Reader Mailbag #1

After the unprecedented success of my open question thread, I’ve decided to start a weekly “reader mailbag” to handle a lot of the simpler questions that I get that don’t necessarily warrant a full article by themselves. Each week, I’ll answer ten to twenty questions accumulated from that open question thread and any more questions that are asked in these reader mailbag articles (yes, if you have a question you’d like to ask, leave a comment!). I’ll try to keep a mix of “on-topic” personal finance questions along with other stuff, hopefully in something approaching a 50-50 ratio.

So here goes! First of all, here are a handful of links to earlier posts from The Simple Dollar that directly address some of the recent questions I’ve received.
What you need to know to buy a Wii
The best advice around for talking to your family about money
Why I don’t agree with Rich Dad, Poor Dad and why I don’t agree with The Secret

And on with some questions.

Makeup: necessary expense of both time and money for ladies who want a decent job? In other words, can I be taken seriously by prospective employers for a job above the service industry if I don’t wear makeup?
– Natasha

My personal opinion is that it’s not necessary. I believe, for example, that most makeup falls under the same category as most fragrances – fine for a date or a social outing, but not really needed in the workplace. While I do put a lot of value on personal appearance and hygiene – keeping yourself clean and reasonably sharp looking – that doesn’t mean it’s time to visit the Maybelline counter.

Having said that, you really need to check with what’s acceptable in the culture of your workplace. If it’s the social norm there, then you may want to consider it just for pure office social reasons.

To what Christian denomination do you belong? Is it one in which you were raised? Are you closely aligned with its “personal finance” doctrines?
– Michael

I was born and raised in a household that was ostensibly Christian, but we didn’t attend church or talk about God except for a period where I was baptized as a Catholic mostly to fulfill the wishes of an elderly relative. I dabbled in a lot of faiths in a spiritual quest in college and eventually settled on ELCA Lutheran, largely because I felt comfortable with the pastors in that church and I felt much more openness about discussing my individual perspectives, even if they didn’t match “doctrine.” I largely believe that faith is a personal matter and that the best kind of evangelism is leading by example – I feel no interest in pushing anyone to follow my faith. If someone is curious and wants to ask questions, I’ll talk all day long, but spiritual discovery is an intensely personal thing and pushing someone doesn’t help them to find the true answers they seek, even if they come to conclusions I don’t share.

Only extremely rarely are finances mentioned in any church service or program I’ve been involved with, so I have little to say in that area.

I have encountered people who get financially locked in to less-than-frugal contracts, like for cable TV, or cell phones. They’re already living paycheck to paycheck, and then when they’re forced to cut things back, they’re unable to cancel those things because of the huge fees if they break the contract. What could these folks do differently?
– Babs

First of all, don’t renew when the contract ends. That’s the big thing.

Second, if they’re still going to maintain some sort of service like this after the contract ends, call up the company and negotiate. Offer to sign a new contract right now that covers a longer period in exchange for reducing the optional stuff. Tell them that you will switch to a competitor at the end of the deal otherwise. Tell them also that you may not be able to afford the current bills.

If you get yourself into a bad situation like this, you need to use it to your advantage. Always tell them that you’re going to have a hard time affording it and that you may not be able to pay. Always use the specter of switching to a competitor. Play hardball with them – they play hardball with you, after all.

Do you ever feel like quitting the whole blog thing for good?
– WeSeed

Not even for a second. Blogging gives me an opportunity to really get in the flow with my writing in a way that nothing else does – it’s a very powerful thing for me personally.

Is Ben one of the Oceanic 6? What about Aaron? :)
– Susan

What I’d like to know is why won’t Jack look at Kate’s baby!!
– Diane

OK, Lost. Here’s my opinion. Jin and Sun are the other members of the Oceanic 6, because Sun will want to leave to protect her baby. I think by the end of the series Jack is going to have to do something very bad and it will result in the death of Claire, and that’s why he can’t look at Aaron. What else? Michael is Ben’s guy on the freighter, and the reason Charles Widmore wants the island so bad is because it’s some kind of healing place, like a fountain of youth. I haven’t quite figured out why Ben’s fighting him so hard yet.

Lost is crazy. My wife and I are both obsessed with it – it’s the one television show we watch, and we’re both hooked on it like a caffeine addict stumbling around in the morning looking for the coffee pot.

What are some tips to resist peer pressure to spend when in college? Most of my friends go out often, shop a lot, have lovely new furniture, etc. We do do free activities once in a while, but most of the time I end up staying home because I cannot afford to follow them. This can get quite depressing even if I know I’m doing the right thing staying within my budget while they will end up with huge student loans.
– Marie-France

They’re college students and they have “lovely new furniture”? I spent more than I should have in college, but I would have avoided these people.

First thing, look for some new things to do. Look around on campus for clubs that do the inexpensive stuff you enjoy doing. You “end up staying at home” because you’ve made things into a two-way choice: stay at home or go out and do expensive stuff. There are a ton of interesting and inexpensive options on any college campus – go out there and see what’s available.

Second, don’t base your self-worth on the spending of others. They’re making dumb choices. You know they’re making dumb choices. Don’t judge yourself based on those choices. Judge yourself by what you know to be the right path.

Follow those two and you’ll be fine.

Are you now also going to try writing fiction, like you mentioned wanting to do ideally? If not yet, why not or when?
– Mark

I hope to take another stab at fiction. In my college and early professional years, I wrote a small mountain of short stories that I never bothered to publish and a novel-length work, tentatively called Saturn and Titan and describing a relationship between two brothers, that I tried to get published, got a few nice responses about, and then gave up on trying to publish. This stuff was clearly my juvenilia – stuff that probably should never see the light of day.

First, though, I have a lot of nonfiction writing on my plate. We’ll see where that takes me and if it gives me room for the fiction I’d love to write.

How much is enough — at what amount of savings/net worth will you effectively retire, even if you continue to pursue activities that provide residual income after that? And, how long before you expect to accumulate that amount?
– Shaunie

I’ll have enough when I’m locked into a long-term conservative investment that produces about 50% more each year than my actual spending. That way, I can take that extra and use it as a buffer against emergencies and against the march of inflation. I have no idea when I’ll reach that.

Why are you not publishing my comments? I think they are harmless & modest…just curious to know the reason.
– Rohini

I get 8,000 to 10,000 spam comments a week, so many I have to use a filter to help me get rid of them. If I didn’t do that filtering, I would do nothing but sit around marking comments as spam or not spam all day and never write. Sometimes real comments get lost in the spam filter, and that’s probably what happened to yours. Make a few good, legitimate comments and then this won’t be a problem.

Got more questions? Leave ’em in the comments!