Questions About CSAs, Homebrewing, Toxins, Sandwich Presses, 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. Roommates versus money
2. On buying a rental property
3. Does homebrewing save money?
4. Best single piece of advice?
5. Joining a CSA
6. Keeping money safe
7. Selling duplicated Christmas gifts
8. Tax pro or software?
9. Avoiding toxins
10. Planning a spring break roadtrip
11. Saving old pocket notebooks
12. A smaller emergency fund?
13. Sandwich press?
14. How is saving so easy?
15. Starting a book club

One of the more interesting – and sometimes challenging – parts of having children is that they are very definite about the foods that they like. My children are actually less picky than most and our older two children will eat almost anything you serve, but if you give them any input, all requests tend to be one of four things: ravioli (or spaghetti), pizza, enchiladas, or macaroni and cheese.

About half the time, our dinner is one of those four items. We tend to favor the ravioli and enchiladas out of the four options, so those are our most common dinners. (Thus, when I talk about having staples on hand all the time, I’m usually referring to always having the ingredients for those four meals.)

The other half of the time, Sarah and I experiment. Like I said, our older children eat almost anything we serve, but our youngest one is more picky and very vocal about it. Rather than just demanding that he eats it, we focus on politeness, in that it is polite to eat a bite of the items you are served if someone else takes the time to make it for you, even if you don’t like it.

So, many nights, he’ll just eat one bite of dinner. So, when we know we’re having a meal that he won’t like, our trick is to have several sides – a vegetable, a salad, a fruit – so that he’ll eat at least a bite of each one. It makes our diets more well-rounded, too.

Q1: Roommates versus money

In May, I am going to graduate with a master’s degree in computer science. I already have a software architecture job lined up after graduation.

Right now I live in subsidized graduate student housing. I have a small efficiency apartment that I live in by myself.

When my job begins I will have to move elsewhere obviously and I will have to get an apartment. The problem is that in the area that I’m moving to (near Boston) even the efficiencies are expensive. Really expensive.

The solution of course is to get a roommate, but I have really enjoyed living alone. I had a roommate as an undergraduate and although we are still friends and I enjoyed living together, I vastly prefer living alone. I can’t imagine a roommate better than the one I had and if it’s worse than that, it sounds like misery.

I can afford an efficiency for myself, but it means I will be much slower at paying off my student loans. My new company does offer a lot of perks like free meals and a gym membership and stuff (to keep us on site, of course). What do you think? Should I suck it up and have a roommate?
– Anna

My suggestion would be to try out a roommate or two for a while and see how it works. If it doesn’t work, you can always switch to an efficiency at the end of the lease.

Given that you’re working at a tech company that provides many services in-house, my guess is that you’ll not be spending a ton of time just sitting around at home. If I were in your shoes, I’d take advantage of those services, even if it meant spending a lot of time at work. This means fairly limited home time – it’ll mostly become a place to rest your head.

So, if I were you, I’d make my dwelling as cheap as possible. That probably means having a roommate.

Again, if it doesn’t work out, you can always switch to an efficiency at the end of the lease. That’s the big thing to keep in mind.

Q2: On buying a rental property

Almost every investment advice I read besides yours says I should be buying rental properties. Why don’t you advocate for this? It seems like easy money.
– Stan

Rental properties absolutely can be profitable and when you look at just the dollars and cents, it looks sweet.

However, almost every explanation of the “easy money” of rental properties I’ve ever seen completely neglects the sweat equity put into the homes by the owners in getting the homes up to a rentable quality and then doing maintenance work to keep those homes at a rental quality.

Yes, you can pay rental property managers to do this, but that cost goes straight out of your potential profits.

Q3: Does homebrewing save money?

My older brother is an avid homebrewer. He makes a batch of beer almost every month and always has his “latest brew” for me to try. They are good and he enjoys showing me all of his equipment and stuff. I’ve helped him make a few batches over the years and I’ve done the capping and bottling of several batches.

So he and his wife interpreted that as an interest in homebrewing, so for Christmas this year they gave me a ton of equipment for homebrewing as well as a $50 gift certificate to a homebrewing store near where I live. It was a wonderful gift and I already made a batch of beer using the equipment. I went to the store and bought a kit, using most of the gift certificate.

So now I’m stuck. I am trying to figure out if it’s cost effective to make more batches. I think it is worthwhile to make one more since it will cost about 50% off because of the rest of my certificate.

Do you think it is a money saving hobby?
– Adam

If you’re comparing the cost of homebrewing a type of beer versus a good example of a craft beer of that type – say, a good IPA at the store versus a homebrewed IPA – it’s going to be a bit less expensive to brew it yourself provided you already have all of the equipment and access to recycled bottles. This seems to describe your situation. If you just prefer American-style pilsners and amber beers like Budweiser and the like, it’s going to be pretty hard to ever get homebrewing that cheap – your comparison has to be with craft beers like Sierra Nevada and New Glarus.

However, if you don’t have all of the equipment, it’s going to take quite a few batches before homebrewing becomes cost-efficient compared to just buying a six pack of craft beer at the store.

For me, it would come down to enjoyment. Do you enjoy the process of making the beer? Do you enjoy drinking the beer itself? If both of those result in a “yes,” then it’s a worthwhile hobby that probably won’t cost you money.

A final tip: if you have a homebrewing friend (and it sounds like you do), swap beers with him or her. Whenever you make a new batch, give that person a six pack. Whenever they make a new batch, they’ll give you a little. You can work this out to accomodate different production rates. This gives you a cheap way to try out new beer styles without investing in all of the materials to make a particular batch.

Q4: Best single piece of advice?

What’s your best single specific piece of money advice? I know the whole “spend less than you earn” thing but that’s not specific. What one thing would you tell people to do or avoid?
– Gerald

That’s a hard one. I can think of a lot of them.

One really big one I’d suggest is to never get into a car or home loan where the car will ever be worth less than what you owe on the loan. If you’re ever in a situation where you need to sell in a jiffy (or if you’re in a major automobile accident) and you owe more than the car or home is worth, you’re in a pickle. So, I guess that rule would be never take on a car or home loan without a down payment.

That’s probably the top one. The other ones I thought of were to avoid credit cards (I kept thinking of a handful of exceptions here), to avoid debt entirely (even more exceptions), and to make a grocery list every time you go to the grocery store.

Q5: Joining a CSA

In my area, there has been one CSA in business for the last decade and it’s always full with a seven or eight year waiting list. I’m on the list but never got in.

In November, I heard about a new CSA starting in 2015 in my area so I signed up for more information. They sent out a mailing last week. It costs $300 for a year and seems to provide a lot of food.

The thing is … $300 up front? That seems like a TON of money. I usually buy vegetables at the farmer’s market and spend about $40 a week there. While I will get more food this way I have less control over it.

What are your thoughts on CSAs?
– Julia

$300 is a pretty expensive CSA. I would assume that the boxes you’d receive from this CSA would be big ones. In general, I’ve found that what you get from a CSA is usually more food for the dollar than you would get buying a la carte at a farmers market or a grocery store, but, as you mention, you do give up some selection.

Sarah and I have decided to sign up for a CSA in 2015 and are in fact going to a “CSA fair” in a few weeks to figure out which of the multitude of local options we want to try. In the past, a couple of our close friends were in one and got a lot of food for their dollar, but they sometimes didn’t even know what to do with all of it. That sounds like a fun challenge to us.

I think if you’re willing to be flexible with what you get, it can be a good idea. Our plan is to start our meal planning with the contents of the box and go grocery shopping the next day for additional meal ingredients if needed. We’re hoping that this CSA subscription significantly trims our food costs in 2015.

Q6: Keeping money safe

In the last year, and especially the last few months, my neighborhood has gone way downhill. Just a few years ago it was a place where you pretty much didn’t have to lock your door and now I think there are two drug houses on my block and you can hear gunshots a few nights a week. I want to get out of this neighborhood but I’m not sure this house is worth a whole lot any more. What is the best way to keep cash and other valuables safe in this mess?
– Norah

I would open a safe deposit box at my bank and keep anything of significant value in there. I’d also have a savings account there and keep most of my cash in that account. I would avoid keeping much of value in my home, sadly enough.

It sounds like your neighborhood is fairly unsafe at this point. I hope that you can find an opportunity to either get involved with cleaning things up or move to a better place.

Make sure that you report as much activity as you can to your local police department. When activities like that are going on, things need to get cleaned up.

Q7: Selling duplicated Christmas gifts

My sister-in-law is married to a very wealthy man and each Christmas she gives everyoner really expensive gifts. This year, she gave everyone that was over the age of six or so a GoPro camera. She wants us all to take videos of the “cool things” we do this year and put them on YouTube.

It’s a cool idea, but she gave our family four of them – one for my wife, one for me, and one for each of our kids. This seems unnecessary, especially the one for each of the adults.

Is it tacky to sell it? My wife opened hers and we’ve both used it.
– Brad

I think you’re correct that almost anything you might do with a GoPro in your situation is probably something that could be done with just one camera among the two adults in your house. This leaves one unused camera.

What you do with that camera depends a lot on your relationship with your sister-in-law, in my opinion. The first thing I’d do is talk in depth with my wife about what to do with the extra camera. Your wife likely has a better feel for your sister-in-law than you do, so she may have more insight.

One option might be to keep it as a backup, so that if one gets lost or broken (yes, they can be broken), you can just replace it with the backup. You may also find it more appropriate to donate it or to regift it. It really depends on the sister-in-law, in my opinion.

Q8: Tax pro or software?

Do you recommend using a tax professional for filing taxes or do you trust software?
– Marvin

Unless you’re claiming a lot of deductions or have other truly unusual circumstances going on, I would recommend software. Turbo Tax can handle almost anything you throw at it.

Some people, however, prefer to just have a tax person prepare their taxes for them while they answer all necessary questions. My parents prefer to do this, for example; theirs is a bit complex due to my father’s myriad of side interests, but it’s nothing that Turbo Tax probably couldn’t handle with some time.

Tax professionals will certainly get the job done no matter what, but I’ve never had a problem with tax software, not with any of my freelancing businesses, not with any of our various changes in family composition and career path, not with any of our investments, and not with any of our strange multitude of deductions.

Q9: Avoiding toxins?

How can you blankly suggest that people buy bulk nonperishable foods at warehouse club stores? So many nonperishable foods are just full of toxins and at stores like that they really don’t care about what’s in the “food.” Shame on you for recommending such things.
– Jenna

This article from NPR and this article from the Mayo Clinic sums up my take on the whole “toxins in food” issue.

For starters, your body already has an amazing system for getting rid of “toxins” – your kidney and your liver. Unless you have kidney or liver problems, your system is going to handle almost anything you can throw at it.

For another, there’s no definition of what a “toxin” even is. Virtually every source I’ve read discussing “toxins” either doesn’t define it or gives a long and inconsistent list of things.

So why do people feel good when eating “detox” foods? It’s likely because they’re not as bloated and they’re not eating nearly as much processed sugar as they were before. If there’s a “toxin” out there, it’s probably processed sugar, and that’s easy enough to remove from your diet. Just eat more fruits and vegetables and fewer things that come out of a box.

Q10: Planning a spring break roadtrip

My husband and I are both teachers and we decided to spend our spring break this year going on a road trip to see some parts of the country we haven’t seen before. Our plan is to take a tent with us and camp unless we can’t find campsites as we plan to just wander for most of the trip. Any suggestions for saving money along the way?
– Caroline

My suggestion is to do most of your eating out of your trunk instead of at restaurants. Stop at a few grocery stores along the way and get the ingredients needed for some very simple meals like sandwiches and foil campfire meals and use those as your primary source for food. Take a cooler along and fill it with ice regularly, too.

Food is always a huge expense when traveling, so being smart about it and thinking ahead a little can save you so much. Eating a simple meal at a campground or at a park will be a fraction of the cost of eating at a restaurant and probably healthier for you, too.

Repeat that over and over again and you end up with not only a cheaper vacation, but a more enjoyable one, too.

Q11: Saving old pocket notebooks

Several months ago, at your encouragement, I started keeping a pocket notebook and now it seems like I can barely live without it. I write down all kinds of stuff that I want to remember and look up when I get home or add to my calendar.

Do you save your old pocket notebooks? They seem very much an “item of the moment” unlike journals. I have several in a desk drawer but I don’t know if I’ll ever have any reason to look at them again.
– Roger

I do save my old pocket notebooks for a number of reasons. For one, they really don’t take up much space. A year’s worth of them takes up about half of an ammo box from a sporting goods store. I keep them in the rafters in the garage.

A bigger reason, though, is that I do get value from leafing back through them. I don’t really get value from the ones that are really current, but I do get value from grabbing random ones from a few years ago. They almost always start my mind working.

Plus, maybe someday my children or grandchildren will have fun looking at them.

Q12: A smaller emergency fund?

You make a good case for why a person should have a big emergency fund, but the problem is that almost every emergency you describe is what I would call a “corner case.” These things just aren’t going to happen very often and when they do there are usually other methods for dealing with it. I’m happy to invest in the stock market if there’s a 0.01% chance I might have to tap it in an emergency in a given year.
– Ed

I think you are drastically underestimating the chances of a serious emergency that would require you to tap resources beyond a tiny emergency fund. You may have been lucky, but you won’t always be lucky.

I can name three times in just the past few years where I can thank my lucky stars that I had an emergency fund and didn’t have to start draining investments. If I didn’t have a large chunk of cash sitting in the bank for just such emergencies, I would have been forced to cash out investments, face potential tax consequences, and potentially be locked into investment losses, too.

To me, it’s just not worth it. An emergency fund is basically a loss-free investment that you can grab if and when you need it for real life. It earns a return – it’s just a small one. It’s not the worst investment out there – it just doesn’t have a very high ceiling. You’re not losing the farm because you have a healthy emergency fund. The small guaranteed upside (and bigger upside in an emergency) is better than the risk that comes with a risky investment.

Q13: Sandwich press?

Is a sandwich press a useful purchase? We make sandwiches all the time and it seems like one might be convenient but I’m not sure it’s worth the cost as an “upgrade” over just making a couple grilled cheese sandwiches in a skillet.
– Marilyn

Sarah and I have a sandwich press that we use occasionally – probably once a month or so – for a weekend family lunch of soup and sandwiches. It does that one job very well.

However, I used to make sandwiches on our pancake griddle almost as easily. The only difference between the two is that the sandwich press makes nice grid lines and it’s a bit smaller than the griddle.

There’s just so many other ways to make a hot sandwich in the kitchen that I don’t see the need for a standalone device to do just that. Ours does make a nice sandwich, don’t get me wrong, but it’s an unnecessary extra.

Q14: How is saving so easy?

I’ve been enjoying reading through the many articles on the site, especially yours. Your story of financial turnaround is just amazing. I’ve always found it so hard to save. How is it so easy for you?
– Kelly

Frankly, it’s not always easy. There are just a few things that make it seem easy.

First, I recognize that spending a few bucks on something unimportant today really won’t make me happy. That bottle of Gatorade at the gas station or the magazine at the store or the extra little “treat” in the bakery isn’t going to bring me any sort of lasting peace or joy. It might bring just a brief momentary pleasure, but then it’s gone and that money is gone as well, never to return. Most of the time, it’s just not worth it, and I’ve come to realize that it isn’t.

There’s also the idea of delayed gratification. Do you remember the feeling of waiting for something you know you’re really going to enjoy, like a big vacation or something like that? That’s a fun feeling and it doesn’t cost a thing. I use that sense of delayed gratification all the time. I’ll decide that I’m going to buy something fun this month, but then I give myself a few weeks to think about exactly what I’ll buy. I’ll look at options and think about it and get as much pleasure out of it as I can. I do it with visits to the coffee shop – they’re so much more fun when they’re pretty rare – and to the book store.

There’s also the issue of having less stress when there aren’t any financial worries. I keep in mind, though, that reverting to bad spending habits will bring all of that stress and worry right back, so it’s a motivation to not start splurging again.

I actually feel like my life is happier because I spend less. That makes it easy for me.

Q15: Starting a book club

Do you have any advice on starting a book club especially one that isn’t expensive? I have a few friends that read a lot and sometimes we read the same books and it’s a lot of fun. I thought that maybe a book clube might be a good idea but all the advice I see online seems to involve expensive parties and stuff.
– Arielle

Talk to your friends about it! That’s where you should start!

Obviously, for a book club to work, someone has to host meetings in their home. Ideally, you do this on a rotating basis so that one person isn’t stuck hosting over and over again – it’s unfair to that person. I think that’s what you’re afraid of.

Just keep it simple. My wife is in a book club and for her club, they just have a simple potluck meal. The host prepares a main dish and the others bring a single complement or side or drink. Then, next month, someone else hosts with a simple potluck. That way, each month, you’re either preparing a simple main course for several people or bringing a single item to accompany.

You can also save money by doing this in conjunction with a local library, informing them of picks so they can get in several copies of the book. This keeps you all from having to buy your own copies or pass copies around the group.

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.

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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