Category Archives: Lifestyle

The Meandering Canals and Bridges of Venice, Italy

Stop number six on our nine week summer vacation across Europe brings us to Venice, Italy!  After a two hour train ride from Milan, we arrived in Venice’s main train station around noon.  Quick trip recap leading up to Venice: we flew to Milan from Seville, Spain on a super cheap two hour Ryanair flight.  Earlier in our trip, we visited Lisbon, Portugal, then flew to Malaga in southern Spain before taking a bus to Granada, Spain.

Venice is one of those cities that everyone has heard about. Mostly good stuff. Some not so great stuff. It routinely appears in articles like “Top 5 European Destinations Everyone Must Visit”, so it’s a must see if you find yourself in Europe with time to spare, right? I’ve also seen Venice on several “Most Overrated Destinations in the World” lists.  How does one reconcile these two starkly contrasting ideas? Could Venice appropriately fit on both kinds of lists? I wanted to judge for myself so I made sure to book a couple nights in Venice so I could experience all the good and the bad that this canal-filled enclave has to offer.

Two nights seemed like a good bet.  I figured if I love Venice, I can always visit for a longer period on subsequent trips to Europe. If I hate it, I’ll be moving on to the next city in under 48 hours so the downside is limited.

You’ll have to read on to get a full report of my feelings on the city, but in summary I have concluded Venice fits best on the “must see” list due to the unique presence of canals and architecture that we didn’t see elsewhere in Europe.

 

The Grand Canal runs right down the middle of Venice.  It’s like a road paved with water.

 

Lots of canals, lots of bridges

 

Getting Around Town

Venice has to be one of the most pedestrian friendly cities in the world. There are no cars in the city because there are no roads! While there are tons of canals, the boat traffic on the water is physically separated from the pedestrian thoroughfares.

As a result, getting around town is a simple affair if you have two feet and the ability to walk a mile or two at a time.  From the train station, the Piazza San Marco and surrounding tourist attractions are only about a 30 minute walk (that will take you an hour or two because of all the cool buildings and canals you’ll have to admire along the way!).  Another 30 minutes and you’ll be at the far opposite side of Venice.

One of the many canals only accessible by boat.

Given the winding ways of the sometimes-dead end streets and the narrowness of some alleyways, you’ll get lost along the way. Which is half the fun of exploring Venice.  And you’ll undoubtedly struggle to find a way to cross the canals that frequently appear in your path.  Google Maps Walk Mode with GPS enabled is your friend in Venice.  And gelato. If you get tired, stop for some gelato and life gets better.

We chose to walk everywhere since we had a decently located Airbnb not too far from the main attractions of the Grand Canal, Rialto Bridge, and Piazza San Marco.  Dining was a breeze since there was a good takeout pizza place exactly 34 seconds walking distance from our Airbnb (I decided to time the walk after making several trips to this particular restaurant and thinking how short it was).  Kids love pizza; dad is therefore awesome.

Piazza San Marco. The largest open space in all of Venice.

 

The Rialto Bridge connecting the two main islands of Venice.

 

For those not up for walking, there are a few other ways to get around.  The water taxis will take you wherever you want to go but they are super expensive compared to land based taxis.  For a short trip you’ll pay USD$30-40 and there are upcharges for extra passengers, luggage, and waiting.  Slightly cheaper than water taxis but still expensive are the vaporettos, or water buses.  A single fare is USD$9 while a day pass with unlimited rides is slightly more affordable at USD$24.  If you’re staying for extended periods, multi-day passes work out to be almost reasonably priced on a per day or per trip basis.

Gondolas are another option to tour around the city but aren’t explicitly designed to transport you from point A to point B.  Fares vary but expect to pay USD$80-100+ for your group for 30-45 minutes.  This was a tempting use of $100 until Mrs. Root of Good reminded me about her and the kids’ severe motion sickness.  Boats and calm stomachs do not play well together in our family (and motion sickness meds lead to drowsiness).

Gondolas waiting to give you a tour on the Grand Canal.

 

The Bridge of Sighs. A popular spot for gondola-based sightseeing

 

Lodging for two nights with Airbnb

Lodging in Venice isn’t cheap.  Hotels for two or three people were $125-200+ per night and we would need two rooms for the five of us.  And those aren’t the really nice hotels nor are they conveniently located.

We managed to find a small one bedroom apartment with good reviews for USD$166 per night through Airbnb.  The living room came with a sleeper sofa (where we slept) while the bedroom offered a large king size bed for the kids. The bathroom was nice and spacious.  I don’t know if it was the fault of the owners, but we noticed a lingering sewage smell during our time in the apartment. It could be the city’s public works or it could be the apartment’s plumbing issues.

Bridge across the canal right next to our apartment.

Although the apartment came with a full kitchen, we didn’t cook while there. Instead, we relied on easy to prepare foods from the nearby grocery store (yogurt, fruit, pastries, cheeses, meats, and bread) plus ample takeout from the nearby restaurants.

Overall the apartment was a decent place to stay for a couple of nights, and proved to be a good value versus hotels (but very expensive when measured against the other places we rented in Europe).  If you want to give Airbnb a shot, click here to take $40 off your stay through this link.

Just another alleyway on the short path from the train station to our Airbnb. With my bookbag on, I had a hard time turning around in this passageway.

For budget travelers, one alternative to staying on the island of Venice itself is staying on the mainland. Hotels and restaurants are much cheaper just across the bay on the mainland’s “Mestre” district.  Trains run every few minutes from the mainland Venice Mestre train station to the Santa Lucia train station on the island and it’s only a 10 minute ride that costs less than USD$2.  You can wake up in a nice modern (inexpensive) hotel on the mainland, eat breakfast at a reasonably priced restaurant, then hop on a train to the island for a day of sightseeing.  Walk everywhere (or catch a water bus), see everything, relax, eat some gelato, and take the train back in the evening for a relaxing (and cheap) meal on the mainland away from crowds of tourists.  Rinse and repeat if you want multiple days touring the canals of Venice.  We opted to stay on the island itself for the experience, and I’m glad we did. But if you have a limited budget for a few nights in Venice you can really stretch your dollars by staying just across the bay on the mainland (where everything is half price).

It would be easy enough to stay on the mainland and come down to the waterfront in Venice on a day trip.

 

Grand Canal

Food in Venice

Though we stayed about 10 minutes away from the touristy parts of Venice, we were still within a few minutes of dozens of restaurants, bakeries and a small grocery store.  What can I say? It’s a small island so everything is necessarily nearby.

The neighborhood Co-op grocery store was our go-to place for fresh fruits and yogurts for breakfast and a container of gelato for dessert back at the apartment.  Prices were noticeably higher than everywhere else we visited in Europe but not out of line with the higher end grocery stores in the US.

The pizza place around the corner from our apartment was so inexpensive, convenient, and tasty that it quickly became our staple meal. I wouldn’t encourage eating pizza for most meals in general, but if you’re only in Venice for two nights and you love pizza, it’s a treat.  Just pretend you’re back in college.

Pizza from the corner pizzeria near our Airbnb. USD$12 for a mega-sized 18″ one topping pizza made from scratch (a few bucks less for the cheese-only version). More than enough cheese, pepperoni, and crust to stuff the five of us for under $25.

 

Mrs. Root of Good noted that we were near the water and therefore the seafood might be better than average in Venice.  She was busy resting her feet (we walked everywhere, remember?). Out I went in search of a restaurant that would sell me a few take out trays of some marine-based life form fried, sauteed, and/or steamed to perfection. This is harder than it sounds as apparently “take out meals” aren’t a thing at the fancy little cafes and restaurants lining Venice’s canals.  They have culinary standards and it would be insulting to stick their art-like dishes in a cardboard tray, or something.  To further complicate matters, it was only 5 pm and many restaurants close during the slow stretch between lunch and dinner with dinner starting at 6 pm or later.  Eventually I found a place that would stoop to my low cultural standards and slide their finest crustaceans into a to go tray in exchange for a few medium-sized euro notes (or a nice shiny credit card that offers reward points, in my case).

At USD$25 for the two plates, I think it’s still cost-competitive with US pricing for seafood and pasta though the portions were small by US standards. It was good but the pizza was better!

 

Gelato!! A trip to Venice wouldn’t be complete without a stop at a gelateria. We tried a half dozen flavors and thought some of them were outstanding. A large 3-4 scoop cone or cup was USD$3-4.

 

Nice quiet afternoon stroll along the Grand Canal.

Thoughts on Venice

First off, the negatives. Venice suffers from its own success.  It’s beautiful and everyone wants to visit which means you get to enjoy the company of tens of thousands of people, many of whom are just visiting for the day from one of the mega-sized cruise ships docked in the busy port.  The impact of the crowds is highly variable. On our first evening in Venice the crowds weren’t bad at all because everyone leaves in the evenings. It was almost quiet in places.  Even in the middle of the day, it was relatively quiet near our Airbnb since we weren’t in the middle of the main touristic areas and several minutes away from the Grand Canal that transects Venice.  But the most often visited sections of Venice were swamped with hordes of humanity walking penguin-style in the narrow canyons between the elegantly decaying buildings.

The Rialto Bridge area and the Piazza San Marco were the most cramped areas during the middle of the day.  We visited those places then moved on to quieter spots.  Some visitors chose to dine right next to the Rialto Bridge at one of the many sidewalk cafes. I don’t know how they enjoyed their meal given the urgency of thousands of people pushing their way along the sidewalk right next to them while the mild sewage stink of the canal danced a duet with the lingering clouds of cigarette smoke from the crowds passing nearby.

Looking down from the top of the Rialto Bridge. Both sides of the bridge are lined with shops.

The city is also slowly sinking into the bay (or is the sea level rising??) which makes the decay more evident. The ground level in many buildings is no longer habitable by humans (only by the canal water).  We didn’t notice any flooding when we visited but I understand it’s a big problem when high tide coincides with other environmental conditions.

What I’m saying is that I found the architecture and canals of Venice worthy of visiting in spite of the crowds of my fellow tourists making the experience less enjoyable for us all.  There’s nowhere else quite like Venice in all of Europe. Even the canals of Amsterdam (where we also visited) don’t compare to the sight of the tight-packed houses and shops lining the canals in Venice.

I’m 100% glad that we decided to spend a couple of days in Venice. It was one of those cities we considered cutting from our 14 city tour across Europe since it often made the “overrated tourist trap” lists.  I still think it’s a tourist trap in a way, but with merit. It’s amazing. Around every mundane corner is a picturesque winding alleyway with a narrow bridge crossing a murky canal. It’s definitely worth a 2-3 day visit if you find yourself in this part of the world.

Will I be going back some day? Yes. Hopefully in the off season when it’s less crowded.

How can you not love this place?

 

 

What is your preconception of Venice? If you visited, how did you like it? 

 

 

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

 

December 2017 Financial Update

Happy New Year!  Another great year in the books for us.  Our youngest started kindergarten. We took an amazing nine week trip to Europe.  And with all the kids in school we were finally able to take advantage of a nice last minute travel deal when Mrs. Root of Good and I jumped on a cruise to the Caribbean for a week.  Our early retirement lifestyle is going well.

Here’s how our finances finished 2017.  Year end dividends rolled into the investment accounts in December pushing our total income to just over $14,000. Our spending was rather high at almost $8,000 (which needs some explaining). Another freakishly good month in the stock market pushed our net worth up another $26,000 to leave us with $2,037,000 at year end. Needless to say, our 2017 went remarkably well from a financial perspective.

 

Income

Investment income totaled $10,843 for the month of December plus a bit more from a 401k that didn’t show up in Personal Capital.  Our equity mutual funds and ETFs pay dividends quarterly in March, June, September, and December.  Some funds only pay once per year in December which explains why the December investment income is much higher than other months of the year. Mrs. Root of Good’s 401k doesn’t report the dividend income as dividends in Personal Capital. Including those unreported dividends plus all other investment income reported in Personal Capital, we earned a total of $36,234 in investment income during 2017.  That’s a little higher than 2016 dividend income.

Blog income, shown as “other income” in the chart, remained roughly the same as last month, at $2,294 for December.

My early retirement lifestyle consulting income (“consulting”) increased to $843 in December.  That works out to almost two hours of consulting per week which is the upper limit of what I’d like to do.  We’ll see how January goes before I finalize rate increases for 2018.

Deposit income of $51 was cash back from the Ebates.com and Mrrebates.com online shopping portals.  If you sign up for Ebates through this link and make a qualifying $25 purchase through Ebates, you’ll get a $10 gift card.  We scored a decent amount of cash back while shopping online over Black Friday and leading up to Christmas.

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 December expenses:

December was a high expense month for us. Two main factors added up to much higher than usual spending. I paid the annual property tax bill of roughly $1,500. I also bought around $3,700 in gift cards that I’ll be using throughout 2018 for everyday spending.

The December total spending of $7,953 is about two and a half times our budget of $3,333 per month (or $40,000 per year).  Subtracting out the $3,700 in unused gift cards brings our effective spending to “only” $900 over budget.

 

Groceries – $2,643:

This shockingly high grocery spending is easily explained. We bought $1,000 worth of Visa Gift Cards and $700 worth of Walmart Gift Cards to take advantage of some significant cash back opportunities and to meet minimum spending requirements on a credit card (to qualify for a sweet $1,000 cash back bonus!). We’ll spend these gift cards on things like groceries, household goods, and general merchandise over the next several months. I bought another $2,000 worth of Visa Gift Cards (that cost $1,963 out of pocket) and included those in the “General Merchandise” expense category.

Tracking spending with Personal Capital is easy since the data feeds in automatically from credit cards, checking accounts, and investment accounts.  With simplicity comes limitations. I don’t think there’s a way to add in expenditures manually after the fact as it’s basically a cash basis accounting system.  As a result I have to guesstimate where I’ll end up spending these thousands of dollars of gift cards in the future. Which is okay since I’m more concerned about tracking the total amount we spend instead of getting it allocated exactly between specific categories (= keep it simple).

Other grocery spending included a total of $363 added to our three kids’ school lunch accounts.

The actual grocery store grocery purchases for December totaled only $574 which is roughly what we spend on average in most months. More on how we shop for groceries without using coupons.  And why we never shop at Costco.

Rice and beans. And ribs. Hard to make fun of our frugal ways when there are tender juicy ribs next to the (imported from Thailand) rice and (freshly sauteed) beans.

 

Cooking runs in the family. We hosted potluck Christmas for almost 30 people in our family. We made lasagna and thai noodle cucumber salad, while guests brought egg rolls, spring rolls, salad, shrimp cocktails, broccoli casserole, and other delicious treats.

 

The monthly obligatory pho-to. This time at Mrs. Root of Good’s family’s house celebrating New Year’s Eve.  You can tell this is Mrs. Root of Good’s bowl because of the tripe on the left hand side (something noticeably absent from my own pho bowl 🙂 ).

 

General Merchandise – $1,963:

The $1,963 in this category represents the purchase of $2,000 Visa Gift Cards bought at a slight discount. I purchased these and other gift cards through the Ebates Cash Back portal and I hope to get $45 in cash back or possibly more depending on how they are categorized by the merchant.

 

Home Maintenance – $1,536:

Our annual property tax bill.  Even though our house is worth $200,000 or more, we are paying tax as if our house is worth $147,000.  They only reassess property values every eight years here, and the last re-evaluation came just before our neighborhood property values started skyrocketing as the wave of gentrification pushed east from the “nice” part of town.

 

Travel – $828:

It’s official.  Our 2018 summer vacation is booked!  We’re spending a month in an oceanfront condo in Freeport, Bahamas.  We’re staying in a ground floor unit of a 20 unit condo building that sits on a half mile stretch of undeveloped beach. Lots of bleached white sand, crystal clear water, and not much else.  If you don’t hear from us very much over the summer, just know that we’re relaxing working hard next to the pool or on the deserted beach.

We paid about $2,300 for the one month airbnb rental which includes a 50% “long term” discount.  It’s a 2 bedroom, 2 bath unit with a decent living room and dining room, washer, dryer, A/C, internet, full well equipped kitchen, and pool.  The cost breaks down to $828 out of pocket for Airbnb plus a big chunk of gift cards that I bought in 2016 (at a discount, of course) but didn’t use for our Summer 2017 trip to Europe.  If you want to take $40 off your first Airbnb stay, check it out!

The flights are booked except one flight for me on one leg because I’m being cheap and hoping it drops slightly in price.  I used a combo of Southwest frequent flyer points to for round trip tickets from Raleigh-Durham to Ft. Lauderdale then I used Chase Ultimate Rewards points (from last year’s Chase Sapphire Reserve signup) to get round trip Ft. Lauderdale to Freeport, Bahamas tickets.  Total cost out of pocket would have been around $500 per ticket but we managed to use points or other travel hacking to cover all costs in full (including the $56 tax at Southwest which the $300 Sapphire Reserve annual travel reimbursement covered).

I also used up $544 of remaining Sapphire Reserve travel credit to add to the deposit on our winter 2018 Christmas cruise on the brand new MSC Seaside cruise ship sailing out of Miami. Which means we’ll probably visit the Bahamas a second time in 2018.

Gotta love getting many thousands of dollars in free travel from credit card bonuses!  If you want to peruse the available credit card bonuses, check out my credit cards page.

 

Gifts – $357:

Most of this expense is cash gifts to our kids for Christmas. It’s one of their main sources of spending money throughout the year and preempts all those nagging “can I get this?” questions. It’s their money, they can do what they want (as long as it’s not dangerous or likely to lead to big problems).

We also bought the five year old a new bike for Christmas ($53). And phone cases for our daughters’ new phones ($3).

 

Christmas morning!

 

Little Dude’s sweet new 18″ bike from “Santa” (who doesn’t exist according to Little Dude). No training wheels on here!

 

Getting the hang of it.

 

Healthcare/Dental – $348:

Our 2018 ACA plan is about $60 per month more expensive than our $16 per month plan from 2017.  It offers nearly identical coverage as in 2017 except the deductible increased from $100 to $125 and the specialist office visits are slightly more expensive.  I decided to take less than the full ACA premium subsidy that we qualify for so that I can pay extra each month.

I figured out that I can in essence pay an extra $300 each month for my health insurance and that replaces the need to pay quarterly estimated taxes. In this case the health insurance company eats the credit card processing fees for the $300 per month instead of me paying the 1.87% fee. It’ll only save me $60 each year but it also eliminates the administrative overhead of making four estimated tax payments.  I feel kind of like a genius (a very stable genius).  In future months we’ll owe $364 per month for health insurance premiums ($64 for the actual policy plus $300 per month extra that will count as taxes paid once we get back a large ACA Premium Tax Credit at tax time).

 

Getting our tennis on during an unseasonably warm December afternoon.

 

Entertainment – $71:

Due to a quirky decision I made 8 years ago when I first started keeping detailed spending records, I include hard liquor purchases made at our state run liquor stores (the misleadingly named ABC Stores) in the “Entertainment” line item.  Good for entertaining and making a strong beverage at home for personal consumption I suppose.

 

Bought in November: a few bucks worth of craft supplies from Dollar Tree to make these adorable candy cane reindeer for all of our son’s kindergarten classmates.

 

We volunteered on the last day of school before winter break. The kindergartners needed some help from a retired engineer to ensure proper structural integrity in their gingerbread houses. The world has never seen such strength built from graham crackers, cake frosting, and gum drops.

 

In “real” entertainment spending, we went to The Nutcracker presented by the Carolina Ballet. These $500 worth of tickets were free. Fun story – we gave away an old 32″ CRT TV on facebook and the recipient chatted us up and ended up comping us some super expensive tickets to the ballet since she worked for them. It was pretty fun but wasn’t as exciting as the live performances we are used to on cruise ships.

 

Clothing/Shoes – $52:

A few random winter clothing items and a pair of shoes for Mrs. Root of Good.

 

Cold winter sky

 

 

 

Gas – $51:

Slightly more than one tank of gas. We drove to the North Carolina foothills to visit my grandmother and celebrate her 90th birthday!

 

My uncle’s little country retreat in the NC foothills. My first time driving a long distance in sort-of snowy weather!

 

Where do 90 year olds really really want to go for their big milestone birthday? The “fish camp” of course! Mmmmm piles of fried seafood.

 

Automotive – $44:

I paid $39 for an oil change at the dealership. This is the first time I’ve paid for maintenance on the minivan that we bought in 2016.  While there, we also let the dealer perform a few non-critical recall fixes.  They found a few things that needed attention on the van but otherwise gave it a clean bill of health.

One of those items needing attention was a burned out tail light. Instead of paying the dealer $20 to replace a single bulb, I bought a new set of tail light bulbs and a new set of license tag light bulbs (required equipment in North Carolina, and something that failed me on the annual safety inspection in the past).  Total cost: $4 shipped from Rock Auto online (or about $11-12 at the auto parts store).  In the minivan, it’s a pain to get to the rear light bulbs because the interior panels must be removed. As a result I wanted to replace all the bulbs in there at one time so that they will hopefully last the life of the van (and I paid a few pennies extra to get the “long life” light bulbs).

 

Restaurants – $37:

We’re stuck in our boring ways. Just one family visit to our regular haunt – the neighborhood Chinese restaurant.

 

Cable/Satellite – $14:

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

 

I’m passing my love of Starcraft 2 to my son. Guess what we did during the entire winter vacation from school? Hint: there might have been more than a few Zerg, Protoss, and Terrans harmed in the process.

 

Telephone – $4:

I’ve been using Google Voice hooked up through an Obihai Telephone Adapter to get free VOIP home phone service for several years.  Something technological happened such that the older Obi100 adapter stopped receiving firmware updates. Google updated their Google Voice security interface and boom – my old Obi100 no longer played nicely with Google Voice. I found a $4 workaround through some telephony forums and paid that small fee to keep things running for free (at least on a recurring basis) in the home phone department.  I briefly considered tossing out the home phone completely but it is handy to have the whole house set up with phone service without relying on our cells.  And the price is right.

 

Total Spending in 2017

All told, we spent only $31,708 in 2017. That’s about 80% of our annual $40,000 early retirement budget.  We had a great time in 2017 and didn’t lack for anything.  We enjoyed nine weeks traveling across Europe and a week cruising the Caribbean.  We had a new roof put on the house.  Lots of fun was had by all!

I don’t see any huge expenses coming up on the horizon in the short term.  Our big 2018 summer vacation is mostly paid for.  The annual property tax bill is paid.  I don’t foresee any big housing expenses in 2018 although our water heater and furnace are both getting older and there’s a small chance that we would have to spend a lot on repair or replacement of either one of those systems during 2018.  Don’t worry; it’s in the budget along with other capital expenditures for all major systems in our house.

Life is good.  I’ve expressed this opinion before, but I really feel like we’re living a $100,000 lifestyle on $40,000 per year or less.  After four years of early retirement, our spending has averaged $32,000 per year (see summary below).

 

Monthly Expense Summary for 2017:

 

Summary of annual spending from all years of early retirement:

 

Net Worth: $2,037,000 (+$26,000)

Another month is over. Another YEAR is over! Our net worth increased yet again in December, making 2017 a year with 12 out of 12 months with positive net worth gains.  I’ll be surprised if we ever experience another year with such smoothly positive net worth growth.

In December, our stash of investments grew by $26,000 to bring our total net worth to $2,037,000.  Year over year, we’re $357,000 richer than we were at the end of 2016.  That astronomical amount of growth is more than five times what I earned on a yearly basis while working full time as a transportation engineer.

Here’s my market forecast for 2018: The market will go up, and the market will go down. I have zero clue where we will end up on December 31, 2018.  However I expect that on December 31, 2038 we will look back longingly at how cheap stocks were way back in 2018.

As far as investments, my biggest change in 2017 was switching to a slightly more conservative asset allocation.  I sold stock mutual funds and ETFs throughout 2017 and bought VBTLX, the Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund, with the proceeds.  I’m now the proud owner of $127,000 worth of bond funds.  In addition to the bonds, I hold $15,000 in 2% CDs at my local credit union and another $35,000 in money market accounts yielding 1%.

In total, I’m holding just over $175,000 in fixed income investments (including cash) which represents just under 10% of my total portfolio. The other 90% remains invested in a broad asset allocation covering the entire globe.  At an average annual spending level of $35,000 per year, the fixed income allocation will cover five full years of living expenses. Add to that five years of $8,000 per year in dividends from the taxable brokerage account and that would result in another year of living expenses.  If we enter a multi year bear market we’ll have plenty of cash and bonds on hand to get us through the tough spots without selling our equities for quite a while.  This worst case back of the envelope contingency planning excludes any blog or consulting income (which covers our monthly spending in most months).

I wanted to close this blog post with a hearty “Thank You!” to all the Root of Good readers and I’d like to extend best wishes for a prosperous 2018 from my family to you and yours!

 

 

How much progress did you make toward your early retirement goals in 2017? Any big New Year’s Resolutions for 2018? 

 

 

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Castles, Skyscrapers, and Prosciutto in Milan, Italy

Welcome to stop number five on our nine week trip across Europe! This post covers the four days we spent in Milan, Italy at the end of June. We flew to Milan from Seville, Spain on a super cheap two hour Ryanair flight.  Earlier in our trip, we visited Lisbon, Portugal, then flew to Malaga in southern Spain before taking a bus to Granada.

This was our first time in Italy and I didn’t have a clue where to visit. I considered Rome but I figured it would be too ambitious to tackle in just four days so we decided to save Rome for later.  Milan, though still a sizable city, proved a good choice to fit in a four day slot in our schedule before we headed onward to Venice.

Milan offers a great mix of the new and the historic.  In a single day of sightseeing, one can take a hundred year old trolley line to go from centuries old castles and cathedrals to cutting edge ultramodern skyscrapers.  Both the old and new proved interesting to me!

The Old – Milan Duomo

The new – Unicredit Tower

 

Sforzesco Castle and Sempione Park

The main highlight of our trip was the Sforzesco Castle and the Sempione Park. These two attractions sit side by side in the central core of downtown Milan and are easily accessed by a subway, bus, and trolley.

In the castle courtyard

 

The castle itself offers free admission all the time. If you want to enter any of the several museums on site, there is a small admission fee.  We skipped the museums and explored the castle grounds extensively instead.

Inside the lower levels of the castle.

 

Walking out of the castle’s northwest entrance brought us to Sempione Park. It’s a big tree-filled leafy green nature preserve right in the middle of downtown Milan. Kind of like New York City’s Central Park on a smaller scale.

Green fields, trees, and a monument in the distance.

 

Walk all the way across the park and you arrive at the Arco della Pace.

 

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and the Milan Duomo

The Duomo (or “Cathedral”) marks the Catholic Church’s historically monolithic presence in Milan given it’s prime placement in the very center of the city.  Though started in the 14th century, the final touches on the cathedral weren’t finished until the last half of the 20th century.  This was one of the more impressive churches we visited in Europe.

The Duomo provided a stunning backdrop for some amazingly talented street musicians. They were rocking out Michael Jackson and Pachelbel’s Canon on their violins!

Right next to the Duomo is another mainstay of Milan tourist stops. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is a high end shopping mall built in the late 19th century.  It’s the perfect place to pick up all your must-haves from Versace, Louis Vuitton, Prada, and Swarovski.  If you need to use the restroom, there’s a free one in the McDonald’s next door to the Galleria (and you can make a pit stop at the Ferrari dealer on the way to McD’s).

 

 

 

Getting Around Town

To get from the airport to the Centrale train station near our apartment, we reserved bus tickets for the five of us for €28 total (about USD$31). It was roughly a 50 minute ride from the airport to the train station. Once at the train station we tried (but failed) to catch a city bus to our Airbnb.  After waiting for more than 30 minutes we gave up and decided to walk the mile to our apartment.  We travel light (nothing but bookbags) so the walk wasn’t bad and the weather was surprisingly nice.  We also got an in-depth preview of our neighborhood.

Subsequent attempts to use local transit were much more successful (with one caveat – read on).  Transit tickets were surprisingly cheap considering Milan’s reputation as a high priced city.  The €1.50 (USD$1.70) single transit ticket is good for 90 minutes with free transfers between tram/trolley, bus, and subway. Kids 10 and under rode free, so we only had to use three tickets at a time.  One time on the way home from downtown we used the flexibility of the 90 minute ticket to make a quick stopover to revisit a cool plaza we were impressed with earlier during our stay.

The kids LOVED playing in the fountains at Plaza Gae Aulenti near the Unicredit Tower. I don’t know if this is the kind of public fountain you’re allowed to play in, but we assumed it was.

 

It was so nice we had to revisit on a second day.

 

I got trapped inside the subway once when my transit ticket wouldn’t scan properly. Their subway operates on the scan-in, scan-out method such that you can’t leave the underground without swiping your ticket a second time upon exiting.  I tried to explain in horribly broken Italian to the transit police that I really did pay for the fare and I’d really really like to be reunited with my wife and three children on the other side of the turnstile. With a smile and a wave, this nice officer let me through without further investigation or interrogation.

 

One of the wood-paneled historic streetcars. For €1.50 you can hop on one of these beauties for a tour around the historic center of Milan.

 

Lodging for four nights with Airbnb

We reserved a two bedroom apartment near the Milan Centrale train station.  The historic core of the city was roughly 2.5 miles from our apartment.  At $86 per night, this place was a steal!  We were on the fourth floor of a seven story residential apartment building and it even came with a rickety old elevator that must have been from the Mussolini era.

Full kitchen in our sweet Milan Airbnb apartment. Perfect for making some coffee for breakfast and ravioli for dinner!

Overall the apartment was great. Easy to hop on a bus to downtown. Two minutes from a discount grocery store. Comfy beds. Comfy couch. Nice but small balcony. However this was the one place we stayed out of fourteen apartment rentals across Europe where I took a star off during the review process.

Why did the apartment lose a star? The shower curtain was covered in pink mold (though the bathtub was super clean). And the internet stopped working for a couple days before returning to normal on the last day of our stay.  My theory is that we exceeded the usage limit for the month – though we didn’t know there was a usage limit.  On July 1st the internet miraculously began working once again.  Minor quibbles for an otherwise great apartment.  Let’s just say it was 1,000 times nicer than our Airbnb from Hell in Quebec City, Canada several years ago.

I’m still a huge fan of Airbnb due to the value proposition and comfort. USD$86 per night in Milan wouldn’t even get me a crappy hotel for five people, and this apartment came with a living room, dining room, and full kitchen plus nice tasteful decor throughout.  If you want to try Airbnb for your next vacation, make sure to take $40 off your stay through this link.

 

Food in Milan

On our first full day in Milan we set out in search of a local pizzeria. We found one within a five minute walk from our apartment.  It was right next to a Domino’s Pizza, the ubiquitous US-based pizza chain (that has really improved their pizza game in the past several years).  This was my first chance to muddle through ordering food in Italian (it’s kinda like Spanish, right??).  Pointing and nodding my head seemed to work since they had all the pizzas on display behind the counter.  We didn’t go hungry in spite of my lack of Italian language skills.

Our slightly racist Airbnb host (maybe he was simply honest?) told us all about the tiers of pizza parlors in Milan.  Don’t eat pizza at the pizzerias run by the Chinese – it’s not fit to eat. The Egyptians can make acceptable pizza – that’s where we ended up finding some good slices.  But if you can find one – and mind you they are rare – eat at a pizzeria run by real Italians.

USD$12 for all of this from a local pizzeria!

 

While in Milan, we mostly cooked at home.  There was a very convenient and inexpensive grocery store close to our apartment where I picked up the staples like milk, cereal, yogurt, fruits, fresh ravioli, meatballs, and gelato.  They had raw horse meat carpaccio on the shelf but I decided not to try the horse meat this time around (it looked old and withered – not that I object to eating horse meat in general).

We hit pay dirt with several local treats like prosciutto, smoked salmon, spicy salami, dried dates, local cheeses, and olives.  These items were 50-75% less than the prices we usually pay at home.

Wonderful grocery options = good eats at “home” in our apartment!

 

While at the Milan Malpensa airport, we were treated to fine wines and spirits and plenty of food at the VIP Lounge.  For free!  During our time in Europe, we definitely put to work our Priority Pass Select benefits from our Chase Sapphire Reserve card (check out that card and more in the credit card offers).

Top shelf liquor on the top shelf at the VIP Lounge at Milan Airport. Sandwiches on the bottom shelf became dinner.  Courtesy of the Priority Pass Select!

 

Thoughts on Milan

Milan is a big, wonderful, modern city in Italy. I thought it was a great introduction to Italy since it is more manageable than a larger city like Rome, especially if you only have a few days.  Transit is easy. The city is compact.  Prices weren’t bad at all.  People were nice.  There are plenty of old buildings mixed in with newer architectural marvels.

The crowds weren’t too bad in general, though the heart of the historic center was pretty packed.  We had a good time and managed to see tons of cool stuff during our brief stay in Milan.

Next stop: Venice!

 

 

Have you visited other big cities in Italy? How do they compare to Milan?

 

 

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

 

Cracking $2 Million: November 2017 Financial Update

Where did the year go? As I write this we are less than four weeks from 2018! Time flies when you are having fun.  As usual, November weather has been beautiful here in North Carolina and we have enjoyed many nice days outside.  Now that December is here, it’s starting to feel more like winter with the short days and frost on the ground for a brief time span some mornings.

Big news on the financial front.  In November, our net worth smashed through the big $2 million dollar mark!  Our net worth climbed $33,000 to close the month at $2,011,000.  Income remained strong at $3,228 while expenses increased to $2,857 (still within budget though).  To summarize: we are doing okay financially.

 

Income

Investment income totaled $271 for the month of November.  This is mostly the interest on the bond position I’ve been building during 2017.  Our equity mutual funds and ETFs pay dividends quarterly in March, June, September, and December.  During other months (like November) 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, remained roughly the same as last month, at $2,349 for November.  No complains here as that sometimes covers our monthly spending (and I get to hang out with you guys 🙂 ).

My early retirement lifestyle consulting income (“consulting”) dropped to $465 in November.  This is an ideal pace with about one hour of consulting per week.  These sessions provide a nice bit of intellectual rigor for me while also helping others fine tune their early retirement goals.

Deposit income of $117 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 which will lead to $40 cash back later this month.

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

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

 

Expenses

Now let’s take a look at November expenses:

After four months of spending less than $2,000 per month, November saw our spending rise to $2,857.  That’s just a few hundred less than our budgeted spending of $3,333 per month (or $40,000 per year).  November’s spending was bigger than other months because I bought several gift cards and paid extra on our utilities in order to get bonus points from credit card sign up offers.  The gift cards and utility balances will be used over the next several months (so I’ll be spending less during those months).

 

Groceries – $1,068:

We usually spend closer to $500-600 per month on groceries. In November, I spent an extra $325 on Walmart gift cards to snag an extra 10% cash back on those purchases. I checked Personal Capital and we spend about $1,000 each year at Walmart so it shouldn’t take long to burn up these gift cards and make an extra $32 in the process.

After accounting for the gift card purchases, we spent closer to $700 on groceries in November. My best guess at what caused the extra spending was stocking the pantry and wine cabinet.  There might be some Christmas gifts mixed in with the grocery spending since we find many gifts at Aldi, Lidl, and Walmart and don’t do the best job splitting out those expenses in these monthly financial updates.

For those that missed my last article comparing Costco versus several other competitors, it is worth checking out since some people found it rather controversial with more than 200 comments so far.  I knew Costco would be a little more expensive than some other stores but I was really shocked to see it was 40% more expensive than Walmart for a basket of staples!

Gratuitous food pics from November:

Somen noodles and thin sliced steak with green papaya salad. About $2 worth of food. This plate is $30 at the wildly popular local Laotian restaurant and it’s not as good as this simple home cookin’ 🙂

 

Obligatory monthly pho-to (<– see what I did there).  This time it’s pork and turkey pho broth with shrimp and turkey organ meat. I personally omitted the innards from my bowl 🙂

 

Eastern NC Barbeque

 

Thanksgiving at the in-laws. We brought a roasted turkey, pumpkin rolls, cookies, and macaroni and cheese. No one went home hungry.

 

Healthy stuff that was on sale this month (our fruit bowl runneth over).
Pomegranates, avocados, kiwis, tomatoes, and mangoes. The persimmons are from Mrs. Root of Good’s family friends.

 

Utilities – $520:

I added $270 on the water bill account and $250 on the natural gas account even though I still had a small credit balance on both. We usually spend about $250/month total between water, gas, and electric so this month was about double due to prepayment.  Gotta earn those credit card sign up bonuses by shifting spending forward sometimes.

 

Travel – $289:

No cruises this month (like last month).  The travel spending came from three annual fees on three new credit cards that were $95 or $99 each.  I signed up for two Barclay American Airlines Aviator cards that will yield 60,000 AA points each, plus a Barclay Jetblue Card that will reward us with 60,000 Jetblue points after I meet the $1,000 spending requirement.  These points are worth roughly $2,500 to $3,000 at a cost of just under $300 in annual fees.  I’ll most likely cancel these cards before next year when the annual fee comes due again.

If you want to peruse the credit card bonuses on offer, check out my credit cards page.

 

Hiking around the lake at our favorite local nature preserve. Can you tell it’s fall?

 

We didn’t do any traveling in November but we did visit the (free) Science Museum in downtown Raleigh. This is a simulated 3D environment where you can make it rain on mountains you create! Installed by a neighbor up the street from us that sometimes reads this blog (hi if you’re seeing this!).

 

Insurance – $253:

Six month auto insurance premium for the two of us.  High liability limits but no comprehensive or collision coverage for our used minivan.

 

General Merchandise – $234:

$20 set of Pyrex glassware storage containers for the kitchen.  The Pyrex glassware was my only Black Friday purchase since we already have a house full of stuff and don’t need anything else.

$63 for three sets of bed sheets from Aldi (one of which will probably become a gift).  

The other $150 was a Walmart gift card that earned 10% cash back on my Chase card. I buy a lot of household goods and non-grocery things at Walmart so this gift card certainly won’t go to waste!

 

Clothing – $142:

New winter coats for the kids ($9.99 at Walmart!!), some shoes, leggings and/or jeggings (I don’t really know the difference nor what exactly we bought).

 

Gifts – $102:

“Gifts” is a category that raises a lot of questions this time of year.  I think a lot of the gifts we buy for people slip through the cracks and fall into other categories of spending. It’s easy to pick up a $5-20 item as you buy groceries which magically becomes a “grocery” expense. As a result I figure I under report my gift spending while over reporting my grocery and household goods expenditures. It all works out in the end since I’m most concerned about our bottom line and not the exact category that everything falls into, but it’s worth mentioning in case anyone sees that we only spent $102 on gifts.

$42 of gift spending went to 2018 custom photo calendars for family (and one for us!).  Walmart runs a $10 deal every year and we take advantage of that.

The other $60 was spent on two new Moto E cell phones for our older two kids. One lost her previous phone at school (perhaps it was stolen) and the other kid is a new inductee to phone ownership.  We bought the phones from Freedompop which offers a conveniently priced $0 per month cell phone plan.

I’m treating the phones as a gift expense since we usually reward the kids for good grades each quarter and they did phenomenally well with Q1 grades (all A’s between them except for one B).  This $60 per quarter incentive should save me a lot of money on college costs one day.  Usually we hand them cash: $5 per A, $2.50 per B, nothing for a C and a stern “strategy session” talking-to for anything lower.

I’ve read that paying kids to earn good grades makes kids think grades are instrumentally valuable and not intrinsically valuable.  I view it in a different way.  It’s no different than earning a merit based scholarship in college or performing well at a job and getting a raise and a bonus. Effort is instrumentally valuable in receiving those good things. Knowledge is intrinsically valuable in itself, and I hope they learn that lesson by example at home regardless of whether we routinely compensate them for good grades.

Keeping them flush with cash also puts spending decisions in their hands instead of mine since my stock response to “can I get this?” is “sure, you can buy anything you want with your own money!”.  Because Money is the Root of Good.

 

Downtown Raleigh colors in fall.

 

Home Maintenance – $74:

$45 went to the teenager we hired this summer to mow our grass while we were in Europe on vacation for 9 weeks.  I gave him a $25 end of summer bonus plus his usual $20 for mowing the yard.  They just now got around to cashing the check (so I made an extra $0.03 from float since August).

I spent $19 on a new range hood from Amazon. I’m sad to report that the fan in our old range hood died after 45 years of devoted service.  I went for an open box item from Amazon Warehouse deals and had to send the first one back due to some defects whereas the replacement is nearly perfect. The range hood would have been $69 full price.

The remaining $10 of home maintenance spending went toward our neighborhood’s annual Luminaria light display on Christmas Eve.

 

Restaurants – $58:

We don’t spend much on dining out and November was no different. We went out to the amazing neighborhood Chinese restaurant as a family to celebrate good grades ($36).  I went out to lunch with an old law school friend and spent another $9 (and finally tried the local Korean fried chicken place that everyone’s been talking about; I was unimpressed).  I also used up a $10 Groupon credit plus $3 out of pocket to buy a $20 Groupon for a local Mexican restaurant.

Sushi from the $7.99 Chinese buffet.

Rounding out the restaurant spending was $9 for two visits to a local bakery for their amazing apple fritters and donuts (Baker’s Dozen Donuts if you’re local to Cary/Raleigh).  I’m glad for health reasons that their nearest location isn’t too close to our house…

 

Healthcare/Dental – $56:

$32 of healthcare spending was two months of monthly premiums for our health insurance plan that’s mostly paid for with ACA premium subsidies.

FYI, open enrollment for the ACA plans is still available through December 15 so head over to Healthcare.gov if you need to sign up for 2018.  I already signed up for almost the exact policy we have in 2017.  The premium went up slightly due to some quirks in how the ACA premium tax credit is calculated.

I spent $10 on replacement toothbrush heads for my Sonicare.  That’s several times more expensive than a regular toothbrush but if it prevents just one cavity every decade it pays for itself.  And my teeth are shinier and mostly hole-free.

The remaining $14 was a miscellany of labwork, a $5 copay at the doctor and a $2 prescription.  “Obamacare” insurance isn’t a derogatory term in my experience as it’s working pretty well.

 

Gas – $41:

Our monthly visit to the gas station.

 

Cable/Satellite – $14:

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

 

Entertainment – $0:

I’m not sure why this showed up on the Personal Capital expense report.  I must have spent a penny or a dollar on a Humble Bundle package of computer games.  I also picked up a completely free game through Humble Bundle called “Rebuild 3”.  That kept me busy for a couple of weeks. It’s like SimCity or Civilization, except you’re killing zombies while rebuilding a decimated city.  In other words, it’s awesome.

Another $0 entertainment experience. These sunsets over our backyard and lake.  The kind of sunset that makes you drop whatever you’re doing and hurry outside to stare at the heavens on fire.  #nofilter

 

Year to Date Living Expenses for 2017

With only one month remaining in 2017, we have spent $23,754 year to date.  That’s roughly $13,000 below the $36,667 budgeted for the first eleven months of the year.  Needless to say we are well on track to come in WAAAAY under budget for 2017.

Big ticket items remaining in 2017 (or very early 2018) are our $1,500 annual property tax bill and a $600 spark plug job for the van.  Who knew spark plug replacement on a minivan costs more than a timing belt change on a Honda Civic??  The shop said they charge four hours of shop time for the repair because half the engine must come out to get to the rear three plugs. Four hours of pro mechanic time translates to 8-12 of my hours so I’m going to outsource this task and be lazy.

Our vacation planning for summer of 2018 is still underway.  After a mostly fruitless attempt at finding the perfect beachfront rental in the Cancun area, we have moved on to searching the Bahamas.  I think we have found the perfect place and might end up with a $6,000-$7,000 vacation that consists of a month of lounging on a mile of mostly deserted pristine white sand beach with crystal clear water.  And the rental has high speed internet and air conditioning.  After travel hacking it might only cost $2,000-3,000 out of pocket including groceries and car rental.

 

Monthly Expense Summary for 2017:

 

We went hiking at this county park that offers the best long-distance views of the Raleigh area. The park trail is built atop an old landfill.

 

Net Worth: $2,011,000 (+$33,000)

Woohoo!!  Two Million Dollars!  It’s a big milestone but doesn’t really buy us anything that we don’t already have.  It is a nice feeling to quit your full time office jobs, do a little fun creative stuff on the side and mostly sit back and watch your net worth grow by many hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a few years.

This might sound strange, but I didn’t do anything to celebrate other than Twitter bragging to Carl (aka Mr. 1500 Days) that I beat him to the $2 million mark.  He’s only $10,000 or so behind me so I expect he’s close to cresting this particular hill too.

We are now up roughly $400,000 since October 2016.  That’s enough to fund 10-15 years of early retired living expenses if we spend $25-40,000 per year like we have been doing these past several years.  It’s crazy to think about it in that way, but that’s the only way I can put these large numbers in perspective.

As I mentioned in last month’s financial update, I’m planning several things for year end 2017:

  • harvest capital gains – about $4,000 gains from selling a $14,000 mutual fund position (DONE; $3,994 long term capital gains, $115 short term capital gains (oops))
  • continue my Roth IRA Conversion Ladder – planning to convert ~$5,000 (to be done by December 31, 2017) (WORK IN PROGRESS)
  • 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). (PARTIALLY DONE – took the $14,000 from sale of mutual fund and stuck it in the Roth solo 401k).
  • fund a his and hers Roth IRA – $5,500 x2 = $11,000 (to be done by April 15, 2018) (WORK IN PROGRESS)

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

As part of the $14,000 mutual fund sale, I ended up swapping around some other investments to add a total of $14,000 more the the Vanguard Total Bond Market index fund (VBTLX), held within a traditional IRA.  That puts my bond position at roughly $127,000 and all of that was acquired this year.

I also moved $15,000 cash from a money market earning 1% to a five year CD earning 2% (with a 90 day interest penalty for early termination).  If rates remain constant that move will earn an extra $150 per year in interest.

 

Christmas is almost here! Celebrating with our new $10 white Christmas tree!

 

I don’t have many comments on the big tax bill passed by the US House and Senate. There are some significant differences between the two bills so it’s pure speculation as to what we might end up with after reconciliation happens and the final sausage is made.  Looking at the prediction markets, there’s still a 10% chance this tax bill thingy won’t pass in the next four months.  I think my taxes will stay the same based on preliminary back of envelope calculations.  Wealthy people seem to do pretty well with the new bill whereas there will be a lot of subgroups that won’t do very well.

 

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

 

 

How about our financially bountiful 2017 so far?  What would you do to celebrate cracking the $2 million milestone?

Getting excited for wintertime and the upcoming holidays?  

 

 

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.

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)?  

 

 

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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? 

 

 

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