Questions About Weekend Lunches, Bed Linens, Shaving, Virtual Account Numbers, 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. Virtual account numbers
2. Student loan forgiveness
3. Retirement contributions as state employee
4. Quarter-life crisis
5. Best bargain on bed linens
6. Noisy neighborhood while telecommuting
7. Best streaming music bargain
8. Black Friday and big purchases
9. Gifts for distant people
10. Inexpensive daily shaving routine
11. Resume value from fast food?
12. Simple cheap healthy lunches

This past weekend, my wife and her sister spent a large portion of Saturday at an event together, meaning that I had most of a Saturday to spend with my children.

When my wife returned home, she found a giant art installation going on in the living room as designed by a nine year old girl and executed by that same girl, her two brothers, and her father. When she went into the dining room, she found that the entire table was covered with some kind of crazy miniatures-based tabletop game that everyone was crowded around, staring at beautiful little miniatures arranged on a giant grid, pushing them around and shouting about the onslaught of hordes of little minions.

Somewhere in all of that, books had been read, breakfast and lunch had been eaten, and the family dog had been played with so much that he was in an exhausted heap on the floor.

In short, it was one of the best Saturdays in a long time. A family day where everyone is involved in just taking off the reins of the ordinary routines and doing some purely fun stuff around the house can be incredibly enjoyable.

Q1: Virtual account numbers

What is your take on virtual account numbers? I just found out about them a few weeks ago and the concept appeals to me especially for setting up recurring payments on my bills.
– Bill

I think virtual account numbers are a very good idea. I think for highly trusted retailers, they might be a bit of overkill, but if you’re considering using your credit card at an online retailer where you’re not as familiar with their practices, using a virtual account number can be a really smart move.

For those unaware, a virtual account number is a tool offered by some credit cards and debit cards in which they give you a secondary card number (or account number) that you can use for a specific purpose. That account number only works for the purpose that you specify, so if it’s used for any other purpose, it’s declined.

As I said, I think this is a great idea for minimizing identity theft. It’s a bit of a hassle to get each code, so I wouldn’t use it for retailers that you use all the time, but for one-off purchases, particularly when you’re less sure about the retailer, it’s a great tool.

Q2: Student loan forgiveness

I have $36k in student loan debt and am on an income-based repayment plan. I am an adjunct instructor, so my income is always in flux. Some years my payment is quite a bit, and some years my payment is zero. I keep reading that student loan debt is forgiven after 20 years of paying as agreed. Does ‘paying as agreed’ mean those years with $0 payments count? Am I better off trying to pay something even when my payment is formally $0 per month?
– Sandra

Student loan forgiveness depends entirely on the agreement between you and your lender(s). Some states will step in and help you finish out a loan if you meet certain requirements, but you have to find specific programs to do so. It’s absolutely not true that all outstanding loans are forgiven twenty years after you graduate.

What you’re reading about might be the specific PAYE program run by the Department of Education. To find out if you qualify for this program, you need to use this calculator provided by the Department of Education. You may also want to look at the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.

Options for student loan forgiveness have increased drastically in the last several years, but most of them apply primarily to newer loans. They also usually require that you be enrolled in a specific income-based loan repayment plan. Unfortunately, it’s fairly likely that you’re not qualified for these things, but it doesn’t hurt to look.

Q3: Retirement contributions as state employee

I am writing on behalf on my brother, because I manage his finances for him. He’s 30 years old, and recently hired as a state employee. Because of this, he will receive state retirement (we live in Massachusetts) which will deduct 9% automatically from his check, and provide him with about $933/month assuming he stays there for 10 years (and more if he stays longer – which is the plan).

Previously, he was contributing 20% of his salary to a 401k. I would like for him to contribute more than just the 9% toward his retirement. As far as I know, his employer does not offer any other retirement fund options.

What are his options? Should I have him contribute to an IRA?
– Lenora

If he has been contributing 20% of his salary to his 401(k) for the past several years, he should already have a healthy nest egg in there. Assuming that it grows at a healthy clip and assuming that your brother contributes to this program, he’ll be fine for retirement.

The advantage of any additional contribution to a Roth IRA is that it would open him up to the possibility of retiring at age 50. The Massachusetts plan allows people to retire at any age once they have 20 years of service. If he’s been contributing to a Roth all the way along, he might be able to retire in his fifties and live off of his Massachusetts retirement money and Roth money until he reaches the age where Social Security kicks in.

If that’s not in line with your brother’s life goals, then forgoing the Roth probably means he’d retire around age 60 to 65.

Q4: Quarter-life crisis

I just turned 28. I have been in the work force this way or another for ten years now, starting with a lot of admin work right after highschool and currently working as a junior analyst. My BA is not in a quantitative field, but I’ve completed some online courses. I’m currently 100% healthy, pretty frugal, not married and no children, don’t have a car, a mortgage, or any debt to that matter. have about $25k in savings and I’m saving about 50 percent of my income each month.

I now work a pretty regular 9-6, but have a monstrous boss. i haven’t yet had a job where i wasn’t sick of it after 6 months (though i usually stay an average of 2 years). I am dying to just quit and start figuring out who I am outside the job scene. I’m pretty introverted so I want to travel, get more comfortable with the outdoors and get better at human connection. I could live off my savings for about 2 years (I live in Israel. Even more somewhere cheaper), and I can stretch them even longer if i found a low-key part time position. Though I realize I’d have to go back to administrative jobs, and it will be a huge step back professionally and financially.

I read a lot of personal finance blogs but have a special deep appreciation for your grounded voice and practical advice. your wonderful writing has been a part of my life for many years, so I would love to hear your take on my situation. is this break something that I owe to myself, while I’m young? or a glorified fantasy that will slowly waste my savings?
– Nicole

Honestly, it sounds to me like you’re having a “quarter life crisis,” which is a point that many people reach in their late twenties when they’re really starting to grasp what they want out of life and realizing it’s not in alignment with some of the choices they’ve made.

It happened to me and it ended up taking the form of switching to working on The Simple Dollar full time at age 29 so that I could have the professional flexibility to be a strongly involved father. It happened to my best friend, who basically cashed in his life savings to buy some land in the country that now serves as his personal “retreat.” Another close friend, in her very early thirties, decided that she didn’t want to live in Chicago any more and moved to extreme rural Iowa.

I think that if you’re truly committed to using this time to really figuring out what you want out of life, meaning it’s not just two years of web surfing and partying, this is probably a good move for you. You’re financially stable with a lot of savings right now and you seem to be dissatisfied with the direction of your life. Take the time, but consciously use it to figure out what’s next for you. Try a lot of things. I’d suggest volunteering at a lot of places to see what really clicks for you.

Many financial writers encourage people to stay on the financial straight and narrow, but for me, the purpose of financial success is to open up your horizons and change what’s reasonably possible in your life. This is probably the best chance you’ll have to do so. Just make sure that every single day, when you wake up, you’re genuinely committed to figuring out what you want out of life. A day where you just sit around web surfing and partying is fine on occasion, but if it’s any sort of routine, you’re wasting this wonderful opportunity.

Good luck!

Q5: Best bargain on bed linens

I have another question if you don’t mind. What is your take on the best-value bed linen? I buy mine from Aldi or Target, and it needs replacement every 2-3 years. On the other hand, I read that linen is the best, well, bed linen option, because once you pay that hefty pricetag, it lasts forever. Shall I approach bed linen the same way as camping gear and invest once in quality linen to use forever and enjoy a low cost per sleep?
– Marcy

In general, good linens are worth the investment because they last for one or two decades rather than one or two years. You don’t have to worry about replacing them for a very long time. Sarah and I have been married for more than a decade and we still use linens we received as wedding gifts, for example.

The thing you really need to look for in lasting linens is to make sure that they’re made out of a natural fiber like cotton or bamboo and that they’re woven, not knitted. Woven sheets will last a lot longer because of how the threads are intermingled. A lot of people tout thread count, but in general, if you’re above 200 on your thread count, you’re fine. I honestly can’t tell the difference by touch and we have two sets with vastly different thread counts that have lasted a decade.

Many people tout Egyptian cotton or Pima cotton sheets, which are both very long cotton fibers, so they make for good long-lasting sheets, but they’re not a make-or-break requirement. They’ll probably just add a few more years to a long lifespan that you’ll get from other cotton or bamboo woven sheets.

Shop around with this in mind and you’ll find something long lasting for a good price.

Q6: Noisy neighborhood while telecommuting

Right now I live in a neighborhood with a ton of construction going on so all day long I hear jackhammers and beeps and the usual noise of home and road construction. I telecommute 4 out of 5 days so I hear this all day at home and it is really distracting. Do you have any suggestions on how to handle this? I know you have telecommuted for years so you may have smart strategies! I hope!
– Vincent

When there’s construction in my area – and there sometimes is construction nearby because houses are being built to the east of my home – and I can’t focus, I pack up a backpack and head to the library. I’ll usually go there, reserve a room, and work on my laptop. The quiet rooms at my library are very quiet – so quiet that I’ll often play ambient noise so that it’s not creepy.

If that’s a non-starter for time management reasons, I’ll stay at home and do tasks that don’t require intense focus, like going through emails or other such things. So, if the construction starts up at two in the afternoon, I don’t run to the library.

The thing to remember is that the construction won’t last forever. They’ll build the house or fix the road and then they’ll disappear and you’ll be back to the normal ambient noise of your neighborhood.

Q7: Best streaming music bargain

What do you think is the best bargain for streaming music? Pandora or Spotify? Something else that’s not on my radar? I like to listen to music throughout the day but don’t own or want to buy that many albums or songs and I hate nonstop radio commercials. Willing to pay $10 a month for the best service.
– Patrick

Having tried most of the big ones (including my favorite, Rdio, which is now out of business), I think there are four choices worth considering and they appeal to different people.

First, you have Pandora. I would choose Pandora if you’re more interested in a “radio station” vibe where they’ll play a mix of songs you’re familiar with and ones that might help you discover new artists that you like. While you can control the type of music that it plays, you can’t burrow down to make it play specific songs very well – it’s more like creating a radio station with songs similar to, say, Pearl Jam, and you’ll hear a lot of 90s alternative and groups with a similar sound from different eras.

Spotify is probably the best if you have diverse music tastes and want to be able to make playlists of specific songs that you choose. They have the largest overall library.

Tidal is probably the best choice if you’re a fan of R&B and rap or are a serious audiophile. They have the most exclusive music of these services, but once you’re outside the R&B/rap genres, their selection is fairly spotty. They have the highest quality streaming audio, meaning if you have nice speakers you may be able to notice it, but Tidal is also the most expensive option.

Finally, you have Amazon Prime Music. It’s free with an annual Amazon Prime subscription (which gives you free two day shipping on most things sold on Amazon). It’s similar to Spotify – you can define your own playlists, etc. – but the library isn’t as large.

I personally prefer Pandora, as I like the $5 a month with no ads price point (or free with ads) and I like the variety and discovery of it. I’ve found many artists that I quite like thanks to Pandora. However, if you already have Amazon Prime, Prime Music is free, so it’s hard to argue with that.

Q8: Black Friday and big purchases

Liked your post last week about Black Friday. What are your thoughts on Black Friday as a whole? Do you think it’s a good time to buy preplanned big purchases like a new TV? If you’re saving up to replace an aging TV is Black Friday the time to do it?
– Donald

That’s one of the few things that Black Friday is good for, in my opinion. If you’re planning on making a big purchase, Black Friday is a great day to bargain hunt for that specific purchase.

The danger of Black Friday is that you’ll enter into a bit of a “shopping frenzy” and buy lots of things impulsively that you don’t need. It’s great for specific preplanned purchases. Things go off the rails when you start buying things that aren’t carefully planned.

It sounds like this television purchase is at least somewhat planned, so, by all means, shop around for a TV on Black Friday. Just don’t buy other stuff as well unless you were planning on it before looking at the flyers.

Q9: Gifts for distant people

This is the first Christmas that my oldest child has truly lived outside the home completely. When he was in college, he was home often enough that I felt really in touch with his interests so I could give him thoughtful gifts for Christmas and the year after college he lived at home with us while looking for a job. In February he moved to Boston and though we text a lot and talk on the phone I have only seen him a few times this year. He is coming back for a week for Christmas and I want to make it special.

The problem is that I don’t have any idea what to get him. I feel a bit less in touch with his life in terms of what he does each day and what he has.

My parents passed away before I was old enough to really leave the nest fully and so I don’t have them to rely on for advice. I have read your site for almost a decade and this is the first time I have asked for advice. It’s not really “money advice” but it’s something that feels like you can help.
– Tina

My recommendation here is communication. Try to have a few extra conversations in the next few weeks with your son. It sounds like he may not be coming back for Thanksgiving, so give him a call or two during this week and just talk to him about his life. Ask what he’s into these days and ask about his day.

The key is to listen. Stop thinking about what you’re going to say next in the conversation and just focus on listening. He’ll probably tell you things that he wants, at least on some level. Maybe he’ll talk about things in Boston that he loves, so you could get him a museum pass or some Red Sox tickets or something like that. Maybe he’ll complain about cutting himself while shaving, so a really nice electric razor would be a thoughtful gift.

Just listen. When you really listen, people often tell you what they want. It’s just hard to actually shut ourselves down and just listen. Try it. It might be easier than you think.

Q10: Inexpensive daily shaving routine

How do you minimize the cost of a daily shaving routine? I have had a beard for many years which I have kept trimmed with a beard trimmer and occasional edging about once a week. I am going clean shaven for my new job and do not have a shaving routine established yet. I know electronic razors are really expensive and cartridge razors aren’t bad up front but have an expensive upkeep. What’s the best “bang for the buck” for shaving?
– Clancy

The most cost effective daily shaving routine is to use an old-fashioned safety razor and individual replacement blades. A good safety razor costs $20 to $30 up front (or less if you find one at a secondhand store), and replacement blades, when bought in bulk, cost a few pennies each at most.

The catch? Shaving with an old-fashioned safety razor is a little different than a cartridge razor. You have to be very gentle and let the razor do the work, and if you’re learning how to do it, you probably will cut yourself a few times until you master the technique. You may also find it “rough” on the skin at first.

Stick with it. It’s worth it. Just take it slow at first and make sure to let the razor do all the work. Don’t push it into your skin, but let it glide as gently as possible.

Q11: Resume value from fast food?

I have been working at the same Taco Bell for three years while in school. I am making enough to help with housing costs and meals and so on so my loans are lower. I am graduating in December and am wondering how to get the most “resume value” from this job in 2017.
– Neal

Honestly, your best approach is to probably sit down with your supervisor and talk to him or her about it. The ideal position for you would be a one year stint as a shift manager or assistant manager of some kind, because that would indicate a mix of hard work and responsibility and leadership on your resume.

The availability of positions like that depends a lot on the current state of your restaurant’s employees. There may be many such slots available or they may be all filled up.

I would suggest to you that you just talk to your manager about this, particularly if you have a good employment history there. Explain what’s going on in your life and that you’re looking to improve your resume after graduation and ideally get some real-world leadership experience. While it may not mean a bump in pay, it will definitely look better on a resume.

Q12: Simple cheap healthy lunches

What do you prepare for weekend lunches for your kids that are healthy and cheap and they won’t complain about it? The only thing my 6 and 4 year old ever want is mac and cheese which isn’t too expensive but is about as unhealthy as you can get.
– Sandy

Honestly, what I do is prepare extra servings of the meals that I know my children like during the week.

If we’re having a dinner during the week that I know my kids love, like spaghetti, I’ll plan on having it later in the week and make more than we’ll eat at the dinner table. I’ll save the leftovers and do something with it on Saturday for lunch, like make a spaghetti bake (put all leftover spaghetti into a casserole dish, top with cheese, bake for 25 minutes at 350F). If it’s something that’s more experimental, I usually make enough for just our family dinner and leftovers for Sarah and myself the next day; I save the “extra leftover” meals for things that I know the kids will like.

That way, we’re not stuck having mac and cheese for lunch on Saturday – instead, they’re having a leftover-based meal of something that I know is reasonably healthy and that they like. It’s cheap, it’s easy, it’s reasonably healthy – perfect for weekend lunches with the kids.

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.