Questions About Remote Employment, Shampoo, 30 Day Challenges, 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. Advice on working remotely
2. Finding a frugal shampoo
3. 529 funds and uncommitted student
4. 30 day challenge difficulties
5. Making the right decision
6. Deciding on a bank
7. Deciding on fresh produce
8. Deciding on fair trade
9. “Gap year” thoughts?
10. Credit card declined
11. Relationship with big spender
12. Unclear on Due app use

This past weekend, I had hoped to go on my first decent hike of the spring. I found a couple of trails I wanted to hit, figured out a nice window of time in which to get in a hiking adventure, and really enjoyed all of the warm weather of the week before.

I wake up on Saturday to find that it’s 38 and rainy.

Even the best laid plans sometimes go awry.

On with the questions.

Q1: Advice on working remotely

It seems with the advancements in technology, I run into more and more people that have jobs working remotely. I’m considering something in the accounting/finance/consulting field. Do you have any advice? Or suggestions of sound places to look for such job opportunities? Many thanks in advance!
– Mary

The truth is that some employers are very friendly when it comes to remote employees, while others insist on having people in the office most of the time. It really comes down to culture.

My first suggestion would be to talk to your current employer(s) about remote options. Do they allow people to work remotely? If they do, see if that’s something you can do.

If your current job doesn’t allow for any sort of remote working, you need to figure out what your next step is. Are you looking to quit this job and start anew with remote work? Are you looking for remote side gigs?

If you’re looking for full time remote work, treat it as a job search except that you’re filtering the opportunities by whether or not they allow remote work. One good place to start is FlexJobs – it’s a paid service, but it will help you find good remote work opportunities. You might also want to check out the accounting opportunities at Upwork, though many of them are more in the part-time range.

If you’re just looking for side gigs or quick jobs to earn a few extra dollars, look at sites like Fiverr, where you can churn out things quickly that match up well with your skills. Upwork might fill in this gap, too.

It really comes down to what you want to do, and you have to define that for yourself first.

Q2: Finding a frugal shampoo

Do you have any suggestions for finding an inexpensive shampoo and conditioner that works well for my hair? Some of the cheap stuff turns my head into dandruff city so I use some pricy stuff from the hair cut place that doesn’t make dandruff but costs a mint. I don’t want to buy five bottles of shampoo and have them all go to waste.
– Gary

In your situation, I would visit a big box retailer like Target and/or Wal-Mart and check out their travel-sized toiletries. Snag one of the travel sized bottles for $0.50 or $1 and try it out. If you notice dandruff, go back to what works for a while. If you get through a travel bottle without dandruff, then buy a full sized bottle and go with it.

I use Suave or Pert Plus based on whatever’s on sale and they both work fine for me, but my hair is quite short and thus I only use a couple of drops to wash my hair. I used to get dandruff when I kept my hair longer and used more shampoo, but cutting it short made a huge difference for me.

The key is to find the kinds of shampoo that work with your scalp, and starting with tiny travel bottles keeps that as cheap as possible so you don’t wind up with a big bottle of unusable stuff.

Q3: 529 funds and uncommitted student

[Last week], a parent wrote in about concerns with their college student not being committed to getting good grades and how to handle their 529. We also have an uncommitted college student. We told him that we would reimburse him 100% for all A’s and B’s. The 529 could be used similarly, with the second semester paid with the first semesters good grades.
– Stacy

This is an interesting system that left me thinking about how to put it into practice, because different universities have different grading systems and payment systems.

For example, when I was in college, if you took 12 credit hours, you were considered a “full time student” and thus could take up to 18 credit hours per semester for no additional cost beyond 12. Below 12, the cost was prorated per credit. So, for example, each credit might cost $500 and thus $6,000 would make you a “full time student” and you could take up to 18 credit hours worth of classes.

In that system, if the child managed to get 12 credits worth of As and Bs, I would assume then that you would cover the “full time student” level of tuition, even if they got a C (or lower) in an additional class or two.

I like that system! That’s a good idea! It doesn’t completely punish a kid for having a hard class or two, but it incentivizes hard work and not goofing off on the easier classes.

Q4: 30 day challenge difficulties

This year, I decided to do a different 30 day challenge each month. I wanted to try to build toward some real life changes. I haven’t had a problem doing them each month, but I found that within a few days at the end of the month I reverted right back to the “old way” of doing things. I’m not sure what’s going wrong and I wanted some suggestions.
– Kerry

First of all, it usually takes more than 30 days to build a new lasting habit in your life. It can take 90 days or 180 days of consciously following a new habit until it becomes an unconscious and natural habit.

The reason I find a 30 day challenge useful isn’t that it sets a new habit in my life, but it lets me figure out if that new habit really fits in my life and whether or not it’s producing the kind of results I want and expect from it.

For me, if a 30 day challenge isn’t producing results after 30 days or I find it prohibitively difficult, I dump it (at least in its current form). On the other hand, if it is successful, I keep it around as a habit I’m constantly reminding myself of or doing as part of a checklist for at least a few more months, in order to set it as a natural thing.

A 30 day challenge is just a trial run, not a recipe for building a new permanent life change.

Q5: Making the right decision

My biggest goal for now is my journey toward (financial) independence. There are some things I readily do right; buying quality over quantity, living habits inspired by minimalism (I follow Joshua Becker and the life on purpose movement), … Other than financial independence, I also strive to reduce my negative footprint on the planet and living beings. I don’t like the idea of living like a queen over the backs of others. Certain decisions have definitely helped me for the better. For example, on the first of January I started following a strict plants-based diet with whole foods being the core of it. It’s easier now for me to make healthier choices, simply because there is less junkfood available and because I am often too lazy to figure out whether something is vegan or not. However, there are times that I feel challenged to live up to my goals and what I value. Or to be more specific, to know what the right decisions are.

For example, I was in the store because I ran out of sun screen. I had learned from a ted-ed video that mineral based sun-screens do not damage coral-reefs as much when swimming in the sea, about micro-beads and plastics and the damage they cause. Hence I bought the mineral-based one that was just way more expensive. I come across the issue of wanting to save money vs. making better choices for the planet and the living beings inhabiting it all the time. It’s frustrating.
– Megan

Here’s the thing: virtually everything we do as people has some sort of consequence on the earth, on wildlife, and on the people around us. It is impossible to always make the perfect ethical choice, because there is no perfect ethical choice.

Take your sunscreen example. You mention that mineral based sunscreens do not damage coral reefs, but on the other hand, the processes used to produce the minerals used in sufficient quantities have real environmental impact. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide can be mined, but it can also be manufactured via metal smelting. If you step back and examine which bottle of sunscreen has the most environment impact during production, the most effects on your health, and the most effects after use, it’s really hard to tell which one is strictly better. I spent a lot of time looking into this and I honestly couldn’t come up with a clear conclusion, other than to say that mineral-based sunscreens are better for people and are likely better for the environment after you’ve used them, but they certainly do have an environmental impact in being manufactured.

The best skin protection solution is to wear clothes and a hat when you’re outdoors in direct sunlight. Regardless of what you choose, if you choose something to rub on your skin to protect it in sunlight, it’s made up of ingredients that were mined and/or smelted and/or chemically produced and then manufactured and transported to you via a long supply chain.

The choice you really have as a consumer is either to go without a lot of the advantages of the most effective products or choose from a spectrum of environmental impacts. There are almost no purchasing decisions we can make in the modern world of supply chain manufacturing that doesn’t have real environmental impact.

In my opinion, the best way to be an ethical consumer is to buy from local sources as often as you can, support co-ops where people who are interested in being an ethical consumer can filter your purchasing decisions for you, buy less stuff overall and use what you do buy until it’s worn out and used up, and make and grow things for yourself as much as you can.

Megan followed up her email with a few specific examples, which I’ll address one at a time.

Q6: Deciding on a bank

For example:
Which bank to use:
Sticking to ING-bank is cheaper and comes with a credit-card (my whole family uses mine responsibly for online orders, tickets to the theatre… ). However, ING invests in nuclear weapons, oil and other highly controversial things. ASN bank invests more in things that have less of an environmental footprint, such as organic farming. However, is slightly more expensive and does not come with a credit card.

– Megan

This moves in a bit of a different direction. What you’re asking here is whether or not your individual choice actually matters. If you choose to boycott ING, does it make a difference?

You alone, as an individual consumer with a pretty small amount of net worth, won’t make an impact with your decision. However, if you can stir up lots of people to make an ethical choice in their banking, then a difference starts to happen. The issue, of course, is that it requires people to get more politically and socially active than they’re often comfortable being.

There’s also a third option here that you’re not exploring: why not just use a local bank or credit union, or the most local banking option available to you? That keeps the money as local as possible. I generally feel like a local credit union is usually the most ethical banking option for most people.

Q7: Deciding on fresh produce

Which produce to buy: The fruits and veggies marketed as being grown without nasty pesticides being more expensive than the ones that are grown with?
– Megan

This question actually comes close to the research areas where I used to work. The truth is that different plants absorb pesticides at different levels. For example, strawberries absorb tons of pesticides and they’re probably best to buy pesticide-free. On the other hand, avocados absorb almost no pesticides, so pesticide-free avocados are probably not worth the money. Here’s a good summary of this information.

As I’ve been alluding to above, the most environmentally friendly solution when it comes to buying things like this is to get them locally, preferably as locally as possible. The most local solution, obviously, is to have your own garden; that way there’s no transportation cost and you can use no unnatural pesticides if you so choose. However, a lot of people won’t choose to do this.

The best balance is probably to check out produce at your local farmers market. Find what’s actually grown locally with minimal pesticide use, buy plenty of it, and put some of it up for the winter months.

Q8: Deciding on fair trade

Coffee, tea, clothing and other products that come from far away lands… do I buy the fair-trade option or not?
– Megan

The idea of “fair trade” products is a lot more complicated than just buying something with a fair trade sticker on it. You’re putting a lot of faith in what that sticker means, and it might not mean what you think it means.

I think the general consensus is that a fair trade label is worth something, but often not as much as the price increase. This paper seems to indicate that limited benefit actually makes its way back to the originating farmer.

What’s the point, then? The point is that the idea of being an ethical consumer is extremely difficult. Products are often marketed to appear more ethical than they are, and even things that genuinely seem to be healthier and more ethical may have different side effects.

As I said earlier, in my opinion, the best way to be an ethical consumer is to buy from local sources as often as you can, support co-ops where people who are interested in being an ethical consumer can filter your purchasing decisions for you, buy less stuff overall and use what you do buy until it’s worn out and used up, and make and grow things for yourself as much as you can.

And now we’ll move on to some other topics.

Q9: “Gap year” thoughts?

My oldest son is a sophomore in high school. He wants to take a “gap year” between high school and college to do volunteer work. His reasoning is that it will actually make him more appealing to colleges but it will also better prepare him for college and be a major life experience. To me it just seems like a year of goofing off without responsibility. Thoughts?
– Aaron

I have a hard time, from your email, assessing how exactly your son intends to spend his gap year. A pledge to do “volunteer work” might mean he’s planning on spending a year doing something that’s really in line with the other things he’s been building toward, or it might be a year goofing off.

Your son is largely correct as to the benefits of a gap year. Many higher-end colleges see a gap year as a benefit, especially when the activities of that gap year tie into things that the child has been doing during their high school years. Is the activity of that “gap year” a good capstone on the things he’s doing or plans to do during his junior and senior years? Is the “gap year” activity something that would be impressive on a resume?

If your son has a clear plan that’s connected to things he’s doing now and can articulate exactly what he’s hoping to do, then the gap year is good. If your son just wants a year off to “volunteer” without any real plan, then it’s probably not worthwhile.

Q10: Credit card declined

What exactly should you do if you go to a store and your credit card is declined?
– Andrew

Well, it probably means you’re not buying what you intend to buy unless you have another method of payment. So, you either produce another method of payment or apologize and leave the store.

In terms of the bigger picture, having a credit card declined likely means that you’re either a victim of identity theft or your finances are out of control. You should immediately look into this and see if this is caused by your own poor spending behavior or whether someone is charging stuff to your card without your permission.

If it’s caused by unauthorized charges, start working with your credit card company to get that all straightened out.

If it’s due to your own mismanagement, it is time to start taking a hard and serious look at your spending choices. To max out a credit card and be surprised by the decline, you have to be rather out of touch with your own spending habits. My suggestion? Cut up the credit card and learn to live without it. Figure out how to live on the actual cash you’re bringing in, including paying off debts. Start paying off that card without adding more to the balance.

Q11: Relationship with big spender

I’m 26/F and have been dating the same guy for three years. I am very careful with my money. I have paid off 85% of my student loans in four years while contributing approximately 20% of my salary to my 401(k). I live in a shared apartment with two other college friends and we’ve lived here since before graduation, keeping all of our costs low. My boyfriend has a 2BR apartment to himself, barely makes minimum payments on his student loans, and eats out all the time (often paying for my meals, so I know how much he eats out). He’s always buying new electronics and seems to upgrade his phone every six months. He’s a wonderful guy but I find myself really turned off by all of the spending. I am afraid he is thinking of proposing and I will say “no” if he does, but I don’t know for sure what to do. Hoping for advice.
– Kendra

You absolutely have to talk to him about this. This needs to be a serious conversation between the two of you now because if you think he’s considering a proposal, he thinks things are great and views you two as very compatible.

Money issues are difficult in any marriage, and that’s especially true when you’ve got values that are out of alignment. It sounds from this like you guys are way out of alignment when it comes to spending issues. I don’t think you’ve dug deeply into your individual personal finances though. Do you know how much income he’s making? Is he getting financial help from his parents?

Figure those things out before you make a definitive “no” decision on a proposal. He may have a parent giving him cash. He may be making a lot of money and already have his loans paid off. Or, he may just be spending himself into happy oblivion. You can’t always tell what the truth is from these kinds of outward signs.

Q12: Unclear on Due app use

I wasn’t 100% clear on how exactly you use the Due app. You say you use it every day but not for things that are due… so what do you use it for?
– Carmen

I use it for nudges toward better behavior or things I need to be thinking about.

For example, when my kids get home, I have a large block of time that I set aside for family time. I spend it with them, doing things like helping them with their homework or getting them ready for their soccer practices and so on.

I use Due to nudge me toward things I should be thinking about at certain points in that period. For example, let’s say my daughter has soccer practice at 4:30. Due will nudge me at about 4:05, telling me I should nudge my daughter to start getting ready for soccer practice, gathering up her gear and filling her water bottle and so on. At 4:35, it’ll nudge me to say that I should start working on supper prep and that I should get my youngest son to help.

Each day is full of ten or so of those types of nudges. They’re just little reminders of things that I should consider doing in advance of when I should do them so that they’re front and center on my mind.

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.