Reader Mailbag: Super Bowl Celebration

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. Repeatedly failing to achieve goals
2. Handling bill collectors
3. Rethinking mortgage payoff goal
4. Handling extra cash
5. Paying taxes at year end
6. Online business and credit cards
7. Buying home for parents
8. Heroes
9. Repair or replace used car?
10. Using emergency fund during schooling

What does our version of a Super Bowl party look like?

It’s a potluck dinner. The game is on in the background, but largely ignored. People sit around and play board and card games.

This year, my parents are actually going to babysit our children so we can do these things without children (meaning less distraction and less concern about child-unfriendly topics of conversation).

Q1: Repeatedly failing to achieve goals
All the time, I set these powerful goals for myself. I’m really inspired to get out there and start taking action on them. Then, about two weeks later, the fire just dies out and I stop making any progress on the things I want. I’ll sulk on it for a while, then set new goals and start off like gangbusters again, only to fail again. How do I break out of this cycle?

– Leon

First thing: stop making multiple goals. Focus instead on just nailing one goal at a time.

Second thing: stop making sweeping life changes to achieve your goals. Instead, focus on one manageable thing that will move you towards that goal. Work on nothing but that one specific thing for a while until it becomes second nature. Then, move onto the next specific manageable thing.

For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, pay off all of your debts, read a lot more than you were reading, and redo the entire interior of your house, pick one. Say that you pick weight loss. Focus wholly on eating no junk food for a month and replacing it with something healthy, like carrot sticks. Ignore the rest of it. Don’t even think of them as goals.

Q2: Handling bill collectors
I am working part-time (less than 20 hours a week) and currently seeking more gainful employment. I don’t make enough to get by and rely on help from others to pay my bills right now. I’m truly broke (like using coffee filters for toilet paper broke). I have debts that are in collections, and I can’t make payments on them. Is there something specific I need to do in regards to those accounts? Should I call the agencies and tell them there is no way I can make payments right now, or will that just encourage them to begin harassing me again (at the moment they seem to have given up on getting anything out of me)?

– Kevin

I’m not sure using coffee filters as toilet paper is a highly cost-effective solution unless you have a lot of coffee filters bought in bulk and no toilet paper on hand, in which case it’s a financial delay tactic of questionable hygiene.

The honest route is to contact the agencies and tell them that you can’t pay right now. Make it clear that you do not have adequate employment.

At the same time, however, I do encourage you to negotiate with them. Use your employment situation as a tool to play hardball. Tell them that you’re willing to pay a much smaller amount and suggest one. Debt collectors typically buy debts from large companies for pennies on the dollar, so anything they get from you is likely to be a profit.

Q3: Rethinking mortgage payoff goal
Our situation is this: We have ~153k left on our mortgage and we pay $320 extra each month. We also save $500 each month in a fund that we plan to use as a down payment for a new house. Our current house is pretty small. We have a toddler and another baby coming soon, thus the saving for the next down payment. The down payment fund has around 26k in it. In addition to the down payment fund, we have around 40k in cash.

The way I see it we have three options:

1) Continue on as we’ve been doing. Pay the extra $320 on the mortgage each month and save $500 for the next downpayment.
Disadvantage: Much more interest payments because of the longer loan. House not paid off until March of 2028.
Advantage: More liquidity, next down payment is not tied to current house.

2) Stop saving for the next down payment and divert that $500 to the current mortgage, so we’d be paying an extra $820 each month.
Disadvantage: The money isn’t liquid and if/when the value of our home continues to drop, the money is tied up until we can sell the house.
Advantage: Our house would be paid off in October of 2021, by my calculations, with far less interest payments.

3) Stop saving for the next down payment AND empty the next down payment fund to quickly lower our current mortgage down to 127k.
Disadvantage: Money tied up in the house AND we lose the liquidity of the next down payment entirely.
Advantage: The mortgage would be paid off 14 months earlier, August of 2020, with even less interest paid.

One idea in this whole situation is that if the mortgage is paid off, we don’t really need to worry about the next down payment. Once the mortgage is paid off, we can aggressively save for the next house and we would certainly have some equity in our current house, even in spite of the horrible market. What are your thoughts?
– Brian

It depends on whether or not you’re underwater on your current house, which I’m not exactly clear on. Do you still owe more than your home is worth?

If you do, then you’re going to have to get your mortgage down to the break-even point before you do anything else.

If you’re not underwater, then I would make minimum payments on the debt and start stockpiling for the next down payment.

Q4: Handling extra cash
I have a friend who I have sort of “taken under my wing” in terms of finances. He does fine with his money, he just isn’t very organized.

Background: He is single, early 30’s, base pay about $50k. He has no debt, old car, rents an apartment, probably has $30k in a cash cushion, and at least partially funds IRA/401k every year. He may move to another country in a few years, either with his job or to start a different career.

The question: He just received a gross bonus of about $140k, after taxes about $80k. He went ahead and fully funded 2012 401k with that (in his words, $13k to 401k), so that leaves about $65k to work with.

I am meeting him for dinner next week to help brainstorm about what to do with that $65k in his situation. He says he doesn’t want a new car at this point (he can walk to his job, weather-permitting, and I think he just doesn’t care about his car/cars in general).
– Andrew

Your dinner should be focused on what his goals are. What does he intend to do with his life in the future? Does he want to start a small business? Is there potential for marriage in the future? What about home ownership? These goals have different investment paths.

He may also want to consider using it to fund a Roth IRA for the next several years so that his retirement savings get a giant boost. That really depends on what other retirement savings he’s got to this point.

If he doesn’t have a goal, then he should sit on that money. Since he has a cash cushion, I would suggest that he puts most of it somewhere where he can largely forget about it for the time being, something that has some risk but also has some potential for a decent return. I’d probably put it in a very broad stock market index fund.

Q5: Paying taxes at year end
My husband did our taxes this year, and in the end, we owe the federal government money. It’s mostly due the unforeseen consequence of using an education award from my service with AmeriCorps, which pushed us into the next highest bracket. Is there any way for you to outline the process of repayment to the federal government? What are our options? Luckily it’s not an earth-shattering amount, and we’ll be able to cover it, but I am curious if there is a way to set up a payment plan or something like that. How would you avoid a windfall like this in the future, when we so often rely on a tax refund for extra “fun” money (to pay for vacations and incidentals)?

– Kelly

You certainly can set up a payment plan with the IRS. It’s easy to do and they’re pretty good about working with you if you’re clearly trying to pay your taxes.

My rule of thumb is that for every dime you bring in that isn’t already taxed, you should save a nickel of it for your tax bill. I do this with every dollar I bring in.

If you owe less than that (and you most likely will), treat the remaining savings as your tax refund.

Q6: Online business and credit cards
I am a small business owner. I have accepted credit cards for 15+ years, but only process a handful of credit card transactions per month.

My credit card processing company keeps raising their fees, raising their fees, raising their fees…..and lowering their level of service; they will no longer even send me a monthly statement, without charging me a “statement fee.” At this point, due to their fees, if I process NO credit cards, my annual costs are $500+! Add in the transaction fees (3% or more per transaction), and it’s just become outrageous.

I would like to be able to continue accepting credit card payments as a convenience to my clients, but these fees have become unbearable.

Besides Paypal, are you aware of any way to accept credit cards without these high fees?
– Shelley

My immediate suggestion would be to use Google Checkout, which seems to be just what you’re looking for here. It will handle your transactions easily, Google takes a small cut, and you move on with business.

I’ve been using Google Checkout for a while now on a project I’ve helped some other people with and it’s worked great.

Paypal is convenient, but as a seller, I’ve heard a lot of stories about frozen accounts and the like and that makes me fairly nervous. I’m assuming you’re wanting to avoid it for similar reasons.

Q7: Buying home for parents
My boyfriend Jim and I have been together for 4 1/2 years and are planning on marriage in the next couple of years. My question is about Jim’s parents. Their real estate business went bankrupt when the recession hit and they have been having a very difficult time making ends meet. Jim’s father is now underemployed doing factory work and looks for minor home maintenance work on his days off. His mother has been disabled for the last few years due to extremely debilitating arthritis. She cannot work. They’re making it, but barely. Jim has been helping his parents out financially since he started working – roughly the amount of their mortgage payment monthly. I know this is something we will need to do for the remainder of their lives unless we do something like buy them a home.

Jim and I are financially solvent enough to buy their home, due to a large inheritance I received – it would cost us less than 5% of our assets. We would like to keep it in our names, and we would let them live there, free. The reason we hesitate to put it in their name is because we do not want them able to take a loan out on the home. Jim’s father has been irresponsible with money in the past. If we bought their home, it would fix all financial problems they are having, barring catastrophe. They would be able to save for an emergency fund, retirement, have enough money to make ends meet, and have a little something left for themselves to enjoy. It would be a very large increase to their quality of life.

Do you think I should buy their home for them? If I buy it, should there be strings? Would “strings” of “forced savings for retirement/emergency fund” be unreasonable? I tend to think strings are a poor idea because of the way it would affect the relationship between us and his parents. I don’t want them to view us as their landlords. I badly want to turn their situation around, but I want to do it in a way that will allow them to remain self sufficient after we do so, and cause us to not need to intervene in their financial lives on a regular basis.
– Kathryn

If you buy it, I wouldn’t attach any “strings” on their behavior. You’re opening the door wide for future conflict.

If you can easily afford it, buy the home and just let them live there without rent. When they no longer use the home, you can fix it up and sell it, possibly turning a small profit on it.

One thing I would suggest from personal experience, though: make sure you establish who’s responsible for property taxes and insurance. Given the situation, it’s likely you’ll be responsible for it, but be sure you’re aware of that before you jump in.

Q8: Heroes
Who are your heroes? What people inspire you greatly?

– Charlene

Most of the people I think of as “heroes” aren’t famous. There are so many people out there doing things quietly in their community, changing lives in a positive fashion, and they never get lauded with celebrity or fame.

I admire the couple in our community that run the food pantry. They spend quite a lot of time on it, collecting food, keeping the doors open, and making food available to the needy in the community. It’s a constant commitment of time with no real reward. They don’t get fame from it. They barely get any recognition from it. Yet they do it, week after week, month after month, year after year, because people in the community need help.

To me, that’s a hero.

Q9: Repair or replace used car?
My wife and I plan to look for and hopefully purchase a house this spring. We have been pre-approved for a decent amount (~$400K). Although we are looking now, current inventory is lacking and we feel after the new reality season in our area (traditionally the week following SuperBowl Sunday) we should be able to find something we like and can afford. With the market being what it is, we are determined to find a house that we can easily live in for at least a decade.

In the meantime, we currently have two automobiles that eventually need to be replaced. We plan to replace them with newer used cars.

My 1997 Mustang needs $1200 worth of repairs to make it safe to drive. This includes brakes (~$400) and new tires (~$400). It would be a game of Russian Roulette to continue navigating Chicago Winters (read: snow) with my current set of tires. [I actually ended up putting in $400 in repairs to the clutch cable and a few other things the other day.]

My wife’s car, a 2002 Trail Blazer, is in better shape but has worse gas mileage than the Mustang. I currently drive her car 26 miles to work (one direction). Her transmission is starting to fail. Our future perfect world scenario would be to replace the Trail Blazer with an Element and the Mustang with a more fuel efficient car to be determined later, perhaps a hybrid or even an electric car if we have the infrastructure, though we’d likely replace the Mustang first and get an Element.

The question is, do we repair the Mustang or use the $1200 toward purchasing a new used vehicle. As I see it, if we invest the $1200 into the car, we reduce our emergency fund and/or downpayment fund (both separate at the moment). However, if we take on even a small auto loan, the interest rate we get for our house might be slightly higher than we could get otherwise and over the life of the home loan, even a quarter percent higher equates to ~20K extra interest paid.
– Ron

It really depends on the reliability of the Mustang other than the things you’ve mentioned.

Has it reached a point where you can barely go three months without something going wrong with the car? Or is this just a conflux of things that’s fairly unusual for an otherwise reliable car?

If the car can’t get you reliably to work and back, you need a different car. Yes, that might slightly postpone your house plans, but if the alternative is having your boss tell you to take a hike because you can’t consistently get there on time, then you don’t really have a choice.

Q10: Using emergency fund during schooling
I am a LPN in my late 40s who will be returning to school in the Fall pursuing the additional education to become a registered nurse. My children have completed college and are out of the house. My husband and I have a house payment of $850 (for another 4-5 years) but otherwise no debt. We have about 6 months of our monthly income in savings, and I have about $150k in a 401k.

When I return to school for the year, I hope to either quit working altogether or work no more than 20-30 hours per month. (I make $20 per hour). My husband will be changing his withholdings from his check once I stop/reduce working, as we both claim zero dependents and have additional money taken from each of our paychecks. So his checks will increase to some degree when I reduce my hours. I will attend a local community college, so educational costs will likely be $4000 -$5000 for the year, and I intend to pay out of pocket for this.

My question is this, if we are financially strapped during the course of my year of schooling, is it better to take out a student loan (since they are at such a low interest rate for 10 years) or potentially deplete/reduce our saved money? Should our savings be used only for “emergencies” ? or do you feel that is precisely what a “savings” is for? I have considered taking out a student loan and putting it in savings and only using it if we are strapped. If I don’t need it, then I’ll repay it immediately after I finish school and have returned to full-time work. (It isn’t always a quick process to obtain a student loan, which is why I have thought about doing it whether or not I need it initially. If I wait until I need it, it might take too long to obtain the funds needed.)

(By the way, I’ve been “couponing” for about 6 months and have nearly a year’s supply of all toiletries and paper products that we will use during the course of my schooling. I also garden and have a significant supply of frozen and canned produce to help us get through this time.)

I’d appreciate your thoughts and insight. I’m excited, but nervous, to be returning to school. RNs in our area typically make 10-15k more per year than LPNs, so it won’t take long to see a return on my educational costs, but more importantly, there are probably 10 RN job opportunities for every 1 LPN job opportunity, because so many facilities are no longer employing LPNs.
– Linda

Don’t even think for a second about what you might earn after this schooling. Betting on earnings that your future self might make is a route to financial despair.

Instead, look strictly at the difficult year. Make a budget for that year. What is your family income during each month? What are the required bills that are going to have to be paid?

If it doesn’t add up, delay this move for a year or two until you can save enough to make it work. Remember, this does not constitute an emergency, so you should not deplete your emergency fund for it. If you do deplete it and then something goes seriously wrong, you’re going to be in a desperate pickle.

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.