December 2019 Financial Update

After a busy end of the year, it has taken me a while to pull this monthly update together. In December, we spent twelve days on a cruise. Once we returned home, the Christmas holiday season started shortly thereafter. Then the New Year’s celebration commenced. In between were several other gatherings of family and friends.  I’m looking forward to a much lazier 2020! 

From a financial perspective, we had a great month in December. Our net worth climbed $63,000 to reach another all time high of $2,261,000. Our spending was slightly below budget at $3,193 while our income was a monstrous $23,579 for the month. 

Let’s jump into the details from last month.

 

Income

Investment income totaled $20,683 in December. Our equity mutual funds and ETFs pay dividends quarterly at the end of March, June, September, and December with some payments arriving at the beginning of the next month. December is always the highest month for investment income because several ETFs we hold only pay dividends once per year in December. Investment income for all of 2019 totaled just over $40,000. Here’s more on our dividend investments.

Blog income, shown as “other income” in the chart, totaled $1,785 for the month. This level of blog income is about $1,000 lower than a typical month. 

My early retirement lifestyle consulting income (“consulting”) was $825 for the month of December which represents 6.5 hours of consulting sessions. Business remains strong even though I don’t market these services at all (other than a passing reference here once per month). I’m evaluating increasing rates for 2020 since I’m slightly busier than I want to be. 

The “deposit income” totaled $285. The deposit income came from cash back and incentive bonuses from the Ebates.com and Mrrebates.com online shopping portals (some of which was earned from you readers signing up through these links). We received most of that cash back from the purchase of our summer 2020 cruises. Normally we get paid after the cruise is complete. In this case, the cash back was paid soon after booking the cruises. 

If you sign up for Ebates through this link and make a qualifying $25 purchase through Ebates, you’ll get a $10 gift card. 

 

 

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

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

Tracking spending was one of the critical steps I took that allowed me to retire at 33. And it’s now easier than ever with Personal Capital.

 

 

 

Expenses

Now let’s take a look at December expenses:


 

In total, we spent $3,193 during December which is slightly less than our target spending of$3,333 per month (or $40,000 per year). Housing-related expenses and groceries topped the spending categories for the month. 

 

Detailed breakdown of spending:

 

Home Maintenance – $1,762:

This is our 2019 property tax bill for our house. We paid it in one lump sum. 

Using my credit card, I bought Visa debit cards at Gift Card Mall (through the ebates shopping portal) so that I could pay the property tax bill using the Visa debit cards. This lets me save on the credit card fees at the county tax website ($4 flat fee per $500 debit card payment instead of 2.3% of the payment amount). 

 

Groceries – $608:

We spent $608 on groceries during December. This is slightly higher than our average grocery bill but we purchased some gifts (both food and non-food) at the grocery store and at Walmart so the grocery numbers are skewed a bit for December. 

 

Grandma’s homemade pho for New Year’s eve family gathering. And we didn’t even have to cook it this time!

 

General Merchandise – $250

I purchased a $250 gift card at Raise.com for Walmart at a 3% discount (technically $7.50 in Raise cash back redeemable on the next gift card purchase). We spent most of that gift card at Walmart during December on toothbrushes and stuffed animals. I still have about $75 remaining on the gift card.

I bought four Philips Sonicare DailyClean 1100 electric toothbrushes for the whole family (excepting the youngest kid). The total cost was $86 including tax. After spending hours researching all the different varieties and trim levels of electric toothbrushes, I realized the most basic version was perfectly adequate. The new toothbrushes replace a collection of older electric toothbrushes that are in various states of obsolescence and disrepair. 

We also purchased a ridiculous shopping cart full of fluffy stuffed animals, Christmas lights, and miscellaneous Christmas goodies for $71 (all on clearance after Christmas). Some of the stuffed animals will be gifts during 2020. 

 

This is what a cart full of stuffed animals and Christmas lights looks like.

 

Utilities – $233:

The city water, sewer, and trash bill was $160 for December. This is higher than usual and we don’t really know why. January’s bill is back to normal.

The natural gas bill (for the water heater and furnace) totaled $74 for the month. It turned cold during December. January has been shockingly warm so far so we haven’t used the heat very much. Thank goodness for global climate crisis warming change! I jest…

Several months ago I prepaid $600 on the electricity bill to hit the minimum spending requirement on a credit card. As a result, December utility charges didn’t include electric. There is only a $15 credit remaining on the account so we’ll be back to paying for electricity in January. 

 

Travel – $125:

Our 11 night cruise on the MSC Divina was paid for in previous months. But we still had to pay for transportation between the Ft. Lauderdale Airport and the Miami cruise port. We took public transit and paid about $15 in each direction. I messed up and bought an extra one way ticket that was only valid for the date of purchase and thereby wasted $6. 

 

First time visiting Aruba for us (Eagle Beach). It’s definitely not a bad place to spend a couple of days in December.

 

The other travel expense is a $95 annual fee on my new Chase Ink Business Preferred credit card that comes with an 80,000 point bonus. Those 80,000 points can be redeemed for $1,000 in travel (any kind of travel!) so it’s a valuable card in my wallet. Here’s my referral link if you’re interested in signing up for one on your own. 

If you want to score more free travel from credit cards, there are several other cards currently offering 50,000 points or more. These points can be redeemed for $500 cash or $500+ in free flights or hotel stays. Compare travel credit card deals

 

Hot tub on deck 16 of the cruise ship? Check. Martini in hand? Check. Full moon and shooting stars? Check. Life is good.

 

My fellow engineering nerds can appreciate the Queen Emma swinging pontoon bridge in Curacao. We were fortunate to watch the bridge swing fully open during our visit to the island.

 

Gifts – $83:

We printed five customized photo calendars for gifts for family totaling $54. 

The other $29 is a gift to Mrs. Root of Good from me. A new camera bookbag for use on our trips. 

We tend to accumulate other Christmas gifts throughout the year and sometimes the gifts get lumped in with “groceries” or “general merchandise” and never make an appearance in the “gifts” spending category. 

 

Root of Good family had a very merry Christmas this year!

 

Healthcare/Medical – $61:

Our 2020 healthcare premiums are $123 per month thanks to very generous Affordable Care Act subsidies that we receive due to our low ~$40,000 per year Adjusted Gross Income. The benefit of being “poor” on our tax return. I paid this bill in November (for January’s coverage) so I won’t have another bill until January (for February’s coverage).

In other healthcare expenses, we spent $42 at Amazon for various over the counter medicines bought in bulk. 

The remaining $19 in medical expense is my monthly dental insurance premiums for 2020. It covers two routine visits plus x-rays for $223 per year. The cash price for these same services would be $249 per year, so the insurance will save me money even if I never “take advantage of” the insurance coverage for filling cavities. Let’s hope I don’t get to take advantage of that benefit! 

 

If I was a doctor I’d prescribe a visit to Ocean Cay for the ultimate in stress reduction. We found the perfect deserted beach to lounge on.

 
 

 

Gasoline – $31:

Refueling three quarters of a tank of gas in the minivan

 

Restaurants – $23:

We spent $20 for two large pizzas from Sam’s Club. They make some surprisingly good pizza. Far better than Costco, even though it’s slightly more expensive per square inch. 

The other $3 we spent at Wendy’s. During December Wendy’s ran a contest where you win a food or drink item each day through their app. We had several family meals at Wendy’s over the winter holidays that included a lot of free food from that promotion. We also redeemed three coupons that required a purchase ($1 times 3 purchases). 

 

$1 total cost for a big meal after redeeming a bunch of freebie coupons.

 

We got invited to a birthday party for our kid’s friend. The parents own the best authentic Mexican street food restaurant in America and they let us order anything off the menu. I got my regular – 2 tacos and a sope. This is as good as anything we ate in Mexico!

 

Cable/Satellite – $18:

We pay $18 per month for a local reduced rate package due to having a lower income and having kids. 30 mbit/s download, 4 mbit/s upload.

 

Christmas with family.

 

 

Total Spending for all of 2019

 

For the entire year of 2019, we spent $25,630. This amount is approximately $14,000 less than our $40,000 annual early retirement budget

An interesting comparison for our spending is the Federal Poverty Level. For a family of five, the US government says we should spend $30,170 or more to escape the poverty level. For 2019, we came close but couldn’t quite climb out of poverty. Between a couple of months vacationing in southeast Asia, a couple of nice long cruises, and a whole lot of prosciutto, we tried really hard but ultimately failed. 

Are we really living a life of abject poverty? Not really – our $40,000 per year budget actually buys us about as much as an ordinary family would have on a $100,000 per year income

How do we do a lot yet live on so little? We take some small steps in a lot of different directions that add up to big cost savings overall. We’ve also been lucky to avoid serious illnesses and casualty losses like wrecking the car or burning down the house. 

Taking a look at the individual spending categories, we’re roughly in line with our budget that we developed before retiring (and modified upward in 2016 as our wealth increased). We spent less than budgeted in every category except clothing and shoes ($828 spent versus $800 budgeted for clothes).

Plan well and stick with the plan. Or come in under budget.

Will we spend more in the future? Who knows! With our invested assets exceeding $2,000,000 we could easily spend $65,000 per year at a 3.25% withdrawal rate. 

The next decade is likely to be more expensive for us compared to the last decade, mainly due to kid-related expenses. Our oldest child turns 16 in just over a year. Since we are currently a one car household, it’s likely that we will feel transportation-constrained if all of us continue to share just one car. So a new (used) car is on the horizon, probably in 2021. It probably won’t exceed $5,000 or $6,000. 

Teen drivers also mean higher insurance costs in 2021 and even higher in 2022 when we have two teens driving! 

Then comes college in 2023. But we have a plan for college costs, too

Coming back to the present spending plans for 2020, we just booked our flights for our big summer 2020 trip. Airfare was mostly covered by miles and points, but the taxes were significant on several segments. In addition, we booked a few segments on discount airlines and paid out of pocket for the full cost. We booked $10,000+ worth of flights for 337,500 miles/points and $1,540 cash. 

We’ll probably have to pay for some lodging once we exhaust our several thousand dollar stash of Airbnb gift card credit we purchased in the past years.

Our recently booked flights form the backbone of our ambitious itinerary that will have us spending eight weeks split between Panama, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil (with a side trip to Paraguay). We’ll end the summer back in Miami just in time to go on a one week cruise to the Caribbean. More on the big summer trip in a future post! 

 

Monthly Expense Summary for 2019:

 

Summary of annual spending from all years of early retirement:

 

Net Worth: $2,261,000 (+$63,000)

Another month of slow and steady gains. Will this stock market boom ever stop? Or did I just jinx us all? 

 

 

Our net worth climbed $63,000 to reach a new all time high of $2,261,000 at the end of 2019. This is approximately one million dollars higher than our net worth when I left my job as an engineer six and a half years ago. 

Almost all of these gains have come from a strong stock market. Which means a weak stock market could erase many hundreds of thousands of dollars from our net worth. 

To reduce our risk of portfolio collapse, I have slowly reduced our allocation to equities. We started 2017 with a 100% equities allocation (other than a few percent in a cash buffer). By the end of 2018 we had migrated to a 90%/10% equities/bond allocation. 

In late 2019, I botched Mrs. Root of Good’s 401k rollover and failed to reinvest $100,000 of equities before the market took off without her money. The bad news is the money is still sitting on the sidelines as the bull market rages on. The good news is we accidentally acquired an 85%/15% equities/fixed income allocation.

I’m very comfortable with that asset allocation today. As mentioned earlier, we have several years of potentially higher expenses in front of us (teen drivers; college). Having approximately $300,000 in low/no risk assets set aside will let me sleep easier at night should we see a sharp correction in the next several years.

When the crash hits us, life will go on, kids will still attend college, and none of us will lose any sleep. And we’ll probably still blow a lot of money on frivolous things like travel. 

That’s the plan anyway.

And with that, I’d like to put a wrap on my last update for 2019. I wish you all a very prosperous 2020! 

 

 

How was your Christmas (or “winter holidays” if you prefer) and New Year’s? Any big New Year’s resolutions?

 

 

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49 comments

  1. Big news was our son was born on Christmas Eve here in Saudi Arabia (we are international teachers)
    The total hospital bill was $8!

    Our big resolution is to do more living and less pining for FIRE. I seem to be ‘keeping up with the FI-Joneses”!

  2. Congratulations on another fantastic year on the economic front in 2019! Really happy for you and the family, as well as all your readers who are moving further up the scale due to the economy and the stock market of the last few years. It has been a heck of a ride.

    Never make resolutions for a new year. We just plan to continue enjoying our retirement, like yourselves, travel upwards of half the year, and take two more cruises in 2020, like yourselves.

    Our net worth continues to go up nicely as well but I will be losing some of my best performing stocks this week as I sold covered calls against them, and they have just kept going up in price. Oh well, it will give me more dry powder to search for other deals out there, much like the spare 401K monies you referenced, but I will miss Nvidia and Micron in particular, both of which have been very, very good to me over the years.

    Best of wishes to you and the whole extended family in 2020, and look forward to hearing more positive news in the coming year.

    1. I’m having the opposite experience with options. I wrote some out of the money call options on a stock I would really like to own and the options are getting close to free to buy to close out the positions. Still would like some of that stock but the many hundreds in option premiums are a nice feature too 🙂

  3. I really do love these monthly updates. Although you need to post more in between IMHO. – smiley here please

    To refresh your memory:
    We’re a family of five. Teens and one tween. We ER’d and travelled RTW with them for a year while they still thought we were cool . Then we went back to Canada to settle Kid 1 for university prep – her grade 12.

    That year, kid 1 and kid 2 both got their DL’s.

    Given we were a one car family, adding kid 1 and kid 2 to insurance was a ZERO added expense, Four drivers – one car. Kid one and two were for sure secondary drivers.

    And like us, given you don’t drive your car often, I can’t see the requirement for a second vehicle. Not sure where you’ll go with that. Our kids worked in the neighborhood and we were thrilled when they could drive on there own.

    DH un-retired last year-because something cool came up. And now we are – well, three of us – are living in Eastern Europe. And kid 1 and kid 2 are living it up. And loving it.

    We can’t compete with your day to day spending. As much as I try, we’re solidly in the Ispendmorethanyoubuttrynotto category.

    Anyway, after all our planning, our kids don’t actually cost as much as we expected them to. Given all we’ve read and been told and all.

    1. Our kids will probably drive to high school instead of ride the bus like they currently do. It’ll save us time and be an easy way to spend more money to get a lot more value. That’s the plan anyway. I wouldn’t want to give up our only car every weekday when they drive it and then us parents are stuck at home Monday to Friday from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm. Those are prime times to get out and do stuff while everyone else is working! 🙂

      I’m hopeful that our experience with insurance is similar to yours. Even if we go to 2 cars, it’ll be me and my wife as primary drivers with the kids listed as secondary. I have heard that our insurer is one of the less expensive ones for adding kids if you’ve been with them for a while, which we have. Regardless, it’s a short term expense and eventually the kids will be out on their own earning and spending their own money!

      1. Our insurance gave us discounts on our teen drivers for:
        1. Good grades
        2. Drive low mileage
        3. Watch a defensive driving/safety video
        4. We raised to highest deductible/pay premiums yearly
        Our son did have a parking lot fender bender which we paid directly without insurance to keep his premium low.
        Good luck!

      2. You may want to look into getting an umbrella insurance policy especially with a younger driver or you can consider getting the insurance in your child’s name alone and getting minimal insurance on them since they have no assets to sue for, but I don’t think that works with minors and is typically more expensive than adding them to your policy and getting the umbrella insurance. Just a thought to protect your nest egg.

  4. Could you sometime explain how you get a business credit card? Do you just count your blog and consulting income? We have a part time business and I wonder what income level is needed to get approved?

    1. Business income required is typically very minimal. I do count my blog and consulting income as a business and never have a problem getting approved. Selling stuff on ebay for a few hundred or $1000/yr is technically a business if you intend to make a profit. It’s worth a shot to apply and see if you get approved given the big upside benefit.

  5. Justin, as always, I’m amazed at how you come under budget each month. Living in the northeast, our budget is fairly bigger and I’m routinely jealous of your expenses! Wishing you another year of low expenses and high returns!

  6. Hi Justin, there is much to admire in these reports, but I have to say, the ability to vacation with your wife with w/o your kids is definitely one of them. We did not live near grandparents when we had kids at home. Hope you bring them back nice things!

    The first time we “went away” w/o them was when they were in HS and both went to team soccer camp with the school team. It was a weekend. 🙂

  7. You all have done an amazing job keeping your expenses so low and yet still doing so many fun things as a family! Those who say that you cannot FIRE with kids are just plain wrong.

    I shook my head when Sam Dogen recently announced that he now believes that his family needs $350k to live a ‘comfortable’ lifestyle in the Bay area. While I know that the cost-of-living is far higher there than where you are now, I really think that you could teach him a lot about how to spend more wisely.

      1. I don’t have a problem with anyone wanting to spend $350k every year, but where I do have a problem is when they try to make it sound like that’s what it takes to be ‘comfortable’.

  8. The White Coat Investor wrote a great post (with his daughter) on why they bought an $800 car for her first car. It might be worth sharing with your teen to give her some perspective on how much a first car can cost!

    I’m amazed and impressed at your low spending in 2019!

    1. We’re still debating a 2nd car, what role it would play, and what it will be. Maybe we’ll get a sports car for the adults and the kids can share the minivan 🙂

    2. My kid complained that I “made” them drive the minivan to school instead of my newer sedan and now the other kids were teasing them about their uncool “soccer mom” car. “Just to get this straight,” I said. “You are complaining that I lend you a vehicle effectively free of charge, out of the kindness of my heart, that allows you sleep in an extra hour in the morning, attend after school activities on your schedule as you choose, and allows you freedom to go out as you will.”

      “But, my friends-”

      “Walk or take the bus, starting tomorrow. Give me the keys.”

      “Sorry! It’s okay, really! The minivan is great!”

      “Thought so.”

  9. Our Aruba timeshare is in the background of that Eagle Beach picture. We like to spend a week there, but have to start coming up with more things the kids to do because they get bored with just sun and pool time. They’ve been resorting to more video games. The problem is that activities can be expensive. Aside from that, it’s a great getaway.

    The irony is that we tried to rent our week away in Aruba last November for a cruise, most likely the MSC Divina.

    Vacations in 2020 are not likely to go well. The wife’s pharmacy conferences line-up with the kids’ breaks. It’s looking like we’ll be lucky to get a few days off for local-ish staycations.

    1. What’s the long term plan for the Aruba timeshare? To be honest, I would probably get bored with pool/beach for most vacations and I know our kids do. We even skipped all the beachy/ocean stuff on our SE Asia trip just because we spent the summer in the Bahamas the previous year. Of course one of our kids hates the sand at the beach so that makes it a less attractive choice for us.

      I’d highly recommend a cruise if you can manage to rent out the timeshare. Lots of different islands to see/explore and the ship itself is a major attraction. I really enjoy the solitude of being in the middle of the ocean with nobody around as far as I can see.

      1. We don’t have a good long term plan right now. It was bought by my wife before we were married. We have friends with older kids and they seem to have more fun because they can do a little more on the resort.

        We did a cruise before we had kids about 12 years ago (my only cruise) and I liked it except for the lack of internet access (which was prohibitively expensive). My wife didn’t like the cruise much. I don’t recall any exact reason. The Disney cruises sound like they’d be ideal, but the price is just too crazy, especially when we can stack military discounts and make Disney World relatively cheap.

        1. I bet your kids would like any cruise at their age. Our kids loved the kids clubs (free on all the cruise lines I think) as they do fun activities and programs all day. A bit YMMV as to whether they are merely good or truly great though – we’ve had it all.

          Internet access is a problem but it’s a nice excuse to log off for a week 🙂 You could always spend a port day catching up on internet stuff if you really had to do so. Spend $5 on a beer or cocktail in port and use the free wifi at the bar all day.

          I’m with you on the disney cruises. Crazy expensive for what you get I think. I’d rather spend the $ at the theme park itself if we were going to drop many hundreds on a Disney experience, then go on a non-Disney cruise before or after (for a fraction of the Disney cruise cost).

  10. Spending little and living large again I see… good on you for showing the internet how it’s done RoG!

    I think the most amazing part is how continuously low-cost things are in NC compared to other parts of the U.S. You guys really have some cheap living there!

    As always, thanks for sharing your life of “abject poverty”. Lol 🙂

  11. I’m super impressed that as a family you can spend less than me as a single person right now. I’m definitely thinking up a counterpoint post to show that outliers like you can raise kids and have financial independence through awesome planning. Cheers, and happy new year!

    1. Kids can cost a ton but don’t have to (especially if you don’t have to work so you can afford the time to take care of them, tutor them, drop them off/pick up, etc.

  12. That “poverty” number is such BS hahaha…. $30k a year spending for a family is a top 1% lifestyle in terms of standard of living in human history. It really is amazing to be living in today’s world.

    1. I’ve always struggled to sympathize with the “poor” in America. When you look at their lifestyles objectively versus, say, the median household in world’s 150 poorest countries (aka how about 5-6 billion people live), the American “poor” lifestyle is pretty nice.

  13. Wow, you all are an inspiration. I’ve definitely got to up my travel hacking game. I maxed out the bonuses on my World of Hyatt credit card this year but have yet to sign up for my next card. 😂
    Adding that to my immediate to-dos.

  14. Hi Justin,
    Thanks for sharing the update, I am impressed with your ability to maintain very low cost of living despite your net-worth growth. Your withdraw rate is 1.13 % … which can guard you from any Sequence of return risk. Well Done Sir.

    1. Yes, I feel like we have won the game so far. I hadn’t calculated our withdrawal rate in a while but that sounds about right (slightly higher once we subtract out our ~$200,000 house value from the denominator).

  15. Happy New Year to you and your family !!
    What is your favorite Caribbean island ?
    My wife and I may go there for vacation in 2020.

    1. I might get some flak for this but I feel like they’re all pretty similar in terms of beauty. Bahamas, USVI, St Maarten, Aruba all have nice beaches. There are pros and cons. Some more $, some have more crap to deal with in the cities (Jamaica; Antigua – in this case literal crap running down sewage filled gutters along the street :/ ).

      Lots of factors go into the mix – do you just want to go to a resort and chill? Want to go local and explore some culture? Want quiet or busy?

  16. I’m late to the party, just stumbling across your blog when researching Roth conversion strategies. Awesome stuff (!!!) so I figured I’d take a look at your current posts. Since 2020 is proposed to be your first year withdrawing the Roth conversion you made in 2015, will you be updating anything with your strategy? I recall you mentioned you’d have a “big” withdraw this year due to having to take the contributions first and then your conversion component. Would LOVE to hear any update on how this goes once you execute it. Thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge 🙂

    1. I’m still doing conversions but not planning on withdrawing the conversions right now. My cash flow picture changed once my blog started making money. I mostly just live on the dividends from the taxable account ($350,000 in value roughly) plus blog income. But the good news is those Roth conversions on the ladder that are 5+ years old can stay in the Roth forever until I need them.

  17. Great post and amazing results.

    Have you posted the full annual breakdown of all your 2019 expenses? If you have can you share the link. Thanks

  18. The big information here is that we found my wife is expecting a baby.

    Thanks for the budget break down. I like to see examples of how people can live a good life on a low budget. More people who are in debt need to see this so that they can know how to do it so that they can get rid of their debt.

  19. Hey Justin!
    I am curious if you could maybe do a post on what your credit card spending is to hit those minimums to earn so many points. I have been trying to play the credit card game too. Looking at your annual spending (prepaying utilities, buying gift cards in advance), it would be great to see the exact path you took for some of those points! We spend more, and put everything on our cards, but still cannot take our family to Europe for free every year. What’s the secret? Thanks!

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