Reader Mailbag: Kitchens and Careers

Welcome to this week’s Reader Mailbag!

A note: I get enough questions to do two or three mailbags a week. I’ve considered putting a second Mailbag on Thursdays. Would this be of interest to you guys?

I recall a few months ago you were thinking seriously about cutting out all or most meat from your diet? Where did you get to with this? What was it inspired by? (I seem to remember there was a book that started you thinking about this?)

– Eve

In late 2008 to early 2009, I had a bit of a health scare that prompted me to start exercising more and eating better, a trend I followed during most of 2009. However, during the final crunch for my book, my diet and exercise regimens both went downhill. Now that the book is done, I’m putting both back into place.

I found a lot of inspiration from various books when I got started with this regimen. Two really stood out from the pack: In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan (which I actually reviewed here a while back) and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.

My current plan is the “vegetarian until 6 PM” plan, which bascially means eating vegetarian for breakfast, lunch, and any daytime snacks, then eating a normal dinner.

Your post on Framework and distractions reminded me of an idea I’d heard of – a media fast. To drown out the noise of life and listen to ourselves and what we value rather than media outlets. No tv, no non fiction books, no music with words, no magazines. I’ve been meaning to try it soon for mental health reasons, but it also seems like a very frugal way to spend quality time. Here is a post on it from another blog.
– Amanda

I used to do “media fasts” somewhat regularly in college through the mid-2000s. I would allow myself books, but I wouldn’t watch any television, listen to the radio, read magazines, or use the internet in any fashion. I’ve done many week-long sessions of this, with one session lasting a month.

The biggest thing I noticed is how much the advertising shocks you when you stop doing this. Ads are everywhere, even in the content we read and listen to. It’s amazing how much content is there simply for the purpose of selling you stuff. Once you see it, it becomes hard to trust a lot of the messgaes out there.

I’d love to do it again, but at this point it would require a full-on vacation from The Simple Dollar, which is difficult. With my previous work, I could still easily do my job while doing a media fast, but that’s much harder when you’re basically writing for and managing a media property.

I am currently employed, but at about 1/2 the amount I was making a year and a half ago. I was making $72,000 – which helped me pay off all credit card debt, but I got laid off in Aug. 2008. I was unemployed for about three months and then found another job making around $35,000. My only debt right now is my mortgage – around $32,000 and my school loans – around $68,000 (and also about $300 in credit card purchases from Christmas, but that will be paid off within the month.) I have depleted the majority of my savings – mostly through making purchases that I probably could’ve lived without when I first got laid off, but needless to say I have about $500 in savings right now. That’s some background so here’s where my question begins, I have been making extra payments on my mortgage – my current payment is $300 a month (the joys of small town rural life) and I’ve been paying $65 extra a week – about $260 a month. I am employed in a state job and it looks like there’s a better than average chance that with the economy I could get laid off again this summer. Should I stop making the extra payments on my mortgage (currently 7.5%) and put all of that in to savings (at maybe 1.5% interest at ING), or should I keep making the extra payments until I can no longer make them? I am currently able to put about $200-300 into savings every month.
– Sandy

I would stop the extra mortgage payments (for now) and channel the difference into personal savings for a while.

The big reason for this move is that you need an adequate emergency fund, especially given your current financial situation. An unexpected event, like a car repair or a lost job, can really derail your fairly stable situation, causing you to have to dip into the debt pool to stay above water, and that can become a downward sprial.

How much should you have? I’d suggest having enough in your account to cover three months’ worth of living expenses. Since you’re fairly confident that you’ll be laid off again this summer, I’d probably keep going beyond three months.

So, I would just channel the extra mortgage payment purely into your savings for now so that you don’t have to rely on debt if you’re laid off.

I graduated last December and was blessed to get a job in my new field that began in January. My loans come due in July but I will apply for loan forgiveness with my new job and that will leave me with about $8000 principle. What I am wondering is if it is better for me to just pay it off or make a few months payment because of my credit rating. I use two credit cards monthly but pay my balance in full and I don’t have a car payment or a mortgage. I pay bills to my family where I live but my name is not on any of the utilities. I used to live in my own place so I did have bills in my name several years ago but I have no plans to change my current living situation. I am asking because of a previous post I read where a couple saw their insurance rate increase and their credit rating decrease because they had their bills paid.
– Andy

If you have credit cards and pay the balance in full each month, you’re doing what you need to do to maintain a good credit rating. Thus, I wouldn’t worry about maintaining that rating and instead would focus on getting yourself in the best position.

The advice about maintaining a good credit rating was directed towards people that had absolutely no lines of credit for a period of seven years, at which point their credit report was blank. If you’re paying off your credit card in full each month, this doesn’t apply to you. Even just leaving the card open would suffice.

I don’t know the exact ins and outs of your situation, but debt freedom is certainly a strong path to take in any situation. If you have the financial resources to pay the whole debt off, I’d do so.

I’m a 26-year-old woman working as a part-time music teacher in a local public school district. I’m extremely lucky, because my school district is paying for my master’s degree in full! I will graduate in May from a private university with my master’s in school counseling, with zero student loan debt. However, there is a clause in my teacher’s contract that states that I must stay in my current school district for one year after finishing my degree, or else I will need to pay back half of my tuition. In other words, if I leave my job next year to pursue my career in school counseling, I will owe $24,000 (my entire degree costs my district $48,000). My question is, should I stay one more year to eliminate my debt? Or should I take on the debt, knowing that I could potentially earn $45,000 in a new job? Is it ever smart to have debt? Other information: I currently have $3,000 left on a car loan, but other than that I have zero debt to my name. No credit card debt, no other tuition debt, nothing. I enjoy reading your website, and look forward to your feedback. Thanks so much!
– Jessica

There are two big questions I would think about here. First, how much would I “earn” in total over the next year if I stayed at my current job? That would be your current salary plus $24,000. Second, what’s my ability to actually get a different job this year as well as next year?

I don’t know what you’re earning part time, but if it’s even close to $20,000 a year, I would tend to argue for staying where you are. For one, it sounds like the salary at the other job is uncertain but has the potential of $45,000 a year. In this job market, that might not be a guarantee.

For two, a bird in the hand is almost always worth two in the bush. It’s rarely a good idea to turn away from a good offer to leap into the unknown chasing a potentially great one.

I have been thinking for the past several months (maybe a year) that a career change could be in order for me. I am currently in my fifth year of teaching high school English, a career I entered because of the opportunities to make a positive difference in people’s lives. I also wanted to share my passion for reading and writing, thinking that passion would serve me well in a teaching career.

I have gotten to a point in my teaching career where every day is a struggle. I dread going to work, to the point where my weekends are spent worrying about the coming week. I feel like a sizable portion of my teaching is spent on correcting misbehaviors and trying to motivate unmotivated students. I feel like I am forcing instead of teaching. I have tried several things, many that you outlined in your post on how to energize your career, but to no avail. I have been chair of a committee at school; I volunteered to mentor a student who needs to pass a crucial state test; I have tried several new approaches in the classroom; I have talked to colleagues about ways to improve my teaching or make the experience more positive. Nothing is working. I feel like I am constantly banging my head against the wall in frustration. Also, I have a 50-minute commute each way to school, which definitely adds to these frustrations.

During this year’s Christmas break, I began to seriously consider switching careers. Many people have told me I am a talented writer, and I think that if I could find a position where I could utilize that talent while still doing work that I find meaningful I could be much more successful, or at least more happy, than I am now.

The thought of making this change scares me, but it also excites me. I feel like I have been “in a funk” for the past few years because I have been so unhappy at work, to the point where friends and family have noticed. I don’t want to say that I am depressed, because I can’t make that clinical diagnosis, but I do feel like the character in the cartoons who has the raincloud directly overhead at all time. Actually my mom emailed me at one point last year and said that she could tell I was unhappy and she supported me in any decision I would make about my career.
– Justin

You should absolutely head towards being a writer. If that’s what you’re passionate about, that’s what you should be doing.

Right now, if I were you, I would spend as much of my time as I can using my current job as a platform to get ready for the next job. Ignore the drudgery of the day-to-day at your current job. View it instead as preparation for your next career. Go home from work each night and write. Write as much as you can. Get stuff down on paper (or in bit form). Start building up a big healthy cash reserve by living as cheaply as you can.

Make your big focus right now moving towards that career you want. Fill your thoughts with it. Spend all your spare time on it. Make it your focus, and cover every base you can before making that leap.

Then, reframe your current job not as your career, but as something you do to bring in cash to support what you’re really doing. You may find, eventually, that you’re earning some from writing and can move on to a part-time position doing something else to bring in supplemental income. Soon, you might be able to do it full time.

But you have to start. Today. If you don’t, you’ll be stuck where you are now, which sounds like a really unhappy place.

I’ve been a follower of The Simple Dollar for 4 years now. I paid off $15,000 in debt incurred from starting a nonprofit and paying its bills when it couldn’t afford to, and being caught in the middle of having to pay my own bills. Your website has kept me very motivated. Discussing Your Money or Your Life and getting the book myself totally changed my financial life. I paid off my credit card debts in 3 years, with a wedding thrown in between for which we paid cash. My savings have skyrocketed, my vehicles are now paid off, and so is my very humble home.

The small nonprofit cannot afford to pay me a salary, so I work full time (in a public school system). It’s a bit of a catch-22, I need a job to pay my bills, but the nonprofit can’t afford it, so I run it after work and on the weekends. I can’t continue to do both. We just signed the lease/purchase for the property we’re on, and we’re well on our way to pay cash when the lease expires and the purchase part of the agreement kicks in. I want to plant a corn maze on a section of our property that’s physically detached from the rest of the farm. If it makes as much money as I earn on my paying job, I want out and focus on the nonprofit, which, if I could spend more time on it, would generate much more income and serve many more people. And maybe even pay a salary. I’ll need two more years to make 10 years in the school system, but I’m so incredibly unhappy that I want out sooner. The 10 year retirement income would be very minimal.

I’m totally motivated to do the cornmaze, but I’m still scared to jump. The corn maze would operate for 1.5 -2 months. Costs associated with clearing and prepping the site will come out of whatever we’ve already saved for the purchase (which I found shockingly expensive: $1,500 an acre to clear, so at this point $15,000). An 8 acre section behind us is available for $25,000 and will be needed to make the maze a decent size instead of 2 acres. We can pay cash for all of it, which will take away from our savings to purchase the property when the lease expires. I’ve discussed my plan with others in the industry, as well as the county agent, feed coop, and the general public, as well as those in education, several of whom I work with. The consensus is that it would be very well received and probably successful. I want to do this, but I’m nervous. I shouldn’t be, I have experience running a small business and have all the resources. Do I just close my eyes and take the plunge?
– Anita

From what I know about corn mazes, they wouldn’t take a lot of time to set up and run. You basically plant a field, grow the corn, then chop down a maze in the corn. You then set up a booth and charge admission.

Since you work in a public school system, you have the summer off, right? Why not just plant the field in the early spring, wait until summer, then lay the groundwork for the corn maze? You can then see first hand whether or not it earns good money. If it does, just work out the remainder of your contract with the school and go with the non-profit full time.

The big thing here is this: there are a lot of businesses that seem really good on paper that just don’t work in real life. The corn maze relies on people (customers) actually wanting to go through a corn maze. It’s often hard to tell if such a market exists in a large fashion without careful market study and, while your advice from people has probably been good advice, it’s really hard to be certain it will work. Since such a side business wouldn’t require a ton of work during the school year, why not give it a shot starting this spring, get the corn maze going in the summer, and see what happens?

I read your website almost daily and one of the themes that you discuss often is having a “big, fat emergency fund”. I certainly concur with this but how big are you thinking exactly? Here is my situation: I’m 39 years old and a single mother of two. I have a steady income and contribute the maximum allowable amount for the employer-based retirement ($16500/annually). I have maxed out the Roth IRA as well and put about $50 per month into each of my children’s 529 accounts. I am focusing more on retirement savings than my kids’ college funds thinking that there are alternate ways to pay for college and my children should contribute to their college education. In addition to the employer-based retirement plan and the Roth IRA, I put an additional $500 every pay period (26 pay periods annually) into a liquid money market account. My available liquid cash is about $31,000. The only major ongoing debt I have is a $1283/month mortgage with an interest rate of 4.625%. I should be able to pay that off in about 10 years. I pay my credit cards off in full each month.

My salary is quite stable as I work for the federal govt. However, I am thinking about a career shift to nursing next year, which will require me to go back to school full time for at least 2 years. Since I will potentially be without an income for at least 2 years, I am thinking that I should have a cash fund for at least 2 years worth of living expenses, which is about $60,000 (includes mortgage, groceries, utilities, some entertainment, childcare). So, do you think that I should use the $60,000 as my target for the emergency fund? I’m only about half way there and I’m not sure that I will be able save the additional $30,000 in available cash needed by the end of this year, even if my kids and I only eat beans and rice.

Would love to hear your thoughts on this.
– Tas

My general rule of thumb for emergency funds is to have 2-3 months of living expenses saved per person in your household. Thus, if you’re single, 2-3 months might cut it. If you’re married, have 4-5 months or so. If you have kids, make it last even longer than that.

It sounds like you’re probably somewhere in the ballpark with that amount right now. It’s really hard to tell without more specifics on your life.

What do you do beyond that? You have to sit down and start assessing the goals you have for your life. Do you want to live elsewhere? Do you want to travel? Do you want to support certain causes? Do you want to start a business?

These are decisions that are up to you, but once you have a great emergency fund in place, they become real questions that you have to think about.

I have a question that has several different parts. First, I’m moving this year to a new city and out on my own for the very first time. I’ll be living by myself in an apartment and I’m so excited! I would like your advice for stocking a kitchen for one who likes to cook without spending a mint. I have been given leave to shop our house and I will definitely be doing that, taking my mother’s china and so forth, but there are other things I’m going to need and I’ve started a list. I definitely intend to hit the yard sales in a major way but somethings I’d like to purchase new, like knives for instance. I remember you wrote an article about buying a new knife. I don’t want an extravagant fabulous one but neither do I want cheapie cheapo. What do you recommend and how many for a moderate cook? What other things would you recommend buying new for and what do you recommend looking for in yard sales? I really appreciate any feedback.
– Sue

For plates and flatware, you can probably find appropriate material at yard sales if you look around. A simple set can often be found on the cheap from people who have upgraded their plates and flatware.

As for pans and knives, stick with buying the minimum number of items at first and study them carefully. 95% of what I do in a kitchen in terms of cutting, for example, is done with a single knife – my chef’s knife. 90% of my kitchen cooking is done in an enameled stainless steel pot – yes, everything from frying an egg to making soup. You really don’t need fifteen different kitchen implements to do variations on the same task.

In terms of bang for the buck, I usually trust Cooks Illustrated for buying kitchen items. I would probably point you towards the three piece Fibrox set to cover all of your knife needs (between the chef’s knife and the paring knife, you probably won’t need more).

As for pots and pans, I’d trust Cooks Illustrated’s Ideal Cookware Set a la carte. I would probably just get a piece at a time – and I’d start, honestly, with the enameled French oven. We have two of those and we can pretty much cook everything in them.

If you can find items similar to what’s on that list at yard sales, good luck. Once, I found a bunch of All-Clad stainless steel stuff at a yard sale, but I didn’t have cash on hand to buy it. I asked the people to hold them for me while I went to get cash, but when I got back, they had sold it because “they didn’t know if I was really coming back.” (Needless to say, I immediately left and didn’t buy a thing from them.)

How about them Saints?
– Michael

All I have to say about the Super Bowl is this. Almost three months ago, Evan wrote in with the following question, which appeared in Mailbag #89:

Peyton Manning or Tom Brady?

My response?

Drew Brees.

I think the Saints had more to play for than the Colts did and that made all the difference in the world. New Orleans should be a fun place between now and Fat Tuesday.

Got any questions? Ask them in the comments and I may address them in a future reader mailbag.

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