Questions About Overdrafts, Soup, Public Goods, Chess, Cord Cutting, 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. Overdraft protection killing me!
2. Intermittent fasting
3. Securing myself against job worries
4. Souper Cubes for frozen soup
5. Moving out
6. Is Public Goods worthwhile?
7. Lunchtime hot food container recommendation
8. Cultural conversation and cord cutting
9. Chess lessons for interested child
10. Time to switch jobs?
11. How to help a neighbor?
12. How to make ramen healthy?

We had our first significant snowfall of the winter overnight. This meant a two hour school delay for the children. Luckily, they’re all old enough that they can easily shovel the snow, so they spent a portion of the delay scooping.

When they’re at home, it’s easy to notice how much more lively and noisy the house is. Once they leave for the day, everything gets so much quieter.

On with the questions.

Q1: Overdraft protection killing me!

My bank has a mandatory overdraft protection. If you overdraft they will cover it, slap on a $35 charge, and then bill you for your overdraft plus the $35. If you do it a few times, that’s more than $100 and you’re already at $0 on your checking. Once you’ve done this a few times it is almost impossible to escape. So frustrating!
– Denise

The strategy here is to cut your spending down to the absolute minimum for a month or two so that you can catch up. I’m talking about eating nothing but dirt cheap staple foods, walking to work, maybe selling off some unused stuff from your closet, using minimal electricity, no soda, no alcohol, no vices, you get the picture. Make this a 60 day challenge – stick to that regimen for 60 straight days.

At the end of that period, you should have more than enough to escape this overdraft cycle and to have a nice little buffer in your checking account.

More importantly, you’ll have some really good insight as to which of those expenses actually really mattered to you and which ones did not. You’ll know which expenses you can just leave in the dust and which ones bring enough value to you that you should bring them back.

Q2: Intermittent fasting

Saw that you wanted to eat healthier (and less) in 2020. I realize that intermittent fasting sounds crazy, but please research it and give it a try. I’ve been shocked and happy with the results. The key is “clean fasting”…where you drink just plain water and black coffee (no cream, sugar substitutes, or anything). It’s great from a minimalist perspective (less food consumed, less dishes used, less thinking about what you could/should eat, etc.) and your body is happier because it’s not digesting food all the time. Exercising in a fasted state feels much better too! I suggest reading the book Delay, Don’t Deny as a good start. The experience has been very enlightening.
– Wendy

Intermittent fasting is actually a 90 day challenge for me that I’ve penciled in for next year during the first quarter. For 90 days, I’m going to do “one meal a day” fasting on weekdays and 18/6 fasting (meaning I only eat during a six hour time slot and then fast for 18 hours) on weekends and holidays so I’m not awkwardly avoiding meals with my family.

I did this as a 30 day challenge in 2018 and considered extending it to a 90 day challenge, but there was a family vacation during that period so I decided to wait.

It worked really well. I didn’t lose enormous amounts of weight or anything (though there was some), but it was easy to control and manage. I allowed myself to drink as much black coffee and unsweetened tea as I wanted, but no other beverages except water.

However, I’m mostly interested in eating healthier during 2020, not necessarily eating less, though that’s a part of it. I’m much more interested in experimenting with lots of very healthy foods and cutting out a lot of specific things that I eat that are much less healthy.

Q3: Securing myself against job worries

I have the strong sense that my current employer is going through some real struggles right now. Nothing is being said out in the open but there are signs if you are looking for them. I am wondering what I can do to secure myself as much as possible against a sudden job loss. I’m already sending out feelers for another job though I don’t want to leave this one unless I have to as it is the best job I’ve ever had.
– Frank

The absolute best thing you can do (outside of sending out feelers for a new job and getting your resume sharp) is to build up an emergency fund as quickly as possible. In other words, cut down hard on your non-essential spending for a while and put that money into your savings account. Aim to have at least a month or two of living expenses in there so that if a sudden job loss does come, you’re not immediately in panic mode.

Give yourself a 30 day or a 60 day challenge in which you’re cutting out everything that isn’t absolutely essential from your spending. Cut out your vices. Cut back on your hobby spending to the bare minimum. Eat at home as much as you can and eat simple meals. At the end of the month, put that saved money into your savings account and forget about it. (What I actually do is that I have an automatic transfer from checking to savings that moves a small amount each week from checking to savings, and I never look at the savings unless there’s an emergency. I also don’t count that savings toward my net worth.)

Basically, living a healthy financial life goes a long way toward eliminating these kinds of concerns. Spend less than you earn consistently, pay down your debts, build up an emergency fund, and a short term job loss becomes much less of a worry.

Q4: Souper Cubes for frozen soup

I have a suggestion on today’s topic “Soup freezer containers.” I recently started using a product called Souper Cubes. It’s essentially a silicone “ice cube tray” for soups. Four compartments of 1c. ea., and allows you to store items more compactly once frozen, since they’re in rectangular shape (I can fit 8 in a gallon freezer bag). A little pricey up front, but I like the ease of use & ability to store tightly in freezer.
– Michelle

I was unfamiliar with Souper Cubes; it turns out that, as Michelle described, they’re basically silicone ice cube trays with very large wells such that, if you poured soup into the tray, the individual cubes would make for a single bowl of soup. In the past, I’ve used normal ice cube trays for soup but always found the cubes to be too small, so this is a good alternative solution. One could do the same thing with homemade sauces, which would make it easier to make bulk pasta sauce, for example.

Like I said, I have used normal ice cube trays for soup, but the wells were always so tiny that you had to use several cubes for a single bowl of soup and that meant that the ingredients were often unevenly distributed amongst the small cubes. I just didn’t like that as a solution for soup, and I never tried it with pasta sauce (where the even distribution would be less of an issue, but I simply never tried it).

I’ll put these on my list of things to try to save money if I find a set that’s inexpensive.

Q5: Moving out

I am 23 years old. I graduated from college in May and got a good job in my field. During college, I lived with my parents and it worked well. They basically gave me a house key and said I could set my own hours, but I ate 90% of my meals there and slept there and everything. I basically have nothing of my own and I have decided to move out. What exactly do I need for an apartment? I have been looking for lists online but they’re huge. You have helped my sister with financial advice and she says you are good at cutting things down to the basics. What do I need?
– Florence

I’m going to assume you’re moving into an apartment with basic appliances – a fridge, a small freezer, a dishwasher, a stove and oven, a microwave, and so on.

In that situation, I would only buy things based on need. Buy nothing and identify needs as you go. You want a place to sleep? Buy an inexpensive mattress to sleep on. You want a place to sit? Buy an inexpensive comfortable chair (don’t buy this secondhand because of bedbug and other risks). You want a place to eat and do work? Buy an inexpensive secondhand table and a couple of wooden chairs for it. You want to eat at home? Buy a cheap set of plates, some inexpensive silverware, and a few items for home cooking, like a couple of pots and a couple of knives and a cutting board and a strainer. Don’t buy much for the kitchen – rather, buy stuff as needed and try to find ways to get things done with what you have before just buying more stuff.

Basically, move in with a bed and clothes and little else and identify needs as you go. Buy as much as you can (that isn’t upholstered furniture or electronics) from secondhand stores. Don’t just buy a bunch of stuff from a list and then find that you don’t actually use half of it.

Q6: Is Public Goods worthwhile?

Noticed you tried castile soap from Public Goods. What do you think about Public Goods? Is it a worthwhile service? Keep seeing mentions and ads for it here and there and have wondered about it for a while.
– Jeffrey

Basically, Public Goods (and Brandless, a similar service) operates by a Costco-like method of selling products, but they sell only their store brand products. You pay an annual membership fee and then you gain access to their online store, where you buy items and they ship them to you via two day shipping (the shipping’s free for orders over $45, but given that you’re buying household staples, you’d usually just wait until you needed enough things to justify the order).

Obviously, the comparison point here is Amazon Prime. It’s less expensive than Prime and the selection is much less, as you’re mostly buying food and household products in the Public Goods (or Brandless) store brand.

While I haven’t subscribed to Public Goods myself, I have a friend who has picked up a few items for me from their plan. I have been really impressed with the quality of the items I’ve used, which included castile soap and a few food items. Everything has been really high quality. The prices… well, I felt like they were above the store brand prices I would pay in a store for similar items, but the quality level was above typical store brand stuff (which I usually consider “good enough for what I need it to do”). Honestly, I felt it was better than a lot of the name brand stuff at stores, at least for the items I tried.

Is it “worth it”? I think if you have specific reasons to be dissatisfied with specific store brand items and Public Goods has those items, you’ll probably find that they’re better at Public Goods, but you’re paying a little more. I feel like store brands put moderate quality goods in a very low cost package, where Public Goods is putting pretty high quality goods in a moderate cost package. Most of the time, moderate-quality-for-low-price fits the bill for me, so it’s not worth it for me. I don’t need the highest quality dishwasher soap, for example.

If people are interested, I’d be happy to dig deeper than this and get a more well-rounded view of their offerings.

Q7: Lunchtime hot food container recommendation

Do you have a recommendation for a container for taking hot lunch food to work? I am often doing field work and don’t want to just drive to a fast food joint for lunch every day, but on cold winter days I want something hot for lunch.
– Jeremy

I work from home and I actually use this Thermos food jar fairly often for lunch. I’ll make some soup in the morning while the kids are getting ready for school, get it really hot (close to boiling), put it in the food jar, close it up, and save it for lunch. I leave it on my desk along with a spoon so that I can literally eat lunch whenever I want, and if I go somewhere (like to the library), I’ll take it and the spoon with me.

Most days, the food in the jar is still so hot when I open it that I don’t want to eat it right away. Rather, I’ll open it up ten minutes or so before I want to eat it and it’ll steam for a while and cool off.

On a cold day, if I leave it in the car, the food will still be warm when I eat it. Usually, it’s just a little hotter than I want or it’s just right.

Pretty much any kind of soup works well with this. You can also “cook” a packet of ramen noodles in there – just break up a dry packet into near-boiling water and stir in the flavor packet and it’s good to go.

I rarely use it for anything besides soups, but I have put leftover lasagna and leftover spaghetti in it before, heated up hotter than I want to eat it before putting it in there, and it’s still super hot at lunchtime.

Do not – and I repeat, do NOT – put room temperature food in there to eat at lunchtime or keep leftovers in there once they’re close to room temperature. It will go bad. You want to put super-hot food in there; I even warm up the container first thoroughly by filling it with really hot water while the food is warming up, then dumping the water and adding the food. If you have leftover room temperature food in there, toss it and clean the container thoroughly. Never, ever eat food that’s been sitting at room temperature or slightly warmer than room temperature for a long time unless you’re sure it’s adequately preserved food.

Q8: Cultural conversation and cord cutting

We have been discussing cutting the cord to save money. We currently spend about $175 a month on streaming services and cable and would love to drop about $125-150 of that, obviously. Our biggest concern isn’t the shows we’d miss, but talking to our friends about them afterwards. Our circle of friends and many of our coworkers watch a lot of the same stuff and then it’s a topic of conversation at work and when people come over. We don’t want to miss that.
– Jenna

What I’d do, if I were you guys, is figure out what shows are part of the conversations that you regularly participate in, figure out the minimum set of services that cover, say, 50% or 70% of those conversations, and then just use those services.

For example, maybe the conversations you have are spread across a bunch of different series that are on lots of networks. Just make a list of the ones that you’ve really enjoyed discussing in the last year or so and figure out what services you’d need to watch them. For example, if you’re looking at the NFL, consider Sling; if you talk about HBO series, consider HBO NOW. Try to find the smallest set of services that cover most of the stuff you talk about. Remember, if your stuff is on broadcast networks, you can just buy an over the air antenna and get those for free.

You don’t need perfect coverage of every show you might watch, simply because there’s no way to watch everything. Just make sure that the networks that show most of the stuff you’ve talked about with your friends are covered.

For us, we wound up just subscribing to Netflix and Disney+, and Disney+ is only because we got a deal on it for less than $4 per year for three years. We have used other streaming services in the past and might use them for short periods for binge-watching to catch up on a series; for example, I will probably subscribe to the CBS service that has the two new Star Trek series on it and binge-watch them both after the first season of Picard is out. That’s all we’re currently subscribing to, along with our over-the-air antenna which picks up NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, and PBS. It’s honestly more content than we can ever watch and it gives us plenty to talk about with our friends.

Q9: Chess lessons for interested child

Over the summer, my five year old went to stay with his aunt and uncle for ten days while my husband and I had our first trip away together in five years (so nice and relaxing!). During the trip, my brother-in-law taught him how to play chess and they played several games a day. It seemed like they really bonded over chess. Anyway, since then my son has been really into chess. My brother-in-law gave him a simple chess set to take home with him after the visit and he plays against me every day and he is clearly getting better than I am (yes, I’m losing to a five year old at chess). We have let him watch some Youtube videos about basic chess strategy but he’s already getting beyond what we can teach him. What is a good next step here? We don’t want to force him into competitive chess but we do want to encourage the interest.
– Brenda

The first thing I would do is see if there is a chess club in your community. Most cities have thriving chess clubs and, in my experience, they are extremely welcoming to children who are taking an interest in chess. If you’re in a large city, there’s a good chance your son will find other kids his age through that organization who are also interested in chess.

As for learning at home, one thing you can do is get a chess app on your phone or on a tablet and have him play against that. The best one is probably the “Chess – Play and Learn” app made by – it’s fantastic all around. Just unleash him on that app, especially if he has a tablet he can use regularly.

I encourage you to dig into that app as well and join the chess club, too, if you have any interest at all in it. Having something like chess in common with your child is a wonderful thing. I’d encourage you to check out the book The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin from the library, too. This one’s for the parents to read, as it discusses learning outside of the classroom and it’s written by someone who was pretty much exactly in your son’s shoes many years ago – the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer” was about the author.

Q10: Time to switch jobs

I was recently recommended for a job by a former colleague, someone higher up than myself in our organization. When I had coffee with this person to discuss the opportunity to see if it could be a good fit, she told me that when we worked together my manager had prevented other department heads from utilizing me for their projects. I have been wanting to change jobs for a while (lack of challenge and growth opportunities), and this certainly seems like a good catalyst to finally do so. The problem is that my family is going through a very trying time, and it requires a lot of time and energy from me. My parents are needing attention and care due to health issues, my husband is going through a career change, and I am dealing with anxiety and depression issues. Change of this magnitude sounds like asking for more trouble. But I don’t know that I can stay here knowing I am being held back. I can stay safe and comfortable (and bored) in my current job until life settles back down, or I can upend my whole day to day routine in hopes that the job is a better opportunity. What do you think?
– Cara

If I were you, I would seek some kind of position that wasn’t under the umbrella of your current manager, whether it’s a position in another department at your current employer or a job elsewhere. Staying where you’re at is cutting you off from opportunities to grow and advance in your career, and if you just stay put because it’s easier, you’ll probably be forced to stay put going forward.

One way to get started is to simply talk to some of those other department heads who were interested in using you in the past and see if they have any positions open that you might fill. Simply state that you’re looking for some fresh direction and new things to work on. Ask around as to which ones are easiest to work for so that you don’t end up with a boss that will work you to the bone.

If nothing really fits in your current workspace, start a quiet job search. I’d start by reaching out one-on-one to people in your field outside of your business. Have lunch with them and simply ask if there are any positions available at their organization where you might be a good fit – ask face to face so there’s no digital trail of it for now.

I think that staying put with a boss that’s cutting off your opportunities is a bad choice in the long term. Yes, a new job might have challenges right now, but it’s going to serve you far better over the long term. Good luck!

Q11: How to help a neighbor?

The guy who lives in the apartment next to me is in really poor health. He goes to work every day but he comes home looking as white as a ghost and seems to be constantly coughing loudly. I want to help him out but I don’t really know what to do to help without intruding far more than I feel comfortable doing, but I also feel like crap doing nothing. And I don’t have a lot of money either. Got any ideas?
– Tessa

It can be hard to give someone a helping hand without them asking without implying that you want a closer connection.

My suggestion would be to just make him some really healthy food. For example, make a huge batch of soup, package it up in a few reusable containers, and go knock on his door and give it to him. Tell him to keep the containers.

If you’re uncomfortable with that level of contact, you could also leave such a thing anonymously right in front of his door. Stick a note on it that says “Hope you feel better soon! – A neighbor” and put it in front of his door shortly before he typically gets home from work.

That option will keep costs low for you while giving him something healthy to eat.

I’m not sure what else you can really do without intruding further or spending a lot of money.

Q12: How to make ramen healthy?

I used to eat a lot of ramen soup because it was dirt cheap, $0.10 a pack. Stopped eating it so much because it was so unhealthy. Any way to make it at least reasonably healthy without adding too much cost?
– Maxwell

There are a lot of things you can do that can help, but the noodles in dirt cheap ramen aren’t particularly healthy on their own. They’re usually very high in saturated fat and sodium, neither of which is healthy for you.

The best thing you can do to make ramen healthier is to supplement it with healthier stuff. One thing you can do is use homemade broth or stock instead of the flavoring packets, which will help a ton with the salt content. You can make homemade broth and stock yourself by simply taking leftover vegetables or meat and boiling it all day in a slow cooker or a stock pot, straining it, and saving the liquid.

Another thing you can do is simply add a lot of very healthy stuff, making it bulky enough that you can split it into two or three meals. Add a couple of cut-up hard boiled eggs to it, or simply add a couple of raw eggs right into the soup (here are some good egg-to-ramen methods). Buy a bag of flash-frozen vegetables, cook them, and add them to it (a mix of broccoli and cauliflower works well). Toss the seasoning packet and season it yourself with just a bit of salt and other seasonings you have in the cupboard, which will cut the sodium content quite a bit. A friend of mine always tosses the flavor packet and mixes the noodles with a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter.

It’s still not the healthiest meal in the world, but those steps can make it a lot better without adding a ton to the cost.

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.