Questions About Losing Income, Ryze, Winterizing a Lawnmower, Taxes, 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. Tax impact of income loss
2. Consolidating secured loans
3. Bluetooth headphone recommendation
4. Thoughts on Ryze
5. Doubt about financial success
6. Winter storage for a lawnmower
7. Legitimate investment manager
8. Programmable slow cookers and safety
9. Office alternatives not by Google
10. Frugality affects other life choices?
11. Thoughts on Fortnite
12. Tricks for staying focused

Several people have written to me in the past week expressing some degree of skittishness about the stock market. If you’ve not been paying attention, the stock market has dropped about 10% from its highs earlier this year. Unsurprisingly, some people are concerned about seeing 10% of their retirement savings seemingly disappear.

My reaction is different. When I see the stock market is down 10%, I’m thrilled, because that means I’m buying more shares with every retirement contribution.

Let’s say that, at the peak, shares of my preferred retirement index fund were $50 a pop. If I contribute $500 a month, I was buying only 10 shares each time I contributed.

Now, after a 10% drop, they’re $45 a pop. Without changing my contribution, I’m now buying 11.1 shares a pop. I’m getting 1.1 shares more than before for the same price.

I have many, many years left to go before I’ll need those shares. Over the long term, the average annual return of the stock market is going to be about 7%. All this decline really means to me is now I have 1.1 more shares than before, and they’re going to grow at that same 7% rate.

A drop right now is good for me. It’s only worrisome if I’m in retirement and I have too much of my retirement savings exposed to stocks. If you’re not retired yet, a stock market correction is a good thing, especially if you can keep buying in throughout it. You’re getting more shares for your dollar.

On with the other questions.

Q1: Tax impact of income loss

I live and work in NJ. While married, I file single 0 on both federal and state. If my gross annual pay dropped to below 90k from 115k where would it put me in the tax bracket and what would be my tax hit on both federal and state?
– Adam

You’re dropping $25,000 a year in income and claiming no dependents, so let’s use that as a basis.

In New Jersey, you’re going to remain in the $75,000 – $500,000 tax bracket, which pays 6.370% in state income tax. 6.370% of $25,000 is $1,592.50.

At the federal level, you’re dropping out of the 28% tax bracket ($91,901 to $191,650) and into the 25% bracket ($37,951 to $91,900), but just barely. This means that you’re saving 28% of your previous income above $91,901 – $23,099 – and 25% of your previous income below $91,901 – $1,901. 28% of $23,099 is $6467.72 and 25% of $1,901 is $475.25, for a total of $6,942.97.

Those numbers are going to change – going down a little bit – if you have any deductions on your taxes. I’m assuming no deductions at all.

Q2: Consolidating secured loans

I have 6 secured loans the total I owe is $8,500. I need to consolidate my loans I’ve checked with just about every company online and also with my own credit union and I’ve been turned down, it’s stressful. Can you please help me to consolidate these secured loans?
– Linda

It really depends on why you’re being turned down, which is something you should be asking, especially at the credit union.

If you’re being turned down because your credit is bad, then you need to work on improving your credit. The first step is to simply make sure you’re paying all of your bills on time. That’s probably the biggest step a person can take to ensure that their credit is fine.

If you’re being turned down because some of those loans are individually problematic, consolidate what you can and pay off the problematic ones first.

You need to find out why you haven’t been able to consolidate before you can solve the problem.

Q3: Bluetooth headphone recommendation

I am looking for some Bluetooth headphones to use while going on hikes. Tired of dealing with the headphone cable! Don’t want to spend a ton. I am not an audiophile. I’m more interested in ones that will last and have good charging time.
– Andrea

My favorite low cost Bluetooth headphones are probably the Anker Spirit X over-the-ear headphones. They have a short cable that you dangle across the back of your neck, connecting the two. You basically just hit a button to connect them to your phone, put them on, and hit play and you’re good to go. The cord stays out of the way.

Those are my preferred ones and, honestly, the only flaw I can point to with them is that they’re easy to misplace. I’ve lost my pair two or three times now… maybe I’m just really bad at remembering where I put things.

Anyway, they work well, don’t have an annoying cord, seem to have a very long battery life, have good sound quality, and are pretty inexpensive. In general, I find stuff made by Anker to be very good quality for the price.

Q4: Thoughts on Ryze

I looked up Ryze (need to build more friendships myself and thought the reminders would help with ADD, which makes followups challenging). But it’s intended for business networking. Thought your article should have mentioned that.
– Danielle

Ryze certainly markets itself as a business networking app (because, let’s be honest, that’s how a lot of people will probably use it), but it’s engineered in such a way that it works as a personal contact manager that reminds you to keep in touch with people, and it does that really well.

I’ve been using Ryze since the beta and I have a ton of personal contacts jammed in there. It works just fine as a system to regularly remind me to keep in touch with old friends – not that I would forget to do so, but that I’m just as guilty as anyone of letting friendships fade over time, and this tool helps me to not do so.

It replaced a kludge that I used to use that involved a mix of to-do lists, calendars, and contacts. This is just way easier.

Don’t sweat how the app is promoted as a business contact app. It works well for making sure you’re keeping up with your friendships.

Q5: Doubt about financial success

I don’t believe you can be close to retiring early on little more than the average American household income.
– Adam

You can believe what you wish, but we are, and it’s actually not even that hard.

We live on about $30,000 per year and make substantially more than that. We fully own our own home – no mortgage – and we just don’t have expensive tastes in anything. My biggest splurge is buying an occasional board game or a Kindle book and I actively try to trim that to as little as possible. We don’t have cable. We buy mostly store brands at the store. We eat out maybe once a month unless we’re traveling.

We take our leftover income and bank it into retirement accounts and, because there’s some overflow, a bit into taxable accounts, too.

The key is just not spending income even though we know we could easily afford to do so. I can think of lots of things that I know I could easily buy. I’d enjoy those items. But… why? I already have a bunch of stuff I haven’t adequately explored to my satisfaction? Why buy more stuff that we’re just going to have to store?

Rather than worrying about the details of my story, though, consider your own. Why can’t you implement those same things and see if they work for you?

Q6: Winter storage for a lawnmower

I’m a new home owner in April. Bought a push mower for my yard and spent about $400 on it. Winter is coming and grass is dormant. I read a guide about winter storage of lawnmower. How much of that really needs to be done? Seems like a ton of work for a push mower.
– Alex

For our push mower, all I do for winter storage is add a bit of fuel stabilizer to the gas tank, run it for a few minutes, and siphon out the remaining gas. I then change the oil, the spark plug, and the air filter so it’s ready for spring. I leave the spark plug cable disconnected. While it’s tipped up for the oil change, I clean out the bottom of the mower deck a little bit while the oil is draining. Some mowers will require you to remove the blade while changing the oil, which is just a matter of loosening a bolt.

That takes about 15 minutes all told, plus a stop at the hardware store first.

I usually include it as a November task on my maintenance checklist. If the weather is still nice, I postpone it to December. I think this is going to be a “November” year.

If you’re only going to do one thing, just put a bit of fuel stabilizer into the gas tank, then run the mower until it runs out of gas. You can do that in about a minute, as long as you’re willing to just tie down the handle and let the mower run in your garage for a while as you’re doing other things.

Q7: Legitimate investment manager

How can you tell if someone is a legitimate investment manager who isn’t just scamming for your identity?
– Tony

FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) offers a far better checklist than I could offer, and you can find that checklist right here.

In general, the best way to do it is to go to an unbiased store like FINRA BrokerCheck and your state securities regulator (found via Google) and see whether or not the person you’re dealing with is legitimate. If they are, FINRA will know about them, as will your state securities regulator.

The financial services industry is very highly regulated to ensure that legitimate participants can’t just rip people off. (They can offer some weak investment choices, but they can’t just steal identities or take money.)

Q8: Programmable slow cookers and safety

I don’t believe you can set the start time on those programmable slow cookers. Probably something to do with food safety. I think your best option would be the outlet timer you mentioned as a second option.
– Alex

It turns out that the vast majority of programmable slow cookers actually just allow you to program the length of time it stays in “cooking” mode before it switches into a “keep warm” mode (that keeps the food at a temperature where it’s not really cooking but hot enough that it’s not going to develop bacterial colonies or anything).

So, if you leave at 7 AM and get home at 6 AM, the slow cooker will start cooking immediately and when it reaches the end of the time that you set (matching the recipe), it’ll just switch to “keep warm” mode.

Using an outlet timer with a non-programmable slow cooker is probably a bad idea for meat-based dishes because of the risk of food-borne illness. As a vegetarian, this isn’t something I run into, but it’s a good thing to remember.

Q9: Office alternatives not by Google

Looking for free alternatives to Word, Excel, and Powerpoint for small business use. Everyone seems to point to Google Docs but I don’t want to share my info with them. What other solutions do you recommend?
– Dane

While I use Google Docs for some things, I do like having my own offline documents and spreadsheets that aren’t on the cloud. I’ve been using LibreOffice for that and it works well.

If you use a Mac, I highly recommend their free apps Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, especially Keynote – I strictly prefer it to PowerPoint.

All of those options are free, and all of them are off the cloud, meaning that Google won’t have access to them if that worries you.

Q10: Frugality affects other life choices?

Do you think that frugality impacts other life choices that don’t have financial bearing? For example, if you’re actively frugal, might you choose to do things that are less personally risky, like wear a helmet while bicycling or on a motorcycle?
– Tanya

That’s a really interesting question for which I have no idea.

There seems to be some evidence that frugality is more of a “nature” thing than a “nurture” thing. Some people, by their nature and not so much their environment, are naturally more frugal. That would inherently meant that frugality is linked to some other personal traits, but I can’t find any research that delves into this.

If any readers have any research into this topic, I’d love to read about it!

Q11: Thoughts on Fortnite

My kids play Fortnite all the time. When they’re allowed screen time that’s what they want to do. It’s a free game (good) but then they want to spend their allowance on V-Bucks which basically just lets them buy costumes in the game which seems silly. What do you think?
– Jerry

My children also enjoy playing Fortnite when they’re allowed to have screen time. They also want to spend their allowance on V-Bucks, mostly for costumes.

I really don’t have an issue with it, as long as it’s just their allowance or birthday money. They’d likely spend it on some form of entertainment or hobby anyway, and if they’re having fun, it’s fine.

The only issue I have with Fortnite is that my kids are constantly angling for more screen time so they can play more Fortnite. “I’ll clean the living room if I can get an extra hour of screen time to play Fortnite!” It’s a parenting dilemma.

Q12: Tricks for staying focused

Do you have any tricks for staying focused when you’re stuck at your desk for a long period of time? How do you keep from zoning out when writing?
– Brenda

First thing: I spend some time in the morning doing “Three Morning Pages,” where I basically just brain dump out of my head into a journal until I’ve filled three pages. Whatever comes to mind, I write down. I focus far better on days when I do this.

I also spend a bit of time meditating each day – 10 to 15 minutes, though less is still effective. I just find a comfortable chair, close my eyes, and focus on my breathing – in and out. If my mind wanders, I gently bring it back to my breathing. This helps a little on days when I do it, but the power of this comes from chaining together long streaks of doing it each day. It builds in power, I’ve found.

When I really need to focus, I kill as many distractions as possible. I put my phone into Do Not Disturb mode, turn on StayFocusd in my web browser, and throw on some noise cancelling headphones.

I usually turn on some sort of music or sound that helps me focus. Lately, I’ve been mostly using this and this.

I usually have both a cup of coffee and a cup of green tea at my desk, and I drink from them both at the same time, roughly alternating sips. I find that together they’re more effective than either one on their own (but mixing them is not tasty!).

I have a notebook open on the desk in front of me (along with a pen) to jot down loose ideas if they bubble into my head, so that I get them out of my head and don’t have to think about them again for a while. I deal with them later when I have downtime.

That’s usually enough to get me into a good flow state for work (flow state is when I’m so engaged that I genuinely lose track of time and place).

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.

Loading Disqus Comments ...