Questions About Ben Franklin, Freezer Containers, Hot Pockets, Taxes, Country Clubs and More!

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. Medical expenses and taxes
2. Reusable freezer containers
3. Ben Franklin and frugality
4. Cheap balanced diet
5. Starting a community club
6. Fear of failure
7. Working after financial independence?
8. Country club membership worth it?
9. Freezing homemade “hot pockets”
10. Should I switch banks?
11. Paying for child’s college
12. Library sales

My five-year-old son recently started full-day kindergarten. It’s been an unusual experience having all of the children in full-day school, as it has definitely shifted much of my writing time to the daytime periods during weekdays.

However, there have been some weird side consequences. Since I’m no longer leaving the house as much during the day, I’ve come to realize how many errands I did as part of combined trips when picking up or dropping off my children when they were young. Those short little trips never seemed like much of a big deal, but they really start to become noticeable when your schedule changes.

Right now, I’m trying to work during four weekdays (with occasional evening and early morning work sessions) with one day a week spent on errands. This allows me to keep most evenings and weekends free for family things and personal projects and community obligations.

Finding a new balance when things change is always an interesting experience, and this is no different.

Q1: Medical expenses and taxes

I contracted Lyme disease from my landscaping job, resulting in a fairly expensive trip to the E.R. I have taken precautions since (permethrin treated clothing and constant tick checks). However, the bill landed at around $3200. I have insurance through my ‘part-time’ job at a restaurant, and they paid some as well. Can I claim the out of pocket expenses on my taxes, or am I out of luck on that? I know they’ve changed the rules in the past few years on itemized deductions. Thanks.
– Bill

The document that the IRS provides on topic 502 outlines what medical expenses you can deduct. Although the rules change sometimes, you can deduct expenses for “payments of fees to doctors, dentists, surgeons, chiropractors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and nontraditional medical practitioners.” That seems to describe what you’re talking about.

However, there’s a catch. You may “deduct only the amount of your total medical expenses that exceed 10% of your adjusted gross income or 7.5% if you or your spouse is 65 or older.”

Since I don’t know how much you earn each year or what your adjusted gross income is, I can’t say whether or not that expense is deductible. However, if your AGI is less than 10┬átimes what you paid for medical expenses, you can deduct the difference.

Q2: Reusable freezer containers

What do you use for freezing individual meals for reheating later on? Do you use Glad stuff for that purpose like the full pans in your lasagna article?
– Erica

Right now, I’m a big fan of Snaplock Glassware containers like these. They work incredibly well for the exact purpose you describe.

I haven’t found a large lidded glass pan (9″ by 13″) that I liked that wasn’t really expensive – we have a couple of ones without lids, but the ones with lids just aren’t good for the price. So, for the large pans, we went with Glad Ovenware.

Between these containers, I’m pretty happy with things. We have containers that work well for individual meals in the freezer as well as large meals for our entire family.

Q3: Ben Franklin and frugality

I just read this great article “How America Lost Track of Ben Franklin’s Definition of Success” in The Atlantic that you might want to share with your readers:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/09/how-america-lost-track-of-benjamin-franklins-definition-of-success/400808/

Franklin applied his extra time and money to further productivity rather than to idle pleasures. That is something that you write about but seems to be lost today in the general culture.
– Samantha

This is a life principle that lines up perfectly with healthy personal finance practices. If you simply strive to avoid spending money and time on idle pleasures and instead spend as much of your spare money and spare time on improving yourself or your situation, you’re going to be spending your life on an upward trajectory in almost every respect.

For me, this is something that I try to keep in mind during my spare time and when I’m considering spending money. Is this time expenditure or this money expenditure or this energy expenditure going to improve my life in any considerable way? If it isn’t, is this really going to be a worthwhile way to spend that time or money or energy?

It’s a question that many people don’t ask themselves – or don’t ask themselves with any real degree of seriousness. That’s a shame. I’ve found that kind of question to be a transformative one.

Q4: Cheap balanced diet

How does one maintain a balanced diet when they have very little money to spend? It seems like all of the cheap food is junk.
– Derek

Actually, the opposite seems true to me. Most of the cheap food is very simple, but generally healthy. Things like dried rice, dried beans, eggs, fresh vegetables and fruits, flash-frozen vegetables and fruits … all of that stuff is pretty cheap.

Many people today seem to be intimidated by cooking and convince themselves that they don’t have time for it or that there are other things they’d rather do. That choice costs them a lot of money. It costs money with every single meal.

The best thing you can do is simply buy a bunch of those inexpensive ingredients and learn how to cook. Buy a lot of bags of flash frozen vegetables, pick up a whole chicken, and get some dry rice and beans. Get some salt and a few spices, too. You have everything you need, right there, for a lot of meals.

Q5: Starting a community club

I’ve decided to take your advice and try to start a community club around my hobby, which is painting historical and fantasy miniatures. This has been a passion of mine for many years.

I live in a city of about 130,000 people. There is one hobby shop in the city that sells miniatures and supplies but they don’t do anything to facilitate community or outreach or anything. I have asked the owner if I could post flyers there and he said fine.

Do you have any recommendations or suggestions about how to get a group started without a lot of expense?
– Tom

I’ve been involved with the genesis of and the continuous running of several community groups and I’ve learned a few things along the way.

First, don’t schedule meetings in your home at first unless you already know several members. People are often wary of going to group meetings at someone’s house when they’re joining the club.

Try to find a place in town where you could hold the meetings for free. Many restaurants often have a room that they allow community groups to use. Perhaps the hobby shop owner may know of a location, too. The parks and recreation department may have a building or a room that could be used for a community group like this.

Next, I’d decide on a meeting time for the first meeting, then start promoting the group online and off. I’d make a listing at meetup.com and make some flyers to post around town in places where people you would want to attract might see them (like that shop). You might want to post a listing in your community’s Facebook group, too, if there is one. Be sure to include the name of the group, when and where the meeting is, and what you hope to do – paint miniatures together, teach techniques to each other, share resources, collaborate, and so on.

A final thought: I’d give a bunch of flyers to that shop owner and ask him if he could give one to anyone buying miniature painting supplies over the next few weeks.

At some point, though, you simply have to start hoping for the best. There’s not much you can really do about that. Either you’ll attract a few people or it won’t work out.

If you even have a small chance of forming a group, though, this is worth it. Finding like-minded people who share a passion with you and are willing to share knowledge and resources to help one another enjoy that passion is incredibly worthwhile. I’m in a number of community groups and they’re all wonderful.

Q6: Fear of failure

I am the manager of a convenience store. I have worked here for several years and gradually moved up to manager after the last manager retired. I make $36K per year.

A friend of mine who works at a bank in town has been telling me that the bank would be very receptive to a business plan from me to open a new convenience store in this town. The town where I live is growing and there may be a need for another convenience store.

I feel like I know what would need to be done to own and operate a convenience store in this town. The one thing that holds me back is the fear of failure. I feel like I have a “safety net” here of sorts whereas if I went that route, I might make more money but I have a lot more risk.

Do you have any resources that could help me make up my mind whether to do this? Part of me wants to. The other half is really scared to.
– Marcus

My advice to you is this: spend a month or so writing a very detailed business plan for this business. Pay very close attention to the section on risks and contingencies. What risks do you honestly foresee with this business? What could possibly go wrong, and what would that look like? What truly is the worst possible result from this that is actually realistic.

Then, compare that result – and the odds of it – to all of the other outcomes that could result from this endeavor. All other outcomes are better.

Now, can you live with that worst possible realistic outcome if you know that all of the better outcomes are much more likely? If so, then you should go for it.

The process of writing a good business plan will help you figure out whether this endeavor really makes sense for you or not. You might find that it is the right move for you. You might also find that it’s a terrible idea for you.

Q7: Working after financial independence?

I’m 54 years old. I have been contributing to my 401(k) at a rate of 15% per year plus employer matching for the last 28 years. All of the money is in stocks. In 2014, the investments produced almost enough in dividends to match my current annual spending. So I am good.

I am considering “retiring” as soon as I can and starting withdrawals from the account but I don’t really want to “retire” as it sounds boring.

Within the next two years my church secretary-treasurer is going to retire and I am considering applying for that position. That would mean I start working at that job at age 56 but I cannot actually start withdrawals from the 401(k) until age 60 if I am working.

So I am considering taking a part time job in addition to that secretary-treasurer job for a few years until my 401(k) kicks in.

Does this seem like a good plan to you? Is there anything obvious that I am not seeing here?
– Dana

It seems like a reasonable plan to me. The period where you’re working two part-time jobs might be a little tight, so if I were you, I’d probably stop or at least cut back my 401(k) contributions right now and instead save them in a savings account to cover yourself during that period.

The thing is, you almost can’t fail here. No matter what you do, you’ve got that huge 401(k) balance to fall back on. If it were ever necessary, you can start tapping your Social Security a few years after that.

Considering that you want to work and earn at least a little income, I think this is almost a “can’t fail” situation.

Q8: Country club membership worth it?

I have been recommended for membership in a local country club. There is a $5k initiation fee and a $600 monthly membership fee.

For that, you get access to a lot of their facilities – their golf course, tennis courts, swimming pools, the clubhouse, and so on. Most of the features come with the monthly fee.

There is a required minimum monthly spending at the restaurant there but the amount is covered if my wife and I eat there weekly. (Restaurant costs are extra.)

Why would I join, then? Business. I am an independent realtor and I am interested in moving into higher-end properties. I want to use the club not only to meet potential clients, but have a nice place to take clients.

I don’t know how to assess whether this is “worth it.” How can I figure that out?
– Tony

It’s really hard to tell how much of a benefit this would have for your business. I expect that it would help you to make contacts and build your reputation in the community to a degree, but I’m not convinced that it would translate into that much cash.

Remember, you’re committing to $5,000 up front, $7,200 a year for membership, plus something like $2,400 a year in restaurant expenses, none of which will be tax deductible. That means in order to just break even on this, you need to be making over $10,000 a year more after taxes due to this membership.

I would be very surprised if the country club membership converted directly into that kind of income for you. It might serve as a mild accelerant to your business and community goals, but I wouldn’t bother unless it is financially easy for you to do so and it crosses paths with a lot of your goals and interests.

Q9: Freezing homemade “hot pockets”

How do you freeze things like homemade hot pockets and homemade burritos without them turning all mushy when you heat them up?
– Charlie

The reason they’re “turning all mushy” is due to too much moisture. When you make burritos or hot pockets for freezing, you really need to minimize the liquid inside.

So, consider your ingredients. Are the things going into your burritos and hot pockets very runny? Do they drip? If they do, you’re going to wind up with mushy burritos and hot pockets when you thaw them.

Focus instead on ingredients that don’t drip and aren’t liquid. If you use beans, for example, drain them thoroughly and even pat them dry before using them.

Another thing that you need to do is wrap them very well, as tight as possible and as leak-proof as possible. The more exposed these things are to the inside of your freezer, the more likely they are to attract moisture and “freezer burn,” which will result in mushiness when you reheat these things.

A final tip: use room temperature stuff. Don’t use hot ingredients because those hot ingredients are often steaming, which contributes liquid to the inside of the burritos as they cool. Steaming beans or steaming shredded chicken give off moisture to the inside of the hot pocket or burrito as it cools off, contributing to mushiness when you cook them later. Allow everything to cool to at least room temperature before assembling burritos or hot pockets.

Q10: Should I switch banks?

My local bank offers only 0.45% interest on savings accounts. I keep about $5,000 stored there as an emergency fund with the rest of my money in investments.

I see advertisements for other banks with interest rates well above 1%.

Seems to me my local bank is ripping me off. Why shouldn’t I switch to a high-interest account and away from these scammers?
– Jim

You seem to have a very negative view of your local bank. So, let’s look at the reality of it.

Let’s say you find an online bank that will give you 1.25% on your savings account versus the 0.45% your local bank offers. On $5,000, that adds up to a difference of $40 a year before taxes. After taxes, that’s about $30 difference.

Let’s then look at the difference in service. How do the two banks handle customer service issues? Are they equal in terms of things like resolving account issues, helping you to get the exact change that you want, converting change for you, and other such features? An online bank won’t do those things. How do the ATM networks compare? Which bank has the most fee-free ATMs in your town? What do their overdraft fees look like comparatively? What about other fees?

It doesn’t take much at all for that interest rate difference to disappear when you look at the broader picture of what a bank offers. It may be that the two banks you’re considering are somehow identical in all other factors, but it’s more likely that you’re overlooking a lot of features in an effort to chase $2.50 in after-tax interest per month.

Q11: Paying for child’s college

My parents paid for very little of my schooling. They basically bought my textbooks for me as birthday and Christmas gifts. My wife’s family paid for the entirety of her tuition, room, and board all the way through her masters.

This has led us to a big disagreement about our own child’s education. We are both in agreement that we should save money now for it. But we disagree as to the intensity of the saving.

Naturally, I feel that our daughter should pay for much of her own education. My wife feels that we have an obligation to pay for most of if not all of it.

How do we resolve this amicably? It seems to be one of those issues where there’s just diametric opposition.
– Maurice

You’re right in that you’re operating from two opposing viewpoints. The only way to get past that is something that our leaders in Washington are simply opposed to: you’ve got to sit down together with the understanding that the other person isn’t evil and doesn’t have ill will toward the subject at hand and talk about the principles that you are each standing for.

In other words, why does your wife want to pay for everything? Why do you want to pay for a limited amount? Is it about your own financial situation? Is it about the lessons you want to impart on your child?

Those are hard questions to answer, but you have to not only answer them for yourselves, but you need to answer them for each other together.

That takes time. It takes a willingness to listen and to understand the other person. It’s easier to just believe the other person is wrong and perhaps even evil. Many people are not willing to give that, and that’s why many marriages end in fights and disagreements and separations.

Take the time to do this right. You’ll come to some good answers if you take the time to really understand why you each want these things.

Q12: Library sales!

Our local library has a library sale each year. On the first night, they sell books for a few dollars each. After that the prices go down each night until the last day allows people to bring a box and fill it and whatever you can fit in the box costs $5.

I enjoy reading classics and philosophy and I go there every year to buy a few books. My question is whether it makes more sense to buy two or three books you’re sure you want during the first round for, say, $5 and have a better selection, or to get a box of them during the last round for $5 but have a worse selection. What would you do?
– Troy

It depends entirely on how much you read and how selective you are in what you read. Do you read two books a week or one book every month or two? Are you really particular about each book you try or are you willing to pick up almost anything?

The higher your volume of reading and the lower your selectivity, the better the box deal is. If your volume is lower and your selectivity is higher, the individual book deal is better.

In other words, it all really depends on you and your tastes.

Personally, I’ve done both in the past at similar library sales and other book sales in my area. I honestly felt like I got more value out of going the first night and selectively choosing a handful of books rather than filling up a box on the last day. I’m a high volume reader and although I’m not heavily selective (my “to-be-read” list numbers in the hundreds), I won’t read just anything, either.

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.

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