Questions About Cheap Gas, Insurance Deductibles, Baking Sheets, Financial Books and More

Questions About Cheap Gas, Insurance Deductibles, Baking Sheets, Financial Books and More

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. Back to work advice
2. Going across town for gas
3. Higher deductible a good idea?
4. Evaluating Amazon Prime
5. Is my financial advisor reputable?
6. Good financial books?
7. All purpose baking sheets
8. Formatting a blank workout journal
9. Money arguments with my wife
10. Drawbacks of cutting own hair
11. Cheapest way to watch NFL
12. Advice on going home

Over the last few weeks, my family has spent a lot of time camping in remote areas. Given that our summer plans were eliminated by coronavirus, many options are closed and our family enjoys camping, it felt like a good way to spend some time in the nice weather.

I have lots of bug bites. But I also have lots of memories. And there’s still more camping to come.

On with the questions.

Q1: Back to work advice

My job called me back on June 1. Although I did get unemployment eventually, March and April were seriously scary. Don’t want to ever do that again.
– Amber

You just described why you should build a healthy emergency fund. An emergency fund is the protection you need against completely unforeseen things like your workplace closing for three months due to a pandemic and unemployment benefits being slow to roll out.

An emergency fund is a pool of cash you have set aside for serious emergencies like that. The best place to keep it is in a savings account at a local bank or credit union, preferably not your primary one. You want it accessible quickly if you really need it, but not easily accessible at a moment’s notice. If it’s too accessible, you may be tempted to use it for other things. If it’s too hard to get at, you might not use it when you need it.

My recommended strategy for getting an emergency fund going is to open a savings account, put what you can afford in there to get it started, and then set up an automatic weekly transfer from your main checking account to that emergency fund account. Set things up so that, say, $20 or $40 a week gets transferred to that emergency fund. Then, just forget about it. Leave that transfer in place forever, or at least until a major change happens that requires you to stop it or change it.

Then, when something like this happens, or when your car doesn’t start and you can’t afford the repair, or when you actually permanently lose your job, or someone gets sick, or some other major emergency occurs, just calmly go to that savings account and take out what you need. If you need some living expenses until unemployment kicks in, you’ve got it. If you need another $250 to get a new starter installed in your car, you’ve got it.

Don’t rely on a credit card for this. It doesn’t help in many emergencies, like a natural disaster or when your wallet is stolen. Cash is king.

Q2: Going across town for gas

Do you really save a lot by finding the cheapest gas station? The one near my house is $1.79 a gallon but the one about two miles away is $1.71 a gallon. Is it worth it to drive over there each time for gas?
– Dana

Let’s say you buy 15 gallons of gas at a single fill-up. At those prices, the other gas station saves you $0.08 per gallon. That means you’re saving $1.20 by driving over to that other station (actually, a little less than that because you are burning a portion of a gallon driving there and back).

That alone isn’t worth it in my judgment. You’re saving perhaps a dollar and it takes you the time to drive those two miles across town and two miles back.

The way to approach saving money on gas is to just keep an eye on several stations in areas that you regularly go and use the cheapest one when you happen to be near it and need a fill-up. For me, that’s consistently Sam’s Club. I drive by it fairly often and just fill up there when I need it.

Don’t go out of your way to save on gas. Rather, just watch gas prices in the areas you regularly go to and fill up when you’re getting low and you happen to be near a cheap gas source. In other words, if you happen to be on the far side of town and your needle’s a little low, fill up then; otherwise, don’t bother making a special trip.

Q3: Higher deductible a good idea?

I am hoping for some basic advice on insurance. If I understand it right your premium is the amount you pay on your bill and the deductible is the part you pay if you have to make a claim. If you pay a higher premium you usually have a lower deductible or your insurance covers more stuff or both. So how do you decide whether it is better to pay more premium or pay more deductible?
– Jenny

The only way to answer that question accurately is to have a crystal ball into the future. If you knew with 100% certainty that you weren’t going to have any car accidents in the coming year, then you’d want the insurance with the highest deductible, the cheapest insurance you could get for your car in the state where you live.

The problem is, you don’t know that. You buy insurance because you don’t know.

The thing to remember is that insurance will always cost more on average than what it is saving you. Insurance companies are really good at guessing how much, on average, they’ll have to pay out on insurance policies, and then they charge a little more than that (to cover their operating expenses and a little profit). Over the course of your life, you’re better off buying the cheapest policy possible. The problem is that, when you do that, you usually have an enormous deductible, which can really hurt if you have a claim.

So, instead, the best way to look at it is to ask yourself what would happen if you did have a claim. If you got into an accident, how much of the cost of that could you easily handle out of pocket? Could you deal with a $500 expense? A $1,000 expense? What if you have roof damage on your house? How much could you handle out of pocket for the cost of fixing your roof? $1,000? $5,000? What if both happened at the same time?

The more you have in savings, in other words, the higher your deductibles can be and thus the lower your premiums can be.

So, base your decision on your own savings and how easily you could handle an issue — or, better yet, a couple of simultaneous issues. If you have a lot of savings, a low premium with a high deductible is good. If you don’t have much savings, a higher premium is probably better so that you can weather the unexpected much easier.

Q4: Evaluating Amazon Prime

Last year, I signed up for Amazon Prime in the summer to take advantage of a couple of Prime Day sales on things I was looking for. A friend offered to just buy them for me but I felt bad and signed up myself. Now it is up for renewal and I am trying to decide if renewal is worth it. It’s $120 a year. I order something from Amazon maybe once every two weeks, probably a bit more during the stay at home orders. I have watched some shows on Amazon Instant Video but I kept Netflix and watch more on there. I’m not sure it’s worth it.
– Brenda

Given what you describe of your usage, it probably isn’t worth it for you.

With the things you order every couple of weeks, could you stack those items together to get free shipping on them? In other words, are the items you order easily combined into orders over the free shipping threshold (currently $25)? And are you usually proactive enough to order far enough in advance that the item’s there when you need it? If so, the shipping benefit of Prime is almost nonexistent.

With Instant Video, is there really anything on there that you can’t live without? I’ll be honest, there are a few shows on there I enjoy, but there’s so much content spread across other services that I could live without it.

I think there are some families for which Amazon Prime is useful, but for a lot of families, the benefits just don’t add up to enough. I think you’re in the “Prime doesn’t offer enough value” camp.

The thing with services like this is that if you cancel and then later realize you made a mistake, it’s easy to re-subscribe. Typically, people don’t resubscribe, because their initial analysis of the situation is right: the service just isn’t giving them enough value.

Q5: Is my financial advisor reputable?

I have been using a financial advisor in my town for years. I call him whenever I have a financial question and he usually has an answer immediately or calls me back in a few days with one. But I have been wondering if he is guiding me right lately. It seems like he always has some product to recommend that he’ll set me up with. I looked up a couple of things online and they had really bad reviews. I think he is just getting commissions off of me. What should I do?
– Brad

The first thing I’d do is research your financial advisor. Find this person online and figure out what credentials he has. He should be a Certified Financial Planner. You should be able to find this person by searching for CFPs in your area. While it’s very useful to gather information from people who aren’t CFPs, I would generally not make major financial moves I wasn’t sure about without the advice of someone who isn’t a CFP.

If you find that he is a CFP, my guess is that he’s a commission-based CFP from your description. When you call your advisor, does he charge for the advice at all? If not, that means that he’s making money by earning a commission on whatever he recommends to you. Many planners who use this approach aren’t doing it to be shady, but because there are many people who won’t seek fee-based financial advice.

In general, I prefer fee-based planners if I’m in a situation where I am seeking financial advice. I try to do the homework and make up my own mind first, and that’s usually enough, but if I have to go to a planner, I prefer a fee-based one that isn’t going to end up nudging me to a specific product.

If he’s not a CFP, I would stop using his services entirely. He’s probably useful for general financial advice, but I wouldn’t select products based on his recommendation.

In any case, if you feel like you no longer trust his advice, stop calling him for advice. Instead, I’d use the above tools to find a different CPF in your area. I prefer fee-based ones, mostly because I’d rather pay up front for the advice than pay on the back end with a potentially less-than-optimal financial product.

Q6: Good financial books?

Do you have any good financial book recommendations? There are like literally three shelves of them at the library and infinite ones on Amazon.
– Derek

It really depends on what kinds of questions you want to answer.

Are you looking for a deep delve into why you should improve your finances? Try reading Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin.

Are you struggling with debt? Check out The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey.

Are you starting to look at investing? Take a look at The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing by Larimore, Lindauer, and LeBoeuf, or The Simple Path to Wealth by J.L. Collins.

The thing is, most personal finance books (not all, but most) do a pretty good job of offering solid advice. Find one that seems to click with you. The only ones I would suggest avoiding are the ones that promise things that seem unrealistic, like becoming a millionaire in a few years on any salary, as those usually rely on an unsustainable momentary phenomenon, like an investment bubble.

Q7: All-purpose baking sheets

Good recommendations for all-purpose baking sheets? Things I can make pizza and cookies and oven fries and bake fish on? Bought some cheap ones and they already look like death and are warped and burn stuff a lot.
– Angie

We’ve had several different baking sheets over the years and our current ones were just ones that we bought based on the recommendation of a friend that, if anything, uses baking sheets more than we do. They’re the Nordic Ware Naturals Baker’s Half Sheet (a true full-size baker’s sheet wouldn’t fit in some home ovens).

They don’t warp, no matter how dumb you are with them. They seem to handle all kinds of stuff well, from cookies to calzones to pizza. The best part is that they’re only $11 a pop.

I’m sure there are some truly amazing sheets out there for a lot more than that, but in terms of doing what I want, these do the job really well. I’ve used some cheaper sheets before and they warped badly after surprisingly little use, and I’ve even used somewhat pricier ones that didn’t bake evenly at all. These are really good for the price.

Some advice: there are a lot of things that are much better when baked on parchment paper or on aluminum foil. The more things you put directly on any baking sheet, the worse those sheets will look over time. It’s usually much easier to deal with things you’ve baked on the sheets if you use foil or parchment paper, too. (A good rule: if it’s sweet, use parchment paper; if it’s not, use aluminum foil.)

Q8: Formatting a blank workout journal

During the shutdown, I got really into exercising at home. It really cleared my head and has become a daily routine for me that I have been really enjoying. I do a YouTube yoga routine and some other exercises every day and it clears my head and I am clearly getting in better shape. I wanted to start keeping a workout journal and I found this one online that seems pretty cool but then I asked myself whether I could just get a notebook and do something like it myself. Suggestions for a blank journal that’s inexpensive I could use for tracking workouts?
– Andrea

What specifically are you wanting to track?

Honestly, if you’re just tracking the numbers for your daily workouts, I would get a small pocket notebook, something like this or this or just a simple composition book from an office supply store (the cheapest option, but it will work). You don’t need much space to write down how many push-ups you did or how many days this month you did your yoga routine.

When I have tracked exercises carefully before, what I usually did was make a table for each month. It would have a column for each day in the month and a row for each exercise I wanted to track. Some things would just be marked with an X meaning I did them, while other things would be marked with a number to indicate how many I did. If I wanted to make a schedule, I’d just use a highlighter, and, for each day (column), I’d highlight the exercises (boxes) I wanted to do that day. If your pocket notebook has graph paper, this becomes really easy to do.

If you want to record more written thoughts, I’d just get a sturdy blank notebook or journal and have a page where you make a table like the one above and then follow it with entries for each day in the month. An ordinary notebook should do the trick for this – you really don’t need anything fancy.

Q9: Money arguments with my wife

Every time I try to have a talk with my wife about money it ends up with a bunch of yelling and nothing gets resolved and usually, we both end up spending money on stupid stuff as a way to “cool off” (retail therapy I guess?).

How do we even start talking about money? I tried every advice I could find.
– Darren

Start by not talking.

I’d suggest that the two of you spend a few days listing the things you want out of your future together. Just make a big list of the things you’d like to see for the two of you in the next ten or twenty or even more years.

Then, swap those lists. Circle every single one on the list your partner gave you that you also value. Got it? Those circled ones are the things you both want for your future life together. They are things you are both committed to.

Now, make a new list. For each circled thing, state one specific thing you will do going forward to make that specific thing happen. Don’t worry about what your partner is or isn’t doing. What will you do to make that happen? List stuff you will actually follow through on. These have to be things that your partner can expect that you will be doing going forward and can call you on it if you don’t follow through.

Once you have that list, then sit down and talk. Do not judge or criticize the changes your partner is making. Don’t argue that they’re not doing enough for this thing you both care about. Your partner is making a change for something that you both care about – that’s more than enough.

Then, agree that you will help each other do the things you just promised to do, and stick to it. If you fall short of what you said you would do and your partner calls you on it, it is on you, not your partner. You have zero room to get mad because you promised you would do this thing, you fell short, and you promised that your partner would be able to call you on it if you did.

If you want to have a really meaningful conversation, it needs to not focus on criticizing your partner, but on really looking at yourself and what you can improve. That can be really hard at the start, so do those initial steps without your partner. Figure out what goals you share, then figure out separately what you can do to move you toward each of those goals.

Q10: Drawbacks of cutting own hair

Although I respect that you cut your own hair, I wanted to point out some of the drawbacks of doing so from my own experience during coronavirus. I cut my hair twice. The first time in early April. It looked really bad so I kept cutting it shorter and shorter until it looked OK but way shorter than I like. Tried again just last week and the same thing happened. It looks OK but super short because I kept trying to fix mistakes.

It also took a really long time, like an hour or so, and made a giant mess all over the bathroom.

I won’t be doing it again. I will go back to my barber now that he has reopened.
– Gil

There are a couple of things to note here.

One, cutting your own hair is far easier if you have a really simple haircut, particularly one that can be done entirely with clippers. I keep my hair quite short — short enough that if I start really needing to use shampoo or brush it, I’m ready to get a haircut. Think Steve Jobs. The reason I do this is that I’m happy with how it looks on me, my wife is fine with it, and it’s just very low maintenance. That doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. Some people simply don’t like that kind of look.

It sounds like yours is a little more complex than that. Honestly, if I were trying to do anything remotely complex with my own hair, I wouldn’t trust myself either.

Two, it is much easier to cut someone else’s hair than to cut your own. I can cut my own hair with clippers, but my wife can cut my hair with them much faster than I. The big difference is with the little spots that I miss. I can’t see those spots, so I have to use mirrors and feel to find them. She can just see them and head there immediately with the clippers. (I have not attempted to cut her hair, nor would I suspect she would want me to or allow me to.)

I respect that you gave it a sincere try, but if it doesn’t work for you, there’s nothing at all wrong with using a barber. It’s better to have tried and failed than to never have tried at all.

Q11: Cheapest way to watch NFL

My wife and I decided to cancel our cable package last month. We had watched nothing but Netflix and some over the air channels for more than a month and decided it was silly.

I am a big NFL fan and it is probably the only thing I will miss from cable. There are some over the air games but not many. What is the least expensive way for me to watch most NFL games in the fall? I want to see what options are out there and have time to research. My wife is fine with me paying for a service for this.
– Tom

This is a question I get asked pretty often. Someone is a fan of a particular sport and it’s really the only thing they get out of cable. What’s the most efficient way to get just the games for that sport?

The most efficient way to get a lot of NFL coverage is to subscribe to Sling for the length of the NFL season. It’ll cost around $45 a month, but will get you the NFL Network, ESPN, and FS1, along with all of the over the air networks. That’s probably the most efficient way to get lots of football.

If you subscribe starting right at the beginning of opening weekend and then let it lapse after the first round of the playoffs, you’ll have to pay for four months, or $180. It’s expensive, but there just isn’t a better option for the NFL.

Q12: Advice on going home

I really loved your story. It rings very true to me and lines up with a lot of the big things in my life. I have a question that I think you might be able to answer that has been troubling me a great deal.

I am 24. I grew up in a rural area just like you and then went to college. My family and friends where I grew up are good people and I love them a lot. The trouble I have is that the connection with them is dying and I don’t know what to do about it.

Whenever I go back to visit, every conversation is about very local things, most of which I don’t know anything about. It is almost entirely about the local people and local community, and I’m just missing a lot of background info. About the only thing I can talk about with them is sports and TV shows and that’s not much. I only feel halfway at home there watching a football game.

I just get this strong vibe that I am not part of their lives anymore and it deeply bothers me.
– Adam

I went through this exact same thing. It’s hard.

My experience has been that, when you gather a group of people together, they’re going to focus on the stuff they have in common. When I go to a community game night, for example, the conversations there are almost always about games, perhaps peppered with some general “getting to know you” small talk.

Whenever I go to community or family gatherings in the area where I grew up, the thing that draws everyone together is the local community. It’s all of those interlaced relationships, and thus people lean in on those interlaced relationships and civic institutions. They talk about the people they know in common and the institutions of that community.

Like it or not, when you move away, you become less and less of a part of that community. You no longer have the frequent interactions with the people in that community, and thus when you gather with them, you are much less of a part of the thing that draws them together.

It’s hard, because it wasn’t long ago that being a part of that community felt natural. You’re remembering when you were a much deeper part of that community, an insider, and now that you’re more of a peripheral part, you are seeing what it is like to feel like a bit of an outsider. That never feels good.

That doesn’t mean that they’re bad or you’re bad. It just means that you’re simply less deeply connected than you once were, and the honest truth is that, without investing a lot more time in being a part of that community, you’re going to remain much less connected than people who live there.

You have a decision to make. You can either choose to invest the time to be more deeply integrated in that community that you miss, or you can accept a relative outsider status. The catch is that being able to invest the time likely means moving back there and integrating your life much more fully into that community. If you’re unwilling to do that, then what you’re saying is that you’ve gained something by moving away that is greater than the value of what you’re losing by not being an integral part of that community anymore.

It took me a long time to accept this. After I moved away for education and work, I gradually felt less and less connected to the community I grew up in, and it was very difficult. I eventually had to make a choice. Were the elements of my life that I was gaining by living in the place where I had good work and a different social circle worth what I was losing by being more of an outsider in the community in which I grew up? The thing that actually made that decision easier for me is that I felt more a part of the new community I was in than the old community when I visited it. That shift didn’t happen overnight, but when I realized it, I realized that it was true.

Knowing that I had found a new community to be a part of made my outsider status in my hometown feel much more acceptable. There are still many people there that I know and love, but I’m not a deep part of that community anymore and I likely never will be again. I can live with that loss when I consider the many things that I’ve gained.

For some, the tradeoff is too much. The value of being an integral part of that community is worth more than what they might gain from living elsewhere. I have a family member that moved away from our hometown area for a while, found herself unhappy, and moved back to her hometown area, and that was absolutely the right choice for her.

I can’t say which part of that balance is right for you, but I can say that it’s a choice you have to make that has some loss no matter what you choose. You just have to choose the life with the most overall upside for you, and that means, no matter what you choose, you will lose something. This is one of those points in life where you just simply can’t have it all. I will say that, no matter what you choose, remember always that you chose the option that pointed to the best overall life, and walk forward through life without regrets or guilt. You’ll make the best decision for you, and that’s more than enough. Good luck.

Got any questions? The best way to ask is to follow me on Facebook 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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