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by Trent Hamm 12.02.2008
Posted In: Organization at 06:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Trent Hamm Answers Reader Mail

Each Monday, The Simple Dollar opens up the reader mailbags and answers 10 to 20 simple questions offered up by the readers on personal finance topics and many other things. Got a question? Ask it in the comments. You might also enjoy the archive of earlier reader mailbags.

As usual, we’ll start things off with a few links to older articles that directly answer questions I’ve heard recently. A few people have asked for suggestions for books on how to live cheap. Here are four suggestions (besides my own book):
The Complete Tightwad Gazette
America’s Cheapest Family
The Ultimate Cheapskate’s Road Map to True Riches
The Frugal Duchess

And now for some great reader questions!

My wife is pregnant and our first kid is due in April. It really is a miracle, but obviously money is always on the mind. Would it be better to:
1.) Buy life insurance in case something happens
2.) Start saving for their college
3.) Pay down our house payment to rid ourselves of the devil called PMI
4.) Pay down our very low (less than 2%) interest student loans that my wife and I have ($25g or so)

— Luke

Throw out No. 4 immediately. Compared to the others, it’s a very poor choice. Stick with the minimum payments on that one.

I would look into term life insurance for both you and your spouse, just in case. Many insurance salesmen will try to sell you more than you need; you should strive to replace one’s salary for a few years, plus enough to cover burial expenses. This shouldn’t cost you too much, though.

I’d also start a 529 plan for the unborn child. Start it with one of you as beneficiary right now and set up a regular contribution plan, then when the child is born change the beneficiary. You don’t need to contribute a ton to this one, either; $50 or $100 a month will give you a huge boost in 19 years or so.

I’d probably focus most heavily on getting rid of the PMI. Get your mortgage down to 80%, then refinance that thing. It’ll be more financially beneficial for you over the long run than almost anything you could do.

I’m a gin and tonic fan myself. What is your favorite gin?
— Tyler

I am highly partial to Bombay Sapphire for the gin. I’ve tried several different kinds and I keep coming back to it.

More important for a great gin and tonic, though, is good tonic water. Skip the Schweppes or the Canada Dry or the store brand. Instead, look around for Fever-Tree tonic water. I swear by it, but I have a hard time finding it locally.

I am currently a college student. Throughout high school I worked really hard to earn scholarships and save money for college. During my third semester in college, I started CoOping (if you are not familiar with this, it is where a college student works for a company that does work related to the student’s major, and the college student earns money and gets work experience). Not only am I funding my entire education, thanks to scholarships and CoOp, but I also have a lot of money just sitting in the bank earning no interest (on the range of about an extra $5,000 - $10,000). I am 21, and I have thought the best choice would be to wait until I make a down payment on a future house until I start investing long-term or putting money in a 401k. So I have been trying to put money in short-term CDs. However, I hear that CDs don’t even keep up with inflation at times (such as now - I think). Is there anything I can do with this spare money for short-term investing with little risk other than CDs? Is this the proper approach - waiting to invest after I purchase my first home (which I plan to purchase maybe 2-3 years after college)?
— Tim

CDs are probably your best choice. Given your situation, I would go CD shopping, perhaps using the CD rate tool at Bankrate.com. Allow yourself to look at CDs that mature when you’ll actually need the money - if you know you won’t need the money for three years, then look at CDs up to 36 months, for example.

I’m almost sure you’ll find a CD much better than what you’re buying right now. They’re a pretty good choice if you’re seeking a simple investment choice that keeps your balance safe.

Do you keep tabs of your web site's readers? How many did you have the day you began? How many at 6 months, 1 year, 2 years?
— Mol

Well, I started The Simple Dollar in November 2006. Let’s use Google Analytics to check my site usage.

During my first month, November 2006, The Simple Dollar had 6,287 visits and 17,080 page views.

During my sixth month, April 2007, The Simple Dollar had 288,301 visits and 586,509 page views.

During my 12th month, October 2007, The Simple Dollar had 423,359 visits and 864,551 page views.

During my 24th month, October 2008, The Simple Dollar had 626,939 visits and 1,178,976 page views.

Other than astronomical growth during the second and third months of the site’s existence, the growth has actually been extremely steady on average (with a few months of fluctuation).

If you are frugal and smart, you have a credit union as your bank. However, my credit union does not have safety deposit boxes. Boxes seem like they are becoming a rarity in my area. The only bank that has them is the BofA in the next town, and that branch is closing. I’ve switched to a fire-proof “go” box, but are there better alternatives?
— Mikey

I highly disagree with your first sentence. Credit unions are good for some things but not so good at others. For example, compare them to an online for-profit bank. Such banks can offer a higher interest rate than credit unions can because credit unions must pay for brick-and-mortar infrastructure. However, credit unions do have the advantage of manually underwriting any borrowing you might want to do, which means they’re a great place to go to get loans.

One option would be to open an “emergency fund” savings account at another local bank and use them for a safe deposit box. That’s probably the option I would use in your situation.

If money were no object, would you send your children to a private school?
— William

I would be open to it, but it would depend on the specific school.

I’d want to know about the school in detail. I’d want to tour it and perhaps take a look at the classes offered there. I’d ask around for referrals from people I trust in the community.

If it measured up, I certainly would send my child there. My primary motivation would be for my children to get the best education available to them, and if that meant a private school in my area and money didn’t matter then a private school is what they’d have.

Where do you purchase your Certificates of Deposit (CDs)? Are the online banks reputable?
— Chris

I buy my CDs through my primary bank, ING Direct. It’s been incredibly easy; just a few clicks and it’s purchased.

I have more faith, actually, in an online bank than I do in a teller-based bank in my local community. With a teller-based bank, you have other members of the community who have access to your personal financial information — and that, frankly, makes me nervous. I’ve known bank employees who openly gossip about the account status of people who bank there. With the online banks, you’re largely just a number; rather private.

If an online bank is associated with a large financial institution and the accounts are FDIC insured, I actually feel more secure with an online bank.

Do you actually practice all of the stuff you write about?
— Gillian

I try almost everything I mention on The Simple Dollar. Obviously, sometimes I mention tactics that simply aren’t routinely applicable in my current life. For example, frugal dating tactics - I’m not a part of the singles scene, so I don’t have a good opportunity to try them out. My wife and I tend to spend almost every evening home with the kids.

Quite often, I’m innately curious and I want to see if things work. Can I really make homemade laundry detergent that works? Does baking soda and water really do a good job at cleaning grout? How much money do CFLs really save? I’m naturally curious and following these questions often lead directly to posts.

In what areas of your life are you NOT frugal?
— Shawn

Our big area of splurging is food. I confess, although I do use shopping lists for my groceries, I tend to choose food items almost entirely based on quality and not on price. We buy a lot of organics and a lot of farm-fresh poultry products. We buy meat directly from a butcher as well.

When we do buy items, we’ve moved from just buying lots of things to rarely buying things - but when we do buy things, we buy high quality items. Rather than buying tons of cheap items for wall decorations, we’re now slowly buying high-quality items (original art, for example) that click with both of us, for example. We plan for these purchases pretty carefully, but we’re willing to spend for quality items that will last us forever.

Do you participate in meetups with other bloggers? If so, which ones?
— Joely

I’m willing to participate in such meetups, but rural central Iowa isn’t a hotbed of blogging activity. There is apparently a regular blogger meetup in Des Moines, but I’ve never attended it — it would take me almost an hour each way to go there for a one hour meetup, so I usually find that I have something more high priority to do.

My wife and I have discussed going on a long trip this coming summer to a few large cities. If we do so, I’d be willing to have meetups with readers in any large cities we go to: meet somewhere, have a drink and chat freely about whatever.

TRENT HAMM blogs about personal finance at www.thesimpledollar.com. If you have a question that you would like answered, ask in the commments on his blog.

by Trent Hamm 12.09.2008
Posted In: Wellness at 09:53 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Overcoming Obstacles

As I’ve written about on here and Twittered about more than a few times, I’ve been through some serious health issues over the last month and a half. It’s actually been a long string of semi-related things - ear infection, sinus infection, TMJ, a very strong allergic reaction to Bactrim, a virus that threw a bunch of levels out of whack, an eye infection, and now apparently some troubles with my liver that may or may not be related to the virus. I haven’t felt normal since before Election Day, to tell the truth.

There have been a lot of days when I’ve wanted to just throw in the towel on all of it and just stay in bed all day, reading books and wallowing in some sense of self-pity. Each time, though, I’ve made myself get up, eat a decent breakfast, take a shower, and at least make some sort of an attempt at productivity, whether it be writing a handful of entries on a good day or simply just answering a couple of emails on a bad one. Some days, I would stop very early and take a nap so that I would have energy in the evening to spend with my children.

What’s kept me going - and will keep me going for the foreseeable future - is hope. I truly believe that at some point in the near future, things will return to some degree of normalcy in my life and health, and that will be a great moment for me, for my wife, for my kids, and for everyone else in my life.

Here’s how.

I look for signs that today is better than the day before it. Many days, I can find those signs, and they keep me optimistic, even if I still don’t feel normal. As I write this, for example, I can reflect that today my energy level has been pretty consistent all day, and that’s been a pretty rare thing as of late.

I keep the positive things in my life front and center at all times. My office has a bunch of pictures of my wife and my children adorning the walls and the desktop. Whenever I need some inspiration, I look at those pictures - and I remember the great things I have to work for and live for.

I remind myself of the positive potential of the future. I think ahead to the things I want to enjoy in the future. I look forward to Christmas, for example, and to the spring and summer beyond that. Thinking of a warm summer day gets me actually excited and really keeps me positive.

I take care of the fundamentals by eating a very healthy diet. I’ve been focusing very hard on eating healthy foods over the past month, carefully selecting a diet that will keep my energy levels up, not put a lot of junk into my body, and provide all my nutritional needs.

What these tactics have in common is that they’re the same tactics I’ve been using to fix my personal finances. I look for ways to motivate myself, keep careful track of my progress, set goals, and focus on the fundamentals.

Whenever you see something that seems difficult in front of you, stick to the basics. Look for ways to motivate yourself and think positively about the obstacle. Keep track of your progress, so that you can clearly see that you are moving forward even if the path seems very difficult. Set goals and milestones along the way so that success can be reached on a regular basis. Focus on the fundamentals along the way - the little things that you know how to do well and the things that can “grease the skids” for the more difficult pieces.

The building blocks of success are universal. One just needs to apply them effectively in the situation they find themselves in.

TRENT HAMM blogs about personal finance at www.thesimpledollar.com. If you have a question that you would like answered, ask in the commments on his blog.

by Stephen Carter-Novotni 01.14.2009
Posted In: Wellness at 10:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday Wellness Roundup

Personal Health

  • Fox News: A Brazilian bikini wax nearly kills an Australian woman.

  • Wall Street Journal: States slash health care for uninsured while the Federal government picks up the slack.

Finance and Frugal Living

Green Life

  • Wikipedia: All about Lisa Jackson, Obama's pick to head the EPA.

by 08.05.2010
Posted In: Green living at 01:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Free Trees to Good Homes

If your yard could use a little more greenery or you're interested in helping people in the urban core breath a little easier, the Cincinnati Park Board has a deal for you.

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by Stephen Carter-Novotni 10.27.2008
Posted In: Wellness, Green living at 10:13 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday Wellness Roundup

This has been a three-cup-of-coffee morning for me. Maybe for you, too. To help get you started on a healthier week, here's some wellness oriented news that should get your blood moving. (We'll work on getting it to boil next time.)

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by Stephen Carter-Novotni 11.28.2008
Posted In: Wellness at 09:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Buy Nothing Today (or Transact Only As Necessary)

Are you thinking about money this morning? That's what most people are doing--fretting over how much they have to spend and where they can find the best deals. Money should be the first thing on your mind today and, conversely, the last.

In case you hadn't heard, Black Friday has an alter ego: Buy Nothing Day. It's a loosely organized event designed to help you unplug from money for a day. No transactions. No gifts. No buying gas. I like it and advocate it, though I won't be a strict adherent today. I have a car with a bad axle and I need to fix it. So after I finish this article I'm on my way to Autozone. No gifts for me, but I will spend $60 on a car parts.

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by Stephen Carter-Novotni 03.10.2009
Posted In: Money at 08:31 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Get 25 Free Resumes from Kinko's Today

It's not exactly a stimulus package, but every little bit helps.

Today only, FedEx Office (a.k.a. Kinko's) will print up to 25 copies of your resume for free.

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by Hannah McCartney 06.08.2009
Posted In: Wellness at 03:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

This Is Why You're Fat

Over the past several months, Senate leaders have been contemplating imposing an obesity tax on non-diet sugary drinks in an effort to help pay for a renovation of the country’s health care system and lower consumption of a product presumed to be a crucial contributor to obesity in the U.S. Congressional estimates state that a tax of 3 cents per 12-ounce drink could potentially raise up to $50 billion over 10 years.

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by Rebecca Carter-Novotni 10.24.2008
Posted In: Wellness at 06:23 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fruits and Veggies: Simply Radical Preventive Health

As a person who is (or at least is trying to be) health conscious, I have discovered that besides an active lifestyle with plenty of physical exercise, one of the most simple and radical things that I can do to improve my health is to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in the proper proportions.

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by Stephen Carter-Novotni 10.15.2008
Posted In: Green living at 11:07 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

This Week In Wellness

Learn about the services available to persons in Ohio struggling with mental illness, their legal rights and more. Free. 7 p.m. Oct. 16. Workforce One of Warren County, 300 E. Silver St., Lebanon, 513-695-3650.

There’s still time to register for Recycling & Beyond: What YOU Can Do!, a single-day  conference on recycling, energy conservation and sustainable living. Featuring practical advice from Cincinnati Director of the Office of Environmental Quality Larry Falkin, Duke Energy Product Manager of Energy Efficiency Kay Tuttle and others. $5 registration required. 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Oct. 28. Call 513-871-6983 or click on thinkgreenactclean.blogspot.com.