Questions About Ice Scrapers, 529 Changes, Freecycle, and More!

Questions About Ice Scrapers, 529 Changes, Freecycle, 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. Money slipping through the cracks
2. Car window ice removal advice
3. Freecycle question
4. Too much saving?
5. Thoughts on carrying knives
6. Staying married for financial reasons?
7. Advice for high mileage commute
8. 529 changes?
9. Times on cold houses
10. Is Swagbucks worthwhile?
11. Sticking with it
12. Self-employment and taxes
13. Lottery tickets
14. Cheaper cast iron advice
15. Hand-washing versus dishwasher

Over the past several years, I’ve slowly been increasing my community involvement, mostly through volunteering for various boards and committees in my town and for community organizations.

Again and again, I’m surprised that more people don’t do this. These boards seem to always need more people. Yet, I’ve found that they’re a really enjoyable way to spend some free time without spending a dime. Positions like this help improve your community, and you end up meeting a lot of people in your community, too, most of whom are interested in making things better.

If this sounds at all appealing to you, check your city’s website and see if there are any vacancies in current committees and boards and, if not, stop by city hall and see what you can do to get involved.

Q1: Money slipping through the cracks

Several months ago we started making a family budget like the one in Dave Ramsey’s book. We stuck with it and at the end of the month we seemed to stay within every category but we had basically no money left over. We should have had several hundred.

This has been the case pretty much every month since. I keep track of our receipts and credit card statements and it seems like we’re well within all budget categories but there is just nothing left at the end of the month.

What are we doing wrong? Is there something obvious that I am missing?
– Alexis

Alexis actually sent along a copy of her family’s budget along with some of their receipts and other materials in an Excel spreadsheet and the situation is basically as she describes – based on that income and that budget, they should be several hundred ahead each month, but they’re not.

The only explanation for it is that there is money being spent that’s not in the budget. Are there ATM withdrawals going on that aren’t being noted? Are there automatic transfers and bills getting paid straight from your checking account that you’re not incorporating?

In other words, the first place I would look is at that checking account. Your budget should be based on the total amount getting deposited in there each month, and your budget should account for every dollar leaving that account.

If you don’t get paper bank statements, use online banking to check all of this out.

Q2: Car window ice removal advice

If you live in a place where there is ice on the car windows in the mornings here is a tip for you. At many gas stations in cold areas they sell these cheap ice removers that look like a thin piece of plastic with a strip of brass coming out at the end. They usually cost about $2. These things remove ice like a champ, don’t scrape your windows, and last basically forever. I have one in each of my vehicles and they outlast the vehicles by a long shot.
– Darren

I know of these exact ice removers and they do indeed do a great job, especially for the price. Brass is much tougher than ice, but not strong enough to scratch glass, so it’s just the perfect stuff for getting rid of ice without damaging the glass.

After doing some research, it turns out that these are usually sold under the “Fantastic” brand and, indeed, they often pop up in gas stations in the winter in the northern United States.

It’s not anything more than what it needs to be. It’s just a perfect little ice remover.

Q3: Freecycle question

What is the deal with Freecycle? Are people just giving away free stuff there?
– Denise

That’s how it works. Freecycle is a way for people to give away stuff that they might otherwise just throw out because they have no use for it.

The only problem with Freecycle is that the junk-to-useful-stuff ratio is weighted pretty heavily toward the “junk” end of the spectrum. You have to sift through lots of listings to find useful stuff, and the really good stuff gets claimed really quickly.

I’ve used Freecycle to get rid of several larger items that I simply didn’t want any more. It worked like a charm.

Q4: Too much saving?

Do you ever feel like you save too much and as a result are missing out on enjoying parts of life? You’ve said before that you two live on just your wife’s salary and bank your income. Don’t you ever think about what you could be doing with that money that would be fun?
– Aaron

I actually think about it all the time. The thing is, the fun thing I think about is not working any more and simply doing the stuff I want to do every day. I think about retiring at a really young age and spending my days writing a novel or doing volunteer work. I’ve also thought about trying to put together a large-scale gaming convention in the Des Moines area in early July.

When I think about doing something “fun,” that’s usually what I think about. I think about projects that I want to take on that will be much easier to handle once my children are older and I have the financial independence to not have to work every day unless I want to do so.

I don’t really get caught up in the “fun” things I can do today. I actually really enjoy my day-to-day life right now. I recognize that my children won’t always be young, so my focus is on enjoying that time when I get to be their dad, when they come home from school with a smile on their face and enjoy a snack and play a game with their old man. That will all pass by soon enough. I’m enjoying it while it lasts.

Q5: Thoughts on carrying knives

You’ve mentioned before that you carry a multitool with you of some kind… I can’t remember which one. It contained a knife along with several other tools on it. Some people, myself included, are made uncomfortable by the thought of others carrying knives around with them all the time. What is the reason for doing this?
– Carrie

I’ve received a couple questions like this over the years, so I thought it was worth an answer.

I carry a pocketknife/multitool because I find that it’s really useful at times to have one. In just the last day, I’ve used my multitools and pocket knives to open up a package, to cut threads off of my son’s stocking hat, to remove at least two bottle caps, to remove a cork from a wine bottle, to cut a piece of tape, and to open a back panel on one of my child’s toys – and I’m probably forgetting some uses. All of those things were done with something I had right in my pocket.

It’s not a weapon. The types of knives I carry are designed to be used as tools. They’re not knives for attacking people or for chopping vegetables or for cutting meat. They’re designed to open up boxes or cut small pieces of threads, or to make a small trimming off of a plant. I suppose I could attack someone with my pocket knife and do some real damage, but by the time I dug around in my pocket, pulled it out, opened the blade so that it clicked into place, and did anything with it, I’m either already going to be attacked or the other person will have fled. I can’t imagine ever going for a tool-style knife in any sort of self-protection or fighting situation. They’re just terribly designed for that.

Right at this moment, I am just carrying a very slim Spyderco pocket knife. For me to pull it out to actually injure a person with it, I would, again, have to dig in my pocket, pull it out, and engage the blade, a process that takes multiple seconds by even the fastest person, and even then, the blade isn’t really designed to hurt people.

Why not carry a full multi-tool? I haven’t yet found the perfect multitool for constant carrying, so I keep one in the glove compartment of my SUV and another one on my work desk. Multitools are often bulky in the pocket and the thin ones I’ve tried often don’t have enough other tools on it to make it as useful and straightforward as a really good pocket knife. The closest I’ve found is a Leatherman Juice, which I was carrying until I misplaced it somewhere. The larger one that I like, a Leatherman Wave, is just too big for my pocket, so I keep it in my glove compartment.

Q6: Staying married for financial reasons?

My husband and I decided about a year ago to get a divorce for personal reasons, though we do remain good friends. We still eat dinner together each evening and we talk to each other every day. Anyway, we have never actually gone through the paperwork of doing this for financial reasons. For one, we’re not really sure how to separate and divide everything, and for another we’re not sure we can each make it financially on our own. Do you have any suggestions on how we can begin to separate our finances and how I can build financial independence? I realize that a divorce lawyer might be the answer here but we’d prefer to do this at minimal expense and hassle.
– Joan

If your relationship is that strong, it sounds better than many roommate relationships I’ve seen and experienced. Why not essentially be roommates for a while? Would that work for both of you?

In that situation, you could slowly separate your finances by opening individual accounts and gradually changing over your direct deposits and withdrawals. Essentially, you could separate everything over a period of time so that if and when you do choose to get the divorce decree, it’s very simple.

I don’t know enough about your relationship to say whether this would work, but it certainly sounds strong enough for this. Just take it slowly and take advantage of the economic benefits of having a roommate that you trust.

Q7: Advice for high mileage commute

In May, I’m going to graduate and luckily walk right into a great job that pays about $55K per year. I am planning on living with my parents for a while after graduating, as we refurbished their garage loft over the last few years into an apartment that I can stay in rent-free for at least two years. It has a separate entrance and exit so it basically functions like a separate apartment.

Anyway, my daily commute is going to be about 50 minutes each way, totaling about 30 miles each way of mostly highway driving. What kind of car should I get to minimize my costs? I am not worried about “impressing” anyone with my car. I just want to get the most bang for my buck.
– Jeff

Given this situation, I would buy a late model used fuel efficient car and drive it until it’s starting to give you serious problems, then replace it. That should take several years.

Here’s why. If you’re driving 60 miles per day, five times a week, fifty weeks a year, that’s 15,000 miles per year just from commuting. Let’s assume you drive another 5,000 miles for other purposes in a year, which is a completely reasonable number.

If you buy a 20 mpg car – say, a SUV or a truck or a car that doesn’t cater to fuel efficiency – you’ll be eating 1,000 gallons of gas per year. If you buy a 40 mpg car – a more fuel-efficient one – you’ll be eating 500 gallons of gas in a year. Buy a 50 mpg car and you’ll be eating only 400 gallons of gas per year.

Translating that into dollars, let’s assume gas costs $3 per gallon going forward. The 20 mpg car will cost you $3,000 a year in gas. The 40 mpg car will cost you $1,500 in gas – a savings of $1,500 per year. The 50 mpg car will cost you only $1,200 in gas – a savings of $1,800 per year.

If you drive that car for, say, five years, the 40 mpg car will save you $7,500 in gas expenses over a 20 mpg car, and a 50 mpg car will save you $9,000 in gas expenses over a 20 mpg car. That’s really all you need to know right there.

Look for a car like a Toyota Prius or a Honda Civic for a good, reasonably reliable, fuel-efficient, and reasonably low-priced car.

On a side note, I sincerely hope that when my children graduate from college, they are asking questions and making moves as sensible as these.

Q8: 529 changes?

In the president’s State of the Union speech he proposed changes to how 529 plans are taxed meaning that they basically become useless for saving for higher education. What should we do with our plans if this comes into effect?
– Jerry

For starters, a Democratic president is making a proposal to an all-Republican Congress. In this era, it’s pretty unlikely that anything will happen.

Even if something were to change, it’s extremely rare that changes are made that don’t account for earlier contributions. They’re not going to make grandiose changes. Likely, what they would do is just close the 529 program and make a new one under new rules.

In short, I wouldn’t worry about it. I’d keep contributing like normal and worry about any changes if and when they actually occur.

Q9: Times on cold houses

Did you see this article at the New York Times about cold houses?

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/24/opinion/this-cold-house.html

The author found out it wasn’t too bad at all to drop the thermostat low!
– Sal

If I lived alone, I’d keep the thermostat in the house really low. I don’t mind the house being cold.

However, I don’t live alone, and there are complaints all over the place if the house temperature is too low in the winter. I am constantly fiddling with it, but other household members bump up the temperature if it ever gets too low.

I think the key is to experiment and try it out for yourself. All that’s going to happen is that you decide it’s colder than you’d like so you turn the thermostat up a little.

Q10: Is Swagbucks worthwhile?

I keep seeing stories about Swagbucks. Do you know anything about it? Is it worth the time?
– David

For me, it’s not worth the time.

In essence, Swagbucks gives you tiny rewards for doing really simple tasks. The problem is that those tasks have a time cost and, after going through and trying out many of the recommended “strategies” for maximizing your returns via Swagbucks, it just isn’t worth the time. You don’t earn enough to make it worth the time invested, even though the effort is really minimal.

If you really want to convert some spare moments on your computer or phone to a few spare dollars, I found that Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is much more effective and you’re actually paid in the form of cash rather than “swagbucks.”

Q11: Sticking with it

Over the past two years, my husband and I have paid off several credit cards and our car loan. Our only debts right now are a single low interest credit card and our home mortgage.

The problem is that with all of this money we both feel the temptation to spend more. Now that the bills are gone it feels like we have mountains of money that we could be spending and it feels like we are “depriving” ourselves to not spend it.

I know that the better route is to keep knocking away debt and to save for things like retirement but those things are so far off it is hard to imagine them.

What can we do? Is there a “compromise” that works?
– Kaylee

The problem seems to be that you’re tempted by having a lot of cash in your checking account and that it was easier to maintain financial fortitude when your account balances were lower.

There are a lot of potential solutions to that problem. One great one is to simply apply that big balance to your goals as soon as it builds up. Before you even have a chance to dwell on that money, send it in as a big extra payment on one of your debts. If you can make this happen automatically through online bill pay with your bank, do that.

Another approach – one that I personally use – is to think about the least favorite part of your day and imagine how further smart financial moves will make that bad part of your day vanish over time. Is it your job? Stronger finances can enable a career change. Is it some home task? Stronger finances may eventually enable you to find a solution there, too.

Being in great financial shape simply solves a lot of problems in one’s life. That’s why we strive for it.

Q12: Self employment and taxes

Over the last few years, I’ve been independently doing graphic design work for several businesses in the area and in 2014 it became so busy that I was basically doing it around the clock. I was saving literally every dime I made from the side business so I always had plenty for taxes.

After the holidays and some discussions with my family, I made the decision to go full time with this side business. I am planning on resigning from my job on or about March 1 and I’ll be giving a few weeks notice, so I have time to get things settled.

My worry is that now I will need to spend some of my design income to live and still pay taxes out of pocket. What kind of system do you use to help keep all of that straight?
– Jenny

Right now, we literally bank all of my income and live off of Sarah’s. If we need to tap some of my income for taxes, that’s no big deal. However, you’re probably much more interested in our system from 2008 to 2011, when we were still paying off our home mortgage as fast as possible but I was working as a self-employed freelance writer.

During that period, we essentially split my income in half. Half of my income went into a “taxes” account, while the other half went into our personal checking accounts. If I ever needed to buy an appropriate work expense, I would use money before the split for that expense – think of things like a computer upgrade or books.

Each quarter, I’d make quarterly tax payments from that “tax” account. At the end of the year, I’d note how much was left in the account at that point, then I’d pay my final taxes (which might be higher or lower, depending on how close my quarterly estimates were to reality). I’d then subtract my final tax bills for the year from the year-end account balance and whatever was left, I would just move into my personal accounts. It was kind of like getting a “tax return.”

This system never came close to failing me. The question for you is whether you can live off of 50% of your income throughout the year. If you can, then this system will work like a charm.

Q13: Lottery tickets

Over the last several years, my mother has slowly been overcome with a form of dementia and recently we had to move her into a care facility. I recently discovered she had been buying about $50 worth of lottery tickets per week and just putting them in this one drawer in our house. I don’t think she even checked the numbers on those tickets.

Do you have any suggestions as to what to do with them? I considered taking them to the gas station but I would be standing there for hours while they scanned all of them.
– Eric

Depending on the state you live in, the ones that are more than 1-3 years old are not going to be worth anything anyway, even if they did match.

In your situation, I would contact the state lottery headquarters and ask for some guidance as to what to do with all of them. They may have some method of helping you process them in this exceptional case. I have seen what looked to be portable lottery ticket scanners, so you may be able to meet a lottery representative somewhere who could handle the scanning for you.

You’ll want to do this quickly. Each day you sit on them, older tickets become invalid, which means you may be throwing away winnings.

Q14: Cheaper cast iron advice

You’ve recommended cast iron skillets and pots for the kitchen in the past but I have looked at Le Creuset and they were really crazy expensive. Do you have any good suggestions for cheaper cast iron?
– Tammy

Our Le Creuset items were either gifted to us or bought at “going out of business” sales, so we are lucky to have not paid much for the items we have. I agree that list prices on Le Creuset cast iron stuff is crazy expensive.

If you’re looking for a great long-lasting option that’s way cheaper, I highly recommend Lodge. They’re actually my preferred brand if money is a consideration at all. Both their ordinary cast iron stuff and their enameled cast iron stuff is good.

I’d recommend starting with this Lodge pre-seasoned 12″ skillet, and I’d also suggest getting the recommended silicone handle as it will make the skillet easier to deal with. Read the directions carefully in terms of how to use the cast iron skillet, as using it is far different.

In terms of daily use, we use our enameled cast iron Dutch ovens almost constantly – they’re the most-used items in our kitchen. The Lodge versions seem to be very similar to the ones we have and if they’re as good as the Lodge skillets, I highly recommend them.

Q15: Hand-washing versus dishwasher

Have you ever settled the debate of whether hand-washing or dishwashers are cheaper?
– Adam

Handwashing is far and away cheaper if you do it in a smart way using the two basin method. It’s a toss-up if you do handwashing the way most people do it. In either case, the time investment of handwashing a lot of dishes destroys any money you might save, because “far and away cheaper” means about fifty cents cheaper over a dishwasher-load sized pile of dishes.

The two-basin method means that you carefully scrape as much as you can from each dish before you start cleaning. You have a big pile of dirty dishes, one basin of your sink full of hot water with some soap for washing, another basin of cold water for thorough rinsing, then a drying rack. You simply scrub the dishes in the hot and soapy water, rinse them using the cold water, and then put them in the rack. You may choose to refill the cold water basin a time or two in this process.

In either case, you’ll use somewhere between two and four basins of water, only one of them hot, and a couple drops of dish soap. This is substantially cheaper than even the most efficient of dishwashers, which will eat up hot water and electricity throughout. It is not as water-efficient as a modern dishwasher, but the cost of cold water is pretty negligible. The cost comes from the energy used for heat in the dishwasher.

If you just keep hot water running throughout, hand-washing will likely wind up more expensive than running a dishwasher because of the cost to heat up all of that water, and it will be way more wasteful of the water.

Got any questions? The best way to ask is to email me – trent at thesimpledollar dot com. 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.