Reader Mailbag: White Christmas

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to five word summaries. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Homemade vanilla extract and vodka
2. Secure money use on vacation
3. Moving to the United States
4. Donating to political candidates
5. Revisiting the Iowa Treasure Hunt
6. Walking away from debt
7. Helping the elderly shop
8. Quirky Christmas traditions
9. Thoughtful recipe system
10. Handling overspending fiance

The saddest thing that happened this year was leaving our house, wreathed in tons of snow, and driving to our extended family, where there was no snow (but there was a big hill, sadly), then watch my children’s faces as they opened up sleds as a gift and then looked out the window to the big hill without any snow on it.

Don’t worry, they will get plenty of sledding in before the winter is over.

Q1: Homemade vanilla extract and vodka
I’m thinking about making the vanilla extract for some friends. Have you also tried the same method for making vanilla-flavored vodka (for drinking)? I’d like to do both and I’m not sure if I’d be better off with quality vodka for drinking or if people wouldn’t notice the difference.

– Angela

You can certainly do this. If you just want vodka with a hint of vanilla flavor, get just a couple of bean pods, slice them open, stick them into the vodka bottle, and let them stay there for just a week or so. Taste the vodka regularly until it has the flavor you want.

When it does, pour the vodka through a coffee filter to strain out all of the pieces of the bean pod and the tiny beans, then pour the strained vodka back into the cleaned-out bottle.

There you go – homemade vanilla-tinted vodka. It’s cheaper than buying the flavored vodka at the store.

Q2: Secure money use on vacation
I can’t decide what the biggest risk is on vacation. Should I carry all of my credit cards and cash with me all the time? Or should I keep some of it back in the room someplace safe? They both seem risky to me.

– Virginia

Although you’re taking a slightly bigger risk by leaving some of your money in the room, the downside of carrying everything with you and losing it or getting robbed is much greater.

You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you don’t have any credit cards, any cash, or any identification. That’s far worse than just having part of those things stolen.

I usually split everything roughly in half, put half of it in a secure place in my room (or at least as secure as I can make it), and take the other half with me. That way, if either stash gets robbed, it’s not too bad of a situation.

Of course, the actual risk of robbery in either case is really small.

Q3: Moving to the United States
I’ve been living in Southern Spain for the past 12 years with my 19 year daughter. It has the highest unemployment rate in all of Europe, and I am currently on the dole, which finishes mid-January. I don’t have any savings, or emergency funds, as these have gone, through moving several times within Andalucia, to find work, and to keep us going when times have been hard.

We would like to leave Spain, pack up the minimum stuff, and go to New York, and start again there, in the hope of having a better life. I’m well qualified and experienced, as an English Teacher (nearly 30 years), and have 2 degrees, including a Masters degree, and counseling and teaching qualifications.

I’m also a Freelance Writer, and have had many feature articles published in local magazines and English newspapers here.

I am British, but also speak reasonably fluent Spanish, but have no Spanish qualifications, except as a Spanish trained Security guard, but the authorization has now expired, and I hated the boredom of the job anyway. I have done many different jobs, since leaving university.

I have 24hr. ADSL, and a home office here, and would also like to set up my own Freelance Writing website in January, with the last lot of unemployment money. It’s impossible to be well-paid here, as many of the employers want something for nothing, cheat you on the contracts, and you are lucky if and when you get paid. I don’t see a future for my daughter here, who is doing a professional ‘Graphic arts’ course, paid for by the Spanish government. Here, one in four people are unemployed, and nearly half of the youth population are out of work, or not studying.

How would I find a well-paid job in New York, enough to get us a small apartment to live there?

Do American companies take on British people, or do they have to give jobs to American people first?

Do American companies, for instance, like a newspaper company, pay the visa costs, and arrange them, or would I do that myself, if I was offered a contract?

I like living here, but at 53 years old, I don’t see a future here for myself, or my daughter, and I don’t want to live in the UK again.
– Josephine

American companies do take on foreign citizens as employees. Some companies, if they view you as a stellar candidate, will help with visa costs and so forth.

However, the American job market isn’t all that great, either. A high-paying job in the New York area is going to be flooded with applications and resumes.

If I were you, I would get things ready so that you could move quickly if a job presents itself, but I wouldn’t make moves that would bet the farm on it.

Plus, you may be able to get freelance work based on where you’re at. Propose articles about the economic situation in Spain based on what you’re observing. That kind of writing is valuable to some publications.

Q4: Donating to political candidates
Why would anyone donate to a political candidate? They’ll just go to Washington and be corrupt anyway. Congress does nothing. Why would you spend money to support nothing?

– Linda

People usually donate to a political candidate because they genuinely see that candidate as the best representative for their district.

For example, in my own district, two candidates with pretty different political views were running for Congress. Both wound up collecting a lot in donations from people who had different perspectives on what was best for our district.

I view a donated dollar as being much like another vote, actually. Some people simply want more impact on the election because of their personal beliefs.

Q5: Revisiting the Iowa Treasure Hunt
The other day I stopped back at again as it was in the news again. I go into the site every few years and search the surnames of my family just-in-case. This year I found almost $70 for my son who is a new parent and trying to make ends meet as a waiter. His fiance’s father had over $600 – just sitting out there waiting for him to come in and claim it.

I guess that there are similar sites at most of the other state’s treasury department and it occurred to me that it might be something you might want to include a mention of in your blog. While it’s not technically about being frugal, it is basically finding money you didn’t know you had lost… but wouldn’t it be awesome if everyone found the money they didn’t know they lost?
– Chris

Absolutely. The Great Iowa Treasure Hunt is a wonderful bargain.

For those unaware, the Great Iowa Treasure Hunt (linked above) is a site where Iowans can check to find out if they have any unclaimed funds that should be theirs, whether it’s an unclaimed tax return or something else. I’ve found family members listed there, though I’ve not yet found any “treasure” for myself.

Other states offer other programs of a similar nature. For example, Ohio has an unclaimed funds database, while California has a site for unclaimed property. Just search Google for your state and the phrase “unclaimed funds” or “unclaimed property.”

Q6: Walking away from debt
Why don’t people just walk away from debt when it gets to be overwhelming?

– Sean

There are a lot of reasons.

One, if you borrow money from someone – and, even if you borrow from a company, you’re just borrowing from a large number of someones – and say you’ll repay it, the honest thing to do is to live up to your word.

Two, if you don’t repay it, your credit report will be trashed, and that’s something that will dog you for several years, making your insurance rates higher. If you want to access credit during that period, it’s not going to happen unless you want to pay high interest rates.

Three, some types of debts, such as student loan debts, will continue to hound you and eventually result in outcomes like wage garnishments on top of the devastation they wreak to your credit report. You’ll also have the joy of creditors constantly ing you through the phone and mail.

This adds up to a pretty unpleasant package.

Q7: Helping the elderly shop
i currently am a mailman with work hours 8-6 and I know of many elderly and handicap customers who can’t get to stores. How much do I charge to make the numbers work, gas, mileage, time and maybe I can use the cell phone attachment for swiping credit cards. Please help.

– Tim

Your first step should be making sure that you actually have a set of interested customers and, if you do, how often those customers would tap your business at first.

There isn’t a lot of up-front investment here. You can get mobile card readers for free, for starters. Mostly, you need to make sure that you’re bringing in enough to cover your expenses and make the time worth it to you. That depends on how you value your time, as well as the gas mileage that your car gets.

You’re also doing something close to a taxi service, and in many areas, such services are tightly regulated. You should check with city hall before starting to provide this service.

Q8: Quirky Christmas traditions
I love hearing about the weird family traditions that families have at Christmastime. It seems like every family has a couple. What are yours?

– Sasha

We don’t do anything too odd. My wife’s extended family often makes lefse, which is a traditional Norwegian food that takes some time to prepare. They also often open their Christmas gifts on Christmas Eve.

For quite a while, my own extended family would end their Christmas celebration with an argument. It became so regular that people would say things like “come for the presents, stick around for the fights.” Thankfully, that “tradition” seems to have died off with the turn of the millennium.

Our family doesn’t really do anything that’s too odd around the holidays, though.

Q9: Thoughtful recipe system
Basically, I use my Gmail account by emailing myself all my recipes. This works best, obviously, with recipes I find online, where I can just copy and paste them into an email (most sites have an option that let you email the recipe to someone, but I like to control the format of my recipes and so use copy and paste instead). People who wanted to scan the recipes could use this system, too, for actual cookbooks and magazines by just attaching the scanned copy to an email and sending it that way. However, I actually type all the recipes out into an email. This way I can search for anything in the recipe. For example, maybe I don’t remember a recipe name, but I remember the main ingredients in it. Or maybe there’s a type of meat on sale, and I want to see which recipes I have that use that ingredient. Now all I have to do is search for that ingredient. It can be a little tedious, but I like to do it while watching TV. And it actually doesn’t take that long to type them. Recipes are usually pretty short when you cut past the lame intros most authors use.

One of the other great things about using Gmail is that it lets me attach multiple labels to emails. I’ve got labels set up by cooking method (I use this a lot in the summer when I want to grill), labels by ingredient, labels for sides, entrees, desserts, etc, labels for ethnic foods, and labels for foods that can be made in large batches (for parties) and/or frozen. This makes it easier for me to quickly find the kind of recipes I’m in the mood for.

Finally, another big benefit is if you have a smart phone. This way I have access to my recipes while shopping. Maybe I forgot to note how much of an ingredient I need – I can just look up the recipe and check. Or maybe the store doesn’t have what I need, and I can check the recipe to see if I can substitute something. I actually email my shopping list to myself, so I’m usually already in my email account anyway.

I also rarely buy a cookbook anymore – I usually just check them out from the library. I feel a little bad for not supporting the cookbook authors, but I also suggest my library purchases a lot of cookbooks they didn’t already have, and they almost always buy them. I will also buy ones that I find have a lot of great general instruction tips in them, versus just recipes.

This method probably won’t work for everyone (it admittedly takes some organizational work), but if you can get the hang of it, it really has made my life a lot easier.
– Connie

My only hesitation about checking out cookbooks from the library is that I often wind up splattering stuff on my cookbooks as I’m learning some new technique or recipe. I’ll often check out cookbooks to preview them, but if it’s a cookbook that I can see myself using a lot, I’ll buy my own copy so that I’m not scared to have it in the kitchen with me.

A special Gmail account for the text of recipes is a really good idea, though. It gives you easy full text search of all of your recipes. You can just go there and type any ingredient you might find on sale and find your matching recipes.

I actually use a personal system that does more or less the same thing on my desktop computer, but Gmail seems like a great, simple, inexpensive solution.

Q10: Handling overspending fiance
My fiance and I have been together for 2 years. We met, fell in love right away and because we were both about to move somewhere we moved together after two weeks of dating.

At that time he was trying to start a business for the first few months of our relationship. The problem was that the business wasn’t bringing any profit, so he was working for free, living of his unemployment. I saw how passionate he was and really believed in what he was doing so I started to mostly support the household. He had to quit and find a real job because money started to get very tight. Now since both of us are working full time we bring home 60k a year, which to me is a pretty decent amount to just two people. The problem is my husband is really overspending on everything. I’m a pretty smart spender but he doesn’t even tell my what our bills are. It’s like on his payday he comes home broke. He pays the bills, goes grocery shopping (spends around $200 every week- crazy) and by the time he comes home barely anything is left. I did talk to him and told him I wanted to get involved in our expenses, or over taking care of them, and that I can’t live from paycheck to paycheck without any savings.

We do have some debt, basically hospital bills etc, but don’t have any credit cards (thank god). I truly love him and I know he’s the one but before we get married this has to change. I’m under stress and with no control with his attitude towards our budget.

I’m going to try to make him understand but how do I actually make this happen? How can I make him understand it? His habits start to show in simple things in life ex. always gets a large drink and drinks only half. To me it’s obvious, he doesn’t get it. I also try to make us lunches everyday but he’ll still go and get himself $15 lunch. I feel like I have to explain myself from every penny I spend because what I bring home is basically what’s there to share.
– Jill

You have a fundamental philosophical difference when it comes to money, and it’s one that’s going to cause continual issues if you don’t resolve it head on. You need to be on the same page – or close to it – when it comes to money, and it’s clear that you’re not.

You have to sit down and talk through this before you get married. You must have a financial system that works for both of you and protects your futures. If you don’t have that – particularly if you don’t have it when one partner is trying and is involved while the other is not – you’re begging for constant conflict.

I don’t know what the right solution is for you guys, but I do suggest two books. One is Smart Couples Finish Rich by David Bach, and the other is Financial Infidelity by Bonnie Eaker Weil. Read both of these books. Try to convince your partner to read them, too. Talk about the ideas in them and see where it leads. I hope for the best for you.

Got any questions? The best way to ask is to email me – trent at thesimpledollar dot com. 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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