Reader Mailbag: Political Ads

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. Reasonable family grocery budget
2. Community festivals
3. Investing inheritance
4. The overzealous winner
5. Choosing between jobs
6. Money and pride
7. Salted butter for homemade bread?
8. Sneaking food into theatres
9. Moving, with or without car
10. Record keeping for exercise

I have the “joy” of living in a swing state in the 2012 presidential election, which means that we’re already getting political flyers and phone calls related to the presidential election. The congressional district we live in also seems to be one that both major political parties have identified as a target.

In the last few months, I’ve seen political ads and promotions of all kinds. Whenever I hear one that tells me how bad of a person a particular candidate is, I usually end up liking that person more because I know I’m not hearing the full story and I also know some political hack is out there trying to do a hatchet job.

I know I’m not the “typical” American voter, at least not as defined by the campaigns. However, I will say that if a candidate just came out and said, “I believe in X and it is the most important issue to me. I also believe in Y and Z. Other issues are more secondary to me. If I win this election, I will fight hard for X, Y, and Z.” and didn’t bother to drag the other guy through the mud at all, I’d probably support that straight-speaking candidate even if I didn’t wholly agree with X, Y, and Z.

Hearing that one candidate may have been involved in a corporation that once did something unethical doesn’t make me want to not vote for that person, nor does hearing that another candidate may have once been friends with someone who had some radical views or did something wrong. I can certainly say I’ve got friends who have some rather radical views on certain issues (both conservative and liberal), that I have friends who have done some wrong things in the past, and that I’ve worked for organizations who have made some ethical calls I don’t wholly agree with.

How about, for once, everyone just says what they actually want for America, tells me what they’ll actually fight for, and then doesn’t waste my time blasting the other candidate for being human?

It’s too much to ask for, I guess.

Q1: Reasonable family grocery budget
We are a family of four (kids ages 5 and 3). I like to eat healthy diet with lots of fruits and veggies and whole grains, with little meat. Kids eat breakfast and lunch at preschool, but of course we do keep some snacks around the house for them in addition to fruit and cheese.

My question is, what do you think is a reasonable monthly grocery (food only) budget for us? I do the obvious things, like buy in season produce and stretch meat when we use it and use coupons and plan according to what is on sale. That being said, I do buy certain organic items (high pesticide fruit and veggies and meat). However, I find we are often spending close to $700 a month. I’d like it to be closer to $550 or even $600, but I’m wondering if that is just an unreasonable goal, given that I refuse to buy cheaper conventional grown produce if it is one of the dirty dozen and meat that is not grass fed and certified humane.
– Angela

The USDA estimates that, for a family of your size, you could be spending anywhere from $546.80 to $1064.70 a month on food. Here’s that USDA report. If you want to aim for the low-end cost in that range, you should be subscribing to the USDA’s “Thrifty Food Plan”.

The problem is that you’re adding requirements to the food you buy that elevates the price. You won’t buy any of the “dirty dozen” of produce, you won’t buy meat that’s not grass fed and certified humane, and you buy some organic items. All of those things elevate your food bill.

If you want to aim for a lower price, you have to give up some requirements, whether it’s the specific food requirements you mention or something else. Everything has a cost to it.

Q2: Community festivals
I love going to the summer festivals in the towns near here, but every time I go, I seem to wind up spending a lot more money than I plan to. I know you like going to festivals since you’ve written about them before. How do you do it without spending more than you think you should?

– Gregory

My family also enjoys summer community festivals. There are a few tactics we use to cut back on the expense of them.

First, we always pack meals before we leave. We usually pack a cooler with sandwiches and other items in it. We also usually carry a snack with us that’s filling but small, like a bag of nuts. This keeps us from diving into the expensive festival food. We also carry around bottled water and refill them at any fountains we find.

Second, we watch for advance tickets. Many festivals will sell tickets in advance for children’s rides, concerts, and so forth, usually at a nice discount. If we’re planning on hitting a festival on a certain weekend, we’ll get tickets before we go.

A final tip: withdraw a minimal amount of cash. You’ll have some in your pocket, but not enough to go crazy. When you spend it all, it will seem like an expensive chore to go find an ATM, so you’ll be careful with your money.

Q3: Investing inheritance
I am fairly new to investing. I am a 24 year old university student and in the next few days I will be receiving a portion of my inheritance from my father.

I would like to invest this amount in a way that will get me a steady return over the next 10 or so years so I can upgrade to a larger home. I’ve read your blog about dealing with high interest debt first and will definitely be taking this advice first and foremost -along with starting an emergency fund.

The amount of money I would like to invest is $25,000.

I really don’t know where to start when it comes to investing. I am diligently reading through your blog along with the books you have recommended. Any advice you can provide would be greatly appreciated.
– Monica

The big question most people wrestle with when it comes to investing is how much risk they can tolerate.

Some investments, like a savings account, offer almost no risk at all. They will give you a very steady and stable return over whatever timeframe you like, and there’s almost no risk of any sort of loss over any period. The problem is that the return is going to be small.

As you move up the risk scale, you start moving into investments that have a history of providing great returns over some periods, but losses over other periods. Often, these average out over a long period to have a nice return, but you might face a very long period (like 2000 to 2008) where you (at best) break even. Other long periods might have a very nice return – there have been ten year stretches in the past where the stock market returned well over 9% a year on average.

How much risk can you stomach with this money? Are you okay with breaking even if there is a good chance at a nice return? If that’s the case, I would look into stock index funds. If you’re not okay with that balance, I’d look at something less risky. A savings account is actually not a bad option for this, as you probably don’t want to lock down your money at the low interest rates that are available right now.

Q4: The overzealous winner
I love getting together with my siblings and some of our cousins about once a month for a potluck dinner and a game night. We play cards and board games until late in the night together and it’s a lot of fun.

One of my cousins is dating a guy who is threatening to spoil the soup. He’s really, really competitive, but he’s also pretty good at all of the games we play regularly. He trash talks some and he kind of raises the competitive flavor of our game nights to a level that we don’t like. We all like to win, but he’s pretty loud about winning and brags about things and seems to revel in beating people by a large margin.

How do we handle this and keep the wonderful flow of our game nights intact?
– Dee

Take him aside and talk to him. Tell him that you appreciate that he enjoys game night, but that his trash talking and aggressiveness are on the verge of alienating the family of the person he’s dating and that will lead to some long term problems.

If he continues to do it after that, it might be a sign of some personality issues with the guy and it’s something that your cousin should take into consideration with regards to continuing to date him.

I’ve experienced similar situations in the past, and most of the time, a brief sidebar conversation helps a lot. If it doesn’t, the person usually finds themselves un-welcome in the near future.

Q5: Choosing between jobs
I’m 30 years old, single and in good health. I have student loan debt in repayment. I work in a freelance industry that only exists in a couple of cities in the US. I have spent the last five years working very regularly for a relatively large, successful company who provide me with frequent work, health benefits, 401k and FSA. That’s pretty unheard of in my world, so I’m very lucky. Some of the downsides are pretty typical- harder to get involved in new projects, to start my own initiatives, etc. On top of that, I’ve had a few issues where I’ve disagreed with the decisions the company has made on my projects, and it’s left me struggling with some negativity.

A good friend and former colleague who I admire started a company a few years back and has just received a windfall of work. I’m delighted, and he’s asked me to be involved immediately. The salary is about the same but no benefits. I would have work for several months, but after that his company may or may not get more work (true of any company I work for, but more so in a smaller one). I would also need to leave my current contract early, which is not great but wouldn’t necessarily sever ties with the current company.

At this point in my career, I’m eager to take advantage of opportunities for growth and development. Those can come from jobs or doing my own projects outside of work. My job at the big company leaves more time for personal projects, but the smaller company would probably offer a better chance at taking ownership of a project.

I’m extremely deliberative and I like to make decisions slowly, but I dont’ have that luxury here. I need to think fast, so any thoughts on what to consider or what you see as the most critical factors here would be very helpful.
– Maggie

What’s your situation going to look like if the new company doesn’t have work for you after those first several months?

Can you easily find new work? If that’s the case, then I’d strongly consider jumping ship. On the other hand, if your career path is a competitive one, stability will probably have more value.

For those facing a similar situation, there’s also the question of how many dependents you have. If you’re single, a risky career leap is a lot more plausible than if you have a spouse and children. You’re single, so you’re in the best situation for making such a leap.

You’re healthy, relatively young, and single. Those signs all point towards taking the leap. If you have at least some chance of finding good work if this doesn’t work out, I’d go for it.

Q6: Money and pride
About two years ago, the internet startup I worked for folded up shop. Since then, I haven’t actually held down a job in anything close to my career path.

I have found ways to keep our head above water, though. My job had a decent severance package. I have found a few freelance jobs, and I’ve written a few ebooks that earn me a trickle of money (but not enough to make it worth the effort). For several months, I’ve been bagging groceries at a grocery store.

I’m pretty much constantly trying to find work, but there seem to be way more people trying to find work in my areas of expertise than there are jobs available. But we’re surviving and that’s what’s important.

Here’s my problem. My older brother owns a construction company that’s doing really, really well. Twice in the last year, he’s offered to just write me a check for rather large amounts of money. The last time, it was a check for $100,000. This money was simply to keep things going well for my family, especially the kids. He has also offered to employ me as a personal assistant.

I’ve said no to all of the offers, but I keep thinking that it’s my pride standing in the way of better stability for my children.

What would you do in my situation?
– John

It is your pride and character that’s refusing the money. However, it is likely that same pride and character that’s motivating your brother to make the offer to begin with. If you weren’t a hard-working and decent person, he wouldn’t be offering to write you a check for $100,000 to help you make things work.

If I were in your shoes, I’d honestly be most interested in that “personal assistant” position. I’ve actually witnessed similar situations, where family members have been brought into businesses. Sometimes, it really works out; other times it does not.

What distinguishes the two? The character of the new family member, mostly. If it’s someone employing their deadbeat cousin who doesn’t do anything, it ends up being a problem. If it’s someone hiring a hard-working brother, it usually works out. It sounds like you’re in the latter camp.

Q7: Salted butter for homemade bread?
Just wondering as I’m using your recipe but seeing different variations of it elsewhere, do you use unsalted or salted butter?

– Andrea

I generally use unsalted butter for everything. The only time you’ll find me using salted butter is if I’m using a recipe that specifically calls for it.

I don’t use salted butter because it’s really hard to control the salt content. All salted butter is not the same. Some brands are highly salted, while others have just a bit.

With unsalted butter, you decide how much salt ends up in whatever it is you’re preparing.

Q8: Sneaking food into theatres
My wife constantly takes food and drink into theatres in her purse. She’ll put two bottles of Diet Coke and a bag of chips into her bag before we go. Once, recently, she smuggled in a whole meal from Burger King.

This really bothers me. I understand that theater food is expensive and not that great, but it’s their right to set their own policies and you’re agreeing to them when you buy a ticket. What do you think?
– Martin

My feeling is that the movie theater can set whatever policy they want, and you agree to that policy when you buy a ticket.

That being said, I do understand why people smuggle food into theaters. People don’t want to pay the inflated price for the food and drinks that the theater sells.

On the other hand, the movie business is a tricky one. Theaters make most of their money from selling food and drink. They don’t make much at all from the tickets – most of that money is passed back to the studios that make the films.

I compromise. I usually eat a meal just before going to the theater so that I’m not hungry or thirsty when I buy my ticket. However, I don’t smuggle anything in and if I find myself hungry or thirsty during the film, I’m perfectly fine with hitting the concession stand.

Q9: Moving, with or without car
I currently live in New York City. I am 28 years old, single, no kids. My work is relocating me to Los Angeles sometime in the next 3-6 months.

Private student loan, 4.25% variable interest rate, ~$12,000 balance.
Federal Stafford loan, 4.5% fixed interest rate, ~$12,500. I have worked for a nonprofit 501(c)3 for the past 5 years, and plan to continue to do so for the next 5. This means that in October 2017 this debt will be forgiven under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Act, so I see no point in paying it off early. The balance should be at $5,000-6,000 at that time.

$15,000 in an ING savings account (about 5 months of expenses)
~$50,000 in various retirement savings accounts. Currently putting 5% of my salary into a 403(b).

In NYC I use public transportation to get everywhere, and I live in a neighborhood that has everything I need within a short walking distance. I will likely be working from home for at least the first few months, but I will need to drive to meetings and such a couple of times a week. My company will pay for the relocation, so I won’t have any moving expenses. My salary and monthly expenses should stay the same. I am saving about $1,000 month, which I am putting towards my private student loan.

Everyone I know who has lived there is telling me that a car is essential in LA because the public transportation system is terrible and the city very spread out. I am going to try to live in a neighborhood with lots of amenities within walking distance, but apparently those are difficult to find and often on the more expensive side. I just started looking into buying a used car, and I am shocked! I haven’t owned a car in seven years, and I’ve never bought one; my parents bought me a used car when I was a teenager, which I drove until it broke down in my senior year of college. I was expecting to spend about $5,000, but the only cars I’ve seen on that price range are 10+ years old with over 100,000 miles (I’ve been looking at both NYC and LA area dealerships). Ideally I would like a hybrid, 2007 or later make, and with no more than 50,000 miles, but the cars I am finding with those parameters are $15-20,000! For example, the KBB value of a 2008 Toyota Prius is about $16,500.

My inclination is to wait a few months after moving and see if I really do need a car, and make do with public transportation and my Zipcar membership in the meantime. I am worried that this will take a negative toll on my social life, as I don’t really know anyone in LA and not having a car will encourage me to just stay at home.

Assuming I really do need a car, I’m not sure what course of action I should take:
1.) Stop paying off my student loan now, diverting the money into savings. Pay cash for the car I want. Continue paying my student loan
2.) Continue to pay off my student loans, and buy the car I want with a large down payment (~$10,000) and finance the rest. I have excellent credit, so I should be able to get a good interest rate. If I took this route, I would put my extra $1,000/month towards whatever my highest interest debt is.
3.) Buy an older/high mileage car for ~$5,000, and put the extra $1,000 month into a savings account to eventually replace it with a better car. I fear I would be worried about reliability/safety/MPG if I went this route.

– Shauna

Get the used car, as long as you research it a bit first.

There are a lot of used cars around the 2006 model year range that can be had for $5,000 and offer pretty strong reliability, safety, and fuel efficiency. You’ve just got to study the models.

I’d suggest starting with to get a grasp on what kinds of models are available from that year. You might also want to look at reliability data in more recent car issues of Consumer Reports, as they’re more likely to reflect the reliability of cars made from 2004 to 2006.

Q10: Record keeping for exercise
Do you find it useful to keep activity logs for the things you’re working on? I’ve been trying to exercise regularly and I’ve been recording the information diligently in a journal my husband got me. Is that really useful or is it kind of a waste of time?

– Wendy

I think it’s useful for some people, but not as useful for others. It really depends on your personality and how your mind works.

For me personally, I find it really useful to track things. I find it a great personal challenge to chase after a personal record or maintain a streak of days where I’ve achieved a particular goal. That’s just how my mind works.

If you find that it’s not doing anything for you, don’t do it.

Got any questions? Email them to me or leave them in the comments and I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag (which, by way of full disclosure, may also get re-posted on other websites that pick up my blog). However, I do receive hundreds of questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

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