Questions About Bicycles, Family Debts, iPads, Used Textbooks, 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. Upset about stock advice
2. Bicycle recommendation
3. Family debts after holidays
4. Standing desk update
5. Using iPad for work purposes
6. Starting company on tiny budget
7. Drawing down 401(k) in retirement
8. Selecting easier chores
9. Free trading cards on Steam
10. Dealing with small library selection
11. Selling used textbooks online
12. Inherited Steinway follow-up

As 2018 winds down to a close, I encourage you to take a moment and reflect on the things that went well in the past year. What were your biggest successes in 2018?

Then, ask yourself how exactly you made them happen. Hard work? Good relationships? A good education? A little bit of luck? How many of those things were firmly under your control?

That’s your recipe for success going forward. Those are the tools that you already have in your hands that are leading you to success. Keep those tools sharp and use them in the coming year.

On with the questions.

Q1: Upset about stock advice

I don’t think your advice on the stock market is very fair. Some of us have our entire future invested in the stock market and to see it lose 20% of its value in just a couple months is really scary.
– Tammy

Over the past ten years, when it was going up in value 10%-20% a year, that was an above average return. 2009 to 2017 was an above average year for the stock market, and it was due to come back to the average.

Yes, it’s scary if you look at only the fourth quarter of 2018 in a bubble. Look back further than that. On January 1, 2009, the S&P 500 was at 865.58. As I write this, it’s at 2,485.42. That’s pretty close to a tripling in value over ten years, an 11% average annual return including this recent dip.

There’s really not much to say other than that. The advice I’ve been giving all the way up is the same as I’m giving right now, because it’s timeless advice. If you need the money in less than ten years, it shouldn’t be in stocks. If you don’t, then momentary shifts in the stock market shouldn’t concern you. If you’re still bothered, you can always move to something less risky, but you’ll get a much smaller average annual return. The stock market is not and never has been a guaranteed annual return – it’s a market that fluctuates up and down over the short term but as long as people work hard and have great ideas, it’ll keep going up over the long haul.

I’m not going to change the plan I’ve always had, one that I stuck with through the much worse 2008 dip and the incredible run we’ve had over the last decade, just because the end of 2018 is a little rough, and you shouldn’t change your plans, either.

Yes, it’s scary. How do I handle it? I very rarely check my retirement balance. What it’s doing on a daily or weekly or monthly basis is something I truly do not care about, because I’m not investing for the next day or the next week or the next month. I’m investing for decades from now.

Does this help individuals who were planning to use money in the short term that was heavily invested in stocks? No, it doesn’t, but nothing will make that lost money come back. If you’re in this situation, evaluate when you’re going to use that money and act accordingly by the above strategy. It’s all you can do. If you couldn’t afford this drop, then you need to be in something safer that might not return as much each year on average, but won’t suffer these big short term drops. Remember, your investment’s value has tripled over the last ten years and a 15% burp is making you reassess whether you can continue to tolerate the risk.

Q2: Bicycle recommendation

My goal for the new year is to bicycle for as many errands as possible around town when the weather is above 40 F rather than using the car to help with fitness and save gas. My aunt and uncle who are wealthy and incredibly generous with family gave me a $250 gift certificate to a local bike shop but I have no idea what I’m buying and all of the bike magazines and websites suggest bikes well over $1,000. Suggestions for good entry level bike?
– Amy

Unless the bike shop is really bad, they should be able to help. Tell them that you want a sub-$200 commuter bike with a detachable pannier (that’s basically a bag that hooks on the back to carry stuff around in, which you’ll want if you’re running errands around town like taking small packages to the post office or hitting the library or shopping). They should be able to hook you up with something decent for $250 total.

Good commuter bikes in that price range include a Vilano Shimano aluminum commuter bike and a Kent Northwoods. However, it really depends on what the shop carries and what their prices are like.

You do not need a $1,000 bike for your first bike. Get one that fits with your gift certificate, ride the crap out of it, and figure out what you really like and don’t like about it. If you find that it’s truly a daily use item for you but there are some specific things you don’t like, save up and replace it someday. There’s no need to do so right now.

Q3: Family debts after holidays

For several years I had a serious gambling problem which I have managed to overcome and have not gambled in 2 years. During my gambling days I borrowed money from many family members which has left me feeling very guilty. I want to repay them. At Christmas this year I gave my older brother a check repaying everything I thought I owed him by my recollection. He said thank you and started crying and said that my debt was repaid and then tore up the check. My other family members forgave the debts too.

While I am incredibly appreciative of my wonderful family, I am still left feeling like I did not repay them. I am struggling. I am secure in the love of my family but still feel like a failure. What can I do?
– Bill

Given this situation, I would probably consider another approach to repaying that debt.

What I would do is find out causes that your family members each deeply care about and then donate to each of those causes in an amount equal to the owed debt in their name. If you owe your older brother $1,000, figure out what cause he cares the most about and donate $1,000 in his name to that cause and send him a letter telling him so. Do this for the other family members too.

It sounds like your siblings are really happy for your recovery from your addiction and don’t want any threads of the past hanging around and they consider your sense of a “debt obligation” to be one of those threads they’d rather have finished off. So, I’d spend the coming year saving up enough money to repay all of them and then next Christmas give them each a card stating what you’ve done. That way, the debt is not on their mind all year and at the end of the year you can erase it from your mind as well.

Q4: Standing desk update

You mentioned a few months ago that you were about to switch to using a standing desk for work. Could you provide an update on how it’s going? Is the transition hard?
– Jeremy

The switch hasn’t happened yet because my new office space isn’t ready yet. I’m anticipating switching over in mid-January.

I don’t intend to switch full cold turkey. I’ve got a schedule planned out where I gradually ramp up my standing desk time and supplement it with time with my laptop in a comfortable chair elsewhere. The laptop-with-comfortable-chair isn’t my most productive environment, but it’ll be good enough as I’m ramping up my hours at a standing desk.

Why do I need to ramp up? Core endurance, basically. I expect to find that body parts get sore, especially my back and perhaps my feet and legs, with that much standing as I’ve been used to being at a sitting desk mostly for many years. I expect the first couple of weeks to involve some soreness as I build up some key muscles.

I’ll update this in a few months.

Q5: Using iPad for work purposes

How exactly do you use an iPad for your work? I have one and it seems like it’s just a deficient laptop and I’d just rather be using my laptop.
– Darren

I use my iPad for several purposes.

My main one is that it serves as a second monitor while working. I set it up on its folding cover stand next to my main work monitor and keep something relevant on the screen there. Often, it’s just my to-do list, but sometimes it will be other thing.

I use it with a stylus to take handwritten notes when I’m reading something really challenging.

I use it as a PDF reader and occasionally as an eBook reader, though I prefer an actual Kindle or my phone for that.

I’ll often take it places where I need an instructional video with both hands free. I’ll set it up on its stand and start the video.

It gets daily use among all of those things.

Q6: Starting company on tiny budget

I want to start a digital record company but I only make $150 to $250 a week and How can I grow my company on a low-income?
– Geoff

The first thing I’d do is sit down and plan out what you actually intend to do. Do you intend to use this as an avenue for releasing your own music? Do you hope to sign other artists and release their music? How will you pay them (I assume through a royalty percentage)? How do similar new labels pay artists?

Most of the work of a digital record label is centered around time investment. It’s all about posting to social media, talking to music fans, and so on, and that doesn’t cost money. It just costs time. If you’re willing to do that work yourself, you don’t need a whole lot of money to get started.

If I were you, I wouldn’t sweat the money. Rather, I’d sweat the research. Study up and figure out what’s involved. Figure out what you want to do. Write a business plan and figure out the actual costs, assuming you’re doing most of the leg work yourself.

Q7: Drawing down 401(k) in retirement

I’m a retired widow, 68, with a small retirement fund, and I’m on my husband’s Social Security account (Survivor’s Benefit). When I retired at 61, I lived off savings until I could go on SSA at 62 (as per my own planning), when I was told that if I left my own SSA account alone until I turn 70, it would be more than the Survivor’s Benefit. So that’s how I set my finances up. About half my income now is Survivor’s Benefit SS, the other half coming from my retirement investments. An SS person on the phone looked up approximately what my own SS would give me, monthly, when I turn 70 in about 1.5 years – and it’s more than my current income (SS & retirement combined). I live pretty simply, I own my own home, so I really don’t need to double my income. There shouldn’t be any major house/car expenses because I’ve got a new furnace and AC, and a 2008 car that runs fine. Since retiring I’ve had monthly amounts set aside automatically so I can pay the property taxes – but I am poor enough that I qualify for our state’s Homesteader’s Exemption and haven’t had to pay any property taxes at all. Those funds have gone toward trips across the country to visit my son, and other special expenses. As for the retirement fund, I’m not financially educated enough to understand a lot of it, but my own kindergarten calculation is this: If I withdrew all of my retirement funds, buried it in the back yard, and withdrew the same amount I have been doing, it would last me right around 8 years. Obviously, I’m not going to do that, but it gives me a crude measure to work with (which has dropped alarmingly in the past couple of months, due to events outside my control). I’ve stuck by your advice and just left it alone despite market fluctuations, and it’s worked pretty well. What I’m wondering now is, what pros and cons are there if I lived off my SS + a couple hundred dollars from my retirement fund monthly (which would greatly extend the lifespan of that fund), and thought of the remainder of my retirement fund as my emergency fund?
– Chris

If I were in your shoes, that’s the exact plan I would follow. I would do my best to withdraw 3% or less of my retirement fund balance each year and live off of that and my Social Security and treat the rest of it as a big emergency fund.

The only drawback of this plan is that it’s going to represent lean living for a while until you reach age 70. As you noted, when you hit 70, you should see a big bump in Social Security income. If you need to, it’s okay to spend a little more than 3% of your retirement fund to get through the next year and a half, and then after that live as lean as you can.

I am not an advocate of spending one’s retirement fund down to zero just because you’re old. You never know how long you’re going to live, and it’s not a good idea to consign your future self to a threadbare life, even if you’re 90 already.

Your plan is sound provided it creates a livable everyday life for you.

Q8: Selecting easier chores

I enjoyed your article about choosing the frugality of time and energy over money. What was most interesting to me was your estimate on time saved by using a service that charges by the cubic foot. For me, one load of laundry takes 10 minutes to sort, put into the washer, put into the dryer, and fold – but spread out over two hours. Compared to either driving the box of laundry to and from the service or remembering to set out the box and worrying about when it will be delivered, doing the laundry at home is much more stress free for me. Of course, I find doing laundry soothing, whereas cleaning the bathroom is something I tend to eye and then ignore, even though cleaning the bathroom would also only take 10 minutes. Do you find that there are chores you find easier to complete than others, even though the time and physical energy are the same?
– Ellen

There are some that I enjoy more than others, most certainly. I don’t really like doing laundry because our laundry setup is down in the basement while our bedroom is on the second floor and lugging every load up and down two floors gets old – it was actually way more convenient when I lived in an apartment and it was just down the hall.

On the other hand, I really enjoy cooking food and I don’t mind dishes much at all, which is something that’s apparently very different than a lot of people. This is probably part of why we eat at home so much – it saves money over eating out and it’s a task I partially really enjoy (cooking) and partially don’t mind (dishes).

It probably takes much more time and energy to cook a meal and clean up than do a load of laundry, but I’d far rather cook a meal and clean up after it.

Q9: Free trading cards on Steam

Just wanted to share a tip my partner and I have been using on Steam (the gaming platform). Often the games you play on there will reward you with free digital collectors cards or other items like skins for game elements. Personally we don’t find value in collecting them so we put them on the Steam marketplace. So far I have earned roughly £7 doing this and my partner has earned £10+. We also play a game (Armello) that gives you a “free chest” each day with a low level dice skin mostly, but occasionally rare skins thrown in. A lot of the money I continue to make is by selling these free dice, thus having a small income – we’re really only talking 5-10p/week – to put towards future games I want. Thought it might help some of your readers if they’re in to gaming.
– Angie

This is a nice simple strategy that I use myself. I’m not a really avid computer game player these days, but I will play games with my kids and online games with my friends on occasion and I do this exact thing if the game comes from Steam.

So here’s how it works. You have a game in your Steam library. You play it. You get a few free digital trading cards for doing so. You list those on the Steam marketplace. They sell for usually a few cents each. Eventually, that builds up to a few bucks. You then use that credit for a free game during a Steam sale.

It’s not a big money maker or anything, but it’s a way to offset some of the expense. Plus, if you’re like me and have a bunch of older Steam games, it’s a little benefit from digging them out of mothballs and playing them again.

Q10: Dealing with small library selection

I recently moved from a large city to a small town and found that the library here doesn’t offer near the same selection as the city had. This has made me start to consider getting an e-reader or tablet. However, I’m concerned that the cost of the tablet/e-reader doesn’t stop at the purchase of the device. Are subscriptions like Kindle Unlimited worth it for someone who reads about 3 books a month that are usually on current best seller lists? Do you have other ideas for a frugal reader with a limited library selection? Any time and advice with this question are greatly appreciated!
– Carrie

Talk to the librarian!

There’s a very good chance that many of the books you want can be requested via interlibrary loan. Even if they can’t be, your requests will likely be used as feedback to help determine what books the library acquires in the future. There’s also a chance that your library participates in an e-book program that has these books available on your phone.

It can feel a little awkward going up to the librarian to have this kind of conversation, but just start it by asking about interlibrary loan options for certain books. Just say that you noticed that they didn’t have a particular book and you wanted to know if they could get it by interlibrary loan or another means.

Q11: Selling used textbooks online

I’m in graduate school and have some textbooks I’m looking to sell. When I was in undergrad, I had success selling textbooks on (Ebay), but it seems that Half is now defunct and the process to sell textbooks on Ebay itself isn’t nearly as fast and easy as it used to be. I found an article on TSD from a year ago that suggests Amazon or Craigslist. I don’t live in a high-population area so I don’t think Craigslist would be a good bet. I tried Amazon, but even when I click the link “Sign up as an individual seller” it takes me to the professional seller page which costs $40 a month. So my question is: what would be the best way to sell my used textbooks online?
– Jerry

This is a market that is changing constantly, with different companies and sellers succeeding in the marketplace and then falling back.

At this point, I’d probably have to switch my recommendation back to Chegg, a service I actually used to sell textbooks many years ago. (Full disclosure: I know one of the founders of Chegg but haven’t seen him in many years.)

With Chegg, they actually handle all of the storage and selling for you – you just mail them your used textbook, they list it on their site, and you get money when it sells. Chegg was my standard recommendation for a long time on The Simple Dollar until other companies tried to dive into textbook sales and have apparently somewhat abandoned it, while Chegg is still standing.

You’ll probably get a little bit more for your books by doing all of the footwork on your own – listing them locally, hanging up flyers on campus, and so on. You’ll be able to sell for a bit less than Chegg sells it for and keep more than what you’d get selling through Chegg (you’re cutting out the middleman). However, that takes footwork and time is money.

Q12: Inherited Steinway follow-up

About the inherited Steinway piano: I would have thought you would google the brand. Steinway is the premier, top quality piano of all pianos. Used models of the smallest type go for $25k, larger grands for $75k used. I feel bad for the poor girl that you suggested Craigslist. If you have a way to reach back out, perhaps suggest an appraisal and professional consignment as a necessity for the sale or reconsideration of justifying storage cost for such a valuable heirloom.
– Andrew

This was one of those questions where answering something in a more general way (which I usually try my best to do) didn’t perfectly address the specifics of the question.

The person writing clearly knew what a Steinway piano was and had some idea of the value and seemed to be struggling over whether to keep it because they perceived it as a family heirloom. My feeling in those situations is that you do more honor to such an item by getting it in the hands of someone that would use it and thus selling it is the right option.

In that specific instance, that person had a far better grasp on what to do with a Steinway than I would; the struggle was over whether it was right to sell it or whether they should keep it even if keeping it was prohibitively difficult. I almost always vote against “prohibitively difficult” and tried to voice the answer as more of a general principle that other people take away. Sometimes, taking the more “general principle” approach misses a nuance of a particular question, as was the case here, but generally makes the answers have more utility to the many other readers.

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.

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