Updated on 08.09.11

Reader Mailbag: Fishing

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. Getting started as a writer
2. Graduate school impact on savings
3. Pre-set spending limit question
4. Great advice
5. Challenging religious beliefs
6. Re-entering the workforce
7. Student loans or down payment?
8. Justifying expenses
9. Collecting problem
10. Outdoor games

Every once in a while, I get a desire to go fishing. For me, that means casting a line in the water, leaning back against a tree, and dozing until the pole twitches in my hand.

I want to go fishing.

Q1: Getting started as a writer
I currently work at a law firm. Lawyering is not something I want to do until the day I die. I place a high priority on traveling and immersion in other cultures, and I would like to spend a year (or more) vagabonding around the world while I am still young and relatively healthy (I’m 26). I’ve figured out how much it’s going to cost, and barring some catastrophe like losing my job, should have enough to do so in 4 to 5 years. The few people I have talked to about quitting my job in order to travel the world have reacted very negatively. What about my house (rent it out)? What about my horse (big fat savings account and a person I trust to care for him)? What about my student loans (Income contingent repayment)? What about my career?

I don’t have an answer for the last one. Or, well, I do. But I am not informed enough to make it happen. I would like to work odd jobs part time and freelance travel write to supplement my income while I’m gone. Perhaps maintain a travel blog, produce a manuscript for a memoir, or a how-to guide out of this experience, as well. After I finish traveling, I hope to use my writing skills and international experience to get another job, and if I cannot do that, go back to lawyer work. I have experience working for a legal publication, but that work is very specific to the legal field and not similar to the area I’m interested in breaking into at all.

I don’t know how to get published outside of the legal field, and I don’t know how to become a better writer, but I have 4 years to work on it in my other 5 hours a day (3 for the horse, I compete). I would feel much better about leaving on this adventure if I had paid published work before I go. Should I just start a blog on something (horse competition and training?) in the meantime as writing practice? Should I take night writing classes at my local college? I can produce written material now on my own, but I’m not sure how to do so in a constructive way so that my skills improve.

Do you have any advice?
– Valerie

Don’t worry about night classes on writing. Don’t worry about finding an editor. Don’t worry about any of that. Just write. Just focus on actually getting words down on paper. Write something, finish it, stick it into a desk drawer, and repeat. It can be a blog if you’d like or it can be entirely offline.

In a few months, dig out your older writings and read the stuff with fresh eyes. Look for the things that feel wrong to you and correct them. Try to understand why you found them wrong and put that into your writing.

An awful lot of writing classes essentially boil down to these things, and you can’t get anything published if you don’t have anything to publish. Focus first and foremost on writing. Get words down on paper. Refine them. Do it over and over again.

Worry about the classes (for refinement) and the business end of it (for good finished pieces) when you’ve mastered the actual process of writing. Just write and the others will follow if they’re meant to.

Q2: Graduate school impact on savings
I currently work as an analyst and during the time since my college days I have done a pretty good job of putting away savings. I have a ROTH IRA, a 401(k), a little money in a 529, a few stock investments I use for my own entertainment, and a rainy day fund/future down payment fund in a savings account at a bank. I’ve been working in my field for several years now though and find myself debating going back to grad school either to further my career or to switch fields. My undergrad degree was in physics so if I go back for that then I’m golden (you don’t really have to pay for grad school in physics), but if I choose to change fields, which I’m considering doing, then I’d be in the same boat as anyone else in grad school. My question is, how do all my savings to date count when applying for scholarships/financial aid for grad school? I would find it immensely frustrating to have saved up a bunch of money only to have it be held against me for grad school and then have all my hard work wiped out at a time when others are being handed free or low interest money. Is this what will happen? In general, do my holdings count against me for this kind of thing and if so what can I do to minimize the risk?

I’ve done some research on this and my initial findings would indicate that my IRA and 401(k) might be protected from counting in financial aid applications, as would a home if I owned one, but any “liquid” assets such as my future down payment account would have to be wiped out before I’d be eligible for any need-based assistance. I’ve heard stories of people buying ridiculously expensive cars right before applying to grad school to avoid this but I’d rather find a more useful way to put all my hard work to good use than blowing it on something I don’t much need. Is there a better way to approach this moment when it comes? Any ideas what I might do in the meantime to be better prepared?
– Terry

Most financial aid is need-based, as you describe. It goes first to the people who need it, not to the people who have money in their savings accounts.

Of course, it’s important to note that the vast majority of financial aid comes in the form of student loans, which means that those students are buried in debt up to their neck. You are far better off paying cash for your graduate school costs than taking out a loan for them. As for scholarships and grants, you’ll have to look for ones in your field of interest and see whether or not you qualify.

There are no good ways to “hide” your money in this kind of process. They usually boil down to either just spending it or doing something that’s basically illegal with it (not reporting it).

Q3: Pre-set spending limit question
I recently pulled my credit reports from the 3 agencies. My oldest card carries an annual fee of $49, and I have been wanting to close it. In the meantime, I opened a new card with no fee and transferred my usual spending to that card. I was confused because on my credit report that the new card did not list my credit limit of $15,000, and thus it is not factoring into my debt-to-credit ratio. When I asked the issuing company about this, they explained that the limit is not reported because I have no “pre-set spending limit.” Essentially, I can charge more than $15,000 on the card. My feeling is that I would be better off asking the company for a set limit, so I can get the limit listed on the credit report. I have 3 credit cards with $18,000 (the one with the annual fee) and $8000 limits on the other two and $7000 remaining on a car loan. The mortgage and student loans are in my husband’s name only. We have $42,000 in emergency funds, which is at least 6 months for us. I don’t have a recent credit score for myself, but it is usually above 750. I can not think of a scenario where we would need to charge more than $15,000 on that card, since I feel we are well covered for emergencies. I would love to hear if you can think of other benefits I should consider before giving up the no pre-set spending limit.

– Natasha

Unless you are carrying a large balance on your other cards, I would not worry about this “no pre-set spending limit” card at all.

Your debt-to-credit ratio is the total of your debts compared to your total credit limit. It’s not entirely clear how debts without clear limits (such as yours) are handled in such calculations, but they seem not to have a tremendous impact. Usually, what matters are only the debts on credit sources that have specified limits.

In any case, the best solution is to always have low balances on your credit cards. Do that and make regular payments on your other debts and your debt-to-credit ratio will always be good.

Q4: Great advice
My next door neighbor had moved back in with his mom while he started his first job after college. He was hired as a broker for a small brokerage firm in Atlanta. Although he was ten years older, he became a mentor to me. He showed me the magic of compound interest and suggested that I start investing $25 dollars a month in a mutual fund. I could open a money market account to get started. He told me that I could become a millionaire by the time I was thirty-five. (He did the math and everything).

It was 1981 and I was only 14. Where was I going to get $25 a month? He convinced me to go to the local pizza joint and get a job…any job. I was hired at $1.00 an hour to bus tables in the evenings Thursday, Friday, & Saturday. I was to also get a tip share.

Two weeks later, my neighbor asked if I wanted to go to Six-Flags over Georgia. I told him I didn’t have any money. He asked, “Didn’t you get paid?” “Yes,” I answered. Then he asked me the million dollar question: “What do you have to show for that money? Show me what you traded your time and labor for.” He said he’d wait while I ran home to show him the “stuff” I’d bought.

I could only produce some trash. I had spent my first paycheck on frozen pizza, Cokes, and junk food when a buddy came over to spend the night. I felt humiliated and ashamed. My neighbor then said, “Always have something to show for your money.”

I did open those accounts. I have always lived on 80%. (10% to God, 10% to savings). I funded those accounts until I needed the money for college. (This was in the days before state sponsored lottery funded education.) It was a great lesson and one I have passed on to countless employees over the years. (I used to own several restaurants.)
– Dan

I really, really enjoyed Dan’s story and decided that the reader mailbag was the best place to share it.

What do you have to show for the money that you earn? It’s a really powerful question to ask yourself.

For the longest time, I tried to avoid that question. As time goes on, I grow more and more proud of my answer to it.

Q5: Challenging religious beliefs
You’ve mentioned before that you have often challenged your own religious and spiritual beliefs? Why would you do that? How do you do that? What’s the point of doing that?

– Connie

I don’t believe that any religious or spiritual belief is strong if it’s not regularly challenged with conflicting views. Doubt is a very large part of that equation. It’s only by studying further and dealing with the issues raised by that doubt that I can come through with a much stronger understanding of my religious and spiritual beliefs.

Because of that, I read books on atheism fairly regularly and when issues come up that I can’t address, I dig into them, both within myself and from other books. I’ve sat in the spirituality and religion section of my local library more times than I can count, just leafing through books trying to find answers.

What are my conclusions? My biggest one is that the golden rule really trumps just about everything else. Treat everyone else as you would want to be treated.

Q6: Re-entering the workforce
I am currently pregnant with my first child (a little girl, due this July) and my husband and I are on the fence regarding whether or not I’ll come back to work. Looking strictly at the numbers we could afford for me to stay home by making some sacrifices but given my income it is financially beneficial for me to work. Even after increased cost of commute, clothing, day care, etc. we’d have about $20k left over to put towards additional retirement savings (over & above what we’d be saving w/ just my husband working), college savings, increased emergency fund, etc. That said, we both value the opportunity to have one parent at home both for child rearing & family stress easing purposes & are ready to take the plunge financially at least for the short term with the idea that I would eventually go back to work. My question, though, is do you actually know anyone who has left a job without another lined up, then successfully re-entered that field, 2, 3 or even 5 years later? I have several friends that decided to be SAHMs, including some who have intentions of going back eventually but I don’t actually know anyone who’s actually gone back to work yet. And talking to friends who stay at home, I know their professional confidence has definitely waned while they’ve been at home. I’ve heard comments like “who would hire me?” All this worries me that we won’t be making a short-term sacrifice but potentially a very long-term sacrifice. At the end of the day, this is one of those decisions that will get made after the baby arrives since we really don’t know exactly how we’ll feel once she’s here, but knowledge dispels fear and a little preparation can go a long way so I’m trying to arm myself with the experiences of others as well as all the facts (e.g. impact on our budget, impact on social security/retirement, etc.) so that our decision will be as informed as possible.

– Kelly

If you’re leaving a business, it’s likely that the job you left will not even exist in five years. It is extremely unlikely that anyone leaving the workforce for five years will walk back into the exact same position – or the same type of position – after five years away.

My experience has shown me that many stay-at-home parents wind up in a completely different career path when they return to work or they wind up in a more entry-level position in their previous career path. It’s not realistic to expect to return to the same rung in the ladder that you once climbed to, though you should be able to climb right back to that rung.

The key is to keep your skills sharp or else devote time just before returning to the workforce to sharpen the skills you’re going to need. Another key is to maintain your contacts in the field by staying in touch with old coworkers – and not just by sending them baby pictures. Ask about what’s going on in the field and be abreast of changes.

Q7: Student loans or down payment?
My fiancee and I (with a 2 1/2 yr-old daughter) are about to go through a pretty big change in our lives– within the next 1-2 months it looks like we will finally be able to relocate from the Boston area to the Philadelphia area, something we’ve been wanting to do for quite a long time to be closer to family. We are fortunate enough that we will be able to make very comparable, if not the same or slightly more, in salaries as we do in Boston, with much, much lower housing costs. We rent currently in MA and will definitely be renting for 12-13 months in PA as we save to buy a house in PA. Currently we have about $17000 in savings, however while living in MA this amount has only very slowly crept up within the past 2-3 years– our cost of living just hasn’t allowed us to save as much as we’d like.

A huge contributing factor to that is the very, very large amount of student loan debt we have– still over $110,000 in debt combined, amounting to about $1100/mo. That payment rate has my debt (about $35,000) being paid off in about 8 years, with her $75,000+ being paid off in 11 1/2 years. I suppose that’s not a terribly bad timetable (although we’ll both be 39 in 2022!!!).

Although our cost of living will be several hundred dollars lower in PA, there will be several things which will eat into that difference– we currently do not own a car, and will need to buy one in PA (public transportation is fine in southeastern PA, but not as good as Boston). That eats say $5000 of our savings maybe to pay for a reliable used car in cash. Then add gas, car insurance, and a more expensive commuter rail pass as opposed to a subway pass. We’ll still be about $300-400 better in cashflow than in Boston. If we were able to add $100-150/mo to our savings in Boston, this means that we could probably conservatively assume we’d be able to add $400-450/mo in PA. However, you can quickly tell that our $12,000 savings (after buying a car) might only grow back to its original $17,000 amount over the course of a year– not enough to put anymore than about 7% down on a $225,000 house.

This leads us back to our student loans. My fiancee really wants to extend our payments out further so that we can save more money now– her argument being that we have a greater need for money now and that as our salaries presumably grow, we’ll be able to gradually increase our payments again. I see her point– $1100/mo is a HUGE dent in our cash flow, and also the more money we put down on a house, the less we’ll pay over time in mortgage insurance (PMI). However, I can almost guarantee that as our salaries grow (and we want to have at least 1 more child), our costs will grow too. I also worry that we’ll get comfortable paying the lower amount and never see any need to increase, especially once we have a mortgage. I’ve relented that at the very least we should lower our payments some, however we disagree over how much. A relatively modest decrease (say $150/mo) might get us to a $20,000 down payment. Better, but would it be worth it? That’s still less than 10% down. If $23,000 was a savings goal before buying, we’d have to add over $900/mo to savings if we assume a starting point of $12,000. This would mean lowering our student loan payments to only $600-650/mo. I haven’t done the math on how long we’d be paying loans, but that’s a decrease in payments of over 40%. I DON’T want to be paying off student loans when our daughter starts college, but we’ve really wanted to buy a house for a long time– we want to give our daughter a yard and have a space that is ours, and we want our housing costs to eventually go towards building assets, not some landlord’s bank account. (Don’t worry, we don’t view owning a home as a pot of gold, just something we want in life).

What are your thoughts? There’s a number of directions our cash flow situation could go (and this is admittedly a pretty simplified breakdown), and it’s overwhelming sometimes to think about. There’s sure to be additional ways we can save which we would enact which I haven’t figured in, but I don’t want to rely on an assumption of frugality when we haven’t managed to make any more than modest commitments to frugality in the recent past.
– Nick

What your partner is proposing is a bad idea. It falls right into the old trap of relying on your future self to solve your problems of today. Your future self is completely unreliable.

The best option you can take at any point in your life is to minimize your monthly expenses. This is the best way to prepare yourself for whatever may come. The plan you’re suggesting does the opposite – it fattens your monthly expenses by stretching out your student loans and eventually adding a mortgage on top of it.

You pay for that in the form of more interest paid to the banks, less flexibility in terms of your career path (since you have to have a minimum salary to make ends meet – a job loss is apocalyptic), and more stress (you can’t lose your job), all in exchange for having a mortgage-laden house a few years earlier than before.

Forget that. Rent, get rid of your student loans, and leave your options open as wide as possible.

Q8: Justifying expenses
Howdy. I’m in my mid-30s, single, have a reliable job at about $50K/yr. No debt and own outright my home (about $150K). I save pretty well for retirement and consider myself careful with my money, though not quite frugal.

There is one thing, though, that I spend a lot on that I just can’t be at peace with: I spend about $1,300 a year on yard service. Between some physical limitations and an utter lack of desire/motivation to do any yardwork myself, I’ve had the service for several years now. But I just can’t accept it; every month when I pay my bill I kick myself that so much money is flitting away. Should I look at it as one (of few) vices–unnecessary but worth the result?

I value pride in ownership, so I don’t want to just let my yard go. But I do want to either change my actions or accept them. How can I reconcile my actions with my mind? Any thoughts?
– Shelby

The first question I’d have is whether or not you’re in a situation with a homeowners association where there are standards for lawn upkeep. If you are, then you’re most likely stuck with the bill. If you’re not, then read on.

The question then boils down to how much you value having a nice lawn. I would worry more about whether it’s something you value or something that you do to keep up with the neighbors. It’s really about what you want if you can afford the expense.

If you’re happy with minimal lawn care, I would not be surprised if there were lower-cost services out there that would do a bit of fertilization and take care of the mowing and any trimming for you for less than $100 a month. There are certainly services in our area that charge less.

Q9: Collecting problem
I tried following your advice with regards to selling off the things you’ve collected and just enjoying the items you most enjoy and getting others from the library.

My problem is that I’ve found that this isn’t really fun for me. I don’t so much enjoy reading or watching DVDs as I enjoy collecting them. I really like organizing my collection and seeking out new ones to add to it.

How do I handle this with any good personal finance results?
– John

Put some restraints on your collecting bug. That’s the easiest way to do it.

The most common way to do that is to put some serious restrictions on the situations in which you buy. For example, restrain yourself to never spending more than $1 on a DVD. Then, instead of DVD shopping at Best Buy or Amazon, start DVD shopping at thrift stores and Goodwill stores and yard sales.

One good friend of mine collects board games and uses this exact same approach. He won’t buy a game unless he’s saving 80% or more off of MSRP (or what he could sell it for online). So he hits lots of yard sales, estate auctions, and so on to build up his game collection (and he’s got a pretty good collection of just the stuff he’s thrifted).

Q10: Outdoor games
I’m hosting a large outdoor barbecue for about 30 families. There are going to be a lot of teenagers and young adults there. Can you think of a way to get these people having fun instead of just sitting around waiting for it to be over?

– Shaun

My suggestion is always to come up with some sort of activity for them to be engaged in during the length of the event.

Here’s what I would do. When they get there, take everyone between the ages of 16 and 23 (or so) and divide them into teams of four. Then give them each a scavenger hunt list and tell them that the team with the most items turned in at X:00 wins the prize. The prize should be something they’d want, like four smallish iTunes gift cards or some other item you can relatively easily acquire. Tell them they can turn in prizes whenever they’d like and you’ll check them off the list when they do. Another approach is to just have them take digital pictures of the items.

Mix up the teams so that they’re forced to get to know each other a little bit in the process and make sure that there’s at least one driver for each team (a person who could borrow the car they came in).

I went to a party once where the young people (ages 15-23 or so) did this and it was a blast. I remember it fondly and I made a couple friends along teh way, wich far exceeds my expectation for such a party. From what I understand, the older people at the party were pretty entertained by it, too, with groups stopping in to drop off items regularly and everyone sitting around commenting on and talking about the scavenger list.

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. Johanna says:

    Q8, Shelby: What would you do with the $1300 if you didn’t have the yard service? You say you value having a nice yard, but is there anything else you could do with that money that you’d value more?

    Whether there is or there isn’t, there’s your answer.

  2. *sara* says:

    $100/month doesn’t seem like that much for yard care, if all your other finances are in order. And often, particularly with landscaping services, you get what you pay for. You might be able to pay less, but will the service you receive really be worth it? There’s lots of value in having a yard that you enjoy, and there’s nothing wrong with paying for a service that you can’t or don’t want to perform yourself. Just smile every time you walk outside and thank yourself for giving yourself this nice treat.

  3. valleycat1 says:

    Q1 – developing writing skills – although I agree with Trent you don’t have to spend money on classes, I would encourage you to seek out other writers locally or in on-line forums. (The KindleBoards forum is full of indie authors.) Almost every published writer I’ve read has at some point acknowledged huge numbers people who helped them hone their craft, including writing groups, mentors, and beta readers.

    Also, a number of the better known writers have written books on the craft of writing – Anne Lamott, Stephen King, Amy Tan are a few that come immediately to mind.

  4. kristine says:

    Q6- if you truly want to be as informed as possible, go beyond one blogger’s personal experiences, which reflects a small pool in one region of the country.

    I just did a quick Google search for …returning to work after chilrearing, stats… and there is a good Wall Street Journal article (WSJ). Also, you can search for …returning to work after maternity leave, stats…and there is a US census report with various aspects.

    You can further refine the search to reflect your specific field as well. Hope this helps!

  5. kristine says:

    valleycat- so right! Stephen King’s book on wirting is excellent.

  6. Johanna says:

    Q1, Valerie: I agree with valleycat. If you want your writing to be valued by people other than yourself, it’s essential that you get feedback on it from people other than yourself. The best feedback comes from people who can be honest and articulate about when something you’ve written is confusing, misleading, or awkward. Seek out critical readers like that, and listen to them.

    With your interest in horses, are there any existing publications (websites, blogs, newsletters, etc.) that you could volunteer to write for? That could get you some experience too.

  7. Ginger says:

    For question number 2, any money in your Roth would not be counted against you, but after grad school you could remove it plus $10,000 in gains for your down payment. I would recommend using your 401k for retirement savings and putting the max of your other savings in your Roth. Though your liquid assets will be counted against you, they will not completely stop you from getting financial aid so once you have done as much as you can, do not worry so much. Most likely your aid will be affect more by your income, especially the first year. If it is, and you are no longer working, ask your financial aid office for a reviewed based on you no longer working, you should get some aid then.

  8. kc says:

    Q1: if you’re interested in blogging, definitely check out Chris Guillebeau’s 279 Days to Overnight Success.

    As others have noted, not seeking out feedback and constructive criticism from those with a discerning eye (and ear) is crazy. “Just write” is at best inadequate.

  9. Rebecca says:

    Who says that staying at home with your kids means you are totally out of the workforce loop? What about part time, work from home or freelancing larger projects for your employer? My cousin works 30 hrs from home every week and cares for her almost 3 yr old. When they moved, she continued to work at home even though they are now out of state from her employer, everything is online. She loves it and considers it the best of both worlds. I have other friends who have found balance working 3 days a week, one for the state govt and the other a college professor. Ny husband freelances in his spare time and has an arrangement with his work for him to work from home evenings and weekends to make up for time he can’t be at work when our 2 autistic sons need extra care at home. There are so many other options between working full time away from home and staying home permanently.

    Good luck to you finding the right arrangement for your family.

  10. Carole says:

    Q#2: Why don’t you have to pay for grad school if you’re n physics?

  11. Johanna says:

    Q9, John: Without knowing anything more about your financial situation, it’s not clear that your “collecting problem” really *is* a problem. Are you spending so much money on books and DVDs that it’s taking money away from things you need or things you value more? If you’re not, then there is no problem. If you are, then figure out how much you *can* afford to spend, and stay within that limit, whether you’re paying $1 or $20 for the individual DVDs.

    I like a good bargain as much as anyone, but there are some things that I want that just never turn up in the $1 bins. No need to deprive yourself in cases like that if you don’t have to.

  12. Johanna says:

    @Carole: Graduate students in physics (and most other sciences) typically work as teaching assistants or research assistants. Those jobs cover the cost of tuition and pay an additional small living stipend.

  13. Anna says:

    $100/month doesn’t seem that expensive for lawn care in my area and I live in a small midwestern city. Just having your grass mowed is $140/month for 6 months out of the year unless you go with a kid who does it for a summer job.

  14. valleycat1 says:

    Q8 – One way to convince yourself one way or the other would be to give your lawn service a temporary sabbatical and borrow a neighbor’s mower, edger, or whatever & do it yourself for a month or so. Borrow or rent a riding mower if your physical limitations require it. Also, do you have a set time each week you can devote to lawn care? Those in our neighborhood who do the best job tend to stick to a specific schedule.

    I’m with the others that about $100/month doesn’t seem all that expensive for someone to do a job you find a struggle & not all that enticing.

  15. Lisa says:

    Q8. I agree it doesn’t sound like much. But I have an alternate option – do you really value the lawn? What about increasing other landscaping and reducing lawn? But then, I live in a place with limited water – and lawns are a water hog!

  16. valleycat1 says:

    Q5/Connie – I regularly read, research, browse online, and talk to people to learn about different viewpoints on almost any topic I am interested in. It enriches my world, allowing me to understand cultural and political differences, learn better ways of doing things, and compare & contrast my beliefs & knowledge to that of others. I don’t approach opposite views with the idea of proving to myself that they’re wrong and I’m right, but rather with an interest in seeing what they think & why. [Even if I were already convinced my viewpoint is the only correct one, it would equip me with a better understanding of theirs & help me address the differences.]

  17. jim says:

    Q2 Terry : As you said, people generally don’t have to pay for physics grad school. My understanding is that grad school aid for fields like the sciences and engineering is paid for based on merit and work primarily and is not need based aid. You can get tuition waivers, stipends, research assistantships, teaching assistantships and fellowships all based on merit and working. These are generally not need based aid. If you want any loans then you do need to fill out the FAFSA and then qualify some need if you want the good loans. Of course it depends on the school how much aid you’d get too. So make sure to shop around some. I know 3 people who’ve gotten Phd’s in engineering and not one has had to take a single loan. It was all paid or worked for as TA/RA. THis is my understanding of how things work, but I haven’t done it first hand.

    Q7 : I think this depends on what the interest rate is for the student loans. If the interest is particularly low like under 4%. then there should be no rush to pay them off. But if the interest is a higher rate like the common 6.8% then it may make more sense to pay down the student loans and carry more mortgage debt temporarily. Given that mortgages run around 4.5% right now I’d say thats the break even point. If the student loans are over 4.5% then pay them down more but if the student loans are under 4.5% then put your cash into saving for a house.

    Q9 John: If its just the collecting facet that you enjoy then why not pick up a hobby collecting something else? You could collect something you find fun that is inexpensive or even free. Or you could shift your DVD collecting to bargain hunting for rare DVDs. Find them in discount stores or garage sales and buy them for less than resale value. That way you wouldn’t be losing money on each purchase.

  18. David says:

    If you doze while leaning back against a tree, you will fall over and not catch any fish.

  19. Brittany says:

    As other commenters have said, if you value your lawn and the care it gets, then it’s worth paying for. Frugality is a tool to help you get what you want out of life; it’s not the end goal in itself. Also, you’re putting money into the hands of someone else who may need it more (while getting a service you value out of it). No need to feel guilt if you can afford it.

  20. Tom says:

    Q2 – Have you considered the feasibility of going back to school part time? And is there no money from your employer for continuing education(even if it’s not in your field, some companies are more liberal than others)?

    I do think that Trent’s advice is actually pretty solid – and it’s generally the elephant in the room – the aid received is usually in the form of student loans, which aren’t the greatest things in the world. The more you can pay now, yourself, your company or otherwise, the better.

  21. Kris says:

    For Question 10, my husband comes from a big family, and we have a family olympics. We are assigned teams, and compete in made up events that include seeing how many times people can toss a frisbee back and forth, trick golf putting, best cannonball dive, an egg toss and that sort of thing. (It helps to have a lot of sporting equipment lying around for this.)

  22. Arvin says:

    @Q10/Shaun – If the kids are teenagers and are already friends with each other, don’t go out of your way to create a forced playing environment. I would personally much rather just have footballs, frisbees, and baseballs and gloves lying around for people to pick up and start throwing around on their own… unless they’re all unathletic bookworms, this should be enough to wear them out for the day. If you want go ahead and start the game off yourself (be both sides’ quarterback, for example, unltil someone volunteers).

    As a kid/teenager I hated having to join and play something that had strict, complicated rules that made me feel guilty if i didn’t want to participate as much as the other kids. Games like football and frisbee (like Ultimate Frisbee) should be ubiquitous enough for people to hop in and out of without too much handwringing.

    And if the kids actually would rather socialize under a tree and talk, go ahead and let them. They could play with their Nintendo DS’s against each other for all I care, as long as they’re essentially outdoors and interacting with each other.

  23. SwingCheese says:

    Q6: I left my job about a year ago to be a SAHM. I have been incredibly bored during this year. I love my kid, of course, and I enjoy the freedom of not having a set schedule, but I find myself looking for professional interaction. Simply put, I miss working outside of the home (freelancing didn’t work for me). You may also want to consider being willing to take a part time position in your field so as to shorten the time you’re out of the loop, so to speak.

  24. deRuiter says:

    Carol #10, You don’t pay if you major in graduate physics because physics is hard, useful, in demand in the business world and the scientific community. There are opportunities to get scholarships, teaching assistant work, grants. There aren’t enough people smart enough to take physics (and the other hard sciences) and there are jobs which go begging or have to be given to foreigners from countries which stress the hard sciences like Poland and India. You need to take loans for English majors, sociology, basket weaving, ethnic studies, woman’s studies, and other things for which there is more supply than demand.

    Trent, spell check is so handy! It would catch two typos in one phrase on the first pass. “…along teh way, wich far exceeds…”

  25. Johanna says:

    Oh, deRuiter. As usual, you have no idea what you are talking about.

  26. Tom says:

    He’s insensitive but he’s right. Hard sciences pay for grad students because supply < demand.

    Oh, and research institutions love exchanging a MS/PhD for what amounts to below-minimum-wage hourly rates (some people would say slave labor, but I don't like the term) including wages-in-kind.

  27. Johanna says:

    I replied to your comment, Tom, but my reply got stuck in moderation.

  28. SwingCheese says:

    Actually, from what I’ve gathered, graduate level funding depends on both the school and the field of study. Most of the big 10 schools wave tuition and pay a graduate stipend in return for TA/RA work to a majority of their graduate students (as many as they have TA/RA positions to give). The school I attended did not, but tuition was reduced for graduate students. And that would be both graduate students in the hard sciences (such as physics) and the “soft sciences” (such as history and english, both of which have a glut of graduates).

  29. Tom says:

    That’s a good point too. I had a few grad student teachers in my foreign language classes, I’m pretty sure that assistance covered their tuition. Had a friend get his MPA (Master of Public Administration) for free through being a residence hall director.. actually I know a lot of people who did this in many fields (communications, education, sociology, etc.) as I was an RA for a long time in college.

  30. jo says:

    i personally love the suggestion in question 10! when i was in youth group and didn’t know anyone, i went to an event where we were teamed up and sent on a city-wide scavenger hunt. it was a blast and even though i’m painfully shy and didn’t know my teammates, i was able to get into “group mode” when searching out the items on the list… which included answers to local trivia questions and interesting items like a live chicken or a photo of the group with a walmart greeter!

  31. Jacinta says:

    I don’t approve of the Golden Rule. I’ve heard it used too often to justify ill treatment. For example, someone discriminates against someone who is living their life in a way that they disagree with. I often hear the defense “but if I were to make those choices, I’d want to know that everyone disapproves.”. More specifically, “If I were to be atheist/gay/living in sin/making that mistake/etc I’d want society to shun and condemn me so that I realised my mistake”.

    I prefer the platinum rule: “Treat others as they’d like you to treat them.” My friends want me to accept and love them for who they are, and to see each of them as a fully three-dimensional person not just someone who is gay; or “living in sin”; or making a financial mess. My friends do *not* want me to judge them, they do *not* want to be rescued from decisions and preferences that I might disagree with. They may not want me to thrust my advice upon them, even if I’ve been in a similar situation and I wish I’d have known what I know now. I can always offer that advice, but I should accept them saying no.

    Sometimes people disagree with this rule with an argument “well, what if someone wants you to treat them in a way that you give them all your money?”. I counter that I’d be delighted if random people wanted to give me lots of money for no good reason, so should I be giving my money away all the time?

    It’s harder work to learn how people want you to treat them, and to do that. Sometimes you’ll refuse what they want because you’re not okay with that request. Yet, it’s a lot more friendly than imposing your preferences on other people.

  32. Margo says:

    @Q2 – check your numbers. Current graduate student loan rates are not “low rate”

    My Stafford loans are all at 6.8%

  33. Margo says:

    @Q2 – check your numbers. Current graduate student loan rates are not “low rate”

    I had relatively modest resources outside of my 401k/IRA, but only received a total of $7000 in Perkins loans at the low rate of 5%.

    My Stafford loans are all at 6.8%, and my Plus loans are at 8.5% and 7.9% for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 years, respectively, due to the switch to Federal Direct Lending program instituted starting in 2010.

    All my loans are fixed-rate so there’s no hope of improving the rate I’m paying. The rate buy-downs offered for automatic payments and for X consecutive on-time payments are a paltry 0.25%, as opposed to the 1-2% reductions offered to undergrads entering in the 1999-2000 time frame.

    My weighted average rate is 7.3%.

    Contrast that with my friends who obtained the bulk of their undergrad loans at much lower rates, consolidated to lock in rates in the 2-3.5% range.

  34. jim says:

    Margo, 6.8% is not exactly high interest rate compared to historical standards. My loans were 8%. 2-4% loans are not anything anyone should really expect.

  35. Brandon says:

    Q2 – As many have said, a physics grad student shouldnt be paying for college.

    However, what was said about nowhere to hide assets, isn’t exactly true (this is more helpful for parents usually). Firstly, your home with a mortgage is a place to hide money. Put the liquid assets that count against you on the mortgage. Get a line of credit. Yes, you’ll be paying interest as you use it, but depending on your exact situation, it may end up being a net plus. That’s really the only way to “hide” liquid assets from FAFSA and aid calculations thats legal.

  36. On physics, just keep in mind that there’s quite a bit more demand for physics *grad students* than there is for professional *physicists*.

    Physics profs need a fair number of grad students to help teach their classes and run their experiments. But, at least last I checked, there were far fewer open positions for physics faculty members, or industry physicists, than there were graduating PhD’s. I know of a number of good physics students who ended up taking jobs in other fields, rather than go through a series of post-docs that might not ever lead to a permanent position. (One friend of mine went into computer science; for a while many physics PhDs went into finance, where their math skills were in demand).

    If you’re considering entering grad school, always check to see what the job situation is like for people leaving. (At the same time, consider the full range of careers that are possible– despite the impression that some faculty leave, there are more ways to “succeed” at grad school than taking a tenure-track faculty position in the same field upon graduation.)

  37. Johanna says:

    John Mark Ockerbloom said basically the same thing as I said in my comment that’s still stuck in moderation.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that some schools (but fortunately not all) take large classes of incoming grad students, but weed out a large percentage of them at the qualifying exam stage. The school gets cheap labor out of you for a couple of years, and then doesn’t even have to give you a degree in exchange.

    So that’s another thing you should always ask at each school: What percentage of students are asked to leave the program because they fail their qualifying exams? At the top two schools I was considering, the answers were “essentially none” and “almost 30%.” That’s part of the reason I chose the first school, even though I was pretty confident that *I* wouldn’t be one of the ones failing my qualifying exam.

  38. Brittany says:

    @#31 Jacinta–Bravo. Fully agree. Being able (and willing) to “meet people where they’re at” is one of the most important skills that’s helped me be successful in my personal and professional life. Besides the case of abusing the golden rule you listed, the fact is not everyone wants to be treated like me, so even if I was treating others like *I* wanted to be treated in good faith, that doesn’t mean I’m treating them well by their standards. For example, I’d rather just be hit straight up with honest feedback, even if it’s harsh, and then argue about it a bit while we each reach an understanding of the other’s side. However, that’s not how everyone operates, and recognizing that is important. If someone needs three compliments, criticism worded as lightly as possible, and then concrete suggestion for improvement, treating that person as I want to be treated in the same situation comes off a mean and hurtful.

    Also… I’m with Arvin #22. Open-ended, lightly structured activities are always more enjoyable, and teenagers tend to resent being told what they have to do “for entertainment.” If sports aren’t your crowd’s thing, have some decks of cards, some Fluxx, Yikkers, or other “fidget” games around. Board gaming in general is also an option, but smaller games might be better for cultivating the casual “lightly structured” feel.

  39. Amanda says:

    Q1-Valerie, you need to pay off your student loans prior to jaunting off on your trip. At that point you’ll know what it’s truly like to be debt FREE.

    Personally I’d have my mortgage paid off prior to doing this; however, if you have a breakeven plan for renting it out I guess that would suffice.

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