Questions About Difficult Frugality, Paper Bags, Small Debts, Friendships 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. Some frugality not worth it?
2. Feeling unmotivated after financial setback
3. Salty, savory, and inexpensive?
4. Destroying documents without paper shredder
5. Edward Jones question
6. Saving old paper bags
7. Pay off small debts first?
8. Really disorganized with mail
9. Unopened stuff from abandoned hobby
10. Building friendships from meetups
11. When to start buying freemium?
12. Emergency fund and TV crime

There are few things better than a cool summer rain after a really warm day, when you’re riding home furiously on a bicycle with your children right beside you, all of you pedaling madly to beat that rain home and not quite making it, your shirt almost drenched with the first several dozen cold droplets of rain.

Standing together in the garage, panting due to the bike sprint, wet, just a bit chilled from the cool rain, laughing together – that’s what it’s all about.

On with the questions.

Q1: Some frugality not worth it?

It’s pretty clear from your writings and my own experiences that some frugal things are worth it and some things are not worth it in terms of time invested and money returned. Coupon clipping really isn’t worth it unless a very good coupon falls into your lap, but replacing regular bulbs with LEDs when they burn out is worth it.

It’s one of those things that I feel in my gut but I have almost no way of explaining to others. It’s like some things just make sense to me and others do not. But when I try to explain it I sound crazy.
– Megan

I think of such tasks as being like an hourly wage, except that it’s all staying in my pocket and there aren’t any taxes or anything like that. If I can do something that saves me more than about $10 for an hour of my effort, I’ll probably do it. If it’s way more than that, then it quickly becomes a priority. If it’s less than that, I’ll probably do it if I enjoy the task.

I like to get precise with those calculations sometimes, but usually I just trust my sense of what those numbers are like. I don’t stop every time a situation comes up and start running the numbers. I just rely on a rough sense of the numbers in my head to make my judgment call, and then I go with it. Sometimes, I’ll run the numbers later (like for an article for The Simple Dollar).

So, for example, let’s look at my favorite homemade laundry soap recipe. I just mix together equal amounts of soap flakes, borax, and washing soda into a sealed container and toss a spoon in there, as I use a tablespoon of this mixture in each load. It takes maybe two or three minutes. My sense is that this is worth it, because I know I’m saving about twenty cents per laundry load with this mix as compared to Tide and even about eight cents per laundry load as compared to a store brand soap. Given that I can make about 30 loads of soap in about three minutes (and I buy the ingredients in enough bulk that I don’t have to buy them very often), that’s a pretty good deal.

Other things aren’t a good deal. Washing a resealable plastic bag, for example, takes a couple of minutes in order to get it actually clean and then get it set to dry. A resealable plastic bag costs about ten cents, meaning I’d save about $3 an hour on that task. That’s well under any sort of minimum wage. I’m far better off writing an article with that time or doing something personally meaningful.

I could really go off on a long tangent with this… which means that it’ll probably be a post in the near future.

Q2: Feeling unmotivated after financial setback

So my wife and I have reached debt freedom and are saving for a house down payment. We had about $55,000 saved for the down payment and were just about to start shopping around when her mother fell ill. We decided to have her mother move in with us and we helped with medical bills and expenses for the last year of our life, depleting almost all of our savings.

We now have about $5,500 in savings and we have almost no motivation to save any more. Part of it is that my wife is still kind of reeling from dealing with her mother, I think. We’ve decided to travel some this summer and maybe that will reenergize us.

What do you do when life hands you a screwball and knocks out your motivation to keep making financial progress?
– Chris

I think you’ve already got your recipe for success.

The biggest thing you need to do right now is heal some wounds. It sounds like the death of your mother-in-law is still fairly fresh, particularly with your wife, and that the last year of your mother-in-law’s life was really difficult. Give it some time to heal.

I think some summer travel together will be good for both of you. Spend some time making sure that you’re both fixed and that your marriage is strong and you’ll find that the ground will become fertile again for setting goals and saving. Until then, you do have a nice emergency fund in place for other unexpected events.

Not everything in life is about achieving big financial goals, and this is definitely one of those stages. Good luck.

Q3: Salty, savory, and inexpensive?

Trying to find some salty/savory snacks that are inexpensive and not completely unhealthy. Prefer stuff that’s easy to prep.
– Olin

My first reaction was popcorn. Just pop some popcorn, melt some butter in the microwave, mix some salt into the butter, and drizzle it over the popped popcorn. That’s an amazing salty/savory snack.

Homemade potato chips are reasonably healthy. You can make baked ones by simply slicing a potato thinly (here’s a good how-to that’s easy for the slicing part, or you can use a food processor if you have on) and coating it with oil and some seasonings and then bake it in the oven until they’re crispy. They’ll be thick baked-style chips, but wonderfully tasty. You can season them with just about anything you’d like – salt, spices, and so on.

I’m a huge fan of salted nuts, but they can be kind of expensive. You can usually find unsalted nuts in bulk and add seasonings yourself pretty easy – just get a tiny bit of oil spread out on a plate and saturated with salt, then roll the nuts around in it.

Those are my best ideas for cheap savory snacks. The easiest and most cost effective is probably the popcorn.

Q4: Destroying documents without paper shredder

What’s the best way to destroy documents with personal info on them without buying a paper shredder?
– Brian

Get a five gallon bucket. Fill it up about halfway or so with water, then add just a little bit of dish soap and a little tiny bit of bleach (like a teaspoon). Throw a bunch of documents in there, tearing them up as you go, and stir it with a stick. Let it sit overnight. You’ll have a giant chunk of paper left over that’s stuck together in a giant brick. Let that brick dry out thoroughly (meaning dump out any excess water), and then burn the whole chunk the next time you have a campfire – that paper cylinder (since it will take on the shape of the bucket) will burn really really well if you’ve allowed it to dry. You can also cut the giant chunk down into smaller chunks for smaller firestarters. That’s my preferred method for getting rid of tons of documents at once.

Obviously, you can just skip the middle step and just take a bunch of documents straight to a campfire or bonfire. Use the documents to get the fire going and keep throwing documents in there to incinerate them. I prefer the other method if I don’t have a campfire at the ready because it damages the documents to unusability pretty quickly and gives you a firestarter that’s much easier to deal with.

Another option is to see if your city has a city shredding day. Many cities and towns offer a day where they bring in a giant shredder and allow people to dump their documents in there. This is easily the best method if it’s available to you, but you have to wait around for it.

Q5: Edward Jones question

I am really uncomfortable with making investment decisions without an advisor. What are your thoughts on Edward Jones? There is an Edward Jones office near my workplace.
– Stephen

I have exactly one major problem with Edward Jones – the fees. The fees are pretty high. They seem to do a great job with customer service and making people feel comfortable, but you pay for that with the fees that they charge. That’s really the Edward Jones model – very good customer service with a friendly environment and face and a lot of solid investment choices, but the fees are how you pay for it.

Here’s the thing, though: any time you start entrusting someone to manage your finances for you, it’s going to be expensive. Maybe not as expensive as Edward Jones, but the services anywhere will be pricy. That’s simply the nature of the business.

Your best “bang for the buck” is likely through an independent certified financial planner who is fee-based and not commission-based in your area. You’ll have to do some homework to find that person, but they’re probably going to wind up being your best option overall.

Q6: Saving old paper bags

Whenever I go to the grocery I request paper bags. I take them home and fold them up and save them and put them under the sink. But I get more paper bags than I use and my undersink cabinet is full of bags. What can I do with them? Seems huge waste to throw them out.
– Max

You’ve kind of summarized why I’ve moved to using reusable cloth bags almost exclusively when grocery shopping. We keep a bag that’s full of folded cloth bags by the front door so that it’s easy to grab for shopping trips and then we never have any paper (or plastic) bags to store.

We used to do just like you did and accumulated tons of paper bags under the sink, but we never really found any good consistent uses for them. We often ended up using them for starting campfires or wrapping up packages because we couldn’t really figure out any other good use for them.

If I were you, I’d collect some cloth bags, then take most of those paper bags to your local paper recycler.

Q7: Pay off small debts first?

Is it better to pay off some tiny debts first to get rid of some bills before tackling my big high interest credit card? I have two small student loans, both under $1,000 that have a 5.9% and a 5.5% interest rate. I also have a credit card with a $6,500 balance with a 19.9% interest rate. I feel like if I get rid of my student loans first I can pay down the bigger bill faster but I can’t make the numbers work out.
– Jim

In terms of pure dollars and cents, the best approach is always to make minimum payments on all of your debts, then the biggest possible extra payment on your highest interest debt. This will, over the long run, minimize your total interest paid.

Think of it this way: if you make an extra payment to pay off those low interest debts early, that’s a payment you’re not making toward a higher interest debt. Or, to take it from another angle, you’d rather have a higher balance on a lower interest debt than a higher balance on a high interest debt.

That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make sense to pay off those small debts. The big advantage that offers is that your overall minimum monthly payments is going to likely be lower than before once those debts are out of the way. That makes life easier if you face something like a job loss or a career change or some similar challenge. Plus, the actual dollars and cents saved by going for the high interest debt first is pretty small – on the order of $20-50, depending on your exact payment plans, by my back of the envelope math.

If you feel better paying off the small debts first, by all means, pay off the small debts first. At worst, you’ll cost yourself a little bit of money, and that small amount is little compared to peace of mind.

Q8: Really disorganized with mail

Most days I get the mail, see if there’s anything interesting in there as I walk to my apartment, and toss it in a basket. This builds up after a while until it’s a huge mess and there’s usually a late bill or two in there. I try to be more organized with it and handle things sooner but I’m just disorganized and I have tried to be better about it and it doesn’t work. What is the simplest way to keep this from happening?
– Geoff

One great approach I’ve seen is that a friend of mine has an “important mail” basket and a “not important mail” basket. On his way in, he sorts the mail into stuff that’s potentially important and urgent and stuff that isn’t. The important and urgent stuff goes into the “important mail” box and gets handled about once a week. Everything else goes into the “unimportant mail” box and gets handled maybe once a month.

It’s not a perfect system, but I think he has a similar philosophy to mail that you do, that much of it is really unimportant and not worthwhile.

My personal approach was to just move as much as possible to online banking and then try to minimize the amount of junk mail that I get by unsubscribing from stuff. I prefer to get less mail, not more.

Q9: Unopened stuff from abandoned hobby

For a long time I was really into collecting pocket knives. I used to buy them all the time and I went to the Oregon Knife Show every year and bought several. After a while though I began to get bored with the hobby and I have a bunch of knives that are completely unopened. I do carry a pocket knife all the time for use but I have like 50 knives in my closet and about 30 of them are still completely unopened and untouched.

So here’s the problem. I want to keep a few of them for actual use but I don’t have the collecting bug any more. But when I go through them I am finding it really tough to figure out what to keep. I mean I bought these knives because I genuinely found them cool and I still do. I just don’t have the fire to buy more any more.
– Archie

Your question really is “how do you pare down a collection that you still love but aren’t actively collecting any more?” I don’t think you’re asking how to sell those unused knives, but how to decide which ones to sell off when you do want to keep a few.

My approach in situations like this is to put all of the items in a box and mark that box with a date in the future, say, a year from now. If I so desire, at any point during the year, I can dig into that box and pull out anything that I want to use or see. In a year, when I notice the box and see the date has passed, I open it up and everything left in there gets sold. If I haven’t looked at it in a year, it must not be too important to me.

I’ve used this strategy to pare down a lot of collections over the years. When I open that box after a year and recognize that I’ve not touched any of this stuff in more than twelve months, it becomes a lot easier to just sell it because I truly realize this stuff isn’t a part of my life any more as proven by my own inaction.

Q10: Building friendships from meetups

Whenever I go to meet ups or community events, I meet interesting people but then it’s hard to continue that relationship. They will often talk about other events right in front of me and not invite me and I feel unwelcome and don’t want to go back. What can I do to become “part of the group”?
– Keith

It’s simple. If they’re discussing a different public event, simply ask, “Mind if I tag along?” Almost always, they’ll say “Sure!” You don’t want to do this when it’s a private event in someone’s home, as there may be extenuating circumstances, but if the event is a public one in a public place, people with shared interests are almost always welcome.

Quite often, people at such events simply assume that everyone there who is interested will probably go to the next public event of the group and that they all know about it. For you, that’s obviously not necessarily true, so simply ask.

If you find that you get a hard “no,” then you can assume the group is unfriendly, but if you don’t even pipe up to ask to tag along, it’s not really the fault of the group.

Q11: When to start buying freemium?

When do you decide it’s time to start paying for a product that offers a “pro” account when you have a free one? Do you just keep using it until you hit upon limitations that a “pro” account can solve? I use a lot of free stuff like Dropbox and Evernote every day so I am trying to figure out whether I should upgrade some of them.
– Joe

Great question.

Obviously, if you’re using a service enough that you’re hitting on the upper limits of what you can do with it using the free account, jumping to the paid version of the service is a smart idea. If you’ve reached that point, it has become a valuable resource in your life and anything that you consistently use is worth keeping around.

On the other hand, you obviously shouldn’t pay for a product you’re not using. That’s nonsensical.

The sticky place is that middle ground, where you do consistently use and rely on a tool but you’re well within the “free” offering with that service.

For me, at least, I find that if I’m using a tool daily and I have found it so useful that I would be frustrated without it, then I’m willing to pay the “upgrade” price, even if I still have some room to grow within the “free” offering. I want that tool to continue, and good tools only continue to stay around if they make money.

However, I stick with the “free” version until that point. I just keep using that free version until the tool either becomes a daily-use-over-a-long-period kind of thing or it fades from use.

Q12: Emergency fund and TV crime

Was watching a detective show on TV the other day and couldn’t help but think of your advice! A guy got in trouble with a loan shark that loaned him $5000 in a pinch and the loan shark basically destroyed his life and took his daughter away. Couldn’t help but think that the guy would have been fine if he had an emergency fund like you suggest!
– Marie

If you actually watch a lot of television dramas, you’ll find that many of the problems on there simply do not happen if people simply had emergency funds that they built up by spending less than they earned when times were good.

That show might have been obvious, but think about that whenever you watch a television drama. Almost all of them show off situations that could have been solved with a little bit of cash in a pinch. Quite often, all of the crime and bad events were the result of a domino effect from some little thing that went wrong that could have been fixed if someone had some cash in the bank.

The moral of the story is this: if you don’t want to wind up like a CSI victim, have an emergency fund! If that’s not a motivator, I don’t know what is!

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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