Reader Mailbag #19

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.
Is money the root of all evil? No.
Stay at home parenting is a difficult question
Some advice if you feel like you’re making no progress

And now for some great reader questions!

Do you ever feel embarrassed by being such a cheap loser?
– Fez

I decided to include Fez’s email because it’s a great example of messages I see every day, both in comments and in emails directly to me. I know that I’ve also had readers complain about rampant negativity from time to time.

Here’s the scoop, as I see it. Talking honestly about money and how it connects to your personal self-consciousness is not an easy thing. Many cultures tell us to keep it bottled up, and still others act as if money is shameful.

It’s not. Money is a representation of your hard work, and what you choose to do with it is up to you.

Because it’s a representation of your work, though, it’s worthwhile to spend some time thinking about it – and asking yourself why it makes you uncomfortable. I would argue that if you’re taunting someone else about money, it’s a hang-up within your own money beliefs, not the fault of the person you’re taunting.

So, do I feel embarrassed being a “cheap loser”? No, not at all. I’m proud of my own financial ideas, and if I weren’t, I wouldn’t be sharing them here. If you must resort to such insults, I can only conclude that you’re the one not proud of your own financial choices.

What’s your favorite kind of cheese?
– Kat

Now, this kind of question is more up my alley.

It depends on the use. For a grilled cheese sandwich, nothing tops gruyere, in my opinion. I like to make gruyere-and-ham grilled cheese sandwiches (known as a croque monsieur) and occasionally I’ll drop a fried egg on top (a croque madame).

For most uses, such as on salads, on burgers, and just for munching, I love blue cheese. A truly good piece of blue cheese is sublime, particularly on top of a burger coated in black pepper.

In various dishes, all kinds of cheeses are great: mozzarella, parmigiano, Swiss, feta, really sharp Cheddars. All are fantastic. I dream of going on a wine and cheese tour throughout France.

What are your best frugal tips for hot weather?
– Shari

You mean, aside from hacking your ceiling fan?

I usually recommend raising your home’s temperature a bit until you find a point that you can tolerate, then leaving it there throughout the summer. To keep yourself cool, drink ice cold beverages, including water – I often get my water so cold it’s on the verge of turning into ice.

Also, take cool showers instead of warm ones. It’s hard to get used to if you take warm showers, but try lowering the temperature until you find it tolerable. Cool showers can lower your natural body temperature, making you feel cool.

Trent what about becoming a foster parent instead of adopting?
– Rob Madrid

I feel that there are some fundamental problems with the foster care system, as explained by the Pew Charitable Trusts in their foster care reform efforts:

Unfortunately, too many foster children wait far too long for a permanent family. On average, a foster child moves from one temporary home to another three times before the child’s status is resolved. Children who stay in the system for long periods of time often have emotional and behavioral problems and perform poorly in school. Later in life, they are more likely to become homeless, unemployed, incarcerated or dependent on welfare.

I tend to agree with their report on strengthening families through guardianship – the best foster care is one within the extended family, which provides some continuity for the child.

I very much wish to help children in disadvantaged situations, but I’m more inclined to believe in the starfish parable – I’d rather make a profound difference in one child’s life than merely brush the lives of many children who are trapped in a system that isn’t really advocating for them.

This is just my personal belief, not a political statement.

What are some cheap ways to enjoy a professional sporting event? Particularly a baseball game. I like going to major league games, but the prices are ridiculous.
– Adam

Buy your tickets well in advance, and don’t worry that much about great seats. Instead, focus on spending time enjoying the carnival experience around the outside of the park before and after a game. Fill up on snacks and beverages outside the park, where the prices are cheaper, and minimize your souvenirs – most of that stuff can be had elsewhere for much cheaper.

In short, prices inside the park are a rip-off, so do what you can to minimize your spending inside. If you must have a dog and a brew, that’s fine, but rather than having three or four, hold off until after the game and have a good time outside the field.

Is emusic a good deal or not?
– Jill

This was actually a question I’ve heard over IM twice in the last week, so I thought it’d be a good one to address. I’ve been a user of emusic for years and I love it – for me, it’s well worth it. It’s an opportunity to expose myself to lots of new music and discover interesting stuff I hadn’t heard before.

You have to realize what you’re getting with emusic before you even sign up. The site is basically a source for legal mp3s of bands on smaller record labels. That means you’re not going to get Coldplay’s latest when you sign up. Instead, you’ll be going for stuff by My Morning Jacket and Sufjan Stevens.

If that sounds good to you, emusic is a treasure trove. If you rarely listen to music or stick mostly to top forty music or whatever you hear on the radio, it’s probably not going to be worthwhile, though.

I’ve downloaded literally thousands of mp3s from the site over the years, though, and feel it’s been worth every penny.

My husband and I are expecting our first child this December. Would it be absolutely insane to attempt to use cloth diapers if you don’t have a washer/dryer in your apartment?

We have a washer and dryer in our apartment building’s basement, which is $1.25 per load. It’s not so bad to wash clothes/towels/sheets for two adults, but I expect we’ll have a ton of extra laundry once the baby comes.

Would you recommend we use disposables until we have an in-house W/D unit? Or maybe go 25% cloth, 75% disposable?
– Kacie

If you’re looking at a strict financial accounting, it’s still worth it, but it’ll take a lot longer to break even and you’ll be taking a lot more trips down to the basement to do laundry. Given those two factors, it’s probably not a good solution in your situation.

Cloth diapering works much better when you have steady, regular access to washing machines and dryers at arm’s reach, plus the cost per load isn’t controlled by putting quarters in the box. I’d wait until you can do that to dive into cloth diapering, which basically means don’t do it unless you’re going to have a second child.

This does ignore the landfill issue. One of the big reasons my wife and I got on board was the realization of how many diapers we were tossing into landfills with our usage. If that bothers you, you’ll have to make your own judgment.

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?
– Matt

I will cover this in detail later on, but a few basic tips.

First, start off with simple recipes. No matter what you’re homebrewing, make sure you know the basic procedures first before getting bogged down in something tricky. Stick with a single grape wine and just make a basic batch.

Second, clean everything well. Clean it again if you’re not sure. The biggest disasters almost always occur because something isn’t clean.

Third, don’t overly sweeten it. You’re better off making a drier wine than one that’s too sweet, because you can accompany a dry wine with something sweet and it’s still tolerable to most palates.

Follow those three and a basic wine making guide and you’ll be off to a good start.

Do you consider yourself rich? How much money would you have to have to consider yourself rich?
– Leslie

I do not consider myself rich. I would consider myself rich if I had enough money in savings and investments so that the income from those investments would cover my living expenses with complete steadiness and with some room to breathe. I’m a long way from that.

My math tells me that this amount is somewhere around $1.7 million, but I’d like to have it higher to curb against inflation.

Since you’ve given up several expensive hobbies over the last few years (Magic and golfing, to name two), do you ever miss them and want to play again?
– Phil

Of course, in both cases. I had a lot of fun doing both. However, I’ve resisted the temptation to play either one on a consistent basis. I’ve spent a couple lazy afternoons playing Magic with other people’s cards, and I’ve gone golfing twice since my son was born (with one trip being covered by someone else).

I’ve mostly moved on to other hobbies and interests – and my wallet thanks me.

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

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