Reader Mailbag: Christmas Cards

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. Career and life dilemma
2. Christmas at home?
3. Child choosing risky career
4. Christmas frugal and thoughtful rules
5. Stocking stuffer games?
6. Spouse and retirement
7. Investment money concerns
8. Written letters
9. Best books of 2012?
10. Economic apocalypse

One of my favorite things to do each year is to send out personalized Christmas cards to my family and friends. The cards usually involve pictures of my family and a handwritten note inside.

Each year, though, Christmas sneaks up on us and surprises us. Usually, Thanksgiving is the impetus for that surprise. The arrival of the day of turkeys lets us know that, yes, Christmas is coming and we need to get on the ball.

Thus, one of my major side projects for this week is to prepare fifty seasonal cards or so, from the basic idea in my head to finished cards ready to drop in the mail.

Q1: Career and life dilemma
I have a career/life dilemma. I am 25 and currently employed at a job which as of late has not been too fulfilling. Due to some changes in the structure of the organization, my day-to-day work has changed to more mundane, menial tasks. My boss has even commented that I don’t seem happy when I am work (which I’m not). I have been searching for new employment since January, but have not been able to find anything. Part of the reason may be due to the fact that I am trying to transition into an IT related position, whereas my current position is retail based…no correlation whatsoever, even though my degree is in IT. I have even looked into trying to take an IT related internship, however, those seem to only be available if you are currently a student. I’m even willing to take a pay cut or relocate if need be. Recently, I have also learned that my position may be eliminated within the next 3-6 months which would leave me unemployed.

My options right now are to keep searching for new employment and just remain hopeful or go back to school for an MBA. I feel that this would allow me more opportunities in the types of jobs I can apply for while also making me eligible to apply for internship positions, however, I don’t want to take on the additional debt (from my research, it seems most MBA programs average around 20K).

I have started reaching out within my social network, however, nothing concrete has come to fruition.

I’m just looking for some advice on how to proceed with my situation. At this point, it feels like I’ve done everything I can and will never find a new position and end up unemployed some point down the line which I’m desperately trying to avoid.

Mortgage: 625/month (28 of 30 years remaining)
Auto Loan: 300/month (3 years remaining)
Student Loans: 215/month (40K balance)
Credit Card: 125/month (10K balance…will be payed off in 4 years at current pace)
Other bills: Groceries, utilities, water, internet (no cable TV), etc…
Savings: $1200 (contribute $50/month)
401K: 12K

– Pat

It sounds like you want an IT position. I’m not sure why you would go back to a school to get an MBA if you want to head into IT.

My suggestion to you is to step back and think about where you want to be with your life in, say, five years. What kind of job do you want to have? Is it an IT-heavy job? Is it a business or management position? What is it that you want?

When you figure that out, start taking whatever steps are necessary to head in that direction.

If you start taking steps now without having any real idea about where you want to be going, then you’re likely to make some really poor choices. You have a bit of a respite right now with the stability of your current job. Take advantage of it to figure out what comes next.

Q2: Christmas at home?
At what point did your family transition to having their Christmas mornings at home instead of going to your parents?

– Alvin

This is something we’re struggling with right now, mostly because Sarah and I are of two different minds on the subject. I think it’s time to start having family Christmases at our home and then visiting our parents the weekend before or the weekend after Christmas, while Sarah still prefers to visit parents for Christmas.

I don’t think there is a “right” time for this. It really comes down to what each person involved in that decision wants, and it’s natural that feelings on that issue are going to change over time.

The best plan, as always, is to just talk about it. Sometimes, there are perfect compromises that work well for everyone, but you can’t find them unless you are willing to talk about it.

Q3: Child choosing risky career
My son has made the decision to become a firefighter. He says the pay and benefits are really good, but I am very worried about his personal safety. I’m concerned he’s not making a fully informed decision about this. What kind of resources are there that can help?

– Susan

While you may be concerned about his safety, this isn’t a decision you can make for your son.

People who train to become firemen are made fully aware of the dangers and risks of their position. They’re not put into a situation blindly. They know what they’re getting into.

Some people thrive on that type of environment and excel when they’re faced with such situations. If your son believes that is within him, then he’s chosen a wise path for himself.

Q4: Christmas frugal and thoughtful rules
Over the years, my family has spent thousands of dollars on gifts that will eventually end up at a yard sale, donated to a thrift shop or in the dumpster. This year, I made the suggestion that if we were going to continue giving gifts at Christmas, it had to be:
1. Something you already own and know the other person would like or need
2. Something you make
3. Something you purchase at a thrift shop or yard sale – this is good for the pocketbook and good for the earth.

We made this agreement in June and we have been having so much fun. I have gifts for my family members from all three categories… shopping was done in early October! Two of my favorite examples:

1. My niece, a college student, loves the décor from the 60’s. While perusing a local thrift shop, I found a beautiful upholstered chair from the era for $12 – in absolutely perfect condition. Later, at another thrift shop, I found an end table that matches the chair perfectly – it was $4 (I need to do a little work on it but it’s wonderful)!

2. When my Grandmother passed away, I was given a plaque that my parents had purchased for her back in the early 70’s…..we kids remember when and where they bought it as we were all together on the way to see Grandma. My sister has always admired it – it’s a religious plaque of The Virgin Mary. I’ve decided to give it to her….and letting it go make me feel really good.

I have made a number of things this summer from my garden – canned tomatoes, hot&Spicy pickled carrots, pepper jelly and dried herbs. I recently made some lotion and chap stick/lip balms, bath salts etc. I’ve also sewn a couple quilts and will be making Pajama’s for my great-niece out of some fabric given to me from a friend. I now plan to make the vanilla you have posted on your site. I have a ton of jars and the cookies in the jar and soups are beautiful as well. Thanks for the extra inspiration.

I think this will be our best Christmas yet, and it’s not costing a fraction of what it has cost in the past.
– Karen

In my eyes, this is what Christmas is all about.

A family heirloom like that plaque will mean far more than anything you can buy in a store. That’s one of the most beautiful gift ideas I’ve heard of in a long while.

As for the chair, such a gift is a perfect example of the great things you can find if you open your eyes to such opportunities. You don’t see things like that if you’re committed to a Black Friday buying rush.

I predict you have one of the best Christmases you’ve had in a long time.

Q5: Stocking stuffer games?
Do you have any suggestions for great games that are perfect stocking stuffers? When we go to our in-laws, one of the traditions is that we each have a pretty big stocking hung up in the living room and then everyone sticks a stocking stuffer into everyone else’s stocking. I was thinking of including some interesting small games this year.

– Jean

There are a LOT of great games that work well for stocking stuffers. Here are four suggestions.

No Thanks! is a wonderful card game for three to five players. Each turn, you have a simple choice: take the card that’s sitting in the middle of the table (and all the chips on top of it) or put one of your chips on that card. The goal is to create “runs” of sequential cards, and the fewer runs you have, the better. It’s a wonderful quick game that’s a really interesting twist on rummy-style games.

Love Letter is a game with just sixteen cards, but it has a lot of careful bluffing and reading of other players. Each of the cards depicts a character (a palace guard, for instance) and a straightforward ability. You start with a card, then each turn you draw a card and play one on another player, which might cause that player to be eliminated if you made a good guess. At the end of each round (a round means all 16 cards are drawn), each player still alive earns a point, and you play to a certain number of points (five or so).

Coup is an amazing bluffing game that’s a lot like Love Letter, but more vicious. In this, you start with two cards that are face down in front of you, each of which depicts a certain role (such as assassin) and a straightforward ability associated with that role, and you also have a reference card listing all of the possible roles and what they can do (as well as three basic things anyone can do, such as taking a coin). On your turn, you can either do one of the basic actions or claim that one of your cards matches a role and do the special ability of that role – you do not have to reveal the card. If someone calls your bluff, they risk one of their two role cards to do so, and if you’re lying and can’t reveal the role you claimed, you lose one of your cards instead. The winner is the last person standing with a role card. This is incredibly fun if you have people who like to bluff.

Tichu is a partnership game that’s probably the closest to ordinary trick-taking games like hearts or pitch, except that you’re trying to complete sets a la rummy. It has a great bidding system and can entertain four people for a very long time.

Any of these four would make for a great stocking stuffer. Good luck!

Q6: Spouse and retirement
My wife and I both have great jobs. My 401(k) offers 100% matching up to 7% though and her retirement offers no matching. Also, my investment options are far better. Does it make sense for us to just max out on my 401(k) and leave hers empty?

– Ron

Assuming you stay married, this is a great plan. The problem will come if you two ever choose to divorce, which will make your 401(k) an issue in the divorce.

I generally don’t feel that it’s a good idea for all of a married couple’s retirement savings to be in the name of just one of the members of that couple. Again, it creates problems if divorce becomes an issue, and the only person that financially wins in that situation is the lawyer.

If your wife is okay with the inherent risks (meaning that her retirement savings would be somewhat in the hands of a judge should you divorce), then this is a solid plan.

Q7: Investment money concerns
My husband and I have about $30,000 in an investment account (comprised of a number of mutual funds) with a large financial firm. This firm charges a fee to manage this account and we’d like to either move the money to another account (perhaps to a lower fee online brokerage account) or apply it toward our mortgage or future college costs. A brief summary of our situation is this: we are in our later mid-30s, $180,000 mortgage no other debts, about $150,000 saved for retirement, $30,000 or so in emergency and other savings, and small 529s (about $4,000 and $8,000) for our two kids (ages 2 and 4). We add to our retirement and 529s on a monthly basis, but we are both in fairly low-paying fields, so we don’t have much extra money to save each month. We saved the money in the investment account when just out of college (and in higher paying, but less desirable fields) and we’ve always considered it “extra” that might someday be used for our retirement or toward college costs for our kids. What would you suggest we do with the funds from our investment account?

– Brianna

I would move it to another investment firm that doesn’t charge you a “fee” just to hold your money for you. I usually recommend Vanguard because I’ve been very happy with their service and performance over the years.

It sounds like your financial situation is pretty strong right now given your income, so I wouldn’t do anything else to rock the boat. I would simply hold onto this money (at another brokerage) until real need arises.

You’re doing fine, but I’m pretty sure there are better investment firms out there for you.

Q8: Written letters
My sister and I have started exchanging hand-written letters to each other. There’s something deeply personal and wonderful about receiving a hand-written letter in the mail. I also enjoy the time I spend writing it. It makes me think a bit about my life and decide what’s really important to write and what I think about things. Best of all it’s pretty much free – maybe a dime for the paper and forty five cents for the postage to send my sister something she’ll really enjoy, plus give me something enjoyable to do for an hour or so.

– Kelly

I am a huge fan of handwritten notes. There’s something deeply personal and wonderful about them that just can’t be captured with digital services.

For me, there’s just as much joy in the sending as there is in the receiving. As you mention, it can be really enjoyable to sit back and let your thoughts flow with your pen for an hour or so, and then it feels really good to pass that along to someone you care about.

The receiving is a lot of fun, too, as it makes you feel much more deeply connected to the person who spent the time and thought to send that note to you.

I love handwritten notes!

Q9: Best books of 2012?
What do you think are the best books of 2012? You’re an avid reader and I know you hit the library hard for new releases, so I’m interested in your take.

– Lauren

I gerenally don’t marry myself to the new releases. For one, they’re expensive if you buy them. For another, if you get them at the library, you can sometimes be on the waiting list for a new release for a long time.

Of the 2012 releases I’ve read, my favorite is J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, which I went into expecting not to like. I might have enjoyed it more because I’ve witnessed the unnecessary bitterness that can sometimes crop up in local politics, and I’ve also witnessed the incredibly poor choices people sometimes make in an effort to improve their situation without understanding what they really need to be doing. Much of the novel really struck home for me.

I have a few 2012 releases on my bookshelf as of yet.

My favorite novel that I read for the first time this year was The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, which absolutely tore me up as I read this tale of the first people on Earth who meet an extraterrestrial intelligent species and discover the pain of interacting with and interfering with an alien culture.

Q10: Economic apocalypse
What are your thoughts on the state of the economy and all the doom and gloom predictions about an economic collapse coming in 2012/2013. I’m nervous about the way things are in Europe and all this quantitative easing. Prices on everything are going up and unemployment is still up as well. Do you think harder times are coming? What would/are you doing to prepare? Getting out of debt is a great way and owning your own business etc. Just wondering what thoughts are on the situation…

– Sharon

First of all, I think it’s always a good idea to work toward debt freedom as well as moving toward financial diversification (owning some stocks, some bonds, some land, some foreign currency, etc.). There’s never a bad time to do that.

Given that, I don’t think there’s any particular pressing need to go to extreme measures to protect wealth in the current global situation. People have been proclaiming doom and gloom for the last five or six years and all that’s happened is a prolonged recession.

For the most part, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, and that’s true in almost every economic situation. Responses such as panic and hoarding only make the situation worse without really helping the hoarder much at all.

Got any questions? The best way to ask is to email me – trent at thesimpledollar dot com. 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 many, many questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

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