Questions About Paper Shredders, TIAA, Cookie Jars, Barbecue Sauce, 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. Handling actual cost of moving
2. Best paper shredder?
3. Political differences with coworker
4. Antique cookie jars
5. Thoughts on TIAA
6. Moving to the US
7. Low cost health changes
8. Barbecue sauce in slow cooker
9. Impressing others and gender issues
10. Easy job to hard job
11. Trade school versus college
12. Using free time at work

The Great American Single-Family Home Problem is a great article from the New York Times about one of the major financial challenges of our time: There is a lack of affordable quality single family homes near places where there are good, high-paying jobs. Such areas are either rapidly gentrified (pushing the prices to absurd levels) or are falling apart. There are a few reasons for that, but the big one is that local property owners refuse to allow building permits that would enable a housing refresh or would allow things like high-quality apartment buildings.

What that means is that, in order to live near your job with an employer that pays well in many areas, you have to live in a tiny apartment that’s insufficient for a family or have access to more money than most new families actually have. The other option? Live an hour or two from work.

That’s a real problem. What’s the best way to solve it? I lean toward high quality apartment buildings with good maintenance, but most people seem to not want this in their neighborhood.

It’s those kinds of issues that are deeply interlaced with the personal finance challenges of most Americans that I find deeply interesting these days.

Q1: Handling actual cost of moving

I am a 23 year old male. I live in a very small studio apartment in San Diego that is about 2 miles from my current job which I got three months ago. I want to move to a similar apartment (about 50 sq ft bigger) about 3 miles away that’s actually both cheaper and closer to my work.

I don’t have a car and commute by bicycle and buses.

I am looking into the cost of moving. I need to get my stuff (a bed, a futon, several bookshelves full of stuff, a dresser full of clothes, a microwave, etc.) to a new apartment. The cost of renting a big truck for the day is expensive here.

Is there a cheaper way to move that I am not seeing? My options seem to be (a) renting a truck, (b) abandoning a lot of the larger items and carrying everything over in my backpack, or (c) waiting until family visits in March and they will rent a car and can help me move. Other ideas? I’d really rather not wait and rely on family.
– David

If I were you, I’d ask around at work. It is very likely that someone in your workplace has a van or a SUV that can easily handle the kind of stuff you’re trying to move. Just ask for help.

If you find someone that will help you move, treat them well. Buy them supper somewhere (they may take you up on it or may turn you down – either way is completely acceptable). Write them a handwritten thank you card a few days after the move and hand-deliver it. Most importantly, if they need a favor in return, make it happen.

Just go to work tomorrow and ask a few people that you trust at work if they can help you move or have a vehicle that can help. Explain the logistics a bit – a small one person studio apartment moving three miles – and see if you can get some help. You’d be surprised how many people will step up.

Q2: Best paper shredder?

Been looking at getting a paper shredder to shred old bills. Are the cross cut ones worth the extra price?
– David

First of all, virtually any home paper shredder you buy is going to be of relatively low quality. They’ll shred several sheets at a time, but that takes a long time, they need regular lubrication, and they clog all the time – the only way to avoid clogging is to feed only 1-2 sheets at a time through it, which takes a very long time.

You can get decent ones that have an auto-feeder and a huge bin for collecting the paper scraps, but those are pretty pricy.

The real solution – and the one I recommend to most people – is to see if there are any “shredding days” in your community, where someone brings in a giant paper shredder that can shred hundreds of sheets at once. You bring in all your documents and that machine turns them to mulch in just a minute or two.

Quite often, financial institutions will bring such a thing in once a year for their own use and then allow their customers to use it, too. Sometimes communities will have a “shredding day” for similar purposes, too – town hall needs to shred a bunch of stuff.

Q3: Political differences with coworker

Several weeks ago, a coworker made a political comment at work that I considered very immoral. I did not complain to HSR or to my boss and just kept my mouth shut. I found out later on that my boss heard about the comment from other sources and told the coworker to not bring politics up in the workplace ever again, and thus far my coworker has abided by this.

However, now I no longer feel I can trust this coworker, someone who I previously trusted. That person’s comment, were it to be followed through on, would make me and by extension my family and some of my friends far less safe and unable to participate fully in daily life.

In short, I no longer feel comfortable around this person. I already asked to be removed from a project that I was working on with this person but I know this issue is going to come up again and again.

You have words of wisdom for many situations. What should I do?
– Alice

First of all, this is almost a textbook reason for why politics should never be brought up at work. I edited Alice’s question so that as much trace of the comment as possible was removed, and that was intentional – in doing so, almost anyone reading this can fill in the blanks and have some idea of how Alice felt. Imagine the type of comment a coworker might make to make you feel this way. I’m pretty sure most of you can quickly draw a comment into your mind, regardless of your race, age, gender, political persuasion, and so forth.

My first piece of advice to Alice – and to anyone in this kind of situation – is to not take it personally. Quite often, the person making the comment has not thought through all of the ramifications of their viewpoint. Quite often, it is the most uninformed among us who make grand sweeping statements about groups and about societal issues. That person likely does not fully understand what he or she is talking about.

That does not mean it is your place to correct this person. That will likely make things worse than they already are.

Your best approach is to remember that this person is on a moral journey and may not have arrived at their final destination yet, but as a coworker, it is not your role to push or drag that person to their final destination. Your only possible role in this is to be an example. Behave in ways that match your own beliefs and moral codes. Never act in ways you find wrong or immoral, even if it’s hard.

A person who is at a different stage on a moral journey is not inherently a bad person. It is a person who may not have had experiences that will cause personal enlightenment. Everyone is on the proverbial road to Damascus in their life. Just because they are not at the same step on the journey as you are does not mean that they are a bad person, but that their moral journey is progressing differently than your own.

Rather than looking at this person as someone to avoid, look at this person as someone for whom you might eventually be a point of insight in an indirect way. It is a very poor idea to directly address political issues in the workplace, but by being the kind of person you want to see in the world and by living at every opportunity by the values you hold, you do rub off on others.

In other words, rather than looking at this moment as scary and intimidating, look at it as an opportunity. You are in a pretty safe environment with this person, where he/she is going to be able to see you as a peer and as, on some level, an example of behavior. Behave in the way you think is ideal and that will inform this person and perhaps nudge this person along their path of discovery.

Just avoid the direct talk, because direct talk goes nowhere unless the person is fully open to it in the moment.

Q4: Antique cookie jars

I inherited hundreds of antique cookie jars from my parents. Anyone who has gotten addicted to trying to gather rare pieces of something probably understands that insane statement. My question is this: for something very specific, off-the-beaten-path-type of items, what is a solid way of advertising these pieces for sale? Just like declutter is a good way to get rid of CD’s, DVD’s, etc. how can one find an avenue that could sell a collection like this? Thanks as always for any feedback. Obviously, I mean a piece at a time or a couple of pieces at a time, I don’t mean buying the entire collection at one time. Although, maybe an online antique seller might offer a lump amount if they took the entire collection?
– Max

The challenge for most non-collectors who stumble into such collections is actually being able to identify what the items are. If you know what the items are, you can price them individually using services like eBay and Kovels to get at least some sense of how you should price them, and you can sell them on eBay or Amazon Marketplace.

You have to know exactly what you’ve got, though, and that’s the trick for non-collectors. It’s why most non-collectors often turn to antique sellers who know how to identify the items, figure out what they are, and list and sell them appropriately to collectors. The problem, of course, is that you won’t receive what they’re worth, but if you don’t have any idea what they are, is that really a problem?

In the end, unless you are willing to invest the time yourself to figure out what you have and use online tools to approximate the price of each item and then appropriately list and sell each item online to maximize your return, it’s probably more effective to hand the collection over to an online antique dealer who can do all of that quite efficiently. You won’t make nearly as much, but you also won’t invest nearly as much time.

If I were in your shoes, that’s what I would do. I’d simply look for an antique seller near me, preferably one with an online presence, and talk to that person about handling the sale of the cookie jar collection.

Q5: Thoughts on TIAA

Could you provide a layman’s guide to the higher costs, withdrawal limits, and the compensation of TIAA advisors?
– Ted

Ted’s question came about as a result of some investigative reporting over at the New York Times into TIAA’s business practices, of which this article, entitled If You Bought In to TIAA Based on Reputation, Check Your Accounts, is the highlight based on the impact on individual investors.

Here’s what I’ve been able to dig up.

TIAA is an investment firm that specifically targets public employees, particularly teachers. They handle about 40% of the 403(b) market – 403(b) plans are basically 401(k) plans for public employees.

Most of the hubbub seems to center around their aggressive tactics when pitching their 403(b) plans to potential customers. While TIAA claims to not offer sales commissions to their agents – a claim that is true on the surface – they do offer bonuses to agents who meet quotas for steering enough people toward their more lucrative (for TIAA) investment packages, as this article reports.

The company tends to rely on their history as a nonprofit in service of teachers in order to maintain a positive brand, but that nonprofit status was removed in 1997. They’re a for-profit company, just like almost every other investment firm in the world.

My reading into these stories is that it’s not that TIAA is some super-corrupt entity, but that their practices are more in line with the norms of the financial services industry instead of the “help the teachers and other public employees” persona that they’re marketed as having. In other words, they use their history and good marketing to paint themselves as being very ethical and focused on the needs of teachers, but the reality is that they operate much like any other financial services company.

In other words, if you’re a public employee and are considering using TIAA’s services, I wouldn’t think badly about them, but I also wouldn’t elevate them above other financial services firms because of their history. Their recent practices have shown them to be little different in terms of sales tactics and agent objectives than a lot of other financial services. In short, they’re like everyone else.

What about a person’s specific investments with TIAA? The challenge is that this covers a lot of investments, some of them good and some of them bad. My recommendation is to treat TIAA investments like all other investments and use independent evaluations to decide whether they’re the right choice for you. Check out your investments at Morningstar and see how they rate. Look for the actual expense ratio on the investment. See if there are similar options available to you with a lower expense ratio.

Basically, treat TIAA as you would any other financial services company. Never mind their history. They are a for-profit financial services company with practices that are much like many other for-profit financial services companies.

Q6: Moving to the US

I’m a 33 year old woman who will be moving from the US to Australia in the coming year. I have several questions around how to handle my money while there including 1: what’s the best (cheapest) way to transfer larger sums of money to convert from USD to AUD? 2: Does it make sense to continue to contribute to my US stocks/Roth IRA or should I look into opening retirement accounts in Australia? I hope to be there for the foreseeable future.
– Margaret

The best way to transfer larger sums of money from USD to AUS is with the aid of a large international bank that operates in both countries. Many larger banks, such as Citi and Chase, operate in both countries, and that makes the move really easy.

Once you’re settled there, you should find an Australian bank that you can use as your primary bank while in Australia. This doesn’t mean you have to shut down your US accounts, but that you’ll just shift your primary banking to your Australian bank while there.

As for retirement accounts, if you have a very strong picture of where you want to be when you retire, you should probably focus on accounts in that country, but if you don’t know, leaving the accounts in the US is a good choice as the dollar should hold value for quite a while.

Q7: Low cost health changes

I need to lose weight. Health reasons, appearance, self-confidence, food costs, and so on. I cannot afford a gym membership or a big increase in food budget. What can I do?
– Jenny

The number one thing you can do is count calories. Don’t radically change your diet. Just spend a moment whenever you put food in your mouth counting the calories you’re putting in there, using whatever tracking tool you want. There are great smartphone apps for this – MyFitnessPal is a popular one. It will help you set a daily calorie goal that should lead to weight loss.

Another thing you can do is to make simple lifestyle changes that encourage you to just move around more. Park at the far side of the parking lot whenever you go anywhere. When you go somewhere where the meeting is on the second or third floor, take the stairs – this is especially great when you work at a place on the second or third floor. If you live a couple miles from work, walk or bike there on a nice day instead of driving.

If you decide to get more into exercise, choose simple things you can do at home. One great thing to do is to just commit to a one or two or three mile daily walk. Another thing is to choose a particular exercise and try to do a progression with it, which means that you simply do what you can do every day and, as you get stronger, you add more reps, and then when you’re doing a lot of reps, you switch to a harder version. I really like planks (which help with core strength) and squats (which help with leg strength) a lot, so those are two progressions I really stick with.

The key, though, is to stick with whatever change you make for the long term, even if you don’t see magic results right off the bat. Remember, choosing a diet that involves losing a pound a week isn’t too tough, but the results aren’t immediate – losing one pound a week adds up to 52 pounds over an entire year if you stick with it every single week. Huge results don’t occur quickly without huge effort. Don’t overwhelm yourself, and don’t be disappointed by slow, gradual results. You will get there!

Q8: Barbecue sauce in slow cooker

Heard from a friend of mine that she makes lots of barbecue sauce about once a year in a crock pot then freezes it in little baggies. She thaws them, cuts off a corner, and refills a bottle in her fridge when it’s empty. Is this a money saver?
– Angela

If you use enough barbecue sauce to make this worthwhile and you have a recipe that you love, this absolutely can be a money saver. One only has to compare the cost of a relatively small bottle of barbecue sauce at the store with the cost of the actual ingredients in it to see that.

Most recipes involve using quite a bit of tomato puree and some apple cider vinegar as the base, often also including an onion, with a bunch of different spices and herbs and seasonings depending on the flavors you’re looking for. Barbecue sauce has infinite variety, of course. My suggestion is to see if there’s an approximation of the recipe of your favorite store-bought barbecue sauce online and use that as a basis.

My favorite barbecue sauce is something similar to this, which I love to mix with black beans.

Q9: Impressing others and gender issues

how much gendered consideration underpins your philosophy on impressing others?

As a man, how do you pulse-check the ‘realities’ for women in today’s world? Of course I understand that these ‘realities’ are constructions, but nevertheless, how do you reconcile the additional burdens on women to ‘measure up’ in late modernity? (I don’t need to re-hash the extra layers of expectation on us; I expect you totally get the barometer of aesthetic, maternal, feminine, domestic and sexual appeal we’re up against)

Any additional thoughts on what it might entail for women to “Stop Trying to Impress Other People”?
– Catelyn

From my perspective, there are a lot of reasons why people try very hard to impress others. I can’t possibly list them all, but among the reasons: the need to fit in and be accepted; the need to feel as though others think they’re beautiful or handsome or fit or successful or intelligent; the desire to cover up an underlying sense of awkwardness or uncertainty; the idea that one must “fake it until you make it;” and so on and so forth.

It is very easy to lock on to the idea of impressing others as a solution to these issues. The thing is, simply striving to impress others often falls into the “quick fix” category, one that has costs of its own and doesn’t solve the underlying problem.

Often, part of the solution is accepting who you are, both in terms of flaws and in terms of qualities. Everyone has qualities and flaws. Sometimes, people get so focused on their flaws that they forget the qualities that they bring to the table.

Another factor to strongly consider when it comes to impressing others is the “spotlight effect.” In psychology, it is very well established that people drastically overestimate how much other people think about them or notice details about them. To put it simply, other people really don’t think about you too much. That horrible flaw that you can’t stop thinking about? It’s very likely you’re the only person concerned about it, and even if others notice, most of them simply won’t care at all. Think about how many people you interact with in a given day – how many of them do you spend much time thinking deeply about in terms of their appearance, their attitude, and so on? Very, very few. Beyond that, most of those thoughts that they do have are beyond your control anyway.

I think that the real frontier in the journey to stop trying to impress others is almost entirely internal, not external. It’s about coming to terms with who you are and what you authentically want to represent to the world.

A female friend of mine, someone who pretty much embodies an effort to not impress other people and instead be someone of true substance, put it brilliantly several years ago. To paraphrase her, she said that when she walks away from someone, she considers the one thought about her that they’ll be left with. She tries to authentically nail that one thing and then not worry about the rest beyond minimum standards (like basic hygiene). What one thing do you want others to think about you? Nail that one thing and don’t worry about other details because the reality is that 99.9% of the people you interact with will either remember just that one detail or nothing at all about you. So nail that one thing that you care about – which you probably will nail in just being your best self in that one area – and don’t worry about the rest.

Q10: Easy job to hard job

I’m moving to a new role in a growing small business that I have been at for 5+ years. My previous roles have been cross-functional, often with a focus on superficial data collection and analysis (since no one else was). My new responsibilities will be to focus on our data collection, management and analysis processes. Senior management trusts my analytical capabilities but my challenge is that I neither have a background in programming nor statistics. How should I start educating myself (and quickly!) in order to be successful at this role? Have you come across any blogs for beginner data scientists or anything similar?
– Al

My sincere recommendation for you would be to check out what online courses are available for data science. Sites like Coursera offer courses for free where you can complete the course and watch all of the lectures, but the fee comes from the certificate of completion. Since you’re doing this for your own enrichment, the certification is relatively unimportant.

I would check out the data science specialization courses over at Coursera and dive in. I have personally taken the first three courses in that series and found them all to be very solid introductions to data science. (Data mining was a big component of my work prior to starting The Simple Dollar.)

The best teacher is experience, though. Try to intentionally seek out things at work that will stretch you, and seek out forums where you can ask questions if you get lost. My favorite online forum for data science is the Data Science Stack Exchange. Good luck!

Q11: Trade school versus college

I disagree with your statement that seems to say kids should “not waste time” and start at trade school. Were that the case, it would be better that they are combed-out in high-school – and that the cost of a trade-diploma be free, gratis and for nothing.

(Of course, there is the alternative of joining the Army, but also the risk of coming home in a body-bag.)

Kids should “fail backwards”. That is, they try at the highest-level possible and fail to a lower level of achievement. This gives them the alternative, later on when they are (perhaps) more able/mature to continue their educational process. Yes, education is a process, not just a target with a piece of paper.

Learning is not necessary just to earn a MightyBuck. It’s about as well learning how to live, which far too few Americans seem to understand.

Which is why the country is in such a sorry state of affairs …
– David

“Failing backwards” was a noble idea back in the 1960s and 1970s when the cost of a year’s worth of college tuition could be earned by working a summer job. That is no longer remotely true. A year of tuition at almost every four year university these days measures in the tens of thousands of dollars, and over the course of four years often pops right into the six figures.

That’s an incredible debt load in a nation where the average household income is somewhere around $60,000 a year.

If someone goes to college and “fails backwards” once they realize that college isn’t for them, they’re often walking away with many tens of thousands of dollars in debt and years of their life spent. If a person is self-aware enough to recognize that college probably isn’t for them, then they should not go there, take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and then “fail backwards.” The advice might have been different in 1972 when they could pay off their college expenses with a summer job at a restaurant.

If you are a student and you have a strong sense that college is not the right choice for you, do not allow yourself to be pressured into going. It is a disastrous mistake if you don’t complete a degree, one that will be a giant weight around your neck for at least the next decade. College is not the only option – trade school, for example, prepares you quite quickly for many types of jobs, and the military is certainly another option.

Q12: Using free time at work

On a typical day I have 3-4 hours of work to do and maybe an hour’s worth of meetings. Most of the rest of the time I sit around and wait for urgent stuff to come in. I enjoy my job but I often feel like I just waste time at work. Our supervisor literally does not care what we do as long as we’re ready to go when a job comes in. I want to find something productive to do with the spare time, maybe something that could eventually earn me more money.
– Derek

Right now, you have this big blank spot in your life and you have the right idea in wanting to fill it up with something of value. That’s a great first step.

The next step here depends so much on your own interests and skills that it’s hard for me to give you a real answer. Do you want to move forward in your current career to a higher paying job? Do you want to stay where you’re at in this career path and build a side gig? Do you want to jump to a completely different career? Do you have something you’ve always wanted to explore or try?

If I were you, I’d spend some significant time thinking about those questions and answering them as deeply and seriously as you possibly can.

Don’t answer the question from the perspective of what will make you money initially or in the short run. Look instead at things that you find fulfilling in some way, and then move from that into how doing that thing can turn into a profitable venture. That way, you ensure that you’ll be passionate about the work, and it’s passion that people want and will pay money for.

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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