Financial Freedom Mindset: The Benefits of Gratitude

There has been quite a bit of research done across multiple disciplines about the benefits of gratitude, from the religious sectors all the way to the personal finance industry. Gratitude simply makes life better. It has been shown to improve your mental, physical, and emotional health. It opens the door to better relationships, both personal and spiritual. It enhances empathy and leads to less aggression and more acceptance. Also, grateful people sleep better, eat healthier, and build stronger careers. Grateful people even spend less money!

So, why do so many of us intentionally practice giving thanks ONLY in the month of November? This practice needs to be a year-round aspiration! Here are a few (maybe less-obvious) ways to sustain the benefits of Thanksgiving throughout the year. As you practice giving thanks in all the months of the year, you might recognize how much you already have and how little you need to buy to have a beautiful life.

Praise and Prayer

Hang a poster board, butcher paper, or a chalk board up with the words, “Praise” and “Prayer”, in a high traffic area in your home, such as the back door or the mud room. Encourage family members to write what they are thankful for on the Praise side and ask for prayers for themselves and others on the opposite side.

Gratitude Journal

gratitude journal

Keep a spiral notebook open on the kitchen counter and have each person jot down something they are grateful for or something they’re looking forward to in the journal each day. Bring it to the dinner table one day per week and share your family’s good news with each other.

Random Thank You Notes

random thank you notes to instill gratitude

I am terrible at writing out thank you notes after a birthday party. I wish I was better at it, but maybe thank you notes would be even more appreciated when they’re not considered obligatory. Keep thank you notes available in your home and practice writing notes to friends after an act of kindness or a fun night out. Encourage your kids to do the same, even to their own siblings. Gasp! 


Closet and Pantry Inventory

Before going shopping for something new or for gifts for others, take a mental (or written) inventory of what’s in your closet, pantry, or playroom. This can help you and your kids recognize how much you already own and be grateful for it. While cleaning toys or putting away laundry, I often point out to the kids the abundance they have of these items. We also discuss whether they really need duplicates of certain items. This practice will likely prevent you from over-spending on what you don’t really need. You may even find gifts for others in your home and skip the shopping trip altogether.

Pick a “No-Negativity Day”

Life is tough! Venting helps.

But maybe, just one day per week can become a sacred “No-Negativity” day. On this day, focus entirely on being positive. This would be a HUGE challenge for me and therefore, this is one tradition I’m going to strive for throughout the year! Someone please hold me accountable.

Organize your Stuff

Assigning specific locations in your home for arts and crafts, school supplies, toys, books, seasonal decor, tools, etc and keeping them all very organized can not only help with recognizing the many things you own, it can also help you appreciate the space you have available to you for storing it all. If you don’t have the space, then give excess items away. An organized and clutter-free home leads to better appreciation for where you live and what you have. It might also keep you from searching for a bigger, more expensive home or additional storage for your stuff.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:21

Since practicing gratitude daily, we have spent significantly less money as a family. We have become more aware of what brings us joy and how little money we actually need to enjoy each other’s company. We also have an acute awareness of what we own and primarily purchase food and basic home necessities when out shopping. An attitude of gratitude is also leading us down a path toward minimalism. We haven’t embraced it fully, but it’s looming on the horizon like it never has before.

Too Much Cash: A Good Problem to Have

The pandemic of 2020 has had many unexpected effects on everyone’s finances. One way or another, I’m guessing your financial life has changed since March of 2020.

Unfortunately, many people lost their jobs, their businesses, and their ability to pay their rent or mortgages. It’s been devastating to hear these stories. Thankfully, there’s been relief over the last year in the form of higher and extended unemployment benefits, moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures, stimulus money from the government in the mail, and help from several charitable organizations. I know there are many people still struggling, for whom I pray and have added more in our personal giving budget to go toward.

For many others, though, this past year has allowed them to reassess their spending habits and make major changes toward saving. It’s allowed many to sell their homes for significant profits and/or finance a home with unprecedented low interest rates. Additionally, after its initial fall, the stock market has left many people with realized gains far beyond what they’d imagined.

Because of these significant changes in 2020 that have carried over into 2021, many Americans are finding themselves with a really good problem to have: too much cash and what to do with all of it. Most personal finance experts believe that keeping extra cash under your mattress or sitting in a simple checking/savings account for a long period of time is equivalent to losing on an investment or burning a percentage of that cash in your fire place.

Due to inflation, your dollars today will be worth significantly less than in the future … and I’m not talking about the distant future. According to the rule of 72, at an average 3% rate of inflation, your cash today will be worth HALF its value in 24 years (72/3 = 24). So, if that money you have lying around isn’t making you more money (at a rate greater than inflation), it’s essentially making you less money. Therefore, you need a plan for that cash.

If you’ve unexpectedly found yourself in this position of holding onto money in excess of your emergency fund (or specifically saving for a large purchase), it’s time to figure out where to put it. My husband and I are in this boat with you, so I’ve done a bit of research to determine our best options for what to do with that surplus in the bank account…

Invest in Index Funds

We have seen over 20% returns in the past couple years on our VTSAX (Vanguard index fund) investment. In addition to our monthly contributions, we often invest our family budget surpluses in this index fund through our joint brokerage account (after our ROTH IRAs have been maxed out). This might be the easiest way to invest, and it’s truly passive. But we still have a large cash cushion that we haven’t dumped into an index fund because we’d prefer to diversify and …

Buy Real Estate

I’m not going to lie to you. Buying real estate in this hot 2021 market is TOUGH. We’ve lost out on 5 deals in one town over the past 3 months. However, we’re determined to keep trying, so we have a significant amount of cash set aside to meet our goal of closing on 3 doors this year. Now that we’re already nearing the end of the first quarter of this year and entering the really busy real estate season, though, we recognize that 3 doors might be a pipe dream. So, maybe we can remain involved in real estate if we …

Become a Hard Money Lender

A return of 7-12% sounds pretty promising. This is what most private money lenders charge investors for doing a financing deal without using a bank or typical lender. The hard/private money lender is responsible for vetting the investor he/she is lending to, doing the underwriting, setting the terms of the contract, providing a large lump sum, and chasing the money if it’s not all paid according to contracted terms. So, although private money lending is considered passive income, it still requires quite a bit of work upfront and the possibility of following up afterward if terms are not met. This option still sounds good to us, and we may move forward with the steps to get started soon, but we’ve also thought that another way to diversify our portfolio might be to…

Back a Business

We know of several businesses who have struggled during the 2020 shut-downs, but the ones that have stayed afloat have incredible ideas for reaching more customers and expanding their online presence. They have the plans, infrastructure, staff, and products, but they may not have the funding. With a loan from a local independent investor, like ourselves, they can hit the ground running and pay a contractually-agreed-upon return on our investment when their business plan pans out. This may be one of the riskier ways to invest our cash surplus, so we’ve also considered that we could …

Turn a Fun Purchase into an Income-Producing Asset

Our family often talks about owning an RV for extended road trips or a temporary homeschooling adventure. However, we will not make a large purchase like this without a plan to rent it out when we’re not using it. We could either park the RV on land and rent it out via Air BnB or we could offer our super cool ride to friends and friends of friends at a reasonable rate so they could experience their own road tripping adventures.

Here are a few other ideas to turn a personal purchase into an investment:

  • If you’re buying a heavy-duty truck for work, hunting, or family use, consider renting it out to others to haul items or complete their own home projects.
  • If you’re buying a cool woodworking tool to build furniture or make unique decor as a hobby, consider offering the tool up for a fee to people nearby to prepare for their own projects. (Or sell extras of your creations.)
  • If you’re buying a fancy snow cone or cotton candy maker for a party, use it in the future to sell goodies at local festivals or near the neighborhood pool (with a permit).
  • If you’ve decided to splurge on a commercial-grade carpet cleaner after too many pet and toddler accidents, rent it out to neighbors for a lower fee than what the stores charge. Make your own non-toxic cleaners to go with it as well.

(For each of these ideas, check with your insurance agent regarding coverage/liability before renting out your assets.)

Sometimes, the idea of someone else using an item that’s special can leave us a little unsure, so another option is to …

Invest in Self-Growth

A great way to spend extra cash is to develop more skills that allow for greater income potential in the future. This might include going back to school, taking unique online adult courses, or paying a mentor to teach how to advance in a specific career. These are exciting options and definitely worthwhile if you know you’ll put the skills learned to use right away. My husband and I would love to learn more about renovating an historic home and doing a remodel mostly ourselves. However, we’re quite overwhelmed with raising four kids and keeping up with our current schedules, so this may not be our best choice currently.

There is one investment option, though, that we’ve both agreed is the best for personal growth, community improvement, and living out truths we take seriously, which is to…

Give Generously

I recently heard an amazing sermon by Mike Todd of Transformation Church. He speaks eloquently and passionately about being a purpose-chaser rather than a paper(money)-chaser. He said in his sermon, “God doesn’t have a problem with paper; he just wants priority!“ Our opportunities, finances, and blessings are the fruit after we’ve given His purposes priority.

Most believe that it’s better to give than to receive, and many also believe that true rewards (whether they be money or something even more valuable) only come after you’ve given from your heart. Therefore, this may be the best use of a cash surplus.

There are dozens of other ways to invest your extra cash, and because personal finance is truly personal, each person will likely have a different idea that resonates with him/her. The main thing to remember, though, is that while it’s a huge accomplishment to have saved a large sum of money, you don’t want it sitting around losing value for too long. Every dollar needs a job, and hopefully your surplus can provide more value to you in the future.

9 Easy Steps to Buying an Index Fund

I’ve been asked several times, “How do I get started in investing?” Usually, my response includes several follow-up questions, such as, “What are your investing goals? What’s your risk tolerance? How much money do you have to invest? Have you started first with your employer’s 401K? Do you have debt? An emergency fund?” and so on. There can be dozens of factors to consider.

Then, I recently came to realize that many of my friends were simply asking how to take the steps to open an investment account and contribute to it. Most had already decided that they wanted to invest a certain amount in the stock market but didn’t know how to actually start a new account (outside of 401K investing). Hopefully, the 9 steps below can be helpful to those who are looking for a literal answer to that initial question.

The guide in this post is specific to opening a Vanguard account because it’s the brokerage firm we use, but the process is likely the same or similar for other firms/banks.

Why do we choose Vanguard? We consider it to be the leader in low-cost index fund investing. After all, John Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, was also the inventor of index funds. Vanguard makes investing easy and has several options for mutual and index fund investing. If you’re more interested in trading stocks, options, and ETFs than taking the simple path to wealth, those trades are commission-free. Vanguard also has great customer service, including agents who will answer even the most amateurish questions and will gladly walk you through every step if you get stuck while navigating the website. For all of these reasons, my husband and I have both our ROTH IRA’s, as well as a joint brokerage account, with Vanguard.

Other highly-recommended brokers include Charles Schwabb and Fidelity, which also carry a wide variety of funds and low fees for many of them. (We have investment accounts in both of these brokerages and a few others due to past employer offerings, but we are slowly transferring balances on accounts with higher fees to Vanguard. We’d like to consolidate and reduce fees as much as possible.)

If you’re ready to purchase index funds, here’s your guide on how to do it in 9 steps or less:

1. Have your bank account info available, including routing number.

2. Go to Vanguard.com and select the Personal Investors page.

3. Click on “Open an Account”, then select “Start Your New Account”.

4. Follow the prompts and answer the questions on subsequent pages.

5. Determine the type of account(s) you want to open based on tax advantages, income limits, and contribution maximums.

  • The max contribution for an IRA each year is $6,000 for under age 50 & $7,000 for over age 50.
  • Simple rule of thumb: Traditional IRA‘s give you a tax deduction now, but you will pay taxes on the withdrawals in retirement. ROTH IRA‘s require contributions from earned income and do not give you a tax deduction now. But they allow your money to grow tax-free and allow you to withdraw the earnings tax-free in retirement. Also, you can withdraw ROTH IRA contributions (not earnings) before age 59 1/2 after owning the account for 5 years. (So, if you contribute the max for 5 years, you can withdraw the $30,000 penalty-free as soon as that 5 years ends, but you can keep your interest earnings in the account.)
  • Brokerage Accounts, also called Taxable Accounts, General Investing Accounts, or Non-Retirement Accounts, have no contribution maximums, no income limitations, and also no tax benefits on the interest you earn or the sale of funds. You are subject to taxes on all of it the year you receive the money. These can be joint or solely owned.
  • The other available options are investment accounts for children or small business owners. More on those in a later post.
Types of investment accounts

6. Provide personal and banking info.

7. Complete required paperwork and send it in.

This may take several days for a response.

8. IMPORTANT: When you receive confirmation of funding via email, go back into your Vanguard account to select funds to invest in.

Index funds are recommended very often in the Financial Independence Community. VTSAX is one of the most common ones and allows you to be invested in ALL 500 companies of the S&P 500. Read more about index funds here. Index funds track almost identically over time, so don’t stress too much about which one you choose.

Keep in mind that an index fund is a 100% stock investment. If you’d like to limit your risk a bit and balance out your portfolio, you can invest in a bond index as well, which pays monthly dividends. (We reinvest ours.) Many investors believe that the closer you are to retirement age, the higher percentage of bonds you should hold in your portfolio to minimize risk. (Reminder – lower risk usually means lower return.)

If you’re still not sure how your investment portfolio should be balanced, Vanguard can walk you through a risk assessment quiz to determine asset allocation for your target portfolio before you choose your investment funds. You can also view how different portfolios have performed over the last 94 years.

9. Buy!

Follow the prompts to buy the funds you’ve decided to invest in. You’ll select the desired fund(s), choose the dollar amount you want to invest, and designate where you want the money to come from (likely the bank account you uploaded).

If, at any point, you’re stuck or not sure what step to take next, open a live chat with an agent, read FAQ’S in the margin, or call Vanguard customer service.

Voila! You’re invested in the stock market! Hopefully you’ll watch your money work for you! My husband and I have seen 30%+ returns in the last couple years. These gains are unusual as we’re still in a bull market. Fluctuations are to be expected, but because we plan to keep our money in these funds for over 10 years, we feel good about riding the waves.

For a more in-depth guide to getting started with Vanguard, go here.

Everything written in this blog is based on personal experience. It is not professional advice and should not be taken as such. Personal finance is personal, and decisions should be made based on analysis of individual situations, as well as risk tolerance and financial position. 

Fuel your FIRE

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 30

Wow! We made it to Day 30! I calculated that I’ve written (and you’ve read) over 25,000 words in the last month. That’s enough words to fill 1/3 of a novel, and all of them were about saving money and investing for the purposes of financial freedom.

But why?

In my post titled, What Does Financial Freedom Mean to You?, I summarized what motivated me to jump on board with the FIRE movement:

“Financial freedom allows the ability to let go

of maintaining a specific image; of an addiction to other people’s lives; of the shackles of material goods; of the restrictions placed on me by others; of saying ‘yes’ when I want to say ‘no’; of saying ‘no’ when I want to say ‘yes’; of negative relationships; of working to achieve someone else’s dream.

It provides the option to linger

with a baby in my arms; in bed all morning with my husband; on the floor in my kids’ playroom as they set up a tea party; at church after service or maybe on a Wednesday; on a restaurant patio with a friend; at a beautiful beach all day; in my sister’s living room catching up on a favorite TV show; at my mom’s house sipping coffee; at my children’s favorite museum; on the hiking trail or in the river at a state park.

It affords the privilege of indecisiveness

on whether to build a forever home, buy an investment property… or both; on whether to volunteer in local church ministries, start the business I’ve always dreamed of… or both; on whether to do travel homeschooling, keep my kids in public school… or both; on learning to play golf, participating in an over-40 soccer league… or both; on whether to write a book, start or podcast… or both.

It commands the responsibility to give

financial literacy lessons to my children; personal finance advice to the young and old; donations to charitable organizations; more time to important projects; opportunities to the underprivileged so that they can break the cycle of poverty; gifts to my church; more of me to those I love.”

It’s this final paragraph that makes the FIRE movement especially appealing, not just for myself, but for the entire community too. I recently heard that while others might see an individual’s push toward financial independence and early retirement as a selfish, greedy move, the truth is that most people in the community want to use their freedom for greater good.

Those who’ve reached FIRE write blogs to help others improve their money situations. They host podcasts and share the best tips available. They write books to make investing easier. They teach classes for free to the under-privileged, under-educated, and under-represented. They run fix-it clinics, start buy-nothing sites, and inspire minimalist movements. FIRE people don’t keep this to themselves; they share what they know and encourage others to make the best use of their money as well.

Consider the type of people who truly subscribe to the Financial Independence Retire Early life. These people are often intelligent, motivated, educated, persistent, goal-driven, risk-tolerant, and innovative. When people with these qualities are freed from the daily grind, their talents can then be put toward philanthropy and changing the world we live in.

Take action today on Day 30 by determining what fuels your FIRE and decide what good you could do in the world if earning a regular paycheck was no longer a top priority.

Thank you so much for going on this 30-day journey of action steps toward financial freedom with me! I truly hope it’s been helpful and that you’d be willing to share these tips with others.

I invite you to subscribe to this blog and follow Frugal_with_Four on Instagram. I’m looking forward to sharing so much more on living this frugal yet wonderful life with you.

Thanks for reading!!

Date for Free

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 29

A good friend of mine has set a 2021 goal to go on 52 dates with her husband this year. I really hope that happens for her! It’s a beautiful goal worth pursuing in all relationships.

Sometimes, though, it can be difficult to pull off actually getting out of the house once per week, at least without a child along for the ride. So, inspired by my friend’s goal, I’ve been brainstorming ideas to emulate fun date experiences while staying home, avoiding paying high prices for them or hiring a babysitter to make them happen.

I’ve made a list of several cheap or free (and slightly cheesy) date-night-in options. Maybe a few would work for you as well.

  • Money Date (always my top choice) to discuss big dreams, goals, progress, and new ideas
  • Read together in the bathtub or backyard hammock (find a great free option through your library app)
  • Make a messy homemade dessert or take an online cooking class together
  • Backyard movie night
  • Virtual concert in the living room
  • Flashlight hike on neighborhood trails (leaving older kids in charge for a short time)
  • Play cards with high stakes … maybe loser does dishes for a week, winner gets a foot rub, or best hand earns a night off from helping with the kids
  • Plan a vacation for the near future
  • Download a stargazing app and lie in the grass outside enjoying the constellations and a glass of wine
  • Bust out the fire pit, roast marshmallows, and tell scary stories (good luck keeping the kids away during this date option)
  • Have a spa night
  • Reminisce over old photos and organize them into albums
  • Try palm reading after watching a couple videos
  • Do a difficult puzzle together
  • Try out Yoga with Adriene on You Tube
  • Marie Kondo the master closet together, allowing your partner to comment on his/her favorite outfits on you
  • Set up your own cheese and wine tasting at home
  • Create a beer flight with local brews and make notes on favorite flavors
  • Repurpose furniture or home decor together
  • Paint
  • Build something special for the kids, like a desk or toy chest
  • Make gifts for friends
  • Write a letter to a family member or a couple who has had a big impact on your relationship
  • Have a friendly competition with leg wrestling, thumb wars, and flexibility contests
  • Learn a new dance from a You Tube or Tik Tok video

Many of these options can be great for a fun night at home with the kids too. The more creative you get with what you can do at home, the less money you’ll spend on dates or family outings.

Today’s action step is to plan a few specific nights-in to replace evenings you’d usually spend going out and blowing cash.

DIY, RRR+R, and Buy-Nothing

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 28

As you get better and better at finding ways to reduce your expenses, make use of what you’ve got, and save a lot of money, it can become a fun game to spend as little as possible on just about everything. This is not a push for becoming cheap, though. Frugality is the goal. A frugal person lives simply and economically, focusing on value over price and quality over quantity.

I watched a few episodes of Extreme Cheapskates with my daughter over the weekend. Every time I watch one of those shows, my jaw is on the floor almost the entire time. Reusable toilet paper?! Cooking a lasagna in the dishwasher?! Using one lightbulb for the whole house?!

I can’t imagine that these “tricks” actually amount to significant savings, and at that point, quality of life is surely affected in a negative way. To me, financial freedom is about living life to the fullest now while also setting ourselves up for an even better future.

Not only does this require a change in mindset, lifestyle, and habits, but it can also require a new set of skills and a bit of ingenuity. While walking this journey, an appreciation for what I already own and a desire to maintain it have truly developed.

DIY

What can you do yourself to reduce large (and small) expenses? With the help of free books from the library, countless blogs, Pinterest hacks, and You Tube videos, your options are endless. You can do home repairs and full remodels yourself. You can build anything from gardens to treehouses to furniture. You can sew your own clothes, make your own gourmet meals for date nights, decide on investments without professional help, and even provide music and dance lessons for your children in your home. All it takes is finding the best method of learning for yourself and the confidence to try.

Reduce, Re-use, Recycle, and Rent

A few key aspects to frugal living are reducing what you need/want, reusing what you have, and recycling goods between yourself and others. It sounds so simple, but this shift in lifestyle can be very difficult to make.

I have to admit that I am not very good at the first R. I tend to have multiples of many items. I have dozens of serving dishes and platters, at least 6 cookie sheets, 2 coffee makers, over 30 adult plates and at least as many kids’ plates, plus 3 cabinets full of a variety of cups. And that’s just in my kitchen! I don’t even want to admit how many toys we have or how much clothing (mostly hand-me-downs) we’ve collected for our children. I will admit, however, that at one point, I had 8 strollers in my garage! Because of this slight tendency toward collecting (ahem… hoarding), I plan to challenge myself this year to work on purging and living a more minimalistic lifestyle. Plus, I’d like to reduce as much food waste as possible in my home.

On a positive note, though, I LOVE re-using/repurposing. We have salvaged so many valuable items by finding another purpose for them, another location in the house, or another look for the items.

I have a particular dining table in mind. It was purchased at a reasonable price about 12 years ago, and it served its purpose in the dining room for many of those years. However, its style and color were somehow not changing with my tastes. A few coats of chalk paint and a coat of wax brought that table (and 6 chairs) up to date with the rest of my home decor, giving it a few more years in my dining room. Then, we moved… and my table got damaged. My tendency was to give it away or trash it, but I’m so glad I didn’t. We repaired the table to the best of our abilities, and then we moved it outside. It now serves as our patio table, and my husband built a new, bigger, sturdier table for our dining space, which only cost a few hundred dollars to build. Had we decided to trash the original table and not considered DIY-ing a new one, we would have spent a whole lot of money to buy one table for indoors and one for out.

If you don’t feel particularly skilled at repairing or updating your own items, there are actually some groups willing to help you for free out of the kindness of their hearts and their commitment to zero waste. Look up “Fix-It Clinics” in your town. (You might also look into whether you qualify for grants or very low interest loans through the government to make repairs on your home that are related to structure or safety.)

With regards to the third R, I am so fascinated by the push toward zero-waste in many communities and the trading that goes on between neighbors. “Recycling” doesn’t have to refer to dumping your item in a bin and hoping that a large corporation can make use of the scraps. With sites like Freecycle, you can recycle your items by letting someone else in your community have it and make use of it. Bonus: you may find an item yourself that you’ve been searching for.

I’ve added a 4th R to the famous trio to represent “Rent”. Instead of buying a large ticket or rarely-used item, such as a tool for a specific project, a kayak or tent for a camping trip, a bike for an upcoming race, or furniture for a short term living arrangement, consider renting or borrowing instead. It saves money, saves storage space, and saves you the headache of selling or giving away that item when you realize you may never use it again.

Buy Nothing

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, there are many groups and websites dedicated to passing items along rather than throwing them out and/or buying new. If you haven’t already, join a few Swap or Buy-Nothing groups in your area. You can usually find multiple options in Facebook Groups.

Today’s action step is to make a commitment this year to live a lifestyle with less waste, less hoarding, and more repurposing.

Take a look around your home. What could serve a different purpose? What could serve a better purpose for somebody else? What can you clean or repair to make it last that much longer? What skill can you develop to save money and/or add value to what you already have?

Travel Well on a Budget, Part 3

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 27

Today’s post is all about maximizing vacation fun without blowing your budget. After putting in all that time to get the best value on transportation and lodging, you don’t want to let activities put you over the top. The good news is that every town and city has free or cheap things to do. You just gotta know where to look.

Check Local Blogs

Bloggers offer all kinds of information for free. 😉 You can find the best playgrounds, hiking spots, beach access points, climbing hills, swimming holes, and bike trails by reading a local blog. If you search “free things to do in _____”, scroll down past the Google maps, Trip Advisor, and big magazine publisher suggestions. You wanna hear from the locals! Once you find blog articles, check the dates to make sure it’s a recent post. It’d be pretty disappointing to head to a local swimming hole only to discover it’s been covered by a parking lot since the article was written. Also, search for a few other kid-friendly favorites, such as “free museum days in (location)” or “free festivals in the month of ______”. If you’re traveling to the Austin area or Texas Hill Country, I recommend Dripping with Kids!

Use the Yelp App for Dining Out

I don’t usually use Yelp when I’m at home, but I find it useful while on vacation. Not only does it help me to find restaurants that are highly recommended or great for a family, but because these are places I’d be checking into for the first time, I might get a free appetizer or BOGO offer for trying them out.

Order the Souvenirs in Advance

If you know your kids will want a sweatshirt or a magnet or a stuffed animal as a souvenir from the amazing place they’ve visited, look for great deals online BEFORE you go. The souvenir shops are usually over-priced, and once you set foot inside, you’ll likely cave and buy a lot more than you budgeted for. Who can really resist a cheesy painted sign that says, “Resting Beach Face” or an ornament with Santa riding the ski lift??

Deals on Tickets

This is a tough one! If you’ve planned your vacation around going to a theme park for several days or a week-long music festival, you have no choice but to spend a big chunk of your travel budget on tickets. Right?

I’m still working on how to get the best deals in these areas, but if I can’t find discounts directly through the venue’s website, I always check Groupon. It often offers discounted tickets for festivals, small amusement parks, museums, or concerts.

I’m also a big advocate for zoo memberships if you’re like us and enjoy checking out the local zoo while visiting a new city. Most zoo, botanical garden, and aquarium memberships offer reciprocal admission, saving you 50% to 100% on admission fees.

Another tip is to check with other memberships you have, such as PTA, AAA, AARP, etc. or with your hotel concierge. My final tip is to compare the cost of a season pass to day passes. If you’re planning to visit an attraction or resort (such as for skiing, fishing, or boating) for more then 2 days, it might be cheaper to buy a season pass.

Save on Parking

Many attractions charge high parking fees. Look for ways to skip that added expense. Your hotel may have a shuttle or public transportation nearby. Or there may be street parking a little further away, so most of the family can get dropped off at the front and then Mom or Dad can go park the car.

Save on Food

Check the food and drink policy for the venue or park before you travel. Many will allow you to bring in your own snacks and drinks. If not, though, most have picnic tables for you to enjoy a cheap meal just outside their gates and save the rest of your cash for something better.

Today’s action step is to jot down on your travel budget spreadsheet some of the activities you would want to do on vacation. Place a star next to the ones you could potentially do for free (or really cheap). Then, do a little research to estimate costs of the other activities. When you actually book the trip, do a deep dive to try to find discounts on them.

Travel Well on a Budget, Part 2

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 26

There are so many options on where to stay while on vacation these days… from luxury hotels to extended-stay motels to RV resorts to cabins to vacation home rentals to tent-camping. Even with a large family, many hotel rooms can now accommodate everyone. It can be really hard to narrow down the choices and make a decision.

The good news is that when there are various options and abundant supply, the buyer often benefits from all that competition. You just have to be prepared to do the research.

Once you’ve settled on which type of accommodations will provide the best value and experience for your trip, the following list can help you save money on them …

Check Rewards First

Just like shopping for airfare, check with your credit card rewards and/or your hotel chain membership to determine whether you have enough points to book a night or two at a hotel. If you don’t have a hotel card or rewards membership, but your trip is several months away, consider applying for a card with a great bonus offer so you can collect and redeem miles at least a month before your travel dates.

We recently applied for the Hilton Honors AMEX, thinking ahead to two destinations this year with excellent (but expensive) family-friendly Hilton resorts. Because of the bonus offers and by using the card to pay for part of the stay (thus maximizing the points per purchase), we should be able to get 4 nights covered with points this year.

Get the App

Hotel apps can also help you earn free nights faster or offer upgrades and discounts. I like the hotels.com app. I’ve earned two free nights (1 free after 10 nights) and taken advantage of significant savings due to “secret prices”. Also, if you access hotels.com through the Ibotta app, you can earn cash back for your hotel purchases.

Map It

When searching for a hotel or vacation home, I always use the map function to make sure I understand where a hotel is located before clicking to find out more info. The maps on the search sites often show tourist attractions, the airport, and parks in the area so it’s easy to determine how close the hotels are to everything.

If your goal is to minimize transportation costs, stay close to it all. If your goal is to minimize lodging costs, stay a bit outside the city or in a small town nearby.

Take Advantage of Filters

When it comes to a hotel, I look for at least 3 stars, a very high review rating, and amenities that will save us more money, such as free breakfast, free wifi, free parking, in-room kitchen/ette, free airport shuttle, etc. Bonus if there’s a nice pool, water park, playground, and/or hiking trails onsite… something that can entertain kids between other planned activities.

Keep Your Options Open

When I find a great hotel at a decent price, I book… but only at the free-cancellation rate. Then, I set an alert/reminder in my phone to go back and check hotels again just before the final cancellation date. I re-do my hotel search then to see if the hotel we booked has a better deal or if another one has dropped in price.

Alternatives to AirBnB/VRBO

Looking for a vacation home rental but don’t want to pay the excessive fees? Ask your friends or put up a post in Facebook groups. Often times, a vacation home owner will be willing to rent it out without going through these sites (especially if you’re a friend or acquaintance).

You can also try local property management companies or Vacasa to find the same homes listed on AirBnB or VRBO at slightly cheaper rates (and fewer fees).

Another tip is to find a few homes you like in the area on the major rental sites, then reach out to the owners directly to negotiate a lower rate, especially if the homes are still available less than a week before your travel dates. Send an email to 4-5 owners offering the price you’re willing to pay. Chances are, at least one will agree to take less than their listed rate rather than make nothing on a vacant home.

In summary, finding great deals on vacation lodging requires a bit of time, research, comparison shopping, and possibly some negotiation. It’s worth it, though, to save that money to put toward activities while on your trip or to have enough left in the budget to book your next vacation!

Today’s action step is to continue to do research on the places you’re interested in traveling to this year. Add estimates for accommodations to your travel budget spreadsheets.

Travel Well on a Budget, Part 1

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 25

Living life on a budget doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice living well. Our family has a savings rate of about 25%, of which a large portion goes toward investing for our future. However, we’re still able to maintain a healthy travel budget so that we can enjoy life now while still prioritizing saving for retirement.

We have an annual travel budget of $12,000. That can go fast with a family of 6, but we find ways to make it stretch. In 2020, we took the following trips as a family (while following mandated protocols and state-specific restrictions):

  • A week at Disney Land and Universal in Feb (pre-pandemic)
  • 6 days in New Mexico and Colorado in March (departure just before pandemic closures)
  • 5 days in Colorado (again) in July
  • A week in Wisconsin in July
  • Several weekend trips to the beach and to see family over the year
  • 2 days camping at a state park in Sept (plus several day trips to other state parks)
  • 5 days in Lake Tahoe in October
  • 6 days in Wisconsin (again) in December

In addition to trips with the kids, my husband and I spent a weekend alone in Boston in January and a weekend in Charleston in November. I was also able to do a short getaway with my mom and sister for their birthdays in November.

That equates to over 50 nights away without going over budget! Strategically earning and taking advantage of credit card points, as mentioned in yesterday’s post, helped a lot. We also stayed with family for about 20 of those nights, saving money on hotels or vacation rentals. But being flexible with travel dates and doing the right research also led to big savings.

Today’s post will focus on tips for the transportation aspects of travel. The following 2 days will be focused on accommodations and activities.

Airfare

Check credit card miles and what they might “buy” you first and foremost. If you don’t have a travel card, but your trip is several months away, consider applying for a card with a great bonus offer so you can collect and redeem miles at least two months before your travel dates. (Advice from yesterday’s post applies here.)

If the above option is not actually an option and you need to find the best prices on flights, check the Google airfare search tool first. All you have to do is type in “flight from _________ to _______” in the Google search bar, and you will be provided a calendar of fare prices for multiple airlines. If you can be a tad bit flexible with when you travel, you can simply choose the cheapest dates to fly when looking at the calendar.

Certain days of the week are often cheaper to fly than others, usually Tues, Wed, and Saturday depending on the location. (It can be cheaper to purchase on Tuesdays and Wednesday as well.) For popular tourist destinations, avoid weekend travel. For popular business destinations, avoid weekday travel and morning flights around 8-10 am, especially on Mondays and Fridays. Choosing off-season months to visit a specific location can also save hundreds or even thousands of dollars, such as visiting Boston in winter or traveling to a popular beach in early November.

I also search nearby airports for better prices. I’ll do a comparison of 3 to 4 airports within a 3-hour drive from where we live, as well as from our final destination. I’ve saved hundreds many times by selecting an airport just 1 to 3 hours away. For example, when we go to visit family in the Green Bay area, we often fly into Chicago, then rent a car to drive the rest of the way. Even after paying for the car, we usually save $500 – $1000 on the airfare.

Additional Savings Tip: Take advantage of flight times to give you *more* days on vacation. If you want 3 full days for your trip, book the earliest outbound flight in the morning and a return flight late in the evening. The airfare is usually cheaper at these times, and you get 3 full days while only paying for 2 nights of hotel.

Transportation in your Final Destination

Rental car or public transportation? Walk it or Uber? The decision on whether to rent a car or use other forms of transportation has to be based on not only the cost of the car but other factors as well.

Are you staying in a walkable city? Will your hotel charge parking fees? Is gas especially pricey where you’re staying? Do you need a car because you feel safest with your kids in car seats instead of in your lap? Is Uber or Lyft readily available in that destination? Will you be taking any long day trips from your location or did you fly into an airport that’s a bit of a drive from where you’ll be staying?

If, after this analysis, you decide you need to rent a car, use these tips to get the best rates.

Road Tripping

Taking your own vehicle definitely saves on airfare and a rental car in your final destination, but it can help save on many other expenses as well. It might be helpful to factor in these additional savings and skip air travel altogether.

However, you may decide that the added savings aren’t worth the extra time you spend in the car, especially if you’ve found incredible deals on flights and a rental car using the tips listed above. Before determining that driving is the best value for your trip, do a comparison of gas costs to airfare. Use this calculator to get a good estimate.

Today’s action step is to make a list of where you want to travel this year. Download (and print) a travel budget spreadsheet for each major destination on your list. Use some of the tips above to determine the best dates for those trips based on airfare prices or to decide whether driving would be a better value. Jot down a few scenarios including traveling to/from nearby airports or staying in a location that limits transportation needs once you’ve arrived.

Keep those spreadsheets nearby because tomorrow, we’ll dive into saving on accommodations.

Pick the Right Credit Card

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 24

Many personal finance gurus recommend not having any credit cards at all, but I subscribe to the newer recommendations… get the right card and make the most of those rewards!

Disclaimer: The credit card suggestions linked below will ONLY be beneficial if you are in a financial position to pay off your balance each month on time.

When it comes to choosing the right credit card for you, it’s best to decide what you’d want to use card rewards for. Travel (airfare, hotels)? Cash back? Restaurant gift cards?

Once that’s been identified, check out these websites for a full comparison of the best cards out there this year.

  • The Points Guy will break down the best cards per category, based on what benefits you’re hoping to get from your card.
  • Nerd Wallet shares their top 8 choices for 2021.

If you’re ready to take the card rewards game to the next level, you can try travel hacking. Many travel/credit card hackers claim to have traveled the world for free. Early last year, we earned tens of thousands of bonus miles through the Capital One Venture card by enrolling when there were multiple offers overlapping. The points we quickly collected covered airfare and part of our hotel stay for a family trip to Disney Land and Universal Studios (before the pandemic hit)!

Today’s action step is to audit your wallet. Get out all of your credit cards and determine whether they’re carrying their weight by providing you the rewards you’re seeking. Put the ones you rarely use or that don’t fit the bill in a drawer. It’s ok to keep the account open if you’ve had the card for a long time because that can help with maintaining a high credit score; just don’t use it anymore.

Also, if any of your current cards carry a balance or if you have a card with an annual fee, call the number on the back and prepare to negotiate. Ask if you can get your interest rate lowered or your annual fee waived. (You may have to request to be sent to the retention department.) Many companies will offer some sort of discount or assistance if you just ask.

If you have kids, there’s one more action step today. Read about whether you should add your children to your credit card to build their credit scores?