Words to Live By in the FIRE Movement

In the famous, life-changing book, Rich Dad Poor Dad, author Robert Kiyosaki shared in Chapter 2 that financial literacy is what sets the rich apart from the middle class and the poor. I agree completely, but there’s A LOT to learn. In my previous article, Day 18 of Financial Freedom in 2021, I defined a list of terms to get acquainted with when developing your personal finance vocabulary. Understanding different retirement investment vehicles, tax terms, and the basic steps of financial independence is important, but there are additional terms that many people in the FIRE community use quite often.

I repeatedly hear the following words or phrases from individuals who have reached financial independence, and while technical vocabulary is important, these seem to be the ones to truly live by.

“Simple Life”

Many FI families emphasize living life to the full but in a more simplistic way. It’s not necessary to fill your home with excess material goods, travel to the hottest tourist locations, stay in 5-star hotels, live in the biggest house in the neighborhood, or drive the newest luxury SUV to have an abundant life. The happiness factor on all of these things fades.

What makes life full is the people in it and the experiences you have. Think of someone you look up to, maybe a grandparent or neighbor or civil rights leader. What do you admire about that person? Is it their stuff or what they did/do with the life they were given?

I admired my aunt who lived in Michigan. She was a devout woman who worked as a special education teacher and served her church community multiple days per week, including bringing communion to elderly residents in a nursing home. My aunt didn’t travel much except to visit our family occasionally, and she lived in the same house for nearly 40 years. She raised two boys on her own and lived with a debilitating kidney disease for many years before she passed. Despite all of that, she was able to retire early and paid off her house. I don’t remember much of what she had in that house other than several crosses and religious paintings, but I remember fondly how much joy I felt while staying there. My aunt was always happy. Every day in her simple life seemed joyful, and it was contagious. Her frugal life had a greater impact than the life of luxury and debt that I see many people living today.

“Community”

Relying on a community of like-minded individuals is a common thread in the FI culture. I often hear FI folks speak of how much they rely on their neighbors and close friends for help with babysitting or carpool, to participate in clothing and toy swaps, to agree to share meals in each other’s homes rather than going out to a popular restaurants, and for support on common goals.

If financial independence is a goal of yours, then a community of Joneses, and those chasing after them, won’t do you much good. You need to find a community of Frugalwoods, Money Mustaches, Rich Dads, and Mad Fientists, along with some kind and like-minded neighbors. There are Facebook groups and meetups related to the topics of minimalism, frugal living, financial independence, swapping, and cheap travel that can be great places to start when looking for the type of community mentioned above.

“Lucky” or “Blessed”

Gratitude is one of the biggest mindset shifts necessary to achieve financial independence. Being grateful for and recognizing the blessed life you already have is the first step in financial freedom, in my opinion. I practice daily gratitude in prayer, and if you listen to podcasts or read blogs from people who have already reached FI, most of them write down what they’re grateful for at least once per day. They also mention often how lucky they are for buying real estate when they did, investing early, having college paid for by their parents, finding an influential book during a turning point in their lives, for meeting the man or woman who gladly walks this FI journey alongside them, and so on. In the FI community, I hear very little bragging yet a whole lot of thankfulness.

Photo by Gabby K on Pexels.com

“No Regret”

Mistakes are only failures if you don’t learn from them. A common thread in the FI community is that people are willing to share their mistakes and what they learned with anyone willing to listen. They don’t dwell on or regret their errors in judgment but rather celebrate them for helping to move them along on a better path toward financial freedom.

Welby Accely openly shares how he was scammed multiple times and cheated out of hundreds of thousands of dollars before he became a successful real estate investor. He doesn’t regret these poor decisions. They made him stronger and taught him what NOT to do. He attributes his current success to learning from those mistakes.

What I love so much about the FI movement is not just the freedom that financial independence offers but the positive mindset and meaningful lifestyle it encourages. While developing the strategies of living on less money than you make, investing the difference, and making your money work for you are essential to financial independence, the phrases mentioned in this post (and the attitudes they represent) are what truly make this movement worthwhile.

Adjusting the Budget for Job Loss, Planned or Unplanned

Do I need to find another part-time job?

Job loss was one of the biggest realized fears that crept in after the COVID-19 shut-downs in March of 2020. Many people were forced to adjust their lives and their budgets due to being furloughed or laid off with short notice. Thankfully, along with the loss of those jobs came higher and extended unemployment benefits, economic stimulus packages, relief from eviction or foreclosure, and fewer opportunities to spend money. Who knew that after mass lay-offs around the country that now, a year later, there’d be a shortage of labor, not jobs! A large percentage of the workforce learned how to adjust to one income or a lower income and have now chosen to be unemployed, with or without the government benefits.

In my situation, the business my mother and I started about 15 years ago managed to stay afloat through the pandemic, but the effects it’s had long-term on both of us, as well as our client caseload, may lead our business down a path of never fully recovering. We are considering closing our family therapy practice for good. This is a combination of forced and chosen job loss, for which I now have to adjust our family budget.

Over the many years, I’ve slowly reduced the number of hours I put into the business and also the amount of my pay. I have a very flexible schedule and work exclusively from home, which has been such a blessing at the current stage of my family. I still have two preschoolers at home with me three days per week and two older children with very busy extracurricular schedules. The paycheck has been smaller than when our business was at its prime and our caseload was overflowing, but the extra money has been essential to getting us ahead in our journey toward FI. We’ve been able to contribute the full amount of my part-time income to investing and charitable giving, while meeting all of our living expenses with my husband’s salary. Now, we will have to make cuts as my mother and I move closer to closing the doors to our practice for good.

My total take-home pay is currently $1,910 per month. $1,700 of that goes toward my ROTH contribution (averaging out to $500/month but invested as a lump sum at the beginning of the year) as well as my husband’s and my combined contribution to our joint brokerage account ($1,200 automatically invested into VTSAX monthly). The other $210 is set aside to make charitable contributions of our choice each month. This giving is in addition to tithing.

The last thing I want to do is cut out our investing or our giving when I lose that monthly income. Whether we’re a one-income or two-income household, we still plan to hit FIRE by 50 (or hopefully sooner). Continuing our current rate of investing is essential to meeting that goal. So, I now have to make some tough decisions about where to reduce our spending or whether to take on more work to replace that income.

I can also take into consideration the cash flow we are receiving from our rental properties, if that’s where the money is best served right now. However, we’d ideally like to put all our cash flow this year toward reserve funds or future real estate investing.

So, I decided to dedicate a slow, rainy, unseasonable cold morning at home to analyze our current expenses and determine where I can “find” as much of that $1,910 per month in our budget. There is a strong possibility that my final paycheck will come in June, so we will need a total of $11,460 for the last 6 months of the year to make up for the loss. That’s a big chunk of change!

Our annual budget was my first place to look. I discovered that I had budgeted some overages in our savings categories above the contributions mentioned above. Because we already have a 12-month emergency fund, plus money set aside to buy our next two vehicles in cash, I decided to re-allocate the $1,000/month going into our online savings account. That adds up to $6,000 over the 6 months that I’d be without my part-time income.

Then, I reviewed what I had budgeted for a new life insurance policy this year and what we actually spent. After reading about life insurance options, listening to a couple podcasts on the topic, and doing some comparison shopping, we were able to secure a term life policy for my husband for much less than we had budgeted. We had $860 set aside for that new policy (as a supplement to the one offered through his W-2 job), but we only spent $380 and paid in full. Therefore, we had a surplus of $480 in that category. Additionally, we’ve already pre-paid for all of the kids’ summer activities and camps, as well as the registration fee and August tuition for our preschooler, leaving us with no child care costs for the summer. We will not have to pay the $749 monthly preschool tuition for three months, and we can remove the $300/month we’ve been budgeting for kids’ activities and camps. That leaves us with another $3,147. A few additional cuts include a decrease in cell service fees for a savings of $100/month by switching to Mint Mobile; cancellation of Camp Gladiator membership for a savings of $79/month; and cancellation of private horn lessons now that our eldest daughter will be receiving additional band instruction each day at her public high school for a savings of $100/month. These three changes add up to $1,674.

Also, I’ve resolved to going back to at-home haircuts for all the males in my household, which amounts to a savings of $85/month. That will provide us an extra $510 through the end of 2021.

The total amount “found” in our annual and monthly budgets to make up for the loss of $11,460 in income is $11,811!! I was able to complete this analysis in less than half an hour using the detailed spreadsheets I keep for our family’s income and expenses. With the conclusions drawn, it will not be necessary for me to find other part-time work to replace my lost income for the second half of the year! We can continue making substantial progress toward our FI goals without sacrificing what’s important to our family or seeking additional sources of income.

Many people fear that having detailed budgets and tracking expenses will limit their spending and, therefore, their happiness. However, I find that these practices provide the opposite: freedom! And for me, freedom with my time (and my family’s time) is the ultimate goal of pursuing financial independence.

If you find yourself in a similar position, either preparing to leave your current job or fearing that you might lose yours at any moment, I definitely suggest tracking every dollar you spend, if you haven’t started doing that already. Once you have a framework, finding places to make cuts is pretty easy.

If you’re already a great budgeter, think of your income loss as a total dollar amount through the end of the year instead of what you need to cut or save each month. Recognizing that there are annual expenses/allocations that might be easier to cut than your monthly ones might give you a little room to breathe (and spend) when the expected or unexpected happens.

For more specific ideas on where to make big cuts, check out 9 Ways to Save this year.

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.

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.

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?