Questions About Podcasts, Crossfit, Games, Pets, 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. How to save my raise
2. Cheap starter pantry supplies
3. Handling inherited pets
4. Problems with “free to play”
5. Happiness and frugality
6. Religion and cost
7. Buying a home printer
8. Basics of income taxes
9. Crossfit thoughts
10. Feeling hopeless
11. Basics of listening to podcasts
12. Self-help seminars
13. Will old debts hurt?
14. Best way to destroy cards
15. Positive changes

One of the trickiest parts of writing personally-focused articles about money is deciding what exactly to share and what not to share.

If you’ve read The Simple Dollar over the last several years, it’s no surprise that I don’t mind sharing things about myself. It doesn’t really bother me.

The tricky part comes in when I’m choosing what elements of Sarah’s life to share, or what elements of my children’s life to share. They deserve their privacy.

It becomes difficult sometimes to decide what exactly to write about. Our family’s budget, for example, is very difficult to write about in concrete numbers because it quickly veers into what I find to be a violation of privacy.

I usually solve that by being vague about a number of specific things relating to them. On occasion, I will directly omit facts about some of my family members and friends because, frankly, The Simple Dollar is not about and will never be about violating their personal privacy. Sometimes, I am even vague about myself if it’s something that could affect their life in some real fashion.

It’s never perfect, but I choose to err on the side of privacy for them.

Q1: How to save my raise

I read a recent article on your site about how one should save their raises. How do you actually do that? I got a $1 per hour raise in November (doesn’t take effect until January 1) and I want to start saving it. Do I just go to the bank each paycheck and put some of it into savings?
– Murray

The first thing you should do is figure out how much your paychecks actually go up. Let’s say you were bringing home $400 a week in pay and, because of this raise, it’s now $425 a week. The difference between the two is $25.

Next, go down to the bank and see if they will do an automatic transfer from checking to savings for you. Most banks can set this up. Have them transfer $25 from your checking to your savings the day after you’re normally paid.

Once that’s set up, you never have to even think about it. That extra $25 just disappears into savings each week and will slowly build up over time.

I’m assuming here that you work a standard number of hours each week. If you do not, then it’s much harder to make this work.

Q2: Cheap starter pantry supplies

I just wanted to share with you a list of the stuff we have bought for each of our children to fill up their pantry and fridge when they moved out. You can get the stuff on this list for way under $100 and it will feed you for weeks! We buy most of this store brand to show them that generics are completely fine.

A big can of rolled oats
Two bundles of underripe bananas (so they’ll last for most of two weeks)
Two loaves of bread
A jar of peanut butter
A container of ketchup and one of mustard
Some sliced cheese
Several cans of tomato paste
A few dried spices like basil, thyme, and oregano
A few boxes of dried spaghetti
A few cans of beans (they won’t use dried ones because it requires too much advance planning)
Several bags of frozen vegetables that steam in the bag
Two dozen eggs

– Kelly

That is an excellent start to having a well-stocked refrigerator and pantry and, you’re right, it’s well under $100 if you shop at a discount grocer.

I can’t really think of too many specific items I’d add other than perhaps a box of Minute Rice and a preferred flavor of sauce for stir fry, which makes stir fry incredibly easy (just toss random vegetables into a skillet, cook until onions are translucent, add some sauce, serve over rice). You might also consider a big bag of egg noodles and some stock for a very easy basic soup.

This really is a great kitchen starter list, though.

Q3: Handling inherited pets

I am an only child, age 57. My father recently went into a retirement home where he could not take his dog. He has had the dog for eight years and wanted me to take the dog. I do not want a dog in any way. They are expensive and smelly. What can I do?
– Rhonda

I think the advice given in this article about unwanted pets should strongly be considered.

However, there is also the issue of your father. Does he want to see this dog when he visits you? What value does that have?

If you decide to place the dog elsewhere, be sure to talk that over with your father. It is likely that he has a strong connection to that dog and simply “getting rid of it” is likely to make him pretty upset, even if he doesn’t reveal that to you.

Q4: Problems with “free to play”

In order to save money, I stopped throwing my money into Steam sales and started playing “free to play” games like League of Legends and Marvel Puzzle Quest. The problem is that they end up more expensive than the paid games if you want to be competitive. Everything good either takes forever like hundreds of hours or else requires you to spend money so how does this save money again?
– Dan

As someone who managed to unlock most of the characters on League of Legends without paying a dime, my suggestion is patience. What I did was focus on two or three characters that I already had unlocked and sought to master those characters so that I would know how to handle all situations with those characters. (They were Ashe, Karthus, and Sona, for those who play.)

My suggest is to focus on the joy of playing and maximizing your skill with the parts of the game you’ve unlocked. Most such games do allow you to unlock more and more of the game over time. Paying for characters and other features is mostly due to a lack of patience.

To me, if a game isn’t good enough that I can’t enjoy it without paying to unlock features, then it’s not a good enough game to hold my interest over the long term, so that’s a sign that I need to drop it and find something else to play. It’s not like the universe is lacking in “free-to-play” games right now.

Q5: Happiness and frugality

I think the big part of the equation that is left out with being cheap is happiness. I have a motorcycle in my garage that’s worth about $15K now. I have been paying it off for the last three years. I don’t ride it except on the weekends but it is an experience I look forward to all week long. It is really dumb financially but it makes me feel really happy so it is worth it to me. A cheapskate would just yell about how it’s not worth it.
– Jerry

You’re mixing up the idea of frugality and cheapness, I think.

A cheap person cuts every pleasure from his or her life in order to maximize every cent. A frugal person cuts back on the less important areas of his or her life in order to sustain the areas that are meaningful while still balancing the books financially and putting aside money for the future.

In short, a frugal person wouldn’t cut out a motorcycle that you ride every weekend and get that much enjoyment out of. Instead, a frugal person would say, “Are you saving for the future, too?” and, if not, would find ways to squeeze other areas of life to maximize saving for the future.

A frugal person would buy generics at the store to be able to keep the motorcycle. A cheap person would sell the motorcycle and buy generics in order to push that savings account a bit higher.

Q6: Religion and cost

My church requires me to tithe 10% of my income each year. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because it is really keeping me from achieving my financial goals.

I decided to approach it in a “Simple Dollar” way and figure out what I was getting for that money, so I made a list of all of the benefits of my church. Other than the things that are intangible like the value of the service, it’s not worth anything near that 10%. I do get value from community dinners and social events and if I had kids the child care would be invaluable.

It’s leaving me feeling like the church is ripping me off and creating negative feelings. How do you handle these feelings with your own church?
– Ron

I think that not only are you having a hard time putting a value on the intangibles that a church provides, but you’re probably overlooking the services that the church provides for others.

For example, in my local community, a church runs both a clothing pantry and a food pantry. These aren’t services that I use, but they are services that make the community as a whole much better. I put a value on those things.

In the end, though, no one can make you feel the value of those intangible things except yourself. The perception of value has to come from within.

Q7: Buying a home printer

Do you have any suggestions or recommendations for buying a home printer? We mostly use it to print photos and the occasional document.
– Angela

I’d follow the recommendations from the most recent Consumer Reports roundup on home printers from their December 2014 issue, which you can find here.

They recommend the Canon Pixma MX472 as a low-end all-in-one printer, which I think is what you’d want for low-intensity home use. We have an earlier version of the Pixma, the MX480, and we love the thing. It prints photos really well.

I would love to someday have a higher-end printer. There are a few printing projects I’d love to take on, but it would take a long time using my current printer and it would probably involve switching cartridges in the middle of the job (the cartridges are pretty small).

Q8: Basics of income taxes

Can you explain to me as simple as possible how income taxes work? I received some tax forms in the mail. This is my first year working and I have never done this.
– Marcus

In order to pay their bills, each year the federal government requires all income-earning citizens to pay a portion of their income to the government. This pays for all kinds of things – roads, bridges, the military, schools, and so on.

For most people who are employed, this is done by having the employer take out a portion of that employee’s paycheck each week and send it to the IRS for them.

At the end of each year – usually, in the early part of the following year – each income-earning citizen is required to fill out a few forms that tell the government how much they earned. (Usually, they already know thanks to your employer, but you still have to file these papers.) Most of the time, your employer has taken out more than enough and you receive a small refund. Sometimes, they don’t take out quite enough and you have a small bill.

Assuming your income is low, the easiest method for you is to use the free file options from the IRS. These are software packages that will help you file your taxes for free if you make below $60,000 and you have no additional complications (like child care and so on). This is probably how you should file.

If you’re still nervous, consider using a tax preparer who will handle all of this for you for a fee.

Q9: Crossfit thoughts

Do you have any thoughts on Crossfit? A friend of mine is paying for three months of Crossfit for me and it seems pretty good. I am trying to decide if continuing it is worth the price or not.
– Anderson

My feeling is that if there’s a program out there that can get you motivated and moving and exercising and keep you doing it, then it’s probably worthwhile. Some people are self-motivated enough that they don’t need an organized exercise system; most of us aren’t that lucky.

So, at the end of three months, I’d ask yourself if you’re really enjoying Crossfit, you’re keeping up with it, and you want to continue with it. If you do, it’s probably worth the cost to continue. If you’re feeling some resistance, it’s probably not worthwhile.

I don’t have any strong positive or negative feelings about Crossfit other than, like many other fitness programs, it just clicks well with some people.

Q10: Feeling hopeless

I am 26 years old. My husband is 28. We have a 6 year old daughter, a 4 year old son, and a 11 month old son.

In June 2012, we bought a house as our apartment was too crowded with the four of us. We bought a fairly small house and with interest rates being cheap we thought our monthly bills would go down a bit, but we didn’t really think about insurance or property taxes so it ended up being more expensive.

In July 2014, my husband’s company folded. They went into work one day and everyone was given a letter and no severance pay. They cleaned out their desks and went home.

Since then he has been looking for work and the unemployment benefits are not enough to cover our expenses. We have been living off of credit cards for the last few months just using them to buy groceries and basic stuff and then making minimum payments with his unemployment money and paying the necessary bills.

The longer this goes on, the bigger our hole is and the more hopeless I feel. Even if he gets a job we’re going to be digging out of this mess for years. I feel like it doesn’t even matter what we do any more.
– Lindsay

Honestly, you’re in a situation where you should be considering some aid from the state or from local charities. You can start by heading over to Benefits.gov. That site will spell everything out for you. You may also want to consider using local food pantries as well.

It is not hopeless. The key thing is that your husband needs to find work by the end of his unemployment benefits, even if the work isn’t necessarily in his field. He may want to start broadening his employment horizons. Many people who remain unemployed refuse to look outside of their field or ignore certain opportunities for various reasons. You can’t afford to do that.

This situation is not hopeless, but you need to start looking at very different approaches to how you finance your day-to-day life. The biggest step you can take right now is checking out that federal benefits website. Remember, these programs are designed for people in your situation and they’re not a permanent thing, either. They’re there to help you get through these kinds of challenges.

Q11: Basics of listening to podcasts

How does someone get started listening to podcasts? You have mentioned them many times and I would like to try them out. All I have found is going to the podcast website and listening to them right from the site which seems messy if you listen to more than one or two.
– Jill

In all honesty, the easiest way I’ve ever found to listen to podcasts is by using iTunes.

It’s really simple. Just download it and use the help files to figure out how to subscribe to a podcast. iTunes has an enormous directory of podcasts to check out.

I use iTunes for listening to podcasts almost every day, mostly ones attuned to my personal interests like board games, productivity, writing, and programming. Browse through the directory and find ones that match your own interests. There are many out there on virtually every topic you can imagine.

Q12: Self-help seminars

What do you think of self-help seminars? My employer had a weekend self-help seminar where they brought in this guy who was all about self-motivation. I found it really good except that it seemed like he was constantly trying to get us to buy additional sessions with him to the point that it disrupted what he was talking about a lot of the time. I admit that I am tempted to buy another session as I felt really good afterwards.
– Dana

I think the content of self-help seminars can be useful to many people in order to help them feel more positive about their lives and push them in new directions.

At the same time, I think most self-help seminars are deeply tied into salesmanship. The people who run them want to sell more and more products to make more money for themselves.

I think there are other ways to get in touch with the materials presented in most self-help seminars without shelling out a lot of cash, whether it’s through books, audiobooks, videos on Youtube, and so on.

Q13: Will old debts hurt?

When I was in college in 2002-2003, I signed up for two different credit cards and used them heavily. I moved around a ton at that time and I failed to keep up with my address changes with those companies and I stopped hearing from them and basically forgot about them for years. I came across some of the old statements and my old cards in a box last year. I checked my credit report and there is no mention of them and they have never contacted me in like a decade. The smart move here is probably to just forget about them, but it still feels dishonest to me. I did spend $2,000 or $3,000 on these cards without repaying them.
– Amy

This debt is gone. It’s far past the seven year limit that would cause it to show up on your credit report. The only way it will ever show up again is if you dig it up and choose to try to repay it, in which case it will appear again and damage your score.

It’s likely your debt was sold off to a debt collector long ago and that debt collector has since given up on finding you, too. The original company may or may not even have a record of you at this point, especially if there have been mergers and acquisitions during that decade-plus period.

Honestly, at this point, I’d just let it be and move forward with full honesty from here.

Q14: Best way to destroy cards

What is the best way to destroy an old credit card? Is cutting it up enough? Should I melt it?
– Trevor

The best way is to melt it, but that’s sometimes not the easiest thing to do. I typically throw old cards into campfires, to tell the truth.

If burning a card isn’t an option that’s available to you, my suggestion is to find the strongest magnet you can find and run it repeatedly over the magnetic strip on your card. After that, cut the card into horizontal strips, including several thin strips through your name, your card number, and the signature strip on the back. Take all of the thin strips and cut them into tiny little bits. Throw all of this away into separate bins, a bit in one bin, a bit into another bin, and so on. It’s practically impossible for someone to recover this – I don’t even know how someone would start and a thief would just move on to lower-hanging fruit.

I’d use one of the two above approaches myself.

Q15: Positive changes

I wanted to write in and share with you (and maybe your readers) how we turned our financial situation around. We graduated from college in 2006 with $140,000 in combined student loans and $23,000 in credit card debt and we would have had a car loan too if we hadn’t been gifted a car by his aunt. Today, right now, we are debt free. We have never made more than $65,000 combined in a year, either, so it’s not because we make a lot of money.

How did we do it? We lived in a little apartment from 2006 to 2013 over a hardware store where we worked 15 hours a week (combined) to cover the rent. We would cover weekend hours, mostly, but would sometimes work during the day. We ate almost always at home and made lots of spaghetti and homemade bread. We had a vegetable garden in a few boxes on the roof of the hardware store. We spent most of our free time going to a store about two blocks away that had some board gaming and roleplaying groups, which we became heavily involved in and eventually ran. The store owner gave us keys to the store so we could lock it after the game nights and gave us some store credit to get items for our games because we managed to build up some customers for the store. That and watching antenna TV (we had a little digital antenna up on the roof) and renting DVDs from the library and the Redbox down the street and checking out books from the library is how we entertained ourselves.

Basically, we kept our expenses really low and threw everything into debt. We didn’t really need much stuff to be happy because we always had stuff to do. When we weren’t working at our real jobs or in the hardware store we were either working in our roof garden or going to a game night or reading or watching a movie together or going on a walk or a jog.

The big thing here is that you don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy and you can find a lot of savings by just getting to know people and getting involved. Don’t sit at home or entertain yourself by going shopping.

Today we are debt free and saving for a house. We don’t plan to have kids, but we might someday as we are only in our late twenties. We are very happy with our lives so far and it’s only getting better from here!
– Sarah

This is a great attitude to have. The only drawback for many people is that this requires a strong sense of who you are, what you actually enjoy, and what you want out of life.

More and more, I’m finding that a key ingredient of frugality is a sense of self, that you don’t have to be defined by the stuff you own or the places you travel. You enjoy what you enjoy, you value what you value, and other people can either accept that or move on. People who tend to focus their spending on pleasing others – as I once did – will often find themselves running into debt.

As I tell my children, “Everyone is weird. Everyone has things that they like that others do not, and that’s fine. You don’t have to not be weird to make others happy, and you definitely shouldn’t waste energy making fun of the weird things that other people like, especially when it doesn’t hurt anyone. Focus on what makes you happy, especially when you’re all alone. That will bring you happiness, no matter what the people around you say or do.”

Looks like you found it.

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.

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