Reader Mailbag #16

Each Monday, The Simple Dollar opens up the reader mailbags and answers ten to twenty simple questions offered up by the readers on personal finance topics and many other things. Got a question? Ask it in the comments. You might also enjoy the archive of earlier reader mailbags.

As usual, we’ll start things off with a few links to older articles that directly answer questions I’ve heard recently.
How much money does turning off the lights really save?
Ten books that changed my life
My thoughts on The 48 Laws of Power and how to ethically treat your friends and associates

And now for some great reader questions!

You mention doing research for some of your posts. How do you go about researching? The internet? The Library? Experimentation?
– Carrie

I usually spend an afternoon a week at the library researching material for posts and other written pieces, and significant additional time online doing research. To understand it, I should probably put into context my writing flow for a week’s worth of posts.

I usually spend some time Monday morning defining what I intend to get written over the next week. That’s usually about a week and a half’s worth of posts, a few guest posts, some freelance articles, and a good chunk of a book. Seriously, I write about 20-30K words per week.

Once I’ve decided the general idea of all of these articles, I usually spend some time outlining them a bit with several sentences worth of notes. This helps me identify which posts need significant research and which ones focus more on anecdotal ideas.

This usually gives me the framework I need to go to the library later on Monday and do what research I need for the week. I’ll check out books, photocopy a few things, and take notes on my laptop.

Most of the rest of a normal week is spent just filling out the facts and ideas with prose to support them so that they’re readable. If I’m lucky, I get everything done with some time to spare, during which I follow my muse and work on things that are completely unrelated, like short stories and video production and things like that.

My credit card bill says “Save a stamp, use online bill payment.” When I went online to pay, I read that if I used online payment it would charge a $9.95 online service fee per payment. Do you have an idea of how to find a card that charges no fee?
– arlen

If your credit card company is charging you $9.95 to pay online, don’t do it. It’s a scam. Use your bank’s online bill pay to do the same thing – it’s likely free (and if it’s not, you should be switching to a different bank that has the service).

If you have a service that charges you a “fee” to pay your bill, they’re just trying to make an easy buck from the gullible. I recommend always using your online banking service to pay your bills that way. It helps with budgeting and makes the whole process much easier over the long run.

You seem to have a fairly solid routine. I’m currently wanting to establish such a routine which allows for maintenance of all those steady to dos like cleaning the house, laundry, finances, etc. as well as cooking at home, a reasonable amount of exercise and time with my loved ones. I get frustrated, though, as there still doesn’t seem to be enough time. Were you ever in always-behind-mode and, if so, how did you get out?
– Joanna

I used to constantly feel behind on everything. I realized, in the end, that there were two root causes of it, and once I tackled those, things got easier.

Too many distractions Cell phone on? That’s a regular distraction, with calls and text messages. Email program open? Distraction. Door open? You’re begging for people to come in and distract you. Web browser open? Tons of distractions. Focus in on one task and cut out those distractions.

Figuring out what’s actually important How much time each day do you spend watching television? What would happen to your time if you ditched House and spent that hour cleaning or doing laundry each week? You’d have another hour to spend with your family or doing the core things important to you. Spend some time figuring out priorities, and ditch the ones that are at the bottom of the list.

Do these two things and stick to them tightly, and things will get easier.

How do you handle the quality versus cost issue with basic foods like orange juice? At the store, there’s usually a ton of different kinds of orange juice. The more expensive ones are delicious but the cheap ones taste like battery acid. How do you decide what’s worth buying?
– Ronald

I usually start with the cheapest and work my way up from there. The cheapest orange juice is foul, so what’s next up the line. When I find something I like, that’s my baseline. Then, I watch for sales. Are there more expensive brands that are on sale right now or that I have a coupon for? If so, I get the better kind.

I do this with almost every consumer product, from soap to dishwasher detergent. Take soap – my baseline is Ivory or Pure and Natural (whichever is cheaper), but there’s almost always a better soap on sale (or with coupon) that’s cheaper, and that’s why I’m using Old Spice Body Wash right now. The same with shampoo – my baseline is Pert, but I’m currently using giant containers of almost-free Herbal Essences. It’s sometimes good to try the cheap generic, but sometimes the quality of the generic is significantly lower than the name brand item, and that means you should try things out for yourself.

What sports do you follow?
– Philbert

Baseball, golf, and college basketball. That’s about it. Baseball is probably my top sport, with golf very closely behind. I am a Chicago Cubs fan nearly from birth.

I used to follow pro basketball, but with each passing year the NBA seems more and more rigged, with the referees outright controlling the outcome some of the games, and now with the recent revelations about Tim Donaghy and Dick Bavetta, that seems pretty much true. Yep, David Stern, your cheap attempts to control series lost me as a fan, especially starting with that absolutely horrendous series in 2002 between the Lakers and the Kings. The Kings were a better team by miles, but the refs handed both games six and seven to the Lakers, calling constant invisible fouls and other things.

Can cosmetic surgery ever be considered an investment? Or are the studies/rumors that ‘beautiful people make more money’ not stable enough to rely on recouping the surgery costs?
– leslie

I wrote about this topic a while back, but I think it’s fair to clarify my thoughts.

I think that, although cosmetic surgery does affect how others perceive you, it’s not nearly as important as who you are. You can be the most beautiful person in the world and that might help you get your foot in the door, but if you are a cancer, you will be ousted and disgraced. Your face might open the door, but your attitude and who you are inside will be the part that keeps it open – or slams it in your face.

That being said, cosmetic surgery can be a big benefit in some ways. It can improve your self-confidence and help you get your foot in the door in the first place. The only catch is that once you’re in the door, what really matters is who you are on the inside.

Have you had any experience with time tracking tools that measure productivity and the sort? I’ve recently downloaded Rescue Time and I think seeing my usage patterns has created a better awareness for me. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Thanks.
– Marcus

I used Rescue Time for a while and all it seemed to do for me was point out what was obvious. I have a small handful of time sucking websites – other than those, I’m pretty productive. So what I often do is just completely block those websites. From the Lifehacker book:

My biggest weaknesses when I should be working on The Simple Dollar are looking at my site stats, reading reddit, and playing Desktop Tower Defense. What’s my solution? When I sit down to work on The Simple Dollar, the first thing I do is open the file C:\WINDOWS\SYSTEM32\DRIVERS\ETC\hosts with Notepad and add the line

Then I save the file and close it. When I’m done, I just open the file again and delete the line. What does it do? Whenever I try to visit the distracting web site, I just get a blank page. This keeps me from burning a few minutes here reading reddit or a few minutes there playing a game. Note that this only works on Windows XP and Vista, though – the book provides other ways to do it with other operating systems.

That file name works on PCs. On Macs, you’d want to open /private/etc/hosts and edit that file the same way. I’ve actually set up a cron job (a scheduled and automated task) to swap that file in and out at certain times each day, and then I can undo it myself if I want to.

The key is to block yourself from the time sucks. Make sure you can’t go near them, or at least make it difficult for yourself.

My son is a huge organic fan. I know it’s health benefits. I also know it is expensive too. How would you determine to eat organically or not if you lived in the city? Any thoughts you have on organic food would be appreciated.
– Joel

My philosophy with food is that the important part is to just eat better. The real key is to get on a diet with more vegetables in it. Organics are just icing on the cake. In fact,

organic labeling actually doesn’t mean all that much.

If you’re really concerned about higher quality foods with lower environmental impact, your best bet is to buy local, not organic. Hit the local farmer’s market, especially local farmers that do small scale farming. Your purchase from these folks will do far more for the environment than buying produce that’s been shipped in from Chile.

Do you agree with this view : Nobody has actually figured out how the markets work, everyone is still studying heavily but has not actually figured how the machine works and much of the talk about the predictions about markets is just vain talk, and what turns out to be true is only by fluke or chance?
– WhirlMind

I think people figure out how the markets work in the short term, but then the landscape changes and all bets are off. New investors come in, with different perspectives. Old investors leave. Different sectors, based on different fundamentals, become hot and get a big market capitalization.

That’s why I think, over the long haul, the best bet for almost everyone – meaning everyone who doesn’t have the time to incessantly study the markets – is to diversify widely or only buy specific companies that you know very well. If you don’t have a reason for buying an individual stock – a clear, concrete reason – then don’t buy it.

What motivates you every day?
– j

My children. My wife. My incessant desire to write and the cool, calm feeling I get after a good day of writing. My desire to help the community, both locally and in a larger sense.

That’s pretty much my motivation every day when I wake up. In roughly that order, actually.

Got any questions? Ask them in the comments and I’ll use them in future mailbags.

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.