Category Archives: Lifestyle

Costco Costs More: A Cautionary Tale of Bulk Buying Gone Wrong

Every year or two I revisit my assumption that I’m spending my money in an optimal way.  Sometimes this means shopping my home and auto policies to several new insurers to make sure I’m getting the best rates available. More recently, I questioned whether I could save money by buying in bulk at Costco or by shifting more grocery spending to Target or Walmart.

Enter the cost comparison.  During September and October 2017 I stealthily visited five stores near me in the Raleigh area to check prices on sixteen different staple foods.  I chose Trader Joes, Costco, Walmart, Aldi, and Target.

Going into the experiment, I assumed Walmart and Aldi would be the cheapest, with Target slightly more expensive than those two.  Costco would come in fourth place while Trader Joe’s would stand out as the most expensive.  This was exactly the results of my study (with the exception that Target was noticeably more expensive compared to Aldi/Walmart).  Walmart was the cheapest while Trader Joe’s was the most expensive with the other stores falling in between in the predicted order.

Here are the raw numbers with lowest cost for each item bolded:

ITEM: Trader Joes Costco Walmart Supercenter Aldi Target
apples, per pound $1.31 $1.00 $0.98 $1.10 $1.40
organic apples, per pound $2.00 not available $1.83 $1.83 $1.74
avocados, each $1.37 n/a $1.00 $0.95 $1.32
bananas, per pound $0.57 $0.46 $0.57 $0.44 $0.52
mac n cheese 7-7.25 oz $0.99 $0.72 $0.26 $0.33 $0.69
whole milk, per gallon $3.29 $2.45 $2.38 $2.49 $2.55
loaf bread, 20 oz $2.08 $2.15 $0.88 $0.83 $0.99
fresh chicken breast, per pound $4.99 $2.79 $1.99 $1.89 $1.99
pork loin, per pound $3.99 $1.99 $1.94 $1.89 $2.49
ground beef, per pound $3.99 $3.29 $2.39 $2.99 $3.09
eggs, large dozen $0.99 $1.85 $0.67 $0.74 $0.91
cheerios, 14 oz $1.86 $1.92 $1.15 $1.49 $2.50
peanut butter, 16 oz $1.99 $1.67 $1.16 $1.08 $1.20
canned pinto beans, 15.5 oz $0.99 n/a $0.57 $0.53 $0.54
spaghetti sauce, 24 oz jar $1.65 $1.25 $1.06 $0.99 $1.57
spaghetti noodles, per pound $0.99 $1.09 $0.74 $0.75 $0.76
TOTAL (except Costco) $33.04 incomplete $19.57 $20.30 $24.26
Vs. Costco comparison* $28.68 $22.62 $16.17 $17.00 $20.66
% More Expensive than Walmart 77% 40% 0% 5% 28%

* Since Costco only stocked 13 out of 16 items in the comparison, the total price for those 13 items is shown in the “Vs. Costco comparison” row

Results

Walmart is the clear price leader based on a comparison of these 16 items.  Looking at only the 13 items that all stores had on shelves (the “vs. Costco comparison” from the chart), Aldi was 5% more expensive than Walmart.  Target was 28% higher priced than Walmart. Costco was 40% more than Walmart, while Trader Joe’s was 77% higher priced than Walmart.

Aldi looks slightly better when it comes to comparing the cheapest store for each item. Aldi took the lead with the lowest prices on 8 out of 16 items. Walmart was a close second with 7 out of 16 items.  Target, not wanting to be outdone, came through on organic apples that were 9 cents per pound cheaper than Aldi and Walmart.

Nothing was cheapest at Costco.  However, Costco’s prices on some items like pork loin, bananas, milk, and apples were within pennies of the cheapest alternative. Though not on my comparison list, I went on a search for things that are great values at Costco. I mostly came up empty-handed but did notice a few things. Their store brand paper towels looked like a good deal (if you have a spare closet to store 16 huge paper towel rolls). Blue cheese and parmesan cheese were good values with prices similar to Trader Joe’s but both came in ridiculous two pound blocks.

Costco is the lone store studied that comes with a membership fee.  Yes, they charge you to enter their store and charge you for everything you buy (except the samples; they are free).  Though you don’t always have to have a membership to enter Costco.  Like ninjas, we snuck into Costco while the door attendant was distracted to complete our clandestine comparison shopping and scored some free quesadilla samples in the process.  Costco’s $60 annual fee for basic membership would add a 2% average surcharge to all items if you spend $250 per month (only 1% if you spend $500/month).  Paying $120 for executive membership makes sense at the $250/month spending level since the 2% cashback covers the added cost.  And after hearing from several hard core Costco aficionados, it’s impossible to spend less than $250/month at Costco (probably because they are 40% more expensive than Walmart!).

Trader Joe’s made a weak showing on prices with the highest or second highest price for each individual item.  This wasn’t a surprise at all since we never shop at TJ’s for regular groceries.  We do buy a lot of specialty items at Trader Joe’s that are very competitively priced for great quality items.  Things like frozen dim sum potstickers, frozen edamame, fancy/imported cheeses, $3 Buck Chuck (Charles Shaw) wine, other imported wines, craft beers, nuts and seeds, capers, and marinated artichokes.  On the bright side, TJ’s offers free coffee samples and the TJ staffers are super nice and friendly, plentiful, knowledgeable and helpful (things I mostly can’t say about Walmart staffers other than the friendly part).

$2.99 for a pound of delicious potsticker dumplings from Trader Joe’s.  Sauce is homemade from sesame oil, white vinegar, minced fresh galanga, sugar, water, and soy sauce.

 

A few notes on methodology

I tried to pick the most reasonable items that many buy for a fair comparison.  It’s not necessarily a representative sample in proportion to the categories of groceries people actually buy.  The totals in the chart don’t make any attempt to weight certain products more than others.  If you buy a lot of ground beef and mac n cheese, Walmart would appear much less expensive, for example.

I tended toward the larger packaging when that drove the unit price down.  For example, in the peanut butter category I priced out the 40 ounce container at Walmart, Aldi, and Target because our household can consume a jar of that size before it goes bad.  Costco only offered one size: a two pack of 48 ounces per jar.  Trader Joe’s only offered a 16 ounce container.  The cost data in the chart (above) reflect the unit cost, which was based on a 16 ounce container size in the case of peanut butter.  Costco was the only store that sold larger sizes than I thought we could reasonably use before the food expires or suffers from loss of quality (bread, apples, and bananas for example).

I didn’t look for organic, all natural, non-GMO, gluten free, free range, grass fed, vegan, kosher, halal, or other specialty designations except for the organic apples.  This reflects the way we shop and probably results in the least expensive basket of groceries.  Your mileage may vary if you have specific constraints on your grocery purchases.  I have, however, noticed that many store brand items at Aldi are now non-GMO, all natural, with no artificial coloring without any increase in price.

I looked for store brand or generic products when available.  This might partially explain why Costco was relatively expensive since all of their non-perishable items in this comparison were name brand (Cheerios, JIF peanut butter, Nature’s Own loaf bread, Kraft mac n cheese, Barilla spaghetti, and Prego pasta sauce) whereas the other four stores generally offered comparable quality store brand products.  I’m sure I’ll see some debate in the comments claiming name brand / Costco store brand is better than the other stores’ store brands and I’m okay with that – there might be noticeable differences between name brand and store brand in some cases, with the name brand not always being the best.

I left out local grocery stores like Harris Teeter, Kroger, and Food Lion. The main reason is that I already knew Walmart and Aldi were cheaper than the local grocery stores.  I didn’t visit Whole Foods because it’s all the way on the other side of Raleigh in the “nice” part of town. Not exactly in my grocery market area at 12-15 minutes drive and 6-8 miles away while most of the stores listed in this study are within 6 minutes and 2.7 miles.

 

Grocery Shopping Strategy

How does this cost comparison help me?  It affirms my belief in my current grocery shopping strategy.  In a nutshell, I shop at Walmart and Aldi for most things and supplement those stores by shopping the sale items at a regular grocery store occasionally.

For those more curious about my grocery shopping strategy, I summarized it a few years ago in a post:  “Extreme Grocery Shopping Without Coupons“.

Here are the main takeaways from that article:

 

Do:

  1. Shop at stores that are generally inexpensive
  2. Buy stuff that’s on sale that you normally buy
  3. If you see a great deal on non-perishable items, buy as many as you will use by their expiration date
  4. Plan your meals around fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats that are on sale
  5. Try something new occasionally
  6. Know what things cost and buy things at the store where it’s least expensive
  7. Skip juice, eat fruit instead.

 

Don’t:

  1. Buy more perishable goods than you can reasonably use before they will expire (unless you can freeze them with minimal reduction in quality)
  2. Drive long distances just to save a few dollars at a store with a good sale
  3. Focus too much time and attention on extreme couponing
  4. Buy a lot of prepackaged convenience foods
  5. Be afraid to spend money on expensive foods if it helps avoid dining at an expensive restaurant

 

To get a sense of how much we’re saving on groceries by frequenting Walmart and Aldi instead of Costco, let’s look at our grocery spending for a year.  Last year we spent $5,753 on groceries. Given that Costco is about 37% more expensive than the average of Aldi and Walmart, our grocery bill would be $7,880 at Costco, an increase of more than $2,100 for the year.  That’s what we spend on a week aboard a cruise in the Caribbean or two weeks in Europe (in other words, a substantial cost).

On top of $2,100 in extra spending if we shopped at Costco, I’d also have to have a larger refrigerator and pantry plus a deep freezer to store the much larger size of products.  Some of the food would still go bad (for example, what if we can’t eat the whole 10 pound bag of apples before they rot?).  I can’t quantify the added food waste and spoilage but I assume it would add at least 5% to the overall grocery bill.

 

Costco Isn’t All Bad, Right?

So many smart people love Costco.  I assume I’m missing something.  For some, I assume they have very poor alternatives to Costco.  Maybe there is no Walmart, Target, or Aldi nearby (the horror!!) and the regular grocery stores are too pricey.  It’s certainly possible that the 40% additional cost I observed at Costco could be specific to Raleigh and not broadly true across the US.

Costco sells a lot of products beyond groceries. I’ve heard Costco has great deals on travel and new tires, for example.  The times I have compared costs to my usual providers, Costco didn’t come out ahead.

It could be the customer service and ambiance that sets Costco apart. However I didn’t see very many available Costco associates walking the aisles when I was comparison shopping. The check out lines were long and the parking lot was full.  And this was mid-week while everyone was supposed to be at work!  Costco’s return policy is legendary, but Walmart and Aldi have been very kind to me on every occasion I’ve sought out a refund or replacement. In fact, Aldi offers a 200% money back guarantee – a free replacement product plus 100% cash refund of the purchase price. I’ve used this refund at Aldi many times but I refuse the cash back if there was nothing wrong with the product other than I didn’t like it.

I tend to make the assumption that everyone is like me and tries to optimize costs where feasible. However, I realize that some just might not care that Costco costs a lot more than their much cheaper rivals.  In other words, the ~40% premium for shopping at Costco is “worth it” (and I’m okay with that – I don’t optimize for lowest cost in all situations either).  I hope it’s not their decor people love because I found Costco to be more depressing than Walmart.  The huge warehouse shelving at Costco gives it a raw, industrial feel in my opinion (but then again, I didn’t see The People of Walmart at Costco).

 

Conclusion

Walmart and Aldi are the cheapest stores in my price comparison that also included Target, Trader Joe’s, and Costco.  In our case, Aldi/Walmart saves us more than $2,000 per year versus shopping mainly at Costco.

Though none of the sixteen items in my comparison were cheapest at Costco, I did find some bargains on items that I didn’t include in my comparison such as paper towels and imported cheeses.  Other items were within pennies of being cheapest at Costco.  With some effort, I could include Costco into my shopping rotation and buy only those few items that were actually cheaper (or better) at Costco compared to my usual stores.  Then again, I like the relative simplicity of having Walmart and Aldi as a default to take the thinking out of the equation.

After I completed the cost comparison research for this article, a new grocery store popped up next to the Aldi and Walmart in my little corner of Raleigh.  Lidl, another German grocery discounter like Aldi, began operations in mid-November here.  We visited the store on their opening day and after taking a quick look, their prices appear to be on par with Walmart and Aldi overall.  We revisited Aldi the day of the Lidl grand opening and noticed that many prices were slightly lowered to match Lidl’s prices down to the penny.  As happens so often in the grocery game, prices fluctuate over time so it’s good to periodically revisit assumptions on which stores are cheapest.

 

 

Where do you shop for groceries?  Do you shop at Costco?  What items are cheapest (or best) at Costco – and give me some prices!! 

 

 

Interested in tracking your grocery spending and all other expenses automatically for free? Sign up for Personal Capital today!

Cruising through Fall – October 2017 Financial Update

October was another great month for us!  We had a blast, blew some money on a quick jaunt on the high seas, and enjoyed the outdoors. And grew $42,000 wealthier while having all that fun.  No complaints here.

In financial terms, our net worth climbed to $1,978,000.  Income remained steady at $4,573 while total spending for the month of October remained modest at $1,748.  Given that we don’t even spend our current income, I’m starting to unravel the mystery of why our cash balance continues to grow month after month.  Spending less than we make – an old habit we can’t kick.

Fall is slowly descending on North Carolina. The leaves are finally changing colors and falling off the trees. Mornings are chilly while afternoons are mild.  We haven’t turned on the heat much this year, but that will change soon with forecasted highs in the 50’s and 60’s over the next week.  Thanksgiving is just around the corner which means lots of turkey and family time (and some family members that are turkeys).

Income

Investment income totaled $1,096 for the month of October.  This is the last dribble of quarterly dividends from funds that pay at the end of the third quarter.  Our equity mutual funds and ETFs pay dividends quarterly in March, June, September, and December.  During other months investment income tends to be much smaller.  We are well on our way to earning roughly $30,000 in dividends for 2017, as we have in the past.

About half of October’s investment income came from our taxable brokerage account investments which means we can spend the money without withdrawing it from IRAs or 401ks.

Blog income, shown as “other income” in the chart, remained steady at $2,568.  Not a bad figure given how infrequently I’ve been posting lately!

My early retirement lifestyle consulting income climbed to $845 in October after a big fat $0 for September. I can’t explain why this little side hustle ebbs and flows like it does.  If it remains this busy I’ll look closer at raising rates to reduce demand.

Nephew’s birthday party at the city park

 

Deposit income of $62 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 like I did.  When shopping online, I always check to see if I can score some extra cash back by using one of those online shopping portals (and it usually pays off!).  I paid for a cruise in October (more details later in this article) which will lead to $40 cash back in the next month or two.

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).

Beautiful lakeside hiking this fall!

 

More stunning hike views

Expenses

Now let’s take a look at October expenses:


For the fourth consecutive month, our spending remained below $2,000 per month.  In October we spent $1,748.  That’s slightly more than half of our budgeted spending of $3,333 per month (or $40,000 per year).  Travel and groceries made up almost all our spending for the month.  Gotta eat and go to fun places, right?

 

Travel – $928:

We found a last minute cruise deal out of Miami on the MSC Divina.  So we booked it six days before the date of sailing.  Here’s the price breakout:

  • Cruise fare – $744 (we’ll end up with ~$64 refunded due to Ebates and the MSC Voyager club discount/refund)
  • Mandatory gratuities – $175
  • Miami light rail tickets – $9 (MIA airport to downtown, then free trolley to Port of Miami)
  • Flights RDU-MIA $0 ($330 each but we used 22,000 (x2) Chase Ultimate Reward points to get free last minute flights).

 

Sailing away from Miami!

 

Beautiful Bahamas

As a family, we sailed on the MSC Divina in December of 2016.  We loved it so much that we jumped on this deal when we saw it.  This time around it was just me and Mrs. Root of Good.  We call it a 13.5 year wedding anniversary present to ourselves because we’re awesome.  It’s the first time cruising without kids since our honeymoon 13.5 years ago.

Hot tub time in the adults only area. Stars. Wind. Waves. Solitude.

The airfare was expensive in points terms for a 2 hour flight, but it made sense to fly instead of drive and pay for gas and parking. Timewise, it’s about six hours door to door to fly versus 12-13 hours driving (which means overnight hotel at least in one direction).  We also used our Priority Pass Select card (a benefit that comes free with the Chase Sapphire Reserve card) to get a free meal and frosty beverage in the Miami airport plus $180 worth of to-go candy and beef jerky at the Corona Beach House restaurant/market.

In selecting expensive flights, we thought to ourselves:

We have money so let’s spend it to gain convenience and comfort because what are we saving it for after all?

I could have booked less convenient flights for a significant points savings that would have us leaving home at 5 am instead of 7 am the day of the cruise (and be dead tired by 3 pm!).  Or book flights with very little slack in the schedule to get to/from the airport and cruise ship (and freak out if the plane or the ship isn’t on schedule).  Or we could have waited six extra hours in the airport to save $80 worth of points (and arrive home at midnight).  In the end, we decided to go first class (well, still in coach but you know what I mean) with a flight schedule that got us to Miami at a reasonable time and got us back home without excessive hurrying or waiting.  Not driving twelve hours home was worth every point expended!

A relatively undiscovered spot of natural beauty an easy one mile walk from the port city of Ocho Rios, Jamaica. Here we are at Little Dunn River Falls/Beach. Climbing up the falls was fun!

 

Mmmm… Good eats! Best pizza in the world, which isn’t surprising since MSC is an Italian cruise line.  Pizza is straight out of Naples, Italy.  Paella, fried fish, asparagus, and veggie lasagna also good.

 

Interested in cruising? Check out all the posts in my “Going on a Cruise” series:

Going on a Cruise Part 1: Overview

Going on a Cruise Part 2: Getting the Best Deal

Going on a Cruise Part 3: Save on Board and on Transportation

Going on a Cruise Part 4: The Food!

Cruising the Caribbean Aboard the MSC Divina

 

We enjoyed several opportunities for free drinks while on board. This was the complimentary beverage assortment at the Cruise Critic meet and mingle where we got to meet a handful of fellow American cruisers and we got to meet all the ship’s senior officers.  Gin martini, pink lady, or champagne anyone?

 

Good times were had by all.

 

Groceries – $609:

Groceries were a little higher than average but nothing to be concerned about.  We spent around $150 at Walmart which gets lumped into “groceries” but routinely includes non-grocery items like clothing and random household or automotive stuff.  The same happens at Aldi occasionally. We bought a $12 ceramic frying pan that’s included here in “groceries”.  That’s the price we pay for automated, simple categorization at Personal Capital.

Prepping for beef/chicken/veggie stir fry. I cut up two batches of meat and veggies and put the second batch in the fridge so I could have freshly cooked stir fry in 5-10 minutes later on.  Mrs. Root of Good assisted with the wine selection in the lower right corner.

 

End result plus jasmine white rice and lo mein.  A healthy dose of chili oil paste and sriracha to keep the intestines purified from disease.

 

We made Banh Cuon wraps. Rice flour wrapping stuffed with beef and mushrooms.

 

Charitable Giving – $50:

We bought a $50 Walmart gift card and gave it to our kindergartener’s teacher so she can buy supplies and technology gear for the class.  The neighborhood school our kiddo attends was one of the worst schools in the district several years ago, but it’s been improving steadily over the years.  The gentrification of our neighborhood certainly helps.

Lazy day in the back yard with friends.

 

Education – $48:

$38 for a year’s worth of field trips for our kindergartener plus $10 for both of us to join the elementary school’s PTA.

 

Healthcare/Dental – $39:

$23 for lab tests for a routine physical. Theoretically this lab work would be covered for free with our insurance since it’s preventative medicine.  In practice, as everyone knows, healthcare billing doesn’t always work out like we think it should.  In order to avoid hour upon hour of phone calls, emails, scanning and sending forms, appeals, and other ugly nonsense to appeal this $23 charge (and possibly end up paying it anyway), I simply whipped out a credit card and resolved this issue in a couple of minutes.  Mental health has its price and it’s somewhere around $23 in this case.  Having plenty of money is nice.

The other $16 of healthcare spending was monthly premiums for our health insurance plan that’s mostly paid for with ACA premium subsidies.  ACA looks to be mostly intact going into the end of the year.  Other than the routine minor billing squabbles, the ACA is working out pretty well for us to provide good insurance at nearly no out of pocket cost.

FYI, open enrollment just started and runs through December 15 so head over to Healthcare.gov if you need to sign up for 2018.  I took a peek at our premiums for 2018 and they will be just over $1,000 per month however we’ll still pay less than $100 per month for the premium after the generous income based subsidy tax credit.

 

Gas – $36:

Our monthly visit to the gas station.

 

Restaurants – $15:

A box of fried chicken and biscuits for the family from Bojangle’s.  This is the In-N-Out Burger/Whataburger for fried chicken (and only available south of the Mason-Dixon line other than a sole location in Pennsylvania).

 

Cable/Satellite – $14:

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

Bird watching in the backyard. Three white egrets floating over the lake.

 

Automotive – $6:

We spent $6 on a replacement key for our minivan.  The minivan only came with one key when we bought it used last year, so I figured a spare key would be a good idea.  Otherwise if we lose it, then we’ll be paying $150-200+ between locksmith fees and/or a new key from the Toyota dealership.  The key has an RF chip in the base of it for security, but I found a nifty Youtube video that allowed me to program it for free in a few minutes (something locksmiths charge $60-80 for) by cloning the existing key I have.  I’ll still have to drop a buck or two at Walmart or the hardware store to get the key custom cut to match the master key.  

Halloween scare house with our little pirate.

 

Year to Date Living Expenses for 2017

Ten months into 2017 and we have only spent $20,896.  That’s more than $12,000 below the $33,333 budgeted for the first ten months of the year.

The highest expense category is travel which is no surprise since we’ve spent 10.5 weeks on the road this year.

We’re taking baby steps to spend more (like that last minute cruise) but still not spending all that we could.  However there will be years with large unexpected expenses (or large expected, but lumpy, spending), so I’m okay under spending our budget potential in these early years of early retirement.

 

Monthly Expense Summary for 2017:

 

The North Carolina State Fair comes to Raleigh every year.

 

We went on “Can Day” where you donate 5 cans and get free admission. I picked up a ton of tomato sauce for $0.03 per can so the net cost of family admission was $0.60 (plus the food bank gets 20 cans of tomato sauce).

 

As we were walking to the exit gate, we found a free light show!

 

Net Worth: $1,978,000 (+$42,000)

October marks the twelfth consecutive month of net worth gains.  The last time we lost money during a single month was October 2016 when our net worth dropped to $1,618,000.  Since then we’ve been on a tear with five digit gains almost every month.  We’re up more than a third of a million dollars in the past year.

I’m hoping we avoid the fate of Icarus. For those not familiar with Greek mythology, I’ll save you the trip to wikipedia.  Icarus was a young man with wings crafted of wax and feathers.  “Don’t fly too close to the sun, son” said Icarus’ father Daedalus.  As kids are wont to do, young Icarus didn’t listen and soared too close to the sun with his “amazing” wax and feather wings.  Long story short, the wax melted, the wings fell apart and Icarus died.  As we glide onward and upward toward the mythical $2 million mark, I hope we can maintain altitude and stay at these levels for a while.  I hope our wings don’t melt this close to the sun.

In financial moves, I’m planning several things for year end 2017:

  • harvest capital gains – about $4,000 gains from selling a $14,000 mutual fund position
  • continue my Roth IRA Conversion Ladder – planning to convert ~$5,000
  • fund my solo 401k to create a tax shelter for income from Root of Good – $18,000 into Roth solo 401k; $6,000 into traditional solo 401k (for the RoG employer portion).
  • fund a his and hers Roth IRA – $5,500 x2 = $11,000

By the end of this financial fancy footwork I’ll accomplish the following:

  • reduce taxable holdings by $14,000
  • reduce cash on hand/money market balance by $21,000 (currently at $48,000)
  • increase traditional IRA/401k space by a net of $1,000
  • increase Roth IRA/401k space by $34,000

My initial Early Retirement financial plans were destroyed by this whole “Blog Makes Money” phenomenon.  As I mentioned in my article on the Roth IRA Conversion Ladder, I initially planned on converting $25,000 to $30,000 per year from my traditional IRA to my Roth IRA and use the proceeds from sales of equities in my taxable brokerage account to fund my annual living expenses.

As it turns out, this blog makes money.  That threw off the Roth IRA Conversion Ladder completely. Now I’m spending income that comes from the early retirement consulting and Root of Good, plus the dividends from my taxable account. Then, I use any excess funds plus some modest sales from the brokerage account to fund the Roth IRA/401k totalling $29,000.  On top of that I’ll still convert several thousand dollars from traditional IRA to Roth IRA each year.

I’m still achieving the same end goal as the Roth IRA Conversion Ladder which is to increase funds in the Roth space to allow tax free and penalty free withdrawals before age 59.5.

As part of this year end tax planning and shifting money around I might move more funds out of equities into bonds.  Throughout 2017 I have shifted $110,000 from equities into the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index. If the market keeps going up, I’ll take some more profits and continue this shift. I also moved $15,000 from a money market account earning 1% to five year certificates of deposit earning 2%.  That’s an extra $150 per year interest income.

 

Want to finish the year on a strong note? Here’s 11 tips to get you there.

 

 

How awesome has 2017 been for you?  Excited about the holidays coming up soon?

 

 

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.

Enjoying The Alcazar and Jamon Iberico in Seville, Spain

We’re on the road again with installment #4 from our nine week voyage across Europe.  This week we’re highlighting our last stop in Spain: Seville!  Quick recap: after visiting Lisbon, Portugal, we flew to Malaga in southern Spain then took a bus to Granada. After Granada, we traveled a few hours west to Seville.

We spent four nights in central Seville in an Airbnb overlooking the Alameda de Hercules plaza.  Capital of the Andalusia region of Spain, Seville overflows with history and a sense of the past.  Romans first settled the area more than two millennia ago and remnants of their city remain visible today in and around Seville.  Over the centuries Seville was inhabited by the Vandals, the Visigoths, then the Moors.  In the 13th century the Castilians conquered the city and it has remained under Spanish rule for the past 750 years.

Though 40 miles inland, the Guadalquivir river connects Seville to the Mediterranean Sea and onward to the Atlantic Ocean which led to its growth as a major Spanish port in the 16th century.  Seville grew to be an incredibly wealthy city as the Spaniards colonized the Americas.  The conquerors and colonists filled galleons with gold and silver before returning across the Atlantic Ocean to Seville.

Today’s Seville preserves many of its classical roots while offering modern conveniences for tourists like great city buses, a small but growing subway network, tons of restaurants, and pedestrian malls lined with shops.

 

More than an Eyeful!

The biggest draw in Seville is the Alcazar.  Originally built by Moorish kings, the Alcazar continues its regal role today as an official residence of the Spanish Royalty.  If you’re a Game of Thrones fan (who isn’t?) then you have probably seen the Alcazar starring as the Water Gardens of Dorne, a royal palace for the Dornish rulers.

 

The Alcazar – it sports dozens of rooms with similarly intricate designs

 

And grand courtyards

 

And patios

 

Gardens of Alcazar – the grounds were huge so we didn’t get a chance to explore more than a small segment.  Growing on the trellis over our heads are grapevines that must be 50 or 100 years old.

We planned to visit the Alcazar on a Monday night when admission was free. Everyone else knew our secret too. The short wait in line provided the perfect opportunity to check out the awesome scenery such as the Cathedral in the background.

 

Plaza de España / Parque Maria Luisa

The Plaza de España was originally built as Spain’s Pavillion in the Ibero-American Exhibition of the 1929 World’s Fair.  Today it’s a notable emblem of Seville (and mostly houses government offices). We happened on an impromptu Flamenco dance exhibit while exploring the grounds.

The Plaza de España served as a filming location for Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

Plaza de España with fountain and horse drawn carriages

 

Plaza de España and the man-made canal that runs through the middle of it

 

La familia!

The Plaza de España sits within the Parque Maria Luisa which extends three quarters of a mile from north to south.  Most of the park is filled with trees, pathways, buildings, lakes, fountains, and wildlife.

Lake and waterfowl in Parque Maria Luisa.

 

Archaeological Museum of Seville at the far southern end of Parque Maria Luisa. The museum was originally built for the Ibero-American Exposition World’s Fair hosted by Seville in 1929.  We saw a young kid practicing bullfighting just around the corner from here.

 

Exploring the streets of Seville

Seville is a good walking city because a lot of the attractions in the old historic core are close together.  We had multiple days in Seville so we tackled a different part of downtown each day.  Some days we walked home at the conclusion of our adventuring.  Other days we had to catch a quick bus ride home for about USD$0.80 per ticket using the Multiviaje reloadable bus card (find the card at a Tobacco shop).

Torre del Oro / Gold Tower – fortification originally used to guard the Guadalquivir River.

 

Great views of the Seville Cathedral from the Torre del Oro

 

One of Seville’s many pedestrian-only streets. No cars allowed!

 

This massive sculpture, the Setas de Sevilla, is very new.

 

But if it’s the very old you seek, look underneath the Setas de Sevilla in the Antiquarium – excavated Roman ruins preserved in-place.

 

Between the Alcazar and Plaza de España is the old Royal Tobacco Factory. The building now houses the University of Seville.

 

No cultured museum visit is complete until your son yells “I can see all their peepees”. All. Of. Them.  –Small sculpture museum within University of Seville.

 

 

Lodging for four nights with Airbnb

During our nine weeks in Europe we visited 14 cities and stayed in 14 different Airbnb apartments.  It was a great way to live among the locals in a regular apartment.

We booked a two bedroom, one bath apartment for the five of us right on the Alameda de Hercules plaza in the center of Seville.  At USD$63 per night, it was on par with the $60-something per night apartments we booked elsewhere in southern Spain.  It’s less than half of what we would have paid for two comparable hotel rooms.  Airbnb was such a money saver and sanity saver in Europe (and if you want to save money and sanity with Airbnb, here’s $40 off your stay).  The living room offered plenty of room to stretch out and relax when we had some downtime. A table big enough for all of us to enjoy a homecooked meal or some takeout.  And a full kitchen to prepare said homecooked meal.

 

Basic but impeccably clean kitchen with eat-in table

 

Dining room (or office, if you have an Early Retirement Lifestyle Consulting client session).  Love that balcony and view out the front!  We had front row seats to some crazy procession that I think was Seville’s Pride Day Parade (based on copious amounts of rainbow flags and accessories).

 

Food in Seville

We cooked several meals in our apartment but also enjoyed several restaurant meals since everything was so cheap (except the $5 gelato place literally underneath our kitchen window).  Take out pizza was USD$5 each, for example, at the restaurant just outside our door.

Takeout Indian and Mediterranean food. Samosas, doner kebab, several curries, durum wrap, chicken nuggets and fries (for the kids).  I had to really convince the chef that a white guy wanted the chicken curry nice and spicy. Only USD$30 for all of this takeout.  Salads not included as I bought salad mix, blue cheese and tomatoes for $2 at the grocery store.

 

Under USD$20 for the five of us to enjoy paella, fried shrimp fritters, chicken fingers, and jamon iberico sandwiches at this casual eatery right underneath the Setas de Sevilla in a touristy area.

 

I had to do it. Taco Bell España was on my Must Do list for Spain. I’m sad to say it was disappointing compared to US Taco Bells (which I LOVE).  At least it came with a nice Cathedral view.  I can’t complain too much because they serve beer and margaritas.  And they have great air conditioning!

 

Mrs. Root of Good made some fancy tapas out of fresh baguettes, jamon iberico, blue cheese and various greens.  Good eats!

 

Thoughts on Seville

I hope I make it back some day! Hopefully I can return in the spring or fall when it’s cooler.  Seville is a great city with tons to explore in the downtown area.  I wish I had another few days to explore the streets and relax more since we were on the move every day.

Price wise, it’s an incredible value in Europe.  It really disproves the “OMG Europe is SO expensive” generality.  Lodging, meals, and transportation were all modestly priced.  It seemed slightly less expensive than other budget locales like Slovenia and the Czech Republic and not a lot more expensive than Mexico for some things.

If I had to pick just one place to visit out of the three we visited (Malaga, Granada, and Seville), I’m inclined to pick Seville. It’s bigger than the other cities and has more to do and see.  The Alcazar compares favorably with La Alhambra in Granada (our main reason for visiting Granada).  I would allow at least three to four days to explore Seville and a week if you have the time.

 

 

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

 

 

What are your thoughts on Seville?  Can you tell how hot it was from the pics? Some days were 104F.  

 

 

Note to readers: I’ll be incommunicado October 21-28 because we just booked a last minute Caribbean Cruise on the MSC Divina out of Miami for me and Mrs. Root of Good! Flying solo without the kiddos this time! 

From the Alcazaba to Sea in Malaga, Spain

Now that we’re back in Raleigh I’m planning on releasing a more regular stream of trip reports from our nine week summer vacation in Europe.  After we spent five nights in Lisbon, Portugal, we took a short turboprop flight to our second destination of Malaga, Spain for a quick two night stay.  What started out in the planning stages of the trip as a pit stop in Malaga on the way to Granada turned out to be a surprisingly interesting city to spend a few days.

 

Looking down from the Gibralfaro Castle with view of the Malagueta bullfighting ring and the Mediterranean Sea.  Keep going straight south across that sea and you’ll soon hit Africa.

Getting around town (with some frustration)

We arrived at the airport several miles outside of town.  From the airport, we took a train to the main train station downtown.  Our airbnb was a 15-20 minute walk from the train station so we set out on foot.  It was hot!  Eventually we located our home for two nights.  It turns out that our airbnb host spoke no English so I put my Bachelor of Arts in Spanish Language and Literature to work and navigated my way through the tour of the apartment (how the A/C works; where to take the trash; signing a two page rental agreement in Spanish).

Soon after arriving in Malaga on a Sunday I learned how reverently Spaniards take their rest and relaxation.  The short version of the story is that after much wasted effort I learned that not much happens on Sundays in Spain.

The long version: I researched the local public transit system ahead of time and found out that buying a bus pass with ten trips pre-loaded was the way to go for cheap bus tickets at about half the cost of paying for each individual ride.  And the bus pass offers a free transfer within 60 minutes whereas paying cash gets you a single ride sans transfer.

We took the bus up to the Gibralfaro Castle which looks down 400 feet to the city below.  This 800 year old castle was built during the time the Moors ruled much of Spain.

 

Great views of the city from up here!

Since we had a few days in Malaga, I wanted to go the economy route of buying a bus pass for the five of us.  Mrs. Root of Good and the kids were tired but I had plenty of energy so I set out on foot searching for a convenience store or tobacco shop that sells the city bus cards.  I figured I would be chilling in the Airbnb’s cranked up A/C within 10-20 minutes, bus passes firmly in hand.  After inquiring at several of the local stores that were actually open on Sunday afternoon, the shopkeepers led me to believe the only place that sold bus passes on Sunday was the main bus station downtown.  Fortunately I had already walked 10 minutes toward the main bus station by the time I figured this out so I figured it was only an additional 15 minute walk to the main station.  The afternoon sun was exhausting but I persevered and made it to the main bus station where I eventually learned that they do not sell the city bus pass.

Disappointed but not deterred from the mission, I visited the main train station next door to the bus station. Another strike out – no bus passes there either.  Eventually I resigned to the fact that bus passes weren’t happening and I’d be paying full price to ride the city bus (after a long, sweaty 1.25 mile walk back to our Airbnb to reunite with the family).  I can’t complain too much as this was probably the most frustrating part of our entire nine week trip.

I still find it strange that neither the main train station nor the main bus station sold the city bus passes on Sundays.  But this was Spain and sometimes you have to wait till tomorrow to conduct business.

Downtown Malaga near the Tobacco shop that sells bus passes on Sundays.

I eventually found a tobacco shop in the center of town that was open on Sunday and I picked up a bus pass that would carry us through the rest of our stay in Malaga.  The bus service is pretty reliable with frequent service so wait times are minimal for most routes.  With the bus pass it’s just under USD$1 per person per ride.

Malaga has a beach within walking distance of the tourist center of town and just a few blocks from the city bus route. First time we’ve visited the Mediterranean Sea!  I would never visit Malaga just for this beach but it was a nice break for the kids.

 

Food

I didn’t have any good food pics for Malaga unfortunately.  For dinner for the adults one night, I grabbed a whole grilled fish and Spanish tortilla (which is full of egg and potatoes) from a bar around the corner from our Airbnb. The fish was grilled five feet away from me while I watched.  Once cooked, the chef topped the fish with a flavorful lemon garlic olive oil sauce. They sent me on my way with salad and bread to accompany the fish and tortilla.

While waiting on the fish I chatted with the bartender for a bit and inquired if they offered free tapas when you order a drink.  He let out a little chuckle before explaining the tapas menu to me (everything was USD$2-3 for a small serving).  Apparently free tapas aren’t common in the non-tourist part of town where we stayed.  However, the menu prices were still reasonable, with the fish, salad, bread, and Spanish tortilla setting us back only USD$12 and it was enough to feed two.

Other meals were picked up from the grocery store a block from our apartment for about USD$20 per day.  We enjoyed quick foods like refrigerated pizzas, meat and cheese with bread, flan and yogurt, fresh fruits, pastries, cereal and milk.  And lots of jamon iberico which is basically the Spanish version of prosciutto – thinly sliced cured smoked ham.

Most days we would have breakfast at the apartment, pack a lunch of sandwiches and snacks, and then have something more substantial for dinner once we were back at the apartment in the evening.  During the day we might pick up some treats as we explored the city.

The Alcazaba.  Built around 1,000 years ago, it’s a prime example of Moorish architecture.

The Alcazaba (with Gibralfaro Castle up the hill in the background).  We started at the upper castle and walked downhill to the Alcazaba.  Hint: don’t do the opposite route unless you’re a fitness warrior or you really enjoy punishment.

Lodging

We stayed at an Airbnb about 0.75-1.0 miles from the tourist center of town and about the same distance from the nearest train station.  If it was just me and Mrs. Root of Good we would probably walk into town each day. With the kids tagging along, the bus was an easy alternative that saved limited leg endurance for exploring the stairs, hillsides, castles, and narrow alleyways of Malaga.

Lodging is generally inexpensive in southern Spain and Malaga offered a lot of value-conscious accommodations.  For USD$62 per night we found a small, two bedroom apartment with full kitchen, clothes washer, air conditioning, and two full bathrooms.  The kitchen was tiny but we weren’t planning on cooking a lot during our short stay in Malaga.

Interested in trying out Airbnb? Want to save $40 off your first stay? Here you go!

Our upstairs master bedroom suite in the Malaga Airbnb rental. We had a private balcony and full bathroom just for us!

 

Thoughts on Malaga

I enjoyed Malaga a lot.  I originally planned on two nights in Malaga simply because it was easier logistically to fly from Lisbon to Malaga (instead of to Seville or Granada) due to the availability of a short, free one-way flight from redeeming United Airline miles.  Seville and Granada were our main destinations in southern Spain.  Malaga turned out to be a worthwhile destination in itself and an even better place to visit than Granada (home of the renowned La Alhambra) since there was more to see in town.

Looking at the 2,000 year old Roman Amphitheater from the street level entrance to the Alcazaba.

The Roman Amphitheatre was undergoing restoration when we visited in June of 2017.

Outside the tourist center of town, the streets were slightly gritty and unpolished.  It reminded Mrs. Root of Good of Mexico (another place we’ve spent a lot of time).  Outside the tourist center is great if you’re seeking value, however.  Accommodations and food are very inexpensive and it’s an easy walk or short bus ride to the center of town from where we stayed.

Strolling through the Alameda Park. Paralleling the harbor for half a mile, this park offers a scenic detour around the bustling downtown tourist area.

Malaga Cathedral. It’s massive!

Overall, Malaga is worth a visit of a few days if you’re headed to southern Spain.  Like many other cities in the south of Spain, it exudes history and culture from the Roman era to the Moorish era to the colonial era to modern day Spain.

 

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

 

 

Have you ever been to Malaga or elsewhere in southern Spain?  Any favorite spots?  Did we miss anything in Malaga?

 

 

August 2017 Financial Update

Greetings from Raleigh! We are back home after nine weeks in Europe.  School is back in session and fall is just around the corner.  Our five year old started kindergarten and we are transitioning into empty nesters. At least on weekdays between 8:30 AM and 2:45 PM.

Our financials for the month were once again wonderful.  Once I arrived home from Europe, I deposited an accumulated stack of checks from the blog and elsewhere which led to a superb monthly income of $6,281.  Expenses were tiny at just $1,390 in spite of spending two weeks of August in Europe and picking up a ton of back to school supplies and clothes.  Our net worth crept up another $8,000 to $1,890,000 – another all time net worth high.

 

Income

Investment income totaled $263 for the month.  Almost all of that comes from my recent Vanguard Total Bond Market purchases.  The bond fund pays interest on a monthly basis.  The majority of our equity mutual funds and ETFs pay dividends quarterly in March, June, September, and December.  During other months investment income tends to be much smaller.  We are well on our way to earning roughly $30,000 in dividends for 2017, as we have in the past.

Blog income, shown as “other income” in the chart, increased to $4,262.  In August I deposited checks from advertisers that arrived in our mailbox during June and July, so the blog income for August is higher than usual.

My early retirement lifestyle consulting exploded to $1,197 for the month. This meteoric rise comes after a $0 revenue month in July. Things average out.  I was pretty slammed with consulting clients in the last couple weeks of August. I think they all waited until I returned home from Europe.  So far September is going slower (which is great – I’m retired after all!).

I had to postpone a consulting session when we stayed in the countryside outside Koblenz. Internet was literally slower than dial-up speeds (as in single kb/s).

I had to postpone a consulting session when we stayed in the countryside 15 minutes outside Koblenz. Internet was literally slower than dial-up speeds (as in single kb/s).  At least we didn’t go hungry nor lack for scenic rural landscapes.

I racked up $522 in cash back from the Ebates.com and Mrrebates.com online shopping portals.  Most of that was referral income from people signing up through this blog.  But I also landed several large bonuses related to travel booked in Europe (they often pay out once you complete the travel, not when you pay for it).  If you sign up for Ebates through this link and make a qualifying $25 purchase through Ebates, you’ll get a $10 gift card like I did.  When shopping online, I always check to see if I can score some extra cash back by using one of those online shopping portals (and it usually pays off!).

I had several miscellaneous bits of income including a $20 travel reimbursement from the travel agency I used to book a Hertz rental that fell apart at the last minute. I had to rebook at a slightly higher rate and the travel agency refunded me the difference.  I received a $10 cable/satellite refund for the credit balance on my account when I cancelled internet back in June in preparation for being away from home all summer.  The healthcare/medical $5 bit of income is a refund from my primary care doctor.  They charged a $5 copay but the insurance covered 100% as a preventative visit so I owed nothing out of pocket in hindsight. I think this is the first time a healthcare provider has automatically refunded a credit balance on their own initiative without me begging and pleading for return of my money.

august-2017-income

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 August expenses:

august-2017-expenses

Spending dropped to a modest $1,390 during August.  That’s almost $2,000 less than our budgeted $3,333 per month (or $40,000 per year).

 

Groceries – $357:

We were only home for two weeks in August but we bought a lot of groceries to restock our fridge, freezer, and pantry after being gone all summer.  We also threw a birthday party/sleepover for our eleven year old daughter and combined that with a welcome home party for ourselves and several of our friends.  So there was a small bump in spending for the nacho bar ingredients and a couple cases of beer.

I used Raise.com to buy some discounted gift cards to save even more on groceries and at Walmart.

 

Taxes – $300:

Quarterly estimated state taxes.  I paid it a little early to meet the minimum spending requirements on my Chase Ink Business card (and snagged a sign up bonus of $800 worth of Ultimate Reward points in the process!).  Check out credit card bonus offers if you like free money and free travel as much as I do!

 

Travel – $292:

We spent the first two and a half weeks of August in Berlin and Koblenz, Germany and Amsterdam, Netherlands.  The $292 travel spending is mostly groceries but also includes some restaurants, gas for the rental car, local transit, and family admission to Eltz Castle near Koblenz.  All lodging and intercity train travel was paid in previous months.  We saved a ton of money by staying most places for a week at a time and renting through Airbnb.

Travel spending for the month was probably several hundred dollars higher than reported here due to the way I tracked expenses. I withdrew hundreds of euros from the ATM in June and July and we ended up spending those euros in August to deplete our euros on hand before returning to the US.  The expense showed up in June and July.

Our $10,000 budget for nine weeks in Europe turned out to be doable.  Though I don’t have a total trip expense summary down to the penny, it looks like we spent about $8,500 for the nine weeks in Europe (not including around $6,000 in free airfare thanks to redeeming United frequent flyer miles).  We ate out a little less than expected which meant the $40/day food budget for a family of five was no problem.  We didn’t cut costs on groceries though.  We probably spent a little less than budgeted on attractions and admission fees since there was usually a significant discount for family admissions and at some places kids were entirely free.

Eltz Castle - not far from Koblenz.

Eltz Castle – not far from Koblenz.

Amsterdam was one of the more expensive places we visited in Europe. But the canals were worth it!

Amsterdam was one of the more expensive places we visited in Europe. But the canals were worth it!

We had to rent a car to get to our rural Airbnb near Koblenz which let us cruise around the Rhine river valley.

We had to rent a car to get to our rural Airbnb near Koblenz.  Having the car meant a pair of wheels to cruise around the Rhine river valley.

And the Moselle River.

And the Moselle River. Those are vineyards climbing the hillside on the right hand side of the photo.

More

More Moselle. Our airbnb was located between the Moselle and Rhine rivers in the village of Mariaroth which dates back to the 1200’s.

 

Clothing/Shoes – $250:

Though we don’t usually do “back to school clothes shopping”, the need arose this year.  After walking (and hopping and skipping and jumping and climbing) hundreds of miles this summer, the kids’ shoes and sandals were in varying stages of decay.  We also picked up an assortment of clothes for all of us to replace stuff we wore out over the summer (or outgrew, in the case of our three growing children who seem to have overlapping growth spurts).

Lots of walking = time for new shoes. Here we are strolling down the Rhine River in Boppard, Germany (near Koblenz).

Lots of walking = time for new shoes. Here we are strolling down the Rhine River in Boppard, Germany (near Koblenz).

Downtown Berlin along the River Spree. Very quiet and scenic.

Downtown Berlin along the River Spree. Very quiet and scenic.

 

Education – $69:

Run of the mill back to school shopping. Notebooks, binders, glue sticks, pencils, markers, and index cards.  Mixed in with this shopping were some important lessons on getting value. Walmart had name brand Five Star notebooks and binders that were around 100-150% more expensive than the generic store brand equivalents.  The kids helped us pick out the less expensive store brand products. Otherwise we would have spent a couple hundred dollars on school supplies.

We didn’t go for the $125 recommended graphing calculator for our new middle school student. Her older sister has one that’s not used all the time and we have an older model graphing calculator from my college days.  We may eventually have to buy a graphing calculator but there’s no rush right now.  My hope is that phone apps eventually replace the need for an expensive, limited use item.

Each night Berlin projects a historical documentary/light show on the wall of this building. Sit on the steps along the river behind the Reichstag for the best view.

Each night Berlin projects a historical documentary/light show on the wall of this building. Sit on the steps along the river behind the Reichstag for the best view.

Once a symbol of divisiveness, this segment of the wall acts as a canvas for artists.

Once a symbol of divisiveness, this segment of the wall acts as a canvas for artists.

Section of the Berlin wall still standing in the center of downtown Berlin.

Section of the Berlin wall preserved in its original location in the center of downtown Berlin.  To the left is the “Topography of Terror” – a museum/memorial documenting the atrocities of the Nazi regime. It’s situated on the former site of the Gestapo headquarters.

 

Restaurants – $42:

After we returned to the US we had to indulge a bit.  $42 equals one visit to our favorite Chinese/sushi/Mongolian grill/pho buffet restaurant.  Our oldest two kids now pay adult prices so the cost for a meal is creeping up for our family.  The food was better than it usually is, or perhaps we were missing it a lot after several months away from home.

Meals at restaurants in Europe are included under the “travel” category of expenses.

Preussen Park in Berlin. Every weekend this place turns into a Thai street food market. Entrees for €5 and small dishes €1 (about USD$6 and $1.20 respectively).Preussen Park in Berlin. Every weekend this place turns into a Thai street food market. Entrees for €5 and small dishes for €1 (about USD$6 and $1.20 respectively).

 

Gasoline – $35:

Apparently I left the minivan sitting on “E” when we left for Europe.  I filled the tank up in August and I’ll have to do so again in September.  I tried to top off the tank when there was a feared gas shortage in North Carolina but prices had already shot up by $0.20+ per gallon.  So, in a reaction to market prices, I “conserved” resources and skipped the top up until gas prices stabilize.

 

Healthcare – $16:

Our ridiculously cheap Affordable Care Act-subsidized health insurance plan.  Without subsidies it would be over $800 per month.

The political debate over the future of the Affordable Care Act continues in the United States.  The Trump/GOP hardliner effort to completely repeal the Affordable Care Act has withered and died on the vine.  Maybe it will happen eventually and I’ll lament the loss of my huge subsidy.  But the latest I’ve heard is a bipartisan health care bill will be coming from the Senate pretty soon that might actually be able to pass into law.  Included in the bill will presumably be fixes and tweaks to keep the health insurance market under the ACA from spiraling out of control with high premiums and lots of uncertainty for insurers and insureds alike.  Stay tuned!

Bears! The symbol of Berlin.

Bears! The symbol of Berlin.

 

Cable/Satellite – $14:

Upon returning to the US after a couple months in Europe, I signed up for new internet service from Spectrum.  As a new customer I managed to secure a low rate of $14.99 per month.  For that price tag I’m receiving 30 mbit/second download speeds and 4 mbit/second upload speeds with no data caps.

I found this beautiful town while exploring Streetview on Google Maps. Basically zero tourists.

I found this beautiful town of Kobern-Gondorf while exploring Streetview on Google Maps. Basically zero tourists.

 

Year to Date Living Expenses for 2017

august-2017-expenses-ytd

We have spent a total of $17,323 for the first eight months of 2017.  That is $9,000 less than our annual spending target of $26,666 budgeted for the first eight months of the year.  We aren’t clipping coupons and rewashing ziplock bags.  Instead, I feel like we’re living a pretty luxurious $100,000 lifestyle on under $40,000 per year.

Fall is usually a low-spending time of year. Things slow down for us once the kids are back in school.  Mild weather translates to minimal heating and cooling bills.  The weather outside is near-perfect for several months so we tend to enjoy tons of free outdoor activities like tennis at the neighborhood park, long walks, hikes, lounging outside with a good book, and backyard campfires.  Too much free/cheap awesome stuff to do!

With a $9,000 budget surplus for the year and only four months remaining, I’m fairly certain we will close the books on 2017 with a sizeable sum remaining unspent in our budget.

We are on the lookout for some last minute travel options and found a good deal on a few days at Atlantic Beach, North Carolina in September.  The trip won’t cost much since I’m using Chase Ultimate Reward points to get two free hotel nights.  We’re dodging hurricanes here in North Carolina but so far it looks like our beach plans will survive.

 

Monthly Expense Summary for 2017:

 

Net Worth: $1,890,000 (+$8,000)

It seems like every month I watch our net worth creep up and up and up.  August was no different with an $8,000 gain to bring our total net worth to $1,890,000.

august-2017-net-worth

In an effort to slightly reduce risk in my investment portfolio, I’ve been slowly selling appreciated stock investments and moving the funds to the Vanguard Total Bond Market index fund.  In August, I moved another $20,000 to the bond fund.  Right now the bond fund sits at roughly $110,000.  That sum along with almost $40,000 in a money market account will be sufficient to provide our living expenses for at least four or five years should the next recession and stock market crash happen sooner rather than later.

Don’t get me wrong – we will still lose several hundred thousand dollars in the next market correction.  There’s still a lot of inherent risk that comes with investing in equities. But the shift to a small bond allocation will allow us some certainty in where our next several years’ living expenses will come from.

The luxury of an increasing net worth is that we can more easily handle a massive drop in net worth, should one happen.  We’re growing a large margin of safety that should ensure that we never run out of money in early retirement.

 

I'll leave you with this picture that makes money talk seem small. There's a city block in Berlin entirely covered in these rectangular blocks. Almost 3,000 in total.

I’ll leave you with this picture that makes financial talk seem small. There’s a city block in Berlin entirely covered in these rectangular coffin-like concrete structures. Almost 3,000 in total.  It’s the Holocaust Memorial.  Approximately 6,000,000 Jews were killed by the Nazi regime during the Holocaust. It’s daunting to conceptualize what six million looks like. To put it in perspective, imagine that each of these concrete blocks represents 2,000 murdered Jews.  If you spent a minute at each block it would take you two full days to get to the last block.  Pretty mind blowing to think this kind of atrocity was inflicted on mankind by a regime based in what is now a very peaceful Berlin.

 

As far as the blog goes, I have slowed down with posts lately.  Life gets busy!  Coming up, I have a few finance-related blog posts in mind and several trip reports from our summer in Europe.  I just renewed the Rootofgood.com domain for another year and I’m about to migrate the blog to a new host in a week and sign up for three more years of hosting at the new place, so don’t worry – I’m not abandoning this little project yet.  During the migration you might experience weirdness here but hopefully that will be temporary.

That’s it for this month’s financial update.  Now that the kids are all in school during the day we are enjoying a lot more peace and relaxation.  I’m finally getting more hammock time with a good book.  A few years ago I wrote about my weekly schedule as an early retiree, and it’s still about the same today.

Looking forward, we are still trying to figure out what crazy adventure we’ll undertake during the summer of 2018.  Mexico? Eastern Europe? USA road trip? Or perhaps be lazy and stay at home?

 

 

I’m starting to think of year end financial moves I need to make like taking cap gains and converting traditional IRA to Roth to keep my ladder going.  Any big year end plans for your finances (or life in general)?  

 

 

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.

Surprising Finds in Lisbon, Portugal

The Root of Good family started its grand nine week European vacation with five days in Lisbon, Portugal.  After a short flight from Raleigh, Lisbon is an easy 7.5 hour overnight flight from Washington, D.C., so our transatlantic flight to Europe was relatively painless.  We arrived at 10:30 in the morning the next day.  After an arduous journey through the immigration lines, we left the airport by metro for a quick ride to our first (of fourteen) Airbnb apartments that would serve as our homes away from home for the next nine weeks in Europe.

To battle jet lag, I followed the advice to stay awake the whole day of our arrival and DON’T take a nap.  We dropped our bags at the airbnb apartment, hooked up to wifi, unpacked a bit, and did a quick inventory of necessities (“Do we have soap, shampoo, conditioner, and breakfast for tomorrow?”), and headed out for an afternoon of exploring downtown Lisbon so we would be forced to stay awake.  Easier said than done, we had an overly exhausted five year old that fell asleep on the metro ride back to our apartment, and it’s the first time I’ve nearly fallen asleep while standing up (waiting for the metro).

Waking up the next day in Lisbon, none of us really suffered from jet lag. Disaster averted.

Before we jump into the Lisbon trip report, here’s some background info.  Portugal and Spain share the Iberian peninsula in the southwestern corner of Europe, and appear to be similar in terms of climate and culture.  In fact, the two countries shared a king for a period of several decades yet remained separate, independent countries.  Being geographically adjacent, we decided to visit both countries (with Spain covered in a subsequent trip report post).

A quick note on ease of communication: I’m fairly proficient at speaking Spanish which helped immensely when attempting to communicate in Portuguese.  The languages are similar enough that I could get by reading Portuguese, make out some words while listening, and occasionally speak words in English or Spanish to get by.  If you know Spanish, learning the travel vocabulary basics is pretty easy.  English is widely spoken in the tourist areas, but less so outside the center.

 

I'm glad we didn't go bare-bones budget for our Airbnb reservations. This place in Lisbon was nice!

I’m glad we didn’t go bare-bones budget for our Airbnb reservations. This place in Lisbon was nice!  Perfect place to rest up after a flight across the Atlantic.

 

Exploring the City

Our apartment was a few miles from the center of town which meant a 10-20 minute bus or subway ride most days depending on where we were headed.

The biggest attraction in town is the Sao Jorge Castle.  A relic from the days when the Muslim Moors controlled southern Spain for a period of roughly 700 years, this old fortification sits high on a hill overlooking Lisbon.

Sao Jorge Castle

Sao Jorge Castle

 

Our first castle visit in Europe! First of many...

Our first castle visit in Europe! First of many…

 

sao-jorge-lisbon1

 

I'm still not sure how they got the water to the top of the hill to fill up this old moat. Did water run uphill back in the day?

I’m still not sure how they got the water to the top of the hill to fill up this moat. Did water run uphill back in the day?

 

Great views from the castle walls

Great views from the castle walls

 

We took a bus and a tram across the city to see the Tower of Belem. This tower guarded the entrance to the Tagus River, and provided protection for the city and all inland areas of Portugal from ships sailing the Atlantic Ocean.

We took a bus and a tram across the city to see the Tower of Belem. This tower guarded the entrance to the Tagus River and provided protection for the city and all inland areas of Portugal from unfriendly ships sailing the Atlantic Ocean. (note: our son is being goofy – he’s not exhausted or asleep. He simply hates posing for pictures because he’s five.)

 

A short walk from our Airbnb, the Fonte Luminosa or Luminous Fountain entertains and cools us down from the scorching summer heat.

A short walk from our Airbnb, the Fonte Luminosa or Luminous Fountain, entertains and cools us down from the scorching summer heat.

 

Maybe I'm a transportation nerd, but I loved seeing all the trains go by in this "canyon" next to our airbnb. Our apartment is in the building on the right.

Maybe I’m a transportation nerd, but I loved seeing all the trains go by in this “canyon” next to our airbnb. Every five to seven minutes another local or regional train would pass by.  The subway pops above ground for a bit in the far left of the photo and crosses over the railroad tracks.  Our apartment is in the green building just to the right of center.

 

Just across the railroad track "canyon" from our apartment is this deserted city park. Nice way to burn off some pastel de nata consumed during the stay in Lisbon.

Just across the bridge over the railroad track “canyon” from our apartment is this quiet city park. Nice way to burn off some pastel de nata consumed during the stay in Lisbon.

 

Getting Around

We took the Lisbon transit system every day except the final day when we Uber’d (Ubered?) back to the airport at 6 am Sunday since the metro doesn’t start running till 6:30 am.  It turns out Uber is super cheap in Lisbon and doesn’t cost a lot more than transit tickets for short to medium rides around the city.

The transit system has a subway with several lines complemented by a larger network of buses and trams criss-crossing the greater Lisbon area.  Although Lisbon as a whole is rather inexpensive, the structure of the fare system makes Lisbon transit rather expensive compared to most other European cities we’ve visited.  Single transit tickets run USD$1.50 while 24 hour passes are USD$7 per person.  For tourists, no discounts are available for children or families, and even our five year old had to purchase tickets (a rarity with other transit providers).  Frustratingly, the single tickets are not valid for transfers between buses or transferring between the metro and buses or trams (transfers between subway lines are free).  As a result, the day pass quickly becomes an attractive option if you’re making transfers or planning on taking multiple trips during a day of sightseeing.  We mixed it up with some single tickets and some 24 hour passes to optimize the transit spending.

The 24 hour passes can be used on two separate days.  For example, we lazed about the apartment one morning then set out for the day’s excitement around 1 pm which is when we validated our 24 hour pass.  This meant we could travel all day then up till 1 pm the next day.  A small trick, but helpful to stretch a buck when day passes for five total USD$35 per day.

The day pass lets you ride these historic trolleys around the touristic center of town.

The day pass lets you ride these historic trolleys around the touristic center of town at no additional cost.

 

And go up the various elevators and funiculars around town, all for the price of one $7 24 hour pass.

…And go up the various elevators and funiculars around town, all for the price of one $7 24 hour pass.  Though hard to see from this angle, the elevator starts from the ground level where we took this picture and goes up to the top about 80-100 feet where you can walk out to the street level. It’s a hilly city!

 

Food in Lisbon

On our first night in Lisbon, we were jet-lagged and hungry downtown after a day of sightseeing and trying to stay awake.  The kids were starving and exhausted, so we took a break from the tourist trail and stopped into a doner kebab restaurant for some kebabs (something new to us) and burgers (comfort food for the kids).  The whole meal came in at €29 (or USD$31).

Doner kebab prato (or plate) - a double heaping serving of doner kebab meat, veggie salad, and large french fries on the side for USD$6. It came with a soda which we switched for a beer (beer was cheaper than soda so technically it was a downgrade :) )

Doner kebab prato (or plate) – a double heaping serving of doner kebab meat, veggie salad, and large french fries on the side for USD$6. It came with a soda which we switched for a beer (beer was cheaper than soda so technically it was a downgrade 🙂 )

 

Encore appearance of the doner kebab plate - kebab sandwiches on baguettes with tomatoes and olives from the grocery store! Yummy creative way to consume leftovers from huge portions at the restaurant.

Encore appearance of the doner kebab plate – leftover kebab on baguettes with tomatoes and olives from the grocery store and balsamic vinegar provided by the airbnb host. Yummy creative way to consume leftovers from huge portions at the restaurant.  Nice $1-2 bottle of wine and city view as side dishes.

Since we’re on extended travels with our three kids, it’s usually easier to buy nice foods and dine at home or grab take out, rather than try to get the crowd rounded up for lunch or dinner out somewhere, navigate to a suitable restaurant, then wait for our food to come out when our kids are starving to death literally*.

 

* not literally, but you know how kids can over-dramatize

 

Homemade snack time sampler - croissant, camambert and prosciutto (called presunto in Portuguese)

Homemade snack time sampler – croissant, Camembert and prosciutto (called presunto in Portuguese). I forget the exact cost but a fraction of the US cost. Probably $0.50-.75 for this whole plate.

We visited a Portuguese slash Middle Eastern slash South Asian restaurant and ordered several dishes to share.  Chicken curry, steak and egg, empanadas, grilled fish, and burgers. The total was once again €29 or about USD$31 for the five of us.

Chicken curry

Chicken curry, rice, and salad

 

$5 for 3 empanadas and a $1.50 "quibe" - fried meaty deliciousness

$5 for 3 empanadas and a $1.50 “quibe” – crispy fried meaty deliciousness

 

$5 for a steak dinner? Thanks, Lisbon!

$5 for a steak dinner? Thanks, Lisbon!

 

And for dessert - pastel de nata, the most famous sweet treat from Lisbon. We picked these up from the bakery in the grocery store next to our apartment for $0.35 each.

And for dessert – pastel de nata, the most famous sweet treat from Lisbon. It’s a creamy custard baked in a flaky dough.  We picked these up from the bakery in the grocery store next to our apartment for $0.35 each.

 

The $35 big haul from the grocery store to set us up for good eats at “home”:

I love checking out all the different foods they stock at the grocery stores in other countries. And snapping up cheap buys compared to prices at home.

The grocery store had a hot prepared foods counter so I got several different meat filled pastries, a sausage, some croquettes, and a whole rotisserie chicken.  And check out those presunto flavored potato chips.

We have a habit of buying some good bread and sliced meats and cheeses and packing a light lunch to take on the go.  Then we can have a nice picnic whenever we get hungry, or slide a kid a mini sandwich to eat on the go for an energy boost.

 

Thoughts on Lisbon

We had a good time in the city and thought it was a fun introduction to Europe.  Lisbon offers different sights compared to the rest of Europe since there’s the Moorish influence and the climate is drier and hotter.  For those that have only visited the most popular European destinations like Paris and London, it’ll be a pleasant change of scenery.

 

Celebrating my 37th birthday in Lisbon with ice cream cake!

Celebrating my 37th birthday in Lisbon with ice cream cake!

 

The weather was much hotter than usual with temperatures in the 90’s and 100’s while we were there in June.  But it was a dry heat, so not too bad.  On the worst day when temps hovered in the 100-104F range most of the day, we chose to take a “do nothing day” where we were lazy and didn’t leave the apartment for sightseeing.  Though we did explore the neighborhood park right before nightfall when the temperature dropped.  This is part of our “slow travel” philosophy – take it easy and enjoy the traveling.

 

Moon reflecting on the Tagus River - view from our Airbnb.

Moon reflecting on the Tagus River – view from our Airbnb.

 

Food was good and inexpensive, both at the grocery store and at restaurants.  The city is easy to navigate by transit and Uber is so cheap that it’s a cost-effective alternative if you don’t feel like taking transit (or even cheaper than transit if you have four people in your group, for example).  Overall, prices were about 65-70% of what we would pay in Raleigh, North Carolina.

 

Took this tiny turboprop for a short hop from Lisbon to Malaga, Spain.

Took this tiny turboprop for a short hop from Lisbon to Malaga, Spain. Note the luggage – that’s all we packed for 9 weeks in Europe.  Bookbags plus some small sacks for miscellanies.

 

After Lisbon, we spent nine days in southern Spain spread across the Andalusian cities of Malaga, Granada, and Seville.  Stay tuned for the summary of the Spain leg of our trip.

 

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

 

 

Have you been to Lisbon before?  Any favorite spots we missed? 

 

 

June 2017 Financial Update

This month’s financial update comes to you from Ljubljana, Slovenia – an undiscovered gem in Europe.  We are about to head to Lake Bled, Slovenia for some hiking, lake-lounging, and more relaxing.  After that we’re on to Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic for the next month before ending our vacation in Amsterdam.  It’s hard to believe we are almost half way through our nine week summer vacation in Europe!

June was another great month financially.  Net worth increased $14,000 to $1,842,000.  Income was very strong at $7,793 during June, while expenses remained moderate at $2,629.  Such a great feeling to watch your assets continue to grow for you while you’re on the other side of the world exploring and relaxing!

Income

Investment income totaled $6,265 for the month.  The majority of our mutual funds and ETFs pay dividends quarterly in March, June, September, and December.  During other months investment income tends to be much smaller.  We are well on our way to earning roughly $30,000 in dividends for 2017, as we have in the past.  Of the dividends and interest received during June, around $3,000 was in our taxable brokerage accounts with the remainder deposited into our IRA’s and 401k’s.

Blog income, shown as “other income” in the chart, dropped to $906.  I have a large check from an advertiser waiting for me at home, so the blog income is lower than usual.

My early retirement lifestyle consulting remained steady at $480 for the month.  That represents four hours of work.  Some of that work was completed while in Seville, Spain which technically makes me a “digital nomad” (one who is location independent and works wherever they are).

This guy works hard!

This guy works hard! No vacationing here!

Tough to focus when this is your view of Lisbon from the bay windows!

Tough to focus when this is your view of Lisbon from the bay windows

 

The $141 in Deposits includes cash back rebates 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 like I did.  When shopping online, I always check to see if I can score some extra cash back by using one of those online shopping portals (and it usually pays off!).

Part of the “Deposits” income is $125 from something called credit card tradeline sales.  It’s something new I’m trying to pick up some easy cash. The 30 second version is: I add an authorized user to my credit card; the authorized user gets a big boost to their credit score; they pay the credit fixing agency; I get paid. I’ll expand on this explanation in a future blog post if it’s ever something worth recommending to my general readership. So far it’s kind of cumbersome for limited payback potential and comes with non-trivial but manageable risks that I would have to explain in detail.

june-2017-income

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 June expenses:

june-2017-expenses

We spent $2,629 during the month of June.  We came in several hundred dollars under our budgeted $3,333 per month (or $40,000 per year).  The big expenses this month were travel/vacations and home maintenance (a new roof).

Vacation is underway. La Alhambra in Granada, Spain.

Vacation is underway. La Alhambra in Granada, Spain. And perhaps the only picture where our five year old is smiling normally and looking at the camera. 

 

Travel – $1,290

During June we spent $1,290 here in Europe on our big summer vacation.  I haven’t been tracking this spending in great detail, but looking at the data in Personal Capital, I see $723 in ATM withdrawals (fee free or fee reimbursed, thanks to my Fidelity Cash Management ATM/Debit card).  Of that $723, I still had around $400 in cash at the end of June, so June’s spending is slightly overstated.  The ATM spits out cash and I spend it anywhere that won’t take credit cards.  I don’t keep a detailed list of where this cash goes.

I spent $95 on the annual fee for my new Chase Ink Business credit card. I assess this charge to “Travel” because we’ll use the 80,000 bonus points for signing up for this card to get a free plane ticket or three in the future.

After taking out the $400 that we didn’t spend yet, and the $95 credit card annual fee, we spent a net of $800 in June. About $300 of that is groceries.  $250 on dining out. The remaining $250 we spent on local buses, trains, and subways, Uber, and entrance fees to castles and other attractions.

Groceries – So far we’ve spent roughly $300 for the first 18 days in Europe, or about $17 per day.  Grocery prices in Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Slovenia (where we have visited so far) range from about the same as Raleigh to about a third cheaper.  We aren’t able to take advantage of bulk purchases or shopping big sales, so overall we’re still spending about the same as we do at home in spite of dining out more often here in Europe.

I love checking out all the different foods they stock at the grocery stores in other countries. And snapping up cheap buys compared to prices at home.

I love checking out all the different foods they stock at the grocery stores in other countries. And snapping up cheap buys compared to prices at home.  Prosciutto flavored potato chips! Local pastries. Fresh cherries for a buck per pound. $0.35 fresh baked baguettes. A pound sack of olives for a buck. Croissants, multiple packages of prosciutto. Camambert cheese and duck liver pate.  Beef samosa dumplings, empanadas, and cured bacalhau fish croquettes.  I paid USD$35 for all this.

 

Dining out – we go out to eat about once per day or once every other day.  Even though Europe is supposed to be expensive, we aren’t having a hard time finding meals for €20-30 total for the five of us (about USD$23-34).  Sometimes that’s take out, and sometimes that’s a sit down meal at a simple place.  Even in supposedly expensive Venice, Italy, we found a local pizza place 30 seconds from our Airbnb that serves huge 19-20″ pizzas for €10 (USD$11).  These pizzas wouldn’t fit in the 18″ box so they had to fold the pizza over onto itself to get it in the box.  I also had to incline the pizza box at a 45 degree angle to get it through the narrow doorway of our apartment!  For €20 we fed the whole family and had some leftovers for a midnight snack (and some nibbles at the Piazza San Marco the next day).  Then we broke the bank by ordering a couple of take out seafood pasta dishes that totaled €24.50 (USD$28).

$5 for a steak dinner? Thanks, Lisbon!

$5 for a steak dinner? Thanks, Lisbon!

$5 for 2 empanadas and a "quibe" - fried meaty deliciousness

$5 for 2 empanadas and a “quibe” – fried meaty deliciousness

Most recently in Ljubljana, we spent €27-30 (USD$35 or slightly less) per meal on two meals.  One meal was a nice little cafe with local Slovenian dishes where we ordered some extra sides to try different things.  The lunch special I ordered was €5 (USD$5.60) and came with a medium size salad, pan-fried smoked trout on a bed of rice and spinach, plus a slice of cheesecake for dessert.  Later, we went to the Ljubjana central market and ordered from food trucks and had more than we could eat – burgers, local sausage sandwiches, a local version of stuffed crust pizza, and fried calamari for €27 (USD$30).

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

The fish and rice part of my 3 course meal in Ljubljana for USD$5.60. Not shown – salad and cheesecake.

 

Transit – Other than a pair of Ubers to catch an early morning flight in Lisbon, we’ve gotten by with buses, subways and local trains everywhere else.  Or our feet.  Local transit usually costs USD$0.70 to $1.50 and sometimes one or two kids ride free.  In almost all cities, it’s cheaper (or mandatory) to buy a transit card for $0.50 to $2.00 and charge it with single rides, or add a day pass for unlimited rides for one or more days.  The most expensive city was Lisbon where everyone had to pay and a one way ride on transit was USD$7 for our family of five.  An Uber to downtown or to the airport is only USD$4-6, but we had to take 2 Ubers since only four passengers can legally ride in an Uber (and yes, I asked if a lap child is acceptable; no, the driver said it was not).  We would have been better off Ubering everywhere if there were only four of us.

Entrance fees – We haven’t had to pay to get into a lot of attractions so far.  Many places are free, or offer free admission on certain days of the week or times of the day.  We worked around these free admission schedules and rarely had to pay an entrance fee.  I think we’ve only paid to get into one museum (well preserved ancient Roman ruins under the city of Seville, Spain, about USD$10 total for the family and totally worth it).  We paid to get into the Sao Jorge castle in Lisbon.  Here in Ljubljana we are paying for entrance to two caves (to be reported in the July financial update).

Random parade in Malaga? Free.

Random parade in Malaga? Free.

Follow the parade into the cathedral? Free.

Follow the parade into the cathedral? Free.

Most in the family aren’t that interested in museums anyway, so we generally skip museums (even if they are free).  I do enjoy the occasional museum so I’ll sometimes leave Mrs. Root of Good with the kids and explore the museum part of an attraction while she rests with the kids (read: the kids drive her crazy).  Even for museums that charge, many are incredibly affordable compared to US prices,  Family admissions for USD$10-20 are common. In a previous month, we paid around USD$40 for La Alhambra tickets in Granada, Spain and that proved to be a cheap price for a nice (but hot) six hour adventure through a beautiful castle, palace, and gardens.

La Alhambra. Amazing to see in person. Can't believe it took us 6 hours to see it all, but it's a massive facility.

La Alhambra. Amazing to see in person. Can’t believe it took us 6 hours to see it all, but it’s a massive facility.

Alcazaba in Malaga - totally free if you time it right

Alcazaba in Malaga – totally free if you time it right. Like a mini Alhambra if you aren’t going to Granada.

 

Transportation between cities and all accommodations were paid for over the past six or eight months, so we’re not spending anything on that right now.

We’re a little below the budget estimate I put together for this trip.  Costs might go up slightly once we enter Germany, but so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the moderate costs on the first half of the trip.

 

Home Maintenance – $1,126:

Our portion of the roof replacement was $1,111.  The other 80% of the cost was covered by the insurance company.  It looks really nice, and hopefully it’ll hold up for many years to come.

Work in progress

Work in progress

The remaining $15 in this category is random stuff from Lowe’s to tackle a few small DIY tasks before we left for Europe, plus a gallon of gas for the lawnmower. We’re having a teenager from down the street mow the grass at $20 per mow, and I told him to use our gas to refill his mower so he can avoid hauling the gas can down the street.

 

Groceries – $157:

We left for Europe on June 12, so we only spent a little bit on groceries while in Raleigh.  When we get home in August we’ll have to restock the fridge and freezer so I expect a large grocery bill at that point.

We’re spending quite a bit on groceries while in Europe, but I’m including these in the “Travel” expense category.

At the butcher counter, they'll slice the steak thin for you. Makes it easier to fry up some steak for sandwiches.

At the butcher counter at the grocery store in Lisbon, they’ll slice the steak thin for you (“bife” style the English speaking butcher told me). Makes it easier to fry up some steak for sandwiches.

 

Restaurants – $29:

Went out to eat with our immediate family plus some extended family right before we left for Europe.  Dining out while in Europe is included in the “Travel” expense category.

 

Insurance – $25:

Farm Bureau, the insurer I use, requires a $25 annual membership fee. For some reason they billed me in June whereas I paid the other insurance bills in May.

 

Expenses that were zero during June:

Gas – we didn’t fill up the van in June before leaving on vacation, so we won’t have any gas expenses until August or September when we get back.

Internet – we cancelled internet for the summer since we won’t be using it.

Healthcare/Medical – I prepaid the health insurance through July so we won’t have to worry about that while in Europe.  So far everyone has remained healthy and my extensive first aid kit is still mostly intact.  We chose to skip travel insurance so we are self-insuring for health care here in Europe (other than our emergency coverage through US-based insurance).

Utilities – I prepaid our electric, natural gas, and water bills for several months ahead during prior months.  This was mostly to meet the minimum spending requirements for a series of credit cards we applied for this winter and spring that gave us 360,000 airline miles.  It doesn’t take much to score free tickets to Mexico, the Caribbean, or Europe (we traveled to Europe on free plane tickets, for example).

Do you like free travel as much as I do?  Check out all the credit card sign up bonuses.  Or go directly to the Chase Ink Business Preferred card with an 80,000 point bonus (any size business qualifies you for a business card).  For reference, 80,000 points can fly you almost anywhere in the world on a variety of frequent flyer programs, or get you three domestic round trip tickets.

We spent USD$21 to get into the Sao Jorge Castle in Lisbon. Very nice castle, and our first castle in Europe.

We spent USD$21 to get into the Sao Jorge Castle in Lisbon. Very nice castle, and our first castle in Europe.  Great views all around the city and the bay too.

 

Year to Date Living Expenses for 2017

june-2017-expenses-ytd

We have spent a total of $14,316 for the first half of 2017 (through the end of June).  That is $5,700 below our annual spending target of $20,000 budgeted for the first six months of the year.  I’m a little dumbfounded by this running total since I feel like we’re living a pretty luxurious lifestyle (what I call a $100,000 lifestyle on $40,000 per year).

The bulk of the planned big ticket spending for 2017 is over and on the books at this point. The new roof came in much cheaper than expected thanks to receiving over $4,000 from our insurance company for hail and wind damage.  Our Europe trip is on track for our $10,000 total budget for the nine weeks.  July shouldn’t have more than another $2,000-$2,500 in trip expenses.  There’s a good chance we’ll close out 2017 with a nice budget surplus if nothing unexpected pops up.  It’s also possible we won’t break $30,000 in spending for the year!

 

Monthly Expense Summary for 2017:

 

Net Worth: $1,842,000 (+$14,000)

Another month, another strong net worth boost.  I miss the days of up and down markets where we occasionally lost $50,000 or $100,000 in really bad months.  Right now it’s just up, up and more up.  Which means the odds of down, down, and more down increase.  june-2017-net-worth

 

In the meantime, we’ll continue mostly disregarding market performance.  I might move another $25,000 into the Vanguard Total Bond Market index fund if markets keep going up like they have been.

Life's a beach, man. Total beach.

Life’s a beach, man. Total beach. First time dipping toes in the Mediterranean Sea while in Malaga, Spain.

 

Ok, back to traipsing across Europe!  Hopefully I can carve out some time to provide a more in depth trip report for all these places we’re visiting.

 

 

How is your summer going?  Still enjoying the perpetual stock market gains? 

 

 

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.

When is Enough Enough?

How do you know when you have enough to retire early?  When is enough enough?  In a rare guest post, the Early Retirement Dude pays a visit to Root of Good to share his thoughts.  

Relatively new to the FIRE blog scene, the Early Retirement Dude is no stranger to the refined art of Early Retirement.  Now 47, he retired over a decade ago at the ripe young age of 36 (ha ha I beat him by 3 years but it’s not really a contest, is it?!).  I had the pleasure of hosting ER Dude at my house several weeks back, and can confirm he’s a legitimate ER Dude, scraggly two week beard and all.

 

=========================

 

It’s May of 2005 and I’m officially quitting my job this morning—or, technically, I’m being laid off because I’ve turned down a directed transfer—and part of the process is an exit interview with our divisional president.

I’ve just turned thirty-six.

Cliff is a good guy, and for a couple more hours I’m two tiers down from him on the org chart. I report directly to a woman who reports directly to him, so he and I have gotten to know one another and become friends. He’s also helped me out career-wise; involved me in higher-level meetings, invited me to the right cocktail parties, and been solicitous of my opinion.

So at the appointed time I show up in his office, him in his charcoal Brooks Brothers and me in my Grateful Dead t-shirt and cargo shorts and running shoes. I mean, what the hell, right? Truckin’…got my chips cashed in, etc.

Cliff checks out my outfit and grins. “I guess you’re serious.”

I chuckle. “Yeah.”

“OK. Can’t say I didn’t try. Have a seat.”

On the far side of his office he’s got two couches and two easy chairs arranged into a conversation pit. I take a couch and he comes over and sinks into a chair.

“Right,” he sighs. “Uh, Rachael filled me in somewhat. Said you were leaving the industry.”

Rachel’s an HR rep. “Sort of,” I say. “I’m getting completely out of corporate America. I’m done.”

“Done?”

“Retiring.”

“Oh.”

He shifts his gaze to the big plate-glass windows. He’s got the blinds open; it’s a bright spring day. “You know,” he muses, “I’ve heard a lot of people talk about doing what you’re doing, but nobody ever does.”

Now: Cliff is a a guy whose net worth is easily ten million dollars. I’m guesstimating, but I’d once seen the standard executive-level contract, blank, and between the perks and the stock options and the bonus floor and the wide wide empty salary line with plenty of room for zeroes; and of course his slice of the phantom equity the company originally distributed when it was a startup, I know he’s done and is still doing well for himself.

So I call him on it. “Man, I don’t get it. I mean, you. You’re worth, what, ten million bucks? And I know you’re burned out, so why are you still here?”

He replies a little too quickly, as if he often asks himself this question. “Because,” he tells me, “you get the big house and the nice cars and the toys, and your kids are in private schools and your wife gets used to the lifestyle, and that’s it.”

I nod. “OK.”

And that’s pretty much it for the personal side of the discussion. The rest of the interview is the usual formulaic bullshit about my satisfaction with career development, how I feel the company can improve employee retention, whether I have any concerns about discrimination or sexual harassment, and so forth, and within twenty minutes we’ve got the whole thing wrapped up. We stand up and shake hands, he directs me to the HR VP’s office, I sign off on my severance contract, and I’m on the train home before noon.

I never see Cliff again.

A few years later I hear through the grapevine that the company axed him after a regulatory agency found his division guilty of violating the agency’s operational standards. Not anything criminal, but sketchy enough nonetheless. The agency’s finding cost the company an eight-figure settlement, which of course resulted in several public and bloody decapitations, including Cliff’s.

Which triggered his severance agreement. And that meant he’d just thrown however many million dollars his package was worth onto his already Kilimanjaro-sized pile of money—not to mention however much that mountain had grown in the years since I’d left.

~

These days I don’t think about Cliff much, but I wonder if that layoff was the point at which he left the industry. I hope so, because how much is enough?

Maybe he started consulting, or maybe he moved on to a different field. He’s not on Facebook, or at least not the last time I checked, and I guess I could google him or search LinkedIn, but I haven’t bothered.

campfire-on-beach

That exit interview was eleven years ago. I’m forty-seven, now, and as I write this I’m sitting alone on the beach on Cape Lookout, a barrier island off the North Carolina coast. This is an undeveloped beach, a national seashore that stretches on and on for fifty miles, and at this time of year it’s deserted. I’d be surprised if there are twenty other people sharing the island with me.

When I drove off the ferry eight days ago I hit the beach and drove south through the sand for I don’t know how many miles until I got seized by The Thirst…so I pulled over onto a nice flat spot in the shelter of the dunes, cracked a beer, and set up camp.

truck-on-beach

I’ve been sun-basking and surf-fishing and beer-cracking ever since. I’ve gone running along the tideline, picked up a million seashells, watched the lighthouse’s beam endlessly circle around and around, counted shooting stars, and of course I’ve been doing some heavy thinking. You can’t help but think in places like this.

And so I thought of Cliff. I don’t know where he is; what he’s doing; how his life is going…but he’s certainly not sun-basking or surf-fishing or beer-cracking or even soul-searching on Cape Lookout.

puffer-fish-beach

This must be an allegory for Cliff – stuck on the hook and unsure how to free himself.

That thing he said about the house and cars and private schools and such. I think taking a job you hate and getting addicted to the paycheck is one of the worst ways you can screw up your life. Money can’t buy you happiness, but I guess it makes misery more enjoyable…as the old saying goes, or ought to.

So wherever Cliff is, I hope it’s someplace he wants to be. He’d be in his early fifties now, so maybe he DID get out.
Whatever the case, I wish him well.

=======================

Don’t forget to visit Early Retirement Dude!

 

 

Any Cliffs out there willing to admit it?  If so, when will you call it quits?  How do you persuade yourself that enough is in fact enough when there’s always the fear of running out of money in early retirement

 

 

Summer Vacation for 5 in Europe: 9 Weeks, 8 Countries, 14 Cities, $10,000

The Root of Good family is ramping up for an epic adventure across Europe during the summer of 2017.  The five of us will spend nine weeks traversing an all new (to us) continent by train, plane, bus, car, and foot.

We really struggled to narrow down the itinerary to something feasible for a family with three young children.  As a result this trip will NOT include London nor Paris nor a dozen other cities we would have loved to visit.  What we will see are museums, parks, castles, palaces, cathedrals, caves, mountains, seas, rivers, lakes, and canyons scattered about the rest of western and central Europe.

Many will view this as a “trip of a lifetime” or a “dream trip” but I choose to view this as just another cool vacation in a series of vacations we have already taken and will continue to take.

However, this Europe trip is in some ways the realization of a dream.  As a wistful traveler / college student yearning for adventure before embarking on my 10 year corporate grind, I ordered a stack of maps from AAA back in the dark days before the invention of Google Maps.  What better way to think, plan, and dream about where you want to explore than a pile of maps for all the countries in Europe?  For 15 years I kept these maps in a shoe box in the closet.  Now I’m figuratively dusting them off and planning on hitting the road soon (I’ll leave the maps at home since I’m going all digital with Google Maps on my computer and phone!).

Dreams fulfilled. Finally getting to bust out these maps of Europe.

Dreams fulfilled. Finally getting to bust out these maps of Europe.

This Europe trip is unique compared to our typical budget travel two months in Mexico and road trips through the US and Canada.  We’ll spend two or three times as much as we usually do on our grand summer vacations. And it’s Europe – a place we have never visited before, and in a cliché way, a must-have on every legitimate traveler’s resume.

 

Where are we going?

In mid-June we depart Raleigh for a flight across the Atlantic to Lisbon, Portugal where the adventure begins.  From Portugal we fly to the Andalusia region of southern Spain for a bit over a week before flying onward to Italy for a week.  After landing in Italy we travel overland through Slovenia, Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic before arriving in Amsterdam where our vacation ends with a flight back to Raleigh.

The itinerary for nine weeks:

  1. Lisbon, Portugal 5 nights
  2. Malaga, Spain 2 nights
  3. Granada, Spain 3 nights
  4. Seville, Spain 4 nights
  5. Milan, Italy 4 nights
  6. Venice, Italy 2 nights
  7. Ljubljana, Slovenia 7 nights
  8. Bovec/Bled, Slovenia 4 nights
  9. Salzburg, Austria 2 nights
  10. Munich, Germany 7 nights
  11. Prague, Czech 7 nights
  12. Berlin, Germany 7 nights
  13. Koblenz (Mariaroth), Germany 7 nights
  14. Amsterdam, Netherlands 3 nights
  15. Back to Raleigh!

 

 

Transportation: Getting around town. And country. And continent.

To get around Europe, we’re relying primarily on buses and trains.  We are also taking a pair of flights for those travel segments that are difficult, expensive or take a long time on ground-based transit.  Overall, transportation in Europe is quite a steal IF you can snag the advance purchase cut rate fares.  Budget airlines aplenty such as Ryanair and EasyJet offer tickets for USD$10-20 in some cases.

Buses and trains can be even better deals for families with kids since children’s tickets are often heavily discounted or free altogether.  I looked into rail passes and quickly decided purchasing tickets a la carte would be much cheaper and easier than understanding the rules for different regional rail passes and days of validity versus days of travel.

All together, we spent 300,000 United Airline miles plus USD$544 cash for plane tickets.  More than half that was taxes on our transatlantic flights from Raleigh to Lisbon and Amsterdam to Raleigh.  The other bit is a roughly 1,000 mile flight from Seville, Spain to Milan, Italy on Ryanair at just under USD$40 per person (and a meager 2.5 hour flight time).

The flight from Lisbon, Portugal to Malaga, Spain was free since we booked an award flight to Europe.  You get a one way flight within the region you’re visiting with United Miles redemptions.  The award flights that we booked for 300,000 miles plus $350 in taxes would have cost $6,000 to $7,000 had we paid cash.  In the end we obtained between 2 to 2.2 cents per mile of value out of these points, which is pretty good for United miles.  All thanks to travel hacking some credit card sign up bonuses over the past few years.

To add to the value, we picked up the Chase Sapphire Reserve card earlier this year which gives us free Priority Pass Select membership.  Priority Pass admits us to certain business/first class lounges in the airports we’re traveling through so we can stop in and grab drinks (alcoholic or non) and some basic grub before and after our flight in lieu of paying for the same at an overpriced airport restaurant or rushing to get to a food establishment before the kids starve OMG literally to death (or so they would claim, literally).

Plane Tickets: Points Cost
United: Raleigh, North Carolina to Lisbon, Portugal x5 150,000 $175
United: Lisbon to Malaga, Spain x5 0 (free 1 way tix with United miles award booking) $0
Ryanair: Seville, Spain to Milan, Italy x5 0 $194
United: Amsterdam, Netherlands to Raleigh x5 150,000 $175
TOTAL 300,000 $544

 

For buses and trains, we spent between USD$40 and $69 for all segments with travel times between roughly two to four hours.  One exception is the Berlin to Koblenz train trip which is closer to six hours.  Since it was a longer duration than other trips, we decided to indulge in a little luxury and spring for first class tickets on Deutsche Bahn for $32 more than second class tickets (that’s $32 total for the entire family!).

Though second class seats on German trains are more than adequate, we opted for the upgrade to get comfier more spacious seating (including a private compartment) and more importantly, first class lounge access for the day.  We’ll be feasting on the all-inclusiveness with pastries, fruit, coffee and hot chocolate for breakfast in Berlin.  After a four hour high speed train ride from Berlin, we’ll grab a quick bite and pop some champagne during the 35 minute layover in Frankfurt before transferring to another high speed train bound for Cologne, Germany.  We have a three hour layover in downtown Cologne to explore on foot and have lunch with some beer or wine (and maybe an early dinner if time permits) in the first class lounge before heading a few minutes down the tracks to the airport for our rental car pickup.  A day on the rails in first class, three snacks or meals in their lounges, plus a quick city tour for $84 for the five of us.  That’s how you travel in style on the cheap!

Bus/Train: Cost (total for 5 tickets)
Bus from Malaga to Granada, Spain $41
Bus from Granada to Seville, Spain $40
Train from Milan to Venice, Italy $49
Bus from Venice, Italy to Ljubljana, Slovenia $69
Train from Bled, Slovenia to Salzburg, Austria $41
Bus from Munich, Germany to Prague, Czech $40 (estimate; not yet purchased)
Bus/train from Prague to Berlin, Germany $53 (estimate; not yet purchased)
Train from Berlin to Koblenz/Cologne, Germany (higher cost due to 1st class tix) $84
Train from Koblenz/Cologne to Amsterdam $40
Total $457

 

We’ll be renting cars for three different periods during our trip.  I’m unable to drive a manual transmission vehicle so I’ll be paying the 20-30% markup for automatic transmission vehicles.  The extra $100 will be recouped dozens of times when I don’t stall the car or inadvertently roll into oncoming vehicles or back down the hill onto the hood of an about-to-be-angry driver.  The frugalist in me says “learn to drive a stick to save a few bucks”. Then the realist shouts “This is why we saved up all this money. To afford small luxuries and conveniences.”  Though learning to drive stick while destroying someone else’s clutch does have its merits.

I’m shocked at how cheap the rental rates are since we are doing one-way rentals for at least two of the rentals (and possibly the third rental in the Koblenz area if I can find a decent one-way rate).  Another lesson learned is the lack of rental office availability on Sundays (note: never plan on conducting business or shopping for groceries on Sunday in Germany).

I’m also shocked at the opaqueness of rental car pricing. It jumps all over from hour to hour and day to day. And there are quirks.  Sometimes the price to rent for seven days is the exact same as for five days. And sometimes the total price DROPS if you extend the rental period.  Our Ljubljana, Slovenia rental was $20+ cheaper for a 13 day rental compared to a 10-12 day rental.  Ummm, okay, I can store your car for you for a few days in exchange for $20.

Rental Car: # Days Cost Cost Per Night
Ljubljana, Slovenia to Bled, Slovenia 13 $161 $12
Salzburg, Austria to Munich Germany 4 $113 $28
Koblenz, Germany (Via Cologne) 7 $181 $26
Total/Average 24 $455 $19

We will be taking public transit during about two thirds of our trip.  Most cities have multi-day or weekly transit passes and discounts for children (or they ride free with an adult pass), so transit costs should be fairly moderate overall.  Except in Venice where it’s $8 per person for a boat-bus called a vaporetto!  I’m sticking $750 in the budget for all transit costs.  Other miscellaneous transportation costs include parking and tolls at $75 and gas for the rental car at $250.  The gas cost is based on 1,375 miles at 33 miles per gallon with gas at $6/gallon.

Gas for Rental Car $250
Parking, Tolls $75
Local Transit $750
Total $1,075

To sweeten these deals, I’m always checking online cash back shopping portals like Ebates.  In this case, I didn’t have much luck finding the European train and bus companies on Ebates (but there are some travel consolidators that sell train tickets and qualify for cash back).  However, most rental car companies qualify for 4-5% cash back (like Hertz and Sixt) and the big travel sites like Expedia and Travelocity offer a couple percent cash back on rental car reservations.  I booked two out of three rental cars through Ebates so I should get another $10-20 cash back once the car rental is complete this summer.

If you’re interested in getting cash back at hundreds of sites where you are already shopping online, check out Ebates.  And click through this link for $10 bonus cash back for new members!

 

Lodging

At first we planned on a combination of hotels for short stays of two or three days and apartment rentals for longer periods.  After digging in to available hotel and apartment offerings, we quickly discovered that apartment rentals offered a much better value even for short stays.  Most hotels in Europe offer standard rooms that sleep two or possibly two plus a kid.  And you pay extra for guests in the room beyond one or two people, including kids.  For our family of five this put us in large hotel suite territory (think $$$) or paying for two rooms, the second of which might come with extra person fees for the third kid.

We moved on to Airbnb, our choice for vacation apartment rentals.  I’ve used VRBO in the past when I couldn’t find anything on Airbnb.  But this time around, the inventory and options available in all the cities we are visiting was simply overwhelming so I didn’t need to expand my search beyond Airbnb.

I love their search tools because you can filter out properties that don’t meet your criteria and then save your favorite properties on a map so it’s easy to see where your most desired properties are located.  Once you know exactly what you’re looking for, the thousands of properties in a city drop to several dozen or several hundred.

My typical search criteria was:

  • Whole house rental (not “shared room” or “private room”)
  • 2+ bedrooms (unless there aren’t many properties or they are super expensive or we’ll only be there for a couple nights, then 1+ bedroom)
  • 4+ guests (many times there’s an extra bed or couch where a small kid can sleep or a huge bed where multiple kids can sleep; 5+ guest weeds out too many perfectly acceptable rentals)
  • Air conditioning if it’s hot (summertime anywhere in Spain, Portugal, Italy)
  • limit price to a max of 60-80% of the average for the city (and increase price limit to show more properties if nothing cheaper looks appealing)

Though not included in our search criteria, we highly desire:

  • washer, and preferably dryer
  • internet
  • non-smoking
  • pet free

I find that limiting a search based on these latter four factors will eliminate nice properties that will work for us with some flexibility.  Sometimes there’s a washer available on site for free or a small charge that isn’t included in the listing.  One place we booked charges €3 per washer load, for example, but costs $40/night less than other comparable apartments!  If the cost savings are huge (as in $100+), or the property is really luxurious or in a sweet location, it might be worth making a trip to a laundromat a couple times to make the apartment work for us.

airbnb-montreal-2

Pretty decent bedroom (with a VERY firm bed) in our airbnb rental in Montreal a few years ago. We booked nicer places during our 2017 trip to Europe.

Internet is another weird one. Almost all rentals that aren’t absolute bare-bones have internet these days, but some don’t list it or only list “wireless internet” or “internet” (they are two separate check boxes on Airbnb’s search).  However, virtually all that have “internet” have a wireless router.  The key is reading the description or asking the owner if it’s in doubt.  Again, if the cost savings are huge or the property is otherwise wonderful we could forego internet.  However, I can’t recall seeing a really nice property that didn’t have internet, which is why I ignore this as a search term but double check that internet is available before booking.

We also looked for places that had ratings of 4+ stars with at least a few written reviews.  There’s no way to limit this with the search terms, but I would often skip over properties with poor ratings or no ratings.  Too many other polished gems out there to research!  However, if you’re on a very tight budget or not able to find much availability, there are certainly hidden gems waiting for you to find them.  We’ve had to stay at a few places with zero or one review due to reservations falling through at the last minute and suddenly needing to book a new apartment on short notice.  They all worked out fine after discussing the properties with the owner.

Amazing last minute booking in Mexico City with only one review. It was around USD$45 per night and beautiful inside and one block from the subway.

Amazing last minute booking in Mexico City with only one review. It was around USD$45 per night and beautiful inside and one block from the subway.

If you haven’t tried Airbnb yet, you should do so on your next vacation.  It’s an incredible way to save money, stay in a much larger, nicer accommodation than a hotel room (especially relevant to families!), and end up in a cool non-touristy neighborhood surrounded by locals (part of the reason you’re traveling, right?).  Right now you can take $40 off your first Airbnb stay through this link.

Here are all the apartments and houses we booked for our nine week trip:

Destination Nights Cost Cost Per Night
Lisbon, Portugal 5 $389 $78
Malaga, Spain 2 $124 $62
Granada, Spain 3 $201 $67
Seville, Spain 4 $252 $63
Milan, Italy 4 $343 $86
Venice, Italy 2 $332 $166
Ljubljana, Slovenia 7 $600 $86
Bovec/Bled, Slovenia 4 $180 $45
Salzburg, Austria 2 $260 $130
Munich, Germany 7 $618 $88
Prague, Czech 7 $351 $50
Berlin, Germany 7 $697 $100
Koblenz (Mariaroth), Germany 7 $383 $55
Amsterdam, Netherlands 3 $517 $172
Total/Average: 64 $5,247 $82
20% savings w/ gift cards   $4,198 $66

We booked 14 different properties for a total of 64 nights at a cost of USD$5,247, or $82 per night.  Most are apartments with two bedrooms, a full kitchen, a living room, and one bathroom.  A few places are three bedrooms with multiple bathrooms.  All but one place booked for three or more nights have a washing machine.

Our goal isn’t to stay in the cheapest lodging possible, but rather to balance cost with comfort, luxury, convenience, cleanliness, and location.  We could have saved 20-40% in most cities if we were traveling on a bare-bones budget and didn’t mind making sacrifices.

We have enjoyed a half dozen very positive Airbnb rentals and only one “rental from hell”.  Feel free to read more about the latter experience.  We learned to be wary of the lowest price properties and go with our guts when it comes to Airbnb places.  If there’s a hint that a place is unclean, it doesn’t make it on our list.

I amplified the cost savings on apartment rentals through Airbnb by buying Airbnb gift cards at a 20% discount through Giftcardmall.com.  Lots of them.  Roughly $5,800.  I clicked through Ebates to make the purchases at Giftcardmall, thereby adding ANOTHER 1% discount to the deal in the form of cash back.  Sadly the Giftcardmall promotion ran for just a few days in December. However, keep your eyes open at discount sites like Slickdeals and you’ll occasionally see Airbnb gift cards on sale for 10-20% off face value (usually in limited quantities).

And don’t forget Ebates for cash back on hotels if you don’t go 100% Airbnb.  Most hotels qualify for 3-6% when booked directly at the hotels’ website (12% for Hilton!!) and about the same if booked through Travelocity or Expedia.  If you go the Hotels.com route (possibly with discounted gift cards from somewhere like Raise.com), you currently earn 6% cash back through Ebates on hotels.com purchases.  Sign up for Ebates through this link for $10 bonus cash back for new members.

To summarize, you should be able to take at least a few percent off the cost of lodging using Ebates, and possibly 10-20% by combining discounted gift cards and shopping through Ebates.

In my case, I paid $4,198 cash for the gift cards used to purchase $5,247 worth of Airbnb rentals, a 20% cost savings (plus I got 1% cash back through Ebates).

 

Eating all the food

Most of the other areas of our trip are pretty well planned out, booked, and paid for.  Food is the one area where we’re going to make it up as we go along.  Belly rumbling means it’s time to eat.

Since we’ll have a full kitchen in all the Airbnb rentals, we have the option to cook essentially all meals.  We (and specifically the kids) enjoy basic breakfasts including cold stuff like fruit and yogurt or cereal and milk.  Sometimes we might get fancy and make some meat or eggs.  Or get pastries from a nearby bakery or grocery store.

For lunch we’ll grab lunch on the go while we’re out sightseeing during the day.  Some days we might pack a picnic lunch if we happen to have good ingredients on hand.  Otherwise, it’ll be a mix of street food and sit down or casual restaurants and cafes.

Dinner will be a mix of cooking at the apartment and getting take out, with some dining out mixed in.  You can’t go to Spain and NOT enjoy some tapas with wine or beer, right?

I know lunch is usually less expensive than dinner at restaurants, and we’ll naturally be consuming a higher proportion of lunches at restaurants given our schedule as tourists.

I found an app called “Too Good To Go” that I’m excited to try. The concept is simple – for a heavily discounted price, you purchase unsold food from a restaurant at the end of their meal service for pickup at a pre-determined time (usually around 3 pm or 8-9 pm).  The price is generally USD$3-4 for a take out plate.  I gather that sometimes it’s a mystery what they give you, and other times they give you a takeout tray to pick from their selection behind the counter or from their buffet.  Definitely an interesting concept, but it leaves me wondering how fresh the offerings will be by the time you pick them up.  So far the app is confined to a handful of countries in Europe plus 10 or so restaurants in New York City.  Of the places we are visiting, the only city with a major Too Good To Go presence is Berlin with 50+ restaurants offering dirt cheap surplus food.

As far as groceries, I always enjoy visiting new grocery stores to see what’s new and different versus our experience at home.  I’ve scoped out a few sales circulars for grocery stores near our rental apartments and confirmed that (1) Europeans do indeed buy food at grocery stores just like us Americans and (2) the prices are roughly the same on average, with some things a little more expensive and many things the same or cheaper.

A grocery run from our last Canada trip

A grocery run from our first trip to Canada. Pastries, fruit, bagels, and yogurt for breakfast or snacks. Broccoli, fries, salmon, tuna, and beef steaks for lunches and dinners.  And jello.

For budgeting purposes I’m making an educated guess that we’ll spend an average of $20 per day on dining out and $20 per day on groceries (with the understanding that we can greatly exceed this budget if we find awesome places to eat!).  That works out to roughly $1,250 each for restaurants and groceries, or $2,500 total for food.

We won’t dine out every day but we might end up dining out twice per day for several days in a row while we’re on the fast paced segments of the trip that find us staying in each city just two or three days at a time.  We’ll have access to free food and drinks on some of the travel days at the airport lounges and the first class train lounges, so we might spend next to nothing on food for a few days of the trip.

 

Having fun

We’ll be on vacation for nine weeks and don’t plan on packing in the museums, castles, and tourist attractions every day we are overseas.  But when we do venture out for the day, we’ll inevitably buy numerous tickets for those museums, castles, and tourist attractions.  I am pleased with just how cheap admission fees are in general.  Many cities have castles, museums, and churches open for free visits all the time or on certain days of the week.  We also enjoy walking around the historic districts, taking the kids to the park, and exploring natural parks and waterfronts (most of which are free or have nominal admission fees).

I’m budgeting $750 total for the various attractions that cost money.  There are a few “must sees” on our trip that cost $40-100 for family admission:

  • El Alhambra in Granada, Spain
  • Postojna Cave and Skocjan Cave, outside Ljubljana, Slovenia
  • Dachstein Ice Cave near Hallstatt, Austria
  • Neuschwanstein Castle (admission is part of Bavaria pass)

We haven’t nailed down every single place we want to visit, but these locations stood out in our preliminary research as places we have to go.  We’re brainstorming fun stuff to do and see in each city and we keep track of all that info in a spreadsheet. Then once we arrive in a new city we’ll dig through our list of local attractions to see what we’re up for at the moment.

 

Packing

Our goal is to pack light.  By light, I mean everything should fit into regular size bookbags.  The idea is we’ll be agile and mobile. We can hop on trains, toss the gear in lockers for a couple hours if necessary, stick the bags in overhead compartments (and carry them on board planes for free), and walk a mile or so with the bags on our backs (remember, we have kids including a soon to be five year old) to get from intercity train/bus station to public transit to our apartment.

The family with all our gear on our backs. Pack light and a mile or two is nothing!

The family with all our gear on our backs. Pack light and a mile or two is nothing!

We’ll probably take three changes of clothes since we’ll have a washing machine in every apartment and can do laundry frequently.

We will keep electronics gear to a minimum.  Phones for the adults, Amazon FIRE tablets for the kids.  We have a pair of ultralight laptops for the adults (the 13″ HP Probook 430 G3 at 3 pounds).  All travel guides, leisure reading books, and entertainment will come from our tablets, phones, and computers.  For photography, we have a basic DSLR, the Canon EOS Rebel T5i with a few lenses including a 75-300mm zoom lens.

Beyond clothes and electronics, we’ll have the regular assortment of toiletries and travel meds, snacks, water, and travel documents.  That plus a spirit of adventure is all we’re taking, folks.

I admit it feels weird to walk out your front door for a two month journey with nothing more than a bookbag slung over your shoulder, but we did exactly that in 2015 when we spent nearly the whole summer living out of our bookbags while traveling around Mexico.  It worked out just fine before with only 52 pounds of gear between the five of us.

This is all we packed for seven weeks in Mexico.

This is all we packed for seven weeks in Mexico.

The only tricky part about this trip is cold weather gear. It’ll be mild to warm in most destinations but the ice cave in Austria is supposed to be around freezing even in summer.  I hate to bring a heavy coat and winter gear for this one cave visit, so I need to figure out a solution.  So far I’m considering wearing socks on my hands, a long sleeve shirt, and accepting that it’ll be cold temporarily.  Or find a thrift shop somewhere in Slovenia or Austria then ditch the clothes after the ice cave visit.

 

Challenges

We are traveling with our three kids who will be five, ten, and twelve during our trip.  The pace of the whole trip takes that into consideration which explains why we’re going pretty slow.  We’re big fans of slow travel and loathe the idea of “popping off to another country for a quick weekend away”.  Slow travel and kids go hand in hand.

The whole idea is to spend a relatively small proportion of the trip on a bus, train, or plane and most of the time relaxing or enjoying the places you are visiting.  Initially we laid out a bold plan to visit 12-15 countries including 25 cities in the same nine week period.  After realizing this was idiotic, we started amputating amazing destinations from our itinerary.  Places like Paris – nope. The French Riviera – nope. Switzerland – nope. London – nope. Rome – nope.  Belgium – nope.  Budapest – nope.  We eventually settled on eight countries with stays in 14 cities.

We designed our itinerary with plenty of time in most cities so we can take a day off every second or third day.  This means we won’t see everything in every place we visit and that is okay, as long as we have a generally good time and all get along.  Nine weeks on the road with exhausted children and frazzled adults is not a good time.

These “do nothing days” are golden.  What a luxury to travel half way across the globe and NOT have to spend every waking moment sightseeing.  It’s like a rainy Saturday back home when you don’t go out and spend the day reading, relaxing, catching some Netflix, and maybe an afternoon nap.  Great way to battle travel fatigue.

Homesickness is a related issue we’ll face.  We crave the familiar and the routine as much as we crave uniqueness.  Sometimes you get tired of arguing with the guy behind the car rental counter or stressing out that you’ll miss your train.  I find the “do nothing” days help it feel a little more like home as much as they provide relaxation and a day of respite.  A nice juicy burger or a familiar home cooked meal helps too.

Along with homesickness is the yearning for people who just speak plain ole “regular” English.  Conversing in a foreign language is tricky and mentally exhausting.

Foreign languages are challenging too.  We are proficient in Spanish which will help for the nine days in Spain.  I’ve completed a few dozen modules of German on Duolingo but I’m nowhere near being able to carry on a conversation.  Otherwise, I’m hoping Italian and Portuguese are close enough to Spanish to let me catch a few words here and there.  We’re totally screwed in Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Amsterdam since languages spoken there aren’t familiar to us at all.

I hope what they say is true – that everyone speaks English in Europe.  For those that don’t, we have Google Translate on our phones along with mad charade skillz to mime what we need.  I’d like to spend some more time on Duolingo learning the basics of Portuguese and Italian and refreshing my very rusty and basic German.

 

How we planned the trip

We started planning this trip in September of 2016 so that we could book plane tickets as early as possible in order to get the best flight schedules with convenient layovers.  Our transatlantic flights are only 7.5 hours to Lisbon and 8.5 hours returning from Amsterdam (plus a one hour hop from the Washington DC airport to Raleigh here in the States).  Seven or eight hours in coach isn’t ideal but overall our transatlantic flight itinerary is hard to beat.  It’s only two hours longer than flying to the west coast from here and people do that without hesitation.  And they still give out those tasty bags of peanuts, right?  We might even get two bags on the transatlantic flights.

Once the flights were booked we had our trip bookends. We are flying into Lisbon, Portugal in mid-June and flying out of Amsterdam a bit over two months later.  Then we had to figure out where exactly we wanted to visit in Europe and how we were going to travel between cities.  Portugal and southern Spain made it on the list as did northern Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, and the Netherlands.  The biggest jump of the trip is between southern Spain and northern Italy, so we decided on flights between these two points.

Other cities were close enough together that buses and trains offer reasonable transit times.  As a form of due diligence I checked the prices between cities along our route to ensure that a bus or train link was available at a reasonable price (it was).  Then we started booking Airbnb apartments in all our destination cities before all the cheap and good places were reserved.

Once the lodging was finalized, the train and bus schedules for our specific travel dates opened up and I booked most of the intercity bus/train tickets.  All intercity travel is booked at this time except the segments into and out of Prague which go on sale at the end of April.

The only remaining bookings are a few of the most popular tourist attractions like El Alhambra that can sell out a month or more ahead of time.

In general, we booked the big ticket items first to lock in good prices and options, then drilled down to smaller details on the itinerary once we knew for certain we were staying in a particular city and traveling by a certain method.

This method has worked out well so far except for the rental car pick up in Germany.  We are doing four one week stays across Germany and the Czech Republic and switching apartments on Sundays.  The apartments are already booked and paid for, and come with cancellation fees to change the dates.  We are stuck with Sunday travel days.  Many rental car offices aren’t open on Sundays or open for just a few hours so we’ll end up driving an hour longer to pick up the car at the rental company’s airport location instead of their downtown city locations.  A lesser inconvenience is the German grocery store. It’s closed on Sunday so we’ll have to make do for our Sunday evening meal and get some groceries on Mondays.

To economize on the trip, we used a few tricks:

 

Conclusion

There you have it.  That’s how you do a nine week vacation in Europe for a family of five for around $10,000.

Trip Budget Cost
Planes $544
Buses/Trains $457
Rental Car – 24 days $455
Misc. Transportation $1,075
Lodging – 64 nights $4,198
Restaurants $1,250
Groceries $1,250
Admission Fees $750
TOTAL $9,979

Most of the trip is already booked and paid for, so the hardest part is done.  Now we get to enjoy the fun part of reading about each destination and figuring out what we want to do while we are bumming around Europe.

In some regards, this will be a budget trip because we’re not staying in fancy five star luxury hotels nor dining in three star Michelin restaurants (well, probably not).  In other regards, this really IS a luxury vacation because it won’t be rushed and the itinerary is customized to our interests and tastes.

As this post goes live, we have just under three months till we leave for Europe.  Soon we’ll be packing our meager possessions in our bookbags and bidding farewell to home so we can spend the summer exploring the world.

 

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

 

Are we crazy?  Can this be done?  Any suggestions on the cities we are visiting? General tips on travel in Europe?  If you’ve been to any of these places, what is number one must see on your list?

 

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.

Living a $100,000 lifestyle on $40,000 per year – 2016 Expenses in Review

“Oh you live on $40,000 per year? Guess you like camping in the van underneath the highway bridge huh?  Still enjoying those rice and beans?  Three kids cost $40,000 per year right off the bat so it’s clearly impossible!”.  That complainer clearly doesn’t know how we spend money.

Living well on $40,000 per year is possible and I’m here to explain exactly how by going over all of our expenses during 2016.  Later in the article I’ll explain why our spending affords us a lifestyle that costs most other people $100,000 per year.  And I don’t think many would argue that a $100,000 per year lifestyle is a tough way to live.

2016 was the first time that Mrs. Root of Good and I didn’t have a full time job all year (other than that one month of full time employment in January 2016 for Mrs. RoG).  Now we have essentially a full year of early retired living expenses recorded.  At a high level I can summarize our 2016 spending by saying “We nailed it!”.  Our 2016 budget totaled $40,000 while our expenses came in just a few bucks under $39,000.  On that low budget we managed to take several international vacations and purchase a 2009 minivan for cash.

 

Where did the money go?

At the beginning of 2016 I laid out our $40,000 spending plan for the year.  We increased the 2016 budget to $40,000 after acknowledging that we could be spending a lot more than the $32,000 or $32,400 that we budgeted for 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Our spending tracked closely to our budgeted amounts in almost all categories with the only really notable deviation coming from the $8,300 we spent on the new (used) minivan.  That expense plus other regular auto-related expenses reached 369% of our budgeted amount for autos.

Education and taxes were between 100% and 120% of budgeted amounts.  All other expense categories were 100% or less than the budgeted amounts.

 

 

Housing

$8,200 budgeted vs. $6,031 actual spending

First off allow me to celebrate our complete lack of a mortgage payment.  We paid off the last small chunk of mortgage in 2015.  No more mortgage!

Our housing expenses are fairly predictable year to year.  The repairs and maintenance budget of $2,500 covers big ticket items plus smaller repairs.  It also covers lawn maintenance supplies and equipment like gas for the lawnmower, fire ant bait, and paint for the house.  We spent $866 in this category which is only 35% of the $2,500 budgeted.  I intentionally budgeted plenty for this category because I wanted the flexibility to call a repairman for tasks I don’t want to do (like plumbing).

During the year we had a few plumbing issues, some preventative like replacing all the toilet shut off vales, and some repairs (I broke a sink drain P-trap while trying to clean it; the shower faucet sprung a leak and had to be replaced).  I also did a small amount of DIY plumbing repair and saved a few hundred bucks that way.  I needed to replace the pressure regulator valve.  It was an “unscrew the old one, screw back on the new one” repair fortunately.  That is about the limit of my plumbing expertise.

Had to get a little dirty in the crawl space to replace this beauty.

Had to get a little dirty in the crawl space to replace this beauty.

For house insurance and taxes we spent $2,203 against a budget of $2,200.  If only I could get all our expense categories within $3 of budgeted amounts!

Utilities are also fairly predictable since the rates are regulated for the most part.  We spent $2,809 out of the $3,000 budget.  The almost $200 cost savings versus the budget was due to savings on the water bill thanks to that pressure regulator valve replacement and the fact that we are on vacation five to ten weeks during any given year.

Our Home Furnishings / Furniture budget of $500 was way more than enough to cover our $153 actual spending.  We’ve owned our house for over 13 years so we don’t really need to replace a lot of household items.  We picked up a new couch from the thrift shop and a few other odds and ends.  I probably make enough from random craigslist sales to cover our actual spending on furniture but I don’t keep track of craigslist sales that closely.

 

Auto

$2,900 budgeted vs. $9,428 actual spending

This is the one area where we blew up the budget with our new (used) minivan purchase.  But it’s okay because we intentionally budget for these “one time” expenses by allocating $1,000 per year to our car replacement fund to account for the depreciation over time.

Here’s an excerpt from my “$50 car payment for life” car replacement strategy:

Here’s the math behind my $50 car payment.  Buy a gently used six to eight year old car with low to moderate mileage for around $8,000-10,000.  Run the car almost into the ground and then sell it after nine or ten years when it’s 15-16 years old for $3,000.  The net depreciation (cost of new(er) car minus sale proceeds from older car) for those nine to ten years is $5,000 to $7,000 or about $50 per month ($6000 divided by 120 months = $50/month).

$50 per month is less than $1,000 per year but I wanted to keep plenty in the budget in case we need to replace the vehicle more often (and odds are we’ll be in an accident or sustain damage to the van at some point).  We are our own insurance company since we carry no comprehensive or collision coverage on our minivan.  We’re saving hundreds per year and can easily afford a sudden $8,000 to $10,000 loss.

Great for hauling lots of people and loads of stuff. And 2000+ mile road trips.

Great for hauling lots of people and loads of stuff. And 2000+ mile road trips.

I’ll probably put out a full article on it later, but so far we are eight months into owning just one car.  And there have been exactly two situations where it would have been nice to have two cars (but we managed to get by just fine with one).  No uber or public transit required so far (though I did take the bus downtown once for a day of museums with our four year old).

It’s worth mentioning that we didn’t come close to spending our $400 gas budget.  We only spent $191 during 2016.  I planned the gas budget assuming 4,000 miles of driving around town at 30 miles per gallon while paying $3 per gallon for gas.  It turns out all three assumptions were wrong.

We drove much less than 4,000 miles during the year (I count road trip related expenditures such as gas in the “Vacations/Travel” category).  We replaced the 30 mpg Honda sedans we owned at the beginning of 2016 with the minivan that probably gets 19-20 mpg in the city.  And gas prices were closer to $2 than $3 throughout 2016.

 

Food

$8,000 budgeted vs. $6,330 actual spending

We budgeted $7,000 for groceries and $1,000 for dining out.  By year end, we spent a total of $5,753 on groceries (82% of budget) and $577 on dining out (58% of budget).

We manage to save on groceries without Extreme Couponing (hint: Aldi and grocery store loss leaders are your friends).  We eat pretty well with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables (and meat of course) plus purchase a ton of Asian and Latino ingredients throughout the year to make some tasty ethnic dishes (here’s what a month of grocery shopping looked like for us a couple of years ago).  We love cooking and enjoy the challenge of making awesome meals out of whatever random stuff is in our fridge.

IMG_9748

Pho, from scratch. Maybe a buck per bowl.

 

12-produce

(Mostly) fresh fruits and veggies mostly from Aldi. And all of that was probably under $40 (about what you would spend for a small basket of produce at a fancy pants grocery store).

 

When dining out, we tend to frequent the same few restaurants.  For those restaurants that take them, we buy discounted gift cards from Raise.com (and you can get $5 off your first gift card purchase at Raise by clicking here).  But we really don’t go out to eat very often.

 

Other Core Living Expenses

$6,300 budgeted vs. $5,378 actual spending

We spent about $1,000 less than budgeted in this catch all category that includes phone, internet, medical and dental, clothing, education, and taxes.

For phone, cell phone, and internet, we go the extremely cheap route.  The $422 per year that we pay for phone, cell, and internet is less than some households pay in one month!

Our phone is hooked up through a $50 Obihai VOIP adapter using Google Voice for free monthly service.  My smartphone service is free through Freedompop.  Each month I get 200 voice minutes, 500 texts and around a gigabyte of 3G/4G data for free.  I never come close to any of those limits.

Our internet is 50 mbit/5 mbit service through Time Warner Cable at $35 per month (and we bought our own cable modem for $30 to avoid the $10 per month cable modem rental fee).  The regular rate for internet is $40/month but I call or go online each year and snag an extra $5-10 discount by asking politely.

We have a prepaid T-mobile dumb phone on a legacy plan that costs $10 per year. We rarely use it, but keep it activated for convenience and for emergencies.  It has saved us several times while overseas since it works worldwide (for higher per-minute rates).

Our medical and dental expenses were $2,162 for the year which is 72% of the $3,000 budgeted.  Our health insurance premiums (with heavy subsidies from the Affordable Care Act) were about what we expected at $125 per month.  We planned on $440 in healthcare expenses and didn’t spend all of that.  Dental expenses were budgeted for $1,000 since Mrs. Root of Good and I don’t have dental insurance.  We were lucky and didn’t have any expensive dental procedures in 2016 (just routine cleaning and exams).

What will you do when the Affordable Care Act / Obamacare goes away?” someone will ask.  Check out my discussion and the comments in my December 2016 Financial Update post to learn more about my thoughts and our plans.

Clothing purchases totaled $452 for the year.  How do we do it with a family of five? Some hand me downs, some thrift shopping, and some retail store purchases.  Since the adults in the house are no longer working, our wardrobes are pretty basic.  Swimming attire and shoes are probably the largest clothing subcategories these days.

Marathon thrift shopping

Marathon thrift shopping

Education expenses of $267 were 107% of the $250 budgeted for 2016.  Now that our oldest child is in middle school, the field trips are getting more expensive. As are the required graphing calculators.

We paid a total of $2,075 in taxes during 2016 versus a budgeted $1,750.  This primarily comes from rounding up when paying quarterly estimated state taxes to spend in even $100 increments.  North Carolina charges $2 per $100 when paying with a credit card so I try to get as many points or miles as possible.  Paying taxes with a credit card is a great way to meet minimum spending requirements from new credit card bonus offers.  And who doesn’t love free travel?  (Check out Jeremy at Go Curry Cracker – he graciously allowed Uncle Sam to buy him a free family trip to Hawaii!).

For those curious about our tax liability in 2016, we’ll owe a couple of thousand dollars in federal tax due to the self employment tax I pay on blog income (partially offset by $3000 in child tax credits).  We are in the strange situation of paying higher taxes during early retirement than we were when working full time and earning $150,000 per year while paying only $150 in taxes.  I still think our overall 2016 tax burden is very reasonable considering I took some capital gains and converted $4,000+ from a traditional IRA to a Roth to start my Roth IRA Conversion Ladder.

 

Purely Discretionary Expenses

$14,600 budgeted vs. $11,812 actual spending

This is where the fun is.  Vacations, entertainment expenses, and electronics primarily.

I bumped our entertainment and toys budget up to $2,500 from the $1,000 in 2015 and previous years.  At $522 total entertainment spending for the year we still didn’t spend the $1,000 let alone the $2,500 “new and improved” budget.  What can I say? So many free or cheap entertainment options mean we don’t spend a lot in this category.  Most of the $522 is outdoors/sports related expenses like bike tires/tubes, rollerskating admission, and city swimming pool passes.  Liquor ($176) is included in this category.  There’s a miscellany of computer/video games, supplies to build crazy things, and half of a netflix subscription.

Boat rental - not free but worth every penny of the $4. Also cheaper and more fun than a gym membership. And we saw a bald eagle.

Boat rental – not free but worth every penny of the $4. Also cheaper and more fun than a gym membership. And we saw a bald eagle.

 

Vacations represent the bulk of our discretionary spending.  We somehow managed to come in just $43 under our $10,000 budget with $9,957 total vacation spending in 2016.

In 2016 we did some serious traveling:

We stretch a buck till it hurts.  Travel hacking helps a lot. Check out credit card sign up bonuses and get you some free travel too.  The European lodging is all through Airbnb (save $35 on your first trip!).  For cruises we usually book through Expedia but click through Ebates to get a 10% cash rebate (and you get an extra $10 when you sign up for Ebates through this link).

View of both falls from the Canadian side.

We took a quick 2 night pit stop in Niagara Falls on our drive home this past summer.

 

Our electronics budget of $1,000 was big enough to accommodate our $885 in tech gadget purchases.  The majority of the electronics spending was a pair of brand new HP ProBook 430 g3 ultralight computers for $350 each (Black Friday special pricing).  They have similar specs to macbook pros that cost 3-4 times as much (except ours came with no Apple logos).  We mainly bought them for our 9 week summer trip since we’ll be carrying nothing more than regular size bookbags for our trek across Europe.  These new toys are faster, smaller, and almost half the weight of our old 15″ laptops.

Our $1,000 gift budget went mostly unused.  We spent just $381 throughout the year on various gifts for Christmas and birthdays.  Our families aren’t huge gift givers fortunately so we get by without much financial outlay.  We’re also opportunistic gift acquirers, so if we see a nice deal on a gift for someone then we’ll purchase it months ahead of time.

A "free" gift. An art kit pulled together from random unused school supplies. Our kids love these and use them all the time.

A “free” Christmas gift. Random unused school supplies found around our house repurposed into an art kit. Our kids both loved receiving these for Christmas gifts and use them all the time.

I’m going to get some nasty comments for this, but here it goes.  We gave almost nothing away to charity in 2016 and I’m totally okay with it.  We only spent $67 out of our already scrooge-like $100 budget.  Maybe we’ll give hundreds, thousands, or millions to charity some day.  We still have three young kids to take care of and several other financial unknowns.  Health care costs in the future are uncertain.  In the meantime we are active in the community and volunteer our time in various ways.

2016 was a huge year in the Personal Finance blogging community. It was pretty awesome when Mr. Money Mustache gave away $100,000 of his loot to charity.  Then Physician on Fire did the same thing.  I believe all of them received some decent tax breaks from making these sizable donations (in some cases to their own donor advised funds), and I hope to one day turbocharge the value of my giving by finding some tax breaks too.  That time is not today.

I’m a big fan of letting each person choose how they spend their money and not shaming others into giving it away.  I know at least one other major FIRE blogger feels the same way but I’ll never tell who!

A quick note on discretionary expenses: over one third of our annual budget falls in the discretionary category.  And that’s a great situation to be in since we can very easily slash discretionary spending if we enter a prolonged period of poor stock market returns.  Cheap vacations or skipping them altogether combined with deferred toy purchases would lower our total annual expenses to roughly $30,000.

 

Living well on less than $40,000 per year

So that’s the story of our $40,000 per year budget and how it played out in practice over the past year.  Sometimes I’ll hear from high spending folks that there is no way anyone could live on $40,000 per year, and certainly not with three kids.

However if we gross up our $40,000 per year budget to account for things we don’t pay for, it’s easy to see how we’re living a $100,000 per year lifestyle only minor sacrifices:

  • +$20,000 mortgage payment
  • +$5,000 new car payments
  • +$10,000 extra tax bill
  • +$5,000 dumb financial moves (credit card interest, extended warranties, investment management fees)
  • +$10,000 rough annual value of travel hacking free hotel rooms and free flights
  • +$10,000 work related costs (lunches out; fancier wardrobe)

So if you’re like me and spend around $40,000 per year, realize that you might be living a luxurious six figure lifestyle without even knowing it!  And welcome to the club.

 

How to track spending like a pro

When I was working I kept track of spending but never budgeted. We always had a surplus of funds and spent like we wanted to.  I used a simple spreadsheet to keep track of our expenses.

Total 2016 Spending (courtesy of Personal Capital)

Total 2016 Spending (screen cap from Personal Capital)

 

Then a few years ago I switched to Personal Capital to track all of our expenses (full review).  Personal Capital also tracks all our income (including dividends and interest), and summarizes a couple dozen investment accounts into one screen.  It is completely free to use Personal Capital whether you have $10,000 or $1,000,000 or more.  If you don’t already track expenses, try Personal Capital, since it only takes 10 minutes to sign up and link all your accounts.

 

 

How was your 2016 spending?  Who’s going to win the biggest spender award?  And the tiniest spender award?  Impress me with your numbers!

 

 

« Older Entries