Updated on 09.20.10

Reader Mailbag: Long Hair, Short Hair

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. Single mom, crazy life
2. Debt payoff or Roth IRA?
3. Pay cash for car?
4. 401(k) or IRA rollover?
5. Cut Roth contributions to travel?
6. Switch to HSA?
7. Watching sports without cable/satellite
8. Finding scholarships for adult students
9. An unexpected hit – and overanalysis
10. Music suggestions

A few months ago, I decided to grow my hair out to ten inches in order to donate all of it to charity. However, I’m running into a problem – it’s itchy. It’s driving me crazy over my ears and on the back of my neck. I don’t think I can stand it at this length, let alone any longer.

My life has exploded with craziness. I am 26, a single mom (again) going through a dissolution of marriage from my husband (not my son’s father). My husband kept everything, the house (currently in foreclosure) and furniture, his paid off car, the pets, etc. I kept my son and his belongings, my second hand dresser (older than me) my bed and books and my new car with a slightly hefty car payment (just under $300/mo). Everything else I own is second hand. I’m happy with this decision. I miss my house (I made it a home) but I’m happy with my 2 bedroom apartment. I removed myself from a very unhappy situation and with the support of my friends and family I’ve found independence and happiness. My mother is disabled (brings home $800 a month after her medicare cost) I help her out as much as I can and in exchange she gives me free babysitting for various times. My son is 7, is very active (soccer, baseball, cub scouts, etc) has many friends and is the love of my life. I give him an allowance of $10 a month which is split between spending, saving (for college), charity, and saving for a long term goal (currently a vacation next year). He also receives spare change and sometimes dollar bills from my wonderful family which he is awesome about saving for his long term goal or giving to charity. I’ve taught my son what my parents did not, money management. I’m still trying to teach myself. This year was especially crazy as my sister is getting married. I spent about $1,000 on the wedding (I’m a bridesmaid).

I currently work 2 jobs (1 full time and 1 part time), I coach soccer, I am involved in my sons’ scouting activities (mostly planning/helping at pack mtgs), and I have just started dating a very wonderful, responsible man. My problem is I feel like I don’t know where to start. I gained a lot of unwanted weight during my marriage, the accumulated debt feels like a dead weight which I’m ALMOST done paying off but can’t seem to get rid of the last little bit, I’ve saved quite a bit but have also spent a majority of my savings due to unexpected expenses, I’ve neglected my mental health (I’m diagnosed bi-polar and depression) because I can’t seem to squeeze time and money for therapy sessions ($25 co-pay per 50 min visit), my teeth are in bad shape due to past bulimia/lack of insurnance problems. How would I prioritze my and my sons needs/wants? My sons teeth are in OK shape, mostly needs 1 cavitiy filled but the other 2 cavities are in teeth that will fall out very soon (doesn’t make sense to fill them). He suffers from ADHD and requires monthly medication (behavior therapy was not enough). Otherwise his acitivies just seem to nickle and dime me to death. My boyfriend and I planned a vacation before we started dating and we were just friends. He gave me the deal of a lifetime and I took it with the support and well wishing of friends and family. We are now dating and he doesn’t understand that I don’t want him to pay for everything, even if I’m struggling. I have a need to accomplish things on my own, I don’t want him to rescue me everytime I make a mistake financially.

I have a separate vacation fund with Smarty Pig, a savings account linked to my checking account which is used as a small emergency fund. and am waiting until after my sis’ wedding to start a Smarty Pig emergency fund that I won’t be able to touch as easily. I promised my son we would take another family vacation next year and I feel that I could swing it if I pinched my pennies harder.

I guess my question is how do I priortize my life? How would a normal (i.e. an individual who doesn’t feel like they are drowning) put their priorities? I’ve always put everyone else first, mostly I had to because I was a young single mom and relied on others to help me out so I felt like I owed them everything. Do I tell my mother (who helped me immensely when I was 17 and pregnant) I can no longer give her a stipend and pay for her cell phone so I can pay off my debts faster? Do I break my promise to my son and not go on vacation? Do I put everything on the back burner except my therapy and see if going back helps me feel better? Do I throw my budget out of whack and get a personal trainer so I can feel better (no self discipline which is a HUGE problem)? I’ve cut a lot out of my spending except cable tv. Do I give up this last thing and hope for the best? I don’t want to put so much of my life and myself first that I forget my son or my boyfriend. Am I being stupid by not wanting help? I do accept help for certain things that I feel guilty about (my dad pays my car insurance, I don’t pay my dad for babysitting but I pay my mom, etc). I’m intelligent, I’m better off now than I’ve ever been in my life and I’m happy even under all this feeling of helplessness and feeling overwhelmed. Between both jobs and my child support I gross about $36,000 but I can’t really identify where about $8,000 a year goes. I’m currently tracking my spending in Excel to figure it out. What advice can you offer me? What books or websites might you suggest? I need to hear the truth from an objective party, no matter how gruesome it is.
– Kymm

Financially, I think you’re on the right path, particularly with tracking expenses so you know where all of your money goes. You’ll be shocked at how much you actually spend frivolously, I bet.

I think you’re at a difficult crossroads where you’re trying to fill a lot of responsibilities and roles at once. You’re a girlfriend. You’re a mother. You’re a daughter. You’re an employee. You’re also yourself with your own personal needs. Each of those roles come with a lot of obligations and promises.

It is impossible to be perfect at everything, and with each role you take on, you reduce your ability to excel at the other roles.

What you have to decide is what parts of all of this are actually most important to you? Ignore what other people want from you for a moment (aside from what you need to provide for your children). What is actually most important for you? What fulfills you each day?

Is being a parent your top priority? Then be your own version of a “soccer mom” and focus on that until your child is older and can manage more of his own responsibilities.

Is your relationship your top priority? Then focus on making that relationship work with every spare ounce of energy you’ve got.

Whatever is your priority, focus on that and chop the other things out of your life. The more you slice up your energy and attention, the less you have for each thing in your life and the more likely you are to completely burn out and not be able to do anything.

If that means breaking up with your boyfriend, so be it. If that means relying on babysitters and friends for child-related errands, so be it. If that means cutting off your mother’s allowance, so be it.

If you try to be all things to all people, everyone loses, especially yourself.

I graduated from Iowa State in 2008 and immediately found a ~60k/year job in IT for a large corporation. Through the jobs in college i graduated debt free and have spent the last two years building up a net worth (401k, roth IRA, emergency fund) of about 65k. I beat the match of my 401k and fully fund my Roth IRA and emergency fund. I’m about to become engaged and she has about 90k in student loan debt at 4.96% from 4 years at a private college and now has a ~30k a year job. We’ve done a lot of budget work but she can barely afford the minimums and at this point is basically paying all interest and no principal.

With the plan i put together, i think if we pay $1700 per month, we can pay down the entirity of the debt in just over 5 years. I think i can afford that but i think it will require pulling down the 401k to just the match and stop the IRA contribution almost entirely.

Once married, do you think it’s wise to pull down the 401k to just the match and basically stop the Roth IRA in favor of paying down that 90k in debt? Or would it be better to keep the Roth going fully funded and pay about $1300 a month, paying down the debt in 7 years and paying 5k more in interest.
– Scott

It really comes down to how much the match is. If the match plus your contributions adds up to more than ten percent, then I’d recommend that move.

Clearly, you have your financial house in order if you’re freshly out of college, debt free, and willing and able to pull out $1,700 a month to put toward debt.

One thing I would make sure of, though, is that she’s financially sensible. If she’s seeing that debt disappearing and then feels that it’s okay to rack up other forms of debt (as people sometimes do), then you’re not going to get ahead. Your plan here works if it’s flanked with lots of conversation between the two of you and a commitment from both of you to live within the money left over after these debt payments.

My husband and I are a one-car family, and unfortunately, our car is on its last legs with 240,000 miles on it. We’ve been saving up for a replacement with the intention of paying cash. We have about $10,000 in cash, which is pretty close to what we’d like to spend. With interest rates as low as they are, though, we are rethinking our strategy. We have excellent credit, and could likely get a very low-interest car loan. I have about $22,000 in federal student loans with a 6.25% interest rate. So, here’s the idea we have: put $0 down on the car, and buy the whole thing with a low-interest loan. Simultaneously, withdraw our $10,000 in cash and put it towards my student loan, which has a much higher interest rate. I’m sure there are dangers or disadvantages to this approach, but am having difficulty identifying them. The biggest concern would be decreased cash flow, since the car loan would be higher than the minimum payment on the student loan, but we’re already putting at least that much aside every month. Additionally, we both have secure if not spectacularly lucrative jobs (total combined salary of $60k annually). What’s your advice?
– Rhiannon

One danger to this approach is that you’ve moved from a loan without collateral (your student loan) to one with collateral (your car loan). Another danger is, as you mentioned, decreased cash flow due to the higher car loan payments.

This kind of move is one of those “future self” moves that I discourage people from making. Your future self just isn’t bankable because you just don’t know what’s coming down the road. Illness? Job loss? An unexpected family change? All of those things can completely train wreck your plans.

If I were you, I’d pay cash for your next car, then go back into savings mode. Save $150-200 a month for the next car after that, then use any extra you accumulate to build up an emergency fund and/or pay down the student loan with extra payments.

I am 28 years old. I have about $6k in a Vanguard 401k from an old employer, and my new employer uses John Hancock, I am putting $400/month in that (there is no matching at this new job) and have chosen the conservative portfolio. I think the old 401k has maintainance fees now that i no longer work there, so I am trying to decide whether to roll the money into an IRA with vangaurd or into my current employers 401k. I know that an IRA allows distributions to buy a first home, and I think I might really like that flexibility, even though I am close to being on track for a down payment in savings around the time I expect to move out of the Bay Area (there is no way I could afford a home here). But the simplicity of only dealing with one retirement account appeals to me as well. What is the best choice?
– Deborah

You should definitely roll over the old 401(k) if you’re getting dinged with maintenance fees – those can be really steep.

As for which one you should roll over into, it really comes down to the investment options available. Take a look at the fees for the investments you would want in each fund. Also, look at the performance history of those investments.

My guess is that Vanguard will top a John Hancock 401(k), but I’m not certain. You need to check the numbers to be sure.

I’m 24 and thinking of an extended overseas trip (a quit-your-job-and-backpack-for-months kind of trip). I have a vague notion of grad school in my future, but I’d like to go on this trip before I commit to that (or to a career). I’m hoping for some advice on financing the trip.

It will be somewhere inexpensive (SE Asia or S America, probably) and probably 4-8 months. I anticipate setting off for the trip in about a year’s time, and would rather have too much than too little saved.

I’d like to have ~$9k for the trip (including airfare), with another ~$3k for when I get back (for food, transport, 1st/last/security for an apartment, etc.). I currently make $35k (pre-tax) and have ~$5k in savings. This means means I need to save another $7k in a year. I figure I can save around $3k pretty easily by being more frugal, but the other $4000 will be more difficult.

I’m currently contributing ~$4400/yr to my Roth (currently at ~$4k) and ~$1675/yr to my 401K (no matching; currently at ~$1100). I’m comfortable forgoing the 401k contributions because they’re less, and because the Roth is the better investment right now. This would put me about $1200 (after taxes) closer to my goal. But I’m still $2800 short.

Considering my age, is it financially acceptable to cut my Roth contributions for the coming year (and the time I’m traveling) to help finance the trip? (Again, the goal is a once-in-a-lifetime/while-I’m-still-young experience) If not, what alternative would you recommend? If so, should I contribute 100% for the first 4-5 months and then cut the contributions to zero, or just save a lesser amount over the whole year?
– Ben

If you’re committed to this trip, do it right. Don’t leave yourself in a situation where you’re in southeast Asia without access to any money at all.

There’s also a factor of what your financial needs will be when you return from the trip. Are you going to completely rely on mom and dad when you get back or will you have some resources for your own use?

If I were in your shoes, I’d cut the Roth contributions (for now) and start socking all of that away for the trip. If you find at a later time that you have more than enough money for the trip, your Roth contribution window is still open and you can still contribute later.

My wife and I have five children. My employer’s health insurance plan is so expensive ($800+ per month) that we currently have an HSA/HDHP alternative (employer refuses to chip in on this by the way) that costs us $222 per month (up from $170 per month last year). Our deductible is $7500 per year. We have very few medical expenses each year; the only items that would normally be submitted as an insurance claim are small outpatient visits (such as chiropractor). Well-child visits are covered 100% with the HDHP (deductible not applicable); we generally have 1-2 sick child visits per year.

None of our medical expenses are ever submitted to insurance. Because the chances of reaching our $7500 deductible seem so slim, we’ve thought it made more sense to pay cash for services (often at a discount) out of the HSA.

Is this a good idea? If we were to somehow have significant medical expenses that caused us to reach the $7500 deductible after-all, we would be able to submit “already paid” bills.
– Andrew

Your question seems to be whether or not it makes sense to pay for things out of the HSA instead of submitting to insurance and getting closer to that $7,500 deductible.

If that’s the question, and you’re able to submit already-paid bills to your insurance to inch closer to the deductible anyway, it seems like a very good choice to use the HSA for such expenses.

Even if you’re not able to use already-paid bills, I’d still use the HSA, provided I had a healthy emergency fund in place that could cover the full $7,500 deductible if need be. The HSA simply makes it very easy to pay for healthcare expenses with pre-tax dollars.

I have a question concerning alternatives to cable TV. I know you have addressed aspects of this before but the one component I haven’t found a good answer for is sports. My wife and I have cable TV and internet bundle from Comcast. Right now we pay about $60/month but this is an introductory rate that will increase substantially in a couple of months. This is for the most basic digital cable package available plus the cheapest cable internet they offer. The shows we watch (Glee, Top Chef, 30 Rock) we can get online in some way, either Hulu or renting from iTunes. It would be cheaper to drop the cable and pay for the shows we watch regularly, but there are two issues. One, when we drop the cable the price of internet increases from $24.99 to $40 since we are no longer bundling. Two, we are both college football fans and not being able to watch our team in the fall is really not an option (more so for me than my wife, I admit, but she does watch with me). Do you have any suggestions for ways to watch sports without cable? What about canceling the cable after football season and restarting it every fall? Often the games are only available on ESPN so an antenna isn’t an option (plus we live in an apartment).
– Ryan

A few suggestions:

First, get a digital converter box and see what channels you can get over the air. You can get a surprising number of channels over the air, many of which air sports programming on the weekends.

Second, look for places where you can go to watch the games. Find a place with a nice television where your wife and you can go to watch particular games.

Third, just get cable installed during football season and have it removed after the season is over. Yes, you won’t get any great introductory rates, but you’ll save a ton by not having to pay for it over the full year.

Finally, keep an eye online and make sure that you can’t get good feeds of the games you want from various websites like ESPN3 or the website of your favorite athletic conference. I watch 99% of my baseball online, for example.

My wife and I are currently debt free, except for our mortgage, which we owe about $100,000.00 with a 950.00 monthly payment. I am looking to go back to school to finish getting my bachelor’s degree. I have several credit hours accumulated and it looks like I can finish in a year using an accelerated program.

I was wondering if you had any ideas on how to find scholarships for an adult student. We don’t qualify for any financial aid except for student loans which will still leave us with a 700.00 monthly payment while I am in school. Although we are dept free, between utilities, daycare and other normal living expenses we don’t have that to spare. I have been looking on line for scholarship and grant information and many of the sites ask for a credit card or just leads you from one site to another without giving any usable information.
– Jess

You’ve simply got to beat the pavement for such scholarships, just like any other student. The best first step you can personally take is to contact the financial aid office at your school – they can help quite a lot. Apply for everything you can and see what comes up.

You have an advantage in that you’re a non-traditional student, a group that’s often helped by specific scholarships. However, your income level and assets aren’t completely clear and they may keep you from getting some scholarships.

If scholarships were easy to get, everyone would go to school for free. It takes a lot of effort to get them, but they can be worth it.

I am naturally very conscious of how much money I am saving and spending. I have always brought my lunch to work, I have always repaired broken items before paying to have them fixed or replaced, I have always taken care to save more than I make, I have always (ok, usually) invested modestly and wisely — in short, I feel like I have pretty good habits when it comes to money. Sure, there’s room for improvement, but I feel like I’m on a good financial and personal path.

At any rate, I just returned from an extended trip (my honeymoon) and realized that my tuition from graduate school is 1 week overdue. It is completely unlike me to let something like this slip through the cracks, but okay, it happens. So I’m being charged $150, which isn’t a ton in the grand scheme of things … but I can’t stop thinking about it in terms of all the little sacrifices I make to nickle and dime that kind of amount into my savings account. It’s driving me nuts. To take one example, while I enjoy bringing my lunch to work, it still requires more time and energy than simply walking out of my building and buying food. It does. So here I am, making all these micro-sacrifices, and then I go and blow an entire month’s worth (or more) by forgetting about this stupid bill.

Any tips for thinking about an unexpected hit like this differently? Maybe I’m just over-analyzing it. But it’s driving me crazy!
– Jeff

Things like that happen sometimes. You have to treat them as water under the bridge and just deal with your situation as it is now rather than lamenting the past.

What can you do to ensure this never happens again? One good way to do that is to simply make sure all of your bills are paid before you travel anywhere.

Did you try calling them and explaining your situation and asking if the late fee can be removed? It can’t hurt.

You mentioned on Twitter the other day that your most listened-to song according to your iTunes stats was “Margaret vs. Pauline” by Neko Case. I was going to ask you what your other top ones were but I didn’t want to have you tweeting a pile of them so I thought I’d suggest that you list your top ten or so in your next reader mailbag.
– Jennie

Here are my top ten most played songs in iTunes, with links to performances/videos/tributes of those songs on YouTube so you can listen if you want. I listen to music most of the time when I’m writing as it helps me to focus.

Margaret vs. Pauline – Neko Case
No Rain – Blind Melon
Mansard Roof – Vampire Weekend
Why Do You Let Me Stay Here? – She & Him
Better Man – Pearl Jam
Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley
Wuthering Heights – Kate Bush
Fidelity – Regina Spektor
Wagon Wheel – Old Crow Medicine Show
Revelator – Gillian Welch

Got any questions? Email them to me or leave them in the comments and I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag. However, I do receive hundreds of questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

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  1. Ajtacka says:

    Trent, especially if it’s for a good cause, don’t cut off your hair just yet. My hair is a yo-yo, I grow it then cut it short so I’m speaking from experience. There is a certain length where it can be itchy. Let it get a bit longer and it shouldn’t be a problem any more. I’ve always just ignored it, so I don’t know if there’s anything you can do in the meantime.

  2. Michael says:

    Didn’t know you liked Gillian Welch, but it makes sense. Her music is very pleasant.

  3. Jane says:

    Call the registrar at your university and ask if they will waive the fee. One time as an undergrad my dad paid tuition late. They billed him $500! He told me that there was no way he was going to pay such an exorbitant fee, since the bill was only a few days late. I called and told them this, and they waived it, no questions asked. If you usually pay tuition on time, this shouldn’t be a problem. Also bring up that you were on your honeymoon and that’s why it’s late.

  4. Diane says:

    I just did the same thing with the hair and it’s the new, shorter ‘do that’s driving me crazy!
    Try using a little more conditioner (don’t worry about the tiny cost, you’re not paying for haircuts). Pull it back if it’s long enough. Brush it more often as smooth hair is not as scratchy as a tangled mess. Finally, just ignore it As winter approaches, warmer shirts with higher necklines will help as there will be less hair-to-skin contact.

  5. Erin says:

    @Kymm – you sound like a wonderful mother. But, for you and your son’s well-being I think you have to learn to say no more – to yourself, to your son, to your mother, to your boyfriend. You really need to get your own house in order before you are giving all this financial help to your mom. And maybe right now your son needs to scale back his extra-curricular activities. How about scaling back your vacation plans with your son for next year and making it a weekend camping trip or trip to an amusement park nearby where you stay in an inexpensive motel?

    As for prioritizing, think of it this way – first food, shelter, transportation. Because you can’t live and work without those things. I’m not sure where your mental or physical health issues are exactly but the most urgent ones should probably be somewhere in that top 4- you can’t take care of others if you’re not at your best yourself, right?

    Then make a list of all your other expenses and try ranking those in order after food, shelter, transportation, and medical. Then look at the money coming in and see where on the priority list your income runs out.

  6. Eve says:

    ESPN3 + antenna pretty much covers our college football needs. We’re die-hard fans of a particular ACC team, and we have very little trouble finding a way to watch every game. Games on ESPNU are sometimes a little tricky, but we can often find a rebroadcast somewhere on the internet (I’m sure that’s not legit, and the quality is never good). If we can’t find it streaming anywhere, we just go back to the old standby–the radio.

  7. Josh says:

    If you aren’t getting a match on your 401k plan then there are much better options. Much better.

    The only argument that makes a 401k in the cards is if you are getting a match.

  8. AndreaS says:

    Jeff, Trent is right, it is just water over the dam.

    I used to have a similar thought that whenever I had a blunder that cost me money, it always seemed to happen when I was doing something to try to save money. For example, getting a parking ticket when I was yard-saling, which nullifies my day’s savings. Or hubbie has a minor table-saw mishap when he was making a homemade present, and the cost of stitches offsets the saving for many homemade presents. One could take a negative and distorted view of frugality in general and say it is not worth doing, because it too often it actually costs you money.

    One day I thought about it differently. Since I am always in save-money mode in some way or another, any such blunder is bound to happen when I am trying to save money. A parking ticket will never happen when I am going out to eat at a restaurant, since I never eat at restaurants.

    But the upside is that because I am thrifty, I have surplus cash with which I can easily handle these financial mistakes. I try to learn so as not to repeat the mistake, but I let it go. It is a one-time thing, and way cheaper than the day-in-day-out expensive habits most people do that add up to thousands every year.

    I guess I have a different twist on money and mistakes. There have been times in my life when I made huge mistakes I really regretted. It might be a situation where I hurt another person, and I felt utterly sick inside for days. I would think, “I would happily give $1,000 if I could undo that.” Money can’t fix all mistakes, and that gives me perspective.

    I am grateful when such a simple thing as money can fix a mistake and make it go away, as if it never happened. A benign example is when I paint a room and I really hate the color. Instead of being mad I wasted $50 on paint, I am grateful that it cost me only $50 to fix that blunder. I don’t like to live with mistakes, and I happily pay money to make them go away. I’ve known people who couldn’t afford to redo home-decorating blunders, and I’m glad I can.

    So instead of thinking how a mistake cost you $150, and you had to do a lot of nickel and diming to save that much money, be grateful that you know the basic strategies so that you can afford handle these mistakes. Once you pay to fix the mistake, it is gone and you never have to think about it again.

  9. reulte says:

    Kymm – It’s not craziness – it’s life. Ease up on some of your son’s extracurricular activities. Since you’re also going through the dissolution of a marriage, I believe that you should ‘drop’ dating and the boyfriend for the time being. Explain that you need time to deal with the marriage, your family, your physical and mental needs, your jobs. See if you can find out where you are being ‘nickeled and dimed’ (budget), find out if you can give less to your mother, find out if you can quit the 2nd job. What were your vacation plans? I think you’ll definately need a vacation but see if there are ways you can lessen the cost.

    Rhiannon – Perhaps you can put half the $10k towards your student loans and half to a ‘new’ car. Like Trent, I hesitate to advocate a loan for the entire car. I think it depends on how much per month you have been putting away for the new car and how long it took you to get where you are now.

  10. Laura says:

    Kymm, it sounds like you are a great mom and so supportive of your son. I would think about your mental health, your family’s medical bills, and your basic needs before spending a lot of money on things like a personal trainer. Remember that it’s all about small steps, and you don’t need to shell out a lot of money to do that. You say your son is really active – how about taking him to the park and running around with him for some exercise? You do have to take care of yourself, just think about creative and low-cost ways to do that. Gyms are going to try to make you feel inadequate and sell you a bunch of sessions – don’t buy into it!

  11. Jackie says:

    Ryan- Call comcast and tell them you’re thinking of canceling your TV service. They’ll try to talk you out of it and give you whatever promotion price they’re offering to new customers. It only last 6 months each time, but usually the promotion price is cheaper than internet alone and you can just call every 6 months. I only have limited basic cable to begin with, I’d be happy to cancel it, but every time I try I end up on one of these promotions. I typically get limited basic cable and internet for $35-40 where it is $67 when the promotions expire or would be $45 for internet alone.

  12. Marsha says:

    Kymm–I won’t advocate dropping the boyfriend if he’s been a good friend to you. But you might need to cut back on your dates for awhile until you get a handle on things. If’s he’s truly a good friend, he’ll still be there for you later.

  13. Michelle says:

    As for the sports, ESPN used to have a service were you could pay a fee and watch games online. It wasn’t free, but it was a lot cheaper than cable. I don’t know if they still do that, as we moved back into the local area of our favorite team and now get to watch them on the over-the-air broadcasts.

    Think outside the box, our alumni association used to host watch parties at local sports bars, it was great, we could hang out with other alums, we usually got some sort of food special, and they put the game on the biggest screen in the place since we had a big group.

  14. Danna says:

    We have been without cable for almost a year. Yes I do miss watching some of my shows and especially the DVR feature. But we’ve learned to live without it. We pick up all the major networks with a digital converter.

    I agree about finding another place to watch a game or the radio. We have a local bar we go to and they always change the channel for us if we ask. Spending $15 on beer vs $100 per month on cable is a good trade off in my mind.

    I say try it for a month or two and see how it works out.

  15. Ruth says:

    I’m really confused about Andrew’s HSA question. You don’t have to chose between HSA and insurance – you can pay for medical expenses that count toward your deductible from your HSA (usually you have an account that can basically be used as a checking account). The advantage to submitting the claims to your insurance is that you often pay at a lower rate (negotiated between the physician and the insurance company.)

  16. Anitra says:

    Re: alternative ways to watch sports.

    Our sport of choice is baseball, and since we live inside our favorite team’s “target area”, we’re unable to watch most games online.

    Last year, we just did without – listening to some games on the radio, sometimes going to a friend’s house or a bar to watch, but generally only _watching_ part of 2-3 games per week (out of a possible 5-6 per week).

    This year, we bit the bullet and got a more expensive cable package. We will probably drop down again in October or November; but it was really important to my husband to be able to watch baseball with our daughter. They usually watch an inning or two before she goes to bed at night (when it’s a night game). That’s not something you can do easily at a bar or a friend’s house.

  17. Matt says:

    Ryan and Trent (sports/cable TV):

    One thing to keep in mind regarding continually canceling and re-activating cable TV in accordance with the sports season: there may be additional fees associated with canceling and/or activating a service. I believe that in my area (northwest part of the city of Chicago), Comcast charges $150 installation fee for first-time setup. However, if you keep at least one service with them (e.g. Internet), and add/remove services along the way, you *might* not be subjected to that. Either way, read your contract carefully.

    Another commenter already mentioned this, but I think it’s worth repeating: call Comcast, go straight to their *cancellation* department, and say you are canceling unless they keep you on the new customer promo rate. (This used to work for me, but doesn’t any more.)

  18. Michelle says:

    Re: itchy hair.

    If it’s long enough, pull it back into a pony tail.

    Consider using some gel to help keep it under control and so the ends don’t poke your skin, which is what’s probably causing the itching. I bet you can find some homemade recipes online that won’t cost much and won’t be laden with chemicals. You might get some ribbing for looking like a “greaser” but it’s for a good cause and it’s just until it grows long enough that it doesn’t itch anymore. Since winter’s coming, keep it all under a hat.

    I donate my hair, too, but it’s mostly because I’m lazy and will go more than a year between haircuts.

  19. Meghan says:

    Who are you donating it to? I am about to cut off my hair to donate it, but cannot find a reputable charity. I’ve donated to Locks of Love in the past, but have since found out that they aren’t a good charity. They sell most of the hair and their administrative costs are huge.

  20. Steve says:

    You are wrong about the car loan being the only secured loan. The fact of the matter is that student loan debt is typically more secured than any car loan. A car loan can be discharged in bankruptcy, or the car can be sold to pay it off. But a student loan sticks with you until it’s paid off (with a few exceptions, e.g. public service.) If the car loan interest rate would be lower, I would definitely go for it. Of course, don’t use financing as an excuse to buy a new car or more expensive car!

  21. Aurora says:

    I have heard that Pantene Beautiful Lengths is the best choice for anyone looking to donate his or her hair for cancer patients. The wigs are distributed for free, whereas I believe patients must pay for the wigs from Locks of Love.

  22. Interested Reader says:

    I’ve heard that Wigs for Kids is a good charity for hair donations.

    You can check out different charties at Charity Navigator website, they rate all kinds of charities based on certain criteria and it’s a great resource.

  23. Julie says:

    I would read this article before going to all that trouble to donate hair: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/06/fashion/06locks.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=hair%20donation%20locks%20of%20love&st=cse

    Is there a reason why that’s your chosen way to give?

  24. Amanda says:

    Kymm, you could think of cutting out the tv as giving you more time w family!

  25. Des says:

    I don’t understand the logic behind the response to Rhiannon. The only reason secured vs. unsecured would matter is the possibility that the collateral will be repossessed if the owner is unable to make the payments. Student loans are essentially collateralized by your income, since they cannot be discharged.

    Think about it this way: If she was already carrying a car loan at 0% and got a windfall of $10,000, would you suggest she put it towards the student loan @ 6% or the car loan at 0%? Assuming she has a separate E-fund and no credit card debt (which might indicate spending problems) I don’t see any reason not to move forward with her plan.

  26. Mary says:

    @Jeff – I’m like that too. I know exactly where my money goes, and if I miss a bill I’m such a perfectionist that I start beating myself up for it. Thing is, don’t. It happens. Let it go, forgive yourself and move on. I had it happen to me once on a student loan – they doubled the payment. Half late fee half principal. I was raging, needless to say.

  27. sjw says:

    “I’m about to become engaged and she has about 90k in student loan debt at 4.96% from 4 years at a private college and now has a ~30k a year job. We’ve done a lot of budget work but she can barely afford the minimums and at this point is basically paying all interest and no principal.”

    You have 65k in assets. She has 90k in debt and a 30k/year job. Get a prenup. And support her as she tries to get a better paying job.

  28. Jackie says:

    Jeff- It’s easy to be hard on yourself over this. But there is another way to look at it. Aren’t you glad your frugal habits allowed you to pay this unexpected expense without it being a crisis?

  29. Kerry D. says:

    On Donating Hair–check out Pantene’s Beautiful Lengths program–I donated my hair to them, and the advantage was that they require only 8 inch length, instead of 10. I’m not sure about their administrative costs…

  30. Kristen says:

    Kymm, I think your top priority should be immediate health concerns–in this case, dental work for you and your son, and your therapy. Perhaps you could check if there is a dental school nearby. They are often half the price (or less) of a regular dentist.

    Ben, Since you’ll be taking a year off of retirement contributions when traveling, I wouldn’t decrease the contributions now. In fact, I’d want to contribute extra. Can you take a PT job to raise the money you need? While it will be tiring for awhile, you’ll soon have a long period of time with no work at all, so there is a big light at the end of the tunnel.

  31. tarynkay says:

    On hair: wig-makers have very specific requirements for hair. If you particularly want to do this, instead of directly donating your hair, I would recommend going to a professional wigmaker and selling it and then donating the proceeds to one of these charities. I have a cousin who did this, and she made quite a bit for her hair. Of course, it was healthy, strong, and over 2 feet long. If the wigmaker rejects your hair, the charity would have rejected it too, you just wouldn’t know about it. I have read that the charities that do this are overwhelmed by donations and throw most of the hair away.

  32. jim says:

    Andrew: I would check to see what the rate would be for the services in question if you did file an insurance claim. One of our medical provider quoted $150 for a hour visit and the rate for insurance is $82. If we paid with cash and didn’t file it under insurance we’d be paying that $150 unless we negotiated it lower. But with insurance its $82. So you might be paying more if just paying out of pocket than if you take advantage of cheap rates negotiated by the insurance company. It will depend and the insurance negotiated rates may not be that great compared to what you can haggle with cash.

  33. Carissa says:

    @Jess-Even without considering your current income level, $700 a month payment in addition to taking out a student loan seems steep (am I reading that correctly?)

    Be wary of schools with accelerated degree programs as they are sometimes “for-profit” institutions, which spend millions of marketing dollars to get their name at the top of your search results. Also, these types of institutions may not have as many scholarship options, as their goal is to turn a profit. While they may be convenient, and sometimes a quality education, the convenience comes at a price.

    I would recommend starting with the local community colleges’ admissions dept. If you have not yet acquired enough credits to be at the associates degree level, inquire if you can see their list of “articulation agreements.” Articulation agreements allow you to take guaranteed transferable credits at the community college, then transfer to the bachelor level at approved state or private institution. Also, the community college may be able to recommend quality bachelors degree programs which you might not initially be aware of.

    As a last resort, you could acquire your bachelor’s degree on a non-accelerated pace. While this wouldn’t really save you any money (it also may increase the overall cost when you factor in annual fee increases and loan interest rate), it would likely reduce the monthly payment to an affordable level.

    Good luck with your search!

    -former educational recruiter

  34. jim says:

    Kymm: Don’t neglect your own health. Make the time for your therapy and find the money for the $25 copays. That $8000 of spending you can’t explain should be a priority. If you figure out where that money is going and eliminate the waste that should help alot. Let your boyfriend pay for some things if he wants. He doesn’t need to foot all your bills but if he really wants to pay for your vacation or take you out to dinner then thats OK. Don’t feel like you’re failing he he helps you, you’re already carrying your mom and kid single handed.

  35. Kate says:

    Don’t know if this was already suggested but if the itchiness is coming from it brushing over your ears and just generally being in your face maybe you could try a headband. I’ve donated my hair to locks of love before and while it can be annoying to get it to 10″ it always feels really great to cut it all off.

  36. Carol says:

    Re: using HSA vs. paying cash. If I understand the question, Andrew has been paying cash (to get a discount) and not submitting claims to his insurance company. As suggested above, you may get a better discount from using your insurance card (especially if the provider is contracted with the insurance company). What’s to stop you from paying cash, to get a discount, and then submitting the claim yourself to the insurance company to have it count toward your deductible?

  37. valleycat1 says:

    Jess – I assume you are employed at this point – does your employer offer any assistance to employees furthering their education? Also, check with local service organization chapters (Rotary Club, Lions, etc) – many offer scholarships or might be willing to raise funds for you – amounts may be small, but every little bit helps! Also, some public libraries have grant and scholarship research sections, including $ available to individuals – your local library should be able to point you in the right direction (either within the library or to a regional library with the resources).

  38. Leah W. says:

    Um, yeah. You can use money from your HSA for medical expenses, and those expenses count toward your deductible. All you have to do is submit the claim.

    Read the fine print!

  39. Courtney says:

    Kymm – You didn’t mention getting any child support from your child’s father. Why not? He should be contributing at least half of your son’s expenses.

  40. Courtney says:

    Oops, I just re-read Kymm’s letter and saw that she does mention getting child support in the last paragraph. Never mind!

    But Kymm, I would make sure that he is truly paying his share of your son’s expenses. If he is, then that should lighten your load considerably when it comes to paying for your son’s dental work, medication, extracurriculars, etc.

  41. Emily says:

    Trent, I love “Wagon Wheel”! Can’t get enough of it!

  42. Jessica says:

    FYI on the hair donation – you need a 10-inch PONYTAIL, not just ten inches of hair. It must be braided and held together with a hair elastic on both ends. Anything shorter than that won’t get used, since so much is lost during the wigmaking process – they are generally for young girls (via Locks of Love, anyway) who want the long princess hair look.

    I donated three times in 6 years (first when I was 16, then 20, then 22)!

  43. Brittany says:

    Jess– Check out FastWeb . com. It’s a website of scholarship opportunities–some are kind of sketchy but many are legit, and you fill out a profile so it tried to narrow the ones it offers you to ones you’re actually qualified for.

    Apply for everything–especially the small scholarships. Your chance of winning a bunch of $500 and under scholarships is a lot higher than your chance of gettign one $5000+ one.

  44. Tom says:

    Andrew, others have said it, but to reiterate, if you’re using in-network doctors, you still get a negotiated discount from the insurance while applying money to the deductible. Who is to say whether you could get a better cash rate yourself?
    I have an HDHP/HSA program, and for some simple lab tests, the negotiated discount was significant (like 50-80%). Doctors visits were more like 30%. Maybe if you’re a good negotiator, you could come up with a fair price for service, but I’d be willing to bet your group insurance is just as good if not better.

    Also, my plan will start charging fees in the HSA if you drop the HDHP insurance. It didn’t sound like you were thinking about that, but just a heads up that something like that could happen.

  45. Amanda says:

    Ryan-we got a hauppage win tv dvr for our computer. Saves a little over the box from cable company and makes games go so much faster! You can hook up to antenna or cable.

  46. Daniel says:


    Freaking out over $150 can’t be healthy! Sure, it hurts to lose money, but it sounds ilke this is a one-time honest mistake on your part. Don’t beat yourself up too much.

  47. Stacy says:

    Trent–Have you researched the hair donating charities? I have read some conflicting things about what they actually do with the hair donated. Most of them just sell it.

    Also, I LOVE She and Him!

  48. Vikki says:

    ask around your circle of friends for people facing the same specific challenges you are and set up a buddy system to help meet goals like budgeting and wiegh loss. I have a budgets buddy (we check in around spending/savings goals every 3 days). I find it incredibly helpful because it reminds me of my real proirities, and talking out my rationalizations/promises helps me be real about them. Maybe a therapy group for depression/bi-polar would be helpful and less expensive the individual sessions. I have some experience with bounceing between the poles, and moderating/treatment for that has some concrete impact on spending/saving as well as weight.
    and the buddy system for excercise and grocery shopping is always easier. With some friends really on board for your life changes, you’ll have the life perservers around when the drownding feelings strike again.

  49. On the scholarships: even the adult students need to think much farther in advance than you might expect.

    The application season is just starting for scholarships that will be awarded in 2011-12 school year – one that came to my newsroom desk today was for non-traditional students. And April 1 is the deadline at the community college in my city for the scholarships it awards during the following academic year – regardless of how old the students are.

  50. Michelle says:

    Every time I read these mailbags I find at least one response where I wonder if Trent actually read the question. In this episode, it’s Ben, the wannabe traveler. He clearly said he wanted to save $3000 for post-travel expenses, but Trent then asked if he had a plan or if he was going to mooch off his parents. I enjoy this blog, but it often seems hastily written. I would actually prefer less content with better editing.

  51. SLCCOM says:

    Ben, I would keep a close eye on the general economy before dumping a good job. If the economy is still in the toilet then, I would rethink your plan or that $3000 for post-travel expenses will disappear fast.

  52. MrPogi says:

    Regarding the TV, I told DirectTV to take a hike when I found out how great free OTA tv is. Yea, sports are lacking… but are they a “NEED” or a “WANT? Can you get what you need on the internet?

    Dump the cable, put up an antenna. It will cost you about 1-2 months worth of cable cost at most. A complete primer on how to get free tv with an antenna is here:

  53. AnnJo says:

    Reading your letter makes me wonder whether you are currently in a hypomanic phase of your illness.

    Your letter suggests the elevated mood, flood of ideas, endless energy, and drive for success that can characterize that phase, and while all of those things have positive features, they are also often accompanied by decreased sleep (that ultimately catches up to you and can push you into full mania and psychosis), poor judgment, impulsivity and risk-taking that are not positives and can lead to serious problems for you and your son.

    I urge you to get back into treatment. I don’t use the word therapy because that usually means talking, which only goes so far with bipolar disorder. Medication is usually needed.

    People with bipolar disorder often resist treatment because the hypomanic phases subjectively feel so good, but I beg you to consider:

    At age 26, you have a failed marriage, a child at 17 from someone other than your former husband, and are bringing yet another man into your young son’s life in a significant role. This man may indeed be wonderful and responsible, but the decisions you are making need to be high quality, and untreated bipolar disorder simply does not yield such decisions. Further, you’re worrying about your weight, and have a history of bulimia, a life-threatening disorder.

    Getting competent treatment and sticking with it should be your first priority. Deal with vacation planning and SmartyPig accounts later.

  54. Interested Reader says:

    I just read your letter and your first priorty needs to be treating your bipolar disorder.

    You don’t say if you are currently taking meds or not, but if you aren’t you need to get back on them and you need to see a therapist. The meds will keep things stable, the therapist can help you figure out about priortizing your life. A good therapist can also help you manage the stress that you are going through.

    If you aren’t sure about how to find a good therapist I’d recommend contacting your state chapter of NAMI. They have have some really good resources and can help steer you in the right direction.

    Take it from someone with bipolar disorder, a good therapist is worth every penny and every second of your time. You need that strong foundation of support in order to get your life on the track.

  55. Victoria says:

    Jeff – I do this too. Think about it like this: if you weren’t being so frugal, you’d be out $300 this month, instead of $150!

  56. Rachel says:

    Kymm– I agree with the others that mental health is a must. As far as oral care and weight loss, there are a few helpful websites you could use. SparkPeople has a large and active community of users and ideas for exercise and diet. If you join one of the groups there, you could find the accountability you seem to need, but it’s free. For your teeth, make sure you consistently practice good dental hygiene, so you won’t need your dentist as often. There are some good suggestions at the Ask Dr. Ellie website. I don’t want to risk a link, but it comes up quickly in a web search. Good luck!

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