1,500 for the full bill because that’s what you can afford. That’ll save you even more.

Q5: Shampoo isn’t necessary

Just wanted to point out to you and your readers that shampoo isn’t necessary. Just use water and a scalp brush unless you literally get something in your hair that needs cleaned out. It will be oily for a transition period of a week or two and after that it will adjust to a “normal” state that’s what your hair is like maybe 24 hours after shampooing.
– Dana

I did an absurd amount of reading about whether or not shampoo is really necessary and I came to the conclusion that it is and it isn’t.

It seems that if you have thicker hair and don’t use any products in your hair, you don’t really need to use shampoo every day or in every shower. If you use thinner hair or you use any type of styling product in your hair (hairspray, gel, etc.) then you probably need to shampoo it pretty regularly.

However, it seems that for most people, an occasional shampoo (weekly?) with a really gentle shampoo is necessary to clean the scalp. Your scalp does build up oils over time and that can provide a breeding ground for certain types of bacteria and fungi.

I don’t think there’s any harm in experimenting with your frequency of shampooing to see what works for you. However, if you cut back on your shampooing, your hair will go through a pretty greasy period as the level of oil in your hair rebalances.

Let’s go with another bath and shower question.

Q6: Bar soap or body wash?

My experience with bar soap has been that it basically evaporates when it sits in the shower and that you’re using a new bar of soap every few weeks. With body wash, a big bottle lasts for months so it’s more cost effective especially when you buy it on sale. My fiancee thinks that the opposite is true and says I must be doing something dumb with bar soap. Figured you could settle a good “what’s more frugal” question like this.
– Brad

Bar soap can last a very long time if you keep it in a place where it’s not sitting in water or has a layer of water on the bottom of it. That will simply melt the soap, turning it into a gooey mess that basically runs down the drain. If you keep your soap on a wire rack that openly drains at the bottom and it’s outside of the flow of the water, bar soap will last for a really long time.

So, let’s turn to body wash. Body wash comes in bottles that I’m convinced are designed to waste body wash. It’s incredibly easy to squirt out too much body wash, more than you ever need to wash yourself, and the excess just dumps down the drain. The best way to use body wash is out of a pump dispenser, not the squeeze bottle that it comes in. A pump dispenser allows you to always dispense just a little at a time so you don’t waste it.

Without doing a lot of measuring and just relying on my own experience, I think bar soap on a wire rack is going to be about as efficient as a reasonably priced body wash in a pump dispenser. Obviously, it’s going to depend on the specific soap or body wash you buy, but in my experience, a single ordinary-sized bar of soap can last for a couple of months on a wire rack, and body wash out of a pump dispenser can last for a few months, too. I received some jumbo bars of soap as a gift a couple of years ago and I’m literally still using them; they last four or five months apiece resting on a wire rack in the shower.

Q7: Saving money in the bedside table?

My dad always keeps a bunch of spare cash, usually several hundred dollars, in his bedside table. He says the value of having it in a pinch is worth the risk of theft or destruction. What do you think?
– Andy

Does it give him a lot of peace of mind to have that cash right there? If it does, then there’s some value in having that money there, even given the risk of theft and fire.

I would suggest that he has a somewhat better place of hiding the money, especially if it’s become an “open secret” among family members. While the bedside table is convenient, it’s also a place that thieves will probably check, particularly if it’s “known” that he keeps cash there.

I have a friend that keeps cash rolled up in a flashlight (taking the place of the D cell batteries) in a junk drawer, for example. I know another person that keeps some cash taped on the bottom of a drawer in one of their bathrooms; you have to turn the drawer over to see it. Those things are much more likely to be missed by a thief, especially when you keep the secret to yourself. There’s only so much time a thief has in a house and they’re going to look for low hanging fruit.

Q8: Waiting for 1099s

How long should I wait for bank to send me tax forms so I can file?
– Andre

I wouldn’t start fretting about it until at least mid-February. I think if you haven’t received a form you’re expecting by February 15, contact that financial institution and ask.

Many financial institutions offer the 1099 forms online and may not even mail paper copies. If you have an online account with your institution, check that account and see what’s up.

If you have a sufficiently small amount of interest, banks won’t even issue a 1099-INT. If it’s less than $10, they won’t send you a form, but you’re still required to report it. This will likely turn into $1 or less in taxes, so it’s not a big deal.

Q9: Getting started with fermenting foods

Interested to see you mention an interest in fermented foods. My uncle used to make sauerkraut in a big pot and it was good stuff! I have been interested in trying it myself for a while. Do you have books or websites that you suggest as a starting point?
– Devin

There are tons of good ones out there. This is a great introductory video on fermenting at home. This is a really good written introduction (with a few optional videos mixed in).

For books, Fermented Vegetables is probably the best single-volume for beginners out there. If you’re looking at things beyond fermented vegetables, I’d go with Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz.

My main reference these days is The Noma Guide to Fermentation by Rene Redzepi and David Zibler and The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. They’re both thorough and interesting and often have different approaches to the same dish.

You really don’t need much in terms of equipment to get started. A few wide-mouth Mason jars with lids is enough to make sauerkraut in your kitchen (along with the salt and cabbage), for example. I make most of mine in glass wide mouth quart jars.

Q10: Advantages of financial stability

I wanted to share my story about how financial stability really helped my career. I am an accountant for a large public company with a significant accounting department. When I was first hired here six years ago, it was at an entry-level position with the understanding that I would be able to move up in the ranks, but for the first five years, I stayed in my current position with minimal raises. I was scared to ask for any raise or promotion as I had a fairly good job and I didn’t want to risk it. I didn’t have any savings and a lot of student loans and credit card debt.

In 2018 I committed to cleaning up my finances. I moved to a smaller apartment with a roommate that was next to the [subway] and so I sold my car. I started eating at home and taking lunches to work by making something in the slow cooker a few times a week. We decided not to get cable. Unsurprisingly, I blitzed through my credit card debt and built up an emergency fund and paid off all but my lowest interest student loan.

In January I felt as financially stable as I have ever been and that finally gave me the courage to actually go in and ask for a promotion. There was an opening and I asked if I could apply for it. They actually just promoted me straight into that opening (with a 40% pay increase) and are now looking for a new entry-level person for my old position.

I would not have had the courage to take that risk without financial stability, and that financial stability would not have happened without getting my spending under control. Thank you for your encouragement!
– Emma

Thanks for the story, Emma! I have exchanged emails with Emma in the past (and may have used one of her earlier questions in a mailbag a year or two ago) and so I was very glad to hear this update, which she wanted to share with everyone.

Financial change is a domino effect. So often, it starts with just making some changes to your spending habits while simply spending that saved money on something smart like extra debt payments. When you pay off a debt early and continue with your good spending habits, it starts to snowball, and that’s when amazing things start to happen.

Q11: Expired savings bonds

Do expired savings bonds have any value?
– Ethan

Yes. Savings bonds retain the value they accumulated when they expired; they just don’t earn any more when the term runs out.

The most common type of savings bonds are EE bonds. They are generally bought for half of their face value — say, a $100 bond is bought for $50 — and they “mature” after 20 years, meaning they reach their full face value at the 20-year mark. However, they keep earning interest for another ten years, so they’re usually worth more than their face value if they were bought more than 20 years ago, though they won’t earn any more interest if they are more than 30 years old.

If you have a bond that’s more than 30 years old, cash it in immediately at your local bank and use that money for something financially wise, like paying off a debt, starting an emergency fund or making a Roth IRA contribution.

Q12: Replacing shoes

How often should you replace shoes? I wear New Balance shoes for work as I walk around 4 to 6 hours a day and replace them when they start to fall apart, usually 8 to 10 months. I keep reading how you are supposed to replace them sooner but why?
– Tony

The cushioning on the bottom of a pair of shoes doesn’t last forever. The more you wear them, the flatter that cushioning gets, usually conforming to the contours of your feet.

Depending on a person’s foot, this can cause some foot pain. If your shoes are causing pain when none existed before, or more pain than they used to, it’s really worthwhile to change shoes or consider some kind of insert.

If you’re not feeling any pain, there’s no real reason to change them. However, there are a few warning signs in a shoe that can indicate that they might be putting extra pressure on your feet and should be replaced.

One, are there any significant creases on the shoe? You’ll often see them near the bottom of the back of the shoe or along the sides. Two, if you sit the shoe on a flat surface, does it sit flatly or does it wobble a bit before finding a balance point? Shoes that wobble aren’t as stable as they should be. New shoes will sit flatly; shoes with uneven wear won’t and can add to foot stress or increase the risk of ankle injury.

For me, I find that all of these things tend to creep up together. When shoes are starting to look worn, they’ll also start to be wobbly when I sit them on the table and I’ll start seeing creases in places. That’s when I replace my shoes. I generally don’t have any foot pain; I stick to New Balance or Brooks, mostly.

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.