Questions About Paper Plates, Declining Brands, Windfalls, Community Theater 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. Mispriced items at local grocer
2. Brands that have gone downhill
3. Handling $5,000 windfall
4. Commute or rent closer?
5. Setting annual or quarterly goals
6. Community theater
7. Time cost and paper plates
8. Happy today or later?
9. Handling loud neighbor
10. College towns in May
11. Handling additional income
12. Little tweaks
13. Is military a good option?
14. Grandma insists loan is gift
15. Finding new hobbies

This is spring break week, meaning my children have no school this week. However, they’re spending this week visiting their grandparents, which leaves Sarah and I without children to watch for several days.

What do I notice? A much quieter house. An abundance of free time. A chance to breathe and to get in touch with activities and tasks and hobbies that have slipped by the wayside.

Yet I already miss those kids.

Q1: Mispriced items at local grocer

I usually do most of my grocery shopping at a small grocery store on the corner that has great greens and good prices on most stuff. It is family owned and almost entirely family staffed.

Most of the prices on their items are on little stickers that they apply themselves with a pricing sticker gun. On two items that I bought the last time I was there, I noticed that two absolutely identical items had different sticker prices on them. Naturally I picked the cheaper one each time. Is that ripping the store off? I’ve been thinking about it a few times lately.
– Donald

There are a number of explanations. It might be that the price recently went up on this item and the newer items on the shelf received a higher price. It could just be a simple error from someone stocking shelves when they weren’t paying attention. It’s really hard for you to know.

If you are a regular customer there, you might want to stop in sometime when the owner is there and mention the issue to him or her. This could be a problem that is costing the business significant money.

In any case, you shouldn’t feel guilty about this in any way. It’s the responsibility of the business to price items on the shelves correctly. You can choose to let them know about it, but you are under no responsibility to pay anything other than the price they’re listing.

Q2: Brands that have gone downhill

One of the most frustrating things is when you get used to buying items of a certain brand and then something changes and the item is no longer nearly as good as it used to be. This seems to happen with every kind of shoe that I ever buy. I’ll find a model that works great, buy that same model a few times, and then they’ll stop making them nearly as well with cheaper stitching and so on. Obviously the right choice is to move on but is there any way to know if items are going downhill?
– Claire

The surest sign I’ve ever seen is that the brand comes under new management. If you’re talking about a brand with a high standard of quality that suddenly comes under new management, especially a private equity firm, you can basically guarantee that the quality will collapse.

A good example of this is Doc Marten shoes, which may be one of the shoe brands you’re talking about. Back in my college days, those shoes would last for a long time. In 2013, the brand was acquired by a private equity firm and I’ve heard from two separate friends that their relatively new Doc Martens are already falling apart, indicating a big drop in quality.

Why? Private equity firms try to squeeze every drop of value out of a company. One way to do that is to cut back on the added features that make a quality product so great.

I tend to watch news about companies that I rely on and if I see that one of them is acquired by another company, I usually back away from trusting that product because, almost always, a product quality crunch is coming.

Q3: Handling $5,000 windfall

My grandfather recently died and left me $5,000 which I will be receiving shortly. I am trying to decide what I should do with it. I have several student loans.

$3,200 @ 7%
$2,700 @ 7%
$2,000 @ 6.5%
$1,500 @ 8.5%
$1,000 @ 8%
$1,000 @ 6%

I do not have any credit card debt. I have $1,000 in the bank for emergencies. I have a job that earns enough to pay the bills but not to save very much each month.

I would like to start saving for a house eventually but right now I’m single and live in a one bedroom apartment. I have a car that I don’t drive much and it shouldn’t need replaced for a while. I would also like to go to Seattle this summer to visit friends.
– Jerry

If I were you, I’d pay off the $1,500 @ 8.5% debt entirely, the $1,000 @ 8% debt entirely, and all but the last $200 of the 7% debt. This leaves you with just a $200 debt at 7%, the $3,200 debt at 7%, and the two with lower interest rates.

If you’re single, I wouldn’t really worry about home ownership yet. Instead, I would worry about getting your personal finances in very good shape first.

As for the Seattle trip, it shouldn’t be too expensive if you drive out there within the continental United States. It sounds like you have friends to stay with, so the cost should remain low. Just save steadily for it.

Q4: Commute or rent closer?

Right now, I own a house that’s quite a distance from my workplace. When we moved here, it was about five minutes away from my work, but I was moved to another office so the commute is about one hour each way.

Unfortunately the neighborhoods closer to my work are all more expensive than what we have here. I don’t think we can really afford a home in those areas. However, we could afford to rent in a neighborhood that’s again about 5-10 minutes from work.

Is it really worth it to sell a house and go back to renting to save money and time on commuting?
– Charlie

All I can really extract from your email is that you would save about an hour and forty five minutes per workday by moving to this neighborhood. Let’s say you worked five days a week, fifty weeks a year. That’s about 450 hours of commuting time saved.

I don’t know how many miles you’re driving, but let’s say that your commute driving speed averages 40 miles per hour. If you’re now commuting 450 hours less, that means you’re saving 18,000 miles per year on your car. If you’re driving an average 30 miles per gallon car and gas is $3 a gallon, you’re saving $1,800 a year in fuel alone. That doesn’t include the six oil changes and other maintenance stops that will be required for such high mileage, plus the much faster replacement cycle for your vehicle.

By moving, you’ll save 450 hours and thousands of dollars per year. I don’t know what the cost of renting is compared to the monthly cost of your home, but unless it’s significantly in favor of staying in the home, this is a move I’d make.

Q5: Setting annual or quarterly goals

I love your articles on personal productivity! Without good productivity, I would never have been able to earn enough to get out of debt and now I just gobble that stuff up.

One of my favorite productivity strategies is one that my parents used to do with us when we were growing up, starting at about age ten. We used to set quarterly and then later annual goals for ourselves. We would just write two or three each including mom and dad and then post them in a place where we could all see them. Each day, we had to do some things to move toward that goal and we would talk about what we did at dinner or at bedtime.

It was because of the goal sheets that I learned how to play the guitar and read a bunch of classic literature in high school. You might want to try this with your own kids.
– Kelly

This is a really good idea! I love it!

I think this is something that would work well for my oldest two children – and definitely Sarah and myself – but my youngest one might not really be into it. That doesn’t mean we can’t start doing it, though.

Not only does it encourage self-improvement, but it also gives each of us something to talk about at the dinner table. I just love this all around.

Q6: Community theater

One really inexpensive thing that my husband and I do is community theater. We help put on plays every few months in the community, with the proceeds of the previous play funding the new set and decorations and costumes for the next play. It’s not just for actors, either, as a lot of people just work backstage (that’s what my husband does, as he’s involved in set design and lighting).

Most communities of decent size have a community theater and they welcome any and all to participate in it. You should recommend it – it’s a great way to spend a lot of time without any cost and meet a lot of interesting people and also provide some entertainment for the community.
– Melody

One of the communities near us has a thriving community theater program that operates very similarly to what you describe. Basically anyone can participate and the proceeds of each play go towards keeping the lights on and buying materials for the next play.

While I have never participated there, you’re absolutely correct in pointing out that it is a good example of a free community activity. If you enjoy theater at all, it’s a great free way to spend your spare time with like-minded people.

If I were to participate, it would definitely be in the “backstage” capacity. I’m not really convinced I have the stage presence to pull off dramatic roles.

Q7: Time cost and paper plates

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about. Obviously, the cost of ceramic plates is more than a single paper plate but less than a thousand paper plates. However, the time cost of a ceramic plate is far more because you have to clean it.

At what point does the time cost of a paper plate make it more worthwhile than owning ceramic plates?

I’ve been thinking about this because my grandmother uses nothing but paper plates. She’s old and it takes a long time for her to do a load of dishes so she believes it is better for her to just use paper plates.
– John

This is a tough question. For starters, it really depends on the time investment you calculate for cleaning a plate. For people who hand wash, the time investment is greater (ten or twenty seconds) than people who just toss a plate in a dishwasher (a few seconds).

One factor you also left out here is the environmental one. Some paper plates are biodegradable after a while, but they still fill up landfills because people usually need to toss them into the regular trash due to food residue. That adds up.

The best argument I see for paper plates is a situation where you’re serving a lot of people without adequate kitchen space or if you don’t have access to convenient dishwashing. Your grandmother falls into the latter category, but a younger person in good health probably shouldn’t use paper plates at home on a daily basis, especially if they have a dishwasher. The costs just don’t add up to enough benefit.

Q8: Happy today or later?

One of the biggest problems I have with frugality is the idea that you have to choose to either be happy today or be happy later. If you choose “happy today,” you sacrifice “happy later” because you’re not saving for retirement etc. and that’s the paycheck to paycheck life. If you choose “happy later,” you sacrifice “happy today” because you lose a ton of freedom of choice in your day to day life and that’s the frugal life.
– Anna

I am a very frugal person. On a given day, I literally feel like there are more things that I want to do than I can ever possibly get done today. I literally get to pick and choose among a small mountain of enjoyable options. I do not feel “unhappy today” by any means, even when weeks go by when I don’t spend money on anything non-essential.

Just try this: spend the next week or two making a list of everything you’d like to try doing in your life, regardless of cost. Would you like to learn how to play a guitar? Maybe you’d like to play tennis with a friend down at the rec center. How about binge-watching House of Cards? List everything that comes to mind that seems fun. Do some research into things you might want to learn or do. Look for lists of things available in your town.

I can do this and literally list hundreds of things. I’d probably make it to a hundred things a day.

After you’ve done that and you have a ton of items, just go through it and cross off anything that costs any significant amount of money. Use that as just your first filter.

What happens is that you’re still left with hundreds (at least for me) of things to do that seem interesting and enjoyable and compelling. My list is far longer than I will have time for if I use the rest of my life.

I don’t feel at all like I am sacrificing happiness today when I’m doing things on that list. Not in the least.

Q9: Handling loud neighbor

I live in a duplex that’s basically just a house with the two floors converted into two apartments. My upstairs neighbor comes home from work at about 2 in the morning each night and thumps around upstairs and watches sports news pretty loudly until about 4 when he finally goes to sleep. It wakes me up every night. I asked our landlord about it and he won’t do anything.

I asked my neighbor about it and he said he’d try to be quieter but that I wake him up between 7 and 8 each morning when I get ready. I don’t turn on a television or anything and barely make a noise in the morning so I think he’s just making something up so that we’re “even.”

What should I do?
– Ellen

It sounds to me like you’re living in a duplex with very thin walls. It really sounds like your upstairs neighbor is just walking around normally and watching television at a normal volume, but that the walls and floor are paper thin and you can hear it. It’s likely that he actually can hear you walking around, too.

It also explains why your landlord does nothing. If your landlord knows the walls and floors are thin and transmit sound well, the only outcome of him doing anything is possibly being pushed into fixing the problem, which would cost the landlord some cash.

Rather than being mad at your neighbor, the two of you should be aggravated with the landlord. That’s my take. I’d talk to your neighbor about how thin the walls are and talk to the landlord about adding insulation. Spray foam insulation isn’t that expensive and can really reduce noise and improve heating and cooling in the building.

Q10: College towns in May

I live in a town with a small private liberal arts college that tends to have students from pretty well off families. In May, students move out of town and often abandon surprisingly nice stuff, like couches that look like they were bought new and used for only a year. The same thing happens again later in the summer as apartment leases run out and people move on. Often, that stuff is even nicer but might have a bit more wear on it. Not only that Craigslist often loads up with deals during May and June as these kids are trying to get rid of their stuff.

If you know of any private schools near you, be sure to watch Craigslist and even the curbside as spring semester ends and leases wind down. You can find lots of good stuff at a good price.
– Marvin

This is absolutely true. If you go cruising in a campus area or near student-heavy apartment buildings at the end of finals week, you’re going to see tons of stuff. Some of it will be junk, but some of it will be great.

The same is true with Craigslist. I’m stunned at the amount of great stuff that’s practically given away near the end of semesters and near the end of leases on Craigslist.

The big reason is that a lot of students are moving very far away after receiving their degree and can’t afford to take this stuff with them and often need to get rid of it very quickly. You can take advantage of that and save/earn yourself a lot of money.

Q11: Handling additional income

I would appreciate your insights on the following: My husband and I are set to make an extra $30,000 this year after tax. I’m currently making minimum payments on the following loans: Stu Loan 1 $29,000 @5.75%, $200/month Stu Loan 2 $8,500 @2.35, $300/month Car Loan $12,000 @2.75, $245/month and working on saving $10,000 this year, in addition to the $1000 emergency we already have established, with the idea that it will help cover our expenses as we move to a new area and start our own business in the next 1-3 years. Paying off Stu Loan 1 makes the most sense interest-wise because it is the highest, but I feel like paying off the other two and throwing the rest at Stu Loan 1 would give us more flexibility on a month-to-month basis, since our bills would go from $745 a month to $200. What do you think? If you were me, where would your priorities be?
– Jana

You’re correct that the best mathematical choice is to pay off the first student loan, then move on to the car loan, then finish off the other student loan. Here’s the thing: over the course of the next year, without any payments, the $29,000 loan will generate $1,667.50 in interest. On the other hand, the $8,500 loan will generate only $199.75 in interest, and the $12,000 loan will generate only $330 in interest. Paying off the two small loans rather than the large loan will end up costing you about $1,000 a year in interest.

Naturally, you can reduce that amount by being extremely diligent about paying down your debt, with double or triple payments after the big paydown, but you’ll likely still be costing yourself several hundred dollars by making that decision.

Financial flexibility is an absolute virtue, but it’s more of a virtue for people who are in a financially difficult position. You don’t seem to be in a difficult position, so I’d probably encourage you to pay off the bigger high interest loan first.

Q12: Little tweaks

What are your favorite “little tweaks” that make for a productive and financially smart day?
– Jocelyn

This question was thrown at me during a brief radio interview and caught me a bit off guard. I gave a quick answer on the radio, but here’s a much better answer.

First, exercise vigorously for a few minutes first thing in the morning. Do one of those “seven minute workouts” or your own routine. Do planks and burpees for ten minutes. Run laps around your block. Just do something to get the blood flowing for five or ten minutes early in the morning. You’ll feel much better for most of the day.

Second, spend your breaks learning something new. No one can be “on” all day long, but your downtimes don’t have to be a waste. Spend them learning something that’s actually useful to you, like practicing words in a foreign language or reading a Wikipedia article on a genuinely informative topic.

Finally, get plenty of sleep. If an alarm is forcing you to get up in the morning, you’re going to bed too late. Start going to bed earlier. Sure, you might “miss” an hour or two of late night television or web browsing. Trust me, it’s not really a loss and you’ll get far more out of the rest of your day.

Q13: Is military a good option?

My son has been planning on joining the military after school for years. He is motivated by being part of something bigger than himself and is a hard worker but isn’t academically inclined. He tries in class but mostly views it as something to get done. It seems like the military is a good fit for him but when I look at a base salary it seems really low. Thoughts?
– Jacob

You’re correct that the basic pay for low-level enlisted members of the United States military is pretty low. You can check it out here.

However, most military jobs come with a ton of benefits, which you can read about here. These benefits range from free housing (or a housing stipend) and strong health services to many free meals and lots of active military discounts. Those benefits add up to a ton of value.

For a single person with their head on straight, the military can be a good choice. The salary itself might seem low, but the benefits that come with it aren’t bad at all.

Q14: Grandma insists loan is gift

When I was an undergraduate, I realized that I wasn’t going to have enough money to pay for books or a place to live for a couple of semesters due to my inability to account for tuition increases. I considered dropping out, but then my grandma called me and offered to lend me enough to make it through – about $5,000. It was a godsend.

I graduated in May and at Christmas when I was alone with her, I tried to give her a check for the first $1,000 of it. She refused it and said that the loan was actually a gift and that I “repaid” her already by simply graduating and making something of myself.

I feel really guilty here, like I’m taking money that isn’t mine. It has been bothering me for weeks but I don’t know how to handle it.
– Noelle

Honestly, the thing you should do here is just to accept the gift and forget about it. This is your grandma’s money and this is what she wants to do with her money.

Instead, find other ways to repay her. Spend some extra time with your grandmother. Go over to her house and help her with chores sometimes, or just take her out for ice cream. Just spend time with her and help her however you can.

It will mean a ton to her and you will never, ever regret having done things that way.

Q15: Finding new hobbies

I don’t get how you just “find” hobbies. Is there a book somewhere that lists them?
– Mary

You can find tons of lists of hobbies online, like this one.

For me, I find that most of the hobbies I discover are through friends. If I find a friend that’s interested in a particular hobby, that gives me motivation to try it. This is how I got into such hobbies as geocaching, board gaming, hiking, and rock collecting, for starters, and part of how I got into learning languages and stargazing.

Another great tool has been Meetup as well as the local library, as both are treasure troves for local groups that meet due to a common interest. Those kinds of things can be great springboards into new hobbies.

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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