Questions About Guitar Lessons, 211, Convenience Foods, 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. 211
2. Strategies for fast mortgage payoff
3. Breaking convenience food routines
4. Justin Guitar
5. Perspective
6. Storing food staples
7. Haggling in big box stores
8. Mementos worth having
9. Cheap solution for ant problem
10. $1100 a month in food?
11. Detail of daily checklist
12. Value of gym membership expense
13. Laundromat question
14. Homebrewed beer
15. Music to aid focus

When my children were younger, I was really worried about how they would get along. They went through a period, particularly when my middle child was around the age of four, where none of them got along with each other. They were constantly fighting over every little thing and would often actively avoid playing with each other at home.

What a difference three years of maturity makes.

Right now, my three children have each other’s backs almost all the time. Aside from a bit of “tattling,” which is often done practically as a joke, they are constantly supporting and helping each other out, carried to a level that I can scarcely believe.

They wait for each other to go to the bus stop in the morning, even if the first one that is ready to go is anxious to go see a friend. They ask each other about their days at the dinner table and actively cheer for their siblings in sporting events. They have even helped each other with their chores.

None of these things have happened because of anything we’ve told them. All we’ve done is tried to encourage a strong positive sibling bond.

It’s probably the single happiest thing that I’ve seen as a parent in the last year or two. I’m so glad they’ve figured out how to bond with each other.

Q1: 211

I just wanted to drop you a note and say that I appreciate your occasional coverage of personal finance issues for the genuinely poor. Personal finance isn’t just for people with strong incomes. Everyone wants to get ahead.

I wanted to alert you to one big service that you haven’t mentioned in the past. Just like you can dial 911 in your community for emergency help, you can dial 211 for help finding services when you’re in a critical but less urgent situation. For example, if you need food to eat or clothes on your back or shelter in an emergency, call 211 and they can help you. You can look at for details on the services they provide.
– Chely

I was completely unaware of 211 until I received this email from Chely several days ago, then in a completely unrelated event, another person told me about the service on Sunday afternoon.

211 really is an amazing service. From any phone, you can find out things like where to go to get a free meal, where to go to get shelter, and where to go to get started with collecting government benefits.

The problem I see is that it’s really not all that widely known, which is why I’m sharing Chely’s email. If you know of any people who could make use of 211, let them know about it. If you know of any services or charities in your area, let them know about 211 so they can share it with their clients. It’s a really amazing resource.

Q2: Strategies for fast mortgage payoff

I am fascinated with how you have managed to pay off all of your debts in what seems like such a short amount of time. My partner and I have zero debts (we paid off his car last year as our only debt). We have a house deposit ready to go and we want to buy a house within 6-12 months.

When we buy a house, our aim is to pay it off as quickly as possible. My pay check will be almost entirely dedicated to paying off the mortgage (I will be able to more than double the monthly repayments with some cash leftover), whilst my boyfriend will pay bills, food, and other essentials as required. Of course this is assuming we stick to this plan, but with an emergency fund in place as well we should have little problem. I have learned to become more frugal and responsible, and if I stick to my guns and ensure most of my pay is going into the mortgage, my boyfriend will follow my lead and do the same as he will know I cannot cover everything anymore (as I am currently doing).

Aside from the obvious tips (ie. Cutting entertainment spending, trimming monthly bills, etc.), do you have any tips specific to paying off a mortgage? It is a massive commitment for anyone to make and while I feel we are ready for it, I want to go in with as much help as possible.

Just some general info / summary so you get an idea of our situation:
– We both work full time.
– We have no children and do not want them, and no debts.
– I am currently saving an emergency fund, with my goal to have 12 months’ worth of living expenses put away. I am basing housing costs on minimum house repayments, NOT on our current monthly rent. This will allow us to survive for 12 months if we buy a house and both lose our jobs, or 18-24 months if we are still renting and both lose our jobs.
– We have no other income streams, however we do have hobbies that we could start making money from if we took them further and we are pursuing these options (eg. I would love to publish a book, either as an eBook or the traditional, printed method).
– There is a possibility that we could rent a room to my partners’ brother, and use the rent to help pay the mortgage.
– We are also both young, I am 24 and he is 31. We would love to be able to pay off the mortgage early / be on the way to achieving financial independence by the time my boyfriend turns 45-50, so we are both still young enough to enjoy life without needing to actively work.

– Jessica

I think you’re doing everything you need to be doing.

There were several important parts to the success Sarah and I had with paying off our mortgage so quickly (we got it in 2007 and it was paid off by the end of 2011). First, we were able to build multiple income streams, which both increased and stabilized our income. Second, we took advantage of our kitchen and ate at home a lot – basically every meal. Third, we simply stopped buying a lot of “extras” during that period in our life and focused instead on finding free things that we both enjoyed. You are either aware of or are already practicing these things.

The biggest tool of all is to simply pay the mortgage bill first and then figure out how to live off of what’s left. That seems to be exactly what you’re doing. Just make a double mortgage payment at the start of each month and then figure out how to make ends meet with the remainder. As soon as you decide that it’s “okay” to not make that double payment, you’ll find other ways to use that money on unimportant things.

I think you’re about as prepared as you can be to blow through a mortgage quickly.

Q3: Breaking convenience food routines

How do you stop eating fast foods or microwave foods? Their convenience just makes them a requirement in my life. Four days a week, I work sixteen hours with a two hour gap in the middle, and two other days I work eight hours. I cook some on the two shorter days and my day off but on those long days I just can’t make things click without hitting a fast food restaurant or stopping at home and eating a microwave burrito. There just isn’t time for anything else.
– Andrew

My solution for busy days like that over the last several years is to use a slow cooker. I just load it up with a simple recipe before I leave and when I get home a hot meal is just sitting there waiting for me. There are tons of slow cooker recipes out there. Here are a few of our favorites.

One strategy you might want to employ is to cook a double meal with each slow cooker batch. That way, you can eat one meal immediately, then put the other meal into storage and eat it as “leftovers” the next day, take it as a “lunch” to your next job, or even that evening when you’re done with your second job.

Another approach is to just make a whole lot of convenience foods for yourself on your day off. Make a giant batch of breakfast burritos, for example. I often make a batch of 32 of them at once, using just a spoonful of egg, cheese, and vegetables in a tortilla, folding the burrito up, then putting it in a freezer-safe bag and storing them in the freezer until I’m ready to eat. That way, I know that they’re both cheap and convenient while also being relatively good for me.

You may also find that my answer to question #10 is useful to your problem.

Q4: Justin Guitar

Are you still trying to learn to play guitar? Have you tried using Justin Guitar –
– Starr

That’s an amazing site that I’m looking forward to using!

Prior to this, I had mostly been learning how to play (slowly) by using a few books and random Youtube videos that really didn’t come together into a cohesive course of any kind.

That’s exactly what Justin Guitar provides – a free guitar-playing course. I’m really looking forward to trying it.

Q5: Perspective

I have been both dirt poor and very rich in my life. When I was in my twenties, I made almost $500,000 a year for several years and by age forty I was homeless. Today I am 55 and somewhere in the middle.

What I have found is that your perspective automatically changes to match your current financial state. It is really easy to spend a lot more when you make a lot more. It is easy to think that people who make more have all the breaks and people who make less are fools.

I think that way sometimes but when I do I am a fool. Everyone has their own path in life with pitfalls and successes sometimes out of their control.
– Darren

I agree completely with Darren here. Your financial perspective changes radically based on your current financial state.

If you’re doing well, then it can seem like doing well is easy and those that are not doing well are somehow making a bunch of poor choices or are lazy or something else.

If bad luck befalls you and you’re ill or injured or something, then it can seem like doing well is practically impossible and that people who are doing well hate you and think less of you because of your bad luck.

Financial success is not a sign that others have made poorer choices than you or haven’t worked as hard as you. It means that you’ve been lucky to have opportunities present themselves to you and that life-blocking obstacles haven’t fallen in front of you.

Q6: Storing cheap food staples

Do you have any suggestions for cheap containers to store staples? A lot of the staples at the store like rice and beans and flour and sugar come in bags that are really hard to manage if you have a bunch of these in the pantry. Do you buy sets of plastic jars or something?
– Olivia

To tell the truth, we use a lot of plastic coffee and sugar containers for these kinds of things.

A used Folgers coffee container works great for storing a few pounds of dried beans or dried rice. A used sugar container can store a lot of sugar or flour just fine.

I just label these containers with a piece of masking tape and a marker, which works just fine.

You may want a few larger containers, but you can buy those individually one at a time as the need arises.

Q7: Haggling in big box stores

Do you have any tips for haggling or negotiating lower prices in stores? I am specifically looking for tips on negotiating on appliances.
– Sam

Your best success with haggling in a big box store is going to come from buying floor models, ding-and-dent items, or returned items. These items are often listed at a discounted price that is usually chosen by the manager or a floor associate and can usually be negotiated.

For new items, your best approach for negotiating is to ask for add-on items for free or at a discount. I once received an extra battery for a new camera for free by using this approach.

Your best approach is to deal directly with a manager on these kinds of items. Make an offer on a ding-and-dent or returned item directly; on the add-ons, suggest that you’ll buy that model if they’ll throw in a battery pack or some other small additional item.

That’s how I’ve found success in haggling on appliances and other larger purchases, anyway.

Q8: Mementos worth having

My grandmother is getting quite old and has reached a point where we have been talking about her moving into a retirement home rather than staying alone in her house. She’s open to the move, but not quite yet.

One thing that’s happened is that many family members are starting to claim personal mementos from her house. She’s keeping a list of items and intends to give them away when she moves.

I want some things to remember her by, but I also don’t want to get involved in a big conflict over some of the more “in demand” items, so I’m not really getting involved with all of that. Do you have any ideas for less obvious “mementos” to remember her by that people might not think of?
– Aerie

In terms of mementos from my loved ones, only a few have really meant a lot to me. I absolutely cherish the photos I have of my grandmother and great-grandmother. I have scanned all of them digitally (along with thousands of other family photos) and they serve as the screen saver on my computer.

Another thing that you’ll always be glad to have are home movies and audio recordings. See if you can get a recording of your grandmother giving a tour of her house and talking about all of her memories of the place. Record her talking about things that you once shared together. Such things only take up digital space and you’ll always be glad you have them.

The one memento I have in my house that means a lot to me is a painting done by my great-grandmother. She was not a technically skilled painter, by any means, but his one painting of hers depicts a country house in the wintertime, painted from afar. I remember a conversation I had with her about the painting every time I look at it, and it makes me miss her. I keep that painting hung proudly in my home.

Mementos only have value if they have strong, true memories associated with them. You can collect those kinds of memories in lots of ways, not just by having more stuff in your home.

Q9: Cheap solution for ant problem

Do you have any suggestions for dealing with ants? We have a pretty serious ant problem that’s right on the edge of being intolerable. We’ve discussed calling an exterminator but have held off. Sprays seem to work for a while but it’s almost like they’re becoming immune to the sprays. Help before summer comes and it gets really bad again!
– Karen

One solution I’ve used with a lot of success is to mix together peanut butter and honey along with something that is poisonous to the ants, like borax. Use a ratio of something like 3 tablespoons of butter and three of honey to one of borax. Make a paste of those ingredients and sit it out somewhere where they can get at it.

Many of the ants will just get stuck in the stuff, so you’ll want to clean and replace it fairly regularly. Some of the ants will die from consuming the stuff. Others will carry some of it back to the nest and poison lots of ants there.

I’ve found that this works as well as anything else I’ve made or tried.

Q10: $1100 a month in food?

I followed the suggestion from your PDF and tracked all of my spending for the month of March to figure out where all of it was going. The one area that really shocked me was food spending where I spent $1,100 last month on food.

As a single person I often find it hard to justify making a big meal for myself at home and I also live in a neighborhood with a lot of restaurants within walking distance so I eat out all the time. Often I eat out for breakfast at about 7 AM and eat out for dinner when I get home.

I can’t really justify cooking for myself but eating out obviously adds up. Solutions? Suggestions?
– Henry

I’d recommend looking at the solutions I suggested to question four.

For you, I’d particularly encourage you to just try to cook some simple things. For one person, it’s not particularly hard to make a simple meal in one skillet and barely generate any dirty dishes at all. If your apartment has a dishwasher, a plate, a couple of bowls, a skillet and a few silverware items and spoons are only going to make up a fraction of a load and you’ll probably only need to run it once a week.

What kind of simple things? Try scrambling some eggs with a bit of salt, pepper, and shredded cheese. It is hard to mess up scrambled eggs and, over time, you’ll learn to make them exactly like you like them. Try making some oatmeal for breakfast – that’s another thing that’s hard to mess up.

For supper, make some simple soup in a slow cooker by adding ingredients before you leave, then assemble a sandwich to eat with it when you get home. Put the leftover soup in the fridge and have it two nights later.

Remember, the goal isn’t to eat every meal at home, but to eat many more than you currently do. If you feel like going out sometimes, do it. However, you should strive to feel good about making some of your own meals at home, too.

Q11: Detail of daily checklist

What kind of detail do you go into with your daily checklist? Does it include stuff like brushing your teeth and putting on deodorant and taking a shower? I guess I don’t understand what you would use a personal daily checklist for.
– Charlie

I mostly focus on routines that I have a hard time keeping established in my own life, or things that I might not need to do every day but that I need to check on every day.

For example, I usually have some form of exercise on my daily to-do list. I have things like checking the status of laundry around our home. If I’m trying to establish a new habit, that’s always on there.

It’s not an overwhelming list by any means, but it is a collection of things that I want to address every day. I don’t keep track of the things that are practically automatic to me.

Q12: Value of gym membership expense

I really appreciate your recent articles about thinking consciously about where your money is going and I am trying to apply that to all of my spending. I am having a hard time making up my mind about my gym membership so I am hoping you can offer some insight to help me work through it.

I pay $65 a month for my gym membership. What do I get for that money? When I go there, I mostly just use the treadmill. I used to take a yoga class there too but now it’s scheduled at a time that conflicts with my work.

My challenge is that going to the gym kind of “flips a switch” in my head. When I decide to go there, I get in an “exercise mode” and I’m really motivated to exercise.

I have tried to exercise at home but I have never been able to really get into that “exercise mode” in my head. So I guess I am paying $65 a month for an easy way to get into that mindset.

Is that $65 worth it? That’s where I’m struggling.
– Mark

It sounds to me like you’re paying $65 a month for a truly effective exercise trigger.

I do think that exercise is worth $65 a month. That’s not the issue here. The question is whether you can find an effective trigger to convince you to exercise for less than that.

Since I don’t know how you live your day-to-day life, it’s really hard to suggest things here. However, if I were you, I’d try to find things that trigger exercise at home and see how they work. Just try different approaches and see if there’s anything you can find that convinces you to exercise that day without a gym trip. If you find something that consistently works, then consider dropping the membership.

You’re going to have to play with your routines to find a better solution. Good luck!

Q13: Laundromat question

I have some questions about using a laundromat.

I live about half an hour from my mother. Once every two weeks, I go visit her for the day. She lives at home but doesn’t get around very well and can’t do laundry at home (she doesn’t have the ability to move laundry into the washer in her house), so when I go there, I will often do a couple loads of laundry for her.

The problem is that I’m usually not there long enough to get her caught back up on her laundry so sometimes I use a laundromat and just do all of her clothes at once. This costs maybe $15.

Do you have any tactics for cutting down the cost of using a laundromat on occasion? This just feels like a waste of $15 to me.
– Kelly

If I understand your problem correctly, why not just take home a load or two of clothes with you when you go back home after visiting your mother?

It sounds like your mother has, say, a month worth of clothes if everything is clean. When you visit, you’re able to wash, say, a week and a half worth of clothes. That leaves her with a half of a week’s worth of clothes that don’t get washed. After several visits, you reach a point where everything is dirty and you need to hit the laundromat.

Just take a basket of clothes home with you when you go, then bring them back with you when you return. That way, you don’t have to take a laundromat trip.

Q14: Homebrewed beer

Is homebrewing beer a cost-effective hobby? Does it save money versus just buying beer?
– Dennis

In my experience, homebrewing can’t beat low-cost mainstream beers. You’re never going to be able to beat a couple cases of Bud Light or something similar through homebrewing.

However, you can beat eight six packs of a craft beer through homebrewing. If you drink things like Sierra Nevada or Sam Adams or other craft beers, homebrewing can certainly shave a dollar or so off of each six pack once you have the equipment and empty bottles in place.

For me, I look at it as a cost-neutral hobby. I like to experiment with ingredients, which can drive the cost up a bit per bottle. I don’t drink very much beer, but I enjoy a bottle of craft beer every once in a while, and my homebrewing works nicely for that.

Q15: Music to aid focus

Do you use music to aid in focusing when you work? Or do you work in silence?
– Adrian

I have had tinnitus since I was a teenager, so spending too much time in a silent room can be a real problem. I generally have to listen to something.

I find that music without words – classical, techno, ambient – works best for me when focusing. I can sometimes listen to podcasts in the background, but I often find them intellectually distracting. The same is true with music that has lyrics – I get pulled out of work and into the music.

There are lots and lots of techno, ambient, and classical music streams out there on almost every streaming music service. Just find one that clicks for you.

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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