Category Archives: Parenting

How to Pay for College while Early Retired

One of the top questions I’m asked when people see “retired at 33 with 3 kids” is “yeah, but what about college?”.  The truth is I never really gave it a lot of thought because the total cost is well into the future (though closing in fast for our oldest kid) and not huge relative to our total net worth.  I had a very vague goal of being able to cover the tuition and fees for four years of in-state tuition for all three kids.

We funneled some cash into 529 accounts when North Carolina offered a tax credit for doing so.  We earned a $350 tax credit for contributing $5,000 per year to the 529.  When that tax credit was eliminated, I stopped contributing to the 529s and stopped thinking about college funding.  Paying tens of thousands of dollars for college is no biggie when you have a million or two, right?

It turns out my lazy attitude toward college funding won’t spell disaster for my children’s higher education future.  Between what we have saved in 529s, our large investment portfolio, and a plethora of other funding sources, the kids will be perfectly fine when the college tuition bills start piling up.  You’ll have to read on to find out why I’m so confident (or is it cocky?).

 

How much does college really cost?

“It works out to just pennies per inspiring moment” reports the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Cost of Attendance page.  While technically true (it’s about six cents per minute assuming all the minutes are “inspiring”), a better way to look at the cost is dollars per year.  For the 2016-2017 school year, the cost of attendance at UNC is just under $25,000.

Univ. of NC Tuition & Fees $8,834
Room $6,292
Board $4,926
Books & Supplies $1,442
Travel $810
Health Insurance $1,088
Loan Fees $58
Personal $1,448
Total $24,898

Here in Raleigh at North Carolina State University, the total Cost of Attendance is closer to $23,000.  NCSU doesn’t include health insurance (something we would likely provide at near zero cost after subsidy through the Affordable Care Act) which explains $1,000 of the difference in cost (the other $1,000 being meals; Raleigh is cheaper than Chapel Hill I guess).

UNC Chapel Hill and NC State University are two great local options for school where the sticker price is under $100,000 for four years.  We pay for these institutions through our tax dollars and we’re hoping to get a nice return on our tax dollars when our kids attend one of these two flagship research universities (Mrs. RoG and I are alumni of one or both schools.  Go Heels/Pack!).

Breaking down the approximately $24,000 cost of attendance further, we see the actual academics cost around $10,000 between tuition, fees, and books.  The remaining $14,000 covers personal expenses like rent, food, transportation, and beer.  For those living on campus, that’s probably a good number to use since the dorms and meal plans cost what they cost and that’s the bulk of the living expenses.  Off campus living costs vary greatly based on whether you own a car, whether you split a house or apartment, and whether your college crash pad is luxury, slummy, or somewhere in between.

For those students living at home, the cost of college is the $10,000 cost of tuition, fees, and books plus whatever the parents have been spending for the past 18 years.

I don’t know whether my kids will live at home, attend NC State University and commute the 12-15 minutes to school by car or live on/off campus at whatever state school they attend.  With either choice, the total cost for college will be between $10,000 per year plus whatever we already spend on them as part of our $40,000 early retirement budget and $24,000 per year.  

A quick note on college cost inflation.  Yes, tuition increases at a faster rate than overall CPI inflation.  But tuition is less than half of the total cost of attendance at the two schools I’ve mentioned.  The room and board, while subject to inflation, isn’t increasing at such a rapid rate.  For example, when I started college in 1998, tuition at NCSU was $2,364 while it’s $8,880 in 2016.  That’s an average annual 7.6% increase.  Holy smokes!  All other costs of attendance totaled $6,672 in 1998 while it’s $14,159 today, a more modest 4.3% average annual increase.  The total cost of attendance increased 5.3% overall during the past 18 years.  CPI inflation averaged 2.2% during that period of time.  Tuition outpaced inflation by 5.4% per year whereas room and board outpaced inflation by only 2.1% per year, with the overall cost of attendance outpacing inflation by 3.1% per year.

Keep that in mind when you see the headlines that read “college tuition increases at 8% per year on average for the past X years”.  Room and board aren’t going up at nearly the same rate, and if you live and eat off campus, your room and board will probably track CPI very closely (because you’re paying the same prices baked into the CPI that all of us are paying outside the university).  It’s also worth noting that the quality of room and board has increased greatly in the 18 years since I started full time higher education.  We didn’t have tikka masala or sushi in the dining hall for example, and many of the dorms didn’t even have air conditioning back in 1998!  You pay more, you get more.  Or you can eat 6/$1 ramen noodles off campus like all the broke college students did in 1998 (back when it was 8/$1).

Life often throws curve balls, so it’s quite possible our kids will attend some other in state public university (which all cost less than NCSU and UNC), a private U, or an out of state school.  It really depends on what will work best for the kids, and what kind of financial aid a particular university offers.  We are still seven years out from the oldest kid starting college, so for planning purposes I’m focusing on the costs for the two best in-state universities that routinely rank well for great values in public universities.

 

Nobody pays sticker price for college

Like the MSRP on a new car, the college sticker price is the starting point for negotiations.  If you’re early retired and don’t have a high Adjusted Gross Income or huge assets in taxable brokerage accounts, you’re in luck.  You’ll probably get a nice financial aid award.

The University of North Carolina offers a Net Price Calculator to estimate what kind of financial aid package you’ll receive.

After roughly estimating our numbers and filling out the calculator, the results say we’ll get $4,250 in grant money when one kid is in college.  One year later when our second kid enters college we’ll get $10,250 PER KID.  That’s almost half of the total cost of attendance right there, before we even start talking about other sources of financial assistance offered such as work study or student loans.

Is this an equitable result?  Probably not.  But that is how the system works.  We look poor on paper because they don’t ask about retirement account values and that is where 75% of our net worth resides.  Therefore we get a lot of free money for college.  And this is with us making zero effort to game our assets and income to maximize free grant money!

If those grants work out, we’ll be paying a maximum of $14,000 per kid half the time and $20,000 per kid the other half of the time.

 

What do we have saved for college?

We invested in 529 accounts for several years to snag some state income tax credits.  The older two kids have $18,000 each in 529s while the youngest kid has $7,000 in his 529.

The older two kids have UTMA accounts at Vanguard with about $2,500 per account.  This is their money but could be used for college, or something like a new (used) car to commute to college if living at home.

The remainder of college expenses will come from our main investment portfolio.  As of mid-September 2016 we have about $1.45 million in the investment portfolio (including the 529 accounts) and another $50,000 cash in a money market account.  I’ve mentally set aside $200,000 (including the 529 account values) to cover college, car purchases, higher teenage expenses, and some adult gifts like house down payments and weddings.

That will leave about $1,250,000 to fund the remainder of our early retirement expenses (which, if we spend $40,000 per year according to our budget, will equate to a 3.2% withdrawal rate).  If our portfolio does well, we will feel more free to spend the $200,000 and then some.  If things don’t go well, we might not part with all of that $200,000 if we need it to cover core living expenses. In a way we’re taking a wait and see approach to deciding exactly how much we’ll pay for college.

Money is fungible and we can move it around all we want.  We’ll likely spend enough on college expenses to deplete the $43,000 in the 529 accounts, so I’m not concerned about paying a 10% penalty to withdraw any balance remaining after they finish college.  But I don’t want to save a significantly higher sum in the 529s because I expect they will obtain college funding from numerous other sources (to be discussed later in this article).

 

Will the kids help with college expenses?

Yes. And we have talked with them about this starting around age 9 or 10.  Exactly how much they will have to pay is uncertain, although we plan on paying (at a minimum) the tuition and fees (and maybe a lump sum for books) which will total around $40,000 per kid.  That leaves them responsible for room, board, transportation and miscellaneous personal expenses, though some of that would be covered by us if they drive one of our cars and/or live with us.

There’s a strong incentive to save when it’s your money you’re spending and not someone else’s.  There is plenty of moderately priced off campus college housing around NCSU.  With roommates, monthly rent is $250-400 per month plus a share of utilities ($50-75/month per person).  A private bedroom in a shared apartment (with kitchen) rents for 12 months for around $4,000.  In contrast, shared dorm rooms cost around $6,500 per person for the fall and spring semesters (summer session costs extra).

A full year of off campus housing is much less than the price of a shared dorm room on campus for nine months, and would allow the option of a full semester of summer studies for only $3,500 tuition and fees.  Two or three summers of that would lead to graduating college in three years (or less!).  Paying for three years of college is a lot cheaper than paying for four.

The same logic applies to the food budget.  Pay the rack rates for on campus dining plans and it costs $8.61 per meal IF every single meal in the plan is consumed during the school year.  I’m pretty sure my kids can figure out a way to pay less than $8.61 for some fruit, cereal and milk, oatmeal, and yogurt for breakfast.  Rules vary by university, but it appears that NC State University requires first year students living on campus to purchase an overpriced meal plan (“looking out for their best interests” and all that), but beyond the first year students have the choice to skip the meal plan and pay a la carte (or dine off campus as often as possible like everyone did when I went to NCSU).

Having the kids pay part of their own way through college isn’t just a devious way to remove some of those costs from my cash flow statement and lower the overall costs for all parties involved.  There’s also a real benefit to the kids.  They will learn crucial money management skills in a sort-of real world environment with a parental safety net stretched underneath them in case they take a tumble.  It’s better to fail when the stakes are small (calling mom and dad to make up their share of the month’s rent) instead of when they are enormous (calling to say they are $50,000 underwater on their mortgage and will lose their house without help).

 

Sources of college funding

But it’s cruel, you say, to make kids pay for any of their college when they should be studying hard.  That would be true if they didn’t have nights, weekends, breaks, and a huge 3+ month summer vacation to figure out a way to make a little money.

15 possible sources of funds for the kids:

  1. loans
  2. grants
  3. scholarships
  4. research assistanceships
  5. teaching assistanceships
  6. work study
  7. formal co-op program
  8. internships
  9. ROTC
  10. resident advisor (free housing + meals + living stipend)
  11. on campus jobs during school year
  12. summer jobs between college semesters
  13. jobs during the school year in high school or during HS summer breaks
  14. entrepreneurship
  15. UTMA investment accounts

Parental source of college funds:

  1. 529s (currently have $43,000 total for all 3 kids)
  2. our main early retirement portfolio
  3. doing something productive that pays money (part time job, freelancing, more blogging or consulting, entrepreneurship)

As you can see, the kids have more options for funding college than us parents do.

I wanted to elaborate on a few great ways to cover half or more of the total cost of attendance:

Resident advisor or RA – I strongly considered becoming a resident advisor but decided to move off campus and split a $700 per month apartment between four people for extremely cheap rent instead.  The Resident Advisor lives in a dorm room for free, gets a university meal plan, and receives a small annual cash stipend (currently $1,735 or more at NCSU).  The room, board, and stipend are worth about $12,400 per year at NC State (more at UNC), which is over half the total cost of attendance.  You aren’t supposed to work other jobs while working as an RA because they claim it’s a 20 hour per week work commitment, though in practice many of those hours have you chilling in your room in the evenings for “office hours” while you do your homework (or whatever kids do in college these days).  At 20 hours of “work” per week for a $12,400 benefit, that equates to somewhere between $17 and $20 per hour, almost all of which would be tax free. Becoming an RA is an option after your first year of living in the dorms.

My freshman year resident advisor, George, was an overseas engineering student from Ghana paying his way through undergrad primarily by being a resident advisor plus getting some small grants and scholarships.  I could totally see my oldest daughter being an RA and loving every minute of it!

ROTC – I didn’t have any personal experience with ROTC but it sounds like an incredible opportunity.  I reached out to Doug “Nords” Nordman, a retired nuclear submarine officer who blogs at The Military Guide and an occasional guest poster here at Root of Good.  Doug’s daughter Carol recently graduated from college after completing the Naval ROTC program.  Here’s what Doug had to say:

Every student who’s the least little bit curious about the military should join a ROTC unit just to try the first year for free. At the very minimum they’ll get priority registration (for ROTC classes), lots of new friends with peer tutors, and a summer tour of their career options. Parents will know that their freshmen are getting a good start with plenty of career options.

NROTC paid over $160K of Carol’s tuition, fees, and textbooks at Rice University. She also earned $2K-$5K/year in stipends and summer training pay.

Carol also landed a well paid position as a commissioned officer in the Navy straight out of school.  Doug reports her net worth is significantly higher than her peers even though she’s only a few years out of college.  Sounds like another early retiree in the making!

ROTC provides funding for everything but room and board.  Students can drop out of the program at any time during the first year without penalty and don’t have to repay the ROTC funds (that’s what Doug meant by “free”).  There’s very little risk for joining ROTC for one year.  Starting in the second year of ROTC, the grant recipients are on the hook for repayment of any additional moneys received if they drop out of ROTC.  Alternatively they can enlist in the military later to discharge that debt.

 

How I funded my college

If you’re a long time reader you won’t be surprised to learn that I managed to finish college on the cheap.  First up was entering the fall semester of my freshman year just a few hours short of being a junior upperclassman.  Through AP credits, taking several courses at the state university during high school, taking several more during the summer after graduating high school, and taking one course through credit by examination, I managed to enter the university as a full time student with 56 credit hours (FYI most bachelor degrees require around 120-132 credit hours to graduate).  With all that credit, I managed to graduate with two bachelors degrees in three years.  And I managed to bum around Mexico for six weeks one summer.

Considering I finished 120th in my high school class, my experience wasn’t atypical for the upper level students at my high school which is the exact same high school that our two daughters will attend in a few more years (one of the reasons I like our public schools here).  So far both kids are academically on track to follow the same general path that I did, therefore entering college as a sophomore with 30+ credit hours is very possible.  If that happens, that’s $48,000 saved (minus costs of AP exams and several thousand dollars for university courses during high school and summer sessions).

Once I was in college, I received some parental help with tuition, books, room and board, and other living expenses the first year (but I couldn’t tell you exactly what my parents paid for the first year).  I also took advantage of the subsidized college loans offered to me.

During my first year of college I landed a position as a DJ at the college radio station.  In addition to being as cool as it sounds, it also paid very well if you took the boring shifts that included running the control board during men’s baseball and women’s basketball games (read: 2-3 hours to do homework punctuated with 2 minutes of work each hour to run station identification reels plus a couple of advertisements).  I didn’t suck at DJ’ing so I got promoted to production manager and became a member of the board of directors where I made $200 per month producing commercials and other on air spots.  Overall, the college radio experience was mostly jamming out to music while doing some homework during my shifts.  And getting paid cash money for the privilege.

By my second year of college I won a number of scholarships that more than paid for all of my expenses (I guess doing all that homework while working at the college radio station helped my grades).  I also started teaching an intro to engineering class for incoming freshmen ($25/hour) and landed an internship in the university’s facilities engineering department ($10/hour).  I quit the facilities department internship when a professor hired me on a research assistanceship ($13/hr) that later morphed into a grant ($3000 for a semester).  These progressively more challenging jobs qualified me for an $18/hr research engineer position during the summer between undergrad and law school.  All these dollar amounts are in the 1998-2001 time frame, so you can inflate them by 40% to arrive at values in 2016 dollars.

During law school I founded my own business that initially didn’t make more than $400-500 for an occasional small job.  Then I made $30,000 profit in five weeks (mostly working 12-16 hours per day).  I wish I had a $99 course explaining the secret to making that much, but it’s really common sense.  I did a great job on the smaller projects which led to my selection for a massive job that included some add on work because my quality was better and my prices were lower than the other team in competition with me.  Skip the $99 course fee, just do good work and profit.  And then there were the summer jobs during law school that paid between $0 and $23/hr.

Overall, I made a ridiculous amount of money by the time I graduated from undergrad and even more by the time I graduated from law school.  For the curious, here’s all 20 jobs I held between being a paper boy at age 12 and retiring as an engineering director at age 33.

In addition to making money and learning how to hustle, all those jobs provided invaluable experience that helped me land a professional job right out of school.

Will my kids find as much employment success as I did during college?  Even if they don’t, they can still make quite a bit of money to help pay for living expenses during college.

 

Hacking college

A four year degree doesn’t have to take four years, nor does it have to cost $100,000 to $300,000.

For those students that excel academically, they can start college as a sophomore or junior.  Focus on AP classes, credit by examination, summer school before college, and university/community college courses during high school.  If you can’t find resources online, then starting around 8th or 9th grade ask your kid’s guidance counselor what programs are available to earn college credit while still in high school.  I recall getting bored on summer during high school so I grabbed a course catalog from NC State University (pre-internet days, folks), and that’s when I realized they have very specific guidelines on what AP test scores get you, and what basic educational courses I should take to apply toward an engineering degree.

Another classic college hack is to attend community college for two years in a college transfer program.  Then, apply to a four year college and transfer in those two years of community college credits.  This way you only pay for two years of the more expensive university tuition.

I’m a little skeptical of this one after running the numbers.  In our situation, tuition runs $2,768 per year for full time at Wake Technical Community College, a $6,112 cost savings versus NC State University’s $8,880 per year for tuition and fees.  Not too bad but it might be a money losing proposition for students that miss out on financial aid and merit based scholarships (the engineering college at NCSU was awash with scholarship money and often had a hard time finding applicants for all that free money in my experience).  Community college is probably a better bet for students in an academic field with little prospect for discipline specific scholarships or for “average” students that graduate high school without credit for many of the freshman level college courses.

I also worry about how well those two years of community college credit would transfer into some four year degree programs that require very specific coursework (NC State University College of Engineering, I’m looking at you).

Ed Mills of The Millionaire Educator fame has figured out a way to hack a college degree in 12 months from a real, accredited four year institution for just $7,500 in tuition and fees.  It’s a little circuitous and requires discipline to study on your own then pass third party exams to demonstrate competency.  But well worth the effort for someone that needs a bachelor’s degree and doesn’t have a lot of money nor four years to waste.  Mr. Mills hones in on a few universities in the US that allow the bulk of the required credit hours to be taken through various credit by exam options.  You might want to add a second year to your course of study to allow time to actually learn the material that will be on your exams (or what the heck, take the exam and maybe you’ll pass it without studying!).

 

Other thoughts on college

I still wonder whether college will be relevant in another 10 years.  And at what cost will it remain relevant?  Is it worth a quarter of a million dollars?  Half a million dollars?  If college costs continue their meteoric rise to the moon, at some point we can jump off that vertically asymptotic crazy train by simply skipping the whole college charade and handing our kids a huge portfolio full of investments and let them join us in FIRE at age 18.  Then they can read Chaucer and learn Laplace transformations at a more leisurely pace.

To put the absurdities of growing costs in more stark contrast, there are so many free or extremely cheap educational options available today that continue to grow in quantity and quality.  Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Stanford (among other top tier schools) offer tons of free undergraduate and graduate level courses in every academic field imaginable.  Education is mostly free already, it’s just that diploma – that piece of paper that says you’re educated – that you need to get a job.

There also educational consolidators like Coursera, Udacity, Codecademy, and Khan Academy offering courses from a variety of instructors.  If you have $300 for a laptop and access to an internet connection, it’s hard to stay ignorant if you’re motivated to learn.

Will all this easily accessible free education ever supplant the need for a traditional four year degree?  That’s the $64,000 (or $99,592 at University of North Carolina) question that remains to be answered.  It’ll take a paradigm shift in hiring practices and corporate mindsets away from a strict requirement for a four year degree toward a more fluid skills-based or portfolio based assessment of job applicants.  Or a willingness to accept credentials from a different kind of educational institution.

Perhaps one day smart kids will brag about a set of certificates from Coursera instead of a diploma from Harvard.  That day isn’t today and I don’t know if we’ll see it before oldest two kids graduate college in 10-12 years.  But it’s a valid question to ask as you’re planning on college costs for a newborn today.  18 years might be enough time for an educational revolution.

Jeremy at Go Curry Cracker put a lot of thought into college funding for his newborn.  The most interesting take away from his article was the fact that investing college savings into a stock index fund like the S&P 500 is a smart way to combat escalating college tuition if you start early.  He looked at a 34 year period from 1979 to 2013 and found that

[f]rom 1979, consumer prices increased 3.4x.  Tuition increased 10x.  The S&P500 increased 18x.  And with dividends reinvested, the S&P500 increased 45X!

The stock investment grew 4.5 times as much as the cost of tuition.  Even with a much more mediocre stock market, it’s still a good bet that stock returns will at least keep up with inflation.  That’s why I’m not too worried about the inflation we’ll see between now and 7-8 years from now when my oldest two kids enter college.  Their 529s are invested in an aggressive mix of equities, though I’ll be slowly dialing back on the risk as the looming tuition payments draw near.

image courtesy of Go Curry Cracker

 

The bottom line

My kids will be able to attend college and somehow we’ll pay for it.  And we can remain early retired.

I see the best case scenario playing out like this:

$24,000 cost of attendance for 3 years – BEST CASE SCENARIO:

  • $4,000 – cut costs on room and board, misc. expenses (live at home with us?)
  • $6,500 – average need based grant (probably free money but maybe some loans)
  • $4,000 – merit based scholarships and grants
  • $6,000 – various jobs and internships
  • $3,500 – spending from our 529 accounts

If this rosy tinted picture plays out, we’ll have three years of spending at $3,500 per year times three students.  Our total outlay will be $31,500 in today’s dollars, and our kids might leave college with a small dose of those dangerous student loans.  That’s about $10,000 less than we have in 529 accounts today, so we are well prepared if this scenario occurs.

But what if my kids end up being “average” and deviating from the path their old man followed?  And what if they can’t or won’t economize on housing and food?

$24,000 cost of attendance for 4 years – WORST CASE SCENARIO:

  • $6,500 – average need based grant (probably free money but maybe some loans)
  • $4,000 – various jobs and internships (they’re average; the earnings are lower than the optimistic scenario)
  • $13,500 – spending from our 529 accounts and investment portfolio

In this scenario, where our kids are very average, can’t economize on costs, get no merit based grants or scholarships and deliver pizzas or bus tables instead of engaging in paid activities related to their field of study, we are left with a $13,500 bill every year.  That means we’ll be paying a combined $162,000 for three kids for four years of study.  That figure exceeds our existing 529 balances by $119,000, so we’ll be digging deep into our investment portfolio to cover the shortfall.  I’ve mentally set aside $200,000 in my portfolio to cover some variation of this worst case college funding scenario plus other big, lumpy one time kid expenses, so we’ll be okay financially.

I suppose I should mention the beyond superlative worse than worst case scenario (though in purely financial terms, the least costly).  There’s a chance that one or more of our kids won’t attend a four year college at all, which means that $3,500 to $13,500 per year spending figure drops close to zero (spending tons of money on adult children is a topic best left for another article).

Whether our kids excel academically and need very little parental financial assistance, or whether we end up paying for the majority of their college costs, we’ve got it covered in our early retirement financial plan.

 

 

What is your plan for kids’ college funding?  How did you fund your own college experience?  Anything you would do differently?

 

 

My Semi-Retired Summer

I’m busy having fun with the family on our seven week vacation in Mexico.  This week we have a guest post from John C who blogs at Action Economics. John was kind enough to share his awesome summer of semi-retired fun.  

 

One of the major advantages to my line of work is that I tend to have the entire summer off. I work as a contractor at nuclear power plants during refueling outages, which normally take place during the spring and fall months, since the plants want to be producing power during the peak usage summer and winter months. Having summers off helps our family save a decent amount of money and headache by reducing our childcare expenses, but it also gives me a sneak peak of what early retirement may be like. Currently I am planning to hit Financial Independence by age 45, which is “only” 16 short years away. Having the summers off has shown me that regardless of whether I have to go back to work in September, I certainly won’t be bored with a surplus of free time.

 

Summer Fun:

We have 4 boys ages 12, 6, 3, and 2 so our summers are filled with a ton of rambunctious energy.  Most of the activities we do in the summer are absolutely free and are much more enjoyable since I don’t have to worry about waiting for the weekend. My wife, Mrs. C., only works a couple days a week during the summer as well so she doesn’t miss out on too much of the fun either. Over the years I have acquired a massive arsenal of original Super Soaker water guns and several times during the summer we have water wars that last for most of the day. I fill up all the guns before we get started and the kids have a blast.  We have 4 different hose spigots across the yard so it is easy for the kids to refill once they run out.  We also go on a lot of nature walks to wear the the kids out.

water-gun-fight

We live about 3 miles from Lake Michigan and go to the beach regularly.  One of the parks around us by the beach has a large fountain for kids to play in and has a nice playground.  There are a few other beaches along the shore that we go to as well and these beaches tend to have a lot fewer people at them than the large beach with the park.

We have several memberships to local organizations that help keep the kids busy as well. Instead of asking for presents for the kids for their birthdays we often ask for memberships for activities instead. We have memberships to our local kids museum, nature center, and zoo. For a family of six these memberships typically pay for themselves if we go twice during a year. One of the nice things about these memberships is that they are reciprocal with many other zoos and museums across the country. When taking a trip we can often stop at a zoo or museum at half the cost of normal admission.

 

Education:

All kids (and adults) need a bit of extra education. I remember during my summer vacations as a kid feeling like my brain was atrophying. I kicked off my summer break with studying for and taking the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) exam in order to help me move up with my employer.  In addition to teaching the kids the basics to prepare them for the next school year I am also taking some extra time to teach them life skills.

Kid 1: Kid 1 who is 12 struggles in school a lot. My parents are kindly paying for some extra math tutoring for him. I will be working with him every day on reading and comprehension as well. Kid 1 is my lazy kid so I am trying to instill a better work ethic in him and will also be teaching him the basics of how to use hand tools, a drill, and some electrical and plumbing repair.

picking-the-right-tool

Kid 2: Kid 2 does a lot better in school, but I still will be challenging him to read more difficult books and to get even better in math.  In addition to having him work with Kid 1 and myself with hand tools, I will also start teaching him some simple meals to prepare. Both kid 1 and kid 2 love the “Survivorman” type shows, so we will do a little bit of wilderness survival in the woods in our backyard this summer.

Kid 3: Kid 3 will turn 4 this summer. He is really smart, but gets emotional very easily and will shut down if he gets upset. We will be working on kindergarten prep over the summer even though it will be another year before he goes to school.  Mostly the basics of ABCs, 123s, being able to write his name and recognize shapes.  Improving his communication when he gets upset will be a major challenge that we need to work on.

Kid 4: Kid 4 just turned 2. He loves to talk and talk and talk.  Teaching him as many new words as possible is the best course of action for him.  Once he gets a little bit better with communication we will embark on potty training.

All 4: All 4 kids are on commission and can earn money based on the work they do. Obviously the older kids are capable of doing more work and thus earning more money.  We generally let the kids decide how much of their money to save and how much to spend.  Our kids are very good at saving money and even the 2 year old will do some very small chores to add to his piggy bank.

 

Home Improvements:

Home improvements are certainly a big part of our summer.  Mrs. C. just acquired several giant boxes approximately 12′ long by 1′ wide by 2′ deep for planters for practically nothing.  Getting these in the right spots, painted, and filled will be very labor intensive and will make our yard look a lot nicer.

In January we acquired 4.5 acres of adjacent land to our home by purchasing the old railroad bed that runs behind our neighborhood.  The land is 60′ wide by approx. a half mile.  There are several trees that are down across the path that I need to clean up and get out of the way. There is also a train bridge going over a creek on this land. My goal is to build a safe foot bridge and clear out a nice fishing spot on the creek.  The old bridge is rotting away and isn’t safe for the little kids to go across on.

home-improvement

A major improvement we are looking at is paving the end of our driveway and putting in a basketball hoop. This one will be a bit costly, but it’s been on our radar for several years. In addition to providing us with another fun activity it will also help with the drainage of our driveway during heavy rainfalls.

 

Going Forward:

I am certainly thankful that the job I have allows me to be able to spend more time with my kids in the summer when they are out of school. I miss a lot when I am travelling, but having these three months off certainly balances that out.  Now that we have the two little kids having the summers off saves us a lot of money on child care and allows Mrs. C. to maintain her job.

At age 45 all of our kids will be grown, which will take away a good deal of the activities I spend my time on during my summers off currently.  It is entirely possible that by age 45 I will be a grandpa several times over, since my oldest boy will be about the age I am now.  I consistently have more ideas of things I would like to do than time I have to do them, which is a good indicator for the future.  If I go even 2 or 3 days without moving forward on something I get stir crazy. I am capable of figuring out fun, interesting, and productive things to do with my time, which is half the battle with early retirement.

 

 

What would you do this summer if work wasn’t in the way?

 

 

Root of Good comments:  Thanks John!  Great insight into what’s possible when you have large chunks of free time and your finances under control.  I’ll share a few of my posts from the archives that are relevant to what John talks about. 

Retiring Abroad – Could We Do It?

We are in the middle of our seven week adventure in Mexico right now.  Although we traveled to Mexico just for fun, I’m also viewing the trip as an opportunity to explore a few places where we might spend prolonged periods of time in the future.  That might mean spending a year or more living abroad or spending summers or winters chasing nice weather.

Mexico tends to top the lists of places to retire abroad.  I think I know why: inexpensive living, good weather, and close proximity to the US.  But it’s not all rainbows and unicorns south of the border.

Throughout the decade of building my retirement stash, I was always intrigued by the early retirees that chose to live overseas.  Jeremy and Winnie, who blog at Go Curry Cracker retired in their 30’s and have traveled or lived in various locales in Latin America and Asia since then.  Billy and Akaisha Kaderli also retired in their 30’s and have been traveling the world for the past 25 years.  The maybe-retired Jed at Bucking the Trend is living in Granada, Spain at the moment with his wife and two kids.  The folks at Bumfuzzle, though not likely to self-describe as “early retired”, have trotted the globe by van and by boat for around a decade now (and are currently in Mexico not far from us).  They also had a couple of kids along the way.  Others are doing it, so I know it’s not impossible.

Moving to a low cost of living destination overseas that many people visit on vacation sounds exciting.  It’s not currently our Plan A but might be a decent Plan B or Plan C.

Here’s my take on the pros and cons of retiring abroad:

 

The Pros

Living in Mexico is cheap.  Virtually everything is the same price as in the US or less.  Sometimes much less.  Fruits and vegetables are half the price of what we pay in Raleigh.  There are amazing bakeries all over called “panaderias” that serve up hot and fresh breads and pastries for well under a buck each.  Sit down restaurants run roughly 30-50% less than Raleigh, while incredible street food can be 50-75% less than something similar back home.  Check out our $12 USD lunch of steak tacos, soup, fish, and french fries.

That is way too many french fries for one family to eat.

That is way too many french fries for one family to eat.  In the bags are ketchup, spicy salsa, cilantro and diced onions, sliced onions and peppers, limes, and radishes (free stuff they give you when you order take out).

Beyond the price of food, there’s also the freshness of the fruits and vegetables.  Because the climate allows year round growing seasons, there are lots of somewhat locally grown fresh produce all the time.  Many tropical fruits like mangoes, pineapples, and avocados are hard to find at peak ripeness in Raleigh at any price. But that’s not a problem here where fruit stands are plentiful.

As far as access to US goods, it’s pretty easy to find almost anything you want here.  There are Walmarts, Sam’s Clubs, Costcos, and a variety of other similar warehouse and big box stores offering any grocery product, electronic item, household good, or clothing article you want.  The styles and varieties might be different than what you are used to, but overall it’s not hard to find what you want.

Housing can be cheaper than many parts of the US, though maybe not by much if we were to stay in an expat area or a decent part of Mexico City.  Our current rental apartment of about 700 square feet in Mexico City costs $135,000 USD, similar to our 1,800 square foot house in Raleigh.

Our swank little Mexico City rental.  At nightly airbnb rates it's $350 USD per week furnished including all utilities.

Our swank little Mexico City rental. At nightly airbnb rates it’s $320 USD per week furnished including all utilities.  Monthly rentals would drop the rate quite a bit.

Transportation is about $0.30-0.35 USD (5-6 pesos) for local buses or the subway.  Mostly clean, generally fast, and with a more respectable clientele than what I’ve experienced on public transit in the US.  Taxis are incredibly cheap, with fares starting around $2 USD for a short trip and usually no more than $3-4 for most places around town.  Cheap and convenient buses, subways, and taxis make it easy to skip car ownership, unlike where we live in Raleigh.

Some public areas like parks and playgrounds are very nice but it’s highly variable.

climbing-wall-in-park

Services like housecleaning and repairs are very affordable.  Essentially any labor-intensive service won’t cost a lot compared to US prices.  In Mexico City, 4-5 hours of housekeeping runs about $20 USD (300 pesos).  In San Miguel de Allende, we were asked to pay the maid an extra $2.67 USD (40 pesos) per hour if we have her cook for us or render additional services.

Saving money isn’t the only good thing about Mexico.  The weather is incredible.  This summer the temperatures have been in the 70’s and low 80’s during the day then dipping into the 50’s at night.  Air conditioning isn’t necessary at all at these temps.  Back home in Raleigh it’s been a steady 90-100 degrees almost every day.  Some folks winter in Mexico, but we are tempted to summer in Mexico.  The weather stats I’m throwing out pertain to the central highland area in and around Mexico City.  It’s crazy hot and humid in many coastal locations similar to the southeastern US during summer.

We’re also enjoying the novelty of new parks, museums, food, music, customs, and culture.  A trip to the grocery store or market is an adventure, whereas at home it’s just a chore.  I imagine the novelty would wear off after a certain point though.

 

The Cons

Some costs are higher, such as imported foodstuffs or items that aren’t very common in Mexico.  Spaghetti sauce, for example is $1.50-$2.00 per not very tasty can here (or $3 for a jar of Prego), whereas back home I can get decent pasta sauce for $1.00 per jar or can.  Italian deli meats are crazy expensive and you’re mostly stuck with expensive cooked and pressed ham or uninspired turkey meat if you want sliced meat for a sandwich.  It’s obviously smart to live like the locals when imported goods are expensive.

“Don’t drink the tap water”, they say.  As a result, you have to buy bottled water ($.50 for a small bottle or a few bucks for five gallons) and can’t simply quench your thirst at water fountains scattered around town at parks and in stores and museums.  Brushing teeth and washing produce require extra effort compared to using tap water.

At $2.60 USD (39 pesos), this 750 mL of tequila is cheaper than mouthwash.

At $2.60 USD (39 pesos), this 750 mL of tequila is cheaper than mouthwash.

It’s easy to save money on almost everything down in Mexico, but flying back to the US to visit friends and family would eat into any cost savings (particularly for our family of five).  We could partially offset the flight costs by travel hacking credit cards (which is how we got free flights to Mexico this year!) but I’m not sure if we could get free flights indefinitely through travel hacking.  Eventually the kids would be out of the house and at that point, buying two round trip tickets is much more affordable for the occasional trip back home.

As foreigners not quite fluent in the language, we are occasionally subjected to the “tourist tax”.  Cashiers and shopkeepers sometimes “forget” to give us the correct change.  Taxi drivers know we don’t know exactly what a trip should cost, so we end up paying a little extra.  We have been fairly vigilant about not getting ripped off but it will happen.  No point in getting mad.  It’s just a cost of doing business.  The longer you are here and the more fluency you have in the language, the less likely you are to pay tourist rates for anything.

On the subject of language, it’s a big deal.  Unless you’re staying in an expat area that caters to English-speaking Americans and Canadians, not knowing the local language will make life a lot more difficult.  On the flip side, living here forces you to learn more Spanish since you can’t avoid it.  “Language” could be a positive aspect of life abroad if you are interested in learning the language (which we are).

Culture shock can be challenging.  Clothing choices, for example, vary between the US and Mexico.  No one here wears shorts.  Trash is pretty common on the streets in Mexico, whereas the US does a better job of providing (and emptying) trash receptacles and enforcing litter laws.  Dog poop on the sidewalks is another common sight here, whereas in the US it’s mostly picked up by the dog’s owner.  Otherwise, our societies share a lot of common characteristics given our western European cultural origins.

For long term residents, immigration issues can be an issue.  In Mexico, everyone gets a 180 day tourist visa no questions asked.  Without filing for residency, you’ll have to make a border run every six months to reset the clock on your tourist visa.  I’m not up to date on Mexico’s take on “permanent tourists” that make visa runs every six months, but they might catch on and deny you entry (at least in theory).  And leaving the country every six months could grow tiresome pretty quickly if you just want to relax and enjoy life at home.  Plus it’s not cheap to buy plane tickets for a family of five twice per year (though travel hacking credit cards helps), nor do we enjoy quick weekend trips like making border runs to renew visas since we have young children.

 

The Kids’ Perspective

Since we have three kids between age three and ten, we have to keep them in mind when deciding whether we want to live overseas in retirement.

After three weeks of living in Mexico, the kids have developed a routine.  Plenty of down time, some time at the park, some time on chores (they are the official Root of Good dishwashers!), and some touristy stuff like visiting pyramids and museums.

When I asked the kids what they thought about living in Mexico, they say they don’t want to live here (yet).  The tap water isn’t clean and according to them, “you could die from it”.  I’m not certain you could actually die from ingesting Mexican water, but you can get a stomach ache.

On the upside, the kids realize that their money goes further here in Mexico as measured by ice cream.  Prices range from $0.25 USD for a popsicle up to a buck or two for a large cup or cone of hand made ice cream in tons of different flavors.

pyramid-of-teotihuacan

Our 3 year old keeps asking to go back to the pyramids. Guess he’s a fan!

They are able to keep in touch with family and friends through video chats on Skype and Google Hangouts, so they aren’t socially isolated while we’re on the road.  If we lived here on a more permanent basis, they would eventually make new friends and learn enough of the language to get by.

The final concern with living abroad with kids is schooling.  We could always home school, and incur minimal costs for a curriculum and materials.  If we wanted to go the traditional schooling route, there might be substantial costs for a private school if the public schools near where we live are not adequate (though we are no strangers to less than perfect schools).

A rough estimate of costs for tuition at a private school range from $2,000 to $5,000 USD per year per kid.  If we went the traditional schooling route and wanted an education similar to what we can get in the US, it will be very expensive.  In fact, paying for private education would likely offset any cost of living savings from housing, food, and transportation costs.  Homeschool might be our best option if lowering our cost of living is the primary objective of living in Mexico.

 

Why Retire Abroad?

Why would we want to retire abroad?  Lower cost of living is a prime motivation.  Or phrased a different way, we could stretch our dollars further and live a nicer lifestyle than we can afford in the US on the same budget.

We are able to get by on a retirement budget of about $33,000 per year including a paid off house.  We could rent our house in the US and net $800-900 per month which might be enough to allow us to rent a decent furnished house or apartment in Mexico.  Almost all of our costs would drop, but we would have to use part of our $5,300 vacation budget for visits back to the US.  Food, transportation, and entertainment costs would drop.  Electronics and appliances tend to cost the same or more down here, so we might see an increase in these expense categories.  Overall, I imagine we could live a slightly more luxurious lifestyle on a little less money.

But should we move 2,000 miles away just to save a little money?  That’s the tough part of the equation.  I don’t think it’s necessarily better or worse in Mexico assuming you have adequate funds to live on.   Just different in some aspects.  There’s a vibe here that’s hard to explain.  The parks seem to attract more people having fun.  There’s always a festival or parade or protest going down.  Running errands can be a cultural and language adventure.

So far, we aren’t committed to retiring overseas, but I’m still taking notes on the three cities we are visiting for extended periods of time.  Our next step in pursuing overseas living would be to spend an entire summer in a longer term rental to see how we like it.  Although we miss a few things about home, no one has broken down in tears crying to return to Raleigh just yet.  We’ll see how the next month of travel treats us.

 

 

Could you retire overseas?  What would it take to motivate you to leave your home country and live abroad?

 

 

What Will We Miss About Home While On The Road

Right now we are rushing to pack the last few items in our backpacks so we can hit the road for our seven week adventure in Mexico.  I’m sure we’ll all have a great time while on the trip, but travel fatigue is also a possibility.

Before we leave, it’s a good time to reflect on how great our lives at home are by thinking about the things we’ll miss the most.  Absence makes the heart grow fonder and you don’t know what you got till it’s gone, as they say.  Even though we don’t spend a lot of money, I recognize by world standards that we live a luxuriously bountiful life that offers everything we need and then some.

Here’s what everyone in the family thinks they will miss over the next seven weeks:

 

Things Mrs. Root of Good and I will miss:

  • Air conditioning. We won’t have this for 6 weeks and high temps will be in the low to mid-80’s (but 55 to 60 at night).
  • Comfort of our own home.  Everything is how we want it and it’s all familiar and easy.
  • Lounging on the back deck.  It’s getting too hot for that most days at home, but should be nice enough for relaxing on the patio or rooftop terraces at our rentals in Mexico.
  • Peace and quiet. There’s a possibility of fireworks, loud cars, and barking dogs since we’ll be staying in town.
  • Family and friends.  Skype videochatting will help.
  • Babysitters.  We won’t have our family to babysit whenever we need it.
  • Conveniences like our car.  We’ll have to think a little more about where we are going and which bus or subway line to take.
  • Grocery stores that we are familiar with.  However, visiting foreign grocery stores is a cool part of the culture, so learning what they have for sale and how they are organized is part of the fun, too.
  • English being the default language. It’s easy and natural and we don’t have to think.  After a while you Just. Want. To. Speak. English.  But the Spanish immersion will help all of us grow our foreign language proficiency.
  • Waking up every day with nothing to do.  Hey, the routine of early retired life is pretty awesome!  We hope to mix in lots of relaxation with sightseeing so we don’t get burned out too early in the trip.
  • A well stocked fridge, freezer, and pantry.  It’s nice to have a variety of cuts of meat at your fingertips plus a selection of canned goods, dry goods, fresh fruits and vegetables to complement the main dish.  In Mexico, we’ll be shopping for a day or two at a time since we’ll be carrying the groceries back home on foot.
  • A diverse spice rack and sauce selection (curries, pastes, seasonings, etc).  When we cook while on the road, we’ll have to economize on the seasonings and make substitutions at times so we aren’t buying a ton of ingredients for a single dish.  We won’t be able to haul a lot of stuff to the next rental.  Sometimes simple is good though.
Training for the Mexico trip: backpacking the 1.8 miles to Grandma's house.

Traveling on foot or by public transit means thinking ahead.

 

Things our ten year old daughter will miss:

  • Knowing where things are around the neighborhood and around town.  Although she might learn where things are since we are staying in one place for two weeks at a time
  • Knowing where things are around the house.  The unfamiliarity of new apartments or hotel rooms will be a challenge.
  • Friends.  But she knows we may be able to skype with them.
  • All the normal types of food like candy, pizza, and ice cream.  But she is excited to try the versions of these foods available in Mexico and other new dishes.
  • Our cat. In spite of having to feed her daily.
  • Speaking lots of English.  Time to practice Spanish!
  • Air conditioning
  • Riding in our own cars
  • TV.  She has a tablet and should be able to watch Netflix on the road
  • Laying on a soft couch relaxing.  Our apartment and house rentals have nice sofas!

It sounds like our ten year old has a good grasp on the challenges of life on the road.  And her list has a lot of overlap with our list.

 

Things our eight year old daughter will miss:

  • Her toy unicorn named Wishful.
  • Her long pants. We’re making her pack shorts due to the heat.

Nothing else, she says.  She is a girl of few words.

 

Three year old son:

  • His tablet

He was playing on it at the time of the interview.  And proceeded to play on it during the ten seconds he paid attention to me.  I told him we were taking it with us and he said “I can play on it on the buses”.  Smart kid.

 

Leaving home

To summarize, the adults and the ten year old will miss a lot.  The eight year old and the three year old won’t miss much at all (so they say!).  We’ll see what happens once we’re on the road.

The plan is to put out travel updates once per week.  So keep in touch with us throughout the trip via Facebook, Twitter, or by email or RSS reader (in the column to the right).

Hasta la vista!

 

 

What would you miss most about home if you were gone for two months?

 

 

photo credit: Russ Bowling @ flickr

My Version Of Financial Independence As A 17 Year Old

Half a lifetime ago I developed a financial independence plan before I knew anything about financial independence and early retirement.  My 17 year old self scribbled out a poorly refined plan to never work again and live off of savings from a minimum wage job.  The bottom line: I thought I needed $120,000 to fund a perfectly adequate lifestyle forever by living on $600 per month in interest.

The year was 1997, the place was North Carolina in the wonderful United States of America.  The federal poverty level back in 1997 was $657 per month, which meant that I was planning on living below the poverty line (before I even knew what a poverty line was).

 

My First Financial Independence Plan

My rough plan as I originally sketched it out on the back of a napkin:

  • Save up $120,000 by working extra shifts at a minimum wage job (you get paid time and a half for overtime!)
  • Invest the $120,000 at my credit union in a CD earning 6% interest
  • Earn $600 per month ($7,200 per year) from that CD
  • Live on $600 per month forever

How could I live on $600 per month?  Easy!  Rent a three bedroom apartment and get my two best friends to move in with me so we can split the rent and utilities three ways.  Having my two best friends living with me would also mean plenty of free entertainment in the comfort of my own home.  And we could split video game purchases three ways, too.

I had a rough idea of utility costs and an exact idea of rental prices thanks to those free Apartment Finder books at the grocery store.  The other budget items were educated guesses based on my 17 year old self’s consumption habits.  Groceries meant frozen pizzas and tater tots.  Entertainment included video games and computer games, coffees at the independent coffee shop near the university, fast food with friends, used paperback books, playing pool at the pool hall and everything else 17 year olds bought in 1997.

Gas was about a buck.  Taco Bell still had decent menu items under a buck.  Times were good as a 17 year old.  To put costs in perspective, a dollar in 1997 buys $1.46 worth of stuff today.  Or put another way, a $1 burrito today would only set you back $0.69 in 1997.

 

The perfect budget for a 17 year old

From my vague recollection, here’s the monthly budget I developed for the future adult me (try not to laugh):

  • Housing – $200 ($600 rent split three ways)
  • Utilities – $50 ($150 split three ways)
  • Groceries – $100
  • Car and gas – $50
  • Dining out / Entertainment – $100
  • Miscellaneous – $100 (pretty clever of 17 year old me to include some wiggle room!)

That comes to a grand total of $600 per month ($876 in 2015 dollars) to live in my own totally awesome bachelor pad with my totally awesome best friends and drive my very own totally sweet car and do anything that I could imagine as a 17 year old.  Pretty avant-garde stuff.

 

What crazy ideas will these three develop by age 17?

What crazy ideas will these three develop by age 17?

 

The perfect FI plan, deconstructed

Ah, the misguided plans of my youth.  At 17, I figured I wouldn’t need to go to college because it wouldn’t take that long working extra shifts at my minimum wage job to save up the $120,000 required to fund a lifetime of Cheeto-fueled video gaming.  Yep, that’s the mind of 17 year old me.

I also had a dream of moving to rural Mexico and growing my own beans at my little finca in the countryside and surviving on the rough.  I blame the Guide to Mexico I ordered for free through my parents’ AAA Auto Club membership plus whatever classic lit they made us read in high school English class.

Moving to Mexico to become a farmer is a worse idea than retiring on $120,000 here in the US.  However, dreams of Mexico led me and the future Mrs. RoG on an interesting six week odyssey through Mexico once we were in college.  Although I never grew a single bean while there.  Mrs. RoG doesn’t even like beans, so staying in North Carolina was probably a good move for our marriage.

Back to my $120,000 FI plan.  Would it work?  No, probably not for a number of reasons:

I failed to account for inflation.  If I earned 6% in a CD and spent all of that interest each year, then the $120,000 would lose its purchasing power over time.  I would have to reinvest 2-3% of the interest to counteract the impact of inflation.  Or invest in something that pays a better return (like stocks!) that tends to keep up with inflation.

My $120,000 nest egg in 1997 has the same purchasing power as $82,200 today.  Phrased another way, I would need $876 today to live as well as I could have on $600 per month in 1997.

I didn’t account for taxes.  Who knew you had to pay taxes as an adult?  Go figure.  In this case, $7,200 wouldn’t incur any federal tax but I might have owed a small amount of state tax in some years.  With such a small budget, losing even a few hundred dollars per year would be rough.

I didn’t account for lifestyle inflation.  This is really where I would have failed.  At 17, the world is your oyster.  I was single, unattached, and full of piss and vinegar (to borrow a line from John Steinbeck).  As it turns out, adults do things like get married, have kids, and buy houses with yards.  Those things cost money.

But there are also benefits to growing up and getting married.  Spouses bring a second income to the household.

I didn’t budget for replacement costs.   I didn’t even budget for purchasing a house since I included $200 for rent.  But once I bought a house, it became an ongoing liability.  Appliances, the HVAC, the roof, and exterior finishes occasionally need replacing.  I figured out I needed to budget around $1,500 per year to cover a routine replacement program for my house.

Cars don’t last forever either.  I figure another $1,000 per year to replace a worn out car with a new(er) car.  As you can tell, 17 year old me didn’t think years into the future to budget for routine things like car replacement or major house maintenance.

I ignored important costs like healthcare and dental care.  At 17, we’re invincible.  As we get older, we need the occasional check up for our bodies and teeth.  Once the invincibility wears off, we can get sick and our teeth might decay.

 

How close was I?

In terms of expenses, my $7,200 per year budget would be $10,500 per year today.  Let’s be generous and assume we each combined our $10,500 FI income streams once we got married.

$21,000 wouldn’t afford us the lifestyle we enjoy today.  In fact, we would have to make some very serious sacrifices to get to that level of spending like move to a much smaller house in a crappier neighborhood.  Next we would cut vacation spending and switch out fresh veggies and fruits for more ramen and beans.  No thanks.  I’ll stick with our $32,400 per year retirement budget!

 

Ignoring my 17 year old self

I’m pretty fortunate that I never executed on my plan to skip college and room with my best friends and scrape by on $600 per month.  That would have grown old pretty quickly.  Eventually my friends would move on with their lives, leaving me to fill my apartment with strangers for roommates or admit defeat and get a real job.

That initial hastily sketched financial independence plan gave me a very loose outline of how early retirement and financial independence is feasible for a regular person like me.

The bigger lesson is to think and dream big, and refine those dreams as you gain experience and wisdom.  Lucky for me, I never abandoned the sense of exploration from boyhood.  Nor did I abandon the desire to live differently and achieve financial independence – the ultimate freedom.

 

 

I’m looking for the most revolutionary money idea you came up with as a kid.  OK, go!  

 

 

photo credit: Kevin Thai @ flickr

Why We Chose The Worst School In The District

In my last article asking whether we should conceal our wealth, I mentioned the high poverty school that our children attend.  We had a choice of many different elementary schools, and decided to go with the objectively worst school available based on traditional measures like test scores, percent of students in poverty, percent of students with limited English proficiency, and other demographics that most would say indicate a failing school.  What persuaded us to choose this “failing school” was the direction it was headed and the fact that it was in our neighborhood only a few blocks away.

Before I dive into our rationale, I’ll preface this article with a caveat.  I think you should send kids to objectively good schools if that is the best choice overall.  The decision of which school to send your kids to is complex.  Tuition costs (public or private), travel time and expense, how your children learn, and the kind of school environment you want for them all play a part in the question of “what is the best school?”.

 

What’s the point of school, anyway?

Let’s start out by putting school in the context of life as a whole.  Life works better with education.  Schools are a great place to get an education, but not the only place.  They have no monopoly on learning.

I view traditional schooling as nothing more than one part of a proper education.  So much learning happens outside of the classroom.  If it doesn’t, then there’s something wrong with you or your kid.  Children should be observing the world around them, asking questions about it, and satiating their curiosity of how the world works one wikipedia article or youtube video at a time.

For most of my life, I thought school (and eventually college) was in charge of providing an education.  Then one day as I sat in the back of my child’s first grade classroom patiently waiting my turn for our quarterly parent-teacher meeting, I overheard something that completely changed my understanding of the role of school.

The parent in front of me was discussing their child’s progress in the class with the teacher.  After mentioning that her child wasn’t challenged enough with the class, the parent asked the teacher whether it was okay to give her own child homework assignments in addition to what the teacher gave.  To restate what just happened, a parent asked a teacher for permission to do something that the parent could do any time she wanted to.  The teacher appeared confused and then realized that the parent was deferring to the teacher’s authority as an educator.  The parent didn’t want to encroach on the teacher’s authority.

There was no reason to ask the teacher if it was okay.  The parent can, and should, raise her child in the best way possible.

teaching-one-year-old

Training this one year old future mechanical engineer in the art of lawnmower maintenance

That’s when it struck me – schools are there to provide instruction on whatever happens to be in the curriculum.  But that’s the beginning, not the end of a child’s education.  Learning can happen any time of the day, even on weekends or during the summer!  Kids learn from their peers, from television and internet videos, camp instructors, extracurricular activities, books they read, talking with adults, and empirical observations of the world around them.  The learning shouldn’t stop and the incessant “but why?” should be encouraged, not frowned upon.

If school is just one part of a well-rounded education, then the quality of the school can only affect the fraction of that child’s education obtained at school.  What kids are encouraged to do outside of school is up to the parent.

That’s my take on the role of school in the education of our children.  While the choice of school is important, it’s not the sole determinant of the overall education our children will receive.

 

Our Crappy School

Everyone wants what is best for their children.  We felt the same way when we started researching elementary schools for our kids as they approached kindergarten age.  The neighborhood elementary school was pretty good when we first moved into our house 11 years ago.  In the intervening six years before our daughter was ready for kindergarten, the school took a steep slide down hill.  I don’t know the full story behind what caused the slide, but we found out our neighborhood school was bad.  Very bad.  Only one out of 146 elementary schools in our district were worse than our school.

From looking at the historical test scores and demographics during the death spiral, it looked like a classic case of “white flight” at a school level.  What was a racially and socioeconomically balanced school turned into a high poverty, highly racially concentrated, low performing school in a short period of time.

After we dug deep into the test statistics and controlled for variables like race, education of parents, economic status, and English proficiency, it appeared that kids like our kids tended to have passing test scores just like all the other similar kids in the whole county (90-95% passing scores).  Even though we were at the 145th worst school out of 146 elementary schools, kids with “good” socioeconomic backgrounds managed to succeed.  This fact led me to not rule out our convenient neighborhood elementary school.

The school itself isn’t really that bad.  We like it.  It’s in the neighborhood, our kids can walk to it, and they don’t want to switch schools.  Ignoring the below average test scores you would expect from a high poverty school, it’s a great place by many measures.  Looking at the latest data available and comparing our school to the average school in our reasonably good school district, our school is slightly safer, offers twice as many books per pupil, and three times as many “digital learning devices” per pupil.  Class sizes are 25% smaller than the average district school (17 kids per class on average).  Factor in all the supplemental teachers providing extra help for those that need it, and there are only ten kids per licensed teacher.  Getting individual instruction or learning in small groups of a few students isn’t a rarity in other words.  For example, there is a half-time dedicated “academically and intellectually gifted” teacher to tend to the needs of the thirteen AIG identified kids at the school (one of which is my daughter).

Why is a high poverty school so well endowed?  It comes from being one of the poorest schools in a relatively wealthy school district.  They back the money truck up to the loading dock and stock the school with extra teachers, supplemental training, and tons of technology.  Is it successful?  That’s hard to say.  I know it would be a lot worse without the extra resources, but without digging deep into the data and looking at comparable schools without the extra resources, I can’t really say what $1 of extra spending brings in terms of better performance.

Third grade bridge building competion

Third grade bridge building competition

Four years after starting at this school, we are glad we chose the neighborhood school.  A new principal and almost all new staff have turned the school from the worst into a competitive school that turns away applicants.  Neighborhood kids are starting to return to school and newly enrolled kindergartners are choosing our school.  Just recently, the school was recognized as the top STEM elementary school in the state.

Our third and fourth graders are doing well above average.  There are some screw offs in their classes but for the most part it is a mix of students that want to learn and do well and they seem nice enough.

Benefits to being very close to the elementary school include more access to teachers and principals, easier volunteering opportunities, and huge built in social network in the neighborhood of the kids that go to our school.  We live near a few teachers and know them a little more than just seeing them quarterly in parent teacher conferences.  Other kids walk to school and we have gotten to know many of the families.

I am glad we didn’t abandon this school and choose one very distant from our house.  We wouldn’t really be a part of the social fabric if we had to drive 20 minutes to volunteer or go to PTA meetings.  Our kids would be worn out from hour long bus rides instead of leisurely ten minute walks or bike rides to school.

We also enjoy the fact that our kids don’t get the social pressure to have all kinds of fancy things that the rich kids have at more well to do schools. There isn’t much keeping up with the Joneses.

My advice would be to find a good enough school that is the best choice overall for your family.  Spending an extra few hundred thousand on a nicer house in a nicer area just to get access to better schools when the alternatives are perfectly acceptable doesn’t make sense to me.

 

Why take a risk on a crappy school?

Were we really willing to experiment with our kids?  The downside didn’t seem that bad and the potential upside seemed very positive.  We decided to go into the crappy school with an open mind with a willingness to evaluate it as a whole and not focus only on the negative aspects.  We knew that it wasn’t a permanent decision, since we could bail out and change schools after a year if we wanted to.  In the meantime, our kids could meet more local kids in the neighborhood and we could walk to the school.

Some of the perceived negatives are actually positives.  Lots of the kids at the school don’t come from the same socioeconomic background as our own kids.  Around half of the school comes from homes where English isn’t the first language spoken at home.  It’s a mix of Spanish, Arabic, Vietnamese, and other languages beyond my recognition.

While still working, I had dreams of taking off on a trip around the world for a year or two and finding a school overseas where our kids could get cultural and language immersion.  My friend Jed at Bucking the Trend did exactly this when he packed up the family and went to Granada, Spain (here is his kids’ classroom experience in Spain). Our kids could see first hand how other societies live and maybe pick up some of the language.

Suddenly it hit me – our school just a short walk up the street from us WAS that overseas school.  Right here in our own neighborhood.  We could enjoy all of the comforts of home plus have this little hidden nugget of cultural treasure right here underneath our noses.

We knew going into this school that the following was true:

  • Immigrants don’t bite
  • Lower income people don’t bite
  • Racial minorities don’t bite
  • People who don’t speak English very well don’t bite

We are comfortable enough around people who are different from us that the diversity didn’t bother us or scare us away from this little gem of a school.  We are in our fifth year at the school and it keeps getting better.

 

 

What was your school like growing up?  Are we making a mistake choosing this school?

 

 

// cover photo credit to Paradox 56 @ flickr

Should We Conceal Our Wealth?

“Today my teacher asked me how we are able to go on another cruise so soon after the last one.  I told my teacher that my daddy is retired and my mommy is about to retire, too.  Then a kid in my class asked to borrow a few thousand dollars from me.”

That’s what my nine year old told me at dinner a few days ago (continue reading to hear the rest of the dinner conversation).  Some parents might freak out about how honest their kid was with their teachers and fellow classmates.  Not me.  But should I be more concerned?

At some schools, I don’t think it is that unusual to have kids with retired parents.  Wealthier women tend to postpone having children, often until they approach age 40.  Add in a hypothetical husband ten years older than his wife, and it’s not hard to have a 55 year old father when a kid starts kindergarten.  At a wealthy school at least.  Plenty of folks retire at 55 (anyone who started working in government by age 25 and stuck with it for 30 years, for example).

My children’s school is the complete opposite of wealthy.  In fact, it is the second poorest school out of 146 elementary schools in the district (check out my next post for the analysis on why we chose such a “crappy” school).  Over 80% of the students receive free or reduced price lunch (the metric our school district uses to define “economically disadvantaged” students).  Gauging from the parents I see at the school, most are very young and probably in their 20’s and 30’s.  There aren’t a lot of parents nearing retirement age at our school.  Being retired at a young age makes me a very noticeable outlier at this particular school.

 

Keep Early Retirement a Secret?

Should I worry that our household’s socioeconomic status is known around my kids’ school?  Or, to consider the bigger question, should I care if people in general know that I’m retired in my 30’s?

My answer is that I’m not worried about people close to me knowing where we stand financially.  I don’t think I have a positive duty to tell people, but I don’t see a big reason to keep it a secret.  Your close friends and family shouldn’t resent you for reaching a comfortable financial position.  And trying to create a cover story is a lot of work.  Telling the truth is easier than lying.

For more casual acquaintances, they don’t really need to know much about how we run our household finances.  I don’t think a lot of harm would come from others finding out about our relative wealth.  But it really isn’t any of their business.  Should I go out of my way to keep our wealth a secret?  I share all the juicy details right here on this blog after all.

For those that I don’t know really well or at all, I don’t feel like mentioning the fact that I’m retired.  At the most basic level, retirement is just a shorthand way of saying “I don’t work”.  I’ll embrace the other parts of my life that define me and are also truthful to varying extents.  They are cover stories to some extent, but also completely true:

  • “I’m a stay at home dad”
  • “I work out of my house”
  • “I’m in between jobs”
  • “I run a website”
  • “I do some freelancing when I can get the work”

I have used all of these descriptive phrases to explain why I’m home in the middle of the day or hanging out with my kid at the Tuesday morning pre-school play time at the community center.  People feel comfortable when others fit into a box.  If it’s just a casual acquaintance, I don’t mind jumping into a box for a few minutes if I can avoid an interrogation.

Here’s an example.  I’m at the park at eleven in the morning with Mr. RoG Jr. and a stay at home mom asks me “so, you stay home and take care of the kid?  That’s rare to see.  I’ve never actually seen a guy that does that.”  My answer was “why yes, yes I do just stay home and take care of the kids.”  That’s absolutely true!  There’s no need to say “well, actually I’m retired” unless I want to open a whole ‘nother can of worms.

Sometimes I’m in a hurry or don’t want to talk about early retirement.  Or I don’t want to be labeled as a “rich person”.  I’m just me, after all.  I can talk about money, finances and early retirement in relative anonymity here on this blog.  Most people that stick around here have some interest in building their wealth and “get it”.  In real life, it’s different.  People jump to conclusions, they think they have you all figured out, and stick you in the wrong box.

For the uninitiated, early retirement is kind of weird.  Statistically, there just aren’t that many people that do it.  Having perfectly marketable skills yet not keeping a job to make even more money?  Craziness.  Blasphemy!  Think about all the stuff you could have if you just kept working.  For those still firmly lodged in the make more, spend more recursive loop, early retirement doesn’t make sense.

To recap: family and friends get the real deal, casual acquaintances often get a “cover story” that fits the accepted version of how a society is ordered, and readers of the blog get almost all of the real deal (as long as I can stay relatively anonymous).

 

How To Keep Wealth A Secret

From participating in early retirement online discussion forums for a decade, I know many early retirees are concerned about how others perceive them.  Maybe early retirees aren’t strange in this regard, since everyone seems to be concerned about how they appear to others.

My friend the Financial Samurai shared a good guide to “stealth wealth”.  I follow some of the advice he offers, but don’t stick to the guide very closely.  FS’s guide seems more closely tailored to those that have conspicuous signs of wealth like expensive clothes and accessories, blinged out jewelry, luxury performance cars, and expensive house(s).  I like to keep it simple and I’m proud to say I don’t want to own any of those things.

I don’t have to hide the fact that I spent $100,000 on a new high end BMW because I don’t have one.  No one thinks I’m rich when they see my 15 year old Honda Civic.  Best wealth disguise ever.

I like FS’s advice on being humble and not losing touch with “the common people”.  That isn’t too hard since I consider myself to be one of “the common people”.  Just a very financially secure common person.

Here’s another trick: Spend like you’re poor, earn like you’re rich.  You can make a lot of money from a job, invest most of it, and let it earn you even more money in your investment portfolio.  But when it comes to spending, just think of yourself as just another common person.  You can slip in the occasional indulgence here and there, but keep the overall consumption low key.  That way you won’t have to hide all your luxurious goodies.  What’s the point of owning really nice stuff if you have to worry about keeping it a secret?  That sounds overly complicated.

Spend like you’re poor, earn like you’re rich.

I’m not talking about dumpster diving or extreme self deprivation.  I almost said “live like you’re poor, earn like you’re rich”, but changed “live” to “spend”.  With a few clever tricks here and there, you can live a pretty decent lifestyle while spending like you’re poor.

 

jean-talon-market

We are so poor, we have to shop for groceries while we are on vacation.

 

Benefits To Keeping Your Financial Success Hidden

Those that have followed my last few monthly spending updates from November and December are aware of my major exterior home renovation project.  We hired a contractor to install ten new windows, replace the exterior siding, and replace a large section of our roof.  The final cost was $8,700.  I am certain that the total would have been well over $10,000 if the contractor knew we were financially well off.

From the start, the contractor observed that we didn’t look particularly wealthy.  Our house is located in an older neighborhood that’s not in the fancy part of town (that’s a mile or two west of here!).  Two old cars sitting in the driveway.  Old siding that was at least a few years past the point where it needed to be replaced.

After walking through the inside of the house measuring windows, the contractor suggested I could buy my own windows to save some money.  At that point I asked about payment terms.  Could I put the job on my credit card, or is it cash or check only?  Maybe he thought I didn’t have the money for the renovation.  He suggested that if I bought the windows myself then I could put the windows on my credit card and pay for them over time.  I only mentioned the credit card because I wanted the 2% cash back.

Throughout our conversations, I let him know that cost was very important to me, but I don’t mind paying for value or for extras if it will enhance the quality of the job.  He structured the quote and fee estimate in such a way that I could pick the line items I wanted and decline those added costs that didn’t bring much value.  He even suggested ways that I could save money.  Cost savings that would also reduce his own fee and profit.

And to cap off my performance of a poor homeowner, my two year old runs outside naked from the waste down.  He sprints across the backyard where we are discussing options for the fascia on the rear.  Then he starts screaming about wanting to poop.  Or he just pooped.  Something poop related.  This was the ultimate sign that we might have trouble affording new siding.  We had all these kids running around, after all.  And kids cost TONS of money (not really).  The contractor also probably noticed that in spite of visiting during the middle of the day on a weekday, none of the adults were ever at work.

Once I received his fee estimate, I declined a few line items and mentioned that another contractor gave me a lower quote with a little extra in the scope of work.  My (eventual) contractor threw in for free the extra work the other guy was going to do, and even agreed to do some of the upgrades for free that I declined to pay for.  I hope the guy still made some profit off of me, because I didn’t need all that charity!  But I wasn’t going to negotiate against myself.

I will wager that if I lived in a million dollar house with a few luxury cars parked in my four car garage, then I wouldn’t have received a lot of concessions from any contractor.  In fact, I bet they would put a little extra fluff in the quote just because they figure the rich guy can afford it and they wouldn’t question a few hundred here and a few hundred there.

 

What We Discussed At The Dinner Table

Now to circle back to our dinner time discussion that motivated me to write this post.  After hearing about our nine year old sharing the news about our retirements and how someone immediately asked to borrow money, we launched into a discussion of “how to handle your wealth”.

After reading the majority of this post, you might be left wondering “if material possessions don’t equal wealth, then what makes you wealthy?”.  I think it’s how you act, what you think, and not needing to work for a paycheck.

In our house, we try to think wealthy and convey that knowledge to our kids (so they can grow wealthy on their own one day).  At the dinner table, we explained to our children that it’s okay to loan a few thousand dollars to a classmate, but you better get collateral for your loan.  “What’s collateral?!” they asked.  They were obviously listening and intrigued about this new concept of collateral.  “Collateral is security for your loan”, we explained.  It provides security to ensure repayment of the loan.  If the person who owes you money can’t pay you, you get to keep their collateral.

This provided the perfect segue into a discussion of mortgages and the security interest that the bank receives when making a loan.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t hand over a six figure check to just anybody!  Now my kids are going to be much savvier creditors and ask for collateral whenever they make a loan in the future.  Or at the least, appreciate the fact that a loan made without collateral is an unsecured loan and comes with higher risk of default.  I better be careful about what I say or they’ll grow up to be dirty investment bankers.

Knowing how the financial world works was a big factor in our own path to financial independence.  Passing that knowledge to our children will give them a head start on their own path to wealth.

Don’t worry about our kids though.  Some of our dinner time discussions are pretty normal. Last night we discussed the proper way to respond when someone farts loudly at the dinner table (it was the two year old this time, not me).  You don’t laugh and then scream out “ewwww, someone farted!!”.  To quote a line from one of their favorite Disney musical cartoons, you just “let it go”.  Maybe no one else heard it, or maybe they thought it was a loud motorcycle passing on the road outside.

Whether it’s abnormal wealth at an early age or an errant fart, the moral of the story is to keep it low key.  Don’t make a big deal out of it.  Maybe others will notice.  Then again, maybe they won’t.

 

 

Are you open about your financial status?  Any consequences?  Please share any and all embarrassing moments.  

 

 

Crazy Things Made Possible By Early Retirement

For those who love their jobs or those that can’t manage to ever save any money, they may not understand why anyone would want to retire early.  “Won’t you get bored?” they ask.  Not yet!  In fact, having huge blocks of free time opens up a lot of possibilities that aren’t very feasible while working full time.

I used to write a monthly summary of what I’m up to in early retirement like thisthis, this, and this.  I haven’t kept this diary of excitement up to date lately, but I wanted to share a small sample of the tiny and huge things that early retirement permit.

 

Serendipitous discoveries while walking around

I walk my two oldest children to and from their neighborhood elementary school every day.  The round trip is about 20 minutes on the most direct route or 30 minutes if I divert over the river and through the woods along the nature trail in the park.  Our two year old tags along with us like a little trooper every day.

One day this week he decided that watching the roofers tear off old shingles atop a neighbor’s house was The Most Exciting Thing In The World ™ at that moment.  Why not stand on the sidewalk and watch this novel activity?  From his two year old perspective, this was incredible.  There were six guys ripping a house apart from the top down and throwing the shredded bits of shingles, tar paper, and plywood onto the tarpaulin moat surrounding the house.

If we were driving by in a hurry, it’s unlikely that any of us would have noticed this crazy bit of excitement that only happens about once every twenty years (for a particular house).  A few friends drove by on our busy street and stopped to chat while I waited on Mr. RoG Jr. to get a feel for exactly how to re-roof a house, should he ever need that skill in the future.

After 30 minutes, we left the construction site and made our way home, but not before stopping at the stream in front of our house to observe what the little guy calls “big water”.

I’m happy to report that we eventually made it inside the house without further distractions.

 

Visiting the Art Museum in the middle of the work day

After completing my lunchtime volunteering gig, I found myself within a few thousand feet of  the art museum.  I had a couple of hours before my afternoon obligations and a strong desire to see what’s new (and what’s hundreds of years old) in the art world.

I enter the new wing of the art museum and strike up a conversation with the front desk receptionist.  She immediately recognized what kind of a patron of the arts I was, and offered me a membership to the museum.  For only $75!  She must have figured I was loaded since I have the free time to meander around the art museum in the middle of the work day.

Why pay $75 when I had almost the entire museum reserved for myself for free?  You see, everyone else was at work.  I stumbled into a free escorted tour of the collection by an overly friendly docent and her docent-in-training where I was joined by some fellow retirees (three decades my senior) who live in Mexico full time.  That couple plus another pair of young folks roughly my age completed our squad of wannabe art connoisseurs.

The museum has a great collection and I even noticed this gem:

Sometimes a blue trapezoid is just a blue trapezoid.

Sometimes a blue trapezoid is just a blue trapezoid.

It’s just a blue trapezoid.  I laugh every time I see it.  I guess it qualifies as art in some abstract sense incomprehensible to me.  The other paintings and sculptures were way cooler.

 

Month(s) Long Road Trips

We set out on a month long road trip this past summer, but cut it short once travel fatigue set in (and there was that really dirty airbnb apartment, too).  That’s what happens when you try something really ambitious with a two year old and then reality catches up with you!

With a full time job, it’s nearly impossible to get away from the office for more than a week or two.  Now that I’m fully retired and Mrs. RoG is almost there (with tons of time off), we have the flexibility to undertake long trips that are primarily limited by our family’s energy (and secondarily by our travel budget).

What’s next?  I don’t have any clue, but here are a few epic trips I’ve been batting around to see what sticks (and what Mrs. RoG and the rest of the family think).

A North Carolina to California cross country trip.  I don’t know if we want to fit this into a single summer, but it would let us hit a number of destinations in the middle of the US like Nashville, the Mississippi river, Kansas City, Denver, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and many other national parks in between.

A summer in Oaxaca, Mexico.  It’s supposed to have the best food in Mexico, and I love food.  Especially Mexican food.  We could rent a house for a few months and eat our way through all the local markets and restaurants.  I could brush up on my slowly rusting Spanish skills, and our kids could probably gain basic proficiency in the language by the end of the summer.

Another benefit to escaping to southern Mexico for the summer is, strangely enough, the weather.  North Carolina summers tend to be really hot and humid (87 to 89 degree average highs and average high dew points over 70 degrees).  Even though Oaxaca is much closer to the equator, their “summer” runs from March through May and by June the climate cools off.  The June through August period in Oaxaca is unfortunately the rainy season (no rainier than NC), but the high temperatures hover around 80-82 degrees and the dew point remains a fairly comfortable 60-62 degrees F.  In other words, we could probably spend a lot more time outside in Oaxaca than we could in Raleigh, NC during the summer months.  And we would have a brand new (to us) medium sized city to explore.

 

Perpetual Travel

If we let the travel bug metamorphosize into a full grown beast, we have perpetual travel.  For us, this might include leasing out our home in Raleigh long term and then hitting the road for many months or even years.  Then we could travel as slowly as we want and make our way around the world at our own pace.

With young kids, I don’t think we will do this in the next few years.  It would require us to rethink how our kids are educated and what kind of lifestyle we enjoy most.  I really like having lots of unstructured free time at home, so I’m not sure I could commit to the perpetual travel lifestyles that the folks at Go Curry Cracker and Retire Early Lifestyle enjoy.

We love to travel, but having the comforts of a home base waiting for us upon our return is wonderful.  We will have to get a serious long term trip completed before we consider the perpetual traveler lifestyle.

 

Homeschooling

Now that I’m free all day, I could pull our kids from their neighborhood traditional school and teach them at home.  I don’t really know a lot about homeschooling right now, so I have a lot to learn before I could consider this option.  Those who homeschool swear by it.

We treat traditional schooling as just one part of a full education for our kids.  Traditional school can’t teach them everything and can’t cater to their exact interests that change over time.  Their school does a great job of providing options.  We are very happy there, so it would be hard to leave it behind.

The biggest benefit to homeschooling would be complete freedom to travel whenever we want.  We managed to “homeschool” the kids successfully while on a week-long cruise to Mexico and Central America this past September.  They missed a full week of school but didn’t seem to get behind.  They had homework from school which we supplemented with our usual extra assignments of reading and writing.

 

It’s all about freedom

Who knows what we’ll end up doing in the future?  I know we have an unlimited range of choices before us.  Without the constraints of full time work, we can choose whatever we want.  At the least, we won’t be spending the next few decades locked in a cubicle responding to emails and attending boring meetings.  Hopefully we’ll stumble into random (and planned) exciting and interesting experiences for a long time to come.

 

 

What crazy thing would you do if you suddenly had unlimited free time?  

 

 

17 Ways To Have Cheap Family Fun

Summer is here.  Are your kids bored yet?  They shouldn’t be. There are dozens of ways to keep your family busy and having fun without spending much money.  Here is what we do to prevent ourselves from getting cabin fever:

1. Walk or bike through the neighborhood (free).  Great exercise and a quick way to spend a half our outside without having to pack anything or spend a lot of time preparing to go out.  You’re not far from home wherever you are in the neighborhood.  You might bump into some neighbors which might lead to more fun activities or at the least a pleasant chat.

2. Visit a neighborhood park (free).  Bring a frisbee or some balls to toss.  Make it an afternoon and pack a picnic lunch.

3. City parks and rec water park or swimming pool ($2 per person when you buy a 15 admission punch pass for $30).  Our parks and rec department has pools all over the city and a water park not far from our house.  For a couple bucks per person, we can enjoy a few hours (or all day) pool-side.  This is guaranteed to exhaust your kids.Sitting around like bumps on a log

4. Nature reserve with creeks, natural mini-waterfalls, and tree-lined trails around a lake (free except for $2 in gas).  Google describes the closest one to our house as a “quiet, wooded retreat with hiking trails” and that’s about all you need to know.  The woods are home to beavers, owls, deer, hawks, and all kinds of wildlife.  Our local park isn’t huge, but it’s big enough to make you forget you live in a city due to miles of trails.

5. Riding the circulator bus downtown (free).  We have a free bus that runs around downtown in our city.  You can hop on and hop off anywhere, which makes visiting and traveling around downtown free (at least the transportation part of it).  The route passes by the State Capitol, many historic buildings, and a few (free) museums.  The whole route takes about 30 minutes.

6. Art museum, science museum, history museum, state capitol building, walking architecture tour (free plus $1 in gas and maybe $2-3 for parking on weekdays).  I guess we are “lucky” to live in the state capital where there are a ton of free museums.  The museums are hit and miss with kids, but you never know which ones might pique the interests of your brood.

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7. Arboretum or botanical gardens (free plus $1-2 gas).  These are free ways to see hundreds of varieties of local trees, flowers, and other plants in a nicely manicured setting.  Picnics are a great way to enjoy the scenery for an extended stretch (and rest your feet!).

 

8. Watching rec league sports like baseball, basketball, soccer, and softball (free).  As we were leaving the water park, my kids were amazed at the softball tournament taking place in another part of the park.  That’s when I realized they have never been to a “real” baseball or softball game.  I’m no sports fan, but maybe my kids will show more interest than me.  This tournament appeared to be free, and I’m sure there are plenty of city league games or tournaments that have no admission fee.  Our local farm league baseball team also offers free tickets occasionally, so that would be another way to catch a free game and get the full baseball stadium experience.

9. Library story time, arts, crafts, and other activities (free).  Our neighborhood library offers a wide range of programs for kids (and adults!) from toddlers up to fifth grade.  They have toddler story time a few times per week that I attend with Mr. RoG Jr.  For elementary school age kids, they have a weekly story time that includes an arts, crafts, or science activity. Last week we attended a monthly special program that included mining for gems and my kids took home a small bag of their finds for free.  My little geologist-in-training loved that!

10.  Toddler play time at the community center gym (free).  Next door to our library is the community center that offers free open gym time for kids age zero to five twice per week.  It’s a great place to set up a play date or meet other families with kids and get out of the heat.  Many shopping malls have an open play area that would serve the same purpose (but might lead to expensive impulse shopping or buying a $4 cookie or ice cream cone).

11. Roller skating on Dollar Night ($4/person including skate rental; $1/person if you bring your own rollerblades or skates).  A fun night out for the kids.  Skip the crappy video games and food and you won’t spend much more than $10.  Our skating rink also sells cheesy light up LED items for wildly inflated prices (like these finger lights you can get for under $1/set at Amazon or these light up flashing hair extensions at 6 for $2 shipped).  Skip the “glow cart” at the rink and pack your own fun.

12. Play dates (free).  Invite your kids’ friends over for a play date.  Let them play outside.  Or inside.  Or watch a movie together.  It doesn’t have to be anything fancy.  As one of my kids just remarked, “it’s so cool to see friends from school in the middle of summer!”.  For bonus parenting points, host a sleepover – the ultimate play date.  That might set you back $20 for a few pizzas (and a bottle of wine for the adults).

13.  Play with cardboard boxes (free).  This one needs no explanation.  My nine year old still gets giddy when she sees a large package at our door.  Who cares if there’s an awesome new computer or television inside – “can I have the box, Daddy?”.  Forts were built, car race tracks where constructed, and much sledding down the stairs occurred.  Empty paper towel rolls can also fill a similar role as cardboard boxes.  Pirate’s telescope?  Baseball bat?  Megaphone?

14. Walk to the grocery store to buy a half gallon of ice cream to eat at home ($2-3).  Forget spending $20 at a fancy ice cream or froyo parlor.  Hit up the grocery store and get a carton of ice cream for the whole family to enjoy.  Other than getting the carton home without it melting (hint: ice packs and a book bag work well if you’re on foot), the next hardest problem will be deciding on just one flavor.  Good luck.  We keep a stash of sprinkles and syrups on hand for these summer emergencies.

15. Board games ($10-40 once, $1-2 per play if you amortize the cost over a summer).  I personally like the “European board games” like Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, and Settlers of Catan.  Those games offer playability for younger kids starting around age six mixed with enough strategy and luck so the adults won’t always win yet won’t get bored easily.  These games are also fun for adults to play on “board game night” (invite a few friends over).  If you are interested in learning more about the secret culture of board gaming, check out BoardGameGeek.com (the existence of this site reinforces my belief that the internet has a niche group devoted to every possible interest known to man).

16. Jigsaw puzzles ($1 to $5).  Fun for all ages.  Check out the dollar store if you’re in a hurry and don’t want to spend more than a buck.  The adults in our house like the 500 piece puzzles (which are impossible to complete when kids take pieces and occasionally chew on them).

17. Staycation (free?).  Everyone loves traditional vacations like our five week summer road trip to Canada.  For a change, give a staycation a shot.  It’s like a vacation where you take off work but stay at your own house.  Advantages include the low cost (free), no need to pack, and no travel required.  When you get home from work on a Friday evening, you’re already at your vacation destination for the next week.  It’s a great way to catch up on that stack of novels and magazines on your bedside table and clear out your Netflix queue.  Or get off your lazy butt and do one of the other sixteen things on this list.

 

I could go on forever, but I’d like to tackle a few of these activities myself.  This is but a taste of what you can do without spending more than a few bucks.  If you have seen my $32,000 retirement budget, you might notice I only have $913 budgeted for “entertainment, toys, and fun”.  That amount covers not just toys, but also stocking my liquor cabinet occasionally and three weeks of summer camp for two kids each year.  Fun doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.

For many of these activities, we set out with one goal, and end up getting nicely sidetracked.  We might spot some wild animals on the way to the park and stop to observe those for a while.  Or bump into friends and join them for an afternoon doing something free.

Thanks to Mr. 1500 for planting the idea for this article in my head.  His post that inspired me at 1500 Days To Freedom.

 

What is your favorite free or cheap thing to do?

 

 

Confessions Of A Frugal Millionaire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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