Category Archives: Lifestyle

March 2018 Financial Update – Spring is Here!

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

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

On to the numbers!

 

Income

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Expenses

Now let’s take a look at March expenses:

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

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

 

Automotive – $809:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I had to renew my driver’s license.

The itemized $809 in automotive spending:

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

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

 

Bike time in the neighborhood park. No cars required.

 

Travel – $470:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, travel like we always do.

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

 

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

 

Groceries – $430:

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

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

 

Homemade salmon and avocado sushi

 

Yummy pad thai

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

$0.50 homemade fish and avocado sandwich

 

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

 

Home Maintenance – $152:

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

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

 

Some assembly required.

 

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

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

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

And the grass got mowed.

 

Entertainment – $76:

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

 

Getting our Easter egg hunt on with our neighbors and classmates

 

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

 

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

 

Kids go CRAZY in this museum. Lots of fun though

 

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

 

Restaurants – $42:

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

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

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

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

Anniversary disaster averted.

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

 

Gas – $28:

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

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

 

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

 

Cable/Satellite – $14:

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

 

Note on Utilities and Health Insurance expenses:

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

 

Total Spending in 2018

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

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

 

Monthly Expense Summary for 2018:

 

Summary of annual spending from all years of early retirement:

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

Here’s what Eric wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Closing thoughts

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

Good for Eric!

 

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

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

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

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

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

Soča Valley

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

Julian Alps and the Vršič Pass

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

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

Just one of 50 tight turns on the Vršič Pass.

 

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

 

Caught the sunset on the drive back home through the pass

 

Lake Jasna

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Exploring the Village of Podkoren

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

 

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

 

View of the village of Podkoren in the valley

 

The Zelenci spring right next to Podkoren.

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

 

Lodging for four nights in Podkoren, Slovenia with Airbnb

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

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

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

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

Two couches in the living room

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Food in Podkoren

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Thoughts on Podkoren and the Soča Valley area

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

 

I miss you already, Soča Valley

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

Exploring Caves and Castles in Ljubljana, Slovenia

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Getting Around Town

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lodging for a week with Airbnb

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Food in Ljubljana

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Slovenian street food lunch for USD$20!

 

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

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

 

Ljubljana Castle

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

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

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

View of the castle from the main town plaza

 

Interior castle courtyard with special event setup

 

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

 

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

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

 

Castle aglow with the orange of sunset

 

Family time enjoying the sunset over Ljubljana.

 

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

 

Caves of Slovenia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skocjan Cave

Skocjan Cave and its underground river

 

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

 

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

Postojna Cave

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

 

Video from our train ride into the Postojna Cave

 

Layered stalagmites in the Postojna Cave.

 

Impressive columns and stalagmites in the Postojna Cave.

 

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

 

Thoughts on Ljubljana and Slovenia

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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January 2018 Financial Update

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

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

Income

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Expenses

Now let’s take a look at January expenses:

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

 

Groceries – $563:

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

 

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

 

And thai coconut shrimp curry.

 

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

 

Steak fajita time!

 

Healthcare/Dental – $364:

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

 

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

 

Taxes – $300:

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

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

 

Restaurants – $32:

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

Sushi takeout from the Chinese restaurant. Good stuff!

 

Cable/Satellite – $14:

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

 

Travel – $6:

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

 

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

 

Gas – $0:

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

 

Weeeee! Getting mad slope time at the elementary school.

 

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

 

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

 

Summary of annual spending from all years of early retirement:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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Is Hygge, or “Social Coziness”, Denmark’s Best Export?

Visiting us this week is Bob Lai, the blogger behind Canadian Financial Independence and Early Retirement blog “Tawcan” with an important message on living the good life with a Danish influence.

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Unless you have been living under a rock the last few years, you probably have come across the word “hygge.” Hygge is a concept that comes from Denmark. Directly translated, it means cozy. For some reason, hygge has been the hottest craze lately. Everywhere you look you can find hygge related items, being it a flood of books, countless top 10 lists or how-to website articles, department store displays, and even Japanese bakeries.

What exactly is hygge? Does it simply mean cozy? Or purchases of things to create a cozy environment?

I will explain to you what hygge is to me and my family.

Before I get into what hygge truly means, you are probably wondering, how would a Taiwanese Canadian know anything about a Danish concept? What qualifies me to write about hygge?

Well, I met a Danish girl back in 2009 and fell deeply in love with her. One of the first things that she taught me was hygge and what it means to have a “hyggelig” time. I asked her to marry me, at her 30th birthday party, in front of our close friends. Nobody had any idea that I was going to propose to her. Fortunately, she said yes. After we got married, she told me that one of the key reasons for her saying yes was because of my excellent hygge skills.

 

How do you pronounce hygge?

Before getting into what hygge is exactly, let’s go over the pronunciation because almost every non-Danish person I know is messing up the pronunciation.

One thing I have learned as a non-Danish person trying to pronounce the word hygge is that it is a hard word to pronounce. For example, my wife (I’ll refer to her as Mrs. T from now on) has taught my parents numerous times how to pronounce the word, but they still butcher the word by pronouncing it like “hoog.” I think my pronunciation is quite decent but probably still not quite like a true Dane yet.

Contrary to belief, hygge is not pronounced like hoog, hoo-ah, hoo-gah, or hig. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to write it out phonetically in English because there are no characters to reflect the actual “hy” sound. The closest phonetic pronunciation is probably a mix between “hue-gah” and “huh-gah.” Since it is so hard explained in words, it is best to listen to the audio pronunciation here.

 

What is hygge?

Hygge to Danes means a lot more than just cozy or coziness. It is about quality time, whether alone or with friends, at home or out. It usually involves some sort of food, candles, some sort of activities like playing games, doing creative stuff, or working on a project together. Hygge can also be as simple as wrapping yourself in a big warm fuzzy blanket, having a cup of hot chocolate, while sitting in front of the fireplace, and enjoying the moment.

 

 

As an honorary Dane, hygge to me is about slowing down and spending quality time with the important people in my life. It is about having good food and having a good time; it is about having a deep conversation with someone while enjoying a nice cup of tea/coffee, it is about taking time to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. To qualify something as “hyggligt,” it requires slowing down, being completely present in the moment, and enjoying it fully.

Therefore, hygge is not about buying cashmere blankets, candles, wine, furniture, pastries, yoga pants, or other material things.

Hygge cannot be purchased.  It has a much deeper meaning, a higher purpose.

 

Danish hygge life vs. North American life

Having lived with a Dane for the past 7 years and stayed in Denmark multiple times over a month each time, I have noticed some major differences between how Danes incorporate hygge into their daily lives and the drastic contrast with how we North Americans operate our daily lives.

For example, Danes can sit for hours over a meal. Whenever we celebrate Christmas with Mrs. T’s family, Christmas meal typically starts around 5 or 6 PM and we usually won’t finish the meal until 10 PM. It does not mean we eat food nonstop for 4 or 5 hours. It has more to do with having different food items slowly and having different conversations along the way.

Mrs. T’s family has a tradition of inviting relatives over for Christmas lunch on the 26th of December (Danes celebrate Christmas on the evening of Dec. 24th). The Christmas lunches I have attended, we would start around noon, often going past 7 or 8 PM. Essentially lunch and dinner would merge into one giant meal. To my wife’s family, these long meals are hyggelige. We sit down together, talk, eat some seafood dishes, talk some more, eat hot dishes, talk some more, eat cheese platters and fruit salad, get up for a walk around the neighbourhood, come back to the living room to have some coffee, more talks, have some desserts, more talks, have some more coffee, etc… well you get the drift.

 

 

And it is not just special holiday meals that the Danes would sit down for, for hours. Everyday meals are much slower and last longer compared to what I have been used to here in North America. The Danes aren’t in a hurry to finish up their meals so they can move on to the next task. They consciously slow down to enjoy the moment and each other’s company.

This concept of slowing down to enjoy the moment is still a learning-progress for me. When we eat meals at home, I would often try to finish my food quickly and start cleaning, so we can move to the next activity or task on hand. When my phone rings or beeps, I would have the strong urge to step away from the table and check my phone. “Sit down and wait till everyone’s finished! We are having hygge!” Mrs. T would often remind me. I am better now today, but I am still learning. 😊

Thanks to Mrs. T, I have been learning how to incorporate hygge as part of my everyday life and to spend quality time. I have learned to take the time to consciously slow down so I can enjoy things that I truly enjoy. This can be playing a video game, watching a hilarious movie, taking the time to meditate, reading a book, playing silly games with my kids, or laughing hysterically over something completely silly and stupid.

 

Why is hygge so popular nowadays?

The popularity of hygge probably has something to do with us living in a fast-pace-technology-driven-everyone-is-always-busy world. Everywhere we look, people are stressed about their jobs, stressed about their lives, stressed about money, stressed about putting a roof over their head, stressed about having the latest and greatest gadget, stressed about keeping up with the Joneses, stressed about saving up for retirement, etc. Somehow, we are looking for a way to detach ourselves from the daily grind and do something special for ourselves.

However, it is not just hygge that we need to incorporate into our daily lives. As someone who is involved with the Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE) movement, I believe we need to incorporate hygge into our FIRE plans.

Why?

Because I believe incorporating hygge in our FIRE plans will make our lives more fulfilling.

The FIRE community has a tendency to focus on the FIRE date and the FIRE number. We are in a rush to get to FIRE so we can finally enjoy our lives. Some people in the FIRE community aren’t happy with their jobs, their fitness level, or their lives, and they believe that reaching FIRE will make them finally be happy. In addition, the term “FU Money” also has a bad vibe and can rub people the wrong way.

Rather than looking at FIRE as the end goal and having such a strong desire to not ever have to work ever again, let’s focus on what makes us happy and content right now. Enjoy the journey by having hygge along the way.

 

Incorporating hygge into our FIRE plan

You may wonder, how do I consciously incorporate hygge into our FIRE plan and everyday life?

 

  1. Turn off wifi and data on my cell phone

Mrs. T has been telling me that I check my phone way too much. Lately, I have become conscious how often I do that when I am at home. As part of my hygge practice, I started turning wifi and data off on my cell phone back in December when I am at home. This has allowed me to be more present with the kids and Mrs. T.

 

  1. Spending special time with my kids

Every day, I spend a minimum of two times 10 minutes each of special time with each kid. Each kid would decide what he or she would like to do with the 10 minutes. During the 10 minutes, I am completely present and play along. Some special time activities include playing Lego, playing Duplo, drawing pictures, reading books, pretending to be a horse while having the kid riding on my back, and building a mattress fort.

 

We build toilet paper forts here at Root of Good.

 

  1. Sitting down with Mrs. T every night to have hygge

Every night after the kids are in bed, Mrs. T and I would find time to have hygge. It can be sitting down and talking about our day or our future, having a nice cup of chai latte, hot chocolate or tea, watching a movie, or reading books. Having hygge with Mrs. T without the kids has helped us improve our relationship.

 

  1. Making meals or baking treats together

We aim to get everyone involved as much as possible when we make a meal or bake treats. Our kids are 4 and 1.5 and they have been helping with making cookie dough, cake mixes, and putting toppings on pizzas.

 

  1. Not having a fixed FIRE date

Unlike some FIRE bloggers, we don’t have a fixed FIRE date. Instead, we practice being financially independent, despite not FIRE yet. We don’t have a specific FIRE date because we understand things will change. We have two young kids and we also plan to live abroad in the future. We know we will reach FIRE eventually. Not having a fixed FIRE date has allowed us to be flexible with our FIRE plan while focusing on enjoying the special day-to-day moments.

 

  1. Say yes to pleasurable expenses

Being a saver at heart, it has taken me a very long time to learn that it is OK to have pleasurable expenses like having a nice cup of coffee while sharing delicious hand-crafted chocolates with Mrs. T. or going to a nice restaurant and ordering whatever I want without looking at the price. It is about slowing down and enjoying the moment with the special people in my life. FIRE often has a bad vibe because many people focus on extreme frugality and reaching FIRE as quickly as possible. FIRE is not a sprint, it is a marathon. It is totally OK to spend money occasionally.

These are just a small number of things that we have been doing. I believe they have allowed me to focus on the present moment, instead of rushing to the FIRE finish line for the sake of being FIRE’d.

 

 

Gotta go…gotta have hygge!

Incorporating hygge into my daily life and our FIRE plan has allowed me to find my personal balance between spending for today and saving for the future. What is the right balance for me, however, may not be the right balance for you. It is up to each of us to determine our own personal balance between spending and saving.

We all need to realize that we are extremely fortunate contemplating about FIRE, as there are many less fortunate people in this world that do not have a roof over their head and cannot even have a proper meal to satisfy their hunger.

Treat FIRE as part of life, slow down, have more hygge, and enjoy the present moment.

 

About the author

Bob Lai from Vancouver, Canada blogs at Tawcan.com. A millennial, frugalist, investor, photographer, author, and outdoor enthusiast, Bob started his financial independence journey in 2011 after a financial epiphany. Since then he has amassed a dividend portfolio paying over $1,100 per month and is practicing being financially independent every weekend.

Tawcan the blog was created to chronicle his quest for joyful life and financial independence from a Canadian perspective. Self-taught about personal finance and DIY investing without any formal training, his focuses include stock investing, passive income, millennial money, frugal living, self-improvements, and life philosophy.

 

Root of Good’s thoughts:

Love the message, Bob.  I’ve been enjoying hygge all along without knowing what it was called!

Family time at Thanksgiving. Many hours of eating, chatting, and relaxing with family.

Campfires must be hyggelig too, right?

 

 

Could you get into the concept of hygge in your own life? Are you already embracing hygge without knowing it?

 

 

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?  

 

 

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