Updated on 06.20.08

Reader Mailbag #16

Trent Hamm

Each Monday, The Simple Dollar opens up the reader mailbags and answers ten to twenty simple questions offered up by the readers on personal finance topics and many other things. Got a question? Ask it in the comments. You might also enjoy the archive of earlier reader mailbags.

As usual, we’ll start things off with a few links to older articles that directly answer questions I’ve heard recently.
How much money does turning off the lights really save?
Ten books that changed my life
My thoughts on The 48 Laws of Power and how to ethically treat your friends and associates

And now for some great reader questions!

You mention doing research for some of your posts. How do you go about researching? The internet? The Library? Experimentation?
– Carrie

I usually spend an afternoon a week at the library researching material for posts and other written pieces, and significant additional time online doing research. To understand it, I should probably put into context my writing flow for a week’s worth of posts.

I usually spend some time Monday morning defining what I intend to get written over the next week. That’s usually about a week and a half’s worth of posts, a few guest posts, some freelance articles, and a good chunk of a book. Seriously, I write about 20-30K words per week.

Once I’ve decided the general idea of all of these articles, I usually spend some time outlining them a bit with several sentences worth of notes. This helps me identify which posts need significant research and which ones focus more on anecdotal ideas.

This usually gives me the framework I need to go to the library later on Monday and do what research I need for the week. I’ll check out books, photocopy a few things, and take notes on my laptop.

Most of the rest of a normal week is spent just filling out the facts and ideas with prose to support them so that they’re readable. If I’m lucky, I get everything done with some time to spare, during which I follow my muse and work on things that are completely unrelated, like short stories and video production and things like that.

My credit card bill says “Save a stamp, use online bill payment.” When I went online to pay, I read that if I used online payment it would charge a $9.95 online service fee per payment. Do you have an idea of how to find a card that charges no fee?
– arlen

If your credit card company is charging you $9.95 to pay online, don’t do it. It’s a scam. Use your bank’s online bill pay to do the same thing – it’s likely free (and if it’s not, you should be switching to a different bank that has the service).

If you have a service that charges you a “fee” to pay your bill, they’re just trying to make an easy buck from the gullible. I recommend always using your online banking service to pay your bills that way. It helps with budgeting and makes the whole process much easier over the long run.

You seem to have a fairly solid routine. I’m currently wanting to establish such a routine which allows for maintenance of all those steady to dos like cleaning the house, laundry, finances, etc. as well as cooking at home, a reasonable amount of exercise and time with my loved ones. I get frustrated, though, as there still doesn’t seem to be enough time. Were you ever in always-behind-mode and, if so, how did you get out?
– Joanna

I used to constantly feel behind on everything. I realized, in the end, that there were two root causes of it, and once I tackled those, things got easier.

Too many distractions Cell phone on? That’s a regular distraction, with calls and text messages. Email program open? Distraction. Door open? You’re begging for people to come in and distract you. Web browser open? Tons of distractions. Focus in on one task and cut out those distractions.

Figuring out what’s actually important How much time each day do you spend watching television? What would happen to your time if you ditched House and spent that hour cleaning or doing laundry each week? You’d have another hour to spend with your family or doing the core things important to you. Spend some time figuring out priorities, and ditch the ones that are at the bottom of the list.

Do these two things and stick to them tightly, and things will get easier.

How do you handle the quality versus cost issue with basic foods like orange juice? At the store, there’s usually a ton of different kinds of orange juice. The more expensive ones are delicious but the cheap ones taste like battery acid. How do you decide what’s worth buying?
– Ronald

I usually start with the cheapest and work my way up from there. The cheapest orange juice is foul, so what’s next up the line. When I find something I like, that’s my baseline. Then, I watch for sales. Are there more expensive brands that are on sale right now or that I have a coupon for? If so, I get the better kind.

I do this with almost every consumer product, from soap to dishwasher detergent. Take soap – my baseline is Ivory or Pure and Natural (whichever is cheaper), but there’s almost always a better soap on sale (or with coupon) that’s cheaper, and that’s why I’m using Old Spice Body Wash right now. The same with shampoo – my baseline is Pert, but I’m currently using giant containers of almost-free Herbal Essences. It’s sometimes good to try the cheap generic, but sometimes the quality of the generic is significantly lower than the name brand item, and that means you should try things out for yourself.

What sports do you follow?
– Philbert

Baseball, golf, and college basketball. That’s about it. Baseball is probably my top sport, with golf very closely behind. I am a Chicago Cubs fan nearly from birth.

I used to follow pro basketball, but with each passing year the NBA seems more and more rigged, with the referees outright controlling the outcome some of the games, and now with the recent revelations about Tim Donaghy and Dick Bavetta, that seems pretty much true. Yep, David Stern, your cheap attempts to control series lost me as a fan, especially starting with that absolutely horrendous series in 2002 between the Lakers and the Kings. The Kings were a better team by miles, but the refs handed both games six and seven to the Lakers, calling constant invisible fouls and other things.

Can cosmetic surgery ever be considered an investment? Or are the studies/rumors that ‘beautiful people make more money’ not stable enough to rely on recouping the surgery costs?
– leslie

I wrote about this topic a while back, but I think it’s fair to clarify my thoughts.

I think that, although cosmetic surgery does affect how others perceive you, it’s not nearly as important as who you are. You can be the most beautiful person in the world and that might help you get your foot in the door, but if you are a cancer, you will be ousted and disgraced. Your face might open the door, but your attitude and who you are inside will be the part that keeps it open – or slams it in your face.

That being said, cosmetic surgery can be a big benefit in some ways. It can improve your self-confidence and help you get your foot in the door in the first place. The only catch is that once you’re in the door, what really matters is who you are on the inside.

Have you had any experience with time tracking tools that measure productivity and the sort? I’ve recently downloaded Rescue Time and I think seeing my usage patterns has created a better awareness for me. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Thanks.
– Marcus

I used Rescue Time for a while and all it seemed to do for me was point out what was obvious. I have a small handful of time sucking websites – other than those, I’m pretty productive. So what I often do is just completely block those websites. From the Lifehacker book:

My biggest weaknesses when I should be working on The Simple Dollar are looking at my site stats, reading reddit, and playing Desktop Tower Defense. What’s my solution? When I sit down to work on The Simple Dollar, the first thing I do is open the file C:\WINDOWS\SYSTEM32\DRIVERS\ETC\hosts with Notepad and add the line reddit.com kongregate.com sitemeter.com mybloglog.com

Then I save the file and close it. When I’m done, I just open the file again and delete the line. What does it do? Whenever I try to visit the distracting web site, I just get a blank page. This keeps me from burning a few minutes here reading reddit or a few minutes there playing a game. Note that this only works on Windows XP and Vista, though – the book provides other ways to do it with other operating systems.

That file name works on PCs. On Macs, you’d want to open /private/etc/hosts and edit that file the same way. I’ve actually set up a cron job (a scheduled and automated task) to swap that file in and out at certain times each day, and then I can undo it myself if I want to.

The key is to block yourself from the time sucks. Make sure you can’t go near them, or at least make it difficult for yourself.

My son is a huge organic fan. I know it’s health benefits. I also know it is expensive too. How would you determine to eat organically or not if you lived in the city? Any thoughts you have on organic food would be appreciated.
– Joel

My philosophy with food is that the important part is to just eat better. The real key is to get on a diet with more vegetables in it. Organics are just icing on the cake. In fact, organic labeling actually doesn’t mean all that much.

If you’re really concerned about higher quality foods with lower environmental impact, your best bet is to buy local, not organic. Hit the local farmer’s market, especially local farmers that do small scale farming. Your purchase from these folks will do far more for the environment than buying produce that’s been shipped in from Chile.

Do you agree with this view : Nobody has actually figured out how the markets work, everyone is still studying heavily but has not actually figured how the machine works and much of the talk about the predictions about markets is just vain talk, and what turns out to be true is only by fluke or chance?
– WhirlMind

I think people figure out how the markets work in the short term, but then the landscape changes and all bets are off. New investors come in, with different perspectives. Old investors leave. Different sectors, based on different fundamentals, become hot and get a big market capitalization.

That’s why I think, over the long haul, the best bet for almost everyone – meaning everyone who doesn’t have the time to incessantly study the markets – is to diversify widely or only buy specific companies that you know very well. If you don’t have a reason for buying an individual stock – a clear, concrete reason – then don’t buy it.

What motivates you every day?
– j

My children. My wife. My incessant desire to write and the cool, calm feeling I get after a good day of writing. My desire to help the community, both locally and in a larger sense.

That’s pretty much my motivation every day when I wake up. In roughly that order, actually.

Got any questions? Ask them in the comments and I’ll use them in future mailbags.

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  1. KoryO says:

    Regarding having to pay a fee online to pay your credit card…..not knowing what card the correspondent was referring to, of course….I have only seen that when I wanted my payment to be credited today on a couple of my cards. One of them charges $14.95 for same-day credit. Steep, but better than paying a late fee and getting your credit dinged, I guess.

    If I am willing to have the payment credited to my account for some day in the future, like tomorrow, the online payment doesn’t cost anything extra to process. I just keep track of my cards’ due dates and make sure to pay them well in advance.

  2. Angie says:

    Joanna –
    http://www.flylady.net is a resource if you’re having trouble with establishing/keeping routines…

  3. Laura says:

    I just wanted to second Angie’s opinion about http://www.flylady.net, it takes a little while to establish routines, but it makes a huge difference, and hse has it all laid out so that anyone can do it.

  4. Nicole says:

    Here is a great place to find cheap, local and organic produce, milk, cheeses, meat, etc.


    I have subscribed to a local CSA (community sponsored agriculture) and I get a box of in-season produce every week delivered to a home in my neighborhood for significantly less than you would pay at the grocery store. My farm grows all kinds of vegetables and fruits and trades with other farms for things they don’t have so you always get an amazing selection.

    Another benefit is that it is local, so we can go strawberry picking or pick up stewing chickens any time we want. You decrease your environmental footprint, meet some cool people, get to eat amazing food and save some money.

  5. Cubs fan??? Trent, I had no idea! I’ve been following you for so long and I didn’t know we had that in common. Nice weekend for us huh?

  6. KC says:

    Concerning cosmetic surgery as an investment… Personally I believe “beautiful” people make more money because they are more self-confident. If people are always telling you how pretty/handsome you are, the opposite sex always wants to go out with you, you look in the mirror and like what you see then you have more self-confidence. When you have more self-confidence you suceed at more things, including making more money.

    I have an attractive sister who has done quite well raising and selling horses as a side business. Like I said she’s cute, not stunning, but cute. She wanted to get breast implants. I think I’ve talked her out of it – my main point being the horses could care less what size your —– are. But more seriously her selling technique has nothing to do with breast size, its her smarts and her charm that have allowed her to be successful. I think the only thing breast implants will do for her is drain her wallet of a few thousand dollars. And now when I see my sister I make sure to say something nice – you look good, you lost some weight – or something like that – because obviously she suffers from a bit of low self-esteem.

  7. Angel says:

    Hi Trent,
    I’m going to be financially advising a person who does not have a home computer. I’m only going to be doing the basics with her—budget, Dave Ramsey’s baby steps, those types of things. I admit, all of my money stuff is on a computer with excel spreadsheets and such, so I’m at a little bit of a loss as to how to help. Do you have some good tips or links to forms I can print out for the non-computer savvy person?

  8. Ryan says:

    It also doesn’t help that our food system (USDA, FDA) is dysfunctional and ineffective as it currently stands. Perhaps the organic standards could have more clout and meaning if we could redesign the system into some unified, coherent body.

  9. Flea says:

    My desire to write and the excitment of getting feedback from strangers has always motivated me to post.


  10. jake says:

    Are you kidding me? Baseball is the most corrupt professional sports in America, from the players all the way up to the commish. Don’t get me started with college sports, which I think are out right dirty.

  11. Lauren says:

    Hm, I wanted to try your tip about adding a line to the hosts file, but it didn’t work for me. Does it take a while to register or something? Do I need to clear my cache?

  12. Lola says:

    Ever since I started my own blog, some six months ago, I haven’t had much time or energy for anything else. And the problem is, I shouldn’t be spending my time writing a blog, but my thesis. I thought I would be able to do both, but now I’m not so sure. I think it’s much better, obviously, to be writing a blog and doing something productive than merely procrastinating writing my thesis, as I did before. But I long for the day when I have no more deadlines to meet, just a blog to write. Will that ever happen? That’s why, above all, I admire your commitment. But lately I’ve been envious of just about anyone who has no deadlines…

  13. Matt says:

    You’ve mentioned that you make your own wine a few times on this site. I’ve recently acquired some wine making equipment. Care to share some insight or tips to someone who’s just starting out?

  14. Jesse says:

    @ the organic question:

    I am pretty hardcore about eating healthy, and have done a lot of research on the subject: eating organic does not:

    1. Make you healthier

    2. Make a dramatic improvement in the environment. In fact, there is evidence it is worse for the environment than some forms of farming.

  15. Kate says:


    What is the story behind the art element (your logo) at the top of The Simple Dollar?
    Did you design it or did you find someone to design it for you and how did that happen?
    Does the design at the top of a blog have to be any certain dimension?
    Just wondering. You may have addressed it in an earlier post but I haven’t been able to find it.

  16. Jenzer says:

    I’m “thirding” the suggestion for Joanna to check out Flylady’s system.

    The beauty of building routines the Flylady way is that it puts so many basic maintenance tasks on mental autopilot, such that they no longer require much thinking to accomplish. Using my experience as an example, I no longer wonder when I’m going to get the dishes done each day, because it’s now a habit for me to do them right after the kids go to bed at night.

  17. Kate says:

    Second Lauren’s question about host file.

  18. Oliver says:

    look up the efficient market theory on wikipedia. It should help answer your question..

  19. Cyde Weys says:

    Aww c’mon Trent, you mentioned the way to do it in Windows and OS X, but not how to do it in the ancestor OS that both of those inherited their methods from, UNIX?

    Just add the same line to /etc/hosts/. That’s easier to remember than the solution in either Windows or OS X.

    Now, granted, not many people run UNIX on the desktop (or even the OS it spawned, GNU/Linux), but there are still some of us out here.

  20. reulte says:

    A note to Joanna . . . Flylady is a good place to start as are Trent’s suggestions to cut distractions and determining important things. I don’t think Trent has carried it far enough because on the average most men do far less housework than most women even if they believe they do as much or more. Reiterate — on the average; I’m not picking on anyone.

    I’d like to add my own few cents worth.

    I would suggest teaching (then you can delegate when needed) the kids/husband to do laundry, cook, etc while you’re doing it. Yes – many husbands need to learn basic housekeeping tasks. I remember some statistic which stated that getting married forced women to do an extra 8 hours of housework (maybe from the book The Second Shift). Anyway, teaching your kids to set the dinner table or sort laundry with you not only allows you to later delegate the task to them, it provides some togetherness with loved one. Some people talk better when their hands are busy.

    Ask for help (and expect grudging, slow assistance) but don’t nag and don’t do it yourself. Just say thank you when its done — you don’t care if its grudging, you just care that it gets done.

    Do some of your work together – i.e. exercise and time with loved ones (an evening walk), cooking and time with loved ones (little ones tear apart lettuce, big ones chop tomatoes), mowing the yard and time with loved ones (big ones mow, little ones rake).

    Block out a chunk of time for yourself. Maybe as little as a 15 minute bath (buy a timer, its the most useful thing in the world for teaching children to learn to wait) late in the evening. Or get up a few minutes earlier and DON’T do anything resembling work for those few minutes.

    Finally – this, I believe, is one of Trent’s most useful traits for work which he didn’t mention. Wake up early on a consistant basis. So much work can be done before anyone else is awake.

  21. grannygoodstuff says:

    In regards to making online payments: I have been using MyCheckfree.com for years and they do not charge a fee to make the payments for me. My bank does charge a fee unless I maintain a certain balance in my checking account. I have also been with my bank for years and do not want to change banks. My Check Free handles almost all the companies I deal with. I have also set up direct billing for my utilities, insurance, lawn service, internet/phone/tv service. Since these are bills that arrive every month, they are paid monthly automatically and I don’t have to worry about them. And there has never been a service charge from any of the companies nor from my bank for paying them this way. It’s just a thought, but you may want to check into setting up direct billing with the companies you deal with on a monthly basis. I sometimes lose track of time and forget it’s time to pay something again so this works very well for me. Though I have never been late with my payments doing it the old way before the internet, I have been pretty close! No more nervous stomach feeling for me. Free time to do something else. Heaven knows we all need more of that.

  22. Joanne says:


    New question……
    How do you face the loss of a job from the main wage earner in the family. We have a four month emergency fund, but once it hit us – I am very worried. Four months is not a long time. We have auto pay on most bills and investments. Do we automatically stop the investments until a pay check starts flowing – or try to keep up with investments out of the emergency fund. Once a new job is obtained, do you rebuild the emergency fund first – or keep up with investments. We are mid 40’s and took a while to get out of debt. We are behind in retirement savings, but were catching up at a quick pace until this hit. This whole mess is causing many sleepless nights!! With the economy the way it is – I hope things can get better soon, but know that is unlikely!

  23. WhirlMind says:

    @Oliver :

    Thanks for the tip on Efficient Market Theory.

    Best Wishes

  24. JFrance says:

    @Cyde Weys:

    I for one would have been offended if Trent had had the gall to suggest that any self-respecting UNIX hacker wasn’t already perfectly familiar with how /etc/hosts works :-)

  25. Adam says:

    I tried posting this yesterday, but I think it was eaten by your filters:

    “If you’re really concerned about higher quality foods with lower environmental impact, your best bet is to buy local, not organic. Hit the local farmer’s market, especially local farmers that do small scale farming. Your purchase from these folks will do far more for the environment than buying produce that’s been shipped in from Chile.”

    The environmental savings of local foods may be overblown. From Ezra Klein: “{T]wo Carnegie Mellon researchers recently broke down the carbon footprint of foods, and their findings were a bit surprising. 83 percent of emissions came from the growth and production of the food itself. Only 11 percent came from transportation, and even then, only 4 percent came from the transportation between grower and seller (which is the part that eating local helps cut). Additionally, food shipped from far off may be better for the environment than food shipped within the country — ocean travel is much more efficient than trucking.”

    Also, because most of the emissions come from the growth and production of the food, you want that production to be as efficient as possible. To really help the environment you should tend to favor large scale farming (everything else being equal), because you can take advantage of the efficiency of scale. This is not to say that there are not other good reasons for buying local or from small-scale farms, but helping the environment doesn’t seem to be one of them.

    Here is what the Carnegie Mellon researchers suggest: “[D]ietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than “buying local.” Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.” (From the abstract.)

    The Ezra Klein article is here: http://www.prospect.org/csnc/blogs/ezraklein_archive?month=06&year=2008&base_name=its_the_food_stupid
    The research can be found here: http://pubs.acs.org/cgi-bin/abstract.cgi/esthag/2008/42/i10/abs/es702969f.html

  26. JLiz says:

    To Joanna –

    Adding to the FlyLady chorus here! She addresses every point you mentioned:
    – cleaning the house,
    – laundry,
    – finances,
    – cooking at home,
    – a reasonable amount of exercise, and
    – time with loved ones.

    She also covers frustration and that awful “I’m always behind” feeling. Her advice might seem silly at first when you go to her website and read what she has to say (you might think, How can this help??), but TRUST HER… just take the first step and the others will follow. :)

    Best wishes!

  27. Alexia says:

    I had a question about the coupon theory (a few post back!).

    I was telling my DH about all the cool tricks (waiting for the item to go on sale) and he pointed out that the coupons (at least the ones we’ve had) almost always say something like they can’t be used in conjunction with other sales. Well, something like that. How do you get around that, or is that not what it means? I’d love to start using coupons. Anything to save a few bucks!

  28. Dean Lund says:

    I note that you use Ivory natural soap ( Ronald’s question week of 6/23/08). Did you give up on the wonderful home soap recipe?

  29. Claudia I Baker says:

    I signed up for Cash Crate as it was recommended on this site in I believe a book review–however, now that I have, it seems like a scam..do you know anything about it?

  30. Joan Meadows says:

    Are you a speed reader? Sometimes I wish your columm was shorter. I love the info but I find it hard to pay attention to the end of the article.

  31. Jonathan says:


    I am a partial beneficiary to a recently deceased parent’s retirement plan. I have 2 choices: a $9000 lump sum or a $225 monthly benefit for life. I am 29 so I am likely to live for a long time (hopefully). I’m not sure that I could invest the $9000 and acheive a return that would match the monthly benefit, but on the other hand, I don’t want the hassle of receiving a check monthly 30 years from now (when $225 will likely be pocket change). If you were in my situation, which would you choose and why?

  32. Jeremy W. says:

    Trent, I know you have talked about electric cars before including possibly purchasing a Tesla…Have you seen the documentary “Who Killed The Electric Car”? and if so, what was your opinion on it. I had never heard of it until checking it out from my library the other day…I thought it was very enlightening and motivating. Thanks.

  33. Time tracking and time management is essential to juggling business and personal tasks, and I’m glad you mention it so often in your blog. As someone working with small business computer consultants, I’m often telling them how important tracking your time is and that it’s not something that can or should be saved until after you start a business or get really involved in a schedule or tasks. You need to be constantly mindful of where your time is going if you want to do the best you can at work and at home, and this means really committing it regularly to paper (or computer!).

  34. Danny says:

    “The Kings were a better team by miles”

    hahaha nice joke

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