Questions About CNBC, Discounted Meat, Apartment Cooking, 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. Certifications for my career
2. Cooking in tiny efficiency apartment
3. Pay-as-you-go cell phone companies
4. Vehicle depreciation question
5. Selling old books
6. Repairing a leaky tent
7. Can’t trust husband with money
8. Feeling pointless
9. Breaking out of partying mindset
10. CNBC problems
11. Discounted meat
12. Steam sale thoughts and regrets

One of the interesting parts about being a freelance worker is that your “work time” isn’t so much based on hours or on when you’re scheduled to work, but on project delivery. You have a contract that doesn’t specify when you work, but on what you deliver.

That gives you a lot of freedom, but it can also lead to a lot of stress. I can work whenever I want during a given day, which is good. However, in order to have time off, I have to work “ahead,” meaning I have to complete the things on my various contracts before I can have that time off (or else risking forfeit of that contract). That includes emergencies and sick time.

This means that I need to have a good work ethic and, if at all possible, I need to have some work done in advance.

Most of the time, this isn’t a problem for me. I keep some articles written in advance and everything is good. If an emergency comes up, it’s okay – I just pull out articles I already have written and use those.

However, in the early part of each summer, a pair of things come together to make it very difficult. May and early June usually sees a cavalcade of school activities, graduations, weddings, and other events, plus that’s my wife’s professional crunch time, which means it falls on me to keep up lots of obligations and appointments. This often drains all of my work done in advance.

Then, we usually have a family summer vacation planned, one that I don’t want to interrupt with work. There’s usually a month or so between the early part of summer described above and our family’s vacation.

During that month, I basically work nonstop, and that’s the period I’m in right now. I had to use most of my “backup” writing in May and June, leaving me July and early August to get all of the writing done for July and for our family vacation in August.

On top of that, my wife and kids are at home during this month, meaning they’re constantly wanting me to do stuff with the family – and I want to do it, too, but doing so directly means that I’m going to be even more crunched when I sit down to work.

When someone asks what the hardest part of my job is, my answer is usually July.

Q1: Certifications for my career

How do you know if a particular certification will be helpful for getting a job or a promotion? I work as a sysadmin for a university with a large research park and lots of businesses nearby. I would like to be able to at least try to move up in my career into a position with better earnings but I want to have a resume that will actually get me interviews and job offers before I start. Some certifications seem to be good and others are not so much, but how does one know the difference?
– Kevin

The first thing you need to do is define exactly what position you want. Head out to some job boards and figure out what position you eventually want to be in. Once you’ve found those, see what kinds of requirements and desirables the job listings have. What things are they looking for?

Those things should become your checklist. You should make sure you have all of those things – or as many as possible.

Often, especially in the IT field, there are specific certifications that are frequently requested on job postings. Those certifications are ones you should definitely get.

If you’re part of any kind of professional group related to your career, ask within that group what kinds of certifications are respected and go after the ones that make sense for you.

Q2: Cooking in tiny efficiency apartment

I just got a new job in a city where I don’t really know anyone. In order to save money I got a tiny one room efficiency apartment (about 300 square feet) that has a toilet+shower+sink in the corner and is otherwise unfurnished. So far I have just been eating out but that’s going to get expensive fast. Suggestions for eating at home in these conditions?
– Jeffrey

Get a microwave and a hot plate (or two) and a small fridge and perhaps a toaster oven. You can stack these (except for the hot plate) within a simple shelving unit to minimize floor space, and you might want to get a simple standalone cupboard for your dishes and kitchen tools that has a small surface on top for food prep (even just space for a cutting board will do). With just those things and a few basic kitchen tools (and a small table) you can make a ton of different dishes in that space, everything from pasta meals to steaks to scrambled eggs and so on.

I was in almost this exact situation in college. I ended up making a lot of pasta meals for myself in a saucepan, where I’d just boil some water in the saucepan over the hot plate, cook a few ounces of pasta, drain it over the sink with a colander, then add some sauce to the pan and then serve it to a plate (or even eat it straight from the pan if you’re alone, I suppose). You can cook some garlic bread on the side with the toaster oven and steam some vegetables in the microwave. That’s just one example, but it’s one that I relied on probably 3 times a week during those days.

Naturally, there are some things you won’t be able to cook – you won’t be able to roast a turkey, for example. However, the vast majority of things you might cook at home can be done with this setup.

If you’re struggling for ideas for dishes in this setup, spend some time reading recipes and asking yourself whether you could do it with the equipment you have. You’d be surprised how many you’ll be able to pull off.

Q3: Pay-as-you-go cell phone companies

Looking for a recommendation on cell phone pay as you go companies. What one do you recommend?
– Tammy

I’ve had good experiences with two companies in the fairly recent past.

Republic Wireless basically offers unlimited texting and calls for $10 a month and charges an additional $15 a month for data, though they actually break this down into chunks of about 66 MB per dollar. Republic uses Sprint’s cellular network and hands off to wi-fi whenever there’s an open wi-fi point, so if you’re in an area that has good Sprint coverage, that’s a good option. The drawback is that they only have two phones to choose from, two middling Android models.

Ting offers a more modular plan. They don’t offer a strictly unlimited plan like Republic does and their rates are a little higher, but in exchange for those drawbacks, you get access to the Verizon network (which is better in many areas of the country) and you get a much larger choice of devices to use. Verizon is strong around here and Sprint isn’t very good, so in my area I’d definitely choose Ting.

If you want to get a look at what coverage looks like in your area, check out these maps over at OpenSignal. They’ll provide a pretty clear picture of which option is better for you.

Q4: Vehicle depreciation question

So, I was reading the federal guidelines on car depreciation and it said that cars depreciate in value $0.24 per mile driven. So I started doing some math and that just doesn’t seem right for a lot of cars. Let’s say I drive my car to the 200,000 mile mark. That means it depreciated $48,000 even though I only paid $21,000 for it new. How is that even possible?
– Larry

That’s because not all cars are made the same. The $0.24 per mile driven in depreciation is averaged across lots of different makes and models of cars.

For example, in the example you gave, you’re probably driving an entry-level sedan of some kind, which can easily get 200,000 over the lifetime of the car if you follow the maintenance plan. For that car, the actual depreciation is $0.10 per mile (assuming you paid $20,000 for it new and it’s now worthless). If you drive it more than that or get some trade-in value for it, then it’s actually depreciating less than $0.10 per mile.

On the other hand, what if you buy a Lexus SUV with all kinds of options? That’s probably running you $50,000. Then, let’s say you sell it for $15,000 when it reaches 100,000 miles. During that lifespan, you’re spending $35,000 on the car and driving it 100,000 miles, meaning you’re actually experiencing $0.35 per mile in depreciation.

The $0.24 figure is just an average that the federal government uses for calculations. You can certainly do better than that with some car purchases.

Q5: Selling old books

For many years my home has been stuffed with books on shelves that I have read. I finally realized that I’m never going to read most of them again and they just take up space. I am trying to figure out how to sell off a few thousand old books. The local used bookstore made me an offer but it seems kind of low ($0.25 per book). Ideas?
– Cammy

The reality is that for many of your books you’re going to struggle to find a buyer. Remember, money is just a means of exchange, and an item is only worth a certain dollar amount if someone is willing to pay it.

My suggestion would be to go through your shelves and select everything that might have individual value, then make a giant list of those books and sell them on Craigslist for something like $2 each. Maybe offer them for $2 each or 6 for $10, for example.

For all of the books that don’t sell in this way after a week or two, take them to that used bookseller and get the $0.25 he or she was offering you. That way, you’ll get at least some value from the books.

Q6: Repairing a leaky tent

We were camping in a tent last week when a storm came through in the night and we slept through most of it until the end when we woke up and everything was soaked. Turns out our tent has a pretty serious leak somewhere. I read some guides online to fixing it but it seems like a ton of work. Should I just replace it?
– Danielle

I’ve had tents leak many times. Almost always, it’s been due to a little rip on a seam somewhere which is easy to fix with seam sealant that you can buy for a few bucks a bottle at a well-equipped outdoor supply store.

All you have to do is open up your tent and inspect all of the seams carefully for any loose threads or tearing. When you find such a spot, clean it thoroughly and then apply the seam sealant to the spot and let it dry according to the directions. This will fix that leak nicely.

It’s really not all that hard. I can’t remember this process ever taking more than an hour or so, which is a far better deal than buying a new tent.

Q7: Can’t trust husband with money

My husband and I share a single checking account. Both of our checks go in there and we use debit cards to pay for almost everything. The problem is that my husband buys a lot of stuff without really thinking about it, which causes overdrafts on a monthly basis and makes bill paying really tricky let alone saving for the future.

Whenever I bring this up he says that he forgot and if I try to suggest doing something different he gets mad and brings up how he makes more than I do and lots of other things like shared household chore responsibilities.

Do you have any suggestions for a reasonable solution?
– Claire

My suggestion is to wait for a time when you’re not in any sort of overdrafting situation and there’s no financial problem, then suggest that you move to a situation where he has a “free spending” separate checking account with a debit card attached to it that he can use for whatever he likes and then gets rid of the debit card for the main checking account.

It sounds like you’re the one that manages the bills and that the problem isn’t so much that he buys things but that you can’t really plan around them. The best solution is to put a certain amount each month into an account just for him to spend freely, then you handle the management of the main account more carefully.

The purpose for this isn’t to keep him from spending, but to make sure that there aren’t overdrafts and other problems in the account. Also, an account with just money for him is one where he can look at the balance and know that any expenses are entirely due to his choices.

Q8: Feeling pointless

After a few years of spending like crazy after college, I decided to start turning things around in 2011. I started contributing to retirement and making double payments on my highest interest debt which was a credit card. Five years later I have paid off that credit card and two student loans and save 10% a year for retirement but my debts are still enormous.

I am so tired of this. I feel like I am never going to get ahead no matter what. The debts are still so huge.
– Alicia

Since you didn’t provide me with any numbers to look at, I’m going to have to just make some guesses about your financial state.

My guess is that your debt load was enormous when you started and now it’s merely very big. Similarly, my guess is that you had no retirement when you started and now you have something approaching a year’s wages in there.

The number you should really be looking at is your net worth, which is all of your assets (your home, your car, your savings, your retirement) added together, then all of your debts subtracted from that. If you’re following the recipe you describe here – putting 10% away for retirement, making double payments on your highest interest debt, not adding any more debt to the mix – your net worth should be going up by leaps and bounds every year.

The number that really matters for financial success is your net worth, particularly how much your net worth is changing each year. The bigger the bump in your annual net worth change, the better off you are.

Q9: Breaking out of partying mindset

I am 54 and my son is 26. He lives in an apartment a few miles away. He graduated in 2012 and got a pretty good job but he spends all of his spare time partying. At his age I never really got into that but he’s young.

The other day I stopped by and he had a bunch of mail out on the table with overdraft notices and a credit card statements. I looked at it quickly and it had a bunch of charges for restaurants so he must eat out every single meal when he’s not eating at my house. Lots of bars and clubs and such and some liquor stores.

I feel like he’s locked into this partying lifestyle and wasting these years of his life. I don’t know how t help him out of it other than to just wait it out with him. Not really a confrontational type of guy. But waiting it out is hard especially since his hole is just going to get deeper.
– Larry

You’re probably right that he’s locked into a partying cycle. You’re also probably right that anything confrontational won’t help at all.

If I were in your shoes, I’d probably talk to him one day about how he’s a man now with a real career and a future ahead of him to take care of, and then give him a good book on personal finance. The right book depends on what his personality is like, but something like I Will Teach You to Be Rich by Ramit Sethi is probably a solid choice here. (I’d recommend my own book, but I’m not sure it’s the perfect choice to speak to your son at this stage in his life).

He really has to find his own way here. The best role you can fulfill is that of a very gentle guiding hand that’s not looking to correct, but looking to help him build a great future for himself. Good luck.

Q10: CNBC problems

What is the value of CNBC? I was at the airport for several hours and found myself in a bar working on my laptop at a back table. The TV showed CNBC all day long and I found myself watching it. What is the point of showing these guys all day long talking about how this specific stock is hot? I mean do they think I’m going to suddenly go call someone and put a bunch of my money into that stock? A financial network could be useful to people and provide good ideas for financial success but this is just junk.
– Alan

I agree with you on many counts here. I don’t think there’s a lot of value in most programming on CNBC. I mostly feel like it’s sales pitches for various financial firms and individual brokers who are trying to sell their services more than anything else. I think buying and selling individual stocks is a fool’s game. I basically don’t watch CNBC or Fox Business at this point.

At the same time, I’d love to see a network that was based on genuine self-improvement in the various spheres of life – financial, professional, and so on. I don’t know how big the audience would be for such a network, but I’d certainly be interested in it.

CNBC, though – it’s not worth the time, in my opinion.

Q11: Discounted meat

Is it safe to eat discounted meat?
– Ellie

Generally, yes, discounted meat won’t kill you. Usually, discounted meat is meat that’s still okay to eat, but has perhaps discolored a little due to oxidation or other factors.

I would always very thoroughly cook any discounted meat that I bought. I wouldn’t eat it until it’s very well done, and I would base the “well done” aspect on actual temperature to make sure anything bad was killed.

In general, you’ll know if meat is genuinely bad – it won’t pass the visual test or the smell test. If it does, then just cook it thoroughly. That’s about the best anyone can do.

Q12: Steam sale thoughts and regrets

So I bought a bunch of computer games during the summer Steam sale. I felt like I was getting a bunch of bargains but when I totaled it all up I spent over $100 (got 12 games). I kind of have this feeling of buyer’s remorse, though. Was this a good move? How do you judge buying things on sale like this?
– Kevin

If that money was budgeted and planned to be spent on computer games in June and July, then there’s no problem. If you went above and beyond your “electronic entertainment” budget, then there is a problem, but you can fix it by keeping that spendin very low until you “catch up.”

Honestly, spending a bit over $100 on something over a two week period isn’t going to be a financial crisis, especially assuming you actually get adequate enjoyment out of those games. For me, a computer game is worth it if I can lower the cost per hour to less than $1, meaning I play it for more than an hour for every dollar I spent on it.

Of course, if you buy these games and never play them, then it’s never going to have been a wise financial move. Games that just sit around unplayed are never worthwhile, so if you want to make this purchase worthwhile, actually play these games.

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.