Updated on 12.15.08

Reader Mailbag #43

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. Here are some ideas on New Year’s resolutions from years past on The Simple Dollar.
How to Define and Stick To a Successful New Year’s Resolution, Financial or Otherwise
Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail (Especially Financial Ones) – And How You Can Make Yours Succeed
Defining My Financial New Year’s Resolutions – And Their Action Plans

And now for some reader questions!

don’t you have a laptop computer that should work through power outages? And if power outages threaten your income, wouldn’t you consider it wise to purchase a generator?
– George

While I think it would be fun to have a tax-deductible reason to get a home generator, I really don’t have a need for it. Quite a lot of my writing activity happens far away from the keyboard, as I jot down notes here and there and work out posts in my head before I ever sit down. The biggest purpose of the computer, actually, is to actually finish composing and then posting articles, which is something that can wait.

I do have a laptop that I could use in a pinch, but it would be useless for posting articles in a power outage, because when the power is out, we don’t have internet access even if the router in the house is powered up.

What steps did you take to obtain corporate advertising on your blog?
– Lauren

The first step I took was to simply sign up for Google AdSense. Through that program, Google basically just supplies you with a bit of code for your site, then they do all the work of finding advertisers and matching appropriate ones (well, mostly appropriate ones) with your website. They do all this automatically.

Another good place to get ads if you’re a blogger is BlogAds, where advertisers go to target specific sites. The income is more irregular than with AdSense, but you have a lot more control over the ads that are delivered to your site.

After that, most of the subsequent offers came to me once my site reached a certain size. Advertisers of all stripes contact me, but I’m pretty selective on the ads I accept.

If we could get a mortgage payment lower than what we would pay for rent, is it better to save the money for a downpayment on a house, or are we better off knocking down a lot more debt before we take on such a huge financial commitment?
– Bekki

If the debt is high interest (which is how I’d describe anything over about 7% interest), I’d unquestionably knock down the debt first. Not only do high-interest debts squeeze your monthly budget tight, they also tend to hurt your credit rating if you have a substantial amount, which means you’d get a worse rate on your mortgage.

Owning a house comes with a lot of additional effort and expense that many first-time homeowners don’t see coming. You’re suddenly responsible for all of the maintenance of the home and the lawn, for starters, and you’re now on the hook for homeowners’ insurance and property tax. It’s not a leap you necessarily want to make just because the mortgage payment is a bit lower than your rent bill.

Since you mentioned that you liked the Watchmen novel, are you looking forward to the movie?
– Toni

Not at all. I’m almost always disappointed by film adaptations of books that I love, and I don’t see any reason to expect that Watchmen will be any different.

I can only think of a very small number of film adaptations of books that I actually liked and those were ones where a huge amount of liberty was taken with the original book, often to the point where the book and the movie are basically different stories.

I recently bought term life insurance. My work place also provides Group Life Insurance at much reduced cost as a benefit. I could get almost equivalent coverage (7X salary) from this option. I had heard that Group Life policies are very restrictive. But with 7X coverage, would it be terrible to switch to the life insurance from work and ditch my individual policy?
– Pankaj

While that might look like a good move at first glance, the problem with a life insurance plan through your workplace is that if you were to ever leave employment with that company, you’re no longer covered.

What does that leave you with? You’re suddenly older and left completely without a life insurance policy. If you wait until then to turn to private coverage, you’ll be saddled with a substantially higher rate than you are now.

My advice is to balance the two, actually. Make sure that you’re not uninsured when you leave your employer, but also take advantage of the benefit you’re being provided. I’d probably split my life insurance between the two.

Of all of the magazines you subscribe to, which one do you enjoy the most?
– Lily

The Atlantic gets the most attention per issue, easily, but each issue of that magazine has a ton of good content.

Over the course of a year, I probably spend the most time with The New Yorker, but it’s a weekly magazine, not a monthly. I usually read two or three of the feature articles in each issue, each of which are ten pages long or so.

Most of the other magazines I read tend to get less focus per issue than those two, usually because I tend to just browse through them rather than read them carefully in depth.

Even for a single person – how much higher does your salary have to be to make it worthwhile to uproot, sell your house and move somewhere else? And in our case, with the ridiculous car debt, how much does that skew the options?
– BudgetBride

It depends on where you’re moving from and moving to. If you’re moving from New York City to Omaha, Nebraska, for example, you can accept a substantially lower salary and still be cash ahead in making the move.

I think that, in any move, you need to be content with the change that you’re making. Are you moving towards something you actually want? If the move is going to make your life miserable, there’s no price that’s worth it. On the other hand, if you’re dreaming of making that move, then you can probably handle a pretty steep fall in income.

Do you listen to classical music? What classical music do you like?
– Edgar

I often listen to classical music while writing. I usually download a classical album or two each month from emusic and enjoy most of the picks that I’ve made.

The best thing I’ve heard in a long time, though, is Simone Dinnerstein’s interpretation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It’s absolutely magnificent from beginning to end – I love the music and I love the performance of it. To me, this is what good classical music is all about.

I’m seriously dating a woman with a bad spending habit. I’d like to spend the rest of my life with her, but I’m concerned that if she can’t get her finances under control now, how will she ever deal with making mortgage payments and having more than her own mouth to feed? And how do I convince her that just because she can afford something, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to buy it (especially when she truly convinces herself that she *needs* the new BMW)?
– Dave

It’s clear from this that you and your partner are in very different places when it comes to spending, and unless you get on the same page, things are not going to work out.

You need to have a very serious heart to heart about money, possibly with a counselor involved. If you’re met with a constant wall of denial and rejection, then it may not bode well for the long-term future of your relationship, because it indicates an unwillingness to work through problems.

If you decide to overlook it, you’re likely going to either have to subscribe to her spending philosophies (and spend your life constantly running on the treadmill) or spend all of your time being a frugal counterweight to keep your head above water.

Do you ever feel like quitting blogging?
– Andrew

Of course. There is no sustained activity that anyone does that isn’t occasionally tinged with a fair amount of regret. It doesn’t matter how much you love it – a long-term period of focused work will at some point make you wish you were doing something else.

How do I deal with it? I usually try to keep ahead with my writing so that if I ever feel like I want to step away, I take a short break (a few days or so) from the rigors of constantly writing articles. So far, after a few days away, the fire to write has come right back.

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

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  1. My dad has a big classical music collection. I’m talking about 1,000 or so CDs. He’s more frugal than most, but he goes crazy on random things. He loves his CDs, blew a few hundred on nativity figurines, and was “moved” by a $300 coffee maker he saw over the holidays. Ahh guilty pleasures…

    Trent, how is the iPod Touch? What do you use it mostly for? Music? Internet? No wait, I know – Twitter!

  2. J.D. says:

    Trent wrote: I can only think of a very small number of film adaptations of books that I actually liked and those were ones where a huge amount of liberty was taken with the original book, often to the point where the book and the movie are basically different stories.

    For years, I’ve heard this same claim from many people. I think it’s silly. I think that people tend to remember the poor film adaptations while forgetting those that are excellent. Sometimes the film is better than the book. Off the top of my head, here are a dozen excellent film adaptations from excellent books. Most of these stick closely to the source material:

    The Godfather. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Princess Bride. L.A. Confidential. Like Water for Chocolate. Jurassic Park. The Joy Luck Club. Gone With the Wind. A Clockwork Orange. A River Runs Through It. The Remains of the Day. Rebecca.

    And what about the Colin Firth edition of Pride and Prejudice? And, and, and… I’ll stop.

    The argument that the book is always better than the movie is a pet peeve of mine. It’s just not true.

  3. guinness416 says:

    It always comes across as a bit snobby too, JD, like the “I never watch television” stuff. Your examples are great! I’d add as examples that pretty much kept to the book as I remember it The Butcher Boy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Brokeback Mountain, and (although I’m honestly dreading the film version of The Road) also No Country For Old Men as a more recent example.

  4. CPA Kevin says:

    I think the IRS would have a huge issue with you trying to write off the cost of a generator as a business expense. Unless of course the only thing you were to run when the power goes off is your laptop. I have a feeling the wife and kids may not like that, however.

  5. Michael says:

    J.D., that’s a short list of movies as good or better than their source books. There must be what, a thousand movies worse than the book?

    Watchmen would have been better as a real book, anyway. Alan Moore said he wanted to explore what graphic novels could do, and the answer is that they can’t do much.

  6. Michael says:

    Oh, and not all of those movies are actually better, and some of them are just different.

  7. Laura in Atlanta says:

    Oooh. A nerve was touched!

    LOL . . . no, that’s a great list and I agree with all! I think the addition of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was a great addition. The Short story was good, but the movie really tore at my heart at ways the story just couldn’t. (Plus, Heath was HOT.)

    I’m very curious to see what the film adaptation of THE ROAD (Cormac McCarthy) will be like. The ‘look’ of the movie, from what I have seen so far is spot on, but I hear they added (with McCarthy’s approval) much more back story involving the mother. . . . It’s the movie I am looking forward to most in 09 as I thought the book was one of the most brilliant books I’ve read in quite a while.

  8. J.D. says:

    Oh, I’m well-aware that there are many, many films that do not do justice to the books or stories they’re based on. But there are still plenty more films that are excellent adaptations. That was just a “top of the head” list of excellent films from excellent books. (Also, I didn’t say they were better — just excellent. And the only one I know is significantly different than the book is A Princess Bride, and it’s not different by much.) If we wanted to get scholarly about it, we could. :)

  9. Frugal Dad says:

    Question for future mailbag: I’ve enjoyed a couple of your “Dowloadables” products and am curious about how many you sell per month? Of the four you have listed, which title is the most popular?

  10. Todd says:

    Do you ever feel like quitting blogging?
    —-Of course. There is no sustained activity that anyone does that isn’t occasionally tinged with a fair amount of regret.

    I think your response is brilliant. So many people are derailed by this kind of basic human regret–I think it must be a cause of a lot of bad financial decisions.
    I know people who can’t stand to sit at home, because they “might be missing out on something.” So, they go out and spend money they don’t have as they try to “solve” this feeling. What they don’t realize is that everyone feels this way, and it can’t be cured with more money. (If you could afford to fly to London every weekend, you’d still feel like you’re missing out on what’s going on in Paris.)
    The answer is to focus less on what you’re missing and more on what you do have. Easier said than done. We’re all human and give in to this feeling once in a while. If we recognize that, then we don’t feel the need to spend every time we feel it.

  11. Nanc says:

    A friend shared this quote with me and is a frugal lesson for sure. “Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.” Rabbi Hyman Judah Schachtel (1907-1990) Something to think about for a frugal New Year.

  12. Paul says:

    @Michael: “Alan Moore said he wanted to explore what graphic novels could do, and the answer is that they can’t do much.”

    Erm, what? Are you talking personal opinion or Moore’s stated opinion? I suspect the former, and with that being the case, what exactly do you believe the shortcomings of the graphic novel form are compared to other media? I’d personally say that Watchmen contains a great deal of striking imagery that would be impossible to get across in the same way with the simple written word, while the long form format allows themes to breath much easier than with the standard short comic book. I’m not sure what you mean by “they can’t do much”.

    As for the novels vs. movies argument, there are some utterly fantastic movies out there that disappoint fans of the source material (think Blade Runner). Movies and novels are two very different media with conflicting limitations and strengths. I’m a huge Stephen king fan, and I can honestly say that while there have been some horrible adaptations, may of those that worked did not try to follow the source novel exactly (The Shining comes to mind – an incredible movie, not a very good adaptation).

    Basically, you have to distance yourself from the source material. With a talented production team, even a supposedly “unfilmable” novel can be a great movie (see Perfume or Tristam Shandy as relatively recent examples of this). The Lord Of The Rings trilogy was a great set of movies that worked in the format, but left the more anal fans disappointed because some characters who would have been utterly ridiculous on-screen were left out or combined into others (e.g. Tom Bombadil). Meanwhile, Jaws turned a rather mediocre potboiler novel into a fantastic movie, largely by jettisoning a stupid love triangle sub-plot that bogged down the middle of the story.

    Watchmen and The Road both look like great movies, but you’ll have to try and look at them as movies first and adaptations second in order to enjoy them. If you want to see the novel on screen, you’ll be disappointed, but if you treat them as another take on the same story, you might be pleasantly surprised.

  13. Studenomics says:

    Trent: Off topic from the coversation but I appreciate your honesty on sometimes feeling the urge to quit blogging. My question is how much different is blogging for fun compared to doing it for a living? I mean I could quit right now and nobody would care nor would anybody be affected. If you were to quit thousands of people would be upset and I’m sure you’d quickly look for new work to support your family.

    For me I feel like quitting everytime I put a lot of effort into an article and only 50 people read it. When you’re making zero money and have few readers the urge to quit is greated. How does one overcome this urge?

  14. steve says:

    @ E. Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain”: While taken by itself, the short story “Brokeback Mountain” is powerful, it really shines as the punctuation of the entire collection of stories it was originally published in(entitled “Close Range”–don’t buy the standalone version of the story published after the movie release, as for 3 dollars more you can get Close Range and read the whole book of short stories as they were meant to be read). After the stark, gritty beauty of the rest of the collection, “brokeback mountain” is a SLEDGEHAMMER BLOW that just about breaks the reader (in a good way)!.

  15. NYC Reader says:


    “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” – Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi

  16. Mister E says:

    Jurassic Park Film > Book
    The Godfather Film < Book

    IMOHO of course.

  17. Michael says:

    Paul, Alan Moore said what he wanted to do with Watchmen – I think he put it as making the “Moby Dick” of graphic novels. Obviously my criticism of it is my own opinion.

  18. Mel says:

    I heard from reliable sources that Watchmen will be very true to the graphic novel and fans won’t be disappointed. Plus, the early previews look amazing! Although I’ve been burned recently by comic book adaptations (Hellboy2, F4: Rise of the Silver Surfer) I will go see it with anticipation hoping for another Ironman.

  19. Aristotle says:

    Hi Trent–
    One of my goals is to learn more about home repair so I can be ready for some DIY projects (currently live in an apartment but am preparing to buy a house in a few years)… Hands-on experience is the best, so I’m sending out some queries to family/friends to do some things for them in exchange for an education, but I’m also a very reading-oriented learner. To that end, can you recommend any DIY home repair books that go into sufficient detail for a newbie?

  20. Chris says:

    We are getting ready to come into a sum of money due to a death in the family a few months ago. However, we do not know how to best put the money to use. Should we pay off our unsecured debt (we have a lot) or create a larger emergency fund (we only have about one month’s worth of bills)?

  21. Sharon says:

    Gone with the Wind is a GOOD film adaptation? Have you actually read the book? They killed of two of Scarlett’s three kids and made a lot of other major cuts. I realize that if they hadn’t done that, I would still be watching the movie (I saw it when I was 19), but there is so much more in the book that I definitely don’t include it on your list.

  22. Bill in NC says:

    “when the power is out, we don’t have internet access even if the router in the house is powered up.”

    Let me guess – cable broadband?

    That’s one of the reasons I switched to DSL and use one of these (much higher battery capacity than a regular UPS) to power my modem and wireless router:

  23. Thanks for recommending the Atlantic. I had never heard of it before, but I found it in my library’s online magazine database. Using just my library card number, I can read PDF’s of my favorite magazines for free. Last night I found they have Sky & Telescope, today your post pointed me to The Atlantic… when will I ever have time to do all the reading I want to do? Ha! What a fabulous (free!) problem to have!

  24. Pearl says:

    My favorite version of the Goldberg Variations has always been Glen Gould, if you haven’t heard Gould’s version you should give it a listen :) I prefer the conversational sound to his version rather than a slower, contemplative version personally.

  25. Margaret says:

    A question for a future mailbag: Interest rates have dropped to the point that it makes sense for dh & I to refi our mortgage. We are six years into a thirty year loan. DH just turned forty years old. Our two options: 1)refi to another thirty-year loan (effectively tacking on six years) and reduce our payment by $400 monthly (helpful considering we have a large & growing family and don’t necessarily expect enormous income growth relative to expenses growing with the kids) or 2) refi to a twenty-year loan at a cost of only about an additional $25 monthly. The first has the appeal of more cash on hand, the second gets us out of mortgage payments slightly sooner. This is our “forever” house, btw– I fully intend to move out of it when they carry me out in a box. :-)

    Any thoughts??

  26. I agree on your answer to the employer group life insurance question. Most of those group life policies are not portable if you leave the company. I would also add that in most instances with the exception of the free coverage they provide most companies do not contribute towards any supplemental amount you sign up for. Unlike health insurance, most people in reasonably good health can qualify for a less expensive product on the open market.

  27. CPA Kevin says:

    Aristotle – I’ve done quite a bit of work on my own home and found the Home Depot hardcover guides to be useful. They are detailed, have lots of pictures and step by step directions. I’ve used the wiring and plumbing guides, but they have several others. You could probably find used versions at Amazon I would think but even the new ones are like $10 each I think.

  28. Mel says:

    I agree with CPA Kevin, the Home Depot guides are great! They take you through the process step-by-step and give pro tips to make it easier. Also they rate the jobs; beginner, handy, pro and tell you about how long it will take and all the tools you need. Also, if you check DIY.com, they have some good instructions and some have videos.

  29. Mister E says:

    I would third the recommendation of the Home Depot books. They do a very good job of walking you through a lot of simple and not so simple jobs.

  30. Louie says:

    What type of cellular phone provider do you use? what kind of phone and services do you opt for?

  31. spautz says:

    Have you heard of anyone ‘diversifying’ their emergency fund into multiple currencies? Given the current financial chaos, and uncertainty about where deflation/inflation might go, I’ve been wondering if having 100% of my emergency fund ‘invested’ in dollars is the best idea. Holding other currencies seems less efficient (due to fees and lower interest rates), and certainly carries its own risks, but do you have any thoughts on it?

    I’m still building my emergency fund (with a target of 6 months’ expenses), and I’m considering changing my goal to 4 months’ expenses in dollars + 3 months’ expenses spread across other currencies. In either case, the funds would sit untouched (I hope!) and would generate some interest.

  32. NYC Reader says:

    Trent, I’ve searched TSD high and low, and it seems you haven’t written a review of David F. Swensen’s “Unconventional Success” (or if you have, I’ve failed to find it).

    Swensen is the chief investment officer of Yale University’s endowment, and he’s noted for the endowment’s stellar performance since he took charge. He’s a big fan of low-cost index funds, and has some interesting ideas on asset allocation.

    I’d love to read your opinion of the book. And please don’t stop the book reviews…. I’m a big fan of your “Let’s dig in and find out” synopsis and review style, and I look forward to the weekly reviews.

  33. Question for Trent:

    Do you speak any foreign languages? Do you believe it is worth it for Americans to spend time to learn a foreign language?

  34. Brian says:


    I’m a college student with limited income. I commute to both work and school (about 35 miles one way, 5 days a week). I usually just break even every month, though lately I’ve been working more hours, I make $8/hr. My car will be needing some work done, it just went over the 100k mark, but I don’t have the money to have it done. however, I just received a citi dividends credit card, I applied to take advantage of the cash back rewards.
    I’m wondering if I should get all the maintenance done on my car and charge it to the card then slowly pay down the balance while the 0% APR still applies for the first 6 months. What are your thoughts on this?

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