Ask the grumpies: Has applying for colleges changed in the past 20+ years?

First Generation American asks:

How has searching and applying for colleges changed since we went? I am realizing my experience may not be relevant anymore and I don’t even know what the metrics are. Like this whole new trend of many kids not being accepted into their “safe” schools.

So, for us, we were right on the cusp of the common application revolutionizing college applications and early decision/early action were just starting out as things at top schools.  Weighted GPAs and more credit for AP and honors classes were also starting to catch on.  If you’re just a little bit older than us, then YES, the application process has changed a LOT.  If you’re our age or younger, then it’s like what you went through, just more so.

So what does that mean?

1.  If your kids are aiming for a top state school, look at your state laws/rules to see if they have a top X% rule.  IIRC University of Michigan got sued for affirmative action policies and that spurred some states to try automatic acceptance for people who are in the top % (initially top 10%, but that number has dropped in many states for their flagship universities) of their high school graduating class.  This change has caused some parents to move their (privileged, white) kids to lower income districts for high school or the last few years of high school in order to maximize the chance that they’re in that top X%.  I’m not sure if that’s overall a good thing or not.  Class rank is thus more important for getting into a top flagship school than it used to be.  Currently because that X has been dropped at most schools you can still get in if you’re cool in other ways, but when it was a binding constraint, flagships could only let in people who met that criteria because they took all available slots.

2.  Early decision/Early action is very important for selective schools.  This has basically moved when kids apply for colleges much earlier than it used to be.  (At the same time, a lot of lower ranked schools have been struggling and have rolling admissions, so you may be able to wait until May if you just want to go to any college.)

3.  If you’re aiming for selective schools, you’re going to want to apply to LOTS of colleges if the early decision thing doesn’t work out.  (And you may be applying to lots of colleges early action.)

4.  There are still some selective schools that require you to do their special application, but many let you just do the common app.  That makes it easier to apply to many schools, but also you get judged more on a single essay rather than having the chance to answer different questions and maybe have one of those stick.  Still, many selective schools now have add-ons to the common app.

5.  If you’re in a school district with weighted GPAs, you have to be careful about what classes your kid takes in order to keep their GPA up.  For DC1, it would have been GPA optimal to do marching band instead of orchestra because the first two years of both are 4.0, but marching band *also* counts as the PE requirement, whereas DC1 has to take another 4.0 PE semester which will drag hir GPA down even if zie gets 100% in it.  (The guidance counselor told DC1 to take a study hall instead of another PE so as not to hurt hir GPA further.)

6.  All the other stuff about having to be excellent at extra-curriculars and competitions, sports being helpful, being famous for something, your parents donating a building, etc.  All those things still help just like they did before.  I haven’t heard about students not getting into their safety schools, unless that means they’re not getting into the flagship state school because they’re ranked 10th percentile at a super fancy public school in a state where only the top 6 or 8% of each public school get in.  There are cases in the past where people have gotten into Harvard but not into Berkeley.  But maybe they’re misjudging what a safety school is (not uncommon in the past either!)

7.  One really big thing that is different:  before the pandemic a lot more schools were starting to drop standardized tests like the SAT/ACT in the hopes of encouraging more diverse applicant pools.  This process accelerated during the pandemic and subject tests are disappearing/have disappeared.  I don’t know if this is going to stick or if it’s going to continue, but for someone wanting to go to a selective school, you still want to maximize those SAT/ACT scores.  You’re still going to want to try for National Merit.  (And National Merit has gotten harder to get in many states because it’s been hitting ceilings.)  But DH’s relative’s kids can get into state schools now that they were prevented from getting in before because of low standardized test scores.

Otherwise, I’m not really sure what’s different.  We will find out in a couple of years!

Grumpy Nation– do you have any better knowledge?  Have any of you recently been through this process on either side of the market? Do you have any suggestions for new books on the process? I know that we have an occasional commenter who is an admissions officer at my alma mater…

Ask the grumpies: Ethics of being “our level of rich”

Cloud asks:

I struggle a bit with the difference between my wealth now and how I grew up so a post on the ethics of being our level of rich would be really interesting to me. For instance, my husband thinks we should buy a second house and rent out the one we’re in and I can see why this is a good idea but I really struggle with the fact that we could afford two houses in our expensive real estate market and whether we’d be making things worse by doing that.

I also struggle with this.  I grew up in an extremely frugal household in which our income was uncertain and every penny spent could end in screaming.  But we always had food and clothing and housing even through lengthy bouts of unemployment.  Genteel poverty.  There have been a lot of sea changes as we go through these different wealth levels.  I gain new levels of understanding of how the next chunk of income will make our lives different and how it won’t.  (Turns out, above the # mentioned in that previous post– frugality starts getting thrown out the window because it is less costly to just buy something than to think about it and I started thinking about all those things that kids I knew with high income parents got to do like fancy summer camps and travel.  Many of my colleagues have built their own 4 and 5K sq ft houses or bought vacation homes which makes them feel artificially low wealth, but we think 3K sq ft is plenty big for us and don’t want the hassle of owning more real estate when Air BNB is a thing.)  There’s less fear of bag lady syndrome.

Like I said in the comments before, as long as you actually rent out the second house, it’s likely ethical.  But you still don’t want to be a landlord because if you get unlucky it can cause no end of grief and anxiety.  There are much more peaceful ways to earn additional money.

Ethics:  Part of me feels like we should be giving half our incomes away instead of stock-piling it. We do donate strategically to a lot of causes, both activist and charity.  And we’re generous with tipping and pay people who do work for us either what they ask or more.  But it is nowhere near what would leave us with only a reasonable upper-middle class income (that is to say, once we have a few of DH’s payments under our belts again– we have been living on just my salary and unemployment for quite a few months).  We’re stockpiling for an uncertain future and because I’m worried about income inequality increasing in the US and want to make sure that our children and our children’s children (if they have them) have a safety net if the US is no longer going to be able to provide one.  I’m like, I want to take care of our own first.  And that’s selfish and money can do so much more for people who have less of it.  But… they’re my children and my potential grandchildren.  And we need structural change and I will fight for that.  I would feel much better about having less of a nest egg if I could trust our government and our society.  But I can’t.  So we need to stockpile money to stay “Haves” even if the “Have nots” need it more and I hate that.  I want everybody to be Haves.  I want all kids to have stability and opportunity.  But fear keeps me stockpiling.

It’s crazy to me that you have to be in the top 2% of household income or higher to be able to afford a high quality full-time legally documented dedicated personal assistant or housekeeper that you’re not married to ($150K/year give or take, themselves in the top 20% of income), but when you get to the top 1% of income, you can afford many such people.  That’s a huge concentration of wealth among a very small percentage of the population.  I think a lot of rich people think they’re not really rich because they can’t afford servants, especially when they remember being middle class back in the day meant having a woman come in to cook and clean and “do for you”– but back then people didn’t really think of the women who “Did” as people themselves.  I don’t want servants, except mechanical ones.  Though I do think it’s great when people have businesses that do a specific task for a large number of different households.  That seems efficient.

Which is to say:  I think hiring people is ethical, and hiring cleaning people and yard work people and so on is ethical.  But it’s not ethical to have a lowly paid personal servant (remember Alice on the Brady Bunch?)– if you want someone like that, you must pay the price for them, and at our income that is not a price we can afford.  We can afford college students or underpaid undocumented labor but the former is a crapshoot and the latter unethical, so it’s best to avail ourselves of whatever services are available.  For us that’s just yardwork because I hate the way cleaning crews cost money and get in my space and don’t clean things as well as I was brought up and grumble about how we don’t preclean before they get there.  (We’re currently not happy with our yardwork either, but have yet to find anybody who is happy with theirs– the crackdown on undocumented labor has really decreased the quality of this kind of service.)

Grumpy nation:  How do/would you deal with income and ethics?

Ask the Grumpies: Flying into the department 2-3 days/week and family time

traveling parent query asks:

I have a preschooler, my husband has a stable government job he loves, and we just bought a house in our current city. I have a potential (who knows…academia is a dumpster fire) opportunity which is a short plane ride away. It’s an amazing post in my niche but not a city I’d want to uproot my family to given the lack of comparable job opps for my husband + our love of our current city. It is a very exciting job and might allow me to make a lateral move back eventually. I think given the changes in remote work, I’d need to be in 3 days a week during the semester, and maybe 1 week a month during the summer. Am I bananas for thinking this is totally doable given our financial situation, my husband’s overall competence, etc? I mentioned it on a mom site I read and people thought it would destroy my family, but like, my husband is an equally involved and competent parent, his job is very normal hours, my kid is easy going? Management consultants have kids and I could make up for term time travel with flexibility during the long (not in the US, shorter semesters) summers?

I thought in your careers, you might have met someone who has done something similar? Did they end up miserable?

I live in a location where it is difficult to solve the two body problem so I know a lot of people who spend 2-3 days/week on campus and the rest working from home (or from coffee shops in their home cities). As far as I know their family lives are fine, even those with children. Even those racking up frequent flyer miles. I am unaware of any divorces or delinquent children.

Interestingly, the person I know who did this with a preschooler is a woman (she was the next pregnant lady in our building after I had DC2, so she gets DC2’s outgrown clothes… I think we’re at the friendship level where I’d hear about problems, and if not, I’m really close friends with her mentor who knows everything in their department). The men generally have older kids or no kids.

The two in my building that rack up frequent flyer miles say that it is a good idea to get into the habit of using the airport and plane time to get work done.  It’s actually easier for them to focus because there’s no interruptions.  (This is not my experience with flights, but I guess if you’re taking the same flight over and over it becomes more automatic.)  My external friends who do long daily train commutes (think San Diego to LA or SF to Palo Alto) say the same thing– commuting when you’re not the person driving allows you to do focused work (their advice is to leave on an early enough train that you can snag a seat).

Alice offers this advice:

I’m not an academic, but can speak to the travel for work side of things a bit. Early in my career, I worked for a company whose business model involved heavy travel, and when I was pregnant/when our child was younger, my husband’s job required a lot of travel.

When I was the one traveling, I didn’t have a relationship or a child. Most of the people at the company were single or in relationships but only a scant handful had younger children. The travel was fly onsite early Monday/fly home on Friday afternoon, and videochat wasn’t the thing that it is now. I know one man whose wife and daughter moved to the onsite city with him even though it was a 1-year job because his toddler would forget him while he was away. She’d be shy and hesitant at first on Saturdays and then engaged and joyful on Sundays… and then he’d fly out on Monday morning and it would start all over again. He said the pattern was too heartbreaking for him to continue it. So that’s a negative potential with a very little kid.

However. When I was pregnant and until my daughter was about 3.5, my husband’s job had him away every other week or every third week, depending on what was going on with his work situation. His travel was usually Sunday-Thursday. We didn’t have the problem of our daughter forgetting him. We did do some videochatting, but not much. I made it a priority to make sure that he and I were communicating, generally via text, every day. And I made sure to send him a lot of photos, particularly while I was home on maternity leave. The travel was hard for him emotionally– he got tired of it and felt like he was missing R&R time that he would’ve had if he was home. But it didn’t wreck our marriage or our family.

From a family relationships and kid emotional development standpoint, what you’re outlining could be fine for all of you. In my opinion, it could even be good from a gender roles standpoint. For us, my husband’s travel really cemented the Mom Does Everything pattern. With you being the traveler, it might do the opposite. To me, that seems like a good thing. If your husband is already responsible for family logistics or if he’s willing to take them on, this could give your family a level of balance that mine doesn’t have.

I can’t speak to the financial side of things, but would advise being really thoughtful about your flight timings and keeping a sharp eye on weather forecasts if you get the job. Never book the last possible flight you’d need to catch in order to make it to your first commitment, and if the weather is predicting something big in your home city (blizzard, hurricane, etc.), consider getting to or staying in your work city before it hits. For my husband and myself, the companies had planned and paid for the travel, so if flights were cancelled or if there was a delay, missed time at work was accepted, even if something important was missed. If you’re doing a more DIY traveling for work setup, travel-related flight/weather complications may not be okay in the same way.

Grumpy Nation– have you seen families where one person travels a few days a week work?  What advice do you have for someone about to embark on weekly journeys?


Ask the grumpies: Books for people who liked Addie LaRue?

minca asks:

I loved Addie LaRue—anyone have suggestions in that vein? The author’s other books seem more fantasy/sci-fi, which isn’t typically my thing.

Jenny F Scientist replies:

You might like P. Djeli Clark’s recent books about djinn in a magical pseudomodern Cairo!

Books like this one recommends these.  IIRC, Cloud Atlas is TERRIBLE, so I’m not sure about the quality of the others.

Goodreads recommends these, but I don’t think they’re very good matches.  Some good stuff in there (shoutout Martha Wells), but I don’t see how they’re related at all.

Literature and movies suggests another odd set of readalikes.

Bibliode’s list includes The Time Travelers Wife which was my first thought, but that book is pretty out of date and kind of racist and depressing, so maybe not?

Here’s a list of recommendations from people at reddit.  And another one. And another.  There may be even more.

Grumpy Readers, do you have book recommendations for minca?



Ask the grumpies: How to pick a college?

CG asks:

How did you pick a college? Do you think you made a good choice? How have your children picked their colleges (if they are old enough)? How did you advise them?

#1:  I knew I wanted to go to a SLAC, and I read the Fiske Guide to Colleges and picked some good midwestern SLACs.  Then I took my list to the guidance counselor at our fancy school and he suggested a few more higher ranked SLACs not in the midwest.  I was waitlisted at my first choice and got into the second.  I think it was a great choice– I could go into detail about why but that would make it clear what my undergrad was!  Suffice to say that I’m a fan of highly-ranked SLACs generally.

#2:  Went to the state flagship R1 along with most everybody else, which happened to be a top school for her major and also where her now husband was going.  It was an excellent choice.

Our oldest hasn’t picked a college yet, but we will be giving hir a copy of the Fiske Guide* to colleges when it comes out in July.  I’ve already vetoed a few schools as we’ve been getting mail every since DC1 took the sophomore PSAT.  (No, you are not going to this over-priced meh-ranked local religious private school!)  I have no idea where zie is going to end up, but we’ve saved for an expensive private school.

*all amazon links listed give us tiny payments if you purchase through them

Grumpy Nation, what are your answers to CG’s question?

Ask the grumpies: Alternatives to Amazon

Heavyhands asks:

Thank you for answering my ballpoint pen question last year!  In case you were wondering, I decided on the Dr. Grip and it has been working out really well for me.  Thank you, Grumpy Nation!

My question this time is about alternatives to Amazon.  I know Amazon is a terrible company with monopoly power that treats its workers terribly, and I know I should use them less.  But I had a hard time doing that until recently when all of a sudden I was paying for Prime shipping and not *getting* Prime shipping.  At first I thought it was a mistake (this just happened starting in June 2021, so not a covid thing, but maybe a not wanting to pay workers thing), but after being on the phone with several customer service people and getting a really irritating letter from them saying that Prime shipping has NEVER been getting something in 2 days, it’s always been 2 day shipping after the item is sent (not true!) … it’s now less convenient for me to use them and this might be the push I need to cancel Prime and start supporting other businesses. . . within reason.  I’m not rich and I can’t always afford to pay shipping and handling that costs the same amount as the item does.

So, it’s been hard to figure out alternatives.  Most recently I’ve been trying to find a new Bloom Daily planner and birdseed (since my local grocery store no longer carries birdseed).  I’m out of the habit of knowing where to shop if it’s not Amazon.  What are some alternatives?

Does carry birdseed?  That’s where we’ve been getting our cat supplies if the grocery store doesn’t carry them.  If you buy enough stuff in one order, s/h is free. is also an evil company, but it does carry Bloom Daily planners.  I feel like it’s not quite as evil as Amazon (but maybe I’m wrong?)  Like, it’s evil, but a lot of the damage was done decades ago when it killed local businesses and now it has to compete with online shopping?  They’re still bad.

I do a lot of shopping at Target and Home Depot.  Also big companies, but I can either get stuff delivered directly to me or to the store.

Etsy sometimes has off-the-wall things that I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere other than Amazon.

Those are big companies.  You can also go the exact opposite direction:  Do you have a Buy Nothing group?  Freecycle?  Craigslist?  Nextdoor?  These won’t help for planners or birdseed, but maybe for things you don’t mind getting used.  For us, these worked well when we’ve lived in cities, but not so well where we live now.

Similarly you can buy directly from the company you’re trying to get the item from.  Though I’m also having the same problem with planners… I’m having a hard time paying $10-$15 in shipping (it varies by the day) to buy a Passion Planner from their website.  If they were in stock on Amazon, you bet I’d be buying from there to save on shipping.  I will eventually buy one sometime in July (they have an August start), but I suspect Amazon will have them in stock by then.  I may buy from the company anyway once DH starts getting paychecks and reimbursements.  (Though yes, we can afford $45 for the planner + shipping even before he gets paid.)

Grumpy Nation:  What are your Amazon alternatives?  Also, have you been having problems with their shipping suddenly being slow?

Ask the grumpies: Time to retire?

CG asks:

How will you decide when it’s time to retire?

#1:  I am always ready to retire.  For me this will come down to money.  I will need enough money to keep myself in books and housing and food.

#2:  I don’t think I will…?  It will probably end up being a combination of life circumstances (like health) and job stuff.   I dunno.  I’m still in the taking it a week at a time mode.

Grumpy Nation:  How will you decide it’s time to retire?

Ask the grumpies: Paying PMI vs retirement accounts?

Clueless in the Northeast asks:

New-ish homeowner here who put a bit less than 20% down and thus have to pay around $40/month in PMI. Does it make any sense to prepay your mortgage given incredibly low interest rates? We’ve got stable jobs and don’t think that we will be trying to buy a more expensive house anytime soon. We’re risk averse and not (yet) great at investing (having money to invest is a new experience), though we could bump our retirement contributions higher than the current 15%.

Disclaimer:  We are not personal finance professionals.  Please consult with a personal finance professional or do your own research before making any life-changing decisions.

Generally one wants to have at least 20% equity in case one ends up in one of those scenarios in which housing prices drop and you lose your job and the stock market crashes– you never want to be in a situation in which you have to short-sell your house.  So, for that reason alone it can make sense to pre-pay your mortgage.  (Keeping money in savings also works for this potential problem, but if it’s going to go towards the house, then you might as well get the benefit of not paying interest while you wait.)

Still, you only get so much space for retirement, and if you’re expecting higher salaries in the future, you may some day want to save more than the maximum amount and you will regret not having put money away into a safe retirement space now.  There’s a lot to be said for maxing out retirement savings as soon as you can.  (Though 15% is well within the general recommendation of how much to save each year.)

The only obvious choice here would be if you were missing any employer match (you would want to put more towards retirement), but if you’re contributing 15%, that is very unlikely.  Otherwise, putting money to pay off PMI or putting money in retirement are both good decisions.  One question would be how much money we’re talking about to get to 20% and save $480/year plus whatever you save from the actual pre-payment– if it isn’t that much, then it would make sense to just do that and then you would have $40/month more to send to retirement accounts right away.  If we’re talking tens of thousands, well, you’re only allowed to contribute a certain amount to retirement each year so you could contribute to the max and put the leftover into the mortgage and just keep doing that for years.

We really like the GRS mortgage calculator to see how much money you save with different amounts of pre-payment.  Then you can run through the actual dollar amounts of different scenarios to get an idea of how much money you would save given your current interest rates.  Note that the way mortgages are amortized, you save more money with early prepayments than with later prepayments.

One strategy:  If you’re not contributing to an IRA Roth or a Backdoor IRA Roth that could be one way of mitigating risk– if we have another enormous crash you could tap that to avoid a short-sale on your house (or to keep paying your mortgage).  You are allowed to withdraw contributions but not interest.  If there isn’t an enormous crash, then you could keep the money in retirement until it is time to withdraw many years in the future.

Bottom line:  Both putting money towards the mortgage to get rid of PMI AND putting more money away for tax-advantaged retirement are good ideas.  If it were me:  If I could pay off the PMI in a year or two I would probably make that my priority, otherwise I’d put the extra money into a ROTH IRA knowing that I could tap the principal in an emergency.

Grumpy Nation:  What would you do?  What have you done?

Soliciting more Ask the Grumpies!

Ask the grumpies is a feature we run almost every Friday (sometimes we post less-popular but still fascinating google questions). You ask, we answer, or we punt and ask the grumpy nation to answer. In any case, you get the benefit of not only our wisdom but the collective wisdom of the far wiser grumpy nation.

What questions do you have for us? What can we bring clarity or further confusion to? What can the grumpy nation ponder and discuss on your behalf? Ask in the comments below or email us at grumpyrumblings at gmail dot com.

Ask the readers: What to do about the half an eyebrow that doesn’t show up on zoom

Dear Grumpy Nation,

Over the past couple months, half of one of my eyebrows has gone from a brown/blonde mix to a white/blonde mix.  In person it doesn’t look too weird, but on zoom it very much looks like I have only one and a half eyebrows.

What would you do (especially given I’m not going to get this professionally treated– at home remedies only)?  Please provide brand suggestions!

I looked on the internet and Google was overwhelming with suggestions and the first few I looked at got low reviews on Amazon so I gave up and figured you all would have better advice.

I own no beauty products currently and really never have.  (When I’m going on TV it’s always a huge scramble to get make-up done.  I hate tv.)  Also if people are commonly allergic to a product, so am I (I’m usually ok with things marked hypoallergenic, and the biggest problems seem to be with scented things).


Grumpy #1