Updated on 07.30.14

Reader Mailbag #85

Trent Hamm

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 especially like the fact that your website has minimal ads. However, I’ve noticed for the past few days that Crate and Barrel has advertisements on your home page. I live in the Atlanta area so I don’t know if the ads are specific to regional differences/popularity, etc. I was surprised to see the Crate and Barrel ad on your website. I think while the quality of what they sell is much better than average, the prices are astronomical. I have a good job, money in the bank, but I could not afford even, what I consider their knick knacks, unless they are on clearance. Also, I would imagine that many of your other readers might feel the same way. Anyway, this is just my perspective. I’m wondering if you’ve heard from anyone else on this?
– Tasneem

The good is the enemy of the perfect.

If I accepted only ads that absolutely, unequivocally met my definition of a perfectly ethical, great customer value organization, I wouldn’t have any ads on the site and The Simple Dollar would cease to function.

That’s not a good solution.

Instead, I just try to focus on a few key things. Is the company reputable? Are they producing a product of reasonable quality that’s at least worthy of consideration for use or purchase? If it passes these litmus tests, I’ll happily place the ad, even if it’s not something I would always purchase for myself.

Crate and Barrel have good items. Many of them are pretty highly priced. You might be able to find equivalent items elsewhere. But if you buy an item there, I don’t think you’d get ripped off – you’d be getting a good item. To me, that’s enough – they’re in the conversation when considering a particular type of purchase and they’re not scamming you.

Sure, I’d be a bigger fan if their prices were lower. But if I designed my “perfect” company from a consumer perspective – high quality items, environmentally sound, very low prices – the company couldn’t afford to stay in business. They wouldn’t turn a profit.

In the end, the perfect is the enemy of the good, and Crate and Barrel (and similar shops) are good enough, even if they don’t represent the best possible bargain out there.

Going into my senior year in college, I had minor surgery. I assumed that my mom and dad (divorced) would handle the medical bills the way they always had. A year later, in grad school, I started getting collections calls. I called my parents and found out that they had been fighting over the bills, which were in my name, and nothing had been paid. If I had known, I would have taken out more money in student loans to pay the hospital. I paid settlements to the two agencies that contacted me. I am now out of grad school, ran a free credit report from annualcreditreport, and see that I have a third account in collections that I never knew about. I’m pretty sure it’s my debt and not an error (my medical insurance was an 80/20 plan and I pieced together that our share was about $5000).

My question now is: do I contact them and try to work out a settlement for this last $1200 or do I wait for the debt to disappear from my report in 2 years? I have some ability to repay but I hate the thought of parting with money that I worked so hard to save and the hospital (which did an excellent job!) doesn’t get any of it.
– Kelli

The ethical thing to do is to always repay our debts. If you borrowed money from someone, it’s the right thing to do to pay it back.

Things get hazier in the real world, though, and it sounds like you’re in a mess. My suggestion here is to contact the holder of the debt and negotiate. Ask them what they would take to have the debt marked as paid on your credit report.

The real world is sometimes a sticky place. This sounds like it could be very close to a “he said, she said” kind of battle. In those cases, everyone involved is better off if someone just steps up and solves it – the mature person in the mix. It sounds like here, Kelli, that’s you.

Along those same lines…

I’m curious if you’re familiar with do-it-yourself credit repair, particularly for low dollar delinquencies (less than $500). I’ve read that with collection agencies you can write “pay to delete” letters where you agree to pay the entire amount in exchange for them removing it from your credit reports. Have you or any readers had success in removing negative items from your credit report?
– Christine

Let’s be clear: paying someone to remove accurate info from your credit report is illegal. It constitutes fraud.

Now, it’s always a good idea, if you owe money to a collection agency, to negotiate with them. What kind of payment will they accept in exchange for marking the debt as paid?

This is completely ethical and legal – it’s a negotiation between two parties over a debt. When you come to such an agreement and your report is updated, it won’t undo a long period of delinquent payment, but it will begin to immediately heal your credit history and credit score. And, as time passes and the debt fades into your past, your credit score and history will greatly improve over time.

Either way, you need to address this. An open wound like this on your credit report is doing you no favors at all.

I don’t understand the Idiocracy theory. If you have children, you have to devote a lot of resources (time and money) to raising them – resources that you could otherwise use to influence other people to take up your cause. On the other hand, if your cause is such that the only way you can persuade someone to take it up is to brainwash them with it from birth, then what kind of cause is that?
– Johanna

Look at it through demographics, Johanna. Statistics from the Russell Sage Foundation indicate that the more financial success a family has, the less likely they are to have children. Instead, they devote their time to developing skills, pushing forward causes, and growing their knowledge.

Sage’s statistics show that the poorest quintile of America – the group that has, on the whole, the worst set of behaviors for financial and professional success (I’m not saying they can’t succeed, I’m merely saying that the results of their efforts is the worst) – has, on average, 10% more children than the richest quintile.

So, let’s do the math on this. Let’s say you have five couples, one in each quintile. The couple in the lowest quintile produces 2.0 children, while the couple in the highest quintile produces 1.8 children. Thus, the number of people that would define the lowest quintile today will grow in the next generation, while the highest quintile will shrink. Some of the people with the traits of the lowest quintile will now find themselves in the next highest quintile simply because of sheer numbers. Thus, all higher quintiles – in other words, all of society – see a slight reduction in traits that gear towards success.

Over many generations, you see a large reduction in the traits of people that made up the highest quintile and an increase in the traits of people that made up the lowest quintile, whether those traits come from nature or from nurture. If this gap in child bearing continues, the behavioral and cultural norms of the lowest income people will become the cultural and behavioral norms of all of society.

Is that a good thing, a bad thing, or an indifferent thing? It’s something that could be endlessly debated. However, the effect itself is clearly happening – whether or not you can trace that back to cultural and social changes is another question altogether.

My belief is that, from the pure perspective of diversity, it’s a bad thing and that people who are successful in life can do their part to help the world by having children of their own and raising them with the care and compassion they show in other aspects of their lives, the aspects that brought them success.

Has Sarah ever commented on any of your articles just to keep you on your toes?
– Mol

Sarah (my wife) usually “comments” to me face to face about my articles. Usually, her comments revolve around some of the choices I make to protect privacy – I’ll leave out details about people, change their first names, or somehow alter them in an inconsequential way to protect their privacy.

Sometimes, she’ll get really aggravated with commenters, who read one article and immediately leave a flaming comment about a decision we puzzled over for months. I usually remind her that (a) these people are likely trolls and (b) if they’re not, they don’t have the full view or the time invested in studying our situation. A single post cannot possibly reveal all facets of a complex choice.

Every once in a while, she’ll harangue me for an inaccuracy somewhere, usually related to my juxtaposing elements of a remembered situation. “That never happened like that!” she’ll tell me, and then she’ll inform me how she remembers it. Likely, the actual story is somewhere in the middle – or maybe I’m right, or maybe she’s right. To me, it’s inconsequential – the important part of it is always the positive outcome.

I recently graduated college and have 2 student loans to pay off:
Loan 1: about $4,000 left on it with a 6.8% rate
Loan 2, Part 1: about $3,000 left with a 6.8% rate
Loan 2, Part 2: about $7,000 with a 4% rate
Loan 2, Part 3: about $6,000 with a 5.3% rate
The kicker on loan 2: I was ‘automatically selected’ to pay off both part 2 and 3 before I can even start paying off part 1 (with the crazy high rate).

I have asked around and done a bit of research on my own. Really the only thing that I keep coming back to is Ramsey’s idea of paying off the smallest loan first, while still making minimum payments on the other loan (so I don’t default). I have already built up an emergency fund and am trying to decide how to tackle these loans that would be the most profitable in the long run.
– AReynolds

Loan #1 should go first regardless of how you calculate it.

The way I calculate segmented loans like loan #2 is by figuring out the average interest rate. Just multiply the interest rate of each segment by the amount of that segment, add the totals of each segment together, then divide by the cash total of the loan. In this case, the average rate is 6.0125%. Over time, it’ll inch upwards, as the balance of the first segment will go up faster than the second and third, but the rate will never equal the rate of the first one.

I’d just think of loan #2 as a single loan with an interest rate of 6.0125%. That means you’re choosing between a loan with $4.000 on it at 6.8% or a loan with $16,000 on it at 6.0125%. Almost every method under the sun for debt repayment will tell you to go with the $4,000 loan first.

How much does it cost a company to maintain the record of your debt? Given that they have to pay someone to call you, have to pay for postage to contact you with documents, and any other costs they have to soak to keep your debt on file, at what point would it become less than worthwhile to keep your debt on the books?

To use an extreme case, suppose I had an outstanding balance of $.01 in debt, and maintained it at that level, it would be more cost-effective for the company to write that off than collect, wouldn’t it?
– prufock

Companies that have sensible bookkeeping procedures usually do forgive tiny amounts due. Bills for $0.01 are largely a thing of the past as companies have realized that there is a cost to bill a customer and that forgiving the remaining amount is the best route if the balance is lower than the cost of billing.

What’s that cost of billing? It largely determines on the internals of a company. I’ve received bills for $4 in the last few years, but I can’t recall anything lower.

From my back-of-the-envelope chicken scratches, I would guess that for most companies, billing amounts under a dollar or two are probably better off left unbilled. Instead, they often just sit there and are added to larger bills if a customer has a new charge in the future.

At the same time, though, it’s usually a good move for a company to issue a refund or a payment for any amount, even if it’s just $0.01. The cheapest way to do that is usually to just treat it like any other payment and issue a check. While it might be cheaper for them to just hold it and apply it as a credit to your next bill, it’s often not allowed – and they’re far better off following the rules to the letter.

If you were forced into a short-term debt situation right now, would you rather borrow money from a friend or a family member or go into credit card debt?
– Andy

I’d rather get into credit card debt if those were my only choices.

I very rarely see a situation that involves a family loan that doesn’t end up with hard feelings or resentment on one side of the coin or another. If this is just a short term debt small enough to be put on a credit card, I’d rather pay a hundred dollars in finance charges than jeopardize a valuable family relationship.

To me, the value in my life isn’t measured in dollars and cents. It’s measured in people. The risk I would add to such a relationship is worth the extra money a credit card debt would cost me.

What is a typical work day like for you?
– DeLa

I wake up around 6 AM and usually check my email. My office is right next door to the kids’ bedroom, so I hear them when they begin to awaken, usually around 6:30.

After that, it’s time for getting dressed, brushing hair, eating breakfast, a bit of horseplay, getting shoes on, getting any winter clothes on, and getting out the door to daycare. I’m usually more interested in just spending good time with the kids, so this isn’t rushed in any way unless I have something URGENT for work. Most days, my workday proper doesn’t start until 8:45 AM.

I usually spend the morning in three separate hourlong focus sessions, where I turn off the phone and focus on an article. I’ll usually try to finish a good draft in that timeframe. Between the sessions, I’ll take a break or do things like approve comments.

After that comes lunch and often another hourlong focus session. Then I’ll spend time editing the posts and setting them up for public display. I then usually do a big email session. After that, I’ll usually work on some other large project – a book manuscript, a post for my personal site, or something along those lines.

That gets me to about 3:30 in the afternoon, at which point I wind things down for the day. I’ll usually keep working on whatever the biggest “fire” is until my wife and kids arrive home around five.

About two days a week or so, I’ll spend the afternoon out and about. Sometimes, I’ll do something like grocery shopping with my notepad open to jot down ideas. Other times, I’ll go out to lunch with someone. Sometimes, I’ll spend an afternoon at the library.

To continue that train of thought…

If you work at home alone all day, how do you combat loneliness?
– Emerson

I don’t feel loneliness if I can consistently get myself into a creative zone – and most days, I can. It’s the days when I can’t that are the trickiest.

On those days, I usually go do something social. I’ll go eat lunch with someone I know. I’ll go to a coffee shop and work. I’ll try to pencil in an interview with someone. I’ve even sat in on a class at a local university.

There are always people doing something out and about in the community and it’s not hard to meet up with them. I’ve found that, for me, that’s enough.

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

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  1. I knew I recognized that student loan question somewhere. After scouring the internet (the answer was right in front of me), I found the exact same question posted…in Reader Mailbag #83! Why the re-post??

  2. Jon says:

    I’m 30 years old and my wife and I are in the market for a new car. Combined, we earn roughly $150K a year and have about the same in savings. Both of our current cars are paid off, worth about $15K each, and we would be selling one of them. We are also completely debt free other than a mortgage on a rental property. A friend of mine recently starting talking about the Time Value of Money and says that it is better in the long run to take out a loan for the ~$30K car instead of paying cash for it up front. What is best in my situation? Pay cash or take out a loan?

  3. I just wanted to comment about the short term loan question… I’m not disagreeing with you, just sharing a different take on the situation:

    I recently refinanced our home loan, and in the process we noticed we were only a few thousand away from dropping PMI. So, I offered a deal to my parents. They loaned me the money, and I repay them at a rate of 5% interest, compounded monthly. They enjoyed being able to help me out, and they ended up getting a return on an investment that is about twice as good as anything else they could have done (for a secure investment anyway).

    I set up automatic monthly payments, mailed from my bank, and so there is no issue with forgetting to pay.

    I know this may not be the norm when it comes to friend/family loans, but I thought somebody out there might gain from reading a successful way of going about it.

  4. @ Seth
    I’ve done the same thing with my student loans. Instead of paying 6.8%, I am repaying my parents at around 3.5% (also automatically from the banks), the rate of their HELOC. It works out for both of us, and since it was their idea, I know they couldn’t be happier about helping me out without hurting themselves.

  5. Kyle says:

    Among the problems with the idiocracy theory (and there are several) is that the poorest quintile don’t tend to live as long.

  6. right side of the river says:

    re collection agency – if it’s a small amount and it’s already been paid in full to the collection agency, you might want to try and write to them as well as the credit bureaus to ask if these items can be removed from your credit history. it’s sort of like asking for a favor and there’s nothing illegal about it. in my experience with smaller amounts they’ll oblige.

  7. Rick says:

    You need to tell Chase about not trying to recover small amounts. I’ve had a bill for $1.01 on a card for about two years now that I’ve refused to pay, mainly because it wasn’t even my fault anyway. Every month for the past two years, they’ve sent me a bill. They’ve also had to deal with a number of calls from me trying to get them to fix their problem. By all accounts, they’ve spent far more than $1.01 trying to recover that.


    I also wanted to mention something about the idiocracy theory. It seems the biggest problem with your explanation is that it seems to depend on a lack of mobility between the quintiles. It’s the same problem as those that claim “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”. Racher, I think it’s quite doable for a poor person to overcome that and become rich. Likewise, it’s possible for a dumb rich person to spend it all, and his children have nothing.

  8. Re: working from home schedule.

    I’ve recently started working from home part-time, and this breakdown of the day’s time is one of the most helpful I’ve seen. I’ve been somewhat at loss, stopping and starting various projects and ideas, it’s great to see how the time can be used most productively, with discrete scheduled chunks. And also, it’s reassuring that Trent doesn’t hit the “8-hour a day” quota either.

  9. jtenman says:

    My question for the mailbag:

    I am trying to decide which is the better option in terms of what to do with $200 extra dollars a month that I have. Currently, I am putting that extra money towards my mortgage to work on getting it paid off. However, I don’t currently have any type of retirement plan. Would I be better off starting an IRA and putting the extra money towards that? As a note, I am 24 years old.

  10. Maranda says:

    I would like to know how you are able to sit in on a class at the university? Do you just go to the class you’d like visit or do you make arrangements with the professor?

  11. Chad says:

    #4 Kyle: Exactly. There’s a creationist canard along the same lines: If bad mutations are more common than good ones (and generally they are), how is adaptation possible? Why doesn’t the information in gene pools disappear over time?

    The answer, of course, is selection. Bad mutations, and organisms with them, by definition don’t survive long enough to reproduce; good mutations, and organisms with them, do, and come to dominate the gene pool.

    #6 Rick has a good point as well: horizontal transmission of ideas, and mental selection between them, also plays a role. Then again, so does inborn instinct. Without having the numbers, it’s hard to say whether we should be worried.

  12. Kris says:

    First, you should quit using the word “rich”. Rich is a political term used to declare class warfare and has no true meaning. What one person says is rich is another persons “just getting by”.

    In your reply back to Johanna, you are talking about passing on success traits to your children so that the traits of success get passed on ( which I agree with ), while in the post it came from you were talking about advancing your causes and the need to have children so that you can push those causes ( which I don’t agree with) hence the remark “On the other hand, if your cause is such that the only way you can persuade someone to take it up is to brainwash them with it from birth, then what kind of cause is that?” So in that sense, your answer to her doesn’t really make much sense.

    So, let me see if I understand your answer to your wife, if someone comes on here and disagrees with you, then you say they don’t get it (at best) or they are a troll (at worst). is that really how you view your readership? If they agree with you they are good readers who are taking in all your “knowledge” but if they don’t agree with you they are trolls?

  13. Danielle says:

    I’ve noticed at the top of each article, you have an icon showing how many comments it has. Also, at the bottom of each article, in links, there is a link to comment showing the number of comments. However, the link at the bottom seems to cap out at 20, while the number at the top is usually pretty accurate (taking into account the frequency of updates vs. how often a new article gets comments).

    Are you aware that this lower counter is maxing out? It’s not a big deal, but as a computer programmer, it is the sort of thing that I notice when a lot of other people might not.

    And thanks for the great blog… I truly love reading TSD.

  14. Carl says:

    Most do not even bother to calculate, which is good for the banks.

  15. With respect to the idiocracy “theory” I have three comments…

    First, on the very same site that you link to, we have the following graph (http://www.russellsage.org/chartbook/basictrends/Fig2.3/view) which shows that over the same years that the lowest quintile has out reproduced the rich, the level of income (in real dollars) has either held relatively steady or increased — over all quintiles. Needless to say, this could NOT be true if the idiocracy theory that you propose were true. Thus, it seems that even a cursory examination of the available data refutes your position.

    Second, the page that you linked to breaks down then number of children by quintile of wage earners. Yet you claim that we are discussing “success.” It seems that we are left with the conclusion that you measure success in life by hourly wages…a poor metric at best. Is this really what you propose; the frugal should hold income as the metric of their success in life?

    Third, you claim that “the effect of [the idiocracy theory] is clearly happening.” But then you provide no indication of this effect (despite its clarity). If it is so clear to you, then I wonder if you might supply some of the ‘effects’ that you see all around you.

    Thank you. I await in eager anticipation.

  16. brad says:

    the play by play of trent’s day reminded me of this. if any of you are trying to be more health conscious, you should check out dailyburn.com. its a free service that lets you track your weight, your workouts, the foods you eat. it breaks it down for you so you really understand what your consuming (in terms of carbs, proteins, fats, etc.). plus there’s a real supportive network of people on there.

  17. Jonathan says:

    @Rick #6, sounds like you’ve spent more than $1.01 worth of time trying to avoid paying the credit card charge :-)

  18. jc says:

    Trent, your income quintile argument is full of problems that I’m sure others will point out. A simpler reply to Johanna is that you are not brainwashing your children, instead you feel a vocational call to raise children who will, on the whole and by your guidance, be part of solutions rather than problems. Further, you contend that a number of parents who do not approach child-rearing in this way raise children who will be part of all sorts of problems and offer solutions to few if any of them.

    This is a meritocratic argument without the broad brush of sweeping statements about income, which is confounded with all sorts of other factors, and betrays a snobbish “the highest income earners are better people than the lowest income earners” that I’m pretty sure you don’t actually affirm. I’m quite sure my formulation has some other parochial snobbishness that someone else will gleefully point out.

    I do believe that it would be helpful, unless you greatly enjoy poking your single and/or childless fans in the eye repeatedly, that you would re-consider how you phrase your cheerleading for both marriage and child-rearing.

  19. Pat says:

    @Kelli –

    If there is an outstanding debt, it will continue to stay on your credit report. The 5-year time frame only applies to historical data like deliquincies.

  20. Sam says:

    @#9 Danielle, I’ve noticed this too and have always wondered about it as well!

  21. Kris says:

    Regarding Crate and Barrel, while much of their inventory is expensive, you can usually score solid deals on quality everyday glassware and small kitchen utensils. I bought four of their “Rings” pint glasses a few years ago for maybe $6, and they’re still around. C&B’s sales tend to be excellent, as well.

  22. Chelsea says:

    I have two questions for a later mailbag:

    1. Have you ever tried to make your own lotion and chapstick? I find I go through a ton of the stuff during the winter, and good lotion is kind of expensive.

    2. Do you and your wife have any differences of opionion on finances/frugality/etc. where you’ve had to compromise? I know my husband and I both have different things we wish the other was more and less frugal about.

  23. Sri says:

    Trent, Did you mean “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”?

  24. Outdoorseaguy says:

    I have a question about a credit card account that I’d like to close. I’m in the process of rebuilding my financial life after some reckless and irresponsible behavior. I have two credit cards, both are the kind they give to people with bad credit like me. They have low credit limits ($500 and $300) and high interest rates. I pay these off in full every month to not deal with the finance charges. The one with the $300 limit is really getting on my nerves. They charge a monthly account maintenance fee and they recently declined my request for a credit increase. I’m seriously tempted to close this account, but I’m afraid that I shouldn’t cut off access to that credit, however little it is. I have built up an emergency fund of over $1000, so I wouldn’t use that card anyway in an emergency. I’m also afraid of the ding to my already poor credit score. Should I try to negotiate with the lender and try to lower my interest and waive the maintenance fees and close the account if they decline or use the card for regular expenses like groceries, my cell-phone bill, etc and pay it off in full at the end of the month, to keep the good credit history?

  25. Catherine says:

    “These statistics from the Russell Sage Foundation indicate that the more financial success a family has, the less likely they are to have children.”

    Also, the more education a woman has, the more likely she is to have financial success and the more likely she is to have few children. Also, having many children can *cause* poverty. Also, regression toward the mean exists.

    I’m still for having as many children as you want to and certainly for teaching them as well as you can. But this is weak use of statistics and an ethically-problematical approach to social engineering.

  26. Johanna says:

    Trent, that demographic analysis doesn’t make any sense unless you completely ignore the fact (as you’ve been doing all along) that people can influence other people who aren’t their biological (or even their adoptive) children.


    It seems to me that in this country, one of the biggest (and one of the most obviously hereditary) “traits that gear toward success” is having white skin. Are you actually making a thinly veiled argument for white people to step it up or else we’ll get outbred by the brown people?

  27. Dara says:

    @ Kris #8

    I think the point Trent was making about his wife getting upset with comments is about “flaming” comments, as he wrote, not about comments that disagree. Flaming is, according to wikipedia, “the act of posting deliberately hostile messages on the internet”. So really, it had nothing to do with agreeing or disagreeing.

  28. valletta says:

    Well, it certainly shows you have readers from a broad range. I personally find Crate and Barrel to be very affordable, a deal even.
    I would not call it expensive unless you are talking their high end furniture. But then I’m in the Bay Area, maybe that’s part of the difference.
    I’ve gone to “cheap” stores and see higher prices on less quality items for example. I purchased a hand blown crystal wine decanter for $19.99. A deal! Especially since we drink so much wine :)
    I’m a firm believer in cultivating a good eye, knowing quality and then you can find good deals ANYWHERE.

  29. mp99 says:

    in a related story to:

    “To use an extreme case, suppose I had an outstanding balance of $.01 in debt, and maintained it at that level, it would be more cost-effective for the company to write that off than collect, wouldn’t it?”

    I was pissed at a bank while in college so I left the account open for years with only $.01 in it. After a long period of time they sent me a check for $.01 for interest on my penny. Which i thought was stupid. a few days later I got a bill for $15.00 because my account was overdrawn. it seems that when they issue checks for interest they charged each account $0.50, which means my account was ($.49). Fortunately I still had the check..so i took it back down to them and told them to redeposit the $.50 in my account… they did….after about 8 years i finally closed the account :)

  30. Shevy says:

    @Kris @ 10:22 am
    “So, let me see if I understand your answer to your wife, if someone comes on here and disagrees with you, then you say they don’t get it (at best) or they are a troll (at worst). is that really how you view your readership? If they agree with you they are good readers who are taking in all your “knowledge” but if they don’t agree with you they are trolls?”

    I realize that there are still some people who have only limited familiarity with the Internet and message boards, blogs, forums, etc. In case you are one of these people, let’s step through the concepts of trolls and flaming.

    Trent didn’t say that he and Sarah were talking about commenters who disagree with his writing or his choices. He said: “Sometimes, she’ll get really aggravated with commenters, who read one article and immediately leave a flaming comment about a decision we puzzled over for months.”

    The key word there is *flaming* comment. To flame someone is to leave a deliberately incendiary comment, not to disagree.

    To use the example of Trent’s and Sarah’s purchase of a new Prius (which received both kinds of negative comments), a person who said that they don’t understand why Trent paid a premium price for a car that would depreciate as soon as he drove it off the lot is disagreeing or asking for clarification of Trent’s thinking process.

    Someone who leaves a comment that says anyone who buys a new car is an idiot and has no business writing about personal finance is flaming.

    Trolls are people who like to make inflammatory statements just for the fun of it. It’s attention-seeking behavior and they enjoy having people respond to their often outrageous comments. This is why the general advice is “Don’t feed the trolls.”

    And, yes, Trent does have some trolls as well as some others who verge on trollish behavior. But I’m pretty sure he can tell the difference between a troll and someone who disagrees with him.

  31. B says:

    @ Shevy

    I agree that there are trolls on the internet. But there is also a bias on this site towards positive comments. I realize that Trent does publish negative comments (even flamming ones) but what he does do is sometimes with-hold the *really* good negative ones. I have been commenting under several aliases from sometime now and as of yet I have not failed to get a positive comment approved, not matter how banal. However, at the same time negative comments that I leave (especially, if they are we reasoned and supported with links) will sometimes remain unapproved. In fact, there is one in this post that is still waiting…

    All this does lead one to wonder if Trent is actually interested in honest discussion or just comments that make him look good…

  32. imelda says:

    Trent, I hate to break it to you, but you’re arguing for eugenics.

    The ideal scenario you imply de-values the poor. But why are they poor? Better put, who is poor? Minorities, the disabled, those suffering from diseases, and so on. These are the people you’re worried about over-breeding. I glanced at the “Idiocracy” summary on Wikipedia; apparently the concern there is that “intelligent” people are not breeding as quickly as idiots. But what defines intelligence? Who defines intelligence?

    You seem to have chosen the standard of financial success as proof of intelligence. You should know better than that—- this society rewards whites and non-disabled people with financial success. Yes, personal values have to do with it. But surely you know by now that it’s not nearly everything, and you can’t separate social influences from class. Moreover, plenty of brilliant people choose not to pursue wealth (see: artists).

    Your ideal scenario also discriminates against competing value systems. You’re saying that it’d be better if people who shared *your* values, or those values rewarded by society, bred more actively. But hey, guess what? Maybe your values suck in the long run. Maybe mine do. Saying that we should try to breed out people with different values than us is so far beyond intolerance that…well, it becomes eugenics.

  33. Marcella says:

    On of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had was a telephone company (Telstra – the former national provider here in Australia) sending us a “bill” every month for nearly two years telling us we were 4c in credit after we ceased services and our contract with them.

    No amount of phone calls, requests, pleas could get them to stop sending these stupid letters! We would ring, get put through and accounts or whichever department would “note on our file” that communciation should cease. It truly was just ridiculous.

    We estimate they would have spent about $10 in postage telling about this credit we glad wanted them to keep. What a waste!

  34. Tasneem says:

    In response to Valletta’s comment: Crate and Barrel is probably pretty expensive for most people. I don’t have stats to back that up, but a number of their stores have closed in my area. As Trent often states on this website, it’s about making choices: what you value versus what another person values and what each is willing to pay for.

  35. Susan says:

    I enjoy reading your posts each day and am appreciative of the effort and time it takes to post on a daily basis. While I may not agree with every statement you make, your writing is both educational and entertaining. I am amazed, quite frankly, that you allow some of the comments that you do as I find them to be rude. I guess though that some people are only happy when they are not:)

  36. Shevy says:

    @ B
    One thing about using more than one alias (& I’m curious as to whether there’s an innocent reason for using a series of them anyway) is that every time you use a new name your comment is going to automatically be held for moderation.

    I know from asking Trent about this (when I posted from a different computer and wondered where my post was) that he often only goes through and approves comments once a day. And then, once all the pending comments are approved, they slot in at the times when the posters originally commented so it can be difficult to find one’s own remark when there are suddenly an extra 40 or 50 or more responses.

    So that could easily account for a number of the instances you mention. I couldn’t begin to address the question of any comment that never appears. I’ve seen a lot of really negative comments posted here (both well-reasoned and not), so I can’t imagine what he deep sixes, other than out and out spam and the like.

  37. B says:

    Oh, I suppose there is nothing “innocent” about having a alias. I created them because I was curious what Trent actually does and does not let through his site. This experiment was brought on by a post he had many months ago when he talked about the kind of comments he had to put up with — citing some very aggressive comments that he had received. So, I wondered what he would and would not let through.

    Like I said earlier, I have found (no proof, of course) that he tends to let through most of my blatant flames (unless they employ profanity) and ALL of my positive comments, not matter how banal. Which is fine, I think that if he does not wish to have profanity, that is a good thing. And he is really out there in the world so I imagine that all good feedback is nice to have.

    What I found interesting was that many of the comments that I had that disagreed with him were not approved (and continue to be even now). What distinguished these particular posts was that I was very aggressive in my disagreement, but was careful to site support as to why — or to try to point out logical inconsistencies in his reasoning. These posts were not “sugar coated.” However, if I took the same tack in attacking his viewpoints, but offered a platitude up front (ie. you are a great guy and i love the site, but…) then they are always approved.

    Anyway, those are my results, for what they are worth. I feel like i should go back to school for a sociology or psychology degree or something. It might be an interesting project and would require little funding…

  38. AnnJo says:

    Re the demographics of income disparity:

    I’m not sure the Russell Sage Foundation’s chart necessarily means that poorer families have more children. It may simply mean that younger families are poorer. If you have younger children, they are all still at home, you are probably younger yourself, and since wealth increases as you age, you are probably poorer. If you have older children, one or more may be out of the household, decreasing the number remaining in the home, while you are also probably older and therefore wealthier yourself.

    As someone else already noted, there is an enormous amount of mobility between income quintiles, and so the same young three-child family that is today in the lowest quintile may (and probably will) be in the middle quintile with only two children at home in ten years time.

    Hard to know for sure what the chart means, since the study’s methodology and definitions aren’t given.

  39. reulte says:

    I think you’re missing a few things in the idiocracy theory equation

    First, you aren’t defining ‘success’ adequately. OK – financial and professional success. How much money is financial success? Does professional success mean emotional stability, pure survival, power, contentment, Maslaw’s Heirarchy? To my way of thinking financial & professional success is both contextual and personal.

    Second, your argument assumes that people only take care of their own children — many childless, childfree, and parenting people take care of other people in different ways – with or without inculcating them with a particular sub-cultural idiom.

    Third, your argument makes the assumption that there is no behavioral change within a quintile. It is the behavior which provides social mobility – and behavior can be learnt through one’s parents (as you posit) or can be learned through other means – reading, observation, taking classes, grandmotherly kindness. Therefore, among the lowest quintile, the children with the ‘correct’ behavior have that behavior reinforced by financial and professional success (however, we define it).

    Fourth, neither IQ nor behavior is hereditary.

    However, I think your argument is weakest in that if I asked you why YOU had children, you wouldn’t answer “to prevent the downfall of American society, mom, and apple pie” or “so I could have some little mini-me’s to train”.

  40. deRuiter says:

    The post leaves out the fact that our government subsidizes the production of poverty class children. In effect our tax dollars are used, like an agricultural subsidy, to encourage the production of children with a tendency to fail in life. Parents from a higher socio economic class tend to produce fewer chidlren so they can take better care of them and assure their children’s success. This isn’t a color issue, more white women in the professional poverty class get subsidies than black women. If America offered a monthly stipend NOT to have children, or only paid for children who go to school and succeed in school, there would be a change in the demographics. Welfare children have a monthly value which is paid by the state to the parent / guardian. The more children, the more money given to the person who controls the children. It’s counter productive to a well functioning society, but due to the PC nature of our America today, and the odd hero worship of “The Poor” that’s how it is.

  41. Steph says:

    Crate and Barrel isn’t a store I frequent, but they have the nicest glass mixing bowl set. I got it as an unexpected wedding gift and couldn’t believe how often I used the bowls. I looked online and I think the set of (10?) bowls was just $25. I now buy that as a nice wedding gift for people and throw in some salsa or quac mix or something of that nature, with a bag of chips. It takes a $25 gift and makes it rather high quality.

  42. Marcus says:

    With regards to eugenics, your argument only makes sense if what we’re passing on are purely biological traits — we’re not cats.

    1. The mortality rate associated with lower socioeconomic levels more than covers that 10% disparity in birth rates.

    2. There is a tendency for populations to gravitate towards the mean. Some ‘poor’ people are going to do better regardless of their parentage.

    3. The parents aren’t solely responsible for the education of the offspring, society covers a large part of that and societal values are what the children learn.

    It’s a crappy argument, and as someone pointed out, it’s eugenics. In trying to give a pat answer to an email, you ended up with egg on your face. Stick to money, leave behavior and breeding to the ‘ologists.

  43. littlepitcher says:

    Poorer children also have a greater statistical tendency to be children of drug and alcohol-addicted parents. This means that they are more likely to be genetically damaged, neglected, and further damaged by poor diet and poor life choices poorly understood. They breed earlier and more often than their better-educated counterparts, and pass along the damage.

    The only way–and yes, I believe it’s the sole factor which will make the difference–is deregulation of contraceptive sales. Britain is already doing this. The right wing has run Planned Parenthood out of many medium-sized cities for abortions, and no one has stepped in to take over their services in providing before-the-act contraception support for the underclass. Implants, not pills, are by far the better choice for a class which has little or no experience with impulse control and should be available at free clinics and on a sliding scale for the working poor.

  44. A says:

    I am a bit concerned with the argument for the “Idiocracy Theory”. I have not seen the movie, and pretty much all the information I have gotten about it has come from the Simple Dollar. It sounds like it has some basis in eugenics, to be honest. Trent says “So, let’s do the math on this. Let’s say you have five couples, one in each quintile. The couple in the lowest quintile produces 2.0 children, while the couple in the highest quintile produces 1.8 children. Thus, the number of people that would define the lowest quintile today will grow in the next generation, while the highest quintile will shrink. Some of the people with the traits of the lowest quintile will now find themselves in the next highest quintile simply because of sheer numbers. Thus, all higher quintiles – in other words, all of society – see a slight reduction in traits that gear towards success.” When I read this sentence, I am reading that the belief being put forth is that the people in the lowest quintile will only rise up due to ‘sheer numbers’ and not by hard work and ambition, and the word ‘traits’ is used in that sentence, which is a word typically used in conjuction with genetics that are inherited (that is the eugenics part).I know plenty of people who are smart and ambitious who have children who are not, for a multitude of reasons. Drug use, lack of ambition (even when the parents have enough to spare) are just a couple of things that I have seen. As a matter of a fact, suburban drug use by teenagers is just as real a problem as drug use in the inner cities. I really just don’t think that this ‘theory’ gives any credit or credence to human ambition and drive. Think about all the people in our country’s past who rose up to become great leaders, even in the face of ignorant, low-earning parents. I think that great caution needs to be used when putting forth ideas that people reading them might take them to mean that certain social traits such as ambition and drive are inherited from their parents. Again, that is eugenics and eugenics has a very ugly past in our country. American citizens were involuntarily sterilized up until the 1970’s in this country because they were either low-income, a minority, they had a mental or physical disability or some combination of the above. There was actually a point in American history where it was believed that social standing was inherited and if you were born in a certain social strata you could not move from that because it was genetic. Anyone can go to their local university library and find plenty of details on what happened, if they are so inclined. Environment and genetics work together and you never know what might turn someone to one path or another. Instead of encouraging ‘high quintile’ people to have more children, why don’t we encourage those folks to mentor children in the ‘low quintile’ or to teach school or to volunteer in their community to make a difference for those children who are not destined for great things (at least according to what I have seen of the ‘Idiocracy Theory’) and see if we as a society can shape their destiny and help them develop and embrace their own ambition and drive.

  45. Amy says:

    Just a quick word in support of Crate&Barrel: Trent, I think you can feel good about having their ads on your site. Yes, they carry items that you may be able get for less elsewhere, but they have fantastic customer service and a very generous return policy. I worked at one of their stores for my first year out of art school and witnessed their commitment to quality and service first hand. They are a company that I respect.

  46. Kris says:

    @ Shevy:

    I have been on the internet since 1990 and am quite familiar with the terms “flaming” and “trolls” so please save your sunday school lesson.

    Just because someone describes something as flaming doesn’t mean that it is. The problem with the term flaming is that its a matter of opinion unless a person is using profanity and specifically saying things like “you’re an #$#@#”. Even your little example could be seen as aggressively disagreeing rather than flaming. I was just expressing my opinion that writing how you tell your wife that your readers are either dumber than you and don’t get it or they are trolls is very pretentious.

  47. Kris says:


    Interesting experiment, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you found the same results on any blog that is monitored by the blogger. I think its human nature to not like having people disagree with you, especially if they can back it up.

  48. imelda says:

    As a follow-up to my earlier comment, Trent, I’d just like to point out how *insane* the people who are agreeing with you sound. I’m perfectly serious–see comments 28 and 29.

    This conversation has become so deeply offensive it’s almost laughable. These people are actually talking about having the government determine who gets to have children and who doesn’t.

    Do you people understand why this is a basic human right? Why disabled people went to court for the right to have children? Poor people, people with disabilities, even people struggling with addictions–they all have just as much to teach their children as you do. You can’t shape society according to your own image. Get over it.

    Trent, you’ve got to speak up. Or delete the above comments. Or something. This isn’t just another simple debate. We’re on the road to arguing that forced sterilization (i.e. that favorite tool of genocide) is OK. Are you reading me here? Is this registering?

  49. Jenny says:

    I have a question for a future mailbag:

    I know you keep notes on lots of different areas of your life, but I’m interested in a particular area: Work-related ideas. I take so many notes at work (in meetings, requests from my boss, things to follow up on, etc.) and sometimes, I have ideas for things to pursue that I can’t necessarily work on right now, but want to keep in mind for the future.

    Do you keep notes on “big ideas” for your blog, and if so, how do you keep those ideas from getting lost in the day-to-day shuffle? Do you have any suggestions on how to budget “big idea cultivation” into work time?

  50. Michael Lach says:

    http://www.RemoveMyCreditInquiries.org is a site I found that is ran by a non-profit that can remove credit report inquiries for $15. They also appear to remove late comments as well.

  51. Amy says:

    @B: I believe any comment with a link in it is automatically moderated, which definitely slows it down in the approval process. If your test-aggressive comments are ‘backed up’ by links, as requested in the commenting guidelines, you’re giving that much more scrutiny to Trent, who may choose not to approve them more often compared to test-aggressive comments that don’t have links. Perhaps you are biasing your own experiment? I don’t know your hypotheses, but it sounds like an interesting mailbag question around what constitutes ‘flaming’…

  52. Shevy says:

    Ah, so you’re not naive or ignorant then. You’re just aggressive. Thanks for clearing that up.

  53. SP says:

    @Danielle – I noticed (and commented!) about the “20 comments” thing too. And while I don’t currently write software, I have before! :)

    @anyone – If you put a link in a comment, I wouldn’t expect it to get approved in a reasonable amount of time to contribute to the discussion, even if you have commented many times in the past in a constructive way. Even if your link is constructive.

    I can understand the desire to not be constantly approve comments, but as a “full-time” blogger, don’t you think 2-3 times a day of quick moderation is possible?

  54. Kati says:

    I’ve got a question for you. A few days ago, my mom mentioned to me that they were only making a partial payment on their mortgage this month. Not only that, but she was splitting that partial payment between two credit cards … and probably wasn’t going to be able to make the other half of her payment. She sighs and blames it on the nebulous “economy,” but this has been a long time coming — they’ve always spent more than they earned, and have tried to brush any problems under the rug. My sister and I have tried to talk to them about it and have offered to help, but my mom gets defensive and says things like, “I don’t even know how much we owe and I certainly don’t want you to know.” Anyway, my question is, what can my sister and I do? Clearly they’re getting to the point where their house is at risk, and while we’re reasonably stable in our own finances, neither one of us has enough to finance my parents. What can we do? How can we help them? How can we get them to wake up and take responsibility?

  55. Kate says:

    A possible question for a future mailbag…

    One of the problems I’m facing these days in trying to restart my own career is reading overload. This is made worse because my reading speed has decreased over the years, due to a couple of medical issues.

    What’s your approximate reading speed? How long (in hours) would it take you to finish reading a three hundred page novel? A New York Times editorial?

    And if you ever feel overwhelmed by the reading load, how do you triage for selecting which things to read?


  56. jc says:

    @B I think you’re onto something. Indeed, my earlier comment in this thread hasn’t been approved yet. I don’t think it’s even a particularly aggressive disagreement, but I realize that tone carries poorly over the Internet.

  57. Jo says:

    I have about $5k in self employed income for 2009. Through income earned from my regular job I have already maxed out my Roth IRA and will max out my 401k by the end of the year. Am I eligible to contribute a portion of my self-employed income to a SEP IRA?

  58. Marcia says:

    Wow, the whole talk/statistics about the wealth of families and the number of children they have is interesting.

    I think it’s far too easy to make generalizations. Statistics are great for that, but they don’t necessarily tell you what’s really going on.

    Sure, a lot of poor kids come from home with drug abuse or alcoholism.

    A lot of families are poor because they have too many kids they cannot afford.

    A lot of large families are religious, and are poor because they think “God will take care of me”.

    A lot of educated women have fewer children for many reasons (me being one of them). Concern for paying for college, concern for the environment, concern for my career, concern for my age.

    I’m not sure why suddenly the whole white/black/brown thing came into play. I live in Cali, and in my town your financial success (which I don’t believe is the only measure of success) depends a bit more on your ability to speak English and less on the color of your skin. I’ve got lots of Latino friends whose families have been here for generations, and they don’t even speak Spanish. The color of their skin is meaningless.

    And many of my educated friends are having three children these days.

  59. Patsy says:

    I am in debt, a lot of debt. I make all my payments on time but I’m never able to make more than the minimum. I’ve joined several groups on how to pay of credit card debt but I’m not successful at it since I can’t pay more than the minimum and then apply that payment towards another debt to get out of debt faster. I’ve been told that I have too much credit and that makes it difficult for me to get out of this situation. Is there a legimate company out there that will do debt consolidation loans? I’ve never been late on a payment and I have good credit just way too much. I feel like I am drowing in debt and when/if an emergency comes up I’m afraid I won’t have the means to cover it. I need to know where I can turn, I don’t want a hand out. I’m not looking for free money I just want a legitmate debt consolidation loan.

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