Questions About Trade Schools, Calorie Counting, 403(b) Cancellation, 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. “Snow bird” planning
2. Midlife fork in the road
3. 403(b) ending
4. Trade school issue
5. State income tax challenges
6. Counting calories
7. Bio-enzymes in homemade cleaning recipes
8. Good shoes for concrete work?
9. Starting uses for slow cooker
10. Letters to loved ones
11. Inheritance and jealousy
12. Best sub-$10 computer games?

I get messages from all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. Sometimes, I get messages from people who make statements that seem to indicate a possibility of depression or other mental health concerns. Lately, I’ve heard from a few readers wondering why I don’t say anything about it.

First of all, I am not a mental health professional, and an off-hand comment in an email from someone trying to piece through a problem in their life wouldn’t be enough grounds for even the most seasoned of mental health professionals to diagnose any sort of problem.

Second, even if I were a mental health professional, I’m not in the business of calling out such concerns publicly. The mailbag is here to answer the question they’re asking.

However, if I see something that seems concerning to me, I’ll usually respond privately. I usually encourage a trip to a general practitioner, for starters, and some general blood work just to provide an all-around examination of their health.

As for identity concerns, I do try to “anonymize” many of the questions that come from readers by changing names and key pieces of personal identification. This is because several years ago I had a reader whose identity was figured out by their family and it caused them personal issues. Since then, I have “anonymized” most letters to the mailbag, changing names and locations and other bits of irrelevant info to keep their identity secure without changing the meaning of the question.

On with the mailbag!

Q1: “Snow bird” planning

My husband is 60 and I’m 49 years old and our 24 year son lives with us. My husband is able to collect a state of New Jersey pension with full health benefits for both he and I. We are building a house in Florida where we will eventually retire. For now, we want to be “snow birds”. I may add that I suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and the quality of my life during the winter months is horrible. Between his pension and rental property income we will make $2,600 a month. We can definitely live on that when we are snow birding in Florida. My adult son will continue to live in our primary home and pay the mortgage and utilities for those months (about 4 to 5 months). We will pay for the property taxes (which amount to $7,100) in full before we leave for the winter months. I will also leave my teaching job to join him on this venture. The plan is for me to do substitute teaching work while in New Jersey. I estimate that I can make between $400-$500 per week doing this. By the time this plan comes to fruition, my husband will be six months away from being eligible to collect social security at a reduce rate. He plans to collect ss at 62 years old. We also have a $100K emergency fund that we plan to keep at that level all the time. In your opinion, do you think we have everything in place to make this happen? Do you think we are overlooking anything? I will continue to contribute to my Roth IRA.
– Daria

Given that you have full health benefits, I think your plan should work, provided you are both willing to return to some kind of work should things go awry.

In saying that, I am making a few assumptions in your story. I am assuming that both your NJ and FL residences are paid for and you only owe insurance and property taxes on them, and neither one of them is exorbitant.

As an aside, I get mild seasonal affective disorder. I find that the number one thing that helps is routine physical activity with at least 15 minutes of sunlight a day.

Q2: Midlife fork in the road

Married couple, starting anew in our mid-40’s having lived a very hedonistic lifestyle in Manhattan.
No debt.
$45k in savings.
Earning $160k annually.
We have no plans to leave NYC until we retire.
Both of us have $401k’s and my company gives 3% of my salary ($109k) towards my $401k.

Our living situation:
We currently are illegally subletting a rent stabilized apartment in a very desirable (to us, as in, it is quiet, lots of space and green areas) neighborhood. I can walk to work. The apartment is spectacular, like the neighborhood. Top floor, quiet, lots of space and light and private. We love it. We are paying $3000 monthly. This includes utilites and cable (which we are planning to cut). The going rate for the same apartment not rent stabilized is $6000. We have been here for 5 years.

We are looking at options for long term.
1. Stay here for as long as we can save a downpayment to buy an apartment in the burbs. Our budget is about $400k and we will have 20% downpayment saved by end of next year.
2. Move to a cheaper rental in the burbs. Cheapest we can find within easy commute to both jobs is $2000 (does not include utilities) and save quicker for a downpayment.
3. Move to a cheaper rental and rent forever instead of buying.
4. Stay where we are forever!

I have no favorites in this scenario. As long as the place I live is safe and cosy and easily commutable to work.

Any suggestions?
– Sandra

If I were in your shoes, I would basically do #1, although I wouldn’t necessarily aim for buying an apartment in the ‘burbs. Instead, I’d aim for saving as much as possible to keep your housing options open if your current situation falls apart. While it’s lasted five years, it eventually won’t.

Doing this gives you flexibility. Right now, you’re looking at a future that has you on the same exact life and employment track that you’re currently on. Having money saved up gives you some strong flexibility regarding whatever may happen: children or a job change or a career change or a decision to go your separate ways or whatever may come.

A move to the suburbs might make this saving a little easier, but, as you mention, it’s $2000 without utilities while your current apartment is $3000 with utilities, and the lower rent place requires a commute while your current place does not. I’m not sure you gain a whole lot by moving.

Q3: 403(b) ending

My husband’s employer offers a 403 (b) plan where the company matched funds up to 5% (dollar for dollar on the first 3%, then 50 cents on the dollar up to 5%). Last night my husband said the company is ending the 403 (b) plan and the account balance will be given to all employees. My husband is 55, so we need to reinvest the money to avoid IRS penalties (and because we want to keep saving for retirement). What do you recommend we do with the funds (about $150,000)? And is there a way to offset the loss of matching funds from the employer as we move forward?
– Lisa

In your situation, I would roll all of that money over into an IRA, as described here. Basically, you just take that full distribution and use it to fund an IRA and you shouldn’t owe taxes on that money at the end of the year as it resides in the IRA. If I were you, I’d figure out where you’re going to invest that IRA money now and contact them to make the transfer as smooth as possible.

As for replacing the matching money… well, that’s up to your employer. If your employer is ending the matching and not adding other compensation, this is effectively a cut in salary.

Regardless, you should be contributing to the new IRA once it’s established, as this appears to be your best retirement option at this point.

Q4: Trade school issue

This is for Trent and his mailbag question he got regarding a parent and his son. The dad wanted him to be an electrical engineer and the school counselor suggested going the trade school route. Your answer was on point except for not calling out the dad for saying people that attend trade school are stupid. That is a real slap in the face to the blue collar world that takes care of the college folks. (BTW, I’m a teacher)
– Daniel

I wholeheartedly agree with you about the value of trade school. It’s going to be something that’s on the table for my own kids as an option for them to consider when they’re in high school and thinking about career options.

At the same time, I’m not really in the business of “calling out” readers for their viewpoints. Rather, I’d hope that they read my responses and my reasoning for particular stances and use it to influence their own thinking. Calling people out is something that rarely works to change minds; rather, it’s a good way to vent emotion.

In my eyes, the best approach is to simply reiterate the benefits of trade school – it’s inexpensive, it leads to a high-paying career, and it provides a great opportunity for people who aren’t enthusiastic about sitting behind a desk or in a lab.

Q5: State income tax challenges

I was supposed to get a NJ state tax refund this year, I e-filed everything, got a letter saying they needed more information. Sent in the additional information at the end of May. I still haven’t heard anything back and when I call the number from the website it’s automated with no information and then hangs up on you. What do I do about this?
– George

Go back to that automated number and keep trying. Alternately, you can check on your refund status at the NJ Treasury website.

It sounds to me like your refund is in some kind of bureaucratic black hole. It’s probably going to take some work to dig it out.

If the amount is significant, you can contact a lawyer about what the next steps are, but that will eat into your refund pretty quickly.

Q6: Counting calories

In a recent article you mentioned calorie counting. What tool did you use to track calories? I’ve found it difficult to do so when every stir fry I make has different ingredients, depending on what vegetables are cheaper that week. The same goes for most of the dump meals I make.
– Claire

I use the Fitbit app for counting calories. It’s really easy to use – you just add the food and the portions.

For recipes like what you describe, I don’t try to be perfectly accurate. I approximate by looking for something similar and then use that as my number. The reality is that even if I counted every single ingredient it’d likely still not be perfect.

The thing to remember is that calorie counting isn’t an exact science anyway. The calories listed on the back of a package are approximations. This Scientific American article spells it out quite well.

Q7: Bio-enzymes in homemade cleaning recipes

I love your posts on making your own dishwashing and laundry detergents. Have you ever considered making “garbage enzymes” or bio-enzymes as part of your household cleaning arsenal?
– Nina

I assume here that you’re referring to making a form of detergent from fruit skins and brown sugar, as described here?

I actually tried a process like this a couple of times, but I was pretty dissatisfied with the results. It did a solid job of cleaning, but there was substantial effort involved in making the detergent and it wasn’t all that cheap because of the cost of brown sugar.

The thing to note is that most such recipes are essentially making vinegar of some kind, typically a fruit vinegar like apple cider vinegar. This is undoubtedly a good cleaning agent, but you can effectively get the same results from just buying vinegar at the store.

Q8: Good shoes for concrete work?

After 20 years of white-collar work, I’m taking a job in my company’s warehouse (picking/packing/shipping books). I’m excited to get out from behind a desk, but I want to make sure my body will hold up. Any “buy it for life” footwear recommendations for walking around on concrete all day?
– Jim

It really depends on what your proportions of walking and standing and sitting are and what your shoe budget is. My honest advice to you is to contact the foreman in the warehouse and ask what his or her recommendation is for footwear. That’s because not all warehouse work is the same, and I’m not 100% sure what you’re going to be doing there.

The thing to remember is that the first few weeks are going to be tough on your feet no matter what you’re wearing. Your feet are going to have to “toughen up” a little bit.

If I had to point at one shoe as a “buy it for life” option that’s good for walking a lot on concrete, I’d probably point at the Brooks men’s Addiction shoe. My mother-in-law, who worked as a nurse for many years (think hospital floors) recommends them highly for both comfort on concrete and durability.

Q9: Starting uses for slow cooker

My family got me a Crock Pot for Christmas last year and it is still in the box! I want to use it but I don’t know where to start!
– Jenny

Start with soup. It’s really, really hard to mess up soup in the crock pot. Most soup recipes involve adding all non-pasta ingredients, cooking on low for eight hours, and then serving it. If it has pasta, you usually add it for the last 30 minutes or so.

To be honest, soup is the most common thing we make in our slow cooker, even now. It’s just easy to do it.

Another meal that’s really easy to make in a slow cooker is a pot roast. It’s another meal where you can just put in the roast, some carrots, some potatoes, some water, and some salt and pepper and just let it sit all day. It’s really, really hard to mess it up.

The advantage of a slow cooker is that you can start a meal in the morning and let it sit without even checking on it all day until you have a finished meal in the evening. The first time you do that, you’ll be hooked – make something in the morning, let it sit all day while you’re out and about, and come home to supper that’s ready to be eaten.

Q10: Letters to loved ones

When my grandfather died, everyone in the family received a few letters from him that he had written at various points in our lives. I asked the executor how this was done and he just said it was “bundled” with the will. I would like to do this for my own children and grandchildren. How would one go about this? I want to write letters for my kids/grandkids to remember me by.
– Andy

Do as the executor suggests and bundle them with your will. Include a mention of the letters in the will and ask that they be distributed to the people on the front of each envelope; any trustworthy executor will happily handle that task.

This is a really good idea for giving everyone you care about something deeply personal and meaningful after you pass away. However, I’d consider whether or not it’s a good idea to say the things you’re saying in those letters before you pass away. Say them with your own voice, to their face, rather than bottling it up and waiting.

These letters should be a capstone of feelings already expressed, not a way to express things once you’re already gone. If you feel the need to write something in a letter that they’ll read after you’re gone, think carefully about whether you should say it now.

Q11: Inheritance and jealousy

My husband and I have been friends with another couple since college. We have similar careers and yet they always seem to have way more money than we do for everything. We assumed that they were in debt up to their ears but we recently found out that they had received a pretty large inheritance from her grandfather. It is hard to maintain our friendship when they’re jetting off to Paris all the time and we can barely afford the mortgage.
– Brenda

It sounds to me like there’s a mix of jealousy and incompatibility going on in this friendship. Your friends are living a lifestyle that you can’t afford and you’re letting their perks bother you and allowing the fact that they have an inheritance to spend bother you.

You have to decide for yourself whether you’re going to continue to let something out of your control bother you. What would you do if you had that inheritance? Do you blame them for having that inheritance and spending it that way? Would you do any different in their shoes?

Celebrate their good fortune. Don’t let jealousy or other such feelings get in the way. They have an inheritance – that’s good fortune for them, not some sign that they’re bad people. Celebrate it.

Q12: Best sub-$10 computer games?

What computer games under $10 do you enjoy? I am going to be house watching a rural house all winter long for an older couple. They are paying me well but there’s honestly not much to do around here and there’s internet but it is really slow dial-up speed and poor cell signal and so I’m stocking up on a variety of entertainment. I don’t like shooting/action games but I like think ones. I looked on review sites for well reviewed games but they’re all pretty expensive. I wanted to download 3-4 good games before I go on my laptop. Suggestions?
– Joe

If I were you, I’d start by using the “under $10” search on Steam. Add filters to that search as desired. You’ll come up with a lot of games that fit the bill.

If you’re sticking strictly with the $10 limit, my picks would include Civ 3 Complete, Stardew Valley, and FTL. However, I usually just get computer games during the semi-annual Steam sales, where they offer tons of games at big discounts.

There are a lot of good sub-$10 computer games out there, though, depending on your tastes. Just dig around and see what you can find in the sub-$10 category.

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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