Reader Mailbag #3

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.

First of all, after the recent discussion about finding your own passion, a reader named Syble sent in the following idea, which I loved:

Another suggestion for finding your passion: keep a note card and every time you see, hear or experience something that makes you feel really good, write it down. Love seeing sci-fi movies? Spending time with your elderly aunt or joining in a pick-up soccer game at the nearby park? Making a table? Organizing dinner parties? Write it down on your card! On the other side of the card, write down everytime you see, hear or experience something that makes your blood boil. A child being molested? The poor state of the streets where you live? The way women are treated in Afghanistan? Immigrants who can’t speak English? Write it down. After a few weeks, look at your list and see what patterns emerge and if a particular like or dislike jumps out. That’s where your passion lies! It’s where you have strong emotional feelings and want to be involved. Look in that direction for a job, hobby or volunteer opportunity. You could help create change by teaching adults English as a career or volunteer. Concerned about children? Look into an agency involved in parent support, foster care, programs for kids from troubled backgrounds, shelters for abused women and children, etc. Look at the political route or become active in a committee to improve the infrastructure of your town. Review sci-fi movies for a local paper or write for a magazine. Collect and sell sci-fi movies. Think really broadly about what moves you emotionally to focus your efforts on a job, career or personal time search for having a passion for what you’re doing.

That’s a truly great idea, well worth trying.

Also, here are a few links that directly answer a few questions I’ve heard lately.
My thoughts (both good and bad) on Rich Dad, Poor Dad
Preparation-for-life advice and money advice for college students
Frugal golfing

And now for some good ol’ fashioned reader questions!

Where do you think is the line between self-reliance and outsourcing, making and buying ? Washing your own clothes and pressing them vs. giving it out to laundry? LoL. Why didn’t you grow your own wheat/maize to make your bread ? It would have been simple, sweet, self-reliant and of course, I am sure, you would have found an argument to show how it can be cost-effective (like owning a small wheat farm and co-operatively distributing the wheat to all like-minded breadmakers in the community).
– WhirlMind

In most of those cases, you’re paying others for a particular service you could do yourself. That’s a value exchange, and that’s completely an individual judgement call – there are some things that are done more effectively by paying someone else to do them. The problem comes in when you no longer have the faintest idea how to provide that service. What would you do if suddenly a plague wiped out 99% of Earth’s population? Would you know how to survive? Could you make your own food? Gather water? Keep yourself clean?

The advantage of doing things yourself is that you learn at least some of these skills, and they function as something of an insurance policy for you. When I grew up, there was an old mountain man who lived completely off the land near where I lived. People looked down on him because he didn’t keep himself up, but do you want to guess where I would have headed if society’s fabric had begun to collapse?

Given a year or so, I know how to make corn flour, and I’m fairly confident I could make wheat flour. I also know how to make a wood fire and I know the process for collecting your own yeast. Thus, given almost nothing except for adequate time, I could produce a passable loaf of bread. There aren’t many people I know that could do this, but I know that there is at least some potential for that to be very useful.

Self-reliance is a way to improve yourself and make yourself more ready to tackle the challenges that life may deal to you.

You seem kinda arrogant. Are you really happy with your life? Like, really? What area of your life are you disappointed with? Come clean.
– fungi

I write with natural self-confidence. Words without confidence don’t inspire others to any sort of passion, and it takes passion to step up to the plate and take ahold of your finances. I think my natural tendency to write with self-confidence sometimes convinces people that I’m arrogant.

The only thing I’m unhappy with in my life is that there are only twenty four hours in a day and as a result I have to choose among a big pile of things that I’d like to do. This always leaves threads I’d love to follow up on, and I often feel a tremendous amount of guilt because I don’t get around to some of those things. I sometimes wind up putting a lot of pressure on myself to “make good.”

Have you ever considered investing in real estate? If not, how come?
– Jared the Super

Real estate investing is not something I’ve looked at with any degree of seriousness. Successful real estate transactions seem to generally require more personal involvement than I’m interested in. Certainly, there are options that minimize this personal involvement, like REITs, but those are asset classes that I don’t see a big need to include in my life right now.

In a nutshell, it just doesn’t get my fire going, and I don’t see a strong financial reason to get involved, so I’m content to just let it be.

I would love to see a post about commercials and money. What is your reaction to commercials like the debit card one. Wife is watching TV when it goes out. She says “yes, we need a new TV.” Man rejoices and “wisely” plans how much to spend on TV by looking at his bank balance on his handy-dandy debit card. I could see a whole post what is right/wrong with this commercial alone.
– Sharon

It would be pretty easy for me to go on yet another anti-television rant, but suffice it to say that I think most commercial television is so loaded with marketing messages that you might as well invite a corporate pitch man into your living room to shill for you for thirty minutes. Not just commercials, but within programs – there are “clever” product placements everywhere. My favorite one is Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, a seemingly heartwarming show that is buried in so many product placements that I often lose track of where the commercial ends and the program begins.

Enough of that. I agree – the commercial is obnoxious.

What is your absolute favorite frugal recipe?
– Sandy Fleming

Easy – sixteen bean soup! Just get a bag of dried beans at your local grocery store, a pound of ham or so, half an onion, and make sure you have some salt and pepper in hand. It’s good to cook this on a weekend the first time. The night before, put all of the beans in a pot of cold water and put that pot in the fridge to soak overnight. When you’re about three hours before you’re ready to eat, drain the beans of the water (which will be pretty cloudy), pour enough water into the beans to cover them with about an inch of water on top, and put them on to simmer for three hours. You can add in the ham and (chopped) onions at whatever point you wish during this three hours – earlier means the soup will be more consistent in flavor and the onion and ham will be more tender, later gives each bite a bit more variety.

Here’s the best part: that recipe makes enough for three meals for my family. We take the leftover soup, split it in half, put each half in two freezer Ziploc bags, and drop these bags in the freezer. Whenever we want it for a meal, we just take out the bag a day or two early to thaw and then just warm it up, either by stove top or by microwave. This makes the meal cost substantially less than a dollar per person per meal at our house.

What are the best parenting/baby books? I plan to be a new parent within the next few years, and I’m looking for a list of books that will help me w/ the whole experience. And I know you read like a madman. ;) Thanks.
– Dave

A lot of people will immediately recommend What to Expect When You’re Expecting (and other What to Expect books). These are fine for reference, but they often read like a “Worst Case Scenario” handbook and can easily make a reader feel quite (unnecessarily) nervous about the experience. Get it, keep it as a reference, but don’t read it as gospel.

Instead, I got a lot of good use out of The Expectant Father, The New Father: A Dad’s Guide to the First Year, and The New Father: A Dad’s Guide to the Toddler Years. All three were really useful for preparing myself to be a father, as I found that the things I expected to be challenging were actually easy and the real challenges were unexpected. The books basically have nailed things quite well along the way.

Have you ever in hindsight regretted blogging something, maybe because it was too controversial, too personal, or something of that nature?
– Eric

Not entire posts, but I’ve often regretted my chosen wording and occasionally my choice of examples. A few times, I’ve gotten carried away with criticism towards something I deeply feel is wrong. My biggest frustration/regret as a blogger is when I’m talking about one point, make a single reference to something related in one sentence, and the entire resulting conversation is derailed by this sidebar discussion. That usually makes me feel as though I’ve somehow failed as a writer, that this little side point is more compelling than my article as a whole, and it makes me regret the article that I wrote.

What are your thoughts on outsourcing your life? Do you do any outsourcing yourself? How do you feel it helps or could help highly busy and productive people? I do this about halfway and am incredibly productive… I was just wondering your thoughts.
– Shanti

I think this could be potentially worthwhile depending on your situation. “Outsourcing your life” is just a continuation of the old idea of hiring people to do stuff for you that you yourself don’t want to do. Most people think it’s normal to hire someone to mow your yard – the idea here is basically to hire someone to check your email or do other mundane tasks so you can focus in on the pieces you enjoy. I see no problem with that whatsoever if it’s a time-for-money exchange where you feel your time is more valuable.

Personally, I would be rather hesitant to hire someone to answer correspondence on my behalf, but as my correspondence grows, I can actually see reaching a point where I would consider it.

What is your opinion on affirmative action? Also, what is your opinion on reparations for native americans?
– Outlook

I’m not an expert on affirmative action or other such initiatives – there are great arguments for and against it. I do believe, though, that as long as people are judged even slightly by the color of their skin versus the content of their character, then something does have to be adjusted. Many people feel that the adjustments are too much, but recent current events in America have convinced me that perhaps as a nation we’re not as advanced on racial equality issues as we’d like to be. I guess, then, as a white male, I’m okay with affirmative action, though I think every single one of us should be working towards an America where affirmative action is an unnecessary antiquated notion.

As for Native American reparations, I am legally qualified to receive them, as I am legally eligible to be a member of a tribe. Considering my experience with Native American life mostly comes from memories of my grandmother using homeopathic remedies, I think the fact that I am eligible is rather silly. As for whether they’re necessary in general, I think the best way for reparations to be given is in the form of opportunities – scholarships and other tools to allow people in bad situations to improve themselves. I generally feel this way about any government assistance – it should be assistance for people who are genuinely trying to help themselves, not subsistence.

Is Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian almost all new material or has he just cut out the meat part of How to Cook Everything?
– John

As some of you know, I’m pretty intrigued by food and I’ve found that Mark Bittman is my favorite food writer – in fact, How to Cook Everything is my default recommendation for a beginner cookbook.

There is significant overlap between How to Cook Everything and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. I’d say as much as 50% of the content is the same in each one, but that other 50% really makes a big difference. Having said that, I’d probably stick with the original until the new one comes out in paperback unless you happen to be a vegetarian or you’re really interested in diving into vegetarian cooking. If that’s the case, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is a very good book.

What is your opinion of the “Can I afford it?” segment on the Suze Orman show? All of the callers seem to have $60,000 to $140,000 in savings and yet are not smart enough to know if they should take a $4,000 vacation. Do you think the callers are real?
– st

There are a lot of people out there that need encouragement in their decision-making process. They already know the answer, but they feel much better about things if an “authority” of some sort reaffirms their gut instinct. That’s really what the segment is about – reaffirming common sense when it comes to purchasing decisions. It’s helpful for some people and redundant for others.

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