Reader Mailbag #87

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 about combining your frugality and kitchen skills by giving us some recipes and tips on cooking Beans and Rice and Rice and Beans?
– Marcia

A long time ago, I wrote an ode to the bean, which may be my favorite item to use in cooking. It’s inexpensive and it’s a protein-rich backbone to countless different kinds of meals, from tacos and chili to curries and soups.

What I usually tell people to do is very simple. Just take whatever staple ingredient leftovers you have – vegetables, meats, and so on. Add some rice or some beans to it. Season appropriately. There, you have a killer meal.

You almost can’t mess it up.

For giggles, I’ll reprint five of my favorite bean-oriented recipes here.

Beans and Eggs
Easy as pie. Just crack four eggs, add half a teaspoon of milk and some pepper, and beat them rapidly until they’re consistent in texture. Pour the egg mixture into a skillet and add half a cup of cooked black beans (or a bean mix, if you prefer). Scramble the eggs by repeatedly moving the eggs around in the skillet as it cooks until it’s nice and fluffy and full of beans. Put some cheese and salsa on top and you have one of my favorite breakfasts in the world – plus it’s an ovo-vegetarian dish.

Balsamic Vinaigrette Bean Salad
Take two pounds of cooked beans, any variety you’d like, and add in a diced medium red onion. To this, add two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, four finely chopped garlic cloves, a quarter of a cup of extra virgin olive oil, and mix everything together. Add some ground black pepper to taste. This makes a very big batch of the salad, which is a great thing to take to a potluck dinner – for home use, you should probably halve the entire recipe (one pound of beans, a small diced onion, one tablespoon of vinegar, two garlic cloves, and an eighth of a cup of olive oil).

Beef and Bean Burritos
Cook a pound of ground beef. As the meat is cooking, add half a cup of chopped onion and a minced garlic clove. Stir the meat often to break it up, then when it’s well cooked, drain it, and add to it two teaspoons of chili powder, one teaspoon of oregano, half a teaspoon of cumin, half a teaspoon of salt, and half a teaspoon of brown pepper. Mix it all together and you have the beef part of the recipe. Just fill a large tortilla with this meat, some lettuce, and whatever beans you like – I prefer black beans or pinto beans or even refried beans.

Sixteen Bean Soup
Just follow the cooking directions above with your favorite multi-bean mix, except add half a pound of leftover meat to the soup as it’s cooking. I like to add cubed ham myself, but you can add other meats. Also, add a small minced onion to the soup, too, just as it begins to boil, and also add salt and pepper to taste.

Bean, Ham, and Tomato Casserole
Basically, take the soup you made with the sixteen bean soup recipe and drain off all but a cup of the liquid. Mix into the soup two diced tomatoes, put a bit more pepper on top, and (optionally) put a thin layer of finely ground Cheddar cheese on top (the cheese is highly optional). Bake it at 350 F (160 C) for about ten minutes and it turns out surprisingly well and often very distinct in flavor from the sixteen bean soup.

I recently got a flyer for ING’s Orange Mortgage. They offer incredibly low interest rates. But the structure looks surprisingly like a ARM. What am I missing here?
– Pankaj

It is an adjustable rate mortgage – you’re not missing anything.

An ARM worth its salt starts off with an unbelievably good rate – often 2% below what a comparable fixed rate would be. That gets your attention, of course.

The catch is that in so many years, the rate adjusts upwards, and it often has a ceiling higher than a comparable fixed rate mortgage.

Many people got ARMs because they were seduced by that low rate and they believed their future situation would easily be able to handle the adjustment. Quite often, they were wrong.

Avoid adjustable rate loans. Never believe your future self will be able to handle it.

I find it ironic that a guy who writes a blog that (probably) reaches millions thinks having kids is the best way to advance their cause.
– Kevin

If no one had children, we would all be candles in the wind. In one hundred years, there would be no human race. We would pass nothing on to the future, any of us.

Thus, anyone that chooses not to take on the burden of raising a child is themselves a candle in the wind. They’re relying on others to continue the flame by making the candles. Any flame that they can pass on is passed on to a candle made by someone else, a candle that’s already formed and given flame by the parents of that child (most of the time, of course). Sure, they might make the flame stronger, but they didn’t start the fire. (Yes, I’m using Billy Joel and Elton John metaphors to illustrate the point).

My feeling towards anyone who calls a parent a “breeder” is that they’re completely comfortable with the complete extinguishment of the human race. And that, frankly, makes me personally uncomfortable. If they were not comfortable with this, they would not denigrate those who take on the often thankless work of raising that next generation of people.

For all the good I’ve done in this blog, it does not compare to the impact I have by raising a child to adulthood. I have the unique position to mold that candle so that the flame burns bright, an opportunity I simply don’t have in other avenues in life. No matter how great of a writer I am, it simply pales in comparison to the continued impact and influence I have on the mental, emotional, spiritual, and psychological growth of the two little children in my home. I gave them their genes and now, perhaps more importantly, I’m responsible for the nurture side of the coin.

If I do it right, I can turn out a child that has the potential to cure cancer or breed a better crop that can feed starving children or create art that can truly uplift the human race or, perhaps best of all, find authentic joy in the world and find ways to share it with others. If I do it wrong, I turn out a sociopath.

I’m not saying that others do not have influence. But no matter how enormous that influence, it doesn’t compare to the thousands of hours parents spend with their children, passing on language, beliefs, customs, personality traits, perspectives on the world, personal skills, and countless other little things.

Everyone thinks of Mr. Holland lighting a child’s flame, but forgotten in that shuffle are the parents that drove kids to countless band contests, urged them to practice at night, provided feedback on their play, bought new reeds and dropped them in the instrument case without being asked, showed up for all of the recitals, bought sheet music and audio CDs to help fuel the passion, and all without a dime of compensation. Mr. Holland showed up for work and waved a baton – yes, it was important and it caused a child to change their direction a bit, but that flame rarely takes off without quite a lot of prep work from a good parent.

And, remember, Mr. Holland was a parent, too. One can do both.

What benefit is a child going to get out of having a tutor?
– Johanna

It depends on the child. Some children thrive on individual one-on-one teaching, where they’re much less afraid to ask the “stupid” questions that are plaguing them. I know several kids like this – they didn’t understand the topic in the classroom because they were afraid, for various reasons, to ask, so it was up to a tutor (in this case, me) to help them out.

For other children, it may be that they just have little interest in learning and a tutor is a waste of time and resources.

Often, for a parent, it’s hard to tell which one is the case, especially if they have little confidence in their ability to teach classroom-type lessons. So they’ll hire a tutor or a tutoring service and let them figure it out.

For me, I’d prefer to give my own child my best crack at tutoring so I could at least understand where he or she is coming from.

Would you share with us your recipe for that wonderful sounding au gratin?
– Mike

Take four russet potatoes and slice them into 1/4 inch slices. Slice one onion into rings. Then, preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and lightly butter a one and a half to two quart casserole dish.

Put half of the potato slices into the casserole, then the sliced onions, then the rest of the potatoes. Put some salt and pepper on top.

After that, melt three tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Add three tablespoons of all purpose flour and stir until it’s a very thick paste, about one minute. Then, stir in two cups of milk. Cook it for about two minutes until it just begins to thicken, stirring regularly. Then, add one and a half cups of grated cheese to the hot milk mixture quickly, stirring it in until you have about four cups of a thick, delicious liquid cheese mixture.

Pour that cheese mixture over the potatoes, breathe in the wonderful aroma deeply, then cover it with aluminum foil and pop it in the oven for one and a half hours. Yum!

What do you think about bankruptcy? While I realize there are sometimes extraordinary circumstances, it seems like many people who declare bankruptcy could handle their debt like you did: by scaling back their lifestyles, living within their means, and committing to debt reduction. Would you ever recommend that someone declare bankruptcy instead of trying to repay their debt?
– Sara

While I understand society’s need for some sort of resolution to a person who is in far too much debt, I feel like society’s penalty for this is actually too lenient today.

Do I advocate a return to debtor’s prisons? No. However, if you’ve mismanaged your finances to the point that you need a court to straighten everything out – and in the process, you escape some of your debt – there needs to be a steeper penalty than just a court-enforced payment plan and a bad credit history.

I’m not sure what that balance is, but I do feel that bankruptcy, even with the recent tougher changes, is still too easy.

You’ve said you’ve used iTunes for years to listen to music. What’s your most listened-to song? Album?
– Kate

My most listened to song since somewhere in mid 2004 is Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley – a cover of the classic Leonard Cohen song for all of you older folks like my friend Heidi, who was slackjawed recently when I identified Hallelujah as a Jeff Buckley song.

I had a harder time actually figuring out which album was the most listened to, but from the best I can determine, that album is Bachelor #2 by Aimee Mann.

If I were guessing without looking, I would have guessed the album right, but I would have guessed the #3 song for most listened – Rangers by A Fine Frenzy.

When you and Ramit had a big “debate” a while back about frugality, was that whole thing a set up or do you guys actually have a personal issue?
– Fred Mac

My father spends $5 every week on lottery tickets. I tell him all the time that it’s a waste of money, but he shrugs it off. What do you think? How should I get him to stop this stupid behavior?
– Carlos

Do you feel that other bloggers are rivals of yours? Do you compete with them?
– Amanda

Not at all. My only rival in blogging – seriously – is myself. My own laziness and willingness to go off the tracks following my own whims and muses is my biggest obstacle.

Almost every blogger out there is not a rival, but a peer. Those people know better than anyone else how difficult – and how rewarding – it can be to blog for a living. They share ideas and thoughts. They link to each other. They support each other. They help each other.

If we were rivals, we would stab each other in the back, not encourage our readers to read those other sites.

The only exception to this are bloggers who never seem to link out or ever mention others. However, I don’t view them as rivals – they’re just loners.

To put it simply, I simply don’t have rivals. I have peers and friends.

Except for J.D., of course. He’s going down.

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