Questions About Potluck Dinners, Roth 401(k)s, Toothbrushes, Having Three Kids, 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. Roth 401(k)?
2. Wedding ring help
3. From two to three kids
4. Electric toothbrush recommendation
5. Bad habits
6. Potluck ideas
7. Knowing when to retire
8. Vegetarianism and The Simple Dollar
9. “Password system”?
10. Three core tips
11. No faith in stock market
12. Board games? Really?

One of the things I really like about doing “30-day challenges” is that it’s often long enough to show me whether or not some particular routine is actually going to click with me and show significant dividends in my life or not. Doing something for seven days or something usually isn’t long enough, and there are a lot of good things in my life I would have dropped with only a seven-day trial.

One thing I do virtually every single day is spend about 15 minutes meditating. I pick something very simple – often my breathing – and just focus in on that. Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out – I just focus on breathing and how it feels. On occasion, I might focus on a word or on some other part of my body.

I first starting doing this as a “30-day challenge” and for the first 20 days or so, I felt like it was a total waste of time. I couldn’t feel anything different at all.

On about day 21 or so, I started to notice that I was having a pretty good run with my writing. I was staying focused on my writing better than I had recently and the only thing I could really attribute to it was the meditation, but I still wasn’t sold.

On about day 24, though, I was going through my meditation routine like normal and suddenly… I can’t quite describe it, but it was like something clicked in my head. I felt tremendously calm, probably more calm than I had felt in months and years, and when I started working, I had a tremendously productive day.

I’ve had a few sessions like that since then, but they’re fairly rare. What I have noticed, though, is that if I’m riding a long chain of days where I meditate, it’s much easier to focus on a normal day and normal days are more productive, and it’s also much more likely that one of those “super days” will pop up. When I stop a daily meditation routine, I “coast” for a few days, but then my focus slowly gets worse and worse again.

It genuinely feels like “mental fitness,” just like “physical fitness.” If I exercise every day, I get stronger and normal activities feel easier. If I stop exercising, the benefits of my exercise routine persist for a little while and then fade.

The point is, I would have never figured this out for myself without doing a “30-day challenge.” I highly recommend them. Just pick some new life routine you’ve always wanted to try out and focus on doing it for the next thirty days, just to see how it goes. Give it the full 30 days, even if you’re not getting the kinds of results you expect after several days. Sometimes, benefits don’t show up until you’ve been doing it for a while.

Today’s the first day of the month. Start yourself a new routine!

Q1: Roth 401(k)?

My company is introducing a Roth 401(k) plan and I don’t understand it and the guy explaining it did a terrible job. Should I be contributing to this new plan? They’re leaving the old plan in place and people can just choose which one they want.
– Brian

A Roth 401(k) is just like a normal 401(k) in most ways. They take money out of your paycheck and put it aside for you for retirement.

The difference is in the taxes. With a normal 401(k), the money is taken out of your paycheck before income taxes are calculated, so contributions lower your taxes this year. However, when you withdraw money from a normal 401(k) in retirement, you have to pay income taxes on your withdrawal then.

With a Roth 401(k), just the opposite happens. The money is taken out of your paycheck after income taxes are calculated, so your contributions don’t have any affect on this year’s taxes. However, when you withdraw money from a Roth 401(k) in retirement, you won’t owe any taxes on those withdrawals.

Which is better? It’s really hard to say. In general, if you’re in a lower tax bracket (32% or lower), a Roth 401(k) is probably a better option, but if you’re in a higher tax bracket today (anything higher than 32%), a traditional is a better option. In other words, if you’re making $200,000 a year or less, use the Roth; if you’re making more, use the traditional. That’s what I would do, anyway.

Q2: Wedding ring help

I’m getting married next May to an electrician who does not want a wedding ring because he’s afraid that he will forget to take it off and get seriously shocked or hurt. His married coworkers just say to get into the habit of taking it off before work but he’s worried about it and doesn’t want one. You always have smart ideas for stuff like this. Thoughts?
– Emily

Interesting question! I have a bunch of ideas.

One option would be to just get a tattooed band on his ring finger – a permanent “wedding ring,” if you will. That shouldn’t get shocked.

Another idea is to have a silicone ring made. While it wouldn’t last forever, it would last for a long time.

You may want to consider not having a ring at all, though you may wish to have a small item to exchange at the ceremony. Consider the items he carries every single day and consider a personalized item that goes well with that. A watch? A pocketknife? A keychain tag? All of those might work.

If it were me, I’d either simply vote for no item at all or for the everyday carry item, something like a pocketknife or a watch or something to that effect, as long as it was something practical that I’d actually want to carry every day.

Q3: From two to three kids

I found your blog after realizing that maybe I want a third child. We have two kids now (4 and 1), and even though I had always planned on two, I have to admit that I have an itch for a third (despite all reason and logic). One barrier is money, and I don’t want that to be the main factor in the decision, so I’m trying to increase our savings to see if we can handle another 4 years of daycare payments as well as other additional costs. There are of course other factors as well to consider like time (another valuable resource). As a father of three, would you care to write an article about your experience. I know that everyone\’s situation is unique, and getting advice from strangers on the internet can only get you so far, but I am just curious what your take on the 2-3 jump is (especially as your kids are older, you’ve lived through many stages and phases).
– Kathy

The leap from two to three is easier than the leap from one to two, and the leap from one to two is easier than the leap from zero to one. Why? At each leap, you’re drawing on a lot of the skills you learned from previous children to be much more efficient at parenting tasks.

What you’ll find is that most of the multi-child tactics you develop with two children continue to work almost identically with three kids. You’re not really adding any new routines, just a bit more effort to the ones you already have.

What becomes more difficult is one-on-one time, but even that has a perk. I often find that if I’m doing something one-on-one with one of my children, like helping with homework or playing a game or something, the other two tend to play together. I am lucky in that my children get along with each other pretty well – there are definitely sibling squabbles, but they’re much more likely to play together than fight.

I think that any subsequent children beyond two would mostly rely upon well-worn routines and would involve fewer life changes than the first or second child.

Q4: Electric toothbrush recommendation

Go in for dental checkup every six months. I brush every day but dentist says that I don’t brush deep enough and suggests electric toothbrush. Recommendations? Bang for the buck and lasts a long time.
– Ben

The general consensus, from the reviews I’ve read in places like Consumer Reports and Wirecutter, is that the best “bang for the buck” electric toothbrush for cleaning, for lasting a long time, and for having cheap replacement heads is the Oral B Pro 1000. That seems to be a consensus pick as the best “bang for the buck” electric toothbrush.

I personally use an older model Philips Sonicare 2 that I received as a gift a few years ago (my family and friends are pretty practical in their gift giving). This is the current version of that brush, as mine is discontinued. I use generic replacement heads made by Sonimart which work just fine; here are the replacement heads for this particular model.

I really like my toothbrush. It charges wirelessly, as you just sit it on a charging base when you’re not using it. When you’re brushing with it, the bristles rotate quickly, and then the brush vibrates every 30 seconds and turns off at the 2 minute mark to indicate that you’re done brushing. My mouth feels super clean after using it.

Q5: Bad habits

In Australia at present, a lot of our “poor” are using their income on Poker machines, alcohol, drugs, and such “habits”, for which they appear to take no blame. Have you, in earlier editions, dealt with this topic of habits?
– Bill

This is definitely a topic discussed in the past on The Simple Dollar, but I’m hesitant to dive into the issues surrounding many specific vices.

The reason is that most vices fall into the realm of addiction, and addiction is a serious problem that’s far beyond the scope of a personal finance site. Many people in the throes of addictions outwardly appear to blame everyone but themselves for the chaos caused by their addictions.

America has similar problems to the ones you note. Few can deny that there is a serious opiate addiction issue in America today, and there are problems with other drugs and vices as well.

Helping people overcome their harmful addictions is simply not something I’m going to delve into, because it’s not something I’m an expert on. I’m pretty knowledgable, through self-experience and literature, on strategies for breaking non-addictive or only lightly addictive routines and adopting better habits, but gambling addictions and drug addictions go far beyond this.

Q6: Potluck ideas

What do you take to potlucks? I’m usually strapped for ideas so I end up buying something at the store on the way like everyone else does and end up spending $15 to $20 which is ridiculous and makes it way more expensive than just eating by myself. Trying to figure out how this is frugal.
– Bonnie

I almost always make something, and I figure out what to make by asking the host. What I typically do is suggest some things that I might make that I know I have the stuff for. “Would you like me to bring bread? Would you like me to bring breadsticks? Would you like me to bring a dessert?” Things like that. I usually also ask what the main course is so that I don’t bring something that’s a complete clash.

I find that we almost always end up bringing those two things I mentioned – some sort of bread item or some sort of dessert. I usually handle making bread or breadsticks; Sarah is much better at desserts (because every dessert I make ends up tasting like peanut butter because my daughter and I both really like peanut butter).

Just ask the host in advance what they need and what the main course is, or maybe toss in a few suggestions of what you’re easily prepared to make. That’s really all you need to do.

Q7: Knowing when to retire

I’m 61 years old and my wife is 59. I am trying to figure out when I should retire. I started contributing to 401(k) at my old company in 1990 and then switched in 1996 and kept contributing there and now my balance across all accounts is $720K. I have moved it into safer investments mostly bonds because I am worried about future stock market dips. I have read that a good number to use for withdrawals is 3% a year and if you do that it should last forever so that would be $21600 a year and then I would also get my Social Security and my wife would get her Social Security which adds up to a pretty solid amount. If I keep working that number goes up because I have more in retirement and our SS benefits are more when we are older. How does one decide the right time to retire?
– Jeffrey

There is no exact science to it. It depends on when you have enough stowed away so that you can withdraw it at a safe rate and cover your living expenses (don’t forget Medicare if needed), when your Social Security is going to kick in, and how you feel about continuing to work versus retiring. Some people really love working, even if they don’t necessarily adore their particular job, and they want to stay in the workforce.

My suggestion to you is to sit down and evaluate your life a little. Are you happy with your job? Are you happy with the routine of working in general and the social interaction and purpose it provides? If you did retire, will the $22K plus Social Security you mention be enough? What will you do if you retire? What do these pictures look like if I retire at 62? 66? 70?

Those questions should start helping you figure out when you should retire.

Q8: Vegetarianism and The Simple Dollar

I don’t understand how you can say you’re a vegetarian and then recommend that your readers eat meat. You are such a hypocrite!
– Abigail

My choice to be vegetarian is a personal health-related matter. The purpose of The Simple Dollar isn’t to press a particular diet or ethos on anyone; rather, it’s meant as a resource for everyone as to how to improve their finances.

Whole chickens, for example, are a pretty inexpensive way to get quite a bit of protein in your diet. Although my personal choice is to not eat chicken, I can’t deny the fact that chicken is pretty cost-efficient, and choosing to not offer that as advice to readers would result in me giving out suboptimal financial information for personal reasons.

The readers of The Simple Dollar, by and large, are mature enough to read through the advice given and decide for themselves what applies to them and what does not. If a vegetarian reads this site, I’m pretty sure they can skip over an offhand mention of chicken as an inexpensive food purchase and find a lot of value in the many other vegetarian-friendly food options I do recommend as a good “bang for the buck” – rice, beans, on-sale produce, peanut butter, and so on.

Q9: “Password system”?

In a previous reader mailbag you mentioned coming up with your own “password system” so you could have a unique password for each website but only have to remember one thing. Could you explain how that works?
– Delia

I couldn’t find what mailbag Delia was referring to, but this is a system that I use, so I must have mentioned it somewhere!

The idea is that you choose a short number (like someone’s birthdate) and a short word (like your initials) and mix them together.

So, let’s say you’re Delia Anne Smith and you were born on August 9, 1988. You might have a phrase like DAS8988. Make sense? You might want to have a different pattern, like your son’s initials and your spouse’s birthdate. Just make it something you won’t forget. You might also want to put a special character in the middle to divide the two, like DAS!8988 so that passwords that require a special character work.

Then, you take that phrase and add in the first and last letter of the website you’re using. I like putting it before and after the special character in the middle. So, for example, if your password is DAS!8988 and you want to use it at Amazon, try DASa!n8988. If you want to use it at Apple, try DASa!e8988. If you want to use it at Facebook, you’d use DASf!k8988. You get the idea.

Just come up with some “recipe” like that for yourself that you’ll always remember. Include some part of the site name in the recipe so the password is unique – try something like the first and last letter or the second and third letter.

It’s not perfect, but, honestly, nothing online is in terms of security. You’re just trying to do enough to make it so that you’re not “low hanging fruit.”

Q10: Three core tips

I started reading through the archives but it is just overwhelming. It would be useful if you could summarize your advice in a single article with links back for more information.
– Anna

That’s a tall order, but I can give you the three pieces of financial advice I consider most important to my financial turnaround and our progress toward complete financial independence.

First, look at every purchase through at least a one year lens. In other words, ask yourself how you’ll feel about this purchase one year from now or five years from now or ten. Will you be glad you spent your money in this way? Or will your future self want to give you a dressing down? If your future self would be disgusted, don’t do it.

Second, stop worrying about what other people think. People will either like you for who you are or they won’t. How you spend your money isn’t going to affect that and the things you own probably aren’t going to affect that. The only possible exception to this is when you’re in careers where you really have to “glamor” people, like sales, in which case investing in nice clothes is probably worthwhile.

Third, if you’re not saving for big expenses that you know are coming up, you’re making a big mistake. You’re going to have to replace your car. You’re going to retire. You know these things are coming. Save for them now so that when they do come around, you’re not in panic mode. If you use the first strategy, this one should be much easier.

Q11: No faith in stock market

The part of retirement planning I struggle with is putting money in the stock market. I just don’t trust it. My great grandfather lost everything in the stock market, and my parents lost a lot of their retirement in the stock market. I don’t want to save and save and just watch it vanish because some rich guys decided to sell stock today.
– Marcus

For starters, you should go chat with your parents about how much they actually lost in the stock market. Let’s say they had $10,000 in the stock market at the start of 2008 (and by “in the stock market,” I mean in the S&P 500). Sure, at the end of 2008, their investment was only worth $6277.96 (by my back-of-the-envelope math), but today, that investment, if it was completely left alone, is worth $21,135.72 (as of this writing). That’s right, it doubled over the last decade, even including the disaster of 2008.

That’s because stocks are a long term investment, not a short term one. Over the long term, companies are going to innovate new products, they’re going to become more efficient, and they’re going to capitalize on new ideas. That’s really what you’re betting on with a broad investment in the long term stock market – you’re betting that companies will continue to do what they’ve always done, which is come up with new products and continually more clever ideas to make money.

If you look at stocks through a short term lens, it looks like gambling, because you might be buying in at a moment where people take a break from buying and that’s pretty rough. That’s where your two stories come from – I’m guessing you’re referring to 1929 and 2008. Rather than looking at single years, step back and look at what has happened over 10 year periods or 20 year periods or thirty year periods.

An economic downturn is cyclical – it will rebound. If you truly believe that it will never go back up, then you believe that people are no longer innovating or developing new products anywhere in the world, and if that’s happening, then something profoundly bad has happened to the human race, much worse than the consequence of losing some money in the stock market.

Q12: Board games? Really?

I don’t get the whole board game thing, so I just use it as a metaphor for my own expensive hobby, woodworking. When you mention board games, I think “woodworking stuff.”
– James

And that’s exactly how you should think of it!

I love playing board games, ideally big complicated ones that take a few hours to play (but I’ll happily play just about anything). I like how it simultaneously facilitates certain types of thinking – strategic, tactical, and creative – while also virtually requiring social interaction.

But it’s not for everyone. It’s just my hobby.

Please, when you read articles where I talk about my board gaming hobby, think about your own interests. Maybe it’s woodworking, like James. Maybe it’s knitting and the yarn you buy for it. Maybe

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.