Author Archives: JustinRoG

Czech it out: Exploring Prague in a Week

The eleventh stop on our nine week, fourteen city summer vacation across Europe brought us to Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic.

20 years ago Prague was an up and coming budget tourism destination full of culture and history where one could escape the higher prices of western Europe. Today, it still has the charm of the good old days but with slightly higher price tags compared to much of the rest of low-cost central and eastern Europe.

While in Prague, we visited the usual mix of castles, churches, and historic town squares.  I was surprised at how many tourists were jam-packed into the center of the historic center of town. Maybe it was due to our visit falling in the middle of the peak summer tourist season? Fortunately we found a quiet escape just a mile south of the historic Old Town section of Prague at the Vysehrad Fort.

Here’s a summary of our trip in Europe so far.  We started our journey in Lisbon, Portugal, then flew to Malaga in southern Spain before taking a bus to Granada, Spain.  After Granada we visited Seville, Spain.  From Seville, we flew to Milan on a super cheap two hour Ryanair flight. After a two hour train ride from Milan, we arrived in Venice.

Then we took a four hour bus ride to Ljubljana where we spent a week exploring the city and the nearby caves before we headed an hour north to the edge of Slovenia to Podkoren to explore the Soča Valley and river and the Julian Alps.  After Podkoren we visited Salzburg, Austria with a side trip to Hallstatt and the Dachstein ice caves.  Leaving Salzburg, we drove two hours west to Munich, Germany. From Munich, we took a four hour bus to the northeast and crossed the border into the Czech Republic where we soon entered Prague (where our story picks up today).

 

Old Town Prague

We spent several days exploring the areas in and around “Old Town” Prague.  There’s so much to see and do down here for people of all ages. The Prague Castle is just across the river from Old Town along the Charles Bridge.  The Jewish Quarter lies just to the north. To the south is the expansive Wenceslas Square and the “New Town” of Prague.

 

Typical street scene

 

Town square. Great place to take in the soul of Prague. Street performers, crowds, food stalls, and old buildings all around.

 

But watch out for the Prague Ham Scam. It’s sold by the 100 gram portion. A plate might cost USD$15-20 for what looks like the same $0.77 per pound ham we buy around Easter time here in the US (in other words, nothing special!).

 

Anyone fancy a carriage ride?

 

Oldest functioning astronomical clock in the world.

 

Crossing the Charles Bridge. Note the thick crowds all around.

 

Klaus Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter

 

Old Jewish Cemetery

 

View of Charles Bridge and Old Town from across the river (and yes, those are yellow plastic penguins).

 

Naked giant babies at the Kampa Contemporary Art Museum

 

We found this gem of a playground in the Franciscan Gardens nestled in a quiet courtyard between rows of buildings in the heart of the city.

 

Charles Bridge and Prague Castle at night

 

Prague Castle

The main attraction in town is the Prague Castle. It’s free to enter the castle grounds however there are various admission charges if you want to tour the churches, palaces, and museums within the castle complex.  We chose not to tour the interior buildings after seeing very similar places earlier during our trip.

If you only had a week in Europe and wanted to “do Europe”, this one castle complex could just about do the job for you since it has a little bit of everything.

 

The “wrestling titans” guard the entrance to Prague Castle

 

St. Vitus Cathedral at the center of the castle. The kings and queens of Prague were coronated here.

 

St. Vitus Cathedral and Prague Castle as seen from the river (Charles Bridge in foreground).

 

View from the Prague Castle overlook.

Vysehrad Fort

Near the end of our week in Prague we discovered this wonderful retreat. It’s only a mile from the busy tourist core of Prague but it feels like it’s out in the countryside.  The subway stop for Vysehrad Fort is only five minutes from the entrance gate, so you know you’re still in the city.

The expansive grounds of the fort complex measure almost a half mile across.  Exploring the entire site would require several miles of walking and at least a half day.  After spending most of our time walking the crowded streets around Old Town and the Prague Castle, the Vysehrad fort’s relative tranquility was a welcome relief.

Like Prague Castle, admission to the fort grounds is free with additional admission fees to enter the various buildings within the complex.

We followed a path along the top of the 50 foot tall walls around the perimeter of the fortress to begin our exploration.

Within the fort complex, we found a church, a cemetery, a fort-themed playground, a vineyard, and several other interesting buildings.  We also found a beer garden with very reasonable food and drink prices and free bathrooms (both of which were rarities in the tourist core of Prague).  If we make it back to Prague in the future, I’d definitely like to spend more time exploring and relaxing in the Vysehrad fort.

 

View from Vysehrad looking south along the river. Notice how tall the walls are on the left of the picture.

 

View looking north from Vysehrad along the river Vltava toward Prague Castle on the hill.

 

A marina in the river next to Vysehrad

 

Crazy playground at Vysehrad fort. Nice place to relax and unwind for the kids!

 

Vysehrad Cemetery. Famed composer Antonin Dvorak is buried in this cemetery.

 

Lodging for a week in Prague with Airbnb

At $50 per night, we found an amazing deal through Airbnb for our one week stay in Prague.  This was by far the best value for accommodations while in Europe. The apartment had three bedrooms and could have slept eight people comfortably (ten with the fold out couch).

The apartment was about two miles from the tourist district of Prague but directly on a tram line and a short walk from the subway (either of which would take us directly into the tourist section of town).

Our Airbnb host went out of her way to make us feel at home.  She picked us up from the train station in her tiny Skoda compact car (with four people riding in the back seat).  Once we arrived at her apartment, she offered us plenty of food and drink in the form of a fresh baked cake, a bottle of wine, a bottle of fruit juice for the kids, and a six pack of local Czech beer.  A previous Airbnb tenant left a bottle of absinthe and a bottle of marijuana-infused vodka in the fridge which we sampled more than once during the remainder of our stay.

We even received an authentic cultural experience while staying in her apartment. She notified us ahead of time that the hot water would be out of service for the first 24 hours of our stay due to the annual boiler/hot water heater maintenance.  We would definitely have hot water by the evening of day two, she said.  Cool, no problem, just skip the shower on day one, right?

This outage stretched on for a few more days as the boiler-workers hammered and chiseled away in the building’s innards.  Our Airbnb host was kind enough to bring a large wash basin for us to bathe in using stove-heated water.  Our Airbnb host was heartbroken, but I reassured her that we would persevere. I joked that “it’s just like old Communist days, huh?”.  She nervously laughed in response that yes, this is exactly what it was like. They promise one thing and many days (weeks, months, years) later nothing has happened with no explanation other than “we are working on it”.

The building was obviously a relic from the Communist era with ample modern capitalistic upgrades, yet the maintenance regimen remained stolidly Eastern Bloc.

By the end of day three the hot water returned for a while before another brief outage. By day four the water was nice and hot non-stop and we thawed out after that.  In the end all was good, but there were a couple of very uncomfortable showers mixed in to the first few days of our stay in Prague.

In brighter news, the neighborhood where we stayed was great for families. The apartment building fronted a courtyard with a small playground that was popular with other families. One minute away was a much larger city park where we let our kids explore on their own for an hour or two. Within two blocks we had an ATM, a wide selection of restaurants and bars, and a small grocery store.

After seeing the crowds and higher prices in downtown Prague, I’m glad we stayed a short distance away from all the action!  It was a nice break (cold showers notwithstanding).

 

Spacious living room. We dined at the table in here some days.

 

The master bedroom with plenty of storage and a couch.

 

Dining room and kitchen. Small but functional. Love the dishwasher in here!

 

Kids’ bedroom with three beds.  Two kids slept in here; the third kid slept in the third bedroom.

 

Small balcony. We dried clothes out here and kept an eye on the kids when they were playing on the playground in the courtyard.

 

If you want to enjoy the personal connection that comes with Airbnb rentals while saving a lot of money, click here to take $40 off your stay.

 

Food in Prague

We ate out in Prague more than any other city during our nine week trip. Part of that was price. Restaurants were rather cheap where we stayed.  For USD$4-5 per plate we were able to get a full meal including sides at a local Czech restaurant recommended by our Airbnb host.  We also visited a Chinese restaurant and found prices to be about the same at $4-5 per plate.

Our typical daily routine was to wake up late and make some coffee in our Airbnb.  Then head out at 11 am as soon as the restaurant opened to pick up four take out plates full of different dishes that always included some version of potatoes as a side.  We would eat those goodies for an early lunch, then pack a small sandwich for a late afternoon snack or meal while we explored downtown Prague all afternoon.  Restaurant prices were significantly lower near our apartment two miles out from the center of town. In the middle of the tourist district, prices at local restaurants doubled or tripled.

The food from the local Czech place was very different from the cuisine we experienced everywhere else in Europe. So much flavor and a distinct influence of spices and seasonings from elsewhere. Turkey? The middle east? India? Hearty and filling food from wherever it drew its influences. We returned to the same local Czech place again and again for their varying specials of the day.

Local Czech food totaling about USD$18. Stewed beef, spicy cream sauce on pork, potato pancakes, cream on chicken, and a curry-like chicken dish

 

Spicy pork “Krakonos’s Fire”, roasted chicken, creamed spinach with stewed pork, sausages

 

Fried stuffed chicken; pork stewed in a spicy cream sauce

How did we know what to order at the local Czech restaurant? Google Translate was our friend.

Each day the “Svejk” restaurant a block away from our apartment offered a long list of daily specials.  Unfortunately for us, the specials menu was only in Czech.  Each morning we would screen cap the Czech version of the menu and paste it into Google Keep (a cloud based Evernote type app available on desktop and phone).  Then view the web page through Google Translate and screen cap the English translation.

We pored over the English version of the menu we created to identify the 4-5 dishes we wanted to try that day.  I highlighted the Czech names of those dishes in Google Keep.

After figuring out what we would order, I grabbed my phone and headed to the Svejk restaurant with USD$20 worth of Czech Koruna in hand.  I showed the waiter the highlighted Czech version of the menu items we wanted on my phone as I struggled to pronounce them in Czech.  The waitstaff spoke some English but probably not enough to order the dishes in English.

 

Our high tech method of ordering with Google Translate

 

For groceries, a Tesco Express was within walking distance.  It was rather small and offered a variety of groceries somewhere between a convenience store and a regular grocery store.  Fortunately the Tesco had milk, yogurt, some meats, and plenty of fresh produce plus a fresh bakery.  We made do with groceries from that store most of the week.

Further away was a full-sized Lidl grocery store.  At the beginning of our week in Prague, I made the short trek on the tram down to the Lidl with my two daughters tagging along to help carry the food back home.

 

Letting the kids make spaghetti and meat sauce for dinner.

 

How to get kids to go to the grocery store with you: promise them fresh baked pastries! This whole bag of goodies was about USD$1.

 

Getting Around Prague

Since we weren’t planning on leaving Prague during our stay in the Czech Republic, we chose to skip a rental car and rely on transit.  It’s incredibly easy to get around Prague by public transit.  Three subway lines connect most of the city, and tram routes criss-cross the remaining areas. The outskirts of Prague are served by city buses but those city buses do not go into the center of the most tourist-oriented parts of town due to congestion.

From our apartment, the subway was about seven minutes away while the tram was about three minutes.

Prices for a single 30 minute ride were about USD$1 for adults and $0.50 for kids with age five and under riding free.  In total, we paid $6 for a round trip downtown and back for the whole family.  In general, we would head downtown then explore on foot for several hours before heading back home.

The transit system sells all day passes for $5.00 per person (half off for kid’s passes).

We probably would have opted for a rental car if we planned on visiting destinations outside Prague. However a rental car is completely unnecessary (and more of a hindrance) when visiting Prague proper.

 

Thoughts on Prague and the Czech Republic

We loved Prague. It’s no longer a “hidden gem” given how many tourists we encountered in the tourist center of town.  In fact, the hectic crowds were a bit of a downer.  We visited in the middle of summer so I suppose we have to accept crowds in such a beautiful and historic city during peak season.

Toward the end of our stay in Prague we discovered the Vysehrad fort and enjoyed the relative lack of crowds and quieter scene just a mile outside the core tourist area.  I kept thinking what a shame it was that we didn’t visit Vysehrad at the beginning of our week in Prague so we could spend more time there.

As I write this, it’s been about nine months since we were in Prague and I have since discovered tons of places in the city that we zoomed past or missed completely while in town.  However, we still managed to get a great feel for the place during our one week in town.

I would recommend four days at a minimum to catch a glimpse of what Prague has to offer. A week would be better.  With two weeks, you could see most of the highlights in Prague and take several day trips to some amazing places in the surrounding countryside.

Other than the crowds in the center of town, we didn’t have any complaints. The food was great. Beer was delicious. Prices were low to moderate. Transit was easy. Summertime weather was awesome. The people were very nice.  I would definitely visit again and hope to spend more than a week in Prague next time around.

 

Have you ever been to Prague or the Czech Republic?  What was the highlight of your trip?

 

 

Check out the whole series (so far) of our nine week European family vacation:

 

Like free money? The Chase Freedom Card offers $150 cash back when you sign up for a new card. Then keep saving with the card that earns 5% cash back each quarter on rotating categories of merchants like gas stations, groceries, Walmart, or Amazon.  Or compare other top travel credit card offers if you prefer free travel.

 

March 2018 Financial Update – Spring is Here!

Another month of early retirement is in the books! March was a busy month for us. The weather is finally nice around Raleigh so we enjoyed more time outdoors.  The kids had fun too, with our youngest going on a field trip to the children’s museum that we chaperoned. Our older two children bought themselves bicycles and have been out and about riding on these warm spring days.

Financially, March was a repeat of February. Due to downward movement in the stock market, our net worth dropped by $32,000 to a still-respectable $2,024,000.  Our income of $5,659 far surpassed our spending of $2,025 which means our cash stash continues to grow slightly.

On to the numbers!

 

Income

Investment income totaled $3,108 in March.  Our equity mutual funds and ETFs pay dividends quarterly in March, June, September, and December which explains why investment income was much higher in March than in January or February.  More on our dividend income.

Blog income, shown as “other income” in the chart, declined slightly to $1,925.  I have a couple of tasks in progress to boost this income a bit and they seem to be paying off. However the payment from advertisers tends to lag by a couple of months.

My early retirement lifestyle consulting income (“consulting”) of $465 was a little lower than February.  That works out to roughly an hour per week of consulting, which is a very comfortable pace for me and leaves plenty of free time for all the other fun pursuits in life!

Deposit income of $159 came from two sources.  A small part of that was cash back from the Capital One Spark Business card where I just completed the $10,000 spending requirement to qualify for a $1,000 sign up bonus (plus 2% cash back on the $10,000 spent).  If you want some of this free money being handed out, check out the latest credit card offers.

The second source of “deposit income” was from the Ebates.com and Mrrebates.com online shopping portals (some of which was earned from you readers signing up through these links).  If you sign up for Ebates through this link and make a qualifying $25 purchase through Ebates, you’ll get a $10 gift card.  During March and early April, we’ve scored a ton of cash back through those portals from shopping online and from travel bookings.

If you’re interested in tracking your income and expenses like I do, then check out Personal Capital (it’s free!). All of our savings and spending accounts (including checking, money market, and five credit cards) are all linked and updated in real time through Personal Capital. We have accounts all over the place, and Personal Capital makes it really easy to check on everything at one time.

Personal Capital is also a solid tool for investment management. Keeping track of our entire investment portfolio takes two clicks. If you haven’t signed up for the free Personal Capital service, check it out today (review here).

 

Expenses

Now let’s take a look at March expenses:

I never seem to have a “typical” month of spending because there’s always a “one time” expense of one type or another that happens every month.  That’s why budgeting monthly is a tough chore but budgeting by the year makes a lot of sense to me.  This month, the automotive spending went WAY up compared to the $0 we spend most months. However, I have now paid for almost all of the annual car expenses for 2018 other than gas and unexpected repairs.

In March, we spent $2,025 which is about two thirds of our target spending of $3,333 per month (or $40,000 per year).  Detailed breakdown of spending:

 

Automotive – $809:

Cars are awesome. You get where you want to go in a relatively fast manner and you don’t get soaked when it’s raining.  However, driving costs money.

In March, we had to replace the spark plugs, a routine maintenance item due once every 120,000 miles.  Which is to say, this is the last time we’ll ever replace the spark plugs since we only drive about 5,000 miles per year.

At $594, this maintenance item was extremely expensive and somewhat of a surprise. When we bought our used minivan I thought I was getting out of a huge expense of replacing the timing belt at 90,000 or 120,000 miles since Toyota Siennas have timing chains.

I was right about the timing chain, but didn’t realize that the spark plugs are really hard to get to in the engine compartment.  They require 3.5 hours of shop labor to replace since half the engine has to come out to gain access to the plugs.  In our former lives of owning Honda sedans, spark plug replacement was usually $175-200.

I could have spent a day or two of DIY to save about $500 but decided my leisure time was too valuable for that.  I’m not super handy at auto repair, so I might have inflicted more than $500 of damage to the car during the repair attempt!

The annual inspection, property tax, and tag/registration also came due in March.

Then I had to renew my driver’s license.

The itemized $809 in automotive spending:

  • $594 spark plug replacement
  • $30 North Carolina State inspection
  • $51 Annual North Carolina Registration/Tag Fee
  • $94 Property Tax and Annual City Vehicle Fee
  • $40 Driver’s license renewal – good for eight years

Fortunately, that’s it for 2018 routine car expenses other than gas and liability insurance.

 

Bike time in the neighborhood park. No cars required.

 

Travel – $470:

I bought $200 worth of Airbnb gift cards for $173 at Raise.com when they offered 10% off sitewide. I don’t have any immediate plans to use them, but they never expire once added to your Airbnb account.  The gift card balance will undoubtedly come in handy when we start planning our summer 2019 trip to somewhere.

Where is somewhere? Could be a cross country USA road trip. Or a summer in South America. Or in Southeast Asia.

In other travel spending, I spent $297 to put down a deposit for a week-long cruise aboard the MSC Armonia out of Miami.  The cruise will total about $1,500 for the five of us after applying our MSC Voyager Club past passenger discount and getting 12% cash back through ebates.

The cruise is during spring break 2019.  We are paying a slight premium of a few hundred dollars so that the kids won’t miss any school.

The cruise spends two days in Cuba including an overnight stay in the harbor of Havana! Everyone in the family is excited about visiting Cuba.

Those of us getting off the boat in Cuba will pay an extra $75 for the Cuban tourist visa card.

For those curious about how we’ll circumvent the United State’s restrictions on tourist visits to Cuba, we’ll be traveling “In Support of the Cuban People” which requires among other things that we support local entrepreneurs (buy trinkets and snacks from street vendors) and have significant and meaningful interactions with local Cubans (and presumably tell them how awesome capitalism is and how much communism sucks).

In other words, travel like we always do.

Interested in cruising? Check out my four part series on cruising and my latest update of our cruise on the MSC Divina.

 

We didn’t have to travel because these guys visited us! These faceless people are the folks behind the Enchumbao blog who want to remain anonymous for a little while longer before uncloaking when they retire early.  While on a road trip through Virginia and North Carolina, they stopped by Casa Root of Good for a few hours.

 

Groceries – $430:

Our grocery expenses were slightly lower than usual.  We usually shop at Aldi, Lidl, and Walmart for most things. Occasionally I’ll make a special trip to Kroger or Food Lion (regular grocery stores) to shop their loss leader sales.

During March, we visited two local Asian grocery stores to restock ethnic foods like fish eggs, wasabi, and seaweed for sushi and pastes, spices, and noodles for pad thai.

 

Homemade salmon and avocado sushi

 

Yummy pad thai

 

We celebrated our daughter’s thirteenth birthday party by letting her invite a half dozen friends for a sleepover.  We whipped up a teen-friendly “pasta bar” for our guests.

Spaghetti and penne pasta with meat sauce, meatballs, chipotle alfredo, Italian sausages, honey lemon chicken, and salad.

 

To help with the grocery expenses, I picked up some discounted Aldi gift cards at Cardcash.com (sign up through that link and you get $5 off your first purchase).

More on how we shop for groceries without using coupons.  And why we never shop at Costco.

 

$0.50 homemade fish and avocado sandwich

 

Grocery budget under $500 and still able to put smoked salmon on bagels.

 

Home Maintenance – $152:

Our old lawnmower lasted 12 years but it finally rusted out this year.  The engine on the old mower ran nearly perfectly but the mower deck itself was about to split in half which could have been dangerous.  Time for a new lawnmower.

I picked up a “Bolens” brand 21 inch lawnmower from Lowes.  It’s identical to this Yard Machines mower sold at Home Depot and Amazon other than the color.  Both Bolens and Yard Machines mowers use the same Briggs and Stratton engine and are both manufactured by MTD.

 

Some assembly required.

 

Using some gift card and coupon magic, I managed to bring the $192 price tag down to $152. I bought Lowe’s gift cards through Raise.com when they ran a 10% off sale. On top of that, I used the ebates portal to get another 1% cash back on the gift card purchase at Raise.

Upon paying for the mower at Lowes, I used the ebates portal to get another 1% cash back for Lowes purchases.  I also applied a $20 off $100 purchase coupon that I bought from ebay.

In the end I saved $40 playing the discounted gift card, cash back portal, and coupon game.

And the grass got mowed.

 

Entertainment – $76:

Most of the entertainment expense was random things we bought for our daughter’s 13th birthday party and for the multiple Easter egg hunts we attended.  Decorations, snacks, candy, and party favors.

 

Getting our Easter egg hunt on with our neighbors and classmates

 

Then this bunny shows up. Don’t worry, he didn’t make any kids cry

 

We spent $15 on admission to Marbles, the children’s museum here in Raleigh. Our five year old’s Kindergarten field trip brought him to Marbles and we volunteered to chaperone his class.  We had to pay for our own admission tickets.  At least on-street parking in downtown is free if you don’t mind walking a few blocks (we don’t mind).

 

Kids go CRAZY in this museum. Lots of fun though

 

Closing out entertainment spending, I spent a dollar on some video games through Humble Bundle.

 

Restaurants – $42:

We revisited the Indian restaurant where we ate in February.  This time we were celebrating our anniversary. Of all times, I forgot my wallet at home!  We were 15 minutes from home, so “running back home” for money wasn’t a convenient option.

I checked the van and only had $4 worth of quarters which wouldn’t get us much more than dollar menu fare at Taco Bell or McDonald’s (a rapidly developing Plan B at the time).

Fortunately I didn’t have to disappoint Mrs. Root of Good.

I decided to head a few blocks down the street to my credit union to see if I could beg $20 from my money market account without any physical forms of ID.  It worked! I showed a picture of my driver’s license on my phone (Google Drive for the win, folks) and the bank teller gave me a $20 which was just enough to cover two meals plus tip at the Indian restaurant.

Anniversary disaster averted.

In other restaurant spending, I bought a Groupon for eight meals and drinks at the local pizza place for $22.  We used half of the Groupon in March.

 

Gas – $28:

By month-end I still had close to a half tank of gas. I went ahead and filled up to take advantage of the 5% cash back on gas for January-March on my Chase Freedom Card.

FYI the April-June 2018 Freedom bonus category is 5% back on grocery stores (not including Walmart/Target), paypal purchases, and Chase Pay purchases.  I’m hoping to find discounted gift cards at ebay so I can pay with paypal and score another 5% cash back.  If you’re interested in getting the Chase Freedom Card, it also comes with a $150 sign up bonus after $500 in spending within the first 90 days.

 

Putting together some bikes for the kids. We just bought a pair of bikes for the adults too! More on that in next month’s spending report.

 

Cable/Satellite – $14:

$14.99 per month for 30 mbit/second download speeds and 4 mbit/second upload speeds with no data caps.

 

Note on Utilities and Health Insurance expenses:

  • Utilities were prepaid in previous months to generate spending in order to fulfill the terms of sign up bonus offers on credit cards.
  • Health insurance premiums were prepaid in January and February for the whole year.  If paid monthly, premiums would be $40 per month thanks to very generous Affordable Care Act subsidies that we receive due to our low ~$40,000 per year Adjusted Gross Income.

 

Total Spending in 2018

After closing out the first quarter of 2018, we have spent $6,357.  That’s about $3,500 less than the $10,000 budgeted for three months of our $40,000 early retirement budget.

Things are looking rosy in the spending department.  I’m mentally preparing myself to pay several thousand dollars for major repairs and/or complete replacement of our furnace/air conditioner and our hot water heater since both are approaching or have exceeded their expected service lives.

 

Monthly Expense Summary for 2018:

 

Summary of annual spending from all years of early retirement:

 

Net Worth: $2,024,000 (-$32,000)

Net worth dropped by $32,000 during March.  It was another volatile month in the stock market.  At one point we briefly dipped below the magical $2,000,000 threshold before quickly recovering to multi-millionaire status.  But will we stay above $2,000,000 long term?  Who knows.

 

Taking a look at our net worth chart for the past month, you’ll probably notice two huge dips.  I transferred over half a million dollars of investments from Fidelity to Vanguard in order to consolidate and simplify accounts. The funds went in two chunks and temporarily disappeared from our net worth tracking at Personal Capital (and yes, I freaked out a little when I logged in each time).

In the process I learned that Fidelity charges $50 to transfer and close out each IRA account (and I attempted to close four IRAs).

I called Fidelity and requested that they leave the four IRAs open with $50 in each of them.  I bought two shares of FREL (Fidelity’s REIT Index Fund ETF) in each IRA.  Now I’ll simply forget about the IRAs forever unless I need them in the future. We still have other accounts at Fidelity so we’re not terminating the relationship completely.

After completing the transfers to Vanguard, we’re getting upgraded to Flagship status which is offered to account holders with $1,000,000+ of Vanguard funds and ETFs.  The main advantage to me is 25 commission free trades per year which will make rebalancing and shifting out of some higher cost ETFs slightly cheaper.

 

Life is good down by the lake. Build a little fire and look up at the stars.

 

During 2017 I was focused on taking profits in stocks and shifting the proceeds into bonds.  I haven’t shifted any more funds from stocks into bonds since the market is taking a breather from it’s strong upward trajectory that started in late 2016.  I’m pretty happy with about five years of living expenses in fixed income investments like bonds, CD’s, and money market which yield between 1.7% and 3%.  With this huge safety net, I don’t fear market volatility a bit.

And that, my friends, is how things went for us in the past month.

 

 

How about you? Any big money moves you want to share? 

 

 

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Confessions Of A Frugal Millionaire

Unless you are an heir to a big fortune or you have won the lottery, you have to work hard to have money.  To accumulate wealth, you have to make more money than you spend.  The key is to keep your expenses low.  And there will be sacrifices.  Nothing crazy though.

At the Root of Good household, our clothes are not from the mall, we don’t dine out at Ruth’s Chris, or deck out our split level home with the latest from Pottery Barn or Williams Sonoma.  We choose not to quench our thirst with Dom Perignon or Dasani.  Yes, we have made sacrifices.  At first we balked at some of these sacrifices, but we gave them a try.  You never know until you try right?

We have decreased our expenses by carrying our lunches in disposable plastic grocery bags (which also make great suitcases).  We refill disposable water bottles and reuse disposable straws and plastic utensils.

We keep our lawn care expenses low as well. If the weeds are pretty, why waste money on weed killer?  Makes no sense!  Dandelions are so pretty and the kids love making wishes and blowing on them!  We also keep expenses low buying store brand and finding substitutes where available.  We’ve substituted ground turkey for ground beef and pork, and canned tuna for fresh tuna when we make sushi.

Last but not least, we gave up potted meat for canned cat food.  We confess, we struggled with this idea for a while.  But it dawned on us.  Our cat loves this tasty treat, why shouldn’t we give it a try?  If it’s that bad, then why are we feeding it to another family member?  Are we that much more superior than another living being?  We may face criticism for this culinary choice since we are trusting the tastes of our own cat, who happens to enjoy a steady diet of serendipitously obtained avian and rodent innards.

Much of that criticism will undoubtedly come from those who haven’t even tried a heaping spoonful of the puree’d goodness that comes in those small 5.5 ounce cans.  You wouldn’t trust criticism from a movie critic or a book reviewer who has never seen the movie or read the book would you?  In the same way, we can reject all of this criticism, for they don’t know the subject which they criticize.

cat-food

Cat food should really be the frugal family’s go-to choice for nutritious protein.  At less than a quarter of the price of steak, seafood, pork and chicken, you can easily feed a family of five for under two dollars.  It comes pre-cooked in convenient ready-to-serve containers.  Just pop the lid off, dig in with a spoon, and you’ll feel like you are in heaven (without losing all nine lives!).

The versatility of cat food is often overlooked.  You don’t normally associate it with fanciness (unless you are buying that expensive top shelf Fancy Feast stuff – but who can afford that?!).  But try this.  The next time you throw a dinner party for your friends or business associates, carefully peel off a few labels from some cat food and then make a tray of cat food for your guests.  Serve right out of the shiny silver cat food cans.  Get some really small spoons for that extra fancy touch.  Enjoy the rich, creamy texture smeared across crackers, baguette slices, or toast.  Good accompanying cheeses are Gruyère, cheddar, or American. And don’t forget to serve with tooth picks. Those are fancy, too, and allow for excellent dental hygiene if any cat food gristle takes refuge in the confines between your molars.

 

Foie gras. Or is it? Chew on that one for a bit.

Foie gras. Or is it? Chew on that one for a bit.    // photo credit: Luigi Anzivino / wikimedia

 

The texture and flavor of cat food comes very close to the finest foie gras imported from France.  Considering the cost savings, it’s really a no-brainer to substitute the feline food cousin of foie gras.  At under $.10 per ounce, cat food is 99% cheaper than most foie gras which tends to retail at prices of $10.00 per ounce or more.  If you can find a better way to squeeze out 99% of the cost of luxury goods, please let me know in the comments below.  I’m offering a whole can of “foie gras” for whoever offers the best suggestion.

So far, I haven’t taken a side in the great debate on the best part of the cat food.  Some champion the translucent jelly surrounding the more firm meaty bulk in the middle.  Others prefer the meaty paste itself and care little about the jellied juices lining the inner surface of the can.  To me, it’s all the same.  Dinner.

True frugality comes in when we buy the store brand cat food.  Or you can buy in bulk at Costco.  They come in a variety of flavors.  There are so many to choose from, Ocean Whitefish & Tuna, Mixed Grill, Turkey & Giblets, Turkey & Gravy, and the list goes on.  But our favorite is Sea Captains Choice.  You can literally dine on a different meat flavor every day of the week.  Surprisingly, we find some of the flavors taste better than potted meat.  Cha-ching! You can taste the savings!

If cats can enjoy human food, why can't humans enjoy cat food?

If cats can enjoy human food, why can’t humans enjoy cat food?

I can hear some of you laughing and maybe even gagging.  Remember, we are not trying to keep up with the Jones.  Yes, there are sacrifices, but if you like it, why not? And you’re saving money! Why should you care what others think?  We choose to live how we want to live and fortunately our sensible and frugal lifestyle has led us to an early financial independence.  Every time we hear “ewww, you’re eating cat food?!”, we write it off to that person’s jealousy manifesting itself in an insult vaguely veiled in the form of a question (like they are contestants on Jeopardy).

I hope you all enjoy this insightful post on April 1st.  Happy April Fool’s Day!  Keep all these tips in mind throughout the rest of the year and you, too, can be a frugal millionaire one day. Meow.  For other another great money-saving read on budget foods, check out Jonathan Swift’s recent essay, “A Modest Proposal“.

 

What sacrifices have you made?  Are you brave enough to choose the road less taken?

 

 

A Week in Munich, Germany plus Neuschwanstein and Dachau

Continuing on our family journey through Europe, we spent a week in Munich, Germany.  This was the tenth city of our nine week, fourteen city summer vacation across Europe.

Munich is the seat of government of the German state of Bavaria.  The streets are lined with buildings hundreds of years old and so full of history both recent and modern.  We spent several days exploring the downtown area of Munich, the Eisbach River and English Garden, the Residenz palace, and the Nymphenburg palace grounds.

Munich also served as a home base while we took two day trips outside Munich.  On the first trip we drove to Neuschwanstein Castle a couple of hours south of Munich.  The next day we visited the somber Dachau concentration camp on the northern outskirts of Munich where the Nazis killed tens of thousands of victims during World War II.

Here’s a summary of our trip in Europe so far.  We started our journey in Lisbon, Portugal, then flew to Malaga in southern Spain before taking a bus to Granada, Spain.  After Granada we visited Seville, Spain.  From Seville, we flew to Milan on a super cheap two hour Ryanair flight. After a two hour train ride from Milan, we arrived in Venice.  Then we took a four hour bus ride to Ljubljana where we spent a week exploring the city and the nearby caves before we headed an hour north to the edge of Slovenia to Podkoren to explore the Soča Valley and river and the Julian Alps.  After Podkoren we visited Salzburg, Austria with a side trip to Hallstatt and the Dachstein ice caves.  Leaving Salzburg, we drove two hours west to Munich, Germany where out story continues today.

 

Historic Center of Munich

The historic core of Munich is easy to explore on foot or by hopping on one of the trams criss-crossing the center of town.

 

The Rathaus, Munich’s “new” town hall

 

The Feldhernhalle, rallying point of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch

 

We watched these guys (and gals!) surfing the ice cold Eisbach river wave. Right in the middle of Munich!

 

 

The Eisbach river runs through the middle of the English Garden, a huge green space like New York’s Central Park.

The English Garden offered a “nice” surprise as we walked along the Eisbach river. We were watching some guys rig up a system to chill a case of beer in the river. As we turned away from the river, we noticed a field full of old naked guys getting a tan all over. ALL over, if you know what I’m saying.  And that’s how we found the nudist section of the English Garden, which we quickly exited without too many questions from our kids.

 

The Capitol building of the state of Bavaria.

 

Residenz Palace

In the very center of town is the Residenz Palace. An expansive palace built by the Wittelsbach family starting in the 14th century, it’s construction continued over the centuries as it grew to be the largest (and possibly the most opulent) city palace in Germany.

If you have to pick one palace to tour in Germany, I think the Munich Residenz is it. We spent several hours touring the palace. Eventually our kids bored of the vaulted ceilings, gold trim covering every intricately carved detail, and paintings by long-dead nobility adorning every wall.

For those traveling on a budget, the Residenz presents another facet of beauty – it’s shockingly low price tag of only USD$16 for a basic family admission ticket.

If museums, castles, and palaces are your thing, the state of Bavaria offers a two week pass for unlimited admissions to a few dozen sites for approximately USD$50 (we opted for a la carte admission tickets since we only visited a few of the sites).

I could get used to living here as long as I had the right number of servants.

 

The antiquarium – where the ruler kept his collection of cool artifacts.

 

Palace fatigue setting in for the middle kid

 

 

 

Nymphenburg Palace

This palace is on the western edge of Munich. I imagine it was a country palace 100-200 years ago though now it’s surrounded by the city proper.  As it turns out, the palace itself was closed for the day. Someone rented the entire thing to throw a hell of a wedding.  As a consolation prize, we got to explore the extensive palace grounds in spite of the main palace being off-limits.

 

Nymphenburg Palace

 

“Daddy can we please play in the creek?”
Of course! How often do you get to play in the water on palace grounds?

 

 

Neuschwanstein Castle

Another “bucket list” item – the Neuschwanstein Castle. We were really into jigsaw puzzles before kids consumed all our waking moments and one of the more beautiful puzzles was of the Neuschwanstein Castle. Fast forward 15 years since assembling that puzzle and there we were staring out at one of the most famous castles of the world.

We messed up a little by waiting to book tickets to tour the inside of the castle until the last minute, at which point they were all sold out.  The reviews said the inside of the castle wasn’t particularly impressive anyway, so I don’t feel like we missed out on much given the splendid views of the exterior. We toured more than a half dozen castles elsewhere on this trip.

 

Neuschwanstein Castle view from the Marienbrucke bridge

 

Stunningly beautiful scenery on the drive down to Neuschwanstein

 

Hohenschwangau Castle just down the hill from Neuschwanstein

 

 

Dachau Concentration Camp

The first concentration camp opened in Germany, Dachau is also one of the better preserved camps.  From our research it was one of the “best” (if there is such a distinction for such a morbid kind of place) to visit from a perspective of historical significance.  As an outsider to Germany, I find the history of the rise and fall of the Nazi regime to be a fascinating study in what can go wrong in a society (and it offers us lessons on how to avoid similar occurrences in our lifetimes).

There’s nothing quite as real as standing in the relatively compact Dachau camp and knowing about all the poor souls locked inside those gates.  By the time the camp was liberated in 1945, at least 32,000 prisoners died (probably thousands more that are undocumented) and tens of thousands of prisoners were seriously ill.

So many WTF moments while in this camp wondering how people could ever do something so vile. And the cruelty at this camp represents less than one percent of the total number of victims of the Nazi regime.

 

Gatehouse of Dachau

 

32 dormitory buildings lined up in orderly rows. Each building would eventually house over 1,000 people in spite of being designed for a much smaller number of occupants.

 

More pictures:

 

 

Lodging for a week in Munich with Airbnb

Finding nice but reasonably priced housing in Munich was a little challenging. It’s a rather expensive city as far as Germany is concerned. Our compromise was choosing an apartment a few miles outside of the Munich city center in the adjacent suburb of Neubiberg.  At $88 per night, it was about half the price of comparable city center apartments and probably a lot larger and cleaner.

Since we were planning on a couple of “do nothing” days to rest and relax plus the two day trips to Neuschwanstein and Dachau, we weren’t planning on spending more than 2-3 days exploring Munich proper. Though we were about 30 minutes by bus/train from the center of town, the distance wasn’t a problem.

Lounging in the living room

 

Where we ate wurst and drank bier

 

Kids bedroom. The airbnb owner provided us with an extra mattress to place on the floor so each kid had their own bed.

 

Cool perk of staying in an airbnb – checking out the next door high school’s bike rack. I think it holds about 494 more bikes than the bike rack at our neighborhood school in Raleigh.

 

If you want to enjoy the personal connection that comes with Airbnb rentals, click here to take $40 off your stay.

 

Food in Munich

German fast food is Turkish food. Fortunately we were staying three minutes from a good doner kebab restaurant. I picked up a full family meal of doner kebabs for less than USD$20.  So much meaty deliciousness in there!

 

Doner kebab

 

I think we had just finished a picnic lunch when we stumbled on this biergarten surrounded by food vendors. Otherwise we would have stopped for a bite!

Victuals Market Biergarten

 

Since we had a car at the beginning of our stay, I made a big grocery run to Aldi to stock up on good eats to cook during the week. Later during our stay I visited the small grocery store around the corner from us on a daily basis to replenish our supplies of beer and fresh baked goods.

 

Cooking at home – fish, roasted peppers, rice, and wurst with onions

 

Getting Around Munich and the German Countryside

We drove our rental car from Salzburg, Austria to Munich, Germany. It’s an easy two hour ride on the autobahn freeway.  We paid about $30 per day for the rental car.

I returned the rental car the end of our second full day in Munich. We drove the car on day trips to Neuschwanstein Castle and Dachau concentration camp.  The two hour trip to Neuschwanstein would have been 3-3.5 hours by train and at least USD$40 for the train/transit day pass valid all over Bavaria.

The 40 minute drive to Dachau would have been closer to 2 hours with a combo of bus and S-bahn trains.  Driving was much faster and easier, especially with the kids. And it didn’t really cost much more than the transit passes would have.

After ditching the car, we used transit for the rest of the week and it proved convenient for touring the central city historic section of Munich where driving and parking is more challenging (and expensive!).

After Munich, we headed to Prague, Czech Republic aboard the Deutsche Bahn Intercity Bus (~USD$50 for the 4.5 hour trip for the whole family). By far the nicest bus we’ve ever ridden in. The wifi was incredibly fast at 60 mbit/second as well.  Germans do transportation the right way.

 

Deutsche Bahn Intercity Bus

 

Thoughts on Munich, Neuschwanstein Castle, and Dachau Concentration Camp

We enjoyed the week we spent in Munich. The downtown area is perfectly suited to tourists given the ease of walking and taking the transit (above ground or below).  It has castles, palaces, churches, theaters, beer gardens, parks, and rivers. Something for everyone.

Just a few hours south of Munich are world class mountains in the Alps.  Dotting the countryside are beautiful lakes and villages.

We considered spending a couple of nights in the village near Neuschwanstein Castle but opted to set up camp in Munich instead and drive the two hours down.  This setup worked well for us since we didn’t have to unpack an extra time.

The longer stay in Munich meant we had a couple of days in the schedule to relax and enjoy some downtime after five weeks of life on the road.

Our visit to Dachau was certainly a worthwhile use of a day. It’s one thing to see a documentary on the atrocities committed at Dachau and at other concentration camps.  It’s altogether different to experience the place in person.

For various reasons that extend beyond an interest in World War II history, I’ve wanted to visit Germany for a long time.  Munich was our first stay in Germany and it didn’t disappoint.

 

 

Have you ever been to Germany?  What’s your favorite place if so?   

 

 

Check out the whole series (so far) of our nine week European family vacation:

 

Like free money? The Chase Freedom Card offers $150 cash back when you sign up for a new card. Then keep saving with the card that earns 5% cash back each quarter on rotating categories of merchants like gas stations, groceries, Walmart, or Amazon.  Or compare other top travel credit card offers if you prefer free travel.

Explore Austria: Salzburg, Hallstatt and the Dachstein Ice Cave

Stop number nine (of fourteen) on our nine week summer vacation across Europe found us in Salzburg, Austria. In addition to touring the old town of Salzburg, we also ventured out to the lakeside village of Hallstatt, Austria and toured the nearby Dachstein Ice Cave.

Salzburg’s historic center is the classic Europe you see on postcards. Expansive town squares, a castle high up on a hill, palaces, gardens, a river running through the middle of town, and statues and plaques proclaiming the birthplace of famous cultural icons (like Mozart) and scientists (like Doppler).  For those fans of 1960’s musicals, you’ll be happy to learn that The Sound of Music was filmed in Salzburg and the surrounding countryside.

A relaxed hour and a half drive through the foothills of the Alps brought us to the village of Hallstatt. We continued driving a few minutes past Hallstatt where we visited the Dachstein Ice Cave (literally a cave filled with ice year round).  After the ice cave tour we returned to Hallstatt for a stroll through town where we saw the houses, businesses, and churches climbing the hillside as if they were trying to escape from the murky depths of Lake Hallstatt.

Here’s a recap of our trip in Europe so far.  We started our journey in Lisbon, Portugal, then flew to Malaga in southern Spain before taking a bus to Granada, Spain.  After Granada we visited Seville, Spain.  From Seville, we flew to Milan on a super cheap two hour Ryanair flight. After a two hour train ride from Milan, we arrived in Venice.  Then we took a four hour bus ride to Ljubljana where we spent a week exploring the city and the nearby caves before we headed an hour north to the edge of Slovenia to Podkoren to explore the Soča Valley and river and the Julian Alps.  After Podkoren we headed several hours north to the other side of the Alps to Salzburg, Austria where our story picks up today.

 

Historic Center of Salzburg

We only had two days in Salzburg. One day we devoted to a walking tour of the historic center of town.  The Old Town grew up at the foot of the Hohensalzburg Castle. Eventually the borders of the city expanded to the New Town on the far side of the Salzach River where the Mirabell Palace was constructed in 1606.

Like many European cities, Salzburg is best explored on foot. We walked several miles as we meandered through the winding streets and alleyways and crossed through the large pedestrian plazas.

When initially planning our trip, we considered visiting Vienna, the capital of Austria. We realized we had too many destinations and sadly had to trim the itinerary. Vienna didn’t make the cut.  Salzburg, though smaller, is a good substitute to the capital city from what we can tell.

A day is plenty to explore the center of town and see the highlights.  However, several days would be better if you want to visit the castle, palace, and museums around town.  Add on a side trip or two to the surrounding villages, lakes, and mountains and Salzburg could easily serve as a base camp for a week or longer.

The backdrop of Salzburg: Hohensalzburg Castle staring down at the city from high up on a hill.

 

Residenzplatz

 

Statue of Mozart, born and raised in Salzburg.

 

The Old Town on the far side of the Salzach River

 

Graveyard in Salzburg

 

Mirabell Palace

 

Mirabell Palace Gardens. I’m assuming a clever landscape architect aligned the central garden path so that the Hohensalzburg Castle and the Salzburg Cathedral steeples serve as a focal point in the background.

 

Green “tunnel” in the Mirabell Palace Gardens.

 

Dachstein Ice Cave

The Dachstein Ice Cave was a must-see on our European summer vacation bucket list.  In fact, we didn’t plan on visiting Salzburg until it turned out to be the most convenient and logical place to stay for a couple of nights while visiting Hallstatt and the ice cave.

Upon arriving at the base of Dachstein, we bought combo tickets for the ice cave tour and the gondola (ski lift) up to the trail that leads to the ice cave entrance.  We rode several thousand feet up the mountain in a gondola car that seemed to float in the air as it dangled from a two mile long cable.  The gondola ride would be amazing even if there wasn’t an ice cave at the end of the journey up the mountain.

 

The gondola up the side of the mountain.  It dumped us at the visitor’s center and the trail leading up to the Dachstein Ice Cave

 

It’s quite a hike up the side of the mountain to get to the ice cave entrance. Fortunately it’s chilly year round so you’ll hardly break a sweat on the climb regardless of season.  Great views from up here with Hallstatt Lake and village in the background.

 

 

The ice cave itself wasn’t as impressive as the two caves we visited in Slovenia, but those weren’t filled with hundreds of feet of ice.  The ice cave is certainly worth a visit if you’re in the area and a good add-on trip if you’re visiting Hallstatt.

We felt the ice cave tour was rather rushed as we had trouble keeping up with the group at times while also marveling at all the naturally sculpted ice spanning from floor to ceiling.  A self-guided tour would have been much more enjoyable, but I guess there’s a high risk of hypothermia and slip and falls.

Since it was summer and we were traveling very lightly with only book bags, I decided to leave my coat at home. To ward off the freezing temperatures, I brought a pair of long socks to wear as sleeves and mittens (which I didn’t need after all).  I wore two shirts to keep my core warm. Since we were moving swiftly through the cave with a lot of vertical climbs up stairs, the cool temps were a welcome relief.  Of course I’m a weirdo who likes cold temperatures so you might want to pack long sleeve clothing if you plan on heading into this particular ice cave.

We paid about US$90 for the family pass that included the ice cave tour and the lift ticket up to the cave trail.  For another USD$15, you can add on a tour of the Mammoth Cave (not to be confused with the US-based Mammoth Cave that we visited in Kentucky in 2016).

 

HUGE sheets of ice inside the cave that persist year-round. The ice formations grow in winter as colder air and water enter the cave and shrink slightly in summer as the ambient air and water temperatures climb just barely above freezing.

 

An ice stalagmite

 

Hallstatt Village

Hallstatt is an idyllic village just over an hour from Salzburg. We parked at a city-run lot (USD$6 for a few hours) and headed out for a walk through town.  Tons of other tourists joined us on our peaceful stroll.

Since we visited the ice cave earlier in the day, some of the crowds had thinned out by the time of our arrival in Hallstatt.  Which is a good thing since on our drive through Hallstatt to get to the ice cave, I noticed that all the parking lots in Hallstatt were full, making a visit to Hallstatt by car rather difficult. We arrived at Hallstatt around four in the afternoon and didn’t have a problem parking at that time.

A slight downside to arriving late: a few tourist attractions closed at five in the evening. Nevertheless, we enjoyed walking along Lake Hallstatt while taking in the town and exploring the alleyways and stairs leading up the hillside to discover hidden squares, churches, and residences.

My inner bargain hunter felt like there’s probably an equally scenic but undiscovered lakeside village elsewhere in this part of the world that would be just as beautiful without the crowds.

Hallstatt – a lovely little village nestled between a lake and a mountain.

 

 

Gravity-defying construction

 

 

View of Hallstatt from the other side of the lake

 

Dining options

 

 

Hallstatt town square

 

Lakeside swan feeding

 

Not a bad view from our parking lot in Hallstatt. Actually, not a bad view from almost anywhere in Hallstatt.

 

Lodging for two nights in Salzburg, Austria with Airbnb

We paid $130 per night for our one bedroom, one bathroom apartment in the heart of Salzburg. We stayed a block from the Hohensalzburg Castle and were able to walk through the historic center of town from our apartment.

Our Airbnb host suggested a few spots to look for free parking and we lucked out, thereby managing to avoid the USD$11 per day paid parking around the corner from our apartment.

This apartment was one of the smallest places we stayed out of the fourteen different apartments we rented during the summer.  It was the third most expensive per night with a price tag a bit lower than the apartments in Venice, Italy and Amsterdam, Netherlands.  It was nice and clean and the host was incredibly friendly and helpful.

 

A small but serviceable kitchen in our Airbnb.

 

The living room and dining room. Also where the kids slept on the fold out sofa bed and futon.

 

If you want to enjoy the personal connection that comes with Airbnb rentals, click here to take $40 off your stay.

 

Getting Around the Austrian Countryside

We took the train from Bled, Slovenia across the Austrian Alps into Salzburg, Austria. Along the way we were able to relax and enjoy the scenery while someone else drove for us.  All for the bargain basement price of USD$43 total for the five of us!

Second class compartment aboard the Eurocity Express. Hard to believe second class comes with lay flat seats and private compartments.

 

After taking the train into Salzburg, Austria, we continued on the train one stop further to cross the border into Germany into Freilassing, a suburb of Salzburg, Austria.  Since we were renting a car and planning on driving it to Munich, Germany later in the week, we found it was much cheaper to rent the car in Germany instead of Austria so that they would waive the one way rental fee.

It probably took 20 minutes extra to travel to Germany then drive back into Austria but we saved a few hundred dollars on the one-way rental fee.  We ended up paying USD$115 for a four day rental of an automatic mid-size car that we picked up on the edge of Salzburg and returned in Munich.

On our last day in Salzburg, we checked out of our Airbnb, packed all our gear into the back of the Opel station wagon, then headed out on foot to spend the day exploring Salzburg.  By the way, check out my sweet parallel parking skillz.

 

This whole “take a train into the country next door to rent a car for less” is a pretty radical idea for this American.  It was easy and seamless, highlighting one of the economic efficiencies of the open borders within the European Union.

The car rental wasn’t without issue, but at least it wasn’t as bad as in Slovenia.  We had booked a car for $115 several months in advance. At some point after our reservation was confirmed, the Hertz office where we were supposed to pick up the car closed its doors.

Logic dictates that we would be notified that our reservation was being transferred to the nearest Hertz office that was half a mile from the original office location. Logic would be wrong in this case. Instead, Hertz cancelled our reservation without notifying us. A few days before we arrived to pick up the car I discovered this “issue”.

After trying to get Hertz to honor my quoted price at the location just down the road, I gave up. They were going to “hook me up” by charging an extra $25 for a higher category of car (all they had available they claim). At the time it was the cheapest option by far compared to other rental companies so I said yes, let’s do that and paid up.  The travel agent I booked the car through (AutoSlash) refunded the $25 discrepancy because I assume they were somehow at fault.

In the end, we rented a spacious station wagon while paying for a lower category car and we didn’t have to pay a one way rental fee when we dropped it off 70 miles away in Munich.

 

Maintaining Sanity on a Nine Week Summer Vacation with Kids

Salzburg was stop number nine in our trip across Europe. Key to happy kids (and the resulting happy parents of those happy kids) is to take it slow, and stick plenty of relaxing moments into your daily schedule and your long term itinerary.

Though we only stayed two nights in Salzburg, we squeezed in quite a bit of blissful, wonderful do-nothingness during that short span of time.

Let me illustrate with pictures:

 

Lake? Check. Peace and quiet? Check. Hammock? Close enough.

 

This was one of those moments where I stood alone basking in the glory of nature while high-fiving myself for making the right choices that got me to this exact spot in life.

 

You know what kids love 1,000 times better than touring another baroque European palace? Climbing trees.

 

Making time for rest and silliness.

 

Lunch on the go. We packed gourmet sandwiches and snacks and found this deserted lakeside park just across the water from the village of Hallstatt for a perfect picnic.

 

Thoughts on Salzburg, Hallstatt, and Dachstein Ice Cave

Salzburg was initially planned as a stopover point between Slovenia and Germany where we could pick up a German rental car and then visit the Dachstein ice cave and the village of Hallstatt.  As it turns out, Salzburg was a beautiful city to explore on foot and we’re glad we ended up booking a couple of nights in town.

Hallstatt was packed with tourists but incredibly beautiful with the charming old buildings built along the lake and into the mountainside.  The beauty explains why it was packed with tourists.

The Dachstein ice cave was a novelty – something I’ve never seen before.  Water seeps in as a liquid and cold air freezes it in place so that it remains throughout the year. It was freezing even in the middle of summer during our visit.

Though it was a whirlwind tour by the standards of our usual snail-like pace of exploring the world, we all had fun and saw a bunch of cool new things along the way.

 

 

Could you endure 40 minutes in a freezing cold ice cave wearing short sleeves?  Would you enjoy zipping up the side of the mountain suspended in a cable car?  Or are the history-lined streets of old town Salzburg more to your liking?  

 

 

Check out the whole series (so far) of our nine week European family vacation:

 

Like free money? The Chase Freedom Card offers $150 cash back when you sign up for a new card. Then keep saving with the card that earns 5% cash back each quarter on rotating categories of merchants like gas stations, groceries, Walmart, or Amazon.  Or compare other top travel credit card offers if you prefer free travel.

Should you retire early if you only have five years to live?

Every week I receive a handful of questions from Root of Good readers and I try to answer them all, even if it’s a brief response. Last week was no different.  The inquiry I received from “Eric” caught my eye immediately as I scanned through my emails.  Subject: “Scared”.  One word, vague, non-specific.  Hmmm – might be spam?

As it turns out it wasn’t spam at all.  I clicked to open and read further and was intrigued by the brevity of the question with what appeared to be a clear-cut easy answer on the surface but has a lot of layers that need to be peeled back to flesh out a complete response.

Here’s what Eric wrote:

“You’ll probably think I’m crazy but I’m 48 and have incurable cancer and even though I qualify for long term benefits income protection of 6 figures a year I am scared of retiring. I’m scared I’d decline and get depressed with no purpose.”

I provided a quick response to Eric with my thoughts on the issue and I asked if I could flesh out a more detailed response and post it on my blog.  He agreed and provided a bit more detail about his specific situation:

“My cancer is incurable, but not necessarily officially terminal (I think terminal definition is <1 year to live). Which leads to another issue. I don’t know if I have 2 years or 20 years left. It could well be either (although my survival duration is likely less than 10 years, statistically speaking. People who make 20 are rare). My cancer is Myeloma and is incredibly individual. The average survival is 5 years from diagnoses but some people beat the odds. I think, for my age group it’s 60% chance of 5 years survival and ~35% of 10 years.
“Continuing work as usual is not necessarily possible (I’m currently on leave as I had high dose chemo 4 months ago which takes 6 months recovery).  I’m an equities trader and I have to be in the office by 6 am and stay there for 11 hours. I’ll also be on maintenance chemo for life which will probably make me tired and not able to do those hours. So, physically and for my future health, returning to those hours is not necessarily possible. A different,  part time role at the bank is a possible solution I guess. But if I only have 5 years… I probably wouldn’t work at all and spend the next few years travelling.”
“On the basis I probably only have a finite number of “healthy” years ahead (I feel OK at the moment) it would seem like a no brainer to take the benefits and stop work. But as I’ve said, I’m scared that after 30 years of a very structured routine, I’ll fall apart when I don’t have one.”

To put Eric’s situation in perspective, the average 48 year old can expect to live to roughly age 80, thereby enjoying slightly more than three decades of life.  Eric, in contrast has only a one in three chance of making it 10 years.  That’s about the same life expectancy as an 85 year old.

The grains of time relentlessly draining to the bottom of life’s hourglass isn’t a problem unique to Eric, but he’s at a point where he has a whole lot less sand in the top half of the hourglass compared to most of us.  We all have a finite lifespan and must make plans to do all that we can while we are able to. The uniqueness in this case is that Eric faces a very compressed amount of time remaining, and the uncertainty of how many of those years will be “good” years.

As an aside, one lesson to take from Eric’s situation is to plan for the future and hope for the best, because life can be shortened for a myriad of reasons.  For those healthy during early stages of adulthood, focusing on early retirement and financial independence is a great way to better the odds of enjoying several decades of good quality of life (without the need to work) before health starts to decline.

One common criticism of the early retirement mindset is “What if you work hard, save and sacrifice then you don’t get to enjoy your early retirement for very long because of death or disability?”

To me the answer is obvious – better to retire in your 30’s or 40’s (while enjoying your wealth along the way) and have a great chance of making it to your 50’s or 60’s at least.  Odds are you’ll get in a good decade or two even if you find yourself in Eric’s shoes.  The alternative is truly daunting – follow the traditional path of working into your 60’s or later until you keel over at your desk (but you get to really live it up every weekend and during your three weeks of vacation each year!).

Ok, back to Eric’s dilemma.  He’s facing a much-contracted life span of five, maybe ten years. He’s financially set with a six figure income stream for life no matter what he does in terms of a job.  Working is optional from a strictly financial perspective but Eric is afraid that without work, he would “decline and get depressed with no purpose”.  What’s Eric to do?

Understand that today is the first day of the rest of your life

Eric, you will have many hundreds of days, possibly several thousand more days, but today is the first day of the rest of your life and you’ll never be able to re-live this day ever again.  The time to make a choice is now.

Once you acknowledge this, ask yourself “What do I want to for the rest of my life?”.  Figure out what you enjoy in life and what you want to focus on in the next year or two.  Make a list on a sheet of paper if that helps organize your thoughts.  Did working at your current job or in a similar role make the list of what you want to do?

Frame the work/don’t work decision in terms of the pros and cons of (a) continuing to work / maintain the status quo or (b) the major life change of quitting work. Weigh the pros and cons for each option and see which is a better choice to make your remaining years as fulfilling as possible.

If work is a key part of what you want to do and it provides meaning, then by all means take the steps that are necessary to return to work in whatever capacity you can. Retirement itself is a major life change to deal with in addition to the stresses of coping with a serious incurable illness.  Consider some lesser form of quitting work completely. Can you work part time? Work in a different role that offers a more reasonable forty hour per week job?  Is telecommuting or remote work an option?  Since it sounds like you’re already taking a medical leave of absence during the recovery period following chemotherapy, perhaps you could extend it and turn it into a sabbatical of sorts to figure out what you want to do longer term.  While taking a break from work, you can leave the door open to returning to work and push off the decision of leaving work completely.

If, after examining the work/don’t work pros and cons you determine work isn’t as necessary a part of your identity as you thought it was, then proceed with your separation from full time employment.  Call it early retirement or medical leave or whatever you want (go stealth wealth?).  Have a going away/retirement party if that suits you or get your closest work friends together for a smaller, more private event.  Then move on to “the rest of your life”.

The first six months of retirement are usually an adjustment period where you won’t be used to having ultimate freedom and control over your daily schedule.  Give it time.  If having a routine helps, then take your list of activities you want to focus on and program them out on a calendar (here’s my “weekly schedule” from a few years ago, though it’s changed as my youngest is now at school during the day).  Program your weekly schedule with:

  • fun or meaningful activities you enjoy doing
  • challenging activities (part time or freelance work in a new field, intellectual stuff like writing/coding, creative arts or crafts, volunteering, civic participation)
  • and physical activities (enjoying the outdoors, swimming, biking, canoeing)

In addition to a fulfilling daily or weekly schedule, start making plans to travel the world if that also interests you. Your health won’t be with you forever, so do what you can while you can.

 

Closing thoughts

Eric, you are ultimately responsible for following the most fulfilling path whether that means attempting to return to work in whatever capacity you can, or whether it means calling it quits and moving on to other equally, and hopefully more fulfilling activities.  For those of us that don’t plan on working forever, it’s a fork in the road we all face: finding meaning outside of our professional lives.  It’s easy to avoid the question of finding meaning in life by simply filling the hours with the routine of a job; more difficult is facing the fact that today is the first day of the rest of our lives.

If this is too much to think about on your own, then don’t rule out speaking with a therapist about your health issues and those bigger life questions about fulfillment and purpose.  Having an outside perspective to help frame these issues and work through them can be invaluable.

I’ll also warn you that I’m approaching this from the perspective of a 37 year old writing a blog promoting the virtues of early retirement and the joys of not working, so take everything I say with a grain of salt.  I’m biased in that I never felt like the civil engineering projects I worked on professionally gave my life adequate meaning or purpose, and it’s doubtful I would have done any of it if they weren’t giving me a paycheck every month. When I was suddenly let go from my job in 2013, there was only a brief sense of sadness or loss (like 30 minutes tops 🙂 ) and I quickly realized that my termination of employment was a blessing in disguise because it made a difficult decision to leave work much easier for me.

On that note, I think I’ve said enough.  Eric, I wish you wisdom in making the decision that is right for you and the strength to thrive for as long as you can on whatever path you choose whether it lasts two years or twenty.

 

 

Any advice for Eric?  What would you do in his position?

 

Update on March 17. 2018.  Eric commented on this article and said:

I’ve read every comment and want to thank you all, and Justin, for the time taken to discuss my issue.

I just found out today my income protection benefits, as mentioned in the post, have been approved. So as we stand I am going to take a plunge and retire. I do have an option to return to the bank at some capacity in the future (maybe) however.

Good for Eric!

 

February 2018 Financial Update – Weathering Big Losses

Time for another monthly update now that I have wrapped up month #54 in my early retirement journey!  Spring arrived a little early in North Carolina and that means more time outdoors for us.  Goodbye two weeks of “real” winter, we hardly knew ye!

From a financial perspective, February was a tough month punctuated by a strong dip in the stock market, officially putting us in a “correction” with the Dow and S&P 500 index both registering declines greater than 10%. At month end our net worth was down by $58,000 to a “mere” $2,056,000. The silver lining is that our income for the month remained strong at $4,736 while expenses of $3,108 tracked closely to our $3,333 budget.  Spending less than you “make” soothes the sting of a big shift downward in net worth.

On to the details!

 

Income

Investment income was only $314 in February.  This represents monthly interest from CD’s, bonds, and the money market account.  Our equity mutual funds and ETFs pay dividends quarterly in March, June, September, and December.  March will find us with significantly higher investment income given the payout schedule on our equity investments.  More on our dividend income.

Blog income, shown as “other income” in the chart, declined slightly to $2,028.

My early retirement lifestyle consulting income (“consulting”) of $712 was roughly the same as January.  That works out to almost two hours of consulting per week which is the upper limit of what I’d like to do.

 

Gotta keep my schedule free so I can get outside and enjoy the scenery!

 

Deposit income of $1,680 came from two sources.  I received $1,200 from signing up for the Capital One Spark Business card and completing the $10,000 spending requirement to qualify for a $1,000 sign up bonus (plus 2% cash back on the $10,000 spent).  This led to moving some expenses forward into December, January, and February to meet the $10,000 “goal”.  If you want some of this free money being handed out, check out the latest credit card offers.

The second source of “deposit income” was $480 in cash back from the Ebates.com and Mrrebates.com online shopping portals (some of which was earned from you readers signing up through these links).  If you sign up for Ebates through this link and make a qualifying $25 purchase through Ebates, you’ll get a $10 gift card.  Some big cash back from Christmastime shopping is finally rolling in the doors this month.

If you’re interested in tracking your income and expenses like I do, then check out Personal Capital (it’s free!). All of our savings and spending accounts (including checking, money market, and five credit cards) are all linked and updated in real time through Personal Capital. We have accounts all over the place, and Personal Capital makes it really easy to check on everything at one time.

Personal Capital is also a solid tool for investment management. Keeping track of our entire investment portfolio takes two clicks. If you haven’t signed up for the free Personal Capital service, check it out today (review here).

 

Expenses

Now let’s take a look at February expenses:

As mentioned, I had to spend $10,000 to qualify for a $1,000 credit card sign up bonus. This led to extra spending in December, January, and February to hit this target.  In February, we spent extra to prepay utilities and I paid two months of health insurance premiums.  As a result the next several months will see lower than average spending in these categories.

In spite of the extra spending, the monthly total spending of $3,108 in February came in just shy of our target spending of $3,333 per month (or $40,000 per year).

 

Utilities – $1,906:

We prepaid utilities as follows:

  • Electricity – $801
  • City Water/Sewer/Trash/Recycling – $755
  • Natural Gas – $350

We average about $250 per month in total for these three bills, so we effectively paid 7-8 months of utilities all in one month.  See you in September, you dirty utility bills!  As an added bonus, it’ll be nice to not worry about paying these bills while we vacation in the Bahamas for a month during June and July so I can let my mind focus on more important things like crystal clear water, sand, wind, and waves.

February was also a very warm month in Raleigh. As a result we didn’t have the heat on about half the month so our gas heating bill was about half the normal amount for a typical February.  Yay global warming?!

 

Healthcare/Dental – $728:

Our 2018 ACA plan is slightly more expensive than our 2017 ACA plan though we’re still getting heavy ACA subsidies.  The $728 payment reflects two months of health insurance premiums.  I elected to forego $300 per month in ACA subsidies so we’ll probably get that back at tax time to cover any tax due (in lieu of paying estimated taxes).  I’m departing from that strategy going forward since it looks like we might be better off taking all the subsidies we can get.  Depending on income levels, we may not have to pay back 100% of any excess ACA subsidy.  I’m still learning the intricacies and interplay of regular income tax and ACA Premium Tax Credits.

We also had a dental visit during February but it was paid with a Visa Debit card purchased in December (to meet that $10,000 spending requirement!).  As a result the $150 expenditure is not reflected in February’s expense report which is generated automatically from Personal Capital.

 

Groceries – $296:

Our grocery expense was significantly less than a typical month.  We’ve slowed down on alcohol which saves some money (go figure 🙂 ).  And we did dine out slightly more often than normal (which is to say we dined out a few times in total).  February is also a short month.  Otherwise it seems like we ate like we always do and shopped in a routine way. End result: lower than average spending on groceries.

More on how we shop for groceries without using coupons.  And why we never shop at Costco.

 

Homemade spring rolls with peanut hoisin dipping sauce

 

Clothing/Shoes – $79:

We bought three pairs of Saucony running shoes for about $120 total (the missing $41 was spent in a separate order on one of those prepaid debit cards purchased in December and not tracked in this spending report).  We actually bought five pairs however two of them didn’t fit so we took advantage of the generous free return policy. One of the pairs was a mismatch – the left side was size 9 while the right side was size 9.5 (neither fit).  End result: all the ladies in the house are re-shoe’d just in time for spring.

New shoes = time to hit the road!

 

Gas – $39:

We filled up in early February and still have three quarters of a tank going into March.  I’ll probably top off the tank before the end of March since I earn 5% cash back on gas this quarter with my Chase Freedom Card.

 

Restaurants – $38:

We revisited an old favorite restaurant of ours that has changed owners since we last visited many years ago.  The Wild Cook’s Indian Grill near North Carolina State University in Raleigh serves up a truly wild spread of more than a dozen hot dishes. At only $7.99 for their lunch buffet you wouldn’t expect much. But you would be wrong!  We paid for our two lunches and grabbed a takeout plate to share with our kids for dinner (also $7.99 for whatever you can fit in a styrofoam tray).

 

Wild Cook’s Indian Grill in Raleigh. Butter curry chicken, rice, and a bunch of other stuff

 

For Valentine’s day we grabbed some Chinese takeout (including sushi) from our neighborhood favorite for about $12 (cost not included in the $38 restaurant total since I paid with a previously purchased Visa gift card).  We considered dining in but they jacked up their normally priced $7 buffet to $13 as a courtesy to help guys celebrate Valentine’s day without their date thinking them cheap for taking them to a $7 buffet.

 

Potstickers, sushi, an assortment of chicken and what is that? Krab meat wrapped in bacon?!? Yes! I have a feeling it’s not really authentic Chinese but it tasted good. 🙂

 

Our third restaurant outing was $11 for a box of fried chicken and biscuits from Bojangles. We skipped the dine in option and chose an al fresco seating arrangement on our back deck instead.  I took a few dollars off the price by buying a Bojangles gift card through Cardcash.com (sign up through that link and you get $5 off your first purchase). I also use Raise.com to save money by buying discounted gift cards (take $5 off your first Raise purchase too).

 

Bojangles – a regional fried chicken chain that beats all the rest. And they don’t serve this deep fried goodness with any hipster waffles either.

 

Cable/Satellite – $14:

$14.99 per month for 30 mbit/second download speeds and 4 mbit/second upload speeds with no data caps.

 

Home Maintenance – $4:

Our microwave stopped working.  Over time it grew harder and harder for the door to shut completely so that the microwave would turn on.  I figured it was a simple switch or relay that went bad and sure enough it was. After a bit of troubleshooting (remember: youtube is your friend) and voltmeter usage, I isolated the faulty switch and ordered a new one for $4.  While waiting for the switch to arrive, I decided to rebuild and clean the faulty switch by sanding off some of the carbonization so that it could form a more complete electrical connection when closed. So far, so good with that rebuilt switch. I still have the $4 switch waiting for installation if my improvised repair fails.

Not a bad way to avoid spending $100+ on a new microwave!

Tip: working on microwaves can potentially blow your fingers off if you aren’t careful.  If you don’t know or can’t learn how to safely discharge the massive capacitor inside most microwaves, then you might want to skip DIY efforts in this case (assuming you don’t have a surplus of fingers you’re looking to rid yourself of).  

 

Taking a break in the park

 

Total Spending in 2018

Two months into 2018 and I can see a pattern emerging. We’ve only spent $4,332 of the $6,667 budgeted for two months of our $40,000 early retirement budget. And that’s in spite of prepaying seven months of utilities during February (which will lead to continued low spending months through the end of summer).

It feels like we’re living a $100,000 lifestyle on $40,000 per year or less.  After four years of early retirement, our spending has averaged $32,000 per year (see summary below).

 

Monthly Expense Summary for 2018:

 

Summary of annual spending from all years of early retirement:

 

Free entertainment = lakeside campfires

 

 

Net Worth: $2,056,000 (+$-58,000)

It’s been fun watching our net worth increase ever upward for the past two years (other than one bad month in October 2016). Then BOOM! A big fat $58,000 loss in a single month.  In fact, eight days into February we were down an astounding $122,000.  Such is the risk with a 90% equities investment portfolio.  Eventually the stock market rebounded and we gained back about half of those losses during the remainder of February.  Year to date, I’m feeling zero pain since our net worth is up a comfortable $19,000 since January 1, 2018.

I don’t know if the good times are over or if this is just another brief blip in the stock market’s continued long term growth.  But I have to say the ride has been fun so far.  Imagine this: in February of 2016 Mrs. Root of Good quits her full time job to join me in early retirement. Our net worth sits at $1,435,000 at the end of February 2016.  In less than two years our net worth skyrocketed almost $700,000 by the end of January 2018 (in spite of both of us being early retired!).

 

I’m happy with all the gains we have enjoyed the past several years, but I would still be very happy with the $1.4 million or so we had two years ago.  It’s still plenty to enjoy our planned $40,000 per year spending.  So if the worst case happens and we lose $700,000 from our net worth high water mark, I’ll still be smiling every day when I wake up and know I don’t have to go to work.  I doubt we will run out of money during early retirement even if we do see a continued stock market decline.

On the investing front, I shifted to a more conservative 90% equities and 10% fixed income allocation during 2017 into early 2018.

We now hold fixed income assets totaling $176,000:

  • VBTLX Vanguard Total Bond Market Fund – $146,000 (held in traditional IRA)
  • Credit Union 2% CD’s: $15,000
  • Checking and Money Market at 0.25% and 1% respectively: $15,000

With this level of fixed income investments and liquid funds, we’ll be able to wait out a five year stock market correction without needing to sell anything at a capital loss. Factor in a reasonable level of dividend income plus what I’m earning from this blog and the minor consulting efforts, and we’ll be able to stretch those fixed income funds even longer.  So while living through a 30%+ stock market correction will be interesting, it won’t necessarily be damning for our early retirement plans.

Maybe we’ll spend the summer somewhere cheap like Mexico instead of Europe to help cope in the event of an economic downturn.

Goodbye February!

 

How is 2018 treating you so far?  Ready for spring to arrive?

 

 

Want to get the latest posts from Root of Good? Make sure to subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or by email (in the column to the right) or RSS feed reader.

 

P.S. I’m giving away two free copies of “Meet The Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living“. It’s the hit new book from fellow FIRE blogger Liz Thames (who you probably know as the author of the Frugalwoods blog).  From previewing an advanced copy, I can tell her new book is an engaging read!

To enter yourself in the drawing for a copy of the book, comment below and mention you want to enter the drawing for the book. I’ll pick two lucky winners on Tuesday March 13, 2018 and I’ll contact you by email (so leave a legit email in the comment form!).

**The book giveaway is over. Congrats to the lucky winners Mary W and Amy S!**

The Hidden Gems of the Julian Alps and Soča Valley in Slovenia

The eighth stop on our nine week summer vacation across Europe found us in Northern Slovenia and the beautifully scenic areas of Lake Bled, Soča Valley, and the Julian Alps.  While visiting these sights we spent four nights in the tiny village of Podkoren in the far northwestern corner of Slovenia.

We stumbled upon Podkoren while searching for a centrally located apartment in the northern part of Slovenia that would serve as a home base for exploring the mountains, lakes, and valleys nearby. Podkoren was perfect for all of that. Wikipedia says Podkoren has 388 residents, but they must have done the census during the winter ski season and not when we were there during the sleepy summer off season.  We assumed Podkoren would be nothing more than a place to rest in between our daytime adventures across Northern Slovenia but to our surprise the village turned out to be worth exploring as a destination in itself.

Here’s a recap of our trip in Europe so far.  We started our journey in Lisbon, Portugal, then flew to Malaga in southern Spain before taking a bus to Granada, Spain.  After Granada we visited Seville, Spain.  From Seville, we flew to Milan on a super cheap two hour Ryanair flight. After a two hour train ride from Milan, we arrived in Venice.  Then we took a four hour bus ride to Ljubljana where we spent a week exploring the city and the nearby caves.  After Ljubljana, we drove just under an hour north toward the upper edge of Slovenia to Podkoren where our story picks up.

We spent four days in Podkoren and the surrounding countryside exploring the Julian Alps, the Vršič Pass, the Soča Valley, and a few lakes near Podkoren.  Though the various lakes and rivers were stunningly beautiful, the water wasn’t as inviting to swim in.  Water temperatures hovered between 43-50F degrees (6-10C) during the middle of the summer when we visited.  Most of the water is snow melt from the Julian Alps and the mild summer temperatures do little to heat up the water.  Brrrr!!!

Soča Valley

This place is paradise on earth. So named for the translucent aquamarine Soča River that runs through it, the Soča Valley is truly an amazing place. The one hour drive to the valley from our home base in Podkoren took several hours since we had to stop and drink in the scenery along the way.

Picnicking along the Soča River. It looked shallow near the bank because the water was so clear but it was actually several feet deep.

 

We must have stopped a dozen times to check out views like this.

 

Mile after mile after mile, the views never got old.

 

 

The Slap Virje (“Slap” is Slovenian for waterfall). Photography credit goes to the wonderful Scotsman who took our family portrait.

We visited the Slap Virje waterfall while in the Soča Valley.  What is amazing is that we only saw about 15 other tourists during the hour or two that we were there.  Elsewhere in the world this would be a major tourist attraction with hundreds or thousands of visitors.

 

Julian Alps and the Vršič Pass

The Julian Alps mountain range extends from Italy into Slovenia and provides similar breathtaking scenery as the main branch of the Alps that run from France and Switzerland in the west into Austria and Germany in the east.

To get to the Soča Valley, we had to cut through the Julian Alps and drive through the Vršič Pass.  At a mile high, the Vršič Pass is the highest elevation mountain pass in Slovenia.  The drive through the Vršič Pass is a destination all its own, with a 3,200 foot elevation gain and a series of 50 tight hairpin turns up one side of the mountain and back down the other.  Our little Audi rental car was fun to drive on these mountain roads!  The road through the mountains was built around 1915 by Russian prisoners of war during World War I.  Halfway up the northern slope, we stopped at a Russian Orthodox church built by the Russian POW construction crew.

Just one of 50 tight turns on the Vršič Pass.

 

A pit stop on the road through the Vršič Pass for some impromptu rock sculpturing (until one kid threw a rock at their sibling’s head)

 

Caught the sunset on the drive back home through the pass

 

Lake Jasna

Three miles from our apartment in Podkoren lies Lake Jasna. It was open to the public for free.  We visited on our first day there and loved it so much that we came back a second time. Next to the lake is a rock-strewn riverbed and floodplain with shallow ice cold swift currents.  We spent quite a while building dams in the riverbed to divert flow to new channels we dug in the sand and rocks.

 

Tranquil Lake Jasna. Though it doesn’t look deep it drops off quickly and must have been 15-20 feet deep throughout much of the lake. There is a three story diving tower on the far side of the lake in this pic which means deep water!

 

We saw a couple jump in the 50F degree water from this pier. After 30 seconds they climbed out quickly. The woman that jumped in wearing only a bikini climbed out with bright red skin all over after her brief swim in the freezing water.  Our kids were troopers and claimed “you get used to it” but I couldn’t take more than about 30 seconds in water up to my knees.

 

Smooth river rocks stretch out for a half mile in this riverbed

 

 

 

Exploring the Village of Podkoren

We enjoyed exploring the tiny village where we spent four nights.

 

A little stream runs right through the middle of Podkoren. At this location, I could tell there used to be a waterwheel that probably powered the mill housed in the building to the left. The sluice gate (to control water flow over the waterwheel) is still there (seen in the foreground).

 

View of the village of Podkoren in the valley

 

The Zelenci spring right next to Podkoren.

The Zelenci Spring is the source of the Sava River that runs for 600 miles through Slovenia and several other countries before joining the Danube River in Serbia.  We saw the “underwater volcanoes” where the spring water bubbles up through the sandy bottom similar to lava erupting from a volcano.  The water table in the valley is under pressure from the higher elevations surrounding this pool (according to the explanatory signage in English at this site).

 

Lodging for four nights in Podkoren, Slovenia with Airbnb

We were looking for a centrally located base camp for exploring the northern parts of Slovenia. We found that base in Podkoren just a mile from the Austrian border and two miles from the Italian border.  Our airbnb was a ground floor two bedroom apartment in what must have served as a ski chalet during the winter ski season. During the summer when we were visiting, Podkoren is a sleepy rural village without a lot going on. The only activity we saw was the hotel next door with a few guests lingering at the adjoining open air cafe, and an old-fashioned lumber mill with a few guys feeding huge logs into the buzzing saw, leaving only saw dust and rough hewn boards in its wake.

Finding the village was an exercise in quaintness as the airbnb host gave us “country directions” (a term bestowed in homage to my Appalachian mountain heritage).  Google maps was of limited usefulness in this situation because literally every road in the village was named “Podkoren” and there were no street signs. Eventually we found the right place by following the directions that went something like:

“turn left at the first turn from the main highway, then go past the fire station until you come to a dead end where the old Black Kitchen restaurant used to be. The apartment is behind the restaurant”

We arrived at the airbnb rental earlier than expected and found our landlord on his hands and knees scrubbing the terra cotta tile (remember, we’re just two miles from Italy) with a soapy brush. “The previous guests complained the floor was dirty” our host Dejan explained in his mildly accented English.  Dejan is pronounced “Dan” with a Southern drawl in English; remember the “j” is a “y” sound. And let me express how glad I was to see him scrubbing the floor clean  – always a good sign to see attention to detail when you first enter your abode for a few days and you know you only paid the ridiculously low sum of USD$45 per night.  The place was nice, clean, and well appointed for our short stay.

Two couches in the living room

 

Our small kitchen. The only thing missing was a microwave.

 

Dejan soon friended me on facebook so we could keep in touch during our stay. He provided plenty of tips on dining and recreation for our four night stay in his weekend getaway bachelor’s pad.  He explained there’s plenty of beds and couches inside and he routinely has ten or so friends come up from Ljubljana with him to go skiing and enjoy the countryside. Dejan was a great guy, in spite of my initial impressions upon seeing his shirtless Putin-esque facebook profile pic (note: never judge a book by its cover).  Must be a Slovenian thing.  Dejan also welcomed us to sample his homebrew liquor kept in little flasks by the front door.

He’s a plumber in the capital city who somehow owns this basement apartment in a ski chalet in the Julian Alps plus “a house trailer and a boat on a lake in Croatia” as he later tells me.  Plumbers must make a great living in Slovenia.  He explained he owns a van with a rig that pressurizes and shoots out jets of high pressure water to clean sewer mains.  Per his facebook page’s Christmas well wishes (automagically translated from Slovenian): “Give us the jimky and the sewers. Your shit our joy.” Business must be good!  Another cool character we met during our nine week trek across Europe.

If you want to enjoy the personal connection that sometimes comes with Airbnb rentals, click here to take $40 off your stay.

 

Getting Around Town (and Country) and a HUGE problem with our rental car

There isn’t a lot of public transit in the northern part of Slovenia where we were visiting. We kept the rental car we picked up in Ljbubljana and drove it for the four days we spent in the north.  At $17 per day it was quite a steal and it allowed us to explore at our own pace.  The hour drive from Ljubljana to Podkoren took all day (by design) because we stopped at Lake Bled on the way up. We also picked up a trunk full of groceries when we were in Lake Bled since we didn’t know how large the local grocery stores would be once we arrived in Podkoren.

The rental car experience was mostly uneventful except for the maddening return process. We booked the car through Sixt and they conveniently dropped it off at our apartment in Ljubljana with no problems and no extra fees. Several months earlier we had booked deeply discounted advance purchase non-refundable tickets on the morning express train to Salzburg with a 10:03 am departure time from Lesce-Bled in Slovenia.  There’s no Sixt rental car office at the Lesce-Bled station but they pick up rental cars for free from anywhere within a 30 km radius of their main office at the Ljubljana airport.  I let Sixt know that we would return the rental car at the Lesce-Bled train station right on the outskirts of the city of Bled so we could take advantage of returning the car at the train station near where we were staying north of Lake Bled and avoid a drive all the way into Ljubljana first thing in the morning.  How about we meet at the train station at 9 am, Sixt? That will give me a full hour to hand them a key and shake hands and I can wait on my train in the cozy little station.

Sixt told me it would be super easy to find the rental agent at the train station. They will wear a bright orange Sixt shirt and it’s a small train station. No problem, right?

Wrong.

As it turns out, Sixt forgot to send an agent to pick up the rental car at our scheduled 9 am drop off appointment. By 9:30 am I started to panic as I realized I have a train coming in 30 minutes and no one to hand the rental car keys to.  I didn’t have cell service in Slovenia (the ONLY country that wasn’t part of my global SIM package!!). My backup T-Mobile cell phone that has global service everywhere wouldn’t work either.  Tick tock the train is coming soon.

I considered locking the keys inside the rental and emailing Sixt with a heads up that they messed up and I had to think fast. The car would be secure but I might face a steep fee for unlocking the car.

One thing I decided was that I WOULD be getting on that 10:03 am train to Salzburg, Austria. If I didn’t make the train, then a cascading failure would surely result. The next train to Salzburg wasn’t an express train and would (best case) get us to Salzburg late in the day. I’d be paying $200 for full price last minute tickets and lose the $40 I had already paid for non-refundable train tickets. I would probably reach the next rental car office after they closed and be stuck carless all weekend (this was a Friday and the car rental office in Salzburg wasn’t open Saturday or Sunday). We only had one full day booked in Salzburg with sightseeing an hour and a half outside of town, so we didn’t want to miss that just because we couldn’t get the rental car.

Eventually I came up with a better plan than locking the keys inside the rental. I decided to lie to the train station attendant. Just a small white lie.  The attendant looked honest enough.  So I told this young lady, probably no older than 20, that I had arranged with Sixt to leave the keys with her and they would pick up the keys from her.  They were, uhhhh, mmmmm, running late! Yes, that was it. Sixt was “running late” and had phoned to tell me to leave the keys with this trustworthy looking train station attendant (Sixt was running late, they just didn’t know it at the time). She was hesitant to accept the keys but my powers of persuasion won out.  I hurriedly handed her the keys before she had the opportunity to think things through all the way.

Worst case, I figured, would be losing the $4,000 hold on my credit card or perhaps I’d be on the hook for $26,000 (full price of the car) if this nice looking young lady stole the car. I figured the odds were under one percent that she would steal the car, since she thought Sixt would be there any minute to collect the keys and our whole exchange was being recorded by a security camera. But if I missed my train it would mean two days of blown plans and several hundred dollars to change travel arrangements.  One of the benefits of having $2 million in the bank is choosing the convenience of sticking with your convenient pre-booked travel itinerary and shrugging off the tiny odds of a huge $26,000 loss.

It was 10:00 am and the train was due in a few minutes. These European trains don’t stop for more than 60 seconds when calling at the smaller train stations like Lesce-Bled, so we had to get going.  We grabbed our bags and headed the few steps outside where the platform started to crowd with fellow travelers standing in the misty rain waiting for the train.

Fortunately the train was delayed by a few minutes. I managed to find an open wifi connection at the cafe next door. At 10:04 am I fired off a quick email to Sixt Slovenia saying “hey, your car is at the Lesce Bled train station / gave the key to the train station attendant / never saw anyone from Sixt / Peace out I gotta catch a train to Austria”.  Minutes later we were on the train and a few minutes after that we were entering the five mile tunnel that leads to Austria. Once in Austria I regained cell service and was able to check my email. Sixt acknowledged that I had left the car at the station and apologized profusely.  Everything turned out fine with the rental and no extra charges were assessed for leaving the key with a random young Slovenian woman who looked pretty trustworthy.

And that’s the story of how I spent my last hour in Slovenia.  I don’t blame Slovenia as this snafu could have happened anywhere. I blame Sixt some. I blame myself for not confirming the day before that someone would actually be there to meet me and pick up the car. Lesson learned!  Other than a very stressful adrenaline-filled 45 minutes of making a tough call, I didn’t let this incident bother me. I did what I thought best at the time and was ready to accept the consequences of a negative outcome. Travel can be unpredictable and this episode was fairly tame in the grand scheme of things.  No one was injured and the worse case outcome was a slight chance of losing some money. Once I got on that train to Austria I accepted my fate and mentally moved on so I could enjoy a beautiful three hour train ride through the Austrian countryside.

 

Food in Podkoren

We stopped at EuroSpin, an Italian discount grocery store chain, in the city of Bled on the way up to Podkoren to stock up on supplies. We picked up our routine picnicking co-conspirators: baguettes, salami, ham, prosciutto, cheese, and apricots. Then we enjoyed a picnic next to the castle overlooking Lake Bled. We would later discover that the small grocery store in the larger village next door to Podkoren offered a full selection of groceries so we didn’t really need to stock up while in the city (better safe than sorry goes the theory).

Our view after lunch: Lake Bled and the church on an island in the middle.

We cooked most meals in our Airbnb and packed a picnic lunch for each day of adventuring.  After a long day of climbing, hiking, lounging, and driving we embraced the spillover Italian culture and visited a local picerija (pronounced “piseria”) for some seriously good eats.  I sat in the dining room watching the chef bake the pizzas in the wood-fired oven in the corner of the room.

Ham and mushroom pizza and a seafood smorgasbord pizza from the Picerija Maraton in the village of Log (two villages down from Podkoren).  USD$7 for each ~14″ large pizza. The seafood pizza was an incredible value – real mussels, shrimp, fish, and octopus plus some “krab” meat.

 

Perfect place for a picnic overlooking Podkoren (off to the right).

 

Thoughts on Podkoren and the Soča Valley area

This area is a contender for the most amazing natural area in the world (from what little I’ve seen of the planet).  We enjoyed our four days in the region immensely and plan on spending more time there in the future.  It was the least crowded area out of all the fourteen cities/areas we visited across Europe. The lodging was also the cheapest of anywhere we stayed.

 

I miss you already, Soča Valley

 

The beautiful scenery combined with the slow pace of life added up to a perfect break from the mostly city-based tourism we enjoyed during the first month of our European vacation leading up to our stay in Podkoren.  The mountains, lakes, and valleys all blew our minds. Every time we rounded a curve in the road we were treated to another fairy tale scene.

Thanks for traveling with us on this scenic part of our trip.  After spending four days in Podkoren and the Soča Valley area of Slovenia, we departed for Austria where we’ll pick up in the next article.

 

 

City or country – which do you prefer to see while on vacation?  Ready to get on a plane to Slovenia yet?  

 

 

Check out the whole series (so far) of our nine week European family vacation:

 

Want to travel for free? Chase Ink Preferred Business card is offering 80,000 bonus points for sign-ups right now. That’s $800 cash in your pocket, $1,000 for any kind of travel, or 80,000 airline miles that will get you to almost anywhere in the world for free! (Sell things on ebay or craigslist occasionally?  Then you’re a business owner!) Or compare other top travel credit card offers.

Exploring Caves and Castles in Ljubljana, Slovenia

The seventh stop on our nine week summer vacation across Europe brought us to Ljubljana, Slovenia.  If you’ve never heard of Ljubljana or Slovenia, then you are missing out on a hidden gem of Europe.  We randomly stumbled on this country while looking at pictures of Europe and decided it was a must-see destination. It did not disappoint.

While in Ljubljana, we explored the city for several days and visited the castle atop the central hill in town.  We took a few day trips to two caves and a castle.  In addition to the sightseeing, this was our first opportunity to take it easy since we had a full week in Ljubljana (after six previous stops on our trip with only two to five days stay in each city).  We embraced the slow travel lifestyle and spent a couple of days “doing nothing” and relaxing.

Ljubljana is a mouthful. It’s pronounced LOOB-LEE-ANNA and rhymes with the performer Rihanna. Now you can tell all your friends about LOOB-LEE-ANNA!

Fun facts: Slovenia used to be a part of Yugoslavia. It was a communist country for several decades.  Slovenia tops the ranks of the Gini index, a measure of income equality.  It only has two million people, about the same population as the state of New Mexico.  It’s tiny. If it were a US State, it would be the fourth smallest in size, falling between New Jersey and Connecticut. Our First Lady Melania Trump is from Slovenia (though her name at birth was Melanija – the “j” sounds like a “y” in Slovenian).

We didn’t see Melania or visit her home village, but we did see a bunch of friendly, laid back people in Ljubljana and the rest of Slovenia!

Here’s a recap of our trip in Europe so far.  We started our journey in Lisbon, Portugal, then flew to Malaga in southern Spain before taking a bus to Granada, Spain.  After Granada we visited Seville, Spain.  From Seville, we flew to Milan on a super cheap two hour Ryanair flight. After a two hour train ride from Milan, we arrived in Venice.  Then we took a four hour bus ride to Ljubljana where our story picks up today.

 

This river runs through the middle of the old historic center of town. You can take the riverside walk into town.

 

Or head into town along the cobblestone streets between these centuries old buildings.

 

Getting Around Town

After a 4.5 hour bus ride from Venice, we arrived at the main bus station which is adjacent to the main train station. Most of the local buses traversing Ljubljana connect at the main bus/train station, so it was easy to hop on the right bus to take us the 1.5 miles to our Airbnb.  Bus fares are collected electronically so a €2 Urbana transit card is required (for sale at kiosks around town and at the main bus station).  Rides are €1.20 each and five year olds ride free.  As it turns out, a taxi probably would have cost about the same as the bus fare times four plus the €2 Urbana card purchase.

We didn’t take the bus any more after that first bus trip because we booked a rental car for the remaining 10 days of our stay in Slovenia (4 days of which we stayed in the village of Podkoren in the northern part of Slovenia – more on that in the next article!).

A rental car isn’t a requirement to see all of Slovenia, but it’s a huge convenience. Otherwise we would have to rely on guided tours or somewhat infrequent intercity buses to the more far-flung destinations we visited.

If we only visited Ljubljana itself, a rental car wouldn’t be necessary at all as the buses are comprehensive and the taxis cheap.  Slovenia didn’t have Uber when we visited but they did have some kind of taxi app that I didn’t try.  The central tourist section of town is easily walkable if you’re staying in the center.  We stayed on the edge of downtown and could walk to everything within 5-20 minutes.  Some streets are pedestrian only, so we left the car in the driveway when venturing down the cobblestone streets of downtown Ljubljana.  There was a small grocery store and a playground two blocks from our Airbnb house.

 

This bridge over the Ljubljanica River was only a few minutes walking distance from our airbnb rental.

On the morning of our first full day in Ljubljana, Sixt dropped off the rental at our Airbnb at the scheduled time of 10:00 am without much delay.  We declined the extra car rental insurance because our credit card provided full coverage. Sixt required us to put a $4,000 hold on our credit card to cover any damage or losses to the car.  The rental car attendant told me it was 15% of the car value, which would make it a $26,000 car.  It was a brand new Audi compact car, so the small price tag surprised me.  The total rental price for 10 days was €151 or about USD$170.  We could have saved quite a bit by booking a manual transmission car, however I’m no good at the stick shift so I went the easy route of automatic transmission and paid a premium.

This was our first rental car in Europe and it turned out to be an okay experience but there were some bumps in the road (more on that in the next article on northern Slovenia).  It wasn’t a matter of extra unexpected charges or problems with the car, but rather miscommunications with Sixt staff.

This little Audi sipped the diesel very carefully even up and down winding mountain roads. It only cost about $20 to fill up the tank which we did a couple times while in Slovenia.

The stereotype of tiny compact cars in Europe was confirmed with our little Audi. It was a tight squeeze to fit our five bookbags (all we traveled with for nine weeks) in the hatchback trunk area, and adding a few bags of groceries on top really stretched the cargo limits to the max.  The kids complained of being “literally crushed to DEATH” in the back seat though none of our children were injured or died on this particular sojourn in Slovenia, whines and complaints notwithstanding.

Driving was easy once I figured out the European road signs. Everyone drives on the right hand side of the road (as all continental European countries do). The one weird difference I noticed was country-wide prohibition of “right turn on red” at traffic signals. I violated this particular law without thinking, then luckily bumped into a fellow American at the grocery store who informed me of this nuance of Slovenian road rules.

Navigating the countryside was simple with offline Google Maps and GPS on my phone.  We didn’t get lost on small backcountry roads nor on the winding narrow alleyways in ancient villages.  Though there were a few times when we questioned whether we were driving on a footpath or a real road. I think we messed up just once or twice.

The national language is Slovenian but almost everyone speaks English to some degree. The one notable exception was the cashiers at the grocery stores. Many were older ladies that graduated high school before the fall of the Iron Curtain, and as a result were less likely to learn English in school.  So if you ever need to find a proficient English speaker in Slovenia, just look for someone under 40.

Car free streets in downtown Ljubljana. Leave the car at home and take a stroll through the city.

 

Lodging for a week with Airbnb

We stayed in a centrally located house on the edge of the historic downtown area of Ljubljana for USD$86 per night.  There were cheaper Airbnb’s available, but we decided to live it up a bit in a three bedroom apartment that occupied the entire second floor of a large house. The house had two other apartments – one above and one below us. The owner lived in the first floor apartment and was always available if we had any questions or issues.  Since we had a car, the fenced in parking area was convenient though it was an extremely tight squeeze.

Large dining table for 6 and a big living room. Home away from home!

 

The bathroom with bathtub/shower, bidet, and washing machine.

 

The Airbnb offered plenty of space to relax in the large living room and dining room. The kitchen was larger than ours at home in Raleigh, and almost as well furnished.  The bathroom situation was a bit weird as it was advertised as two bathrooms though it was more like two half baths. The main bathroom was huge and came with a large bathtub/shower, bidet, vanity area and laundry area but no toilet. The second bathroom was possibly a former coat closet refurbished by squeezing in a toilet and small sink.  The apartment was perfect for our one week stay.

If you want to give Airbnb a shot, click here to take $40 off your stay.

 

Food in Ljubljana

We cooked several meals in Ljubljana and packed sandwiches and snacks for picnics around the countryside.  A Mercator grocery store two blocks from our apartment provided all the staples at very reasonable prices.  Once we got our rental car on day two, we made a big grocery run to the Hofer grocery store a mile away. Hofer is the trade name used in Austria and Slovenia by Aldi grocery stores.  Store layout and product offerings were surprisingly similar to the products on shelves in the US version of Aldi.  Prices and quality were great, too.

Restaurants and bars were incredibly cheap in Slovenia. Like Mexico cheap.  We found one of the nicer restaurants in town and stopped in for lunch. Druga Violina, or Second Violin, offers a rotating menu of two or three course meals for €4.50-5.00 (USD$5.00-5.60 at the time) that includes a salad, a main course, and sometimes a dessert.  We tried a couple of those meals. We also got several stews and desserts to try plus some fries for the kids (so they won’t “literally starve to death”).  The bill came to USD$29 and none of us left hungry.  The restaurant also does a good deed by hiring special needs young adults to bus tables and serve food. The special needs staff struggled with the details a little when bringing out our order, but you have to applaud a restaurant that makes a difference AND serves a good meal in a nice atmosphere for less than the cost of a fast food combo back in the US.

The fish and rice part of my 3 course meal in Ljubljana for USD$5.60

 

Mrs. Root of Good’s penne pasta, part of the €5 fixed price 3 course meal menu. Yeah it’s Italian food but that IS Slovenian food too since the Italian border was under an hour from Ljubljana.

 

In the center of downtown Ljubljana there’s an open air market with a couple dozen food vendors. Perfect for a family with varying tastes (including kids who count french fries among their favorite foods). Mrs. Root of Good indulged her desire for seafood with fried squid ($8). I ordered “one of everything” at a different food truck and ended up with cevapcicis with ajvar sauce, fried cheese, french fries, and stuffed Slovenian pizza.

The Slovenian pizza has a fairly normal yeasty doughy thick crust filled with cheese, meat, and sauce.  Cevapcicis are little beef sticks served on big, crusty on the outside, soft on the inside rolls (like huge English muffins but way better).  Ajvar (remember the j sounds like a y) is mashed up roasted peppers (and it’s also delicious!).

Fun story on grocery shopping while abroad.  We accidentally bought ajvar at the grocery store thinking it was Slovenian for “pasta sauce”.  Nope. But it does taste delicious on pasta when mixed with tomato sauce or “real” pasta sauce.  I also found that you can buy frozen cevapcici meat sticks at the grocery store and they are delicious. I guess it’s the US equivalent of frozen meatballs or hamburger patties.

Slovenian street food lunch for USD$20!

 

Downtown Ljubljana is a fun place to visit, and we did so on several days. There’s always a strange mix of public performances going on. Live bands giving impromptu concerts. Mimes or actors in costumes looking for tips.  Gymnasts and jugglers showing off their extraordinary coordination. One guy used the expanse of a large open square around a fountain to practice his bullwhip cracking skills.  And in a rare deviation from the typical European experience, the downtown area felt like it was designed to encourage visitors to linger with free drinking water fountains and free public restrooms (most places in Europe charged $0.50 to $1.50 to answer the call of nature).

On the stroll back to our Airbnb after an afternoon of exploring downtown, we stopped by the Cat Caffe Ljubljana to watch the cats inside.  Cats and coffee! How can you not love that combo?  I didn’t risk going in with the kids since one of the girls has a bad cat allergy.

 

Ljubljana Castle

We visited a castle in almost every city we visited in Europe. Ljubljana was no different.  The Ljubljana Castle is perched atop a hill that forms the western border for the downtown historic district. Given the high vantage point, I can clearly see why the original castle builders decided to put a defensive fortress up there 1,000 years ago (and why new rulers continually upgraded the castle throughout the centuries).  You can see half way across the country in every direction.  Invaders would have had a terrible uphill climb to get to the outer walls.  Fortunately we had a rental car to take us up the hill to the castle entrance.  Another alternative is the funicular that runs from the from downtown center up the hillside to the castle.

There is a small admission fee to see all the parts of the interior of the castle including a museum. We didn’t pay anything and managed to see the most interesting parts of the castle for free.  I’m not sure if we broke the rules by walking in for free but there was no one taking tickets at the main gate, and individual areas specifically asked for certain tickets available for purchase (which we didn’t buy).

The castle was very interesting and certainly worth a visit if you’re in Ljubljana, if for nothing more than the view of the surrounding country. I think we were starting to suffer from castle fatigue at this point in the trip since we had seen at least a half dozen impressive castles leading up to this one.

View of the castle from the main town plaza

 

Interior castle courtyard with special event setup

 

We crashed some kind of party and somehow managed to evade security. A screaming five year old running down the red carpet didn’t raise any alarms.

 

We told our five year old that they lock unruly children in this dungeon. Hyperactivity was NOT deterred.

This castle held prisoners of war during World War I, including US POW’s.  At the time, much of today’s Slovenia was controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an enemy of the US and Allied powers during WWI.  I’m kind of a history nerd, and WWI/II are of particular interest so this was way cool to see. Scattered elsewhere throughout Slovenia we saw plenty of places of significance during WWI including battle sites, memorials, and graveyards.

 

Castle aglow with the orange of sunset

 

Family time enjoying the sunset over Ljubljana.

 

View from the hill of Ljubljana Castle. We will visit the Julian Alps (those mountains in the far distance) in the next travel article installment.

 

Caves of Slovenia

Slovenia is a small country which makes it perfect for day trips out of the centrally located capital of Ljubljana.  We took day trips on two occasions to see the huge caves near Ljubljana. The Skocjan Cave is more rustic and raw and feels like you’re exploring it yourself instead of being led on a guided tour.  The Postojna Cave feels a little Disney-fied with the train that leads you into the most impressive part of the cave.  Our Airbnb host tried to deter us from even visiting the latter cave, however we ignored that advice and are very glad we toured both caves.

The two caves offered very different scenic opportunities. The Skocjan cave was massively impressive in size and scale.  Like incomprehensively massive – my brain couldn’t really process how big it was or the fact that a 50 story skyscraper could fit within some of the underground chambers.  And an underground river runs through the bottom of these massive chambers.  I’ve never seen anything else like this in the world.  The Postojna cave (the Disney-fied one) was impressive not due to its size, but because of the stalactite and stalagmite formations and mineral pools packed into the dozens of cave chambers we passed through.

Each cave tour cost just under USD$100 for family admission which is quite a steep price given how cheap everything else was in Slovenia. It’s well worth the cost of admission.  These two caves were probably the most impressive sights in the entirety of our Europe trip.  A must see if you’re in this part of Europe.  The Postojna cave was rather crowded, however the Skocjan cave wasn’t that packed with tourists in spite of us being there in July in the middle of peak tourist season.

The caves were both a short 30 to 45 minute drive and not too far off the main freeway connecting Ljubljana with Trieste, Italy.  Both caves are in the same general direction, so it’s certainly possible to see both cave complexes in one day. However I’d allow at least four hours, possibly six, to explore all of the accessible areas of the Skocjan cave which would have you rushing to see the Postojna cave. To see both main parts of the Skocjan cave, expect to walk or hike for 3-4 miles, some of which will be on uneven steps and steep, rough terrain. It’s not rock climbing but it’s a lot harder than a leisurely stroll.

If you’re not in top physical shape or traveling with children, definitely plan on doing one cave per day. Postojna Cave is much less physically demanding as you ride a train into and out of the cave, and are only walking on foot for about 40 minutes to one hour.

Near the Postojna Cave is the Predjama Castle. It’s neat to see a castle built into a cliffside but not worth a separate day trip if you aren’t planning on visiting the Postojna Cave at the same time.

Skocjan Cave

Skocjan Cave and its underground river

 

Near the entrance to the self-guided part of the cave tour.

 

One of the gravity-defying bridges traversing the chasms on the Skocjan cave walk.

Postojna Cave

We rode the train a couple of miles inside the earth to tour the Postojna cave.

 

Video from our train ride into the Postojna Cave

 

Layered stalagmites in the Postojna Cave.

 

Impressive columns and stalagmites in the Postojna Cave.

 

I wasn’t sure whether to include this pic under the “Castles” or the “Caves” heading. Predjama Castle built into a cave in the side of the hill (just a few minutes past Postojna Cave).

 

Thoughts on Ljubljana and Slovenia

We all loved Slovenia in case you can’t tell already. It’s a beautiful country in a beautiful part of the world.  Full of mountains, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, caves, castles, and history but without a big price tag usually attached to these luxuries.  In other words, it’s a perfect destination for this frugal travel blogger/early retiree.

Unlike many other tourist destinations in Europe, Slovenia isn’t swamped with tourists. Even in the capital city Ljubljana it seemed to be a largely local crowd with some tourists from nearby Italy and Austria (which are both within an hour’s drive from Ljubljana).  Slovenia is relatively undiscovered today however I’m afraid articles like the one you’re currently reading will bring waves of tourists that will jam pack the streets and take up all the seating at the quaint sidewalk cafes.  I’m conflicted as I want to jealously guard this secret gem from everyone and keep it for myself.  However, I feel compelled to share it’s beauty with all of you so that you can enjoy it before future crowds wreck its splendor.

Who needs Venice when you have Ljubljana’s canal-like river running through town?

Of all the fourteen cities and eight countries we visited in Europe last summer, Slovenia stands out as a favorite for the whole family. It has a slower pace of life that we could embrace.  Everything works. It’s clean and convenient. The people are friendly.  It’s a bit like many other cities and countries we visited in Europe except without the crowds, commercialism, and higher prices usually associated with tourist destinations.

We have Ljubljana and Slovenia on our list to re-visit for a longer period of time whenever we make it back to Europe.  I wouldn’t mind spending a whole summer there in fact.

 

 

Admit it, this is the first time you’ve ever heard of Slovenia and Ljubljana, right? 🙂 What do you think? Should the Slovene Tourist Bureau hire me?  

 

 

Check out the whole series (so far) of our nine week European family vacation:

 

Want to travel for free? Chase Ink Preferred Business card is offering 80,000 bonus points for sign-ups right now. That’s $800 cash in your pocket, $1,000 for any kind of travel, or 80,000 airline miles that will get you to almost anywhere in the world for free! (Sell things on ebay or craigslist occasionally?  Then you’re a business owner!) Or compare other top travel credit card offers.

January 2018 Financial Update

Wow, January flew by! I can’t believe it’s already February.  Here in North Carolina it was a rather frigid January.  We experienced not one, but TWO (!!) snowstorms during the month which is a rare occurrence.  If you’ve never experienced snow in the South, it’s a treat. Everything shuts down and the kids get a few days off school.  We busted out the sleds, bundled up, and made the most of it.  Ironically we ended up at our neighborhood elementary school where we hit the slopes hard.

January was a fun month for our finances, too.  The market continued its upward trajectory throughout the month and left us much wealthier.  Our net worth climbed $77,000 to $2,114,000.  Income remained strong at $4,055 which more than covered our spending of $1,281 for the month.

Income

Investment income totaled $345 for the month of January which came from our money market account, CDs, and bond funds.  Our equity mutual funds and ETFs pay dividends quarterly in March, June, September, and December which leaves us with much lower investment income in the other months.

Blog income, shown as “other income” in the chart, remained roughly the same as last month, at $2,377 for the month of January.

My early retirement lifestyle consulting income (“consulting”) dipped slightly to $728 in January compared to $843 in December.  That works out to almost two hours of consulting per week which is what I’m targeting.

 

Don’t want to “work” too much or I can’t do this kind of thing when the opportunity presents itself.

Deposit income of $604 was mostly cash back from a credit card sign up bonus from the Capital One Spark Business card.  I completed the bonus offer in November and the cash back check finally showed up in January.  If you aren’t already enjoying the free money and free travel from credit card bonuses, click here to check out the latest bonus offers.

Another small portion of the deposit income was cash back from the Ebates.com and Mrrebates.com online shopping portals.  If you sign up for Ebates through this link and make a qualifying $25 purchase through Ebates, you’ll get a $10 gift card.  We scored a decent amount of cash back while shopping online over Black Friday and leading up to Christmas and that cash back is getting paid out right now.

If you’re interested in tracking your income and expenses like I do, then check out Personal Capital (it’s free!). All of our savings and spending accounts (including checking, money market, and five credit cards) are all linked and updated in real time through Personal Capital. We have accounts all over the place, and Personal Capital makes it really easy to check on everything at one time.

Personal Capital is also a solid tool for investment management. Keeping track of our entire investment portfolio takes two clicks. If you haven’t signed up for the free Personal Capital service, check it out today (review here).

 

Expenses

Now let’s take a look at January expenses:

Our spending totaled $1,281 during January which is a little less than half our budget of $3,333 per month (or $40,000 per year).

 

Groceries – $563:

A fairly ordinary month of grocery spending right at our long term monthly grocery average.  Lately we have shopped at the new Lidl grocery store that opened up in Raleigh in November. Their regular prices are about the same as Aldi, and they offer weekly sales on their already competitively priced products.  We still visit Aldi but find ourselves spending less there for some reason.

 

Yeah we eat rice and beans. With a side of Tikka Masala and Butter Chicken Curry. Try this curry paste if you want to make delicious homemade butter chicken curry too.

 

And thai coconut shrimp curry.

 

I usually buy jars of Maesri pad thai sauce. This time I made the sauce from scratch using tamarind concentrate. Tastes amazing and costs less (about $3.50 for a 16 ounce jar at our local Asian grocery).

 

Steak fajita time!

 

Healthcare/Dental – $364:

We spent $364 for our monthly health insurance premium.  That’s the premium after we get a $700 per month ACA premium subsidy based on our income.

 

We spent two days this winter cleaning up the bank along the lake. Technically we’re trespassing on city property but they’ve pretty much abandoned it so we clear cut the trees and weeds each winter to maintain our lake view.  In the process, we get tons of free firewood.

 

Taxes – $300:

State of North Carolina estimated quarterly taxes for Q4 2017.  We paid for the federal quarterly estimated taxes using Visa gift cards purchased (at a discount) in December so that expense doesn’t show up in this January financial report.

The state taxes came with a 2% fee (totaling $6) that I’m allocating to the “Travel” category of spending.  We pay the extra fee to generate spending on credit cards so we can qualify for more sign up bonuses each year.  That’s how we get $5,000 to $10,000 in (mostly) free travel or cash back each year.

 

Restaurants – $32:

$32 for Chinese takeout for our family and my parents.

Sushi takeout from the Chinese restaurant. Good stuff!

 

Cable/Satellite – $14:

$14.99 per month for 30 mbit/second download speeds and 4 mbit/second upload speeds with no data caps.

 

Travel – $6:

$6 fee for paying State taxes with a credit card.  Credit card bonus here we come!  Travel plans for 2018 include a month in an oceanfront condo in The Bahamas this summer and a week long cruise in the Caribbean on the brand new MSC Seaside over the Christmas holidays.  The Bahamas trip is all booked and paid for other than a rental car, whereas I still owe about $1,000 on the cruise (due by October).

 

We “traveled” a few miles up a greenway trail to stumble on this beauty. Lassiter Mill dam in Raleigh.

 

Gas – $0:

We didn’t buy any gas in January. The last time we refueled the van was December 10.  It’s looking like we’ll make it almost two months between fill ups!  The snowy conditions in January certainly helped conserve gas since it’s no fun to drive around on slippery roads and many places close for inclement weather anyway.  And who has time to go driving around when you can walk to some fun sledding places for free?!

 

Weeeee! Getting mad slope time at the elementary school.

 

I like snow in North Carolina. It’s beautiful for a couple of days then it all melts and goes away and it’s 70 degrees within a few days.

 

But before it warmed up, it was REALLY cold. Like below freezing cold. For more than a week straight, which was a new record in Raleigh. I’ve never seen our lake freeze this solid.

 

Summary of annual spending from all years of early retirement:

 

Net Worth: $2,114,000 (+$77,000)

Another crazy month in the stock market. It seems like the market only goes up. Until it doesn’t (like last Friday’s 2%+ drop).

During 2017 we moved to a slightly more conservative asset allocation that now includes about $125,000 of bonds and $50,000 of money market and CDs.  The remaining 90% of our assets are fully invested in the stock market which means we do really well when when the market goes up but we suffer quite a beating when the market drops.

This aggressive asset allocation was responsible for a half million dollars worth of investment returns since October 2016. I’ll take it. I might also give it back in the next stock market correction.

View from our bedroom window. Guess how glad I am that I don’t have to get up and go to work in this mess?

Financial goals in 2018 are to have fun, spend on what we want, and enjoy our wealth.  I might sell another chunk of equities if the market continues it’s upward trajectory.  If I sell more equities, it’ll be a speculative play (instead of a defensive play like my sales in 2017) where I’m building up a source of “dry powder” to deploy in the event of a steep market correction.  We’re sitting on around five years of living expenses in cash/bonds/CDs right now and that should cover us through any kind of recession smaller than the Great Depression.

And that’s how our January went! I’m glad that February is here since that means nicer spring weather isn’t far off. In other news, Mrs. Root of Good celebrates two years of early retirement today!  It’s hard to believe we have both been doing this whole not working thing for so long.

 

 

Are you making progress on your 2018 goals?  Still striving to make good on your 2018 New Year’s Resolutions?  

 

 

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