Reader Mailbag: Homebrew Plant Care

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. Sentimental clutter
2. Piano lessons
3. Investment worries
4. Lentils?
5. Unsure of total debt
6. How many children?
7. Credit cards and spousal death
8. Cheap grilling
9. The value of life insurance
10. Revisiting games of childhood

Several of our plants acquired a surface fungus over the past week, one that made it appear as though they were covered with a light dusting of snow.

Our solution to the problem? We didn’t head to the store to buy chemicals. We just mixed together a few tablespoons of baking soda and two quarts of water, filled up a spray bottle, and headed outside. Between my wife, my daughter, and I, we covered several plants with this mixture.

Two days later, virtually no fungus. It worked like a charm, cost us only a few pennies, and saved us a trip into another town.

Q1: Sentimental clutter
I have 2 children ages 19 & 21. They are in college and only come home summers now. This summer we’ve been sorting through their rooms and trying to clean stuff out. My problem is that I’m the one who is struggling with what to donate or throw out and what to keep. I am TERRIBLY sentimental. I’m finding it hard to part with barbies, books, pinewood derby cars, etc. Any suggestions? Also, how about the huge box of school papers and projects? Same issues there. I’m having such a hard time letting go. I keep thinking even if I can get rid of stuff maybe a couples years down the road when my kids are more mature they’ll regret getting rid of some of these things.

– Joan

My suggestion is to do what my parents did, which worked well.

My mom kept a lot of my childhood belongings in storage. Every year or so, she’d make a pass through them and eliminate a few items. She’d save the highlights of those items for me to look at, and rarely would I want to save any of them.

Over several years, everything from my childhood boiled down to a small box of things I wanted to keep and another box of items my children wanted to play with. She also kept a very small handful of items, too.

Give it time. Make a pass through the items every once in a while and ask yourself whether each item really needs to be kept. Over time, you will whittle it down.

Q2: Piano lessons
I was wondering if you still teaching yourself how to play the piano? If so, how’s it coming along?

– Andrew

I chose to stop taking piano lessons last fall when I found my time getting more and more pinched. The time investment of practicing regularly and attending lessons was difficult to keep up when The Simple Dollar was eating up more and more of my time.

Basically, my family is my top priority. When there’s something that’s consistently taking time away from them, then I start looking at what I’m doing wrong and look for a change. At the time, the piano lessons were the easiest thing to drop, even though I really didn’t want to.

I am considering returning to lessons in the near future once I get several personal projects out of the way.

Q3: Investment worries
When I got my job in 2010, the first thing I did was follow your advice and sign up for a 401(k). Between my contribution and my employer match, I’m contributing 16% of my income to my retirement, which makes me feel good. What stresses me out though is the day to day fluctuation in the value of it. I find myself checking it every day and I get sick to my stomach on days when it loses 2-3% of its value. Thousands of dollars vanish in a blink. I know intellectually that it’s okay but my gut still hurts. How do I get past that?

– Marc

You need to stop looking at the balance every day, for one. All that does is contribute needlessly to your stress level.

Most investments with a moderate level of risk (like stocks) fluctuate a lot on a day to day basis. However, people typically don’t invest in them unless they’re day trading or they’re in it for the long haul. If you’re in it for the long haul, the day to day fluctuations don’t really matter at all. You’re really only interested in change over larger periods, like years or decades.

My suggestion is to review your retirement accounts annually, no more, no less. Most years, you’ll find nothing to stress out about.

Q4: Lentils?
Do you eat and or like lentils? I know they’re good for me and they smell good, but every time I’ve had them, they always disappoint. I want to like them for health reasons but I’ve yet to find a good recipe. I know you’re a vegetarian so I was wondering if lentils are part of your diet and how you cook them to be tasty.

– Karen

I like lentils. However, I know that many people don’t.

My favorite use for them is in a savory soup, of which this is a good example. Lentils serve as a great backbone for a soup, providing texture and a bit of flavor, but with the flavor of other seasons coming over the top.

If you don’t like a particular foodstuff, though, don’t sweat it. There is a wide world of foods out there to try.

Q5: Unsure of total debt
What is your advice to someone who is not sure who they owe? I am really good at hiding so I am not sure what my debt is, who I owe it to, how much I owe, etc.

– Megan

I would start with my credit report.

Go get a copy of your credit report at the Federal Trade Commission’s website. When you retrieve it, use it as a checklist for your debts.

You need to spend the time to figure out what each item is on that credit report. Many of them will be debts that have a balance. Some might be debts that have closed. Others might even be things falsely attributed to your credit report.

This isn’t perfect, but it’s a very good start.

Q6: How many children?
How did you and Sarah come to the decision to have three children? How was three the right number for you guys? Why not more? Why not less? What went into that decision?

– Erica

We intended to have at least one child since before we were married, so the first one was simple.

After each child, we spent some time talking through the issue of whether to have another one. At our current station, we’ve decided not to have another one, though the idea of adoption has been discussed.

Our biggest issue each time was whether or not we felt we could give sufficient attention and care to each of our children if we added another one to the mix. After our third, we began to feel a bit less sure about our answer to that question.

Q7: Credit cards and spousal death
When my wife passed away, I was cleaning up her bills. Discovered an interesting fact. She had a credit card from Sears in her own name. The balance was $1200.00 on it. I called Sears and explained that my wife had passed away. I wanted to know what was the legal ramifications for myself as the husband. Since I had not signed on to her card and she was deceased, the balance would be forgiven on the spot. I asked if they wanted a copy of proof of death. They did not require that. In fact, a few days later I received a Sympathy card from Sears as well.

– Eric

Sears handled that situation with grace.

Of course, most companies would handle this situation in a similar fashion. It’s pretty clear you had no direct liability in this situation, so a company would have a pretty tough time pushing this and trying to convince you to cough up the money. They wouldn’t have much of a leg to stand on, but they certainly could use persuasion. Most companies interested in preserving their reputation wouldn’t go that route.

Still, it’s always good to know that there are decent companies out there.

Q8: Cheap grilling
My wife and I are trying to cut back on our food spending, but it’s really hard to do it in the warm spring and summer when we’re tempted to grill all the time. I know you guys grill. How do you keep it cheap?

– Vincent

Sarah and I are pretty much vegetarians (I’m all the way there and Sarah is 90% there), so we mostly grill vegetables. We make skewers full of vegetables, wrap vegetables in aluminum foil (we just ate zucchini and tomato grilled in foil for dinner yesterday, along with other things), and sometimes just toss them straight on the grill.

The basic technique we use for saving money is the same we’d use if we were eating meat. We just look at the store flyers for the fresh items that are on sale and focus on buying and preparing those.

For example, we found a sale on zucchini recently, so we grilled them two different ways (sliced into discs and dipped in olive oil, as well as the foiled dish described above). We take what’s cheap and try to come up with delicious ways to use it.

Q9: The value of life insurance
On the subject of Life Insurance, I would like to stress the importance of a mother/wife being insured, especially if there are small children involved or already in College. My wife died in 2000 at the age of 54 from Breast Cancer/Brain Tumors. It was agressive and shortlived. Absolutely no history of cancer on either side of my wife’s family. We had a policy for $100,000. I can only tell you that with 4 children 11, 15,16,17., it was a valuable investment. From diagnosis to death was about 7 months. If this was to be done over again I would be sure that we would have had no less than $200,000 of insurance. We were blessed with generous donations from our church family as well. I was adamant in having my wife insured. (Years earlier, my sister also died of Breast Cancer at age 37. Left behind a sad husband and 4 boys, ages 6 years to 15 years. I ended up raising them for the next 16 years as a single 28 year old bachelor and she had no insurance at all).

I wish people would not be so grim about insurance. It is a blessing to have when the storms of life hit.
– Leon

I think most people avoid life insurance because it makes them think of their own mortality. No one wants to think of themselves dying.

The reason for life insurance, though, has nothing to do with you. It’s not for you. It’s for the people you love the most in this world. It’s for your kids and your spouse. A life insurance policy just guarantees that they’ll have a good life, come what may.

If your money invested in life insurance is completely wasted, it’s still a good outcome because you lived for all those years. If it’s not wasted, then you made a killer investment for your loved ones. It’s a good result either way.

Q10: Revisiting games of childhood
Just wanted to see if you had any opinions on the new Axis and Allies version (currently sold in game and bookstores). I grew up playing the old Axis and Allies, and still play it pretty consistently, however, I am wondering if it’s worth upgrading.

– Aaron

There are actually a lot of versions of Axis and Allies floating around out there.

The basic version – the one you’ve probably seen – is pretty similar to the old one from the 1980s. The gameplay is more or less identical. The biggest changes are ones that alter the victory conditions and the stats of the various units. Overall, the changes are pretty minor and are almost all good changes.

There are quite a few alternate versions of the game floating around, too, where the game focuses on specific battles or theatres of operation of World War II. There’s a Europe version, a Pacific version, a Guadalcanal version, a D-Day version, and a Battle of the Bulge version. These still retain the basic gameplay of Axis and Allies, with big changes to the map and the victory conditions and the unit types.

If you really liked Axis and Allies as a kid, any of these will work. It’s a pretty good game, even beyond the nostalgia of it. If you have someone to play it with and will get a few plays in, it’s actually a pretty cheap form of entertainment.

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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