Questions About Meal Plans, Body Wash, Time Management, Country Clubs, and More!

Time management

Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to summaries of five or fewer words.
1. Body wash in foaming dispenser?
2. International stock market index funds
3. Country club membership
4. Inexpensive hobby for kids
5. Time management tools
6. Repeating the same meal plan
7. Pay off which card first?
8. Bean soup?
9. Chicago Cubs
10. Water conservation and money savings
11. Paying off very old bills
12. Presidential choice?

Some Mondays, all you want to do is climb back in bed.

This past weekend, we went to a family wedding in a different state, a soccer game in a city we’ve never been to before, a visitation for a friend of my wife, and a community game night. It was a very long weekend.

Waking up on Monday morning, few things sound better than just getting another couple hours of sleep. Even though I got adequate sleep, I don’t really feel “rested.


For me, the best solution is to simply get to bed early tonight.

Today, though… today is another busy day.

Q1: Body wash in foaming dispenser?

I just moved in with my boyfriend and I found out he uses a foaming soap dispenser in the shower. He has a big container of body wash in the closet and whenever the foaming soap dispenser goes empty he puts just a little bit of the body wash in the foaming soap dispenser and then fills it the rest of the way with water. He says he’s been using this same bottle of body wash for almost a year and he basically has no expense for soap or shampoo (he has really short hair and just washes it with this soap). Does this work? Does it actually get you clean?
– Mary

While I can’t comment on whether or not it gets your boyfriend thoroughly clean, it’s widely known that people massively overuse soap. Most of our body is easily cleaned with very, very little soap at all.

My guess is that this mix is getting your boyfriend quite clean, but he might not necessarily come out of the shower smelling like “soap.” The truth is that the smell of “soap” really has no connection to actual cleanliness – actual cleanliness has more to do with making sure that you’ve scrubbed down all of your body (especially the key areas) with just a bit of soap.

So, if I were to hazard a guess, this foaming soap dispenser strategy probably works just fine, and it probably saves your boyfriend a fair amount of money on body wash. Unless I was particularly dirty (due to, say, working with compost all day in the garden), I would have no qualms about using foaming soap like that in the shower. In fact, it’s a strategy I might very well adopt soon.


Q2: International stock market index funds

I have the option of investing some of my retirement savings into an international stock market index fund. Could you give a quick “simple” rundown of the benefits and drawbacks of this investment? I am 35 and have all of my retirement savings in a total stock market index. Thanks!
– Jim

The advantage, of course, is diversification. In general, international stocks are more in tune with the ups and downs of their local economies than with the United States economy.

In the past, that meant that international stock markets often seemed fairly disconnected from the US stock market. However, as the world becomes more globalized, they seem to be linked together more and more, so while the diversification is useful, you’ll probably still see somewhat similar rises and falls overall in an international stock market fund as you’d see in a domestic fund.

It’s also worth noting that an “international stock market” fund is usually invested in the stock markets of a lot of countries at once. That means that a rise in one country’s market (say, Russia) might be counterbalanced by a fall in a different market (say, Brazil). From my perspective, that means that overall an international fund isn’t quite as volatile as a US fund because generally you don’t see all of the international stock markets booming or busting at the same time.

Overall, I think it’s a good move, but I wouldn’t expect a combined index of international stocks to beat the US stock market when it’s rising. However, I think it will do pretty well in comparison to a falling US stock market.

Another thing to note is that at some point in the coming years, you may want to consider moving away from all stocks. The biggest reason for that is to minimize volatility as you approach and enter retirement. This is especially true if you’re just barely going to hit your targets for retirement, as you really can’t afford any sort of major volatility.

Q3: Country club membership

We live about 40 miles away from my in-laws. They have been members of the country club in their town for many years. They are strongly encouraging and almost expecting us to join, too. They bring it up every time we see them and her father keeps talking about how important it’s been for his business and community standing. We have visited a few times and there are very few people our age there and the ones that are there seem to be similarly pressured into it like us. I understand how valuable it was for him but I don’t think the cost is worth it for us. How do we make it clear to him?
– Andrew

Your assessment is probably right. I’m not really sure that membership in a country club 40 miles away from where you live is going to offer a ton of networking value for you, no matter what your career path. I can understand why her father would want you to join up, but I still don’t think it adds up to a whole lot of value for you.

That’s not to say that a country club membership is never a valuable tool. I think it really can be for someone who provides a service to the community, particularly one that wealthier people in the community might want to take advantage of. If I were, say, a lawyer who was new to a town, I’d absolutely join the country club and other civic organizations.

However, that’s a case for joining the country club in the town you currently live in. I can’t really make any sort of good case for joining a country club in a town forty miles away from where you live. You honestly wouldn’t go there that often.

I’d simply talk about the distance if I were you. Point out that you basically wouldn’t ever go there on your own because of the distance. This might, of course, turn into a discussion about country clubs near you, at which point the discussion should revolve around what professional value you might get out of the networking opportunities.

Q4: Inexpensive hobby for kids

Do you have any inexpensive hobby ideas for kids? Things like Pokemon and video games end up being really expensive after a while. Looking for things they can do without buying new stuff all the time.
– Nina

It really, really, really depends on their interests. You can’t just foist a new hobby on kids and expect them to take to it. It just won’t work. Kids have their own interests.

That’s not to say you can’t do anything. You can cultivate interests. It just takes time and effort to do it. You can’t just come home with some markers and a bunch of paper and expect your kids to suddenly adopt an interest in art.

For us, we’ve found that the best way to cultivate the interest of our children in a particular hobby or topic is to simply engage in that thing as a family and give it lots of time and attention. If we do a lot of trail walking, our kids get more into trail walking. If we do a lot of tabletop gaming, our kids get more into tabletop gaming. If we do a lot of art projects, our kids get more into art projects. If we do a lot of reading, our kids get more into reading. They tend to get into things we do together and the more we do it (without forcing it) the greater their individual interest grows.

So just pick something you’d enjoy doing with them and do it together. Maybe it’s art. Maybe it’s walking on trails and collecting rocks. Maybe it’s baking cookies. Whatever it might be, start doing it yourself and incorporate your children into it.

Q5: Time management tools

I enjoy your somewhat regular updates about your time management tools. Haven’t heard about them in a while. What are you using these days?
– Brian

I use a mix of tools.

For keeping track of most of my tasks – all of my professional tasks and most of my personal tasks – I use OmniFocus. I spend about an hour a week reviewing things in OmniFocus and setting up my tasks and things I need/want to do in the coming week and it’s insanely helpful.

I’m currently in the midst of a pretty successful trial run for using laminated sheets to establish some personal habits. I have a daily checklist and basically if I haven’t done everything on that list, I don’t do anything that’s “fun.” That list comes first (along with the stuff in OmniFocus). We are in the process of rolling out the same idea to our kids to handle their after-school chores.

We use a whiteboard and a wall calendar to handle shared family events. My wife has a hard time getting into and staying with the flow of using an online calendar for such things, so we just stick with an old fashioned wall calendar because it just works. I usually put everything I see on there into my own digital calendar anyway (I use Google Calendar).

I can’t really think of any other specific tools that I use. I still like using a paper journal to reflect on each day. I’ve tried digital journaling and I just find writing in a notebook to be more meaningful when reflecting on a day.

Q6: Repeating the same meal plan

Suggestion for working families: try repeating the same meal plan every week. It makes grocery shopping really easy and if everyone likes all of the meals it works really well. Plus after a while it’s practically automatic to prepare some of the meals.
– Olivia

This is actually a pretty good idea. It does make meal planning and shopping easier, especially if the meal plan is flexible enough to handle some ingredient substitutions so you can have a little variety and take advantage of sales at stores.

I find that our meal plans tend to have some serious repetition to them, in fact, even though we don’t plan them that way. We almost always have a family “pizza and a movie” night on Fridays. We usually have a slow cooker meal on Mondays (it’s often a soup) because Mondays are always busy, and we usually have spaghetti on Tuesdays because Tuesdays are the tightest night of scheduling in the week and spaghetti is a very quick and simple meal. Thursdays and Sundays are usually “leftovers.” This leaves Wednesdays and Saturdays for more creative meals.

Because of that, we can pretty much always assume that we need the ingredients for a spaghetti meal, ingredients for a soup, and ingredients for homemade pizza on the grocery list every single week. It does really help with meal planning if you’re busy.

Q7: Pay off which card first?

So I have three credit cards.

[Credit Card A] has a balance of $3,500 and an interest rate of 19.9%
[Credit Card B] has a balance of $3,000 and an interest rate of 19.9%
[Credit Card C] has a balance of $200 and an interest rate of 14.9%

Now, according to Dave Ramsey, I should pay off credit card C immediately. I could easily pay it off this month. Yay me!

However, it seems like I would be better off putting extra money toward one of the other two cards since they have a higher interest rate. Isn’t it better to carry balances on lower interest credit cards (if you have to carry a balance)?

Also should I focus on A or B first? Does it make any difference?
– Janine

First of all, you’re absolutely right about paying off higher interest rates first. In terms of pure dollars and cents, that’s the best way to go about paying off debts.

That doesn’t mean that Dave Ramsey is absolutely wrong, though. Dave’s philosophy is that if you go month after month putting payments toward a debt without ever being able to pay it off, you’re going to get disheartened and slide back into bad habits. His philosophy is that if you regularly experience the joy of paying off a debt, you’re going to feel more inclined to stick with the plan over the long term. Thus, it makes sense to pay off the smallest debt first.

If you’re able to commit to a more long-term plan, then it’s better to pay off the highest interest rate first. If, in the past, you’ve had a hard time sticking to a financial plan, then you should go for the smallest balance first.

As for choosing A or B to pay off first, if they have the same interest rate, pay off the one with the lowest balance first. With all else being equal, paying off a debt completely as fast as possible is the better option simply due to the cash flow. You have fewer bills at the end of the month that way.

Q8: Bean soup?

You’ve talked a lot of times about cooking “bean soup” for your family. How do you make it decent? Every time I try it it’s just bland and flavorless.
– Barry

I start off with a pound of mixed dry beans. I bring them to a boil on the stovetop in enough water to cover all the beans by 2 inches, then I turn off the heat and let them all sit for an hour or two, and then I drain off any remaining water that wasn’t absorbed by the beans. The exact beans you use don’t really matter too much – just use beans you like.

I then cook a bunch of diced onions, green peppers, celery, and garlic in the bottom of the soup pan with a bunch of butter. I cook them until the onions are turning brown (and the peppers and celery usually are, too). Do this over high heat and keep stirring them or else they’ll burn. At that point, I add some stock (if I have it) or some water to the pan. The stock can be whatever type you have – vegetable stock, beef stock, chicken stock… it all works. (Stock is easy to make yourself, but you have to prep it in advance – it’s a good reason to save all of your vegetable, chicken, and beef scraps.) Water works, too, but you usually have to season it more (see below) to make a decent soup. This should sizzle like crazy and remove some of the cooked pieces of onion and green pepper and minced garlic from the bottom of the pan.

I usually add about four cups of liquid, then add the beans, then add more liquid until the soup is just a bit thinner than I’d like. I then add a bunch of salt (keep tasting until it seems right) and then some herbs and spices. I love adding lots of ground black pepper, for example, and I always add basil, cumin, and oregano. Don’t be afraid to put in plenty!

I mix it up, bring it to a boil, cover it, and let it simmer for about two hours, then we eat it. It’s usually really flavorful. If anything, sometimes I overdo it – we’ve added water and removed some broth before to tone it down.

Q9: Chicago Cubs

Can’t imagine how good this season must feel for a lifelong fan of the Cubs.
– Terry

This was a statement that a reader made that has written to me many times over the years about baseball, but I wanted to share it here.

I’ve been a lifelong baseball fan and a fan of the Cubs since I was in short pants. One of my earliest memories is sitting next to my grandfather watching the 1984 playoffs and watching Leon Durham (the Cubs’ first baseman at the time) miss a fairly easy ground ball which basically led to the Cubs getting knocked out of the playoffs that year.

The Cubs had never won the World Series in my grandfather’s lifetime. In fact, the last time they had won the World Series was when his father was very young. On my mother’s side, my great grandmother never saw the Cubs win the World Series in her entire life.

Baseball is something I’ve watched with my father since I was a little boy. We’ve gone to countless games at Wrigley Field over the years together. I’m still an avid baseball fan and I love listening to baseball on the radio or on an internet audio stream; I vastly prefer it to watching it on television.

My father has been a Cubs fan since he was young. He’s never seen them even get to the World Series. He’s now in his early 70s. I worry about his health a little bit and I know he won’t be around forever.

I can’t even tell you how much I want the Cubs to go to the World Series this year just so I can sit around and watch some of the games with my dad and my three kids (and I’d like to believe the spirit of my grandpa will be there, too). This is the window for that to happen, period. Words can’t even express it. It goes so far beyond a mere baseball game for me.


Q10: Water conservation and money savings

How much money do you really save from conserving water? My friend has a pop bottle full of water in his toilet tank. Does that really save money? What about a low flow shower head?
– Dana

In terms of dollars and cents, the savings for such things is actually pretty low. Most utilities charge for water by the CCF, which is basically 100 cubic feet of water. One CCF is equal to 748 gallons, and the typical family uses about 100 gallons of water per day per person in the house. (It adds up faster than you think.)

A 16 ounce pop bottle in the toilet tank saves 1/8 gallon per flush, so you’d have to flush the toilet around 6,000 times for that bottle to save you a single CCF.

If you install a low-flow shower head, you’re going to save some more water, but not a ton – even if the new head saves you a gallon per minute, and four people take daily 10 minute showers, you’re saving 40 gallons per day, which adds up to about 1.5 CCFs per month. However, that means you’re moving from a really inefficient showerhead to a very efficient one; most likely, your gain wouldn’t be nearly that much.

The cost per CCF varies a lot, but it’s usually around $4 per CCF on average. So, each flush is saving you a small fraction of a cent. A low-flow showerhead might save you a few bucks per month if it’s substantially lower flow than your old showerhead; otherwise, it won’t save you much.

I think the showerhead might be worth it. The bottle in the tank? It’s not worth it, especially for flushes that need every bit of that water to clean out the bowl.

Q11: Paying off very old bills

I have two credit cards that I just walked away from about four and a half years ago. They sent collection notices and called a lot and I just ignored all of it and hid from it. Eventually they stopped calling.

Am I better off just forgetting those debts ever existed? Or should I go back and pay them off?
– Marcia

You’re probably beyond the limit of your state in terms of how long a debt collector has to collect on an unpaid debt. In other words, that debt has almost assuredly been written off in the past few years and unless you do something, you’ll never hear about it again and it will quietly disappear from your credit report in a couple of years. You’ll want to check on the debt statute of limitations in your state (one of those things Google is good for), but my guess is that if you haven’t heard about it in a long while, you’re past that limitation.

So, in terms of your legal obligations at this point and the long term impact on your credit and your financial state, you’re almost assuredly better off just forgetting about it.

However, you have to ask yourself if that’s the honest thing to do. I can’t answer that for you. You did, at one point, borrow money from someone and then chose not to pay it back. Should you repay it now that you can? That’s your personal call in terms of your own sense of right and wrong.

Q12: Presidential choice?

Who is your pick for president?
– Darren

I keep getting this question via Facebook message from readers, so I have developed a stock response to it, even though I addressed politics in general in a recent mailbag. I’m sharing that stock response here.

“I do not publicly endorse candidates for any political office. I am not a political writer or a pundit of any kind. Though I do hold some personal viewpoints, I don’t think they have any place on The Simple Dollar.

I will say that I think the political ‘left’ and the political ‘right’ in America are actually closer on most issues than they realize. They largely agree on the problems that we face. The gravest danger that America faces is that people won’t sit down and discuss solutions together. Instead, they immediately assume anyone who isn’t in full agreement with their ideas is ‘evil’ or ‘un-American.’

The greatest danger our nation faces isn’t some threat from the left or from the right. It’s the unwillingness to sit down and discuss issues without attacking the other person or labeling them in some way so that their views can be ignored. It’s the unwillingness to look for a compromise on even the smallest of issues. ‘Compromise’ isn’t a bad word; in fact, it’s a word upon which our country rests. The Constitutional Convention, where our nation’s governing document was written, was a meeting filled from beginning to end with compromises between strong-minded and wise people. That’s the model of politics that actually solves problems. The fault for our current inability to do this rests with both sides of the political aisle, and those unwilling to look at their own mistakes and instead throw all blame across the aisle are the greatest danger of all.”

Aside from that, I encourage all of you to watch the debate this evening and all future debates and make up your own mind. This is the last time I’m going to mention the presidential race in any way this year.