Reader Mailbag #97

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.

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?
– Pankaj

It’s usually customary for the real estate agent to get you a small gift upon closing your house. This is because the agent usually collects a very nice commission for the work they’ve done in closing your home. Thus, if it were me, I wouldn’t worry about a gift beyond a thank you and a handshake.

However, if you feel your realtor truly has gone far above and beyond the call of duty for you, I would suggest moving into your home, then baking some homemade goods in your new home and delivering them to the agent. No one, after all, can turn down any homemade cookies.

Just to be on the safe side, bring up food allergies in a conversation with your realtor before you do this. You can work it into the conversation in whatever way you feel most comfortable.

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?
– Dave

You may find Remember the Milk for Google Calendar to be of use – I certainly do.

I mostly just use Remember the Milk for things to be done that don’t have a specific time and date attached to the item. If it does have such a time and date, I put it in my calendar instead.

I usually do keep separate lists for my daily, weekly, and monthly tasks so that I can see the individual lists or an overall view of all of the things that need to be done (and when they should be done by) if I so choose.

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!)
– stella

I agree with you that this is the optimal way to use Craigslist, but I still choose not to use it in this way. There are two big reasons for this.

First, it’s a time investment to browse those items each day. The time I spend digging through items is time I could be spent not searching for more stuff to possess.

Second, unless I’m looking for something specific, browsing Craigslist entries is nothing more than a way for me to see things that I didn’t realize I wanted or needed and possibly convince myself to spend money on them. Again, that’s not a positive addition to my life.

Sure, I look at Craigslist if I’m hunting for something. I’ll set up a filtered search and have it show me just those results during the time when I’m looking for a specific item. Beyond that, though, I simply don’t look for “deals” there.

How are the piano lessons going?
– John

This is in reference to my third 2010 resolution.

I actually have my first one scheduled for this Thursday. I have a few books of simple sheet music already, along with some other material for reading. I think most of the first lessons will revolve around teaching me very simple songs that will eventually grow toward something more – which is something I’m completely fine with.

I’m a big believer in deliberate practice – and my teacher is aware of this. I told her flat-out that I don’t mind “boring and repetitive” practice in the least as long as I’m aware that it is leading towards something. She told me that was a refreshing attitude.

I’m looking forward to it very much.

On a similar train of thought…

I’ve just started cello lessons and have rented the instrument for $37/month for two months. The music store I rent from will credit me half of the total rental money paid toward a purchase should I decide to do so in the future. The purchase price for a starter cello from them is in the neighborhood of $650.

I could alternately purchase a starter cello online for about $400 (about 10 months of rental cost), but without the rental credit.

If I love it (so far, so good!) and continue to play, at what point in time would it be better to purchase a cello, and from which source?
– heather

My immediate question would be how much resale value a cello would have if you purchased it. If you would have an easy route to re-sell the cello for some significant percentage of what you paid for it, I would buy it sooner rather than later, because money spent on rental is just money lost.

If you would have a hard time selling the cello, I would next look at my own history of sticking with things. Do you have a previous tendency to stick with passions for a long period, or do they burn brightly and flame out? Some people are naturally into variety – they focus on an activity for a while, then want to learn something new. Others tend to bear down on one or two things and seek to master them.

If your personal history shows you in the first group, hold off on buying. If your personal history shows you in the second group, I’d go ahead and pick one up.

I’ve been a reader of The Simple Dollar for years and I have an interesting question for you. I’m about to graduate from [a college] with a degree in computer science. I’ve played baseball every year in college and my coaches and I are pretty sure I’m going to get drafted in June.

My question is this: should I do it? The odds are very much against me making it in professional baseball, but I am pretty sure I can get a job in computer science right after graduation that pays much better than I’ll ever make in the minors. The only way that baseball is the right way for me to go financially is if I make the majors.
– [Ryan]

I edited this question a bit because I was concerned about this person’s privacy, since my research actually indicates that he has at least some professional potential at baseball, and I don’t want to interfere with that and give him the type of publicity that might interfere with his draft status, since his name will probably be Googled by professional teams.

For me, the real issue here would be whether or not Ryan would enjoy playing hundreds of games of baseball a year for the next several years (at least). If that sounds like an extremely enjoyable prospect, then you should go for it, as this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. If that sounds like complete drudgery, just be glad that baseball gave you the scholarship you needed to earn your degree and move into that computer science career.

Unless you are blessed with an inordinate amount of talent, you won’t get to the top level without the kind of burning passion that gets you onto that minor league bus a hundred times a year for several years. Do you have that kind of passion for baseball?

I followed your advice and got an emergency fund with three months’ worth of living expenses in it. I also started saving for a replacement for my current car. Last week, my car’s transmission failed. I took the car in to get it fixed (which cost me $2,500) and the repairman pretty much demanded that I get my brakes fixed, so I shopped around for that and dropped another $700. Now my emergency fund is running dry. Should I just move my car savings over? What should I do?
– Kevin

I would leave my new car savings alone for now. Instead, focus your future savings on rebuilding your emergency fund, then switch back to saving for your next car.

I would treat your car savings as a resource only to be tapped if your entire emergency fund is depleted. If you turn it over to your emergency fund with a self-imposed promise to “start over,” it’s very easy to talk yourself out of such a brave, audacious goal.

Leave your savings where it’s at right now. It will inspire you to keep saving once your emergency fund is back on track.

How do you think people will handle their money differently in ten years?
– Fred

I think the slow death of the paper check will continue. Before too long, all payments will be handled either with a debit or credit card or with cash. Paper checks require too many resources to deal with, particularly when cards are more convenient for both buyer and seller – and cash has the advantage of anonymity, so it’ll stick around.

I think financial management tools are going to get substantially better, but they’re not going to be more widely adopted than they are now. There are a lot of small innovators pushing the 800 pound gorilla (Intuit) forward – and this will keep happening.

I also think that the current frugality trend won’t last. When the economy recovers, people will start spending more again. I would not be surprised at all to see the savings rate go back to zero in five years or so.

What classes did you take in college actually give you value in your life today? Most of my classes seem either to be strongly tied to my field of study or a complete waste of time.
– Jim

My public speaking class had the potential to be valuable if I had taken it more seriously. Instead of really utilizing it to work on my public speaking – a skill I’ve used countless times since college, even though I didn’t expect to – I goofed off and treated it as an easy grade.

My technical writing class has popped up time and time again in various avenues of life. This, of course, could also be connected to the fact that I chose to become a writer.

I also found one class on information management to be really useful. I’m not sure this is a widely offered class, but it mostly focused on how to organize one’s personal information – making a good schedule, filing personal papers so they’re easy to find, organizing data, and so on.

In short, the classes that were useful were the ones that taught transferable skills. When I took them seriously, they were golden.

What’s your Super Bowl prediction? We want it now, in print, so we can see how back your picking skills are (just kidding).
– Eddie

Arizona Cardinals 42, San Diego Chargers 35.

I watched most of the Cardinals game on Sunday on low volume while getting my daughter to take a nap. My conclusion? Kurt Warner is some sort of cyborg. He threw more touchdowns than incomplete passes against an extremely good pass defense and without his best receiver (Boldin). I don’t even know what to say about that.

I don’t believe the Cardinals will lose to anyone if Warner keeps playing like this.

Of course, given my success with such picks, I’d expect both teams to lose next week. After all, I am a Chicago Cubs fan.

Got any questions? Ask them in the comments and I’ll try to include them in a future reader mailbag.

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