Reader Mailbag #72

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.

I love gum. I know buying it in bulk is cheaper than at a liquor store, but does anyone else have ideas beyond that?
– Michael C.

First of all, don’t bother trying to make it at home. The best recipe is comparable to Fruit Stripe gum – it tastes awful and has bad texture after about thirty seconds.

Your best plan is to buy in bulk. At my local Sam’s Club, there’s tons of gum for sale in bulk (by the box) that’s cheaper per pack than what I seem to find in grocery stores (where the low-end packs seem to be around $0.80).

There’s also Candy Warehouse, which directly sells bulk candy, but the prices, though lower than at the local liquor store, are a bit higher than what I’ve noted at Sam’s.

So, what I’d do is this: if you have a warehouse club membership or a friend who does, shop for gum there. Otherwise, Candy Warehouse is a good option.

How would you decide how much to invest and how much to spend if you had a good (?) chance of dying pretty soon, but also a reasonable chance of surviving? The fanatic saving for retirement seems like a bad idea if you’re putting all your money into a future you probably won’t live to see. But if you do manage to, you don’t want to then starve to death on a street corner.
– Laundry and Dishes

Depends entirely on whether you have dependents or not and also on the exact nature of your illness, at least from my perspective.

If you don’t – and you’ll be able to actually function well if you survive – then I’d spend away. If you do survive, you’ll be able to build your savings back up with further work.

If your illness might make you incapacitated for a long time, you’ll probably want to leave your savings alone. Similarly, if you have dependents, limit your spending, as your savings will help them in the aftermath of your passing.

Do you know of groups that have meetings for people interested in reducing debt or improving personal finance habits?
– Salvatore

I sure do. There are a wide variety of groups on debt reduction and saving money in most cities of decent size. However, there doesn’t seem to be an overriding organization that collects all of these groups. Many of these are self-started.

So, how do you find them? I’d suggest three ways.

First, hit meetup.com. Meetup has tons of local groups that are meeting on tons of different topics. Dig around a bit – there are groups on debt, on investing, and many other areas.

Second, check your local library. Many larger libraries have interest groups on all sorts of topics, plus many other community groups will post flyers there. Check out the bulletin boards as well as the library’s schedules.

Finally, check the largest church in your community. Many large churches have groups and classes on all sorts of topics and they’re usually open to anyone who cares to attend.

What made you decide to start a blog on this topic?
– Lily

Well, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve been writing since I was pretty young. I tried various online writing exercises in college, then I tried a parenting blog in late 2005 and early 2006 that was just taking off, but some of the readers were extremely … creepy.

I decided to give blogging another shot in October 2006 – and the timing perfectly coincided with my own experiences with figuring out my money and the experiences of the people around me showed me that a lot of people were going through similar money struggles. So I started The Simple Dollar.

Quite seriously, it’s all about following my interests and passions as well as looking at what other people might value. I could sure write a navel-gazing site, but who would want to read it and how would it really connect with anyone and provide value in their life?

I am in my early 30s, own my own apartment, am employed, have good credit and a family that is financially well-resourced and stable. I am dating a man, also in his 30s, who is a financial mess. He works his butt off following his passion, but does not generate a ton of income (he has trouble paying rent and is often behind on bills). He has credit card debt from his 20’s (he admits he was stupid about it at the time), and his family always on the brink of financial disaster. On the plus side, he is a hard worker and does not spend frivolously. He also respects and supports me, makes me laugh and challenges me, and may be the love of my life. I love that he follows his passion and I support him in that.

I love my boyfriend and can see a long-term future together. At the same time, my (admittedly privileged) background makes me skittish about merging lives with someone in such financial turmoil.

What questions should I be asking myself (and him) as our relationship continues? I want to go with my heart here, but my head is worried I could be walking into a life of debt and money anxiety.
– Brooke

You need to be talking about your money together as soon as possible and quite regularly, too. This is clearly an issue of concern for you and also a concern about your future lives together.

Clearly, he comes from a background that didn’t think about money at all, and you came from one that did. It might make sense for you to manage your shared finances – and you each have a certain amount to spend freely each week/month.

Whatever the best solution is, you need to talk about it, very clearly, and you need to come up with a clear solution that protects your futures together. I’d suggest that you read Smart Couples Finish Rich.

ELCA’s articles on doctrine are so vague and unsure. They can’t articulate or explain anything very well. Is that because they think any religion’s as good as their own?
– Michael

This comment comes from an earlier Reader Mailbag where I mentioned I was an ELCA Lutheran.

The ELCA puts more emphasis on one’s personal faith than on a greater church. In general, with the ELCA, the individual is more important than following dogma. Thus, the church documents can be pretty vague in places – it’s left to individuals and individual congregations to make up their own mind.

From that respect, ELCA churches are much less about following some explicit set of beliefs than it is about a group of people who support each other in their own personal journeys.

I think that’s a much healthier perspective than one that forces a strict set of beliefs upon people.

My husband and I have no credit card debt. Our only debt is our mortgage which is at an interest rate of 6.625% (we can’t refinance at this time). In my mind it makes sense to dump all extra money into paying down the principal on our mortgage because that’s like getting a 6.625% return on our money. Right? We have chosen to do this rather than open any investment accounts which may or may not get a 5-6% return on our investment. What are your thoughts on this strategy?
– Emily

If you’re saving for retirement at the same time, it makes sense. You’re right, for most purposes, your payments are an investment that returns 6.625% after taxes (although you might be losing a bit on any tax deductions you get from mortgage interest).

If you’re doing this in lieu of retirement savings, that’s a mistake. Retirement savings, socked away now into a tax-advantaged account like a 401(k) or a Roth IRA, have much longer to build via compound interest. Plus, if you’re investing over the truly long term – more than ten years – well-diversified stocks will return at least the amount you mention (some may shout about how the value of some stock index is barely changed from ten years ago, but they’re ignoring dividends).

If you’ve covered your retirement, getting rid of your mortgage as fast as possible seems like a good plan to me.

Do you have any suggestions for free downloadable enjoyable games?
– Mol

Most of the free games worth playing aren’t really downloadable – they’re usually played in a web browser. Also, it really depends on what kind of games you like.

My favorite free game – and it has been for a long time – is Desktop Tower Defense, which has sucked down more hours than I care to admit.

Several of my friends are Peggle addicts. The full game costs $20, but you download a free trial that has lots of levels in it.

Here are several more classic games that are free – and these games ate up quite a bit of my childhood years.

What did you replace your passion for playing golf with? I know it’s an expensive habit, but I’m having a hard time giving it up!
– Karl

I found other avenues of competition, mostly games of various kinds, and I started hiking more.

The games really helped feed my competitive urges and provided similar careful thinking about my next move that golf provided. I started playing games like Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico with my wife and with other friends.

The hiking helped feed my enjoyment of the outdoors. In fact, I came to find that I enjoyed the woods far more than the golf course – more alive, more beautiful, and filled with more interesting sounds than some drunk yahoo yelling and the noise of a lawnmower.

Why does it seem to always take two days for my comments to show up?
– Cindy

I generally approve all comments once a day, usually in the mornings. Sometimes, if there’s a conversation that’s interesting, I approve them a few times throughout the day.

Regular commenters are often auto-approved – that’s why sometimes you’ll see comments go up even though yours is still awaiting moderation.

On the weekends, I’ll often skip a day or approve on a more haphazard schedule, as weekends are usually filled with all kinds of family activities.

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

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