Questions About Penny Stocks, College Planners, Mattresses, 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. Mother using my credit card
2. College planner a worthwhile investment?
3. 401(k) contribution question
4. Quietly seeking a new job
5. Who buys penny stocks?
6. Spend money too easily
7. Mail order mattress advice
8. New city, huge raise
9. IKEA actually a bargain?
10. Uses for Amazon Echo
11. Finding time to read
12. Good national parks to visit

There are days when I see a picture of my children when they were much younger and I think, “Man, those were some wonderful days.” They’re older now and they simply don’t do a lot of the things that they used to do.

Then, I’ll see them saying a kind word to one of their friends or bringing up a very good point in a dinner table conversation or puzzling through their homework or helping someone out on the street and I think to myself that I wouldn’t trade the people they are now for anything, nor would I trade the people they’re coming for anything.

They’re not perfect. No one is. They make mistakes. Everyone does. But I wouldn’t trade the whole messy process for anything else.

Q1: Mother using my credit card

After my dad died my mother didn’t have much money so I added her as an authorized user on my credit card. Lately there have been regular Amazon purchases showing up on the card and I suspect that my mother is making the purchases. I’m not sure how to handle this.
– Naomi

The thing to remember here is that there could be an identity theft issue going on. Your mother might not be using the card for Amazon purchases; it might be someone else entirely who has access to that card or to that account.

If I were you, I’d call up your credit card company and see if they can distinguish between your personal usage and the usage of the authorized user (your mother). Some banks issue credit cards with unique numbers to each authorized user, some do it upon request, while others don’t do it at all. See if you can figure out which card is causing those online purchases.

If you can’t clearly identify this, I would talk to your mother about the issue from an identity theft perspective. Tell her that you are going to be closing the card soon because the identity has been stolen and has been used to make a number of Amazon purchases. She may confess if it’s her or she may not (maybe it’s her and maybe it isn’t). In either case, consider reporting the card as lost and getting a new card number. You may not want to give a new authorized card to your mother after this change, however.

Q2: College planner a worthwhile investment?

I’m wondering what your thoughts are on hiring a college planner for the inundating college process. My daughter is a senior in high school, she a solid B student with a 3.4 gpa, plays soccer, is actively involved in the church and youth groups. The fasfa, profiler, scholarships and entire college process is overwhelming. The planner we met offers to see the process of everything from start to finish for a fee of $3,000. It would also include my 2 younger daughters. Do you think this is an investment? Or a little too much to ask for?
– Diana

That’s a pretty stiff fee. It might be worth it depending on how robust this person’s efforts are, which is hard to tell. Do they have any references?

If I were in your situation, I would only consider this if your child were an only child. If you have multiple children, you’re going to have to go through this process multiple times and it’ll get substantially easier each time. Treat the first time through as a tough learning experience and subsequent times will be much easier.

I don’t think personally I would spend $3,000 on this type of service, even if I were maneuvering an only child through it. I absolutely wouldn’t spend $9,000 to maneuver our three children through it.

If I were you, I’d lean toward saving that $3,000 and instead applying it to the first semester of tuition or to things like textbooks.

Q3: 401(k) contribution question

What happens if you contribute too much to your 401(k)? It appears that the annual contribution that an individual can make under normal circumstances is $18,500 but what happens if you contribute more than that?
– Jeremy

Normally, your 401(k) plan should stop accepting contributions when you hit the annual cap. This should be an automated thing. The only way this should happen is if you switch jobs and fail to notify the new plan administrator of your contributions earlier in the year.

If you do realize that you were able to somehow overcontribute, you should contact your plan administrator immediately. They will refund the excess contributions as well as any earnings on those contributions. You’ll be liable for the taxes on those excess contributions and earnings, of course.

If this discovery happens after you’ve filed taxes for that year, you may be in a bit of a difficult situation. I’d contact a tax professional at that point to help you navigate the paperwork spaghetti that’s going to follow.

Q4: Quietly seeking a new job

I work in an area where there are several businesses in the same field. I want to find a new job due to an uncomfortable relationship with a coworker who wants to start a physical relationship and I do not. I discussed it with my boss who basically acted like it wasn’t his problem and I should be glad to be getting action which made me want to get out of here. Anyway, how does one go about quietly seeking a new job in the same field without your current employers knowing about it?
– Darren

The best way to do this is to do it via trusted friends. Do you have close friends who work at other businesses in your field in the area? Start with them. Put out gentle feelers through them to find out if there are any positions available.

Another approach is to update your resume and put it out there for people to see. Make sure it’s “100% buzzword compliant,” meaning that any and every keyword that an employer might be looking for that applies to you shows up in your resume. You might want to look at job listings for jobs in your field to make sure you’re covering the bases. If you’re in an in-demand field, you may just find headhunters knocking at your door pretty immediately.

If you really want out of your current job, don’t worry about it. Just get out there and apply. My suggestion would be to apply to a bunch of places all at once so that you have good odds of finding a new position.

A final tip: the issue going on in your workplace isn’t right. You should strongly consider discussing the matter with someone further up the food chain than your immediate boss.

Q5: Who buys penny stocks?

None of the brokers you identify will take a penny stock for sale. Do you know of any that actually will?
– Alex

Many brokers will allow you to sell a penny stock, so I’m not sure what you’re referring to. It may be that you can’t find a broker that participates in a stock exchange where a particular penny stock is allowed to be listed. Many stock exchanges require that a company meet certain criteria to be listed there and if the company can’t meet the criteria, that stock exchange won’t list the stock.

I know for a fact, for example, that Scottrade allows penny stock trading.

Just to clarify, a “penny stock” is any stock with a valuation below $1 per share. Some brokerages are a little wary of shares with such a low valuation because they’re often used in market manipulation and “pump and dump” schemes.

Q6: Spend money too easily

I’m 29, my wife is 26. We make more money than either of our parents ever have. We’re trying to get our student loans paid off and build up a down payment for a house. The problem we have is that whenever there is money in checking we tend to spend it. We avoid credit cards but whenever we see money in our checking and know there aren’t any bills due we always find things to spend it on.
– Nolan

One strategy to help fix this problem is to use a “waterfall” scheme. Rather than having your pay direct deposited into your primary checking account, have it deposited into an online bank. Then, set up an automatic transfer so that only a portion of that pay is transferred into your normal bank.

So, for example, let’s say you get paid on the 15th and 30th of every month and you take home $1,000 each time. Rather than having it put directly into your checking, you have this amount put into an online bank – say, Capital One 360. Then, on the 4th and 20th of each month, you have an automatic transfer of $800 from your online bank to your main bank.

Every once in a while, you log onto the online bank and use the built-up balance in there for a big financial move, like a big extra student loan payment or even a down payment on your home (if you give it several years).

Q7: Mail order mattress advice

What are your thoughts on mail order mattresses like Casper and Purple? Are they any good or just hype?
– Daniel

I’m just going to flat out say it: it is really hard to give an objective review of a mattress because the same mattress might be splendid for one person and awful for another. It depends on the person’s body shape, how they sleep, and many other factors.

All I can say is that, in my experience, the Purple mattress is really good for back or stomach sleepers and not so good for side sleepers. The more your weight is spread out on the bed, the better the Purple mattress is.

On the other hand, my experience with Casper mattresses is that they’re great for lighter people and get progressively worse depending on how heavy the sleeper is. If you have a normal or low BMI, a Casper mattress is probably pretty good for you.

Again, it really depends on your body shape and how you sleep. A mattress that works really well for one person might not work at all for a seemingly similar person.

Q8: New city, huge raise

I am 33 years old. I have lived in the same metro area (Cincinnati) for all of my life excepting my college years where I lived about 2.5 hours away. All of my family is here and all of my current friends are here. I got a good job after college but the company closed up shop about 18 months ago and I have been searching for new work ever since, at first around here but lately all over the country. I got an interview in SLC and they made an offer. I know no one in SLC. The job is incredible in terms of pay and benefits, far more than I have ever made but I will basically be starting over with my life without friends or family around for the first time ever or at least since college. Advice?
– Bill

What are your hobbies and interests? How do you like spending your free time? Whatever those activities are, are they available in Salt Lake City? Are there groups that engage in those activities so that you can jump start the process of finding friends?

I’d honestly start with looking at Meetup. Are there groups that match your interests? If you find a bunch, well, you have a social calendar for yourself already. Visit lots of those groups and see who and what you find.

Basically, the more fertile the possibilities seem for finding new friends and a life for yourself in Salt Lake City, the more I’d suggest moving. By default, I’d be in favor of it anyway, simply because a change in environment can often be a good thing for people.

Q9: IKEA actually a bargain?

Is stuff at IKEA actually a bargain? Seems to me like a lot of the stuff can be found elsewhere for less.
– Gerry

Some things at IKEA are nicely priced or are very good examples of a particular item for the price. I am a huge fan of their bookshelves, for example – for the price, they’re really good.

Other things are simply overpriced for what you get. For example, I can find perfectly good bed loft kits at places besides IKEA that are easy to assemble and look fine.

I don’t think IKEA is awful, nor do I think it’s the be-all-end-all of furniture stores. We have a few IKEA items in our home and many items that aren’t from IKEA.

I do like their AA batteries, though – they’re really good for the price.

Q10: Uses for Amazon Echo

I got an Amazon Echo as a birthday gift and my kids showed me some things to do with it but for me I don’t see the point. It just sits there plugged in and doesn’t do anything. The only thing I use it for is to play music sometimes and I’ll just say “Hey Alexa play Mariah Carey” and it will play some songs by her. Thinking of just giving it to one of the grandkids who always plays with it when he’s visiting.
– Mary

I also received an Echo as a gift (an Echo Spot) and I’ve found it pretty useful in two ways.

One, it’s a great alarm clock. If I want to set an alarm, I’ll just say, “Hey Alexa, set an alarm for 30 minutes from now” or “Hey Alexa, set an alarm for five thirty AM.”

Two, it’s really slick if you have smart devices in your home, like a Nest thermostat or Hue lights. You can say things like “Hey Alexa, turn the temperature down to 70 degrees” or “Hey Alexa, turn the bedroom lights to 50%.” You need secondary devices that your Echo can connect to in order to make this work, though.

The thing is, if you don’t have uses for those things – playing music (as you’re already doing), setting alarms, or controlling smart devices – the Echo really doesn’t do much.

Q11: Finding time to read

You’ve said before that you block off hour a day for reading. How do you find time for that with full time work and family?
– Keith

For starters, I basically don’t watch television. I don’t think I have sat down in front of a television with an intent to watch a program in more than two weeks. The average American watches five hours of television on an average day. I watch almost none.

One of the ways I use that time is reading. Since I’m almost never watching television, I just use some of that time for reading instead. (I also use it for things like playing board games or spending a lot of focused time with my kids – I make it a goal to have a daily meaningful conversation with each of them.)

If you want time for something, you have to give up time invested in something else. If you want to read more, spend less time in front of the television or on the internet.

Over time, my goal is to try to use my time each day as optimally as possible, but it’s a moving target. I just know that the closer I get to the target, the better.

Q12: Good national parks to visit

We live in Minnesota. Our oldest child is in 4th grade and we are thinking of following your advice and getting a “every kid in a park” national park pass and spending a couple of weeks next summer on a road trip. Do you have any recommendations for this? We have a tent and sleeping bags and camp a time or two in the summer up around Lake Superior.
– Ginny

Given your location, I’d strongly recommend hitting Badlands National Park in South Dakota, followed by Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park in western South Dakota, followed by a stop at Devil’s Tower in eastern Wyoming, then head westward across the Bighorn Mountains and then on to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park in western Wyoming. You can easily burn two weeks on this trip.

We’ve done this exact thing for a family vacation for our family and spent nine days on it and we could have easily spent several more days. There are camping opportunities all along the way, as well as little spots of civilization.

It was, in my opinion, the best family vacation we’ve ever taken, and you could easily do it in your car. With the park pass, none of those things will cost anything for a visit. Good luck!

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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