Saturday, February 24, 2018

Money Crashers: Should You Pay for Your Child’s College Education?

In our progress toward financial independence, Brian and I have had one big advantage over many of our peers, which I can sum up in one word: DINK. For those who aren't familiar with that term, it's an acronym for "dual income, no kids." Basically, it means we're like the owners of the second car in this XKCD cartoon.

Kids are, let's face it, expensive. One estimate from 2015 found that the tab for raising just one child comes to more than $233,000. And that's only for the first 17 years, so it doesn't include the real killer cost: sending that kid to college. According to the College Board, the average cost of a year of college ranges from $3,520 at a public two-year college to $45,370 at a private, four-year college—so the total cost of a four-year college degree could easily come to $180,000 or more.

All this has got some folks our age asking the once-unthinkable question: "Is sending my kids to college even worth the cost?"

It turns out, that's a pretty complicated question to answer—so complicated that I've devoted a whole article on Money Crashers to exploring it. First, I outline both the advantages of footing the bill for your child's tuition (such as tax benefits and better job opportunities for your kid) and the disadvantages (such as sabotaging your retirement savings and, surprisingly, perhaps your kid's grades as well). Then I discuss some of the alternatives to paying your child's way through college, such as having them work through school, financial aid, free colleges (covered more fully in in this earlier article), and alternative careers that offer a respectable salary without a degree.

To help parents decide which decision is best for them, I provide a list of questions to consider, such as, "Are your finances solid?" and "What are your child's career plans?" And finally, I outline some strategies to help reduce the burden on parents who have decided to shoulder the cost of tuition.

For all my peers out there behind the wheel of the other car in the cartoon, I hope this will be useful.

Should You Pay for Your Child’s College Education?

Friday, February 16, 2018

Provisioning a road trip

I'm making my weekly blog post a little early, because we're going to be away this weekend visiting some friends. We're making the trip by car, which we find is nearly always the most convenient and cost-effective way for us to travel. It's by far the cheapest option per mile traveled; we can leave and arrive on our own schedule; and it's easy to haul any extra baggage we want, such as a batch of home-baked cookies for our friends and a crate full of board games, books, and other equipment for role-playing games.

In addition to the stuff we'll need when we get there, Brian and I always like to pack the car with a variety of items we might like to use during the trip itself. Having snacks, drinks, medications, toiletries, and entertainment ready to hand makes the drive a lot more agreeable, which makes it an easier call for us to choose driving over a costlier method of travel. So I thought I'd do just a quick post here to tell you about what we like to take along on a road trip like this, and why our choices help make the trip a more ecofrugal one.

Books

Brian and I have worked out what we consider a reasonable division of labor on trips like this: he does the driving, and I provide entertainment by reading aloud to him. We first developed this pattern on the very first road trip we took together, when Brian was moving out to New Jersey from his old home in San Diego. I kept offering to take a turn at the wheel, but Brian generally preferred to keep driving and have me read to him from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. So he drove most of the 2,500 miles by himself, and I read most of the 636 pages by myself, and we each considered that we were getting the better end of the deal.

So now, before we set out on a trip, we always make sure we have one or more books with us that should be long enough to get us through the journey. We prefer lighter fare for these occasions— usually fiction, which gives me a chance to show off my talents at switching among character voices and accents, but occasionally a collection of entertaining and informative nonfiction pieces like the latest Freakonomics book.

These days, the book we choose is as likely as not to be an e-book downloaded to our tablet, usually from the electronic library or Project Gutenberg, rather than a printed book. These e-books have the advantage of being easy to keep reading once night falls without having to switch on the light in the car; the downside is that they're often harder to read in the daytime, when sunlight can create glare on the tablet screen. I often find myself attempting to cover the tablet up with a blanket or something, or hold it in an awkward position to keep it out of the sun, just so I can see the screen clearly. At some point we should probably shell out a few bucks for one of these anti-glare screen covers to make it easier.

Cost for books: Usually free, though we might occasionally spend a few bucks on a Kindle e-book that the library doesn't have (such as the latest Ilona Andrews) or a secondhand printed book from a yard sale.

Other Entertainment

On long trips, I can't keep reading aloud the whole time without a break, so we like to have some other forms of entertainment available as well. One of our favorite features on our current car (which we still think of as our "new" car, even though it's now seven years old) is a built-in music player that can read audio files off a data key plugged into a cord tucked inside the glove compartment. We can simply use the controls for the car stereo to select the album and track we want, which is much easier than trying to manipulate the controls on a phone or music player while driving (or fumble with CDs and cassettes the way we used to do back in the day).

We always like to have a wide variety of music available on this data key, so we can switch it up depending on our mood. For this latest trip, we're loading on a copy of the Hamilton soundtrack, which I got as a Christmas present but haven't yet got around to transferring to the key. This will be nice to have available at other times as well.

For longer trips, we also like to have a few podcasts loaded, so we can listen to something with more of a story. This, in fact, is how I first became familiar with the show "Critical Role," (in which "a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors sit around and play Dungeons & Dragons"), which is now a near-obsession of mine: Brian downloaded the audio from the first several episodes (each of which is several hours long) onto the key, and we listened to them en route to and from Indianapolis. By the time we got home, I was gung-ho to watch the rest of the series, and after going through the backlog of old episodes we've kept up with the new ones every week thereafter. We've also listened to episodes of "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," "S-Town," "Freakonomics," and something called "Bullshit."

In addition to audio entertainment, I usually take along a few crosswords to amuse myself with. However, these are less for the car trip itself than for filling up spare moments while we're away, since it's rather awkward to do any crossword—print or electronic—in a moving car. I just print out a selection from my favorite sites, which include the Wall Street Journal, Best for Puzzles, and, when I'm in the mood for some real punishment, Puzzlecrypt. All of these are free, except for the cost of ink and paper to print them out.

Cost for entertainment: Free.

Food

When we're driving out to Indiana, we usually grab some breakfast to go at Dunkin Donuts and plan to make one stop along the road for dinner. We used to try and get up ludicrously early so we could make it to Indiana in time for dinner, but we found we lost too much sleep this way, and stopping for dinner helps break up the trip a little.

However, to save money and time on the road, we don't stop for lunch; instead, we pack ourselves a bag of foodstuffs to nibble on as we drive. Typical choices include peanut butter sandwiches, clementines (which are better than most kinds of fruit because they're easy to peel and not too messy), baby carrots, and cookies. Instead of taking a formal lunch break, we'll just help ourselves from the bag whenever we feel peckish. I usually keep the bag up front near my feet, so if Brian wants something, he can just ask me to dig it out and hand it to him as he drives, which minimizes the amount of distraction from the road for him.

For shorter trips like we're making today, we have lunch beforehand, but we still pack a few snacks for the road so we don't get cranky or fatigued from low blood sugar. Today, we have a bag of mandarin oranges and most of a batch of sourdough raisin muffins. We also take along a couple of reusable water bottles (just Snapple bottles emptied of Snapple), which fit handily in the car's cup holders. On longer trips, we carry these into rest stops en route to refill them as needed; for shorter ones, like this, three full bottles are enough to carry us through the whole trip.

Cost for food: Varies depending on the length of the trip. For a long trip, figure a couple of bucks' worth of peanut butter sandwiches, maybe four or five bucks for fruit, and a dollar or two for baby carrots. (The cookies are usually free, since we get a care package from our friends around this time of year and save it for the trip.) So it's around ten bucks for a long trip and maybe half that for a short one. That's not counting what we pay for meals we actually stop and eat along the road.

Other

In addition to these necessaries, we always have a few other things in the car to keep ourselves as comfortable as possible on the trip. These include:
  • Blankets. It gets chilly in the winter, and the car's heater isn't always good at directing heat where it's needed, so we always keep a couple of blankets in the car. Brian can't exactly drape himself in one while driving, but I'm usually the one who gets cold anyway, so that works out fine. And, if we're ever stuck in a snowbank, we'll have something to keep us from freezing to death. Cost: We paid about $10 for our biggest blanket, and we've had it close to 15 years, so I think we've gotten good value for it.
  • Medication. I always carry a pill box with an assortment of often-used OTC drugs: ibuprofen, antacids, antihistamines, and one or two Gas-X capsules. These days, I even carry zinc spray in my purse, since I know that if I feel a cold coming on, the faster I can use it the more likely I am to shake off the infection. I also have a small first-aid kit with bandages and antibiotic ointment. Cost: Maybe a few cents per pill, since these are meds I always buy in bulk for our medicine chest at home.
  • Emergency Supplies. In the wintertime, we always have an ice scraper in the car and even a small shovel, in case we get stuck somewhere and have to dig ourselves out. We don't carry a bottle of antifreeze or washer fluid, but we check the levels and top them off before setting out on the road. And we always keep a couple of rags in the car in case we need to clean something off ourselves or off the car itself, as well as a small packet of tissues in the glove compartment. Cost: The rags are free (made from Brian's old socks, usually), and the shovel and scraper cost maybe 10 bucks together.
  • Maps. Yes, actual paper road maps. We still don't have a smartphone (though I really do intend to get one in the next month or two, honest), so we carry maps in the car for whatever area we're passing through, just in case we run into an unexpected detour. They also come in handy if we want to where the nearest rest area is. Cost: We've had most of these maps for ages, so I don't remember what we paid for them, but I know we picked up a couple for free at the last town yard sale.
  • Phone and charger. Though we don't have a smartphone, we make sure to carry our little clamshell phone in case we need to make a call from the road and say "We're going to be late, there's traffic" or "We have to turn back, there's a blizzard" or even "We're stuck behind a truck full of flaming marijuana candy." (This honestly happened once, though we didn't know what was in the truck while we were stuck behind it—we had to look it up on Google afterwards.) We make sure the phone is charged up ahead of time, switch it on during the trip (something we don't do most of the time), and bring the charger to bring it back up to full afterwards. (We don't actually have a car charger for this phone, though we'll probably get one for our future smartphone.) Cost: Essentially free. The cost of electricity is minimal and our cheap prepaid phone plan supplies more minutes than we ever use anyway.
And that's how we make our road trips as comfortable as possible, without adding significantly to the cost. With these costs, plus gas and tolls, a trip like this one costs us maybe $100 round trip, including money spent while we're there—less than the cost of just one plane or train ticket. Getting there isn't exactly half the fun, but with these supplies, at least it doesn't detract from the fun too much.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Recipe of the Month: Green Quinoa

A few days ago, Brian called me into the kitchen for dinner with the words, "Well, I've made... something."

Apparently, we were a little short on fresh veggies, so he'd done a search online for recipes he could make with what we had on hand: frozen spinach, chick peas, and quinoa. He found this recipe for "Herbed Quinoa & Chick Pea Salad with Lemon-Tahini Dressing," but he realized he couldn't make it as written, because it called for fresh rather than frozen spinach, as well as a few other ingredients we didn't have (pepitas, fresh parsley) and at least one we don't like (feta cheese). But the lemon-tahini dressing sounded pretty good, so he figured he'd make that, combine it with the rest of the available ingredients, and see how it came out.

As you can see, it wasn't much to look at. The frozen spinach, being much wetter than fresh, sort of blended in with the quinoa and chick peas, turning the whole mess into a vaguely greenish-brown mass. Fortunately, it tasted better than it looked. The tahini-lemon dressing, reminiscent of hummus, was quite compatible with the nutty flavor of the quinoa and the starchy chick peas, and the texture was pleasantly chewy. We both happily finished off our first servings and went back several times for "just one more" spoonful.

I still think this might be better with fresh spinach (raw or lightly cooked) rather than frozen, which would give it more contrasting texture than this uniformly chewy substance. But on the other hand, being able to make it with frozen spinach, which we always have on hand, is a major perk—and kind of the reason Brian made up the recipe in the first place. So even if we try it some time with fresh spinach, I think we'll still keep the original version filed away as something we can always make when we're stumped for other ideas.

So here's Brian's initial version of the recipe, which I've whimsically titled
BRIAN'S LEAN MEAN GREEN QUINOA
  1. Cook 1 c. uncooked quinoa in 1 1/2 c. vegetable broth. (Brian did this in the pressure cooker; if you use a regular pot, you might need more broth.)
  2. At the same time, thaw and cook 1/2 lb. frozen chopped spinach according to the instructions on the package.
  3. Crush 1 clove garlic and combine it with 2 Tbsp. olive oil, 2 Tbsp. tahini, 3 Tbsp. lemon juice, and 3/4 tsp. salt to make the dressing.
  4. Dice 3 scallions. Toss these together with the cooked quinoa, cooked spinach, and dressing. Stir it up until it looks like a big greenish blob, and serve.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Money Crashers: How to Find a Good Mechanic

About five years ago, I wrote a post about why we like our local auto repair shop. Not only are the mechanics competent and honest, they're both cheaper and more conveniently located than the dealership. I've often said that if I had a doctor I trusted as much with my own body parts as I trust this shop with my car's, I'd probably be in much better shape.

If you personally aren't lucky enough to have such a great mechanic, then the time to start looking for one is now—not when your car needs a repair in a hurry. In my latest Money Crashers post, I go into what makes a good mechanic (basically, everything we like about ours) and how a good mechanic can save you both time and money (mostly by not screwing around trying to fix the wrong thing all the time). Then I outline a series of steps to find a mechanic you can trust.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Gardeners' Holidays 2018: Pruning Day

Winter seems to be at its peak right now. When I ventured outside yesterday for my afternoon walk, it was so cold that I turned back before I'd gone two blocks. Today's not as bitter cold, but it's still below freezing, and our yard is a flat, barren wilderness, with nothing to be seen but dead grass and bare branches. And according to old Punxsutawney Phil, we've got at least six more weeks of this to look forward to.

Yet if winter is truly at its peak, that means its decline must be just around the corner. And indeed, if you look closely, it is possible to detect the first faint sigs of approaching spring: tiny hints of leaf buds on the branches of our plum trees. So as little as it feels like spring right now, it's none too early to start planning if we want our garden to be ready when it arrives.

Our seed order from Fedco has arrived (with the exception of two plants that were on back order), and we've already gone through it and determined just how much we want to plant of what. The first batch of seedlings, the parsley, is due to be started soon, and Brian has already dug out a bunch of dirt to sterilize for our seed-starting system (even though he had to chip it out with the vicious Structron Super Shovel, because the ground was frozen solid). But in addition to these usual February tasks, we had one more job to attend to this year in preparation for the coming growing season: pruning our plum trees.

For the last two years, our plum crop has been suffering greatly from brown rot. I initially tried to deal with it by simply removing any diseased fruits as soon as I spotted them, but when the depredations of the disease were combined last year with pilfering by squirrels to deprive us of almost our entire crop, I decided I couldn't afford to mess around. So I did some research to try and figure out how to manage both these pests effectively—first, to keep the fungus at bay long enough to let the fruits ripen, and then to keep the squirrels' grubby little paws off them until we were able to harvest them.

The sources I consulted said the best way to prevent brown rot is to prune the trees effectively. Beyond just removing all fruits and branches that show any sign of disease, you need to prune the entire tree to keep the branches from coming into contact with each other. Good air circulation around the fruit is key to keeping it healthy. And the best time to do this pruning, they said, is in February, right before the trees start to leaf out in earnest.

Since Brian is a foot taller than I am and has better grip strength, he did the actual pruning, while I stood back from the trees, directed him toward the best spots to clip, and gathered the branches into a pile after he'd removed them. The guidelines he was trying to follow, based on some reading he'd done online, were:
  1. Wherever possible, remove branches that directly overlap with other branches.
  2. Also, remove branches that point inward toward the main trunk of the tree.
  3. When removing a branch, clip it as close to the trunk or limb as possible without damaging the "collar" (a ring of dense wood immediately surrounding the base of the branch).
  4. Do not remove more than one-quarter of the "crown" (the total volume of branches).
He quickly found that it wasn't possible to stick to these rules exactly, since removing every branch that overlapped another branch would definitely have meant taking off more than a quarter of the total. (Probably that's partly our fault, since we neglected to prune these trees for the first few years we had them. It may be easier next year.) However, he was able to cut away all the worst offenders without stripping the trees down too heavily. Here's a before-and-after comparison of the Mount Royal tree, which has the widest branch spread of the three; the difference is subtle, but you can tell there's a bit more light coming through the branches in the second picture, and the pile of trimmings on the ground is testimony to how much we took off.




This is just the first stage in our three-point plum protection plan. Some time before the trees actually blossom, we plan to pick up a bottle of an appropriate fungicide that's not too hazardous and spray the trees with it throughout the spring. Planet Natural recommends a copper or sulfur-based fungicide, applied weekly, starting as soon as the blossoms first start to open. I'm hoping that if we aggressively strike back against the fungus this year, the trees will have a clean bill of health next year, and regular pruning will be sufficient to keep them disease-free after that.

Then, once the fruits start to ripen, we plan to use every trick in the book to deter squirrels. We'll apply Tree Tanglefoot to the trunks, covering every branch within jumping distance of the ground, to discourage the little buggers from climbing, as well as scattering our own hair around the base of the trees to deter them from approaching. If need be, we'll even offer them something tastier to eat—maybe birdseed, which we know they like—some distance away from the trees, in the hopes they'll go for that and leave the fruit alone.

Here's hoping these efforts will allow us to enjoy a decent crop of plums this summer. In the meantime, we'll just stay nice and snug inside with our crop of little seedlings until it's finally warm enough to get them into the ground.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

A birthday request

Many, if not most, of the best birthday and holiday gifts Brian has given me over the years are the ones he made himself. Indeed, the very first present he ever gave me was this picture he drew for my 27th birthday, before we were even officially dating. It hung in the bathroom at my old apartment in Princeton, moved to the hallway in our apartment in Highland Park, and now hangs downstairs in the game room over the "fireplace."


Since then, he's given me many more gifts of DIY items for the house and yard, such as a glassware rack to display a collection of stemware inherited from my Auntie Grace...


...a set of picture frames for my birthday five years back, to display a few ceramic tiles inherited from my grandmother and his...


...a custom made knife-block insert for our kitchen drawer three birthdays ago...


...the new rosebush he planted for me for Valentine's Day in 2016, and the patio extension he built to house it...


...and, biggest of all, the set of bifold doors he finished and installed as a birthday gift for me two years ago.


So this month, as my birthday was approaching again, Brian asked me if there was anything he could make for me as a present, since those gifts tend to work out better than anything from a store. And after some consideration, I said there was: a cover for the AC unit in the living room.

This is a room-sized air conditioner, similar to a portable window unit, except that it's permanently installed through the wall. We hardly ever use it—maybe once or twice a summer, if that—but we still have to look at it all summer long, and it isn't exactly pretty. In the winter, we cover it so it doesn't let in the cold outdoor air, draping a flexible plastic cover like this over the outside portion of the unit and a padded cloth one like this over the inside part. With the cloth on, the air conditioner isn't quite as obtrusive as it is in the summertime, but it still isn't exactly sightly. And since the cloth isn't sized exactly right to fit the unit, it doesn't do that great a job of insulating either. We've tried filling in the gaps with cotton batting, but it tends to droop and peep out around the edges of the fabric, which makes it look even sloppier.


We've looked for something more permanent to cover the air conditioner that would be both more practical and nicer-looking, but all we've ever been able to find online was quilted fabric covers like the one we have now. Brian has been talking for several years about building a permanent cover out of wood, but he's never gotten around to it, and I eventually realized that he probably never would get around to it unless something happened to push it to the top of his to-do list. So it seemed like the perfect request for my...ahem...(mumbling) 45th birthday.

Of course, like the bifold doors, this is a project that will take some time to complete, so I knew it wouldn't be done in time for my actual birthday. However, he did start drawing up some sketches for it during my birthday week, and that weekend we went out to Lowe's and bought some supplies for it. We bought one sheet of 4-foot-square birch plywood (which we had to cut into two pieces to get it into the car), two 3-foot hardwood dowels, and a box of wood screws, for a total of about $22.60. In addition to these, Brian plans to use a couple of longer wood pieces he already had around the shop to build a bracket to hang the thing on, and some small nails.


His design is basically a simple wooden box, slightly larger than the air conditioner itself. To hang it, he plans to secure a long piece of wood to the wall right over top of the AC unit and let the box hang from that. Eventually, he plans to buy a little corner molding to finish off the edges and make it look nicer, but we didn't get that on this trip because we weren't sure yet what we'd need (or whether it would all fit in the car). We're still discussing how we want to finish the outside of it. The options are:
  1. Paint it the same color as the wall, so it will blend in and be unobtrusive. However, even if we disguise it in this way, it will still be noticeable, so it might not be much of an improvement over what we have.
  2. Stain it and finish it to match the other wood pieces in the room. This might be a better option than trying to disguise it, but a solid block of dark-colored wood against that wall could look a bit incongruous.
  3. Cover the front with something else that will look nice, like a patterned fabric. The difficulty with this option would be, first, choosing something that doesn't look too busy, and second, actually affixing it to the wood.
However, we should have plenty of time to figure out these details while Brian is busy building the box itself. Because you know how we are when it comes to DIY projects: we'd rather take our time to do a good job on a budget than either cut corners or spend a lot of money. If this project goes at our usual rate, we should have it done by the time summer rolls around...just in time to stow the box away and not actually install it until fall.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Money Crashers: 4 new articles

During the past week, while I was occupied with my Thrift Week entries, Money Crashers posted four more of my articles from the backlog that's built up over the past year. So, once again, I'm going to do a quick batch post here, with links and a brief description for each of these new articles. After this lot, I should have time to post any subsequent Money Crashers pieces one at a time with a bit more commentary, the way I usually do.

How to Deal With Sudden Wealth Syndrome and Manage Newfound Riches
Chances are, not many of you readers out there have recently come into a lot of money. But you never know; it could happen, and if it does, it's best to be aware that the blessing of sudden wealth often turns out to be a curse in disguise. In fact, therapists have coined a name, "sudden wealth syndrome," for the various emotional and social problems that often affect the newly rich. In addition, there's the problem that people who come into money without warning are often ill-prepared to handle it, and sometimes they end up worse off financially than they were before the windfall. In this article, I discuss the symptoms of sudden wealth syndrome and outline steps for protecting yourself, both financially and emotionally.

How to Be an Adult – 12 Life Skills You Need to Have as a Grown-Up
The word "adulting," which was one of the nominees for Oxford's Word of the Year in 2016, tends to get thrown around in a joking way on social media. Recent college grads tack on the hashtag "adulting" to posts about such mundane tasks as cooking a meal or doing laundry. But all joking aside, these are important skills to know if you're going to live on your own—and these days, they don't tend to get taught in school. In this article, I cover 12 skills that every full-fledged adult needs to know and offer advice on how to master them.

Urgent Care Clinic vs. Hospital Emergency Room – Costs & Comparison
This article opens with a true story about an incredibly frustrating visit Brian and I had to the emergency room a couple of years back. The problem was an infected cat bite (not the cat's fault, by the way; she was having a seizure) that wasn't an immediate threat to life or limb, but nonetheless couldn't wait until the doctor's office opened on Monday. We spent nearly five hours just to get a prescription for an antibiotic, which we then had to find an all-night pharmacy to fill. Worse still, Brian had a reaction to that antibiotic that led him to think he might be allergic—so we had to go through the whole thing all over again then next night.

If only we'd known at the time, we could have saved ourselves a lot of time and hassle by going to an urgent care center instead. This is exactly the kind of problem these facilities are designed to treat: emergencies that require immediate care, but aren't life-threatening. We could probably have gotten in and out of one, with our antibiotic in hand, in less than an hour.

To avoid getting stuck in this same situation, check out this article to learn about what urgent care centers do, how they can save you time and money, and when it makes sense to visit one.

9 Ways Microwave Cooking Can Save You Money
The most recent article to go up on the site is about one of my favorite topics: food. Specifically, it's about how your microwave can help you save money on it.

Most people probably think of the microwave as a time-saver but not a money-saver. And the way most people use it, that's true. I've argued on this very site about how many foods designed for the microwave, like microwave popcorn and TV dinners, are not only ridiculously expensive but also wasteful, with all their excess packaging.

But there are other, better ways to use your microwave. You can reheat leftovers in it for lunch, a much cheaper alternative than the cafeteria. You can use it to make homemade versions of snack foods like potato chips, convenience foods like breakfast sandwiches, and desserts like chocolate cake. And more! Read the article to learn about all nine ways your microwave can save you money in the kitchen.