Reader Mailbag #7

Each Monday, Money360 opens up the reader mailbags and answers ten to twenty 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.
How to write a great thank-you note
My thoughts on Getting Things Done and unstructured time management

And now for some great reader questions!

Can you point me in the direction of some great free online games?
– Philbert

First of all, if you haven’t spent five minutes playing You Have To Burn The Rope, you haven’t enjoyed the sublime nature of online games.

My favorite online game of all, though, is Desktop Tower Defense – it’s the one game I actually block my work computer from accessing because I can burn time playing it. The strategy is fairly complex – it’s a real-time strategy game – but the game is simple enough that you can figure it out in just a few minutes.

There are also two online versions of real-world games that I often play. I use to get my daily fill of sudoku (I usually play a puzzle or two to mentally limber up in the morning) and I often will play a few hands of Yahoo! Bridge in the evening since I don’t know anyone in real life besides myself that plays bridge.

That’s pretty much it. I’ll try new games that my friends send me, but for the most part I stick with these (and the games we have for the Wii or Nintendo DS).

Can you offer any suggestions on how to stay on track once you’re out of debt? Its so hard when you now have lots of extra cash around, to start spending it again.
– Susan

The biggest tip I have is to surround yourself with people with a similar frugal financial philosophy. I’m very lucky in that my wife doesn’t spend much money – if anything, at this point, I spend more than she does – and my best friend is one of the most frugal people I’ve ever met. They are both positive influences on me and keep me from spending money needlessly time and time again, in both obvious and subtle ways.

Another important tip is to find dirt-cheap methods of entertainment. Book reading is a good one if you leverage your local library and PaperBackSwap effectively. Card games, community involvement, volunteer work … there are a lot of free or very inexpensive hobbies that you can take up.

Also, never, ever shop just to entertain yourself. Shopping for entertainment’s sake is one of the worst possible ways to leak money out of your wallet. Just avoid it like the plague.

What were your favorite movies of the last year? Of all time? Can you name five of each?
– Milton

My criteria for a movie being a “favorite” is that I’m still thinking about it a week later. That means the movie is compelling enough to be a regular part of my consciousness – and thus has probably changed me as a person in some way.

The only move I’ve seen in the past year that I thoroughly enjoyed was There Will Be Blood. Daniel Plainview is one of the best film characters I’ve ever seen – I felt revulsion and sympathy for him at the same time.

All time? The list is easy: The Third Man; Citizen Kane; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; Casablanca; and The Maltese Falcon. I watch these films over and over again and never get tired of them.

The simple fact that I have four (!) movies on this list from the 1940s sums up the one singular thought I have about the movie industry: they don’t make ’em like they used to. I’d far rather watch a movie from the 1940s than a movie from the past decade without even knowing anything else about them.

What’s the difference between then and now? Back then, there was no crutch for special effects – it all relied on the story and the characters and the ideas. I feel computer-aided special effects have ruined most modern movies, to tell the truth. They might be pretty, but quite often I’m left mildly amused but unmoved. I’d rather read a book than watch a CG-fest.

I’d love to see your grocery list, how much each item costs you, and what you do with it — ie. all resultant meals, snacks, etc. for a week (or however long you shop for).
– Anne

Well, I don’t have a “standard” grocery list, per se. Here’s what we do instead.

Each Sunday, in the Sunday paper, we get flyers for our local grocery store for the next week. I use that flyer and look for their exceptional sales – the ones that are clearly and obviously a good deal.

Once I’ve identified a handful of key ingredients – usually whichever fresh produce happens to be on sale – I bust open several of my trusty cookbooks, especially How to Cook Everything, Joy of Cooking, and The New Best Recipe. I simply try to find several interesting recipe ideas that match up well with those ingredients. I’ll also stock up on key staples if they’re on sale – I’ve purchased fifteen pounds of chicken breasts before, for example.

For example, let’s say I notice a huge sale on oranges at the store. I might then dig through my cookbooks and eventually decide to make citrus chicken breasts under a brick since we have chicken in the freezer, eat oranges as a breakfast fruit that week instead of our usual bananas, and possibly some orange ginger bread.

From those recipes, I take a look at what we have on hand and what we still need and construct a grocery list. I also take a look at a handful of staples as well – mostly household supplies – and make sure we don’t need things like shampoo, etc. In the end, I wind up with a very tight list of stuff to buy, then I head off to the grocery store and buy only things that appear on the list.

What is the most romantic thing you’ve done for your wife in the last year? What’s the most romantic thing she’s done for you?
– Annie

My wife reports that the most romantic thing I did for her this past year was save my nickels and dimes to buy her an Amazon Kindle for Christmas, since she’s a more voracious reader than even I am. Since then, she’s been reading a ton of stuff, including a ton of free classics downloaded from If you’re a fan of classic literature at all, a Kindle can be a great way to read mountains of classic lit – it’s available for free and with the absurd number of classics in the public domain available online, there’s always something to read. She loves it.

For me, the most romantic thing my wife did was give birth to our second child and allow me to hold my daughter before she did. When our son was born, I didn’t hold him much at first, partially because she wanted to hold him almost all of the time, but more so that I was actually somewhat afraid to hold him at first. Not so with our daughter – I was deeply looking forward to holding that little baby gir. My wife knows knows how much our son means to me and she showed so much in that one moment about the wonderful core person she really is. She did hold her a bit, but mostly my wife rested and just watched the two of us.

How can you feel comfortable writing about your family in such detail? Aren’t you worried about privacy or family problems?
– Minnie

This is a tricky issue when it comes to Money360. I have two big contrasting interests at work when I write a post in which I discuss family and friends.

Part of me knows that when I write about my family and about my own real situations, I am able to make others not feel alone when they are facing similar problems, and I’m often able to draw people out and make them feel comfortable talking about difficult money problems. I’m a big believer in the idea that talking about money can help heal a lot of problems when it comes to money.

On the other hand, there’s privacy. I don’t want to ever invade someone’s privacy or discuss personal matters in such an open environment – it’s not fair to them in any way.

What I generally do, then, is write about the things I experience, but select facts carefully and blur personal details. I’ll often mis-identify people in discussions, alter details that aren’t relevant, and so forth – doing things that protect privacy while still maintaining the value and truth of the story.

The other options I have – not discussing real stories at all or else just laying everything out there – both have a lot of negative consequences without any real benefit. Not telling real stories at all eliminates most of the necessary humanity of what I’m writing about. Laying everything out there causes personal hurt to people I have no interest in hurting. So I try very carefully to find a middle ground that does both.

I’ve been reading PF blogs for a while now and I have noticed that there is a tendency towards Environmentalism or “Green Living”. Why? Why is it so universally accepted that global warming is occuring when the climate change theory is, well, just a theory? And why are “Greenies” so damn smug and self-righteous about their “faith”?
– Ron

I think for most people there is a big overlap between frugal living and green living. For example, look at installing a programmable thermostat in your home. That’s a brilliant way to cut down on heating and cooling costs by trimming your budget, but it also cuts way down on CO2 emissions.

Also, even though climate change theory is just a theory, let’s say there’s even a slight chance that it’s true and you can make a simple choice to cut down on your CO2 emissions. Why not do it?

As for the “smug” factor, pretty much everyone is smug and confident in their own beliefs. If you believe something to be right and you have any backbone at all, you will stand up for that belief, even if others disagree. Quite often, to those who do disagree, that’s viewed as smugness whether it’s intended to be or not.

Lost comes back on April 24 (this Thursday). What will happen over the rest of this season?
– Johnny Locke

I have lots of guesses, but here’s my favorite one. I don’t think Locke actually blew up the sub last season. I think he merely hid it somewhere and that the Oceanic Six will escape on that sub.

Also, my wife thinks Lost will end with the exact same scene as it started with – Jack laying on his back in the jungle.

What did your spending look like before your frugal change and what does it look like now? Could you show us your income and expense for a full year before and after?
– John

What practical, step by step, things do you do to live off of only 35-40% of your income? Would you consider posting your monthly budget? Thank you
– Lisa

Both of these questions have effectively the same answer. Prior to my financial turnaround, I basically kept no financial records at all. I just spent and didn’t really worry about the consequences, and that resulted in a big mountain of debt that I had to fight very hard to overcome. Thus, a “before and after” picture is basically impossible.

As for a monthly budget, I did one of those for a long while as I recovered, but I began to realize, as I discussed a while back, that a budget is a lot like training wheels – it teaches you how to balance things yourself and eventually you don’t need those training wheels any more.

We were able to live off such a low percentage of our income in 2007 because (a) I had significant writing income on top of a full time job and (b) we spent very, very little extra money. We ate at home almost every meal (and ate a lot of inexpensive things, like beans) and simply didn’t spend money on entertainment at all.

My budget at this point consists of a bunch of automatic bill payments and transfers, if you can call that a budget. I have a rock-solid grip on my spending and when something comes up, I don’t worry at all about just busting out the plastic to cover it, going home, and paying off that whole card balance out of the emergency fund.

I have always been an avid fan of garage sales and thrift stores and have saved a bundle over the years along with the thrill of the hunt that goes with it. Lately I have become concerned with the thought of acquiring bed bugs. Am I being ridiculous?
– Lyndy

That’s not ridiculous at all – anything acquired at a yard sale or a thrift store should be adequately cleaned before use. I prefer to wash cloth items at a laundromat even before bringing them home, just to avoid things like bedbugs. I tend to give all such things an intense cleaning – hot water and more than ample doses of color safe bleach.

Got any questions? Ask them in the comments and I’ll use them in future mailbags.

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