Reader Mailbag #75

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.

Last week, my grandfather gave me an envelope of really old silver and gold certificates. The face value of these certificates is in the thousands of dollars all told.

However, I recognize that these certificates are likely worth more than their face value as collectibles. What exactly should I do with them to maximize their value?
– Thomas

The first thing I’d do is figure out what I have. I’d research silver and gold certificates online and try to get a ballpark of their value.

The next thing I would do is take them to a coin dealer and get them appraised. Obviously, the dealer will make you an offer that’s less than what they expect to be able to get out of them – that’s expected, since dealers are in the business of making a profit in just this situation.

If the offer is close to your own estimate, I’d take it. Why? You have to figure that making up the difference will require a pretty large time investment, and that time has value.

Good luck. My family (my father and grandfather) were/are currency collectors and I enjoy it myself on a secondary level – it would be fun to see such a collection.

Trent, do you at least check the comments left on your facebook statuses? I realize that they are linked with your twitter, but I like the interaction that the facebook comments allows. However, if I know that you don’t read them, I’ll just reply on twitter instead.
– leslie

I read comments and messages on Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed, and other places, too. I tend to not get as involved in conversations on Facebook simply because I don’t visit as often. I probably go there daily or every other day and read through recent conversations, while I tend to read Twitter and FriendFeed more often.

Why? I usually find Facebook to be too noisy. With the other services, it’s pretty easy for me to filter out stuff I don’t want to read. With Facebook, it’s a lot harder – I tend to have to dig around a lot to see interesting things.

I think Facebook and Twitter have different purposes. Facebook is great for keeping in touch with a smaller circle of people you have long, established relationships with. Twitter is better for communicating with a much larger group of people – and meeting new people. Although I value both, I tend to enjoy the latter more. is not the only option, I have had lots of luck with buying books for as cheap as 77 CENTS and than paying the $3.99 shipping fee. This means for $4.76 I can get a book, delievered to my door without having to worry about mailing or listing a book of my own to sell. Although I have sold books on their website, mainly textbooks, for a resonable price.
– Anna

I included this comment because it was an interesting part of a long discussion on various methods of acquiring books for low prices online.

One option that Anna is overlooking is that it’s easy to buy credits from other users. In the site’s Book Bazaar, you can often find credits for sale for $2.80 a pop. A single credit equals a book mailed to you for no additional cost.

I know about this because when I first started getting into PaperBackSwap, I bought a big pile of credits in just this way to order a bunch of books I wanted. Once I wound up “swapping,” I no longer needed to buy the credits and now I actually have a pretty healthy surplus (meaning I can largely order what I want without mailing books).

Let’s say that I invest in a 529 for my child and they later choose not to go to college at all. What exactly happens to that money?
– Shane

One option is to transfer the balance of that 529 to a sibling or another immediate relative by changing the beneficiary on the account. That means that someone else can use the college savings.

Another option is simply using it as a mutual fund. If you’re not using the account for educational purposes, it can be used just like a taxable investing account, but with a 10% penalty on any gains. However, in most states, those gains are actually offset by the tax breaks you get by putting money into the account.

A third option is to simply wait. If the person decides to go to school later, that money is ready and waiting. If they become disabled, the money can be withdrawn without penalty. If the person passes away, that money goes into their estate, again without that extra penalty.

In virtually every case, there’s some option that will work well.

Do you still do some canning at home? If so, can you do a photo tutorial post on how you go about it or describe your canning process in more detail?
– candylover

We don’t do much canning at all at home. Instead, we tend to freeze vegetables and use them in the winter after freezing.

Why freeze? For one, it’s much, much simpler. Just put your vegetables in a airtight reusable container, label it well, and pop it in the freezer. If you use it in six months or so, it’ll be fine. For another, if you already have a freezer, keeping it full actually saves money – it causes the freezer to run less often and reduces the speed of spoiling if you lose power.

Having said that, we are considering canning a small amount of salsa this year for gifts. Salsa is relatively easy to can because it’s acidic – you only need to do a hot water bath instead of using pressure.

My husband and I are considering getting a vacuum sealer so we can freeze more of the bulk groceries that we buy. In your experience, is it worthwhile to buy a vacuum sealer and the special bags for them, or is it better to stick with the ziploc bags we’ve been using? I’m wondering what other people have experienced with the vacuum sealed bags and whether they actually prevent freezer burn more than a ziploc freezer bag.
– candylover

Vacuum sealers allow frozen items to last for longer in your freezer than other sealing options – that’s really their only advantage. On the other hand, the cost of sealing is fairly expensive.

I think a vacuum sealer comes in handy if you do things where you freeze a year’s worth of food (or more) all at once. For example, if you tend to grow an enormous abundance of a particular vegetable, a vacuum sealer can help you preserve it for a full year, much better than what you’d get out of a Ziploc. Similarly, if you’re a hunter, a vacuum sealer can help you preserve the meat over the long haul.

So, start by looking at your uses. Are you going to be preserving food for a year or more? Or are you just saving summer foods for the following winter?

I have a question for you. I’m just graduated and I’m going to be starting my first job soon, yay! My question has to do with savings. I know there’s a multitude of things to save for, down payment on a house, vacations, appliances, down payment for a car, emergency fund, and the list goes on! I have one savings account, so I’ll be looking at my total savings. How would you recommend keeping track of the different categories?
– ed

I use ING Direct as my primary bank and it has a handy feature – you can set up as many savings accounts as you like.

So, one option might be to simply open up an account there and set up automatic transfers for all of these savings accounts – with each account assigned to a particular goal.

Another option would be to simply track each “segment” in a spreadsheet and simply assign the monthly interest to whichever savings “segment” most needed replenishing (like your emergency fund or a goal you’re really pushing for).

I noticed on Twitter that you listed all of the podcasts you listen to – and it’s a huge list! How do you keep up with all of those podcasts?
– El

When I’m writing, I listen to podcasts almost all day long. I don’t give them my full attention – instead, they serve as background noise for the most part.

But something neat happens – quite often, an idea will slip its way into my head. I’ll have an idea pop out of seemingly nowhere, so I’ll jot it down and get back to work. Quite often, the podcasts are the source of those ideas.

I’ll also sometimes pause to close my eyes, relax a bit, and just listen to the podcasts throughout the day.

What I usually do is just list all of the unlistened podcasts in one playlist, order them by length (from shortest to longest), and start listening at the start of the day. At the end of the day, I stop at the end of one of the long podcasts. The next day, I start all over again. What this does is that it enables me to listen to all of the shorter daily ones every day – like the Writer’s Almanac – and puts off some of the long-winded weekly ones – like This Week in Tech.

My husband and I are shopping for 2 used cars. (We had only 1 car which is being totaled and the insurance is going to give us the retail value of that car).

We have enough cash to put down for 1 car. Do you suggest taking 2 car loans and down paying 50% for each? or Pay cash for 1 car, and only downpay 20% for the other?

Which will be cheaper? As I also read that loan rate also depends on the amount of downpayment.
– Vana

It’s impossible to say which way will be cheaper because it depends entirely on the offers individual dealers and banks give you.

Your best bet is to simply do the footwork and get the best car deals you possibly can. Identify your needs – not your wants – and focus on maximizing your deal on each car. This requires research and legwork – you’ll have to investigate the data and you’ll also have to go to multiple dealers to find the best value.

You should also look at other options. Do you need two cars? What about just in the short term? Could one of you bicycle to work, or carpool, or walk? Going to one car for a while saves on insurance and gives you a window to save until you can afford that second car.

Last week, I spent five days at a professional conference. It was a great experience and I met a lot of people, but now I only have contact information for about five of them. There are a lot of people I’d like to follow up with, but I don’t know how to contact them!

How do you keep track of meeting a lot of people at a conference?
– Larry

In my eyes, a conference’s success can be judged by the number of people you touch base with after the conference.

One thing I do is I try to get a business card from anyone I find interesting. I’ll even ask for it (and, of course, I’ll trade my own for it). If they don’t have one, I’ll pull out my notepad and get their email address and name.

Later, I’ll try to jot down anything interesting I can recall about them. What do we have in common? What’s interesting about them?

Then, after the conference, I move through all of these connections I’ve made. I look up the people, find out more about them, then get in touch with them about our overlapping areas of interest.

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

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