Questions About COBRA, Disney World, Subscription Boxes, 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. Health care COBRA suggestion
2. Homemade food is too expensive!
3. Feeling rich while cutting spending
4. Bodyweight exercise suggestions
5. Retirement investing 101 question
6. Local economy vs. frugality
7. Credit card crisis
8. Saving money at Disney World
9. Best services for cord cutting
10. Eggs in the refrigerator?
11. Razor subscription services
12. Subscription boxes worth it?

My extended family lives just far enough away so that a weekend road trip to visit them for a family event is possible, but it’s long enough that it’s absolutely exhausting to pull it off.

This past weekend, I did such a trip solo to attend a wedding. I made it to the wedding and reception just fine, but I found myself in an exhausted daze during the reception and I woke up the next morning dreading the return drive. I’m very glad I went – I got to see a ton of family members and friends – but it was a tiring trip.

In many ways, it would be nicer to live somewhat closer, but doing so would mean walking away from a lot of friends. In some ways, it would actually be easier to live further away, because flying might be a more sensible option for such events and I could be somewhat more selective about them.

For now, it’s Monday morning and I’m already tired. Not the best way to start a week.

Q1: Health care COBRA suggestion

read your recent Simple Dollar post about the soon-to-be divorced woman asking advise about health insurance. She needs to see if her soon-to-be ex-husband’s insurance has COBRA continuation, and of course the cost. My experience is that the divorced spouse (she) would be eligible for 36 months of COBRA continuation, whereas her spouse, if he retired, quit, or was fired, would be eligible for 18 months. COBRA is expensive if the company was subsidizing the employee’s plan, but if he was paying the full cost of the plan, she would pay only 2% extra for administrative costs. My former husband received 36 months of coverage once we divorced since he was already retired (under Medicare age) and covered by my policy only (and I am covered for only 18 months now that I am retired). Why does the divorced spouse get longer coverage? Most certainly to protect that spouse, who would be more likely to be the non-wage earning spouse. I’m not an expert on health insurance, but have picked up this knowledge.
– Mari

This is a great idea and well worth looking into for a solution for the next few years. Here are the details on COBRA.

COBRA is well worth looking into if you find yourself leaving a marriage or find yourself with a sudden job loss (due to something other than gross negligence) or even if you resign from your job. It will enable you to continue your health insurance plan as you transition to the next stage of your life.

Q2: Homemade food is too expensive!

I don’t know where you get that making homemade food is so cheap!? It is super expensive! Tried to make burgers the other night and they were 2x as expensive as McDonalds! Made pizza and it was way more expensive than Dominos! Silly advice!
– Stephanie

For one, the volume of what you made at home likely greatly exceeded what you could get at those places. Your homemade burger almost assuredly had more actual meat on it than anything comparable at McDonalds, for example, and the pizza was likely much thicker than a comparable Dominos pizza.

For another, the quality of your food at home is likely much higher than those options, too. Your burger likely was made entirely of meat, for one. You also have the option to choose exactly the toppings you want on both the burger and the pizza. Buy the cheapest hamburger meat possible and the cheapest buns and, even then, you’re probably getting high quality stuff than McDonalds.

Furthermore, you can make those things really cheaply at home. Make your own pizza crust instead of buying a premade one. Shred your own cheese instead of buying bags of pre-shredded cheese. Make your own sauce – in fact, make a lot of it and freeze some for future use. You’re also probably using far more cheese on your pizza than Dominos uses, so if you’re trying to match Dominos, cut back on the cheese.

People often make a far higher quality version of an item at home and then directly compare the price of that item to the cheapest pre-made example from a restaurant, which is a throughly unfair comparison.

Q3: Feeling rich while cutting spending

For me the biggest struggle in cutting spending has been losing a sense of feeling rich. I used to feel like I could have luxurious experiences whenever I wanted and now I feel like those things have been cut off.
– Amy

My solution to this is an easy one, because it’s what I do myself: try doing lots of different things that are financially sensible and see which ones make you feel good. Collect lots of those experiences.

For me, there are a lot of cheap things that make me feel luxurious and happy. A long walk in the woods does it every time. Making a killer meal at home does it, especially when we use our nicest dishes for the meal. A big block of pure free time does the trick. Making a snack from scratch and enjoying it does it for me. A dinner party at our house with several friends does it, too.

Just find those things for you. Try lots and lots of things and note the things that leave you feeling happy and luxurious. Good luck!

Q4: Bodyweight exercise suggestions

What do you do for bodyweight exercise at home?
– Tony

I’ve mentioned several times before that I use bodyweight exercise to keep myself in shape. When I actually keep up with it, it does a wonderful job; unfortunately, sometimes I lack the internal motivation to keep progress going.

Since starting taekwondo with my family, I’ve picked it up again and am using it as a supplement to the classes. My preferred bodyweight exercise is to simply do the workout of the day at, which I check out each day. I struggle with some of the more intense ones. I also have several saved offline that I can use in the event that I don’t have internet access.

I couple that with a lot of walking and with some basic exercises that are used in taekwondo. I do 100 jumping jacks. I do 2/3rds of my max Hindu squats (these are squats where your fingertips brush the ground when you’re dipping) and then re-check my max every few weeks by doing them until I simply have to quit. I do 2/3rds max stomach crunches. I do 2/3rds max push-ups, too. I also do 2/3rds max length planks. I find that doing the “max” every day makes it miserable and I also don’t seem to “grow” all that much, either. Usually, 2/3rds max is the point where it starts to get really hard and not as much fun, but interestingly, my max seems to grow and grow if I use that approach.

Q5: Retirement investing 101 question

What is a Fidelity fund for retirement? I am trying to make sense of what the retirement guy was talking about at work but it didn’t make sense when he was talking and the notes don’t make sense either!
– Donna

Your sentence there breaks down into three parts.

“Fidelity” is the name of an investment company. You can think of them as being like a bank – think of whatever bank you use to do your banking.

A “fund” usually refers to a mutual fund. A mutual fund simply means that a lot of people are pooling their money together to invest and that having so much money in one pool makes it easier to do it at a large scale and take advantage of lower costs that come with such a big scale. Different funds have different objectives, so you have to investigate a fund at least a little to figure out what it’s specifically doing.

So, a “Fidelity fund” just means a mutual fund run by Fidelity. They simply pool together a bunch of money from a bunch of their clients and invest that all together.

The “for retirement” part is giving you a clue as to the purpose of that fund. That particular fund that the person is talking about is probably geared for the goal of retirement in some way. There’s a good likelihood – though not a guarantee – that he’s talking about a target retirement fund, which is a fund designed for people retiring at a certain time. For example, a “target retirement 2035 fund” would be investing for the sole goal of producing the highest likelihood of good returns for someone retiring in 2035.

Usually, funds for retirement are used within a retirement account, like a 401(k) or a Roth IRA. Those are just specific account types with specific rules, like a checking account or a savings account. Within a retirement account, you choose how you want your money invested.

So, for example, this person at work is probably talking about an option within the plans offered through your workplace. The plan there is likely either managed by Fidelity or offers Fidelity investments and he’s pointing toward particularly good ones to choose within your retirement plan.

Q6: Local economy vs. frugality

Isn’t it damaging to the local economy to be frugal? If you eat all of your meals at home and grow your own vegetables and then send your money to some investment firm you take money out of your local economy and send it elsewhere.
– Dave

This is an interesting question. Is it damaging to the local economy to be frugal?

Personally, I never worry about such issues. I think it is the responsibility of businesses to create and sell products and services compelling enough to get me to spend my money. If they don’t, I don’t feel an obligation to spend my money there.

When I do decide to buy something, I do prefer local options if they’re available at a reasonable price.

However, the simple desire to “buy local” alone is not convincing enough for me to just go buy products that I don’t need and don’t really want.

Q7: Credit card crisis

I am 32, my wife is 30. About three weeks ago we maxed out our shared credit card which had a limit of $14,000. My wife then opened up another card and we already have a balance of over $1,000 on it. We decided something needs to change. Started doing Google searches and found your site.

What do we do first? Do we need credit counseling services? Not even sure where to start but it is ridiculous to have $15K in debt and be paying $500 a month in interest for nothing.
– Andy

The flat out truth, Andy, is that every debt management or credit counseling tool is going to tell you the same thing – you have to get your spending in check. That is the hardest part of all of this. You have to cut your spending until you’re spending significantly less than you earn each month or the debt problem isn’t going away.

How do you do that? Cutting back on little stuff helps, but it takes a lot of those changes to add up to a big number. Often, what works best is pairing one or two big changes with lots of little changes.

For example, you might consider continuing to drive your current cars until they’re ready to fall apart rather than trading them in every few years (I don’t know if you do that, but it’s a common thing that many people do), or consider getting rid of a car. You might consider moving to a smaller place with less expensive rent or lower mortgage payments. You might consider completely ditching cable or satellite service and using just Netflix and over-the-air signals for home television.

Couple those changes with smaller ones like cutting back to eating out once per week or making your own coffee at home before you leave or buying only store brand products at the store.

The key with all of those changes is to not simply convert them into other spending. Instead, use that saved money to eliminate that debt, then build up a cash emergency fund in a savings account, then start funding a Roth IRA for each of you. Use that savings to build a strong financial platform so that you don’t have continual money worries.

Q8: Saving money at Disney World

Do you have any suggestions for making a Disney World trip cheaper? We’re planning one for next summer and saw that your family went there a few years ago.
– Nina

Stay off-site in a non-Disney resort or hotel, preferably one that has a shuttle to Disney World. You can do a ton of shopping around for a great price. I like using as their prices are pretty solid and their customer service has come through for my family twice in a pretty serious pinch (they managed to move around “non-refundable” reservations due to car trouble).

Bring some empty water bottles and some sealed snacks into the park with you. Fill up the water bottles in the park and use them for your primary beverage. Eat the snacks to tide you over so that you can get away with eating only one meal a day in the park. Be sure the food you bring in is sealed.

Eat breakfast before you go to the park. If your hotel offers a free or discounted breakfast, take advantage of it and fill up before you go so that you’re not tempted by the bevy of food options.

Drive instead of flying if you’re traveling with a full family. The cost of flying and car rental adds up incredibly fast and unless you’re coming from the west coast, you’re probably not saving as much time as you think.

Accept that, even after those tips, it’s still going to be expensive, and plan accordingly.

Q9: Best services for cord cutting

What’s the best bang for the buck that a cord cutter can get for television services? Assume we don’t care about sports and only want to spend $30 a month.
– Angie

First, buy an over-the-air antenna and mount it on your roof, if possible. This will give you a lot of channels for free with no monthly cost.

The best bang-for-the-buck services are Netflix (because of the sheer breadth of programming) and Amazon Instant Video (because it’s part of Amazon Prime). The total cost of those two packages will be somewhere around $25 per month, depending on the version of Netflix you choose.

The other streaming options each have a drawback. For example, HBO NOW has a ton of great stuff on there, but there’s not a whole lot of new stuff added regularly. The other services tend to simply not have a lot of content compared to Netflix and Amazon and mostly just rest on one or two well known original shows. They’re not worth it, in my opinion, other than maybe a single-month subscription to binge watch like a madman.

Q10: Eggs in the refrigerator?

Do you really need to keep eggs in the refrigerator? My mother in law is from Bosnia and she keeps hers on the counter in a bowl. She says they’re fine and I’ve actually eaten them several times and never been sick. Are eggs in the fridge a waste of fridge space?
– Bill

This is a trick question, actually. Once an egg has been washed refrigerated, it has to stay that way because of the “sweat” that occurs when the egg warms up. However, an egg that has never been refrigerated can stay at room temperature and be just fine. Another catch: once you thoroughly wash an egg, you need to refrigerate it because the outer cuticle has been damaged.

So, if you buy your eggs at the store, you need to keep them in the fridge. If you get your eggs from a farmer directly who doesn’t refrigerate them or you harvest them yourself from chickens, you don’t need to refrigerate them.

If your mother-in-law is buying them at an ordinary grocery store in the US, she should be refrigerating them. If she’s doing this outside the US or if she’s getting them from somewhere outside this normal supply chain in the US, she’s fine.

Q11: Razor subscription services

What are your thoughts on razor subscription services like Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club?
– Dennis

If you are committed to using a cartridge razor, both of those services are reasonably well priced. You’re essentially buying good quality cartridges in bulk through the mail, with the total package being inexpensive enough that it’s cheaper than buying similar cartridges in the store.

However, cartridge razors are about the most expensive way there is to keep your face shaved. Using an ordinary safety razor is far less expensive, though it does require some significant care to use one and the technique is rather different than a cartridge. I can shave myself in the shower quickly with a cartridge razor; I can’t do that at all with a normal safety razor.

If you’re going to stay within the expensive cartridge razor genre, then Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club are both worthwhile. They do compete on price and are similar enough in quality that I’d choose whichever one is a bit cheaper. All things being completely equal, I’d give a slight nod to Harry’s – I’ve used both, and I like Harry’s handle better.

Gemma had a somewhat similar question, which is a good place to finish off the mailbag this month.

Q12: Subscription boxes worth it?

What do you think of subscription boxes and such things? Are they worthwhile? What about as gifts?
– Gemma

I have no interest in ever buying a subscription box for myself. I think that they’re almost always overly expensive for what you get and you’re completely losing out on the ability to actually choose what you’re getting. You’re typically paying for an overpriced box of stuff in the mail each month. “Surprises” can be fun, I suppose, but not at a premium price.

They can make for a fun gift for someone, though such gifts can be pretty expensive. My children and I got my wife a coffee box subscription for one year for Mother’s Day and she seemed to thoroughly enjoy it, though the volume of coffee was more than she could use. My wife and her sisters and her mother got her father a subscription to a monthly craft beer selection a few years ago which was similarly enjoyed.

In other words, I think they make sense as gifts if they’re heavily targeted toward the person receiving them, but they’re overpriced in terms of buying one for yourself. I’ve often wondered about whether or not it would make sense to “roll your own” gift box – for example, one might choose six craft beers and put them in a six pack container each month for a friend for a year.

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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