Last updateWed, 14 Apr 2021 11am

Ask the Experts



Saving Space

I’ve always been a person with a lot of stuff. I don’t know why that is, exactly--maybe I just buy too much stuff, or maybe I have too much trouble throwing things away. I don’t know. All I know is that I never feel like I have enough space! Sometimes I’ll buy a book on organizing or downsizing, but all that ever seems to do is just add a book to the piles of stuff that I have. It drives my parents nuts, and it bothers my roommates, too. And, of course, it bothers me! How can I get more space and organize my stuff better? What advice to the experts have for people looking to cut down on their clutter?

You’re not alone! Many of us have too much stuff--and, for a lot of us, that can be a source of stress.

By the numbers, Americans own an incredible amount of stuff. The average American home is cluttered with a stunning 300,000 separate things. If that sounds like a lot, well, it is: even though the typical American home has tripled in size over the past 50 years, we still found ourselves without enough space. Perhaps that’s why 1 in 10 Americans rents a storage unit.

And, actually, renting an off-site storage unit isn’t a bad idea for those of us looking to declutter, says management at Clifton, New Jersey’s Route 46 Storage. There are some things that we just don’t need in our homes full-time, and for people in smaller spaces--such as college students like yourself--a storage unit can be a huge help.

Not all of your clutter is storage-unit worthy, of course; while it makes sense to store holiday decorations and important possessions that you don’t often use, a storage unit is obviously not the best place to stash wall hangings and knick-knacks. If you don’t want to look at something that’s only purpose is to be looked at, then maybe it’s time to get rid of it!

Downsizing is tough, and there is no one best way to do it. But you’ll find plenty of expert advice on decluttering, organizing, and minimalism on the internet and in popular books (which you may want to get for an e-reader, since you already have too many physical books filling up your space!). Simple techniques like the one in, one out rule (which states that you should get rid of one item for every one you add) can make a big difference in your lifestyle.

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Post-Grad Pad

I’m in my last year of school, so it’s time for me to start thinking about my life as a “real adult!” One thing I’m not sure I’m ready for is having my own place. I’ve never rented my own apartment before, and I don’t think I’ll be ready to buy a home, obviously. What advice do the experts have for a first-time apartment hunter? How soon should I try to stop renting and buy a home instead?

As a recent graduate, you will most likely begin by renting an apartment or home. It will likely only be after some years of saving that you are able to make the jump to home ownership, if you so choose.

So let’s start with rentals: renting a living space has never been easier, thanks to the rise of many online tools. Modern apartment-hunters can search for living spaces online, fill out an online rental application, and even communicate with landlords over the web. You can find an apartment on Craigslist or a specialized app--or, of course, you can walk into a real estate broker’s office and find one the old-fashioned way. In any case, you should be prepared to pay a realtor’s fee (how much the fee is will vary by location--it can be as high as 12 or 15% in high-demand markets like Manhattan).

As a first-time apartment hunter, you should know a few things. First, remember that the law obligates your landlord to disclose certain things. Experts recommend that you read the lease thoroughly (some cities have a standard lease) and look for any disclosures that you’re not comfortable with. Don’t forget about things like the deposit and that realtor’s fee, and be conservative with your budget: your rent should not strain your financial situation. Finally, you should strongly consider getting renters insurance when you move in. Your landlord’s insurance policy will not protect your personal property, so you need your own!

Eventually, you may want to buy a home. Nationwide, renting is actually about 38% more expensive than owning a home; the conventional wisdom also holds that paying into a mortgage is wiser than paying rent, as the former will give you an asset (the property itself) for your trouble. When you’re ready to make the jump, look carefully at both home quality and location, say the experts at Troy, Michigan’s Robertson Homes. In real estate, location is key; the value of your property will be high (and may continue to rise) if your space is in a good school district, a safe neighborhood, or a convenient location.

Good luck finding the perfect post-grad pad!

Marcus Williams is a Senior Financial Consultant in Financial Services and Advisory at EY.

Education and Earning

A college education isn’t cheap, and I am accumulating a lot of loans here. Lately, I’ve been wondering if it’s all worth it. Don’t get me wrong, I value an education--I really want to learn and I really want to succeed in school. But from a cost-benefit perspective, I’m less and less sure this is worth it with each passing day. My friends who have graduated are overburdened by student loans, and some of them aren’t earning enough to manage both their living expenses and their loan payments. I wonder if I should have just gotten a job after high school instead of going to college. Statistically speaking, what’s the reality here? Do college graduates really make enough to justify these huge student loan burdens?

There’s no denying that student loan debt has become a serious problem in the United States of America. Americans owe a staggering $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, and 37% of adults under 30 years old owe a share of it. All of this is enough to make many of us doubt the entire educational system. Is it right to force all this debt on some students? Is an education worth that kind of risk? Liberal arts colleges and research universities alike prefer to think of education as good in and of itself, not just as a ticket to a higher salary--but the reality of debt makes college a financial decision for many, many students.

The central question, of course, is whether or not college graduates make much more money than non-graduates. The short answer to this is, yes. The average 25 to 32-year-old will make $17,500 per year more if he or she has a college degree--and that gap is growing.

Of course, the issue isn’t that simple. The number of jobs requiring a college degree is growing (it’s expected to hit 65% by 2020) and it’s fair to ask whether or not every degree requirement makes sense. Is the market’s way of valuing a college degree fully justified? Or are too many employers ignoring non-graduates?

Plus, not everyone without a college degree is a hard-working high school graduate. College graduates make more no matter how you slice it, but the picture for non-graduates is a bit rosier when you leave out high school graduates--to say nothing of sub-groups like violent criminals (crime rates are often linked to education levels) and other groups that may add noise to the statistics. On the other side of the coin are highly educated non-college graduates, such as graduates from technical colleges, says administration at NYADI (an automotive technical school). For instance, not every non-graduate can be an air traffic controller--but the ones with the right training can, and they’ll make a median salary of $122,530, which is higher than the salaries of many college students.

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Sleeping Soundly

I don’t sleep very well at night. I know that a lot of college kids don’t get the sleep they’re supposed to, but I feel like I’m really trying, and it’s just not happening! Maybe it’s that I’m in an unfamiliar place, but I always feel uncomfortable and distracted. It’s either too hot or too cold, it’s too loud, it’s too bright… Day after day, I wake up feeling like I didn’t sleep at all. Can the experts give me any tips on getting a good night’s rest? 

Sure! There are plenty of ways to improve one’s sleep patterns, and even more reasons why we all should. You probably don’t need a study to show you that lack of sleep can make you cranky and irritable, but did you know that it can actually hurt your grades in school? Not good! 

For many of us, much of the blame for poor sleep lies with poor sleep patterns. Our bodies have an internal rhythm--called a circadian rhythm--that determines when we should be awake or asleep. If properly managed, our natural rhythms make it easy to get the right amount of sleep--but, when abused, they can turn on us. If our body thinks we ought to be awake, it will be hard to fall asleep. And if our body thinks we ought to be asleep, it’ll be hard to stay awake! 

You can track your rhythms with anything from a pen, paper, and clock to a cutting-edge mobile app. Try to get on track and get the 7 to 9 hours of sleep that doctors recommend. What is tough at first should get easier with time as your cycle falls into place. 

Of course, to fall asleep on schedule, you’ll also want a good sleep environment--something it sounds like you’re missing right now. Temperature matters, say the smart home facilitators at AccuTemp. You may not be able to install AccuTemp’s smart home technologies if you’re in a dorm room instead of off-campus, but you should at least be able to take limited control with a thermostat, space heater, air conditioning unit, or your window--or some combination of those. Researchers suggest 60-67 degrees as a nice cool temperature for sleep, but it is something of a matter of personal preference. 

Pay attention to your sheets, too. The company buyers at Cotton & Care, a company that sells sheets made in the USA, say that sheet quality is too often neglected by people looking to save a buck, and don’t take into account where the products they buy are coming from--a description that fits a lot of college students! When choosing an upgrade, be mindful that you don't get too hung up on thread count (which won't necessarily make a difference in quality), but find sheets made of more comfortable materials and that come from companies that care about their employees. 

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Planes and Privacy

I’m a nervous flyer, but not for the reasons you might think. I’m not scared of taking off, flying, or landing, but I’m uneasy about how much of our privacy we give up when we take to the skies. I don’t like going through security, and I hate that so much of my private information is in the airlines’ computers at a time when so many other companies are getting hacked. And I hate the feeling that someone else might take my luggage, or that TSA agents will go through it even before it hits the conveyor belt--I don’t feel good until I get the bag back in my hand! Can the experts provide any advice?

Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do to totally retain our privacy when we fly. There has long been debate over the relative merits of privacy and security, but we don’t each get to decide for ourselves which one we value more: the government and its agencies choose on our behalf, and we have to abide by the rules that it sets.

Still, expert insight may help you feel better about some of the issues you mention and may help you avoid some others. Let’s run through them one at a time.

You have to go through security to get on a plane, but if you fly enough, you may want to consider getting TSA Precheck. This program costs money, but members are allowed to skip some security checks, as the TSA screens them ahead of time--hence the name! You also have some limited choices in terms of how you are checked at security. Unfortunately, the default options are probably the least invasive ones.

As for your private information, well, the good news is that airlines work hard to protect your data. Web security is a big business, and there are many companies to choose from who offer enterprise-level security suites for larger clientele, including information security company Terbium Labs. And airlines are smart enough to know they’re a target, as they have both personal and financial information about you. Still, airlines are less likely to be targeted than some other companies--like the healthcare industry, which is the most frequently targeted space.

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Betterment and Beaches

I’m not a very frivolous person. In fact, most of my friends think I need to lighten up a little--and, to be fair, they’re probably right. But for whatever reason, this is just who I am! I accept that, and I accept that my sense of fun is going to be a little different from everyone else’s. I don’t like wasting time--I’d rather spend time getting better at something or learning something than watching a movie or having a drink. 

Usually, my friends and family understand this and deal with this. But when it comes time to go on vacation, I’ll admit it: I drive my family nuts. We’re headed to the beach this coming summer, and I’m already dreading it. How can I lighten up and have fun on vacation? To me, if I’m not doing something constructive, I’m not doing something worthwhile. 

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to better yourself and use your time wisely! In fact, it’s a very healthy thing to value. But it’s also true that your attitude is a tricky one when it comes to vacations--and it may not be the best one.

Or, to be more precise, perhaps the problem is that you have not thought through all of the consequences of your stance on vacation. You are frustrated by the lack of productivity and self-improvement that vacations represent. But a lot of productive people take vacations, and studies show that vacations actually make us more productive on the whole--meaning your anti-vacation stance is actually hurting you, which stands in direct opposition to your stated goals of self-betterment and productive use of time. 

So taking a break is good for productivity--that’s all well and good, but how can you take a break if you’re stressed by the very idea of inactivity? Simple: do an activity. Vacations aren’t just for laziness, say tourism guides on Mackinac Island--far from it, actually, as many vacations are full of physical and mental activity and self-improvement. You could take time to learn a new skill, say teachers at Ohana Surf Project, a Hawai’i-based company that offers surfing lessons. You could get a workout and improve your health and physique. Or you could simply bring a book to the beach and relax while you learn or fill a gap in your cultural knowledge (now’s the time to read that novel you never have time for). 

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Health and Habits

I recently found out that in my whole group of friends here, I’m the only one who regularly schedules dentist appointments. A few of my friends still go to the dentist, but only because their parents schedule appointments for them. The rest don’t go at all!

I don’t get it. My parents had me calling to schedule my own dentist’s appointments and doctor’s appointments since I was very young, and they made it clear that it was important to go. My friends may not have been so lucky, but I’m shocked by the result. Is it common for people to skip things like dental care as adults? What can I do to get my friends back on the right track?

Making regular appointments with doctors, dentists, and relevant specialists is a huge part of living a healthy life. It’s important to be healthy in your personal life, too, of course, and we should all eat healthy and exercise. But we can’t wait until we’re sick to visit the doctor, or until we have a cavity to visit the dentist--that’s a path to pricier care and worse overall health, professionals say. It’s a shame, then, that only about 65 percent of adults regularly go to the dentist. Numbers related to medical care are a bit better, but still not great: we should all be visiting our primary care physician, our dentist, and relevant specialists at least once a year.

But there’s no denying that going--or not going--to these experts is a habit. Your parents instilled the right habit in you, say health professionals at Chatham, New Jersey-based Touchpoint Pediatrics. Healthcare becomes a habit young. Parents are usually good about bringing their young children in for regular medical appointments, but the key is to stick with the good habits as the kids grow older--and get them involved, as your parents did with you and your phone calls for appointments.

Eventually, it’s time to say goodbye to our pediatricians and get primary care physicians who work with adults. That’s a transition that causes some to lose track of their personal health habits--if you show up at school without a primary care physician, or if you move to another state when you graduate, you’ll have to find time to sign up for one. Similarly, many students and young professionals forget to schedule appointments with specialists, say the doctors at Eye Consultants. It’s great if you’re going to a doctor and a dentist, but if you’ve been wearing the same glasses for seven years, you need to go to an opthamologist!

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Replacement Habits

I have a lot of bad habits. You can probably guess some of them: I drink too much, I don’t get enough sleep, stuff like that. On top of the normal college issues, I also smoke. And there’s some other stuff, but I don’t want to get too much into it. Instead, I want to ask the experts about a way out of it all. I’ve been reading about habit triggers and replacing habits. The idea is that you find out when and why you’re doing something unhealthy and replace the habit with some new habit based on the same “trigger.” My question is: does it work? And if so, how do I know what new activity to choose to replace each old habit?

The concept you’re referring to is a popular one in self-help circles, psychology studies, and among countless individuals--and there is some evidence that it does work. The process works as you describe: you pick a habit and track it, identify moments that you choose to indulge the habit, and look for consistent triggers. Then you attempt to replace the habit with something healthier. Perhaps, for instance, one might realize that he or she eats unhealthy foods when bored. That person could then pay extra attention to feelings of boredom and, when they strike, try to quickly exercise. Ideally, this person will find that whatever reward they got from eating bad foods is present as well, in exercise--perhaps both things distract them from feeling lonely. If that’s the case, perhaps the habit can be replaced.

That’s the science behind all of this: that habits are, according to psychologists, based on a structure of cue, routine, and reward. The cue, or trigger, is the thing that sparks the habit; the routine is the habit, and it can be changed; but the reward is a key part, too.

For instance, there are plenty of legal alternatives of online gambling, say the pros at New Jersey’s NJOnlineCasino.com. If you’re looking to kick illegal gambling purely because of legal concerns, legal gambling should work well as a replacement. But what if you’re looking to quit gambling because you have an addiction to it and it’s costing you too much money? Well, you could try to isolate something you think is a key factor in the addiction--say, the adrenaline rush--and replace it with a hobby that stimulates that.

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Interfacing With Insurers

A storm hit my hometown over the summer and really did a number on my parents’ house (my old childhood home), particularly the roof. My parents, of course, called up their insurance company right away. But the insurance company was just awful, and didn’t really tell them anything, so they got it fixed themselves and then went back to the insurance company to get reimbursed--only to get more arguments and more denials. It’s been terrible for their finances, which are already a little strained with me in school and the holidays coming up. I’m so frustrated for them, and I don’t understand why insurance companies are allowed to deny claims for little nit-picky reasons. Shouldn’t there be laws against this? How can my parents fight back?

Insurance is something that we want to have but hope never to need, and when we do have to make a claim, the process can be frustrating--and sometimes unfair.

Insurance is a tricky thing, because an insurance company’s job is to balance risk. Insurance companies charge their customers a monthly premium. If everything works properly, the insurance company makes enough in premiums to be able to pay the customers who have legitimate claims while still making a profit for itself. An insurance company won’t have a good reputation if it doesn’t pay for legitimate claims, but if it pays for things it shouldn’t, it won’t last long. And not all insurance companies are huge behemoths, either; the insurance policy administration systems professionals at SimpleSolve say the companies they help are small and mid-sized insurers. Insurance is a business based on risk, but it can also be a risky business for the insurers. If an insurance company assesses risks incorrectly, it will end up owing more than it can pay. And then there’s the very real risk of insurance fraud, which helps criminal customers at the expense of the insurance companies. Insurance fraud costs the industry $40 billion per year (for reference, insurance premiums total over $1 trillion per year).

Of course, that doesn’t mean that insurance companies never try to get away with things they shouldn’t. It’s very possible that the frustration that your parents are feeling is the sole fault of the insurance company they’re dealing with. From simple poor service to outright fraud, insurance companies aren’t immune to bad behavior. They can, and do, break the law, and while it’s not the norm, it’s something that it pays to be aware of.

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Soothing Soaks

I like to think of myself as a pretty practical person, and I’m certainly not someone who is obsessed with skin-deep beauty stuff or girly-girl things. But I have a secret: I love going to the spa. Most of my friends would never guess, but I go at least once a semester (by myself, or with my mother when she is visiting). Maybe it’s all in my head, but I think it helps me focus more and perform better in school when I’ve had a nice break in the spa. Is that possible? It would be nice to tell my friends that I’m hitting the spa for health reasons. I know it shouldn’t matter, but my friends and I are just not really the sort of people you’d expect to see in a spa, and I think they’d think I was spoiled or something if they found out and I didn’t have a good way to explain it.

For someone who denies being concerned with “skin-deep” appearances, you sure seem worried about what your friends might think! Relax, lots of people go to the spa; and true friends won’t begrudge you a little pampering from time to time, no matter what your campus persona is like. Surround yourself with people who will like you for you-- and remember that the friends you have now may well be those people, but that you won’t know until you are honest with them!

You did ask for some expert input, though, so while you shouldn’t have to argue about your own hobbies with your friends, it won’t hurt to provide you with some good news about your spa days.

Spas may be associated with beauty and relaxation (and rightly so), but they also make heavy use of some things that we’re used to seeing in physical therapy centers. Massages, warm dips in hot tubs, and other parts of the spa experience that are aimed at your body and muscles are proven to have medical benefits. Take massage, which wellness counselors say reduces everything from physical pain to stress. Or take that other “spa”--the hot tub--which helps aching joints and encourages healing in injuries for the simple reason that heat does this on its own (water jets and bubbles are nice, though). The developers at Monarch Pools and Spas told us that hot tubs are popular among workers whose jobs involve physical labor for precisely this reason.

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Dental Dangers

Okay, gross question incoming. I have a roommate whom I like a lot, and who is otherwise a very normal guy (I promise). We’ve both been enjoying the freedom of our freshman year, and we’ve both been doing things that I’m sure wouldn’t be allowed under our parents’ roofs. But he’s chosen to rebel in one way that’s, uh, kind of disgusting.

We were both getting ready for bed at the same time the other day and I noticed he didn’t brush his teeth. Okay, kind of weird, but I let it go (it was a late night). But the next morning I saw him take a quick swig-and-spit of mouthwash and start to head out, so I asked him if he’d brushed his teeth. Turns out, he almost never does--once a week, he says, if that. I was appalled, but he claims his mouthwash routine works just as well. I know that’s not true, but I was wondering just how much worse my roommate’s routine is than, you know, the normal one.

Yikes! Your roommate is making a serious mistake, dental professionals told us. His mouth may feel fresh and clean after a quick rinse with mouthwash, but he’s going to have very serious dental issues down the line if he doesn’t shape up.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with a little mouthwash. Mouthwash is proven to kill germs, and studies show it to be quite helpful in combating plaque and gingivitis. Your roommate’s mouth would be even grosser without his mouthwash habit, and his breath would be absolutely awful!

But here’s the thing, your dental hygiene isn’t only about germs and bacteria. While it helps to clear those out, there are other big villains in the dental world, including a couple big ones that mouthwash can’t do much about.

We’re talking about plaque and tartar. If you’ve ever gone to a routine dental cleaning (and hopefully you have--dentists recommend visiting at least once a year), then you know what it’s like to have tartar scraped off your teeth. It’s not fun, but it’s necessary--and how much tartar you have is largely a result of your brushing habits. Here’s the lowdown from the dentists who know: Tartar is a hardened form of dental plaque, and plaque is a biofilm of bacteria on your teeth. Mouthwash may kill some of that bacteria, but to get the plaque off of your teeth, you need something gently abrasive--which is why we brush our teeth.

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