Updated on 06.05.14

Reader Mailbag: Adequate Sleep

Trent Hamm

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to five word summaries. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Second computer needs
2. Getting unstuck
3. Career choice
4. Setting up a trust
5. Moving on
6. Print and play games?
7. Buy or not buy?
8. Roth or 401(k)?
9. Store credit cards
10. Investing in collectibles

My hobbies are the biggest challenge I have for adequate sleep.

Let me explain what I mean. By 9 or so in the evening, the children are in bed and the needed household tasks are done. I usually have an hour or so for hobbies, and I usually take advantage of it.

I’ll read a good book. I’ll paint something. I’ll read the rules for a board game or card game. I’ll play a computer game. I’ll go for a walk.

What I often find is that I’ll get engrossed in that hobby and find myself going to bed way too late. Then, the next day, I’m exhausted because of completely inadequate sleep.

It’s a balancing act. The key for me is to simply say, “It’s time to go to bed,” and stick with it.

Q1: Second computer needs
I work at home as a freelance graphic artist, and am fortunate to have lots of work lately. I have one computer which I use all the time. I need to have maintenance done on it occasionally, and have to be without for several days. This happens at least once a year, and I think it’s a necessity to keep it in top form for my job.

The question…what is the best way to handle those several days without a computer? I can’t depend on it being done on a weekend, and meanwhile I miss a lot of work time. I easily work full time or more, and generally that includes weekends if I have the work. Also, I feel like I need a way to stay in contact with people via email at the very least.

I am very frugal, and can normally do without things like an iPhone, since I’m mostly at home a lot anyway, but it is hard on the rare occasions when I need to travel or in situations like this. The options as I see it are:
1. Just deal with being out of email contact and not working for a few days, and not having internet access
2. Buy something like an iPad so even if I can’t work, I can at least explain the situation to people and stay in contact, and have web access (my husband will oppose this because he’s even more frugal than me, and doesn’t even use a computer at all)
3. Get a second computer.
(a) After talking to my computer guru, my options for this are a cheaper Macbook Air for around $1500 that could be used to work on a limited basis
(b) or spring for a full-on second computer like the one I normally work on, which would end up costing closer to $5000 (that seems really crazy and hard for us to swing right now, but I don’t want to be frugal in an area where I shouldn’t be for business, if that makes sense.)

– Ellen

I think (2) is the worst option if you’re actually considering an iPad for this purpose. If you’re just looking at something to email someone and have web access, a netbook provides these services at $300-400 less expensive than an iPad. An iPad does certain things very well, but for the services you mention, it’s not the thing you’re looking for.

I think (1) is a poor idea if this is a thriving business with significant contact with clients.

This leaves us with (3). I’m not sure if a full-on second workstation is the right choice here, either. If I were to have a backup system, I would not drop thousands to have it match what I already have. I would get something lower-end that could do some minimal things that I might need to do. It doesn’t necessarily have to do everything, just enough so that I can get by for a week.

If I were you, I’d probably go for a netbook or a low-end PC laptop. It can do the minimal things you need to do (email, web access) and perhaps a few lower-end things for your work at a very good price.

Q2: Getting unstuck
My husband and I are stuck. We live near DC and want to move away. We are a single car family with the car paid off. We commute together and we are gone from our house a minimum of 12 hours a day (longer if it’s a day where we have to go to the grocery store or library). We both dislike our clerical type jobs… they are just jobs to pay the bills. We have Liberal Arts BAs.

We have basic internet and cell phone plans (no home phone, no cable, no credit cards). We are in the least expensive rental (at roughly 26% of our income) that I could find that would accept our two cats AND where I felt safe to be by myself (I think this is more than reasonable). Our only debt is student loans at around $29,000. We have roughly $10,000 in savings.

Our issue is that we are DESPERATE to leave this area as our current lifestyle makes us both miserable (and unhealthy as there is not much time to exercise). Additionally, we want to start a family soon (within the next 4 years) and it would be impossible in this area at our current salaries (additionally, I would like to KNOW my kids…. I feel bad enough for my CATS after we’re gone 12 hours). We want to move to a much quieter (and less expensive) area where hopefully we will be able to live close to work.

On weekends, we have been looking at towns from Southern VA to New England. Do you know anyone who has just got up and moved or have advice for attempting it? We have been working on this project from over a year and it feels just as far away now as it did in the beginning. We are scared to leave these jobs though because we know the job market is shaky and we are afraid we won’t be able to find anything when we move…. and if we don’t have jobs… we won’t be able to pay our bills or find any place to rent. We really can’t figure out how to solve this problem.
– Casey

My suggestion is to secure a job first. Simply look for jobs in areas where you’re willing to move.

You seem to be attracted to the New England area. I would probably include the upper Midwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin, most of Iowa) in that search as the culture and climate (particularly in the cities) is not too different than New England and the cost of living is substantially lower.

Once one of you secures a job in an area that looks promising for the other to secure a job, move. Go there, rent a small apartment for six months or so, and give the other one time to find a job.

I don’t think there’s anything in your financial situation that precludes you from doing exactly that.

Q3: Career choice
I am 25 years old, graduated with one degree almost 3 years ago, and now going to school at a Tech College full-time in a similar but different field. I work part-time as an intern in my field, and I am set to graduate next May, and if things go well, my internship will be upgraded to a permanent career in programming. I live with my boyfriend of 3 years as well and we have 2 pets together. As an independent full-time student, I am given a set amount of financial aid in the form of student loans every semester. This semester I received about $5k to cover my education costs. After tuition, I get about $3k leftover, which I use for textbooks and other education costs, but primarily to pay my larger bills like rent and utilities. At my part-time job I make enough to cover gas and groceries; the rest are paid for by financial aid.

There are many financial goals that I have, the most important being to pay off my student loans, as I will have $60k in student debt by next May. Other ones include getting a newer car, saving money (along with my boyfriend) for a down payment on a house, getting married (possibly), and other things. Given these huge goals, I want to start putting money away for them. I want to start putting away an x amount of money from my paycheck from my internship, but since I make so little ($160 per week before taxes), I’m not entirely sure what amount I should start with. $5? $10? Really that’s all I can do after gas and groceries. I’ve questioned about whether using the leftover money from my financial aid at the end of the semester to save is feasible, but really it feels like I am just saving my loan money, not the money I worked hard for. Also, something always seems to come up and I end up using the financial aid for something, like extra bills. This was an issue when I worked only part-time between semesters, and I needed money to cover them.

I’ve been frugal for the last 3 years and I still have no money tucked away into a savings account for my goals to show for it. My boyfriend and I have about $1000 in a savings account for emergencies, but most of that money is his saving, and while I did put some of my money into it, I have roughly $200 of my money in there. It’s mainly for vet bills and car repairs. Should I stick to saving as much as I can from my part-time job, albeit slow saving? Should I start now, or does it not make sense to do this until after I have a stable and higher-paying career?
– Shelley

As long as you’re cohabitating with your boyfriend, your financial futures are intrinsically tied together. You have to make the rent together. You have to pay the other utilities together. If you’re not doing it together, then one of you is just covering the bills and thus reducing the money that he or she has left over to pay for debts and other such things.

The solution here is to sit down with your boyfriend and have a serious talk about your joined financial lives. The debts you each have are going to impact the freedom you both have as a couple, as is the relatively limited income.

Come up with a plan together. Not only will this cement your relationship, it will also help you figure out what you should be doing with your limited income.

Q4: Setting up a trust
I am 33, married, full time student (just started back). I work part-time to pay for school, my wife works and picks up all the rest of our expenses. We worked pretty hard to get here over the past five years that we’ve been married, saved up a lot of money and bought a house. We are proud of what we’ve done in so little time, and as a result we like to counter that pride by being supportive and giving when possible. This starts with our immediate family, and here’s the breakdown:

Both our parents are middle to upper middle class, they own their homes or are very close to paying them off. They have decent retirement savings and are all in the age range of 61-64. Basically, I think they are fine, but we like to not rely on them financially at all because we worry about external drains ruining their retirement. My wife has two sisters who are very young but finding their way in post-undergrad world (they both have jobs, a great accomplishment in this economy). I also have two siblings; both older than me. One is 35, the other is 40. My 35 yr old brother is married and has a family, and they are very successful. However my sister still lives with my parents. She works in education, and I do not think she makes even 30K / yr. So you can see that this is our only real problem… my parents don’t have a lot of money (my father still works but wants to retire in 2-3 years) and in addition to supporting my sister, all three are in poor health due to weight. I’m really worried my father will keep working until he’s 70 or older because of my sister, and that he’ll work himself into an early grave. My mother is retired, and keeps the house in order and babysits my brother’s children (and she is paid for it). All of us live in the same city.

My sister has a small amount of debt and obviously, relies heavily on my parents for everything. She has absolutely no savings (I do not think she has any retirement at all, or if she does it isn’t even 10K). I have gotten my mother to the point where they are eating healthier, but I would still not say healthy. Assuming though, that one or both of my parents pass by the time they are 80 (a little morbid but realistic), I do not know what we can possibly do with my sister. She requires transportation to her job (she has tried learning how to drive, but it was just too expensive and she never quite got the hang of it) and there’s no public transportation. She has very expensive health costs that nearly 100% of her salary go to (this is after her work insurance of course) and she has absolutely no concept of money… she can’t balance a checkbook or understand how credit (interest) works. She is very sweet but naive, and has a boyfriend who, like her- works paltry jobs for very little income. I cannot count on him to take care of her.

My brother and I have already spoken to my mother and made her understand that she needs to create a will where all of their estate would be in a trust for my sister, and we’d use that. However I’m still concerned that this might not be enough… what if my sister outlives this trust? Can you possibly think of what else we can do to prepare? Do you have any ideas of what we can do right now to ease the burden on my parents? Any idea how to get my sister a little more self-sufficient? They won’t take money of course, so I need something more subtle. I appreciate anything you can come up with- we want to help we just don’t know how.
– Jeff

You can’t make a person be who you want them to be. Your sister is who she is and if a significant change is going to come in her life, it’s going to come from within her. You can’t make it happen.

I agree that the best thing you can do is to make sure that the trust is actually put in place to take care of your sister. I would talk to a lawyer and make sure it’s set up in the best possible way with the laws and rules in your state.

As for her outliving the trust: you’re just going to have to accept that it’s a possibility. Hopefully, her jobs are earning her Social Security credits, so she will eventually have something.

Remember, you can’t make someone be who you think they should be. Trying to do that eventually ends in failure.

Q5: Moving on
I am about to turn 26 and have recently ended an 8 year relationship with my boyfriend ( it was his choice to end it) I have an Associated degree in LIberal Arts & Sciences from a community college. My dream is to be a writer/screenwriter and I have been working on a novel for a couple of years and recently two screenplays. It is truly what I see myself doing, most of the time the other times I am paralyzed thinking that I will never have something good enough that people will want to read, that I am not a good enough writer and I have no talent.

Knowing how hard it is to break into the business sometimes makes me want to turn my back and run but another part of me crazily believes that I will make it. I have been ‘babied’ over the years, have 2 good friends and have lost all contact with my high school friends, I basically have lived with my boyfriend and he is my best friend. I have had very few financial obligations over the years since my boyfriend paid for the apartment and house we now live in. I have never had to learn about paying bills or credit scores, he takes cares of those things for me. I am soo confused and upset about everything, I cannot imagine being on my own. RIght now I am working for a temp agency and have minimal savings, about 300.00 I have no cc or student loan debt but do have a monthly car payment of 210.00 and cell phone bill of 45.00 which I will soon be getting rid of for a pay by minute phone.

I am looking into moving in with a friend into a two bedroom apartment but feel so overwhlemed about the future, I don’t know if I can handle the stress and emotional turmoil, he is my first boyfriend and I am so terrified of making it on my own. I have never felt very smart and my family is not well-off and basically live paycheck to paycheck, I was homeless for awhile as a child and sincerely wish that I will never be homeless again because it is the scariest thing in the world. I don’t know what to do because I have never been around successful people other than my boyfriend. I see myself as a loser, following in my parents footsteps. I don’t know whether or not I should go back to school. I have been tossing and turning about that decision for a couple of years, my boyfriend tells me that I am a writer and writers don’t need to go to college. I read a ton of library books and I have learned a lot from them, they taught me how to think, and in all honesty college did not provide me with lasting knowledge than books do. I am worried about my future, should i point my dream of being a writer on hold and go back to school to get a degree in the medical field? Something I know will make a lot more money than I have right now or stick it up and work minimum wage jobs while writing away? Sometimes i Just don’t feel like I have it to make it.
– Kelly

You can do this. A lot of people make a great go of it from your very position.

You’re going to have to make a fundamental choice, though. You can either continue to chase the writing dream by, as you mention, working at a minimum wage job and focusing your energies on writing and living in near-poverty or going back to school to chase a higher-earning career.

I can’t tell you what the right path is for you. It depends a lot on who you are. My rule of thumb would be that I would look at the path I dream about (the one involving writing) and ask yourself whether that path fills you more with excitement or with fear. If it’s fear, then I’d choose the safer path.

Q6: Print-and-play games
When I was in college, we used to play this weird little game that someone printed off the internet. It involved playing squares with four colors on them and trying to make groups of the colors.

I was wondering if you knew what game this was and if you knew of any other free games that can be printed off of the internet.
– Eric

I think you’re talking about micropul, which is indeed a game you can print off the internet that involves playing squares and trying to group the colors. It’s a very fun game that’s wonderful to pack in a spare pocket on a camping trip.

There are a lot of print-and-play games out there that are quite fun. If you add in a few basic components, such as a deck of playing cards and a chess/checkers set, there are more great games out there than you can ever play.

Here are six worth looking at in addition to micropul: Merchant of Venus, Zombie in My Pocket, Rat Hot, Decathlon, Richelieu, and Cronberg. If you have a deck of cards as well, the possibilities are endless.

Q7: Buy or not buy?
I’m 23 and I just got married (he’s 28). He’s an E-6 in the Navy, so a good steady income while I’m an artist (starving artist at the moment, but I’ve gotten into a lot of shows in my area so hopefully that’ll get better soon). We live in Virginia Beach, so rent/housing prices are pretty high here. We’ve been in this apartment for 3 years already and dislike not having enough space for my business or a yard to grow a garden in. He already works 12+ hour days, so we don’t really want to move farther away from the city and increase his commute. A woman I used to work with is trying to sell her deceased parents’ house and she’s asking $180k for it, though I’m sure she’d come down a bit.

I guess I was just looking for the opinion of an outside party on the matter. The reason I’m hesitant is that we’ve no guarantee that we’re going to be here longer than 3 years and I’m worried about what we’d do with the house. We could stay here forever if he gets lucky, or we could move at the end of this tour. We -think- we’ll be here at least 6 more years. Our rent increases every year so that means we’d wind up paying in the neighborhood of $90k in rent over 6 years. We have about $200k that’s fairly liquid and quite a bit more in retirement accounts that we don’t intend to touch. We have no debt to speak of and enough savings dedicated to replace both our cars outright and have a healthy emergency fund (the figure I gave you does not include any of that as I view those all as essential).
– Emily

It sounds like you can write a check for the house right now. If that’s the case, I would probably buy it.

I probably would not buy the home if it involves taking out a mortgage. The advantage you have in this case is that you can buy the home without a mortgage, which means if you do move, you can easily move out and sell the house after you’ve moved to another area and still have enough for a down payment on another home if you decide to buy a home elsewhere.

Is it a good investment? It would make your monthly rent payment vanish. Instead of handing money to a landlord, you put it in your own pocket instead. I think that’s a very good move.

Q8: Roth or 401(k)?
I’m 22 years old, I graduated from college this past December, and I just started working at my current job as an Administrative Assistant at the beginning of March this year. I make $36,000/yr, I have a small emergency fund of $700 (will reach my goal of $1000 – per Dave Ramsey – in about a month), I have about $29K in student loans ($10K of which is 0% interest – borrowed from an aunt), and about $500 in credit card debt (down from $1000!). Every month I pay $800 for rent, I round my student loan payments up to the nearest $10 increment ($150/month) and I try to pay double the minimum on my credit cards (I’ve paid off two out of five cards so far using this method).

Following the advice of my mom and others, I immediately started contributing 10% of my income to my 401(k) provided by my employer as soon as I was fully contracted with the company (which was this past May). However, after reading some articles on the difference between Roth IRAs, 401(k)s, and other retirement accounts – especially your piece on it – I’ve come to realize that the only benefit a 401(k) has over a Roth is the employer match. That being said, I’m not quite sure if I should keep contributing to my 401(k) – my employer matches 3% of my salary REGARDLESS of how big my own contributions are or if I even choose to contribute at all. So far I have contributed about $1000 to my 401(k) (keep in mind I just started!).

So what do you think? Should I stop contributing to my 401(k) and open up a Roth IRA instead? Either way, there’s money being put into my 401(k) no matter what. Also, I’ve read a lot about Dave Ramsey and (from what I’ve read) he doesn’t even mention contributing to any retirement account until after all non-mortgage debt is gone. Does this mean I’m starting too early? Should I focus on eliminating my student loans at a faster rate?
– Angie

I would absolutely open up a Roth IRA and start contributing to that instead of the 401(k) in this situation.

I wouldn’t worry about starting too early. It is never too early to start saving for retirement. Your debt seems to largely be under control, though it might be fine if you spent a few months between stopping your 401(k) contributions and opening a Roth to pay off that remaining credit card debt. After that, I’d go right back to plugging away at retirement.

Angie has a follow-up question.

Q9: Store credit cards
Another question that I have is in regards to store credit cards. I’ve always regretted accumulating a lot of store credit cards while in college (Kohl’s, JCPenney, Target, etc.) but plenty of my friends have been telling me that these store credit cards do not count on your credit score. At first I didn’t believe them, but so many people were telling me this that I’m starting to think there’s some truth to it. Is it true – do store credit cards not count against you?

– Angie

It entirely depends on whether the cards are reported to the credit bureaus, and that’s entirely dependent on the policy of the company issuing them.

The best way to find out is to simply download your credit report and see what’s on there for you. The legitimate way to get your credit report is to use the FTC’s site (annualcreditreport.com).

My understanding is that some are reported and some are not.

Q10: Investing in collectibles
You’ve mentioned before that you have a pretty strong knowledge of some types of collectibles. I think you mentioned vintage baseball cards and some other kinds of trading cards.

Would you ever invest in them? I guess I’m asking a broader question. Would you invest in any collectible that you had quite a bit of knowledge about?
– Vincent

If I was absolutely sure I was getting a good deal on the collectible, I’d happily invest.

I have purchased many sports cards and trading cards over the years with the purpose of turning a profit on them by reselling them either on the internet or to other interested parties. It can be done if you know exactly what something is worth.

This becomes a very fun hobby when you’re looking at yard sales and estate auctions. I have stumbled upon a few really good buys in such situations.

Got any questions? Email them to me or leave them in the comments and I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag (which, by way of full disclosure, may also get re-posted on other websites that pick up my blog). However, I do receive hundreds of questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

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  1. julie says:

    Q1: Could you look into getting a refurbished Mac? I don’t think a low end PC will cut it for your graphic design needs. If your computer guru friend could update RAM for you, could you get a Mac with the lowest requirements and have them update it for you?

  2. Nate says:

    Q2: We moved cross country last year for mostly personal reasons (though we weren’t as miserable as it sounds like you are). I had a new job lined up that helped defer most of the cost of moving, which was great. I happen to working a field (engineering) that is hard to find qualified workers in the rural New England area that we moved to, so they were more than willing to relocate someone.

    Finding a company willing to help relocate you can be difficult if you’re looking to move to a big city unless you have some very specific skills a company is looking for and can’t find locally. Looking in smaller towns may be better. Don’t expect to find a company willing to pay for your move. Even if they pay some, it probably won’t be enough to cover all expenses. Expect to pay at least a few thousand $ to move if you’re doing it yourself with a UHaul, more if you hire a moving company.

    I would not recomend moving without a new job lined up. Moving have tons of expenses you might not think about (getting new services set up, getting out of old contracts, etc). If one of you can find a job in an area with decent prospects for the other to find a job, go for it! Experienceing life in a new area of the country can be very rewarding.

  3. Courtney20 says:

    Q8 – my biggest quibble with Dave Ramsey is that he tells people not to contribute to their retirement accounts until they have no non-mortgage debt. Aside from the fact that a lot of people (though not you) will miss out on matching funds, it also neglects the time factor of compounding AND the fact that you have a contribution limit each year that you will never get back.

  4. Riki says:

    Q1 – I definitely agree with Julie that a PC isn’t a great option. Purchasing PC-compatible software will eat up any savings and besides, you’d be forced to use a Windows machine. Yuck.

    A refurbished Macbook would be a great option for a backup that allows you to function as normal. A Mac Mini is a great way for low-cost computing but the specs might not be adequate for your needs.

    You need to determine what you MUST do during your down time. If you just want to keep in basic contact with people, the Mini or an iPad would certainly allow that. The iPad is also a great tool as a portfolio, for travel, etc. It’s actually pretty handy.

    If you want to continue working as normal, you’ll need to spring for a functional system. Refurbished is a great place to start. I have a 4 year old macbook (white, not pro) that works perfectly for my processing-heavy photography business. I upgraded the RAM and the HD myself without difficulty.

    Don’t cheap out and buy a PC. I don’t think you’ll be happy with it.

  5. kristine says:

    Q1- why not just to the library and send out a form e-mail saying that you have to perform maintenance on your system for several days, but will check e-mail every morning, and can be reached at (555) 555-1234 for emergencies. And make sure you are completely backed-up.

    There. Free. An ongoing epxense like an Ipad or Iphone for an intermittent 3 days of e-mail access is ridiculous.

    But if you live in/ near NYC, where 3 unexpected days offline makes you seem hopelessly out of touch, and unprofessional, get a back-up workstation. Your smallest OSX or greater is fine.

  6. moom says:

    Q4 – Some things seem to be left out of this story. The sister works “in education” but can’t balance a checkbook, learn to drive etc. And spends all her salary on medical costs. It sounds like she is mentally disabled in some way. Hence the desire to set up the trust.

    Q5 – I would definitely recommend getting some solid skills while continuing to write on the side if that’s what you want to do. We don’t have any information about whether you are getting stuff published getting feedback on your writing etc. and how good it is. Without some good info on that it is hard to give advice but based on what you wrote I suspect it wouldn’t be a good idea to rely on writing.

  7. Riki says:

    Q1 (again)

    Why don’t you plan a vacation around your computer maintenance? Even free-lancers need time off too! If it’s only once per year or so, that might just solve your problem.

    Just book jobs to accommodate the lull and then relax.

  8. lurker carl says:

    “My hobbies are the biggest challenge I have for adequate sleep.”

    I remember a recent post claiming insomnia was the culprit for completely inadequate sleep, commonly referred to as being tired. Staying up into the wee hours of the morning and keeping your brain in high gear with hobbies is not the same as having insomnia.

  9. moom says:

    #5 why would only NYC be a place where people would think this?

  10. Johanna says:

    Q8: Angie, Trent’s analysis of 401(k)s versus Roths is incorrect. If you are paying more than $0 in income taxes right now, it is a good idea to have a good-sized chunk of your retirement savings in pre-tax accounts (such as a regular 401(k) or a traditional IRA), so that you can take advantage of the deductions and exemptions available to you in retirement.

  11. Johanna says:

    Q5: Why not do both – pursue a higher-paying career *and* your dream of being a writer? Trent loves to glamorize the idea of struggling by on minimum-wage jobs while focusing your energy on creative stuff, but keep in mind that that’s not the path he took – he has a college degree and was working at a high-paying job before he became a full-time blogger. It seems to me like it would be a lot easier to focus your energy on creative stuff when you’re not worried all the time about how you’ll pay the rent or where you’ll get your next meal.

  12. valleycat1 says:

    Q5/Kelly – You’re in an emotional tailspin right now, so don’t try to make any more major decisions or changes than you absolutely must, until you get your equilibrium back. You don’t have to figure out your entire future right this moment. You might want to look into some counselling to help you deal with some of your issues.

    For now, get your immediate living situation stabilized; find a permanent job that will pay your bills. Read some books about how to deal with basic adult life skills (balancing the checkbook, setting up a budget, etc).

    Life choices aren’t all or nothing -you can write in your non-work hours while holding another job.

    Once some time passes and you’re feeling more secure emotionally & financially, then you can decide whether additional schooling will help, & whether it will be focused on your writing or on some other career path.

  13. BIll says:

    On Q#1 My immediate thought was that a refurbished macbook pro or iMac is a solution. I see commenter #1 suggested something similar. The MBP is more powerful than the MBA and is cheaper. They are quite powerful. It also gives a second computer you can use when you travel, etc.

    I also wonder about you needing a $5k machine. I am married to a publication designer and when we bought her last computer we finally bought a high end iMac after having a Mac Pro.

    Good luck! Being busy is a nice problem to have.

  14. Steve says:

    Q6 Merchant of Venus is not a print-and-play game. In fact it’s a rare, out of print game that you have to pay through the nose to get. Also it doesn’t seem similar to any of the other games you listed. I know a lot of people who play board games, and only a small subset of them are interested in playing MoV.

  15. Steve says:

    Your answers to Q7 and Q8 are one-sided at best.

    A mortgage only slightly changes the math of whether buying a house is a good deal or not. A house doesn’t magically become a good short-term buy just because you can pay cash for it! There is still an opportunity cost to paying cash, and there are still transaction costs to buying and selling a house.

    A Roth and 401(k) are NOT equivalent. At the same marginal tax rate, sure. However we have a progressive tax system, meaning that the first dollars of income are tax free. So if you put all your eggs in the Roth basket, you pay now at your highest marginal rate, then withdraw at a zero rate – simply put, you waste your money!

  16. Johanna says:

    Q2: Before you do anything drastic, I’d recommend that you think hard about whether moving away will actually fix the things that are making you unhappy, and whether there’s any way to fix them while remaining in the DC area.

    Your letter leaves out a lot of important information. You’re unhappy in your current jobs, but what kind of jobs would you like to have instead? (And what makes you think that better jobs will be easier to find in a small town than in DC?) Why are you away from home for so long each day – do you work long hours, have a long commute, or both?

    DC is expensive, to be sure, but there are plenty of places where you can rent a safe apartment that should be easily affordable on two incomes, even if both those incomes are fairly small. Many of those places have easy access to Metro stations, which means that one or both of you can commute by public transportation, and you don’t need to coordinate your schedules. Or maybe you can find two jobs and a home in the same suburb, so that you can both walk to work. That may be difficult to arrange, but it’s probably no more difficult than finding two jobs and a home in the same town anywhere else.

  17. Rob says:

    Q1: I’m in agreement with most of the other commenters – don’t get a PC even just for email (and this coming from a PC guy). Get a refurb Mac that will run most of your software even if it’s a bit slow. Be sure to have some sort of shared storage device so you are backing up all your work from your primary machine and can access from your secondary.

  18. JS says:

    Q1: I think there is no question that you need a second computer of some sort to stay in e-mail contact- not answering e-mails for a few days could make you look bad. How does the money you lose from not having access to the computer compare to the cost of a second system that could handle the work? Do you like having that downtime? Is there something you could fill that downtime with- errands, chores, recharging your creative batteries so you don’t burn out?

  19. Laura says:

    Q1: Don’t know about where you live, but here in Pittsburgh we have Goodwill COmputer store that husband & I have found to be a fabulous source of very affordable “2nd” computers and computer parts and supplies.

  20. kristine says:

    moom- NYC are is the only area I have lived, so it is the only place about which I can make that claim. My rural designer friends have no such issues.

  21. valleycat1 says:

    Q3 – Set up a separate bank account & savings from your boyfriend’s & do not give him access. Put your financial aid $ in your personal savings account, and only pull out each month what you need; train yourself to the idea that the rest isn’t available to you to cover incidentals that seem to arise – you’re going to need a safety net if that job doesn’t materialize. Until you’re married, you shouldn’t have all your finances comingled with someone else, no matter how long you’ve been together – & your plans for marriage sound iffy at this point.

    If you need a joint account for joint bills (rent, utilities, food, etc.) then just transfer the amount each month to cover your share of current required expenses. If you can save a few dollars a month, go ahead and set it aside in your own savings too on each payday – even having a little bit of your own money stashed aside is empowering, & develops a good habit.

    While you’re in school on financial aid is not the time to be trying to save up for big future expenses too. Wait until you’ve gotten a job after school, set one or two goals then & start working toward them once you know how far your pay will go.

  22. Cc says:

    Q1: depending on your location you might be able to rent a Mac. Tekserve rents laptops on a daily basis, it’s a little pricey but works. There are also a few communal office spaces in Brooklyn where you can just rent a desk and space- unsure if a omputer comes with- for a few days.
    Good luck!

  23. Jamie says:

    Q1: I agree with Kristin (#5) and Riki (#7)– I was actually pretty shocked that Trent didn’t make either of these suggestions!

    I think buying anything for a few hundred bucks is silly, if you’re only going to use it for a week each year. Use the library, if you just need internet access. Or, run over to a friend’s house during that week– I’m sure you know someone with a computer (or smart phone) that would be accommodating.

    Of course, if you want a new toy and the one work week each year is an excuse to give to your thrifty husband, use it– But if not, utilize one of the many free possibilities around you!

    (Or take a vacation that week, like Riki suggests.)

  24. Michelle says:

    Q1 – Don’t get an iPad for answering e-mail, unless you spend the extra $100 or so to get a keyboard. The onscreen keyboard is quite obnoxious to type anything longer than a text message. Unless you want to get it and use it as an ePortfolio, but that’s another question. I would maybe get a Mac laptop, with shared storage. That way you have access to your stuff, but still some decent computing power.

    Q7 – Coming from a fellow MilSpouse, don’t buy. Keep that savings, keep contributing to it, then when you get out, you’ll be able to buy your dream house. I’ve seen too many friends wait months and months trying to sell, with the house sitting empty. After you move, you have to pay for lawn care and security. All those are out of pocket. And if you try and rent it, then you are the landlord, and you’re in charge of the place. Maybe look into renting a house where you are. Homeownership is not worth the headache when you are military. Oh, and you won’t stay there forever, unless he gets out.

  25. jim says:

    Q1 Ellen : If you’re just talking about routine maintenance once a year then why not have the computer worked on when you take a vacation? Otherwise I’d just buy a 2nd computer and then also make sure to do regular backups between the 2 systems. $5,000 for a backup computer seems excessive, is that really necessary? Have you compared performance on a cheaper unit? I wouldn’t be spending that much on the most expensive top of the line Mac unless you’re really sure you can see the difference in performance.

    Q5 Kelly: Sounds like you just recently broke up from a long term relationship and that puts you in a hard spot emotionally. I agree with Valleycat that right now I’d focus on stability and getting your life in some order.

    You went from homelessness to college educated. That is not a loser or someone who isn’t smart. Truly dumb people don’t graduate from college. MOST Americans do not have any form of college degree so you’ve obtained more education wise than most people. Everyone has to learn to make it on their own at some point and its certainly something you can accomplish.

    I’d say go back to school for the medical job and continue to do your writing in your spare time on the side. I certainly agree with Johanna that you shouldn’t think that you can’t pursue your dream of writing and continuing your education to get a good day job. 26 is still very young and you’ve got lots of time to accomplish your goals in the future. Getting a good career now would give you a nice stable income to rely on and make life so much easier in the long run.

    Q7 Emily: You have $200k in cash so yes you can afford to buy a $180k house with cash. It sounds like your rent is in the ballpark of $1200 a month. Instead of paying all cash I might make a large downpayment like 50% or something and then keep the rest of your cash in the bank. I just don’t want to see you almost empty your bank account just to own a house free and clear. However if theres a good chance that you might move within 3 years then I’d probably just keep renting. Unfortunately its hard to know the best path with uncertainty but the safer route is renting in such a situation.

    Q8 Angie : The 10% of your income you’re putting into that 401k is saving you money on taxes today. You’re in the 15% tax bracket so putting 10% of your $36k income into a 401k is saving you 15% of $3600 or $540 in income taxes every year today right now. So theres that. Johanna makes an excellent point that you do have tax protection from the standard deduction & exemption. Lets look down the road 40 years from now when you’re in your 60’s. If you follow Trents advice and put ALL your retirement savings into a Roth IRA then you’ll pay taxes on that money today and then it will be tax free at retirement. That sounds great to have it all tax free at retirement, but theres a flaw. When you’re 62 you’d have a standard deduction and exemption you can claim on your income taxes. But all your money is in a Roth IRA which is tax free. That standard deduction and exemption makes the first $9500 of income for a single person tax free. So its to your benefit to have at least that much of your income in a 401k /traditional IRA so its tax free today and taxed at retirement. Your employers contribution to the 401k will be taxable but by the time your 62 it won’t amount to $9500 /year in todays dollars. You could easily put 3-4% of your pay in the 401k today and then be able to cash that out tax free at retirement simply due to the standard deduction & exemption. Personally I’d split the difference and put 5% in the 401k and 5% in the Roth IRA.

  26. JC says:

    Q7: My impulse is the exact opposite of what was advised. Do not buy. There have been so many newspaper articles about how military families have really been hit hard by the housing market bust.

    But then I would do research. How is the housing market doing? How long is it taking to sell homes?

    You’re young and I think the most valuable thing is to have financial freedom and not an anchor at this point in your lives especially since there is a strong possibility that you will move. It doesn’t matter if there is a mortgage or not. The economics of the housing market is such that I would not consider buying a home an investment.

    If you like the house – see if you can rent it from the person!

  27. Tom says:

    I’m completely shocked over the advice to Q7. If there’s a decent chance you’ll move in the next 3 years, why buy the house? Closing costs, property taxes, annual maintenance, and unexpected repairs don’t go away with the mortgage. Plus imagine the stress of being reassigned with short notice. You’ll save yourself the $1200 in rent, but it doesn’t sound like you guys have a hard time saving money. To tie up 90% of your liquid accounts into real estate when there’s more than a 10% chance you won’t be there in 36 months, is flat out terrible advice.

  28. josh says:

    Q1 – What is this annual maintenance that takes place? And why does it take multiple days? Maybe you are better off finding someone who can complete the “maintenance” quicker. Or address the root cause that requires work to be done annually. This shouldn’t be the case. (written from someone who is directly responsible for the well-being of ~15 computers, 3 of which are Apple machines)

  29. Kelly says:

    Q1 – I think you’re missing a huge opportunity in this answer and that is freelancers have the flexibility to set their working hours and vacation time. You should not be available 24/7/365, no matter how great business is. Coordinating some time off while your computer is updated is a good strategy to take a break.

    To do this successfully Ellen should
    1) determine a month out when she’ll have the computer serviced
    2) plan deliverables to be finished before that time
    3) alert current clients that she’ll have a planned time off line and will be largely unavailable (the reason is irrelevant)
    4) set an auto responder on the work email
    5) only if necessary check in using a web enabled phone, library computer, friend’s computer or cheap netbook

    Otherwise, completely unplug, refocus on other things and don’t spend $1500-5000 for ONE week when you’re unavailable. Because the cost will always be higher once you buy software and outfit the backup computer.

    Also, clients who want last minute work and you to be constantly available are not good clients. Use this time to reevaluate your business and raise your rates. It encourages clients to engage you sooner (because you’re so good your rates will increase) or get you on retainer for all of their graphics needs.

    Then, if you really want to, you’ll be able to afford a second computer with the increased income.

  30. mary m says:

    Q1) set an out of office auto reply that has you cell phone # on it and enjoy a few days.

  31. Kevin says:

    Q1. Whatever option you choose you should be saving for a new workstation right now. Once you have enough to get a new workstation buy it. Then your old system becomes your backup. Thats how I work it both at home and in my office where I do design work. In the mean time just use the library. Or look into the professional version of their Applecare, I think they used to do loaner workstations if yours was getting repaired.

  32. deRuiter says:

    Q5, Get a job. Write on the side. “I have been ‘babied’ over the years,…” Yep, you’ve been freeloading your entire life and maybe your boyfriend got tired of having a child instead of a partner, financially speaking. Get a backbone, support yourself. Get full time work. Don’t go back to school and rack up a fortune in student loans and be in exactly the same place in a few years, but you will have debt which will dog you the rest of your life. Your family members were losers, when it comes to a financial decision, think hard, “What would my parents do?” and then do the oppsosite. Get a job, get a place you can afford, write on the side. Grow up!

  33. Geoff Hart says:

    Ellen reports: “I work at home as a freelance graphic artist, and am fortunate to have lots of work lately. I have one computer which I use all the time. I need to have maintenance done on it occasionally, and have to be without for several days. This happens at least once a year, and I think it’s a necessity to keep it in top form for my job.”

    Your computer guru has misled you; paying $1500 for a Macbook Air makes no sense at all when you can buy a regular MacBook for 2/3 that price, and a refurbished desktop Mac for closer to half that price, and a new Mac mini for considerably less than half that price. All of these computers will be faster than the MacBook Air, which is important if you’re doing graphic arts. (fwiw, I’ve bought refurb Macs for my last three computers and never had a significant problem.) I’m also not sure what you mean by “maintenance”; I have a Mac myself and a Windows machine for my kids, and no maintenance is required for either that I can’t do myself. Moreover, if it’s truly maintenance rather than emergency repairs, you should be able to schedule this far enough in advance that your guru can return the computer in an hour or two; “a few days” is unacceptable. Possibly you need a new guru?

    If you’re a working professional, you should never be without a backup — and don’t forget, it’s a tax-deductible expense. (Speaking as a freelancer myself, whose income and two kids depend on me never being without a computer.) Sending your computer for maintenance is generally not a problem because you can usually schedule this and work around it. But what if your computer dies suddenly or the roof falls in on it right before a crucial deadline? Weirder things happen.

    For the last 8 years or so, I’ve simply kept my old computer as a backup instead of selling it for next to nothing when I upgrade (which I do every 3 years or so). It’s slower than a new model, but works just fine.

    The prudent thing is to find a way you can get back to work in an hour or two max. Until you replace your Mac with a new model, thereby generating an instant backup, the easiest way to do this is check the classified ads in late December (when families are getting rid of last year’s computer because they just replaced it with the latest model) and in May (when university students are heading home and can’t be bothered bringing last year’s computer with them on the airplane or train or bus). You can usually find a decent used computer for around $200, including monitor and keyboard and often software. Macs are a little more expensive, but there are still many bargains.

    When you get it, install and update all your key software; many companies will let you do this, though possibly you’ll have to jump through a few hoops to succeed. If you’re keeping your own computer and migrate all your software to the new machine, the old software will remain functional.

    Then keep all data for your current work stored somewhere safe. I backup every half hour or so to a flash drive that lives in my USB port, and use Mac.com (soon Dropbox.com) for off-site backup in case the computer is stolen. If disaster strikes, I can be up and running again in as much time as it takes me to boot the old computer and download the work files.

    Sure, the old machine won’t be nearly as fast and refined as your brand-new computer, but it’ll get you through the current job until you have time to replace your dead/stolen/borked computer. And it means you won’t have any downtime when you need to send your main computer for maintenance because you can simply boot it, download the files, and keep working.

    Highly recommended.

  34. Jonathan says:

    Q1 – Sounds like you need to evaluate your needs before you make a purchase. If you really are just looking for a backup system to use for a few days a years to keep up on email, etc. then it makes no sense to buy an expensive system. Several good options have been mentioned, including using the library, setting up an out of office reply, or just taking a vacation during that time. My initial thought before reading the reply was the same as Trent’s. My netbook cost around $200 (it was a display unit) and has served me well. I actually use it for a lot more than email.

    If you need to keep working during the downtime, or need a true backup in case of Goeff Hart suggests, then obviously the netbook is not a good option. In this case I would agree with others that a Windows system would be a bad choice for you due to the need t purchase additional software (and possibly hardware), familiarize yourself with it, etc. You should determine the value of the work you lose during the downtime and see if that offsets the cost of a new system. It seems unlikely that that the $5k system would make sense in this scenario. Maybe a $1500 system would, I don’t know. If you average being without a machine for 3 days/year, would you make more than $150/day? if so, you would recuperate the costs in just over 3 years. If you make anything less than that I would question if spending $1500 on a replacement makes sense. Of course, if you have more than 3 days/year downtime or routinely have projects with penalties for late delivery the situation changes.

  35. getagrip says:

    Q7 Do you like the neighborhood the house is in? Do you like the schools (assuming you want kids sometime in the future)? What have other homes in that neighborhood sold for recently (is the price really right)? Number wise you need to cosider (rough guesses):

    $5000 closing costs
    $2000 up front outlay for “stuff” over the first year or so (e.g. lawnmower, weed trimmer, garden tools, stepladder, new furniture, hoses, etc.)
    $3500 per year taxes (you are unlikely to be able to deduct much more than your standard deduction, so unless someone shows you specific numbers to the contrary, you are not likely to be able to deduct your property taxes and reap a benefit)
    $2000 per year in upkeep and maintenance.
    $1000 per year for homeowners insurance.
    (Note: I am leaving out utilities, they may climb or may not climb, dependant on lots of factors but your friend ought to be able to give you an idea of those costs to compare)

    So looking at about $46K over 6 years versus $90K. Still a good savings in one aspect if you were definitly staying there. Downside is the reality of moving. If you have to move in three years, you would compare $26K for the house costs versus $43K in rental costs. If you had to sell you could take a $15K loss on the house (e.g. $165K) and consider yourself having broke even.

    Actually, provided the house is a good deal for the price for the current market, it’s not looking like a bad deal to buy in this particular situation. Sure it can be a hassle to sell it if you have to, but if you are careful and don’t let a need to buy new things and fill up the home overwhelm you, you could very likely reap a benefit from this property.

    Best of luck whichever you decide.

  36. PF says:

    #33 Geoff Hart’s advice is spot on. Plan for downtime.

    This idea that you can plan when your machine needs maintenance is rather optimistic. I guess in my group of about 30 people, the macs seem to have more problems and failures than the PCs, so having a backup is a must. A library machine really isn’t going to cut it when you have a deadline. Having just purchased 4 MacBook Pros that were fully loaded, I’m not sure how you get to 5K anyway.

  37. Kate says:

    Q3: The reason you have no savings is you are a net borrower of money, not a net producer. Any dollar you “put aside” is actually costing you whatever the interest rate on your student loans is. If you want to “save” toward your stated financial goals, start by accepting less of the financial aid award – the less you take out in loans, the less you have to pay back!

  38. Lou says:

    Q2 – I don’t know how thoroughly you’ve evaluated living situations in the DC area, but since you mentioned VA specifically, I wonder if you’ve looked at Reston? The light rail system will go out there shortly (construction in process), the units include smaller rental options, the township – or whatever it’s called – is pet-friendly. My brother, a schoolteacher, has lived there for 10 years & you couldn’t pry him loose with a crowbar.

    There’s a website called restonlakeanne dot com or dot org with some history & facts. The community seems to be underpublicized for some reason & word of mouth is how people find out about it.

    Good luck in your search. You sound like such thoughtful, hard-working folks that I hope you can find the life you’re seeking. Keep looking.

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