Reader Mailbag #71

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.

Being fat is voluntary. People make a choice to eat unhealthy and not excercise. Therefore, it should never be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
– Lindsay

This was such an egregious comment that I felt the need to clearly respond to it.

Being fat is sometimes voluntary, but in many cases it is not. Many illnesses bring on unwanted and unwarranted weight gain – my uncle’s liver problems caused him to gain huge amounts of weight with basically no change in diet or activity, going from a formerly rail-thin person to someone who was very overweight. Many medications bring on unwanted weight gain – many thyroid medications, resulting from conditions present at birth, result in excessive weight that’s far beyond the choice of the person.

The problem with being overweight is that sometimes it is the result of personal choice and sometimes it is not – yet it is often assumed that it is due to poor choice, a trap that Lindsay falls directly into.

Yes, it’s true that an overweight person might result in a greater cost for a business that might hire that person – they’re statistically more likely to have heart disease, etc. However, one could make the same argument for a female – they’re statistically more likely to have children than men, thus they’re more likely to need maternal leave and incur replacement costs. Yet the former argument is accepted, while the latter argument is sexist?

Forms of discrimination that are clearly based on factors that are beyond a person’s choice – sex, skin coloration, ethnicity – are clearly frowned upon in modern society. Just because we went through revolutions throwing off racism and sexism doesn’t mean that there aren’t still big forms of discrimination out there.

The way I see it, a person is a person, and as Martin Luther King said, a person should be judged by the content of their character. Being overweight might mean that they have some personal issues – or it might just mean that they were born with a thyroid condition. Either way, what matters is how they treat others and what they produce with their time.

I live in Chile and i’m planning on getting a macbook laptop in my next trip to the states.
i was wandering, considering the vast world of choices available in the computer world, if it was really worth it.

– Ricardo Carrasco

I think it really comes down to how vital a computer is for the work you do.

If you’re just checking email or web surfing for convenience, there’s no reason not to just get a netbook and call it good enough. If you’re going to be doing Photoshop and intend to use it as your primary workstation, then a Macbook makes more sense.

For the work I do, which is slowly expanding into lots of videoconferencing, podcasting, video editing, image editing, and so on, I’m saving for a Macbook Pro for my next portable computer purchase. My desktop Mac is simply the best computer I’ve ever used – to have that portable would be invaluable.

You wrote an article some days ago: “Using Consumer Reports to Assemble Your Grocery List” which talks about Consumer Reports, but you have previously deleted your earlier content pointing to them. Your reason for doing so was “Consumer Reports has asked me to eliminate the content of my summaries and any other references to the content of Consumer Reports. I have complied.”

Now if they (Consumer Reports) do not want to be mentioned then why have you mentioned them again?
– Tordr

Over time, Consumer Reports is figuring out how the internet works.

When I first started blogging, they were pretty agreeable to most writing about their publication. In 2008, possibly because of online backlash about their child safety seat articles, they suddenly went through a very draconian phase, where they complained loudly about all “unofficial” mention of their work.

Since then, they’ve taken a more open turn, encouraging people to write and discuss CR information – a policy that’s much more reasonable.

For organizations rooted in old media, the transition to a world where people will quote and talk about your information freely is a hard one. CR is figuring it all out, one step at a time.

I’m a little puzzled about the Twitter goal. I can understand that increased blog subscriptions probably means increased traffic/profit (and I’m not knocking that). I don’t understand what benefit you derive from 25,000 Twitter followers, unless it’s mainly that it increases recognition of your work.
– bethh

The Twitter goal – frankly, all my goals – come back to one thing: reaching as many people as I can with ideas about managing their money a little better and perhaps putting their life on a new path.

The numbers themselves are mostly goals, to give me something clear and tangible to strive for. In both cases, it keeps me focused on writing and sharing good, worthwhile, valuable stuff that people can actually use and relate to. I use readership numbers because if I’m picking up new readers, I’m doing something right.

High targets – like 25,000 Twitter followers in a year and 100,000 site subscribers in a year – make me really think about what I can do to strongly appeal to people: make personal finance accessible, make it interesting, and make it applicable to real change in people’s lives.

Any income that I earn follows from that. The content leads everything else.

I am planning on starting a loan for my last year of college. I have been paying college with my own money through my Amex Blue Cash (to get cash back) but I pay it off monthly. My limit is just enough to pay for monthly tuition plus $100 for myself, but sometimes, this isn’t enough. I tried raising my limit but Amex denied me. Does it make sense to apply for a new CC before applying for a student loan? Will it hurt my credit score (because of the hard pull) or will it help it (because my overall limit will increase)? What is the smarter thing to do?
– Carlo

The hard pull’s effect is pretty small and pretty temporary. If you’re approved for a new card, the increase in your credit limit should be much more of a boon to your credit score than the short-term negative effect of the hard pull.

I’m not sure why Amex denied you, though. Unless you’re not disclosing some other aspect of your situation, you would seem like a good target for raising a credit limit. The fact that you were denied seems to indicate that your credit – for some unspecified reason – is worse than you’ve said.

If that’s the case, applying for a new card can be a risk. If you get denied for it, you get the negative ding of a hard pull without the benefit of an increase in credit limit.

Your best bet, then, would be to put the card aside for a while and just pay your monthly tuition directly. That way, you’ll be utilizing 0% of your credit limit, which should help your score.

Where would you recommend for buying larger sized shoes? My husband wears a 15 EE, and he could probably go a size up… It’s the largest we can find in a store. He needs waterproof boots that breath. I got him a pair at Sportsman’s Warehouse, and his feet are white and peeling from sweat after a day on the lake (he’s on the rescue squad and sometimes he’s out there for 12+ hours multiple days).
– Deborah

I wear a size 16/17 (depending on manufacturer). For my own shoe needs, I watch eBay carefully – that’s how I picked up a really good pair of running shoes for just a few dollars that fit me.

For dress shoes, I’ve had real problems. I found a mediocre pair through a “big and tall” website, but they’re massively uncomfortable and don’t look all that good, either. I’m stuck when it comes to this category – I may end up going to a shoemaker.

When I was younger (junior high) and my feet first grew to this size, my family used a catalog from Eastbay to buy my shoes. I’m pretty sure they still sell a lot of models going up to size 18.

I am currently a PhD English student, so while a lot of my assigned reading is in hard copy books, most of my reading is actually in PDF files culled from library databases. I should state now that I don’t have a lot of money, I am paying my tuition fees and living expenses while *not* working since I’m in school, and the campus has a pay-to-print policy. Because academic reading requires annotating, I print the PDFs, annotate them by hand, and type my notes to prepare for papers. Is there a way to put digital annotations on PDFs? I have already tried in Adobe, but unless the document author authorized the comment feature, I can’t figure out a way to do it. My other option is the Kindle, which supposedly can save annotations and export into a word document, but costs $450… can you help sort this out?
– Shevaun

Well, if you’re using a Mac, it’s easy – Preview allows you to annotate PDFs to your heart’s content. I use this feature myself sometimes.

If that doesn’t work (because of restrictions on the PDF), you could select all the text, copy it out to Microsoft Word, then add the notes yourself.

If that doesn’t work, you can try installing Ghostscript, which can often extract the text from PDFs – from there, you can get them into Microsoft Word.

However, if the pages are images (as is the case sometimes, particularly on older papers), you’re pretty much stuck printing them off.

My neighbor has a riding lawnmower, while I have an old beat-up pushmower. During the winter, though, I have an awesome snowblower and he has a scoop shovel. I’m thinking about suggesting some sort of sharing arrangement, where I can mow using his mower (saving time) and he can blow his snow with my snowblower (saving him time), but I don’t know how to propose it. Any suggestions?
– Charlie

Invite your neighbors over for a barbecue and simply make your proposal over a big hamburger. It’s that simple.

Really, there’s no need to overthink it or be nervous about it at all. If it works out, great. If it doesn’t – you still have your own mower and you still have your snowblower – no harm done.

Just suggest it simply – “Hey, I’ve got an idea. I’ve noticed you’ve got that sweet riding lawnmower … and I’ve also seen you scooping snow in the winter. How about we make a little arrangement that helps us both? In the winter, you can borrow my snowblower to clear your sidewalk and driveway. In the summer, you’ll lend me your riding mower to mow my yard. I’ll keep the rider filled up with gas. What do you think?”

Another tip: don’t be insulted by a “no.” Your neighbor might be scooping snow by choice (as it is good exercise) and might not want a lot of extra miles on their rider – a completely understandable position. If you get a “no,” don’t sweat it – just say you thought you’d throw the idea out there and move on with life.

What do you listen to during the day when you write? Or do you write in silence?
– Frances

I listen to a handful of podcasts, usually first thing in the morning. Most of the podcasts I listen to are pretty short daily ones (a format I considered for The Simple Dollar podcast). For instance, this morning I’ve listened to PTI, Marketplace, Marketplace Morning Report, The B.S. Report, The Writer’s Almanac, and Fresh Air. I have a pile of weekly ones as well that I listen to throughout the week.

Honestly, I don’t pay full attention to most of them. They float in one ear and out the other, but they provide good background noise.

The interesting part is this: about four or five times a day, a point will stick into my head and worm its way up to my conscious thought, usually about a minute after the point is made on the podcast. I’ll back up the podcast, listen again, and usually wind up jotting down a note for later.

Once I get tired of podcasts, I listen to music. I usually fill my afternoons with solid music from one artist – Old Crow Medicine Show, Dave Matthews Band, Regina Spektor, Neko Case, and so on. I’ll say, “Today… is a U2 day” and just shuffle songs from that artist.

How come you never talk about investing in rental properties?
– Shiloh

Frankly, it usually seems like more of a hassle than it’s worth.

One of my best friends owned a rental property for two years. He hired a management company that he thought would take care of everything and just expected checks to roll in.

What he found, though, is that the property was a constant hassle. The renters figured out who actually owned the property and constantly complained directly to him. He’d then refer the complaint back to the management company.

Then, there were constant additional expenses – something needed repaired, something needed replaced.

In the end, he was only making a tiny trickle of income from the property and he was investing a ton of time in it. So he sold the property, only breaking slightly above even on it.

I’ve talked to several other readers who have rental properties and most of them share the same notes. The exceptions are people who own quite a few properties, deal with them themselves – effectively, they’re landlords and that’s their life. Those people love it, since all they have to do is deal with these little details.

Since it’s not something that seems like an exciting route to explore – and it’s an area I certainly won’t be writing about from my own experience – I’m letting this sleeping dog lie.

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