Spring Cleaning vs. Spring Spending

Good morning! When I previously tried to write this article, my finger slipped and hit the publish button while in the beginning stages of my first draft. It’s definitely not a best-case-scenario for any writer. Lol. This time around, I’m hoping the final draft is what ends up in your Inbox. Thank you for reading… again!

Spring Cleaning is a phrase we’re all familiar with. Some families take it to the extreme … scrubbing every wall, every bit of exposed tile grout, and even the front sidewalk. Others use Spring Cleaning to motivate themselves to get rid of excess by de-cluttering every room. And then, there are the Spring Cleaners who take this time of year to organize, organize, organize by color-sorting bins in the pantry or clothes in the closet, separating mini craft items into jars, and making the laundry room more accessible. Quite possibly, your family does all OR none of the above during this season of sunshine and renewal.

However, there’s one thing that every family likely has in common during the Spring season: an increase in spending. Data shows that this time of year is HUGE for retailers. Unfortunately, I don’t need research to prove this trend to me because I’ve noticed the spending binge in my own household. I’m definitely not alone; this article and associated charts clearly illustrate the significant Spring spending increase across the country. The Wall Street Journal has also predicted a further increase in spending this year, leading into summer.

So, how does a family that’s eager to take advantage of the better weather and longer days minimize this Springtime splurge?

Take Inventory as You Clean

Taking inventory comes up often in my articles… because it works. Just as tracking every dollar helps you save money and tracking calories helps you lose weight, taking inventory reduces your tendency to collect unnecessary items while out running errands. It’s your hedge against impulse purchases. Imagine yourself walking into Target. Do you gravitate toward the dollar spot right away? If so, being hyper-aware of how many coloring books, floral-covered journals, blue tooth headsets, and tiny vases you already own will hopefully make the idea of picking up another one, even if it only costs $3 or $5, cause you to groan rather than grab.

Make a “Needs” and “Wants” List with a Specific Budget

As you clean and organize each room, make a list of your family’s needs and wants. Maybe you’ll recognize that you need to replenish your supply of shampoo and soap while scrubbing the bathroom. Maybe you’ll notice you’re out of cinnamon and baking soda as you re-organize your spice cabinet. Maybe it’ll dawn on you that your kid’s mattress is nearing its 8-year expiration date. Write these items down on a “Needs” list and estimate what they’ll cost you. Then, do the same with “Wants” in each room, such as a new set of bath mats, an upgraded blender, or a neutral set of sheets to cover that new mattress. Based on your monthly budget, assign an amount you’re willing to spend on these Wants. Keep your lists with you, and then when out shopping, stock up on the Needs and vow only to buy the Wants if a current sale puts them within your set budget. You might even jot down in which month you should buy the Want items based on the best time to buy.

Redecorate as You Clean

Make Spring cleaning a lot more fun and interesting by redecorating your home with the items you find tucked away in cabinets, closets, and even your holiday bins. You could also make use of the crafting and paint supplies you uncover to update and/or create your own home decor. Involving yourself in a project, especially if you get to repurpose your own possessions, can give you a true sense of pride and accomplishment, while also salvaging the cash in your wallet.

Sell, Sell, Sell

Sometimes, a Spring shopping spree is just what the doctor ordered. It’s fun! You get out to see what the stores are offering and come home with new things to refresh your space and your spirit. Even the most frugal folks can identify with that! However, if you don’t want to sacrifice your savings rate by splurging on Spring goodies, unload your stuff in a big sale first. As you de-clutter, separate your items into categories, such as adult and kids’ clothing, kitchenware, sports equipment, tools, toys, baby items, linens, etc. Then, identify the best options for selling the items in each category depending on where those items will garner the most traffic and the highest prices. For example, if you have designer clothing items in good condition, try selling through Poshmark. If you have unique collectibles, eBay might be your best option. If you’ve accumulated dozens of products that you’ve never opened, an Amazon shop could give you the highest return. Tools and kitchen items will likely receive a decent amount of interest on your neighborhood Facebook page or Nextdoor site.

But if you have a large variety of items that span multiple categories, a well-advertised, old-school garage sale will earn you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to put toward that shopping spree. I just recommend that you pay yourself a percentage (to go toward investing/savings) at the same rate you save from your monthly income (10-25%) before you hit the stores.

I hope this beautiful time of year gets you out and about enjoying the changes this season brings, not just into the stores taking advantage of the advertised sales. However, if you do find yourself drawn to your favorite retailers, let us know what tricks you use to spare yourself from falling into the Spring spending trap.

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. 

Should I Add My Children As Authorized Users to Build Their Credit Scores?

Something popped up in my Instagram feed that led to a chain reaction this morning. I saw this post on @female.in.finance and took a screen-shot right away.

It seemed like a great idea, but I needed to analyze whether there were potential negative consequences and if it was worthwhile to add my children at their current ages (13, 10, 5, and 3). I’m willing to “play the credit score game” to help my children build credit by the time they enter adulthood but not at the expense of my own credit. So, the research began.

After posting this idea to two personal-finance Facebook groups, there were more questions than answers, but there were also several young adults who said that their parents utilized this strategy when they were teenagers, resulting in a credit score of 800+ for most of them by the time they were 18.

I then called the customer service numbers on both of the credit cards I carry. One is a Southwest Airlines card through Chase Bank, and the other is a Hilton Honors card through American Express. I notified the representative that I’m considering adding my children as authorized users on the card and had a few questions. The table below shows the questions I asked, as well as the answers from each bank.

Questions to Ask Before Adding an Authorized User

QuestionChase AnswerAMEX Answer
How many authorized users can I add?UnlimitedUnlimited
What is the age minimum?None13
Can I set a credit limit or spending limit?Same credit limit as primary ownerCan set spending limit (min $200) – some charges do not apply to spending limit, such as gas station charges
Is a credit inquiry required for responsible party or user to add them?No, SS # not even requiredNo, but SS# required for reporting purposes
What information is reported to credit bureaus?Payment history is reported ONLY for responsible party, not authorized user (Child will just be listed as “authorized user” on account)All payments history will be reported to credit bureaus on both responsible party and authorized users. Authorized users are considered “active”.
Will there be an additional annual fee?NoNo
Are there additional benefits for adding an authorized user?Not at this timeFor some cards, there is a promo offered to accrue additional bonus points after reaching sending amount on additional card. But it’s not currently available on this account.

Here is some additional information for Discover card users as well:

Authorized users for Discover Card
Minimum age: 15. Reported to credit bureaus on authorized user’s behalf: yes. Max # of authorized users: 5

Conclusion

Adding a child can be beneficial to his or her credit IF:

  • The primary responsible party (parent) is fiscally responsible with his/her credit card account by making payments on time, limiting debt accrual, and using credit cards responsibly (only paying for items for which you have the cash to back them up).
  • The primary responsible party has a credit limit of a few thousand dollars or more.
  • The credit card company actually reports payments made under the authorized user’s name/social security number.
  • The child learns key aspects of financial literacy and understands the pro’s and con’s of credit card use before having access to the actual card.
  • The account is monitored regularly, checking for fraudulent charges and ensuring that all payments are made on time. (Don’t just open an account, leave the card in a drawer, and never check the statements.)

Potential Problems:

  • If the account is not monitored or paid on time, this could hinder the child’s credit score, rather than help it.
  • Having excellent credit at a young age could allow for someone to qualify for credit or a loan that he/she is not personally or financially ready for. A child needs to be taught the fundamentals before applying for any loans, credit cards, or housing on his/her own.
  • If a child has access to the credit card or its number, he/she may rack up charges not approved by the parents, and the primary responsible party is liable for those charges.

What I Decided to Do

I added my 13 year old to my American Express card as an active authorized user. I set the spending limit to $200, and I denied access to cash from the card. I confirmed that it would not have an effect on my credit by going through the process of adding her as a user, as there would be no credit inquiries or credit checks to make this addition. She will not have access to the physical card until she has a job of her own and has been taught responsible use of the card.

If you’re looking for the right card for yourself and/or your family members, check out this post on Choosing the Right Card.

I would love to hear your stories related to this decision as well. Did it help or hinder you when your parents used this tactic? Have you done it for your own children? Why or why not?

I found that opening up this conversation in Facebook groups this morning led to multiple opinions and mostly positive reports of how parents helped their children in this way. I’m hopeful it’ll lead to positive results for our family as well.

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.

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.

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?

You Get What You Give: Budget for Giving

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 23

We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.

– Winston Churchill

Everyone knows that it’s better to give than to receive. Most people have aspirations to be charitable and sacrificial in their giving, but many times, a lack of funds gets in the way. When prioritizing saving, investing, tuition, insurance, and the other necessities of life, charitable giving often gets bumped out of the budget. So, how can giving become a priority as well?

Quotes about Giving and Generosity for Kids - InspireMyKids
15 Inspiring Quotes About Giving | SUCCESS

Start Small

If you find that it’s hard to include giving as a part of your budget, then start with a very small amount and make a plan to increase it each month. If you start with $10 in January by cutting out one lunch at the local deli and then increase it by $10 each month by eliminating one small thing from your spending, you will be able to give $120 in December to a charity or needy family around the holidays.

Include Giving in Your Annual Budget

In Take Action, Day 4, it was recommended that you create an annual budget before allotting the remaining balance to your monthly spending. Include Giving (as a percentage of your net income) in your annual budget. If you have a church or specific charity that you give to regularly, automate those payments during your budget planning.

Give Time

If you want to give sacrificially, but the money just isn’t available, give your skills, talents, and time. Set goals for how much time you’d like to volunteer each month and then plan to increase that each month. Consider offering a solution to an expensive problem a charity, religious organization, or neighbors in need may have, such as legal advice, building/home repairs, lawn service, or web design.

Support Local Business without Spending Frivolously

Share their posts. Take a picture in front of their shops and tag them on social media. On a small business day in Facebook groups, choose one friend’s business or a local restaurant to give a testimonial about each week. Offer your advice or skills to help their business grow.

Give Thoughtful (Yet Affordable) Gifts

Find ways to give thoughtful gifts to friends and family without spending much (or any) money. Shop your own home first for items you’ve bought and rarely or never used. Write out a thoughtful note and invite them to do an outdoor activity with you. Drop off food. Re-gift a gift card. Make a fun goody bag with snacks and small items. Get creative and DIY something. For more ideas, check out these meaningful gifts.

To take action today, make a list of skills or services you could offer to a church or charitable organization. Set a goal for the financial contributions you’d you’d like to make by the end of 2021 and to which organizations. Also, find a box and label it “Gifts for Others”. As you do spring cleaning, receive gifts you’ll likely not use, or find unbelievable deals on small, useful items, add them to the box. Then, when it’s time to get a gift for an upcoming birthday or special celebration, you’ll have an easy (and free) place to shop.