Questions About National Parks, Pocket Notebooks, Cheap DVDs, 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. Planning inexpensive national park vacation
2. Suddenly worried about aging
3. Lease agreement with mother
4. Household arrangements with mother
5. Downside guarantee
6. Inexpensive pocket notebooks
7. Raspberry Pi
8. Local grocery strategy
9. Dumping loyal roommate
10. Cheap shoes for running
11. Used hair clippers?
12. Cheap source for DVDs

My two oldest children are in a competitive youth soccer league where we sometimes drive 50-100 miles for away games and play against some pretty stiff competition. My oldest one absolutely loves soccer, and we put zero pressure on them to play and it’s entirely their decision.

One of the things you can’t help but notice is that each team tends to have one or two players that are just simply a skill level or two ahead of everyone else on the field. They kick the ball with incredible force, have impressive footwork, take the ball from the other team at will, and pass the ball right where it’s needed.

The thing is, even at this level, it’s usually not natural talent that really makes the difference.

I was sitting next to the parents of one of the best youth soccer players I’ve ever seen with my own two eyes. I just casually asked them how much their kid practices and the dad laughed and said, “When doesn’t he practice? He’s basically in the backyard doing drills every moment of his time and he’s got that ball with him everywhere.” I kind of wondered to myself whether the parents made him do it, but without saying anything, the father basically said that it was his son’s own drive.

It’s time. Time is the way to get good at anything. There is no shortcut. It’s just hour after hour after hour of practice.

Sure, some people might be born with a bit more natural skill in some areas. Maybe they’re more physically agile or more quick to pick up abstract concepts. That’s great, but it often makes them lazy. The people that rise to the top are the people that work. Sure, maybe the absolute pinnacle are people with some natural talent that work at it, but the very next tier is pure work ethic.

If you want to be good at something, don’t wish for it. Work for it. It’s true no matter what you want in life, whether it’s success on a youth soccer field or success in your career or something else entirely.

Q1: Planning inexpensive national park vacation

How exactly do you make a vacation to a national park inexpensive? Seems to me by the time you add up the cost of tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, and other stuff it gets expensive real fast.
– Darren

You’re absolutely right in pointing out that the startup costs of such a vacation are expensive. The basic gear you need for a camping trip, whether it’s pure backpacking or tent camping with a family, can really add up.

But here’s the thing: you can reuse all of that stuff many, many times. We’re still using many camping supplies that we owned in the late 1990s. The vast majority of our camping supplies were received as wedding gifts twelve years ago.

Once that money is invested in camping gear, camping trips quickly become very inexpensive. Even if you prorate the cost of that gear across all camping trips, a $200 tent becomes $10 per trip if you use it 20 times, for example. A $100 sleeping bag turns into $5 per trip if you use it for twenty trips. At this point, I know we’ve used our gear on more than 20 trips.

Camping is not a cheap one-off vacation. However, it becomes a long series of cheap vacations if you do it every year or every other year. If you also go camping on occasional weekends, it provides a source for a very cheap weekend getaway, too. It’s one of those things where the frugality really only appears over a lot of uses.

Q2: Suddenly worried about aging

I’m 46 years old and I am suddenly really aware of my age. I am getting older. I am only 20 years from retiring and I don’t have anything saved. I am relatively unhealthy too. I feel really scared and completely lost. Wife says that this is my “midlife crisis” and makes jokes about how I should go buy a new car or something but that misses the boat entirely. Besides obviously saving for retirement I don’t know what I should be doing. Help!
– Mitchell

You’ve nailed your first step. You need to get on board with some serious retirement savings. If I were you, I’d be putting away at least 20% of my salary into a 401(k) at this point. Yes, that’s going to dent your take-home pay – your paycheck will probably drop by about 15%. It’s worth it, because that’s the only way you’re going to build a sizable savings for retirement.

You’ve also pointed at another area to take care of: your health. The most powerful way to take control of your health is at the dinner table. Eat smaller portions and fill most of your plate with vegetables and that alone will improve your health dramatically over the coming months and years. Going on regular walks also helps – even in my late thirties, I try very hard to make a long (3 or 4 mile) walk part of my daily routine.

You can’t solve everything or predict every bad outcome. However, you can always reduce the odds of such bad outcomes with the actions you take today. Just take actions consistently to reduce the odds of those bad things happening and then don’t worry about it too much – just enough to keep taking positive action.

Q3: Lease agreement with mother

I am thirty six years old and single but not currently dating. I am a CPA. My husband died two years ago suddenly of a hereditary condition that we didn’t know about. Before that, we had adopted an orphaned girl and I am still raising her. I have mortgage debt and a car loan, but am free of student loan debt and credit card debt.

My father died recently and my mother is hinting strongly about wanting to move in with me. Our basement has an exterior entrance in the back and she has suggested turning that into an apartment. While I do not mind living with my mother, I have some questions.

First question: should I draw up a lease agreement where she pays rent for the basement? While this feels like the financially and legally smart thing to do, on the other hand, it’s my mother.
– Jenna

I think your first step should be a heartfelt talk with your mother. All of this starts there.

You need to lay all of this on the table with her. Make your concerns clear, but also make it clear why you want this to work. It may be useful for you to thoroughly go through all of the pros and cons before you even do this, just so you’re straight on what you view the pros and cons as being.

It’s very likely that your mother sees this arrangement with rose-colored glasses, seeing only the positives and not the negatives. She may assume that there’s no way that this could put strain on any relationships or that she might not like some of the ways that you raise your child or keep up your home. You may want to gently guide her toward those negatives, just so she can see that it’s not a net positive.

As for a lease, what do you see as the positives and negatives of it? Obviously, the positives involve legal protection for yourself and, to an extent, your mother, but how will your mother see it? I think that if you do this, you should draw it up together, making sure that the document actually serves as a legal protection for both of you. You may want to have a lawyer help with this once you’ve both figured out your concerns and the protections you’d want in place.

Jenna has two follow-up questions.

Q4: Household arrangements with mother

Second question: Part of our discussed arrangement involves my mother “paying” for her share through house work and child care. She has basically volunteered to do the laundry, watch my daughter after school and sometimes on weekends, and do a lot of housecleaning and meal prep. How would I write that into an actual agreement?
– Jenna

I would be very, very hesitant to include such efforts in a written contract. For example, what exactly are you going to do if your mother’s health declines and she’s unable to fully take care of all of those things? She may be able to keep her apartment tidy, but what if she’s no longer able to climb the stairs to get into the other parts of the house? What if she can no longer drive? Are you going to evict her in that situation?

I believe a much better approach is a lease that renews regularly so that your mother and you can discuss whether or not the overall arrangement is working out. Then, either one of you can choose to end the arrangement if you feel uncomfortable with it.

And here’s Jenna’s other follow-up question.

Q5: Downside guarantee

Third question: I’m obviously not going to kick my mother out if things don’t go perfectly, but what exactly do I do if things go disastrously? This is the big reason I want to get a lease, as something of a “downside guarantee” against a bad situation, but what do I do if there’s no lease?
– Jenna

If someone who does not own the property is staying in your home and you ask them to leave and they refuse, then you can legally have them removed from the property. This seems like an extreme step with a parent with which you have a strong enough relationship that you would consider this type of live-in arrangement.

A lease, on the other hand, would actually make it harder to remove her if she’s following the terms of the lease. Obviously, at the end of the lease, you could then evict her.

The exact laws on this vary from state to state – I’m speaking in general terms here as the general framework is consistent. You may want to contact an attorney before entering into any variation of this arrangement.

Q6: Inexpensive pocket notebooks

Do you have any recommendations for pocket notebooks that are less expensive than the Field Notes you usually talk about? They’re nice but $10 for a 3 pack is a bit much.
– Nate

I write a lot of notes in my pocket notebooks and I rarely fill up a single Field Notes more than once every two weeks, so I don’t consider the cost oppressive for a notebook that holds up for that long. Having said that, I can understand someone looking for less expensive solutions.

My original pocket notebook solution was to simply use a spiral-bound Mead notebook. Those notebooks are very inexpensive, trending as low as a quarter apiece. However, I found that they did not hold up well at all to pocket use. The spiral almost always collapsed and then, eventually, pages started to fall out and tons of little pieces of paper lived in my pocket. This meant that the notebook was junk often well before I was finished with it.

Another strategy, one that a friend of mine uses, is to use several notecards held together with a paperclip. This is really inexpensive and it’s easy to take the notecards apart and rearrange them. If you’re looking for a solution for very disposable notes, this is a pretty good one, but it becomes hard to organize them if you keep them for very long.

The best bargain I’ve found in a notebook that’s in any way similar to Field Notes are the Muji A6 pocket notebooks. They’re pretty similar to Field Notes but cost about half as much. I happily recommend them as a nice alternative.

Q7: Raspberry Pi

I’ve read a lot about this Raspberry Pi miniature computer. It seems like really extraordinary technology. I feel like it could be useful for us, but I don’t know how, and, per your advice, I don’t want to buy something (even though this isn’t that expensive) if I don’t have a use for it. Are you familiar with it at all? Do you know what situations it may be best for?
– Nicholas

A Raspberry Pi is a credit card sized relatively low-powered computer that you can buy for around $20 or $30. It basically looks like a circuit board with one to four USB slots and a slot for a SD card and usually a slot for some kind of video output (so you can hook up your television or a computer monitor to it). They typically run some version of Linux.

They are very fun to tinker with and there are some things you can do with them for specific home uses, like making a video game emulator that you can play on your television or a simple home security setup.

The thing to remember with Raspberry Pi stuff is that it’s not nearly as plug-and-play as other home electronics stuff. You’re going to have to tinker with it a lot and you’re probably better off using a guide for the specific project you’re working on, especially at first.

Q8: Local grocery strategy

I currently live in a pretty small town with one grocery store in it. The next nearest grocery store is about an hour away with several options. Unsurprisingly, the one grocery store in this town is pretty expensive. Prices are about 50% higher here in town for pretty much everything.

Most people around here use the local grocery store for a few odds and ends and then do a massive grocery trip in [the nearby town] every few weeks, taking a SUV and a couple of coolers for the cold stuff.

Do you have any ideas about ways to cheapen this strategy?
– Tom

I think the people in your town have hit upon the basics of the best strategy. I think that going to the faraway town once every few weeks and stocking up big on groceries is the way to go.

Having said that, a smart grocery store strategy is going to save you a ton when you’re doing this. Having a clear meal plan along with some plans to make meals in advance and freeze them, then a good grocery list based upon that meal plan is going to be vital. When you can base that meal plan upon a grocery store flyer, you’re doing even better, and when you’re using a discount grocer like Aldi or Fareway, you’re doing even better.

Plan that trip. The time you spend planning at home is going to be time saved when you’re in that grocery store and it’s going to save you a ton of money, too. Don’t feel like you’re “wasting time” spending even a couple of hours planning out this big trip and all of your meal plans. You will recoup that time at the store and in the meal prep time afterwards and you will save hundreds of dollars, too.

Q9: Dumping loyal roommate

For the last six years since college, I’ve shared a two bedroom apartment with a roommate. We get along marvelously, but we’re not close friends. We just do our own things and have arrangements that work really well for both of us.

My younger sister is going to be moving to the area soon and I want to share an apartment with her instead of my current roommate at the end of the lease. What is the best way to go about switching roommates?
– Denise

The best way to go about switching roommates is to find a new apartment for you and your sister and then give your current roommate plenty of notice so that he/she does not sign a new lease for the current apartment without understanding the change.

I’m getting the subtle hint that you want your current roommate to move out to make room for your sister, but it is you that wants a change, not your roommate. The fair way to do this is for you to move out to a new apartment (maybe another one in the same apartment complex) and to give your current roommate enough time to figure out what to do next.

You might be in a situation where you have the legal ability to make this switch, or you might be able to “slip” your sister’s name onto the lease without your roommate’s knowledge, but in doing so you’re going to burn a bridge very hard and likely suffer some serious reputation damage. You might also be facing some rather angry roommate behavior to boot and if you’re not on watertight legal ground, you may end up facing some legal issues. (A friend of mine was sued by a roommate once, so it definitely can happen.)

Do this the right way. It’ll be easier for everyone involved over the long run and run far less risk of serious problems.

Q10: Cheap shoes for running

Do you have any recommendations for cheap running shoes? All shoes at sporting goods store are really expensive.
– Kelly

I think your best approach is to do a lot of homework into running shoes and find one that offers the best bang for the buck rather than buying cheap shoes. Cheap running shoes can cause a lot of foot, ankle, and knee problems that you really don’t want if you’re a runner.

You might want to start with something like this running shoe guide from Runner’s World. Find a few options that are on the low end in terms of cost, and then start shopping around for those shoes. Look at tons of online stores like Zappos and see what the best prices are, then buy from there. Also, check eBay – there are sometimes amazing sales on there.

What I often do is that if I find a model I like, I watch it very carefully for a while on several sites and then buy multiple pairs of that type if they ever go on sale. A few years ago, I bought a bunch of pairs of the same kind of shoe as the model was being discontinued. $10 a pop for my favorite type of shoes is a great bargain.

Q11: Used hair clippers?

I have decided to start cutting my own hair. A friend of mine offered to sell me some hair clippers that he doesn’t use any more for $10. They MSRP for like $80. But are they sanitary? Seems gross to use someone else’s hair clippers.
– Mike

Have you ever been to a barbershop? Every single day, barbers use the same clippers and other equipment to cut a lot of peoples’ hair. They have a simple routine that they use to keep all of their gear clean – mostly, it’s all about washing it.

That’s really all you need to do if you buy these clippers. Wash them thoroughly. Here’s a great guide for cleaning hair clippers, for starters.

This is something you’ll want to do regularly solely to keep the clippers clean for yourself, so it’s a great way to get started and wash away any remnants of your friend’s hair.

Q12: Cheap source for DVDs

Where can I go to buy DVDs cheap?
– Brad

It depends on why you want these DVDs. If you just want to acquire a large collection of random DVDs, your best bet is to watch Craigslist carefully and see if any bulk collections come up. Put in an offer for all of them and you can often get lots and lots of DVDs for $0.50 a pop or lower. You can do the same thing at yard sales – they’ll be $1-2 each but you can buy a bulk of them for pretty cheap if you make an offer.

If you mostly just want to watch a ton of different movies, I recommend checking your local library. They have tons of movies available to borrow for free – you just have to return them in a week or two, depending on the library policy. In my eyes, this is the best way to start because it’s probably not very useful to buy a DVD of a film when you’re not sure it’s something that’s worth rewatching.

The only reason to buy a DVD new is if you’re sure you’ll watch it many times. Other than that, buying them used or borrowing them or renting them is the way to go.

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 ...