Reader Mailbag #23

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.
A guide to moving from a nine-to-five job to self-employment
The time I wrote about Seinfeld

And now for some great reader questions!

I would like to see you address strategies for those of us that are not college educated. My husband is a truck driver and I am a school secretary. We make a decent wage but it’s never enough especially with the economy. Our kids are ready for college but how are we going to pay for that? Retirement? It’s very scary. I feel like we are in the gap. Not too poor, but none too rich.
– Dana

The first step is you need to stop blaming your lack of financial success on the lack of a college education. You already have all of the tools you need to become a success in life.

First thing: sit down and figure out where every dime of your money is going. How much of it is unnecessary? How much of it is just spur-of-the-moment desires? Get rid of as much of that as you can, or replace it with cheaper alternatives.

Second, figure out what you really want from life. Your only major goals in life seems to be vague ideas of paying for college and retirement. Figure out exactly what you want to do. Do you want to give $10K to each of your kids for college? Do you want to have $500K in retirement in twenty years? Define exactly what it is you want to do and when, then divide it down into one tiny goal a week. If you want to save $10K in two years, that means you need to start socking back $96 a week in a savings account. Focus entirely on this week – how can you save $96? What little things can you cut? If you can cut more than that, great! Apply the difference towards an emergency fund for things like car breakdowns, and things that will make it easier to save the money, like a programmable thermostat so you don’t have to keep the A/C running while you’re at work.

That’ll get you going.

How do you go about for writing fiction? Do you take the same “outlining” approach you use for your post? Or do you write fiction on a more “linear” way?
– Jamie

I sure do. I actually outline it twice – I have a character outline for each character (how do they change?) and a plot outline (what happens?), then I combine them into a much more detailed outline, then I start writing onto that.

I usually try to make each major character similar in some way to someone I care about, whether it’s myself, my wife, one of my siblings, my parents, or a close friend or family member. This makes it easier for me to imagine them dealing with the altered version of their life I’ve place them in.

I resigned from my job on Friday and today was my last day at the office. They would rather just pay me my two weeks instead of having me come in.

How would you use the 2 extra weeks’ time? My current plan is to regroup and possibly look at some part-time volunteering while I’m hunting for a job.
– Laura

I’d throw everything I had at the job hunt. Call all the people in your social and professional network and ask what they know about for jobs. Get some strong possibilities lined up before doing anything else.

If I managed to get something lined up with some time to spare, I’d probably spend the rest of that time doing whatever felt most personally fulfilling to me, either some volunteer work or some personally challenging reading.

That’s interesting about the Simple Green. Can that combo be successfully used on regular laundry? I’m just wondering if there’s a point to mixing up a batch of liquid detergent if I can just dump washing soda and Simple Green into my laundry.
– Kristen

This message refers to my wife’s adopted solution for cleaning our cloth diapers – she uses three teaspoons of washing soda and four or five squirts of Simple Green from a spray bottle to clean a small load of cloth diapers.

I think this would work fine for regular clothes that weren’t too dirty, though I’d probably use a bit more of each and experiment – four or five teaspoons of washing soda and perhaps six squirts of Simple Green.

The only problem here is that in order to make this recipe really cost effective, you have to buy Simple Green in huge quantities at a warehouse store. My wife bought an enormous container of the stuff there – a gallon or so – for about $8. This is far cheaper than the cost at your average store – without the ability to buy it that cheap, this recipe wouldn’t be very cost-effective.

Do you ever feel like you’re not doing enough, but then when you think about the tiny frugal step you just took does it feel inadequate? I guess my question is, does it feel like no matter how much you save it will never be enough or you will never actually reach those far off goals?
– Dody

This is the exact reason why I use long term goals to set short term goals. I spend a lot of time looking at my long term goals and trying to figure out how they can be broken down into pieces the length of a week or so. That way, if I can swallow that small bite, I not only get the nice feeling of accomplishing a little goal, I know it’s a step towards my bigger goal.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I have $42K in student loans and I want to get them paid off in three years. That’s a pretty big goal. But if you break it down into smaller bites, it’s not so enormous. Getting rid of that debt requires an extra payment of $269 a week. For a young professional without any attachments, this is something that’s potentially doable. Each week when you make that goal, it feels like you’ve accomplished something worthwhile – but it’s also a good feeling to know that it’s another step towards the huge goal. Keep doing that smaller step over and over again and you’ll have that student loan gone before you know it.

You have said that you and your wife have wills in place already (I think). I am not trying to be grim here, but I was wondering what you have in your will about The Simple Dollar in the event of your untimely death. Would it carry on? Would your wife hire some people to take it over?
– Andy

I have a set of instructions for my wife that, in the event of my death, would turn The Simple Dollar into a giant pile of static web pages. This would allow the site to persist with no maintenance. Google searchers could still find the information on the site and there would still be ad income from it that would help support all of them. I also have a “final post” saved as a draft which she could post to the site explaining this.

I really don’t have much interest in having another writer take over The Simple Dollar. If that ever happens, you can rest assured that I got an offer so lucrative that I wouldn’t have to work ever again. I’ve already turned down offers that would pay off every debt I have and leave me with several years’ worth of living expenses.

What do you do if you lead a horse to water and he won’t drink? He will end up losing this house but has his head in the sand.
– M

Some people have to experience failure themselves in order to learn – and some don’t even learn then. You can’t make someone understand something – they have to come to that understanding themselves.

My advice? Step back and let the failure happen. Don’t help with the pain of the blow, either – save that help for later on when he actually knows how to utilize it for success.

Ok, why do new comments get inserted in the mix of the thread instead of at the end? I’m guessing it has something to do with moderation and getting approved, but it throws me completely off when I’m trying to follow an interesting comment discussion, and I’m sure I miss a lot of comments that way since re-reading the entire thing every time I check back is frustrating.
– Chiara

Here’s the truth: The Simple Dollar gets about 2,500 comments a day. About 50% of those are spam about how to buy various prescription medications or download pornographic materials. Obviously, I don’t want such comments on the site, so I have to moderate the comments.

Now, if I manually moderated all 2,500 comments each day, I’d never get anything else done. So I’ve had to adopt a system to help me out with this project. On the back end of The Simple Dollar is a program that makes a quick determination about each comment. If it’s quite certain it’s spam, it tosses that comment in the trash immediately. If it’s quite certain it’s good, it goes ahead and posts the comment. (The biggest reason why a comment gets marked as good is that I’ve already marked several comments by that person as “good.” The system views that person as trusted and goes ahead and approves their stuff.) The rest go into the moderation queue, where I take a look.

So, let’s say a new article goes up on The Simple Dollar. Comment A, sent at 12:01, is automatically approved. Comment B, sent at 12:02 AM, goes into moderation. Comment C, sent at 12:03 AM, is automatically approved. When they show up on the site, they’re simply listed in the order they were posted. So, Comment A is listed first as #1 and Comment C is listed next as #2 for the time being. When I go through and approve comments, Comment B gets approved. Then, the next time the page is displayed, all of the comments are ordered by the time they were posted – Comment A is #1, Comment B is now #2, and Comment C is #3.

In other words, you can thank the spammers for this.

I know you have at least two kids. Did you do any research on using a diaper service? I wonder if this “luxury” could fit into a frugal lifestyle?
– Angela

As a person that cloth diapers, I’ve found that if you have your own washing machine, there’s not that much effort to it. The real benefit of a cloth diapering service is simply that it keeps you from having to touch baby poop. If that’s a really big stumbling block for you… I recommend not having children.

In all seriousness, though, a diaper service is no different than any other time-saving service. Do it yourself for a bit and if you discover that the time invested in washing and prepping cloth diapers is worth the cost of the diaper service (and any time invested there), then switch to the diaper service. For us, it’s far cheaper to just do it at home.

I want to buy my wife a nice set of kitchen knives – a set that will last forever and will make cooking more enjoyable. Any recommendations?
– Patrick

Don’t worry about a knife set, per se. Instead, just get a couple top quality knives, a honing steel, and a magnetic knife rack.

I’d recommend a chef’s knife – my favorite one I’ve ever tried is the Global 8 inch chef’s knife. Get a paring knife – for this, a cheap paring knife at the local department store will do. You may also want a bread knife as well, depending on how often you bake bread.

I use my chef’s knife for 90% of the stuff I do in the kitchen. Just make sure you get her a very good chef’s knife, a honing steel to keep the edge on it, and a magnetic knife rack so that the edge doesn’t wear off while being taken in and out of the rack.

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