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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. Paying off house early
2. Difficult refinance
3. Am I financially independent?
4. Preparing for a layoff
5. Applying for a joint loan
6. First lien position HELOC question
7. Saving on home photo printing
8. Light bulbs and rentals
9. Structure in retirement
10. Unrealistic stories
11. Camping on the cheap
12. Confusing Meetup experience

Over the summer, I am going to be doing a series of posts discussing the book The Wisdom of Frugality by Emrys Westacott. I intended originally to just review this book with a single review, but I found so many things I wished to talk about that I decided to make it into a series, one that will spread across several Saturday posts this summer.

This series won’t start for at least a few weeks, but I’m telling people about it now because I know some people like to read along with series like this that I’ve done in the past, or they like to finish the book first. You won’t need to have read the book to get value out of the articles, but having read the book will enable you to contrast what you got out of the book versus what I got out...

Every year during the first bright days of spring, I look up at the nearly 45-degree pitch of my roofline, see gutters and moss buildup that needs cleaning, and envision the myriad ways I could injure myself addressing these issues.

Sometimes the reward outweighs the risk, but other times my life seems too short to go chasing moss clumps on a second-story roof that would make a Victorian chimney sweep nervous. This leads to one of the key crises of homeownership: When do you do it yourself, and when do you call someone in?

When my wife and I first bought our home six years ago, we were convinced that we could handle much of the work ourselves and learn as we went. To a degree, that was true: I now know more about deck construction, cement flooring, lawn tractor maintenance, moss killing, gutter cleaning, shingle coursing, well-pump repair, and goat wrangling than I ever thought I would.

However, some of that knowledge sank in only after I’d called in a professional to fix a job I’d botched. As it turns out, you aren’t supposed to scrape off half of your roof shingles’ granules when attacking moss (fortunately, I learned that lesson on a garage). You also aren’t supposed to leave water in your well pump over the winter, even if you’ve “winterized” by shutting off the connections (a lesson learned one cracked pump later). Finally, I learned that no amount of effort on my part was going to fix a...

I consider myself lucky to have grown up in a family of readers, and a community with an outstanding public library system. Some of my earliest memories are of story times in the children’s department and checking out bags full of picture books to take home at least once a week.

This library love has continued into my adulthood. I still drop by my local branch on a weekly basis, and I’ve made a habit of visiting libraries across the world whenever I travel. (If you’re also a library nut, make sure to put the Halifax Central Library in Nova Scotia on your must-stop list. The new building, with its green rooftop terrace, vibrant contemporary architecture, and five-story central atrium is absolutely stunning.)

Bringing home a stack of books to dig into is always a thrill, but I’ve also become quite fond of the technology that allows me to access even more free resources with just my library card and phone or computer.

Offering e-books and e-comics, to top magazines and movie streaming, the nation’s estimated 120,000 libraries are on the front line when it comes to accessible and reliable, no-cost media. Read on for our list of seven top resources, then visit your local library’s website to check out their individual holdings and offerings. You can typically either scroll to a ‘digital library,’ ‘eResources,’ or ‘CyberShelf’ section, or search for the exact app you’re seeking.

1. Library-Specific Apps and Basic Services

Many libraries today have their own proprietary app that allows card-carrying...

A few weeks ago, I had a great conversation with a few good friends about what exactly it means to “live the good life.” It turned out that we all had somewhat different views on what “the good life” actually is.

For one person at the table, it meant that he could simply have things he wanted. If he wanted to have a certain thing or do a certain thing and he could mostly just do it or have it, then he was living a good life.

For another person at the table, someone who had dealt with a long illness and may not ever fully recover, the “good life” simply meant a day with minimal pain while going outside and doing stuff.

For me? I thought about it for a bit and said that, for me, a good life is one with little “background stress,” meaning that there were minimal ongoing things that worried me.

The idea of the “good life” is a core idea of philosophy, often described with a single Greek word, eudaimonia (there’s your new word for the day, most likely). It simply means aiming for the highest human good – the good life, in other words.

Those pictures, and the others that were shared, all point to rather different day to day lives, even though they all have a few things in common. Rather than rattle on a lot about what elements would make up my idea of the good life, I was actually more interested in what elements...

One of the financial numbers I’ve come to value a lot lately is savings rate; in fact, savings rate was at the center of my recent post on the “spectrum” of personal finance.

Let’s step back a bit and look at what exactly a savings rate is, and why it’s so important. Let’s start with a good definition, like this one from Investopedia:

A savings rate is the amount of money, expressed as a percentage or ratio, that a person deducts from his disposable personal income to set aside as a nest egg or for retirement.

In other words, your savings rate is the amount of money you’re saving each year for very long term goals for yourself (usually retirement) divided by your total disposable income for the year.

The first thing to notice is that savings rate really only cares about long term savings. It doesn’t care about short term savings that you’re likely going to spend in the next several years, like your emergency fund or your cash savings for a car or a down payment on a house. Instead, it’s concerned with retirement savings and other long-term savings that you may be doing. Money that goes into your 401(k) counts, as does money that goes into your Roth IRA. Taxable investments count if the purpose is very long term.

The other part is a bit tricky. This definition points to a person’s disposable personal income as the baseline, but what...

Most of the time – well, let’s be honest, almost all of the time – I talk about all of the positives of achieving debt freedom and working toward financial independence. It opens up a lot of personal freedoms that aren’t available if you’re living paycheck to paycheck. It makes a ton of “background stress” and some moments of intense stress just utterly disappear. Life’s difficult moments are a lot less disastrous. The process of achieving those things has unveiled a lot of things in life that I might have never appreciated. I’ve mostly just given up things that I don’t miss (after a bit of transition, sometimes).

That doesn’t mean that everything about financial improvement is great, however. There are a lot of drawbacks to achieving debt freedom and chasing financial independence, and while many of them can be mitigated to some extent, a lot of them are just some negatives in the face of a lot of positives.

Here are some of the realities that I’ve found along our path to debt freedom and our ongoing path to financial independence, and what we’ve done (if anything) to mitigate those challenges.

You’re likely setting aside other life goals along the way. If you choose to achieve debt freedom, there are probably some choices in life that you’re not choosing.

As an example, one of our big life choices was to cut down on our traveling. In the years before our financial turnaround,...

Your credit reports are full of information about you, from the types of accounts you have opened to how you’ve managed those accounts, to your current and previous addresses.

What you may not realize, however, is just how valuable the information contained in your credit reports may be to a variety of different companies.

The companies that are responsible for collecting that information, along with the information of some 220 million or so other consumers, are known as the credit reporting agencies (CRAs). The three largest and most well-known CRAs are Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. The CRAs make money, among other ways, by collecting your information, compiling it into credit reports, and reselling it to a variety of different companies that are allowed to purchase it.

Generally speaking, your overt permission is not required for the CRAs to collect information about you and store it as part of your credit management history. Your permission isn’t even always required when your your personal credit information is provided to a third party.

That being said, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) does put some restrictions on who can access your information. In order for a CRA to disclose your credit report to another party, they must have what’s referred to in the FCRA as “permissible purpose.”

Here are a few, though certainly not all, of the most common types of companies with a permissible purpose to purchase your credit reports from Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian.


Are you planning to apply for a new loan or...

When Sarah and I started turning around our finances, one of our biggest goals was to achieve complete freedom from debt while fully owning a family home for our children.

That was a pretty audacious goal. When we started, we had almost $20,000 in consumer debt, two car loans, and several student loans, and we lived in an apartment. We had minimal savings.

About five and a half years later, we owned a family home free and clear and had no other debts. Lest you think that we did this due to a secret windfall or something, we didn’t – during that whole span, we only earned over $100,000 in household income once and most of the time we were fairly close to the median household income in America (somewhere around $60,000 a year). Our income came mostly from ordinary jobs – Sarah was a teacher and I was a lab technician who mostly just handled and processed data – and a few side gigs. In the midst of that stretch, I switched to being a full time writer, which was actually a big drop in income – I made the switch mostly so that I could be more flexible and available for my children.

Obviously, to pull this off, we lived very frugally, probably more so than we do right now. We spent far, far less than we earned and found ways to cut back in all kinds of ways.

One of the big...

The National Retail Federation predicted that U.S. residents would spend as much as $682 billion during the 2017 holiday season.

The NRF was wrong. We actually spent $691.9 billion.

And I have to admit that I didn’t do my share, even though I gave presents to 10 people and made some delicious holiday treats.

Understand: Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year and giving is very important to me. But I can’t – and won’t – break the bank to celebrate. Neither should you.

The good news: A mix of smart planning and savvy hacking will result in a Christmas (or Chanukah, or Kwanzaa) that’s satisfying, special, and solvent.

The better news: You’ve got almost nine months to set your holiday plans in motion.

As noted, I didn’t spend very much last year. These tactics really do work.

1. Start your own Christmas club.

Add up everything you spent on the holidays last year. Divide the total by number of weeks between now and Christmas, and start saving that amount each week. Bonus: If you use some of the other tactics in this article, you’ll likely spend less – which means money left over to seed the following year’s celebration.

2. Make a list.

Write down who you’ll be buying for and carry it with you (on paper or electronically). This positions you to start looking for great gifts the next time you encounter a clearance rack, a thrift store, or a garage sale full of like-new items.

3. Join a Buy Nothing Day group.


Quite often, I’ll read or hear stories from readers, from friends, and from other online sources that revolve around a company treating an employee pretty poorly. Tell me if any of these stories sound familiar…

Your company hires a new employee doing the same job as you and pays them a significant amount more than what you’re earning after having worked there for a while. You bring this up to management and, regardless of what answer they give, your salary stays low.

Your boss quickly says no to any request for a raise, even after a long history of good performance reviews.

Your scheduled time off is constantly altered without even consulting with you at all, often forcing you to cancel personal plans at the last minute.

People who engage in negative, backstabbing behavior in your workplace are rewarded, while people who don’t engage in that behavior end up with a knife in their back and lose their jobs or opportunities for promotion.

You are constantly asked to take on difficult tasks from other workers, often even from higher-paid workers, but aren’t compensated for it.

Stories like this are extremely common, and they all come back to one key point: if your business treats you in a disrespectful manner like this, they view you as expendable. They either do not see you as valuable, or else they believe you will just accept the poor treatment and bear it. In either case, you are nothing more than a cog in...

If you, like me, have been sucked into the sourdough bread craze and are nurturing a starter on your kitchen counter or in the back of your fridge, you probably hate tossing the discard — even though you know it’s important to keep your bread baby manageable.

By dumping that discard down the drain, you’re both sending dollars down with it and likely gumming up your sink disposal. (And forget tossing it into the trash — after a few days, the smell will take over your kitchen.)

Sharing it with friends who want to cultivate their own batch is typically option No. 1, but their enthusiasm will run out way before your discard does. Luckily, you have more delicious options to choose.

If you’re the sort who likes to play in the kitchen and experiment with recipes, Cultures for Health (my go-to site for learning to make any fermented or cultured foods) has a few suggestions. A recipe generally works well using discarded sourdough, they say, when it meets the following:

  • The hydration called for in the recipe matches that of the starter;
  • Sourdough starter is included for flavor and sourness, and not for fermenting the grains or for leavening;
  • No leavening agent is required.

As much as I love to bake, I still prefer to follow someone else’s recipe, so I’ve gathered five here to help you put that gloppy leftover mixture to good use.

Pancakes or Waffles

Google sourdough pancakes and the results are almost overwhelming. But this one-bowl recipe by Tastes of...

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. 30- vs. 15-year mortgage
2. How can you recommend TurboTax?
3. Cheap protein after exercising
4. Handling financially disastrous brother
5. Beginner info drawn by hand
6. Organizing items on a receipt
7. Possibly over Roth IRA limit
8. Are used kitchen appliances safe?
9. Drawing the frugal line
10. Frugality as a game
11. Early Roth IRA withdrawals
12. Leaving a socially supportive church

Here in Iowa, spring youth soccer typically starts in late March and early April. All three of my kids are in youth soccer, so this is a busy time of the year, usually.

But not this year.

So far, every single game and most of the practices have been cancelled due to inclement weather, mostly due to snow on the practice fields, excessively muddy conditions due to melting snow, or freezing rain. The weather we are experiencing right now is more typical of late February or early March rather than mid April.

April snow brings May… water flow?

On with the questions.

Q1: 30- vs. 15-year mortgage

My future husband and I are looking into buying a house. What are you thoughts on getting a 30-year mortgage, but pay it off like a 15-year mortgage?
– Cael

The only drawback of this plan is that a 30-year...

Interest rates are on the rise.

The Federal Funds Rate – which sets the market for most interest rates – was up to 1.51% as of March 2018, its highest mark since the stock market crash in 2008.

And while this does mean higher interest rates on mortgages and other loans, it also means that you can finally earn a reasonable return on the money you have in savings accounts and CDs, if you know where to look.

So, are savings accounts and CDs suddenly smart investments? Should you be putting some of your long-term money into these accounts?

The answer depends on what your goals are and what you’re investing for. Let’s figure it out.

The Primary Purpose of Savings Accounts and CDs

Before even considering the idea of using a savings account or certificate of deposit as an investment, let’s take a step back and remind ourselves how these accounts are primarily meant to be used.

The main reason to use a savings account or CD is not to earn a return. The primary purpose of these accounts is to keep your money safe when you either:

  1. know that you’ll need to use it in the near future, or
  2. might suddenly and unexpectedly need to use it.

The first scenario might include saving for a down payment, a new car, or any other goal you hope to reach within the next couple of years. With such a short time period, the safety and certainty offered by a savings account or CD far outweighs the potential extra...

Living with debt may be seen as “normal” these days, but the damage debt does to our lives is far from okay. After all, carrying too much debt can cause more than budgeting problems; it can stress and personal problems, too.

Experts at Psychology Today say that that your mental health and financial health are irrefutably intertwined. People in debt are more likely to drink and abuse drugs, and there is a distinct correlation between high debt levels and increased risk of suicide, they note. A study from Clinical Psychology Review even showed that indebted consumers are three times more likely to suffer from a mental health condition.

And what about how debt affects your dreams? Carrying too much debt can put your goals out of reach – or even out of mind, since you know you can’t afford them. When you’re deep in debt, you may never take the vacation you’ve dreamed of, purchase the home you’ve always wanted, or have the cash to pursue the hobby you love. You may have to turn down exciting but low-paying opportunities while you toil in service of your debts, or wind up working forever — even until the day you die. That means that debt could be the reason you never actually retire — or at least never have a retirement you can afford to enjoy.

Eight Ways Life Changes After You Pay Off Your Debt

Everything you’ve just read may be depressing, but it’s true. While...

Erica writes in:

Loved your recent article about living life true to oneself, made me really think. I wonder if you could address another of those “regrets of the dying,” wishing I hadn’t worked so hard. I feel like I am losing my whole life to constant work. I have a family I don’t see enough and no hobbies to speak of. Feel like I am constantly working, and for what? I have an okay retirement savings but I won’t have friends or hobbies when I do retire. My life is my job and I am starting to regret it.

This is a great question, one that, as many good reader mailbag questions do, goes far beyond what could be answered in a short mailbag answer and requires a full article.

So, in my article about avoiding life regrets, I focused almost entirely on the top regret, which was living a life true to oneself. I didn’t move on to address the other four regrets.

The second regret, which is the one that Erica is interested in, is also very straightforward:

I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

Bronnie Ware, the palliative care nurse who wrote about the regrets of the dying, described it in a bit more detail: “This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of...

Since the very beginning of The Simple Dollar, I’ve talked about what I consider be the fundamental rule of personal finance: spend less than you earn and do something financially sensible with the difference. If you can do that over every pay period, every month, and every year of your life, no financial hurdle will be too difficult to cross.

How do you do that, though? It’s easy to say, but much harder to implement, especially when you’re turning your attention to personal finance for the first time.

One of my favorite eye opening and useful strategies for migrating to a natural pattern of spending less than you earn is to keep track of every dollar you spend and review the spending regularly.

Why do this? There are three big reasons for it.

First of all, many people lose track of how much they spend on little expenses throughout their days. They wonder where “all of the money went,” and the truth is that it usually goes away to a flood of little forgotten expenses or inflated grocery or department store trips. Most of those things are just completely forgotten within a week or so (or sometimes even faster), leaving people wondering where the cash went.

Second, most people have no idea how much money they spend on a particular type of item, and seeing that is usually a shock to the system. A person who gets a morning coffee at a drive-thru each...

Jenny writes in:

How do you shop for groceries? I mean, I tried following your general plan of making a grocery list first but I’m still spending $300 a week on groceries for me and my husband and two kids. You’ve said you can get by on $400 a month for 5 people. How? What do you do at the store that’s so different?

I like questions like these. They come in every once in a while from people who aren’t afraid of frugality but just don’t know how to approach situations from a frugal mindset.

Jenny’s question came in a month ago and since then I’ve been actually taking careful notes on as many details as I could about my grocery store trips. In particular, I’ve been trying to focus on the little details of my practice.

So, let’s go deep into my grocery shopping routine.

Before I Go to the Store

First of all, I intentionally shop for groceries when I’m alone. I want to spend the absolute minimum amount of time as I can in the store and going with my wife or my kids just adds time in the store. The longer I’m in the store, the more likely I am to fall for impulse buys. The more people I’m with, the more likely I am to use their input to make unplanned and unnecessary purchases. When I hit that grocery store, I want to get in and out as...

While most business rewards cards tend to offer either cash-back or travel rewards, there is at least one business credit card that offers the best of both worlds. The works whether you want to rack up cash rewards for your business expenses or use your points to travel the globe. The best part is, you can rack up points now and decide how to use them later.

One of the biggest benefits of this card is its enormous signup bonus, but its consumer protections also help it stand out. And of course, another perk is that this card belongs to the popular Chase Ultimate Rewards program.

Keep reading to learn all the reasons we love the Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card and why it could be the perfect fit for all your business expenses.

Ink Business Preferred℠ Credit Card Review: Key Takeaways
  • Earn flexible points. You can redeem your points for travel through the Chase travel portal or transfer them 1:1 to popular loyalty programs like Southwest Airlines, Hyatt, Marriott, and United MileagePlus. You can also cash them in for statement credits, high value gift cards, or merchandise.
  • Earn 3x points in select categories. This card’s bonus earning categories can help you rack up points quickly if your daily business expenses are a good fit.
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Ink Business...

A few years ago, Bronnie Ware, after spending several years working as a palliative nurse who helped people who were dying to enjoy their final days in minimal pain and discomfort, wrote a really powerful book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. In it, she collected together the biggest regrets that she heard people consistently share. Here they are, in summary:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

There are a lot of financial threads running through these regrets, but today I want to really focus on that first one, about which Ware said the following: “This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.”

So, let’s look at that chief regret and the financial implications of it.

I wish I’d had the courage to live a...

Direct vacation booking and online travel agencies haven’t killed the old-school travel agent… yet.

When my wife and I planned our honeymoon roughly seven years ago, we went to a travel agent in Newton, Mass., to help us along. We wanted to travel to Paris, Nice, and Barcelona over a 14-day span, wanted to stay in hotels in each location, and wanted to travel by train between cities. The travel agent we used was able to give us hotel recommendations, but couldn’t book a Eurail pass for that time of year (without telling us why), could not find us flights on the dates we wanted, and basically couldn’t put together a package for us.

We left his office, and began searching travel sites for hotel recommendations and airfare comparison sites for flights. We also ended up booking first-class rail travel from Paris to Nice to Barcelona. We didn’t have a price to compare it to, since the travel agent couldn’t even put together a quote — but the convenience made direct hotel and airfare booking staples of our vacation planning from that point on.

But did we sell travel agents short? Is there ever an upside to using a travel agent over an online source?

Naturally, the travel agents think so. The American Society of Travel Agents released a study two years ago noting that nearly half of consumers (47%) booked their travel directly through supplier websites. Another 25% used online travel agency websites including Expedia, Priceline, and others. While the 23% who...