Questions About Backpack Living, Solitaire, Lazy Investing, Colds and More!

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. Avoiding certain degrees
2. Investing for the lazy
3. Will anyone have a job?
4. Getting organized
5. Glass jar banks
6. Last minute gift exchange ideas
7. Retirement advice
8. How to avoid holiday colds
9. Free or really cheap movies?
10. Balancing down payment and retirement
11. Living out of a backpack
12. Summer travel planning
13. Social stock plans
14. Solitaire games
15. Saving checkbook registers

We often travel to visit family during the days between, say, December 15th and New Years. We usually make an overnight trip or two during that period.

Part of the challenge, when we do that, is dodging the inclement weather. One day, the roads are icy. Another day, there’s a big snowstorm. Maybe there’s a big snowstorm at the destination.

We usually wind up packing an extra day’s worth of clothes and I always take my “portable office” (my backpack that has everything I need to get writing and other work tasks done).

I look forward to the day when computers or robots can drive for us or, even better but a lot farther off, we just have the ability to teleport from location to location.

Q1: Avoiding certain degrees

I disagree on the Communications being a bad degree; I make a very good living as a journalist following U.S. Treasury government bonds; newspapers and magazines do have some circulation challenges, but people are making a living in journalism. It’s a career you do because you love it. (I suppose like acting.) But I take your point, don’t blow a lot of money on it! I just wanted to make that point! I studied journalism in college and walked out with 2 or 3 paid internships (work-study) already under my belt so I could get employed with copy editing etc. skills already mastered.
– Derek

When people write lists of “bad degrees,” they’re mostly looking solely at the average economic result of choosing such a degree. What do jobs with that degree typically pay?

They don’t look at the opportunities for self-employment or consulting or easy transition into other fields.

I think that fields like communication (and philosophy, for that matter) offer many strong paths for transitioning into other fields. They embed transferable skills and/or the ability to think deeply about a variety of problems. Those things are valuable in a lot of areas and good hiring officers know that and take advantage of that.

Q2: Investing for the lazy

I have a great job and tons of consulting opportunities so earning money isn’t a problem. I don’t spend much and actually save about 60% of my income so saving isn’t a problem. The problem is investing. I am just bored by it. I try to read articles on investing and I just find myself not caring at all. I followed a friend’s advice and put everything into Betterment but I’m not really sold on that.
– Terry

You’re looking for a “lazy portfolio,” in other words. A lazy portfolio is one where you just contribute to a very small number of pre-balanced investments and never really think about it again.

A “lazy portfolio” is one composed of a small number of low-cost funds that are easy to rebalance and, honestly, not pay a whole lot of attention to. You can just invest money and let them roll.

I basically use a “lazy portfolio” myself that consists of 40% domestic stocks, 40% international stocks, and 20% bonds. It’s fairly aggressive and does have periods where it loses money (which would largely go away if it were 30/30/40 instead.

Q3: Will anyone have a job?

Your video about Amazon’s robotic warehouse kind of freaked me out. The robots there are doing work that people would have done just a few years ago and it is really clear that they will be doing the remaining jobs soon. They can’t be that far from a fully automated warehouse with maybe a person or two on hand to fix problems if they arise.

What happens in ten or twenty years when all of these jobs are done by robots and computers? Will anyone have a job?
– Rachael

You’re right that there is a point coming in the not-too-distant future where robots and computers take over a lot of entry-level jobs. If a job can be reduced down to a simple series of commands and very simple decisions, it’s likely that a robot will eliminate that job in the next 25 years.

So what does that mean for entry-level workers? I suspect that some will basically choose to not gain any useful skills and become unemployable, while others will work to build up a skill set that can’t be replaced by computers.

I do think there will be a lot of jobs for craftsmen that will be hard to completely replace by computers. Any job where there are larger projects and tasks with a wide variety, like electrical work or carpentry, you’re going to have difficulty just fully replacing it with robotics and computers.

Q4: Getting organized

Lately I am trying to get more organised. I am not good in getting an overview of all my activities. Currently i have 3 part-time, flexible jobs and we are fixing up our house. Recepy for chaos and stress. I tried a lot of online calendars, but none really worked for me.
So I went back to paper in a filofax. I always loved handwriting and doodling in my journal, so i see this as an extended version. I am trying out different templates to get a good system in place. Now I am trying the templates from diyfish which I like a lot, but it takes a bit of work and they are not free.

I wanted to ask you: how do you keep your schedule, plans and other things clear?

And because i am watching a lot of youtube videos about how people use their planner, I saw some unfamiliar things. I am not from the US and her in the Netherlands it is normal to make almost every payment automatic. I also automated my savings. Only one or two bills a month are not regular and when they come in, I pay them immediately online. But in the video’s I see people who have to keep on top of bills and pay them on a certain date. I am not sure if this is by choice that they do it themselves every month, not trusting their bank, or that automatic payments are not possible for rent etc. It might be because they are living paycheck to paycheck, but I did not get that idea. Can you clarify this mystery for me?
– Eric

I use Google Calendar to manage my schedule, Remember the Milk for to-do lists (though I’m dabbling with Todoist lately), and Evernote and a good old pocket notebook for miscellaneous notes. I keep a daily journal using a Hobonichi planner. That pretty much takes care of everything I need.

In the United States, a lot of people do pay all of their bills online, but there are a lot of people who aren’t there yet. Online banking is not universal, nor are businesses that work well with online banking. It’s still a mixed bag.

For example, I do virtually all bill pay online, but my parents do not because their bank’s online banking service is … less than robust.

Q5: Glass jar banks

I like the idea of a piggy bank with multiple slots, but I don’t see the point in buying one when I can just use glass jars for my kids. So I have saved a few jars and made little slots in the top for putting in money. The question is how many jars should I have and what should they be for? I have lots of ideas but I think too many jars is a bad idea.
– Phil

We use a four-slot bank and it works really well for us. There’s a “spending” slot, a “saving” slot, a “giving” slot, and an “investing” slot.

Each allowance, the kids put at least a quarter in each slot, then can put the remainder wherever they wish. Then, when they want to give money to a cause, they can tap the “giving” section of the bank. The “saving” slot is saving for a big goal, and the “investing” slot is one that we use to teach basic investing and how your money can make money.

I would be really hesitant to use more slots than that unless perhaps they had multiple savings goals. Even then, I’d probably just convince them to focus on one goal at a time.

Q6: Last minute gift exchange ideas

What kind of stuff is good to throw into a last minute gift exchange? My coworkers ran one at work at the very last minute but it looked like everything was clearly bought at the very last second [junk] that no one wanted.
– Carly

There are lots of things. Quality chocolate. Craft beer. Quality pocket notebooks. $10 gift cards. Homemade cookie bundles. Tins of good mints. All of those kinds of things work. I usually try to shoot for something consumable.

Rather than trying to think of something that will please everyone, I try to think of something that a significant percentage will actually like. Not everyone will like quality chocolate, but a significant percentage will be quite happy. The same for craft beer or pocket notebooks or a tin of good mints.

I always found that at the end of exchanges like that, people traded gifts a lot so that they walked away happy. That’s usually a good idea.

Q7: Retirement advice

Just to give you some background: I am 37 years old, married with a stable job. My wife, 36 years old, is unemployed and we don’t have children. We have emergency fund to support us for at least 6 months, in case of a job loss and we live frugally and save as much as we can while we can.

Currently, my company offers SIMPLE IRA and I max out (12,000/year limit for 2014). Beginning this year, I started to max out my Roth-IRA and my wife’s Roth-IRA. Even after contributing to the IRAs, we still have $500/month to spare/invest and was looking for ways to put this to work for my retirement. What would be the best way?
– Sarah

I would invest in a taxable investment account. Yes, you’ll have to pay taxes on the dividends each year (which honestly won’t be much until you get a very large amount in there) and, yes, you’ll have to pay taxes on the gains when you empty it out, but there’s a huge advantage: you can basically spend it whenever you like without any additional penalty.

Just open up an account at Vanguard and use the “lazy portfolio” ideas described in question #2 above. Put half of that $500 a month into one investment and the other into a second investment and just sit on it.

You may find that in ten years or so you’re glad to have penalty-free access to that money. If not, it’ll just ride until retirement.

Q8: How to avoid holiday colds

Do you have any simple strategies for avoiding colds over the holiday season besides the usual stuff like washing your hands all the time?
– Denise

There are two things I do, one because there’s some evidence of it and another that I do simply because I’ve done it since I was a kid.

The one that actually works is zinc. There are a number of studies that indicate that it helps reduce the number of colds that people get. The one that is probably just placebo is vitamin C, which I take in the form of vitamin C drops. I’ve done it since I was a kid and at this point I think I just like the vitamin C taste.

Most winters, I either get no colds or just one particularly nasty cold. When I was younger, I used to get several colds in a winter, so something has changed for the positive. I also keep my hands washed all the time.

Q9: Free or really cheap movies?

My husband and I like watching movies. We often watch older ones that have kind of been forgotten. The movie rental store in our area is about to close. We can rent movies there for $0.50 per night. What options do we have for cheap movies?
– Dana

My first thought would be to check your local library. Many libraries have tons of movies that you can check out for up to a week at a time, just like a library book.

Another option to consider would be a service like Netflix, which has a ton of movies on demand for a flat fee per month. If you use Amazon Prime, the Amazon Instant Video service comes free with it and is almost as good as Netflix. Both allow you to binge-watch television series without commercial interruption, which is nice.

Aside from those ideas, I don’t really have any good ones. However, I suspect that at least one of those options will work like a charm for you.

Q10: Balancing down payment and retirement

I am 23 years old and I work for a large company. I make ~62k a year after tax and expect that to rise in 2015 due to a pay raise (currently in negotiation, though I am guaranteed to get it as we are given 1 per year). I have a healthy $27,000 in savings that I have saved over 2 years, and my boyfriend of 3 years and I are planning on using that cash and his own savings on a house deposit.

I have a superannuation account (the Australian retirement account) that has ~$6,000 in it mostly saved over my last 24 months of work. Recently I started thinking I would like to put more money into a retirement fund or even just a high interest savings account used for that purpose so that the prospect of early retirement is a possibility. I like the idea of the high interest account over an actual fund as I enjoy being in full control of my money, even money I am not allowed to touch (I have incredible self-control, my house deposit money has not even had a dollar removed from it).

My question is, how do I go about investing in retirement whilst continuing to save for and eventually pay off a house? As an idea for you, each week my paycheck is divided as such:

Bills / rent / gym membership / groceries: $500 per week into a separate account

House savings: $300 – $500 per week

“Spending” money for hobbies: strictly $100 per week (set this up a few months ago and put the extra I was saving into house deposit)

Petrol: ~$50 per week depending on the price

That leaves roughly $150 per week unspent to go towards any unpaid credit card bill or an unexpected expense, though I am quite disciplined with the credit card so my bill on a bad month might be $50 per month.
– Cynthia

Basically, you have to pick one goal or the other. If you split your efforts, you’ll never really achieve either goal very well.

Honestly, I’d choose retirement. I’d make sure I was banking 10% of your income a year into retirement. If you still have money left over to save, put that in an account for a down payment.

Why? Renting isn’t as bad of a financial deal as people sometimes make it out to be. You’re not “losing” money renting, at least not much more than you’d “lose” through interest on a mortgage payment for the first several years, plus there are no property taxes or maintenance costs.

Save for a down payment if home ownership is your dream, but I’d make retirement a priority over it.

Q11: Living out of a backpack

I am 22 years old. For the next year I am basically going to be living out of a backpack and couchsurfing across the United States. I have a big backpack already that was a gift. I am trying to figure out how to pack this backpack. What should be in it? Ideas? I’ve read a lot of lists, but if I included all of that stuff my backpack wouldn’t cut it.
– Sam

I’m assuming you’re not going to be working at jobs that have a stiff dress code. Assuming that, I’d include three short sleeved shirts, three long sleeved shirts, two pairs of pants, five or six pairs of underwear, and a few pairs of socks. I’d keep basic toiletries and any medications you need.

I’d keep a tablet computer in there as it will do almost anything you need to do unless you’re a programmer, a writer who writes a lot, or a high-end graphic designer. In those cases, have a laptop.

I’d keep a multi-tool in there, but that might just reside in your pocket. I’d keep a money belt, too, with your needed IDs in it, and wear it most of the time.

You may want some outer clothing if you’re going to spend time in any sort of cold climate. I’d include at least one jacket/heavier shirt.

That’s what I would take along if I were to do this. For personal use, I’d probably also have some pens and some small notebooks/journals as I’d go insane without them.

Q12: Summer travel planning

This coming weekend, I’m getting together with my sisters and my parents and we’re planning a big family-style summer vacation together. We’re all going to throw out some ideas, so I’m sitting here researching some. Let’s say you have a group of 15 people traveling together. Are there any particularly good ideas for a group of that size? Ways to save money?
– Dana

In the past, when I’ve traveled with a group like that, I found it most cost-effective to pick a destination city, then rent a house for a week while visiting that city.

Why do this? First of all, it’s usually cheaper than renting several hotel rooms. It’s usually logistically easier than having a large group camp together at a distant destination. It does also make it possible to have meals together at the house, which makes the trip less expensive.

As for actually getting there, you just have to shop around. Most airlines do offer group travel discounts – you’ll have to contact the airlines directly for those discounts, though, and you’ll want to make sure that it’s cheaper than a discount ticket broker.

Q13: Social plan

I just received an email from Kraft asking if I’d like to participate in their social stock plan. It looks like you can invest $10, $25, or $50, fee-free, and buy part of a share of stock. I haven’t heard about social stock plans before: what do you think the pros and cons are? Like many stocks, I know the more you invest, the more you could stand to make, but I just wonder why Kraft is doing this kind of sales pitch and if it’s a waste of $10.
– Alice

They’re doing it because they want to raise money through selling stock. That’s why companies always sell stock – to raise money.

Is it a waste of $10? You’re going to wind up with a fraction of a share of Kraft stock. That does have some value. You’ll probably also be eligible for a tiny dividend (depending on the exact offer) and you should be able to eventually sell it back to Kraft (provided they stay in business… which is probably a really safe bet).

If it’s done on a lark, it’s probably fine. I wouldn’t use it as my primary method of investment because it puts all of your eggs into one basket. If something went wrong at Kraft, after all, your investment would become worthless.

Q14: Solitaire games

I love playing solitaire at the kitchen table (not at the computer). I play a bunch of different solitaire games like klondike and freecell. I have heard that there are a lot of good solitaire board and card games out there including ones with a lot of replayability. Do you have any good suggestions?
– Mike

It depends on how much complexity you want.

There are two card games that I really enjoy playing solitaire. One is called Friday and it involves overcoming a number of progressively harder obstacles in order to build up your skills to eventually battle pirates. As you defeat obstacles, you acquire progressively better cards to fight with. It’s all about timing in this game.

Another card game I like that’s just a bit more complex is Paperback. The best way to describe it is that it’s kind of like playing a solo game of Scrabble, except some of the tiles have special powers and you’re actually using cards instead of tiles. I have been playing this a ton lately.

My favorite solo game is really complicated. It’s called Mage Knight. Playing it takes a couple of hours and it will fill up your table with stuff. It creates some really challenging problems where you have to weigh a lot of factors against each other to make the right call, but it is so much fun. On the (relatively rare) occasions when I have a few hours to myself at home, I’ll almost always pull this out. I like to think of it as being my own version of the jigsaw puzzles I used to do with my dad when I was a kid that would fill up the end of one of the tables at our house for a week at a time.

Q15: Saving checkbook registers

Even though I know I can do all of it online I still like doing my own paper checkbook registers. My question is how long I should save them? I fill up a checkbook register in about six months.
– Mary

Given how small registers are and how (relatively) slowly you go through them, I’d save them for many years. You could save five years of registers in a single check box, after all.

In general, I encourage people to keep financial documents like these for a year unless they have any sort of impact on your taxes, in which case I’d keep them for seven years.

If you’re not sure, I’d keep them for seven years. Just keep them in old check boxes in the closet somewhere. When you have two of them full, check the older one of the two, toss any that are more than seven years old, and rearrange them so that the oldest ones are all in one box. I’d burn or shred them.

Got any questions? The best way to ask is to email me – trent at thesimpledollar dot com. 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.

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