Reader Mailbag: Hand Sanitizer

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. Gym or home exercise equipment?
2. Mother’s Day the frugal way?
3. Beginning personal finance books
4. Apprehensive about moving for career
5. Tossing a suboptimal item
6. Making or buying bread?
7. Minimal food costs?
8. Dying friend with financial problems
9. Struggling with savings and planning
10. Learning how to cook

I have this giant jug of hand sanitizer on my desk. Two or three times a day, I put some on my hands, rub them together, and enjoy the feeling of sanitized hands.

Do I really need to do it? Probably not. However, I’ve noticed that once I started this routine, the number of colds and other such temporary ailments went down – way down. I don’t remember the last time I was sick.

Now, that might be partially due to a better diet, but if the hand sanitizer plays a role, I’m quite happy to spend a couple dollars for enough hand sanitizer to last me most of a year. It’s well worth it.

Q1: Gym or home exercise equipment?
Last year I switched jobs and during my first few months at my new gig I got away from my exercise routine so I could focus on getting into the groove of my new position. Unfortunately, during that time, I put on a few extra pounds. I have gotten into my routine that maintains the weight I am at, but I need to ramp it up for a few months to get back down to where I want to be.

My boyfriend says that we should buy the elliptical and dead-weights I am so fond of for this. I think I should just get a cheap gym membership for a few months. His logic is once we buy it, we will have the stuff forever and can always use it. My logic is at home all I need is my bike and yoga ball for when I get back to the point of just maintaining weight instead of dropping weight, and I only need the elliptical and weights for a few months, so why pay close to $1400 to buy all the stuff when I can pay $80 for four months of a gym membership. I also don’t want to put it on a credit card because we would have to pay interest.

What are your thoughts on the “cheap gym membership for a few months vs. buying home exercise equipment” debate?
– Chloe

I would go with the gym membership, particularly a short term one.

I don’t know exactly how dedicated you are to a very regular workout routine, but if you don’t have a long history of maintaining a very regular one, a shorter-term gym membership is always the way to go. It will cost you far less in the long run.

If you do find yourself exercising 4 or 5 times a week for a year, then look at the equipment for home use. Sure, you might have “wasted” the money going to the gym, but that’s a far better situation to be in than having bought the equipment only to find you’re not using it.

Q2: Mother’s Day the frugal way?
I’m really torn on Mother’s Day. I want my mom to know she’s appreciated but the whole thing feels so marketed and seems to demand that you spend money on unwanted stuff. How do you celebrate Mother’s Day with your mom?

– Joe

I usually call her and talk about anything she wants to for as long as she wants to. I also usually give her quite a few calls in the week or two leading up to Mother’s Day so I can get a sense of something she might actually want instead of a generic (and useless) gift.

The best gift you can give is your time and your thought and your attention. That’s true of Mother’s Day or any other gift giving occasion. The amount you spend is completely secondary.

Spend a day with your mom doing whatever it is she wants to do. That’s the best gift you can give and it’s the cheapest, too.

Q3: Beginning personal finance books
My 19 year old recently got his first job. He is a saver and is even thinking about buying stock in his company with a 15 percent discount. Do you know of any great basic finance books for a young man hauling in his first real paychecks?

– Lois

It really depends on how avid of a reader he is.

If he’s not an avid reader and is more likely to just pick up a book and glance at it every once in a while, a book like The Rules of Money or my own 365 Ways to Live Cheap is the way to go.

If he is an avid reader, I’d probably go with Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. It’s just such a powerful book.

Q4: Apprehensive about moving for career
I recently got an amazing job working in the office of [a congressman]! I’m incredibly excited about this opportunity! But I’m also worried.

I don’t know anyone in D.C. other than a couple of professional contacts. I’ve started looking at housing prices and they’re backbreaking. The job itself excites me. The other elements scare me. Help!?
– Evan

The first thing I’d do is contact other people in the office you’re about to join and ask them for suggestions. In my experience, many congressional aides tend to live together in apartments for the camaraderie and the cheap rent.

From what I know about the life of congressional office workers (based on the experience of friends), you’re going to be very, very busy. Expect that this period of your life will be devoted to work above all else. This is your chance to build the foundation of a career in politics. Go there with the minimum of what you’ll need and focus on building something great – relationships, connections, and experience.

Remember, you really don’t need that much. A bit of food, a bit of water, a place to lay your head. Good luck.

Q5: Tossing a suboptimal item
A big question is what do you do if you buy an item (food, toiletries, etc) and it isn’t right for you or doesn’t work the way you need it to? A small example; I had been using Mentident toothpaste in the push down dispenser. In the past it worked fairly well, although at times it was hard to get both parts out in equal amounts. I now have a canister that is very difficult to even get any out and it is a struggle every time I use it. I want to simply throw it away and get a different kind but it cost around $5.00 (it was a multiple pack). I can’t return it as I already used the first one. Or a food that I thought I would like but turns out I hate it. What do you do in cases like this? Suck it up and use it up? Or improve a small part of your quality of life, toss it, and not have to deal with it anymore?

– Erin

The first thing I do in situations like that is offer the item to friends. It might be that they would still use it. I know many of my friends have different food tastes than I do, so they might want something that I don’t like.

If that doesn’t work, and if I can’t sell the item or find another use for it, I am okay with tossing it and chalking it up as a lesson learned. Not everything in life meets our expectations.

Experiences like this are why I tend to read a lot of reviews before buying anything, particularly items I don’t have significant knowledge of.

Q6: Making or buying bread?
After reading so many of your responses to questions of “which is cheaper,” I have a question of my own: Is it less expensive to make my own bread (using a bread machine and basic white or wheat recipes), or to buy the cheapest bread I can find at the grocery store? I understand there are health implications in this (with the cheap supermarket bread being full of sodium, sugar, preservatives, etc.), but for the short-term saving every single penny I can takes the front burner, so to speak!

– Andrea

It’s a wash, really.

If you’re making a very basic loaf of bread, the cost of all of the ingredients plus the cost of the baking adds up to somewhere in the range of $1.25. That’s comparable to a low-end loaf at the grocery store, but perhaps a bit cheaper.

If you’re making more of an artisan bread, with a particular kind of flour and other elements such as an asiago cheese crust, the cost will go up quite a lot – but the cost of buying this will go up, too.

The quality of homemade bread, though, is higher than the bread at the store. I go ga-ga over toast made from homemade bread. For me, it’s worth the effort because of the extra quality. The dime or two I might save per loaf is just incidental.

Q7: Minimal food costs?
What do you think is the minimum cost that a person would have to spend on food if they cut back to the very minimum?

– Jessica

It really depends on how healthy you want to live.

A few years ago, many people made a big deal about living on $21 per week, or $1 per meal. It was quite achievable – in fact, a few congresspeople did it as a publicity stunt. However, the consensus at the time was that you couldn’t get a nutritionally well-rounded diet at that price.

Since then, food has inflated. It would be very difficult to estimate the cost of a reasonably healthy diet for an adult person, but I’d be willing to bet you could do it at an average cost of $2 per meal over a long period, provided you were willing to do a fair amount of food preparation.

Q8: Dying friend with financial problems
Without going into too many details I have a friend who is dying. He has always made poor to horrendous financial decisions & is now hurting financially. I have helped him out before & have done so recently. I realize when you give a gift of money how it is spent IS NOT YOUR BUSINESS, but I have a nagging feeling of being used & his feeling that I could do more, but choose not to. It is strange to give some one who is crying poverty money & then find out they are going out to restaurants and using it for other extremely expensive forms of entertainment (I don’t want to specify). I can also understand that if you are dying you want to fill what time you have left with things that give you pleasure. My pleasures tend to be simple & more related to being with people I care about as opposed to things, so I am not trying to impose my values on other people. I have decided what I gave, I gave from the heart, but that is probably it. I am supportive, I am there if he needs me, when he needs me, for whatever he needs me for, but I am not a walking ATM. Unfortunately, when you are facing the end some values & issues that were perhaps not as readily apparent come out. I hope he can find the peace in death he clearly has never found in life.

– Jared

I would find it really difficult to second-guess the spending choices of someone who is dying, particularly someone who was not leaving behind any dependents. I can’t imagine the pain that would be involved in going through that, and I’m pretty sure it would lead people to make unorthodox decisions.

I think the best thing you can do is just be there for your friend during his final days. Understand that he’s making poor choices out of a very complicated mix of emotions (and possibly other physical and mental issues as well, depending on the illness).

Don’t be a judge here. That doesn’t mean you need to hand him money. Be emotionally supportive, but you don’t have to be financially supportive.

Q9: Struggling with savings and planning
I consider myself very lucky that I have owned a home with my boyfriend for the past 2 years, and we both have well paying jobs with benefits, minimal student loans, no credit card debt and no car payments. We are both 27 years old, and have a combined income of about $110k annually, which amounts to about $6k/month after taxes, benefits, 401k, (we save about 9% of our total income annually,) etc. We live in the Chicagoland area which means our cost of living is a bit higher than most. We regularly pay more on our mortgage principal which amounts to a little above about an extra mortgage payment a year. My issue is this: we are building up a surplus of savings, (I would say that we have a bit over $10k at this point,) and I’m not quite sure what to do with it. We have an older house that we would like to upgrade in the relatively near future. Of course, there are also the costs that come with being a homeowner, including emergency situations which we would like to be prepared for rather than have to put a charge on a credit card. We would also like to get married in the next year or so, and I’m not sure how much financial assistance we will get from our families. Here is a summary of our debts:

Mortgage – about $160k @ 4% (We recently refinanced)
Student Loans – about $22k (combined) at about 6%

I really struggle with what to do with our growing savings. (I realize that this is a great problem to have!) Intuitively, I think that we should work to get the student loans down since they are at a higher interest rate. (We do pay a bit more on our principal each month.) However, part of me thinks that we should just keep saving for a wedding or a kitchen upgrade, or some unforeseen emergency expense. I think that we are saving a decent amount in our 401k, but I question whether we should put more there. Do you have any thoughts, or reading material that might help?
– Denise

If I were in your shoes, I would make sure that I had an emergency fund that covered three months or so of your shared expenses. For the rest of it, I’d either save for a known future expense or I’d tackle the student loan.

There’s nothing wrong with having that money in savings at all. If you just let it sit there and grow over time, it will be there for you when you decide what to do with it. Sometimes people get anxious and want to spend it because they have it. I take a different approach – hold onto it until life shows you where to spend it.

As for the 401(k), 10% is usually a good target percentage for people under 30 contributing to retirement, and you’re in that group. You’re pretty much on target there.

Q10: Learning how to cook
How exactly did you learn how to start cooking at home? It sure sounds like you taught yourself, but how did you do it? I seem to make a disaster out of everything I make.

– Olivia

I started out with a copy of Joy of Cooking that I found at a yard sale. I tried making the simplest things in there until I could do them well – things like scrambled eggs, for example.

Not too long after that, YouTube really took off and I started watching a lot of cooking videos on there. There are a lot of good videos showing you how to make specific things, but the real valuable videos are the technique ones and the ones that explain why you’re doing these things.

If I were learning today, I’d use YouTube mixed with a really good instructional cookbook like Joy of Cooking or Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.

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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