Updated on 11.28.17

Questions About Soup, Sunk Costs, Turkey, Insurance and More!

Trent Hamm

Reader Mailbag

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. Cheap turkey cooking?
2. Storing homemade soup
3. Flour differences for homemade bread
4. “Double your donation” to charities
5. Online services and sunk costs
6. Public schools versus private
7. Long term care insurance alone
8. Finding fee-only financial planners
9. Secondhand clothes for outdoor wear
10. Mobile phone security
11. Experian data breach steps
12. Meditation apps worth it?

As I write this, I’m riding along the Kansas turnpike at the end of a trip to Texas and back, which is going to be shortly followed by a trip to Illinois. Over the course of four days, I’m going to drive or ride through six large Midwestern states and sleep in three different ones.

The thing I always notice on trips like these is that people, in large part, have the same lives all across the United States. Most of their concerns are the same. They want to take care of themselves, take care of their families, live in a pleasant community, and have some semblance of a good life. They struggle with many of the same things and have many of the same worries – money, their health, the health of their loved ones, their social connections.

The seemingly “big” differences that divide a lot of us are actually fairly small in the big scheme of things. We agree on the big things and, in many ways, are secure in those big things, so we turn to the little things for our focus, and we allow those differences to divide us. We agree on 90% of things and accept those 90% of things so fundamentally and without question that we focus in on that 10%.

Many people I know are apprehensive about going to family Thanksgiving dinners this week. They don’t want to face people that they disagree with. They don’t want the disputes and the discomfort.

Remember this: as different and as far apart as we might seem at times, the truth is that we fundamentally agree on so many things that we take for granted. The simple fact that we’re together at all around a Thanksgiving table requires a lot of agreement on a lot of fundamental things about society in general, about relating to others, about general social etiquette.

When someone at the other end of the table is holding court on some topic that you disagree with, don’t get lost in how you disagree with them. Instead, think about all of the things that you do agree on – your love of family, your desire to preserve what you have, your shared relationships, your love of turkey gravy, or whatever.

It is easy to have negative feelings about someone when you focus only on what’s different. Make a conscious effort this year to think about what’s similar instead. You might find that any disagreements you may have are quite petty in comparison. At that point, it becomes easier to forgive and move on. Maybe consider guiding the topic toward something you agree on, like the quality of the food or a pleasant shared memory or shared fandom of a particular sports team, and away from those areas of disagreement.

Q1: Cheap turkey cooking?

What is the cheapest method of cooking a turkey?
– Dane

Do you have an abundance of excess wood to burn? If so, the cheapest way is to use a wood stove or smoker or wood-fired grill to cook it. This will take a long time and will require very careful temperature monitoring, but if you have a bunch of spare firewood that you’ve chopped yourself, it’s the cheapest.

Assuming you don’t have that and you’re comparing options like cooking in an oven or grilling it on a propane grill or deep frying it, the oven is almost always cheapest. The propane grill will use a lot of propane, so unless you have very cheap propane access, the oven will be far cheaper. Deep fried turkey will cook pretty quickly (an hour or so) over propane, meaning there’s less propane used, but you’re using a ton of cooking oil.

So, if you have a bunch of spare wood, cooking it over a wood fire is the cheapest; otherwise, your household oven is the cheapest.

Q2: Storing homemade soup

If you make a big batch of soup and want to freeze the leftovers how do you do that? Ziploc bags seem like a mess.
– Carrie

You absolutely can use quart sized and gallon sized freezer Ziplocs (or store brand freezer bags) to store soup. It can be a bit tricky to pour it in there, but it’s not that hard. I just hold the bag open with one hand and ladle it in there.

Another option is to buy bulk reusable soup containers online. and cost about $0.50 apiece. They go right through the dishwasher and freeze well, too. I often eat soup right out of these containers for lunch, and I’ve frozen other things like homemade sauerkraut in them.

Freezing soup is a great money saver. I highly recommend cooking extra soup whenever you make some because it’s really cost effective. It’s one of the best food bargains out there.

Q3: Flour differences for homemade bread

Your posts in the past about homemade bread got me on board with making homemade loaves. I don’t do it all the time but I make loaves and breadsticks every few weeks. Delicious and makes such good toast for breakfast!

I have always used store brand all purpose flour. Are there any big differences between flour types? Are name brands like King Arthur worth the extra cost?
– Kelly

Store brand all purpose flour is perfectly fine for making loaves of homemade bread and breadsticks. I’ve tried several different brands and never really noticed any real difference between them.

The question about types of flour is a bit more interesting. Bread flour has more gluten in it than all purpose flour, which basically means that the bread will be even chewier than with all purpose flour. Bread flour is good for making things like soft pretzels. It will make some really dense breadsticks.

I see no reason not to just use store brand all purpose flour for bread and breadsticks.

Q4: “Double your donation” to charities

How does it work when a charity says they will “double” or “triple” your donation? Where does the money come from?
– Lois

In situations like that, the charity has usually received a large donation pledge from a wealthy person or foundation. However, the charity and the wealthy donor have reached an agreement where the donation will be given only if it is matched by smaller donations.

So, let’s say Richie and Rose Rich intend to donate $100,000 to a charity, but they (and the charity) want to maximize the value from that donation. The two will enter into an agreement where their donation is actually a pledge to match the next $100,000 in donations.

At that point, the charity will go out and raise funds based on the idea of pledge matching. Each dollar they raise at that point is “doubled” because for every dollar raised from a small donor, Richie and Rose are also donating a dollar up to whatever limit they’ve designated.

So, you donate $10 and Richie and Rose match that $10. Your donation is effectively “doubled.”

Wouldn’t the charity get Richie and Rose’s donation anyway? It depends entirely upon the agreement between the Riches and the charity.

There’s really no scam involved. It’s just a way for a charity to get the most mileage they can out of large donations.

Q5: Online services and sunk costs

I bought a lifetime membership to publicgoods.com. Sunk cost. Now I’m wondering if it makes sense to actually use it. Do their prices look better than store brand?
– Ed

Price comparisons are the answer here. Looking around, it appears as though the site has some pretty solid prices and some that I’m not convinced are better than local offerings, at least for me.

You bring up an interesting point about sunk costs, though. Once you’ve bought something like a lifetime membership or pre-paid for a concert ticket, you need to treat those costs as truly “sunk,” meaning that no matter what you choose to do later on, that money is gone. Is that site the best offer right now or is something else better? The fact that you paid for the membership is irrelevant – the cost simply gives you access to something else.

It’s similar with a concert ticket. You already paid for the ticket, so all that ticket really does is give you another option on that night. Is that the best option, considering that it’s the only night you can take advantage of that option? Usually it is, but not always. You shouldn’t feel bad about taking advantage of a better option when that concert comes along. The money is gone either way.

Q6: Public schools versus private

My kids are currently in public school (elementary and middle), and I am growing increasingly frustrated with the system and the poor quality of the education they are receiving. They are both bright and well-behaved, but growing increasingly bored, which is affecting their attitude about school. For reference, our state has one of the shortest school years in the country, and both low test scores and low graduation rates. I thought being in a smart college town meant our schools would be fantastic, but they’re just ho-hum. I worry my kids will be ill-prepared for high school and college, since they aren’t learning how to study and are losing the “spark” of being interested in learning.

We have the opportunity to send them to a secular private school, which is surprisingly affordable (10k for 1st kid, 7k for 2nd), but I’m struggling with the decision. I want to support public schools! I’ve volunteered thousands of hours, and thousands of dollars, and it never seems to make a difference. I was even PTA president! (That was torture.) Is private school a good investment? Most kids who graduate 8th grade from this school take all AP classes in high school, earning enough college credits to enter college as a sophomore. That seems like a definite advantage… Plus the school just looks like so much fun. Lots of art, science, literature, engineering classes… Everyone seems to love it there. The kids look joyful. But I feel guilty spending the money, even though I recently returned to work and it more than doubled our household income. What are your thoughts on private school?
– Jill

The quality of public schools varies widely from state to state and even district to district. Some districts are very good at preparing their students for future studies and the modern economy, while others are not. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the biggest reason is the local taxpayers’ commitment to a quality school district, along with strongly involved parents (and not just one or two parents, either).

My recommendation of whether private school is “worth it” depends on a ton of factors: the quality of the available public schools, the quality of the private school being considered, the financial state of the family, and so on. It seems like, in your case, many of the factors point toward private school, but that is far from a universal result for everyone.

Our area is different. Non-religious private schools don’t thrive in our area because the public schools are very strong, so our pendulum swings heavily toward public schools.

Q7: Long term care insurance alone

I have been considering purchasing long term care insurance. However, every agent I speak with vigorously pushes whole life policies with long term care riders – and only such policies. I personally think (and have seen a lot of support for my position) that whole life insurance (both general policies or the long term care riders which may accompany them) is not the brightest use of hard-earned dollars. Is there another, better way? Like straight long term care insurance, without the whole life nonsense?
– Evan

You have to play hardball with these kinds of salespeople. Simply tell them that you are not interested in whole life insurance and wish to purchase only a long term care policy and want to see what they have for just that type of insurance. If they have nothing, walk away.

You are never under any obligation to listen to a sales pitch for a product you don’t want. Just walk out of the meeting. If they’re not telling you about the product you want to hear about, you have no obligation to stay and listen.

Salespeople will always try to sell you on their preferred product that happens to meet your needs. Unless you make it clear that their product doesn’t meet your needs and that you’re flatly not interested in what they’re trying to sell, they will continue to sell that lesser product to you. Just walk away from that nonsense.

Evan has a second question.

Q8: Finding fee-only financial planners

How does one locate the best fee-only financial planner in his or her own area? Virtually nobody admits he or she is not the best (or perhaps not even particularly good) at a given profession. Is there a way to sort the good from bad?
– Evan

The first place to ask is among trusted people in your local area. Who do you trust? Who do those people use for financial planning? Start there.

When you’ve identified a few potential financial planners, research them online. What can you find out about those planners? What is their fee structure like? What certifications do they have? This simple process should narrow things even more.

Then, the ones still remaining on your list. See what they’re actually like. What is their fee structure like? What is their financial philosophy? Do they seem personable? Do they start off by listening to you and taking notes, or do they fill all of the space talking about themselves?

That process will lead you to the right planner in your area.

Q9: Secondhand clothes for outdoor wear

I, too, work outside quite a bit. further, I hike most days in a state park. I take advantage of thrift store shopping for these activities (and save my money for times when the appearance of my clothing is more important):
denim – the thrift stores around me are FULL of jeans that have a LOT of life left in them – especially when their function is more important than their appearance. I am not an easy to fit size, but always find some.
layers – especially for being outside in cold weather, I prefer to wear several lighter layers than one heavier one. for $3-4, I can buy 100% cotton or polyester wicking fabric shirts as base layers. they may advertise some product or event but since no one sees the base layer, I don’t care. same for color and most styles. I also find down filled coats that are great for sweaty work, saving my nicer down coat for appropriate occasions.
washability – I buy almost nothing that cannot be laundered at home – from garments to home décor. and, MOST things can be laundered at home if handled properly. down coats go thru the washer and (usually) the dryer just fine if they do not have fancy styling/metallic threads.
caps, gloves, etc – I go thru these quickly so I do not invest a lot of money in them. I need them to be machine wash and dry. both caps and gloves can also be layered for very cold weather.
socks – I buy ONLY merino wool blend socks for outdoor winter work/hike. Costco has them in 4-packs for a great price. also available from a vendor online at a great price as ‘seconds’. I typically pay not more than $5/pair.

Being a fashionista is the bane of anyone trying to be frugal about dressing for outdoor work. the only exception is high quality, durable footwear for which I am willing to pay.
– Joe

I’m actually amazed that you’re able to find many pairs of jeans at secondhand stores. I very rarely see any jeans at secondhand stores, and they usually fall into the fashionable “skinny jeans” variety.

Almost every secondhand store I’ve visited is about 80% shirts (for men, at least) and the pants selection is almost entirely khakis. Around here, the thing you find in abundance at secondhand stores is sweatshirts by the THOUSANDS.

Most of your other advice is pretty good and matches my own (wool socks, layering, easy laundering, etc.).

Q10: Mobile phone security

I wonder if you’ve ever done an article on mobile phone security.

I’ve just finished read an article that suggests this as something important especially during the holidays. I have an iPhone and was under the impression that extra security protection was not necessary?

Would love your insights on this subject.
– Stacia

The number one thing people should be doing for security on their phone is to use a passcode that isn’t anything obvious like your birthdate. Ideally, it should be a passcode that mixes letters and numbers into something that’s not connected meaningfully to your identity.

Try not to connect to open wi-fi points, like those at businesses, unless you don’t do anything of importance on your phone. Your home wi-fi should be password protected and should be fine.

It’s also a good idea to enable the remote data wipe feature on your phone if it gets stolen, so that you can log onto a website from another device and wipe the data on your phone. This helps to protect you should your phone ever be stolen, though most phone thieves will usually just wipe your phone anyway.

Those are the key steps. If you’re using a phone for business, there may be other steps you should take depending on the protocols of your workplace.

Q11: Experian data breach steps

I was possibly hacked in the Equifax Data Breach, so I followed steps in your article.

I requested my free annual credit report from Experian and determined that there was nothing out of line.

In the section called “I set a one-year fraud alert on my credit reports,” I followed instructions for setting up an active duty alert for up to one year for free.

My question – Is this for active duty military only?
– Dave

Experian has been changing their options for credit freezes and credit alerts rapidly since the data breach. At the moment, it appears as though their credit alert options are free for 90 days for anyone, free for one year for active duty military members, or free for anyone actively affected by the data breach for seven years.

If you marked the wrong box by accident, you’re likely in violation of the terms of service of the credit alert service. You really have two options.

One, you can Experian, explain that you marked the wrong box, and they’ll probably move you to the 90 day service (though they may just leave you in place).

Two, you can say nothing and, most likely, nothing will happen, though they may eventually discover it and will likely end the credit alert service abruptly. As far as I can tell, you can just sign up again every ninety days, so I don’t think it’s a big issue. I read through the terms of service and didn’t see anything that indicated that there would be a problem – in fact, I didn’t see any direct mention of this other than a broad mention of early termination of the credit alert service for a broad swath of reasons that would probably include this.

Q12: Meditation apps worth it?

What do you think about daily meditation apps like Calm and Headspace? Are they worth the monthly fee for premium service? Free options seem kind of limited.
– Tessa

I think both of those apps are perfectly fine for guided meditations. I used the fairly limited free options in both of those apps for a while, but I couldn’t justify the expense.

Instead, what I do is simply set a timer on my phone, then do the meditation myself. I’ll set the timer for, say, fifteen minutes, start it, then close my eyes and focus on my breathing for that entire time, just bringing my thoughts back to my breathing whenever I notice myself going off track.

If you really want some guided meditations, check out Youtube. There are a lot of guided meditations on there, though I haven’t really explored them. Since I got used to doing them without guidance, I actually find them to be somewhat interrupting and prefer to do them on my own.

Got any questions? The best way to ask is to 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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