Reader Mailbag: Third Wheel

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to five word summaries. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Paying rent via certified check
2. Care with homemade foodstuffs
3. USDA Food Plan argument
4. Value of networking
5. Homemade Pop Tarts
6. Value of washing hands excessively
7. Bored while recovering financially
8. Dreams a waste of time?
9. Student credit cards
10. Tech support for free

One of the difficulties with having three children close in age to each other is that they pair off when they play.

When children play together, they often pair off with a single friend or playmate to play whatever game comes to their imagination.

So, what happens is that sometimes our oldest child and our youngest one will play together, leaving the middle one alone, or the two oldest will play together which leaves the young one alone, or the oldest will be alone.

In small doses, it’s fine. In large doses, you eventually find that the child left alone gets their feelings hurt.

Our best solution to this problem is to have the two older children have some individual activities, leaving the other two to play together on their own. We’ll add the third to the mix in a year or two.

This isn’t a perfect fit, but it does give some time for every child pair to develop its own relationship.

Q1: Paying rent via certified check
I had a curious question. I’m probably missing out something obvious here. But I was wondering what your thoughts were on paying your monthly rent via certified check – paid via a credit card. My bank (BoA) charges $10 to get a certified check. I can pay for this certified check using my credit card. Assuming I will never have a balance on my credit card, do you think it is worth paying my rent this way? I earn points or cash back on the card used. My rent is $2200 each month (shared with a roommate who wires me his share).

I think the $10 charge is completely acceptable for the benefits. Your thoughts will be much appreciated.
– Jean

If you’re maximizing rewards points that are equal to cash for the $2,200 spent, those rewards exceed $10, and you keep your balance paid in full, this is a reasonable way of doing things.

However, you’re jumping through hoops to earn a small reward, one that might not necessarily be usable on anything useful to you. If you’re earning 1% in rewards and those rewards come in the form of points in a shopping program that doesn’t offer useful things, you’re jumping through these hoops to earn $12 a month that you can use on things you don’t need. Given the effort, it’s not worth it.

I wouldn’t do this unless I was earning something really useful.

Q2: Care with homemade foodstuffs
When I buy a homemade food item at a farmers market, I’m often really worried later about whether the item is going to be safe to eat or not. It seems to me when you’re trusting something someone made in their kitchen, you could get burned pretty bad. How can you tell?

– Geoff

With things like bread, you mostly are limited to inspection, but that’s true of baked goods at any grocery store. In either case, you’re just trusting the maker.

With canned goods, take them home and let them sit for a few days. If the lid doesn’t pop up, then it’s not suffering from most causes of spoilage.

Again, any of these cases involve trusting the maker, but so does buying an item at the grocery store. I am usually more likely to trust the nice lady I see at every farmers market than I am to trust a faceless corporation.

Q3: USDA Food Plan argument
My husband and I argue about the food budget. He looks at the USDA Food plan and says it includes paper goods, like Toilet Paper, Paper Towels, dog food and Cleaning supplies. I say it’s Food and food alone, but doesn’t include Vitamins. We are a family of 4, but the kids are both under the age of 7, and we spend around $750/month. He thinks that’s too much. But, it includes paper goods and non-edible items, toiletries etc.

I should also mention that the USDA food plan, even though it says May 2012, is still based on 2001-2 data and updated to current dollars for specific food items, but doesn’t say which ones.

Do you know the answer to this? Does the food plan include non-edibles or is it only Food?
– Monica

For those interested, here’s the USDA Food Plan, which provides a pretty nice estimate of food costs for a family. You can find the details of what these plans include, too.

The family described above spends $750 a month on food, which falls between the low-cost and the moderate-cost plans. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. It’s pretty close to what we spend with a family of five.

We buy a lot of fresh vegetables. We avoid all milk and dairy products that include rBGH and other added hormones. I’m extremely picky about our eggs. We don’t buy many boxed meals, which are very inexpensive meals. These factors add to our family’s monthly food bill, but I don’t think these are unreasonable things.

I would be unhappy to feed my family what’s prescribed in the thrifty plan. The low-cost plan would make me nervous, too.

I think your family is doing fine in terms of total cost, in other words.

Q4: Value of networking
After spending five years working as a journeyman electrician, I’ve decided to return to school to get a degree in electrical engineering. My experience in my field has been that networking earns you almost nothing other than drinking buddies to commiserate about bad employment experiences with. I’ve never had someone I’ve networked with get me any sort of lead. I know that college is a powerful time to network, but I just can’t see why I should do it, particularly if it conflicts with studying in any way.

– Evan

Networking in your field mostly serves as a safety net if your employment fails and as a potential path to more opportunities. If neither of these really apply to you, it does mostly consist of people who can talk freely about their field, sharing ideas and such.

It sounds like this was your experience. Your employment was steady, but you never really saw any paths to future opportunities, either. Thus, you were left with sharing thoughts, which you didn’t find fulfilling.

I would expect that you might find things work differently in engineering fields. I have several friends who are engineers and there’s a lot of collaboration and room to move your career forward in their fields. Networking is fairly valuable for them.

Q5: Homemade Pop Tarts
Do you have a recipe for homemade pop tarts???

– Ellen

They’re pretty easy to make. All you do is mix together two cups of flour and half a teaspoon of salt. To that, add two teaspoons of honey, two tablespoons softened butter, a quarter of a cup of plain yogurt, and three tablespoons of milk. Mix this until it forms a dough. This dough will flatten really easy, so just sprinkle some flour on the table and flatten it until it’s nice and thin (using flour to avoid stickiness).

Cut the sheet in half. On one half, put a tablespoon of filling every few inches apart. You can use any kind of filling – jelly, peanut butter, mashed bananas, the list is endless. Then, put the other sheet of dough on top and press the two sheets together between the spoons of filling (press down well and thoroughly). You can then spread out the filling a bit by pressing gently on it.

Spray a baking sheet with some nonstick material. Then, cut out the pop tarts and lay them individually on the sheet. You can lay them really close together. Bake them for about 15 minutes at 350 F. These turn out great!

Q6: Value of washing hands excessively
Do you know of any statistics on the financial value of washing one’s hands? My wife is almost neurotic about it and washes her hands twenty or thirty times a day no exaggeration. I think it’s good to wash your hands a few times a day, but doesn’t there come a point of diminishing returns?

– Eric

Most of the statistics on hand washing comes from institutional environments, particularly hospitals. This study estimates the value of hand-washing in hospitals as being in the ten figures, which is an immense amount of money.

It’s really hard to figure out an exact value for hand-washing because there is so much variability involved. The value of hand-washing varies depending on the immune system of the person, the environments they’re in, their personal habits, and so on. Beyond that, there’s also a large luck factor – does the right germ land at the right time?

I think it’s very worthwhile to wash your hands before and after food preparation, after using the bathroom, and before consuming any meal, as well as any time you notice your hands being dirty. I’d estimate I wash my hands ten times or so a day following those guidelines – and more when we had multiple children in diapers.

I don’t know what your wife does, but if you have multiple young children, 20 times a day doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable to me. If it’s just the two of you, though, it might be a bit high, but the actual cost of a hand washing is very low, so I wouldn’t stress about it.

Q7: Bored while recovering financially
I have recently begun a 5 year financial plan to get me where I want to be (getting rid of debt, increasing income, building a significant savings and hopefully the ability to retire early). However at just a couple of months into this plan, I feel like I am just sitting around twiddling my thumbs waiting for the end of the 5 year period. I have my money being put to the most optimum use, so there are no more changes that I can make to better my plan (as I have already over analyzed it). However, I do not know how to deal with the boredom and waiting for the next 4 years and 10 months. Are there any tips or things you did to help pass the time on your journey to financial recovery?

– Charlie

You have to find things to do. Sitting around and twiddling your thumbs will push you to backslide.

Virtually every community has tons of free activities to participate in. Check with city hall for a community calendar or check with your local parks and rec department. Play free computer games like League of Legends. Join a club. Visit the library and rent piles of free books and DVDs. Get a musical instrument off of Craigslist for a few bucks and learn how to play it. Start a jogging/running regimen. Pick a topic you want to know more about and absorb as much as you can about it, starting with Wikipedia. Join a volunteer group or a charity. Do political ground work for a politician you believe in. Coach a youth sports team. I can go on and on.

Just try these things. If you don’t like it, move on to another option. There are hundreds and hundreds of things to do and try.

Q8: Dreams a waste of time?
Dreaming big is a waste of time. The way to succeed in the world is to put your nose to the grindstone and be productive at whatever life hands you.

– Brian

Even in what you describe, there is dreaming. You’re hoping to earn money, right? What do you want to do with it? Even if you just want food in your mouth and a roof over your head, you have a goal.

A bigger dream is a powerful motivation to put your nose to that grindstone and be productive. Without being productive, few dreams are achievable.

Yes, sometimes people bite off goals bigger than they can chew, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t dream. It means they should re-think the goals they’re setting for themselves.

Q9: Student Credit Cards
Here’s a suggestion … Allow the 18-year-old college student to apply for credit in his/her name, but the requirement is that the statement be mailed to and opened by (and perhaps) paid by the parent(s) each month. That way the parent will know within a month if the card is being used irresponsibly – and the card may be immediately taken away. Perhaps even have the parent pay a monthly amount as a form of allowance or stipend. It’s an easy way to cover the cost of books, basic living expenses, gas, or whatever. While the kid is building a credit history, the parents are still in control. Starts off good habits early in life.

– Marcus

That’s a pretty good idea, particularly if the student and the parents have a strong relationship.

I would have done this in college had the idea occurred to me, and it would have likely reduced my overspending near the end of my college years.

It does rely on some parent-child trust and communication. This wouldn’t work if there are relationship problems. However, if things are going well, this can really help put the student in a better financial place over the long run.

Q10: Tech support for free
My parents call me for tech support on their computer two or three times a week. I don’t mind it, but now they’ve started having their friends call me. I have had at least one tech support phone call every day for the last eight. Where can I draw the line? How can I draw the line?

– John

The problem here isn’t with helping your parents with their computer. I do this with my own parents. The problem is with others calling you that you didn’t invite.

If I were you, I’d sit down with your parents and talk to them about this. Ask them to stop giving out your phone number for tech support to their friends because it is becoming a significant consumer of your time. If they’re understanding, this should do the trick.

As for the people calling, I’d suggest encouraging them to contact you via email instead of over the phone. That way, you can find appropriate Youtube videos to send them, and you can do it at your own convenience.

Got any questions? Email them to me or leave them in the comments and 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 hundreds of 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.