Updated on 04.01.11

Reader Mailbag: Conjunctivitis

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. Where to keep emergency funds?
2. Catching up on retirement savings
3. Negative items on credit report
4. Head over heels
5. Helping a child in trouble
6. Preparing for career switch
7. Renting in retirement
8. Disability and ethics
9. Student loan concerns
10. Swimming pools

I picked up a nasty case of conjunctivitis from one of my infant son’s friends. As I type this, my eyes itch terribly and one of them feels like there’s some grit in it.

Thankfully, I have an abundance of cold, wet washcloths. Every once in a while, I’ll go sit in a chair and hold them over my eyes for a while and this soothes the itching and grittiness – for a little while, anyway.

Q1: Where to keep emergency funds?
We have six months expenses as an emergency fund. “High yield” savings accounts are at about 1% these days. Money market accounts seem to be .05%. Do you have a recommendation for a good type of account for an emergency fund?

– Tracy

High yield savings accounts really are the place to keep emergency funds, because they’re the only place available to most people that have the factors needed to hold an emergency fund.

First, it must be liquid. You have to be able to pull your cash out at any time. This eliminates things like CDs and real estate.

Second, it must not put the balance at risk. Quite often, you need the money most when the markets are down. This eliminates things like stocks.

When you keep peeling things away like that, you’re eventually left with high-yield savings accounts and money market accounts. Unfortunately, the rates on them are poor right now, but that’s not the point. You just need a place that’s liquid and your balance is not at risk.

Tracy also had a second question worth discussing.

Q2: Catching up on retirement savings
Also, we are in our early 40s. I have almost 200,000 in 401ks, but my partner has about 80,000. We plan over the next five years to save most of her income to try to catch up. Do you have any other advice for us on how to get her retirement savings on track?

– Tracy

Maxing out your 401(k) contributions is one path, which it sounds like you’re following.

Another way to do it – one that I’d suggest doing, actually – is to open a Roth IRA. With a Roth IRA, you contribute after-tax money (which means it comes out of your take-home pay), but if you just leave it there until retirement, you don’t have to pay taxes on the money you’ve gained in that account.

Having some of your money in a Roth IRA and some in a 401(k) puts you in great shape with regards to taxes now and taxes later. Plus, you have the power to control your own investments if you use a Roth IRA (I invest through Vanguard in a Target Retirement fund).

Q3: Negative items on credit report
I pulled my credit report and found that there was one potentially ‘negative’ area – it looks like a credit card with Chase Bank was opened in 10/2005, and was closed at credit grantor’s request. The last report was Mar 2006, and it looks like there was marked a 60 days past due, with a ‘high balance’ of $125. This seems strange to me, only because I was living in Japan from 2004-2007, and was not in the US at this time to open an account with Chase.

Additionally, there are no charges listed, and it doesn’t look like this was used.

I’m wondering how this could have been opened in my name – I did not receive any credit card offers at my address in Japan. Should I dispute this? Does it matter?

I’m trying to build credit – I have 3 credit cards, with no late payments and I pay off the balance each month. I have never taken out a loan, however, so my only way to build credit is through credit cards.

I took the FICO score estimator and got a range of 720-770, which seems good, but it bothers me that a credit card went past due in my name when I was out of the country.
– Rachel

That seems rather unusual. Given that the card seems to have been used ethically, my first suspicion is that someone in your family opened the card for some reason, perhaps because their own credit was in a bad situation at the time.

It’s also possible that there was an error with the Social Security number at some point.

If the account is closed, I wouldn’t worry about it too much, although it is strange.

Q4: Head over heels
My boyfriend lives in Boston. I live in Los Angeles. We met on New Years weekend and since then one of us has flown to see the other almost every single weekend. This is getting really expensive, but a day doesn’t go by when I don’t really really want to see him. What should I do?

– Glenda

Do you have an easy opportunity to professionally transfer to Boston? Does he have an opportunity to professionally transfer to Los Angeles?

If either one of you has this option available, it’s worth considering. You may also want to consider job searching in Boston (and he can look for lobs in Los Angeles).

In short, if you’re single and unencumbered, this is the kind of thing that you should try to make work. This is one of those things that, if you don’t run with it, you’ll find yourself regretting it for the rest of your life. Don’t let it pass.

Q5: Helping a child in trouble
We have an employed 29 yeqar old son who is beyond a spendthrift. He puts himself in situations that put us in jeopardy financially. I am looking for the pyscology articles of why he does what he does. Any suggestions. And yes he has had a substance abuse problem. Supposedly he is in rehab.

– Lionel

You don’t know if he’s in rehab or not, yet he has the ability to make financial moves that put you in jeopardy?

For starters, I would not allow him any access to any of your assets. If he has a credit card of yours, cancel it. If he has the ability to draw on your funds, deny him that ability.

For another, it sounds like he has an addictive personality, which can be incredibly financially dangerous. People with deeply addicitve personalities (of which I know a few) will spend every dime they have and every dime given to them by anyone and any dime that they have access to in order to chase their addictions.

The only solution to this is professional help, and a key part of that is their own desire to want that type of help. Until then, I would not allow him access to anything that could harm your financial position.

Q6: Preparing for career switch
After six years in the workforce, I will be going to law school in August and leaving behind a low-paying career. I have about $10,000 left in consolidated student loans, which I have been dutifully repaying since I graduated from college.

I have been preparing an expense budget for the next phase of my life and discovered that I will actually have more monthly income from my housing budget than I take home now. The end result is that I think I may be able to continue making my $117 a month student loan payment from my undergraduate studies without much pain. If I don’t, I can add that money to my budget for savings/IRA. What do you think I should do?
– Tammy

It depends on the interest rates of the loan.

From my perspective, continuing to make that $117 a month payment instead of putting the loan in forbearance is essentially a $117 monthly investment that returns the interest rate of your loan. If that interest rate is very high at all, it’s a very good investment to continue, especially if you can afford it.

Of course, I am assuming that you have at least some emergency fund already in place and don’t have any history of accumulating debt, but both of these seem to be true based on your comments.

Q7: Renting in retirement
I have a friend who plans on renting for the rest of her life as she doesn’t like the idea of being tied to one area (as the [slim] chance to move could occur if she lost her job) or having to do maintenance on a property.

Recently her parents have become concerned that she will still have to pay rent after retirement. They have offered to give her a sum of money to assist with the down payment. This is making her consider purchasing a home since “the market is great for buyers” and her mom and dad are giving her free money.

Since we both live in the same high priced real estate area, we have used the ‘NY Times Rent vs Buy calculator’ to determine that she can only afford a $160k house. Looking at what’s available in the area; this leaves her with 1 and 2 bedroom condos, which are suitable for her.

I did a little Google-ing about renting during retirement and came across nothing but retirees that sell their homes to move into an apartment. In this scenario, it seems one would be putting money into a home for ~30 years and then be able to sell to break even or make a profit. After selling the home, the cash on hand could be seen as liquidating a retirement account that money was added to over time but with much greater risk. Whereas with a rented property, money would be put into someone else’s account, never to be returned.

Why can I not figure out how renting is better than buying in this scenario? Is the free money really worth it?
– Brian

Renting versus buying isn’t the cut-and-dried case that many people seem to believe that it is. One isn’t necessarily better than the other. It heavily depends on the situation of the person involved.

In many locations, the cost to rent per month is substantially lower than the monthly mortgage payment, the utilities, and the maintenance costs. In many areas, the gap is substantial. In retirement, cash flow is often paramount, and if you’re spending less per month by renting rather than buying, it makes sense. This is particularly true if you’re diligent about saving at least some of that difference.

However, in her situation, with relatively low-cost condos available and a big cash boost in her back pocket, the balance shifts strongly toward buying.

Q8: Disability and ethics
The world is a mean-spirited place sometimes. I have gotten many comments saying that I do not deserve disability from taxpayer money and that I knew what I was getting into when getting legally married, so I should stop complaining and suck up the dramatic decrease in our finances. I obviously don’t agree! I think government policy is VERY wrong and people need to know about and understand what the government is doing to us.

During the boom years, I was very much looked down upon for not being able to rake in cash through working. Now that more people are hurting financially, I am despised as a leech on society. If I got a vote…I’d vote to NOT be disabled…so would Rhett. I’d love it if some money person like you would write about what it’s like to live on very little. How would a money expert spend their money if they were me? What would they eat? How would they cope with it all? What are our best options?
– Wendy

My feeling is that regardless of how you feel about a particular type of financial aid, if it’s already funded and available to you, you’re throwing money away by not taking it. That doesn’t mean you can’t be politically opposed to it, nor does it mean you’re politically in favor of it. You’re simply talking about the immediate financial position you’re in and how to maximize that position.

If I were you, I’d take advantage of all aid that I was eligible for, but I’d also try to work in whatever way I could.

Most importantly, don’t be ashamed of who you are and stop worrying so much about what other people say. The person you have to wake up with in the morning and go to bed with at night is you, not all the naysayers and critics. If you’re happy with the choices you’re making in your situation, then that’s enough.

Q9: Student loan concerns
In 2011, I decided that instead of doing a year-long resolution, I would instead do a smaller resolution for each month. I wanted to slowly build myself up into a better person all around, instead of trying to jump into a huge goal that would fail within a few days. Plus, I continue what I learned from one month into the next month, slowly adding up skills and benefits. For January my goal was to get my finances under control. I joined Mint.com, I started reading finance blogs (yours included!), and being more aware of how I spent my money. While it has been difficult, I have learned a lot, and my mindset about money has really changed.

However, one thing continues to plague me, and I have yet to figure out a good answer. I, like many others in my age bracket, have a fair amount of student loans. Thankfully I have no student loans from undergrad, these are strictly loans from my mental health counseling masters program. I have consolidated all my loans through the federal government into one big loan. Currently I owe $46,942.39. My monthly minimum payment is $118, but I usually try to pay $130. I am currently paying on the income contingent plan, as I needed to have the lowest monthly minimum payment to get by. My interest rate is 7.350%, and I have $1,056.19 lurking in outstanding interest that has yet to be added to the principal balance. Here is my problem: when I have outstanding interest, even if I pay over my monthly minimum, none of my payment goes towards the principal. So basically I am just throwing money at the interest, which feels like plugging holes one at a time in a sinking ship. However, I am living in Chicago and I make roughly $28,000, so I am not really able to pay much more than the $130 a month. However, I wonder if I should even bother paying over – since I am a mental health counselor, I believe I am eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (http://studentaid.ed.gov/PORTALSWebApp/students/english/PSF.jsp). After 120 payments, my loan will be forgiven, as long as I continue to work in my field (which I am obviously planning on doing).

So, do I bother to really try and tackle this debt? Or do I just keep making minimum payments for 10 years and let it all get paid off at that point? How do I save the most money doing this?
– Kelly

Given your income level and the fact that you’re probably stuck making those minimum payments for the foreseeable future, there’s no reason not to try to take advantage of the loan forgiveness program.

I would get enrolled in the program as soon as possible, then focus on making those minimum payments like clockwork.

Yes, there’s a risk that you won’t be in this field in ten years. However, your current income is pretty much limiting you to minimum payments or something close to it, so I wouldn’t worry too much about that risk.

Q10: Swimming pools
What do you think of swimming pools? Do you think it’s worth it? Can you tell me some pros and cons? Interested in buying, however not sure it’s the right thing to do…

– Paul

With a major purchase like a swimming pool, I would encourage you not to get one unless it’s something you’re already doing. If you’re the type of person who goes to a public swimming pool very regularly to swim, then you’ll probably get value out of your own pool.

However, I’ve seen many people sink money into a pool that they think they might use, only to find that they rarely use it and are unhappy with the upkeep costs and the money they’ve sunk into it. My in-laws have a swimming pool that they do use during the summer a little, but I suspect if they had the chance to re-do things, they probably would not have purchased the pool.

Never sink a bunch of money into something you “might” use. If it’s not something you’re actively engaged with, I’d be very careful about laying out the cash.

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. Wesley says:

    “Never sink a bunch of money into something you “might” use.”

    Great advice for everything in life.

  2. Nate Baxley says:

    On #1, I’m still working on getting my 3 months of emergency savings put together, but my plan for it once it’s ready is to put it in a series of 3 month CDs that automatically renew; 1 CD for each month of expenses with a staggered start date. Along with one month in a savings account. I should be able to get by during the first month on my savings, and then pull the CDs out instead of renewing them as they become available. Does this make any sense?


  3. Johanna says:

    Q4, Glenda: I advise proceeding with caution here. If you’ve only been together for a few months, and you’ve never been in the same place for more than a few days at a time, you probably don’t have a very good sense of what daily life would be like with both of you in the same city. What happens if one of you uproots your life to be with the other and then things don’t work out? That’s a real possibility, and one worth taking seriously. If the person who moved can’t easily move back home and rebuild their old life (or build a new, independent life in the new city), things could get really bad.

    Could one of you visit the other for an extended period of time (at least a couple of weeks)? Either take time off of work or (even better, for the purpose of simulating daily life together) work remotely. In the meantime, maybe you could cut back from visits every weekend to at least every two to three weeks, and spend more time communicating by phone or email.

    I know that relationships like yours do sometimes work out, and hopefully somebody who’s been in your shoes and had it work will chime in with some better advice on how to improve your chances. But I wanted to point out that what Trent is advising is incredibly risky, and you need to think about the downside of the risk too.

  4. valleycat1 says:

    Q8 – I agree with Trent that if you qualify for disability assistance, just ignore the naysayers. If you’re able, perhaps volunteering in some capacity (even reading to a shut-in neighbor, making daily phone calls to check on people who live alone, or something else on a small scale) would boost your self-concept. I have a number of friends who spout off about ‘welfare leeches’ and ‘disability frauds’ in general, yet they support any individuals they know who are in that situation.

    As far as how to live on a limited income, check out Trent’s money rules and the archive topics on the right side of the page. As a start, you need to figure out ahead of time your budget – how much of your expenses are required (rent/house payment, taxes, utilities, medical care), then figure a reasonable amount for food & then any extras like telephone, internet, cable, entertainment.

    There is a lot of info on the web about frugal meal planning. My advice in that area is to plan your shopping so that you aren’t throwing out a lot of food – whether items that get moldy, leftovers no one wants to eat, or cheaper versions of foods that you don’t like. Find a couple of simple recipes or meals (soup & salad, meat-extender type casseroles, vegetables, etc) that you like and for the most part stick with those, instead of doing a lot of experimenting (which can be wasteful & expensive).

  5. Kelly M says:

    Glenda, I was in a cross-country relationship for two years before we moved to be together. One thing I would advise is to take advantage of things like Skype/webcam chats, and find creative ways to stay in touch (nightly phone calls–you’ll want to make sure your phone plan can support this). But in general, I’d say three months into a long-distance relationship is too soon to make such a drastic move. And you’re right–flying to see each other every weekend isn’t sustainable (for one thing, if you are going to eventually move, you’ll need a substantial emergency fund built up in order to take the career leap). Like Johanna said, plan a longer visit to see how things go, and try to settle into a long-distance rhythm for a good 6 months or so before you start plotting a move. It’s tough, but there are lots of ducks to get in a row, anyway, to plan such a big life transition. Good luck!

  6. kjc says:

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the impact a swimming pool has on residential value.

  7. Courtney20 says:

    Re Q6: Trent has messed this up again; for the second or third time – FORBEARANCE is not the same as DEFERMENT. If you are in law school at least part time you will want to request to DEFER your loans, and if any of the balance is subsidized, it will not accrue interest during the deferment period. FORBEARANCE means you are unable to pay your loans. The payment requirement stops but the entire balance will continue to accrue interest.

    I would request to defer your loans regardless of your ability to pay – you can continue to make payments on them without exiting deferment, but if you happen to have a tight month you wouldn’t be required to make the payment. In forbearance, if you make a payment you will exit forbearance because you would be demonstrating your ability to pay.

  8. Interested Reader says:

    @q4 -Glenda I’m kind of in similiar situation. I’ve been in a long distance relationship for 3 years. My bf and I met online and got to know each other first as friends and then became romantically involved.

    We live 1350 miles apart and havent’ been able to see each other as often as you & your boyfriend have. In fact we knew each other for a year before we first met in person (and realized that what we had was real). After that we’ve seen each other about every 6 months, sometimes more often. The longest time being 10 days together.

    Skype is your biggest friend in long distance relationships. We Skype (incl vidoe chat) every day, although sometimes it’s just surfing the web indpendently and commenting on what we see. We watch movies through Netflix. We talk a lot. About our day, about our goals for the future, we get into political discussions, we debate movies. We even read books together – or I read to him and he listens.

    We haven’t had the money to see each other as often as we’d like, but we’ve made do. We also play World of Warcraft and find other ways to do things “together” online.

    After three years this month I’m moving to the same state. We aren’t moving in together, but I’m moving up there and I’ll be about an hour from where he lives. I’m getting a job and we’ll get to know each other and go on real dates and see what happens.

    My recommendation is don’t rush into things, take your time, get to know each other. Call each other and talk and really get to know each other.

  9. Anon for this one says:

    Re Q5: Addiction and financial problems go hand in hand. From my personal experience, it’s best that you as parents get involved with a private addiction counselor or Al-Anon/Nar-Anon to learn how to manage this issue. You may find that it’s less of a financial issue and more of an emotional issue, i.e. fear of losing your son. Unfortunately we find that as family members of addicts, our financial “help” enables the addiction to continue unabated indefinitely, which both bankrupts the Bank of Mom and Dad and helps the addict commit a slow suicide.

  10. Johanna says:

    Q7, Brian: Your friend should be careful about those relatively low-cost condos. They may be relatively low cost for a reason. If you buy into a condo building where a lot of other owners are in financial trouble or on the verge of it, you may find yourself in a situation where either you have to pay more to cover their share of building maintenance costs, or else the maintenance doesn’t get done.

    There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a lifelong renter, and it sounds like your friend has good reasons for wanting to rent rather than own. In cases like this, where a person has a strong preference for intangible reasons, it’s not really that important to figure out which is the absolute best financial choice. Just like it’s not terribly important to get the absolute best deal you can when you’re choosing a specific home to rent or buy – as long as you can afford it, it often makes sense to choose a more expensive place over a less expensive place just because you like it better.

  11. Telephus44 says:

    Q7 – if your friend doesn’t want to buy a house/condo and keep renting, please respect her decision. If she told you that she didn’t want kids, would you tell her that having kids was the best way to make sure that someone is there to take care of her in retirement? If she didn’t want to get married, would you tell her to marry someone just so that she would have someone else to fall back on if she hit hard times? No. Owning a house is a large financial, emotional, and lifestyle decision. If she doesn’t want to buy, then both you AND her parents should back off.

    It’s not “free money” – it’s money that comes with strings attached. You don’t say how old she is, but any parent/child relationship that comes with “I’ll give you money, but you have to do what I say with it” just makes me want to turn and run the other way. My MIL has done similar things with money, although not on this grand a scale.

  12. Justin says:

    @Q1, my wife and I just recently shifted a bunch of our savings in a “high yield savings account” at only 1% to a treasury mutual fund at my bank that’s yielded about 6% in the last year.

    It’s pretty liquid because it’s in the same bank, but its getting 5 times more interest. High yield savings used to make more sense, and is still much better than what most big banks offer- but I think long term it just isn’t as good as a safe bond or treasury fund that’s liquid.

  13. Michelle says:

    If you have children, DO NOT get a pool. My toddler son unlocked the gate at a friends pool, and fell in. We got him out quickly, and all is well, but it’s just not worth it. And very few people want to buy a house with a pool. For either safety reasons, or the cost of upkeep. Find a nice public pool with lifeguards, or a private pool at a country club or neighborhood, buy a membership and let them worry about maintenance.

  14. sjw says:

    Kelly (Q9) – If you do drop down to paying the $118 instead of the $130 you’re doing currently, try to take that extra $12 per month and put it immediately into an emergency fund. No, $12 per month isn’t a lot, but it’s a great start. And maybe you could round it up to $15 or $20 more than you’re putting aside now.

  15. ChrisD says:

    Re buying the condo. Might be worth number crunching the deposit to see what would happen if you invested it now and then spent the money on rent in old age. Also what if you save up the difference between the hypothetical mortgage and current rent for old age as well. The advantage of houses is that they are inflation proof. But I guess stocks are as well.

    RE swimming pool, remember that more children die in swimming pools than gun accidents and that they add less value to the house than they cost.

  16. Matt says:

    Re Q10: We bought a house with a fairly large above-ground pool 2 years ago. While we’ve gotten some good use out of it, it’s expensive to maintain (chemicals, pump/filter maintenance and eventual replacement, water to fill it, etc). I’m fine with having it and taking care of it since it came with the house… but I personally wouldn’t pay several thousand dollars to put one in.

    Re: #9 Michelle – I think a pool is sometimes a positive, sometimes a negative. My impression is that it won’t reduce your house’s value – but it might not increase it either.
    In terms of safety – it seems like the “lock” on your friend’s pool was inadequate. If you have children or pets around, making the investment of SECURE controlled access to your pool is essential. Something a toddler can open is obviously not sufficiently secure.

  17. Monica says:

    Re Q10

    I agree with Trent about something you “might” use. A pool is a big commitment in terms of time and upkeep.

    One thing that wasn’t mentioned was what part of the country you live in.

    In terms of amount of use/resale value/upkeep paying to install a pool makes a lot more sense in a state like Texas or Arizona than it does in, say, Michigan.

  18. Doug says:

    Q1: I keep one-third of my emergency fund in a short term bond fund that generates close to a 3% return. It has some risk, which might not suit others, but the risk is something I can live with. This approach isn’t for everyone, but I thought that because you have a full 6-month emergency fund, you might tolerate the risk for the higher return too.

  19. Sonja says:

    #10 Pool: as with anything, ask yourself if you really want to be the caregiver of this item. You will have to clean it. You will have to monitor the chemicals, buy more chemicals, pay to add water to it, pay the electic company to run your pool pump. Most pools are not really big enough to get a good workout in. Join the Y or a gym with a lap pool.

  20. CD Guy says:

    Q1: I don’t see why you don’t consider a CD that only has a small penalty to be “liquid.” You can get a 5-year CD from Ally bank at 2.24% interest and only have to pay 60-days interest as an early-cash out penalty. Also, you can get the money in 1-2 days. Seems like the perfect place for an emergency fund as you want to have a little hassle and a little discouragement from using it on things that aren’t true emergencies.

  21. Jennifer Lissette says:

    Q3: I completely disagree with Trent that this is something to no longer worry about. In either of his offered explanations, a SSN mixup or a relative stealing your identity, if it happened before it could happen again.

    I would call Chase and get info on the account. Who opened it, where the charges were made, where the statements were sent, etc, in case you were betrayed by someone you know. I would then explain to Chase that you were not in the country and that you did not authorize this account and ask them to no longer report it to credit bureaus.

    Then I would contest the item with all three credit bureaus. This will allow them to put an id fraud alert out, making it more involved to open an account in your name. Five years ago, a university I was accepted to had their system hacked into and the social security numbers of all accepted applicants and students had been compromised. An ID fraud alert was put out with the credit bureaus… I personally had no trouble opening accounts, but it made it harder for criminals to potentially steal my identity.

    Remember, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Wiping your hands and saying, “Oh well, no harm done,” seems to be just asking for trouble.

  22. Des says:

    RE: Q3

    It is likely that this is not your card, but is someone else’s being reported incorrectly. My brother’s card showed up on my credit report a few years ago, despite the fact that we don’t share a last name and our SSNs are different. It is easy to call and dispute it, they take care of everything.

  23. cv says:

    Trent, I think you misread Q6. If I understand the situation right, she’s talking about using the law school loans meant for living expenses in order to pay other student loans. Whether that’s a reasonable idea depends on the interest rates and whether the interest on either of the loans would continue to accrue during school.

    Tammy, when you take out loans for law school, they recommend a particular amount that you qualify for as the amount you should take out for living expenses. You don’t have to take it all, and you’re better off taking less than recommended if you won’t absolutely need it. The loans for living expenses are generally private loans at higher interest rates with interest that accrues even while you’re still in school, since all the federal loans get eaten up by tuition. Remember throughout law school that every dollar you spend is borrowed, and borrow and spend as little as you can. It’s easy to end up with over $200k in debt for the three years between tuition and living expenses. That’s $25-30k in loan payments annually for 10 years after law school, which is a big chunk of money even if you end up at a cushy firm job (and in the legal job market recently, those jobs aren’t as easy to come by as they used to be).

  24. Pat S. says:

    There’s nothing wrong with renting in retirement, especially if the person is unable to maintain their home anymore, or its too big, or whatever the factors that cause this choice are. Retirement is about cash flow. Sometimes its actually cheaper to rent. Think about maintenance costs (especially with an older home), power costs, and other intangibles and renting should not be demonized, even for the elderly.

  25. jim says:

    Q3 Rachel : Its probably a credit bureau error (they make lots). If it was identity theft then the thief would have charged more and left you a big fat balance. If you didn’t open that card then I would question it and challenge it with the credit bureaus. Your credit score is good however so it depends on if you want to take the time and effort to try and fight them over it. Another possibility is that you actually had a Chase card that was marketed as something else. e.g. maybe you got a rewards card for the United airline which you view as your Untied airmiles card but it was actually ran by Chase bank. Not likely but a feasible possibility. Or maybe you got a Sears card who then later changed you over automatically to Chase and you never got that mail since you were overseas.

    Q6 Tammy : “I will actually have more monthly income from my housing budget..” where is that housing budget coming from? Student loans probably? If so then don’t use student loans to make payments on student loans.

    Are you aware that median income for new lawyers is only about $70k? 1/2 of experienced lawyers make under $75k. There are a lot of people who want to be lawyers and only the best make the real big bucks. If law is your passion and you’ve got great LSATs then thats fine. But please don’t go into law thinking its an easy road to riches and then pile up >$100K in loans.

    Q10 Paul: Don’t expect a swimming pool to increase your home value. Swimming pools are among the worst ‘investments’ as far as home improvements. They often return around 40% so if you go spend $100k to install a swimming pool your home value will only retain $40k of that.

  26. Jan says:

    No one has mentioned the increased insurance that is required (at least where I live) for a pool or the necessary fencing around the yard which is required for insurance. They are a money pit.

  27. jim says:

    Made a typo. I said : “1/2 of experienced lawyers make under $75k.”

    SHould have been 1/4 instead of 1/2. 1/4 (25%) of lawyers make under $75k.

  28. Borealis says:

    There are a lot of people in Arizona who regret having a home swimming pool. Its great if you have kids 8-14 years old, but once the kids get older they don’t use it and the parents get to just clean it.

  29. Karen says:

    Re: conjunctivitis
    One of the most effective medicines for eye infections is breastmilk.

    If you have a local source for that, Trent, try it. Seriously. Just close your eye and smear a drop or two over the base of the eyelashes, or use a syringe to place a drop in the interior corner of your eye.

  30. Adam P says:

    I would probably get an outdoor hot tub if I bought a house, but not a pool. I would use a hot tub year round! But a pool, no.

  31. jackie says:

    Buying a house or a condo is a huge commitment. If your friend has decided it’s not a lifestyle for her, then pressuring her to do it is mean-spirited.

    Buying a house is my biggest regret. (Everyone’s situation will vary, but I’m here to say that home ownership is not a sure-fire win.) I had encouragement, but no pressure from my friends and family. It was totally my decision at the time. Honestly, if I had been pressured, I probably wouldn’t be speaking to the person who lead me into the situation. (As it is, I can only blame myself.)

  32. Regarding Q8: I work with many, many people who are living on Social Security disability, and I think Trent is right. It seems that the most successful of these individuals do not focus on a sense of deprivation, but instead find a new way to bring a sense of meaning and purpose and value into their lives, independent of what is going on financially. I’m certainly not saying that it’s easy to do. I’m just saying that I’ve met resilient people who do this, and I admire them greatly.

  33. Thea says:

    For conjunctivitis: A cold washcloth will only soothe the itchiness but a hot, wet, washcloth on your eyes will help kill the bacteria. Use a clean washcloth with every application or you will just end up re-infecting yourself. I have used this method many times and NOT had to resort to antibiotics.

  34. Kris says:

    q10 – regarding the pool: We bought a house that had a pool. The husband didn’t want a pool, I wanted one. It worked out well the house we loved had a an inground pool. As much as I love using the pool, I would never pay to install one because it’s just not worth it in my opinion. As it is..I usually spend most of my Saturday’s and Sunday’s using the pool in the summer..but sometimes find I don’t want to but feel guilty if I don’t. It’s so relaxing for me.

    Regarding upkeep cost. We converted the pool to a salt water pool the end of the 2009 pool season and in 2010 we barely spent any money on chemicals. We had the initial cost after opening the pool, and then we put maybe $20 worth of chemicals in it the rest of the summer. Even though we had to pay to convert it, it’s already looking like it will save us a lot of money. The year before we spent roughly $250 on chemicals throughout the summer.

    I don’t find that we spend a lot of time taking care of it. We usually vacuum it out on Friday and test the water/add chemicals. We spend maybe an hour on this. More time is spent opening and closing it, but the weekly maintenance hasn’t been a big deal.

  35. S01 says:

    Another one on the conjunctivitis, although it stings a bit make up a warm water saline solution (I use normal plain cooking salt). Rinse your eye’s out with this morning and night and you’ll find the itch should decrease after 30-60mins and you might be rid of the grittyness by the next day, if not repeat. I have sensitive eye’s and find the above also works if I get dust and junk in them. If you don’t want mix your own you can buy saline solution from a chemist.

    If the above doesn’t clear you up in 2-3 days time to hit the doctor.

    Side note: If your using a washcloth make sure you disinfect it after use, you can reinfect yourself with a dirty washcloth (depending on the type of Conjunctivitis).

  36. Brandy says:

    Income based repayment.

  37. Misty says:

    Do yourself a favor and throw away the washcloths instead of trying to sterilize them. I was having repeated eye infections, and my eye doctor told me that it’s almost impossible to disinfect something you’ve used on your eyes when you have an eye infection. You can end up doing what I did and just reinfect yourself over and over. My problems went away when I threw away anything that had touched my eyes. (I had thought I was taking care of the problem by boiling, but apparently not.)

  38. Julie says:

    I would love to fill in my pool at this point in my life. We bought our house with a pool. I would estimate we spend between $150.00 to $200.00 per month for chemicals, electricity and water. And these expenses are year round….not just in the summer My kids hardly ever the pool anymore (ages 18, 16 and 11).

    We are in Southern California, and have several friends that pulled equity out of their homes to build a pool (prior to the start of the recession.) The average cost was about $40,000. I don’t think any of them would make the same decision today and would much prefer to have the $40,000 in the bank for college.

    You don’t want to put in a pool when your kids are little, because they are so dangerous. So most of these friends waited until their kids were a little older. Then, a few short years later, the kids were teenagers and they no longer had any interest in swimming in the backyard pool.

  39. Steve in W MA says:

    Wendy, in Q8,

    You are married but you are depriving not only yourself, but your spouse of the additional support from the disability income that you are legally entitled to? I don’t get it. You are not only stiffing yourself, but your marriage partner.

  40. Steve in W MA says:

    @Q9, the current annual interest on your loan is 3220 and growing, because the $118 or the $130 you are payingmonthly does not even cover the $268 worth of monthly interest that this sum is accruing.

    As to your strategy, I would suggest dropping your payment to $118, and going for the loan forgiveness.

  41. Bill says:

    Re: Pool

    It is much cheaper to buy a house with a pool, they loose a lot of money for the first owner. I bought a house with a pool, payed to have it converted to saltwater (no more chlorine) added a automatic cover. You push a button and it closes like a garage door and it counts as a legal fence. You can walk on it so it very safe. The costs are greatly reduced, less heat is lost, most chemical lose is related to wind/sun reaction. Also related to pool pumps, I run mine 12-18 hours a day in pool season an I can not tell on my bill. Pumps are amazingly effective. Heating is WAY expensive. I live in Oregon, not good pool area, I have gas heat for the pool and only the pool, my gas bill is normalized over a 12 month period @109/month. My wife refuses to go in if the pool is under 90 degrees.

    I like my pool, but my next house will not have one.

  42. Diane says:

    Q2 – I may be mis-reading this, or there is simply not enough information, but it seem as if you are planning to bolster your partner’s savings at the expense of your own. Please, if this is what you are planning, reconsider. It’s possible that you have simply made better choices in your life when it comes to spending and saving. I strongly suggest that at most you divide the savings 50/50. Each of you saves the same dollar amount each year, helping the other out as necessary to reach your common goals. As the years progress, the gap will narrow. If at some point (way down the road), you wish to close that gap, you can always gift anyone up to 13k per year.

  43. Diane says:

    Q4 Glenda – I think #5 “Interested Reader” gave you excellent advice. I’ll start with “what he/she said” and go from there.

    I have been in your shoes (SF-DC). Ultimately, it didn’t work out, but I have great memories. I loved getting to know him and his world. I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

    Caution – If the two of you are not pulling in big bucks in your careers, you could be (mis-)laying your foundation only to face severe financial difficulties ahead. If you’re both independently wealthy, that’s another matter.

    Set an equitable travel budget that you both contribute to based on your earnings, so that travel costs are bourne evenly and affordably. Learn and work all the Frequent Flyer and affinity programs to your advantage.

    Don’t even think of moving yet! That is bad advice and it’s way too soon!!! Instead, plan on visiting each other every other week, alternating coasts. This will give you time to get great deals on airfares and add a little shiver of anticipation before each trip. If you do this every week, believe me, it will get old. You must make time for your friends and family as well as more mundane things like laundry and dentist’s appointments. Heck, shopping for fabulous lingerie takes time ;)

    If you keep going at this rate, there is a good chance that one of you will experience burnout that you might not have felt if the pace had been more measured. Give yourself more time to plan, anticipate and enjoy each visit and this phase of your relationship.

    Best of luck to you and keep us posted!

  44. Lynn says:

    #24 is right on about breastmilk for pinkeye! If your wife is still lactating, she might have been exposed and be making antibodies to the bug you’ve got. Even if not, breastmilk is full of secretory IgA, whose job is to keep germs from sticking to our tissues. With pinkeye, I tend to think of it as the difference between using your windshield wipers and smearing stuff around, versus using fluid with them to wash the stuff away.

  45. Lex says:

    To the long-distance relationship couple, I’ve been there. Try to skype and use the phone and have more spaced-out visits that last longer if possible, and when one of you is ready to move make sure it’s also a good choice for your career in case things don’t work out.

  46. Wendy says:

    Q8 This is Wendy. What I wrote to Trent was cut down by him for brevity. I do very much appreciate hearing I should not care what others say. What I REALLY wanted was to communicate how unfair SS laws are about marriage and to get concrete ideas that would help us live on very little. I am sooooo kicking myself for not keeping a copy of the info I sent in. I could put that up as a blog page. Here is the gist of our conundrum…

    Soooooo….the government has things set up so that a married couple on SSI gets $407/month LESS in income than a not-married couple. We get $279 LESS a month in food stamps than we did as individuals. We are getting $200 LESS/year in help with electricity. And then the rent has increased to be $144 MORE. So much for marriage being a respected institution. Most people in our situation chose to live together rather than do the right thing and marry.

  47. AnnJo says:

    Wendy @Q8,
    The reason people are so “mean-spirited” and sometimes resentful of disability recipients is that there is so much fraud and abuse in the area of disability benefits. Over a third of disability benefits are paid on the basis of “mental illness” and another sizable portion is paid on the basis of self-reported ailments like chronic fatigue syndrome or chronic pain for which there are no solid diagnostic tools other than the claimant’s self-report.

    While these can all be genuine and debilitating problems, they can also all be the basis for scamming the system, whether consciously or unconsciously.

    If you are getting “many comments” from people who know you well that you should not be on disability, you probably shouldn’t be on disability. Most of us know genuinely disabled people and would never dream of commenting negatively on their receipt of benefits, but we also know lazy, unmotivated, unethical or hypochondiacal people who prefer to let others support them rather than make the effort to support themselves.

    There’s a line somewhere between the desirable goal of sparing the feelings of the genuinely disabled who may be ashamed at not being able to carry their weight and the undesirable result of making the undeserving feel entitled to be leeches on the productive. In this country, maybe we crossed that line when we started calling charity programs “entitlements.” We’re not in as bad a shape yet as some European countries where one out of six workers is “disabled,” but we’re headed in that direction.

    I think Trent’s advice here is flat-out wrong. If you are depending on other people to take care of your needs without producing anything in exchange to help them out, then you SHOULD spare some thought to how they feel about it. And if, with some effort, you could become self-supporting, then you shoud do it. What there is no justification for, though, is feeling resentful of the people who are footing your bills.

  48. Interested Reader says:

    AnnJo – are you psychic? There’s not enough information in that question to even figure out WHAT her disability is much less if it is “faked”.

  49. JS says:

    Q4: My husband and I had a long-distance relationship for the first three years we were dating. I’m still very much in love with him and very glad to be married and living together, but things ARE different when you have a long distance relationship. It’s very easy to get caught up in a romantic whirlwind when you’re in a long-distance relationship- every encounter is exciting and filled with romantic urgency, and days without them are filled with longing and idealization of your absent lover. Some things do change when you start living in the same city and seeing each other becomes more mundane. Our relationship lasted, but we know several people whose relationships fell apart after they started living in the same city. I would advise spending more time dating before making such a life-altering decision as moving across the country; I would especially advise longer visits where you can see more what the person is like on a daily basis rather than when caught up in the fervor of a romantic weekend. It’s been only seven years since we had a long-distance relationship, and I am amazed at how many more ways there are to communicate with people now.

    @38 AnnJo: Entitlements are not the same as charity programs. Entitlement programs are programs where if you meet the eligibility criteria and you are a resident of the jurisdiction, you must be allowed in the program, regardless of anything not mentioned in the eligibility criteria.

  50. Jeff says:


    I would recommend looking at high interest CDs like those at Ally Bank (5 year) that have a short early withdrawal penalty. While it is possible to lose money if you needed it immediately, as long as you don’t touch it for a few months (less than 1/2 a year), you will do better than the 1% at many savings accounts. The only downside is that there may be a few day processing delay, but I have no problem holding 1 month’s emergency fund in a savings account and the others in an Ally CD. If I don’t touch it, I get ~3%/year. Also great is that if interest rates go up, you can break the CD and bump up to a higher rate.

  51. Wendy says:

    People in my “real life” don’t tell me I’m a malingerer. It generally comes from people who read my blog or read some snippet I write on the internet… and only know few if any facts. I have myasthenia gravis, mixed connective tissue disease and a few other things. My husband was hit by a car when he was 8 years old. He has traumatic brain injury and his optic nerve was severed, leaving him blind. We both have very visible physical defects, plus other things not seen. I have a service dog and he is trying to get another seeing eye dog.

    In order to get SS disability, LOTS of hoops need to be jumped through. Tests are done, results scrutinized, we had to/have to visit government docs who check us out. It is a loooooong process to get disability. I can’t imagine many people faking things and still getting payments. Sounds like an urban legend more than reality.

    Who is deserving of disability is not why I wrote for help and ideas. I wrote because now that Rhett and I are married, a huge chunk of what WAS our income as individuals has been taken away. It makes living with our disabilities even tougher.

    Before I had congestive heart failure and three strokes, I worked even though I was legally disabled. When those illnesses showed up on top of what I was already dealing with, I had to quit. Most people are amazed at all I have done despite what life has thrown me.

    I want to know how “YOU” (anybody reading this) would live on $1115/month cash plus less than $100 food stamps that is the only income for 2 people. What things would you do if you were me/us? What strategies would you have that it would be great if I had? What tips and ideas do you have for “making it” financially?

  52. jim says:

    AnnJo, you come across a little mean spirited and resentful. And why do you put mental illness in quotes?

  53. AnnJo says:

    @Jim, over the years, I’ve known quite a number of people receiving disability benefits. A few were actually disabled, while several others were scamming the system and quite proud of themselves for doing it. On behalf of the truly disabled, as well as myself and other contributors to the support of the scammers, you could certainly say I resent the scammers. Don’t you?

    I don’t know whether Wendy is one of them. I don’t know the basis for her disability claim, only that she said that “many people” had commented that she didn’t deserve her benefits. It’s possible they’re right.

    I put mental illness in quotes because I was quoting from a SSA website stating that one-third of claims were based on that. Mental illness is real, and it is also sometimes faked or exaggerated.

    Am I mean-spirited? Well, measured by my contributions to the support of ill family members, work for clients who can’t pay me, and charitable purposes, no, but measured by my support for coerced income redistribution, yes. I find it ironic that many who contribute little or nothing of their own money to meet the genuine needs of their fellow human beings are quick to pat themselves on the back for their support of laws to compel others to do so. You can’t be compassionate with other people’s money.

  54. Kelly says:

    I was question #9 – Thanks for answering my question Trent, it was really helpful! And thanks for all those who offered helpful advice to me in the comments! :)

  55. Interested Reader says:

    Other disablilities are faked or exagerated so you should probably just it all in quotes.

    As someone with mental illness it’s frustrating to see only mental illness put in the fake scare quotes. Most of the people I know with mental illness haven’t been on disability and quite a few were denied even though they can’t work.

    Just because you can’t physically see something doesn’t mean it’s being faked.

    Even when you can see a disablity it can be faked or exagerated.

    Also just because many people think Wendy shouldn’t be on disablitiy doesn’t make them right simply because there are a lot of them. Many people can be wrong.

  56. jim says:

    AnnJo, You seem to be concluding that Wendy is probably a fraud cause you think many people on disability are frauds. That is a baseless and unfair assumption about Wendy. Saying you don’t know for sure doesn’t excuse such an assumption. You seem to be venting your anger about taxes, government, fraud and the communist income redistribution bogey man at Wendy. Disabled people don’t need to hear your rants about how you think the people on disability are lying leeches that steal your tax dollars. Whether or not you are a saint in your own neighborhood is irrelevant frankly. Doesn’t excuse being mean to strangers.

    Your comments about how if other people say she shouldn’t be on disability then she probably shouldn’t is just really bad logic.

    You misued the quotation marks around mental illness. When you quote individual words or phrases like that and are not quoting a passage then the quotation marks indicate words used ironically or with some reservation. If you were quoting a full passage and attributing it to the SSA then that would make more sense.. i.e.. the SSA says “one third of disability claims are for mental illness” if its a direct quote that is fine. But quoting just “mental illness” looks as if you’re questioning the legitimacy of that term.

  57. Lee says:

    I’m trying to get as much of my financial situation down to “tolerable” status as I’m getting married in the summer of 2012. I currently rent an apartment, my only car is fully paid off, and the only outstanding balance I have is on one credit card (roughly $2000, which should probably be paid off before the end of this year), and I have two other credit cards — an airline miles credit card, and my very first one from my bank when I turned 18 (I’m 29 now). That miles card has been at a zero balance for the past year or so, but does carry an annual fee that I have been paying. The older card is a low-limit card that was essentially a “kid’s first credit card” right when I got out of high school. I haven’t used it in close to four years and since it doesn’t have an annual fee, I’ve just let it sit.

    I keep reading that canceling/closing older credit cards with zero balances actually NEGATIVELY impact your credit score. I want to close off that annual-fee miles card. I don’t use the miles card anymore because my job doesn’t require me to fly often anymore, but I’d hate to have my credit all screwy as I end my single life. How drastic is the hit on my credit by closing a card with the only activity over the past year or two is just paying the annual fee to keep it going?

  58. Nicole says:

    Q3: Ethical fraud? Sorry, I’m not familiar with that one. Even if the intent wasn’t to do as much damage as possible, I’d be beside myself if a family member in need found it easier to commit a crime than to ask me directly for help.

    @ Steve #32: How did we get to the point in this country where it’s actually considered irresponsible not to take, take, take every scrap offered at the public trough?

    @ AnnJo #38: Still, I don’t think this is necessarily true. People often have trouble accepting a disability that isn’t visually obvious or that they do not understand. And she did not say that these people “know her well,” merely that she had gotten remarks. Maybe they do not really know her at all, but have decided that they are experts in the subject of acquaintances’ lives. That happens, too, not infrequently.

  59. Robin S says:

    Q9 – Loan Forgiveness
    Definitely try to get in on this program. Most loan forgiveness programs I know (and the one I was enrolled in as a teacher) forgive on a step basis. They might forgive 5% the first year, 10% the next year, etc until eventually they’ve forgiven 100% of the loan. Mine also put my loans in deferment while I was anticipating forgiveness. Look into the specific definately – someone is offering you free money (or better put, money as additional compensation for what you’re already doing), it would be silly not to at least look into the conditions on it.

  60. Danielle says:

    For Q3: How can you say the card was used ethically? Just because there wasn’t thousands of dollars in debt left? Unless this is a mistake by the credit bureaus, someone opened a card in someone else’s name, didn’t pay the bill on time, and was possibly irresponsible enough that the credit card company closed the account.

    And “If the account is closed, I wouldn’t worry about it too much”? She’s trying to build her credit! Why should she have a black mark on her credit report that she wasn’t responsible for? Yes, it will fall off in a couple of years, and it appears to not be doing too much damage at the moment, but if the information is incorrect, why shouldn’t she go through the steps to get it removed? In fact, giving her those steps would have made for a much more informative and helpful blog post.

  61. AnnJo says:


    You’ve identified a budget of $1,215 a month for two people. I’m guessing that if you both receive SS disability you also have Medicare coverage.

    Options for low-cost housing:

    Shared housing. A moderate-rent 3-bedroom house in a decent area, when shared by three couples, becomes very affordable housing. The challenge is finding compatible, responsible, dependable housemates, but in earlier years, I lived this way very inexpensively.

    If you already own your home, take in a boarder for each extra bedroom. Make sure you choose responsible people who will meet their commitments; you are not taking in a stray pet, here.

    House-sitting. With numerous empty housing units available (13 million nationwide), a determined search will find an owner (possibly a bank) who would rather have the place occupied even at no rent, if someone will maintain it, mow the lawn, keep it from being vandalized, and maybe do some light improvements work (cleaning, painting, etc.). Even in quite decent neighborhoods, you will now regularly see homes that have clearly been left vacant and uncared for. Find out who’s in charge and make a deal.

    RV living. Used RVs are a drag on the market now with the higher price of gas. Find an inexpensive one and a relative/friend with a large lot who will allow you to park it on their land for free or in exchange for whatever light work you can do in exchange.

    Transportation. Unless you live out in the country, you probably should not own a car. Public transportation in many areas is heavily subsidized for the disabled. When you need a car (like for a monthly bulk food shopping trip), ask your church minister if there is a member of the congregation who will help you out with a ride, or find a neighbor who wants to shop the same place and will take you along in exchange for help on paying for gas.

    Food. Learn to cook, can and bake, and abandon all processed foods (except those you process yourself).

    Eat like an immigrant and buy your less perishable food in bulk at cash & carry or ethnic food stores. A 25# bag of beans and a 50# bag of rice will cost you less than $45 and will provide one meal a day for two people for 2-1/2 months. Most Americans are used to a great deal of processed and varied foods, but where I grew up, people ate homecooked rice and beans for both lunch and dinner, most days of the week, with perhaps a chicken wing or leg, or 2-3 ounces of meat alongside. Seasonal fruits and vegetables supplement that.

    A hearty breakfast of oatmeal made with milk, cinnamon & raisins costs about 25 cents a serving. A breakfast of homemade pancakes costs even less.

    If you don’t have the room to grow a garden, see if there’s a neighbor who does, who will let you garden a plot in exchange for some of the produce.

    Entertainment. Rely on your local library, community center, parks and recreation center, and YMCA for entertainment and exercise.

    Take up useful hobbies like gardening, knitting, sewing, baking, furniture refinishing. Don’t buy your supplies new; there are dozens of peopld who have taken up these hobbies only to abandon them, so ask for supplies on Freecycle, Craigslist or among your friends, church congregation, etc.

    Avoid venues that are heavy into consumer advertising (malls, TV, most magazines); they are designed to make you feel deprived.

    If you want to eat out, take a picnic to a park, instead of spending $20-40 at a restaurant.

    Communication. I bought a cell phone and 1100 minutes at Costco 2-1/2 years ago for $150 and have twice bought an extra 200 minutes for $10. I still have about 500 minutes left, and in six months, will spend another $10 to add/extend again. Net cost per month for cell phone – less than $5 a month. If that seems like too few minutes, analyze who you’re talking to. Usually, most minutes are spent talking to people you already LIVE with! A moment’s forethought when you’re together will make most of those minutes unnecessary.

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