Ask the grumpies: getting out of unproductive funks

First Gen American asks:

How do you suck yourself out of an unproductive funk. Do you find that allowing yourself to wallow in it for awhile is actually is more helpful than beating yourself up about being unproductive.

Yes, with the caveat that beating oneself up about being unproductive can sometimes be an important component of wallowing in it.  To get the full wallow a little self-hatred is necessary.

To get out:  Just Do IT.  Sometimes I will ask #2 to remind me about vans by rivers and request a kick in the posterior.

#2 says:  I think the how getting-out part for me has involved meeting people at coffee shops.  I haven’t done much of that recently.  Hard deadlines also make me ridiculously productive.   Unfortunately last-minute deadline blitz is unsustainable, if for no other reason than RSI.

We here at grumpy rumblings love to cross things off lovely lovely lists.  Sometimes even if I can’t be productive, I can write a list about what it would take to be productive.  Then day two I can cross one of the things off the list.  Breaking up tasks into smaller tasks is great for goal motivation.  Doing them from smallest to largest is also good for motivation, though one of us works best when she has an important goal that she doesn’t want to do hanging over her head– it makes all the other tasks on the to-do list seem so much more worthy of doing by comparison.

I guess it depends on WHY the funk.  I have anxiety which I manage with meds and awareness of it.

It’s also important to ATTEMPT to realize that it’s really not so bad once I get going.  Starting is hard! But starting is often the hardest part. Like Boice says, tell yourself to do it for 30 min– if that’s too long, then 10 min, or even 5 min. You can do almost anything for 5 min, and once you’re started it usually isn’t so bad.

What do you do, Grumpy World?

Ask the grumpies: What to do with 25K and some other concerns

Pondering25K asks:

I have a financial question that my spouse and I have been mulling over for a few months and wondered if we could tap into the expertise of you and your readership.

Here’s our situation.

We have about 25K to throw at some of our debt, and can’t figure out the best place to put it. Our feeling is that both major options we have thought of are good, but we’d like more advice.

We have a 30 year fixed rate FHA mortgage with a 3.25% interest rate that we have been prepaying about 800 extra per month (our interest + principal payment is 1500). The mortgage currently still has 27 years left, since we refinanced a few years ago. We have a $335/month PMI payment that will go away in 2 years if we reach 80% loan-to-value ratio. This will happen if we prepay with the 25K. If we don’t prepay with the 25K now, we will have to prepay more than we are currently each month to reach the 80% loan-to-value ratio. We cannot re-amortize our FHA loan to recover this cash in the future.

We also have a car loan with a 2.99% interest rate and about 5 years left (it had a 6 year term) that has a $405 monthly payment. The payoff balance is slightly under the 25K, so we could kill this loan now.

We have a better-than-required amount of money saved for retirements in IRA, 401Ks, and a teacher retirement plan, and are maxing everything out already. We also have started saving for our toddler’s education in a 529, and contribute $260/month to that.

My salary is 60K, but will go up each year as I just started as a teacher and will move up the step system. It is pretty secure, unless our state budget was drastically cut and they got rid of my entire school system (it’s run out of the state Dept of Ed).

My husband’s  base salary is 130K, with bonuses that are pretty significant, but not guaranteed. His job itself stable, but he’s not happy there. If he were to find a job he liked, it would likely involve a change to a much lower paying career, or starting a small business of some sort.

We can’t re-amortize at any point (a major disadvantage to an FHA loan). We have thought about refinancing to have a mortgage where we could, but the interest rates are higher and closing costs would be around the same as the amount of PMI we would pay in the next two years.

We are torn between lowering our monthly expenses now and saving money long term. Both of these are important to us, as we would like flexibility in case of job loss or the desire to switch to lower paying careers. We don’t want to be trapped by our mortgage payment.

Standard financial disclaimers apply.  We are not financial planners and everyone should do their own research and/or consult with real financial planners before making major financial decisions.  Our opinions are opinions, apply at your own risk.

First to answer the question you actually asked:  Should you put the money towards your mortgage or your car loan?

Unless I’m missing something [UPDATE:  See discussion below about FHA loans compared to private industry loans– depending on the circumstances, I may have missed something], paying down enough to get rid of PMI dominates (or matches) the benefits of paying down the car loan (assuming you’re not planning on ever declaring bankruptcy, foreclosing, or getting a car repossessed).  First, it has a better return on investment given that 1.  You’re still early in the mortgage, 2. the interest rate is higher, 3.  PMI is a big additional chunk.  Second, dropping a $335 monthly payment isn’t really that far off from dropping a $405 monthly payment in terms of solvency given the numbers you’ve been throwing around, so if you need to lower required monthly payments you’re not actually gaining that much from paying off the car vs. getting rid of PMI.  Not nothing, but there are other places to cut that would give you more bang for the buck.

And now for the question you didn’t ask.  You’re currently making 190K plus bonuses.  You are very high income.  It’s great that you’re putting so much money away in retirement, but unless you have (and are using) the ability to put insane amounts of money away for retirement (for example, you’re saving in a 457 plan in addition to the standard pension, or your spouse is putting money in a Mega Backdoor Roth IRA), you might want to try cutting  your spending and funneling the extra money towards a large emergency fund and possibly some taxable investments.  Why?  You note that your DH is not happy with his job and may want to leave the job for a lower paying career or starting a small business with its attendant risk.

Think about what kind of paycut he is likely to have, and run some emergency scenarios (a financial fire drill in the words of Donna Freedman).  What savings would you stop?  What spending are you required to make?  What changes might you need to make long term?  How much would your DH need to bring in to supplement your salary given the step schedule?  Once you have all of that information figured out, try living on the new salary just to see what it’s like.  While you do that, funnel that money you’re no longer spending into a healthy emergency fund that you can easily access and into your car loan in order to decrease your required monthly payment (2.99% is a low interest rate compared to long term investment, but it’s higher than what a savings account will give you these days).  This will allow you to feel what it’s like to live on a lower income and make adjustments now while there’s no danger from making mistakes while also saving up so you will be able to weather emergencies while on that lower income in the future.  (This is also a standard recommendation for planning for a spouse leaving the labor force to take care of a child.)

There’s a lot to be said for being able to let a beloved spouse quit the job he dislikes if he wants to, even if it brings in a good income.

Books you may find helpful:  Your Money or Your Life, All Your Worth.

Note here that if the couple were lower income, I would suggest cutting some of the long-term savings rather than spending to boost short-term savings for two reasons.  The first being that lower income families get more financial aid so the 529 should be a secondary consideration after PMI and after the car loan.  The second would be that they would already be spending less and would both have less slack in their budget now but would also be unlikely to have to cut as much spending later (as the going from 130 to a lower salary isn’t as big a drop as 50 to the same lower salary).

Additionally, if they didn’t want more flexibility, then their current plan would probably be fine since their jobs are secure.  But the need for freedom is important, even if that freedom is never acted upon.  The ability to leave a job is a wonderful freedom to have, and worth more than a lot of kinds of spending.

What do you think, grumpy nation?  Did I miss anything with the 25K?  How about the other advice?

Ask the grumpies: save for retirement or save for graduate school?

P asks:

I’m a fairly recent graduate, 23, and just started my first real job as a paralegal at a big law firm at a salary of $42,000 a year.  I will probably start graduate school, most likely in law or another $$ professional master’s program, in the next five years. (Future schooling is an important goal for me.) After grad school, I could be in biglaw, making very good money, or elsewhere, probably not making as much. Should I be directing money to grad school savings or to retirement? What would you do?
Other considerations:
  • I have ~60,000 from an inheritance in an investment account–This could be used for school, or I could think of it as my retirement nest egg. It’s in a mix of no-load/no-fee mutual funds.
  • Looking at my budget now, I’m planning to save definitely $500/mo, and probably up that to $600 once I’m more confident about what my general living costs will be.
  • I also have probably over-budgeting for general spending (groceries, entertainment, eating out, clothes, etc.), by maybe $100/mo, and I was planning to save the rest of that for travel.
  • There’s no match in my employer’s 401(k) plan, but in a year I’ll be eligible for profit sharing. I…don’t know exactly what that is or how it works yet, but I have a year to figure it out!
  • No student loans. (Grandma, thank you!) No other debt.
  • $2000 in a traditional IRA
My long-term financial goals:
  • Pay for my hypothetical future children’s college at whatever school they want to go to, possibly with help from my parents. (No kids for probably close to ten years)
  • Travel as much as possible
  • Flexibility to quit a job, take a lower-paid job, etc
  • Live reasonably well. (Right now I live in a cheap, gross apartment BUT it’s in a great area and I have an indulgent $70/mo. membership to a nice gym.)
  • Retire, at some point in the very far future
So where should I put my savings? Should I open a 529 with the thought that I’ll probably use it, and if not, my kids will appreciate the early help? Split it half and half? Some in the 401(k) and some just in my regular investment account? In a year, when my profit-sharing kicks in (???), would your response change?

All righty, first a disclaimer– this is a bit more complicated than our usual financial questions and we are not financial planners.  Always do your own research and/or consult with a fee-based certified financial planner before making big money decisions.  When we say “you” here, we’re actually answering the question of what we would do in your situation.

First off, if you had an employer match, generally the no-brainer thing to do would be to put in money up to the match amount because the return on investment there is larger than anything else.  But there isn’t an employer match.  :(   Once the profit-sharing starts, it’s likely that the best bet will be to begin to contribute up to the match and then convert your company stocks to index funds as soon as your holding period is over (you don’t want to be in an Enron situation where your retirement savings are all in company stock– that increases your risk).  You will have to look carefully into the details of your company’s program when that time comes.

Before that time period, the next thing you should consider is the Roth IRA.  Roth IRAs are extremely flexible– they’re great for retirement, but the principal can be taken out penalty free while the earnings remain in the account.  Although you probably won’t want to take money out once you’ve put it in until you’re actually ready to retire, they provide more flexibility than your company plan, 529, or traditional IRA.  Max this out before even considering the 529.

Because you are (moderately) low income, the money that you put away for retirement may have an additional tax advantage, the saver’s credit  during your first year of work.  For example, if you started your job during the summer so you’ve only got half a year of income the first year on the job, then you would get a credit for something like 20% of your contribution at tax time.

If you can’t afford to max out your IRA with your monthly income, gradually convert your savings into tax-advantaged savings.

So, what would we do in your situation?

1.  Max out the Roth IRA each year using a Vanguard Target-Date fund from Vanguard.  (Alternatively, just put it in the S&P 500 index– you’re still young and have time to diversify your portfolio manually.  There’s a small additional fee for setting and forgetting for the Target-Date fund and you don’t need any bonds at your age/distance from projected retirement.)  Use your inheritance savings to do this if you need to, though at your current savings rate, you may not (a lot will depend on calendar year considerations).  Be sure to get the saver’s credit at tax time!

2. Make sure you have a reasonable emergency fund that will cover, for example, moving costs, or late reimbursements.

3.  In a year, look into the profit-sharing option and see what you need to do to get that.  If it is manageable on your budget, go for it, but make sure to convert company money to index funds as soon as they allow it.  (This is assuming it’s a standard profit-sharing match where the company is already established, if it’s stock options instead… that’s a much more difficult question.)  If you can’t afford to get both the match and do the IRA (but you should be able to given your savings), look deeper into your budget/emergency fund.  It is most likely that you will want to contribute to the profit-share up to the match and then max out your Roth IRA as much as you can, but there are some situations in which the profit-share wouldn’t be as good of a value as the Roth IRA.  Note that if the match is good, even if you don’t plan on keeping the money in your 401k, you may still be better off getting the match and then taking the withdrawal penalty than not taking the match.

4.  When time comes to go to graduate school, look at your projected student loan rates (and whether they’re subsidized or unsubsidized– the government may change its mind yet again about whether or not graduate students can get subsidized loans) and compare them to stock market rates (use ~7% for comparison if you don’t want to put in your own number) before deciding if you’d rather take the loan or withdraw savings/IRA principal.

tl/dr:  Put it in retirement, but in a way that it can be used for school in a pinch (Roth IRA).

What have we missed, grumpy nation?

Ask the grumpies: Smart phone etiquette?

Debbie M asks:

How do I deal with having a smart phone? How to I carry it? Where do I bring it? When do I have it on? I don’t want to turn into one of those people who’s always attached to the phone even when I’m socializing with actual people in person, or watching a movie with them, or attending class with them, etc. And I don’t want to mess it up or be uncomfortable carrying it in my pants pocket. I don’t always have a purse or wear a blazer.

In the interest of full disclosure neither #2 nor I have a smart phone, but we can still opine! And, of course, the grumpy nation knows best.

If it won’t fit in your pocket, get a different phone.  My opinion would be to leave it on vibrate and leave it in your pocket and don’t use it unless you have to.  You can stick it in your bookbag or something.  Everyone’s always losing theirs too, or spending a lot of brain time making sure it isn’t lost, so… ugh.  Why not just put it right next to your wallet and treat it just like your wallet?  Wherever you carry your keys & ID, just carry it in there and ignore it like you ignore those things, is my totally-made-up advice.

#2 tends to leave her flip phone places and then it runs out of batteries and she finds it days later and oops, she’s missed a text or a voice-mail that she got days ago and has to call back and apologize.  That’s kind of bad etiquette too, except the apologizing part.  She does let people know that her DH is MUCH better about keeping his phone on him and energized so he’s a better person to contact.  Sadly, moms wanting to do playdates will dig up her phone number even when she’s only given them DH’s.  *sigh*

Other (better) thoughts?

Ask the grumpies: Fondest childhood memories influenced by parents

First Gen American asked:

On a related note…what are your fondest childhood memories that your parents influenced.

For some reason, my first thoughts are all negative memories.  (Getting sunburn while camping.  Though I do have a fond memory of my first soft-serve ice cream from the same camping trip.  Yum!)

Let’s see… my mom read to me every night until I was almost a teenager.  I went on road trips when I was little with my dad as we drove across country to move.  We’d stop places and see the sights.  My dad would make breakfast on weekends, like crepes or eggs.  My mom would take us to the library every weekend.

#2: I remember my parents reading a lot.  And I remember greeting my dad when he came home from work (when I was little) by running to meet him.  I dunno.  I mean, my family was pretty good but it’s also hard to come up with an answer to this question.

What are your favorite parent-influenced memories?

Ask the grumpies: Recommendations for post-maternity leave

Slightly Anonymous asks:

My department is writing a policy for what they do to support new parents post-parental leave.  I’m on the committee that is supposed to come up with this.  I think this is great:  if somebody misses a year or a semester with a new baby, then it makes sense that they might need some time or extra support to come back up to speed.  But what should our committee recommend?

I’m wondering if you or any of your readers have ideas?

I’m at a UK university, which means that academic staff at my university are either on short-term temporary contracts — think postdoc — or have permanent positions.  In most UK universities “lecturer” is the equivalent of “assistant professor with tenure.”  At my university there is a 1 year probationary period before your job is officially permanent, but passing probation is pretty much a formality.  There is still stress about being promoted, but much less than what comes with trying to get tenure in a US university.

Being in the US and not having been at coastal or ultra-prestigious schools, our own experience is pretty pathetic.  That whole “missing a year or a semester with a new baby” thing … not something we’re used to.  In my department we’re still trying to get something consistent in place that doesn’t involve begging other people in the department to cover your classes for a couple of weeks after the baby is born.

Off the top of my head, all I can think of is adding a year to the tenure clock for those without tenure, but that is mostly irrelevant in the UK context.  Surely someone out there has a better idea of what best practices are?  #2 has only seen terrible practices.  My poor poor colleagues.

Grumpy Nation, please weigh in with your suggestions!

Ask the grumpies: Dissertation Student from Hades

Stacie asks:

I have this student. She is a PhD student and she gets under my skin! Several months ago I could tell things were not right between us as she was very combative and defensive in class. I tried various ways to figure this issue out in class to no avail. I finally asked for a meeting and honestly felt blind-sided and rail-roaded by her response. When I tried to discuss her behavior, she was quick to retort how she wasn’t the problem, it was me and began to recount my failings [update:  failings were that Stacie is “cold and distant”]. It honestly caught me off guard and I didn’t know how to respond. I ultimately tried to diffuse the situation and talk about how we would work together in the future. I did find out that other students definitely see problems in her behavior in various classes, but have yet to find another professor who will vouch for this. I’ve asked and they say they have no problems with her, but then I hear other students talk about how much this student is being difficult in their classes… (this also drives me crazy!) I talked to my Chair whose overall response to most things seems to be “oh well” so that didn’t really help.

I am really having a hard time keeping my cool around this student who continues to be defensive in class. I am definitely having trouble “teaching others how to treat me” – probably because I don’t like conflict, try to be “nice”, and don’t have great one-liners at the ready to respond to student behaviors.

Yes, I am the newest faculty member, one of the only young females in a mostly senior, male faculty, and have been told I’m the most “human” of any professor we have. (I used to think this was a good thing, but now am not so sure.)

I was wondering if you could help me with how to think about this issue or some phrases I could use regularly with this kind of thing with students or other things I can do to survive this kind of issue. I have a feeling this won’t be my last student who challenges me like this, but I don’t want to always worry or over-think these things. I honestly have some great students, but this one student is the only one I can think about! It drives me crazy!

Well, we don’t have any great advice on this particular student.  Avoiding her completely would be awesome, but it sounds like that might not be an option. Mostly, it sounds like you need a mentor who has handled PhD students at your school for a while and has tenure. They can give you suggestions for the circumstances.  It also sounds like you’ve tried in vain to find such a mentor, and that really sucks.  We’re sorry you’re not getting more support on this.  :(

However, you can also look outside of your department.  Seek out the following resources: 1) talk to the head of the teaching development center at your school, whatever that’s called. (Or teaching & learning, or teaching & Faculty development, etc.) They exist for things like this! 2) talk to your faculty ombudsperson, as they may know more resources and probably have seen similar situations in the past. 3) attempt to get mentoring informally from senior colleagues — if not in your own department then in other departments. You could talk to other people who supervise PhD students, members of the student’s dissertation committee, the Director of Graduate Studies for your department, or the Dean of the Graduate School (or someone in their office). Take them to coffee and ask for advice. It’s good for the future to be friendly with these sorts of people anyway. 4) Outlast the student. Unfortunately this also takes time.

In terms of how to prevent these kinds of things from happening in the future with other students, Teach like a champion is an invaluable resource with tactics that really do work. It isn’t quite as much help for what to do after a problem has started, but it’s great for setting up a professional environment where problems won’t start. We have some posts on teaching tactics from it that you might find helpful if you want to get a taste while waiting to get it from the library.  Maintain control of the classroom, and very strong personal boundaries. Don’t let the turkeys get you down.

Update:  That is an incredibly gendered complaint.  Professors are allowed to be cold and distant and setting boundaries and having a personal bubble helps immensely when you’re a young woman professor.  If you didn’t have such a bubble, students would be complaining about something else because they would perceive you as unprofessional.  There’s no way to win.  Allowing space and distance is the way to go because it isn’t so time intensive or emotionally challenging, even if you get punished for it.

Getting grey hair is also good for reducing student challenges. And experience is great for not letting obnoxious students get to you so much. But those strategies take time.

In the mean time, hopefully the academic part of the Grumpy Nation will chime in with additional suggestions.  We’ll also try to get a signal boost from Historiann to get her always helpful readers.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 292 other followers