Questions About Cheap Camping, Office Chairs, Steam, 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. Cheap camping options
2. Diabetic question
3. Water leaking from air vents
4. Handling a medical catastrophe
5. Side gigs at work?
6. Office chair suggestion
7. Struggling with life choices
8. Do bidets save money?
9. Best cheap Field Notes alternatives
10. Savings accounts and interest rates
11. Being “exceptional”
12. Steam sale thoughts

In a given week of writing, the reader mailbag is far and away the most challenging one for me to write.

It is often easy to reflect on my own story and situation. It’s something I’m intimately familiar with.

The reader mailbag makes me focus on the stories of others, which makes me rethink everything about how I view finances.

Even more than that, it often makes me reflect on the stories of people who find themselves in a much tougher place than I find myself these days.

Those stories are hard to read. They’re even harder to answer.

Yet, they’re also the valuable thing I do here at The Simple Dollar.

If I can reach out and help even one person and show even one person in need that someone is listening and wants to help, then every minute I’ve ever spent writing for this site has been worthwhile. The fact that I’ve done it many, many times is an incredible blessing beyond my wildest imagination.

Q1: Cheap camping options

What is the cheapest way for a family of three or four to go camping? We would like to camp as part of an inexpensive summer vacation this year but we have never done it and haven’t the foggiest idea how to start.
– Jenna

Here’s a very good guide for all the camping gear you’ll ever need for less than $100. It is a great place to start.

The one upgrade you may want from this list for family camping is a tent rather than a canvas sheet, which is something you’ll have to shop around for. Family tents can be found pretty inexpensively, so it won’t add too much to your total.

Remember, much of the fun of family camping is finding ways to take care of your basic needs in a simple “back to nature” way. How do you prepare a meal starting with almost no equipment and food? It is fun to figure that out together as a family. Exploring nature and testing your own skills is most of the fun, at least in my opinion.

Q2: Diabetic question

I was just diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. I am struggling with depression over the whole thing but financially just not sure how to handle it. I need to eat a more balanced and healthy diet which is expensive. I also feel I should be putting money away for when things progress, as they often do with this disease. Any thoughts?
– Marvin

The first suggestion I would have is to spend time outside doing stuff. Anything, really. It doesn’t matter so much what you’re doing outside as long as you’re outside moving around. This helps in two big ways. One, you’re exercising, which directly helps with the symptoms and even the root cause of diabetes. Two, you’re outside, which is going to help with the depression aspect. Any sort of hobby you can take up that gets you outside is a good hobby here. Personally, I enjoy Ingress and geocaching as outdoor activities for starters.

The second comment I have to make is that eating a healthier diet isn’t usually more expensive than eating a less healthy diet. It just requires more work. I speak from experience as I eat a vegetarian diet with most meals made up of very basic ingredients, which isn’t that far from a good diet for diabetics. The average preparation time for a vegetarian meal is a bit higher than a meal with no restrictions and it does put a very tight restriction on convenience foods, but in no way is it more expensive. It just requires learning new ways to cook.

How can you get started? I’d suggest trying out some diabetic-friendly slow cooker recipes this weekend. Start one on Saturday morning, then spend the day out and about doing something outdoors that you enjoy. Try out geocaching or ride a bike. When you come home several hours later, you’ll have a meal sitting there ready for you, one that’s not too expensive and in line with your dietary restrictions. You will have spent the day very active, so you’re likely to fall asleep and get a great night of sleep. Those are the kind of days that are going to be inexpensive building blocks to a healthier future for you. Good luck.

Q3: Water leaking from air vents

I live in Louisiana and each summer for the last few years the air vents throughout my house drip water during the summer months. I have lived in this house for 13 years and this problem started just a few years ago. The vents just started dripping this month since the temps outside have climbed. The air vents drip so much water that the ceiling around the vents gets wet and stained (severely) . I repainted my living room ceiling and my kitchen ceiling a couple of years ago to cover up the stains and that was a waste since the summer after painting the ceiling the vents dripped and the ceiling got wet again. I have contacted an AC company on a couple of occasions to look at it and they tell me it’s normal and of course try to sell me other services. I do not find this extent of water dripping to be normal. I have lived my entire life in the south and never have I experienced this sort of extreme condensation in any house that I have lived in. None of my friends or family have this issue. Any suggestions or advice that you or your readers have would be greatly appreciated.
– Denise

I can only make a guess based on what you’ve said here, that you live in Louisiana and that the dripping starts occurring when the weather is hot. My guess is that condensation is forming on the outside of the air vents due to poor air ventilation in your attic and gradual changes in your home (maybe item storage?) have caused the attic ventilation to get worse and worse. Again, this is a blind guess based on just the information you’ve given here.

If I were you, I’d convince someone to go up in your attic and make sure that nothing at all was blocking any sort of air flow into or out of your attic. Make sure there are no vents blocked or anything else like that up there. In a humid and hot environment, you must have good air flow around the outside of your ducts or you will get condensation.

If you’ve been storing stuff in your attic over the last decade or two and more and more stuff has accumulated up there, it’s probably time to just clean out your attic and get rid of that stuff.

Q4: Handling a medical catastrophe

I emailed you last year (in a bit of a down moment, to say the least) right after my [relatively young] husband had had a stroke in late March. The good news about having one so young is that he recovered fully, and thanks to some hard budgeting (and his amazing health insurance through his job), we were able to defeat the bill monster completely by mid-September and take the trip we bought tickets for prior to the stroke. 2015 has been happily boring, just like we wanted.

At the time, I asked if you could write a column re: advice, as it was a terrifying time to be thrown in with no clue how to handle the paperwork, the bill onslaught, etc., and that on top of being my husband’s caregiver during his recovery. Thankfully, I had the benefit of good friends advising me and helping us. I learned so much from them and my own experience that I could write several articles myself now!

If I had to pare it down to an appropriately vague (no personal/identifying details, please) “Reader Mailbag” blurb, the most important things I could say re: an unexpected medical catastrophe would be:

1) As soon as you’re married or appropriately serious, get a Power of Attorney Document. Even as his wife, there was so much I couldn’t do or access because we didn’t have that sheet of paper to get past HIPAA. Short of some incredibly kind, quick-thinking, and loophole-finding personnel, I wouldn’t even have had access to his medical records, which proved crucial at follow-up appointments.

2) Be kind and polite, always and to everyone. You will be remembered by staff (who deal with stressed out, screaming people quite enough) for the right reasons, and they will in turn help you and your loved one however they can. They may even go above and beyond (see #1). Likewise, the amount of friends who came forward to help us with errands, gift groceries, and the like was unexpected and overwhelming to the point of tears. Karma is very much real.

3) You can do this. Be strong when you must, cry when you need to, and remember: You can do this.

Thank you for your time, and of course for your site. It was a much-needed distraction when in the hospital and a great help in the months after when we were facing down the bills.
– Melinda

This is spectacular advice.

The first one is a great piece of advice to anyone who is married (or about to get married). This is a document well worth getting because, as Melinda mentions, it can really help in a pinch.

The second one is brilliant advice in almost every social and customer service situation. There’s no reason not to be nice, even when the other person isn’t. There are absolutely times to be “tough,” but those times are actually pretty rare.

The last one is perfect for any challenging moment in life. You can do this. Period.

Great stuff, Melinda.

Q5: Side gigs at work?

I was hired on by a well funded (conservative) start up company and have excelled and was quickly promoted to a critical position for the plant my company is opening last September. Unfortunately the plant’s opening has been repeatedly pushed back, most recently to early next year and until it opens I don’t have work to do. I mean it. I’m an initiative taking, creative, go-getting worker and their isn’t anything for me to do. I spend ten hours each day doing basically nothing for the company outside of being a pleasant person and answering phones occasionally. (I realize this puts me in an excellent position to be let go so I save aggressively for that emergency possibility… I get the feeling they just really want to keep me around for the job.)

Meanwhile, I’m sort of stuck in a catch-22. I can’t exactly find a better job because I’m not really gaining experience in my current job so I feel like i should stick around at this job until I get the experience to get another job… This job pays decently and can lead to opportunities I’ll enjoy ok but in the meantime I’ve begun side gig activities in my free time including blogging and applying for freelance work.

This brings me to the heart of the ethics question: It kills me to spend 10 hours a day doing absolutely nothing at a computer all day only to go home to work on my side gigs that are actually expanding my experience, resume, and happiness. Would it be ok to spend some of my plentiful excess time at work working on these additional activities even though they would be under the office radar? I guess I’m struggling with the idea that since I could easily be let go anyways why not try to get the most out of my free time as possible?

Can you work for yourself when you can’t work for work? Outside of this moral dilemma am I missing something here
– Karen

If I were in your shoes, the first thing I would do is look for any and all possible training I could take to put myself in the best possible position to hit a home run when that factory opens. What skills and knowledge will you need to possess to execute well? Look for courses and certifications and anything else you can invest in to get that kind of training.

Better yet, talk to your supervisor about it. To an extent, this period may be something of a test for you – can you make something out of nothing? Right now, you have no real structure at all. Can you create something on your own?

Spend a day or two coming up with a plan to get an additional certification or two or take a few classes that can really prime you to nail this project. Discuss that plan with your supervisor – they may even pay for some of it. Then spend your time and energy on that plan.

Q6: Office chair suggestion

Do you have any suggestions for a cheap (< $200) and durable and comfortable office chair? I am setting up a home office and I will be using the chair 4-6 hours per day.
– Andy

Cheap. Durable. Comfortable. Choose two.

If you’re going for cheap and durable, a metal folding chair will do the trick. It’s cheap. It’s durable. It’s not comfortable. I have used one of these in a pinch before.

If you’re going for cheap and comfortable, head down to your local office supply store and pick the one that feels the most comfortable to you.

If you’re going for comfortable and durable, get a Herman Miller Aeron or a Herman Miller Embody chair. I used a Herman Miller Aeron chair at my previous job and I loved it. It worked perfectly for most of a decade. However, it’s a $900 chair.

The best balance among all of these things is probably the IKEA Markus chair. It lists for $199 and is fairly comfortable and is what I like to call “IKEA reliable” meaning “as reliable as you can get without high-end craftsmanship.” That would probably be my pick if you’re really trying to balance all three, but you don’t quite get all three at the same time here – just “pretty good” regarding all three factors.

Q7: Struggling with life choices

I went to college on a full scholarship and graduated with a BS in physics and philosophy. My plan was to go to graduate school in physics and I applied and was accepted, but chose not to go. I have an open invitation to reapply and likely get accepted there any time though I imagine that offer becomes more “dim” as time passes.

I feel lost. The idea of having a family and working at a job to support that family seems horrible to me, something that I do not want with every fiber of my being, but it feels like every track in my life pushes me toward that. I actively avoid dating or even social situations because I do not want to get married and I do not want children. I do not want a job with pressures or anything like that.

Right now I work at a 24 hour convenience store mostly during the night hours. I spend 80% of my time there reading and dealing with the odd customer that comes in every fifteen minutes or so. I ride my bike to and from work. I live in a one room apartment that’s basically little different than a dorm room and I spend most of my time reading philosophy texts and physics papers that I get from the university library. I spend very little, as my apartment rent is really really cheap and I use the open wifi from a coffee shop that’s nearby. I mostly eat the food that has to be tossed at the convenience store. I wind up saving about a third of what I make so right now I wouldn’t have to work for a year and still be fine.

When I am just doing that I feel really happy but whenever I talk to family or to professors they all push me toward a track that I don’t want to be on so I reject it and I wind up feeling like something is wrong with me.
– Kevin

I can completely sympathize with the lack of interest in dating or marriage or children. That’s a life choice that a lot of people make and there’s nothing wrong with it.

As for the career choice, it sounds like you have enough skill/talent/knowledge in the realm of physics that graduate school is a really sensible path for you, but you’re afraid that it would turn into a nine-to-five job. Why would it have to?

What exactly in the graduate school experience would be that different than what you’re doing right now? I have a lot of experience with students in graduate school in the hard sciences – many of my friends and coworkers went through that – and most of them describe their lives as being very hand-to-mouth with a lot of time spent reading academic papers and devising experiments and taking classes. This sounds like what you spend most of your spare time on.

Even if you wound up deciding that actually working with an advanced degree in physics isn’t right for you, it sounds like you should be in graduate school, in an environment with people who can answer your questions and drive you to think even more about the questions you’re studying. Not only that, you seem very articulate, which is an additional bonus.

If I were you, I’d go to graduate school. Even if you don’t love what you perceive to be the destination, the path seems to match you really well, and you can turn the destination into whatever works best for you.

Q8: Do bidets save money?

My husband grew up in a house that had a bidet in it. He is basically insistent that our house also have one when we buy a house or else we install one. Not only is it a familiarity thing but he says it saves money over the long haul. I’m not convinced on the “save money” thing because you’re using water and you have to install it too. Thoughts?
– Annie

A bidet uses about an eighth of a gallon of water per use. Since you already have home water service set up, every 1,000 gallons of water you use costs you about $1.50 (this does vary from area to area). So, your water use cost for a bidet is about two hundredths of a cent. You’d have to use a bidet 5,000 times to use a dollar’s worth of water.

Toilet paper is going to run you about twenty cents per hundred sheets. Assuming you used just one sheet per toilet use, you’re spending two-tenths of a cent per toilet use. That’s 200 single-sheet toilet paper uses per dollar. If you use more than one sheet, that count drops rapidly.

So, yes, a bidet is cheaper per use. Now, is it worth the install cost? It probably isn’t if you’re only living in a home for a short time, but if this is a long term home, it’s almost assuredly cost effective (assuming everyone uses the bidet).

Q9: Best cheap Field Notes alternatives

I loved your article on pocket notebooks. I have tried Field Notes and they work very well as a pocket notebook but I can’t justify spending $3 a pop on pocket notebooks. What is your best cheap replacement for them?
– Damon

If any old pocket notebook will do, the Mead top spiral pocket notebooks served me very well for years. As I mentioned, my biggest complaint was with the spiral itself, as it would often snag on my jeans, feel bulky in my pocket, and sometimes poke into my leg, plus there were issues with pages sometimes falling out of notebooks like that.

One of my friends makes his own “Field Notes” by printing off a lined pattern on both sides of pieces of printer paper, then cutting them in half and folding each half, then stapling a small stack of them in the middle forming a small book. He uses a piece of card stock for the cover and also uses scissors to trim the corners. They’re undoubtedly cheaper and seem to hold up fairly well.

I don’t really know of a good “cheap” alternative to Field Notes that matches the quality that notebooks (and similar brands) provide.

Q10: Savings accounts and interest rates

I have noticed a lot of online banks like Ally and MySavingsDirect offering really good interest rates that are way better than my bank. Is it worth switching to those banks to get a better interest rate on savings for an emergency fund?
– Donald

Sure, why not? The only criteria I’d really consider besides interest rate when it comes to a bank is FDIC insurance (which almost every bank has) and customer service reputation (which you can figure out from Consumer Reports – and Ally is pretty good in that regard).

However, I’ve found that if you’ve already got a solid interest rate, jumping around to get a slightly better one isn’t really worth the time. Let’s say you are earning 0.5% in an ordinary savings account on your $2,000 emergency fund. That’s $10 a year in earned interest. If you switch to a 2% account – meaning you switched to one of the rate leaders from your ordinary bank – you go from $10 a year to $40 a year. After that, switching isn’t going to gain you nearly as much – switching to a 2.5% account only gains you $10 a year and that’s only if they don’t change rates at all (which banks do).

That’s why I usually use customer service and ease of availability of funds as big factors in deciding where to bank. You want easy and consistent access to your money and that’s what good service provides. I consider most local credit unions to be good options and I know Ally is a good online option.

Q11: Being “exceptional”

I don’t think you realize how exceptional you are. Your path to paying off debt isn’t just something everyone can follow. You are bringing exceptional talents to the table like your personal willpower and decision making process. Most people can’t follow in those footsteps.
– Jim

I’ve read two emails like this in the past week and I chose Jim’s because it was more succinct. My answer to both: pure hogwash.

The honest truth is that I’m pretty average. The only reason I look any better than average is that I started off in a really bad place. I didn’t get out of that place by becoming something “super.” I got out of that place by becoming just a little bit better than the below average person I was, then a little bit better than that, then a little bit better than that.

I didn’t work to be in the 99th percentile. I worked to go from the 10th percentile to the 11th percentile, then the next year pushing myself up to the 12th or 13th percentile. Now, maybe I’m at the 50th percentile.

The thing is, jumping from the 10th to the 50th is a pretty big jump and, taken out of context, it looks really impressive. It looks like a huge, radical life change. That’s because it’s a change that took place over a long period of time and it’s a change that looks good in comparison to an absolute disaster.

The best thing you can do to improve yourself isn’t to expect to be in the top 1%. It’s to work to be better than you were last year or last month. If you keep achieving that simpler goal, you will get better and better and better. You have nowhere to go but up.

Q12: Steam sale thoughts

I just wanted to drop a tip that I use to save money on computer games. Computer games are my main hobby – I play for a few hours each evening instead of watching television when most people are doing that.

Steam offers a sale twice a year on computer games, cutting the prices on all kinds of computer games by as much as 90%. I stock up during these sales and spend maybe $30. That gives me games to play for the next six months and often even longer than that.

Steam makes computer gaming a cheap hobby for me. I thought your readers might find it useful too.
– Gareth

I, too, admire the semi-annual Steam sale and I’ll often drop a few dollars there, too. I don’t play computer games nearly as often as I used to, but I still enjoy long adventure games that rely more on puzzle solving than on hand-eye coordination and there’s usually one or two good ones in each Steam sale.

This time around, I didn’t buy anything, though. Why? I still have several games from the last Steam sale I haven’t played through yet and, honestly, if I bought more games, it’s likely I wouldn’t paly through some of them.

As cool as the sale is, it’s still a waste of money if you don’t actually play the games. Keep that in mind even if the deal is extreme.

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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