Questions About Retirement Savings Priorities, Gas Grills, Gap Years and More

Questions About Retirement Savings Priorities, Gas Grills, Gap Years 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. Living on debt
2. Prioritizing saving for retirement
3. Extending life of gas grill
4. What happens in August?
5. More on sanded cast iron
6. Stay-cation idea with kids
7. Prepping for next lockdown
8. Dry beans advice?
9. Handling child’s “gap year”
10. Inexpensive pocket-sized games?
11. Giant ham and turkey suggestion
12. Inexpensive long term isolation ideas

A few months ago, I mentioned Money in Excel, a spreadsheet template that (at the time) was an upcoming release from Microsoft that worked within their Excel spreadsheet program to provide some personal finance management tools.

It released a couple of weeks ago. I’ve spent some time using it and I’m impressed. My only concern is security; I hope to see a thorough security audit of the software from someone who is skilled at that type of analysis (I haven’t seen one yet as of this writing, but there may be one available by the time you read this). If you already have access to Excel through the Office 365 program, I highly encourage you to download it and give it a try.

On with the questions.

Q1: Living on debt

I was working as a 1099 contractor until May when my employer let me go. I was able to still get unemployment, but the total unemployment plus CARES benefit isn’t enough to pay my bills so I have been living on credit cards until I can get a new job. I need to make some real decisions about what to do but I don’t have any idea what to prioritize. Do you have any articles on this?
– Darren

I would go through each of your big expenses and ask yourself what you can do to cut that expense drastically.

Let’s start at the top — housing. Do you own a home or rent an apartment? Have you looked at downsizing those things? Moving to a smaller place will cut your housing bill plus your utility bills significantly.

Do you have a car? Do you need that car? If it’s on a lease, can you end that lease early and just get a junker to drive or rely on public transport?

Look at all of your services. Which ones do you need? Do you need both home internet and cellular service? Do you need any of your entertainment services?

Are you taking smart steps with your day-to-day living expenses? Buying store brands at the store? Eating meals you prep yourself at home rather than takeout or delivery?

Can you renegotiate or shop around for your insurance packages?

You have to tighten up all of your money leaks hard. If you’re living off of credit cards while you’re actively looking for work, that means your spending is well above your income right now, and that’s not sustainable for very long and will leave you with a giant hole to dig out of if/when you stabilize.

Q2: Prioritizing saving for retirement

How big of a priority is retirement savings when you have student loans and credit card debt?
– Damon

It depends on a number of other factors.

If you’re accumulating more credit card debt, you should prioritize getting your spending habits straight above everything else. You have to be spending less than you earn now, even if you think you’ll be earning more in the future. Get that straight before even thinking about retirement savings. This comes before everything else listed below.

If your employer offers matching funds for retirement savings, you should prioritize getting every drop of those matching funds. Matching funds blow away anything else you could do with that money in terms of return on the dollar.

If you don’t have matching options, get rid of all of your high-interest debt as fast as humanly possible, then build a cash emergency fund so that you don’t slip back into debt. High-interest debt is anything over 7%, so that probably includes your credit card debt but not your student loans.

So, your first priority is to make sure you’re spending less than you earn, then contribute to retirement such that you get every dime of matching funds, then pay off high-interest debts, then build a small emergency fund, then contribute more to retirement (up to about 15% of your salary). Check off each one before you move to the next.

Q3: Extending life of gas grill

I received a gas grill and propane tank and cover as an early Father’s Day present (so I could use it on Father’s Day). Manual doesn’t give much maintenance and care advice and couldn’t find much online. What can I do to keep it in good shape besides covering it?
– Brad

The big thing is to clean it regularly, once every month or two. I’m surprised this isn’t in the manual, honestly, but some manuals are better than others. You’ll need a wire brush and a big bucket of soapy water and some rags.

First, disconnect the propane tank from the grill. Then, pull the grates off and scrub them down thoroughly with the wire brush. Take out the burner protectors (the metal pieces that rest over the burner) and wash them in the soapy water by hand, rinse them off with clean water, and leave them out to dry.

After that, get a soapy rag, wring it out well, and wipe down the burners. You’ll get a lot of nasty grime off of them — that’s OK. Just keep rinsing off the rag in the soapy water, wring it out, and wipe some more. After it’s good, wipe it down with non-soapy water.

After that, there are some removable plates underneath the burners. Remove them, get rid of all of the debris that comes with them, and gently clean them like the burner protectors and leave them out to dry.

Beneath those, there should be a removable tray. Brush any debris still on the bottom of the grill into that tray, remove it, and dump the contents.

Then, just reassemble in reverse order. Put the tray back in, put the plates on the bottom of the grill back in, put the burner protectors back in (assuming they’re dry), put the grates back on top, and reconnect the propane. Your grill should look fantastic.

Just do this every month or two and your grill will hold up well. You’ll probably more than double its life by doing this. It’s mostly the grime that builds up and eventually starts damaging and clogging things that cause most grill problems, assuming that you’re also keeping the water out with a grill cover.

Again, I’m surprised this isn’t in your manual, but this basic procedure is great for keeping pretty much any propane grill going.

Q4: What happens in August?

I liked your stuff about the economy but I am still worried about what happens in August when people start falling off of unemployment if their job didn’t come back.
– Barry

First of all, what happens at the end of July is that the extra unemployment benefits provided by the federal CARE Act will run out, so on August 1 benefits fall back to the normal rate in each state (that’s the state of things as I write this). Right now, most states are offering basic unemployment for 39 weeks (a few are offering less, but most seem to be at the 39-week level), so the real problem starts popping up near the end of the year. People will find it harder after August 1, but they shouldn’t fall into complete panic mode until near year’s end.

So what will happen?

One possibility — and this is the one I find most likely — is that unemployment benefits are extended in many states. Some states may have trouble paying unemployment benefits for that long (as the sudden jump in unemployment caught many of their unemployment funds unaware) but I expect the federal government will make sure they won’t fail.

Another possibility is that the CARES Act is extended. I don’t think that will happen unless states start to shut down again due to COVID-19 resurgence.

The other possibility is that the states do nothing and unemployment runs out for lots of people this coming winter. I think this only happens if there has been a complete return to normalcy, with a vaccine or an effective treatment for COVID-19 widely available.

So, I think the first possibility is the most likely one, the second is the “bad” scenario, and the third is the “good” scenario.

Q5: More on sanded cast iron

As an engineer sitting here with two similar Lodge cast iron skillets, I still couldn’t help myself from running the experiment for myself. So here’s what I did. I took one skillet that was up for reseasoning anyway due to misuse, some carbonized food residue spots that were really baked on at this point and took it back to bare iron with that one lye-containing oven cleaner. Once it was pristine bare iron, I took some heavy grit sanding to it with the orbital sander. This took a LONG time, I want to say an hour or more, but when finished I had a beautifully smooth surface as you can see in the pic below. I then reseasoned with 4x bakes with flax oil and got to cooking. The result: After a few weeks of cooking with this thing twice a day it is a dream, honestly. Scrambled eggs, in particular, just slip right off, provided I let it get hot first. And since the side walls were not sanded, I get a real side-by-side of how much better the release is on the sanded surface. I’ve been surprised at how well the initial seasoning has held up and seemingly only gotten better with use. So yeah, interesting and unexpected results. Below are pics of the freshly sanded skillet and the same skilled today, seasoned and two weeks into its new life. Do with that what you will, but my takeaway is that a sanded cast iron can still hold on to polymerized oil like a champ.
– David

This is a follow-up to a question a few weeks ago in which a reader wanted to know whether sanding down a cast-iron skillet before use was a good idea, and I advised him not to do so. The big reason for not doing it is that the somewhat rough surface of cast iron is full of pores that grab onto the things you cook on cast iron and gradually form a wonderful natural non-stick surface. If you sand it down, you lose the pores.

From this reader’s experience, it sounds like sanding down the surface to make it easier to cook on initially is still enabling it to start to form that natural non-stick surface.

I’d really like to know (for my own curiosity) how this surface holds up over time. Will it peel in a year or two when that surface gradually thickens? I honestly don’t know. All I know is that the cast iron I’ve used in the past started with a very rough surface, took quite a lot of cooking to develop a nice smooth non-stick surface, and has never peeled.

Q6: Stay-cation idea with kids

Our plan this summer was to go to Disney World in late July but there’s no way we’re doing that now even if the place is open. We held out hope for a while but canceled recently. So now we are planning a “stay-cation” that week but we are struggling for cool ideas. We do have some budget but we mostly want to roll our savings forward to next year for a nice vacation. I’m interested in ideas that aren’t camping.
– Amber

Honestly, I’d talk to your kids about it. What kinds of things have they always wanted to do at home or near home (with social distancing in mind) that there’s never been time to do? Any big projects? Anything they’ve ever wanted to try? Perhaps you could all agree to pick a few things and then you all participate in them.

Here’s a good thing to do. Each of you should come up with a list of, say, ten things you might want to do on a staycation. They should all be things that take a day or less and fit within your social distancing restrictions.

Then, sit down together and share your lists. Everyone should pick out their favorite three things from each other person’s list — so your partner and each kid would each pick out their three favorite things from your list, and you and each kid would pick out your three favorite things from your partner’s list, and so on. The items that get picked multiple times (meaning at least three out of four of you really like the idea) are things you include in the stay-cation.

So, my list might look like this:

1. Play a strategy board game.
2. Build a blanket fort.
3. Make a big batch of homemade root beer.
4. Play a role-playing game.
5. Find ten geocaches nearby.
6. Make a big batch of sauerkraut.
7. Have a croquet match in the back yard.
8. Make tie-dyed t-shirts.
9. Make an enormous sidewalk chalk mural on our whole driveway and front walk.
10. Make a big pot of “stone soup” over a fire in the backyard.

I have a wife and three kids. So, my wife might pick 1, 5, and 10. My oldest son would probably pick 4, 5, and 7. My daughter would probably pick 2, 8, and 9. My youngest would probably pick 1, 2, and 8. So, 1, 2, 5, and 8 were picked by at least two people, so they’d make it on the final “staycation” list. Likely, each person would have 3–4 things picked, and you could fudge in the end to make things even.

There’s a decent chance that we do this for a week in August, actually, before the school year — in whatever form that takes — gets started.

Q7: Prepping for next lockdown

My wife and I believe that another coronavirus lockdown is inevitable and are looking for steps to prepare for it. We think this one will be in the fall and much more strongly enforced. How should we prepare for this financially without our moves going to waste if it doesn’t happen?
– David

Obviously, having liquid cash is a good idea. You’re likely most safe having that money in a local branch of a larger bank so you could get it locally if needed. Get money into savings so that if there is job loss for anyone, you can still stay put for a long while. If there’s not another lockdown, you can move that money back into other things.

Another good move is to do a lot of bulk buying now, but buy things you will eventually use up no matter what. Buy basic toiletries, household supplies, and nonperishable goods — things like dry rice, dry beans, canned tomatoes, and so on. Focus on things you know you will use and eat, and buy enough to sustain you for months. Those supplies can be used up over time even if there isn’t a lockdown.

The advantage of both of these moves is that there’s no real financial cost to them. With the savings account money, at worst you might miss out on some investment gains for a few months, but you may also avoid losses. With the nonperishable goods, as long as you focus on things you will actually use regardless of lockdown, it’ll probably save you money.

Here’s some more specific advice probably related to your efforts.

Q8: Dry beans advice?

I bought a lot of dry beans but I’m having a hard time actually using them. Seems like a lot of extra work. Can you explain very carefully your workflow for dry beans?
– Stan

Every few days, I’ll look ahead at our meal plan and see if there’s anything that uses beans. Usually, I’ve planned such that there are two (or even more) meals that use the same kind of beans so I can do a larger batch.

When I know there’s a meal coming up, I fill up a big pot of water one evening and put the beans in to soak overnight. I just dump in enough so that I know the recipes I intend to make will be well covered. The exact amount of beans depends a lot on the type of bean – some dry beans will double in weight and size with soaking, while others will grow even more. You’ll want to look up the specifics for the type of bean you’re using.

The next day, I drain the water from those beans, rinse them, and put them in the slow cooker with more water. I then cook them on low for a length of time depending on the bean. In general, the smaller the bean, the less cooking time it needs. I look up the type of bean using Google to find out how long to cook it on low. Sometimes, I’ll add seasonings while they’re cooking.

When the beans are done cooking, I remove them from the heat entirely, pour off any excess liquid (I keep the thicker sauce-like liquid; I just want to get rid of the really watery stuff), move them to a resealable container of some kind, and let that cool to room temperature (maybe an hour), then close the container and put it in the fridge. That container will then have all of the cool cooked beans I need for my recipes in the coming days.

Then, when I actually go to cook something, I just pull out my bean container and add them at the appropriate time.

Most of this is completely hands-off. I do other things while the beans soak and when they’re cooking in the slow cooker. For the slow cooker, I usually set a loud timer to tell me when they’re done.

Q9: Handling a child’s “gap year”

My daughter was intending to go to a large state university in the fall but after reviewing their plans for the fall in dealing with coronavirus she decided to take a gap year instead. The university has agreed to postpone her admission to next fall. She plans to spend the year working locally and living with us. However I am concerned that she simply won’t go to school next fall. I am not sure how to handle this. We have money put aside for her in a 529, and we don’t want her to live here as a freeloader if she’s just doing hourly work and not trying to do anything to improve her situation. What advice do you have?
– Erica

If I were in your shoes, I would lay all of this out with her. Make it clear that you’re supportive of her if this is a “gap year,” but that the “gap year” needs to entail at least some effort in getting prepared for some sort of postsecondary education next fall, whether it’s college or trade school or something else. What is she planning to do over the course of this year to help her figure out what she wants to study or, if she’s figured that out, to prepare herself for that field?

If she’s uninterested in doing that, and especially if she doesn’t want to pursue any education after this “gap year,” you should plan on having her move out at the end of that year. It is hard to do, particularly when she may financially struggle at first.

All of this should be made clear in a conversation with her. It’s really hard to tell from this where exactly your daughter is intending to go. She may feel like it’s genuinely not safe to go to college with COVID-19 ongoing, or that the experience and education will be far worse if she goes right now. She may be second-guessing the entire idea of continuing her education or considering a completely different path. I encourage you to be supportive of her if she’s on a path that leads to a meaningful career or entrepreneurship, but if her goals are to work an hourly job and not work toward anything more, having her move out is probably the best option.

As for her 529, there’s no reason to tap it for anything other than education. If she goes to college next fall, use it then; if she chooses not to, it can wait until later in her life or eventually be transferred to her children.

Q10: Inexpensive pocket-sized games?

Do you have any suggestions for inexpensive pocket-sized games? Ideally, ones to play solo and with one other person? Don’t like just staring at screens all the time but don’t want to carry around big board games.
– Brenda

The most cost-effective solution here is a deck of playing cards. There are almost infinite games you can play with a deck of playing cards and you can pick up one for a dollar or two that will sustain many plays. The Bicycle website is a wonderful repository of rules for games you can play with an ordinary deck of cards.

Another solution, one that I used for many years and still do on occasion, is a pocket chess set, like this one. They’re about the size of a cell phone, give or take a little. I carried one of these with me for years, doing chess puzzles (when I was alone) and playing with friends.

There are lots of small card games that fit nicely in a pocket out there. I particularly like Sprawlopolis (1–4 players), Hanabi (2–4 players), Mottainai (2–5 players, best at 2–3, requires some table space), Pentaquark (solo only), Tussie Mussie (2–4 players), and Innovation (2–5 players, best at 2–3, requires some table space). I could actually list a lot of these, as many of them are “camping trip” games for us. I fill up a little box with a lot of games like these and we play them in a shelter when we’re camping and it’s raining.

Q11: Giant ham and turkey suggestion

I was just getting some of our ham out of the freezer and wanted to tell you about it. During holidays when hams or turkeys are on sale like Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter we buy an enormous one because it’s so cheap. We make it for ourselves and then save many pounds of extra meat frozen. We cut it up and store it in freezer bags with enough for a meal for the two of us. Then we just thaw it and heat it up. We are still eating bags of the ham from Christmas. Also saved the big ham bone and we will use it for soup at some point.
– Ellen

This is a really good idea if you enjoy eating ham or turkey. Rather than getting a ham or turkey that’s just right for your family for a holiday, get a giant one. Cook it, then cut up all the extras and store them for later.

During the holidays, ham and turkey is often on sale at a rate that’s super cheap per pound. A friend of mine gets a free turkey at work each Thanksgiving and a free ham each Christmas, but he doesn’t host holiday meals, so he just cooks them for himself and stores the meat, much as you describe.

Also, my parents used to do this with hams. Whenever there was a ham on sale, they’d buy it and then cut it up into cubes and put those cubes into bags with roughly a pound of ham cubes in each one. This would end up being used for lots of soups in the coming months. We often had ham and bean soup, which was basically great northern beans cooked with cubed ham and a few flavorful vegetables like onions.

Q12: Inexpensive long term isolation ideas

I have lupus. My doctor advised me to minimize my contact with others and basically act like I’m under a shelter-in-place order until there’s a vaccine or a very reliable treatment for COVID-19 which I estimate will take a year or two. Other than going on some walks in areas where I’m sure people won’t be near, I am staying at home. My job allows me to work remotely 100% now so employment isn’t a worry. I am trying to find inexpensive at-home hobbies I can get involved with that don’t have me staring at a screen all the time. I live in a small apartment so I don’t have a ton of space. Hoping you have some ideas!
– Fergie

I spent a few days thinking this one over, trying to make a list of inexpensive hobby ideas that you can take up without leaving your house and without spending time on a screen. Here are the better ones I came up with.

Reading (get books from the library delivered, if possible). Knitting or crocheting. Cooking. Yoga. Other bodyweight exercises. Journaling. Solving spatial puzzles (like a Rubik’s Cube or a Megaminx – trust me, learning how to solve those quickly takes time). Doing jigsaw puzzles. Solving paper puzzles (like sudoku). Studying a subject. Learning a musical instrument (this will require some screen time, but a lot of time without one, too). Painting or drawing. Letter writing. Learning really good card or party tricks, like how to memorize a full deck of shuffled playing cards.

There are fourteen ideas. I had a lot more, but I cut out a lot of them because they were either repetitive or weren’t very good unless you were really into a very narrow thing.

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.

We welcome your feedback on this article. Contact us at with comments or questions.

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