Questions About Hair, Experiences, Wood Fireplaces, Knives, 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. Contact from the IRS
2. Buy it for life: pocketknife
3. Merging accounts long after marriage
4. Amazon gift cards
5. Splitting up land
6. “Experience” gifts
7. Home security
8. Perfect gift that’s too expensive
9. Wood fireplace
10. Public schools
11. Sunglasses replacement
12. Wife with devastating illness
13. Small town and culture
14. Hair and jobs
15. Every day carry

Several people wrote in and asked why I wrote about Black Friday at all, pointing out that it’s just a marketing event. Here’s why.

First, I get a bunch of requests every year for my “Black Friday strategies.” My posts about Black Friday are pretty much directly in response to reader requests.

Second, most of my Black Friday “strategies” involve avoiding stores – or, if you must go, having a strategy that involves avoiding impulse purchases. This is smart shopping that should be applied throughout the year, not just on Black Friday.

Finally, regardless of whether Black Friday is just a “marketing event,” there are some discounts to be found and if those discounts are on items you’re already seeking, they can save you some money.

I really don’t like going into stores on Black Friday, but I do think that the day offers some opportunities for saving money.

Q1: Contact from the IRS

Over the last few weeks, I have received repeated phone calls from the IRS. They claim that I owe $7,000 in unpaid back taxes and are seeking legal action against me. The message left a phone number but when I call it they want me to enter my Social Security number. I would prefer to be contacted by mail instead of doing this over the phone. How can I contact them to do this?
– Marvin

Ignore them. Don’t call them back. If you have caller ID, don’t answer the phone when you notice a call from them.

When the IRS actually has business with you, they’ll contact you by mail. They do not use the phone for contact and certainly not for first contact.

If you are worried about this, contact the IRS yourself. Look up the appropriate phone number on and contact them. State that you’ve had phone calls that claim that you have unpaid taxes and that you’re following up.

No matter what, do NOT talk to the people who are calling you. Do not give them any information about you.

Q2: Buy it for life: pocketknife

This year I am planning on giving holiday gifts that are either handmade or are of the “buy it for life” category. I have a thirteen year old serious Boy Scout on my list that aspires to be an Eagle Scout and would like to get him a knife that will last him for a very long time. He has had two pocketknives but they were cheapo ones and haven’t held up and seem to not hold an edge at all. One of them actually came apart. What is the best “buy it for life” knife that you could buy without spending hundreds of dollars?
– Jerry

I have a few friends that are knife collectors and constant knife carriers and I asked them what they thought. What knives are long lasting, carry a sharp edge for a long time, and cost less than $100?

I actually got a wide variety of answers, but the only knife that they all mentioned was the Spyderco Manix 2. Almost every attribute was lauded: sharp, long-lasting blade, very sturdy construction, ease of folding and unfolding, and safety were all mentioned.

I’m a faithful user of my more-than-a-decade-old Leatherman Wave (it’s more of a multitool than a knife, though it does have a functional knife on it), but if I were to pick up a pocketknife for carrying every day, I’d strongly consider this one.

Q3: Merging accounts long after marriage

I am 46 and my wife is 44. We have been married for 21 years and have kept separate accounts ever since. Lately we have realized that the way we do things is just kind of dumb and have decided to merge most of our finances leaving us each with a little account for things like buying gifts or splurges.

What is the best way to make this transition? I want to make sure we don’t have any financial difficulties along the way.
– David

The first thing I would do is make a list of all automatic withdrawals and deductions from each account that happen over a two or three month period. Make sure you know what’s going in and coming out of each account.

This can actually be really useful on its own, as it will be an opportunity for you both to analyze your bills and figure out what’s necessary and what isn’t. Are there some bills that you can drop?

When you open the new account, switch everything over as quickly as you can. Change over your pay first and then change as many of the withdrawals a few days later. Leave behind some extra money in each account for things that you might have missed.

Q4: Amazon gift cards

We had our big family Thanksgiving over the weekend and my mother just gave everyone Amazon gift cards I think she bought them on discount. We don’t want any books or a Kindle or anything. Should we just sell the cards? How do we do that?
– Mari

Amazon sells a lot of stuff, not just books. You can buy groceries on there or clothing or household supplies.

If I were in your shoes, I would either use the card for buying gifts for others, for my own household supplies, or simply pass it on as a gift to someone else.

You can get enough value out of an Amazon gift card that selling it generally doesn’t benefit you. Just use it to buy a bunch of toilet paper and then use the cash saved on your normal grocery bills for whatever you’d like.

Q5: Splitting up land

Our father passed away suddenly earlier this year. He left behind about 70 acres of land, mostly wooded. In his will, he wanted the land split evenly among all four of his children. This is where the disagreement comes in.

Two sides of this chunk of land face a road. The corner with two roads contains the home we all grew up in. The other two sides are bordered by a fence line. We can’t come up with any plans that share the land fairly that we are all happy with. Our lawyer is basically fed up with the bickering and it’s going to make this Christmas very tense.

What do you suggest that we do? We want to come out of this with our relationships intact but no one can agree on how to split up the land.
– Martin

The real question is what you are expecting for an “equal split.” Is it acreage? Is it the value of the land? If it’s both at the same time, it’s going to be very difficult, of course, because with a house on one section, that section is going to have more value than the other sections.

My honest suggestion to you all is to split up the land into pieces that would sell the best, then have a land auction or a land sale. All proceeds from the land sale are split equally, but people can use their share of the land sale proceeds to actually bid on the land.

So, let’s say you split it into five pieces. The house one is the most valuable and sells for $200,000. The other parcels sell for $20,000 each. Two of you buy one small land parcel each, one of you buys two parcels, and one of you buys the parcel with the house. The total is $280,000, which, split four ways, totals $70,000. That means the family member who bought the $200,000 parcel would need to cough up $130,000 more to the pool, the person who bought two parcels gets $30,000 of that money (and pays nothing), and the other two get their small parcels and $50,000. Everyone gets equal value.

That’s what I would suggest to any family struggling with this. The only sticky wicket would be dividing the land, and I’d then suggest just combining all different division suggestions and splitting it into lots of little pieces for auction.

You can do this as formally or informally as you wish. It could be closed to just you guys or open to the public, too.

Q6: “Experience” gifts

I agree with you about the idea of “experience” trumping “stuff,” but how do you give people gifts of “experience”? Like gift cards for dinner or to some sort of activity?
– Colin

You’ve got the right idea, but that’s just the start. There are lots of things you could do to create an “experience” gift for someone.

You could give someone a list of geocache coordinates that are caches created specifically for them that each contain a piece of a puzzle or part of a poem. You could pencil in a romantic dinner for a couple several months in advance where you just take care of everything for them. You could create some sort of experience related to hobbies. Maybe you could buy them a pass to a convention related to their interests and a pledge to take care of life details during that event (like watching children or caring for someone).

Instead of asking yourself what the person would like to receive, ask what that person enjoys doing and try to find a way to make a gift that somehow encourages or amplifies that activity without giving that person possessions.

Q7: Home security

How much does a home security system help prevent home break ins? My wife is really worried about break-ins and has talked about getting one. My impression is that it doesn’t really help. What do you think?
– Sam

From my experience, a home security system basically removes your home from the pool of “low-hanging fruit,” meaning that robbing from your home is now logistically more difficult and thus many robbers are likely to look elsewhere for homes to rob. That doesn’t mean you’re suddenly completely invincible to home invasion, but it does increase the likelihood that thieves will look elsewhere.

A home security system is simply a reduction in theft risk. Most homeowners insurance providers recognize that and offer better rates for insurance for people who have such systems in place.

Now, is it worth it? Any time you invest in something that simply reduces the risk of a bad event, the actual expected value you get probably isn’t worth it. The insurance companies don’t offer policies where they’re expecting to take a loss. On average, you will pay more for insurance than you get out of it. What that equation doesn’t tell you, though, is that you’ll get some peace of mind from the purchase. That peace of mind has real value – it reduces your stress, helps you sleep a bit better at night, and makes your travel more enjoyable.

Is it worth it? It sounds like it is for your wife, but maybe not for you. This is one of those areas where marital communication and compromise need to rise to the forefront.

Q8: Perfect gift that’s too expensive

I have a perfect gift idea for my wife. It’s just a home run in every way, but we are in a difficult financial position. We have been really buckling down with our spending since early summer and have paid off a couple of credit cards and we want to keep going. This gift would really undermine that. I know the usual advice – look for discounts! – but I just don’t think it’s financially viable. The problem is that it just makes all of my other ideas seem really shallow like they’re replacements for the cool idea. So I’m stuck.
– Leland

We’re in this situation with our oldest son. We have the absolute perfect idea for him – a LEGO Mindstorms robotic kit – but the price is just out of whack in terms of what we think is appropriate holiday spending, especially considering his two siblings. We could spend that much, but then we’d either be showing some blatant favortism or we’d be escalating Christmas spending with our entire family to a level we’re very uncomfortable with.

My suggestion is to file away this gift idea for next year. Throughout the year, put aside a small amount each week for a Christmas gift for her. You can even make it a direct sacrifice – choose to not get a coffee one morning a week, for example, and put aside that $5 that is saved for the gift. At the end of the year, you’ll have $260 for that gift. Make it $10 a week and you’ll have $520.

Another option is to take inspiration from the classic story Gift of the Magi and sell some of your possessions to pay for the item. Do you have any possessions that you really don’t need or don’t use any more that could generate some cash to pay for this gift? Sell them off and use the proceeds. For example, I sold off most of my vintage baseball card collection during our financial recovery – it was something that held some personal value for me, but I realized that I valued other things more.

Q9: Wood fireplace

Our new home comes with a wood fireplace. I have looked into the prices of buying a cord of wood but I can’t convince myself that this is really cost efficient. Doesn’t it make more sense to just buy a little wood and use it just for special occasions like Christmas morning or New Year’s Eve?
– Kelly

Most home wood-burning fireplaces are not as cost efficient as a modern furnace (I hesitate to say “all” because there are probably counterexamples out there for specific situations). If you have access to unlimited wood to use for wood burning, it can be pretty close, but then you’ll be adding the labor of chopping and carrying all of that wood yourself. That doesn’t sound like your situation.

However, wood-burning fireplaces can be very aesthetically appealing and they can certainly warm up a room if needed.

It comes down to this: if you have a lot of very cheap or free firewood, you can save money by relying on a fireplace for heating. If not, use it as an aesthetic element of your home that can warm up a room a few days a year.

Q10: Public schools

My daughter is four years old and has been in a private preschool for the last year and a half. In the fall, we have a real decision to make: public or private school. Public school is obviously far cheaper but it offers worse education. How can you put a dollar sign on education for your child? Private school is really the only option if you care about your child but I am afraid of the bills.
– Danielle

I don’t agree at all with the statement that “private school is really the only option if you care about your child.” For starters, when you spend money on private school, you’re taking away money from other opportunities for your child. For another, the gap between public and private schooling varies a lot from state to state and in some states there isn’t much of a gap at all.

My belief is that most of the difference between the two comes down to home life. Children who go to private school are largely selected based on the resources of their parents, and children with more resources have more opportunities in almost every aspect of life. If your parents can afford to send you to a private school, then they can afford a lot of opportunities for you that may not be available to other children.

If you have nearly unlimited resources, private school can make a lot of sense. On the other hand, if spending money on private school is directly taking away from other opportunties, it’s probably not a net benefit. Leave the door open to those other opportunties and use the public school system.

Q11: Sunglasses replacement

Here’s my problem: I break sunglasses. Constantly. I drop them or sit on them in the car. I have broken several pairs in the last few years. I find most of the cheap ones I have tried to be useless but buying constant expensive glasses really adds up. I know I should just find a secure spot to store them but I forget to put them there. Is there a place to buy good sunglasses in bulk (ha ha)?
– Monica

To me, buying sunglasses in bulk here is not much different than throwing money toward any other bad habit. Not consistently putting your sunglasses in a secure place is a bad habit that is costing you money. Gambling is another example of a bad habit that can consistently cost you money.

Your solution is to work hard on establishing better sunglasses habits, not buying a bunch of sunglasses in bulk. Designate a place to put them, sure, but work hard on reminding yourself to put your glasses there. Put reminders up everywhere. Think about it. Keep focusing on it until your storage place becomes as normal as putting your forks in the fork drawer in your kitchen.

That’s the long term solution. Buying glasses in bulk is just throwing money at a problem that can easily be solved.

Q12: Wife with devastating illness

My wife has fibromyalgia and MS which has reached the point where she can no longer work. We receive disability and my insurance covers her, but the dip in income has really become problematic. Another problem is that as her condition worsens we’re going to be more and more strained. She can still do mild housework but it is often difficult for her and getting more so. Are there any services that can help us?
– Dan

The availability of services is likely heavily connected to your overall income. If you’re actually in a lower income situation, then social services may be able to help you. If your job is a high income job and you’re just losing out on some of your splurges, then there probably sin’t aid out there for you.

The most important thing I suggest for both of you is to seek out support groups with people who are going through similar things. This is true for both you and for your wife – and perhaps for both of you at the same time.

If I were you, I’d contact the local hospitals as a starting point. Many of them offer support groups for people dealing with these kinds of things. The people in such groups are not only great for emotional and social support, but often have many ideas for economic support as well.

Q13: Small town and culture

My husband recently got a job on the outskirts of a large metro area, so far out that his workplace is surrounded by woods and the nearest neighborhood of any size is a few miles away in toward the city. We have always lived in cities so we started shopping for a house in one of those neighborhoods (we are living in an apartment for a few months that is paid for by his job).

When I started doing some Zillow searches though I noticed that when I looked 15 or 20 minutes away from the city, the real estate prices dropped through the floor. In one small town out there the prices were about half of what they were in toward the city.

With the city so close, what are we losing culturally by living in the small town instead? It seems to me that we could very easily go into the city on weekends and even on weeknights if we wanted.
– Amanda

It really depends on what you do with your time. If you’re the type of people who have city-centric events on your calendar most nights of the week and most weekends, then living out there will probably infringe on that. If it’s much less frequent and more … impromptu, then you won’t miss out much. The same is true if you’re willing to dive into what’s available in that town in terms of civic organizations. If you’re a homebody, it won’t make much difference at all.

In my eyes, the value of living in a city is in the value of opening your front door and having lots of cultural opportunities within a short walk, a breadth that can’t be matched in a smaller town. For some people, that’s lifeblood. For others, it really doesn’t matter that much.

You sound as if you enjoy engaging in those opportunities, but having them constantly available is not life-or-death for you. If that’s true, you’ll likely be fine in that smaller town and the money you save will make a huge difference in other aspects of your life.

Q14: Hair and jobs

How much does your haircut affect your ability to get a job? If you go to your interview with an unusual hairstyle does it reduce your chance of getting hired?

My 22 year old daughter recently got her hair cut in a weird style where half of her head is shaved and the other half is long. I am afraid that it is going to hurt her chances at job interviews in the next few months but she as a strong attitude that they won’t care. What do you think?
– Olivia

I think that unless the job is heavily service-oriented to a conservative clientele, it’s not going to make a whole lot of difference. In some workplaces, it may be seen as a positive; in many, it’ll be basically nonexistent.

It comes down to the types of jobs she’s applying for. Creative-oriented jobs are often very tolerant of those kinds of self-expression and sometimes even encourage it. Service-oriented jobs targeting younger audiences will likely be happy with it.

I don’t know what her skill set is or what she’s applying for, but it’s not necessarily a negative. If she’s applying for a job at a bank in a conservative community where she’s likely to be meeting one-on-one with wealthy clients, it’s probably going to be a negative. The further away from that she is, the less the hair style will matter.

Q15: Everyday carry

I love seeing “everyday carry” articles where people show off what they carry around with them every day. It usually reveals items that the person considers to be truly useful. What is your “everyday carry”?
– Andrew

In my pockets, I usually carry a small pocketknife (one with some personal sentiment), a leather wallet containing just a few cards but large enough to protect a pocket notebook, a pocket notebook, a couple of pens, my keys, and my phone.

In my backpack, which essentially functions like a portable office for me, I carry a lot more. I have my laptop, my laptop charger, some vitamin C and zinc and cough drops, a few “emergency” Synthroid (for my thyroid condition I’ve had since birth), a few backup pocket notebooks, my fiction writing journal, a couple of small reference books, several pens, an expandable water bottle, a tin of breath mints, a toothbrush, some toothpaste wrapped in a baggie (in case of spillage), some dental floss, deodorant, some business cards, a couple of memory sticks, and some chargers for my phone and a few other devices. If I am in an emergency, I can just grab this and run for the door and be good for a few days (assuming that I can buy some clothes along the way at some point).

It’s actually not very heavy, believe it or not. I carry it with me a lot.

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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