Reader Mailbag #84

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.

How do you minimize distractions while you’re working? I also work from home and find that many people are not respectful of this. Even if I choose not to answer the phone, sometimes the ringing proves to be enough to cause a break in concentration, which results in lost time. Is it rude to leave an outgoing message on our answering machine, to the effect of “…we can’t answer the phone right now as we are unavailable or working….”? Even then I don’t think it would get the message across.
– Kristine

I usually just turn the ringers off on my telephones and allow messages to go straight to voicemail or an answering machine. I also shut down my email and log off of any messaging services I’m on.

My feeling on this is simple. The real meat of my work is best done in focused chunks. When I have a two hour period of time where I can just sit down and block out the world, I’m ridiculously productive in my writing.

On the other hand, if I allow myself to be interrupted, my writing slows to an absolute crawl and, in the end, there’s little benefit from the things I was able to immediately handle.

There’s almost nothing on this earth that’s worth interrupting those focused sessions. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.

So when you are bad at budgeting, and the money is going willy nilly do you think it is wise to sit down with an accountant to help come up with a plan? I find that people like Dave Ramsey just want you to make a budget and use cash only but if you could do that you would not be in the problem you are already are in! I am meeting with an accountant to help me set up a plan because obviously I can’t do it right. What are your thoughts on this? The accountant also said every time he spends money he thinks how many hours will I need to work to get this, he told me he is a tight wad!
– Tamara

If you’re having difficulty with the structure and numbers of a budget, an accountant can help, but that’s usually not the problem.

A budget is a piece of paper that does nothing more than represent a promise to yourself to get your spending under control. For the most part, we can’t make choices about how much we spend in many required areas, like our rent or our sewer bill. Our choices come in areas like food, entertainment, our automobile, and the like.

The key to controlling spending in those areas is mindfulness and impulse control, not having a piece of paper.

A budget is useful – particularly at first – because it lets you see what you’re really spending in those various areas. It says, “Hey, you’re spending a ridiculous amount on entertainment and it’s hurting you. Cut back.”

In the end, though, you have to make the behavior changes. A budget can’t do it for you.

So, yes, if you’re having difficulty with the structure and the numbers, have an accountant help you. But don’t expect the presence of a budget on paper to magically change your situation.

$350,000, divided out by 18 years, is only $53/day or so.

Counting up food, clothes, field trips, housing, etc. that you pay for your children, would $53 a day sound like an unreasonable number?
– A.J.

A.J.’s comment refers to some estimates that the average cost of raising a child born today into adulthood is $350,000 by some calculations.

First of all, it’s worth noting that such a number is an average. You’re including kids with full-time nannies. You’re including kids that go to private school. You’re including kids whose parents write checks to their Ivy League institutions. You’re including the kid whose parents bought him or her a brand new Lexus for their sixteenth birthday.

In short, most of us will actually spend less than that total raising our children. What is that less number? It depends a lot on the choices you make.

Are you going to buy them a car when they’re sixteen? Are you going to pay for college? Are you going to hire tutors? Are you going to get them into a better school? Are you going to buy them a top-of-the-line instrument for band? Are you going to dress them in new trendy clothes or go shopping first at thrift stores? Are you feeding them organics from day one? Are you going to travel extensively with them as they grow up? Are you going to move into a larger house to accommodate them?

All of these choices will make a radical shift in your total expenditures for your child, either up or down. Parents that make all of the low-cost choices will spend significantly less than that $350,000 total – perhaps half, or even less. Other parents who make different choices will spend more.

It really depends on your parenting style and what you value. For me, I’m more willing to invest on what’s in the inside – educational opportunities, food – than what’s on the outside – clothes, a new car.

I am becoming increasingly aware of the inhumane treatment to livestock in the food industry. Do you have any recommendations for websites or books to learn more on where to buy organic food and what resteraunts offer it?
– Mol

I tend to think that the best solution, if you’re worried about big agri-producers, is not to buy organic, but to buy local. Buying local means you can actually visit the farms where the items are produced and see for yourself how they’re treated.

In our case, for example, we buy milk and other dairy products from Picket Fence Creamery in Woodward. We can drive by the farm any time we like and they have very regular open houses and tours. I don’t care if it has an organic label on it or not, that’s a level of trust you just can’t get from buying an anonymous product in the store.

One great place to start with this approach is http://www.localharvest.org/, which has tons of information on eating from local sources.

Obviously, you can’t get all of your food this way, especially if you live in a colder climate, but it’s a big step in the right direction.

Due to reasons too complicated to explain, we have a mortgage where the only ones really keeping track of the balance are ourselves. (In other words, when we make an extra payment, it doesn’t necessarily get recorded unless we keep track of it.)

We have been adding roughly $165 a month to the payment with the goal of paying the loan off early. In the future that amount may go up. But we paid on the loan for a year + before adding additional money. I haven’t found a mortgage calculator that works for us. It is very important to keep track of this (it would be for anyone, but even more so for us). Have you any suggestions for something workable to track these payments?
– Kathryn

It sounds extremely shaky to me that you’re making payments to the bank and they’re not registering. If my lender had this kind of policy, I would make every effort to refinance, because the whole thing sounds really questionable.

In terms of personal financial records, the best thing a person can do is learn how to use a spreadsheet. A spreadsheet is so free-form that you can basically track your information in whatever way is most convenient for you. Spend the time to know how to use one.

Beyond that, your best step is probably to find a way through the complicated situation to ensure that your payments are being recorded correctly. There’s little reason for a company to have such sloppy records.

Trent, do you ever enjoy a good cigar?
– Mike

No, I do not. I have had several relatives have a miserable end to their lives due to emphysema (let alone lung cancer) and I’m beginning to watch a few more begin to head down that road. It’s a very painful thing to watch and experience.

This experience has put me firmly in the “not going to smoke” camp. I’m not an anti-smoking zealot by any means, but I do avoid businesses and private clubs that allow smoking and I’m extremely hesitant to visit the home of a smoker.

Many people respond with comments along the lines of “an occasional cigar is no big deal.” Maybe that’s true, but watching my grandmother spend the last few years of her life struggling for every single breath puts me firmly on the side of prudence in this case.

Trent, you mention that you keep your computer on because it automatically collects data at certain times. I was wondering if you are trolling for news articles or something similar to keep up to date on specific topics. I’m interested in doing that myself and was hoping you could suggest the easiest way to “troll” for news or blogger posts using keywords or something. Not sure if this is what you do, but if you have any pointers, it would be much appreciated.
– Victoria Vargas

I collect articles in an offline RSS reader that automatically checks hourly for updates. I save them locally so that, in the event that a blog disappears from the face of the earth, I still have a personal archive of the writings. It also enables me to read such writings when the internet is unavailable, which happens every few months or so here for a day or so.

Beyond that, I also run Folding@Home, which utilizes unused processing power of our home’s computers to analyze proteins, the results of which can be used in biomedical research to cure diseases. I have these programs set to automatically return results as soon as they’re finished and retrieve new ones, which means that Folding@Home sometimes runs in the middle of the night or on weekend afternoons.

Beyond that, my local computer also stores automatic backups of The Simple Dollar.

Between all of these automated things, I’m better off just leaving the computer running. It performs several important tasks, even when I’m not there to manage it.

I’ve been following you on Goodreads and you read a lot! Are you going to make a “best of 2009” list for books so people might have some interesting Christmas gift ideas?
– Kelly

I will probably have a “best of 2009” article or two on my irregularly-updated personal blog (right now, with my book crunch, I don’t have time for such updates, sadly). But I know that a lot of my readers are avid book readers who also often gift books to friends and relatives, so for you all, here’s my current “top ten books of 2009” list. I’m including only books published in the last 24 months that I read for the first time in 2009.

1. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
2. Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford
3. Supermarket: A Novel by Satoshi Azuchi (new in English)
4. This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
5. Anathem by Neal Stephenson
6. Satchel by Larry Tye
7. Crazy for the Storm by Norman Ollestad
8. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
9. Sunnyside by Glenn David Gold
… and, honestly, I don’t have a tenth that fits into this group quite yet.

What do you do with the personal finance books you review but don’t keep?
– Millie

Many of the books I review come straight from the library, and that’s where I return them. By now, I must be one of the best customers of the Ames Public Library in Ames, Iowa.

Aside from that, though, I do pick up a few books for my own use. When I have one of those, I either give it away to a reader randomly (I just pick a commenter that tickles my fancy) or I ship it away via PaperBackSwap for something I’ll find more worthwhile.

On a rare occasion, I’ll keep it because it seems like a good reference or has potential for inspiration in the future.

If you had sufficient money, would you choose to send your children to a private school?
– Charles

No. Instead, I’d choose to live in an area that put a high value on public education, a town where the citizens were willing to pay local taxes to have an incredibly strong local school district. There, I’d send them to the public school.

To me, private school is a good solution for affluent parents who are focused on education but required to live in an area with really poor public education. Since parents often don’t have the choice to simply raise taxes and improve the district with a wave of their hand, private school is a logical solution for them.

What about homeschooling? For one, I don’t believe in my own skills as an educator enough to follow this path. I suppose I would consider an appropriate tutor if money were no object and I was strongly opposed to the public school and I couldn’t move for some reason, but that seems like a pretty narrow situation.

I also often feel as though children are homeschooled to protect those children from certain kinds of knowledge or strongly reinforce particular ideas. However, the purpose of an education is to gain exposure to all kinds of knowledge and build up the tools to interpret and make sense of that knowledge. I want my children to face challenging decisions and ideas, and part of that means being exposed to children and families with different ideas and perspectives and values.

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

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