Reader Mailbag #67

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.

What is the thought process you go through when organizing an article to write? Do you outline your thoughts first? Often when I try to write something, it ends up fairly chaotic.
– Crystal Groves

I usually start off by writing down a bunch of ideas in a very stream-of-consciousness fashion. Facts, ideas, and other bits all just get thrown down on paper. I don’t worry about the order or anything else – I just try to dump the ideas out of my mind.

After that, I usually try to make up my mind about the order of the article. I usually just move the pieces I jotted down around until they make some logical sense.

From there, I just write the post. I literally go through the points and transform each one into a paragraph or two, outlining what I’m thinking. Sometimes, I just polish the rambling into a sentence. Other times, I add a lot more flesh.

At that point, the article’s almost done. I scan it again for any major errors, check anything that still needs checking, then I consider it done. If it were a print piece or a portion of a book or something, I’d let it rest, edit it, let it rest again, and so forth, but that’s not a realistic process for a blog where the key is the fresh flow of ideas.

I was wondering what you would do if you were recently laid off like I am and had some credit card debt? I was going to pay it off with my tax refund, but then I unexpectedly lost my job. Some experts like Suze Orman and a few friends have recommended just making minimum payments on this debt and stashing the refund in my emergency savings because credit companies will close your line of credit, and you can no longer rely on it for the worst-case scenario.
– Writergirl

For one, you should never rely on credit cards for your worst-case scenario. That’s what a big, healthy emergency fund is for.

Having said that, I largely agree with Orman. If you’re in a situation with no income, your best bet is to minimize every possible monthly bill and conserve cash so that you can survive longer without an income – since you don’t necessarily know when your next employment opportunity will arrive. Thus, cutting down to minimum payments on debts is a strong step in that direction, even though it does mean a larger debt over the long run.

If you’re so worried about Mint’s security, see Check out their security. if you can hack into and know several ethical hackers.
– Frugal Cubicle

I’m not worried about that aspect of security. My concern is with human failure and human failings. Every time you choose to share your account information with another company, you open up another hole for potential identity theft – someone on the inside skimming account numbers is just the start.

Thus, my logic is pretty simple: is the benefit of the service more than the cost of sharing your information with them? In Mint’s case, it might be, but does it offer a compelling advantage over other services that do much the same thing without requiring you to share your data, like a desktop Quicken install or Wesabe?

I’m not saying Mint is a bad service at all, and I have no doubt that their security is strong. However, every time you share your account information with yet another source, you increase your chances of identity theft and other chicanery. It’s not a trade I’m willing to make.

How’s your fantasy baseball team doing?
– Mel

Mel is actually a member of the very competitive fantasy baseball league I’ve participated in for the last two summers – this is my third year in the league. Mel is winning the league – I’m 7th out of 12. This is more or less Mel’s way of getting me to talk about my failings as a fantasy baseball player.

Here’s the scoop – my pitching is stellar. I have Roy Halladay and Zack Greinke. ‘Nuff said.

The problem is with everything else. One of my earliest draft picks was used on David Ortiz. Yes, the same one who decided 2009 was the year to watch his power disappear and his batting average drop to .190. He’s now on the bench. Several of my other picks are underperforming, too.

So, there I am – stuck in the middle.

My husband and I plan on taking a two week road trip this summer to VA, DC, PA, and OH. We signed up for AAA and saved so much on our DC hotel that it paid for the entire membership… Qustion: What will your family do to keep costs down on the road?
– Jessica

There are several tactics that can easily shave money from your spending. First, figure out which states have the lowest gas prices. For example, we found it was very worthwhile for us to gas up just before we crossed from Missouri to Kansas, then just barely make it into Oklahoma to gas up again – saved us several dollars by just planning a bit better. Second, air up your tires before you go. Third, take along picnic foods and eat at rest stops – this allows everyone to run around and stretch and keeps food costs down. Fourth, minimize stops (because gas stations are loaded with impulse buys) – and when you do stop, have everyone use the bathroom. EVERYONE.

Those tips will go quite far towards cutting your costs while you’re on the road.

We are upside-down on my husband’s car loan and are trying to get rid of it. what steps do you take to do this when the car is worth less than the loan?
– nw

When you sell an upside-down car, you’re still responsible for the difference in cost – there’s no magic way around that. If you don’t have the cash to immediately make up that gap, you either need to keep paying down the loan or find another way to leverage something else you own to get yourself out from being under water.

For selling it, your best bet is to simply do the leg work yourself.

If money were no object, would you hire a nanny for your children?
– Kali

I would, but it wouldn’t be a typical nanny hire. I would hire my sister-in-law at a rate to make her plenty comfortable. She’s been providing care for preschool-aged children for almost a decade now and I trust her deeply with our own children.

Would I hire a nanny if we were making enough that we could easily afford one? More likely, I would hire someone very competent to handle much of the drudge work of The Simple Dollar – approving comments, filtering email for the ones that are relevant, researching specific points, setting up interviews, etc. – to someone else, trim my work time quite a bit, and do it myself. We simply don’t earn enough to do this – I’ve tried hiring people at a level I can afford, but their competence hasn’t been there.

My biggest concern, though, is my children’s social development. Where we live, there’s not a ton of stay-at-home parents or other such individuals to give my child any sort of normal social interaction at a preschool age. That worries me – I was very ill-equipped to handle the social aspects of school when I started and it took me literally ten years to figure out how to start coming out of my shell. Believe me, I’ve looked for opportunities, and short of driving my children forty minutes one way to stay-at-home dad meetups in Des Moines, there aren’t many options.

You talk a lot about researching before a large purchase. What do you use to research?
– Jessica

My first stop is almost always Consumer Reports. They’ve almost never led me wrong when I stick with their “Best Buys.” I’ve used their advice in car purchases, appliance purchases, and countless other smaller purchases.

If the purchase is a big one, I usually hit the magazine room at the local library and dig through five years or so of Consumer Reports back issues to get a big picture of what’s going on.

I’ll often Google for web reviews as well, but I tend to not trust them as much unless they come from a source I’ve long viewed as reliable. I tend to believe more in trusted sources than I do in sheer quantity of reviews. This is probably borne from my experience as a blogger, where I’m almost constantly inundated with all kinds of offers to do positive reviews of various things.

I was wondering about how to best position yourself for getting a mortgage. I am 20 and have only had one credit card and no debt. should i get a CC and make some smart moves to build credit so I can get the full amount on a mortgage (with a proper down payment also)? and what are smart credit moves?
– Erik

I think you’re already doing fine. Just avoid being late on any bills and use your credit card regularly but keep the balance paid off, and you’ll be in good shape.

One big thing you should do, though, is check your credit report at, which is the website the federal government set up for people to get free copies of their credit report. Don’t use other services – they try to trick you into paying for something that the government has ensured you can get for free.

Make sure there are no errors on it. Check up on anything you see on there that you don’t recognize. Doing so will ensure that your report is accurate and, with your good history, will provide great support for getting a mortgage in the future.

What religion do you practice specifically? I’ve gathered you’re a Christian, but what denomination?
– Mark

I’m an ELCA Lutheran. If you want to know more, you can bone up on our beliefs.

Why am I a member? Several reasons. First, the ELCA is not a group of Biblical literalists. They encourage discussion of what the religion means, what the Bible actually means, and so on. Second, they practice open communion and encourage discussion with people of all faiths. Third, we don’t believe one can “earn” their way into heaven – it’s not up to us at all – and we generally don’t believe faith to be a conscious choice.

What about the “E” in ELCA, which stands for evangelism? I don’t believe that quoting scripture does any good at all in the modern world. Actions speak louder than words, and actions of love, respect for others, and fulfilling one’s commitments speak awfully loud. If someone asks what I believe, like Mark does, I’ll tell them – until then, I’ll let my choices in life speak for themselves. I can do a lot more good in the world by actually focusing on being a better person and doing good deeds than by wasting my time judging anyone else for their choices.

Got a question of your own? Ask it in the comments, and I may address it in a future mailbag!

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