Updated on 07.30.14

Reader Mailbag #93

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 am 50 years old, live on SSI, have $25.00 in savings. My SSI is $845.00 per month. I rent my apartment. On housing, so thats a great dicount. I have nothing else. My family is my two children, both adults and moved out, the last one left 2 months ago. How do I manage my money so I can eat all month? Each month I start with $645.oo. And I am backed up on utility bills. I refuse to turn on my heater this year. So far, we havent frooze. (I have two cats). Please advise
– Jana

Since you’re on SSI and under age 65, you must either be disabled or blind. However, since you were able to write this email, you do have some capacities for earning additional income, plus you have internet access.

My suggestion would be to seek out simple online opportunities to earn a few extra dollars. Given the unknown nature of your disability, I’m going to assume that sustained tasks – like starting a blog – might be challenging. However, simple independent tasks (like sending this email) are within your means. Plus, it sounds like you’re able to mostly make ends meet with what you have, so you only need a limited additional boost.

Why not give Mechanical Turk a try? Whenever you feel up to it, you can sit down at a web browser and earn small amounts for simple tasks. I was able to earn a little over $10 in an hour doing it a while back, so it’s not too bad. Plus, it’s something you can do when it works for you and your health conditions.

You might also want to take advantage of any charitable offerings available in your area. Is there a food pantry from which you can get food to supplement what you have? Are there assistance programs for your energy bill? You may want to simply call them and see what you can learn. Many people are too “proud” to take charity. Others use charity as a tool to get by without doing anything. My belief is that if you need it, you should take it – and it sounds like Jana does need it.

Good luck.

You often mention that you’re a big fan of board games and card games. My family has a Christmas tradition of playing Trivial Pursit. Some of us would like to find a different game to play at our big Christmas gathering, perhaps also giving it as a gift. Do you have any suggestions?
– Erin

You’re clearly looking for more of a “party” type of game rather than one that requires a lot of strategy and deep planning. Usually, with such games, many people play it simply to socialize. If that’s the case, two games immediately come to mind.

The first is Apples to Apples. The game is really simple. There’s a big pile of red cards from which everyone gets a hand of seven cards. There’s also a big pile of green cards. Everyone sits around a table and the players take turns being the judge. The judge turns over the top card in the green stack which has an adjective on it (like “funny” or “smelly” or “obnoxious”), then all of the other players pick a red card from their hand (which has a noun on it like “stand-up comics” or “my feet” or “Rush Limbaugh”) that they think best matches the green card. After everyone has played a red card face down, the judge shuffles all of the played red cards, turns them over, then decides which one is the best match (with all of the players trying to make their case for why their card is the best one). The judge picks the best red card and whoever played it gets to collect that green card and keep it in front of them. The first one to some certain number of green cards (seven or so) wins. It plays really fast and can be a lot of fun with a big group.

The second is Wits and Wagers. It’s a trivia game like Trivial Pursuit, but each question is answered with a number (like “In what year was Columbus born?” or “How many baseball players were in the Hall of Fame as of 2008?”). Each player writes down an answer on a piece of paper, then the answers are lined up on a board. The players are then allowed to bet on which answer is right or that the right answer is between any two answers. The person with the most money at the end of a certain number of questions (usually seven) is the winner. It plays in about an hour, there’s a bit of gambling fun involved, and it’s not ruled by a painful die roll like Trivial Pursuit is.

My question for the reader mailbag is, when buying gifts for people, do you work to a dollar limit? Obviously all of these questions include the disclaimer assuming you can afford it, but do you just buy a gift you think somone will really like, regardless of the cost? Or do you try to spend approximately the same on people who fit into a particular ‘category’ relating to how close to you they are? [Example, do you spend the same amount of money on both your children/all your parents and in laws/your close friends etc?] What if you find a really really great gift for someone important (even Sarah?) for only $3? Do you then feel obliged to go out and get them some other things as well to make the money the same, even though the thoughtfulness will probably get drowned out by the other things? Please share all your thoughts about this.
– Katie

I don’t usually worry about a dollar limit at all unless it’s for a gift exchange where a dollar limit is specified, as is the case with the gift exchanges with my extended family.

Honestly, the thought of “what if the recipient thinks I’m cheap?” never really crosses my mind. I just try to find a gift that genuinely matches the person I’m giving it to. If I feel like giving them something more, I do so, but it has nothing to do with the price tag. I think my thought and care in most of the gifts I give comes through to the recipient.

On top of that, almost all of the people I exchange gifts with feel much the same way: they’d rather give an interesting or thoughtful gift than one that meets a price tag. If you’re surrounded by people who are obsessed with how much something costs, then you’re likely surrounded by people who turn Christmas into Debtmas, ruining the joy of the season.

Me and my wife are in the process of buying town home in NJ and are looking at mortgage rates with several firms. I received a note from a company called American Federal Mortgage offering a rate of 4.75% on a 30 year loan with no points. This rate is by far the best we have heard in the last week or so talking to Wells Fargo and looking at bankrate trends.

My question is, how safe is it to get a huge mortgage (~300K, i am putting 20 down) from a company such as American Federal Mortgage? Will I be better off going for a slightly higher interest rate but with a bigger more established firm like Wells Fargo?
– Pankaj

If you’re not dealing with someone local (which I prefer if you’re getting competitive rates – if your loan stays local, it’s much easier to sit down with someone and talk about it if there are problems), you’re basically just shopping for the lowest rate among larger banks. That’s often done with tools like Bankrate.

However, having the lowest rate by a few hundredths of a percent doesn’t mean too much if you’re going to get socked with fees. Don’t be afraid to request a description of charges and fees from all lenders you’re considering and also ask for guarantees that cap the amount of your fees in total.

If one bank is seemingly far ahead of the curve when it comes to rates, I would make sure that I knew the business was reputable and I’d also carefully read over my HUD statement before I closed on the house to make sure there weren’t any sneaky fees tossed in there. Unless you plan on living there forever or your mortgage is enormous, it’s not worth thousands in fees to get a 0.25% lower rate.

My girlfriend’s car will cost $2000 to repair and it’s only worth around $5000. She will graduate in 7 months and has a $70k/year job lined up with a $6k signing bonus. She also has about $10k saved up but will need a lot of that to live on for the next 7 months. What should she do about the car? Thanks.
– Greg

Repair the car.

I think the underlying assumption here is that Greg assumes his girlfriend will obviously upgrade her car that’s “only” worth $5,000 the second she gets out of school. Coming from a person who is currently driving a truck that’s worth somewhere around $1,000, I really find that a strange perspective.

You don’t need a brand new car just because you’re earning a good salary. In fact, that brand new car will eat away big time from your other goals via car payments, much higher insurance costs, and so on. Hold onto that used car for as long as you can, then replace it with the car that’s the best value for you in your situation then – and pay cash if you can.

You’ve mentioned your distaste for Craigslist. Why? Is it from a bad experience (a la Aldi) or another reason? I’ve had very good experiences on Craigslist, made quite a bit of money, and found some great deals. I’m curious why you’re so against it.
– Michelle

My problem with Craigslist is the signal-to-noise ratio. For every interesting and useful offer to be found there, you have to trawl through acres of stuff that’s irrelevant and self-promoting. Even using the search doesn’t often lead you to what you want.

In large cities, there’s a lot of signal (good stuff), but it’s buried under a ton of noise (stuff that’s useless). In smaller cities, there’s just a little signal – often not enough to bother visitig with any consistency.

A better-policed Craigslist would be an incredible resource. The way things are now feels like I don’t get much benefit for the time invested there.

How do you handle Christmas with your kids? Do you have them make a list? Do they write letters to Santa? Do they pore over toy catalogs?
– Jim

My children are four and two, so actually making a list is beyind them, as is writing a letter to Santa. We have asked them what kind of things they’d like for Christmas and received a few vague answers, but I think they’re mostly just happy to open a few gifts on Christmas morning. We try to keep it as low-key as we can within our family.

As for the toy catalogs, we intentionally don’t receive any in the mail and if we do wind up with any, we throw them away. I have no desire to have my children covet the contents of what amounts to a glorified marketing flyer.

I don’t mind it at all if they hear about something they want from their friends or from other sources, but just simply browsing through lists of stuff to decide what they want is just encouraging pure consumerism.

Aren’t you better off hiring someone to do things for you like housework and using your time to earn a lot of money?
– Tess

That might be true if you were infinitely capable of turning every hour of your life into cold, hard cash. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people simply aren’t in that position. In fact, many people who think they are in that position often aren’t actually in that position.

Take my own life. One might argue that I’d be better off hiring a housekeeper because I can earn more during a productive hour of writing than it would cost to pay that housekeeper. The catch is this: not every hour of my life is a productive hour of writing. Sometimes I simply can’t write well – at other times, I’d rather not be writing. At those times, I’ll do housework or find other ways to spend my time.

In effect, if I hired a housekeeper, it would do nothing at all to increase the number of good writing hours per week. It would just give me more hours of leisure, something which I’m not interested in paying a high fee for at this stage in my life.

It seems in these difficult economic times there are more and more “internet opportunities” popping up every day. One that appears to be gaining in popularity is HubPages. Since there seem to be a good many aspiring bloggers who read your blog, I thought you might want to do a post or a reader mailbag with your thoughts on this website and those similar. Since you always share wonderfully insightful comments, I thought this might be a topic you’d like to tackle.
– Susan

Sites like HubPages, Squidoo, Mahalo, and the like all operate around a simple premise. You go there, create a page on a topic that you know something about, and they do the rest, adding advertisements to the page and so on. Then, you earn some portion of what the page brings in.

It seems good in theory. All you have to do is write and they handle the rest. However, there’s a catch: most people earn almost nothing doing this. I’ve experimented with several different sites and have never earned more than a penny or two for multiple hours of invested time at each site.

Yes, if you continued to work at it and built lots of top-quality pages, interlinked them a lot, and convinced other sites to link to your pages, you’d likely see your income on such sites take off. But if you’re going to all that work, why are you letting those sites take a big cut of it? Why not just start a site yourself and reap all of the rewards?

If you have just a little bit of time, you’re better off doing something like Mechanical Turk, which I mentioned in the first question. If you have a ton of time, start your own site.

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

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  1. Kat says:

    My issue with your advice to Jana is that the problem with disability checks is that they automatically deduct any income you get from your disability income. So Jana would have to make more than 845 a month on mechanical turk for it to be worth it. I know this because my mother was on disability- it’s a tough place to be.

  2. Lorrie says:

    Another game you might want to look at is Balderdash. One player announces a category (like “Laws” or “Celebrity Gossip” or “Politics”) and reads part of a statement: “In Minnesota, it is illegal to ______________ without wearing swim fins.” The remaining players fill in the blanks, the “reader” collects the answers, and the players bet on which answer(s) are correct and which are “balderdash”. Since by design the correct answers are bizarre, it’s difficult to tell which are real and which are made up … lots of fun if the group has some imagination!

  3. Johanna says:

    The original Balderdash, which I played for many happy hours in college, was just about definitions of unfamiliar words. And you can play that with just a dictionary: One person flips through to find an obscure word, everyone else makes up a definition for it, and then they try to guess which definition is correct.

  4. Little House says:

    Thanks for the Mechanical Turks link. I have a winter break coming up and could use this link to earn a little cash over that vacation period.

  5. Todd Hinds says:

    Trent, you really need to watch the advice to Jana. Not only is commenter #1 completely correct about the reduction in benefits if she earns any income, she could also work her way out of ANY disability income. If she’s able to do a mechanical turk, it proves that she is functionally capable of performing an occupation, which would quickly make her ineligible for SSI. I work in the disability insurance field, and know that these cases are monitored frequently and the system is overwhelmed with claims. If they can get someone off SSI, they will quickly and without an ounce of compassion. Earning an extra $50 a week could be all it takes to have her lose all benefits altogether…

  6. Molly says:

    Oh, man, Balderdash is great! The original is the best – defining words. The other is okay, but some categories (like obscure laws) are better than others (like movie titles). Catchphrase and Taboo are also good ones.

    Re: Greg and his car question: Don’t buy a new car right now. Don’t buy a used car if your current one still mostly works. A car that’s worth $5K is a lot. I drove a $1200 car into the GROUND before replacing it with a used civic that is going great. If this is the first major repair you’re making, make it and move on. If those $2K will have that car working for another year or two, it is well worth it. It’s when it starts to need those major repairs every few months that it becomes a money drain. But please don’t start out right out of college with a big debt on your shoulders. It makes it that much harder to leave a job if you hate it.

  7. It is good of you to help people with advice like that!

    John DeFlumeri Jr

  8. Jenn says:

    Catch Phrase is a great game for gatherings like that! We’ve often played it family get togethers with side-splitting results. It’s also a good game to allow younger children to play if you allow them to skip the words they don’t know (caveat– the older version with the cardboard disc is perfect for this, I’m unsure if the new electronic version allows skipping words).

  9. Kat – that’s not true. According to this page (I separated the link otherwise this post won’t get published).

    www DOT ssa DOT gov/pubs/10095.html#part7

    If your only income besides SSI is the money you make from your job, then we do not count the first $85 of your monthly earnings. We deduct from your SSI payments 50 cents of every dollar you earn after the $85 deduction.

    This is somewhat punitive but SSI is an income replacement benefit for people who can’t work because of disability (ie if you can work you shouldn’t be getting it).

    In Jana’s case – it sounds like even $85 would help quite a bit.

  10. KC says:

    @ Greg – I’ve spent $1600 on a car that was worth about $1500 just to make the ride nicer (it needed shocks, motor mounts, etc) and it was money well spent – I drove the car another 3 years. So for $44.44/month I got a better ride – way better than a car payment. It was a nice, little car that was in good shape and I didn’t mind driving it.

    I was in a household that made over $70k/year and no debt other than a mortgage. When I finally sold the car it was 16 yrs old, I was 32 and our household income was over $120k/yr. I paid cash for a nice, used Acura (which I’m still driving). I learned early on that working can really suck. And I had several jobs I wanted to leave but couldn’t because I had rent and bills to pay. So my reasoning was not to buy a new car and add another bill to that stack. I still hold that belief eventhough I’m much more financially comfortable.

    Have your girlfriend fix what NEEDS fixing or even do the repairs over a couple of months to spread out the cost – a good mechanic will work with you. Drive the car at least another 2 years. In the mean time she needs to start a “Car fund” where she contributes $400/month in an interest bearing account. When 2 years is up she can revisit buying a car (and knowing what it takes to sacrifice for a car payment). She’ll have close to $10k and she might decide she doesn’t want to spend that money just yet and get a little more out of her old car.

    There are a lot of things in life worth working for…a car isn’t one of them.

  11. Jo says:

    Jana can also earn gift cards to Amazon, CVS, and other useful places through places like MyPoints. To Kat’s point, this might not be considered income? If that’s not a concern she can also look into survey sites like MySurvey.com or ipsos isay or Pinecone. I’ve had good experiences with each of these.

  12. kat says:

    for Jana, have you checked to see if you are eligible for food stamps? Also, there are share programs where you can get groceries at a very deep discount for minimal volunteer time. Check into it and see if you can qualify. It’s called Colorado shares here, but it varies from state to state. Please contact social services in your area to see what programs are available to you.

  13. thisisbeth says:

    I would also suggest The Game Of Things. It’s similar to Apples to Apples, but you’re not stuck with what cards you have in your hand. The reader reads a card, which has something like “Things you wish were delivered” and everyone writes down something that they which could be delivered. The reader reads all the answers, and the players try to figure out who wrote what.

  14. Johanna says:

    Why is Greg seeking advice on his girlfriend’s behalf, anyway? Unless they’ve already combined their finances to some degree, why is it any of his business what she does with her car? And if they *have* combined their finances, why aren’t his income and his savings given alongside hers?

  15. sir jorge says:

    i moved from seattle, wa to moscow, idaho and the job market is terrible for a well educated, degree holding, technology idiot (like me)

    but the hardest part is what you mentioned in regards to signal to noise:

    I have been trying to find jobs here online and craigslist is a source that has gotten me every job up to now

    craiglist listings for moscow/pullman have a ratio of about 1 job to 4 spam and on most days it’s like 1 to 10, with no joke or exaggeration!

    i’ve never experienced craigslist like this, it’s a spam trap that seems to be ruining job searches for me…i’ll end up flipping burgers because there’s nothing else…but that’s another problem altogether

    any advice?

  16. kelsey says:

    I’ve used craigslist for 2 things: finding a roommate and buying/selling furniture. It’s worked well for both, though the roommate thing did have some spam (and I ended up with a bad roomate 1 out of 3 times, but that’s just bad luck. she seemed nice at first. . .).

  17. Christine says:

    To Jana,

    If your area has a 2-1-1 service, you may be able to use it to find services you are not aware of. In my area, you dial 2-1-1 and you are connected to an operator who has extensive knowledge of available services.

    Hope that helps!

  18. Kacie says:

    Jana can also do things like MyPoints (where clicking an email and other things earn her points) to turn into gift cards at places she shops.

    Swagbucks searches can provide free gift cards or money into her PayPal account.

    Youdata.com can pay a dollar or so per week for just a minute of clicking. It’s so easy.

    If she can join Pinecone research (or another reputable online survey site) she can make a small bit of money there.

    Each thing isn’t much, but they do add up for an extra bit of pocket change.

    Regarding party games — I love Taboo as a big group game!

  19. kelsey says:

    @sir Jorge
    I know the university of idaho is in moscow, and washington state university is in pullman
    Can you use either of those universities’ resources: get a job working AT the university, use their career center (or take a class so you have student status and can access their career center), go to job fairs on campus, etc.

  20. Pankaj says:

    Hi Trent,

    What is an appropriate level and kind of gift one should buy for a (great) real estate agent upon completion of the home buying process?

    Thank you,


  21. cw says:

    A note about the utility bills — it’s usually possible to negotiate a payment plan with the utility companies. They just want you to keep in contact with them, and show that you’re serious about paying off the backlog, slow-but-sure. It’s when they don’t hear from you that things start to get ugly…

  22. Ryan says:

    Also worth mentioning is that those sites like MyPoints, Amazon Turk, Survey sites, etc, is that they only require you to fill out a W2 if you earn more than 600 a year. So if Jana stays below that, Uncle Sam will never know.

  23. Andy Hough says:

    The max SSI payment is $674 a month so she is probably making $645 a month, not $845. If you are only making $645 a month than $85 more a month would be helpful but if you are on SSI you are always going to be living on a very tight budget.

  24. Scottyyyc says:

    Trent, a question for your next mailbag.

    Regarding kids and cars: My wife and I both have two very small 2-door cars (both fairly new). These were purchased when we had just first met each other, and we were both in a pinch with our old vehicles. Our cars both work great and there’s no immediate need to replace them. However, in the long term we will obviously be wanting to get something slightly larger for when kids arrive (in about 5 years). Our biggest concern is that we don’t want car payments with kids, or have to worry about getting something else when kids arrive, since income might be dropping with only one of us working. Hence, we’re thinking of selling my car (which is worth a fair bit more than what I owe on it), and getting something slightly larger. When kids come, we have exactly what we need, and no car payments.

    Some people tell us that’s good planning, yet others say that we’re buying a vehicle when we don’t need to. We’re both in good financial shape with 2 good incomes, so we’re fine with the slightly higher payment (now). Is this good planning, or jumping the gun a little? My ‘gut’ tells me it’s worth it to do it this way.

    I was just curious about your thoughts regarding longer term planning and kids (another example, is it worth getting a bigger house right off the bat if you know you’re going to need the space in the long term).

  25. Dave says:

    How do you manage your “To do”/Task list? Remember the Milk? I’m trying to decide what is the best way to manage my daily/weekly/monthly tasks… I had been using Google Docs but want to move onto Google Calendar so that I can put dates to all my tasks. Anything else I should consider instead?

  26. Emily says:

    I think that Jana’s request was how she can manage her money. I think she needs help making a budget. Take what you have, less your rent and fixed expenses. If you’re behind on your utilities, call them, they will let you set up a payment plan. Once you have the payment calculated, that becomes a fixed expense as well. Then what is left gets divided by 4 and that’s your grocery budget for each week. Here we have Angelfood ministries – which will provide a weeks worth of food for between $25-$30. That makes your food budget only $120 a month. I’m certain there’s something like that in your area.

    In order to be able to stretch that money over the whole month, you have to divide it into weeks and stick to that budget.

    I have a sister-in-law on SSI and she spends all her money as soon as she gets it – you’ve got to plan ahead and allocate it over the entire month or you won’t be able to eat.

  27. Michael says:

    If you’re willing to give Craigslist a second try, here’s how I handle the SN ratio problem (in Minneapolis).

    I find that Craigslist is great for free stuff which I can wait a while (eg. 6 months) to get.

    Things like replacement light fixtures for our living room, a new lawnmower or a kids bike.

    Here’s how to make it work for you:

    1) Go to Craigslist and do a search for what you want in the section you want (eg. “light fixtures” in Free).
    2) Click the Yellow RSS button at the bottom of the search page
    3) Subscribe to that search results RSS feed

    Now you only see what you are looking for — some junk still gets through (eg. “broken ugly run-over-by-a-car light fixture” would match), but the signal to noise ratio is such that it’s usable.

    Of course this is most handy if you are already using an RSS reader to keep up on all your blogs and news sites.

  28. Stefanie says:

    Apples to Apples FTW!

  29. craig says:

    @Johanna #12 – I think your comment is very weird. Many (most?) people discuss things that are going on in their lives with their boyfriend/girlfriend. Maybe even ask each other for advice! You dont need to have combined finances to care about a big financial decision that sig. other is debating.
    Before we were married (and while we had seperate finainces), I helped her through the process of researching and buying a new car. She had never been throught the process and appreciated the help – and I was happy to help her!

  30. Todd Hinds says:

    Andy: The MAx SSI payment partially depends on what you’ve put into the system over the years. In my experience, I’ve seen people receiving monthly SSDI benefits well in excess of $1,000 a month.

  31. Michele says:

    To Jana- many communities have a utilities assistance program that is not involved with the actual utility. You qualify by income level. Also, many Churches have a similar program, or can offer you a one-time payment to get caught up. My Church does that and you do not have to be a member of the Church, or even of the same denomination. There are usually also organizations (like St. Vincent de Paul or the Gospel Mission) that will provide a meal and used clothing once a day. That will help your budget a lot. And many Church food banks allow you to get one bag of groceries a month no questions asked. If you go back a second time, you have to fill out the paperwork. Once you get caught up with your utilities, and have a stockpile of non-perishable food, you can see more clearly how to budget and live within your SSI. There are also groups even in small rural communities where free activities are offered- such as the library, or the senior center. In my small town, you get free taxi rides to the doctor, or food banks, or Church or the senior center for a free hot lunch if you are on disability. You have to check out your local resources to help yourself.

  32. Nick says:

    Two more good group games:

    1. Catchphrase. This is instant party. It’s great because people can come and go at any time, you can learn in about 5 seconds how to play, it encourages shouting outlandish things, and playing the game is more fun than winning it. You can play with 4 people but 6+ is usually best. It’s a clue-giving game mixed with hot potato. The group sits in a circle, and you sit Team 1, Team 2, Team 1, Team 2, etc. The game is contained in a plastic disc that gives you a clue. You can say anything except “rhymes with” or “begins with” to get your team to say the clue, then you pass the disc to the next team before the timer runs out. When it goes off, the team who is stuck with it gives a point to the other team. Also converts well to a drinking game (if you get a point, drink). Lots of clues will be unfamiliar to kids, though. Best played in a living room.

    2. Cranium. This one is good because it engages all different kinds of players — it has word games, trivia, drawing, and performance clues. Setup is a bit more complicated but is great for a family that wants to sit around a table and play a less raucus game.

  33. Anna says:

    @ Johanna- My boyfriend and I are not married nor have combined our finances but know what is going on with each others finances at any given time. We have been dating for 4 years and plan on getting married in the future, buying a house and the whole shebang. I want my husband to be financially stable and know what kind of debts and savings he has, by sharing our finances I am sure that when we get married I won’t suddenly gain $20,000 of cc debt! Relationships aren’t just about love, finances are also a part of them and are important to know about before you are together forever.

  34. Kitzzy says:

    I recently put together my own list of 101 things to do in 1001 and was reviewing your original post for inspiration. I noticed your deadline is coming up soon and was wondering about your progress with the list. Thanks!

  35. Diane says:

    I was jumping up and down, waving my hand in the air shouting “Apples to Apples” before I even got to Trent’s response. We have played it the last two Thanksgivings with family members ranging from five to eighty. Sister-In-Law was very happy with the Deluxe Edition I gave her for Christmas last year. Best of all it was brand new in the Collector’s Tin and cost $5.00 at a garage sale the previous July. Score!

    @17 Pankaj – You’ve presumably just paid them a large commission. Usually the agent buys YOU something as a housewarming gift. Go with “It’s the thought that counts” and write a note, and/or give something yummy and edible that you baked in your new oven. Better still, if they were good, refer them to your friends and family. Congratulations and enjoy your new home!

  36. Lynn says:

    This is for Pankaj regarding American Federal Mortgage – I actually refinanced with them last year and would do so again in a heartbeat. They were great actually. They are in NJ (in Flanders on Route 206N)and I liked working with a local company. They ended up selling my mortgage right off the bat to Wells Fargo (all the closing docs had the WF name on it) but that is really no big deal. Their fees were minimal and if you have 20% down then definitely use them. I had to pay $750 to lock in the rate(which is high but you get a credit for it) but I paid no fees except for the appraisal. It was much cheaper than Wells Fargo which would have nickeled and dimed for every little thing they did.

  37. Jim says:

    Jana should look into and apply for more aid. She probably qualifies for food stamps, (in my state she’d get about $60/month). She should call the utility and ask about aid programs. She probably qualifies for Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)which is federally funded program that will help pay her heat bills. Also look into the local Meals on Wheels and Loaves & fishes programs.

  38. Michelle says:

    I disagree about Craigslist. Yes, there is a lot of crap, but it’s the first place I turn when I need something. I got a new sewing machine (new – $200, some lady who bought it and never learned to sew – $50), 2 nice tables (originally computer desks, but great sewing tables – $30) and a drafting table with lamp and chair ($100). It took me about an hour to make the calls, and about an hour to go pick everything up (I live in a moderately sized city in Ohio).

    If I had bought everything new, it would have been over $500. I used the gear to set up a sewing studio, which is an income stream. Just on the savings alone, I made about $160 an hour by using Craigslist (I’m assuming I wouldn’t have been able to find these items in a used furniture store for the same price, and garage sale shopping would have taken a lot more time, negating the savings).

    So I think the savings were well worth my time to sift through the noise.

  39. Sean says:

    I like your posts about the ethics of frugality. What do you think about signing up for bank accounts at banks that offer bonuses (say, $100 for a new checking account) and then closing the account after meeting the requirements (500 dollars in the account for six months or whatever) to get the bonus?

  40. Sm4k says:

    Trent, I entirely disagree with you about the Christmas gift dollar amount.

    My wife and I have traditionally given over the top expensive gifts to our close family. I distinctly recall spending nearly $400 on my wife on Christmas after we’d engaged. While that’s hopefully a outlying example of the typical reader here, it’s the very reason we have gift limits for our family now–both of us are all too willing to spend more than we can really justify on our loved ones.

    Personally, I’ve found that establishing budgets makes it much easier to shop for people as well, because there is a very clear “OK I’m done with Susie” mark.

    While this may sound like we’re avid consumerists, it’s the very act of setting gift budgets that keeps us from turning Christmas into debtmas, or even just making a small mistake that costs us the result of hard work throughout the year.

  41. stella says:

    You’re right about Craigslist being a sort of virtual crapshoot. But if you’re willing to invest a bit of time (setting up RSS feeds can cut down on that, as does good searching), you can get some good stuff at really good prices. (A lot better than wasting time at Salvation Army and Goodwill trolling, that’s for sure!)

    The plus side if you live in a big city as we do: People move all year round and there is always stuff for sale or being given away. Good stuff.

    The minus: There are also lots of people vying for the same good stuff. And, more important, the people selling are often not very good about responding to queries or removing listings. You may in fact be the first person to answer an ad, but because of the way email is listed, the last person to respond may have their email opened first.

    If you pay attention to how stuff is listed (condition, measurements; issues affecting pickup, such as walk-up, no elevator, etc.), you learn who is not only serious about moving the stuff but who is also a responsible seller. You can very easily see who you want to avoid from the get-go.

    You can learn a lot by how people answer your questions (be precise, concise and polite), if they answer. If they avoid answering issues, are peeved that you ask them, have this huge inflexible list of demands about how/when to pick up, refuse to give a phone number, etc.–forget about it.

    We’ve purchased lots of stuff over the years and yes, lost out on stuff we wanted. But everyone we dealt with was great–in part, we think, because we are super polite and reasonable. As a result, we’ve been able to afford things we could never buy and to also recycle our stuff and make a few bucks here and there. We’ve even had folks volunteer to deliver stuff to us, for no extra charge!

    People who are “lazy” listers make craigslist harder to navigate than needed. Smart folks use the keywords you’d be using. And give details.

    And if you also know how to search, you can find things more easily than your experiences.

    It’s definitely not perfect, but for us city folks, it works really well for the most part.

    And it is also self-regulated cause you can flag people for stuff.

    Spending time online is infinitely cheaper (time, resources, etc.) than driving around (if we had a car) to find stuff at sales and as long as you’re flexible, you will find bargains.

  42. Robert says:

    I have a question. Where do you suggest you should invest your money? We have been investing in the stock market for the past 15 years (in stocks, bonds and mutual funds) and have not made any money (and have lost a significant amount over the years). I have read that investing in CD’s or a savings account will not keep you ahead of inflation. So we are at a loss as to where to invest our hard earned money. Thanks!

  43. Alex says:

    Question for next mailbag:
    I am just out of college and was recently offered the option to invest in a Variable Universal Life Insurance plan as a retirement/investment vehicle through my workplace. The investment plan seems reasonable, but I had never heard of these vehicles before. Preliminary Internet research seems to indicate they are beneficial under a certain set of circumstances, but I’m looking for some disinterested 3rd-party gut-check opinions.

    Thanks much!

  44. Mayank says:

    Since nobody has talked about the 4th question here, let me chime in. While I agree with Trent that it’s not easy to make money with Squidoo and the likes, the potential is definitely there.

    You need to have a plan for this and treat it as a business. Instead of just relying on the advertisements pay off, join some Affiliate programs and promote the products there. That’s where the real money is made.

    Once you get this income stream going, then you
    can use the money to build an authority site like the Simple Dollar.

  45. Bonnie says:

    Jana, based on your income and assets, you should qualify for food stamps. It’s a pretty simple, relatively quick process. That’ll help you to eat all month. Look into the state and federal Lifeline discount if you have a landline phone. And most electric/gas companies have some sort of assistance to help low-income households keep the heat on in the winter.

    Since you’re under 65 and receiving SSI, I’m assuming you’re disabled or blind, which means that part of your $845 income is probably Social Security Disability (SSDI). With SSDI, you really need to be careful about the amount of work you do and how much you get paid or your benefits may be cut off. That link that #7 put up gives a good description of what you can and cannot do. From what I gathered, though, it sounds like the SSA assumes that you’re trying to get off disability if you work for any extended period of time and will cut off benefits when you reach a certain income level or have been working for a certain period of time.

  46. Shevy says:

    Well, I gave my realtor a bottle of good kosher wine once but that’s because he had connected us with a realtor in the area where we plan to retire and had faxed stuff, etc. and the out-of-town realtor was the one who got the commission when we bought. Don’t know if she gave him a cut, didn’t ask.

    However, it’s usual that the realtors give *you* something. Wine, flowers, a casserole dish are all gifts of this type that I’m aware of. When we bought our rural house the welcome gift was from the *listing* realtor rather than my realtor. The gift was a bottle of wine (non-kosher, which I gave to a non Jewish friend) and crayons and 3 colouring books for my then 4 year old (she still talks about how nice the realtor was and we never even met him). And the listing realtor paid for a cleaning company to come in the day we closed on the deal, a few hours before we arrived because the former owner had not done a great job of cleaning.

  47. Jenny says:

    I would recommend scattergories for the party game. For this game you have several cards with categories on them, such as ‘things you wear’, ‘things in a diner’, ‘nicknames’, etc. Then you roll a dice with letters on it, and you have 2-3 min to come up with a word starting with that letter for as many categories as you canharder than you think). Then you get a point for each unique answer you come up with. This game can be played by both adults and children, starting at about 6-7. The game comes with cards for 6 people, but can be played with more with sharing cards or more sets. This game can lead to some interesting discussions about whether answers are valid or not.

  48. Tara says:

    I’m not much for asking advice from bloggers, but I love yours so much and I have taken a lot to heart from what you write here. My question is in relation to how you handle Christmas in your family. My unfortunate situation includes a step-daughter that lives several states (and a very expensive plane ride) away. We do have her several times a year, including right after Christmas. I’m dead set on leaving the materialistic tendencies of holiday shopping behind us and moving on to better things – more thoughtful gifts, like a trip somewhere special (but not too costly) or tickets to do something she loves. My husband has grumblingly agreed this might not be a bad idea, especially since we just bought our first new home. My problem is that my step’s real mom encourages exactly the opposite – despite the fact that she rarely works and when she does, makes just enough to feed the multiple kids that came with her new live-in boyfriend. How do we counter what I consider to be a very destructive tendency to coddle my step’s inner material girl, especially around the holidays? My initial response to her handing me a lengthy Christmas wish list was to say, “This year we’re not getting you anything on your list – what you get will be a big surprise, but I promise you’ll love it.” Surprisingly, she just kind of shrugged her shoulders and said, “Awwww, okay.” She wasn’t that depressed about it and lifted her 10-year-old self right out of the dumps when she realized we might actually come through for her. Anyway, I still think we’re fighting an uphill battle and I don’t know what to do when her grandparents and her mom give us all kinds of hints as to what they think we should buy her so they can buy her the rest of the stuff on her multiple lists!

  49. Sunshine says:

    I would recommend Last Word for a group game. Basically, each player gets a subject card (computer parts, dog breeds, names of rivers, etc.) and players have to say words for that subject that all begin with a certain letter; this is randomly timed. There’s no order to it (in the sense this person goes first and this person goes next, etc.). I just played it over a friends house and, if you’re shy it’s a bit uncomfortable to get all riled up in front of people you don’t know, after a while, it’s totally fun!

  50. To Jana: you could check out the national Angel Food Ministries (.com) website, then you can find a local site. They provide food to feed a family of 4 for a week, for $30, which might mean that you could get 1 month’s food for 1 person.

    You may also scatter throughout low-cost options like lentil or split-bean soup, red beans and rice, and pasta. Probably you’re already all over that, though.

    Another option is to look into pet food banks – like food banks, but to help people with pet food. Love Your Pet Expo is one resource to find such a thing (http://loveyourpetexpo.com/petfoodhelp.html).

    Best to you. Sorry you are having such a hard time!

  51. Jill says:

    We operate on the six month rule for high mileage cars- take the amount of money you’d either spend on a monthly car payment or set aside to pay cash for a car, and multiply by six. If short term repair costs to keep the vehicle moving safely down the road are less than that, then it makes sense to repair. If repair costs are more than six months of purchase costs, then it’t time to buy another car- once you start the repair cycle for a modern vehicle that has gotten into the 125-150K mile range, things will increasingly and expensively go wrong, and that’s normally the point where the vehicle earns DNR status for us.

  52. Jade says:

    Speaking of Mechanical Turk, I’m in a position right now where it would be something worth doing. But I’m reluctant to do so because I’m still not quite clear on the tax implications of it.

    Amazon’s website says you get a 1099-MISC, but they never tell you what box the income is reported in. Has anyone ever gotten a 1099-MISC from doing these jobs for Mechanical Turk? I suspect the income would be reported in box 7, but if it’s reported in box 3 then I’d have to find out exactly how it’s taxed and reported.

    I’m curious because I have no issue with paying the Feds and State whatever they’re due. But if the income is being reported in box 7 on the 1099-MISC, I’m technically supposed to file a Schedule C. Filing that form could trigger a local tax issue as the IRS supposedly has a deal with my city to let the city know who is filing Schedule C’s in the city so the city can go collect business taxes. When the city gets involved, then you have to get a business license, 60 bucks a year whether you make any money or not. And the city government is so corrupt that I’m not giving them one red cent more than I have to.

    No wonder the city has so many problems with no one wanting to do business here…

  53. sbt says:

    FWIW, the amount of SSI income can vary depending on where you live. Nine states and the District of Columbia supplement SSI with state funds.

  54. deRuiter says:

    It is possible that the person on SSI could work part time. SSI does give you that first $85./month free and then they deduct half of what you earn. BUT ON SSI YOU’RE GETTING FRRE HEALTH CARE as well as being elligible for food stamps, the subsidized housing you have, food pantry, etc. A lot of handicapped people including blind, wheel chair bound, deaf, find full or part time employment. America’s welfare benefits and SSI are generous and in a way, the amount of taxpayer dollars redistributed this way, from the productive, to the non productive, discourages those on welfare or SSI from getting a job.

  55. Sharon L says:

    A lot of handicapped people including blind, wheel chair bound, deaf, find full or part time employment. America’s welfare benefits and SSI are generous and in a way, the amount of taxpayer dollars redistributed this way, from the productive, to the non productive, discourages those on welfare or SSI from getting a job.
    deRuiter, you are quite wrong. On SSI you get either Medicare or Medicaid, and finding health care when the doctors are paid so little is almost a full-time job. The “subsidized housing” is not of high quality, and also seldom accessible for the “wheelchair bound.” (Try saying, “people who use wheelchairs,” please. Nobody is actually tied into the chair, as its function is to give mobility.)

    Very few people with disabilities severe enough to be on SSI are working. That is why they are considered “disabled.” Across the overall disabled population, unemployment is a mere 85% because bigots (check your mirror!) refuse to hire defectives.

    If you object to this “redistribution from the productive to the non-productive,” then what, exactly, do you suggest that we do instead? Execution?

  56. Sharon L says:

    The 85% unemployment is people with disabilities who are NOT disabled under Social Security rules, by the way.

  57. J says:

    Craigslist is like an online garage sale/thrift store. I can search the listings in 10 minutes if I’m looking for something. I can’t do that with garage sales or thrift stores, and I don’t have to spend hours physically going to them.

  58. Tony says:

    I live in Nevada. Nevada is the #1 state for identity theft and legislation has been enacted to deal with it. I said that to say this, I loaded the mechanical turk stuff. The mechanical turk amazon site is rife with quite obvious scam artists and identity theft sites. I found only a handful of stuff that I considered truly legitimate or practical. There were far too many quite obvious data mining sites. Both Amazon and Craigslist need to clean up their act.

  59. Kevin M says:

    Perhaps Jana could look into getting a roommate or other shared living arrangement? (I think part of her question was cut off, since the part about discounts & rent is really unclear.) However, this is probably the best way for anyone to cut costs. I realize it’s hard to leave your home, but the decreased cost may be well worth it.

  60. Amy says:

    My 10 month old daughter got hurt in her day care. They called us promptly and we went and picked her up. She had a bump right in the middle of her forehead (about the size of a quarter) with a minor scratch in the middle of the bump. Her teacher told that she might have fallen against the edge of a wall or another kid might have pushed her or something. The center manager said it happens all the time and expressed surprise saying that my daughter didn’t get hurt sooner. I found that to be odd. We called the doctor’s office and they said my daughter’s situation does not warrant a visit and she should be fine (and she is). The reason i write this is because of the way the manager talked to us and they weren’t apologetic at all. I felt that is kind of rude…What should i do in this situation?

    Thanks for your time.

  61. Heather says:

    Reader Mailbag Question:
    Hi Trent, I have really enjoyed your insights on The Simple Dollar, so I thought I would write in to get your perspective (and those of your readers) on my current situation. My husband and I made the decision that after we had our second child, I would transition to being a full-time parent. This would have many benefits: great quality time and quantity time with our children, a household manager to make sure everything is running smoothly, and less stress on the family as a whole. We have a strong social support system, and I truly love being a full-time mom to the girls which I was able to experience during maternity leave. Of course, it will have a financial impact as we both earn roughly the same amount. We are not quite able to spend less than he earns, but we have planned for this gap. We have been attacking our debt for a few years; we carry no credit card balances and both cars are paid off. We only have our mortgage and some student loans left. We have a healthy emergency fund, some retirement savings, great life insurance, and a fund to cover the “gap” for three to four years. I do earn some additional income which is very part-time, and I plan to gradually increase my efforts in this area. In addition, I noticed during my maternity leave that we are able to cut more costs when I am home (e.g. less convenience foods, less fuel purchases, etc.). I feel like we have thought about our decision from all angles and have covered the bases, but obviously I am no longer objective. I know financially this decision flies against some traditional wisdom (Dave Ramsey would probably say to keep going on the debt), but we can never get back this time when our children are little. What are your thoughts? Thanks in advance for your suggestions!

  62. If you’re looking for a better-policed Craigslist, consider Kijiji. It’s so well-policed, the scammers and spammers complain about it.

    Not to say it’s free of nutters and baloney — hell, I collect ’em at http://www.yousuckatkijiji.com — but it’s like a grown-up Craigslist.

  63. Tim says:

    I have had great experiences with Craigslist by being very patient, testing my search, setting up my search as an RSS feed in Google Reader, and modifying my saved search when I don’t like the results. I used lots of minus signs and words to eliminate recurring noise.

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