Questions About MoviePass, Popcorn, Novels for Younger Kids, Motorcycle Sales, 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. Full time or not?
2. Federal employee health insurance question
3. MoviePass
4. Microwave versus stove top popcorn
5. Freezing child’s credit
6. Pension or investment plan?
7. Budgeting for irregular expenses
8. Reading books to stick
9. Read-aloud novels for younger children
10. Selling off motorcycle
11. Handling self-judgment
12. Screenless Sundays

I say it about twice a year, and I’m going to keep saying it: the switch to and from Daylight Savings Time in the United States is a move that hurts far more than it helps.

There may have been a time in America’s history where it was a good idea to have a clock switch twice a year, but in today’s world, where the vast majority of people have service or information economy jobs, the benefits of the clock switch have nearly vanished.

Instead, we’re left with all of those service and retail and information jobs full of people who are trying to deal with the sudden adjustment in their internal clocks, very much akin to an hour of jet lag. Some handle it just fine, but many do not – they’re off their game for at least a few days every time the clock switches.

Please, Washington, end the Daylight Savings Time switch. Stick with one or the other. I don’t really even care which one you stick with. Just stop the switching.

Q1: Full time or not?

I am in a unique situation regarding my income and health care affordability. If I was to work full time I could not afford to live because of how much health insurance costs at my place of work. My income and family size qualifies me for certain Market Place discounts but I am unable to receive them if I have insurance available through my place of work. By working part time I qualify for government assistance and can afford to live. Working full time I still qualify for government assistance based on income but not based on situation.

Some numbers to help explain. I make $15 an hour putting me at roughly $32,000 a year which qualifies me for Medicaid for a family of 4. Because my work offers me insurance I do not qualify for Medicaid, therefore I have to pay $800 dollars a month for insurance through my work. If I work part time under 30 hours a week I will earn $18,270 based on 29 hours a week. Neglecting taxes for simplicity. After insurance is deducted from gross pay for the year I will only bring home $21,600 for the year, only $3,330 more for 572 extra hours of work. Meaning that I only earn $5.82 an hour for those extra hours. SNAP benefits scale with income so assume food necessities are covered.

I guess my question becomes do I work full time or part time? My wife cannot work due to child care being more expensive than she would earn plus moral reasons. I could obtain 2 part time jobs earning more money while still qualifying for benefits. Part of the reason I am in this predictament is because of health insurance affordability under the ACA only uses single person as a form of affordability and not family insurance.
– Terry

Welcome to (some of) the absurdity of how health care coverage in the United States works. When health care is tied to income thresholds, people are quite often discouraged from working because they make very little money from working additional hours. They’re far better off not working and focusing on home economy (or doing cash-only jobs that don’t get reported on taxes, which happens quite often).

That, honestly, seems to be where you’re at, especially if the insurance at work is comparable in quality to Medicaid (I don’t know the specifics of the plan).

If I were you, and the plan was comparable to Medicaid, I would reduce my hours there and then devote those extra hours to a concerted effort toward greater home economy or to other ways of reducing your costs. It’s very likely that you can save more than $5/hour for 10 hours a week of home economy effort – in fact, I’d virtually guarantee it.

Q2: Federal employee health insurance question

I’m trying to decipher the standard and basic options for Fepblue 2018 coverage. I’m planning a hip replacement surgery. For the life of me I can not figure out which coverage will benefit my pocket more. It’s very convoluted. Where is there a lay mans explanation?
– Thomas

For those unaware, Fepblue is Blue Cross / Blue Shield’s federal health care insurance program.

I spent some time on Fepblue’s website and I was unable to find a definitive answer to your question because it relies greatly on your family’s situation, whether you’re a current federal employee or a retiree, and your larger health situation. My best guess, based on this comparison and the fact that hip replacements usually involve 3-4 days in the hospital and may involve additional work after that, that the standard plan is better for you than the basic plan.

If I were you, I’d go to two resources to figure this out for sure. One, I’d contact Fepblue directly and ask about which plan covers your general scenario the best. Their phone number is 1-800-411-BLUE. Two, I’d contact the human resources officer at your work location and talk to that person, who may have some additional advice or resources for you.

Q3: MoviePass

I anticipated that you would write an article on MoviePass, at some point, since they reduced their subscription rate to $10/month, but I haven’t seen anything about it yet (unless I missed it). MoviePass is a pretty awesome service for anyone who is thrifty and enjoys going to the movies. The service allows you to see one movie each day for a simple rate of $10/month. MoviePass sends you a debit card that pays for your movies. The best part is that your local theater doesn’t lose anything (at least not in the short-term. While it was a slow struggle to get signed up and receive my card, it has been a breeze to use and has saved me and my wife a ton of money. We will see a ton of savings when Oscar/Christmas movie season comes around and I am at the movie multiple times in a week. Typically, we go to the movies at least once a month together, and I usually go once or twice by myself (more frequently in summer and winter). We have always been thrifty, going to cheap Tuesday-night showings and weekend matinees, but MoviePass frees us up to go as much as we want, whenever we want.
– Kevin

My experience with MoviePass is this: if your local theater and theater chain supports it well, then it’s great; if it doesn’t, then it’s not worth the $10 a month.

Over the long run, however, you need to recognize a few things about MoviePass. One key thing is that their primary business seems to be customer data, not movie tickets. Also, they openly admit that it’s not sustainable unless a lot of people buy passes and never use them.

I am hesitant to give MoviePass a full-throated recommendation because of those factors and because they seem to be at war with movie chains, with AMC threatening lawsuits.

The product itself seems to be a great idea, however, and my suspicion is that theater chains – at least the smart ones – will move to a MoviePass-like subscription model where you can buy a pass for X movies per month for $Y and then use that data to help market movies to people.

Q4: Microwave versus stove top popcorn

while there is definitely a convenience factor in preparing microwave popcorn, stove top preparation is quick, easy, cheap, and tastes much better. one can regulate the amount of oil to keep calories down. to cut cost even further, use bacon grease instead of oil. makes a really tender, flavorful popcorn. to make caramel corn, brown sugar and bacon grease make the best! melt the brown sugar in the bacon grease (or oil), place just enough kernels to form a single layer of kernels in the melted sugar/grease (or oil) mixture. when kernels begin to sizzle, place lid on pan and continue to shake the pan back and forth over medium to high heat til the kernels stop popping. remove lid carefully to avoid a steam burn. eat while hot or very warm. costs just pennies per serving.
– Jed

I’m actually mystified as to what the problem is with doing it in the microwave with a glass bowl and some butter already mixed in there.

We just put a bunch of popcorn kernels (like about 1/3 cup) into a glass bowl, add a healthy pat of butter and a bit of salt, put a plate on top to cover it, and then run it in the microwave until there’s a few seconds between pops. That’s it. It always seems to turn out fine to us – not overly dry or anything.

I will agree that buying microwave popcorn bags is a waste of money and there are many ways to do it at home for less, though.

Q5: Freezing child’s credit

I’m a recently divorced woman with a 13-year old son. While I don’t really think my ex would do anything to harm our son’s credit, he’s made a lot of decisions recently that I never thought he’d make either. He’s shown himself to not be the person I thought he was all these years. In light of the recent credit hacks (and after realizing that after 25 years of marriage my ex has all my personal information), I’ve been looking at credit protection options for myself. In my research, I’ve seen several articles about freezing your child’s credit. It looks like a good idea. I want to do all I can to protect my son’s credit as well as my own. However, it seems like I need to provide a lot of information to verify his identity that I do not have to provide to protect my credit. I hesitate to send that information in the mail or to the wrong company. Do you have any suggestions for protecting my child’s credit safely?

– Dee

The method for protecting your credit is to deal directly with the three credit bureaus yourself. Your credit history in the United States is managed by three federally recognized credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. To freeze one’s credit, you need to contact them directly and go through the process for each one.

Here’s where to get started at Experian:

Here’s where to get started at Equifax:

Here’s where to get started at TransUnion:

They each have a different process to follow, but none of them are too difficult. You can always unfreeze your credit or your son’s credit later.

Q6: Pension or investment plan?

The state of Florida offers a Pension and Investment Retirement plan. I originally chose investment when I became a teacher because I knew I wouldn’t want to teach forever. After 7 years, I left teaching and worked in the private sector with a 401k for 3 years. Now I’m working for a State Agency and wonder if I should use my one time 2nd election to change to the Pension plan. From here on out I believe I’ll be working for the State or University System. The way I understand this is that I’ll probably have to pay some extra or even use my 401k to get caught up in the Pension Plan. Since I already have 7 years with the state retirement system, I only need one more to vest. Is this a good idea? Would I most likely earn more in retirement if I were in the Pension plan? I’m not entirely sure how Pension Plans work.
– Carl

I have a hard time fully recommending that anyone rely fully on a pension plan for retirement. While pension plans aren’t inherently bad, they live under the assumption that the state (or whoever is offering the pension) is never going to change that plan, and over the last few decades, countless pension programs have changed, even when they seemed completely untouchable.

In addition, this article compares the two and seems to indicate that, over the long run, the investment option offers better returns anyway if you’re going to be there for a lot of years. If you’re close to retirement and will just accumulate enough to vest before retirement, then the pension plan may be better, though.

My recommendation, given those things, is to stick with the investment option.

Q7: Budgeting for irregular expenses

With respect to budgeting, do you break out infrequent, yet predictable expenses, such as that once-per-year anti-virus/security software subscription, or do you just lump these into a miscellaneous category?

With the little expenses broken into individual line items, I end up with a virtual-envelope budgeting system….and it’s enlightening to see just how many little bills there are !
– Bill

Personally, what we do is just contribute a fairly large amount to our emergency fund each month, far more than enough to cover our total irregular bills for the year. Then, as an irregular bill comes in, we try to pay it out of the “breathing room” in our budget. If we can’t do it that month, we pull money out of the emergency fund to pay for it.

Because we contribute a lot to our emergency fund, it’s not going to cause our emergency money to go into decline if we use it for irregular bills like this.

In general, for smaller irregular bills, we are able to pay them out of the flex in our budget, but for larger ones (like property taxes), we usually have to tap our e-fund.

Q8: Reading books to stick

Do you have any good techniques for reading books that help the ideas to stick in your head? Feels like whatever I read goes in one eye and out the other lol!
– Dana

I have two different “modes” for reading books. One mode is entertainment, which I use when reading novels and other purely for-fun books. I read pretty fast in that mode and try to just get swept along by the story and characters.

My other mode is enrichment, which is what I think you’re talking about. In that mode, I read a lot slower. As I’m doing this, I usually take notes in some fashion and stop to look up terms and concepts I don’t feel like I fully understand. I vary my exact technique here – for the last several months, my technique has been to add little post-its to the pages as I go for concepts I want to come back to and think about but I still stop for terms and ideas I don’t understand. Then, when I’m done with the book, I’ll give it a day or two, then I’ll pull out a notebook and go back through all of the Post-Its, writing down all of the concepts and my thoughts on them.

That “enrichment” process takes a while, but the ideas stick when I do it. I can remember tons of details and ideas from books that I do this with, even months later, whereas books that I read for fun will quickly fade from memory unless I do something else (like reread them or have lots of conversations about them shortly after I’m finished).

Q9: Read-aloud novels for younger children

I know that you read to all three of your kids at once, and would like some recommendations for children’s novels or series that appeal to a range of ages. My kids are 4 and 7, so I’m looking for something simpler than Harry Potter, for example.

Thank you very much for your writing over the years; I’ve always enjoyed the practical aspects, but find the recent posts on contentment, and spending time / money on the things that you consciously and personally value to be really inspiring.
– Miriam

When our kids were in that age range, we read almost the entire Magic Tree House series to them. I would say that the target age for Magic Tree House books is between the ages of 5 and 6, so it often felt like they were just a hair simple for our oldest child at the time and pretty much right on target for our middle child (our youngest usually had a picture book read to him at that time).

Here’s a list of books that are probably just on the edge of being appropriate right now. Your oldest would likely enjoy all of them; your younger child may have a bit of a challenge keeping up with some, but he/she will be there soon.

Thanks for the compliment on some of my recent posts. Those things have really come from the heart of my thinking recently. The truth is that my best work (in my opinion) for The Simple Dollar comes from subjects that are deep in my heart and mind at the moment, even when they’re not necessarily practical ones. I go through times where I get very into practical things and I tend to write about them more. I don’t know if it’s an early “midlife crisis” or what it might be, but I find myself thinking a lot about the “big picture” things lately and how that ties into the practical nature of my personal finance ideas, so that’s what’s been on my mind a lot lately. I’m glad you’re enjoying them.

Q10: Selling off motorcycle

I have a motorcycle in my garage that I haven’t rode in three or four years. I keep gas in it and make sure it runs every few months by driving it around the block but then I just park it again. Passion is gone, I guess. What’s the best way to sell it?
– Dave

In your shoes, what I would do is talk to others who own motorcycles in the area and ask where they typically look to buy a used motorcycle. Where do people in your area look for motorcycles? That’s where you should go to sell yours.

If you don’t have any local motorcycle enthusiasts, I’d look for a Facebook group and ask there. Try to find a Facebook group for motorcyclists in your area – you can generally find such groups just by doing a Facebook search. Where do people go to buy used bikes in the area? See if the group can tell you (again, start by searching to see if this has already been asked).

Clean up your bike to the best of your ability, then try to sell that bike through whatever channels seem the most popular in your particular area. Peruse those forums to get a sense as to what kind of price to put on your bike, then put it up for sale there.

It’s hard to get more specific than that because you honestly have to go where the buyers go in your area. You’re much more likely to get your bike sold if you’re putting it in front of the maximum number of local eyes.

Q11: Handling self-judgment

How do you handle the feeling of constantly judging yourself? It seems like some of your advice is couched in that where you are constantly judging your impulses and finding yourself wanting. I get caught up in that and it feels like a downward spiral into self-hating.
– Erika

The simplest technique I’ve ever found for solving this is that whenever my thinking moved from simply correcting something I was doing wrong to actually criticizing myself as being generally bad in some way, I consciously stepped back from that and pointed out to myself how ludicrous that mistake was.

Typically, I transition that thinking into noting the things I do well. Everyone does some things well and some things not so well. That does not make you a bad person. That makes you a normal and generally good person. The key is to make sure that when you’re trying to fix flaws – a good thing – that you don’t transition into criticizing yourself on the whole – a bad thing. Look instead at the bevy of positive things about you and recognize that, even though you’re imperfect, everyone is, and you’re a good person on the whole.

Another factor that’s important to me is to remember that my worth is not judged by others. My life’s value is not based on whether someone else approves of what I’m doing. That has far more to do with them and their own life than it does with me. No matter what I do, someone is going to disapprove of it, so why should that fact bother me? It shouldn’t, and it shouldn’t bother you, either. Reflect on that whenever you start thinking about your whole self through the lens of being accepted by others.

Q12: Screenless Sundays

Just sharing a tip of advice that has really helped my well-being over the last year or so. On Sundays, I go completely screenless except for complete emergencies where I have to contact someone. I read actual physical books. I go on walks. I play board games with my kids. I do household chores. I make a nice homemade meal or two. I go to bed at a reasonable time. It’s been a game changer. I feel actually refreshed on Monday mornings.
– Gary

That is a wonderful idea, Gary.

I find that “screen time” has some great advantages, but it has some huge disadvantages, too. It takes away from human interaction, for one. It often leads us into being distracted from the task at hand. It also often just reinforces our beliefs rather than challenging them (I am of the mindset that the best and strongest ideas are ones that are constantly challenged, not ones that are constantly reinforced).

A day without screens once a week is a great way to undo some of the bad parts of screen time and appreciate the many wonderful things about life away from screens.

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.