Reader Mailbag #74

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 saw that you’re looking for an assistant. Send me an email, we could seriously chat about it.
– Michael

For a long while, I’ve been thinking of hiring an assistant for The Simple Dollar. Not to write or anything, but to help with the deluge of email and other things I get every day (like comment approval). I’d like to be able to translate a stack of 300 or so emails into 25 or so that need responses and a list of 20 or so other things I should be aware of. These menial tasks eat up probably two or three hours for me each day and, frankly, I’d rather not be doing them.

I tried hiring remote assistants to do this three times, but it just didn’t work out. I found that during the training period, there was so much communication going on that I would have saved substantial time doing it myself without the embarrassing mistakes.

Right now, I’m looking locally for such an assistant, perhaps a stay-at-home mom in my area who could do this for two hours a day while the kids are napping or something. So, please don’t send me your resume.

Considering the amount of free information on the web, I was wondering if you are paying subscriber to any websites (such as consumerreports.org) and if you think those subscriptions return their value.
– Frank

For me, it depends on how often you actually turn to the service for a key use. Do you often turn to Consumer Reports for unbiased rankings of consumer goods? Or, alternately, do you get sufficient answers from digging around the blogosphere, knowing that many people out there are paid corporate shills as well as specific individuals with axes to grind?

For me, CR is useful, so I’m happy to support it with my dollars. Without that support, useful services go away, which is the same logic I used when I chose to become a paid user of Evernote and Flickr, for example. If I use it all the time, the last thing I want to see is that service to go away, and the best way I can do that is to give that service a small amount.

I sincerely wish that there was a simple and functional micropayment system online, because there are several free sites that I rely on and trust that I’d be happy to support with a small donation if it were simple and pervasive.

One of my closest friends is a film buff. She and her husband are about to have their first child and instead of asking for normal baby items for their baby shower, they wanted everyone to bring a copy of their favorite children’s movie so that these could be shared later on in life with the child. This one has me stumped. What would you choose?
– Ciana

Hands down, Spirited Away. Not even a second’s worth of hesitation.

Why? I think it hits that sweet spot of entertainment and empowerment of children better than any movie I’ve ever seen. Chihiro exhibits completely normal childhood fear and reluctance, but she manages to push herself beyond them to accomplish great things through her hard work.

The imaginative nature of the film, the fantastic art, and the realism of the main character (meaning that her emotional responses come off as completely genuine, something that’s rare in any kind of film) makes this one something I already watch with my son and look forward to enjoying with my daughter when she’s a bit older.

So last week, our washer broke. It gets stuck on the fill cycle and won’t move; it just keeps on filling. We have someone coming out to look at it this week to tell us how much it’ll cost to fix.

This washer is only 5 or 6 years old. But it’s the cheapest Kenmore brand Sears offered at the time. The dryer works fine.

I know that just about any amount the repair man comes up with will be cheaper than buying a new (but cheap, low-end) front-loading washer. But with the benefits of energy efficiency, low water consumption and better wear and tear on our clothes that new washers offer, at what repair price will it become worth it to buy a new washer?

Or is it best to just go with the hands down cheapest option because we have the wedding coming up and that MIGHT eat into our emergency savings and then we might actually have an emergency?

I’m also looking at this from a green perspective too. Is it best to continue using an out-of-date energy consuming product rather than consume a new product, or is it better to save the energy and water consumption by buying a new product and having to throw out the old one?
– FemmeKnitzi

The first thing I would do is dig through some do-it-yourself websites and make a sincere effort at repairing it yourself. Digging around based on the information you gave, I found this guide, which is something I’d be willing to try in your situation.

If you can’t get it to work on your own, I’d call a repairman and get an estimate. Find out what it would cost to fix the problem. If the cost is too high, just replace the washer.

What’s “too high”? I’d investigate what a new washing machine would cost, including the energy savings. If it essentially saves you money to buy new compared to just fixing the washer, go new; otherwise, stay with what you have.

One big reason for this is environmental: dropping a washer in a landfill and eating up the resources it took to make a new one eats up the gains you get from greater energy efficiency, even over many years.

I’m a recovering methamphetamine addict. I’ve been clean for five months and it’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but every day is easier than the one before it.

Right now, I’m putting my life back together. My older brother is helping me get things together. He’s allowing me to live in his basement and he’s paid for some dental work as well. He’s also paying me to take classes at electrical school.

I owe so much to him that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay him for all he’s done for me. Where do I even start?
– “Mel”

First of all, huge props for turning your life around. Breaking an addiction and getting away from all of the relationships that support that addiction can be extremely hard. You’re on a much better path in life now and the effort it took to get there deserves commendation.

How can you repay your brother? Simply put, you can’t, unless fortunes change.

Instead, what you can do is tell him sincerely how you feel. That in itself can be hard, but sincerity can’t be faked – and sincerity means a lot.

Also, never forget how he’s helped you and be there for him when he inevitably needs help in the future. Something will happen in his life where a helping hand will be invaluable. When it happens, remember how much your brother helped you when you needed it the most and do whatever it takes to help.

Another way you can likely help is to pay it forward. When you see people in trouble, help them out when you can. This seems trite, but it’s probably the best possible way to repay this kind of generosity.

Trent, I am shopping for a gas bbq grill. Do you recommend any? And what is the best time I can find lower prices on the grill?
– Vanaja

Late summer is usually the best time, as gas grills are usually considered summer seasonal items and late summer is the time when stores rotate into fall and winter seasonal items. August and September are the months to shop for one.

As for what one to buy, I’d recommend not getting one with wood trim. Get a stainless steel one, as they require much less maintenance work to stay in good shape.

You’ll get different recommendations from different people when it comes to items like this. I’d focus mostly on what you need. Research grills on your own, figure out what exactly you actually need, and know this before you actually go shopping.

I was laid off in March, and I am currently collecting unemployment. 30% of my unemployment income goes to my rent (I am on a month to month lease and live in a 1 bedroom alone). My boyfriend is losing his roommates and will also need a place to stay (he too was laid off from the same company, at the same time). We would like to take that next step and move in together, which would cut my rent down to 17% of my unemployment income. Here’s the problem: we are having trouble finding someone who will lease to two college educated, albeit unemployed, upstanding tenants. Our unemployment will not run out until March 2010, and together, we make 3.5 times the rent. Do you know of anything that may improve our chances of signing a new lease?
– Brittany

A big deposit helps. The bigger the deposit, the better – cash always talks.

Another option is to get away from the large management houses – who mostly view you as a number – and seek out apartments owned by individuals, like a family renting out a floor of their home, for example. They’re much more likely to actually take your story into account instead of just discarding you.

Alternately, is there a way to use your current apartment over the short term It’d be tight, but if you’re both unemployed, the savings could be worthwhile.

It looks like everybody is coming back for the final season of Lost. The promotional poster for the season features pretty much every cast member that has ever appeared on the show and several actors have confirmed they’re coming back. How’s that going to work?
– Jeff

The poster that Jeff refers to is here, and it does depict pretty much everyone who’s ever been on the show, including lots of killed-off people.

I think the last season is going to start off with Oceanic 815 landing in Los Angeles in 2004 without crashing on the island. That means that no one who died on the island is actually dead. Afterwards, though, they’ll all start having dreams about the island and will eventually find their way there in some way or another. The final one to return will be Jack and the final scene of the final episode will be identical to the first scene of the first episode.

Or maybe I’m just crazy. Lost might be my favorite show of all time.

Presently I find myself doing well in my career, earning comfortably and seriously I kinda of enjoy it as well. On the other hand, I might not know when the ‘enjoyment’ will die on me.

However deep inside me, there is this inner voice or call that I should try out to be an airline pilot which happens to be my childhood ambition too.

I will stare in awe whenever I see aircraft in the sky. And I will wonder when I can be in the cockpit. This childhood ambition can be costly due to initial training fees.

What will you do if you are in my shoes? Stick to the present job? Or to leave the present job and head for the unknown terrain?
– yfloo

Life is all about chasing your dreams and passions. Go for it.

You know what your dream is. All you have to do is start putting the pieces in place to make it happen. Look into what you have to do to be an airline pilot. Start living really lean, building up your emergency fund and any savings you’d need to make it work. Then start taking little steps towards that dream. Take classes in your spare time.

Eventually, you’ll reach a point where you don’t need that income from your job and you can take that leap. But the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

What are you reading lately?
– Neal

Many, many people ask me about what I’m reading – I guess somehow that The Simple Dollar attracts at least some bookish people.

I used to mention them on Twitter, but I decided that I was usually giving short shrift to books by mentioning them there.

So, I joined GoodReads on July 27 of this year. GoodReads is a site that allows a person to keep track of the books they’ve read. I considered going back and filling in earlier books I’ve read, but I simply wasn’t sure of the dates or the titles, so I decided to just record them as of July 27.

If you’d like to see what I’ve read recently – or what I’m currently reading – tune into my bookshelf on GoodReads. I’ve added a link to it on the sidebar in the “More Social” section, so you can check it any time you wish.

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