Reader Mailbag #41

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. Here’s some additional advice for dealing with winter weather.
Eight Frugal Ways to Prepare for Winter Driving
Eight Frugal Ways To Face An Iowa Winter
A Guide to Winterizing Your House

And now for some reader questions!

Hey Trent – my wife and I are not the most frugal people, but we are making strides…this year for Christmas gifts we want to give high quality unique homemade gifts, but are struggling to come up with things that would work with our families. We each have family members who are big tech geeks, but don’t really have the cash to spend on items they want. We have 7 relatives, male and female all over 22 years old that are on our list. Any suggestions?
– Jake

From what I’ve experienced, homemade foodstuffs rarely fail to make for a good gift. Homemade canned jellies, homemade candies, homemade beer – all of these make for great gifts for just about anyone.

One big key, though, is presentation. If you make homemade jelly, for instance, don’t can it in leftover pasta jars. Go to a warehouse store and buy a bunch of half-pint glass jars. Then, after the canning, the jars look good – classic and a bit rustic.

If I were you, I’d poke around online for some simple homemade foodstuff recipes and let your creativity go. Most people are quite happy with something tasty, and it doesn’t cost too much to make something really tasty.

I’m wondering, when you were working in an office, would you have used paid time off to stay home and look after your daughter? Would you have had to go into the office on the weekend and make up work? As a self-employed person, couldn’t you decide to give yourself that benefit when it’s truly needed?
– Adrienne

Typically, that’s how things work. I strive to write a lot of posts in advance so that if I need to take a day off to care for my own illness – or take care of my child or another emergency – I can do so without much worry.

Normally, I’ve been as much as two weeks ahead on posts for The Simple Dollar so that I could easily handle almost everything that came my way. With my recent illness, I managed to grind through that entire buffer, which is why I had to rely on a few guest posts recently (and may have to again in the near future).

The biggest benefit of being self-employed is that you can use your own judgment with regards to when you need time off, but you also need the wherewithal to plan in advance for it, too.

Do you have any advice for someone living and working in Detroit right now, with certain economic disaster if the government does not act to bail out the Big 3?
– Mark B.

If my economic future relied heavily on the American auto industry, I would be focusing all of my spare time on building up new skills and saving up as much money as possible. It’s very unclear what will happen with that industry and you’re better off being safe than sorry.

I would look into taking evening classes to earn a degree that can open you to new avenues of work. I’d take advantage of every professional training opportunity available to me right now. I’d cut back in every aspect of my personal spending and sock away as much emergency fund money as I could. I’d make sure that my retirement plans were as independent as possible from the big auto makers – that might mean starting your own Roth IRA.

The reason so many families will have problems if the “Big 3” fail is that they’ve tied their economic future to those companies. You should do everything in your power to put your economic future in your own hands – the job with the “Big 3” should just be an income source that you have the ability to easily replace.

did you make your own baby food when you started introducing solids to your children? If so, can you describe what you did. I’ve read a lot about this and I was hoping to get your take on it.
– Lauren

It was pretty simple, actually. We would just take leftover vegetables, leftover fruits, and occasionally leftover stews and other things, and puree them into a paste in the blender, adding a bit of water if needed. Then we would pour this puree into ice cube trays and pop the trays in the freezer.

When it came time to feed the child, we’d pop out a cube or two and microwave it until it had returned to a warm paste and then feed it to our child.

Our first child vastly preferred our homemade foods to the ones from Gerber, mostly because of our gentle spicing of the vegetables and such. Our second child didn’t like either one too much and migrated to finely chopped table foods pretty quickly. I think she had a stronger desire to eat what everyone else was eating, particularly her older brother.

Is it ever a good idea to scale back on my 401K contributions in order to pay off my credit cards faster? I’ve been contributing 5% of my salary and my company matches that. So with their match I’m contributing 10% of my salary. I’ve been doing this for close to 7 years now. With the market the way it is, I’ve been thinking about contributing less and using that money to dig out of my hole faster.
– Ed

If you scale back your contributions and lose the match that your employer is providing, you’re basically giving away an immediate 100% return to pay down a 20% interest rate debt. That’s a really bad idea, no matter how you slice it.

Your best bet is to stay with the matching situation you have right now and seek out ways to cut some spending in your own life. Then, apply the money saved from those spending cuts to your credit card debt. For example, if you can do some simple things to make your home more energy efficient, you can easily save $40 each month on your energy bill. Take that $40 and apply it as an extra payment on your credit cards.

Does your Kitchenaid have the drop down bowl, or the top flips up, my mom had a flip up top and loved it and bought a drop down bowl the second go around and really didn’t like it (cause you had to take the paddle (or whatever) off before removing the bowl. What is your take?
– onaclov

My KitchenAid stand mixer is the Professional 6, which is pretty large and does not have a flip top. I don’t find the need to remove the paddle when you remove the bowl to be much of a disadvantage at all, as this often makes it easier to remove the remaining food from the paddle.

I actually think that a person tends to prefer whichever style they become familiar with first. I think both styles have advantages and disadvantages, but I personally prefer the larger Pro 6 style mixer with the stationary head.

My wife was laid off in October and has been unable to find a new job. In her time away she has grown to like being at home and is wanting to “work from home” instead of going back full time in a regular job. It is very stressful because I want to support her, but I cannot financially support the whole family. I have no idea on where to start to look for things she can do to earn a steady income from home. Any suggestions?
– Chris

Working from home doesn’t really work unless you’re (a) willing to invest a lot of startup time into making something work without much income at first (a la blogging and other online endeavors) or (b) you have marketable skills that people are willing to pay for in a freelance setting.

If you’re in a situation where neither of these paths really works for you, then you’re going to have a hard time making a go of it working from home. Most of the “work at home” opportunities you hear about on television either don’t work at all or only thrive in the hands of a person with a particular skill set.

Trent, I’d like to see a comparison of homemade spaghetti sauce vs. store bought.
– Nate

Homemade spaghetti sauce is universally cheaper and almost always tastier than what you can buy in the store, but it does take more effort. With the store-purchased spaghetti sauce, you can essentially just open the jar and dump the sauce into a saucepan to warm it up and you’re good to go. It’s not quite that easy making it yourself.

Even so, making your own sauce is still really easy. Just skin and dice up a few tomatoes, cook them down a bit, add a bit of olive oil and oregano and basil and you’re off to a very good start. The cost is maybe a couple quarters unless you’re buying tomatoes out of season.

When you get good at that, you can experiment however you like, but basic pasta sauce is incredibly easy.

I’ve seen these offers from credit-issuing companies for a kind of insurance that supposedly pays off certain kinds of debt when the person covered becomes disabled. I’ve also read that buying this insurance from say, a credit-card company is overly expensive and is generally a bad move.
What’s the low-down on this kind of policy? Is there legit insurance of this type and what’s the best way to go about purchasing it?

– Robert

You’re referring to long-term disability insurance. Typically, such policies provide an income for you if you’re disabled in such a way that makes it impossible for you to work. Some policies may pay off particular debts for you as well.

As for who to buy such a policy from, your best best is to simply shop around. Do some internet searching for disability insurance and see what you can find.

You mentioned before that you and your wife typically go out on a movie date each Christmas evening. What movie are you going to see this year?
– Im

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I loved the short story when I read it many years ago, we’re both fans of Brad Pitt as an actor, and it’s already garnered a pile of award nominations.

Honestly, none of the other Christmas releases pique my interest that much. For instance, The Day the Earth Stood Still almost makes me want to cry because the original is one of my favorite movies and the remake appears to be an utter butchering of everything I loved about the original.

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

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