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. Pyrex blowing up in oven
2. Glass versus plastic in freezer
3. Simplest cold brew coffee
4. Valuing old comic books
5. Wikipedia trustworthiness
6. Tax gain and loss harvesting
7. Philosophical books about self-improvement
8. Minimalism and frugality
9. Organizing cupboards
10. Cutting hair without a mess
11. Old debt question
12. Learning chess along with child
There aren’t as many questions as usual because, well, most of the questions this week have been on one topic, so I’m going to collectively answer a lot of them at once in this introduction.
In the last few days, I’ve received a ton of emails and questions about the Equifax data leak. I personally have been hesitant to write about it yet because, in the aftermath of situations like this, there’s a lot of misinformation and confusion floating around. Other writers for The Simple Dollar have done pretty reasonable jobs of addressing the Equifax leak in other articles, trying to get out in front of the story.
So, let’s start with what exactly happened. On September 8, Equifax – one of the three major credit reporting bureaus in the United States – announced that a “cybercrime identity theft event” occurred starting in mid-May and continuing until July 29, when Equifax first became aware of it.
Equifax is not sure exactly how many people were impacted by this data breach because they frankly do not know what files were examined or how they were used or exactly how deep the intrusion went. They do know that, at minimum, the cybercriminals had access to data on somewhere around 143 million US consumers as well as data on some number of British and Canadian residents. That data included first and last names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and some driver’s license numbers, as well as additional information on a smaller set of people.
Their initial disclosure was incredibly flawed. They did not say exactly what information was compromised and why it took so long to disclose the breach publicly. Even worse, the websites that Equifax set up in response to the breach for the public to use had a number of problems. The chief problem is that their hack checking website did not actually function and, furthermore, the site’s terms of service was extremely vague and included legally unclear language that may exclude people using the hack checking website from any class action lawsuits against Equifax.
Those later developments are a prime example of why it is difficult to report and recommend quick action on personal finance issues. As the week after the breach went by, the initial recommendations for consumers from Equifax were shown to be heavily flawed, though those flaws were not immediately apparent.
So, this leaves us with a question. What exactly should a consumer do right now?
I can’t tell you that, but what I can tell you is what I have done.
First of all, I am assuming that my data has been compromised. I don’t need to check any website or enter my personal information into any form to make this assumption. Even if my data was not compromised, the following steps still make sense.
Second, I’m completely ignore anyone who comes to me with any sort of phone call or email related to this data breach. Ignore the email. Ignore the phone call. If you’re concerned, still, delete the email and hang up on the phone call, then look up the website of the relevant business on your own and contact them yourself. Do not give any information to anyone who contacted you first, period.
Third, I’m watching my accounts for anything suspicious. I’m checking my active credit card accounts daily to see if any unwanted transactions pop up. I’ll probably slow this down in the coming days, but for now, I’m watching closely.
Fourth, I’ve set up fraud alerts with the three major reporting agencies. This requires creditors to verify your identity before they can get a copy of your credit report.
You can do this through an automated phone system with each of the three credit reporting agencies. Here are links to the websites of each agency so you can find the number yourself, as you should only trust the number you get directly from them. (I would be considered a middleman here, so you shouldn’t trust me or any other commentator or news reporter with anything – get your info directly from the source.) Here are the links: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. At each one, get the phone number needed to create a fraud alert, call that number, and get it set up.
Things I am not doing are panicking, making rash decisions, closing accounts, freezing my credit, using any third party credit monitoring services, or anything like that. That may change (especially with regard to freezing my credit) if I start seeing fraud alerts or compromised credit card accounts. I also have not used any tools provided by Equifax aside from their fraud alert system, especially given that they are apparently including questionable things in their terms of service, as noted above.
Most importantly, I am being cautious but not taking rash action. This is still an ongoing event and throughout the last week things changed significantly as more details came out. Equifax changed their own story multiple times during the week, and security analysts discovered things as well. Your best bet, for now, is to play it safe, watch your accounts carefully, and not make any rash moves.
This advice might differ from some of the other articles you may have read on The Simple Dollar in the last week, where other writers gave their recommendations based on the information available at that time. This is my recommendation, based on what I know at this time. A week from now, things may have changed yet again. That’s why I’m choosing to play things cool for now, watch my accounts, watch for fraud, and then take action only if there’s a direct problem.
A final note: this entire situation is an extremely clear signal that something significant has to change in terms of how we identify people in the information age. We are using modes of identification that worked all right in the pre-internet area but are simply not up to snuff in today’s world. I’m not a security or identity expert, but I have seen enough to know that the systems we have in place today aren’t up to snuff, and I hope that Congress will involve cybersecurity and identity experts in coming up with a smart solution to this quickly.
If there are major changes to all of this in the future, I will address this again. For now, let’s go on to some questions on different topics… I intentionally chose a higher proportion of lighthearted and perhaps offbeat questions for the mailbag this week as a counterbalance to the doom and gloom of the Equifax news.
I have heard a few stories lately about Pyrex dishes blowing up in ovens. Can that really happen? Is Pyrex safe?
Like anything, Pyrex dishes are sometimes made with flaws in them, and those flaws can cause the dishes to crack and break, especially in the first few uses. Such things are pretty rare, though.
Having said that, such issues are not as rare as they used to be. Pyrex has tinkered with their formulation a lot in the last twenty years or so, and so not all Pyrex stuff is made the same. In general, the changes have been to make Pyrex less brittle at room temperature so it would be more likely to survive being dropped to the floor from counter height, but those changes also make it a bit more likely to crack during heat changes.
In general, if a Pyrex dish survives its first few uses, it’s fine. Don’t bake with it above about 450 F, either, although I’m not sure what the purpose would be if you did that.
I have a question about freezing food. I often freeze food in 1 – 2 cup canning jars so I can put soups or stews directly into my lunch bag from the freezer. I was wondering what your thoughts are on freezing meals in glass vs freezer bags. Do you have a preference?
They both work perfectly well for freezing food, as long as the glass is tempered and you leave a little bit of space at the top for food to expand (or else you’re begging for the glass to crack or break due to food expansion when freezing).
By default, I prefer containers that are reusable so that, rather than buying new ones, I can just wash it when I’m done and use it again. Not only is that more environmentally sound, it’s also far less expensive to just toss a container in the dishwasher and clean it off rather than buying a new one.
We personally have a bunch of plastic soup containers like these that we use for storing soups. They go from the freezer to the fridge to the microwave to the dishwasher and back without any problems at all and last for a lot of uses. As long as we leave an inch gap or so along the top, the lid stays on in the freezer. We label them with masking tape. For us, this is probably the best “bang for the buck” option.
What’s the simplest way to try cold brew coffee? Seems like a cheaper (better?) way to make coffee.
The cheapest way I know of is to take a coffee filter and a piece of string, put half a cup of coffee grounds in the middle of the filter, tie it tightly shut to make a “tea bag” of sorts, and drop that into a pitcher with 32 ounces of water (a quart). Put that pitcher in your fridge overnight (between 18 and 24 hours total) and you’ll have cold brew coffee.
Over the long term, you really don’t need much more than that, though having some kind of reusable filter makes this much better. I have a metal reusable filter that I wash in the dishwasher after each use. That way, I’m not having to re-buy coffee filters or string.
Give it a try with a coffee filter and a bit of food-safe string or twine. You’ll find that different coffee beans result in different flavors. I find cold brew coffee to be really mellow and enjoyable in general, though there are some beans that still result in fairly bitter coffee.
I found a box of old comic books that I think my dad and uncle used to read when they were kids. They’re all from the 60s. I am not really sure how to price them other than doing eBay searches which is taking a long time. Is it safe to take them to a comic book dealer? Won’t I just get ripped off?
While there are a few scammer types in the comic book hobby, most people running comic book stores are in the business because, frankly, they love comic books. While it’s unrealistic for you to expect a shop to give you as much as they might resell them for, most comic shops will definitely appraise your collection for you for a small fee, usually identifying particular issues with significant individual value.
If you’re looking for a shop, I’d honestly ask around your local social network and see if there are any recommendations, either in favor of or against specific local shops. Just drop a message on Facebook and see what responses you get.
The largest comic shop in our area provides this service. They’ll appraise collections, pull out individual issues with significant value and bag them for you, and tell you what their value is according to standard comic prices, which you can use for any appraisal needs.
However, it’s worth noting that even if a comic book is “worth” a certain amount, you have to find a buyer willing to pay that amount. You may be able to do so on eBay, or you may not. You’re probably going to find that selling them online results in a lower return than their “value” and some hassle, too. Likely, the comic book shop will offer to buy them from you at a price that’s still somewhat less than what you would get on eBay, but without the hassle.
If I were you, I’d probably try to sell a few of the most valuable issues myself and sell everything else to the comic book shop.
Why do you link to Wikipedia? It is not trustworthy. Anyone can edit it.
First of all, I do not trust Wikipedia as the final answer for anything. What I do trust it for is a solid tool for introducing myself to a topic to the point where I understand it well enough to figure out what I should read next for further understanding. It provides background and basic knowledge, and for that, I trust it quite a bit.
As for the “anyone can edit it,” Wikipedia’s advantage is that there are lots of editors out there who have a deep passion for specific topics and they watch the pages related to those topics like a hawk. If someone makes a poor or incorrect edit, that edit is rolled back almost immediately, and if that person does it multiple times, they wind up getting banned.
The only places where Wikipedia gets kind of shaky is when you get into more obscure pages, typically ones with short entries on very niche topics. In general, if an entry is long with lots of citations, I trust in the way I described above – it’s a great starting point for knowledge and provides pointers on where to go next when you have a basic understanding. If an entry is short with few citations, I don’t trust it very much and try to look for other sources.
I am reading an investment book where they talk about tax gain harvesting and tax loss harvesting. Can you explain to me what these are? The book does not explain them and every web page I find is deep in investorspeak.
Tax loss harvesting is easy to explain. It simply means that you sell some investments at a loss so that your income for a year is reduced, meaning you pay less taxes that year. Let’s say, for example, that you bought $10,000 in stocks two years ago, but now they’re worth $8,000. That’s considered a $2,000 loss, so selling that investment will reduce your taxable income by $2,000. In general, you can reduce your income by up to $3,000 each year by selling an investment at a loss, and you can also use it to counteract gains that come from selling other investments (for example, you might gain $4,000 from selling one investment but lose $7,000 from selling another). Often, people will sell a bad investment at the same time as a good investment to save on taxes.
Tax gain harvesting is a strategy to use if you’re in a very low tax bracket – the 15% tax bracket or lower. Let’s say you find yourself in that bracket for a year. When your tax bracket is that low, you pay no taxes on long term capital gains, so you might want to sell some investments that year, pay nothing on the gains, and then rebuy those same investments.
So, let’s say you’re single. The top of the 15% tax bracket in 2017 is $75,300. Let’s also say that you’re going to earn only $45,300 in 2017. That means if you have an investment with long term gains of $30,000 (say, you bought stocks for $100,000 and now they’re worth $130,000), now is the time to sell it, because you will pay no taxes on those gains. You can then re-buy that investment, investing $130,000 in it, and that will be the basis (the starting point) for that investment from now on.
Both are just games to play to save a little bit of money on taxes on your investments.
Like a lot of self-improvement websites, you’ve recommended books about and by stoics a lot of times. I’ve read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and Letters by Seneca. I am looking for more, particularly stuff that covers other philosophies of self-improvement. What other recommendations do you have, especially stuff that’s public domain?
I’ll point you to three things.
First, I’ll point to Walden, and On the Duty of Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau. This is a pairing of two fairly short books, the first of which discusses Thoreau’s years spent living in a self-built cabin on Walden Pond, largely alone, and the second, which looks at the need for civil disobedience in a healthy and open society.
Second, look at Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson. This is an essay collection covering a number of different topics. One of the essays, Self-Reliance, is one of the most impactful things I’ve ever read and I discussed it a while back in three parts.
Third, check out On the Nature of Things by Titus Lucretius Carus. It’s actually an epic poem in six parts, but it presents an absolutely beautiful view of the world and our place in it.
Dig through those and you’ll find much for your mind to process.
I’ve been thinking a lot about minimalism lately and I have come to the conclusion that it’s actually pretty different than frugality. They overlap sometimes, but there are some ideas that make a lot of frugal sense but don’t make minimalist sense, like buying in bulk. Buying 20 tubes of toothpaste for seven cents each probably will save you money over the long haul but you do have to store all of that stuff which means that you need more space and have more to deal with when you move. I am finding more and more that I fall on the “minimalist” side of things where I would rather have few possessions and a small living space and am willing to pay more for some things to have that. Thoughts?
I think that minimalism and frugality are like siblings, children of a well-considered life. They’re both expressions of the idea that we have a certain amount of resources in our life and that it makes a great deal of sense to use them effectively, but the actual practices differ.
As you point out, things like buying in bulk definitely are on the “frugal” side of the equation. I tend to look at frugality as being focused on trying to maximize “bang for the buck” in terms of addressing more immediate and persistent needs. You need toothpaste now, you’re going to need more in three months, what’s the most cost-effective way to address both?
On the other hand, I look at minimalism as a broader life philosophy, one that borrows some ideas from its frugal sibling but rejects others. A frugal person and a minimalist person are likely to both want a highly reliable kitchen knife, for example. Where they’ll differ is in the relative value of bulk – a frugal person is likely to have a large pantry, whereas a minimalist person probably has one cupboard total.
I’m definitely more in the frugal camp, but part of that, I think, is due to the constraints of my life. I have a family, a wife and three children. Minimalism really requires buy-in from everyone – I find frugality to be a more flexible philosophy, one that requires less life change from the people around you to practice it. I occasionally wonder what kind of life I would have if I were single, and I really think I might be super-minimalist. I would only have to worry about me, after all. Like I said, I think minimalism is a broader life philosophy, and thus requires more full-force buy-in than frugality does. Frugality is more of a tactic, though it’s one that you can definitely hold very close to your heart.
How do you organize food in your cupboards to make sure you don’t re-buy ingredients you don’t use every day? This happens to me a lot. I will use turmeric in a recipe and then forget about it and buy a new container three months later when I already have some. Now I have like five containers of turmeric, which seems like a waste.
Well, for small containers like turmeric, we have a large wall-mounted spice rack that keeps virtually every spice we use. We buy them in fairly large bottles and just keep them in that rack. It works really well for most things.
For bigger items, it’s trickier, and it gets much harder much faster once your cupboards start getting full. You just can’t find stuff in there!
After a recent pantry purge, my new philosophy is that if you’re finding it difficult to see or find things in your pantry, then you need to “coast” for a while and use up what you have on hand so that things are manageable again. Just buy fresh ingredients as needed to supplement what’s in your cupboards for a week or two until things are manageable again.
How do you cut hair without making a mess? I tried doing it in the kitchen and then again in the bathroom and both times I wound up with hair everywhere. I’m still finding hair in the bathroom!
I cut my own hair sometimes. I often have someone else do it if I’m going to a special event, but most of the time, I’m fine with my own cutting. I just use clippers, with a #4 attachment on the top, a #2 attachment on the sides, a #3 attachment around where the top and the sides meet to even it out, and then the straight clipper on my neck and around my ears and such.
Here’s my trick with the extra hair: I do it outside, in the yard. I prop up a hand mirror and use it to see what I’m doing, then I just clip away with an extension cord. A bit of hair does get on my clothes, but I shake off thoroughly before going back inside which gets rid of 99% of it. The rest just goes through the washer, as it’s just little short pieces. The hair just stays in the grass, where it breaks down over time.
This has worked for me for many years. I’ve done it off and on since college this exact same way.
Have you mentioned old debt? I have some debt, phone debt from old carrier went to collections too soon. I intended to pay it off, now not sure if I should. College loans still not paid, while I am taking free classes online. Tollway charges, thought I paid, unable to locate receipts. Shall toll of $1.50 now $20 fine per toll. Apx $300
It sounds like you have a number of unpaid debts.
Here’s the reality: a lot of those debts are going to end up having a negative impact on your credit rating. That means you’re going to experience higher interest rates on the loans and credit cards that you get and you may also be declined. You may also find that you have higher insurance rates as well.
Paying them off generally helps, as it moves a debt from “unpaid” to “paid but late” (I’m simplifying a little here), but you’re going to have a very late debt on your credit report regardless.
Some debts left unpaid may result in legal action, depending on whether the lender decides that the amount you owe is worth following up on. Small debts often just expire; debts a bit larger are often sold to collections (as you’ve experienced) and they’ll harass you; large debts might see legal action.
So, should you pay them back? In terms of honesty and integrity, absolutely. In terms of what’s going to be the best option for your financial situation, it depends on a number of things – how late the debts are, what kind of debts they are, how big they are, whether you can afford to repay them. In general, I recommend repaying debts unless they are close to or have crossed the statute of limitations line (seven years, typically), at which point the business you owe money to has likely written off the debt anyway.
Do you know of any free tools for two people who know the basics of chess but want to get better? I have started playing every day with my son after school and we both want to get better. There is a chess club for older kids at his school and he wants to be in it next year but not be lost.
There are a lot of ways to do this. Honestly, what I would do if I were in your shoes and trying to get better at chess for free is I would head to your library and pick up a chess book or two, one that starts off at a level that you completely understand and then goes beyond that level, into openings and other elements of chess study.
Take that book home and learn a page of it, then use what you got off of that page with your son. Play part of a game where you introduce that new idea to your son, then maybe start over and encourage your son to try out that idea over a full game.
When I was in late middle school, I went through a chess phase where I got lists of the moves of some of the great games and then moved through them a move at a time on a board in front of me and read the commentary. I received a book with commentary on a bunch of great games for Christmas one year. That was probably the period in my life where I was best at chess. This might also work for you guys.
If your son is interested, he may want to dig into those books on his own.
Playing a lot of chess is good, but if you want to get better, it does require some reading and some deliberate practice thinking about the game. The more reading and study and deliberate practice you do, the better you get. Keep playing those afternoon games, but find ways to incorporate a little bit of study into it.
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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