Questions About Birthdays, GEICO, Steam, Pay-Per-Views, 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. Achieved financial goals; now what?
2. “Zooming out”
3. Cutting back until miserable
4. Frugal children’s birthday gifts
5. Wallet or money clip
6. International cell phone advice
7. Uses for abundant green beans
8. Balance transfer and debt payoff
9. GEICO “catch”
10. Recovering old bank account
11. Cash for Steam account balance
12. Watching PPV events

One of the genuine highlights of fatherhood for me is our family dinner table conversations. From a very early age, Sarah and I have made having a family dinner together a priority, and we manage to all eat together at our dinner table at least five nights a week. The discussions we have… they’re truly a highlight of my day.

Almost every evening, I do a little bit of homework into some sort of philosophical question or scientific question or current event, and at the start of dinner, I’ll raise it as a discussion topic with my wife, wording it in the form of a question that even our youngest child might have some input on.

For example, I might ask, “Is it okay to cross illegally into another country for a job if there aren’t any jobs in your own country?” Regardless of the conclusion you might come to from that question, it’s a good topic for discussion because it gets into issues of relative right and wrong. What is the greater “right”? It is not an easy question to answer, and that’s why it makes for a really good discussion topic if everyone is calm and open-minded.

I might ask something like why one of our children’s tastes have changed over time, or how exactly we go about choosing who we’re going to talk to in a group of people we don’t know. Why do we make those choices?

Why do I like these discussions? Almost every night, I can look into my children’s eyes and see the gears in their head turning and turning and turning as they try to work through the topic at hand. There are often periods of silence in the conversation where everyone is thinking a little bit… and it’s the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard.

I wouldn’t give up our family dinners – or our family dinner conversations – for anything.

Q1: Achieved financial goals; now what?

For the last 20 years or so, my single-minded financial goal has been to retire as early as possible and then travel around the country in a small camper van which is an Airstream I’ve had for a while. I finally reached my target number in January and quit in April. Since then I have been driving around the country in this van, staying in lots of campgrounds and parks and seeing all kinds of stuff.

And I’m kind of depressed. I feel aimless and pointless right now. I miss having a big central goal that I was working toward and every idea I have to replace it just seems silly.

You have had so much great advice and food for thought during the last parts of my journey. I’m hoping you’ll have something for me now.
– Derek

I’m wired in much the same way you are. If I don’t have an overarching goal in life, I drift. I feel empty. I can often spiral into a very melancholic state. At this point, financial independence is a great long term goal for me, but without it, I’m fully aware that I’ll probably start drifting and feeling empty and meaningless.

I think the absolute best thing you can do right now is spend some serious time figuring out your next big goal in life. You have enough money to cover your basic needs without working, and that’s great. You have the means to travel about easily, and that’s also great. So what can you do with all of that spare time and that freedom?

Perhaps you could write an investigative book on the decline of our national park system (it’s still great, but there are signs of decline, mostly due to inadequate funding). Maybe you could start a YouTube channel, recording daily videos of your wanderings (I’d watch this). There are lots and lots of big projects that you could take on, lots and lots of possibilities.

Go through all of those possibilities. Brainstorm like a madman. Write them all down in a notebook while you’re camped at some beautiful vista. Go back through all of your ideas constantly.

What you’ll find – and I say this because I’ve found it myself many times – is that out of that huge pile of ideas, a few of them just jump out at you. They seem more meaningful and powerful than the others.

Your answer lies in those things. Keep digging. You’ll find what you need.

Q2: ‘Zooming out’

I’ve noticed one thing in common with the personal finance sites I read (yours included) is that they are, for lack of a better way to say it, “zoomed out.”

What I am trying to say is that the worthwhile sites focus on why you are doing things rather than the how and seem to largely assume that if you understand the why, the how is easy.

Thoughts?
– Alex

I completely agree. It’s easy to understand the “how” of most personal finance things. It’s mostly just doing the things you already do every day, just doing them slightly differently.

The real question, for me, is “why” would I do them differently? Why do I do the things that I do? How can I do them “better,” and what does “better” even mean? Why save money at all? What really matters in my life and how do I attach the day-to-day things I’m doing to those key elements in life?

The things that people think of as frugality or as nuts-and-bolts personal finance are just simply the steps you take to answer those bigger questions. Those steps are interesting, and it’s fun to optimize them, but the real fulfillment and value comes from really figuring out those bigger issues.

Why am I here? What do I really need these things for? Where am I going? Those are endlessly deep questions, and coming to a better understanding of them is going to lead to better personal finance success.

Q3: Cutting back until miserable

A few months ago my showerhead needed replacing so I decided to install an ultra low-flow showerhead in order to conserve water. I figure it’s just water falling from the ceiling, so what’s the big deal? My local hardware store found a 0.8 GPM showerhead for me but the guy there told me that they couldn’t pay him to use it. I should have listened.

I hate this showerhead. It feels like there is not enough water coming out, ever, even to just rinse off my body let alone my hair. I get out feeling still soapy no matter how much I rinse and the whole thing is just miserable.

So I’m probably switching back to a 1.5-1.8 GPM showerhead. This felt like a waste of money and is really frustrating.

What could I have done to avoid this? Cutting back to the point of misery is awful and it ends up costing more money to boot.
– Anna

In general, I tend to listen to the recommendations of experts when I’m buying things that I’m not 100% certain about.

In your situation, as soon as the guy at the hardware store expressed doubt, I would have started doing my homework. I probably would have asked him why he was so negative about it, and then went home and read as much info as I could find about shower heads.

Then, if I didn’t know exactly what a truly low flow shower head felt like in the shower, I’d probably follow their recommendations. I’d stick with the low end of the generally recommended range, which is around 1.5 GPM.

I’m not saying you did anything wrong here. Instead, what I’m saying is that this is a natural step in your evolution as a frugal shopper. Your skills will get better and better from here.

Q4: Frugal children’s birthday gifts

Our family is trying to cut back on spending this year and so far it has gone really well. We have paid off both credit cards and have some money in savings for emergencies.

Coming up soon is our children’s birthdays. In the past we have given them expensive gifts but we have decided that spending that kind of money is a bad idea for a lot of reasons not just our finances.

Do you have suggestions as a parent for giving inexpensive gifts at birthdays?
– Erika

For our children’s birthdays, we typically get them one or two nice items that they’ve been wanting. Their siblings usually each get them a less expensive item, often one that accessorizes the main item. They also have grandparents and aunts and uncles that give them gifts, too, so they’re not lacking in stuff.

For example, for one birthday, we gave a child a Nintendo 3DS that he’d been talking about for months and months, along with a single game. His siblings each gave him a (used) game as well.

By focusing on just one main gift, we’ve found that our children really appreciate that one gift and value it. When they were younger, they used to receive multiple gifts, and it was inevitable that some were simply sat off to the side. That didn’t mean the gift was unliked, just that it was not grabbing their attention at the moment. That’s a bad outcome, in my opinion, so we cut the number of gifts drastically and focused instead on quality gifts.

Q5: Wallet or money clip?

Do you prefer to use a wallet or money clip for carrying money?
– Anderson

I’m 100% on board the money clip train. I keep just a few cards in the center of my money clip with cash around them in my front hip pocket most of the time, and I use a money belt when we’re traveling (basically an under-the-shirt pouch for holding valuables which makes pickpocketing much harder).

I find that most of the time I don’t want to be carrying very many things. I usually have my drivers’ license with me along with a single credit card and my medical insurance card. Everything else is largely unnecessary. I can look up most of the customer rewards programs and such via email or phone number, so I don’t need to carry those cards, for example.

I feel more secure out and about with things in my hip pocket than with a wallet in the back pocket, too. Plus, as I said, if I ever don’t feel secure, I slip things into a money belt.

Q6: International cell phone advice

I’m going to do some international traveling soon. I called my cell provider and their international rates are absolutely atrocious. If I turn my phone off of airplane mode I am going to bleed money. Any advice for international cell use in both Canada and Europe?
– Michael

First of all, check with your employer to see if they have any options that you can use, especially if there is any business purpose to your travel. They may have something that you can use.

If not, I suggest looking into a pay-as-you-go phone in each country you visit. Although the initial cost may be painful, the actual usage of the phone is going to be far cheaper than the international rates on your normal phone. If you’re going to be in those countries for more than a few days and you actually need the mobile services, that’s the direction I would recommend.

On our own recent travels to Canada, we just put our phones in “airplane mode” for most of the trip, then used wi-fi at the hotel and placed any necessary calls via Skype. It worked well for us.

Q7: Uses for abundant green beans

I planted a lot of green beans in the spring and now we have a TON of beans coming in. Canning my only option? Don’t know what to do with all of these beans!!
– Denise

Pickle them. Ferment them. Freeze them. Trade them to your friends who are gardeners for other produce. Sell them at a farmers market or at a curbside stand. You have a ton of options when it comes to an abundance of something like green beans.

I personally like pickled green beans with a ton of garlic added during the pickling process. You basically do the exact same thing you do with pickled cucumbers – let them sit in a very briny solution for a while. You can preserve them in this way via canning, but I like to just make a bunch of pickled green beans in the refrigerator to munch on as a snack.

We’re also active produce traders, as we have several friends and family members who garden. If we end up with an abundance of something, we just trade it to someone for something they have an abundance of.

Q8: Balance transfer and debt payoff

Right now I have three credit cards. Credit card A has balance of $8,000 and 19.9% interest. Credit card B has balance of $5,000 and 19.9% interest. Credit card C has balance of $1,000 and 14.9% interest. Got a balance transfer offer from credit card C. Which balance should I transfer? Does it matter?
– Alice

I would transfer the balance from credit card B.

The reasoning here is very straightforward. If you get rid of the balance on a card, you’ll have a smaller set of monthly payments. Yes, your payment for card C will go up, but it will not go up as much as card B drops.

Once you’ve transferred, focus entirely on paying off card A, making extra payments if you can. Once that card is gone, throw everything you have at card C.

Doing things this way will minimize the overall amount of interest payments you’ll have to make, and choosing card B over card A will eliminate a debt the fastest.

Q9: GEICO ‘catch’

Keep seeing ads about how GEICO can save you up to 15% on your car or home insurance in just 15 minutes. That’d be hundreds for me. What’s the catch? Is it a scam?
– Mark

It’s not a scam. They’re just trying to make a nice catchphrase that you’ll remember. The “save up to 15% in 15 minutes” is fairly memorable and sticks in your head.

Will they actually save you 15%? Maybe. Maybe not. I’m going to bet that they usually won’t, but they probably will in some cases. That’s why they include the “up to” part before stating the 15% savings rate. In the end, it’s really a meaningless ad, aside from the general sense that they’re touting that it’s easy to get an insurance quote from them.

I have friends who use GEICO and they have no real complaints with the company.

Q10: Recovering old bank account

Back in the 1980s when I was a kid my grandparents opened an account for me at the little bank in their town. They put money in there for me all the time and told me it would be there for me when I got older and needed it.

My grandma died a few years ago and I hadn’t thought about that account in years. Just thought about it and decided to call the bank. They wouldn’t confirm or deny an account and wanted me to come into their bank with some forms of identification.

It’s a fairly long trip. How do I know whether it is worth it to recover this account?
– Mitchell

Given the situation, it’s impossible to tell whether it will be worth it for you or not. My guess is that if you bring the documentation they requested, you will gain access to the account (provided it exists, but I would assume they wouldn’t have you come if there wasn’t something there).

Still, I recommend that you do this. Why? If you don’t do this, you’ll be wondering about the account for a long time, probably the rest of your life. I’d consider this one of life’s “loose ends,” one that’s going to be worth tying up just for your own peace of mind, if not for the money.

If you have other family members in that area, make it into a trip to visit some of them. Stop in and see an aunt or a cousin you haven’t seen in years, or have dinner with several of them at once. Again, it’s an opportunity to tie up life’s loose ends.

Q11: Cash for Steam account balance

I have a balance of $84 sitting on Steam (ed: Steam is an online store for computer games where you can download them digitally without owning a copy). I don’t play computer games much any more so I would like to convert this into cash. Unfortunately there does not seem to be any way to do this nor can I easily give the money to anyone. Do you have any ideas how I could make my money back off of this? I don’t want to sell the account as I still play a few games on there every once in a while.
– Charles

I was actually in this very situation a few years ago. What I ended up doing is offering to buy games and gift them to friends at a slight discount provided they paid me for the games via Paypal.

I had a few friends who were up for this, so they simply sent me a Paypal payment, then I bought them the game as a gift using my Steam account credit.

Of course, this requires trusting friends who also actually want games on Steam. You can entice them a little by offering a discount on the games they want, but remember that the discount effectively comes out of the money you’ll generate from this.

Q12: Watching PPV events

I enjoy watching WWE and UFC. I usually go to bars to watch the events and they have a $5 cover charge on those nights and the drinks are expensive. Thinking about just watching at home with a few friends so it’s less noisy but still fun. How to make it cheaper w/ cost of PPV?
– Drew

Well, for WWE pay per views, the solution is to just get the WWE Network so you’re effectively paying $10 per pay per view instead of whatever crazy amount your cable provider charges. There are lots of ways to stream that through your television.

As for the UFC pay per views, they’re going to be trickier. They cost $60 a pop for HD, so if you’re paying $5 a head, that means you have to have 12 friends over to break even. If you have friends that are on board with both UFC and WWE events, you could get away with a smaller group and charge $5 apiece for both WWE and UFC events and then use most of the money to pay for the UFC events. You could also consider going to a bar for the UFC events and then watching the WWE events at home.

As for drinks and snacks, I’d recommend having everyone bring some drinks and then splitting the cost of a pizza or some other delivered food rather than preparing stuff in advance. That’s because, if you prepare stuff in advance, payment for it gets awkward – people aren’t sure if you’re being a good host or if they should pay you for it, and discussing it can be really awkward. If you have a decent cover charge (say, $10 a head for a WWE event), you could easily provide the snacks and some of the drinks, too.

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.