Updated on 04.29.09

Reader Mailbag #65

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. Several readers have asked about our decisions with regards to child care, something I’ve written about extensively in the past (because it was a very challenging issue for us to work through). Beyond these articles, I will likely write an update soon.
Daycare: Personal, Family, and Financial Responsibilities in Balance
Should I Send My Child to Daycare or Should One of Us Be A Stay-At-Home Parent?
The Stay At Home Parenting Question Hits Home – Hard
Stay At Home Parenting: Is It Worth It?
Rethinking The Costs Of Child Care – And Considering Some Major Choices

And now, some great reader questions!

Question – I just became the Senator of Finance in an International Honor Society I am a part of. Most members are not too active, but I have a lot of gusto, and I am wanting to do a fund raising event every month, but not overwhelm or bore our chapter. Did you come across any interesting ideas catered towards this kind of thing in college?
– Mol

Find out what people enjoy doing, and create a fundraiser based around that. Have a Guitar Hero tournament. Have a softball tournament or a basketball tournament. Make your fundraiser into something that people would do anyway, except add a bit of organization and a bit of a carrot to it.

Even better, look around the community for sponsors. Ask them to contribute prizes, then plaster that company’s logo all over your promotion for these events. This lets you keep all of the proceeds for your fund raising purposes while giving out interesting prizes.

Remember, a fundraiser isn’t purely about the money. It’s also about raising the reputation of your organization. Doing something fun that gets people in the door is the best way to do that.

I have started a new job which will leave me with quite a bit of extra money to save, spend, invest, whatever. Over the next year I plan on establishing a fairly healthy emergency fund, paying off all of my debt, and still having enough left over to do something with. I’ve contemplated putting the money into my Roth IRA, but I’ve also contemplated using the money for a business venture; I don’t have a solid plan now, nor would I really need one until I have that money to make a decision with anyways, but I was wondering your take on the issue – when would you advise one or the other?
– Dave

If you don’t have a concrete business idea, put the money into your Roth IRA. No matter what happens, the window of opportunity for contributing for retirement is never better than when you’re young.

What about if/when you come up with a great business idea? Develop it a bit. Do the basic research to make sure it would work, and write a business plan. If the idea comes together to that point, then you might have something worth thinking about. Until then, it’s a dream.

Never sacrifice your future for a “maybe” or a “could be.” Keep your eyes open for opportunities, but don’t avoid saving for retirement for it.

Right now we are using a 529 plan to save for college for our 3 kids. Someone told us that we should be saving in a Roth IRA because we could have more flexibility in how the money is invested, getting a better return and we would have more flexibility in using the money, so if our child got a scholarship and didn’t use the money, we could just apply it to retirement, whereas with a 529 it must be used for educational expenses. Our state’s 529 plan isn’t that great, but they offer a matching grant every year that we are eligible for right now, but will not be after this year. And if we move our money, we will lose all the matching funds.

What do you think of this? Is it worth it?
– Michelle

The real question is whether or not you’re adequately saving for retirement elsewhere. Are you saving at least 10% of your income for retirement right now? Do you have poor retirement investment options at work? If these things are true, you’re likely better off just using the Roth IRA for retirement. (Remember, also, that you’re not restricted to using your state’s 529 plan – there are great plans in other states that are open to you, like Iowa’s).

If you’re completely covered for your retirement savings, then a Roth IRA is a potential investment vehicle for your children’s education. It has one disadvantage – if you don’t use it for the education, you can’t touch it until you’re at retirement age (without paying an extra 10% tax penalty beyond what you’d normally have to pay). On the other hand, a “savings plan”-style 529 allows you to access the money for any purpose with no penalty other than the normal taxes.

I think the flexibility of a good 529 plan, plus the need to use a Roth IRA for retirement, makes the 529 a better move for my children’s college education, but your situation may vary.

That said, I think you’re wrong, in that pets CAN be compared to humans. It’s not as black-and-white as you think. If you had to choose between saving the life of your dog, or the life of your child, the choice is obvious. But what if instead of a child, it was an adult stranger? What if it was a convicted murderer? What if it was a cancer victim who only had a few days left to live anyway? Which would you save then?
– Kevin

Here’s the problem whenever you make purely moral comparisons, particularly when comparing one life to another. Different people have different experiences and thus different sets of values. Some people look at pets and value them as much as people, while others do not. Some people think the life of one human (say, their child) ranks above the life of another (say, a stranger), some do not.

There is no absolute answer to questions like this. One can argue until they’re blue in the face about it, and it doesn’t change the simple fact that different people have different values and, for many of those cases, there is no absolute right or wrong.

That’s the reason I usually avoid issues of moral gray areas. There are reasonable, rational people that are on both sides of an issue, and they feel very strongly about their side, believing that they are right and the other person is wrong. No amount of arguing will change it, because the people on each side are coming from a different set of life experiences which have led them to different sets of rights and wrongs.

So, can you compare pets to humans? I see both sides of the coin here. Which one is right? I don’t know. I know how I feel about it, but it really doesn’t (and shouldn’t) impact how you feel about it.

We invite a small group of people over to our house every Tuesday night. The group has grown from 2 people, to 20 people….and counting. I love hospitality and my husband and I decided we wanted to feed them dinner everytime they come over.

With the group being the size that it is, I have started to use paper-plates instead of normal plates to serve up the meal. While in jest, one of the group members commented that paper-plates were environmentally unfriendly, but my rational was that washing 20+ plates would be more of an environmental offence. Afterall, where we live, we’re actually in drought and are on Stage4 water restrictions! What is your stance? Which is the lesser of 2 evils? Which option is more environmentally friendly?
– Daniella

Given the water restrictions and also given that you can recycle paper quite easily, I think paper plates are a reasonable choice in this situation.

To me, this is another example of the “moral absolutism” I mentioned above. What’s a greater impact on the environment – the amount of a tree required to produce a handful of paper plates (and the processes therein) or the amount of water and detergent used to wash twenty plates (and the processes therein)? There’s not going to be an absolute answer to this question.

The real solution is to just be mindful of the environment. If you use paper plates, make sure you recycle them. If you choose to wash the dishes, do it with any water restrictions in mind.

Trent, here’s a question: What do you do in those situations when you go out to eat with a group of colleagues or acquaintances and they decide to divide the bill equally among each participant? I never order the expensive stuff and I don’t drink beer or wine, but often end up paying the price. Any ideas on how to politely get out of it?
– anna

If I’m concerned about this, I just request a separate check early on in the meal. When the waiter comes to take my order, I simply say that I would like my own check. That’s trivial for a waiter to do, and it also pulls you out of splitting any bills.

Of course, if there are appetizers ordered or something else shared, you shouldn’t dig in, since you won’t be sharing the cost of those appetizers. The only way out of that is simply agreeing to contribute to the appetizers – or ordering an appetizer of your own and sharing it freely with others.

I personally think that individual bills at a restaurant is the best policy. Splitting a bill at the table has so many potential ways to cause hurt feelings that it’s just not worth it.

You wrote about how you give your business to ethical businesses and businesses that provide good customer service. I would like to make my purchases at these kinds of businesses, but it seems there is a Walmart at every other intersection. Do you have any suggestions on where to start offering your business when you are looking for these qualities?
– Mol

You have to go by your own experience. I find all the time that some branches of chain businesses have spectacular customer service, while other branches have atrocious service.

You should also factor in the other costs for you. If you have to drive ten miles to go to a department store or a grocery store with better service, it’s probably not worth it for the inexpensive purchases you’ll make there.

For most of my regular needs (like groceries and household items), I simply tried all of the local stores until I found ones I like with good service and reasonable policies and prices (Fareway and Target, namely). For larger purchases, I shop around – I don’t have a “regular” place for those purchases.

Is it worth installing tankless water heater in the house to save money on energy cost?
– Mateen

It depends heavily on your water use. The heavier the use, the less efficient they are. Factors that cause you to use more hot water include more people living in the home, frequent shower and bath use, heavy laundry use, and so on. If you’re single, it’s probably worthwhile – if you’re in a family of five with frequent bathers, it’s not going to help as much.

Here’s why. A tank hot water heater just holds a bunch of heated water in it. As it cools, the heater will kick on to warm it back up – on and off, on and off. Now, if you’re using that hot water frequently (and thus not using much energy to constantly re-heat the same water), they’re almost as efficient as tankless heaters – and they’re much less likely to cause you to run out of hot water. On the other hand, if you’re single and you rarely use much hot water, you’re going to waste a ton of energy just heating and re-heating that same water.

We’ve thought about a tankless heater, but we’ve decided to hold off for the time being until our tank heater starts showing significant problems. We don’t feel the advantage is enough to replace our current heater.

You seem to have upgraded your Nintendo DS Lite to a DSi. How did you do this? Why? Isn’t it a waste of money?
– Thom

Shortly after the new DSi was released, I traded my old Nintendo DS Lite and a small handful of games that I’d played through for it. My old DS Lite was beginning to have some issues with recognizing games when you put them in the slot, so I knew it would have to be replaced before long, anyway. So, the DSi was essentially free – I got rid of a system that was beginning to fail and a handful of games I’d already beaten.

Was it worthwhile? Since I’ve picked it up, most of the time I’ve spent with it has revolved around playing with the cameras on it with my three year old son (taking pictures of him and me, going around the house with it, and so on) and playing Dr. Mario, which was a free download for the system – neither of which I could have done with my old DS Lite. Plus, the screen is a bit larger, which is great for the eyes.

Would I have paid for it? Probably not. I would have just stuck with my old DS until it failed, then spent some time without a DS to see if I actually wanted it.

Do you still keep in touch with your high school friends? I’m about to graduate from high school and many of my family members tell me that most of my friendships will die off slowly over the next few years.
– Eddie

I’m married to one of my old high school friends. Aside from her… not really. I keep in touch with a few of them on a very irregular basis, but that’s about it.

It wasn’t an immediate transition. I kept in close touch with several people for years after college. But, as time went on, it became more and more clear that there was a widening gulf between us. We had fewer and fewer shared experiences to talk about and were often separated by many, many hours.

I think that today’s technologies (like Facebook and Twitter and text messaging) make it much easier to keep those connections alive, but I still tend to think that over time, your experiences will diverge more and more and you’ll have less and less in common, until you find yourself with perhaps just a friend or two from those days.

That’s fine, though. Over the years, I’ve picked up other friends. Life goes on – you grow and change.

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

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  1. Laura says:

    “I personally think that individual bills at a restaurant is the best policy.”

    And most restaurants (well, ‘better’ restaurants) refuse to split the bill.

    If they don’t/can’t/won’t split the bill:

    Be in charge when the bill first arrives on the table. Grab it first if possible, say you will pass it around and have your money ready to put down and go. (The problem arrives when everyone has a $20 bill and needs change back so don’t put yourself in that position.) Just be proactive and don’t let the suggestion of spitting evenly pop up. And if it does, you can then say, “well, I’ve put in my bit as I didn’t have alcohol and didn’t share in the appetizers.” I’ve done this and not had any problems with my friends.

    Nice mailbag, Trent!

  2. Someone says:

    Bzzzt on the plates thing!

    You can’t recycle dirty/wet/used paper.

    One option is to have everyone bring their own plate/utensils. With a thorough, waterless wipe before going home, and a quick rinse at some point, waste/energy will be minimized.

    (With today’s dishwashers, though, supposedly they are pretty efficient when run as a full load.)

  3. Someone says:

    …to clarify: used paper in the sense of having food all over it.

    And dish-rinsing probably has to be done for sanitary reasons, the sooner the better because less water will be needed.

  4. Three of my groomsmen are best friends from high school. However I went to college with two of them, and since graduating have rarely seen any of the three.

    The simple fact is you make friends with the people around you. My groomsmen all live in different towns at minimum 3 hours away, so I have other friends near by. I will always consider them my friends and love them to death, but we do not talk with any regularity and unless we live in the same town I doubt I’ll see much of them in the future.

    Facebook does a lot for keeping in touch so I’ll never feel like they’re far, but they also won’t be near by.

  5. Julie says:

    Thank you for addressing the splitting of the check scenario. It’s my least favorite part of friendly gatherings when I order something fairly priced off the menu and drink water, while others get alcohol and appetizers. I will kindly ask for my own check next time.

  6. KT says:

    Re: paper plates

    You have to remember that there are others resources besides trees that go into those paper plates: the energy required to manufacture them, the WATER required to manufacture them, the energy required to transport them, etc.

    As far as recycling, you should always recycle when possible, yes. However, the mantra is “REDUCE, REUSE, recycle,” with recycling being the last resort. That’s because recycling requires resources (water, energy, etc.) as well.

    I know that most people don’t think of all these factors when they look at something as simple as a paper plate….but we should. We need to start understanding the full impact of our consumption.
    (For more on this, check out The Story of Stuff, a great little short video at http://www.storyofstuff.org).

    In my experience, Trent, you’re spot on about personal finance, but sometimes drop the ball when it comes to eco-friendliness and sustainability. There is such a thing as moral absolutism, but it does not apply in this situation. There are real consequences to the decision to use paper plates over reusable plates. With the info given here, there is no way to justify paper plates in this situation.

    And regular plates cost less! :)

  7. Kelly says:

    I second “Someone’s” comments – you can’t recycle “contaminated” items, which includes paper plates that have been used for food. It is better for the environment to wash a plate then to use a paper plate – it’s not just the tree you’re thinking about here, but also the transportation to get the tree to the paper making facility, to the plate making facility, to the store, and then to your house. Not to mention the actual resources required to make the paper and the plate and the packaging and all that. That said, will 20 plates a week have a huge horrible influence? Probably not. It’s all about balance – you use regular dishes the rest of the week, use paper occasionally for those special circumstances when it really IS that much easier!

  8. Valerie says:

    My local co-op uses compostable plates and “plasticware” made of some sort of corn product so it’s all biodegradable. If washing dishes isn’t an option, and having your guests bring their own isn’t an option, you could look into purchasing those. Either way, it’s great you’re considering the planet!

  9. Here’s the situation: I’m getting married in September to a woman who just started a Master’s degree program. We have a fair amount in savings and have set some of it aside for the next 2 years of her college expenses. You’ve discussed 529 plans before, and that got me thinking about a possibility. Could I start maxxing a 529 plan and live out of that savings, then use the 529 to pay for her last year of college? I don’t like living out of savings, but that money has already been taxed. Say her last year of school costs $5,000; I’d be saving about $500 in federal taxes by utilizing a 529 plan. But can you put that much in a 529 in a year? Can you turn around and use the money that soon? We live in Missouri, if the state’s plan types are different.

  10. KC says:

    Eddie – I am a tweener as far as internet – I’m 35 and the mainstream usage of the internet basically came along when I was in college and grad school. Initially I didn’t keep up with my friends from high school unless I had their phone # (landline) or mailing address. College friends were different though – by the time we graduated we had email. But more recently with facebook I’ve come back in touch with many people I knew in high school, summer programs, etc – we also go a step beyond facebook and email and online chat. Your parents didn’t have that advantage. People are so much more accessible now with email, facebook, and cell phones that we didn’t have readily available 15 years ago – not to mention the other means of communication – you will keep in touch with your hs buddies.

  11. leslie says:

    As far as the check-splitting situation goes, I try to reach for the check first and just put in the amount of money that I specifically owe. This usually sets the tone for everyone else.

    I have also politely suggested, “Is it possible that we all pay for our own individual meals? I only expected to spend $10 so that is all the cash I have on hand. I don’t want to short change anyone.”

  12. Justin Reese says:

    When you say you “traded” your DS Lite, I assume that means traded it in to a shop that was planning to resell it as a used system? If that was the case: do you really think it ethical to pass along a failing system to another, unsuspecting customer?

  13. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “When you say you “traded” your DS Lite, I assume that means traded it in to a shop that was planning to resell it as a used system? If that was the case: do you really think it ethical to pass along a failing system to another, unsuspecting customer?”

    It’s their obligation to (a) check the hardware before they agree to a trade-in and (b) put a warranty on it when they sell it again.

    Would you say the same thing if you traded in a vehicle with a faulty transmission that only showed up once every three trips or so? No, you’d toss them the keys, let them look it over, then let them make you an offer for the vehicle as-is. Which is exactly what I did.

  14. Jules says:

    On bill-splitting:

    1) If the most expensive item on the menu is something you wouldn’t pay for, pick another restaurant.

    2) Don’t eat with friends who would stress about how to split bills. Or, don’t eat with friends.

    Guideline #2 comes about from years of doing both cheap and expensive dinners with friends. Usually we split the bill evenly, but sometimes it gets split, or someone puts it on their credit card and everybody else gives that person cash. We operate under the assumption that sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind, and it’ll all even out in the end. If you’re at the point where a few extra bucks here and there are seriously stretching your finances and ability to enjoy time with your friends, maybe you need to reassess your spending, or reassess your friends.

  15. Michael says:

    Good answers straight down. Three comments:
    1. Friends should take turns picking up the whole restaurant bill. It costs the same in the long run and avoids resentment, and those who never invite others to dinner eventually fade away…

    2. The DS will be priced according to its quality. Also, the store knows it might have to repair Trent’s system and discounts trade value accordingly.

    3. The home dinner hostess in drought territory should know how to wash plates without using much water.

  16. deb says:

    Hmm, if I was having dinner for so many people so frequently I’d want to use paper plates too just to avoid feeling like a slave. Maybe ask the guests what they prefer – bring their own or use paper? On the other hand, I don’t live in a drought area but my Bosch dishwasher uses such little water and electricity that I don’t bother with paper plates anymore, even with a crowd of people.

  17. Amanda B. says:

    Wow. There are some strange ones in here. On plates: were those 20 people not going to eat dinner had you not had them? Are they from a different area without water restrictions? If not, then you washing 20 plates in one house, vs. them each washing a plate at 20 houses shouldn’t have a radically different effect on water tables. Treehugger has a series called This vs. That which covered this in more detail, if you are really curious.
    As for the Pets vs. People, are you going to stop in the burning building and interview the person to see if they are worthy of saving? On the flip side, what if it is a bad dog? Old dog? Rabid dog? I think that if you follow this through to the end, your hierarchy is a little hard to follow:
    My Family
    My Pets
    My Friends
    Nice Dogs
    Seemingly Nice Strangers
    Well behaved Mammals
    Shifty Strangers
    Hyper active Dogs, Birds and Fish…
    And so on from there. Not that any of it makes sense, because I am sure you still step on roaches. I guess you are entitled to your opinion that animals matter as much as people, assuming you are not a fire fighter.

  18. Sunshine says:

    I am with you on the splitting the check comments. We have friends that have more expensive tastes than we do when it comes to eating out. Even if we go to a restaurant like Fridays, they’ll order steak or lobster, for example, and drinks, whereas we’ll order an appetizer and a relatively inexpensive entree to split btwn the 2 of us and get water and a soda to split. We love our friends dearly, but after have to pay $25+ per person when it should have cost us <$10 per person, we finally wisened up. We now *always* ask for a separate check. Initially, it was a bit weird because they were wondering why we would do that, but we just said it would be easier to figure out if we could pay separately.

    @ Leslie – There is always somebody left with forking over a bit extra than they should. I’ve been in that position and I’ve seen others in that position. I’m much happier to have my check, free and clear, with no subtle or not-so-subtle hints that I need to pay extra when I know I’ve paid my share. I do like how you’ve worded the suggestion to pay separately, though.

  19. veer says:

    On the Roth IRA, I remember reading somewhere that you can’t take the money you made until you are retirement age, but the original investment can be taken any time. Is my information incorrect?

  20. Lia says:

    The tankless hot water heater won’t work well if you live where there is hard water. So if you want to go tankless, take the cost of water softening into account as it will be required to install the new technology.

  21. cv says:

    For Mol’s question on fundraisers, I think your ideas are good, but if the chapter hasn’t been doing a lot recently and has a lot of inactive members, he should aim for less frequently than once a month. I’m involved with some community groups, and it always takes much more time than you’d expect to deal with planning, logistics, advertising, collecting money, etc. Unless there are other people excited about helping, start with one event, or announce a series of 3, and go from there. Don’t burn everyone out too quickly. Better to throw a small number of successful events than to have only a handful of people show up to a bunch of smaller ones.

  22. PF says:

    20 people once a week? Wow. Give me paper. My back couldn’t handle that much dishwashing.

    As Valerie mentioned, you can get products that are compostable, even the “plastic” cups/forks/knives/spoons are compostable. Our cafeteria uses them.

    Check out Eco Products in Boulder.

    I have purchased many building products from them in the past (that part has spun off into a different company) and they are a reputable company. I would not hesitate to order from them.

  23. SP says:

    Most restaurants won’t split the bill several in this area. I lived in Iowa for awhile, and most restaurants automatically would. Many won’t split it at all, which is a huge pain.

    In a work situation, I think you just have to suck it up and pay, unless it is a regular lunch group. In a social situation, you could grab the bill, contribute your share, and announce “Looks like my share is about $20,” and be done with it.

  24. mark harrison says:

    My previous girlfriend left me because I wouldn’t split the bill. I thought she was joking but she told me I wasn’t a man if that was what I expected women to do. Glad she dumped me…

  25. Sophie says:

    “It has one disadvantage – if you don’t use it for the education, you can’t touch it until you’re at retirement age (without paying an extra 10% tax penalty beyond what you’d normally have to pay).”

    Trent – you really need to go back and edit this answer to note that no matter what your age, CONTRIBUTIONS (but not earnings) to a Roth IRA can be withdrawn tax-free and penalty-free for any purpose at any time. Also that the IRA deems any Roth withdrawals for any purpose to be coming from contributions first.

  26. Mister E says:

    Regarding splitting cheques.

    Depending on the restaurant and their system it can be easy-ish or actually rather difficult and time consuming to split cheques. I’ve seen older systems where it’s actually near impossible and a few small places running systems so old that even if it is possible no one currently on staff has a clue how to do it.

    If you do want your cheque split you should ask immediately when the server introduces themself. At that stage it should always be relatively easy but once orders are entered it can really be a headache-and-a-half, again depending on the system.

    Not at all to suggest that you shouldn’t ask to split cheques if that’s what you want, but don’t just assume it’s a trivial matter for the server.

  27. Amy K. says:

    “If you use paper plates, make sure you recycle them.”

    Used paper plates can be composted, but they cannot be recycled into new paper products. I went to a talk by our town’s recycling coordinator, and she was very specific that food (especially grease) in the paper steam is a contaminant. Not only can the paper plate/pizza box/napkin not be recycled, but the food comntaminated vat of paper mash has to be thrown out, undoing the recycling of many other people.

    Perhaps the paper recyclers in Iowa follow a different process, but I believe this holds true in most paper recycling mills.

    Our recycling coordinator strongly recommended composting the pizza boxes/paper plates/napkins, if reusable options are not available.

    That said, I second the vote for running reusable plates through the dishwasher, if you have that many plates. The Union of Concerned Scientists has a great book, “The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices”, and I believe they recommend Styrofoam coffee cups over buying new ceramic cups, when asked by a church group.

  28. The comments on the restaurant bills and the paper vs. regular plates have been very helpful to me. I have similar dilemmas and hadn’t thought of some of those options. My husband likes to tip at 20% (because he was in a service job and got the shaft frequently on tips) and not many people like to tip that much, so we say that’s why we get a separate check, but it’s also because we don’t want to pay for someone else’s high cost meal and adult beverages.

  29. NYC reader says:

    re: Splitting the bill

    A slightly different bill-splitting scenario…

    A group of us (ranging in size from 10 to 20 people) used to go out to eat at a diner after religious services. Some would order full meals, some would have a light meal or sandwich, some would only have coffee and dessert.

    We’d have one check and trust everyone to put in an appropriate amount for their meal, plus tax and tip.

    There were one or two folks on limited incomes, and a few of us (I was one) would discreetly tell them to go ahead and order whatever they wanted, we’d take care of it, so I always paid more than my share for the meal, I was paying for mine and for others.

    I’d usually be the one adding up the bill, tax, and tip, and nearly every time I was shelling out well in excess of this amount from my own pocket, sometimes $15 or $20 extra! This was in the early 1990s, so that would be closer to $30 in today’s dollars. And this was *every* week.

    Trouble was some folks who *were* in a position to pay were shortchanging the group. Some never accounted for tax, some left nothing for a tip, and some were just plain moochers.

    Honestly, if a person were having money issues, s/he could have slid by having a cup of coffee added to the bill and I wouldn’t have cared. I started to keep an eye on the probable culprits and there were two people who would have a sandwich, dessert, and coffee, and then put only a $5 bill in the pot.

    The last straw for me was when a friend overheard one of the culprits tell another, “Oh it’s ok… they can afford to pay for me.” As if this was his entitlement.

    That ended it for me. First I stopped being the person who tallied up the check, because that person always got stuck paying the difference while the others were scampering out of the restaurant.

    Then when others got tired of being stuck for the bill, we started doing separate checks or checks for parties of two (very hard to cheat when it’s just you and the person sitting across from you).

    The real irony here was that because we all worshipped together, I had a higher expectation of trust and of doing the right thing from these folks, and sadly, that was not the case.

    In the case of the reader, if her/his entree cost significantly less than the others (e.g. grilled cheese sandwich vs. a T-bone steak), or if s/he didn’t have any alcohol while everyone else did, then s/he should explain why her/his contribution to the pot should be a few dollars less. Otherwise, it’s just being tacky if her/his entree was $9.95 and someone else’s was $13.95.

    In my opinion, the people who ordered the drinks and the much more expensive entrees should tell the person who indulged in neither, to put a few dollars less in the pot. But some folks (as I described in my experience above) use these group eating opportunities to “get over” on others.

  30. Helix says:

    I’m in total agreement about the splitting the check question. With close friends it might be one thing, because it probably will even out in the end (I often just say “I’ll get this time, you get next), but I use to run into this all the time with coworkers. I don’t think wanting to limit my lunch expense means I should have to eat alone or be considered “cheap.”

  31. Sophie says:

    Also – I believe you owe it to your readers to point out that 529s are a big gamble because if your children get a full scholarship or decide not to go to college you could end up paying income tax on the 529 earnings PLUS sometimes a 10% penalty. Whereas the funds you choose to invest in the Roth IRA are guaranteed to retain all the benefits, tax breaks, and flexibility of the Roth no matter what happens with your child.

  32. Linda says:

    For Daniella, perhaps the “friend” who feels the need to question your eco-friendliness needs to be a little more grateful that he has a friend who wants to feed him a nice dinner every week. Happy eating!

  33. Steve says:

    Paper plates vs. the dishwasher is *not* a gray area. Producing and transporting a disposable plate will certainly use more resources, including water and detergents, than washing an existing plate. If you don’t want to do dishes after a party, that’s your choice, but from an environmental standpoint it is clear which is the correct choice.

    If you’re regularly hosting a group, maybe you could ask for volunteers to help load the dishwasher? Or even rotate the hosting duties amongst the group members? Or maybe you could even ask everyone to put their own plate in the dishwasher?

  34. Shevy says:

    The splitting the cheque thing just boggles my mind. Either one of you is treating the other or you each (all) pay for what you ordered, plus your share of the tip. I’ve never been in situation where somebody suggested splitting the bill evenly and the only reason for doing it would seem to be so the people with expensive tastes can have the more reasonable folks pay for part of the pricy folks’ meal! I’ve occasionally had one person say they’ll cover the tip or something, but never a case where people didn’t each pay for what they actually ate.

  35. bethh says:

    If I had someone hosting me for dinner every Tuesday night, I would be VERY happy to bring my own plate/bowl/silverware. I completely understand why you’d be tempted to use paper plates, but I think paper really detracts from a home-cooked meal, and surely everyone is aware that dishes for 20 people is kind of a pain.

  36. Colleen says:

    Serving that many people a week, I’d also go with paper plates, if only because the chore of washing all the prep dishes plus all the serving dishes would take over my small kitchen and dishwasher for hours. I can’t say which option has the higher environmental cost overall, but I wanted to point out that you should really check your city’s recycling guidelines before you recycle paper plates.

    Unused plain paper plates could probably be recycled, but any paper plate with food residue on it likely cannot be recycled with your paper recycling. Here in Seattle, the city recycles or composts nearly everything, and things like greasy pizza boxes and uncoated used paper plates must be disposed of with food and yard waste for compost, not recycled. The food residue makes them unsuitable for paper recycling. Coated paper plates, which are what many higher-quality paper plates are, have to be thrown in the garbage.

    Therefore, for the sake of your city’s recycling program, make sure you check first where paper plates should go. Otherwise, whole batches of paper recycling could end up in the garbage due to contamination.

    Sorry to sound like a downer! You can still get plenty of environmental mileage out of composting used uncoated paper plates.

  37. Kris says:

    Usually splitting the bill evenly comes up when you are out with a group of people and order a lot of “shared” dishes ( appetizers as example ). For example, when I go out with co-workers, its usually about 10 – 15 of us and we split 5 or so appetizers and we order drinks. The girls tend to drink more than us guys, yet the guys seem to put more into the pot than the girls… its just kinda how it is. When we’re going out for lunch or dinner, we always ask the server right away about separate checks so they know ( and there are a few places that won’t do it )

    As for choosing to save the life of a pet or a person, I know that many pets are a huge part of the family. My pets are my family and I would risk my life to save them in a fire but I would never risk another human life or neglect to help another person to go save an animal. It is ridiculous to think that in a life saving scenario that you would even have the time to assess whether a person was worth saving over your pets or not, its ridiculous to even think you have the right to make that assessment.

  38. lurker carl says:

    Selling a failing or broken item without telling the prospective buyer of the known defects is dishonest. Concealing the truth is lying by omission. Be careful, your children are watching.

  39. tentaculistic says:

    Oh! I *hate* it when people decide to split food costs down the middle but don’t bring it up until after they’ve gorged! I went to brunch once, in grad school when I was pretty strapped for cash, with a group who bought alcohol, appetizers, dessert – the whole shebang – while I got something light in price. Then as we were paying, they announced we should split down the middle. I asked politely if we could all just pay for what we bought, and everyone agreed – but with that embarrassed kind of “don’t make eye contact with each other” silence that made it clear that I had made a huge social gaffe and they were embarrassed for me! I was steaming – if I had known those were the rules, I would have gotten alcohol and dessert too!

    About high school friends, I partially agree but not completely. Most of the people you know in high school are peripheral friends, who you may be delighted to talk with at a reunion or if you bump into each other in the grocery store, but not soul-baring buddies you stay in touch with all the time. Then there are the few true friends who are worth all the time and effort of staying in touch across distance, diverging lives, and changing life-views. My very best friends are from high school and college, and are the ones I turn to when I am excited, upset, depressed, or just want to chat – and vice versa. And as my great-aunt used to say, it’s always nice to know people who remember you when you were young and beautiful. :)

  40. tentaculistic says:

    Oh – and I think it’s pretty tacky to go to dinner at a person’s house (especially when it’s clear that person hosts *large* dinner parties on a highly regular basis) and complain. About anything. Much less something that has to do with her time and labor. The only acceptable way to do anything even remotely close would be to say “wow Daniella, that was as usual an amazing meal, thank you so much for your wonderful hospitality! Since there are so many of us and we don’t want to repay your generosity with giving you more work, how about if we wash the dishes for you while you sit and chat?”

    People sometimes are so ungrateful and, well, tacky. Sigh.

  41. Fred says:

    I’ve got a Master’s degree in Statistics, and have many friends that are either engineers or have graduate degrees in quantitative fields, and one of the most difficult problems I’ve encountered is figuring out who owes what after a large group dinner.

    More than anything, you’re paying for the experience, as the food will be digested in a few hours. To me, that’s worth the few extra bucks incurred by just splitting the ticket.

  42. Heather says:

    *Everyone* told me that I would eventually grow apart from my high school friends when I was graduating high school.

    They are still my closest friends. Two of them live with their husbands and children within blocks of my house. I see them multiple times each week.

    I graduated high school in 1992.

    I know it’s unusual, but it’s NOT a given that you will lose your high school friends. Maybe likely, but not guaranteed.

  43. Candi says:

    I object to the comment about paper products detracting from a home cooked meal. If someone has been generous enough to cook for me, especially on a regular basis, what they choose to serve it on is not a detraction. I would just have a big thank you and an offer to clean up.

    As for pets versus people. . . I think I ‘ll keep my opinion to myself.

  44. Marcia says:

    Wow, the bill splitting thing is funny. I’ve been all over the map…tossing in extra because I had it. Been expected to pick up extra because I’m out with someone cheap “no, Joe, two beers and nachos is MORE than $5!”

    I used to go to lunch on Sundays with a group of walker friends. It got to be that one guy would sit with his cell phone and do the math for us. Often, we’d all get something that was $8-10, plus a coffee or a soda, so we’d split it. But if there were appetizers involved, he did the math for us, and tacked on a 20% tip.

    Which was nice. A few times that he wasn’t there, I got screwed. As in, we all put in enough money including tip, then the guy with the cash got up and left. We were slow ‘cuz we had a kid, and then had to leave the tip! Because he took it!

    I’m not going to stress about a few bucks here and there. But when it’s $5 to $15? Forget it.

  45. a conscience life says:

    Concerning Mol’s original question concerning ethical businesses…

    You can start right away without even worrying about the actual brick and mortar stores by considering where you products come from and who made them. Much of the stuff being sold at Target (and other large stores with ‘reasonable’ prices) is made in China. The problem with this is there is very difficult to find out what the working conditions of the people there are (almost always, when we do, they are terrible). So, in order to ensure that you are not supporting the exploitation of people (ie. trying to support ethical businesses) you can stick to buying products that come from countries that are known to generally have ethical business practices.

    Another thing that you can try is to switch as much of your shopping as possible over to buying second-hand items. This saves you money (by not paying the “new” tax), saves the earth (less waste), stops exploitation (anyone exploiting people do not directly benefit), (if you use an local second hand store)and keeps money local. All of these are nice to do.

    The point being that you can start to make a difference *while* you shop around for physical stores that you like.

  46. Sara says:

    I have been to several restaurants that state on the menu that they will not split checks, so while requesting separate checks is the easiest solution, it is not always possible. It seems like the fair thing to do in this situation is for each person to figure out his share of the bill (including tax and tip) and contribute that amount. I think it’s really rude to order expensive stuff and expect to split the check evenly, but I guess some people do it anyway! Maybe what you can do is take the lead by volunteering to calculate everyone’s share (and that way, people can’t cheap out by claiming poor math skills).

    As for the paper plate debate, I would use paper plates simply because I don’t have nearly enough dishes to serve 20 people! And it’s really out of line for a guest to complain about it, unless it’s, say, a meeting of the environmental club.

  47. Julie says:

    Re: Bill-splitting

    This is one of those culture-shock areas that hits me every time I leave Quebec. Here, the waiters and waitresses naturally bring separate bills for each person, or they’ll ask whether you want one bill or separate. Whenever I go to another province or to the States, the waiters or waitresses bring just one bill for the whole table, which leads to headaches no one wants.

    Frankly, I love our Quebec default of separate bills. It makes life SO much easier.

  48. imelda says:

    I agree with tentaculistic about the paper plate thing. That was a really lousy thing for the friend to say, in jest or not. Anyone who’s cooking a meal for 20 every week (which I think is insane, btw) should feel entitled to cut back on cleaning however they can!

    What her friend OUGHT to have joked about is the fact that no one seems to be contributing anything to the meals. Why on earth not?

  49. ChrisD says:

    If you had to choose between saving the life of your dog, or the life of your child, the choice is obvious.

    But this is a choice we make implicitly every minute of the day. If we choose to buy a toy for a child, you could also have given the money to Plan or Oxfam where it could save lives. Let’s say a pet gets cancer and you spend $5000 having it treated. With Sightsavers a cataract operation costs £17. In principle given a choice between the life of one dog and sight saving operations for 150 breadwinners and you would have to choose the people. In practice you love your dog and have never heard of these people (and then you worry about how much of your donation would actually get to the third world).
    In fact there is almost NOTHING you can spend £17 on that would not be better spent by curing somebodies blindness.
    Of course you kind of have to ignore this equation in everyday life. But for me this is why the state of the world is such an important issue. If only people in poor countries had a fair deal, then we could go ahead and spend money without worrying about this. (If you are interested you might want to look up the charities I mentioned, e.g. you can buy a cataract operation as a birthday or christmas present).

  50. Ariel says:

    In “Your Money or Your Life” long term treasury bonds are suggested as the ideal retirement investment. Their logic supporting that seems to make sense- the returns are predictable (which is important when you’re living off of them) and the principal investment is perfectly safe. Why do you find the stock market to be the better option? Is it just because of the higher rate of returns? Do you worry that the market will fall while you’re “living off the interest” and cut your income?

  51. ChrisD says:

    Re splitting bill. They all do this in Germany. It’s great. And it doesn’t need high tech. The waiter brings the single bill. You point to the items you had, the waiter tots it up on a piece of paper and says your bill e.g. 7.50 (no extra tax). Then you hand them e.g. a 10 and say 9. Then she gives you 1EUR change from the purse that all wait staff carry on them. Then you go round until it’s all paid.

  52. marie says:

    I know that a lot of people online talk about the splitting the bill problem; but honestly, in life, its something I’ve been faced with maybe once or twice. Every other time, the waiter always assumes that everybody is paying for themselves, or simply asks if anybody is grouped for the bill. I live in Canada; so maybe one bill per table is more of an American thing? I don’t know. Especially now that most people pay with debit or credit cards, it seems silly that they put everything on one bill.

  53. marie says:

    re: Julie

    Exactly! I’m in Ottawa, and its the same. For everybody else, this is how it would go: You come in, order, receive your meal, when they clear your table of your plate, your waiter/waitress will ask, “Is this together or separate bills?” This is where you would say “We’re all on our own”, or “I’m with him, and they are together” if you are two couples for example. That easy. I don’t see why it’s not like that everywhere.

  54. Bill in NC says:

    Water heaters:

    electric heaters can have a timer added, with multiple “on/off” times.

    you probably only use hot water a couple of hours during the day.

  55. katy says:

    Kudos to the generous couple who have 20+ people over for dinner each Tuesday night – for free! I can’t help but wonder if they give you back in any way – would they be as generous to you? Just asking.

  56. jennie says:

    here’s a tip that really helped me and my family – RENTING BOOKS. We found the Netflix of books, Bookswim, and it’s been amazing to save money for required school reading in addition to my personal reading. we rent instead of buy – genius!

  57. Peter Shirley says:

    A tankless heater makes it more likely that you’ll run out of hot water than a tank heater? That’s counter to my expectations — could you expand on that a bit? I thought one of the points of a tankless heater was that it heated the water on demand, so that if your heater is sized right for your usage you “never” run out of hot water. We haven’t switched to a tankless unit but have been considering it — if you’re more likely to run out of hot water with a tankless heater that would be a strike against such a switch.

    Thanks for any info on this, and for the info (and discussion, everyone) on everything else!

  58. Sara says:

    On the Roth IRA, @ TIAA-CREF the penalty for early withdraw (the 10% you mentioned) is only paid in the interest or gain, NOT on the amount you put in to begin with (original contributions).
    See at: http://www.tiaa-cref.org/products/ira/profiles/roth.html

  59. tightwadfan says:

    For the Canadians – yes, in America it is common practice for the restaurant to bring one bill for the table unless asked otherwise in advance, and some restaurants won’t do separate checks. And in my experience Europe is the same, and European restaurants are even more unlikely than U.S. to do separate bills. I guess Germany is the exception, I’ve only been to Germany with my husband so haven’t seen this automatic separate checks thing.

    The commenters who hardly ever encounter the bill problem are lucky, I’ve run into this a lot. It depends on what the group you’re with is used to. In large groups, usually office situations, it seems easier to divide the check evenly than to figure out what each person ate and what they owe, so that’s why that method is usually chosen. Unfortunately that means some people are always subsidizing others’ meals. And I’ve often seen it where a couple of people chronically stiff the bill (it’s easier to get away with this in a large group). I stopped going out at one job because of this.

    I do have one group that I socialize who figure out what each person spent, this is a nice change, but it is time-consuming at the end of the meal. It’s a shame that the Canadian system isn’t more widely used.

    As for the paper plates, yes it is more environmentally sound to wash dishes, but if I were in your shoes I would use paper plates too. It’s bad enough you’ll have to wash all the prep from a meal for 20. Your guest has a lot of nerve criticizing your hospitality, even if it was a joke.

  60. Richard Potts says:

    Question on homemade laundry detergent: My high efficiency washer requires HE detergent, so I don’t know if I can use your recipe. What’s the difference?

  61. Beth says:

    Consumer Reports has an excellent analysis of tankless water heaters. We decided they weren’t right for us because the initial cost is VERY high and they’re dependant on electricy for hot water whereas now, we can get hot water when the electricity’s out with the gas heater. (some of you in the newer suburbs probably don’t lose your electricity often because the wires are underground. But in the old city, wind, storms, ice often leave us without electricy a few times a year.) The initial cost has to be amortized over quite a few years to save money.

  62. Beth says:

    LOL, the person who complained about paper plates after receiving yet another free dinner should be handed a sponge and led to the kitchen sink to do the dishes.

  63. Bob says:

    A few months ago you put up a post toying with the idea of doing 2 reader mailbags a week. Just wondering if that is still in the works. I think its the best part of TSD.

  64. Brandon says:

    The venting for the tankless water heaters is what shocked me. You have to separately vent them (unlike the old style which often tie into your furnace vent). The stainless steel venting costs $3 an INCH, and you have to have only certain people install it to keep the warranty.

    Also the 2 cheaper Bosch brands that Lowes sells don’t qualify for the 1/3rd tax credit (they are .8 efficiency, you need >= .82)

  65. Justin Reese says:

    @Trent: I’m with lurker carl. First, your analogy is flawed in two ways: it’s speculative (you have no idea what I’d do), and it’s not comparable (most car dealerships are prepared to make minor repairs before resale). Second, the whole reason you sold it was because you knew it was failing, and failing intermittently (I assume based on your description), and so standard pre-purchase testing may not have revealed the problem.

    Lastly, I find it ironic that you make an effort to patronize ethical businesses, and yet in a small way affected the same “caveat emptor” defense that unscrupulous businesses hide behind. Here’s the thing about crap companies: most of them aren’t intentionally evil, they just have a weak moral backbone and allow a multitude of small, individual sins. Engineers cutting corners to hit timelines, managers fudging a number so their financials look good enough for a better Christmas bonus; before long, you’ve got a visibly unethical corporate culture, but it all starts with individual actions.

    Criminy, I sound self-righteous, I know. But as someone who clearly makes an effort to act in a personally moral and socially ethical manner, I’m surprised that you don’t have a problem with passing a failing system on to someone. To unfairly play the emotional card: if your kid bought the failing system – even if you ended up getting it replaced under warranty – would you treasure the way it made him feel?

  66. Justin Reese says:

    “But as someone who clearly…” is referring to you, Trent, not to myself. In case that wasn’t clear.

  67. Wondering says:

    Had to chime in on the restaurant thing. We have friends (the female made a great salary and considers herself the ultiimate gourmet) that would get to the restaurant early, order drinks (always top shelf, of course) and the most expensive appetizers before anyone else got there. This was then put on the bill for everyone to split. Even though we shared the appetizer, we had no say in choosing it, and I seldom order appetizers…who needs the calories before a meal? We now avoid eating out with these people, and actually, don’t go out of our way to socialize wtih them. We have similar problems with my brother-in-law’s family. They allow their kids to order appetizers, any meal they want, dessert…whether they eat it or not. Which, when we’re eating together can REALLY add to the bill. Which then of course my kids want to do the same, and I do not choose to waste money that way. But what burns me is how they like to choose more expensive restaurants when their mother is taking us out (for simple events, like Memorial day after visiting the graves). They push for fairly expensive restaurants, knowing that she will foot the bill, not caring that she’s a widow on a fixed income. I know they get frustrated with my husband and I because we push for pizza places etc (where you can feed all the grandkids fairly cheaply) or for bringing potluck to her house. I guess having the lowest salary in our group of friends/relatives has made me quite sensitive to these issues!

  68. Michael says:

    Justin, the video game stores offer prices that assume something is wrong with the system. They don’t think everything works fine. What they do is either refurbish it to factory standards and charge a much higher price, or sell it as is at a small markup for somebody who doesn’t mind a small problem.

    So if Trent said “about every three times this doesn’t come on and you have to restart it,” they wouldn’t really care. He knows this, they know that he knows it, so things like that go unsaid.

    I disagree with Trent fairly often about ethics, but I think he did the right thing here.

  69. Erin says:

    Speaking as a former waitress, I can tell you that splitting the bill is usually *not* trivial for a server to do! I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it – I know you are the customer and should get things the way you want- but we all dreaded separate checks when I worked in a restaurant. It makes it much much harder to get everyone’s food out at the same time, especially if there are more than 2 separate checks, because most restaurant systems are based on the kitchen assuming that everybody on a bill is one table.

    So if you request this, don’t be mad if your food takes longer to get to you or it takes longer for the server to get your checks ready.

  70. Justin Reese says:

    Michael: Thanks for the reply.

    I understand that resale stores expect some percentage of system to have issues. I disagree that they expect the devices to be quickly on their way to failure, however. Manufacturer refurbs – from Sony or Apple, for instance – undergo rigorous component testing that isolates problem components that can be replaced with original parts.

    Do you really think GameStop – or an independent store – is going to put a resale unit through this degree of testing? I can only speculate, but I very much doubt it.

    Again, I understand that buying used means buying closer to broken than when buying new, but that doesn’t mean offloading a unit you *know* is intermittently failing is very nice.

    Honestly, if you were to buy a used unit, and it were to be in the condition Trent describes, would you just shrug and say “well, I gambled!” or would you demand a replacement? This is the position Trent is putting someone in. (Unless the store does indeed fully repair the unit; if they do, then this is all bunk; I just doubt this is what happens.)

  71. Erin says:

    To “Michael the Dumb Tech Geek” – do not try to use a 529 plan for education you are paying for now or as soon as next year! 529s are for when you have a long time horizon – people generally say 5 years or longer. You’re investing your money in the market, just as if you are putting in a regular investment fun – if you happen to need it when the market is down, like now, you will take the money out after a loss. Only use a 529 if you can leave it in the market for several years!

  72. Michael says:

    Good question, Justin. I am guessing the store would sell it “as-is” and I could not replace it except for total failure in the first several days. That’s how it was when I traded systems. I like to beat the system so I might be annoyed, but usually buyers of unrefurbished systems are looking for units that are malfunctioning just enough to be really inexpensive. :)

    GameStop does sell refurbished systems, but I am not sure how they set factory standards. Maybe they make arrangements with the manufacturer? What I do know is that they sell refurbished units for much more, maybe 60-100% more, than unrefurbished units fetch.

    Console trading might not be “nice,” but it is a fair system because all sides agree to the rules and price and quality are correlated. Traders requiring more disclosures and testing might eliminate a few lemons, but would also increase the cost of the trade business and dry up the supply of used machines.

  73. Justin Reese says:

    Oh console trading itself is fine. I’ve sold several used consoles, and traded many games in myself. I’ve also bought several used games (though, as of yet, no used consoles). I’m not opposed to the system, I think it’s wonderful. So long as it’s trustworthy. If someone as thoughtful and ethical as Trent is doing this, though, it gives me great pause about the system in general, and makes me far less likely to ever buy used. (Not that that’s his problem, I’m just saying.)

    It really doesn’t matter to me what the industry is used to, it matters what’s right. And passing along a failing product to someone else without disclosing the problems* is simply wrong, regardless of how typical it is.

    * I’m _assuming_ Trent didn’t disclose the issue; if he did, and the store acknowledged this, then I am entirely in the wrong here and Trent acted ethically.

  74. Thomas says:

    Some clarifications should be made on the Roth vs 529 issue.

    You mentioned that “On the other hand, a “savings plan”-style 529 allows you to access the money for any purpose with no penalty other than the normal taxes.” This is not true.

    A non-qualified distribution (meaning it does not go to pay qualified expenses as defined in IRS Publication 970 for the designated beneficiary) incurs not only normal income tax on the earnings, but a 10% Federal penalty tax on the earnings, as well as a possible state penalty. There are exceptions to this penalty, including the possibility that the beneficiary dies or gets a scholarship (in the event of a scholarship or admittance to a US Military Academy the amount of the scholarship or tuition can be withdrawn without the penalty), but the exceptions are few.

    While it is true that you can withdraw the principal from a Roth IRA without penalty, you still need to meet the 5 year aging requirement.

    After all is said and done, it is of course a personal decision as to whether a 529 or a Roth IRA is a better choice. IRA’s give a wider range of investment possibilities, and if you want to actively trade or hold individual securities, it would be a better choice to go with a Roth for that reason. However, the contribution limit differences make for a compelling reason to go with a 529.

    In 2009, you can only contribute $5000 to a Roth (and $6000 if you’re over 50). That’s it for your tax-advantaged retirement savings outside of an employee-sponsored plan (ala 401k) or an annuity. A 529 plan will allow you to contribute $13000 a year if you are single and $26000 a year if you are married and file jointly. If you have a large lump sum, you can contribute up to $65k or $130k as an accelerated gift without gift tax implications. That’s a big difference. I think one should think very seriously before committing what little savings the federal government allows for retirement towards educational goals while there is a viable alternative (especially one with much higher limits). I also think one should consider the fact that college costs increase (historically speaking) at around 6 or 7% a year, and so for a lot of colleges saving $5k or $6k a year will not cut it.

    All things considered, I think it is a far better investment to use IRA’s for their stated purpose- RETIREMENT, and go with a 529 acct for college.

  75. Lisa says:

    I have a question for the next mailbag. I’m newly married with no debt except for our mortgage, and I’ve been looking into online savings accounts. So far, the best interest rate I’ve found is Smarty Pig at 3%. I know you’re a fan of ING Direct, but with the amount of money I can put in right now, I would only get a 1.5% interest rate. I know Smarty Pig is more of a goal-orientated savings plan, but on their website, there is an option of choosing a “Miscellaneous” goal, so you’re not saving for anything in particular. Now they have an option of transferring your money back to your checking account after you’ve reached your goal instead of taking a gift card. Is this a good way to build up a savings account? We would end up tweaking the monetary goal and the goal’s length of time until we get to the automatic withdrawal amount that we would want and transfer the money to our checking account to put into our IRA’s or the like. My question is, is this a good idea, or is there something I’m not seeing or considering?

  76. Mol says:

    Do “The Simple Dollar Artists” cater their work for your posts, or do they have a portfolio that always has what you are looking for? Or something else?

  77. angie says:

    re: dinner for 20 and paper vs. reusable plates

    some options……..

    ask a guest to wash the 20 plates

    compost your paper plates

    look for paper plates with recycled content

    dishwashers are typically more energy efficient than washing by hand

  78. Gumnos says:

    When dining at a regular sit-down restaurant, we usually tip between 15-25% depending on service (though once tipped $0.10 for a horrible meal with abysmal service and surly waitstaff).

    However, how much should one tip at a cafeteria-style restaurant? According to the IRS, no tips are expected for cafeteria style restaurants (IRS Tax Regulation 31.6053-3(j)(7)ii and 3(j)(18) if you have too much time on your hands and want to read about it[1]).

    One of our favorite restaurants is cafeteria-style, but they have bus-staff to clear the tables when done. Clearly they’re not providing the same level of service as a sit-down restaurant, but there’s some sort of service. We’d like to leave a little something, but don’t know an “appropriate” amount…something more than 0% but less than 15%. Do you or your other readers have a suggestion?


    (duplicate of my question on Twitter, but was able to expand here)


  79. Dave says:

    Just came across this article on LifeHacker – http://lifehacker.com/5280491/the-road-to-happiness-in-your-work-lies-in-the-hooray-zone – and couldn’t help but think that this is exactly what you’ve done with your writing. What are your thoughts on this diagram?

  80. Betsy says:

    Here’s a question for a future reader mailbag; what to do about failed frugal experiments? Or maybe stories of repurposing frugal moves that don’t work into stuff that does.

    Tonight’s example: I have a $1.88 packages of noodles, cream of mushroom soup + lox casserole experiment in the crock pot that for various reasons, is not edible. I’m not out a lot of money as these were all pretty much on sale, but i feel the guilt of waste as I scraped stuff into the garbage.

  81. Alicia says:

    Hello! I am a waitress! Yes I am the friendly person that has the power to split your bill!!! What does it depend on?

    1. ASK NICELY before you order anything!!! This makes the chance of splitting it easier and more feasible. Some computer systems make it impossible to split once a check has been rung in.
    2. Some restaurants have no way to split the bill because of old computer systems.
    3. Splitting the bill 20 ways for 20 people on Saturday night is IMPOSSIBLE!!!
    4. If you have separate checks at some restaurants food comes out at a different time or it takes longer to get the check at the end of the meal because a server has to get a manager to authorize the split or do the math themselves.
    As a server the only thing that annoys me is when people ask to split a check and then pay all together anyway. Ugh.
    BTW, Trent it is not trivial or easy to split a check, but it can be done most of the time.

    Most of the time it is no problem to split the bill for two couples or a table of four. It can be an issue with big parties. When I dine with larger groups I ask for a separate bill, stating I am paying by card if anyone questions it. I always pay by card to get miles and like to leave a larger tip (I am in the industry after all) and so have no issues. When I dine with friends we usually either thrown in what we owe and a tip or split it. But we are all friends and so it usually comes out to the same. I drink less then my friends and they always tell me to throw in less. So work it out amongst yourselves or don’t dine with a group you CAN’T work it out with.
    There are other group things to do that allow you to pay on your own: coffee shop. ice cream parlor, all you can eat buffets (set price).
    Since the question was focused on groups, since your particular group splits, asking to have a separate check at the beginning will take care of your problem. It only becomes an issue when the entire party chimes in: me too! (I’ve had to split checks 10-20 way before.) Happy dining!

  82. Courtney says:

    I grew up with a tankless water heater – you NEVER run out of water, unlike with a standard household size 40 or 50 gallon tank. (Hint: Dishwasher, Washing Machine, 1 Bath, 1 Teenager shower = cold water). They’re NOT exclusively electric. They can be significantly above .80 efficiency. They can be indirectly OR directly vented. It all depends on the type. You DO need to clean them out regularly with hard water (or use a water softening system.) They can be Very Expensive. But, I would get a used one, if I had a choice.

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