Questions About 529 ABLE, Reusable Food Storage, Pizza Delivery, and More!

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to summaries of five or fewer words. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Frustrated about financial future
2. Rolling over 401(k)
3. Closing out old checking account
4. Reusable food storage, not glass
5. Family fight over estate planning
6. Simple little pizza tip
7. Disowned due to politics
8. 529 plan for special needs?
9. Cheap standing desk recommendations?
10. Managed mutual funds
11. Book suggestions for work focus?
12. Pen and paper beats stylus?

This week, I had to do a significant amount of editing of letters to the mailbag in order to help preserve the privacy of readers.

I do some editing to almost every question sent in. If nothing else, I assign an “anonymous” name by default to each question, either one suggested by the person sending it or of my own choosing.

If a question goes into anything personal, I usually try to “blur” the details so that person can’t be identified in any way. I used to do this very little, but there was at least one situation where a mailbag letter was identified by another friend or family member and it caused some issues, so since then, I have done my best to edit many of the non-relevant details without changing the meat of the question.

There are two letters in particular in this week’s mailbag that needed a lot of editing. I almost didn’t even include one of them, but I felt it was emblematic of a struggle that a lot of families are going through.

Rest assured, when you read some of the stories in the mailbag, know that I am doing what I can to keep their identity private while also sharing worthwhile info that can help lots of people. I want to keep the core of the story as true as I can without actually harming people’s lives, so that the question and response together are a net benefit to lots of people.

On with the questions.

Q1: Frustrated about financial future

I am 32 years old, married to 34 year old, two kids 6 and 4. I feel like every financial decision I have made as an adult is terrible and leaves me with no good options for our future. I chose a college major that doesn’t earn well and went way into debt for it and married someone else on more or less the same path. There is just no way to earn a good living with my degree in zoology unless I am top 1% in the field and have a lot of other skills to go along with it (meaning I am not Jack Hanna). My wife majored in liberal arts which seems to qualify her to be a receptionist and she has struggled hard to find anything else. Her parents gave us the down payment for a house which we bought intending to have kids but the mortgage and the student loans eat up almost every dime we have. We have refinanced all loans but now we’ll be paying stuff off for at least another decade but at least we can survive for the moment. We don’t have the resources for one of us to go back to school unless we sell this house, and any sort of job change would be a disaster as we currently work opposite shifts and can take care of our kids. They will both be in school in the fall though. I don’t know how to even start making our situation more stable. We can barely build up an emergency fund and then something always comes along to eat the whole thing. Where do we even start? I feel so frustrated when I think about it.
– Marc

If you’re feeling really frustrated about your future, I advise you to start by looking at the good things in your life. It is really hard to make good decisions when you feel strongly negative about everything. What good things does your life hold? Your marriage. Your kids. Do you enjoy your current job even if it doesn’t pay well? It sounds like it’s in your field, which means you probably enjoy it at least somewhat. You have a roof over your head, clothes on your back, and food on your belly, and you have access to basically unlimited entertainment. You have a ton of good in your life.

Once you realize that most areas of your life are pretty good, it’s easier to whittle things down to just the areas that are problematic and make big changes to those areas, because overall life frustration is a lot less of an issue. Ask yourself what you would want to realistically change about your life in the next five years. If everything went well in your life, what would things look like five years from now? Ten years from now? Does a good life for you involve some degree of financial freedom? Does it involve a similar job, or a radically different job? Does it involve staying married? Does it involve your kids? Does it involve your house? What things need to be in this picture to constitute a life you love?

Now, contrast that picture with where you are now. What are the differences? Do you see a job change? Do you see some financial stability?

Whatever those changes are, those should be your five year goals. “I want to achieve X in five years.” Now, start breaking those goals down into smaller and smaller pieces. “To achieve X in five years, I need to do Y this year.” “To do Y this year, I need to do Z this month.” “To do Z this month, I really need to do A this week.” “To finish up A this week, I need to do B today.” Boom – there’s your first step. Do that thing for today and do it well. Make it a priority.

You may find it hard to actually know what those pieces are. If you do, research it. “How do I do X?” Google that question and do some reading. I tend to find answers for questions like this on websites like this one, where people are writing about their actual experiences, so I can see what worked for them.

Remember, you want to retain the numerous pieces of your life that you like, radically change the pieces you don’t, and somewhat change the pieces that are relatively unimportant to you if they help you to change the pieces you don’t like. For example, you probably don’t want to change your relationship with your kids – that’s awesome – but you perhaps really want to build a big emergency fund and then start paying off debt. What are the things you don’t care about that you can tweak? For example, what things are in your closets that you could sell off because they aren’t really important to you? What entertainment services could you cut because you don’t actually use them too much? What items could you start buying in store brand form instead? How could you cut your energy bill as much as possible? Maybe your current home isn’t really that big of a deal to you, so you could consider selling it and moving to something a little smaller and more cost efficient. Those are all probably things that you just don’t really care about, so cut them hard in the service of things you do care about.

The starting point, though, is recognizing that most of your life is pretty good and that you really only have a few specific things that you would want to improve. One of them is obviously your finances. Remember that your finances are just one area of your life and many other areas are great, and then ask yourself how you can fix just this one area. This isn’t about tearing down the house that is your life; it’s more like repainting and rearranging one of the rooms in your life.

Q2: Rolling over 401(k)

How do you know whether it is a good idea to roll over an old 401(k) from a previous job into the one at your current job? All articles on this seem really complicated. Gotta be an easier way.
– Asa

Here’s the easiest way to figure this out.

Just go into your old 401(k) and pull up the investment that all of your money is invested in. Then, go into your new 401(k) and pull up a very similar investment, the closest thing to it you can find. This is easy if you’re looking at target retirement funds or the like.

Now, just compare the two. The two things you’re really looking at are average annual return over the last ten years (you want to use the same number of years for both) as well as the expense ratio for both, something that they should list and should be easy to find. You want to go with the one with the higher average annual return over the last several years unless they’re super close. If they’re very close in terms of return, choose the one with the lower expense ratio.

If that’s the new 401(k), roll it over. If that’s the old 401(k), leave the money there.

That’s really all you need to do. You can go into a ton of nuance with this, but this will give you the right answer 99.9% of the time, and even in the other 0.1% of the time, you’re not going to lose significantly.

Q3: Closing out old checking account

I have about $1,600 sitting in an old checking account at my hometown bank. I have been using it as an emergency fund but I am wondering if I should just close it and move it to my current bank. Thoughts?
– Fred

I think that leaving it in the old bank is a good idea if it is easy to access if you’re intentionally doing it but hard to access on the spur of the moment. For example, if you have a debit card for that account somewhere in your home but you don’t carry that card with you, that means the account is actually pretty good for an emergency fund.

The only thing I would change is that I would move that money into a savings account or, even better, a money market account at that bank, as long as it’s still accessible via the ATM card. That way, while it’s sitting there just functioning as an emergency fund, it’s at least earning some interest. Many money market accounts right now earn between 1-2% interest, which means that your account would be growing about $20 a year in value without you lifting a finger once you make that move.

I generally think it’s a great idea to have your emergency fund stashed at a different bank than the one you currently use for your active banking, keeping your debit card in a known place in your home but not carrying it with you. That way, you can easily get the money if you’re intending to do so, but it’s not right there at your convenience if you’re out and about and suddenly want to buy something. You want the money to stick around for real emergencies.

Q4: Reusable food storage, not glass

I bought a bundle of reusable food storage containers for keeping leftovers and taking them to work. They were made of supposedly “unbreakable” glass, but I’ve already shattered several of them and cut my foot really badly. Obviously I should be using plastic containers but I don’t know where to start. I get about $60 in Amazon credit a month so what should I buy?
– Calista

It really depends on what you’re using them for. There are some containers that are best as meal containers to take to work. Others work well as food storage in the fridge and freezer. Still others work better for storing small amounts of food for home leftovers. If you’re clumsy (aren’t we all?), glass is probably best only used for dishes that you plan to directly stick in the oven. We use a few Pyrex baking dishes for this purpose. For plastic food storage, I guess all I can really do is offer a few specific recommendations that I use myself.

For general purpose food containers, these RubberMaid containers are probably my current favorites. The lids lock on really well, they do wonderfully in the freezer, and they work in the microwave without a bit of concern. The only thing that they won’t do is go in the oven, as noted earlier. If you want to use these for toting meals back and forth to work and want to keep different items separate, you’ll want separate ones for entrees and sides. These containers handle about 80% of our home food container use these days, alongside food packaging that we’ve kept around for re-use and the items below.

If you want meal containers with separate compartments, such as keeping (say) a sandwich, chips, and grapes separate so you can take it to work for lunch, these bento boxes are probably my choice. I don’t use containers like this regularly, but we have a few like this and they do really well.

As of late, I have been exploring sous vide cooking (meaning items cook low and slow in a sealed container inside of a water bath) as an alternative to using a slow cooker and I have to give a nod to these silicone reusable bags. Basically, imagine a highly reusable Ziploc bag that’s really easy to clean. If you find you use Ziplocs a lot, consider replacing them with these to cut down on your regular re-buys and the amount of plastic you’re tossing.

Q5: Family fight over estate planning

We recently had a private dinner for my father’s 75th birthday with my parents, all of my siblings, and our families, about 20 people all told. He is in very poor health and the doctors estimate he has three or so months to live. He is refusing all medical treatment besides palliative care to keep pain at bay. During the meal, he announced that he had named a family friend as executor of his estate and that he was leaving all of it in equal amounts to all of his grandchildren upon his passing, and that this had all been in place for a while. His grandchildren range in age from about 30 to a newborn and each will receive somewhere around $500K from the estate.

Immediately my youngest brother who doesn’t have any children blew a gasket. He loudly yelled that he was being “cut out of the family,” called us all a bunch of names, and walked out. He has refused to speak to anyone for a week and blocked most of us on social media.

To be clear, I don’t blame him for being upset over this situation. I think he acted childish, but it was out of an emotion that I understand.

I made the quiet suggestion to my father that he include my youngest brother as a “share” in the division amongst grandchildren and he just bluntly refused the idea and wouldn’t even consider it. He called him a few choice names.

What can we do here? I don’t even know where to start. I don’t want there to be a giant family rift over the estate planning but there is also a lot of money at stake. My father should be free to do as he wants but I also understand my brother is very hurt right now.
– Michelle

Before we get started, I changed a lot of little details about this story in order to make this publishable, as I am almost sure that in its original form if anyone in this family had read this email, they would have been rather upset to have their dirty laundry aired. I did my best to retain the meaningful threads, but a lot of details were changed to protect the innocent here.

First of all, I think both your father and your brother have good reason to be upset. I think that your brother may have overreacted in that moment, but he’s hurt and rightfully so. He feels cut out of his family. That hurt has nothing to do with money. At the same time, your father is being a bit unforgiving of your brother’s response. Again, that feeling has nothing to do with money. You identified all of this very well, I think, and I’m in agreement with this. At the same time, we are talking about life-changing amounts of money for everyone involved, and particularly your brother. There is going to be a huge difference in your brother’s life going forward if he gets a share or if he doesn’t; the impact on the grandchildren will be relatively small either way.

The first thing I would do is sit down with your father and ask him whether or not his intent with that decision was to leave your youngest brother out of the estate, or whether it was an unintentional side effect that he didn’t really consider. Those two avenues have to be handled differently.

If it was intentional, that your father had considered your younger brother before establishing this plan and choosing to leave him and his descendants out, you need to figure out what exactly caused this division and figure out if some form of healing can occur before your father passes away. There is clearly a relationship gap there and you have to fix that relationship gap. At the same time, your siblings and you need to make sure that there is no issue between each of you and your brother regardless of your father. There may be a strong sense of “everyone versus me” from him, a sense of being cut off, and you need to absolutely make it clear that you do not want him cut off, that you want him to be a part of your life.

If it was an unintentional slight and now your father is mostly just upset out of embarrassment and out of a little frustration with your brother’s response, that can be the source of healing. Give things a bit of time to cool off, and then talk to your father about whether he’d be willing to alter the plans again. Point out that this is really important in terms of making sure the family is strong when he passes away, even if he’s frustrated at how your brother responded.

In either case, you really need to open up communication with your brother. You have to make it crystal clear that you understand his perspective, you agree that it’s not particularly fair, that you love him and want him in your life, and that what you want more than anything is something that everyone can live with before your father passes away and the rift is never able to be healed. This will obviously be easier if it was an unintentional move by your father, but it needs to happen either way.

I would not openly discuss the possibility of going behind your father’s plans and manually giving your brother a share. Not only is this disrespectful of your father’s plans, it also makes you guys appear to be against him as well if you consider it and choose not to do it. This shouldn’t even be a consideration.

Overall, this isn’t a situation that can be rectified with legal means. You have to work with the people and relationships now. You’re probably going to have to dig through some family laundry in the process.

I fully expect quite a few readers to chime in on this.

Q6: Simple little pizza tip

I wanted to share this little thing we started doing that I think is a great example of “frugal thinking.” We have a Friday night family tradition of ordering pizza and watching a movie together. We used to all get home, talk about what kind of pizza we wanted, and order it for delivery. There was usually a delivery fee and then we’d also tip the driver, which usually added up to an extra $10 on top of the pizza cost.

For the last few weeks we have been talking about the pizza we want on Thursday night and I put a reminder on my phone to order pizza in the afternoon. I am always the last one home on Fridays anyway. I commute within a few blocks of several pizza places so I just order it mid afternoon when my reminder comes up and have it ready for pickup about 15 minutes after I leave work.

It takes maybe 5 minutes to do this and saves us $10 each week. If I did this every week for a year that’s about $500 in savings.

Just rethink what you’re doing when you spend money. You can save a lot without really changing much about your actual routines by just thinking it through a little and asking yourself if there’s a better way. Don’t just throw money at the problem!
– Jeremy

This is exactly the kind of frugal thinking that really makes a difference when it comes to financial success. So often, people assume that being smart with their money means undergoing some kind of radical life transformation. Sure, there are situations where that’s the right choice, but for many people who are just living paycheck to paycheck, a few shifts like these make an enormous difference.

If you make $50,000 a year, saving $500 a year is literally a 1% savings rate. If this is your new pizza strategy, you can go to your HR office and bump up your 401(k) savings by 1%, or you can have $10 a week transferred automatically into your emergency fund by your bank.

In either case, you’re putting away real money for the future, and that’s going to have a multiplicative effect. That $500 a year in retirement is going to grow at about 7% a year until you retire, meaning it adds up to thousands. That emergency fund will be over $1,000 in just two years, and it will make the difference of having to put a car repair on a credit card and having to pay it off slowly over the course of a few years (with lots of interest payments) or just paying it off all at once (with no interest), meaning it’s going to multiply, too.

It all comes back to moves like this, where you’re driving a block out of your way to save $10 once a week. Maybe you just buy a bunch of store brands instead of name brands at the grocery store and cut your weekly grocery store bill by $20. As long as you do something smart with the savings and not just spend it on some other minor fleeting desire, little changes like those will grow and grow and grow over time.

(We actually have the same tradition of having pizza and a movie on Friday evenings. There aren’t many pizza options nearby so Sarah usually picks it up on her way home from work (or else I make it). In other words, we’re in the same exact boat as you except delivery was basically never an option.)

Q7: Disowned due to politics

I am 23. I graduated from college two years ago and have a good entry level job on a low rung on my career ladder with good prospects for moving up. I grew up in a very conservative family and would now describe myself as moderate. I have three older siblings who are very conservative. I was born about ten years later as a “surprise” child.

In the last few years, my parents have seemingly moved very far to the political extreme. I have tried to avoid discussing politics when visiting them at holidays and at other times. I’m not politically active but I feel uncomfortable with some of the ideas being promoted out there by people. I don’t even like talking about politics if I can avoid it.

At holidays, my parents would make these extreme statements and then expect me to completely agree with them and I would usually say as little as possible and try to change the subject but in the last 2-3 years the subject seems to always be politics.

I went to visit them over the Fourth of July and they had a cookout with a bunch of their friends. The talk was almost entirely political and much of the stuff said made me uncomfortable, so I excused myself and went in the house and started looking at my phone.

My father came in with a few of his friends and I overheard him refer to me as a “liberal” and then as a “disappointment.” I just got up, grabbed my stuff, and drove home.

I got a phone call that evening from my parents who told me that they were “cutting me off.” This isn’t really a financial problem for me as they haven’t paid for anything for me in years aside from meals when I would visit them and they would sometimes take me out for dinner when they would visit me.

Since then, I have texted them a couple of times with no response. My brothers aren’t responding to my texts either. My sister still texts with me and says that this will all eventually blow over.

I always thought that my family would always be there for me. I just want to be able to go home and watch a movie with them and laugh like we used to or watch a football game with my dad without him sitting there talking about how evil everything is and spending the first half yelling about players standing for the anthem. I always felt secure that if things went really bad in my life I could rely on them and now that is completely gone and for what? I didn’t want to talk about politics?

I am writing I guess because I need to vent, and I’m wondering what I can do to kind of replace that sense of security in my life. My guess is that I just need a big emergency fund. Do you have any suggestions for me?
– Thomas

This is another story from a reader that I chose to edit significantly, cutting out some specific identifying material and altering some specifics to help avoid dredging up a specific family issue.

In terms of your family issues, I think the only thing to do is to give it time. There are a lot of elements in the world right now that are encouraging Americans to be politically extreme (to both the left and right) and on edge, and while those elements are out in force, this is just the reality of things. I would spend some time reflecting on whether or not you’re actually expressing some views and causing conflict yourself, but from this story, you don’t seem to be doing much of that.

In terms of your own finances, you’re correct in that the best thing you can do to “replace” that sense of security you got from your parents, the best thing you can do is have a healthy emergency fund. That way, if you lose a job, you can rely on that instead.

It’s also a very good idea to put in extra effort to have a robust resume that makes you a good candidate for lots of jobs, and make sure you have a health care package that can help you if you get really sick.

A final note, and I’m going to put this in bold: don’t let your political beliefs of the moment shred lifelong immediate family relationships. Your political beliefs will change over time – almost everyone’s views do. Do you believe all of the same things that you believed 20 years ago? 10 years ago? It’s not worth shredding a lifelong close relationship just because of your current views. If you are stating viewpoints that are deeply upsetting to a family member that you’ve been close with for your (or their) entire life, spend some serious time reflecting on whether those views are right and whether you’re being excessively influenced by the media you’re consuming. At the very least, have enough respect for that relationship to cut out the political talk for a while. I don’t care which end of the spectrum you’re on or which end the other person is on, if you’re expressing views that a loved one considers abhorrent, you should be spending time in self-reflection about that view and about the influences in your life that are bringing you to that view, and you should be putting your best non-political foot forward to keep that personal relationship healthy. (This is not to say that there aren’t toxic relationships that you’re better off without, but that if you’re going down that road, stop and re-think things very carefully.)

Q8: 529 plan for special needs?

My wife and I are having a baby due in December! We are already making tons of plans and we are starting a 529 plan with myself as a beneficiary now so that we can change it to the baby after he or she is born to get a jump on college savings.

Which brings us to our question. A friend of ours has a special needs child. What do we do with 529 money if we have a child with special needs? Can 529 money be used for special needs education expenses?
– Aaron

529 money can’t be used directly for special needs education expenses. However, money in a 529 can be rolled over into a 529 ABLE account at a rate of $15,000 per year without tax penalty.

So, what is a 529 ABLE account? It’s basically a variation on a 529 in which the money in the account can be used to pay for qualifying expenses for adults with special needs. Their parents put money into the account as they grow and once they reach adulthood, the money in their 529 ABLE account can be used to pay for qualifying expenses tax free without affecting their eligibility for Medicaid, SSI, and other such programs. Here are more details on 529 ABLE programs.

So, your plan is a good one. You can start saving now in a normal 529 and if your child goes to college, the money in that account can help them. If your child has special needs and has other uses for that money, then moving it over to a 529 ABLE is easy and can help in that situation, too.

Q9: Cheap standing desk recommendations?

I work from home 3/5 days per week and want to switch to a standing desk at home for my own health. There’s a lot of walking around when I’m at the office but very little when I’m at home. Do you have recommendations for a good inexpensive standing desk? Most seem really pricy.
– Gerald

Basically, all you really need to do is have a stable way to elevate your monitor, keyboard, and mouse above your current desk so that you can comfortably stand instead of sitting. There are a lot of ways to do this. If you already have a desk, just get yourself a single large heavy duty board, collect some soda cans or paint cans, and put the board across the cans, like this. Boom! Standing desk for a few bucks. This is actually a pretty stable setup – it’s only going to fall over in an earthquake.

If you want a more stable setup, a friend of mine uses a small variation on this IKEA hack. Basically, it’s made up of an IKEA Lack side table with two Viktor shelves bolted on top of it – total cost around $30.

You’ll want to play around with the exact height of everything. The easiest method, if it’s going to be permanently a standing desk, is to put some blocks underneath the desk itself before putting anything on top of it. Just make sure it’s exactly how you like it before bolting anything firmly in place.

I personally love my standing desk. It’s just a very simple frame with open space underneath it which I use for work-related storage. It’s stable and I stand at it for about six hours a day, with regular short breaks.

Q10: Managed mutual funds

I’m wondering if you think Ally Invest’s Managed Portfolios are a good option? There’s a 0.30% advisory fee and they invest money in diversified ETFs. Is there a better alternative maybe with Vanguard? I’m looking for an easy way to invest additional money after maxing out my Roth IRA, and my employer doesn’t currently offer a 401k.
– Erica

Mutual funds come in two general types. One is actively managed funds, of which the funds you mention are an example. These funds are run by people who study investments carefully and try to find bargains and those are the things that the fund invests in. It’s guided by people (or, these days, a mix of people and computer programs – the ones you mention specifically seems to promote itself as a robe-fund, which means it relies heavily on computer programs and semi-automatic investment). On the other hand, you have index funds, in which there are a simple set of rules that govern what investments are bought by the fund, and thus they need a lot less “people power” to run.

Managed funds aim to beat the market. The people (or computer programs) involved hope to find investments that do better than the average investment of the type they’re looking at. However, managed funds tend to have a middling track record – they’ll beat the market some years and perhaps more years than not, but they don’t do it anywhere near every time. In doing this, however, they charge relatively high fees. That fund you mention is actually on the lower end in terms of fees for managed funds.

On the other hand, index funds aim to match the market. They often just buy a little bit of everything to achieve that. At the same time, because much less people power is needed to pull that off, they tend to charge much lower fees. Many index funds have fees that are around a quarter as much as the fund you’re describing.

My philosophy is to just buy index funds. They usually manage to come very close to the market average even after fees. Managed funds tend to be all over the place, both from fund to fund and from year to year. On the whole, managed funds after fees will beat index funds after fees a little less than half the time.

From what I was able to find, this is a good example of a group of managed funds. They fall into a general nebulous group of “robo-funds,” which basically means they involve fewer actual people than many actively managed funds and rely on computer programs to automate some of the investing, but the investing strategy is managed by a person rather than a rule. This means that the fees are going to be significantly lower than the typical managed fund. It’s almost a hybrid between a managed fund and an index fund. The reviews I could find and the information about the fund that’s publicly available all seem to be solid.

I tend to personally believe in and put my money in index funds, but this is what I consider to be a good example of a fund using a different strategy. If you feel good about it, then go for it. It doesn’t set off any red flags for me, though it’s a type of investment that doesn’t match the kind of investments I choose for myself.

Q11: Book suggestions for work focus?

Followed your suggestion and asked my boss for a performance review. He said my work is excellent when I complete it but that I seem to be often distracted and doing things unrelated to it and that if I were on task better he would promote me to senior level which would involve a good pay bump. I know my boss, this is not a false carrot. He suggested I simply try to notice when I am distracted at first and then try to fix it and he is right, I get distracted all the time at work. I can focus really well sometimes but at other times it’s awful. Do you have any general suggestions or book suggestions for this? You’ve helped with great career advice and money advice already and seem to have good ideas in these areas.
– Marcus

I guess I can describe the things I do when I’m working to help me focus. When I really want to focus on my work for a while, I do a set routine of things. I put my phone on “Do Not Disturb” mode and make sure I have distracting websites blocked on my computer. I make a cup of coffee and a cup of tea and put them on my desk for easy access. I open up a blank page in a notebook and put a pen by it so I can jot down any fleeting ideas that pop into my head and don’t get completely distracted by them. I go to the bathroom. I stretch a little bit. I close the door between my work area and the rest of the house. I put on some noise cancelling headphones and put on some ambient music or white noise. Then, I get down to work.

There are two key things to point out here. One, I’m basically eliminating as many paths to distraction as I can. My phone. Distracting websites. Random thoughts. People walking in. Environmental noises. Momentary thirst. I block out all of that stuff. Two, I’m trying to get into a “flow state,” which is a state in which I am so focused on my task I lose track of time and space. Not only am I incredibly productive when I get into that state, it also feels good. Getting into that state is one of my favorite things about working. I want to be able to get into that state and stay there for as long as I can ride it.

There are two books that really stand out for me in terms of this kind of professional focus: Deep Work by Cal Newport and Flow by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. I’ve written about both books before (here and here) and I’ll likely eventually do a “Books with Impact” deep writeup about each one. They both do a wonderful job of addressing that very issue: how do people who work in situations where they need to deeply focus to produce great work manage to actually achieve that focus and utilize it for the best possible work output, particularly without burning themselves out? Together, I think these two books address that really well.

Q12: Pen and paper beats stylus?

In response to this in your mailbag “I haven’t quite pieced this out yet. Is it habit? Is paper really better than a stylus for me? I’m not sure, but I know that I prefer both paper and stylus to typing when I’m trying to figure out something or work it out in my head.”: I am an occupational therapist and a common theory in our field is that the higher the resistance, the higher the kinesthetic benefit and sensory input. Pen and paper writing typically has more physical resistance than stylus to tablet and it may just be that you are physically working just that tiny bit harder to write words on paper that helps!
– Kerry

That actually makes a lot of sense, and it explains why using a stylus on the iPad screen causes the things I write to stick in my mind better than writing but seemingly not quite as well as pen on paper. It makes me think that perhaps a stylus with a “rougher” surface to write on might stick in my head more like pen on paper does. I know that such things are out there, but I also know they’re quite expensive, and I’m not going to fork over the cash just to test the theory.

Instead, I’ll probably just stick to pen and paper when I really want to process ideas as I’m writing them, while stylus and paper works really well when I want to retain the big picture and have notes for permanent review later. Typing is mostly only good for sharing ideas with others, I think.

If I were back in college, I’d still be all paper all the time in the classroom. I used to fill up entire notebooks with notes, especially later on in my college career when I understood what I needed to do to succeed.

Got any questions? The best way to ask is to follow me on Facebook and ask questions directly there. 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 many, many questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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