Questions About Car Loans, Checks, Paper Towels, Winter Blues, 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. 84 month car loan
2. Sending checks through mail
3. Always fighting about money
4. The Middle Class Crunch
5. Compact dish rack recommendation
6. Safe outdoor exercise follow-up
7. Replacing paper towels
8. Retiring in inexpensive country?
9. Returning cans for nickel refund
10. Angry with work every day
11. Preparing for winter blues
12. Musical tastes

One of the things that I really enjoy about the reader mailbag is the diversity of questions I get. Some of them are about really crunchy personal finance topics. Some are about the connections between finances and other spheres of their lives. Others are about me personally. Some are just… weird. I love them all… even the weird ones… sometimes especially the weird ones.

On with the questions!

Q1: 84 month car loan

Hoping you can give quick advice. I went to replace my car and needed a $14K car loan. Dealer offered me several options: 24 months, 48 months, and 84 months. Seemed like 84 months was best deal as it was $190 a month. 48 month loan was $312. 24 month was too high for me.
– Aaron

Let’s do the math on the two loans you named.

For the 84 month loan, you’re paying $190 a month. $190 times 84 is $15,960. For the 48 month loan, you’re paying $312 a month. $312 times 48 is $14,976. The 48 month loan will save you about $1,000 over the course of the loan (ignoring factors like inflation, which are hard to predict).

It looks to me like the interest rate on both was somewhere around 3.1%. In that case, the payment for the 24 month loan would have been about $600 a month and would have saved about $500 over the course of the loan versus the 48 month and $1,500 saved over the course of the loan versus the 84 month loan.

All you need to do in these situations is multiply the payment amount by the number of months to see how much you’re going to be paying in total. The shorter term loan is almost always cheaper, not just because it’s a shorter term, but also because shorter term loans usually have lower interest rates (because they’re less risky for the lender).

I’m not surprised that car loan terms are getting longer. An 84 month car loan means that the monthly price is lower and people often don’t calculate the long term math.

Q2: Sending checks through mail

I pay most of my bills online but occasionally still need to send a check in the mail. Used to never worry about it but now it feels a lot less secure than paying online!
– Brenda

I feel the same exact way. I’ve had to send checks through the mail several times in the last few years and each time it’s felt really insecure to me. A piece of paper with your account number, bank’s routing number, and signature out there? Seems questionable.

If I do have to send a check these days, I at least take the step of writing the check with indelible ink. That way, the check can’t be washed, meaning that if someone uses a technique to remove your ink from a check so they can write in a different payee or amount, it won’t work.

I just don’t trust checks any more. They were a good technology for their era, but we have better solutions for making payments now.

Q3: Always fighting about money

I am 34, my wife is 33. We have two kids, 4 and 2. We make abut $110K combined. We bought a house in 2017 and owe $310K on it. Still have about $70K in student loans. Two cars both on lease. A little bit of credit card debt.

It feels like all we do is argue about money. We’re both guilty of the same things. I want to buy something I care about and she says no but then she’ll want to spend money on something she wants and I call her on it. Either case, we’re off to the races with lots of accusations of wasted spending and such.

I have been saving for retirement for 7 years and she hasn’t signed up for any savings but then she points out that her take home checks are bigger than mine even though they’d be basically equal if I wasn’t putting 10% into the 403(b) and then we’re in another fight.

I am so sick of arguing about money and it just boils over into other arguments too. I feel like giving up.
– John

There are several issues going on here. For starters, it feels like you both still think of your individual paychecks as “your” money and not “our” money. If you’re in this together for any sort of a long haul, it’s your collective money, together.

If you’re arguing a lot about individual purchases, a strategy you may want to try is to give each of you a certain amount of money for pure discretional spending each month, an equal amount that you both agree on.

I also strongly recommend that you talk about money in general when neither one of you have a particular bone to pick. Quite often, people wind up in these angry modes because all money conversations begin with one or the other of you having a bone to pick, and that’s sure to lead to defensiveness and fighting.

What are your goals? Where do you want to be financially in five years? Ten years? Sit down and talk about these kinds of things when you don’t have a financial bone to pick with your partner. Make sure you’re on the same page with shared goals – they won’t all be “your” goals or “her” goals, but they should be ones that you both value or at least understand that your partner really, really values. Often, money issues come from a sense that your partner doesn’t know what your goals are and doesn’t seem to share them at all, but your partner often doesn’t know what your goals are or what’s important about them.

Q4: The Middle Class Crunch

Any thoughts on this article? The Middle Class Crunch: A Look at Four Family Budgets in the New York Times. Found it fascinating.
– Bill

The thing that stood out to me were the elements they all had in common. All four of the families seemed stressed out to me, in different ways, mind you. All four of the families seemed to be living paycheck to paycheck, or very close to it, which seemed to contribute to the stress.

Even the “incredibly lucky” family in the fourth story, which seemed to be the most financially stable of the lot, was subject to these stresses. And they were lucky – they had a lot of breaks fall their way even to just have a stable middle class life.

The truth is that a lot of things can go wrong, and if you’re spending everything you bring in, something going wrong can really put you in a bad position very quickly. I think those stories really highlight that. You really, really can’t afford to spend everything you earn. You need to be spending less and socking some of it away, in an emergency fund if nothing else, but ideally also for retirement and for other big goals.

Q5: Compact dish rack recommendation

Just read your BIFL Compendium. Do you have any recs for a BIFL compact dish rack?
– Karen

I assume the reader is referring to this fairly recent article which collects a bunch of specific recommendations for reliable “bang for the buck” products.

I don’t have a “one size fits all” recommendation for a compact dish rack for two reasons. One, most of them are constructed very similarly in terms of materials and they last very similarly in terms of usage. Two, compact dish racks vary in design quite a lot and different ones excel with different dish usage. Some are great for people who use a lot more cups than plates, for example, while others are perfect for folks who use a lot more plates than cups. Some people are heavy silverware users, while others rarely use any. The “best” dish rack varies a lot depending on your specific dish usage.

If I were making a “general purpose” recommendation without knowing how you use dishes, I’d probably point to this compact wire frame dish rack, which seems to be designed for a variety of dishes and can be expanded if needed. The whole thing is made of food-grade stainless steel, which means it should last a very long time with no rusting. Again, I could probably suggest a different rack if I knew exactly what your typical sink full of dishes looked like. If it’s mostly plates, get one that’s largely a plate rack. If it’s mostly cups, get one that has tons of spacing for cups. If it’s mostly silverware, get one with a huge silverware bin. Just choose one with stainless steel construction. This one is simply a very good middle ground choice.

Q6: Safe outdoor exercise follow-up

I have what I hope to be a helpful suggestion for Question 7 in [last week’s] Reader Mail Bag re: exercising safely outdoors. Like the writer, I’m a woman uncomfortable walking alone in the city thanks to “Hey baby” nonsense. Trouble is, I strongly dislike gyms, and walking is how I think. My solution was to look to the local cemetery. It likely sounds bonkers, but hear me out. The cemetery opens early in the day and is open until relatively late in the evening, so one can walk before or after work; it’s wonderfully hilly, so it is actually a good workout; and there’s seldom anyone besides the groundskeepers present. As for them, they know my car and where I park, as well as what times I come and go; if I miss too many days in a row, they’ll ask if everything’s all right the next time they see me. I still carry mace with me, but that’s out of habit.

When I first thought of walking at the cemetery, I checked with the adjoining funeral home to see if that would be a problem. In fact, my cemetery welcomes walkers! There are a handful of regulars, and we all know who each other are for on the rare occasions that we cross paths. The grounds are full of gardens, wildlife, and history–it’s actually an incredibly beautiful place to lose oneself for a bit.

I recognize that this won’t be the solution for everyone; I’m merely demonstrating the benefits of thinking outside the outdoor workout box. Perhaps the original letter writer has a similar local spot that would strike others as odd and thus be a refuge for her. Years in, I’m used to being teased or receiving shocked reactions if the subject comes up; the side-eye is more than worth having “me” time in a safe and peaceful place.

I should mention that I “pay” my way for the cemetery by picking up litter that has been scattered by wind, animals, or people and notifying the groundskeepers about downed trees or the rare bit of vandalism (this occurs mostly around Halloween, go figure). It’s hardly required, but I feel it’s the least I can do in return for my refuge and their watchfulness!
– Annie

This is a good solution for people to look into.

I think outdoor exercise, in many cases, is about risk assessment, and I think different people look at the risk differently. I think it’s a good idea for anyone who feels even the slightest bit uncomfortable walking or jogging through an area to be carrying mace. I think it’s a good idea for everyone to take a self-defense class (to the point where I wish police departments gave them to the public for free) and stay at least a little bit practiced in self-defense.

The best move, I think, is to exercise during the day in an area with a very low crime rate and which has at least some people nearby. My preferred place for outdoor exercise is a walking/running loop at a town park that’s surrounded by houses with people often at home during the day and police officers regularly cruising the streets surrounding the park. I can’t hardly conceive of a safer outdoor environment.

I guess my advice is to do your homework. Things like good lighting, a low crime rate, and people nearby are all factors that would point toward greater outdoor safety, and it never hurts to be versed in self-defense and have some mace nearby.

Q7: Replacing paper towels

Can you talk a little bit about how you migrated away from using paper towels?
– Adam

First of all, I should note that we do still use paper towels for one purpose: cleaning up after our puppy. We have a puppy who is going through potty training and he has accidents, so we’ve been using paper towels and a pet cleanup spray to clean up after him. That’s really our only use for paper towels in the last… several years.

A long time ago, we did use paper towels a lot for all kinds of household messes. The way we moved away from that was that I simply devoted a drawer in our kitchen to a bunch of cloths in various sizes – smaller washing cloths, bigger drying cloths, and some multiuser microfiber cloths.

When we use one, we toss it down the stairs to our basement, which is where our washing machine is. The next time someone goes down there, they just grab the item and put it in next to the washing machine in a little spot right next to the washer. Then, the next time someone runs a load of clothes, they just toss in any items that are there. Since we have five people here and all of us are in some kind of exercise class or sport, we do a fair amount of laundry, so this pile never really builds up.

There wasn’t much of a transition period. I just decided to make the big switch one day and bought a bunch of bulk towels. I emptied out that drawer, filled it with towels, and found some other homes for the items in that drawer, and just didn’t buy paper towels any more. Whenever someone would ask where the paper towels were, I’d just tell them to grab something out of that drawer and to toss it down the stairs when they were done.

If you don’t have the ability to toss the used ones down the stairs, just get a little tub and put it under the sink and toss the used ones in there. Once a week or so, wash everything in the tub, or add it to a washer load of towels.

The savings on this is enormous. Our expense of buying paper towels after that just vanished. We do have some on hand right now for puppy cleanup because that’s about the only task that’s pretty awkward with cloths – we could do it with reusable cloths but, I’ll be honest, I don’t want my kids cleaning up a dog mess then tossing that cloth down the stairs. Aside from that, the cloths handle everything we ever used paper towels for.

Q8: Retiring in inexpensive country?

What do you think of the idea of retiring and living in another country with a lower cost of living? We don’t have any living family close to us in the US and we are considering retiring abroad and living out our years somewhere new.
– Ava

It’s a completely reasonable plan with one minor issue. That issue is that if you move to a country that’s got a lot of amenities that you would expect being a lifelong resident of the US, it’s very likely that it’s either going through our about to go through a big bump in the value of the currency that will bring cost of living up to something closer to the United States. What will happen is that prices will inflate there much faster than prices inflate at home without the exchange rate keeping pace. This is currently happening in a lot of Southeast Asia nations.

The countries that are cheap to live in and will likely remain so for a while are often lacking a lot of the amenities of living in the United States.

I’d try to target a country that is in the early stages of industrial and commercial development. For example, I know of a couple of people who recently decided to retire in Costa Rica. I would also not rely on a 4% withdrawal rate from my retirement savings, especially at first. Try to keep your withdrawal rate at 3% or even lower if you can.

Q9: Returning cans for nickel refund

I just moved to Iowa and was surprised by the nickel deposit on cans. Is it worth the effort to return the cans to get the nickel deposit back?
– Amy

Yes and no. It’s one of those tasks that’s right on the fine line.

I think it’s worth it if you’re organized about it and have a convenient place to return cans that makes it easy. The thing is, not all places make returning cans an easy venture, and if you accumulate a lot of cans, organizing them can be difficult.

I actually did the math on this in the past and found that our usual system of just tossing cans in a bag and then taking a few bags to a place to return cans netted us about $10 per hour of effort. There are other places that would accept cans, but you had to organize them in flats which just moved the effort to filling up flats and being careful when transporting them.

Our approach these days is to keep a few bags of cans in our garage. Occasionally, we get kids from the high school coming around asking for can donations for some school-related activity, like “after prom,” and we just donate our cans to them. We don’t accumulate that many, after all, and it adds up to about the same as a $5 or $10 donation to them, which we’d give anyway. This has the added benefit of handling our cans so we don’t have to take them to the store for recycling.

Q10: Angry with work every day

I have a great paying job with great benefits but almost every day I end up leaving work really angry and upset with what’s going on there. We make custom software for various clients and they come in with unrealistic expectations and management tells them that of course we can do it and then saddles us with making fairy tales come true without even checking to see if things are possible. So then we do the best we can and the client isn’t happy but the manager just moves on to the next client and promises more unrealistic stuff. I am sick of management detached from reality and I am sick of always having to pretend we’re solving unsolvable problems and I am sick of management seemingly not caring about it.
– Mark

It sounds to me like this is the business model of the company. Promise something unrealistic, let the engineers take their best crack at this unrealistic promise, deliver whatever they come up with. In my time in data mining, I definitely saw companies that seemed to operate like this. They’d announce some great product that seemed to do things that verged on impossible, and then when the product was available it turned out that it didn’t really do what they initially claimed. Often it’d be a worthwhile product, but it would usually fall short of the initial claims.

If I were you, I’d really stop worrying about what’s being promised of the client and stop worrying too much about being asked to create unrealistic things. Just focus on taking your best crack at the problem at hand, because that’s all you can really do.

If you find that you’re angry about the situation and, in general, angry about things you cannot control, I strongly invite you to look into stoicism and secular Buddhism, both of which offer a ton of tools for dealing with strong internal emotions.

Q11: Preparing for winter blues

You’ve mentioned having the winter blues / seasonal affective disorder before and you seem to have some strategies for keeping it at bay. What do you do? This hit me really bad last year and I want to avoid it as much as I can this year.
– Jenna

I usually try to establish a really tight daily routine throughout the fall. My daily routine usually falls apart during the summer, as I work from home and my three children aren’t in school and my wife is a teacher. When they return to school, I try really hard to establish a very firm daily routine that I just follow like clockwork each day.

Part of that routine is getting some exercise and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and also taking a lengthy (3 or so miles) walk each day, even when it’s cold. I try to do some significant exercise every single day and try to eat just fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and grains before dinner most days.

Over the last few years, this has largely killed off my seasonal affective disorder. The only time I’ve struggled is when I’ve fallen off of this routine by eating less healthy stuff during the day or not going on walks or exercising or utterly falling off my routine.

Q12: Musical tastes

I’ve enjoyed the window into your musical tastes via the Pieces of Inspiration columns. You clearly like Americana/alt-country/bluegrass music and have really expanded my horizons into that genre. Do you listen to it while working? Are there other genres you like and artists you can recommend? Also how do you listen? Do you buy CDs still? Digital downloads? A service like Spotify?
– Amy

I usually have some audio playing all the time at home. When I’m trying to focus, it’s usually white noise or focusing audio, stuff like this. At other times, when I’m doing low focus tasks, I listen to a mix of podcasts and music.

As you noted, most of what I listen to falls into somewhere on the Americana/alt-country/bluegrass/folk/some flavors of alt-rock spectrum. I’ve mentioned many times that I love the Avett Brothers and Rhiannon Giddens – they’re probably my most listened to musical acts of the last few years. Over my lifetime, the top two acts are probably Pearl Jam and Wilco (and related acts to Wilco, like Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, and Tweedy).

I track what music I listen to and so I accumulated my all-time listening data, dating back to about 2000 or so, and unsurprisingly Pearl Jam and Wilco were #1 and #2, with the Avett Brothers and Rhiannon Giddens also in the top 10 along with Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt (basically acts related to Wilco). The other four were a mixed bag of genres: Jurassic 5, Beck, Bob Dylan, and Gillian Welch. After that, it’s a really mixed bag of Americana, folk, alt-country, hip hop, alternative rock, and some stuff I really can’t sort into a genre (Amadou & Mariam are apparently in a genre called “Afro-blues;” they’re #18).

I guess I just like stuff all over the spectrum.

As for music listening, we have a Spotify subscription. For me, my threshold of Spotify being “worth it” is whether I spend $0.50 or less per hour of listening most months, and I do that. I’m willing to spend $0.50 to listen to exactly what I want to when listening to music for an hour. If I bought a CD for $15 and it played for an hour, I’d have to listen to it 30 times to get it down to that rate, and I know quite well that most of my CDs never, ever got listened to that much.

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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