Updated on 01.18.12

Reader Mailbag: Back Pain Blues

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. Puzzling through hourly pay rate
2. Career path concerns
3. Working with children
4. Speed reading
5. Getting less sleep
6. Netbook or tablet?
7. Risk Legacy and evolving games
8. Saving for multiple goals
9. Paying someone to prepare taxes
10. Setting microgoals

Two days ago, we had our first significant snowfall of the winter. The amount of snow on our driveway was right around the minimum amount we usually need for us to break out the snowblower.

In order to make sure that our children could make it to one of their activities on time, I had to get the driveway cleared as fast as possible.

I chose the shovel. I got it done in time, but I found myself coughing a great deal (due to the very cold winter air and a touch of the cold I already had) and found myself with a sore back as well.

As I type this, I’m thanking Advil for the help.

Q1: Puzzling through hourly pay rate
I am about to accept a new job and I am working on the hourly pay rate that you discuss. I have in detail created a Pro/Con chart about this opportunity and the Pro’s do out weigh the Cons, but the largest Con is commute time. I will be increasing my commute by 15 miles each way (30-40 minutes depending on traffic). In your original calculation I am to include that drive time and gas in my hourly calculation. However, I have decided to attempt to learn a new language during that travel time. Would you still add this time for travel even though I am partaking in a personal development project? What if it is to help my career?

– Andy

You should still include the travel time. Although you’re finding a use for that commute time, you’re still stuck in your car. You’re still having to divert a significant portion of your attention to the traffic around you.

On the other hand, if you were learning the language in a focused environment for an hour each day, you would pick up on the language much more deeply and thoroughly.

There’s certainly some value in using your time in the car to learn things, but if it had an equal value to non-car time, would you choose to drive around in order to listen to your language-learning CDs?

Q2: Career path concerns
My situation:
I’m living in Germany and studying for my BA in Social Science (class of 2013)
I have two subsidized loans one beeing 5800$ and the second 3500$ both will only kick in if I earn more than 30,000$/year after taxes.
I got 12000$ on the hand which is great, but I when reading the mentioned article I asked myself what will I have after I graduate.

Do I want to work as a scientist in social science, I dont, I never planned too, I had median grades but can maintain an A-Average at the moment. Still I dont have collected skills that are transferable to a degree mentioned in your article. I have no idea what my dream should or could be and the only thing I can relate to is the wish for financial independence for a foreseeable future.

I am thinking about taking up a job that would pay me 10000/year as a computer guide at the university so that I will save more to pay off my loans and maybe save up for a small apartment.

Any ideas how to change my worries about me beeing stuck with a formal but no-use education? I mean I really enjoy my time at the university but its more like readying a book you like about personal finance or philosophy it educates you but its nothing that will really help me at the job market… at least thats what I am afraid of.
– Ben

If I were you, I would spend my remaining time in college trying to figure out what exactly I wanted to do with my life. Clearly, you’re not enthusiastic about the field you’re studying for. What are you enthusiastic about?

College is the perfect time to figure this out. The restraints you have on your life are likely never going to be this light again.

Take advantage of it. Sit in on classes related to anything that might be of interest to you. Join some campus organizations. Try new things and see what clicks with you.

At the very least, attempt to supplement your degree with extra projects and jobs that will appear to be a good complement to potential employees.

Q3: Working with children
How do you get work done with children at home? I’ve been trying to transition to staying at home to work, but with my children at home I get almost nothing done. I don’t mind this, but I’m trying to find a way to stay professionally productive while still being a good mom.

– Erin

On days when I need to get work done and have children at home with me, I tend to try to get them involved in focused projects. I then set a timer for them that they can clearly see and tell them that I want to see what they’ve come up with in that timeframe.

For example, I’ll get out a giant bucket of Legos and ask them to build me the coolest castle they can build. I’ll set a timer for thirty minutes and then tell them I want to see what they’ve come up with when the timer runs out.

I usually make a big deal out of the project. We’ll take pictures with it, talk about it, and so on. Then we’ll have a snack, use the bathroom, and then I’ll come up with another project – say, a big art project where they need to draw a picture of something.

This works really well for my four year old daughter and my six year old son. For my one year old, I usually just contain him in a small spot with some toys for short sessions and he largely occupies himself.

Q4: Speed reading
[Recently] you talked about your reading skills. You said…“I can read pretty quickly, allowing me to go through more books than I would if I didn’t practice so much.” Is there any proven way, book or method for increasing reading speed that you can recommend? Is it just practice?

– Jeff

I’ve been reading on the order of 100 books a year for most of my life. I actually still have my reading list from sixth grade, where the teacher had all of the students keep one, and it numbers at about 100 or so. That pace has been more or less constant ever since.

The best way to become a good reader is to read. The more you read, the stronger your reading skill becomes and the faster you can absorb written material.

I find that reading challenging stuff tends to improve me the most as a reader. I’ll get a nonfiction book on a complex topic that I don’t understand well, and that forces me to read more slowly and absorb more of what I’m reading just to make it through.

Jeff had a follow-up question.

Q5: Getting less sleep
This seems like an offbeat subject but I have several relatives who can THRIVE on only 4 – 5 hours sleep. I need 8. Think of the productivity increase if I could gain 3 to 4 hours a day! Is there any way to learn to sleep less but still be productive or do you have to be born with it? How can dome people exist on 4-5 hours and others need 7-8 or more? I have never heard anyone address this and thought if anyone would know you would!

– Jeff

I think there are a lot of elements that make up the amount of sleep that a person needs. Genetics is certainly one of them, as is stress level, the amount of interruption of one’s sleep, and the comfort of one’s sleeping environment.

I can be productive with things that don’t require a lot of thinking on four or five hours of sleep. However, whenever I do thinking-intensive tasks with that little sleep, I perceive the results as good, but I later discover that they’re pretty poor.

Sleeping for three more hours than someone else, but being able to be thoughtfully productive during your waking hours, is well worth it. Don’t mess with what your body needs.

Q6: Netbook or tablet?
I have a laptop and until recently I had a netbook. I used the netbook for most of my day to day computing needs at home to save ware and tear on my laptop which is much more expensive.

I have been looking around for a replacement but the market seems to have went much more in the direction of tablet computers. As far as I can tell the tablets generally are more expensive, seem to be less powerful, have less memory and are simply an unnecessary gadget that is popular at the moment. Everyone around me is recommending a tablet but what I see and my intuition is saying to go with a netbook again.

Would you have any thoughts?
– Chris

I find that tablets tend to have more appeal for people whose typical computer tasks involve mostly mouse work with only brief bits of typing. That’s because the finger is a more intuitive pointing device than the mouse. It’s just more natural.

The more typing you do, the less appeal a tablet has. Even when you find ways to couple a tablet with a keyboard (many tablets allow you to use a wireless keyboard with them), it’s still not as good as the setup with an entry-level laptop.

If that describes you, get an entry-level laptop or netbook. It’s probably the best solution for you.

In either case, the processing power on both a decent tablet and a lower-end laptop today drastically exceeds what’s needed for what most people do on their computers. Web surfing and emailing do not require extensive computer power.

Q7: Risk Legacy and evolving games
I took your advice and picked up Risk Legacy to play with my brothers and sisters over Christmas. It was a blast and we had so much fun that we’ve gotten together twice in January to play it. Thanks for the idea! It was well worth the money to have all of us sitting around a table talking and spending time together again.

I was wondering if there were other games like it that “evolve” as you play them, with permanent changes to the game.
– Eric

Not that I’ve seen. However, I think that Risk Legacy is an awesome game experience. It has become an absolute staple for my gaming group, even overcoming a strong aversion to Risk. Five people are probably going to get 30-40 hours of entertainment out of that box, and at the end there’s a unique memento of those 30-40 hours spent. That’s pretty cool.

You also hit upon the big reason why I love board games so much. It gets people around a table doing social things. Whenever I get together with friends and we just watch a movie or something, the room is quiet and there’s very little interaction. I can do the same thing when I’m by myself.

Social gatherings are meant to be social. Board games are inherently social.

Q8: Saving for multiple goals
In one of your recent posts in the 365 days section you talked about having money automatically transfered into savings accounts for different things you are saving for. I have a regular checking, a short term savings and a long term growth account (the PNC Virtuall Wallet is AMAZING by the way and makes this all very streamlined). But you talked about an account saving for a car, and I know I should have an emergency fund, but I’m not really sure how to set all this up.

What do your account setups look like? Do you save for more than one thing in the same account or have a separate account for every savings goal? And where do you put money for things like a new dish washer or other larger item that might break before you get around to proactively replacing it? Does this come from your emergency fund?
– Paul

I use ING Direct for most of my specific savings goals. ING Direct allows a person to set up as many savings accounts as they’d like (I’ve never hit a limit, anyway). You can have automatic savings plans tied to each one of them.

Thus, I’ll have a savings account that’s tied to saving for a car, another tied to saving for a new dishwasher, another that’s just an emergency fund, and so on.

I usually try to start saving for things as soon as I get an inkling that they’re going to need replacing soon. Most of the time, failures of things like cars and appliances provide some hint beforehand. I usually try to rely on those hints.

Q9: Paying someone to prepare taxes
I was wondering what you think of paying someone to prepare your taxes? In the past 30 years, my husband and I have always had someone prepare our taxes at a cost of $175.00 I keep all the tax forms in a file folder and sort through it before I bring it to the preparer. We also just have the basic write offs such as our mortgage and donations. Nothing ever really adds up to being able to write anything off because we make too much and don’t donate enough. Plus we’re healthy, so we don’t have any medical expenses.

My question is how are the tax preparation people that you see on commercials all the time? Right now they have a new program that you can work on your taxes from home and they have an instant question/help line available if you have any questions? Also what about Turbo Tax? I saw it advertised for $45.00 at Sam’s Club and was wondering if that’s the way to go.
– Susan

I use TurboTax for my own taxes. It does the job really well and hasn’t failed me yet.

Most of the time, when I’ve observed what a tax preparer does, they’re generally using TurboTax or a TurboTax-like computer program to prepare your taxes for you. They just take the numbers from the documents you’ve given them, put them into a program, and out pops your forms.

I’d rather just do that myself. I’d try out TurboTax if I were you.

Q10: Setting microgoals
You’ve mentioned many times that you set “microgoals” for yourself. Could you elaborate on what exactly that means? What’s the difference between that and a short-term goal?

– Ellen

I usually set “microgoals” on a weekly basis. Typically, I’ll think about a goal that I want to complete for the week – usually some task that will take me a few hours that’s outside my normal routine – over the weekend.

On Monday, I’ll set my “microgoal” (or pair of them) for the week. I’ll figure out how to fit them into my week and have a plan for making them happen.

Usually, I strive to complete them by Friday afternoon, but sometimes goals run over into the weekend. If I find that I can’t complete one for the week, I spend some time trying to figure out why I didn’t get it done.

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. Wiley says:

    We are going to be transitioning to a nanny rather than daycare due to the addition a surprise set of twins. That means withholding and social security and unemployment taxes and all of that. So my question relates to hiring someone to do the taxes, how do you feel about the relative value of doing it yourself versus using a company like Breedlove. Unlike turbotax, Breedlove represents a significant expense, I think around $500 a year.

    I definitely am comfortable with the fair labor practices and handling time and a half and all of that and am certain I COULD figure out grossing up and withholding and estimated payments and all of that, the question is, is it worth it?

  2. Baley says:

    RE Q1: I think that time in the car spent learning a language can be valuable. It also gives you time to decompress from your work day before coming home. I listen to audiobooks during my commute, which makes it that much better! You’ll still want to count mileage and fuel, but not necessarily the time spent as wasted. Ask yourself if you would actually take the time to learn another language if you weren’t doing it during your drive. If not, then you’re adding value to your life that you wouldn’t have otherwise. From only the available information in the question, I’d say go for the new job!

  3. Andrew says:

    Q2 Ben–Since you are writing from Germany I am going to assume English is not your first language. If I am mistaken you have a lot more to worry about than you think–you need to learn how to compose an intelligible English sentence, or, at a minimum, how to use spellcheck.

  4. Katie says:

    Uh, Andrew, Ben never says he wants to live and work in an English-speaking country; I’m not sure why you think his English needs to be perfect.

  5. Andrew says:

    Q6. If you really want a netbook you should act quickly– they are fast becoming obsolete. Dell is no longer making them and other manufacturers are certain to follow.

    You should also ask yourself whether the capabilities of a netbook will be able to meet the needs and expectations of those people and institutions withwhom you will be interacting. If you are using it for school, and an assignment demands complicated applications or video, what are you going to do?

    Try to estimate future needs, not just present ones.

  6. Andrew says:

    Katie, I don’t assume that he will be using English on a day-to-day basis. That’s why I put in the qualifier about it possibly not being his first language.

    However, if you are writing in English, on an English-language website, for the benefit of an English-speaking audience, you really shouldn’t let “beeing” show up not once but twice.

    In addition, his loan figures are given in dollars, which leafs me to believe he could be American.

  7. Tracy says:


    See, this is why I think adding in the commute is just a terrible way of figuring out effective pay rate. More likely, if Andy was NOT in the car, he wouldn’t take that time to learn a new language at all, because he’d find other things to do with those hours (productive or not productive)


    There’s a site that will let you test your reading speed and has free ‘lessons’ for increasing it – basically some blog posts that describe the process. I played around with it just to see and found it works quite well for nonfiction, but not for fiction (it makes dialogue really hard to read) – it’s basically about retraining your brain *if* you read at the speed of speech. It flashes the words on the screen, and what you’re supposed to do is keep increasing the speed til it’s just beyond comfortable …basically just practicing but because it controls the speed, it doesn’t let you slip back into your regular reading speed.


    If nothing else, it’s fun to get an actual number on how fast you read (when you play with chunking versus non-chunking options, you’ll find out if you read word-per-word or in phrases and sentences at once)

    I don’t really get what Trent’s saying about challenging stuff … that by reading more slowly, he increases his reading speed? I’m assuming he shifted from Jeff’s question about improving reading speed to answering a question about improving reading ability/comprehension, but am not sure why.

    Although, I find the opposite to be true – the problem with taking a densely written book on a complex topic that you have to read and reread to figure out is that you actually don’t have any way of knowing if you really DO understand it. I think in terms of increasing understanding and comprehension (rather than reading speed) it’s actually best to layer in books – start with a book that breaks things down and then advance to more difficult books as you grasp concepts. Otherwise you may just end up with a fundamental misunderstanding that skews everything else you learn about the topic.

  8. Andrew says:

    I should take my own advice and use spellcheck– that should be “leads,” not “leafs!”

  9. PF says:

    @Q9: I’ve used Taxactonline dot com to do my taxes for about 8 years. It’s always under $20 to file both federal and state. You can try it for free; you don’t have to pay until the end. There’s a lot of online help. Really, I can’t figure out why anyone would spend $45 for Turbo tax.

  10. Steven says:

    How are those fitness goals working out?

  11. Tom says:

    Turbo Tax online is significantly cheaper than the software sold in warehouse clubs. I don’t know about other states, but my state tax return is free and quite easy to do on the state’s Dept of Revenue website. I use TurboTax to get an expectation of what I should end up with, then drop the state return (I think it’s like an extra $30 or something). I can usually manually enter all the data from there. YMMV

  12. Alison says:

    Q8: The multiple savings account is THE greatest lesson I have learned from following Trent for 5 years!!!

    Also, I have learned to add a layer of complexity to help me keep my big picture savings goals more clear. I auto-transfer all of my (bi-weekly paycheck) savings at one time to one ING account. Then I either auto or manually divide up that bulk transfer into the multiple savings accounts that represent all my goals (ex. 50% emergency savings, 25% car repair, 10% Christmas saving, 15% home improvements, etc).

    This way i can quickly see how much i am saving per month, and i have less transactions flying between my brick and mortar bank and the ING savings account.

    Thanks Trent!

  13. Aaron says:

    I have paid someone to do my taxes for years after using Turbotax for years, and every so often, used a free program to compare, and the $150 I paid for the tax guy to do it paid for itself and then some. The software is good and all, but it doesn’t necessarily do a good job of clearly explaining various deductions, or even ask for some of them at all. I disagree with Trent’s assessment that “never had a problem with it”. How do you know? It’s all about does the person who does your taxes get it done more accurately and legally, and get you a better return. Or can they provide any value adds to you by doing your taxes, like suggest ways next year to reduce your tax burden?

    I however think this will be my last year for awhile paying this guy to do them for me. Why? Well, I’ve massively paid down my mortgages, so I know for 2012, I’d be better off using the standard deduction instead of itemizing. By definition, he can’t find things I can itemize for a better return. And I’ve become savvy enough that he’s not able to give me useful suggestions any longer.

    So, if you’re itemizing, and you’re more likely to fall under more scenarios to get itemized deductions, it’s often extremely valuable to do it. My tax guy was getting me an extra $300-400 in returns in the past times I compared. But if your tax situation is straight forward, it may not be worthwhile.

  14. Evita says:

    Q2 A guidance counselor can help you define your career path….. it seems that you really need one. Good luck!

  15. Jackowick says:

    Q4 Reading is a skill that can diminish with time off. When I get back into reading “cycles”, I find the speed comes back. Keeping on top of regular reading is a great way to easily boost it.

    Q6 As a netbook and laptop owner, don’t underestimate the easy and covenience of using a keyboard over going tablet. For those who question the long term ability, a netbook is quite capable of doing the “jobs” that 99% of us use it for, email and consuming media. I used my for photo editing, spreadsheets, and more and it does fine. Don’t knee jerk to think that tablets are necessarily “better”.

    Q9 A family member of mine paid a preparer recently instead of using TurboTax. The return was all fouled up. Turbo Tax on their site will even give you a heads up to what type of software suite you “need” for your situation. Most people do fine with the free version/basic if you have basic forms from work and your bank. Stocks are not that tricky and now institutions are doing cost basis in the US going forward. I used turbo tax for my mortgage and it did FINE. The bank statement was clear and concise and there’s nothign special a pro would have given me.

    That said, if you feel you have a special circumstance, I would reccommend attempting the free version as a roadmap, then checking with a tax prep service. Every situation IS different, but a majority can do fine with the plug and chug of basic TurboTax.

  16. Jackie says:

    You don’t need to use ING to set up multiple savings account. Any bank or credit union can do it for you. You’ll have one bank account with multiple “shares”.

  17. Kai says:

    I find that reading challenging material makes me work harder and sort of trains my ‘reading muscles’, so that when I go back to a novel, it goes even easier, which feels like it may be quicker. I’ve always been a very fast reader without ever working at it, so I’m not entirely sure. I attribute it to the vast amounts I read as a child, and the fair bit I continue to read.

  18. Des says:

    Q6 – I have a netbook, laptop, and iPad. They each have they’re strengths. I like that I can get from “off” to “google” much faster on the iPad than either the netbook or laptop, so I use it for quick fact-checking and for reading in bed. But that is about the extent of its usefulness. Typing anything (even a blog comment) is really a pain. If I didn’t get one free for work, I would never buy one myself. Netbooks also aren’t great to type on, but they are so much better than a tablet. If all you want to do is look at websites, maybe a tablet would be a good option. If you do any content producing at all, just go with the netbook. Plus, you’d be surprised how many websites still aren’t tablet friendly. Any site that has in-page scrolling is difficult, if not impossible, to use on a touch screen.

  19. mary w says:

    Q3. Very few people can get much work done at home when taking care of small children. If you’re a SAHM who wants part-time work that can be done in 1/2 hour chunks, maybe.

    When I worked in HR one of the basic rules when we allowed employees to work at home was that they couldn’t take care of anyone during working hours. Not children, parents or ill spouses.

  20. jim says:

    Q1 : You’re not going to get 100% benefit out of that commute time. What is the monetary value of learning a language? What would you have done with that time otherwise? Would you honestly have sat down and learned a language every day? At most I would maybe discount some of the commute time as valuable time instead of wasted, but not all of it.

    Q2 : Ben I would look instead at what you do want to do for a career. Your current degree may be useful in many areas and isn’t necessarily a waste. For example, my mother in law has an English degree but that hasn’t limited her career to reading books. She has worked in a variety of office related jobs. If your degree is something like sociology then you won’t just get a job in sociology but it may have many valuable skills that will benefit you in a variety of jobs.

    Q5 : NO I don’t think you can simply teach yourself to live with less sleep. People who manage on very few hours are either just rare folks born that way or may actually be suffering from such sleep deprivation.

    Q6 : You said you use the netbook to keep your laptop from breaking down. If I were you I would just go ahead and use your more expensive laptop. Computers drop in price so fast that they go obsolete faster than they break down. You already have a nice laptop so I’d just use it. Just use the laptop till it breaks then buy another one. By that time the new laptop would be better and cheaper. It will be cheaper in the long run.
    But if you really need 2 computers then I’d go with the netbook or maybe a basic laptop. Tablets simply do not do all the same stuff and are generally more expensive than a basic netbook.

    Q9 : Depends on your tax situation and how much you want to do your own taxes. The amount you are spending is reasonable. But if you’re taxes are simple and you don’t mind doing it then you may as well do it yourself. Tax software will do a pretty good job if you want to go that route and the software is fairly easy to use. The real benefit of paying someone else is that they have knowledge of how it all works. The tax software is not smart and could fail to ask you important questions and won’t stop you from doing things wrong. But for the vast majority of people tax software is perfectly fine. If you don’t itemize and only have W2 wages and have no business or rentals or anything like that then doing it with tax software is probably just fine.
    Far far too many people are paying HR Block to fill out a simple 1040 with nothing but standard deduction and W2 wages and thats not at all necessary.

  21. jim says:

    Q3 Erin: Trent has daycare help for his kids (last we heard). So he doesn’t really work with the kids at home. His answer is the exception to the norm for him and didn’t sound like he’d be doing much work either.
    Don’t expect you can work and provide childcare at the same time. It really won’t work. Like Mary W pointed out it is often not allowed by employers. My company won’t let me work at home while providing child care since they know that I’ll be focused on the kids and not work. If you’ve got a home based business you can of course do some work on the side but certainly nowhere near 100%. The older the kids get the easier it is.

  22. Tracy says:


    I second (third) the fact that working from home and small children don’t really mix. My best friend did it, and, like Trent, she had her son in daycare until he was in school and even in an afterschool program after that.

    The nice thing is that when the kids are a little older, say 9 or 10, although it depends on the kid, it does allow you to still be home for them and not worry but let them self-direct. But small children and work are usually both full-time tasks.

  23. Kerry D. says:

    Q6) I agree that Netbooks represent a real opportunity now for inexpensive computing. I wondered if one could do what I might wish for a sexy tablet to do… My black Friday Acer was $167, way less expensive than either my mac laptop or the i-pad I was wishing for. So far, I’m pretty happy for making quick notes in Word starter, and websurfing. Typing is difficult on the tiny keyboard, so I would want a separate full size keyboard for either machine, if it were for full time use.

  24. Jean says:

    Re: Question #9
    The free version of Turbotax accessible through IRS.gov is probably adequate for most situations, and our state Dept. of Revenue website is also easy to use and free.
    We have a business that has transitioned from a sole proprietor on a Schedule C to a partnership to a corporation–Turbotax’s business products have been outstanding for our needs. Last year I had a complicated situation and used their live CPA help–this was so worth it!! The accountants were knowledgable and showed me how to use the “back side” of this software where you are not just answering questions but can go through your return page by page before printing it. And whoever pointed out that paid prepreres are also using software–several local CPAs I know use Turbotax!

  25. Squirrelers says:

    Micro goals are a great thing. They help keep us on track to achieve the “macro” goals, and build a sense of accomplishment and momentum along the way.

  26. Tatiana says:

    “As I type this, I’m thanking Advil for the help.”

    Does this mean Trent bought the brand-name medication instead of the cheaper generic (ibuprofen)?

  27. Jennifer says:

    I got a social sciences degree and found it extremely helpful. I am not sure what opportunities are available in Germany, but I worked in jobs such as organizing transportation for senior citizens, working with special needs kids in a public elementary school, running a nonprofit, working with the homeless, and working in community outreach in a public library. I did a lot of volunteer work and internships while I was in college, and have been very happy with my choice.

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