Questions About Watches, Seasoning Mixes, 401(k) Criticisms, 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. Copying seasoning mixes?
2. University degree as gatekeeper
3. Raising credit score while abroad
4. Shut-in suggestions
5. Easier solution than budgeting?
6. Expensive watch
7. Inexpensive watch
8. Board game expansion advice
9. 401(k)s are a ripoff
10. Lunches while doing field work
11. Outdated savings bonds
12. Books on professional social situations

Sometimes, all you want to do is find a comfortable chair with a really good novel and just lose yourself in it.

On with the questions!

Q1: Copying seasoning mixes?

Is it really cost effective to copy a seasoning mix? I get the Chili Lime mix from Trader Joe’s all the time and I tried to make my own version of it and it definitely didn’t save me money.
– Max

Most of the time, you can copy a seasoning mix and save money, but there are some caveats.

The number one thing is that you need a well-stocked spice rack that you use frequently and refill regularly. If you have this, then making a spice mix isn’t too hard – you just get a small container and mix in the ingredients according to the recipe.

I’ve found that if you buy most of your spices in bulk, the price per ounce of spices is pretty low, and thus making a spice mix is pretty inexpensive. The catch, of course, is that you have to be actually using the spices you have a lot, and if you’re not, they’re going to go to waste. That, in turn, means that you need to be cooking at home a lot in a from-scratch way where you’re actually using your own herbs and spices rather than just cooking from a kit or eating out all the time.

The reason that spice mixes sell well is that they’re a convenient shortcut to food seasoning. You want a “chili lime” flavor on that fish you’re going to grill? Here’s a seasoning mix that will do just that! There’s nothing wrong with that shortcut at all and most mixes really aren’t that expensive, but you can make your own mixes with less expense if you use a lot of spices at home.

Q2: University degree as gatekeeper

I think job training and trade skills are super important, but what do you think about 4-year degrees as gating factors?

My cousin does not have a degree and can’t get a better job at any of the Midwest grain companies because of this. He is one of only two people who can operate a certain machine right now, and regularly trains new full time salaried hires in responsibilities throughout the company. But because he doesn’t have a four year degree, they won’t pay him benefits or hire him salaried. As much as I believe in the trades, companies are making it such that you have to have a four-year degree to get any kind of reliable job, even where that 4yo degree is completely irrelevant (my cousin has 15 years dependable experience, and he’s making less than guys out of college with 2.2 GPAs in psychology.)

My younger 19yo cousin, who absolutely adores welding and is the hardest worker among young people I know, is dragging his feet about getting a bachelors. He hates all the gen eds and doesn’t fully appreciate the long term payoff for the short term dollars he gives up by not working full time. But down the road it gets a lot harder to go back to school, and if you want to raise a family or even just an easier quality of life, it is much better to have a salaried position and healthcare.

I’m all for education of every stripe, but our country has created an education arms race of sorts. I haven’t read extensively on this, but I imagine it hits rust beat/blue collar communities the worst.
– Connie

The idea that you can walk straight out of high school into a good paying job with benefits is gone, and it’s been gone for quite a while. There are few really good jobs available for people with just a high school education and no additional training, and those jobs tend to require some onerous physical labor or insane hours or some other significant drawback. Lacking those things, employers often have to find something to filter through the candidates, and the simple filter of having a bachelors degree is the one many employers fall back on.

That’s why I don’t recommend just directly jumping into the workforce after college. You should either go to college/university, a trade school, the military, or some type of entrepreneurship. If you’re not sure what to do, take a single gap year, spend that year either working one of those jobs that either pays minimum wage or has onerous working conditions (or both) or else take on some other clear project, and figure out what you want to be doing (it probably won’t be working in that onerous job).

Some of my family members have jobs that they received with just a high school diploma. Those jobs all involve either insane working hours or some significant risk to their personal safety. That’s not something I want for any of my children.

Q3: Raising credit score while abroad

As an American born and raised abroad, i moved to the US for a year without any background on the credit score situation. When i just got there and started renting my apartment, I had to make expensive deposits around to get the home services including at&t cable (Direct TV) which was for $500. At a later time i then signed up for an iPhone with a plan. Unfortunately i had to leave the US again without a notice and did not pay the remainder which was due. Now just recently i needed to move back to the US and my only way back is by getting a loan, but of course now its very hard to since my score has decreases inormusly. I though that since i paid an amount as a downpayment for the cable services to the same company as the phone, then in case i left without paying off the remainder for my iphone plan, then it will cancel off one another (cable and iphone are both at&t). So the questions is what can i do? Please help by directing to resolve such issue.
– Andrew

It sounds to me like you have a poor US credit score. There are a few things you can do, but it’s not going to be easy.

First of all, do you still have a credit card issued by a bank in the US? If so, I would start using that for a few regular purchases and then paying off the bill in full. If you don’t have a US credit card, try applying for one. If you can’t get one, look into getting a secured card, an option that many banks offer. If you know someone in the US, they may be able to add you to their card as an authorized user, which will help, but it does put their own credit at risk so you should only ask this of a close relative or an extremely close friend.

You might want to get a copy of your credit report just to see what’s on there. The federal government gives out a free credit report to all citizens once a year from each of the three credit bureaus. You can get that free report from

If you do those things, add in some patience. Your credit won’t recover overnight, and you’ll need good credit to get the kind of loan you’re looking for.

Q4: Shut-in suggestions

I have a suggestion for your shut in person (connie). In my county, the library offers a lot of services to shut ins. She might be able to totally eliminate television and other entertainment expenses (music, kindle, etc). Our library offers books in a variety of formats as well as music, movies, musical instruments, educational kits and other collections all of which are available to be mailed both ways for free to patrons who are unable to travel to the library. Perhaps similar services are available to Connie.

Another idea is for her to ask for help at a local house of worship or thru craigslist for public outreach. There are a lot of organizations wishing to help in their communities. I know that our local animal sanctuary takes dogs to the homes of elderly shut ins who wish to adopt. maybe cats are available that way too. help is often available if people ask. Neighbors and local organizations don’t know the need is there unless the person in need asks them.
– Jaden

These are both good ideas. Our local area has a mobile library that will sometimes drive to the homes of shut-ins and swap books and other media with them. The shut-in requests books and films and other materials online and then the “bookmobile” comes to their house once every few weeks and swaps new stuff for their stuff that needs to be returned.

I’m also a big advocate of contacting your local house of worship, particularly those of mainline Protestant denominations. Over and over again, I’ve found that pastors in mainline Protestant churches will go above and beyond to help people in difficult circumstances (this is likely true of other denominations; I’m just speaking of my own very positive experiences with Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist, and Baptist pastors). Just talk to the pastors there and see what they can do to help.

These are great ideas!

Q5: Easier solution than budgeting?

We have tried making a budget as recommended in several personal finance books for the last month but it is a lot of work and we don’t see much benefit. It has been nice to figure out where we are overspending and correct it but it is so much work to keep assembling and following a budget each month and I know why people stop doing it. Do you have any suggestions for much faster methods that offer most of the benefits of budgeting? I realize nothing will be perfectly the same but faster but what’s beneficial and faster?
– Jameson

There are a couple of things worth trying.

The strategy that works best for me is simply keeping receipts during the month, writing down little incidental expenses in my pocket notebook, totaling up all expenses at the end of the month, putting them into various categories, and then looking at the results and seeing if I’m happy with them. If I’m not, then I know things have to change. This takes just an hour or so a month and works really well. You don’t even have to do this every month – just every third or fourth month or so, just to keep yourself in check.

Another good approach is to just automate some of your financial moves. Set up an automatic transfer to savings (your bank should allow this – if not, then look for a new bank) to put aside money for your upcoming events, like an emergency fund or a new car or so on.

I used to use You Need a Budget, but when they switched to subscription-only software and their last non-subscription version stopped working for me, I abandoned it. I haven’t formally budgeted in quite a while.

Q6: Expensive watch

My husband has always wanted a really high-end wristwatch. He thinks they look strong and masculine and he always admired his grandfather’s watch and wants one kind of like it. He has been slowly saving for it, putting aside $100 a month for several years. But now that he has enough to buy the kind of watch he’s always wanted he is having second thoughts. All the way along I told him I was fine with it if he saved for it slowly and then used that savings to buy it so that we could budget for it but he now has seriously cold feet and is thinking about using that money toward a replacement car. I know that if he does this he will never have that watch but I also know that the car is more financially sensible for us at this time. Advice?
– Jenna

Without knowing your full financial state, I can’t really give you advice on this.

However, I will say that your husband has apparently been saving for this watch in an incredibly responsible way and it’s clearly something that’s meaningful and important to him. Given that, I would have no qualms whatsoever in your situation using the savings to buy the watch he’s looking at. This is something meaningful for him and he’s done it the right way.

Now, it is not a wise move to leave the family in a financially damaged position while he’s buying a several thousand dollar watch, but I don’t think that’s really the position that you’re in. He mostly seems to be deciding between strengthening your financial foundation in a significant way or buying this watch, but that doesn’t mean your financial foundation isn’t already in good shape.

If I were him, I would either buy the watch or hold onto the money for now (if he can’t bear to buy the watch at the moment) unless the financial situation is truly worrisome. Give it some time and reflection.

I thought it’d be fun to follow this up with another watch-related question. Readers had watches on their minds this week!

Q7: Inexpensive watch

I’m about to start a new job and had a meeting with an assigned mentor. He suggested what I should wear to work among other things and said I should get a watch that isn’t a smartwatch. I usually don’t wear one at all and have no idea what to buy. Suggestions? I don’t have much money but I don’t want a cheap looking watch either.
– Jeffrey

Honestly, wristwatches have far more to do with personal taste than anything else. They are an accessory item that has a bit of useful functionality to them.

If I were you, I’d go to a store that sells watches – a normal department store is fine as you’re not buying a high-end timepiece – and look around. Choose one that’s understated and within whatever your price range is and you’ll be fine.

If I had to pick one in your shoes, I’d probably go for something like a Timex Weekender. It’s understated with a very legible face, it doesn’t look cheap, and it does the job for a reasonable price.

Watches are one of those things where you can spend absurd amounts of money. Don’t. Just avoid getting something that looks like a toy if you’re going to wear it in a professional environment.

Q8: Board game expansion advice

Hi Trent! Long time reader and also board game aficionado like yourself. How do you keep yourself from needing every expansion for a game?
– Josh

I ask myself whether I really like this game well enough to keep adding expansions to it and continually playing it with that new expansion content. Is this something I’m really going to keep bringing to the table over and over?

If the answer really is yes and I’m actually playing it a lot, I spend some of my budgeted gaming money on expansions for that game. If the answer is “I’m not sure” or “no,” then I trade the game off or sell it in my local group.

Over time, I’ve become more and more harsh in terms of realizing that I might like a game but that I’m unlikely to play it very much going forward because there are other games I like better and only so much time to actually play games. Coming to that realization has helped me just trade off games that I might have otherwise bought expansions for in the past.

Q9: 401(k)s are a ripoff

Everything about a 401(k) is scammy and I can’t believe you still push them. You just defer taxes into the future where the tax rate is probably going to be a lot higher. They’re usually loaded with fees that just gulp your money. The “free match” you get from your employer is just money they’re not paying you in salary. What a scam.
– Stephen

What you’re describing here aren’t things that are true of a lot of 401(k)s, just the mediocre ones.

Yes, we don’t know what tax rates are going to be like in the future, but it’s unlikely that people in the range of relying on 401(k) benefits are going to be paying huge tax rates or else our country has moved in a radically different direction than our nation’s history and the policies of most of their peers in the world. Furthermore, decent plans offer a Roth option.

Yes, some plans are high in fees. Some plans aren’t. However, most plans do offer a bunch of different investment options, at least some of which are decent in terms of fees, and if your 401(k) is too onerous, you can just contribute enough to get the match and then put the rest into a Roth IRA of your own.

Yes, some employers offer matching funds as part of the compensation package. If you decide to take that job, that’s on you, but when the benefit is on the table, you might as well take advantage of it.

You’re actually complaining about the specifics of how some 401(k)s are implemented, not the idea of a 401(k) itself. There are unquestionably some bad 401(k) plans out there, but most are useful tools.

Q10: Lunches while doing field work

I recently started doing field work where I’m out inspecting most of the day most days. Asked around and every single other inspector just goes to a drive-thru for lunch. I’m trying to figure out how to take my own lunch to save a lot of money because drive-thru lunches will add up fast. My car gets hot during the day and will spoil cold stuff.
– Jim

First off, get a well-insulated and decent-sized cooler, one that will keep stuff cold inside even in a hot car, and several reusable ice packs. Figure out the spot in your car that’s coolest during the day (floorboard in the shade? trunk?) and keep your lunch cooler there. Each night, freeze your ice packs and a bottle or two of water and then put them in the cooler each morning. The water bottle will partially melt during the day, giving you a cold drink, and if the cooler is well insulated the food inside will still be cold.

For hot stuff, get a Thermos food jar. This will keep almost any food (soup, casserole, whatever) perfectly hot from morning until lunchtime. Just microwave some food until it’s basically boiling in the morning, put it in the container, and close it up, and it’ll be perfect at lunch time (sometimes it’s still too hot to eat and you have to let it cool down). The temperature will be high enough to keep it from going bad in that timeframe.

Between those two options, a hot car won’t really be a problem (nor will a cold car on a cold day).

Q11: Outdated savings bonds

I have some savings bonds in my older sister’s name from 1981-1984. She passed away several years ago and I just found them in her papers. What can I do with them? Are they worth anything now?
– Josie

First question: who should have inherited those bonds when her estate was resolved? I’m going to guess that they should have gone to you since you’re looking through her papers at this late date. Whoever should have inherited them should have those bonds, because those bonds were part of your sister’s estate.

Assuming you inherited them, they’re probably still worth the face value of the bond. You can cash them in at many banks if they have someone on staff (a certifying officer) who can receive them. If you go there and explain the full situation to them, they’ll likely cash them in for you, though they may wish to see who should properly inherit them in the estate, so you may want to bring along any estate documents proving that you inherited them.

This should be a trivial matter. Whoever should have inherited them just needs to take proof of the inheritance along with the bonds to a bank.

Q12: Books on professional social situations

Hi! I am looking for some book recommendations on how to be better socially at work beyond the Dale Carnegie stuff. I practice Carnegie’s teachings but it feels kind of mechanical and I can’t seem to really put it together into building relationships. But I can really see the value in having good professional relationships! Thanks!
– Max

The main book I would recommend is Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz, which I wrote about extensively in the past. I think it’s pretty much exactly what you’re looking for, as it takes the core ideas of Carnegie and puts them into an overall set of techniques for building good professional (and personal) relationships.

I should point out here that, like Carnegie, the author somewhat assumes that the reader is an introvert (or else why would he/she be looking for this kind of advice?). Thus, there are parts that can feel quite mechanical, describing social situations and strategies step by step when those techniques come naturally to some people, and that can feel awkward at moments. Don’t sweat it. Don’t let it bother you. Not all of us are born socially adept – I’m certainly not!

Another book that I’ve found very valuable but I haven’t written about before on The Simple Dollar is The Like Switch by Jack Schafer and Marvin Karlins. This is a great book that kind of occupies the middle ground between Carnegie’s stuff and Never Eat Alone, relating specific conversational practices to building better relationships.

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.