Reader Mailbag #64

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. Several readers have asked for more “big lists” of money saving tips recently (and I’m working on a couple), but here are three of my favorite ones from the past.
Little Steps: 100 Great Tips For Saving Money For Those Just Getting Started
100 Things to Do During a Money Free Weekend
The Readers Speak Out: Their 25 Best Actions for Saving Money

And now, some great reader questions!

How did you come up with the name The Simple Dollar?
– Mol

When I was first thinking about the site, I made a giant list of potential names – just pure brainstorming. Most of them were pretty awful (somehow, looking back, I don’t think Big Bad Voodoo Debt would have clicked).

I went through the options on the list and gradually knocked off the dumb ones and the ones that were already in use for some other purpose. When I got down to a small handful of promising options, I read them off to my wife, who liked The Simple Dollar.

It was as simple as that! I think it ended up being a really good choice.

Do you have any good recommendations of board games or card games that are fun for two people? Settlers of Catan seems really interesting, and I’m planning on buying it, but it looks like you need at least 3 people to play it. Do you and your wife have any faves?
– S.

There are a lot of great choices for two players – backgammon, Lost Cities, Carcassonne, and Spite & Malice immediately come to mind.

Having said that, I would strongly urge you to find another couple to regularly play board games with. There are many great games out there that are perfect for four players. Plus, a big part of the enjoyment of any game is the socialization opportunities it creates.

Here’s a great discussion of two player board games on MetaFilter.

I am serving as a bridesmaid for a dear friend in a few weeks. I estimated (based on my own wedding and others in which I’ve been part of the bridal party, and knowing the actual cost of the bridesmaid dress) what the financial requirements would be, and was comfortable with them. I assumed there would be some sort of bachelorette event, and that I would contribute to it, but at the shower a few days ago, I learned all the details, which were planned without involving me at all, and I’m not comfortable with the amount of money I am being asked to spend (more than all my other wedding-related costs combined). I think it is excessive, and excessive particularly in that what we’re being asked to spend contributes no value to the couple’s life together.

To say that I was asked to spend this money is an exaggeration. Plans have been made, and I have been told that I am splitting the cost with the other bridesmaids. When the issue of cost was raised, the maid-of-honor, who is the bride’s sister, said, “I’m poor, but I can afford it.” I can’t. I don’t know how I can get out of the situation. I don’t think staying home from the party is a realistic option because it would hurt the bride’s feelings, and I adore her.
– Katie

From my perspective, the die has already been cast here. Your options are either to do something that’s bound to cause some waves or to simply pay for something you don’t approve of. I don’t think there is a tactful way out of this situation, particularly if you’re concerned mostly about the bride’s feelings. I agree with you that the planning process was not appropriate, though – you should have been involved in planning the event.

If you truly cannot come up with the money, you need to tell everyone involved. Simply staying home the night of the party will create negative feelings, too, as the costs will go up for everyone else still participating. If the bill is $1,000 and they were planning on dividing it among four people and you don’t show, suddenly the shares all go up almost $100 – and that will create even more hard feelings.

Having said that, this is a great reason to always be involved with the planning of any event where you’re going to be expected to shell out money. Quite often, if you rely on your own personal estimates, you’ll find that they don’t match well with what others intend to do.

“At first, these comments bothered me quite a bit – … Now, I realize that the vast majority of such criticizers are simply people with giant chips on their shoulders.”

Wow. Surely you understand that when you give advice or offer suggestions that your words are not gospel. They represent your best opinion.

Part of the time other people have other opinions, and yes, it can even happen to you – an opinion that provides a better solution to a problem than yours.

An open mind is a good thing.
– Mark

Let me give you an example of the types of “criticism” that are levied at me:

What kind of career advice would you give? How to have a “career” at being self-righteous and armchair quarterbacking others lives from behind your computer screen, while sending your spouse out into the real world to have a real job?

I think most people would prefer the $20.

There was a time, early on, when a comment like that would really bother me. I would wonder what I had done wrong and try to think of some way I could make the site better to please such commenters.

As the site became more and more popular, though, I began to see more and more comments like these and I began to really believe them. I thought I was wasting my time with The Simple Dollar. I’d believe that I was merely a “self-righteous armchair quarterback” who didn’t help anyone.

In order to keep writing, I had to see these kinds of things for what they are: angry people spouting their anger at a convenient target.

It’s not hard to see when genuine, intelligent criticisms are levied against the site and against my own opinions. I value those quite a bit. However, most of the negative comments go down another path entirely, simply attacking for no real purpose at all other than to show off one’s chip on their shoulder. If I let those comments bother me, I’d stop The Simple Dollar tomorrow.

I am 56. In ‘83 I got a BA degree in art with a minor in humanities. I tried having my own business but was unable to make a go of it. I had 3 children to support so I started taking any job I could find. Now I am a cashier in a dining hall at the local university.

I’ve heard several people say go to college and get a degree. Well what if you already have a degree? I took a Microsoft class this spring hoping to make myself more employable but I don’t know where to head to from here. I don’t have a clue as to the type of job that would best suit me and I am definitely open to more training but from where? Do any of your readers have suggestions?
– JoannMe

It sounds to me like you’re in a fairly tough place. Your degree isn’t highly marketable, unfortunately, and you’re at a stage in life where employers are less likely to take a risk on you.

If you need to be employed quickly, I’d start with an employment agency. Once I found a temporary position, I’d do everything in my power to wow them. Go the extra mile to really help out around the workplace and show that you’re something special.

If you have more time than that, do an honest skills assessment – there are many online tools that help with this. Figure out where your skills lie and then look for jobs that match those skills. Get training in those areas that match the kind of job you’re looking for.

I’m sure readers will have a lot of suggestions on this one.

You mentioned your son likes Pixar movies. I love watching them with my own kids. Which one is your favorite? How do you rank them?
– Louise

My favorite Pixar movie is probably Ratatouille, but my children don’t like it nearly as well – they tend to request pretty much every other one instead of this one. I do like all of them, though, and I think they all provide some great family-friendly entertainment with some good lessons tied up in there.

Here’s how I would rank them, for my own enjoyment:
Ratatouille
WALL-E;
Toy Story 2
Finding Nemo
The Incredibles
Monsters, Inc.
Toy Story
A Bug’s Life
Cars;

That was harder than it had any right to be.

I’ve been following you on Twitter – you read a lot of books! How do you keep track of what you’re going to read next? Do you plan it out, or do you just grab a new book when you finish the last one?
– Cho

I usually have a good idea of the next book I’m going to read, but that’s about it. I usually have about five books I’m interested in reading in the next month or two floating around in my mind, but in no particular order.

Sometimes, I’ll go through the books i have on hand, discover a few that I really want to read soon, and put them in a prominent place so that I see them over and over again. That’s usually a good way to ensure that these are the next books I read.

That being said, I usually am reading two (sometimes three) books at once. I usually pick ones that are very, very different from one another so that I don’t get confused between the two books. Thus, when I mention what I’m “currently reading,” it’s usually the one I’m closest to finishing.

If you were to stop writing The Simple Dollar today and start another blog, what would it be about?
– Ursula

Food, undoubtedly. I’d write about cooking, shopping for food, and so on.

For a long time, I attempted to start such a blog in my spare time, but I found over and over again that I simply didn’t have time to start another blog at the level of The Simple Dollar. It takes a lot of time to run The Simple Dollar – far more than just the writing that you read.

So what do I do with that pent-up desire to write about food? I write about one food-related post a week here on The Simple Dollar, usually focusing on low-cost food ideas. This somewhat restricts what I write about (but not entirely).

What do you think is your worst trait as a parent? What do you work on?
– Cam

My worst trait as a parent is completely misunderstanding what my children are saying to me. They’ll be trying to communicate something to me in words and in gestures, and I’ll completely whiff on it, either because I can’t hear them really well or because I’m impressing an idea I already have on what they’re saying.

How do I work on that? I usually find that getting down at my children’s eye level helps with this problem. Looking them right in the eye usually makes the communication clearer and helps me to understand what’s really going on.

My other problem is that I tend to run out of gas around bedtime. I’ve been up since 6 or so and scarcely stopped all day, and by the time I’ve read the kids their bedtime stories, I’m utterly exhausted. I’ll nod off in their room (I usually sit in there in a chair for a bit if they ask me to until they start to drift off) and then my wife will wake me up after I’ve missed some time we could spend together in the evening. My best bet to stop this is to stay active in the evening until their bedtime arrives – if we do stuff that’s fairly sedentary after supper, I often get a bit sleepy.

How are you doing with your fantasy baseball league this year?
– Roger

It’s going pretty well, but not because of my supposed “good” players. My MVP early on, for example, was Zack Greinke, who was one of my last picks. Meanwhile, some of my earliest picks (like Carlos Zambrano) have done good, but not great.

Here’s the thing with fantasy baseball. I simply love baseball. It’s something that my grandfather and my father ingrained deeply in me. I grew up watching tons and tons of games and dreaming of being able to play as well as Kirk Gibson or Ryne Sandberg.

That passion is still there, but now it’s channeled differently. Back in the day, I used to watch every Cubs game with my father. Now, I’m the only baseball fan in my house, so I listen to the radio, do some reading, and play some fantasy baseball to keep up with it.

Even now, I still get goosebumps during exciting games. “Two on… two out… the Cubs down by two” still gets me going, after all these years. I like to imagine my father watching the game, and I think about my grandpa, too, and something just feels right.

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