Updated on 06.25.08

Reader Mailbag #17

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 to avoid boredom during a financial turnaround
The McDonald’s $1 double cheeseburger really isn’t all that cheap
Fifteen things you can do right now to help your career

And now for some great reader questions!

Generally speaking, how old do you think is too old to rely on your parents for financial support? How do you plan on easing your children into the ‘real world’ as far as managing their finances go? Are you going to ‘force’ them to get a job (specifically when they’re in high school)?
– Dave

I don’t think there’s any set age where a person is clearly too old to be living at home. Most of that has to do with the specific situation that person finds themselves in. How were they raised? How permissive and inviting have the parents been in terms of keeping the young one at home? What’s their exact economic experience?

As for my own children, my expectation for them in high school is that they wrap their arms around some sort of significant project in their spare time. What it is is up to them. It might be a regular job, it might be a specific extracurricular activity, or it might be something else entirely. But I won’t consider it acceptable for them to spend their summers not doing anything, and even their evenings during the school year to some extent.

Also, once they leave for college, with the exception of holidays, they’re not moving back in unless they’re paying rent or doing something to earn their keep, period.

How do you read so many books? It sounds like your schedule is packed, and for you to not only read at least two or three books a week AND process the information so thoroughly, is almost beyond belief. Beyond the “How to Read a Book” post you did a few months back, do you speedread? If so, can you recommend a good speedreading course?
– trev

I spend two to three hours a day reading personal finance and personal productivity books on this site. I’m also trying to spend an hour or so each day reading other books when my schedule affords it.

That means each book review usually has four or five hours of reading behind it, and that’s my normal reading speed (with a bit of note taking). I don’t do any speed reading or anything like that – I just read at roughly this speed all the time. I tend to read some types of books slower than others (literature goes slowly for me, while very fact-laden nonfiction goes pretty quickly).

I was thinking about opening an account with Sharebuilder.com (ING) to get started in some simple investing. I already invest heavily in my TSP (401K) and Roth, and wanted to dump some extra cash into some stocks now that my vehicle is paid off. I plan on holding onto any stocks I buy long term. Any thoughts on Sharebuilder? Do you recommend any alternatives? Anybody else have any thoughts on Sharebuilder?
– Tony

I very recently started using Sharebuilder.com to start slowly accumulating a small handful of specific stocks and ETFs. If you’re not planning on actively trading and instead plan to just buy and hold, Sharebuilder is great. If you’re looking to actively trade stocks, Sharebuilder isn’t so great. If you’re intending to just buy index funds, go straight with Vanguard where you can invest in index funds without any fees whatsoever.

In my view, one should only use Sharebuilder if you’re planning to just buy stock in a few individual companies and hold them over the long haul. My usual philosophy is that you should only buy a stock if you have a very clear and specific reason for buying it, and you should only sell it if you have a very clear and specific reason for selling it. I’m also more of a “long haul” thinker and I put a lot of value in companies that make products that I strongly trust – that’s one of my specific criterion for buying an individual stock. Because of that, Sharebuilder holds a lot of oppeal to me. It’s designed for buy and hold strategies.

What about other alternatives? If you have more than $25,000 to invest, you can get the same service for free from Bank of America. And if you’re willing to jump through a lot of hoops in the setup process, you can get a similar service free from Zecco.com – I have had a lot of difficulty with their signup process in the past.

J.D. wrote an excellent article a while back on the pros and cons of Sharebuilder, but my take is that if you’re a buy-and-hold kind of guy and don’t want to invest a lot of time in the mechanics of it, Sharebuilder is a great way to go up to $25K.

Trent, did your self-discipline (e.g. your schedule) come about after your financial meltdown, or have you always lived — at least partially — with that degree of self-discipline? Obviously you didn’t always financially, but I’m curious how much of your discipline was already in place and ready to be “deployed” for the purposes of financial et al. growth.
– Chris

I think I’ve always been fairly self-disciplined, but it had to be drawn out of me by situations that I faced. My first job forced me to organize many of my work habits. My first child forced me to gain some discipline with my personal habits and how I spent my free time. My financial meltdown forced me to get organized about my money. The success of The Simple Dollar finally forced me to get serious about my writing habits.

I think the basic character traits for organization were there, but I never had any impetus for using them. When events in my life forced them to come out, they did, and after they came out, they were hard to put back in the box.

Hey Trent, I had a math-related question for you about how you figure your net worth and your debt changes. Do you figure those out starting with a the statements from the previous month, or did you pick an arbitrary starting point and are using those for your percent gains and loses?
– Tom

I started all of my net worth calculations with a baseline – the first month after my financial meltdown. After that, my focus was on positive changes month to month. I like looking at long-term changes for fun, but my big motivation is usually just the next month. How can I maximize the gap between earning and spending that month? The better I do with that, the more financially ahead I get over the long haul.

So, just start with a baseline – this month, or a previous month where you have data. Then compare everything to that. Are you improving over time? Are you improving at the rate you want? Hopefully, the answer to both is yes.

Do you think America is losing its family values fabric (I mean, family life, marital life, care for elders, togetherness getting thoroughly messed up) because of too much focus on moneymaking? If yes, what are the primary reasons for such a degradation in family happiness?
– WhirlMind

I think the real problem is that America (and much of the Western world) is moving from a community and family perspective to an individual perspective. I think culture in general has moved towards glorifying the individual instead of focusing on the community. It’s more important to be a “star” than it is to be a member of a group who makes a positive contribution to society.

Take music, for example. A hundred years ago, music was enjoyed communally, with musicians in public environments. After the advent of radio, that communal sense went away, as people moved from the community to listen into their own homes with their family. A few more technological progressions and we’re in the era of the iPod, where people listen in private to the exclusion of others.

I used to live fairly near an Amish community, and I once watched them all get together on a Friday and raise a barn in a day. A community of people got together and did something to help one individual but in actuality helped the community as a whole.

Can you imagine a whole neighborhood getting together to help the new guy on the block build his house?

Why do the names on your blog roll always rotate? I usually start my daily blog reviews with your site and use your links to go to my other favorites. I get annoyed when sometimes they are there, and sometimes they are not.
– Sarah

I have about 50 blogs total that I want to link to, but I’ve discovered that each blog gets more clicks overall if each page shows just twenty of those blogs at random because the list is shorter and more accessible, plus it changes all the time. Blogs are shown only on 40% of pages, but the click count went up a huge amount when I made this change.

So, I do it because I like the sites on my blogroll and I’ll do whatever it takes to get them the most clicks.

You’ve said before you started dating your future wife in college. What did you do for cheap, frugal dates with your wife when you were in college?
– Nicole

Our dates were usually extremely simple. We went on long walks. We went to the “dollar theatre” almost every weekend, where older films were shown on the big screen for a dollar a pop. We ate out in ethnic areas where there were cheap, delicious meals. We hit student group meetings all the time, particularly ones with free food. But we also spent a lot of money, too.

There are so many possibilities on a large college campus for inexpensive or free entertainment that you can engage in together that you’d be a fool not to take it. Look around for lists of on-campus activities – start at your student union.

Besides writing and reading and playing with your kids, what do you do for fun?
– Annie

I really enjoy playing board games – I’d play Ticket to Ride every day if I could. I love card games, too. I enjoy playing basketball. I love to cook – I’ll happily invest two or three hours into a meal just to produce something sublime, like a “low and slow” all day barbecue or from-scratch pasta. I play video games some – I have a Wii and will play a bunch for a few days, then not touch it for a month. I like tinkering with simple electronics, like the stuff you’ll find in Make magazine.

That stuff pretty much fills up any spare time that I have.

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

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  1. Onaclov2000 says:

    Just as a note with regards to the link to the pros and con’s of Sharebuilder, they reference it costing over 15 dollars (can’t remember the number they use), but since ING bought them out, it’s dropped to 9.95 per realtime trade, it’s still a little bit of money, but it’s $5+ less now to sell per trade.

  2. Jesse says:

    I’m a huge fan of Ticket to Ride! When the family was first learning to play it we were all just heads down working on our routes and whoever had the luck of a better draw won.

    The game got a lot more interesting once we realized that you can also win by thwarting others — good or bad luck on the first draw :)

  3. Tony says:

    Thanks for the answer Trent. Since then I have started a Sharebuilder account based on similar and great advice from some of your readers. It’s working out well, and setup was extremely simple. I’m using it just as you say, to buy specific stocks that I plan on holding onto for a long time.

  4. justme27 says:

    Oh, I love Ticket to Ride! Where did you find it? I’ve looked online and it seems so expensive…

  5. Ticket to Ride is a great game! Unfortunately, my husband is WAY better at strategy games than I am (except Othello, for some odd reason), so he usually beats me by quite a large margin. It’s still fun, though! Apples to Apples is another fun one…

    Thanks for the info on Sharebuilder. I’ll have to look in to it more.

  6. Emmy says:

    Hi Trent, I am curious about how you plan to handle it if your children don’t turn out to be as finacially responsible as you are? Do you think you would help them out of financial problems by loaning them money, etc?

  7. GVR says:

    Do you think you’ll ever outgrow video games? Do you want to? Do you think having a system in the house is good for your kids, bad for your kids, or a wash?

    I’m 26 years old and never got into video games. My youngest brother and his friends, though, spent all of high school on their consoles. Let’s just say I’m glad I went to high school before it became socially impossible not to be into “gaming.” At least in my home area, that is.

  8. Mark B. says:

    Did you stop doing the Consumer Reports reviews? I just received my latest issue and realized that you had not done a summary in quite a while (that I can remember).

  9. akinoluna says:

    Ha. I’m the opposite with book reading. I read literature/novels fast because I’m always anxious to see what happens next, but I read “fact” stuff slow.

  10. Frugal Dad says:

    Interesting note on the blogroll rotation. I’d like to implement something similar – did you hand-code the list to rotate, or is there a plug-in readily available that handles this feature?

  11. WhirlMind says:


    That was a great viewpoint about the community vs. individual perspectives. Never thought about it in that angle.

    I think, the extent to which a person thinks from a family or community viewpoint is directly proportional to the love he receives from the community or family. It might be paradoxical that a person who has first received love only can think of sharing love. But someone has to start , unconditionally to some extent, so that a circular effect happens.


  12. Carrie says:

    I would like a link to see your entire blogroll. Occassionally I lose the link to English Majors Money and I count on your blogroll to find it. Right now I just have to sit here and hit Re-fresh over and over until I find it.

    & a question for you!

    What are your thoughts on the “Handmade Revolution”? Do you shop handmade at all and do you feel that running an entreprise like those seen on the handmade websites (Etsy) is a viable way to earn a living?

  13. Tom Bowersox says:

    Hey Trent,
    Ticket to Ride is awesome! Played it with a friend this weekend (+1910 expansion) and we got the highest scores we’d seen – 142 for me, and somehow he eked out 148. Ugh.
    Anyway, I had an idea for you to do a book review on – Urban Homestead. I apologize for not having the authors name’s. The book is about all sorts of ways to try and save a little bit of money living in an urban environment – how to have a good food garden, information about installing solar panels and windmills, etc.

  14. InvestEveryMonth.com says:

    I’m still a big fan of that double cheeseburger post. Homemade burgers rock!

    Regarding the individual vs. community comment, while most of us would agree with the western tradition of individual rights, it can sometimes be taken too far. I’m not a big fan of some Republicans who think the market is all we need. I don’t agree with their strategy of trying to weaken democracy as much as possible. I think we need a balance of the individual and the community. A balance of the market and a transparent and accountable democracy.

  15. Margaret says:

    Perhaps a link at the bottom of the blogroll to a page with the entire blogroll?

  16. Sandy Naidu says:

    I was also always amazed by the number of books you read and review…

  17. gr8whyte says:

    I thought the comments on the clothesline thread reflected the personal/community dichotomy rather well.

  18. I completely agree that a college campus is a great place for cheap-but-original dates. I just wrote a post about cheap dates for college students, and one of my favorite ideas was checking out the school’s art dept/art gallery. It’s really fun to browse through and see what your peers are coming up with (awesome or ridiculous).

  19. Lauren says:

    You might be interested in the newish board game Pandemic — it’s cooperative, so it’s especially good for kids. Best of all, it’s rather inexpensive for a board game, about $30.

  20. I don’t have a blogroll on my blog because I feel like there are too many to list. Is there a (relatively simple) way to have a blogroll automatically rotate?

  21. Lisa says:

    I learned about Ticket to Ride from Trent. I bought the board game for my parents last Christmas. Then I purchased the online version for myself. I play a game about everyday. It is a terrible addiction. Online is nice if you need a speedy game and my German and French are improving.

  22. Lisa says:

    I meant to also say, I typically read the Simple Dollar WHILE I play the online Ticket to Ride. Yea. I just won. 168 points.

  23. Little Lugs says:

    Not a question or comment, really, but I wanted to share this- I recently received a slightly older edition of the Reader’s Digest book “Homemade” (http://www.amazon.com/Homemade-How-Hundreds-Everyday-Naturally/dp/0762109041/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1214911836&sr=1-1), and it is *awesome*. So, so many great ideas for making anything you can think of at home (they even have a quick oatmeal mix recipe!). I was so excited flipping through this book the first time, I thought you should know about it. Unfortunately it’s out of stock on Amazon, but I’m sure a little looking would pay off.

  24. equality says:

    I think people have difficuluty processing the notion that the communty ought to view the rights of the individual as paramount and the individual ought to view the rights of the community as paramount. Rational self interest recognizes that a man is not a island. When the interests of the two are in direct opposition, there ought to be a weighing of harm. Its more harmful for a gay person to be stuck in a closet ( having a phony straight marriage for example) than for a child to see a gay couple holding hands or pecking on the cheek. It is more harmful for my child to see butt cracks all over the place than it is for a person to pull up their pants or raise the rise on jeans.
    At the end of the day though, personal responsibility is the cornerstone of any group effort.

  25. Jessica says:

    “Can you imagine a whole neighborhood getting together to help the new guy on the block build his house?”

    Well, almost! When I was fifteen or sixteen my dad had this idea to build a post-and-beam shed – without power tools – “just to see if he could do it” – “for the lawnmower and snowblower”. He and my grandfather spent a good month and a half preparing the foundation and hand-drilling 8″x8″ beams for the frame and assembling them with dowels and old-fashioned cut nails (and a homemade wooden hammer, the head of which is about the size of my head). When it was time to put the thing together, obviously these frame sections were too heavy to lift, so we had a good old-fashioned ‘shed-raising’ – the neighbors came over, both sets of grandparents, friends, and nearby relatives. And a reporter from the town newspaper. It turned out to be really fun – we ended with a cookout – and the shed was essentially built in a day. The siding and roofing were another matter, but the frame had come together with neighborhood help, which was really cool to watch!

  26. Melissa says:

    Definitely a ‘me’ rather than us, especially when it comes to money. Don’t bother to think of tens of millions of Americans turning off some light bulbs to save electricity. Think of ‘me’ not getting paid fifty bucks an hour for my bother.

    I was in a grocery store and across the way, saw a photo on a magazine, Newsweek, of a polar bear looking back at me. 50/50 chance the North Pole will completely melt this summer. I started crying and couldn’t stop.

  27. starrycynthia says:

    Re Ticket to Ride-Europe. I wanted to purchase that as a gift for someone, but I don’t know who the manufacturer is for the correct version of the game. I have found it manufactured by more than one company. Is it the same game with just a little different look on the box?

    Which version does Trent play? Which version do the rest of you play? Is one better than another?

    Thanks for any info.

  28. Lisa says:

    Cynthia, I found Ticket to Ride games at a good, local, independent games store. The current marketers are at daysofwonder.com. The original version is likely the most common. It (the original) is simply called “Ticket to Ride” and sometimes referred to as the USA version (though it includes a few Canadian cities). The other possible versions are ‘Europe’ and ‘Germany.’ Then, there are ‘expansion’ sets. The expansion sets require that you already have one of the main versions as you will need the little train pieces from it to play the expansion versions. I think I paid $45 for the USA board game.

  29. Paula G says:

    Trent, can you give an example of your Excel budgeting? My husband and I use Excel for our net worth, but the actual budgeting…we use a large notebook currently, with ledger paper and index dividers. We spend hours every other week balancing out our money, and would love to find a quicker way.

  30. Sharon says:

    Regarding looking for great prices for future Christmas gifts. Do you realize that if you put an item in your cart on Amazon but don’t check out, that every time you check your cart in the future, Amazon will let you know if the price has either increased or decreased? Prices on some items have changed by 50% or more. I have a ton of things that I might buy someday if the price is right, and everyday I check to see whether today is “the” day. :)


  31. Natasha says:

    What is success, and how did you arrive at your definition?

  32. Lisa says:

    Trent, I know you’ve posted about moving among several majors in college. What degree did you actually end up getting? And in what sector did you work before you took the plunge to write full-time? I ask because I was also torn between the hard sciences and liberal arts in college and I’ve worked for twenty years in a science field. I often wonder how I can merge the two “halves” of myself to be more productive and happier in my current job, and to maybe have a second career after retirement from this job.

  33. Michelle says:

    Trent, right now, my family is using one car, meaning that as a SAHM, I’m stuck at home while my husband takes the car to work (I can take him and pick him up when I need the car, but it’s kind of a hassle with 2 kids). A friend of mine is selling her old car for $800. It’s got about 200K on it, but is rated as quite reliable by consumer reports. We have been saving up for a new car and were looking to buy this winter, and by spending $800 now, we could probably have another 2 years to save up even more. My husband doesn’t think it’s a good idea to buy a car with 200K on it at all, but I’m really sick of being stuck at home. What would you recommend we do?

  34. starrycynthia says:

    Lisa, thanks for the info on daysofwonder.com for Ticket to Ride. I’ll definitely check there! Appreciate the info.

  35. John says:

    Hi Trent,

    What are your thoughts on the ethical argument for not eating animals. Specifically, the argument from Gary Francione that states that since animals have a vested interest in continuing to exist, we should not infringe upon that by killing them. You might think of Michael Pollan’s explanation found in the Omnivore’s Dilemma so I’d encourage you to read a Vegan’s response to that chapter here.

  36. Katie says:

    I liked your individual v. community answer. Have you ever thought about it in relation to sidewalks?

    In America, our sidewalks are only large enough for one-two people to walk side-by-side. They are made for passing through one place to another –not for loitering, chatting, and getting to know the community.

    I’ve traveled to a couple other countries (India for example) that culturally, have a much more central focus on community and there, the areas for people to walk are much much larger.

    In India, there are many places, whole cities even, that are so filled with people that they are impassable to cars. Life happens on the streets. People sit and talk, there are open-air markets and many stores have the entire wall facing the street open. As a result, you spend much more time mingling with the community and getting to know people.

    I read an article with the former Prime Minister (at least, I think he was prime minister) of Columbia in the New York Times magazine. He said, “Sidewalks are essential for democracy,” because they are where people of all levels of society interact.

    Here, we have suburbs with no sidewalks and no town squares–no central meeting place. Now, it’s common for people not to even know their neighbors, making families more isolated and minimizing the importance of the community.

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