Questions on Golf, Price Books, Magazines, Cast Iron, 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. Tracking grocery expenses
2. Price book advice
3. Letting go of old business
4. Credit cards and international travel
5. Compromise and financial goals
6. Enameled cast iron advice
7. Job change advice
8. “Sharing economy” thoughts
9. Amazon Prime question
10. Salary advance question
11. Magazines worth keeping?
12. Earning money in an emergency
13. Use for phone books?
14. Too many goals and projects
15. Finding old golf balls

Once every year or so, I find myself taking a nap in the middle of the afternoon.

I don’t like naps. If I’m feeling worn out, I would far rather solve that problem by going to bed early that night. Sometimes, though, things don’t line up exactly the way I want them to. A child cries in the night or a huge storm blows through. I can’t get to sleep because of various thoughts running through my head. I stay up too late working on a project.

And then I just fall asleep on the couch in the middle of the afternoon.

I hate those days. When I finally do wake up, I feel incredibly groggy for the rest of the day, go to bed early anyway, and then wake up at 4 AM because I’ve already had tons of sleep in the last twenty four hours.

Guess what time it is as I’m working on this draft?

4:12 AM.

Darn naps.

Q1: Tracking grocery expenses

I know you’ve mentioned using Excel spreadsheets for tracking spending. Do you have a basic sample that you’re willing to share? Do you use one for groceries? I remember seeing a letter from someone who had saved every receipt for the past 18 months and they wanted to know if they should spend the time putting all of that information into a spreadsheet. You said, “No, only the past 6 months.” I found myself musing that I have that many months receipts as well, so could identify with the writer’s situation.
– Kelly

My homebrew spreadsheet for tracking expenses is really, really simple. I just have one column with the date, one column that describes the expense, another column for the category – food, entertainment, and so on – and another column for the total.

At the end of the month, I just use simple formulas to total up the expenses in each category. This great article explains exactly how I do that. Essentially, off to the right, I’ll have a cell that’s labeled Total Food Expenses and then the one next to it has a formula like =SUMIF(C:C,”food”,D:D) which just totals up all of the values in column D that line up with the word “food” in column C.

These days, however, I just use You Need a Budget for all of that stuff. It does all kinds of things like this much more efficiently than my homebrew kludges.

Q2: Price book advice

Since I shop at different stores, how would I track prices of one store vs. another for items? I’m thinking that this could get really cumbersome, very quickly.
– Kelly

I tried doing this once upon a time. It’s called a price book. You’re right – it gets cumbersome quickly.

Instead, what I did is figured out what my twenty or twenty-five most frequently purchased staples are – things like milk or bananas that I buy every time I go to the store (or close to it). I then went to several stores in the area and priced out those items, then I totaled the prices at each store to determine which one would be cheapest if I bought all of those items. That store became my primary store (it was actually Fareway).

Every year or so, I do this comparison again. In my area, Fareway usually wins because it fills my list; a few other stores can do many of the items cheaper (Aldi, for example), but they don’t seem to carry all of the items.

Because of this pricing, I prefer to shop at the nearby Fareway. If I’m near an Aldi (which is farther away), I’ll shop for some items there. This takes care of 95% of my grocery shopping.

Q3: Letting go of old business

Over the last decade, I built a small gardening and lawn care business from scratch. Eventually, I employed a few people and found that less and less of my time was being spent on the actual yard and garden work that I really loved, so I sold the business. I agreed not to start a competing business for a while.

My big problem is that I miss the work. I really love working in people’s yards and making them look great. Few things really make me feel happy like a well-maintained lawn. So I went back to the old business and asked for a job but he told me that he really didn’t have hours for me. I think the new owner was afraid of me effectively “running the show” or poaching clients (which is understandable).

I need to let go of the business and move on but I’m having a hard time with it. What do you suggest that I do?
– Andrew

I have this same problem. I loved many aspects of the job I had prior to moving to The Simple Dollar full time. Even now, I still check in on the websites and other things that are related to that old job, and I still miss many of the people and the technical problems that I dealt with there (the parts I didn’t like were the weekend interruptions and the travel and the bureaucracy).

For me, the thing that keeps me from obsessing over it is the realization that I made a tradeoff. I gave up some things that I cared about so that I could have some other things that I cared about. It wasn’t an easy or perfect decision, but it was one that I made and it was one that most certainly rewarded me with some things that I couldn’t have had if I had stuck with that job.

Focus on what you gained. You gained freedom from the management parts of the job that you didn’t like. You gained some financial security, I’m sure. You gained a chance to try new things in your life.

If you miss the yard work, focus on your own yard. Make it look amazing. If you reach the end of your agreement, don’t be afraid to set out your shingle again … but then keep it small so you’re not managing employees.

Q4: Credit cards and international travel

My girlfriend and I, want to go to visit her parents, daughter and granddaughter in Bolivia. She has not seen them for 10 years. :( We live in Spain and Las Vegas, so our question is what travel credit card would you recommend for us to get to use for international purchases while we are in Spain? We want to go to Bolivia the end of next year. What are your thought or suggestions?
– Anderson

The exact offers change all the time. What you should focus on are cards that offer no foreign transaction fee. As long as they’ve got the Visa or MasterCard logo, you should be fine using them in those countries (at least as far as I can tell with my research).

How can you find cards like that? Again, if I were you, I’d start with cards from very large banks that operate in those countries – Citi, Chase, and so on. Go to their websites and look for cards with no foreign transaction fees and start comparing.

For example, I went to the Chase site and quickly found a bunch of cards with no foreign transaction fee (here are several such options). The exact card you choose will probably depend on your preferred airline and other such personal factors.

Q5: Compromise and financial goals

My husband and I have both always been pretty cheap. We save/invest about 35% of our annual income and have done so for the past decade.

The one area where we disagree financially is on cars. Whenever a car gets really old, I start to avoid driving it if I can. When a few repairs hit, I stop trusting it and I start seeing all of the flaws of age in the car and I really yearn to get a “new” one. He wants to keep driving them until the transmission is dragging along the pavement and there are rust holes in the floorboard.

This has caused more disagreements than you can imagine. I was hoping you had some insight into this.
– Alison

This is an area where compromise really matters.

Are there any areas where your husband feels that it’s appropriate to spend more than you do? For example, I’m more of a cheapskate than Sarah when it comes to cars (she’s the one that drives the newer car for her commute, while I mostly use the car bought off of Craigslist), but I prefer to spend more on gifts for others. Compromise there – you can choose a replacement car when you start getting nervous while he gets some leeway on an area that’s important to him.

You guys aren’t hurting for money. If your saving dips down to 30% because of these compromises, you’re still going to be retiring really early. You’ll just be able to do it without worrying about the transmission falling out of your car.

Q6: Enameled cast iron advice

My husband and I are looking to replace some of our Teflon-coated items in our kitchen before they peel. I know that in the past you’ve sworn by enameled cast iron pots and pans (and regular cast iron skillets). I went and looked at some enameled cast iron stuff and was shocked at the price. The Le Creuset stuff you use goes in the hundreds of dollars!

Is there an inexpensive way to get some good quality enameled cast iron pots?
– Denise

Our Le Creuset French ovens (which essentially means an enameled cast iron pot) were acquired through a gift and a going-out-of-business sale. I would also balk at the price the items go for new, but it’s pretty hard to argue with a 101 year warranty.

So, what should you do if you don’t want to pay that high price? I’ve had nothing but good experiences with Lodge cast iron items, both their enameled cast iron stuff and their non-enameled stuff. These items just work well – I’ve never seen one break and it seems to work pretty much as well as our Le Creuset.

Honestly, after switching to enameled cast iron for our pots, I really don’t want anything else. I can cook anything in these pots and after some scrubbing you can’t tell I did anything with them. We’ve been using ours several times a week for at least five years and they basically look new.

Q7: Job change advice

A little background: I am the sole provider of a family of five; my kids are not yet school aged. I currently have a decent, low stress job that includes a decent house on acreage as part of my salary. I have a good deal of latitude and overall am comfortable. The pay is above average, but only slightly so. Sounds good, right?

The twist: I’ve been contacted by a startup in my industry and have been offered a position. The position comes with a salary that is about 30% higher than what I currently make, and would potentially become much, much higher as the company grows. I would have to move my family to a new area and purchase a house.

My dilemma: Do I leave a stable job with a stable company for a risky startup in a new area that may have a huge reward (or huge consequences), or do I stay in the comfortable situation and maybe miss out on the job of a lifetime? The startup has a huge upside but has just a much of a chance of failing after the first year.
– Niles

Your question is answered by your response to a different question: what happens if you jump ship and the startup fails?

It’s as simple as that. If you can’t quickly bounce back on your feet and provide a solid income for your family very quickly, then you shouldn’t jump. If you’re not sure what you would do, then you shouldn’t jump.

You should only make a jump like this if you have a healthy amount of savings and a clear plan for an exit strategy that gets you into another job quickly.

I would give completely different advice to a single person or even to a married person without children. Once you have children, though, you’re responsible for someone who can’t earn but has expenses that you must be able to cover. That changes your options.

Q8: “Sharing economy” thoughts

Any thoughts on this article: http://www.theatlantic.com/sponsored/delta-view-from-the-top-2014/what-it-takes-to-grow-a-startup-from-the-ground-up/187/?

You rarely mention services like Uber and Lyft so I wanted to get your thoughts on them.
– Alex

I don’t mention services like Uber and Lyft because they don’t exist in rural Iowa. If I need a ride, I’ll ask a neighbor. Since I’m not familiar with the service, it’s really hard for me to personally recommend it. If I did start talking up Uber and Lyft, it would be pretty obvious that I was making stuff up.

As for the idea of a “sharing economy,” I just feel like it’s an organized extension of what a good relationship with your neighbors and a healthy social network with people in your physical community gets you. If I need a garden hoe, I can just go ask a few people, walk to their house, and get one in five or ten minutes. I needed a corded drill with plenty of torque for a project I was working on recently – I had one in my hands, from a friend, within a day.

It just seems like businesses are stepping in here to facilitate community that’s withered on the vine. Nothing is keeping anyone from asking their neighbors for help or sharing what they have with their neighbor.

Q9: Amazon Prime question

When is Amazon Prime is worth the cost? From what I can tell the benefits are free two day shipping on all items and Netflix-like streaming video. I can’t decide whether that is worth the annual cost.
– Lana

It really depends on your situation. No service is right for anyone. While I like the two-day shipping, it’s not the killer thing for me.

The thing that really makes Prime worthwhile for me is that I can now use Amazon as a true price comparison tool for everything. If I see something in a store, I can check the price on Amazon and if Amazon is way lower, I can just order it from there (or ask for a price match). The two day shipping offer with Prime doesn’t require a minimum price, so I don’t have to look for items to add to get the price up to the “free Super Saver Shipping” level.

Is it worth the annual price for that? Probably not. For us, it’s the summation of the various features. We give two day shipping service to my parents as part of our Prime membership. We certainly take advantage of the two day shipping for us. I use the Kindle Lending Library pretty frequently. We also watch a number of shows on Amazon Prime. In all, the pieces add up to “worth it” for us, but they might not for you.

Q10: Salary advance question

My employer was recently acquired by another organization. We went from a bi-weekly payroll schedule to semi-monthly, and they offered a salary advance to offset the difference in payroll cycle. The repayment agreement states that I will pay the partial salary advance back by 6 equal payroll deductions from future paychecks.

My question is this: the payroll advance was netted, with deductions made for 401k contributions and applicable tax withholdings. But the repayment agreement states that I will pay the gross amount back. Is this correct? I feel like that would mean I am paying taxes twice.

The numbers: net advance $800, gross $1,200. Repayments of $240×6 pay periods.

Can you explain what I’m missing?
– Shawn

You’re not missing anything. If you were given a pre-tax salary advance, then it should be “paid back” in a pre-tax fashion. It sounds like that’s what your agreement says, too.

If I were you, I’d head over to your human resources office and get this straightened out. This sounds like someone messed up the distinction between “net” and “gross.”

If you can’t get them to fix it, I’d contact the IRS and see whether or not you can resolve this when you file your personal income taxes. You shouldn’t have to pay income tax twice. That’s double taxation.

Q11: Magazines worth keeping?

What magazines do you think are worth keeping around for future reference? We have several magazine subscriptions and save them all, but I just realized that we really don’t look at them. We have a closet full of magazine boxes.
– Claire

On the occasion when I find an article or an item in a magazine that I might want to reference in the future, I tear out that page and scan it into my computer, then I chuck the magazine. This lets me search the article text later on. I have a folder on my computer of articles I’ve scanned over the years.

This generally only happens with how-to magazines – food magazines, do-it-yourself magazines, and so on. I’ll occasionally find an article I want to save to reference in future writing, too.

The only magazine I’ve saved is MAKE, which is a do-it-yourself magazine. However, I also have the issues in electronic format, so I’m not sure I’ll be hanging onto the paper versions forever. They are taking up space in a closet; when I look at old issues, I always look at the electronic back issues.

Q12: Earning money in an emergency

What kinds of things can a person do to earn money *legally* in a short period of time (like a week or two)? Let’s say I have a property tax bill that needs paid by the end of the month but I don’t have access to that kind of cash. How can I earn $1,000 or so beyond my normal income in just a few weeks?
– Adam

There are a number of things you can do to earn some quick cash. Sell plasma. Clean out your closet and sell stuff you’re not using. Offer to babysit with every parent that you know. Go to some free dinners in the area and avoid spending money on groceries. Get a part-time job. Hang up postings that you’re willing to do odd jobs. There are lots of ways to make a quick buck.

Obviously, many of those things aren’t sustainable. A new job can work in the short term, but often presents logistical problems after a while. You can only sell so much stuff out of your closet. These tips only really work well the first time around.

Still, those ideas should give you a jump start toward your goal. Between them, you should be able to come up with most of the cash.

Q13: Use for phone books?

A couple of decades ago I read some homemaking tips from a book by Ruth Stout, who’s best known for popularizing mulch farming in How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back. Anyway, this idea is from another of her books.

She wrote about using pages from an old phone books for paper towels. I’ve done that ever since–never pay for paper towels again. This works because in our town anyone can get free phone books any time of the year. I go through 3-4 a year. If we couldn’t get those for free, I’d probably ask friends to save their old phone books when the next year’s one comes out.
– Mary

That’s certainly a good idea. It turns something that isn’t very useful today – phone books – into something that is useful.

Around here, at least, they’ve stopped shipping out phone books. We haven’t received one in a while – at least a year or two since our last one. I think that the companies that make the books have realized that they’re not as useful as they once were.

My solution for a paper towel substitute is… get this… a hand towel. We keep a bunch in a drawer in our kitchen and use them when needed. They just go through the normal laundry and back into the drawer.

Q14: Too many goals and projects

How do you deal with having too many goals and projects on the docket?

I keep pretty careful track of all of my ongoing goals and projects and they number in the dozens. There are far too many to make forward progress on each and every day.

Is this a problem that you run into? How do you handle it?
– David

If you have so many goals that you can’t make forward progress on them, you’ve got to cut some of them out. There’s no way around it.

I try to focus on single projects that move me forward in multiple dimensions of my life at once. For example, let’s say I want to get into better shape and also want to spend more time with my kids. If that’s the case, why not institute some sort of family exercise? Take a family bike ride a few days a week or play basketball together a few times a week. That way, you’re killing two birds with one stone.

Just look through your projects and come up with ones that can meet the needs of multiple priorities in your life, then toss the rest of them. You can always come back to them later as your priorities change.

Q15: Finding old golf balls

I wanted to share one of my favorite tactics for golfing on the cheap. I golf about once a week over at a local public course when the fees are really low. They have “happy hours” and other times where you can golf for a pittance.

Anyway, my big tip for saving money is to look in the weeds for balls when you hit your ball over there. I hit my balls in the weeds all the time and I usually find it, but when I do, I’ll find a few “lost balls” too. I toss these in my bag. Right now, I have a five gallon bucket in the garage with hundreds of balls in it and I haven’t purchased a ball in many years.
– Jim

This is a really good idea for people who aren’t exactly “pro” when it comes to their golfing (like me).

About three weeks ago, Sarah and I went golfing with friends on a public course. It was my first golf outing in years. I had several old balls in my golf bag that I used, but I actually came home with more than I left with. I found a ton of balls in the deep rough.

When I got home, I cleaned up those balls and put them back in my bag. It now looks like I have a pile of new balls! Sure, they might not be functionally perfect, but they’re close enough that I won’t be able to tell (especially in three years or whenever I go golfing again).

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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