Questions About Digital Nomads, Generosity with Friends, Engagement Rings, VHS Tapes, 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. “Digital nomad” suggestions
2. How much money to quit?
3. Can’t realistically afford college
4. Struggling to cut grocery bill
5. Reciprocating generosity with friends
6. Moving cash in from Canada
7. Refinance car now or later?
8. Overcoming cost of utility hookup
9. Career sputtering out
10. Didn’t get dream job
11. Engagement ring conundrum
12. Dealing with old VHS tapes

My children started their summer vacation earlier this week. This means that they’re home with dad all day long, which means that the house is full of noise and play and conversation all day long. That’s a good thing.

It also means that my writing schedule has to drastically change. During the daytime normal workday hours, it’s largely impossible to get any work done here, so my writing time is moved to the very early morning – I’m getting up very, very early each day – or to an hour or two in the evening after Sarah gets home. I can also squeeze in an hour long writing block when they’re playing outside or something like that.

The issue isn’t that I don’t want to leave my kids to independent play – I’m completely fine with them having a lot of independent play during the day and I even encourage it. The challenge is the noise and change in environment. The general noise in the house when they’re awake and playing is enough to be significantly distracting and I can’t simply leave to work, so I try not to do much focused work when they’re in the house.

It’s just a change, one that I’ve dealt with before, but one that requires some real adjustment when it starts.

On with your questions.

Q1: ‘Digital nomad’ suggestions

Hi! I just received a job offer from a company where I have to work remotely and just come in for meetings once every several weeks for a day. I will be a “digital nomad”!

I know this is something you have done for several years. What suggestions do you have for someone considering this life or just starting out doing it? I know that it is a good idea to have a place at home that is just for “work” but what else do I need to know to make this work? The freedom seems exhilarating but also scary!
– Terry

The number one challenge you’re going to have is staying on task. You’re essentially going to be working without any kind of a direct supervisor. You’re going to have the freedom to organize your day however you wish. If a task needs to be done around the house or an errand needs to be run, there’s no direct force keeping you at your workspace and keeping you from simply running that errand or doing that chore. The infinite entertainment options of a typical home are also a big avenue for distraction.

The best strategy I’ve ever found for this is time blocking. I make a very detailed schedule for my day that includes windows for things like errands and chores around the house so that I know I have time to get to those things later in the day. When my daily schedule says that I’m supposed to be working, I’m working, regardless of the distractions that may be tempting me. I literally block websites and turn off my cell phone and work as far away from the television as possible.

Some people find it conducive to work in places outside the home. I can be productive for small stretches at the library and I can sometimes brainstorm (but not write) well at a coffee shop, but I’ve learned that for me a change in environment is usually a distraction. Sometimes that distraction does spur creativity, but it doesn’t usually spur me to put my nose to the grindstone and do deep and focused work.

Still, the single most important thing I do in terms of making a “digital nomad” type of life work is to have focused blocks of time where I work with absolute minimal distraction.

Q2: How much money to quit?

How much money would you want to have in the bank before quitting a job that you hated without a direct path to other employment?

29/F/Texas, hate hate hate this job. My boss is a complete troll who spends all day staring at me like he [wants] me. Coworkers all sit around and talk about sports most of the time and spent the last two weeks talking about nothing but college basketball. The work itself is okay but I’m done with my tasks with half the day left and I get bored.

I have no debts and about $45K in the bank which would be enough to live for a good year in my current lifestyle. Every single day I stand at the bus stop trying to talk myself out of just walking in and quitting and walking out. How much do I need to do this?
– Kellie

Obviously, you need to get out of this job. My strong suggestion for you would be to not walk in there and quit any time soon. Instead, if I were you, I’d spend the time during your workday in which you don’t have any tasks to do focusing on doing what you can to prep for your next job.

Find some job listings for other jobs that you’d like to have and spend that extra time at work preparing for those things. Take online classes. Read. Sharpen skills by working on projects. Start a professional blog. Participate in Twitter conversations and on professional websites so you can start building relationships with others in your field and make a name for yourself with your knowledge that you’re sharing. Do things that keep you in your cubicle and away from the things in your workplace that discomfort you. Build up that resume and get yourself as ready for interviewing as possible.

With most of those things, you can clearly make the case that you’re self-improving in order to make yourself into the best possible employee, but you’re also making yourself a ticket right out of there. Keep doing the minimal work needed to keep your job, but make a strong path to another job your main focus.

I don’t think this is so much about money in the bank but more about when you feel you’re ready to make a quick leap to another similar position. When that happens, send out feelers to the professional and recruiting relationships you have about job availability and gobble up every option and interview you can. Make that transition as quick as possible.

For now, when you’re trying to convince yourself to go to work, look at it this way: you could either stay at home and do this preparation for another job and not get paid for it, or you could go to your desk, put on your headphones, ignore the office trolls, and do this preparation for another job and still bring home a sweet paycheck.

Q3: Can’t realistically afford college

You talk about going back to school as though it is a realistic option for many people. It’s not. My husband and I both work full time and have a household income of $46K. We have two kids. The cost of a semester of tuition at the nearby university is $14K and it would take 6-7 semesters to get the degree I want. That kind of debt would bury us. I can take some classes at the community college but even those classes are pushing toward too expensive. “Going back to school” just isn’t realistic for people who are [deep into] adult life.
– Maria

This is one of the real problems in America right now. The cost of education is almost back-breaking for many people who aren’t already making a lot of money and that makes it hard for people to advance in their careers or justify going back to school when it’s far from a guarantee that they’ll be able to earn enough to make up for it.

My serious suggestion for you is to look for educational opportunities in your field that are either free or covered by your employer. What can you do in terms of training or schooling that doesn’t cost you anything or that your employer will pay for? Broaden your horizons beyond merely going to the local college and see what other options fit and can help you move where you want to go.

Can you take some classes on Coursera to build some skills? Would mastering a foreign language using something like Duolingo improve your income opportunities? Are there community organizations you can join and participate in that will help you build professional connections? Those are strong avenues you can follow for building skills and building a professional network outside of the expense and time commitment of a full college education.

Q4: Struggling to cut grocery bill

We are a family of four and we spend about $800 a month on groceries. We only eat out about twice a month. Most of our grocery bill is food that we cook at home that isn’t already prepared so we buy a lot of things like meats, raw or frozen vegetables, eggs, cheese, etc. It just all adds up so fast! I try using your “staples” list too and buy lots of beans, rice, eggs, etc. What are we missing?
– Lisa

It’s hard to say. In a typical month, we spend somewhere around $500 on groceries for our family of five and I’d estimate we get takeout or go out to eat about once a week on average, about half of which is our usual Friday family pizza night where Sarah will bring home some pizza from somewhere near her workplace.

Most of our grocery trips consist of fresh produce (usually things that are on sale or are cheap by default like cabbage or sweet potatoes or bananas), spices, key staples that you mention like eggs and beans and rice, cheese, and so on. We buy very little prepared food.

One big difference between our food purchasing patterns is the presence of meat. Our family is very nearly vegetarian (we eat things like eggs and cheese, but no actual meats, and we do so for health reasons), so things like steak or pork chops or chicken aren’t things we usually buy at the store. Our protein comes more from things like beans and quinoa and nuts, which are actually quite loaded with protein. Meat seems incredibly expensive to me, which is another reason that we skip it.

Q5: Reciprocating generosity with friends

Hope you can help me piece through feeling like a cheapskate and not being sure why!

I have a good friend who invites me over all the time and shares stuff with me. She always has a bottle of wine that she opens up when I get there and pours me a glass immediately. She usually has some snack to share, too. We go out to eat about once a week and split the bill but she usually orders wine there too and buys a bottle and pours me at least a glass and a half of it (and the wine goes on her half).

All of this is stuff I would not buy for myself. But then when I invite her over I feel really awkward and cheap. I feel like I should buy a bottle of wine to share and some neat snacks to share but I don’t really want to do that. I don’t want to spend the money on them because I don’t feel like I get enough value out of it.

On the other hand, when I’m around my friend drinking her wine and eating her chocolate, I gobble it right up, then when I’m standing in the store and looking at wine I don’t want to spend the money and then I feel like a cheap [jerk].

This is something I’m really struggling with right now. I basically feel like a cheapskate every time I am at the grocery store or visiting my friend and I hate it.
– Aerie

If I were in your shoes, I’d buy treats to share with my friends, but I’d bargain hunt those treats like crazy. I’d look for very low cost wines to share. I’d buy treats when they’re on sale or when you have a coupon. I’d do everything possible to try to match your friend’s treats, but do it at the lowest possible price.

Without knowing the dynamic between you and your friend, your friend may not even care in the least that you don’t have goodies to share, but what matters is that it bothers you. A healthy friendship (or any other relationship) involves reciprocation, meaning that you both do things for each other, whether it’s actual treats like wine or simply being there for each other.

I think your sadness is a sense that your friendship is unbalanced, and if wine and treats are an inexpensive way to balance that out – and they definitely can be with some careful research – then do so. Just put in the effort to really bargain hunt for those treats.

Q6: Moving cash in from Canada

I’m Canadian and current live in Canada. I have a net worth of around 200k, about 50k of which is in a retirement account, 50k is in savings, and about 100k is invested in non-retirement. I’m moving to the states and I’d like to have about 30k with my to cover moving expenses and just to have something in my bank before my pay checks roll in. I’ll leave the rest in my Canadian investments because I’ll probably move back one day. I’m 30 years old, not sure what the future holds!

What’s the cheapest way to convert Canadian cash into about 30k US? I don’t have a US bank yet, as I can’t get one until I have an SSN, which I can’t get until I”m there. Also in Canada I’m at a credit union, not a big bank. If that matters??
– Kim

The simplest way, though it is slow, is to write yourself a check for the amount you need in US dollars drawn from a Canadian bank and then have that money deposited in your checking account in the US. It will take some time to have that money transferred, but it’s quite easy. Larger banks with branches in both the US and Canada will make the transfer easier.

If you need the money faster, you can do something like a wire transfer, but it’s going to be expensive.

The truth of the matter is that you can choose either fast or cheap when it comes to getting your money here, not both.

Q7: Refinance car now or later?

I wanted to get your opinion on an Auto Loan Refinance. Our current loan has a remaining balance of $25,000 at 4.99%. Navy Federal currently has an Auto Loan Refinance offer of 1.99% on qualifying vehicles.

I want to apply for this refinance option. My current credit score (according to is around 720. Should I go ahead and apply now or wait a few months to get my credit utilization lower which would help with my credit score?
– Joshua

A credit score of 700 or above is considered good. However, the scores that CreditKarma gives out are estimates, so I wouldn’t put all of the trust in the world into those scores.

If I were you, I’d probably try to get that refinance now. If you can’t get it, talk to a person at that credit union and ask specifically why you were denied, as they have to provide certain information in the face of a denial.

It’s pretty likely that you’ll get that refinance with your current score. The longer you wait, the better your odds, but I believe they’re already pretty good.

Q8: Overcoming cost of utility hookup

My husband and I own a manufactured home “free and clear.” However, we have no utilities hooked up. We almost have the electric in place; but, water and sewer are a different story all together.

An estimate for the septic (no city sewer available) quoted 5,800. We cannot come up with this right now as the last couple years have been difficult due to moves, lost jobs, deaths, and the like. But, we also cannot afford to continue to rent a home for 780 a month, which is what we are doing now, because we have no utilities.

Suggestions? I have looked into grants and loans. No one will loan on a home equity loan because we do not own the land the home sits on. And, though there are some grants available, I have found that we either do not qualify or the grant has not been funded for this year.

Please help! We just keep sinking.
– Denise

Given what you describe, I would try to sell this house and buy a different one. If you’re in a situation where getting the utilities hooked up while also paying $780 a month in rent is an insurmountable financial burden, then many of the costs of home ownership are going to hit you pretty hard.

This is especially true given that you don’t actually own the land upon which the house sits. What exactly do you do if you’re no longer allowed to lease the land?

Sell the house, get your financial situation stable, and then look for a lower-cost house on land that you control. That’s my advice.

Q9: Career sputtering out

I feel like my career always gets some nice pick ups, then sputters out. I’ve had five jobs at three companies over the past seven years. All in IT. Each time, I seem to have a ton of down time.

At my current job, where I am a contractor, I have told my supervisor each week for six weeks that I don’t have enough work. I want to contribute, to help out, to do more. When I present my work to executive leaders they love it and applaud my two months of hard work. One VP literally hugged me in joy. That work took me about seven hours of actual effort.

I feel like I’ve exhausted every avenue to try to do more here. I know I can and should, but I just can never seem to get anywhere because I’m not allowed due to budgeting and other reasons like that. I’ve told my boss specifically what team and project I could help out with, what the need is, why I’d be a good fit, and that both the project lead and I want to make it happen. And nothing happens.

I’m at the point where I clock in, read and attend webinars, do other things to further my education as best I can, and just react to incoming requests maybe once a week. I hate it. I feel like I am stealing their money. They pay me to do nothing that is providing value. I have told them that but they don’t care.

What should I do? I can’t switch jobs (have to wait for financing on a house to go through) and even if I did, this is almost the same scenario at my other jobs. I’m a smart guy. I’m motivated and a good team player and want to contribute. I just feel like every time I get some new opportunity it sounds cool then leaves me bored and unfulfilled. How am I to keep doing this for decades more? What am I missing?
– Charlie

That business is choosing to employ you to handle those tasks when they come in. That’s what they’re paying you for. It might be a job that they don’t want to pay for in the future, but that’s a business decision they’re making, not you.

If I were in your shoes, I’d do exactly what you’re doing now. I would do everything in my power to keep my skill set sharp and my professional network lively. I’d participate in all kinds of professional online forums, participate in LinkedIn, continue to participate in webinars, take online classes, and so on.

If you want a different job, then prepare yourself to get that job. Don’t question the business decisions of the business you work for – if they’re paying you to have that much professional free time at work, use that time professionally to improve yourself. Consider it a perk.

Q10: Didn’t get dream job

I’ve been wanting a senior programming job for years now, especially one on the more algorithmic side of things. I felt I had really really prepared well for getting this kind of a job but then I had the interview and I felt like a completely unprepared fool and didn’t get the job. I actually knew I wouldn’t.

In fact I did so bad that I don’t think I’ll get another crack at an interview if another position opens up. I am considering looking for work elsewhere but my confidence is kinda shot and I feel like I’m lousy at programming.
– Kent

You shouldn’t feel this way. There are a lot of reasons why you didn’t get that job, and most of them are probably things that you can easily address or have little to do with your relative programming skill.

If I were you, I’d send a letter or an email or place a call to the person who interviewed you and ask what you can do to improve yourself to make yourself more likely to get such a position in the future. Take the advice they give you and come up with a plan to improve yourself in that way.

So, for example, if he said that you didn’t know modern terminology in your field, you know that you need to get up to date. If he said that you just seemed nervous, you know that you should practice interviewing more until you’re comfortable with it. Just take the advice and run with it.

Believe it or not, this wasn’t really his main question. Kent’s actual main question is below.

Q11: Engagement ring conundrum

I am struggling with regards to how much to spend on an engagement ring. My girlfriend and I have looked at rings a few times and she seems to only point at really small and inexpensive ones. She’s kind of a practical person which is a big part of why I love her and most of the time I feel like I should go with that kind of “practical” ring, but I want her heart to skip a beat when I give her a ring. I don’t know what to do.
– Kent

More than anything, you should talk to your girlfriend openly about this. Don’t try to “guess” her “hints.” It is almost always fruitless to try to play those kinds of games and they usually end up with someone feeling miserable. Just simply talk about it openly.

Ask her what she likes about various rings. Ask her what she values or doesn’t value about them. You may find that she thinks that big rings are ostentatious or that they aren’t attractive to her. You may find that she simply thinks it’s foolish to use money in such a way and that a simple ring works. Or, you may find that she is simply being modest and likes something different.

There are many suggestions out there that you should look at body and facial cues for this kind of thing. I’ve never, ever found that useful. Sarah might appreciate something as being beautiful but would murder me in my sleep if I actually spent that much money to buy it, because her appreciation of certain kinds of beauty is trumped by her frugal values. Your girlfriend might be that way. Try to understand her and get the right ring for her.

A successful marriage is all about communication. Right here is a place where you’re putting that communication to the test.

Q12: Dealing with old VHS tapes

We have a ton of old VHS tapes of kid movies and family movies from when our kids were little. They’re grown up now and don’t want them. The ones they want to watch with their own kids are on Netflix or somewhere digital. So we have these boxes of VHS tapes of movies from the ’90s that we don’t know what to do with. We don’t even have a VCR any more. What can we do with them besides just throw them out?
– Chris

Most VHS tapes are worth very little unless there is something distinctive about them, like that it’s a film that was never released in another format. Disney films are an exception to this, as some people do collect them.

I’d do some research into films that seem pretty obscure as well as into the value of any Disney movies you might have. You can probably safely sell off all of the rest as a single lot on, say, Craigslist for a few bucks. Just say, “I have these 100 VHS movies I need to get rid of. $5 for whole lot,” and include a picture of their spines.

For the individually valuable ones, you can either sell them on eBay or Amazon pretty easily. Good luck!

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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