Reader Mailbag: Back Pain Blues

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to five word summaries. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
1. Puzzling through hourly pay rate
2. Career path concerns
3. Working with children
4. Speed reading
5. Getting less sleep
6. Netbook or tablet?
7. Risk Legacy and evolving games
8. Saving for multiple goals
9. Paying someone to prepare taxes
10. Setting microgoals

Two days ago, we had our first significant snowfall of the winter. The amount of snow on our driveway was right around the minimum amount we usually need for us to break out the snowblower.

In order to make sure that our children could make it to one of their activities on time, I had to get the driveway cleared as fast as possible.

I chose the shovel. I got it done in time, but I found myself coughing a great deal (due to the very cold winter air and a touch of the cold I already had) and found myself with a sore back as well.

As I type this, I’m thanking Advil for the help.

Q1: Puzzling through hourly pay rate
I am about to accept a new job and I am working on the hourly pay rate that you discuss. I have in detail created a Pro/Con chart about this opportunity and the Pro’s do out weigh the Cons, but the largest Con is commute time. I will be increasing my commute by 15 miles each way (30-40 minutes depending on traffic). In your original calculation I am to include that drive time and gas in my hourly calculation. However, I have decided to attempt to learn a new language during that travel time. Would you still add this time for travel even though I am partaking in a personal development project? What if it is to help my career?

– Andy

You should still include the travel time. Although you’re finding a use for that commute time, you’re still stuck in your car. You’re still having to divert a significant portion of your attention to the traffic around you.

On the other hand, if you were learning the language in a focused environment for an hour each day, you would pick up on the language much more deeply and thoroughly.

There’s certainly some value in using your time in the car to learn things, but if it had an equal value to non-car time, would you choose to drive around in order to listen to your language-learning CDs?

Q2: Career path concerns
My situation:
I’m living in Germany and studying for my BA in Social Science (class of 2013)
I have two subsidized loans one beeing 5800$ and the second 3500$ both will only kick in if I earn more than 30,000$/year after taxes.
I got 12000$ on the hand which is great, but I when reading the mentioned article I asked myself what will I have after I graduate.

Do I want to work as a scientist in social science, I dont, I never planned too, I had median grades but can maintain an A-Average at the moment. Still I dont have collected skills that are transferable to a degree mentioned in your article. I have no idea what my dream should or could be and the only thing I can relate to is the wish for financial independence for a foreseeable future.

I am thinking about taking up a job that would pay me 10000/year as a computer guide at the university so that I will save more to pay off my loans and maybe save up for a small apartment.

Any ideas how to change my worries about me beeing stuck with a formal but no-use education? I mean I really enjoy my time at the university but its more like readying a book you like about personal finance or philosophy it educates you but its nothing that will really help me at the job market… at least thats what I am afraid of.
– Ben

If I were you, I would spend my remaining time in college trying to figure out what exactly I wanted to do with my life. Clearly, you’re not enthusiastic about the field you’re studying for. What are you enthusiastic about?

College is the perfect time to figure this out. The restraints you have on your life are likely never going to be this light again.

Take advantage of it. Sit in on classes related to anything that might be of interest to you. Join some campus organizations. Try new things and see what clicks with you.

At the very least, attempt to supplement your degree with extra projects and jobs that will appear to be a good complement to potential employees.

Q3: Working with children
How do you get work done with children at home? I’ve been trying to transition to staying at home to work, but with my children at home I get almost nothing done. I don’t mind this, but I’m trying to find a way to stay professionally productive while still being a good mom.

– Erin

On days when I need to get work done and have children at home with me, I tend to try to get them involved in focused projects. I then set a timer for them that they can clearly see and tell them that I want to see what they’ve come up with in that timeframe.

For example, I’ll get out a giant bucket of Legos and ask them to build me the coolest castle they can build. I’ll set a timer for thirty minutes and then tell them I want to see what they’ve come up with when the timer runs out.

I usually make a big deal out of the project. We’ll take pictures with it, talk about it, and so on. Then we’ll have a snack, use the bathroom, and then I’ll come up with another project – say, a big art project where they need to draw a picture of something.

This works really well for my four year old daughter and my six year old son. For my one year old, I usually just contain him in a small spot with some toys for short sessions and he largely occupies himself.

Q4: Speed reading
[Recently] you talked about your reading skills. You said…“I can read pretty quickly, allowing me to go through more books than I would if I didn’t practice so much.” Is there any proven way, book or method for increasing reading speed that you can recommend? Is it just practice?

– Jeff

I’ve been reading on the order of 100 books a year for most of my life. I actually still have my reading list from sixth grade, where the teacher had all of the students keep one, and it numbers at about 100 or so. That pace has been more or less constant ever since.

The best way to become a good reader is to read. The more you read, the stronger your reading skill becomes and the faster you can absorb written material.

I find that reading challenging stuff tends to improve me the most as a reader. I’ll get a nonfiction book on a complex topic that I don’t understand well, and that forces me to read more slowly and absorb more of what I’m reading just to make it through.

Jeff had a follow-up question.

Q5: Getting less sleep
This seems like an offbeat subject but I have several relatives who can THRIVE on only 4 – 5 hours sleep. I need 8. Think of the productivity increase if I could gain 3 to 4 hours a day! Is there any way to learn to sleep less but still be productive or do you have to be born with it? How can dome people exist on 4-5 hours and others need 7-8 or more? I have never heard anyone address this and thought if anyone would know you would!

– Jeff

I think there are a lot of elements that make up the amount of sleep that a person needs. Genetics is certainly one of them, as is stress level, the amount of interruption of one’s sleep, and the comfort of one’s sleeping environment.

I can be productive with things that don’t require a lot of thinking on four or five hours of sleep. However, whenever I do thinking-intensive tasks with that little sleep, I perceive the results as good, but I later discover that they’re pretty poor.

Sleeping for three more hours than someone else, but being able to be thoughtfully productive during your waking hours, is well worth it. Don’t mess with what your body needs.

Q6: Netbook or tablet?
I have a laptop and until recently I had a netbook. I used the netbook for most of my day to day computing needs at home to save ware and tear on my laptop which is much more expensive.

I have been looking around for a replacement but the market seems to have went much more in the direction of tablet computers. As far as I can tell the tablets generally are more expensive, seem to be less powerful, have less memory and are simply an unnecessary gadget that is popular at the moment. Everyone around me is recommending a tablet but what I see and my intuition is saying to go with a netbook again.

Would you have any thoughts?
– Chris

I find that tablets tend to have more appeal for people whose typical computer tasks involve mostly mouse work with only brief bits of typing. That’s because the finger is a more intuitive pointing device than the mouse. It’s just more natural.

The more typing you do, the less appeal a tablet has. Even when you find ways to couple a tablet with a keyboard (many tablets allow you to use a wireless keyboard with them), it’s still not as good as the setup with an entry-level laptop.

If that describes you, get an entry-level laptop or netbook. It’s probably the best solution for you.

In either case, the processing power on both a decent tablet and a lower-end laptop today drastically exceeds what’s needed for what most people do on their computers. Web surfing and emailing do not require extensive computer power.

Q7: Risk Legacy and evolving games
I took your advice and picked up to play with my brothers and sisters over Christmas. It was a blast and we had so much fun that we’ve gotten together twice in January to play it. Thanks for the idea! It was well worth the money to have all of us sitting around a table talking and spending time together again.

I was wondering if there were other games like it that “evolve” as you play them, with permanent changes to the game.
– Eric

Not that I’ve seen. However, I think that is an awesome game experience. It has become an absolute staple for my gaming group, even overcoming a strong aversion to Risk. Five people are probably going to get 30-40 hours of entertainment out of that box, and at the end there’s a unique memento of those 30-40 hours spent. That’s pretty cool.

You also hit upon the big reason why I love board games so much. It gets people around a table doing social things. Whenever I get together with friends and we just watch a movie or something, the room is quiet and there’s very little interaction. I can do the same thing when I’m by myself.

Social gatherings are meant to be social. Board games are inherently social.

Q8: Saving for multiple goals
In one of your recent posts in the 365 days section you talked about having money automatically transfered into savings accounts for different things you are saving for. I have a regular checking, a short term savings and a long term growth account (the PNC Virtuall Wallet is AMAZING by the way and makes this all very streamlined). But you talked about an account saving for a car, and I know I should have an emergency fund, but I’m not really sure how to set all this up.

What do your account setups look like? Do you save for more than one thing in the same account or have a separate account for every savings goal? And where do you put money for things like a new dish washer or other larger item that might break before you get around to proactively replacing it? Does this come from your emergency fund?
– Paul

I use ING Direct for most of my specific savings goals. ING Direct allows a person to set up as many savings accounts as they’d like (I’ve never hit a limit, anyway). You can have automatic savings plans tied to each one of them.

Thus, I’ll have a savings account that’s tied to saving for a car, another tied to saving for a new dishwasher, another that’s just an emergency fund, and so on.

I usually try to start saving for things as soon as I get an inkling that they’re going to need replacing soon. Most of the time, failures of things like cars and appliances provide some hint beforehand. I usually try to rely on those hints.

Q9: Paying someone to prepare taxes
I was wondering what you think of paying someone to prepare your taxes? In the past 30 years, my husband and I have always had someone prepare our taxes at a cost of $175.00 I keep all the tax forms in a file folder and sort through it before I bring it to the preparer. We also just have the basic write offs such as our mortgage and donations. Nothing ever really adds up to being able to write anything off because we make too much and don’t donate enough. Plus we’re healthy, so we don’t have any medical expenses.

My question is how are the tax preparation people that you see on commercials all the time? Right now they have a new program that you can work on your taxes from home and they have an instant question/help line available if you have any questions? Also what about Turbo Tax? I saw it advertised for $45.00 at Sam’s Club and was wondering if that’s the way to go.
– Susan

I use TurboTax for my own taxes. It does the job really well and hasn’t failed me yet.

Most of the time, when I’ve observed what a tax preparer does, they’re generally using TurboTax or a TurboTax-like computer program to prepare your taxes for you. They just take the numbers from the documents you’ve given them, put them into a program, and out pops your forms.

I’d rather just do that myself. I’d try out TurboTax if I were you.

Q10: Setting microgoals
You’ve mentioned many times that you set “microgoals” for yourself. Could you elaborate on what exactly that means? What’s the difference between that and a short-term goal?

– Ellen

I usually set “microgoals” on a weekly basis. Typically, I’ll think about a goal that I want to complete for the week – usually some task that will take me a few hours that’s outside my normal routine – over the weekend.

On Monday, I’ll set my “microgoal” (or pair of them) for the week. I’ll figure out how to fit them into my week and have a plan for making them happen.

Usually, I strive to complete them by Friday afternoon, but sometimes goals run over into the weekend. If I find that I can’t complete one for the week, I spend some time trying to figure out why I didn’t get it done.

Got any questions? Email them to me or leave them in the comments and 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 hundreds of questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

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