Dumb Things to Do with a Tax Refund

Tax time: That interesting time of year when ordinarily smart people begin to make really dumb financial decisions. Isn’t it amazing to watch what a little extra cash (well for some, maybe a lot of extra cash) lining the pockets can do? The average tax refund so far this year may be $3,539 and I suspect there are at least that many dumb ways to spend it. Here are my top five:


The operative word in the term “tax refund” is REFUND! Common synonyms for refund are “repayment,” “reimbursement,” and “return of over payment.” This means that tax refunds are not free money. The government is not giving you a bonus every year just to thank you for being an American. This is money that you’ve allowed them to “borrow” from you all year long. And now, unlike most of your friends or family members, they are actually paying you back.

Never mind the fact that you made the loan with NO interest even though you pay them back with interest on your student loans or installment payments.

Smart Move: If you routinely get a big tax refund, change your withholding (use this calculator to determine the amount you should be having withheld along with instructions on how to change it). Your goal is to neither owe or to be owed at the end of the year. If you can come within $100 of that goal, you’re good.


Reader Responses to Recent Posts

Every time I hit the send button on a new post I get that momentary sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing.  And when your responses come pouring in, it’s like a welcomed pat on the back.

Not all responses are, shall we say, raving reviews but mostly you encourage me. And now and then you offer a different viewpoint or an anecdote from your own life that confirms or refutes what you’ve just read. Regardless, I value every message, every response and even the occasional ones that really let me have it.

Enjoy this handful of responses to recent posts:


When my kids moved back home we signed a contract. One clause was the Work Incentive clause. I charged them $100 rent if they had a job, any kind of job. If they were not working the rent was $200.

‘How can I pay MORE rent without a job?!!’ he howled. ‘I don’t know,’ I replied. ‘That’s your problem. But if you sign the contract, I will hold you to it. If you don’t want to sign the contract, go find somewhere else to live with a better deal.’

He had to do his own laundry, but he was welcome at the dinner table as long as I knew it ahead of time. He lived here about 6 months, then got an apartment. He learned real fast to manage money.

Ditto for my daughter when she finished grad  school and moved back briefly. I believe in helping kids for awhile so they can save their money, get on their feet and get back out there. But to hole up with mom and dad forever? Nope. There is no sense of personal pride and accomplishment in that. Jacqueline


My husband and I unexpectedly found ourselves in a boomerang position when our prodigal son returned home with his pregnant girlfriend. He thought we were so mean, at the time, but we charged them rent approximately equal to what a one bedroom apartment cost in our town. We covered food, as long as they were eating the meals we planned with us. They covered their own snacks, and if they ate out. They drove our extra car, but paid insurance on it. They had chores and household rules just like the children who haven’t moved out yet. Rather than make it a “one-time thing,” my husband and I tried to make it a thing that if it lasted forever we could live with it; and if it happens again, everyone would already know the ground rules.

They moved out about 10 months later. They did not know it at the time, but we had put their rent in a savings account, and when they were ready to move out with a budget in hand, they had $5000 in their Contingency Fund (that they had paid in rent), in addition to the first month’s rent and security deposit that they had saved up in preparation to move out. They’ve fallen on hard times a couple of times, but they’ve pulled through in part, I think, because it is worth the extra work (to them) to have the freedom to “adult” in their own place. They still come to do laundry at our house once in awhile, and when they come to family dinners on Sunday they arrive with our grandchildren and containers to bring home leftovers for the week. Stephanie



A Very Bad Hair Day

Apparently, my hair is my life. Believe me, I am as surprised by this fact of vanity as anyone. Had you checked with me about my philosophy of life a mere ten days prior, I can assure you that my hair would not have made the cut for my Top Ten Important Things.

Sure, I’ve had the typical number of issues with my hair over the years, but since I’ve always had plenty of it, I had options. That is until that day when I got a bad haircut.

I could go into long and agonizing detail, but suffice it to say I went in with a full head of hair and came out five pounds lighter. Let’s just say that Mr. Salon Owner (not exactly your Edward Scissorhands) thinned me out—a technique only fitness trainers should attempt.


How to Make Your Own Dirt

There is no doubt that this whole “cheapskate” thing can be taken too far. There are matters of time, if not personal dignity, that dictate for each of us to what extent we are willing to go to maximize our resources.

That can change from time to time given the personal challenges that we face. Take dumpster diving, for example. I draw the line at any activity that requires me to climb into and root around containers filled with trash that is destined for the landfill. I just don’t go there. However, if my children were starving, I have no doubt that I would experience a miraculous change of heart. All that to say that, generally, I am not one who could easily be convinced to make dirt. The earth seems to be well endowed.


Life in a Crowded Nest

It used to be that kids reaching adulthood could not wait to leave home and be on their own. That worked out well because their parents longed for an empty nest and quieter lives. But these days, young people are spoiling these plans.

Currently some 85 percent of U.S. college graduates move back home with their parents after graduation. One can only assume the other 15 percent never moved out.

Photo credit: CountryLife.co

Many American homes have become very crowded nests. While parents are asking themselves what went wrong, the “boomerang” kids seem to be adjusting quite nicely. Any why not? For lots of boomerangs, they get a boarding house without the rent, a laundromat with no slots for coins and a mini-storage facility, otherwise known as your garage.


A Lightning Round of Solutions for Annoying Situations

Welcome back to Ask Mary, where I, your humble columnist, respond to your questions. Got a vexing issue? Send it over.

Today, in the Annoying Situations category we’re tackling white dryer lint on dark clothes, rust-stained marble, moss and mildew, and HSA fees—all in no particular order. Let’s go.

Q: I’ve given up laundry softening products by switching to wool dryer balls (thank you) but now I have a new problem. These white dryer balls are like little lint magnets. That’s a good thing when drying loads of whites, but not so good when it’s a load of dark items that come out with annoying white lint.

A: I know what you’re talking about and that’s the reason that I have a set of black wool dryer balls that I use only in dryer loads of dark-colored items. It’s easy to switch back and forth as long as the dryer balls are handy—black dryer balls in dark loads, white ones with white loads. Problem solved!

Q: Do you have any idea how to remove rust stains (possibly from hard water) from my marble shower stall? I tried lemon juice and baking soda and scrubbed for a long time but not much was removed. Any help you can give me will be appreciated.

A: Marble maintenance is a tricky topic because it is soft and porous as natural stone products go, making marble surfaces an easy target for all kinds of stains. You need a “poultice” which is a paste you apply to the stain that you allow it to sit for many hours to draw out the stain. And it needs to be made from ingredients specific to that particular stain or nothing will happen at all. That could explain why your lemon juice baking soda scrub did exactly that–nothing. 

My best advice is to invest twenty-bucks in a commercial product especially formulated to remove rust stains from marble and granite. I’m confident that TeRust Poultice Powder, (about $20) will do the job provided the stain has not been permanently set, which I doubt. Be sure to follow the instructions exactly and keep in mind that it may require multiple treatments to achieve full success.

Q: I know you have informed your readers about a thousand times on this, but please indulge me again. What is the name of the moss spray you’ve written about in past columns? As I recall you said you can just spray it on and it does all the work for you.

A: The product you’re referring to is Wet & Forget Moss Mold Mildew & Algae Stain Remover. It really is the most amazing outdoor product because it removes moss, mildew and algae stains  from just about any surface. 

Dilute with water per instructions, apply using a garden sprayer (or a high-quality, professional, hose end sprayer like this one that will spray up to 28 feet to reach areas liking siding, walls, awnings, etc) and forget it. The product goes right to work to removal stains on any exterior surface—no scrubbing or rinsing necessary. Then each time it rains, it continues to gently removes the moss, mildew and algae. Wet & Forget is non-caustic, non-acidic and contains no bleach. It can be used on ANY outdoor surface materials including roofs, siding, decks, walkways, driveways, brick, RVs and boats; awnings, fences, fountains, gazebos, greenhouses, hammocks, lanais, patio furniture (all types); outdoor rugs, pots, patio umbrellas, play equipment, pool liners, retaining walls, shades and storage units. The list goes on and on—and on. Great stuff.

Q: I recently retired from a job where I had and health insurance with an HSA (health savings account) plan. I opted to leave the HSA account undisturbed until needed sometime in the future. I no longer contribute to it, however. The new company holding this HSA is wanting to charge for statements and also a monthly fee to hold my account. Do you know of any companies that I could transfer my HSA money into that would not charge me a monthly or annual fee?

A: Many credit unions offer fee-free HSA accounts. Check with yours or if you are not a member of a credit union, look around in your area for one that you can join. Also, read “How to Join a Credit Union” by the Credit Union National Association (CUNA). Provided it is simply an HSA savings account—not an investment account—chances are very good it will be free of fees and miscellaneous charges. Credit unions are like that.



The Proper Care and Feeding of a Garbage Disposal

It took me a ridiculously long time to recognize the obvious connection between holidays, dinner parties and emergency calls to the plumber due to hopelessly clogged drains. Why was it always on a holiday, always embarrassing with a houseful of company, always after hours and always extra expensive?

I’ll tell you why: Because that’s when I would do stupid things like peel ten pounds of potatoes, cram all of the peels into the garbage disposal and expect it to all magically disappear. Dittos with prepping artichokes. Or I’d throw a couple of whole lemons in there, thinking that would freshen the thing up before company arrives.

I’ve learned the hard way that there is a proper way to care for and feed a garbage disposal—rules that when followed will keep your garbage disposal in tip-top shape, functioning as a reliable member of your household team.

Learn from my mistakes so you don’t have to make them yourself. Clogged drains are a major inconvenience and garbage disposal repair can be a costly proposition.


Run your garbage disposal regularly. Frequent use prevents rust and corrosion, makes sure that all parts stay moving and prevents small obstructions from accumulating.

Always run a strong flow of cold water before you turn it on to grind food waste. Cold water will cause any grease or oils that may get into the unit to solidify, so that they can be chopped up before reaching the trap.


Reasons Gardening is Good For Us Plus 6 Favorite Garden Tools

You may have figured out by now that I am obsessed with gardening and it’s a good thing. I’m convinced this summertime hobby improves both my mental and physical wellbeing.

Effective exercise. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (doesn’t everyone check with the CDC before doing anything strenuous?) just one hour of light gardening and yard work burns 330 calories—more than lifting weights for the same amount of time. I’ll take it!

Blood pressure. Gardening scored on the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s recommendation list for battling high blood pressure. I’m sure they’re thinking the physical movement aspects of gardening. But me? Beautiful flowers and well-manicured beds calm my soul and refuel my joy like little else.

Immune system. It’s the sun, I’m sure of it. When I’m in my garden, I’m soaking up vitamin D which helps the body absorb calcium, which in turns keeps bones strong and the immune system healthy.