I love it when readers ask me questions. And believe me when I tell you the questions pour in and on every topic imaginable—even how to cut the cost of online dating. Today, I pulled the following three letters from the EC mailbag:

multi-ethinic arms outstretched to ask questions.

 

Dear Mary: We are better off than most. We have no credit-card debt, we have several hundred dollars in cash stashed away in a safe in our house and we have about $5,000 in savings. Our 401(k) accounts and Roth IRAs have a total current value of about $50,000. My husband is 41 and I’m 35. We have two kids and college 529 college savings plans for them. Our mortgage is our biggest payment. Should we pay down our mortgage with extra income or put the extra money into our retirement accounts? Peggy

Dear Peggy: Before you’re ready to either—pay down debt or invest—you need at least enough money in your emergency fund that to keep all the bills paid and food on the table for at least six months without any income. That money should be in a safe place where you could get your hands on it in say 36 to 72 hours, which could be in your home safe, but I’d rather it be in a savings account in a bank or credit union. While your $5,000 in savings is a good start, it’s not nearly enough. I’m thinking more like $30,000. Am I right?

Once your emergency fund is safe and secure, it’s a tossup on whether you should aggressively invest in paying off your mortgage or invest in the market to build wealth for retirement. I’m sure we could find plenty of experts to argue both options.

I would advise you concentrate heavily on paying off your mortgage debt. There is no better investment than a repaid debt. Not only will you get a guaranteed rate of return, eventually you will pay it off completely. That house will be all yours. You can live in it mortgage-free, while that asset grow in value. As investments go, that’s hard to beat.

MORE: Invest in Your Debt—It’s a Sure Thing with a Solid Return

Dear Mary: I work hard every day and don’t have the energy to get out in the evenings. I spend my free time with longtime friends, so I don’t meet single men. I know several people who have found partners online. I’m determined to find a man for myself before the end of the year. Online dating services may be the way, but they can get pricey. Are there coupons online for special deals? Belinda

Dear Belinda: There are. Google “Online Dating Coupons” and you’ll turn up a love boat load of online coupon codes for any number of dating sites. Please do not take this as any kind of an endorsement from me. Be careful out there, hear?

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These days its nearly certain that there’s a pricey product available to clean just about anything. But why spend the money when you can make your own homemade products that perform just as well from ingredients you may have already in your cupboards and pantry? I’m talking cheaper, faster and quite possibly better!

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What is the best and most effective way to clean a steam iron?

You need to clean both the inside and the sole plate of a steam iron regularly to keep it in tip-top condition. Before you proceed with my cleaning suggestions, make sure you read the owner manual that came with your iron to make sure there are no instructions or cautions that might preclude the following.

INSIDE: To remove build-up from the inside of the iron, which over time can really clog things up, pour equal amounts of white vinegar and water into the iron’s water chamber up to the maximum fill line. Turn the iron on to “steam” setting and iron a soft clean cloth to clean out the steam ports. 

Depending on how clogged up the iron is, it make take several attempts for the steam to bust through. It’s the vinegar that will break down all of that hard-water scale and buildup inside the iron. Read more

My mail doesn’t arrive one message at a time. It comes in piles. Think: avalanche. While I have recently hired an assistant (yay me, and welcome Suzanne), the piles remain deep and wide. But I have big plans and high hopes.

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I must have the most patient readers on earth, understanding, too, because while I read every single message, I am unable to reply personally. That’s why I look forward to Ask Me Anything day.

Today I reached in and pulled out these questions…

Barbara writes: We need a new vacuum that is lightweight and easy to carry. We have three flights of stairs in our townhouse and our current vac is super heavy and difficult to navigate—and it doesn’t do a very good job. My new vacuum needs to have attachments including a long wand to dust door frames, drapes and artwork. A bagless vacuum would be ideal. We have a dog and a cat, so cleaning pet hair is an almost daily requirement. My husband and I always read your hints for saving money and we’re confident you can point us in the right direction!

You won’t find a better vacuum than a Shark. I’ve tried just about every vacuum out there, so I say this with supreme confidence.

There are several Shark models available currently, and my recommendation for you is this Shark Navigator Upright Vacuum for Carpet and Hard Floor with Lift-Away for deep cleaning stairways and carpeted steps. But there’s more.

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I have a friend who chides me from time to time that I ask too many questions (you know who you are, Duane). I’m sure it’s true but only because I am the inquisitive type. I have that the need-to-know gene.

But do you know what I love more than asking questions? Answering them! And that’s a good thing because I do get a lot of questions from you, My Dear Readers. Oh, boy do I!

 

Lori writes: I am looking for a good reliable computer printer. I do not need color—just a super reliable, well-functioning black and white printer for home.

The Brother Compact Monochrome Laser Printer, HLL2395DW is a great choice for people who need to print, scan, or copy term papers, tax forms, concert tickets and other black and white documents from home, home office or dorm room. It is my pick for Best Inexpensive™ Black and White Laser Printer.

This printer handles automatic two-sided printing; it’s pretty speedy too, at 36 pages per minute, with a cost-per-page of about 2.3 cents which includes wear and tear on the drum.

This Brother model is quite easy to set up and will be a reliable addition to your home’s computer network. Expect this printer to work well with any current laptop, desktop, smartphone or tablet including Chromebooks.

The paper tray holds 250 sheets of paper and the printer itself has a draft or “save more” setting that allows you to conserve toner when the document you print does not require professional quality. But when that is needed, this printer outputs sharp, professional black and white pages at up to 2400 x 600 dpi resolution.

Gayle writes: I have been going through baby clothes that have been stored for many years and some items have yellow stains on them. Can you recommend a product that might get these old stains out? I have no idea the source of these stains. 

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Everything is different when you’re a child: The trees are taller, colors are brighter, and every new day is more exciting than the last. And some things stay in our memories for a long time—in fact, sometimes they end up being with us forever.

 

Dear Mary: The sad news that Toys R Us is closing all of its US stores not only has us nostalgic for childhood memories, but it also has me wondering: what should they do with their Toys R Us gift cards? Michael

Dear Michael: This is a very sad topic in my family. My adult kids and grandsons too, are going through a kind of grief as thoughts of Toys R Us flood them with wonderful memories. 

As for Gift Cards—there’s one important thing to remember: Gift cards are not the same as cash. They represent store credit. One of the dangers of holding onto Gift Cards is that the store will file for bankruptcy or some other event that causes those Gift Cards to become virtually worthless without notice. My advice is that you use Gift Cards as soon as possible—never hold onto them for the long term. 

Get thee to the nearest Toys R Us store you can find that is still open to buy some Christmas gifts! Don’t assume you’ll be able to use those Gift Cards at ToysRUs.com as the online store has been closed. Only a sweet, tearjerker message remains with a reminder me that deep down inside, we’re all Toys R Us kids. 

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I love it when I open my email to find a question that makes me go, Oh boy, do I know about that feeling! That’s exactly what happened to me—been there, done that!

Today’s first great reader question is a perfect example. Yep, done that and have gone on to get rid of the shrunken items because I didn’t know there was a possible remedy! But now I do, and you’re about to know, too!

Man's sweater shrunken to toddler size.

Photo credit: Northpole.com

Dear Mary: Thank you for your many helpful articles. In a past column, you wrote about how to unshrink a wool sweater. All I can remember is that it involved baby shampoo. Could you print the instructions again? Thanks! Linda

Sure, here it is: Mix a solution of one gallon of lukewarm water and two tablespoons baby shampoo. Soak the garment for about 10 minutes. Now the important part: Don’t rinse! Simply blot out all the excess water with a dry towel and very gently lay it flat on a fresh towel. Reshape slowly and carefully stretch it back to its original size. Dry out of direct sunlight or heat. This tip comes from the Wool Bureau who verifies this technique will work provided the fibers have not become permanently damaged.

Dear Mary: We recently inherited our father’s property after he died and the title has been transferred to us, in our names.  A few months ago we discovered that there is a lien on the property for unpaid taxes. How do we resolve this situation?  Are we obligated to pay the taxes to resolve the lien? Julia Read more

While planning a wedding and their new life together, most couples aren’t thinking about how marriage might affect their credit. Will her student debt show up in your pristine credit file? Will your bankruptcy destroy his excellent credit score? Should you close the accounts you have but don’t use?

holding hands bride and groom at a wedding

Dear Mary: I’ll be getting married in a few weeks. I have excellent credit; my FICO score is 820. My fiancé, not so much. She has pretty bad credit and even filed for bankruptcy two years ago. Once we are married will her poor credit hurt my credit scores? Travis

Dear Travis: Congratulations on your upcoming marriage! Fortunately, your spouse’s past credit history will have no impact on your credit profile once you are married. Only when you apply for credit as joint account holders or you add her either as an authorized user or a primary user to one of your credit-card accounts will any information be shared on both of your credit reports.

However, when you want to buy a home together, your spouse’s negative credit history will impact your mortgage rates if you need both of your incomes to qualify for a mortgage. It’s going to be important for you to work together to improve her bad credit score. Her bankruptcy will remain a matter of public record forever, but only reportable for 10 years. Eventually, it will fall off her credit reports. I wish you both a lifetime of joy and happiness!

Dear Mary: My husband and I do not have, nor ever have had, any joint credit, such as credit cards, bank accounts—with the exception of one mortgage on which we are joint tenants. We’ve been married for two years.

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Some of my most valuable life lessons I’ve learned from cars. From the outrageous monthly payments to ghastly repair bills and ridiculous insurance premiums, I know the dilemma of “Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em!”

young man having car trouble

While it didn’t cross my mind while going through so many car miseries that one day my experiences might help others, perhaps that day has come. Let’s just say that what I know about this subject, I’ve learned the hard way.

Dear Mary: I’m in desperate need of some advice. After losing literally everything in a divorce situation, I bought a car about a year ago that I could pay for with cash—a 2002 Camry with more than 200,000 miles.

In the past year, I’ve spent more on repairs than I paid for the car. Every few weeks I seem to have to pay $200-$400 for repairs and that trend continues. I just found out that I need new inner tie rods and struts for the front of the car to keep it drivable and safe. Looming on the horizon is the need to replace the clutch (it’s a manual transmission) and no doubt other things, too.

Related: How to Get Your Perspective Back on Track

At what point do you say enough is enough? I’ve been telling myself that there are only so many things that could go wrong on a car but I’m barely making it financially and if something more expensive happens that I can’t pay for with cash (I don’t even have a credit card) I’m in big trouble. I’m concerned it’ll leave me with no transportation to get to work and even worse, unable to see my kids. Thanks for what you do. Tim Read more

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