Reader Mailbag: Little Steps

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. Help disputing bill
2. Requesting credit increase
3. Most valuable thing you’ve learned
4. Finances and dating
5. Buying electronics for life?
6. Frugal social circle
7. Next step after college illness?
8. After school games
9. Frugal options for hair detangler
10. Regretting going back to school

For me, the biggest struggle in adopting a new habit is to simply get into the routine of taking little steps each day. If it’s not part of my current routine, I have a hard time integrating something new.

The key for me is to find some little way to get something into my life. Am I trying to add mindfulness or meditation to my life? I focus on my breathing for just one or two breaths each day. Am I trying to exercise? I do a set of five or ten Burpees each day.

I want something I can do in a minute.

Why do it that way? I find that if I take just that little step each day, it becomes a lot easier to do more. If I commit myself to just 30 seconds or a minute each day, when I actually start, it’s easy to stretch it to five or ten or twenty minutes.

I try to make the mountain look as small as possible, then find joy when I’m actually climbing it.

Q1: Help disputing bill
My wife and I recently moved into an old house that has a propane tank that feeds our furnace. When it got low, we found the cheapest provider at the time and got it filled for $2.59 per gallon. When they were out, they told my wife that they offered a program to regularly check and fill the tank and asked if she wanted to join. She said yes. Nothing in writing. No signature. No contract.

The next time they filled the tank, they billed us at $3.19 per gallon! We were shocked that they could so drastically change their price without any warning to us, the customer. I called and spoke to a receptionist who offered me the price of $3.09. We called three of their local competitors and got quotes for the same day our tank was filled of $2.50, $2.75, and $2.75.

We sent them a letter explaining our dispute (based on market value and the lack of a contract to fill our tank at that price) with our payment of $2.75 per gallon.

Today, we got the bill for the remaining amount with interest accrued!

Do you have any advice as to how to follow up with my dispute? Am I right to dispute in the first place?

Honestly, the difference is only $65 but that matters to my family and I feel like we were not fairly treated.
– Daniel

You could try contacting the Better Business Bureau in your area. Some businesses care about their BBB rating and some do not.

You can also use word of mouth to let others know about what the business has done to you.

Aside from that, you don’t have much recourse. The costs of dealing with this in small claims court would overwhelm anything you might gain – and you might lose anyway, especially without anything in writing to back up your claims.

Q2: Requesting credit increase
I have one credit card with a $2,700 credit limit. I have heard that having a higher debt to credit ratio is helpful. Should I request a credit limit increase? Will that help my credit score?
– Jane

It is true that a better debt-to-credit ratio can help your credit rating and that increasing your credit limit can help.

However, it’s a bad idea to do this if you’re finding yourself filling up your credit card regularly. If you already have tendencies to build up a balance on your card, you should not increase that limit.

The credit score bump you get will be pretty small, so if you’re not absolutely sure the increased credit limit won’t get you into trouble, it’s not worth it.

Q3: Most valuable thing you’ve learned
What is the single most valuable money tip you’ve learned while doing this site?
– Andy

Don’t walk into a store or visit an e-commerce website without already knowing what you’re going to buy. In other words, never go into a store without a shopping list. If you’re going into a store to browse, don’t buy anything there and write it down instead. The only exception is if you have a certain amount of cash set aside for pure impulse.

It is incredibly easy to make an impulse buy and forget about it. I do it more often than I should and those impulses often eat up most of my “free” spending for the month. If I didn’t use a grocery list, things would be disastrous.

Never, ever enter into a buying situation without a plan. If you’re ever about to buy something that you weren’t planning on buying an hour ago, back away and think about it more carefully. Give it some time.

Q4: Finances and dating
First, I’m curious- what sort of financial arrangement did you and Sarah have while you were dating? Would it be different if you were dating now (meaning after changing your perspective on finance)?

I’m currently dating someone who spends money in a very different way to me. I think I can best sum it up by saying I only save a planned amount and spend on experiences and he saves continuously and spends on things. We are both independent and comfortable, in our 30s, he makes a bit more than me.

He took me out recently as a gift and it was a fairly expensive evening. We had a nice time and I told him as much. But he was out of sorts afterwards and then disclosed that he feels resentful when he spends money on other people. He says he gets no enjoyment out of it and always ends up wishing he’d saved the money.

He was clear that this wasn’t because I was ungrateful or he didn’t have a nice time, but something about the outcome of spending on others is always unsatisfying. I don’t consider him a selfish person, but it did concern me about his relationship to money. He doesn’t come from an impoverished background and has no debt. He is thrifty in some respects but rents an expensive apartment, collects art, etc. So the problem is not with spending overall. He didn’t have much insight as to why he feels this way, unfortunately.

I wonder what your take on this is. Pathological frugality? Selfishness? Does he feel like he’s being used? (despite the fact I didn’t ask for the gift?) Am I right to worry that our differences will cause conflict?
– Tessa

It is really hard to say why he feels this way. Every reason you gave is plausible.

Given his behavior, though, you should ask yourself if this is something you can tolerate in a partner. Can you deal with this kind of conversation at every gift-giving occasion (I can’t imagine he enjoys Christmas, for example)? What about having children?

If you have a serious difference in money values with a potential partner, be very careful. It doesn’t mean either one of you is “bad” or “good,” it just means you have a wide open door to disagreement.

Q5: Buying electronics for life?
I loved your article about buying items for the kitchen for life. Can you do one about electronics?
– Marty

It is basically impossible to buy electronics for life. It’s not a matter of having the “newest and greatest” thing all the time. The issue is actually complexity.

Electronics are complex devices. There are many, many points of potential failure in an electronic device. Even if you buy a very expensive device, if even one resistor or capacitor fails unexpectedly (out of many inside a device), it can cause your device to fail.

I try to buy electronics with a seven to ten year lifespan. If I can get seven full years out of an electronic item, I’m pretty happy with that. Naturally, I’ll keep using it until it ceases to function.

That’s far, far from “buy it for life,” but it reflects the reality of home electronics.

Q6: Frugal social circle
My circle of friends goes out on Friday and Saturday night to clubs and bars and we usually have a few drinks at bars on weekdays. This is really expensive and some of us think it might make sense to cut back.

What kinds of things can we do that have the same social feeling?
– Karen

What do the people in your group like to do besides sitting at bars or drinking at clubs?

That lifestyle is unquestionably expensive. Clubs and bars offer expensive drinks and if that’s your routine, not only is it pricy right now, it’s likely detrimental to your long term health.

Spend some time figuring out what other things you guys enjoy doing and try them out as a group. If it’s something that can be done at someone’s house, you can also drink if you enjoy that and it will be a lot cheaper.

Just talk to them. Figure out some other things to try together. Even if you just dump one “bar night” or “club night” a week, you’ll save some cash.

Q7: Next step after college illness?
I find myself in a very uncommon situation. Due to a very serious illness I had to stay at home for eight months. I had to take a year off college, but I’m almost cured and I’ll be going back in September. Since I am a very avid reader of your articles, instead of just watching TV or reading books, I decided to look for opportunities for making money on the side. Since I couldn’t go out often. I ended up setting an online translating business (I live in a country where few people speak good English so translators are always needed) and was hired by a very big company. I will stay with them until I go back to college. By then, I estimate that I will have earned $25K (currently 15K + 10K during the following months), all of which I’ve saved, since I have virtually no expenses (I live with my parents, college and healthcare are free in my country, and I can’t go out much so I don’t spend money shopping or going to bars and restaurants). My car is reliable. I don’t think that any major expenses will be coming up soon. When I go back to college, I’m planning on taking a less demanding side job which will pay for my expenses (which will inevitably increase when I can start going out again), but I am not planning on touching the 25K.

Therefore, knowing that, I will have 25K in savings and that 401(k) programs don’t exist here (I can set up an IRA, though, but I haven’t done that yet), what would you recommend doing? I currently have half of my money in a savings account earning 1% and the other half invested in index funds. I have no particular goal in mind, I am very young (turning twenty next week) and I just want to save so that I can invest and make my money grow further, and maybe buy a home and get married in a few years’ time.
– Veronica

I’d spend some time assessing your post-graduation goals. What do you want to do when you actually have your degree?

Are you going to want to launch a business? Are you going to seek out a job? Will a low-paying job that builds experience help you in your career path or are you going to be seeking salary right after graduation?

In other words, do the best you can to assess when you’ll need that money. If it’s sooner, keep more of it in cash. If it’s later, leave most of it in stocks and reassess things in a year.

As for the IRA, I’m not sure that you’re earning much money right now. You can’t contribute more to an IRA than you earn without hopping through some loopholes that likely don’t apply to you.

Q8: After school games
What games do you play with your children after school?
– Tommy

I’ve said before that I try to play a board or card game with my children two or three days a week after school. When they get home, I’ll have a game set up and ready to play and we’ll play together.

Right now, my children are eight and six years old. I prefer to get games that are simple enough (in terms of the rules) that they can both enjoy it, but I can also enjoy them with adult friends.

The two big winners over the last couple of months have been King of Tokyo and Tsuro. King of Tokyo is kind of like Yahtzee with a few additional rules and a big “movie monster” theme. You have the ability to get special powers for your monster and they attack each other through dice rolls. Tsuro is a really simple tile-laying game where you lay down tiles on an 8×8 board that build roads that your character must follow, and you win by creating paths that require the other players to leave the board.

My eight year old enjoys somewhat more complex games, too, but my six year old gets lost when we play them.

Q9: Frugal options for hair detangler
My five year old daughter wakes up with her hair in a ball each morning. I use a detangling spray to help get it untangled. That stuff is a godsend, but I end up using so much that her hair is soaked afterwards and we buy a new bottle every few weeks.

Is there a homemade mix that does the same thing as detangling spray?
– Bo

I assume you’re using something like this, which really does work well for longer hair on young children. You’re right – if you’re blowing through two bottles a month of that stuff, that’s probably adding up to $100 per year.

Here’s my suggestion. When that bottle gets empty, remove the top and fill it about halfway with water. Then, squirt about a teaspoon full of hair conditioner into the bottle. After that, keep filling it with water. Shake it around really gently for a while – don’t vigorously shake it.

This stuff works great, though sometimes it seems like you have to shake it a little bit when you use it for the first time after the container hasn’t been used for a while.

Q10: Regretting going back to school
I have no debt. Around $50,000 in Roth IRAS $19,000 invested in mutual funds.

Getting married in May– the wedding is costing more than I would’ve wanted but I’ve gotten a lot of (forced) help from my future mother in law and mom. They insist on paying for things, when I say that they would be nice to have but I don’t need them. I know this is a good problem to have, as I am really only putting around $10,000 into the wedding myself. I just see how much money is getting spent on one day and have small panic attacks about it.

My fiance bought a house 3 years ago for $150,000 and we still owe $130,000. I want to be able to contribute as much as possible to knock this out. Ideally, we would pay this off in 3-4 years before we have kids. He is wondering if we should be investing instead of making extra payments. I keep stressing the benefits of being debt free. We could invest agressively after the house is paid off. He has a great job as an engineer and makes 62K a year.

I am a secretary, and while I enjoy my job sometimes, it’s just not where I want to be. I don’t want to be sitting at a desk all day, and I want more control in the amount of money I make. I’ve been selling stuff on ebay on the side– made $500 a month for the past two months. I would like to amp that up a bit. I make $466 every two weeks (net) (I work part time at 21 hours a week with benefits). I really want to go back to school for massage therapy. I know I could make much more money even if I decided to work part time. However, tuition is $10,000. I’m looking into two different schools– one would be part time for 2 days a week and would take a year to complete. However, I would be able to keep my current job if I wanted. I could go part time to the other one as well- 3 days a week and done in a year or full time at 5 days a week and done in 7 months. The difference between the two schools is the hours- the one is 660 hours, while the other is 1000 hours. I’m leaning towards the 1000 hours, as it is the same price and seems like a much more comprehensive education. I would be able to leave my job in June, once I am married and can jump on my fiances benefit plan.

My fiance is able to easily cover all the household expenses with his paychecks. Our deal this whole time was he pays the bills and I do the household chores. It works for us. I generally enjoy keeping the house clean, and since I’m part time I’ve had the time and energy to do that. However, going forward I really want to contribute more so we can get this mortgage paid off. With my current job, I make hardly anything. I want to go to massage school to better my job prospects. (The job board at one of the schools had over 60 opportunities on it! It seems like I will really have my pick of jobs after I graduate). It’s not just about the money either, I can really see myself loving the field. There are just so many options! So many different types of massage to learn, and I’m just so excited about it!

My fiance is so supportive about the whole thing. He thinks going back to school is smart and is all for me doing it. I guess I just feel guilty that I will be in school and making no money and spending so much money on school. Is it worth it? I know that I can live super frugally during that time– eating at home, not spending money on non-necessities, couponing. It seems so perfect! Why can’t I get past feeling bad about going back to school? (I have a bachelor’s in art history.)
– Rachel

If you’re getting married in May, you really should stop worrying about things as an individual and look at things as though the two of you are a team.

You are a team now. You work together to make sure you’re both doing well personally, professionally, socially, and financially. If he’s doing well, you’re doing well, and vice versa.

Clearly, he sees this as an opportunity for you, one that you’re excited about and motivated to succeed in. After this schooling, you’ll both be in a better place because you’ll be in a career path that you’re happy with (improving happiness at home) and ideally earning more money (improving finances at home). That helps both of you.

You are a team. This is clearly the right move for your team. That’s why you shouldn’t be bothered by this. He benefits, too.

Got any questions? The best way to ask is to email me – trent at thesimpledollar dot com. 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 many, many questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

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