Questions About Student Loans, Air Fryers, Credit Cards, Sourdough 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. Student loans and interest accumulation
2. Thoughts on air fryers
3. Consequences of unpaid credit cards
4. Make leftovers into a casserole
5. Spending wakeup call
6. Obligation to support local businesses?
7. Evernote versus Notion
8. Can we afford the house?
9. Netflix binge watching suggestions
10. Work from home now permanent
11. Switching to homeschooling
12. Sourdough question

I’ve been a standing desk user for about two years now. I use it most days for about six hours, with some breaks in the middle, and I’ve learned a few things.

First of all, if you are new to one, your back will hurt at first, but it’s a different kind of “hurt” than lower back pain. It’s more akin to muscle soreness after getting a lot of exercise. It is a good idea to not switch full time to a standing desk from a sitting one, or else you will feel miserable. Build up to it, and alternate between it and some work in a sitting position.

Second, even if you are used to it, your back may be sore near the end of the day. Mine usually gets sore after about five hours of it in a given day and the last hour is often laced with a desire to just sit down. Again, this is different than actual back pain – it’s like an exercise soreness that fades.

For me, the standing desk almost completely eliminated lower back pain after a few months. It returns occasionally, but usually only after I do something I shouldn’t have. It’s not the consistent thing in my life that it used to be.

I highly recommend one if you work from home, but take the transition slowly.

On with the questions.

Q1: Student loans and interest accumulation

I finished graduate school in March and am now a Nurse Practitioner. I have a job starting at the end of June. My student loans are all from my graduate school and total about $90,000. They are also all federal loans. Interest accumulated while I was in school and has been added to the principal. Thanks to the CARES act they are not accumulating any interest for 6 months which generally times up with the time frame in which I will have to start re-paying them. My question is about the best way to begin repaying if I have more to pay than the minimum payment or can begin paying before payments are required. Does it make sense to pay towards the loans with the highest interest rates or should I also consider the disbursement date as those that are from my first quarter of grad school have had more interest capitalized?
– Mary

If your goal is to pay off your loans as fast as possible with the minimum amount of total payment, then you should always aim for the debts that have the highest interest rate.

In your situation, the disbursement date is interesting to look back on, but it doesn’t really affect your decisions going forward. Right now, you have a number of loans with different balances and different interest rates, and you should be focused on repaying them based on those current balances and interest rates.

Looking back and seeing how much was added to the principal of loans since their disbursement date can be really painful, but it shouldn’t affect your financial decisions going forward. That’s all water under the bridge now. Look at your loans as they are right now, and start paying them off with the highest interest rate loans going first.

Q2: Thoughts on air fryers

I occasionally fry french fries and breaded fish and sometimes other breaded vegetables in oil in a pot on my stovetop. I know it’s not healthy, but it’s a really tasty “sometimes” food. I do it maybe once every two months. I have been considering getting an air fryer to replace this, both to use less oil and to make the output a little healthier. Do you have any thoughts on air fryers? Recommendations?
– James

In my experience, air fryers are a decent replacement for deep frying. The results are pretty tasty (it’s not the same as deep-fried foods, but still pretty good) and, by all measures, far healthier than deep frying (I mean, there’s basically no oil involved). Pretty much anything you would deep fry works in an air fryer and comes out in a tasty form (I’ll get back to this) but a lot healthier.

So, what are the drawbacks? You can’t do a large quantity of food at once. If you’re ever going to be cooking for more than one or two people, get a big one, and you should figure that you’re going to do the items in batches, put them in some container and stick them in the oven to keep them warm while you do more batches. The actual cooking is easy — you mostly just put in the food items, hit start and wait until the timer’s done — but it won’t cook well if you overfill the bin and the bin is often pretty small.

Another thing I’ve discovered is that if you want to make some foods — particularly fish fillets, but it’s true for almost anything with batter on it — you’re going to want to bread or batter them, then pop them in the freezer until they’re frozen, then put them in the air fryer. If you just batter them and stick them in there with wet batter, you end up with the batter running off of the fish. It’s true for things like battered onion rings, battered mushrooms and battered cauliflower. You want to batter them a day before, put them on a couple of cookie sheets, put those cookie sheets in the freezer overnight, then run them through the air fryer the next day.

For me, food out of an air fryer is like a somewhat better version of baked foods. If you’ve ever baked French fries in an oven, the fries in the air fryer are a step up from that, but they’re similar to that. They’re not the same thing as deep-fried French fries. If you’ve ever baked breaded fish in an oven, the fish from this are going to be a step up from that, but it’s more like baked fish than deep-fried fish. The reason is that the thing that sets deep-frying apart is the oil, and an air fryer isn’t using oil. Rather, it’s aiming to maximize what a small batch oven can do if it has really good airflow, which means oven-like results but better.

I don’t own one, but I have a few friends with them and I have liked a variety of foods they’ve made using them. Most of the advice here came from them.

What fryers do they recommend? If you’re usually cooking for two or maybe three people, get the NuWave Brio. If you’re usually cooking for three or four or more, get the GoWISE 7 quart.

Q3: Consequences of unpaid credit cards

I lost my job in March and have been on unemployment ever since. My job isn’t coming back anytime soon. I have enough money to pay the rent and eat but I have about $8,000 in credit card bills and something’s gotta give. What are the consequences of just not paying those bills? I cannot find a straight answer online.
– Danny

The consequence is that they’ll eventually start harassing you a lot over the phone and via the mail, your credit report will start getting hammered, which will drop your credit score, then the credit card debt will get handed over to a collection agency who will continue to annoy you for a very long time trying to collect as much of the debt as possible. Expect lots of phone calls and mail about it, and also expect that it will be harder to get loans of any kind in the next few years and the ones you do get will have higher interest rates. Your bad credit score may impact some things like getting good insurance rates, getting an apartment lease, or getting an entry-level job, but those things are variable and far from a guarantee.

Those consequences are far less vital than food and shelter. It’s not really a question.

This doesn’t mean that your only option here is to stop paying your credit card bills entirely. Your best bet is to call them, tell them the situation you’re in, and see if you can work out a more reasonable arrangement. Trust me, every credit card issuer in the world is aware of what’s going on right now, and it is not in their best interest to start playing hardball with people unemployed with COVID-19. You’ll find them to be quite flexible in negotiating some kind of arrangement concerning this debt. It’s likely that you’ll end up with a very tiny monthly payment (one that basically just pays the interest, and the interest rate is reduced) that keeps those negative consequences from happening, or possibly even a short period of forbearance. It really depends on the policy of the specific card issuer, but in any case, they should work with you.

Q4: Make leftovers into a casserole

Something we have been doing a lot is making extra-large suppers one night of something that can be turned into a casserole two or three nights later. So I might make a big batch of spaghetti with marinara sauce on Monday then take all of the leftover sauced spaghetti, put it in a 9″ by 13″ pan, top it with mozzarella and parmesan cheese, and bake it for supper on Thursday. We made beef stew last week and it became shepherd’s pie by just putting some mashed potatoes on top. This works with lots of stuff. Just take a meal you like and Google what to do with the leftovers and then plan for plenty of leftovers.
– Dana

This is a really good strategy, one we sometimes use ourselves. We definitely do the “extra spaghetti becomes a spaghetti bake” strategy, as it’s a great way to get a second run out of extra spaghetti.

One thing I like to do is to cook a bunch of rice very plainly and serve it with some sort of stir fry on top, then turn the remaining rice into some sort of fried rice with completely different flavorings and seasonings, often adding things like tomatoes and chili powder.

Another good strategy along these lines: a lot of leftover soups become very good sauces if you blend them when you’re finished. Blend excess beef stew into a sauce, freeze it, and then add it to the pot when cooking your next pot roast to amp up the flavor to 11 and make the whole thing more filling.

Q5: Spending wakeup call

When I got my credit card statement yesterday I thought it was in error. I usually pay it off in full every month so I’m used to a fairly regular balance, but it was about 80% less than normal, less than $1,000. I run almost all of my regular expenses through the card so I was confused, then I realized it. I wasn’t going out. I wasn’t shopping anywhere. I wasn’t eating out. Basically the only expenses on there were groceries.

This makes me realize how much money I have been spending on stupid stuff that doesn’t really matter to me.
– Anna

This is a realization that a lot of people are coming to right now. The real question is, what do they do with that realization?

Does it cause people to go down a path of financial security so that they’re prepared for the future? Do they eliminate a lot of debt and secure things so that they can make career changes in the future or retire early?

Or do they take that money and splurge on big things that they’ve always dreamed about and then return to their previous overspending life as soon as possible?

I don’t know the answer to that. A lot of people are going to be making those decisions in the coming months. I suspect most people will be somewhere in the middle, with some people closer to the “financial security” end of things and some people closer to the “life as normal” end of things.

How does that all play out in the bigger picture of things? It is almost impossible to say.

Q6: Obligation to support local businesses?

Do you think people have an obligation to support local businesses right now? Not talking about big chains, but local businesses in their town.
– Joe

That’s a complicated question. My simple answer is that you should support local businesses that you have had a good relationship with in the past, but you shouldn’t feel obligated to be a customer of a business that you wouldn’t be a customer of anyway just because it’s local.

Our approach thus far has been to buy gift cards from local businesses that we really value and then holding them until we feel like using them on our own time.

In the same breath, we’re only doing this for businesses that we intend to return to as customers again in the future. We’re not buying gift cards or products from businesses that we would not normally be customers of and wouldn’t be going forward. We’re not their customers, haven’t been in the past, and won’t be going forward, so we’re not part of their business model. For example, we’re not going and buying insurance from every local insurance salesperson. We’re not buying gift cards from places that have never cut our hair. Their business exists whether we’re in it or not, and they’re selling products we’re not buying and will never buy, so I don’t feel any obligation to buy from them.

So, I guess my advice to people thinking about this question is to, first of all, think carefully about what local businesses really, truly matter to you and that you would happily return to once things return to some form of normal. Then, think of ways to support those businesses specifically, whether it’s through a gift card purchase or a curbside pickup or a delivery or whatever mechanism works best for that situation. If you don’t know how to do that, contact the business.

Q7: Evernote versus Notion

You have often mentioned using Evernote as a tool in managing your personal information. I have used it for years, but have never loved it. If I need to capture information or take notes more free-form I use it, but for organizing thoughts and information I love Workflowy. I have JUST learned about a tool/platform called Notion and I am curious if you are familiar with it or have tested it out. I find your insights on productivity things very useful, so am hoping you are planning to review/assess it.
– Nina

Evernote is a tool I have used for many years for one specific purpose — storing and retrieving notes. Those notes are mostly text, but also sometimes consist of images, PDF documents, and other things. I can search through these notes easily and often use it as a general “dumping ground” for anything and everything I might want to look at later.

Workflowy basically addresses the same challenge as Evernote — organizing notes. I feel like the big difference between the two is in how the notes are organized. I feel like Workflowy works really well if you an “outliner” whereas Evernote works really well if you’re a “piles of notes” kind of person. I’m a “piles of notes” kind of person. There’s no right or wrong to it, just how different people find that organizing information makes sense for them.

Notion is also kind of in the same space as Workflowy and Evernote in that it’s a great tool for organizing notes, but it kind of tries to be everything — a to-do list manager, a calendar, a word processor, a note organizer, a project management tool — all in one. It treats every discrete piece of information as a node and lets you heavily interlink those nodes while providing lots of different ways to structure individual nodes, like in a calendar form or a to-do list form.

To me, it feels like one tool that does a lot of things well but doesn’t do any of them great. I have a handful of tools that I use that cover all of the things that Notion does — Evernote, Fantastical, Omnifocus, Ulysses — and each one of them does their individual part really well. What Notion offers is really tight integration of all of that stuff into one app, but in doing so it loses a lot of the nice things you can do in an app that focuses solely on that specific kind of data.

I think if I were starting from scratch, Notion would be a very interesting option, but if you have a lot of information already in other systems, I don’t believe the time to migrate all of that stuff and integrate it in the way that would really take advantage of Notion would end up paying dividends in the long run. If you start there, sure, but if you’re already a long-time user of other tools, I don’t think there’s enough there to switch.

So, here’s what I’d suggest.

If you’re just starting to use productivity tools to organize your to-dos, your calendar, and your notes, consider Notion. If you’re already using a lot of tools you like and could use a tool to handle notes, consider Workflowy if you organize your ideas in outline-type structures, or Evernote if you feel more comfortable with piles of notes. I think all three tools are pretty cool, they just click best with different groups of people.

Q8: Can we afford the house?

I make $48K at a job where I can mostly work from home. Wife is unemployed but has been drawing unemployment and should return to work soon, making about $30K. No debts at all. Looking at a house costing $150K. Can we afford it? Credit union says so but that’s a lot of money.
– Brad

It 100% depends on whether your wife goes back to work or not, and whether she’s at full salary.

With that salary, given that you have no other debts, this house is definitely affordable, in my view, because of the current extremely low home loan interest rates.

Without her salary, it will be very tight. It really depends on the other expenses in your life. Do you have children? Are you looking at a car replacement any time soon? Those kinds of things will likely stretch you to the point where the house payments plus insurance plus property taxes plus upkeep will exceed what you can financially manage.

It also depends on a down payment, which you didn’t mention. If you have a 20% down payment, I think you’ll be able to pull this off on just your own salary provided there aren’t any enormous extra expenses that you’re not mentioning.

With a $150,000, 30-year loan at 3.25%, the mortgage alone will come in at about $650 a month, which probably seems really manageable, but you’ll also have mortgage insurance, property taxes, insurance and some upkeep and maintenance expenses. Many of your utilities will go up, especially if you’re moving from a smaller apartment. So, it’s not just about the mortgage. If you have a 20% down payment, that monthly mortgage bill goes to about $520 a month and you don’t need mortgage insurance, and that changes the game.

Q9: Netflix binge-watching suggestions

Watched tons of stuff on Netflix over the last month with my wife and teenage son. Looking for some hidden gems and know you have Netflix. Any recommendations? We like sci-fi and fantasy and not much comedy. Already seen Witcher, Kingdom, The Last Kingdom, Lost in Space, and Black Mirror.
– Kenny

I have three suggestions that might be up your alley, though I can’t help but wonder if Netflix hasn’t already suggested these to you based on what you’ve been watching.

Altered Carbon is a great melding of sci-fi and mystery, taking place in a future where human consciousness can be moved from physical body to physical body. You have to pay attention here, but it’s well worth it.

Sense8 is about eight people who can experience each other’s lives telepathically. It’s either sci-fi or modern fantasy, depending on your viewpoint, but it’s definitely interesting and a little mind-bending.

I would also highly recommend Dark, if you don’t mind subtitles. It’s in German, but it’s absolutely amazing.

Q10: Work from home now permanent

Employer announced last week that work from home has been incredibly successful and that the option is now permanent for all employees who have been working from home during all of this. We can eventually return if we choose and there will be face-to-face meetings in the more distant future. I feel like I have settled into this OK, but I was looking forward to going back. A lot of coworkers sound like they won’t be going back to the office no matter what. Mixed feelings.
– Darren

It sounds like no matter whether you choose to work at home or go back, things won’t be the same for your work going forward.

My suggestion would be that when in-person work returns, go back if it feels safe and right for you and see how it goes. I imagine some will return and some won’t.

If you find that it’s a good routine to go back to, then stick with it. If it’s not right, go back to working from home. You’ve said you’ve already settled into it, and it sounds like your employer is happy with the results everyone is showing.

Good luck. I think a lot of people will be in your shoes over the next year as they try to find the right balance of things and adjust to new working situations.

Q11: Switching to homeschooling

After our schools closed in March and the local district basically decided to do nothing educationally, I decided to try to formally homeschool my kids for the rest of the year on a trial basis and I think it is really working out. My husband and I are considering continuing in the fall after a summer break. I work overnight in a hospital cafeteria (very coronavirus safe, IMO) and he worked from home 3 days a week even before this, so we both do some of the teaching and there is always someone home watching the kids. Are there any unexpected expenses we’re not seeing?
– Sarah

It sounds like you have a nearly ideal setup for this in terms of your careers. My only concern would be burnout, as keeping up a full-time job and also providing education for your kids could become overwhelming. Be very careful as to what commitments you add to that pile as things start to reopen.

In terms of money, it depends on whether you buy a ready-made homeschool curriculum or not and also how much you invest in materials for this. That’s going to be your main expense. You should also be in contact with the school district and the state to find out how homeschooling matches up with educational requirements there. There may be some small expenses related to that.

Good luck! It sounds like a real challenge, but one that you’re relishing!

Q12: Sourdough question

I’m using your sourdough starter instructions. How much do I use when finally making the bread?
– Bianca

This is referring to my mailbag answer a while back about how to make your own sourdough starter.

When you have a starter going, you essentially replace half of it each day with flour and water. If you don’t, it will infinitely grow in size and become unmanageable. My usual strategy with a good sourdough starter is to take half of the starter that I’m going to toss each day and make bread with it.

My starter is usually about a quart in size when I replace half of it, so I take those two cups of starter that I would normally toss and make bread with it. I add in just enough flour and a bit of water to make a loaf, then I let it rise like normal and from there, just follow a normal bread baking recipe. Depending on the “wetness” of your sourdough starter and the size of your loaf pan, adding a cup of flour and a little bit of water -— maybe 1/4 of a cup should be enough.

Here’s the tricky part. Sourdough starter is very much a product of the environment it’s in. Your sourdough starter in your kitchen is going to have a somewhat different selection of yeast and other microbes in it than the sourdough starter in my kitchen. This means that some starters will be more moist than others, some starters will rise faster than others, and some starters will be more tangy and sour than others.

For example, when I use sourdough starter grown in my kitchen, the bread is usually much slower to rise than when I use yeast bought from the store, and it usually doesn’t end up particularly tart. Sometimes, I’ll split my starter in two, feed both halves, and then make bread almost directly from one of the halves the next day, adding just enough flour to make a loaf, letting it rise for a bit, and just baking it. That’s as sour as I can get it, and it’s still not super sour.

On the other hand, the sourdough starter that another of my friends has is potent. She has to use a very small portion of her starter when making bread or else it’s just incredibly sour. (I’m actually kind of jealous, but if I were to borrow some of her starter, it would gradually mellow out in my kitchen.)

So, the truth is that you’ll have to experiment a little bit and see how strong your own starter is, and the amount of flour and water you add depends on how moist it is. In any case, the best way to make bread is to just take the portion of starter that you would normally toss when feeding it and use that as the “yeast” in your bread, adding flour and water (and perhaps other ingredients) as desired to make a loaf.

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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