A.J. Jacobs Can Solve All Your Modern Problems

The phrase “the good old days” is, at best, three-quarters true. They were old. They were days. I’d even spot you the ‘the.’ But good? Not so much.

Modern life is filled with annoyances and hurt, but compared to yesteryear, most of us live in an earthly paradise. Nostalgia can suck it. The past was a mind-bogglingly dirty, painful, fetid, smelly, sickly and boring place.

Imagine surgery without anesthesia. That’s enough right there. But even mundane life was unpleasant: Instead of toilet paper, think about having to settle for a corn cob, a stick, or if you were lucky, a reused piece of cloth. When you get dressed, imagine squeezing into a corset so tight you can barely breathe, or donning a wig teeming with nits.

The point is, we need to be thankful for the admittedly flawed life we have now.

That’s the idea behind the advice column I write for mental_floss magazine. I encourage readers to write in with their problems. They hate the dentist. Or hotel beds are uncomfortable.

And then I (very gently) tell them to shut the hell up and quit whining. Get some perspective. They are facing Modern Problems (a corollary of First World Problems), and should be thankful.

Because 100 years ago, a dentist might squeeze your head between his knees and pull your tooth out with sharp tongs. A “bed” in the Middle Ages often meant a pile of straw on the dirt floor, which was also home to an astounding variety of bodily fluids, garbage and vermin.

I use many sources to give you a taste of the bad life. There are great books such as If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley and the classic The Good Old Days Were Terrible, by photo archivist Otto Bettman. I scour newspaper stories and old diaries. By the way, most of these resources I can access from my computer. Which makes me grateful that I don’t have to shlep to the library and dodge horse-drawn carriages on manure-filled streets. See? It works for almost everything.

Got a Modern Problem for A.J.? Email it to, or leave a comment below. If he responds to your problem in the magazine or here on the site, we'll send you a free mental_floss t-shirt.

ATM Fees Reach a New Record High

You have good reason to flinch every time you withdraw cash from an out-of-network ATM. The cash machine operator and the bank each hit you with a separate fee for these withdrawals, and both types set record highs this year, according to a new Bankrate survey.

In Phoenix and Atlanta, grabbing cash from an out-of-network ATM will set you back more than $5. But even the cheapest metro area isn’t actually much less expensive: In San Francisco, the average fees are now $3.90. “The national average is $4.57, which means stopping at an out-of-network ATM for $20 will cost nearly 23 percent in fees,” says Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate's senior vice president and chief financial analyst.

To skirt the fees, stay in network. Virtually any bank will let you withdraw money from its own ATMs, of course. But if you want easy, low-cost access to more cash machines, ask your bank if they participate in a larger ATM network. Some do, to provide their customers with more widespread access.

While ATM fees climbed higher in 2016, one type of bank fee actually broke its 17-year streak of increases: overdraft fees. The average is now $33.07 (yikes!), but that's 0.1 percent below last year’s average. It’s probably too soon to celebrate the downward trend, says McBride. Overdraft fee increases still outnumbered decreases by 5 to 1 in the national survey.

McBride’s best advice for avoiding the hefty penalty? “Sign up for email and text alerts that let you know when your balance is getting low, so you can proactively move money into the account,” he says. “And keep tabs on your available account balance through online and mobile banking—particularly before initiating transactions.”

Which State Has the Most Millennials Still Living at Home?

Escaping your parents’ home doesn’t seem to have quite the same urgency it once did. According to Time, recent Census data indicates that a substantial number of Millennials—typically considered to be those 18 to 34 years of age—are choosing to remain in their childhood residences, with one state in particular crowding out the rest.

The winner? New Jersey, which has just under 47 percent of that demographic living at home. Eastern state neighbors New York and Connecticut each have roughly 40 percent choosing to stay in the nest, a significant spike from the national average of around 33 percent. That’s up from 23 percent in 2000. (The state with the lowest percentage of Millennials rooming with their 'rents? North Dakota, with just 14.1 percent.)

It can be difficult to extrapolate why some states have more clingy kids than others. The price of real estate might be one explanation (rent is much more expensive in New Jersey and New York than it is out West); the trend of Millennials getting married later in life might be another. Without the need for their own mortgage, utility bills, and consumer spending, it’s possible that the homebodies may even be contributing to an economic downturn.

Then again, who can resist free laundry? “There’s the comfort of someone to help you out at all times,” college student Irsia Khan told in June 2016. “Having your meals ready and your laundry done for you takes the load off on the rest of the things you go through in college.”

[h/t Time]


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