Updated on 02.15.10

Reader Mailbag: Big Challenges and Business Cards

Trent Hamm

Welcome to the week-opening Reader Mailbag!

What, in your estimation, is a comfortable (or perhaps average) salary for a young family? Assuming both parents are college educated. I am in a relationship that is leading to marriage. My parents are concerned that we will not have enough money to live comfortably, and will always be struggling. Currently, combined, our salaries equal around $80,000. Ideally, when children come along, I would like to work only part time. I’d estimate that our salary would stay about the same if that were the case (assuming his will continue to increase, while mine would probably decrease).

I do not feel that I have something “normal” to compare to, as I did not grow up in normal circumstances by most people’s standards. (Parents cautious with money, but six figure household. My mom worked only a few hours a week so she was mostly home with us.)

We are both approaching 30 and living outside of Atlanta. I have a bachelor’s degree; he has his master’s. We both work full-time in communications-related fields.
– Monica

In early 2009, the average U.S. family earned $63,000 a year before taxes. That family had 2.5 people in the home and 1.3 wage earners. Given that your family has 2 people in the home right now and 2 wage earners, I don’t think you’re too far off of the average. (It’s important to note, of course, that the average includes prodigious earners like Bill Gates and the like.)

What seems to be going on here is that your parents have some expectation of you having an above-average income level like they have. Plus, you live in a suburban area of a major metro, which almost always means a higher cost of living. They might even have some small concerns of needing to finance you guys in the future.

If you’re both happy with your current level of material wealth, you won’t have any problems doing this. You can certainly get by on $80,000 a year. You just won’t have some of the material trappings that the people around you have – but you will have the freedom to spend tons of time with your kids.

Yesterday, after spending $400, my beloved cat was diagnosed with leukemia. We were given four types of meds to treat her symptoms (anemia, liver problems) and then sent home.

I am heartbroken, we’ve had our kitty for 10 years. Another cat we had for 10 years died in December after a chronic illness that progressively got worse through 2009. Now, three months later, we’re watching our second cat die.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s the importance of having an emergency fund when you have aging pets. Our emergency fund is depleted, especially after the illness of our first cat, and now we are faced with a hard decision.

The vet wants to refer us to a specialist for cat cancer. But everything I’ve read shows that few animal cancers respond well to chemo and radiation. We would maybe buy our cat a year, but at the expense of thousands of dollars and painful procedures — bone marrow biopsy and the chemotherapy.

I know we can’t afford it. I know it likely wouldn’t do any good. And I know she’s “just” a cat. But I still feel like a horrible owner to not have the financial resources to try every option for her. She’s given us 10 years of joy — she was my husband’s and my first pet that we got together, and my husband’s first ever cat. I feel awful, like we’re giving up on her.
– Sarah

In my experience, ten years is a full and healthy life for cats. I know many that have lived longer, but I also know many that haven’t lived that long, too.

You’re the person that knows your cat. You obviously love that cat. You’ve done the research. If you don’t feel that chemotherapy would significantly improve your cat’s quality of life, you shouldn’t put a bunch of money into it.

I don’t believe that throwing every possible medical treatment towards a cat (or a person) near the end of their life is necessarily a good thing. I’ve watched too many people I care about suffer through the last few months of their life in a heap of illness and exhaustion brought on by horrible treatments that only extended their life for a month or two. Give me pallative treatments any day of the week over that.

My wife and I were married in March 2009 and then purchased our first home in August 2009. As such, the combined benefit of filing jointly, as well as the first-time homebuyer credit, means we have $13,000+ coming as a tax refund this year. We’re currently debating how to use this money and I thought I’d get your advice.

We are primarily debating between (1) taking a chunk of the rebate and applying it to our principal, or (2) taking a good chunk of the refund and plowing it back into the house itself. While I doubt this will be the house we ultimately end up in, we expect to be here for a good 5-10 years.

By way of background, aside from our mortgage, we have no debt, so we can’t use any of this money to pay anything off. Our savings are fairly robust and we have a reasonably sized “rainy day” cushion if anything goes wrong, so that doesn’t really need padding.

Further, we were lucky to buy a foreclosed fixer-upper in a very nice neighborhood. We’ve already invested a lot of our own “sweat equity” into the house, having repainted every room, replaced a couple of bathrooms, built a fence, etc. Basically, with the exception of initially hiring a plumber to replace all of the burst pipes, we have luckily avoided needing to hire any professionals, so our actual home-repair costs are just materials (plus, of course, our time). That being said, I think we’ve gotten to the point where there are certain jobs (such as refinishing a wood floor, replacing our driveway, etc.) that just make sense to hire someone to do, because we lack the expertise and we doubt we can really do a respectable job.

In terms of the mortgage itself, we are also doing pretty well there. Our interest rate is only 4.8% and we dutifully pay in extra money each month to the principal (over the course of a year, we’ll end up making a whole extra month’s payment exclusively to the principal).
– Doug

Do you feel that those final repair jobs are ones that will add significantly to your quality of life living in the house for the next ten years?

I can’t make the call on that, but that would be the big question for me as I approached this. Given the repairs you describe, I think you would recoup the investment either way you went.

The advantage of rolling the money into the mortgage is that you know exactly how much your return will be – the interest rate on your mortgage. If you roll it into the house, it’s very hard to judge what the housing market in your area will be like in ten years, but the improvements can only help your value.

For me, the question would revolve around whether the improvements actually were ones I strongly wanted or needed for the house during the time I lived there. If they were, I’d do the repairs. Otherwise, I’d probably chop down the mortgage.

Im currently banking with Bank of America, and just recently opened a savings account to take advantage of the “keep the change” program they are running, but I feel like after the 90 days of 100 percent matching w/ them, I may switch to this account, and leave the bank of america account open as a “rainy day” account.

I read about your hbsc account as well as your ing accounts, but it was dated around 2006 I believe, are you still with this places or is there a different place you would recommend now?
– Josh

I use ING Direct as my primary bank and have been doing so since 2006. I have been almost universally happy with them.

Notice I said my “primary bank.” That means that I use them for my checking account and some limited savings. Why don’t I use them for additional savings? Frankly, I can get a better rate elsewhere, especially for automated savings plans. I usually use SmartyPig for those.

The reason I’ve stuck with ING is that they’ve had every service I’ve needed along the way. I’ve been able to use these services wtihout problem and without fail for years. They’ve never tried to hambone me with fees, either. That type of customer service is something I’ll stick with.

In October of 2001 I lost my job due to the company closing their doors forever. At age 61 I was not able to find a job so I formed my own small printing/desktop publishing company and drew my unemployment until I was 62 and could draw my SS.

I had to draw out my 401K to purchase high speed copiers and other equipment. The best part is that I work at home and have a dedicated office/work place and can take some expenses off of my income tax each year. My brother is gone now, but I still have my small “home” business. It nets about $10,000 each year. Combined with SS that is only about $18,000 per year to live on and some years it’s even less.

Monthly expenses come to just over $1300 per month including thithes, travel expenses and food. I need to rebuild an emergency fund since it was all used for repairs after a major hurricane.

It seems really hard to build that fund and not having savings of any kind to fall back on has given me a lot of stress. I’m now 69 years old, still working at my business and growing food in a container garden to help cut costs. I would be open to any advice you can give me.

Did I mention that I’m one of the most frugal persons I know? I know there must be room for improvement – I just don’t know where that could be. Please help me.
– Alice

The problem here isn’t whether you’re really frugal or not. It’s simply numbers. You have $18,000 a year in income. That equates to $1,500 a month. You’re spending over $1,300 a month in required things. That gives you under $200 a month in breathing room.

That’s simply not enough to build up much of an emergency fund. You’re likely going to have unexpected expenses almost every month that eat through that money.

In subsequent emails, you mentioned a desire to set up an online business. For an online business to earn money relative to the time invested, you have to invest a lot of time in it. There are no online businesses that you can start today, invest 20 hours this week, and start earning significant money.

My suggestion would be to start hitting your public library to see what’s available in that area. If you just wish to start earning a little bit, I would try services where you can earn a little bit from very simple tasks that you can walk away from at any time, like Mechanical Turk. In the very short term – say, the first 40 hours, they’ll earn better than an online business of any kind would. However, over the long term, the business will win out if it’s managed with any level of competency.

Your frugality isn’t the concern here. You need to earn more.

I work for a publicly owned blue chip. I don’t expect a lay off at this point any more than I expect the Spanish Inquisition. I make about $50k/yr. I’ve got about $207k in mortgage debt at about 4.5%. That mortgage is a 5/1ARM, can adjust 1% at a time, and 5% total (so in 9.5 years it could be 9.5% until it’s all payed off). My mortgage insurance will be gone in just about 4.5 years and is basically equal to that first 1% upward adjustment that happens in (basically) the same time frame. I have virtually no other debt (I might carry about $100 on my credit card, but my minimum payment has never been >$0). I’ve got almost 6 months of emergency fund. I have started investing in lending club, and vastly prefer this to stock market, save lack of liquidity (although maybe I’m fooling my self about that). Oh, yeah, and I am going back to school on the GI bill in the fall, and have to find another job with more flexible hours before then.

The question: How big should my emergency fund be? Why (not why have one, but why that size and not twice the size or half the size)?
– Eric

This phrase raises alarm bells: “I don’t expect a lay off at this point any more than I expect the Spanish Inquisition,” followed by “I am going back to school on the GI bill in the fall, and have to find another job with more flexible hours before then.”

That means that you’re going to not be working at that job in six months, period. In fact, you’d arguably be better off if they fired you or laid you off, because then you could collect unemployment insurance.

Given that you’re going to be leaping for another job in six months, I would be searching now, not later. I would also have that emergency fund as fat as I could possibly get it while keeping the minimum payments on my bills.

There is no guarantee that you will find a good paying job with flexible hours in six months. You might find yourself in a long job search at that point, and you might end up working at something that doesn’t pay well at all in the interim. That’s when the big emergency fund comes in handy.

If you do find a job, great. There’s no reason at all you can’t just roll some of your emergency fund (the excess saved) right into your mortgage at that point.

I’ve toyed with a few career ideas and have concluded that writing, or something related to the humanities, is ultimately what I want to do. With that in mind, I’ve recently gotten a position as a blogger at a website for women like and a little older than me, starting up in the work force and all the pressures that come with being a modern woman. I’ve never blogged before. I suppose my question is:

What makes a good blog?
– Emily

Three things: a consistent outlook and focus on a topic, a consistent writing style, and a consistent posting schedule. Consistency, consistency, consistency.

I think the consistent posting schedule is the most important thing of all. Ideally, you want your blog to be part of a person’s daily routine. To do that, you need to consistently have new content for them when they visit each day – or at least three or four times a week, like clockwork.

A consistent writing perspective is also important. By that, I mean that you don’t flop from positive to negative on a certain idea on a regular basis without a well-considered reason (and expect flames when you do it, anyway). You also don’t want to stray too widely from your overall topic area – a bit of straying is good because it illustrates you as a person, but it does need to consistently tie together in some fashion.

Also, figure out which aspects of your life you’re willing to discuss openly and which ones you’re not. I am very open with my life, but there are a few issues that I’m not willing to discuss publicly, mostly because they would negatively impact people that are close to me. This has actually been a difficulty a few times, because those elements have been key in a few choices I’ve made and when I’ve discussed those choices on here, I haven’t been able to give a full reason for them. Readers have flamed me hard for this in the past.

A final note: get a tough skin. If your site gets popular, you will be sent largely-anonymous attacks against you for virtually everything you can imagine – and many things you can’t yet imagine. You simply have to ignore most of it or you wouldn’t be able to continue running a popular site. Just view it as angry people out there looking for a way to vent and don’t let it bother you.

I’m 26, married, and expecting a child in October.

My Debts:
$390k @ 5.5% mortgage
$15k @ 4.9% car payment
$13k @ 4% education loan
$25k @ 3.3% education loan

I have a well-stocked emergency fund already in place and I’d like to start minimizing my monthly payments on other debt. Generally, I would agree the best approach would be to pay down the mortgage since it has the highest interest rate. However, I only plan to be in this house another 3-5 years. When I move, I’ll be moving to an area with a much lower cost of living (and also lower pay). I hope to use proceeds from the sale of my current home to buy a small home with cash in the new area. Since I won’t be staying in this house long enough to truly realize the benefits of extra payments on my mortgage, does it make sense to instead try to clear the other 3 debts so that when I move, I will be completely debt-free?
– Chloe

No, I don’t think it does.

First of all, this argument is banking on the housing market being consistent and increasing in value. Those days are over. I wouldn’t bet on any housing market being easily predictable for the near future.

Second, you can pay off the other debts with the proceeds from your house sale – or at least pay off the highest interest ones.

I would make the minimum payments on the three small debts and make the biggest payment possible on the big debt with the highest interest rate. This will give you the best shot at debt freedom when you sell your house, because you can take the proceeds and pay off the remaining debts. Paying the higher interest ones down now means you’ll have the lowest possible balance across all the debts in a few years when you sell the house.

My husband just started a state job (entry level–just over $40k) that really only has a couple positions above it that he could work his way up to. At the same time that we applied for jobs, we also felt we should apply for PhD’s. He’s in at 2 of the top schools in his field (epidemiology) and has interviewed at two more. None of the schools is ranked below No. 7 in the Nation, so we know he’ll get a great education if we go. The trouble is, he’s about to finish his master’s in public health and has this new job that pays enough to support us in our frugal lifestyle. We have about $8500 of student loan debt left, but we’ve been paying $700 a month for about a year and we know we can knock the rest of that out and be completely debt free in a year if he doesn’t go back to school. If he does, the rest of our debt will defer interest while he’s in school, but I know we won’t be able to get it all paid off (we’ve got some money in savings that could knock it in half, but we hate to lose our savings if we can defer).

Our parents are giving us a hard time about leaving this job in August to go back to school, especially since even with a great grant, we’ll probably need to take some small loans (about $10, per year for 4 years) since we just had our first child and expect one or two more to arrive before he graduates. Everything I’ve seen says that with the PhD he’ll make $60-80k though I’m not sure that’s straight off and he’ll probably want to do a post-doc.

Do you think our parents are right and we should just stick to being grateful my husband has a good enough job that I can quit mine and stay home with the kids? Our gut says that he’ll be happier and we’ll make more in the long run if we leave the job and continue with school. I guess I’m just wondering if there are parts of this decision we haven’t looked at but that will jump right out to you.
– Jennifer

I find it strange that in this discussion you’re ignoring which career your husband would find the most personally fulfilling. That, to me, would be the first question I would ask.

Would he be genuinely happy with his state job? I don’t know the answer to that – in fact, only he probably does. If he would be, I’d probably stick with that job.

If he’d rather have the challenges of chasing the Ph. D. , that’s what he wants to go for.

Life is not about just money, and it sounds like he has two very divergent career options here and you have a lifestyle that can make either one of them work. I would focus more on putting pieces in place for a career that will be fulfilling.

Do you think there would be any problems with going to some local businesses and asking them if they would like to participate in some simple and inexpensive advertising and then have them pay 10 or 15 dollars to have a copy of their business card or a simply designed ad put on a flyer that would be passed out to several local businesses for people to take? I figure that there would have to be some catch like having an article of interest or some type of editorial on each one to get people’s attention. This could be done once a month. If I get just ten people to sign up, then I can probably make about 50 to 75 dollars extra a month by doing this. Where I am located, there are plenty of little restaurants and automotive repair shops and other little out-of-the-way businesses that could probably use the exposure.
– Rhett

I don’t think there would be any problem whatsoever with that. However, I don’t know how much buy-in you’ll get on it. Another concern is that you’ll have to be very careful with the writing you choose, because that writing will somewhat reflect on the businesses represented there.

My suggestion would be to figure out what kind of column you would write, write several samples of it, and take them with you. A movie review might be appropriate, for an example.

You might also want to make a few finished copies of what the flyer would look like, with bogus business cards in place. That way, they can actually see what you’re talking about.

Good luck!

Got any questions? Leave them in the comments and I’ll try to answer them in a future Reader Mailbag. Shorter questions are more likely to receive an answer.

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  1. Vicky says:


    :( I’m so sorry about your cat.

    I recently lost my beloved pet ferret one month short of his sixth birthday to cancer.

    We did EVERYTHING we could. Surgery, medication, chemo… nothing. He only made it 6 months past his diagnosis, until he was no longer having any quality of life and had to be euthanized.

    I spent about $8000 on him.

    I am STILL paying for that debt, and it has made a huge impact on how I’ve been dealing with his loss – not only did I lose him, but now I have a mountain of debt.

    So here’s my advice. If you KNOW the cat can’t be cured, and you’re only buying time… don’t go too far into debt for him. Keep him comfortable, happy, and love him as much as you can, and make sure his passing is as painless as can be.

    10 years is a good long life for a cat, especially one who had a home as wonderful as yours.

  2. Sharon says:

    I have to reply to Sarah. I’ve been in a similar situation. I spent over $1000 on my cat, who had heart disease. When she finally died (at my home), I was so devastated that I had to call my parents to come help me, even thoufh I was in my 30’s. But in retrospect, for me, it was not a good decision to spend all that money b/c she lived only a short time longer.

    Sarah, please don’t feel like a bad cat owner if you choose not to pursue treatment! It is clear you love your cat, you’ve thought a lot about this, and you are trying to make the right decision.

    This may seem hard-hearted, but do you think you’d eventually want to get another cat? If so, then by forgoing your current cat’s treatment (for which the odds of success are fairly low) you could save another cat very soon from being euthanized by adopting it from a shelter. Or, if you don’t want another cat, perhaps it might help you feel better if you made a small monetary contribution to a shelter. I know it wouldn’t benefit your beloved cat, but a contribution in a smaller amount might even save the lives of several kitties.

  3. deb says:

    About Smarty Pig. I was ready to move a sizable sum over to them when I found out they have no right of survivorship on their accounts. In that case it would be a legal mess to get the money out. If this is not correct, I’d love to know, but please, be careful.

  4. Jules says:

    @ Sarah

    There are a lot of online support groups to help people through with making the decision to euthanize their pets. It isn’t “silly” and it’s not “just a cat”. You loved it, and it loved you back. Don’t let what others say make you feel guilty about whatever decision you do make–only you know what’s right for you cat.

  5. Nicole says:

    Epidemiology is a crazily cut-throat field. It’s not a happy collaborative place to be. People steal each other’s work, don’t take each other’s post-docs and in general compete more than they support. I know people who have dropped out of the academic PhD market in epidemiology for those reasons.

    Why is he getting the PhD? Does he want it to be a professor or to get more salary in a non-academic job? Know that if he chooses the academic job then you will most likely have to move across the country, possibly to an area that you may have zero interest in living. As a professor you generally do not get to choose where to live. Graduate school is tough and stressful and hard both on self-esteem and the pocketbook. Afterwords, the tenure track is only marginally better. Think really hard about the WHY on the PhD before embarking on it. It’s a lot of pain just to be able to teach in a specific job. It may be worth it, but it also may not. Go into it with eyes fully open so there are no surprises.

    Also, what do YOU want to do? I wouldn’t worry about the money if he’s getting a stipend for most of it. You could easily pick up a p/t job while he stays at home with the kids if you needed to– graduate school is pretty flexible time-wise. But if he does want to be a professor, you may have committed yourself to the life of a trailing spouse. Is that ok for your plans and your ambitions?

  6. Crystal says:

    I’m so sorry about your cat. My husband and I had to make a similar decision about our Black Lab. She was only 3 years old, but she was diagnosed with bone cancer. The treatments would have been $5,000-$10,000 and the success rate was less than 20%. We kept her as happy and pain free as possible until she woke up one day and was unable to walk. It was a hard decision, but I think it was the correct one.

    We have since adopted a Pug from PugHearts: Houston Pug Rescue. He was 6 years old and being mistreated in his previous home. Now he’s a happy Pug that gets tons of attention along with our 12 year old Dachshund mutt we adopted from the HSPCA (before our Lab…our mutt is always the healthiest).

    I don’t think choosing to keep your cat comfortable until it’s her time is a bad/wrong/mean decision…it’s logical and probably the best way to go for your cat too. Again, I’m so sorry.

    My husband and I live full lives on $78,000 a year. We live on about half of that and save the rest for early retirement and financial opportunities. We do not plan on having kids, but obviously you could afford to if you wanted.

    I understand feeling inadequate due to parents. My parents wish I’d make more than $35,000 a year or find a job with even better benefits, but I’m happy where I am since it’s low stress and stops at 40 hours a week. It’s just about priorities…yours and your parents are probably a little different. I’ll tell you as soon as I stop trying to get my parents approval…

    We would probably split the refund. Use half to pay down the mortgage and the other half to fund one or two projects you were going to do anyway. By doing that you will have got the return on your money from your APR and be able to see a difference in your house (I’d pick refinishing the floor since I’d be living on the floor everyday and don’t see the driveway as much).

    Anyone have any problems with Smarty Pig? I’m interested but would like to see if anyone has any criticisms first. I’ve been a happy customer with ING since the end of 2005 and have just heard about Smarty Pig…

    I would agree with Trent if you were definitely staying in the house for at least 5 years…but if you are moving in as soon as 3 years, I’d pay off the other three debts first for the same reason you brought up. You can move and be debt free except for a mortgage, plus you can make much larger payments once your other three debts are gone (snowball effect into your current or future mortgage). I am not a financial guru, so this is just a layman opinion.

    I agree that you have done the best you can with the money you have. I’d try getting a part-time job somewhere that interests me (book stores, etc) or resell garage sale finds on Ebay or Craigslist. The part-time job idea would be my favorite since the pay would be more consistent. Good luck!

    Based on all the info…ARM mortgage, leaving your job to go back to school, investing with Lending Tree (which is not bad, but is a risk), I’d build up the biggest cash reserve I could. Live cheap and save the rest. Good luck to you too!

  7. Kacie says:

    To Chloe — You said you wanted to reduce your payments and ultimately pay down your debt.

    Even if it makes financial sense to put it all toward your mortgage, what if you made an effort to pay off just one of your debts before putting the rest toward your mortgage?

    What’s your payment on your car? Or on one of your student loans?

    Pay it off, and then you have that amount of money to put toward other goals.

    You will never pay off your mortgage while living in that house (since you plan on moving well before that would happen).

    BUT you can probably pay off one of the other debts in that time. You’ll enjoy quite a bit of satisfaction for that accomplishment and maybe you’ll be even more inspired to pay off your other small debts.

    In addition, eliminating your monthly payments is a good security net in case you have a financial emergency. You’d need less money to live on.

  8. ben says:

    With the mortgage interest deduction, your effective mortgage rate is probably more like 4% (Assuming you are in a 28% tax brackets, which I am guessing based on the cost of your house)

    Are the education loans with the government or private company? Education loans are not bankrupt-able, so they have more risk for you.

    For minimizing interest payments, pay of the car loan first. I would pay off the 4% education loan second, even if its effective rate is less than your effective mortgage rate.

  9. almost there says:

    RE: Smartypig. I transfered the bulk of my savings to them after Trent did an article about them. It pays 2% APY last I checked which is better than the .39% I can get at my CU. I have had no problem transfering money in and out. Just that when your savings goal is met you can choose to keep the funds in and not liquidate them. You can’t take out just a little, I found out. You have to liquidate all the funds and then start over. Kind of a hassle, but worth the interest. I have found it is a good place to put funds that you won’t be using for a long time. I understand that I could’nt have a joint account and if I were to die my spouse would have to prove via a will that she had the rights to the funds. Not being a Bill Gates type I don’t see this as too large a problem.

  10. Michele says:

    Sarah- so sorry about your cat. My husband and I have had to face the same decision twice- once with our GSD who was only 4 years old and developed lymphoma. She lived 6 weeks- our vet advised us that the huge amount of money we would have to spend ‘might’ buy her a painful 6 months. With our 10 year old Yorkie- our vet new vet(new city & state) was not as up front with us and kept encouraging us to do this test, that new food, this new procedure, that bloodwork, after 6 weeks of daily suffering, much missed work and literally $2000 worth of vet visits- we finally let him go to sleep- and our vet was still encouraging us to ‘wait’. Needless to say, that’s not our vet anymore.
    Rhett- check your local laws. We had some guy come to our downtown Church and offered to do some ‘advertising’ like you have suggested…as it turned out, he was a scam artist, but I also found out from the Department of Justice for our state (Oregon) that any advertising for non-profits must be vetted and approved through DOJ. Just a thought.

  11. sarah says:

    I’m with Kacie and Ben on advice to Chloe – if you’re looking to minimize payments (as you state)and thus gain short term flexibility, you are better off completely paying off one of the smaller loans.

  12. Robin says:

    Sarah, I am so sorry about your cat. A few years ago my cat was diagnosed with a tumor (caused by vaccinations) and I paid about $1200 to have it surgically removed. I was able to have her for another year or so before it returned, but looking back, I would never put an animal through that again. I felt that she suffered with the treatment, and had I known the extent of what the surgery would involve I never would have done it.

    I am an animal lover, and my pets are my “babies”, so I understand where you are coming from. What became so difficult for me in the process is that there is no way to explain to an animal that this is “for their own good”. Did my cat understand that the surgery was treatment and not mistreatment? All she know is that she had pain (even with the drugs).

    That experience has changed how I will consider end of life care for the rest of my pets. My focus will be on providing comfort and love.

    I wish you the best in this difficult situation

  13. Matt says:

    I agree with Post #8 from Ben, about Chloe. Those mortgage interest deductions makes paying off the next highest rate debt first. If you were at 6.5% on your home loan or higher, then I’d have said to keep going with that. Use your tax returns of your tax deducted home interest to pay off your other debts :)

  14. Gretchen says:

    “we also felt we should apply for PhD’s.”
    I want a little more detail on this one as to why. Just because you can? You think you should?

    I’m sorry about Sarah’s cat and would tend to agree with the post above mine that once the animal is in pain/no longer enjoying life, it’s time to let them go. :(

  15. Debbie M says:

    @Monica – You two are already making 80K total or an average of 40K each? At age 47, I am making only 42K and am quite comfortable. But it depends how you are living. I also suspect you could feel quite comfortable and have your parents not believe it! In your position, I’d try to save a lot of money toward retirement and a lot of other money either for a big emergency fund (say, if he loses his job after you’re already at home with four kids) or to earn a little extra income from or both.

    @Sarah – Others have said better what I want to say. You giving up on your cat is not what’s happening. Cancer is what’s happening, and it’s deadly, and you didn’t give it to her. At least you get some time to say good-bye.

    @Doug – it also depends how much return you expect to get on your investment. If those final repairs would bring your house closer to the standard of your neighbor’s houses, it might be a good idea. But if your house is already at or above that level, you won’t get much more from those updates. A real estate agent could probably give you good advice on this. Otherwise, I’d put it all toward principal and/or retirement savings unless some of those changes would significantly improve your quality of life.

    @Chloe – you say “I won’t be staying in this house long enough to truly realize the benefits of extra payments on my mortgage,” but you will. No matter how much you sell your house for, you will have to pay off the remainder of your loan with the proceeds. Paying extra principal toward your mortgage will reduce the remainder you have to pay off. That will leave you with extra money to pay toward your lower-interest loans later.

    @Ben and Chloe – to see how much you’re really paying, look at a tax return. If you are not itemizing, you’re paying the whole 5.5%. If you are itemizing, you are only saving taxes on the amount beyond the standard deduction. That amount is probably not your entire interest payment.

  16. Nicole says:

    p.s. on the Phd thing… most graduate schools will let you defer for a year if you want to wait a year before starting.

  17. spaces says:

    Who is the ‘we’ getting a PhD? Both enrolled? Or is that a royal ‘we’?

    Having had a child while my spouse was finishing a PhD, I would not wish that on my worst enemy. Its not like undergrad. Its not like a masters. Getting a PhD is far FAR harder and more time consuming. I would not plan on having a child during that time, let alone more than one!

  18. Carrie says:


    Sarah – I am so sorry about your cat. Six months ago, my UK pet insurance company, my husband and I spent a fortune trying to figure out what was wrong and save my miniature schnauzer but to no avail. In retrospect, I hate all the pain and procedures he went through, and the vets (many were working on this case) and my husband and I were devastated. My husband thought since we could afford it, we had to try our best (or he would not forgive himeself). However, if I knew my pet would suffer through procedures with a low probability of success, I would not do it.I wish I could have comforted my pet at home for as long as possible and then euthanized him (as I had to do anyway) when it was time. The money we spent and that you are contemplating spending can help a lot of animals. You have a tough personal decision to make that no one else can make better than you. My thoughts are with you and I wish you all the best.

  19. Leah says:

    to Alice, I’d find some other way to make money. Is it possible to get a part-time job somewhere, even at minimum wage? Would that take too much time from your business?

    If anything, I definitely wouldn’t recommend Mechanical Turk as a money-making strategy. I’m not sure if Trent has ever signed up there, but I have. I make very little per hour. I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can get $1-2 in about 30 or 40 minutes on transcribing, and those are the best hits I’ve reliably found. The tasks there are quite poorly paid. I have $50 built up, and it’s nice to know that I can splurge on something at Amazon, but I would never depend on MechTurk to pay my bills. There are some Turkers that make big money, but it takes A LOT of time, patience, and willingness to do some really annoying or stupid tasks.

  20. Jenny says:

    To Sarah –

    As you’ve said that the treatment for your cat is expensive and painful, of course you don’t want to put your cat through any pain and suffering, especially if there is only a small chance that it would help her in the long run. As someone who has spent a lot of money on a cat with kidney disease, I still had to make the hardest decision at the end when nothing helped and she was miserable.

    I think you should give her whatever treatments will help her live comfortably, and when she’s not comfortable anymore, you will know that you have, in fact, done all you could for her.

    Don’t forget to take care of yourself at this difficult time – I wish you strength.

  21. Michelle says:

    @ Sarah

    My pets are my babies, too. We lost both of our dogs last year, two months apart, and in exactly your situation, one chronic illness and one cancer diagnosis. It was an incredibly difficult time for us. You have my condolences; I know you must be reeling.

    Six years ago, my first dog was diagnosed with lymphoma and she started chemo. The first treatment left her feeling so ill she couldn’t climb the stairs that night to sleep with us in the bedroom. She spent the night downstairs, alone and suffering. After that, I canceled the rest of the appointments. I couldn’t justify putting her through a series of treatments, just so I could have a little more time with her. It seemed, actually, to be incredibly selfish. When one of our dogs was diagnosed with bone cancer last year, it was a no brainer for us. We would keep him as comfortable as possible at home (lots of pain meds involved), where he felt safe and loved until it was time for him to go.

    If it were me, I’d do anything necessary to keep her comfortable; now that you have a diagnosis your cat probably doesn’t have to go with you to the vet, to minimize her stress. After that, I’d take some of the money I would have spent on treatments and buy or make her favorite treats and toys, and I’d spend the time I would have spent going to the vet playing, cuddling, and just being with her.

    In my opinion, choosing not to aggressively “treat” her cancer isn’t giving up on her. I believe choosing to not put her through a series of stressful and possibly painful tests and treatments so you can have a few more months with her is the ultimate act of caring. It puts her physical and emotional comfort above your need to keep her with you as long as possible.

    I believe that we don’t show our pets how much we love them through the amount of money we spend on them but in the quality of time we spend with them. I, a stranger, can tell how much you love her even through the impersonal medium of the internet. So believe me, she has never doubted how much you love her.

  22. Austin says:

    In regards to Monica’s parents saying 80k isn’t enough to live on:

    It’s disappointing when parents sound the alarm on their child’s lives for no good reason. Monica seems happy with her life and her only reason for writing in was because her parents put fear in her mind.

    If they were making a combined $50,000 I would understand, but life is more than a 6 figure salary. I wish her parents could see past that.

    Austin @ Foreigner’s Finances

  23. Devon T. says:

    To the newly married homeowners;
    I find your response unsatisfying and feel impulsed to add to it.
    You are in a great situation! And I agree that weighing the amount of interest you’d save on spending extra on the principal is wise, but not wise enough. Assuming you have a 30-yr mortgage, an extra payment in principal would, i think in most cases, only save you 3-5 years of payments. When you plan to own the house for 5-10 years, paying down principal is pointless.
    It would be even better to have a home maintenance fund. You are new owners, and still getting acquainted with your new home. I believe you should save it in case you discover that you need a new roof, or you need new windows to help with insulation, …key and essential elements that are big expenses where having $13k beforehand comes in handy.
    So, home maintenance fund.

  24. Brittany says:

    Anyone else getting irritated by these reader mailbags that are solely excessively long explanations leading to the question “What should I personally do in my very particular situation?” followed by a generic response that the questioner could easily inferred that Trent would answer by spending ten minutes reading his site? The reader’s mailbag used to be one of my favorite articles, but the last several have been awful and repetitive.

  25. Megan says:

    To the couple in Atlanta making a combined salary of $80k/year: This is an excellent income for your area. My family of four lives on one income of $45k/year in an area that has a much higher cost of living than Atlanta. We are frugal, and we manage to put hundreds in savings each month. If you are frugal and make a good financial plan for the next five years, you could own a home (no mortgage), be debt-free in other respects, and have a substantial amount socked away for retirement before you even have children. I understand that it is the job of all parents to be concerned, but your parents’ concerns here are unfounded. What is important is that you live in a way that works for you, in spite of the pressure you may feel to spend more from those who love you. It will be a few years before we can live on two incomes–take it from someone who’s been there, done that, doesn’t want the tshirt: you have a golden opportunity to build wealth for the rest of your lives right now, before you have kids. Appreciate this opportunity and take full advantage of it!

  26. Charles Cohn says:


    With an income as low as yours, you have no business tithing. It’s a total waste; you get no benefit from it.

  27. Geoff Hart says:

    Jennifer noted: “My husband just started a state job (entry level–just over $40k) that really only has a couple positions above it that he could work his way up to.”

    Vertical is never the only way to go. Government jobs are often wonderful springboards for a satisfying career because of “lateral” transfers: you don’t move up for a promotion, but instead move sideways to a more interesting part of the government that provides more room to rise. It’s kind of like climbing a mountain: when you can’t go up, you go sideways until you can resume climbing. This is true of other forms of employment too, but the pathways aren’t always so obvious.

    Second, beware the Peter principle (i.e., that if you insist on climbing obsessively, you’ll eventually reach the level of your incompetence). Sometimes it’s wiser (and almost always, more satisfying) to aim for a position you’ll cherish for the rest of your career, or at least for many years. For some, the only thing that matters is the climbing, but for most of us, long-term career satisfaction is more important.

    If school is important to you, but you recognize the importance of wanting to keep your kids fed, investigate what kinds of educational programs your employers offer. Governments are often eager to fund their employees’ education; a typical deal is that they’ll pay for you to complete your degree part-time, while you continue working for them, in exchange for a commitment to stay with them for a few years after you graduate so they can recoup their investment in your education. (Businesses sometimes do this too.) You can also “stagger” your education: one of you works while the other educates, then you switch roles.

    The biggest warning sign is that you have a child and want more kids. Children take more time and energy than you can possibly imagine, and so does a PhD. Few people have the energy to do both at the same time. It may be wiser to work for a few years until the kids are in school, and then start thinking about continuing your education when they need less of your time than they do as pre-schoolers. Another point to consider is that $1000 saved now will be worth far more than $1000 saved in 6+ years when the kids are in school. So working now lets you put aside money for yourselves and for them that will grow for 6 years, at which point you may be able to (temporarily) stop adding more money while you go to school. If you go to school now, you probably can’t afford that investment.

  28. Christina says:

    Hello, I live in Canada and I am looking into ways to boost my income. Can you recommend any websites that promote legitimate work at home opportunities, websites for bloggers (who want to be professional), or any other reasonable possibilities?

    Thanks! I really enjoy your newsletter and I especially enjoy hearing your response to the reader mailbag.

  29. mellen says:

    to Jennifer, I agree with Trent that the first question should be what would be the most fulfilling but I would add that as a family, they need to determine what would be the smartest move for them as a unit. I imagine Trent avoided making comments on your plans to have 2 more children while your husband is in school because he doesn’t want to tread on another person’s family planning but I have no such qualms. Going back to school, if that would make your husband happy, would be a great thing to encourage but make the hard choice and put off having 2 more children until he’s done and HAS the good job. Otherwise you are doing your first child a huge disservice and making your lives unneccesarily hard. Don’t have more children than you can afford to pay for NOW because you don’t know what the future holds and you have to think about the child you have and do what’s best for him/her.

  30. Kathryn says:

    This is partly in reply to the 69 yr old person who has a home based business – I’ve just recently heard of call center businesses that hire people to work from home, taking incoming calls and doing customer service type of work. Some of it is short term contract work. Supposedly, the hours are flexible and the money is okay. The starting pay is often low but after building experience, you can ask for and get, more money. What do you think of this way to earn money part time?

  31. michael bash says:

    About sick cats (pets). My son found his dog (wonderful well-trained Husky) poisoned; we’ve had many cats. I have no problems with animals except one rooster who liked to crow at 5:30 am outside my door and roost and shit on the hood of my car. But it’s a pet – I have to say – and I don’t think this person or anybody should impoverish themselves to prolong the life of a pet. When I was a kid 55 years ago the phrase was “put Amber to sleep”. Still remember Amber, but at the time it was put her to sleep.

  32. @Sarah – everyone above has said it so well. My thoughts are with you, and I agree that making your cat comfortable in the end and then using some of the money (provided it doesn’t become debt) you would have earmarked for treatment to either rescue another cat or donate to an animal organization would be a great memorial to your cat.

    @Alice – As a fellow business owner and someone who isn’t collecting anything but what the business makes us, I think Trent is right. It’s painful sometimes, when you spend energy and money on a venture and then it doesn’t realize the kind of return you want. People in general tend to be more emotional about their businesses than rational. If you are truly running the business as well as you can, meaning you invoice on-time, you don’t like folks sweet-talk you into discounts or even worse ‘favors’ for fellow church members, etc. (since you say you tithe) If you are spending what time you have working that business, advertising, networking, etc. and it’s only bringing you a ‘part-time’ income, then you may not even keep that much if you do work somewhere else. So I would sit back and evaluate the business structure you have, and then move forward to possibly even finding other employment entirely, if necessary. I also have to agree with the poster who chided you for tithing on your income. I know it feels ‘right’ for many people, but remember you can’t buy your way into Heaven! :-) If your church only does automatic deductions, as many do I hear, then perhaps you should evaluate if they are looking to fuel your spiritual needs or their own pockets.

  33. SoCalGal says:

    I am so sorry that your cat is sick. I have had animals all of my 46 years and it is hard to see them sick & make medical decisions for them. Remember, they have no voice & are depending on you to help them through their final days. I have had vets that misdiagnosed my animals & others that were wonderful and compassionate. Listen to your heart & take whatever time you have left with your friend as a gift. I would work to make every day special and filled with love and comfort. Find a vet that supports you during this difficult time. And take care of each other too.

  34. Mel says:

    @Sarah – I agree with the others. A year ago, my cat was diagnosed with cancer. I live on the other side of the world, my sister was looking after my cat. There were 2 options: spend $$$ on keeping her alive for the 6 months before I got back, or spare her the pain and put her to sleep. Even knowing I would never have a chance to say goodbye, putting her to sleep was absolutely the right decision.

    As someone else said, you’re not giving up on her. Wishing you strength for whatever you decide to do.

  35. jim says:

    re: Chloe,

    I think it would be just fine if Chloe paid down the car loan first. There is only a 0.6% difference between the two. The mortgage is tax deductible and the car loan is not. That will likely make the car loan more expensive overall if she itemizes. Knocking off the car loan first would free give her hundreds of extra monthly cash flow. The house loan is very illiquid so pumping more money into that won’t do much until she sells and it won’t stop a foreclosure if she gets in trouble either. Having no car payment to worry about would be good if she got laid off or something.

  36. jim says:

    Monica: your salary is above average and should be ‘comfortable’ for a young couple. Especially in the South.

  37. Ruth says:

    @Debbie M, Ben, & Chloe:

    Depending on what state you live in, you most likely WILL see the entire interest deduction coming off of your tax return. The standard deduction is the amount most people could deduct by itemizing. It seems high because a lot of people who typically just use the standard deduction don’t realize that they can deduct their state income or sales tax. Typically state taxes come out to be about the same as the standard deduction, so your home loan interest would be on top of that.

  38. Beth says:

    Those natives weren’t expecting the Spanish Inquisition either. The thing about the unexpected is that it is never expected.

  39. Sam says:


    She’s not “just a cat”.

    I have cat who is 12 – 13 on June 6th.
    I delivered her. When I say delivered her I mean she took her first breath in my hand. I have kids now however, she is “my oldest daughter who will never go to college”. I adore her & cannot fathom my days without her. She & I have been through so much together & we’ve come out of it on top. Needless to say, she is very well mannered & such too.
    She has been loosing weight for over a year & having various problems. I know something is wrong. I’m 90% sure it is cancer given symptoms displayed & the vet agrees. I used to be a vet tech & I know despite road bumps she & I have weathered together, she’s had an excellent life compared to most. The average “pet” in the US has three owners in the course of their life & she has always had the same loving home. There’s no way I can possibly afford the treatment with my current medical issues & some things my kids have going on. And I agree with you, I haven’t seen cancer treatment buy most cats more then a year or so & that’s a year or so filled with pain & trauma (over the procedures). I’ve been doing some holistic stuff with my girl with mixed results.

    When it gets to the point she’s in pain & can’t get comfortable in any way then, out of love I will take her to the vet (and be balling the entire time). I have no regrets because I know I’ve done all I reasonably can.
    For now she is comfortable & purring on her own pillow on the couch until I go to bed at night & then she curls up next to my pillow with her paw on my cheek. I have to lift her if she needs to get above 3ft but that’s the least I can do for her.
    You just got to love them while you have them.

    I know exactly where your coming from & y’all will be in my thoughts & prayers.

  40. sewingirl says:

    I think that you missed the boat for the gal who wanted to pay off debts, even tho her mortgage was the highest interest rate. You advised her to continue to pay extra on the mortgage, and use the proceeds from the house sale to clear up the other debt. What if she can’t sell the house?? We all know home sales are non-existent in some areas. If those smaller debts were out of the way, it might give her more options if she has to short sell, or try to buy or rent in a new area, while waiting for the house to sell.

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