Questions About Firewood, Costco, Picnics, Homebrewing, 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. Lost without urgency
2. Spending money isn’t bad
3. Non-sandwich picnic ideas
4. Why retire early?
5. Replacing paper towels
6. Sam’s Club or Costco
7. Mother using my personal information
8. Selling estate property for cheap
9. Cheap firewood for camping
10. Cell phone is essential?
11. “Spend like a regular person”
12. Credit card theft in airport
13. Planned obsolescence
14. Second most important advice?
15. Homebrewing costs

This past weekend, our family spent an hour or two working in a garden where the produce will be made available to local food pantry customers. We did a bunch of weeding and sprayed some natural pest repellent around (stuff to scare off small animals who might feast on the plants).

The thing I noticed more than anything is that our children were far more engaged in this than in weeding our own garden. We had apparently made the connection between doing this and making sure that people in our community had food on their plate.

At home, they seem to just trust that they will have food, but they understand that others may not have that luxury.

This has led to a few interesting discussions between Sarah and myself. How do we convince our children that there is a need to work for what you have at home without making them feel insecure at home? It’s a tricky question. We could easily sell them on the “need” for gardening, but at the same time, doing that could easily convince them that their next meal may not be secure.

Our current approach is to make things like this into a chore, but rather than seeing it as a connection between your effort and the food on your plate, they just see it as work to be done.

Sometimes, parenting is tricky.

Q1: Lost without urgency

I am 31 years old. My husband is 30. We currently have about $55,000 in student loans, $30,000 in credit card debt, and a $14,000 car loan. We both have good paying jobs that are pretty stable, particularly mine, and we earn a combined $110,000.

We have made significant progress on our debt several times. We have paid off all credit card debt more than once and we have more than halved our student loan debt.

Our problem is that we do well when it is urgent but we just stop being motivated once the bills are under control. Without that pressure on us we have a hard time choosing the “smart” financial move.

When we sit back and think about our future, it is obvious what the good moves are, but in our day to day life it is just a lot easier to make fun choices.

Do you have any suggestions for us? How do you and Sarah get through this?
– Anna

In my first few years of turning my finances around, I kept reminding myself about my big dreams all the time. I kept my lifetime goals front and center and spent time thinking about them every day. Eventually, those dreams resolved into a dream of financial independence.

I also kept reminding myself that if I didn’t keep on the current path in life, I would be right back where I was and that not only would I be back in the stress pit, I’d also undo all of my progress toward my big goals. Even worse, I’d be older, meaning it would be even harder to progress on those big goals again.

I thought about those two things every day, multiple times, until making good spending choices became completely natural to me.

Q2: Spending money isn’t bad

The biggest problem I have with your site and with other money sites is that you make it sound like spending money is something bad and evil. It isn’t. We all have to spend money to survive in this world.
– Brian

Spending money isn’t bad. Spending money on short term fleeting desires without putting any away for the long term is bad.

The entire point of most personal finance sites is that you should figure out the most wasteful and unnecessary chunk of your spending and start saving it instead. It’s not going to destroy your life or make you live like a hermit to cut out the 10% of your spending that’s the most wasteful and invest it instead.

The thing is, everyone has a different view on what that most wasteful 10% actually is. It varies based upon their own budget and their own ideas. I consider eating out every night to be pretty wasteful, for example, but perhaps others do not.

Q3: Non-sandwich picnic ideas

What are some ideas for picnic foods that aren’t sandwiches or wraps? We like to take meals with us on the weekends but sandwiches get old and that makes going out to eat a lot more tempting.
– Caitlyn

Make burrito bowls. Just take a few bowls and plenty of spoons and forks with you and fill up jars with the needed ingredients like salsa, black beans, and so forth.

Make a big salad, put it in a gallon Ziploc freezer bag, and take along a few plastic bowls and forks. Salads can be of infinite variety.

In these situations, you can rinse off your bowls and forks in a stream, a bathroom, a water fountain, or with bottled water before re-packing them, to keep everything from getting messy.

Q4: Why retire early?

What is the point of focusing on retiring early? I guess I can understand it if you loathe your job with every ounce of your being, but I would rather fill my hours with my current job than with golf or something. Sure, a lot of things like golf would be fun but it would be an empty life after a while.
– Daniel

The point of early retirement isn’t so that you can sit around jobless, at least not necessarily. The point of early retirement is so that you can choose for yourself what to do with all of your time without the requirement of working for a wage.

Take me, for example. I would love to write a high fantasy novel – in truth, I’d love to finish the collection of ideas and scenes I have written and sketched out in a few notebooks. I would love to write a popular science book about a medical condition that I actually think is more prevalent than is often talked about, but it would require a mountain of research. There are two local charities that I would love to work for on a full-time or nearly full-time basis, at least for a while.

Those are things I want to do with my time that wouldn’t really earn a very good income. Some might earn nothing at all. To do them, I want to have enough money in the bank that I could survive without earning a dime.

To me, that’s “retirement.” It’s not about sitting around and playing golf all day.

Q5: Replacing paper towels

I read in an older post of yours that you use regular towels instead of paper towels for most things in the kitchen and that it saves money. I guess I can understand that from a reusability standpoint but how does that even work?
– Emily

Okay, here’s what we do.

In our kitchen, one of the drawers is (mostly) devoted to hand towels and rags and washcloths. That’s all you’ll find in there (aside from a couple of CDs that we sometimes play on our kitchen radio).

Whenever there’s a spill or something that needs to be cleaned up or anything like that, we grab one of the many rags or hand towels or washcloths and take care of the problem. If this makes the rag dirty, we toss it down the stairs to the laundry room (unless it’s sopping wet). If it was just water, we’ll leave it out on the counter for another use in the near future.

We generally throw the rags into almost any load of clothes, though sometimes they need a rinse.

If they get stained, who cares? It really doesn’t matter if there’s a big wine blotch on a kitchen rag, for example.

Q6: Sam’s Club or Costco

We currently live in an area that has a Sam’s Club about 8 miles away and a Costco 11 miles away. Both are in heavy shopping areas, whereas we live on the outskirts of a major city without much shopping other than a grocery store or two nearby.

We shop in both areas sometimes depending on what exactly we need, so that isn’t a problem. Basically, choosing a membership comes down to the one that will be the best bargain for us.

Suggestions on how to compare the two?
– Frances

The first thing I would look at is gas availability. Do both stores sell gas? If one of them does and the other doesn’t, that will probably make your decision for you. Both stores usually offer gas prices that are significantly cheaper than surrounding stations. I save at least a dollar in gas every time I visit Sam’s Club (note that we chose Sam’s solely due to proximity – there are three Sam’s closer to us than the nearest Costco, and two are less than half the distance to the nearest Costco).

If gas isn’t a factor, I suggest getting a one-day membership at each and comparing them for yourself. Look specifically at the prices and selection for the items you intend to buy at a warehouse club and jot them down, then compare that to what’s available at the other club.

I’ve been in both Sam’s Club and Costco at various locations and they’re both fine. The selection does seem to vary from location to location, particularly based on the size of the store.

For me, gas would be the biggest deciding factor.

Q7: Mother using my personal information

I recently discovered that my mother (who is 70 years old – I’m 34) has been using my personal information in order to bolster her credit enough to get credit cards. She’ll sign us both up using her address and then use that card without telling me.

I figured this out by looking at my credit report where there were three different debts that I didn’t recognize. I was able to piece things together by contacting them and then doing a bit of poking around at my mother’s house.

I am not sure how to confront her and I also don’t know how to prevent her from doing this in the future.
– Gertrude

The first thing I’d do is put a freeze on my credit, which is something you can do by contacting the three credit reporting bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Those links go to their pages about credit freezes.

I also would not hesitate to cancel the credit cards that you’re on. Call the companies up and close those cards. Say that your information was used without your knowledge to sign up for the cards, which is the truth, and ask to either close the cards or to remove you as an authorized user.

This should prevent her from doing this again. You can choose to make a direct confrontation if you so choose, but if you take these steps, your identity should be safe from her.

Q8: Selling estate property for cheap

My mother passed away a few months ago leaving behind her house and her car and some personal items. However she also has a ton of credit card debt. I understand that we are supposed to pay her debts with what remains in her estate. Why couldn’t we just sell her house for a dollar to someone and leave her estate penniless so that the credit card companies can’t just take the money?
– Henry

In that case, the executor would be in a lot of legal trouble for allowing that to happen. They would be committing transaction fraud by selling the house far below any sort of reasonable market value, and if the companies find out, they would happily push it.

What really needs to happen is that her possessions need to be assessed at fair market value and her creditors need to be paid off first by selling some of or all of the items. What remains can and should be distributed according to her wishes in her will.

If that ends up getting confusing at all, you should talk to an estate lawyer. In fact, I’d recommend it anyway, though I can’t conceive that she would have enough credit card debt to make things problematic here. It would likely just eat into the value of her home.

Q9: Cheap firewood for camping

Do you have any suggestions for how to get cheap firewood for summer camping? Whenever we go camping the campground always sells little bundles for some absurd price. I really don’t think it’s frugal to be paying $1 for a single piece of campfire wood.
– Ian

The real problem here is that rules and laws vary wildly with regards to firewood laws from state to state. Some states allow you to scavenge. Some states allow you to use wood with the bark on it, while others require bark removal. Not only that, you’re¬†generally not allowed to take¬†firewood very far at all because of the potential for spreading invasive insect species or diseases, so taking it with you on camping trips doesn’t work well, either.

Your best best, honestly, is to look on Craigslist and do web searches for firewood near your destination. Quite often, you’ll find bulk sellers of firewood, so if you’re camping for a few days, see if you can get the smallest quantity that they’ll sell to you. Even that will likely be too much, but nothing says you can’t sell the excess to people around your campsite for a cheap rate.

That’s probably the best strategy, but it requires some advance planning to pull it off and probably requires a multi-day campsite to boot.

Q10: Cell phone is essential?

Do you view a cell phone as an essential item to own? I see that you sometimes mention getting rid of it, but if you do that, how can people contact you?
– Jane

I wouldn’t say a cell phone is a requirement in the modern world, but it is certainly useful. However, when I suggest people “get rid of their cell phones,” I’m mostly referring to long-term cell phone contracts.

The best deals in mobile devices and contracts for almost everyone is through the pay-as-you-go and contract-free carriers like Ting. They operate with a lower overhead, without things like retail stores and huge advertising budgets, and usually just buy cellular time from the larger carriers.

We are “grandfathered” in to an older plan with our carrier that just perfectly matches our needs. If we weren’t, we would likely switch to a carrier like Ting.

Q11: ‘Spend like a regular person’

A lot of my friends tease me about how I am unable to “spend like a regular person.” I’m the guy who only orders water at restaurants when we go out to eat and basically don’t buy anything extra at sporting events. I usually end up being the ticket buyer too because I find the cheapest tickets and I usually have people over to my house instead of going out. They joke about it at that level that’s somewhere between lighthearted and mean.

The whole “spend like a regular person” thing seems silly to me. What does “spend like a regular person” even mean?
– Kevin

What it means is that your friends are more willing than you are to spend their money on short-term pleasures. Since there are more of them than there are of you, that seems like the norm, so they view that as “spending like a regular person.”

Now, should you care? No. Should you change anything about what you’re doing? No, as long as it affects only you and doesn’t alter what they’re doing.

For me, the line between frugal and cheap is whether it affects other people. Are my “frugal” choices negatively impacting my friends and making them feel restricted? If so, I’m being cheap. It doesn’t sound like you’re doing that, so I’d just ignore it.

Q12: Credit card theft in airport

This is just some quick advice for readers. Be very careful about using your credit card in an airport and try to use cash in there if possible. I have had my credit card info stolen twice in the last year and both times it happened in an airport. What made it particularly nasty is that the security measures that the credit card companies use completely failed in that airport. My number started getting used in another part of the country and racked up a bunch of charges before I was even aware of it and it didn’t trigger their warning system because they knew I was traveling due to the airport charge. Be wary in airports.
– Lincoln

This seems like reasonable advice. I know that many credit card companies keep an eye on where charges are made to quickly identify potential credit card number theft and it makes sense that they would use airline purchases as a way to figure out whether or not a purchase in another part of the country made sense.

I usually travel with at least some cash in a money belt under my shirt. I’ll keep a few bucks in my shirt pocket but most of it stays in the money belt. I do use a card some when traveling, though.

Thanks for the advice. I’ll try to go card-free in airports from now on.

Q13: Planned obsolescence

It seems like cell phones are planned to basically stop being useful or functioning within a few years. This seems like a rip off. Why can’t you just buy a cell phone that works for a lot of years?
– Matthew

Planned obsolescence is the reason why. It’s a corporate strategy to ensure that the very thing you just described actually happens. A company sells you a product and tries to ensure that you will need to replace it at some point, so they plan ahead for ways to encourage that replacement.

Light bulbs are a great example. Ordinary incandescents have a fairly short life span and when they burn out, you have to replace them. They can make very long lasting incandescent bulbs – but they don’t. LED bulbs are starting to replace them, but they have a much higher sticker price.

College textbooks – the same thing is true there. They’re often only useful for a semester and they’re often replaced with new editions every few years, destroying the resale value. That’s all by design.

Unfortunately, it’s all a strategy to make money and it works. The best thing you can do is minimize your need for such items. You don’t need the latest and greatest cell phone – just get a cheap flip phone and it will last for a very long time.

Q14: Second most important advice?

I know “SPEND LESS THAN YOU EARN” is your most important piece of personal finance advice. What’s your second most important?
– Natalie

Hmm… that’s actually tricky. I’d probably say that it’s to “research every purchase.”

This doesn’t mean that you have to study up for an hour before the next time you buy soap, but it does mean that you’re aware of the differences between soap brands from an unbiased source like Consumer Reports and you’re aware that generics usually do the job.

It does mean that if you’re spending very much on something – especially more than $20 – you’ll probably end up saving enough money and time to make an hour or two of research into that item well worth it. Take your time, look at lots of sources, and don’t be afraid to spend a little more for reliability.

Q15: Homebrewing costs

I know you’ve mentioned that you’re a homebrewer. How do you keep your expenses relatively low? It seems like you need so much stuff in order to keep things cost effective.
– Ozzie

Well, you really don’t need that much stuff. At first, I used a cheap plastic fermenting bucket with a bubbler stuck in a hole in the top for the fermenting and used our biggest kitchen pot for the boiling. We reused other beer bottles (still do, in fact) for the bottling, meaning we only needed a capper and a handful of caps.

My first dip into homebrewing was a “starter’s kit” that was given to me as a gift that contained the bucket with a lid, a bubbler, a capper, and some hoses, along with a kit for making a stout. I used that stock pot we already had for boiling the wort, so I really didn’t need anything else. For a long time after that, I just stuck to making kits or else slight modifications to kits.

That’s a perfect setup for people just trying out home brewing, but that doesn’t mean it’s always going to be perfect. My route has been to upgrade one piece of equipment at a time, often as gifts.

I eventually got a glass carboy as a secondary fermenter – that was a gift. I got a spiral of copper piping for quickly cooling the wort – that also was a gift. I got a good thermometer – another gift.

I have a number of additional things I would like to get – a mash tun, a sparge sprayer, a triple-layered cooking pot with a spigot, an outdoor propane burner, a kegging system, and a grain grinder are all on my wish list – but those aren’t urgent. They’re just good gift ideas that either make homebrewing easier in some fashion or increase my options for what to make.

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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