Reader Mailbag: Spring Break

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. Handling leg injury
2. Selling video games
3. Vegan eating challenges
4. Challenged by controlling spending
5. Corporal punishment
6. Choosing a debt to repay
7. Next move with underwater house
8. Protecting cards
9. Portable washing machines
10. Managing new baby medical expenses

When I was a child, my school district didn’t really have a spring break. We had one three day weekend in the middle of the spring that they called “spring break,” but the weeklong break from school that many children seem to have today didn’t exist then.

My son, on the other hand, has one of those weeklong breaks. It’s been filled with outdoor play, bowling, trips to the park, and a multi-night trip to visit out-of-state grandparents.

There are moments when I would love to have the chance to step back and be in the shoes of a child the same age as my children. Spring break is one of those times.

Q1: Handling leg injury
I recently tore my Achilles tendon. I have surgery next week, and I’ll be in a cast/brace and on crutches for almost two months. While I’m doing well financially right now, since I live frugally and have good discipline with my spending habits, obviously a crisis like this can really put me into a hole if I don’t approach it correctly. The actual surgery is not an issue – my health insurance takes care of all but about $200 of that, but I’m more concerned about general life expenditures. I won’t be able to drive, so while coworker friends will carpool with me to work and take me home, I’ll probably have to use a taxi (the city buses aren’t convenient) if I want to get anywhere else. This could get expensive. I’m also probably going to have to rely on a grocery deliver service like Peapod for food, or order out for meals. If I want to visit my family, I’ll have to fly instead of drive. Any services I would normally do myself (home maintenance, yard work, etc.) I will have to pay to have done. So, for 2-3 months, my lifestyle could get very expensive very quickly. What advice or tips do you have to make it through this period without throwing my financial well-being out the window?

– Anthony

First thing: this is a time to cash in every little chit you have with your friends. Rely on them right now when you need them. Some of your friends will step up to the plate and others won’t. The ones that do are your true friends.

Don’t be ashamed to ask them for help for things like getting to the grocery store or handling some basic household tasks. I had a friend who was very ill once and I picked up groceries for her twice a week for about two months. Sure, it was a bit of a hassle, but it was for a friend, someone whose friendship I valued. I was happy to do it.

If you find that there are some services that your friends just can’t replicate and you just can’t allow them to slide, go ahead and pay for them. However, I think you’ll find if you put a real critical eye to it that you’ll find help for quite a lot of things.

Q2: Selling video games
Like you, I’ve come to the realization that I don’t play video games much any more, so I’ve decided to sell off my collection of games. I have a mountain of titles for various systems, mostly for Xbox 360 and PS3 but also older ones. What’s the best route for getting good money for these games and systems?

– John

It really depends on how much time you want to invest in the process. The more time you spend, the more you’ll earn. Depending on your games, you’ll earn about minimum wage from your extra time, more or less.

If you’re just looking to unload quickly with minimal time commitment, unload your entire collection at a used game store. They’ll buy almost anything, but they won’t pay you much for most of them. You might find success putting the whole collection on Craigslist, too.

If you’re willing to devote more time, start stripping out the more valuable items. The top titles for almost any popular system sell for a premium, as do any particularly rare titles. Sell these individually using either eBay or Craigslist, depending on your comfort level.

Each individual item you strip out will raise your total return, but it will also add to the time you spend doing this. My experience has been that minimum wage is a rough estimate of what you’ll earn per hour invested in resellling one’s old video games.

Q3: Vegan eating challenges
I saw that you had gone vegan and I knew that would never be me, so I didn’t really file your meals in my memory bank. I tend to be a healthy eater, but picky and frugal. We eat very little meat because I insist on organic which is expensive. To make it work I’ve used dairy (reduced fat cheese and fat free milk mostly) as my main protein source and I use my meat sparingly, such as small amounts of ground beef or chicken in chili or soup with lots of beans, or pasta for dinner. Lunch for me is usually fruit or veggies, reduced fat cheese and some whole grain carbohydrate.

Well, now here I am on a dairy free and gluten free diet while my doctor and I attempt to sort out what has been causing me to have some medical issues as of late. I am to stick to a dairy free/gluten free diet for a month. If my symptoms go away then I’ll put dairy and gluten back in and then have the test. If they don’t then we’ll order more tests to rule out something other than diet. It is most likely that I either have an allergy to dairy and/or gluten or that I have a sensitivity to it. For the gluten part I think I am fine, because I love quinoa and brown rice and rice cakes so that doesn’t bother me. Where I am really struggling is how to get my protein without dairy and without eating more meat. I have started eating a lot more nuts and nut butters, but they are so high in calories that I really need to keep a lid on that. Also, I don’t want to do soy because of the thyroid concerns. Currently I am using unsweetened almond milk.

Please let me know what you used to get the adequate amount of protein while being a vegan.
– Kelly

For starters, I’m no longer purely vegan. I switched to a vegetarian diet after a year of veganism due to medical guidance.

That being said, my big sources of protein while vegan were nuts and beans. Nuts of various kinds were my most common snack while I was vegan. I also included beans as a component in at least one meal a day.

My reason for leaving a vegan diet had nothing to do with protein levels. It had more to do with some inadequate vitamin levels. If you’re on a vegan diet, I strongly recommend eating the widest variety of vegetables and fruits you can as well as taking vitamin supplements.

Q4: Challenged by controlling spending
I am looking for some techniques and practices I can do to start actually saving money. I have already have daily practices and routines that I do to keep track of my spending but it hasn’t seem to help. I joined a money group online but some of the topics were not applicable to me so I kinda lost interest (which I do very easily because I have been diagnosed with adult ADD). I am very much aware of tactics I should be doing to save money but I feel like they don’t work for me. Other times I know I am just going through the motions, I suppose and not analyzing any of the results.

I have been keeping all my receipts and bills the last two months (based on one of your posts) and tracking what I spend. Mostly, my expenses are related to shopping- either clothing or grocery. My husband and I eat extremely healthy so I can’t really use any of the coupons offered because normally it is not for stuff we eat. It seems that I can not come out of the grocery store spending less than $100. I always make a list yet, I will still end up buying additional items because either 1) I forgot about it when I made the list or 2) we need it so its justified (i.e.,- I love cleaning supplies so sometimes we don’t need any but I will still buy something new because I want to try it out).

I just don’t know how to cut down spending habits and set up a budget (and actually stick to the budget) so we can save for an emergency fund, which is something we do not have right now. I get frustrated and feel as though I will never make any headway even when I actually do make some progress. I actually gave up spending money on buying things for the house for Lent so that has helped somewhat. But I seem to just take my focus somewhere else, like clothing. Lol. Maybe I have not changed my ways yet because I have not had any children but I do not want it to come down to that for me to change. I want to be prepared. How can I still have things that I want and still save money?
– Linda

You already seem to know most of the habits you need to start saving money. In the end, you just have to have the willpower to do them.

Try this: the next time you go to the grocery store, leave all your cards at home. Take just $100 in cash, nothing more. Then, when you’re deciding what to buy, you have to make some tough decisions.

What happens is that once you start routinely making those tough spending choices, they become easier. Eventually, they become completely natural. The challenge really is finding the willpower to start making those choices, and my only real advice there is to force yourself into situations where you have to make those choices, as with the $100 in cash at the grocery store trick I mention above.

Q5: Corporal punishment
I just heard a story on NPR about schools being allowed to paddle children. That seems barbaric to me. Do you spank your children? How do you discipline them?

– Angie

I don’t spank my children for discipline. I don’t think it’s necessary. The only time I can see it being of any use at all is when a very young child (say, my one year old) does something that would put him in immediate physical danger and he’s not able to comprehend the explanation of the mistake. If my one year old were to try to run out in the road and doesn’t stop when I tell him to, I can understand the reason behind giving him a swat on the behind just so he has a very negative association with running out on the road.

Once a child is past that stage, simply talking to them clearly about why something is wrong seems to correct most behavior problems, and when it does not, then a time-out or a removal of something they enjoy tends to work well. “Bribing” for good behavior is a complete failure, as it sets a new expectation of the normal and causes more long-term problems than it is worth.

That being said, I think parents should have some reasonable leeway in how they choose to parent their children. I do not think child protective services should be called if a parent gives a child a light spanking after some egregious misbehavior. Removing a child from the parents is a pretty severe step and one that should not be taken lightly, as it has severe negative consequences on its own.

I was spanked on occasion as a child, and if a light spanking were cause for intervention and removal from the home, I would have been taken away from two of the most wonderful parents in the world. Every time they spanked me, I had done something either physically dangerous to myself or intensely disrespectful to those around me, and that was their method of correcting that behavior.

There is a world of difference between a light spanking (which I consider to be a parenting tactic, albeit one I don’t use nor do I think is the best tool in the toolbox) and severe child abuse. If you’re leaving physical marks behind or creating an environment of fear, that’s child abuse, and that’s fairly clear from the physical state of the child and their emotional response to their caregivers. I was spanked, and I don’t recall ever fearing my parents or my own personal safety. I just recall thinking that I had messed up badly and thinking that I should improve upon that mistake.

Q6: Choosing a debt to repay
I consolidated a student loan back in 1994 and the interest rate is 9%. The loan is 22,000. When I married my husband, we deferred or took forbearance on the loan while we paid off his credit card and farming debts. My loan has remained unpaid all these years until recently. Now we can pay a “low income” repayment amount of 20.00 per month on this loan if we prefer, but my hubby is giving me 100.00 per month to send to Nelnet. That does not even address the interest each month. We still have another 10, 000 to pay toward a line of credit account that he took out. That is a 5% interest account. We have paid off over 33,000 in farming debts. These final two debts are the only remaining debts other than the mortgage. I should mention that he is only paying 100.00 toward that smaller loan at this time. Would it make more sense to put the whole 200.00 toward one or the other of these debts. I think we should be doing way more than the 200.00, but I can’t convince him otherwise. Any thoughts?

– Kristine

If you don’t pay more, you’re going to have these payments for most of (if not all of) the rest of your life. That’s really what it comes down to on a long term loan.

If you have a $22,000 loan at 9% interest and you are only making $100 a month in payments, you will never pay off that loan. Never. You are accruing more than $100 in interest per month. You will have that $100 a month payment for the rest of your life. Even on the $10,000 loan at 5%, if you’re making $100 payments per month, it is going to take you more than 10 years to pay it off. If you pay just $100 to each, pay off the smaller loan in about 12 years, then send $200 to the other loan, you’ll pay them both off in approximately 40 years. The optimum method is to make a minimum payment on the $10,000 loan and pay the rest of the $200 a month to the larger loan, but even then my estimate is it will take you about 36 years to pay them both off.

In other words, $200 a month right now isn’t going to cut it unless you want this leash around your neck for the rest of your life. The numbers just don’t work out. If you can bump that up to $300 a month and pay $75 (my estimate of what your minimum payment is – this is a ballpark) to the smaller loan and $225 a month to the bigger loan, you’ll pay off both loans in roughly 15 years. The more you add to that, the faster your payoff happens.

Q7: Next move with underwater house
My husband & I are in our 50’s, both working full time. Money has always been tight, & it was a big deal when we were able to purchase a plain-jane house for $80K near our jobs about 10 years ago. We did a lot of improvements early on, hoping to build sweat equity. Within three years, it appraised for $120K. We refinanced for the appraised amount, using the additional money for bill consolidation, college & wedding expenses for our family. You can guess the rest of the story… the appraisal dropped to $68K by 2009. It has climbed back up some, but we are still underwater by at least $10K. We have 18 years left on the mortgage, & can manage the payments, but it is more house than we need now that our family is grown, and we did not ever plan to stay in this city long term. The neighborhood is deteriorating so I do not anticipate housing prices will ever rebound that much. We are unsure whether to just try to stay here like it or not, keep it as a rental, or try to sell now & cut our losses sooner than later. We realize now that refinancing the house for the increased appraisal was a huge mistake but it seemed like a perfect solution at the time. We feel stuck.

– Julia

You have to decide whether this is the house you want to live in for the rest of your life. If it is, then stay put and keep making the payments.

If it is not, you’re going to need money to cover the amount you’re underwater on the house as well as money for whatever your next housing move is, whether it’s renting (you wouldn’t need much right away) or another house (you’ll need a down payment). If that’s your choice, you need to live lean and save every possible dime you can starting today.

Staying where you’re at will give you some more day-to-day living freedom right now. That’s probably the choice I’d make unless there was a serious reason to move.

Q8: Protecting cards
My wife got me the card game Dominion for Christmas at your suggestion and we love it. We play it almost every evening. But we’ve run into a bit of a problem with it. The cards are starting to look really worn out, especially the estate cards. On some of them, we can tell what card it is by just looking at the back of it due to the wear on the edges.

A friend of mine suggested putting the cards in sleeves so the game doesn’t wear out and says it’s way cheaper than buying another copy of the game. Have you done this with any of your games? Any recommendations for bang for the buck?
– Jim

Putting sleeves on a card game is a good idea in a few situations.

For one, if you play the game with younger children who are just learning basic etiquette (like washing your hands before you play), sleeves can be a really good idea. I have sleeved a few games that my oldest son is starting to play.

For another, if the game is played a lot and involves a lot of shuffling, you should weigh sleeving it versus buying another copy. Sleeves do a stellar job of protecting the cards. If you shuffle cards regularly, they will show wear and tear and they eventually will become marked on the back and have significant edge wear and potential issues with sticking and clumping, which would eventually render the copy unplayable. How long would that take? It depends on the force of your shuffling, the natural oils on the hands of the players, and so on. It sounds like you’ve played Dominion 50-100 times and it’s showing wear. That’s pretty reasonable, but after another 50-100 plays, your cards are going to be heavily marked. Is that acceptable to you? Would you want a replacement copy of the game at that point? That’s the driving question when it comes to sleeving, as sleeves are cheaper than a new game copy.

I put any game that sees frequent play in sleeves. This lets me shuffle the cards without worry. Some of our games have been played many, many times and the cards are still in wonderful shape.

Sleeves tend to be a “you get what you pay for” type of thing. Cheap sleeves work fine, but they tend to split much more quickly than the more expensive sleeves, meaning you should have some extras on hand. Some of the more expensive sleeves are pretty much indestructible (at least in the context of playing card games). I tend to sleeve based on whatever sleeves I can get for a pittance. I actually use a lot of Fantasy Flight sleeves (pretty expensive ones) because I found a bunch of them on huge discount once.

Q9: Portable washing machines
My husband and I live in a two-bedroom apartment. I’d love to buy a house, but right now, we’re working on paying off our debt (over $40,000 in student loans, plus $24,000 for our car payment – we share a car). Most of my dissatisfaction in living in an apartment is the lack of a washer (we let most of our clothes air dry, so specifically, a washer). My dad mentioned that we might consider getting a portable washer that hooks up to the sink. Would you recommend such a solution? Right now, we pay about $20/week using the coin-operated laundry facilities at our apartment complex. I hate having to lug my laundry across the courtyard and wait in line for a washer, so I’d love it if a portable washer could be the solution. I’ve seen them for $300 – $500, and it seems that if we use it weekly, we’ll make up for the costs in not having to pay for laundry at our apartment.

– Kendra

You’re in the perfect situation for a portable washer and it’s probably a good move for you in this situation. It’s a great option for single people or couples without children in an apartment without a washing machine.

Be aware that the loads aren’t going to be as big as the ones in the other washing machine and you’re going to have to air-dry everything in your apartment. Also, depending on the model, there may be hoses to hook up. Many of them hook right to the faucet, which is where you adjust the heat of the water.

If those aren’t a problem, then a portable washer is probably the right choice for you.

Q10: Managing new baby medical expenses
Basics: Family of 3, soon to be 4 (part of question). Single income (by choice) 50k year. No debt except mortgage. ~10k savings.

On to the goods……My wife is pregnant with our 2nd, due first of July. My employers health insurance election is coming up (April) when we have the option each year to choose our plan from 2 offered plans. First plan is what I would call a conventional health plan. I would have a $175 premium taken pre-tax each month. Then your common $10-$30 copays for regular doc visits. And it would cost us $750 total for the delivery of the new baby. The second option is a high deductible HSA plan. I pay no premium, but I’m responsible for the first $3000 of medical bills. Everything after that (that’s not liposuction or so other fringe medical procedure) would be paid by insurance. So the way I see it, $3000 up front (for kid) and pretty much done for the year.

I put ~$500 a month towards savings. If I choose plan #1 I would be taking the difference out of that savings, since there’s not too much wiggle room in the monthly budget. If I choose #2, then savings would be the same each month, but I would for sure hit the $3000 deductible with the delivery.

Plan 1, would be $2100 in premiums, $750 in delivery, and doctor visit copays. So around $2850 plus doc visits is going to be paid for during the next year. Right?
Plan 2, would be $0 in premiums, $3000 deductible hit by delivery, all after that insurance covers…..also, I would open an HSA account and put $3k in it to get the tax benefits.

Am I looking at about the same out of pocket expense for the year with these plans… or do you see a benefit in one or the other? Anything I’m missing? I’m currently on the high deductible plan and paid about $1500 in medical bills last year. Worth switching?
– Frank

The first thing I’d do is check which plan offers better coverage if something goes wrong during a delivery making a C-section or some other procedure necessary or that your new baby needs medical care. Make sure you understand what is covered under each of those plans.

Assuming that’s the case, I would go for plan #2. You’re going to have doctor visits for the new mom, as well as child checkups for the new baby, and that’s if everyone is perfectly healthy. If you have a lot of co-pays floating around, the cost of the first plan will exceed the second pretty quickly.

The two plans seem to be pretty close to me, though, based on what you’ve described above. Just make sure you’re not missing any details.

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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