Reader Mailbag: The Injury Cycle

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. Family and money
2. Home mortgage, debts, and repairs
3. Convincing children to sleep
4. Free refills at restaurants
5. Mortgage paydown or down payment?
6. SodaStream
7. Career switch and financial difficulties
8. Baby savings
9. Gencon meetup
10. Frugal coffee tactic

Whenever I establish an exercise routine, it seems like it’s inevitable that I hurt myself in some way that disrupts it. The nonsensical part is that the injury usually happens when I’m not exercising.

For example, I recently got into a great routine of walking and jogging every day. I was using a gradual interval model to transition from walking to jogging and it was going wonderfully.

Then, when I’m walking down the stairs, I trip over a book that my daughter left out, fall head over heels, and whack my ankle hard on the railing.

Now, I’m limping around like an old man. The jogging routine takes a break. At least now I have the sense to look for other things to do to exercise.

Q1: Family and money
I guess the crux of the problem is that my sister-in-law seems to think we have ‘money to spare’ since we can save. and that money that we are saving really ought to be shared with her. Hmmm.. Do you have any suggestions on how to manage people like that? folks who think you can shoulder more than your share b/c you live beneath your means and save the difference? My husband and I live well beneath our means and are savers — saving money for kids college and retirement. I enjoy reading your blog and finding additional ways to save and things to think about.

I have a sister-in-law who has never lived within her means. She is a teacher, lives in a house that she cannot afford and refuses to sell it to move to a more affordable situation. She also refuses to take on additional work tutoring or during her summer months like other teachers we know. Her mom/dad have always jumped in to assist and still do albeit a bit less than they used to.

That is fine and none of our business really, except for things that crop up — eg: her parents are starting to age and now she kind of expects my husband to jump in and assist. sister-in-law is late 50s and is 9 years older than my husband. We have so far sidestepped assistance with school taxes coming due or home repairs needed as my husband just suggests putting the house on the market and moving into something more affordable which keeps her from asking for money to help out with that. phew.

However, we keep running into more subtle things. For example: gifts for siblings and parents had been ratcheting up in costs — in the past, my husband has let her have the idea, and my husband would fund it and she’d do the legwork to make it happen. Not a problem for a long time and helped us save on shipping costs as we don’t live near her. However, in the past few years, the gifts starting reaching over $200-300 per event. I pulled out the spreadsheet for my husband and said ‘wow, did you notice how expensive gifts have gotten lately? can we bring the costs down a bit?’ He agreed. Now I make sure to remind my husband of an upcoming event well in advance so he can get an gift idea before her ‘suggestions’. My sister-in-law is a bit put out that we are no longer funding her ideas & she now has to come up with her own gifts b/c rarely does she want to execute one of our ideas locally…

Another recent example is that she keeps strongly hinting that she would like to go to the beach with us this summer if we go. We went 2 yrs ago and rented a house on the beach with my two sisters and we split the cost three ways.It was an amazing vacation made affordable b/c of the 3-way split and we had a full kitchen so we rarely ate out. My sister-in-law is very enthusiastic about doing something like this with us, but I have the sinking feeling that it will not get split because she just cannot afford it. and footing the whole bill really isn’t in our budget even though we could technically ‘afford it’.

I think we should not go at all so it doesn’t turn into an ugly issue but my husband still wants to go to the beach. He is suggesting renting a hotel room & simply send her the hotel info if she asks where we are going so she can make a reservation if she wants to. yikes. I am in a bit of a quandary here. If we go that route, I would probably arrange to use points and get a hotel room for free or less money per night, but it’d cost her full price. Is that fair? Or should I find a hotel that I think she’d better be able to afford more inland — but frankly, if I were in her shoes I wouldn’t be spending on a vacation if I couldn’t afford my school taxes….and the hotel inland isn’t one where we can use points so it’d cost us more.

What are your thoughts? It seems to be getting more persistent and weirder now that her parents are getting quite aged and are stepping in less than they used to so she is turning it toward us…How do you manage folks who want to spend *your* money and are related?

I’d be interested to hear your suggestion on what to do about the beach thing and also what to do with her in general — do you have a pat answer for fending off siblings asking you for money?
– Karen

Just say no. Everyone has to make their own financial choices in life. If she asks for money directly for anything other than a genuine emergency, tell her no but offer to show her how to make it work. After all, you guys make it work. This is more or less my response when close relatives ask me for money.

For the beach vacation, make your own reservations and tell her where you made them. You don’t have any responsibility to do more than that.

She is an adult with a good job and the capacity to make her own choices. She’s choosing expensive things in other areas of her life. That doesn’t mean you should cover for her in the areas she chooses to skimp on.

Q2: Home mortgage, debts, and repairs
I purchased my first home for $95,000 right out of college when I was 23 (in 2007). It was a fixer upper in a mixed income neighborhood with great potential for growth. And then the market crashed. That, combined with a string of bad roommates and unstable employment for a few years, has left me with a home badly in need of repairs and updates that I cannot afford. I don’t have heating or air, my kitchen is totally outdated, and the bathrooms need a lot of work. And of course I am underwater on my mortgage so there is no chance of a home equity loan. I’ve looked into the 203k program but the as is value of the home is too low for me to take advantage of that refinance option. I am also looking into the HARP refi but have had no luck so far.

I was freelance for 2 and a half years and just took a full time job making $40,000 in addition to $300/month I get from a roommate (although that is short term). I have approximately $2000 in expenses each month which includes mortgage, credit cards (I’ve paid off approximately $7000 and have $2200 left which will be at 0% interest until March 2013), car payment/insurance, student loans, cell phone, and utilities. It leaves me with about $700 in discretionary spending. I try to be fairly frugal. I don’t eat out very often and when I do my boyfriend usually pays, I shop at thrift stores, and most of my home is furnished secondhand. My biggest splurge is $150 a month I spend at my gym because I was sedentary for years and this has been the first place I’ve actually enjoyed working out and I feel it’s worth the extra expense. I also founded a nonprofit arts organization 6 years ago….I don’t spend any money supporting it but much of my time goes towards that so I don’t have much energy left for a part time job. I am working towards that organization becoming more fiscally strong so I can be paid a stipend but that won’t happen right away. I also don’t have any real savings other than approximately $1500 in a 401k I had at an old job.

I may be up for a raise soon at my job….I am going to bring it up with my boss during my next review in June. I’ve had a good track history so far and I know that I am underpaid for what I do for the company. I don’t anticipate it being more than $5000 (but I am going to ask for more!).

So, my question is how can I make these repairs to my home in the most fiscally responsible way? I am willing to do a lot of the demo work/clean up myself and my boyfriend has some basic construction knowledge and will help a little. I’ve researched various types of loans and credit cards and have found a few options with low/no interest rates for a year or more. Are there any other options I should look into? If I wait to pay cash for everything, I think I will be living in a shack before I could do the most basic of repairs. I’ve considered a short sale but my mortgage company is terrible and Georgia is a state in which you will be held responsible if you walk away from your home. I feel very stuck at this point and am not sure what to try next.
– Ginny

Focus on one repair at a time. Start with the most essential repair. Which repair is the one that is most needed in your house?

Once you’ve decided on that, figure out how much it will cost. That may involve getting an estimate (if you can’t handle it) or simply tallying up the costs of materials (if you think you can do it yourself).

If the repair is one that will cause damage to your home if it’s not completed, get a loan for it. Otherwise, save specifically for that repair. Don’t worry about the others. Wait until that repair is completely paid for, then address the next one.

I think your no interest loan approach is a good one if it’s an amount you can easily repay in a year. If it’s not, I would be very hesitant to dig into debt for non-essential repairs.

Q3: Convincing children to sleep
Most evenings, I find myself spending two hours getting the kids to sleep. I don’t mind reading them stories and singing songs, but when it stretches into more than an hour of needing drinks and crying and sibling bickering, I get really frustrated.

How do you get your kids to sleep? How can I recoup some of this time?
– Becky

I usually engage in activities that can easily be interrupted. For example, one of my common bedtime tasks is simply formatting a reader mailbag post by making sure that the headlines are in the right place and so on. Other tasks include folding laundry, cleaning a nearby room, or simply reading a book.

Sarah and I have somewhat different approaches to bedtime. I tend to let the kids fuss more than she does during bedtime. Once the bedtime routine is finished, I usually leave them to their own devices. If they cry a bit or something, I let them do it. Sarah is much more likely to check on them.

I think the key is to find something to do that can be interrupted without too much hassle and move that task to a place near the bedroom.

Q4: Free refills at restaurants
My husband and I have a disagreement about free refill drinks in restaurants. I say you should buy one drink for each person. He thinks we can share and both have unlimited drinking. Costco is a great example…we usually get one hot dog with drink, and a piece of pizza. We share the drink. I feel guilty every time. He thinks it’s within our rights, though he says if he knew it was wrong, he wouldn’t do it.

His reasoning is: 1) there has never been (that we’ve seen) a sign or notice saying you can’t do this; and 2) if we are at a place without free refills, we still share a drink, so we’re just doing what we would do anywhere.

My reasoning is: 1) it just feels wrong; and 2) I can’t imagine owners want 2 or more people sharing something that’s unlimited…they have to make a profit, too.

We don’t feel comfortable asking at a restaurant, so we agreed to ask you and your readers. Thoughts?
– Mindy

My understanding is that the general assumption when you order a beverage is that it’s a beverage for one person for that visit. If Sarah and I were to do such a thing, we’d buy two cups.

However, most restaurants don’t seem to explicitly state this on their menu or on their websites. I looked at the sites of several different businesses that offer unlimited drinks and saw nothing explicit about sharing, though I did see a few mentions of “one cup per customer,” which I would think would apply to this case.

Now, are you going to get in trouble for doing this? Probably not. If most of the employees saw you, they wouldn’t care. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do, but I wouldn’t worry about your Costo membership getting revoked.

Q5: Mortgage paydown or down payment?
My husband and I just finished paying off all of our debts, except the mortgage. We now have a plan in place to save for future cars, travel, a new house, etc. We just recently had a baby in March. We both work fulltime and hope to continue to do so. We budgeted childcare costs, etc.

We are trying to settle a decision to 1. pay down our mortgage or 2. save for a new house or 3. do both simultaneously.

We owe $180,000 on the house. It is a two bedroom townhouse which we thought we’d move from a few years ago (6 years here) but the market tanked. The houses are worth maybe what we owe or less (and we put a LOT of upgrades in it – everything is new). We plan to have more children, at least one more, and could live with this size house for a few years with two (so maybe another 5 years tops).

Do we put an extra $6,000 toward the mortgage every year and save $10,000 for a new house down payment, do we just skip the mortgage paydown and save $16,000 a year or do we pay down the mortgage with all we have?

Paying 6k and saving 10k will leave us at 130k left in 5 years, 50k for a new home
Paying 16k will leave us with 80k left in 5 years and 0 for a new home
Saving 16k a year will leave us with 160k left on the loan and 80k for a new home
We’d save about 5-9k in interest at that point in the loan depending on payment plan.

What do you think? I feel we need to stay on a debt reduction focus, because even I have been free spending again and buying too much. I like having a serious plan in place and making progress. For me, it’s too easy to see a large savings and decide to spend it toward something else that is a want, not a need. We use ING, but I still can “see” the money that way.

My husband wants to save for a new home and not throw anything more at this home. In the end though, it’s our debt regardless and I feel if we pay it now or later, it’ll come back to bite us when we sell. Also, I wouldn’t mind living here longer if we had two boys, because it keeps our spending small since our home is small.
– Lois

I would pay down the mortgage on your existing house.

Most of the time, when you’re moving from one home to another, the lending company will offer what is called a “bridge loan,” which is used for your exact situation. Essentially, it allows you to use the equity in your previous home as the down payment on the next one.

Considering that you’re going to get a better return by putting money into your mortgage than into a savings account, I’d pay down that mortgage first.

Q6: SodaStream
My aunt gave me a SodaStream machine for a birthday gift. I’m trying to figure out if it saves money over buying soda elsewhere.

– Joanie

If you already own the machine, it’s a bit cheaper to use the SodaStream than it is to buy soda.

A bottle of syrup can easily be found for $5 and can be found on sale for as low as $2.50. A single bottle of that syrup makes the equivalent of 33 cans of soda, which means that if you stock up during a sale, you’ll be paying less than a dime for the amount of soda that would fill up a can.

A SodaStream also requires occasional carbon dioxide refills, but if you research those, the cost is a tiny fraction of a cent per ounce.

Still, I would not buy a SodaStream as a money saver. If one were given to me, I’d use it, but you would have to drink a significant amount of soda to make it worthwhile.

Q7: Career switch and financial difficulties
I am incredibly unhappy in my current engineering job. I have suffered for 6 years rotating around to different positons within my company to see if I could make things better, but I dread coming in to work every morning. I would love to go back to school to become a nurse. I grew up with a Mom who was a nurse and love the environment and helping people. I would need to go to school for 2 years to get a nursing degree. My husband and I make good salaries now, about 90k for him and 70k for me. We live in Boston so the cost of living is quite high. We have a 330k left on our mortgage, about 20k in car loans, and about 100k in his 401k and 65k in my 401k. He is 33 and I am 29. I do have some student loans from under grad, about 15k left. My question is, if I wanted to quit my job and go back to school full time, should I fund my education and other expenses by taking out another school loan or pulling money out of my 401k? We don’t have very much in savings, about $5,000. I wish I had a bigger savings to pull from, but we spent a lot of money, probably a lot of it unnecessary, on our first baby who is 10 months old, our wedding, and trips to see my family who live across the country. I am miserable and know I would be happy for the next 30 years in the nursing field. Any suggestions?

– Annie

There are a lot of what-ifs here. Can you survive on your husband’s salary alone? Is he on board with this plan? Could you easily jump back into your old field if he lost his job? Do you have any relatives that can help during the hard times if you decide to go through with this?

You’ve got to have an emphatic “yes” to each of these questions if you’re going to go through with this. If you’re hesitating and saying “no,” then you need more security before you make the leap.

You are carrying a lot of debt. You have an infant at home. You are going to add to that debt and temporarily cut your income. Unless you’ve got security, that’s a very dangerous move.

Q8: Baby savings
Just found out a week ago that my wife is pregnant! It’s our first child so were really excited but also unsure of how much it will exactly cause our expenses to increase. I would like to minimize the impact as much as I can without short changing the baby of course. I was wondering if you had any tips/resources I could refer to in order to save some money on typical baby things such as diapers, clothes, cribs, strollers etc.

– Arnold

The less you buy now, the better. I would make sure to get a very sturdy crib. I would get plenty of diapers in advance (cloth diapering is cheaper and easier than you think) and some wipes. I’d have plenty of baby clothes and some blankets, both of which you can get at a children’s consignment shop at great prices. If you’re going to bottle feed, get a number of bottles to have on hand and some formula. Get a good carseat and a good stroller.

That’s really all you need. Your baby doesn’t need toys or wipe warmers or other such nonsense. Your baby needs you and, beyond that, basic needs such as food and shelter and warmth.

This WebMD checklist is pretty good, but for each item, ask yourself honestly if there aren’t things you can use that you have on hand right now. Why buy a diaper bag when you have an old college backpack? Why buy a dresser for your baby when you have an empty drawer or two available elsewhere? Why buy a changing table when you have a towel you can take anywhere in your diaper bag?

Q9: Gencon meetup
I know you go to Gencon every year. I’m going this year, too. Any chance for a meetup?

– Andy

For those unaware, Gencon is a non-electronic gaming convention (think boardgames and similar things) held each year in Indianapolis in August. Last year, there were around 120,000 total attendees of all ages – I saw some babies and people in their eighties and everything in between.

I considered trying to organize a meetup, but I go to Gencon every year to see a lot of friends and participate in events with people I don’t see very often. Thus, my schedule is usually booked pretty tight when I’m there.

However, if you do see me wandering around the convention center, don’t be afraid to say hello. I’ll gladly chat for a few minutes (provided I’m not late for an event or anything).

Q10: Frugal coffee tactic
My husband and I make coffee every morning – I’m a bit of a coffee snob, and buy fairly good Fair Trade coffee (not too much more expensive than the Foldgers or Maxwell House type coffees, and not more expensive at all when bought on sale in bulk). We don’t usually finish the pot – there’s always enough left for a cup or 2.

I am also a Dunkin Donuts Coffee Coolata lover (similar to a Starbucks Frappachino), all except for the price, that is. To try to cut down on discretionary spending, I bought a single serving smoothie maker for $15 at Wal-mart, where the mixing cup is also the serving glass. I use crushed ice from my refrigerator ice maker, a little bit of flavored coffee creamer (I use Coffee Mate Hazelnut, but any will do), and sometimes a teaspoon or 2 of Italian Soda flavoring syrup (vanilla, almond, etc) or a dollop of chocolate sauce and the left over coffee.

For pennies I make what Dunkin Donuts charges $4 or $5 dollars for, it is also much much healthier/less fattening as it’s not made with half and half. It took me a few tries to get the measurements right for my taste, but it was well worth the trial and error period. I use to buy at least 1, if not 2 Coolatas a day.
– Susan

Great idea! Most things like this can easily be made at home with a bit of ingenuity.

My favorite morning treat used to be breakfast burritos. I would buy them at a particular restaurant on my way to work two or three times a week.

I tried making them at home, but they just weren’t the same. The key was to keep trying. I kept tweaking the recipe and experimenting with small batches until I hit upon a recipe I really liked. (The key? HOT picante sauce… but that’s me, I guess.)

If you can find a way to make something you really like at home, it’s going to be far cheaper over the long run and probably healthier, too.

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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