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. Stock market dropping!
2. IRA maximum income question?
3. Simple small business budgeting software
4. Financial coaching services
5. Smartly using a small windfall
6. Improving communication skills at work
7. Environmental benefit of reusable bottles
8. How to find used guitars?
9. Thoughts on nootropics
10. Long lasting computer?
11. Holiday gift exchanges
12. Are Christmas lights just disposable?

I admit it. I went shopping on Black Friday.

I bought a discounted HDMI switch for our television because our old TV has two HDMI ports and we have three devices that need to be hooked up. Now, rather than unplugging and plugging things, we can just hit a button. Total cost? $10.

I also bought a Christmas gift for my wife, something I’ve thought about for years. The retailer that makes them had a Black Friday sale on their site, something I don’t believe they’ve ever had before, so I used their discount code and bought her that long-planned gift.

That was the extent of my Black Friday purchases. I’m a big spender, let me tell you.

On with the questions.

Q1: Stock market dropping!

In the last two months the stock market has lost about 15% of its value. Are you still recommending stock investments?
– Alex

To me, the day to day and month to month ups and downs of the stock market are basically irrelevant.

Here are the questions I care about: are large American blue chip companies in a wide variety of industries failing all at once? Are people simply not creating new startups? If you start answering “yes” to those questions, then we might have something to worry about.

As long as the big blue chip companies keep chugging along without mass failure, and as long as new startups are launching consistently, I’m not worried about the long term health of the stock market one bit. There are always going to be ups and downs, bull markets and bear markets, hot economies and recessions. That’s all cyclical, and this is a normal response to almost a decade of straight positive moves in the stock market. We’re due for a recession of some kind.

If you’re investing in stocks in such a way that short term changes (1-3 years) really matter to you, then you shouldn’t be investing in stocks. You should be in something less volatile, like bonds or cash.

Q2: IRA maximum income question?

My income (filing jointly with non earning spouse) may exceed 189k (not sure as commission based) in 2018. i have already contributed some money in my traditional IRA. what should I do if my income gets over maximum requirement?
– Tim

There are no income limits for traditional IRAs. You can contribute to a traditional IRA no matter what your income is.

However, there are income limits for being able to deduct traditional IRA contributions from your taxes. In 2017, singles with an income of $62,000 and married joint filers with income of $99,000 (or less) were able to deduct their full contribution. Above that, the deduction gradually phases out, disappearing entirely at $72,000 (for single filers) and $119,000 (for joint filers). You’re far above that.

So, to summarize, you should be able to make traditional IRA contributions with no problem, but you won’t be able to deduct those contributions from your taxes.

Q3: Simple small business budgeting software

I am looking for a budgeting software similar to Mint, but that works for small businesses. I read the blog post on budgeting software, but can you recommend one that works for small business budgeting and tracking?
– Jane

The closest thing to Mint for small businesses is Quickbooks, which is actually made by the same parent company as Mint, Intuit. I used an early version of Quickbooks in the past, though my need to do so has passed, and it was very user friendly and convenient.

The only catch is that Quickbooks is that it’s a subscription-based package, with a thirty day trial and plans starting at $6 per month.

I would give that low end version a try, at least through the 30 day trial, and see if it works for you. I really do recommend it.

Q4: Financial coaching services

Do you offer financial coaching services? What are your rates?
– Oleg

No, I do not offer financial coaching services, nor will I ever. It is an avenue by which I could make significant money, as I have had many situations in the past where people have requested my financial coaching services.

There are two big reasons why I don’t do it. One, my first piece of advice to anyone hiring my service would be to cut out non-essential spending, of which one piece would be my services as a financial coach. That, to me, should be the first piece of advice from any financial coach worth their salt – cut out nonessential spending – and that advice, if taken, would result in the elimination of that financial coach. To not give that advice would mean that I wasn’t doing my best job for the client, so I’d be in a situation where I was either telling people to fire me or being a huckster, and I have no interest in either.

Two, all of the advice and “coaching” you need is freely available on the internet. Financial change isn’t complicated at its core – it mostly boils down to having the willpower and discipline to actually execute. If you can’t summon the discipline to say “no” to an unnecessary expense on your own, then no coach can help you; if you do have that discipline, then you don’t need a coach.

Q5: Smartly using a small windfall

I’m a single woman in my mid-40’s with no debt. I have a 6 month emergency savings fund, with an additional $15K earmarked for a car if/when I decide to buy one. My retirement savings include approximately $60K in a Roth IRA (have maxed out for last 4 years and will continue to), $4K in a pension, and a small Acorns fund. I’m great at frugality and saving. Years of low salaries, under- and un-employment have been challenges. My employment is stable for now, but I’m looking to switch careers. I’ve been gifted with $10K I’d like put towards my retirement savings. My goal is to open an account with this money, then contribute $150 weekly. Any suggestions on where to invest or the type of account to open? I like what I’ve read about Betterment and Swell (Swell’s probably too risky for my taste right now). I consider this money as a kick start for more retirement security and want it to grow well.
– Dana

If I were you and were contributing that much to start, I’d just open an account directly with Vanguard and put the money into one of their index funds like the Total Stock Market Index Fund. Sites like Betterment and Swell are good for getting started, but once you get into the five figures, you’re usually better off investing without the training wheels.

Spend some time looking at what Vanguard has to offer, like their LifeStrategy funds (they’re pretty good for targeting a certain risk level) or just browse all of their funds.

I recommend Vanguard because it’s what I use. I have my Roth IRA with them and some additional investments as well.

Q6: Improving communication skills at work

I read in your article that your boss gave you this advice: “You are good at writing but extend that to speaking.“ I am also working on the “data world” and those words exactly resonate with me. At work, i’m just always heads-down busy and focused in my data analysis tasks. But at the end of the day, I keep telling myself “I wish my job will entail more human interaction and communication”. If I could be a good speaker, I will welcome that, too! So, what actionable advice can you give me regarding this “desire”?
– Lisa

I’m assuming from your question that there are limited options to present at work, or even to talk to other people in your field. In that case…

Go to conferences. That’s my number one recommendation. Identify a few conferences related to your field and attend them. Attend only the sessions that really speak to you, and then spend the rest of the time talking to people in your field. You’ll really have to turn on your “social” game when you’re there.

After you have your feet wet, try to get a presentation slot at a conference. Submit a proposal for a talk and, if you get a slot, practice it and hone it until you could give it blindfolded.

Until then, see if there are any professional groups or special interest groups in your area related to your field. Meetup is a good place to start. Start going to their meetings and getting to know people. If there’s a chance to present something related to your work, jump on it.

Q7: Environmental benefit of reusable bottles

I think it’s important to include the environmental saving of Sodastream as well, you’re obviously not adding to the single use plastic bottle problem, I for one use Sodastream knowing that I won’t be discarding a soda bottle and choking a dolphin tonight.
– Erik

This is a big part of why I use reusable water bottles as much as possible. I really don’t want to fill up a landfill with my disposable plastic water bottles. I’d far rather use a water bottle for years and only dispose of it when it actually cracks or breaks.

For carbonated water, SodaStream is basically a specific brand of home carbonator set up to make it pretty easy to do with reusable bottles.

I kind of “weaned” myself off of wanting fizziness in my water. I used to feel like it was essential, but now it’s not a big deal. I mostly just fill up bottles with noncarbonated water from the tap.

Q8: How to find used guitar?

I want to take up playing guitar as a hobby. I don’t want to go buy an expensive new one. Tried finding a used one locally on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace but no luck. Any ideas on how to find a used guitar?
– Jerry

First, I’d check Freecycle in your area. I have seen used guitars on there. I’d also look at your local Goodwill and Salvation Army stores.

Next, I’d put a shout out to my social network. Ask your friends if they have an old used guitar in the closet that you could have or buy for cheap. You’d be surprised how many people have a guitar stowed away that they intended to learn how to play and never bothered.

If that doesn’t work, you could put out a request in a community group, especially if you are in a buy/sell/trade group. Most towns and cities have Facebook groups dedicated to local buying/selling/trading and if you’re looking for something you can just put out a request.

If you exhaust all of those options, I’m pretty sure you’ll find a guitar.

Q9: Thoughts on nootropics

What do you think about nootropics? Do you use any? Do they help you focus on work and be more productive?
– Alexandra

For those who don’t know what nootropics are, they’re drugs, supplements, and other substances that are intended to improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity, and motivation. I like to think of them as “vitamins for the mind.”

The only “nootropic” I take is coffee and pretty potent green tea in the mornings. I’ll drink them in an alternating fashion right at the start of my workday and then turn on some “focus” music. I find that it’s a useful part of getting me primed to write in the mornings and I do notice when it’s not present. At the same time, if I do that every single morning, the effect starts to slide. I’m far better off drinking a bunch of coffee and potent green tea once or twice a week rather than every day. (In nootropic terms, this means that I consume caffeine – mostly from the coffee – and l-theanine – from the green tea – in rapid sequence.)

Although I have friends that have tried other things to help cognitive function, I’m not sold on the relative risk and reward of such things and generally avoid them.

Q10: Long lasting computer?

Where can you buy a computer that will last a long time? We are finally getting rid of computer we bought in 2003. We use it for email and internet. Don’t want to get junk that will fail in three years. Suggestions?
– Danny

Computers are not really “buy it for life” items. They don’t slow down per se, but over time software becomes more and more demanding and resource hungry as it’s expected to do more and more things. Since 2003, your computer switched from barely being online to probably being expected to watch high resolution video and that’s a much higher demand on a computer, thus it runs that application much slower.

In my experience, if you’re buying a computer for maximum lifespan for normal home use, you can get a cheap one that will keep up for 4-5 years or an expensive one that will keep up for about 8 years. Since the price of a cheap one is about a quarter of an expensive one, I’d vote for getting a good cheap one.

Consumer Reports suggests that the best budget desktop out there right now is a Dell Inspiron 5680. Dell identifies the model as a “gaming desktop” but it’s actually just a pretty well built all around computer for the price. For basic home use and without intense games on it, it should last for several years. That would be my choice.

Q11: Holiday gift exchanges

At Thanksgiving our family decided to draw names for a gift exchange. We used to give presents to everyone but now with 13 people at Christmas it’s getting expensive. We got into a big argument about how much each person should spend and how to handle the children. The family with children wanted to exclude the children and everyone get gifts for them. They said that they were willing to spend more in the exchange to ‘make up’ for it. Then someone else complained that two people would get great gifts and everyone else would get worse gifts. We ended up voting and putting the kids into the drawing and I didn’t draw a kid and I want to give them something anyway but I don’t want to start a big family fight. How can we fix this mess?
– Jamie

Very simple. Make a rule that you’re only required to give a gift to the person you drew, but if you want to get something small for someone else, particularly the kids, it’s entirely up to you. Suggest that if people do get gifts for the kids outside of the exchange that they be small ones, like a pack of trading cards or a $5 toy or something.

We’ve run into this situation with our own family. The way we’ve handled it is by just giving nicer gifts to people but keeping our kids out of any exchanges. If people want to give our kids a gift, they can do so, but there’s no need to or requirement to. Most of their aunts and uncles get them something small, which is appropriate.

The thing is, in situations of gift giving when people start to add expectations of reciprocity, hurt feelings are inevitable.

Q12: Are Christmas lights just disposable?

So I was going through the Christmas lights from last year and half of the strands didn’t work. I saved some replacement bulbs and tried to figure out which ones to replace because there were blocks of burnt out bulbs but it didn’t matter what I replaced it didn’t work and it was clear the problem is in the cords. Are Christmas lights just disposable nowadays?
– Amber

Most of the holiday light sets you buy at the store are pretty cheaply made. They’ll usually make it through a holiday season or two, but beyond that, it’s really a crapshoot. The issue I’ve found is that replacing bulbs usually doesn’t fix what’s wrong with them, as you’ve noticed. It’s in the socket, and fixing that is beyond what the strand itself is worth.

I don’t know of a good solution to the problem other than just being careful with your strands. We wrap our external lights up carefully after taking them down and store them in the garage on a hook and they’ve worked for about ten years. Our internal lights are looped and stored in a box just by themselves and those have lasted about five or six years.

I think you just buy bulb strands, hope for the best, and decide about replacement when the strand starts to fail.

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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