December 2021 Early Retirement Update – New Year’s Edition

Another year all wrapped up neatly with a bow on it! Where does the time go?

We had a great 2021, both financially and personally. We managed to squeeze in a bunch of travel in spite of global difficulties. And we were able to relax at home a ton as well. Another glorious year of early retirement! 

For those wondering, we were able to embark on our Christmas cruise successfully. After two years of being landlocked and skipping international travel, we finally got back to the crystal clear Caribbean waters and enjoyed a warm week floating around the islands.  

Financially, December was an incredibly bountiful month for us. Net worth jumped $115,000 to end the month at $2,830,000. Income during the month totaled $21,970 while expenses were a mere $3,312 during December. 

Let’s jump into the details from last month.



Investment income totaled $19,932 in December. Our equity index funds and ETFs pay dividends quarterly at the end of March, June, September, and December. The final quarterly payment in December is always the largest for the year. As a result, we had an incredibly high investment income last month. Here’s more on our dividend investments.

Blog income totaled $1,289 for the month. I think this is the “new normal” for blog income. The trendline on my blogging income has dropped as I have posted less frequently over the past several years.

My early retirement lifestyle consulting income (“consulting”) was $0 in December. I only completed one consulting session of two hours in length during the month, with the payment arriving in the first couple of days of January, 2022. The slowdown worked pretty well since we were traveling for about a third of the month and needed time to pack beforehand and recuperate afterwards. 

Tradeline sales income was $525 in December. I ramped up my tradeline sales last year and discussed it in a bit more detail in my October 2020 monthly post and in my July 2021 monthly post. Of that $525 total payment, $100 came from referrals that signed up with Boost Credit 101 and mentioned “Root of Good” as a referrer. Thanks to all of you that did so. And good luck making money with tradelines!

My total Tradeline Sales in 2021 were $6,650 (about $5,800 after backing out the referral bonuses I received thanks to the visitors of this blog). 

For December, my “deposit income” totaled $63. Of this total, $43 came from cash back and incentive bonuses from the and online shopping portals (some of which was earned from you readers signing up through these links). 

If you sign up for Rakuten through this link and make a qualifying $25 purchase through Rakuten, you’ll get a $10 sign up bonus

The remaining “deposit income” included $10 from submitting grocery rebates (only available in Alabama, New York, and North Carolina). The other $10 of deposit income came from a $10 promotion on my Fidelity credit card for spending $1+ on any type of insurance. 

My Youtube earnings were $160 last month. Here is the channel for the curious. It’s random travel videos, birds, kids, and a couple of DIY videos. There are only a few main videos that bring in most of the traffic (and revenue!).



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.


Christmas spirit at the Root of Good house



Now let’s take a look at December expenses:



In total, we spent $3,312 during December which is almost exactly the amount of our regularly budgeted $3,333 per month (or $40,000 per year). Taxes and Travel were the top two spending categories for last month. 


Detailed breakdown of spending:


Taxes – $1,878:

Our annual property tax bill of $1,878 came due. Yes, that’s the annual figure and not a monthly payment in case any readers in high cost of living areas were confused. 


Travel – $611:

I loaded up on $300 worth of Airbnb gift cards during December. Best Buy ran a 10% off sale and I stacked that with “$25 off of a $250 Best Buy purchase” offer from Paypal. The total cost after discounts and promotions was $245. 

We typically use several thousand dollars in Airbnb credit during a normal summer vacation, so these credits won’t go to waste. Right now we have accumulated almost $4,000 in airbnb credits.

The remaining $366 in December Travel spending came from our cruise. Ancillary cruise costs include:

  • Gas from Raleigh to Miami and back
  • Parking in a remote city park and ride lot
  • Ridiculous surge pricing Uber to the cruise port ($18 for 1.5 mile/7 minute ride)
  • Public transit to/from remote city parking lot
  • 1 night hotel suite in Vero Beach, FL (a couple hours north of Miami)
  • 2 sets of Icees for the family (they were $0.79 each!!)
  • On-board cruise gratuities (these were close to zero due to the on-board credits we received)

Overall the cruise was a blast. The boat sailed at 23% of their normal capacity so it was rather empty compared to all the other cruises we’ve been on. The public health measures weren’t too bad and mostly helped keep us safe. 

On our seven night cruise aboard the MSC Divina we visited:

  • Belize City, Belize
  • Roatan, Honduras
  • Costa Maya, Mexico
  • Ocean Cay, Bahamas (MSC’s private island)

The weather was perfect. Not too hot and never too cold. Minimal rain. 


We spent Christmas day exploring MSC Cruise’s Ocean Cay private island in the Bahamas. That’s sand on the beach, not snow.


The biggest disruption to our cruise experience was lackluster evening shows. They usually have excellent production quality broadway style shows most nights along with acrobatics. This time around the shows were disappointing in the aggregate.

Several shows consisted mainly of the two opera singers doing their thing instead of 25+ singers and dancers and gymnasts going all out for us. I assume the performers got hit with the ole ‘rona half way through the cruise and they had to isolate after that. 

We did get a $100 per cabin refund because the “mini club” was closed, presumably due to the ‘rona hitting the staff. We didn’t use the kids club so it wasn’t an inconvenience for us at all. Just free money! We used this to mostly offset the suggested gratuities on board (along with some other on board credits).


Nice views from aboard our ship while docked in Roatan, Honduras.


What’s next on the travel docket for us?

We ended up cancelling our spring break 2022 cruise. The cruise line is getting less flexible with cancellations and what you are entitled to if you do cancel last minute. Given everything going on, plus the kids’ school schedule, the spring break cruise wasn’t quite worth it all things considered. 

Looking further out, we are in a holding pattern with our summer 2022 Eastern European vacation planning. We definitely want to go but definitely don’t want to lose hundreds (or thousands) on non-refundable fees and deposits. 

So far, we are keeping everything fully refundable. I have the plane tickets and a month-long rental car booked. I can cancel them all with no penalty. We’ll probably start booking Airbnb lodging in January assuming everything gets back to normal-ish by the end of the month.

Such is life during these unpredictable times. I guess our alternative would be “just stay at home” but we’ve done enough of that already. So if we can travel safely and in a reasonably predictable manner, we will continue to do so when feasible.


We brought presents onto the cruise for the kids!


Groceries – $541:

Our grocery spending is slowly trending back down toward the $600 per month that we used to spend a year or two ago. We only spent $541 during December. 

Part of the lower spending last month is due to us being gone for over a week on our cruise. 

Inflation is definitely hitting our grocery spending. We are seeing more and more items that are marked up by 20-50% versus pre-pandemic levels. 


Our daughter made tapioca dumplings with a pork filling. Delicious!


A pretty common dish for us. Stir fry veggies with roasted pork (“grandma’s special recipe”), mi goreng noodles, and Laotian sticky rice


Utilities – $230:

The total utility spending was $230 last month.

We spent $85 on the electric bill and $66 for the water/sewer/trash bill. The natural gas bill, which provides heating and hot water, totaled $80 for last month.

Our heating bill was about half of what it normally is during this time of year. We were out of town for a big chunk of December, which saved us a lot. And it was abnormally warm the last week of December. Between our vacation and the heat wave, we didn’t use the heat very much during the second half of December.

In fact, it was so hot for a few days that we were struggling to keep it cool inside the house. We almost had to turn the air conditioning on! Yeah I know, southern people problems….


Healthcare/Medical/Dental – $40:

Our current 2021 healthcare premiums are $1.15 per month thanks to very generous Affordable Care Act subsidies that we receive due to our low ~$45,000 per year Adjusted Gross Income. I paid for December in a previous month, so there is no cost for December. 

The “American Rescue Plan Act” passed in March 2021 makes the Affordable Care Act premiums even cheaper through 2022. Households with modified adjusted gross incomes (MAGI) below 150% of the federal poverty level get some silver-level health insurance plans completely free. We opted for a slightly more expensive silver plan that comes with $1,000 in cash back incentive rewards. Our total cost is just over $1 per month now!

Our new premiums for 2022 are $0 per month since we went with one of the two cheapest silver plans. Same insurance company as 2021, same healthcare provider network. Nothing changes except small tweaks to copays, deductibles, and out of pocket max. And we still get $1,000 cash back for participating in the insurer’s rewards program. 

The $40 shown in this month’s medical/dental expense is our dental insurance for 2022. For the adults, we’ll spend about $20 per month ($240 per year) for a basic dental insurance plan. Our routine dental exams and cleanings with the occasional x-ray have increased in price recently. The cost is now $125 (no x-ray) or $170 (with x-ray). Or it was. Maybe prices go up again before our next dental visit!

With two routine visits per year, we will spend almost $300 per person. A $240 insurance plan provides those same services for free. And we get some minimal level of insurance if one of us needs a filling during the year. 


We enjoyed a nice walk on Raleigh’s greenways before we left for our cruise. The greenways aren’t so green in this pic because the vegetation dies off during winter. Fortunately, we have plenty of pleasant days in the 50’s, 60’s and sometimes 70’s throughout our winter here.



Automotive – $14:

I went on a mini-shopping spree and bought a new cabin air filter for $9 plus some replacement rubber parts for the exterior of the van from Ebay. These rubber components melted/disappeared over the years so it’s time to replace them. 


Gas – $0:

We didn’t spend anything on routine refueling of our minivan during December. However we did buy a bunch of gas while driving to/from our cruise in Miami. I have included all of those gas purchases in the “Travel” spending category. 


Cable/Satellite – $0:

We generally 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. Right now the cost of the internet service is temporarily reduced to $0 due to the “Emergency Broadband Benefit”. 


Breakfast on the cruise. Mrs. Root of Good loves the smoked salmon with a generous side of bacon!




Total Spending for 2021 (all 12 months)


Our spending totaled $31,740 for all of 2021. This is about $8,000 less than our $40,000 annual early retirement budget.

The $31,740 spending figure is just $700 higher  than the federal poverty line for a household of five. But I think an average working family would need a $100,000 income to approximate our lifestyle. So are we living a very comfortable life? Or are we struggling along at the poverty level? I’ll leave that question for you to ponder! 

Overall, 2021 was a pretty benign, ordinary year for our expense ledger. We did a fairly normal amount of travel (about two months in total). Maybe in a good year we would have done three months.

College costs haven’t really cranked up yet and are unlikely to do so until 2023. We dined out slightly less than we normally do, but that category of spending was never all that high.

We replaced some computers and upgraded a couple of cell phones, which is fairly normal since we’re buying devices for five people. 

Nothing major happened to our home or car, so maintenance costs were very low ($230 and $365 respectively, with most of the auto costs being taxes and various government registration/inspection fees). 

The only real “surprise” in 2021 was paying for a dental crown for Mrs. Root of Good. Even that is in the budget and not much more than rounding error against a $40,000 overall annual budget. 


A belated Christmas morning at home (once we got back from the cruise)


Thoughts on Spending in 2022

Within the next month, we hope to continue our travel bookings for summer 2022 in Europe. We’ll probably spend around $4,000 to $5,000 on lodging and $1,000 for a rental car and some bus tickets. The first $4,000 of Airbnbs will be covered by gift cards in our possession already. As a result, the remaining cost of our 2022 summer trip might not be that significant. 

College costs look to be minimal throughout 2022, since the FAFSA results indicate we’ll get enough to cover the full cost of community college plus books starting in the fall of 2022. College costs may increase beginning in 2023, however we have dedicated 529 savings that should cover most of the costs. 

We have temporarily abandoned the search for a second car given the prices in the used car market today and our changing family needs for a second car. We will most likely need a second car in August due to one of the kids attending community college full time. So I’m penciling in a $8,000 to $12,000 used car purchase for 2022. And crossing my fingers that prices don’t climb even higher in the next 8 months.


Monthly Expense Summary for 2021:


Summary of annual spending from all years of early retirement:


Christmas themed dessert buffet aboard our cruise


Net Worth: $2,830,000 (+$115,000)

After a $49,000 drop in net worth in November, we had a spectacular $115,000 gain in December! Our net worth ended the year at $2,830,000.

We are up $325,000 compared to December 2020’s $2,505,000 net worth.

The topline growth of $325,000 year-over-year sounds good but about half of that net worth growth was eaten away by the 6.8% inflation (based on CPI) that we all experienced during 2021. It’s still a gain in real terms, so I’ll take it! And we enjoyed another year of good living! 

For the curious, our net worth reported above includes our home value (which is fully paid off). However, please note that I don’t consider my home value as part of my portfolio for “4% rule” calculation purposes. I realize folks ask me about that every month so I just wanted to state that here for clarity.



Life update

Wow, what a year to look back on! I guess I’ll focus on our travels since that’s some of the more exciting highlights of our life. 

We had a busy summer and visited a lot of cool places across the midwest and western United States during our six week road trip: 

Hopefully I’ll get the rest of the road trip articles posted soon. 

We capped off our 2021 travels with a cruise to the Caribbean. And all this while dodging waves of the pandemic. 


Taking time to enjoy the sunsets down by the lake


I’m hoping 2022 brings us a little more stability and predictability compared to the last two years, because I don’t think they have been easy for anyone. 

In the meantime, we’ll just keep on muddling through and making the most of each moment. 

Happy New Year and best wishes for a healthy and prosperous 2022 for you! 


What does 2022 have in stock for you? Any exciting money or life moves you are planning this year?


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  1. Keep on muddling through — that sounds about right RootOfGood! That’s about all we can do these days!

    A solid looking year for you and yours! Congrats! I’m always amazed by how little your family manages to spend. We spend almost twice what you do here “out West”. Impressively low numbers.

    Keep on keeping on!

    1. Good living is cheap over here. 😉

      Congrats on your big net worth bump in 2021. Saw the article and couldn’t believe how much your assets went up. Amazing! (~$1.4 million gains for the curious – check out Mr Tako’s blog!)

  2. Looks like bacon with a couple of sides of smoked salmon to me ;).

    That’s pretty amazing to do a cruise in December with omicron. I’m happy that it worked out for you. Until the next variant comes around I think things are just going get better (assuming omicron follows the ice pick pattern that it has in other places).

    1. It all worked out well. We booked it a year ago so didn’t really know if it would happen. And Omicron kind of snuck up on us. It wasn’t all that bad here when we made the “go” decision in middle of December and drove down to FL. But the cruise right after ours on the same boat had some more significant disruptions.

      I also feel the same way re: this wave. February should look a lot nicer than January given all the natural immunity and vaccination immunity/boostering we have going on. And until the next variant emerges, it should be smooth sailing for a while.

  3. Excellent year on the spending front; congratulations! We had two cruises in December on Carnival and had a blast. Same ship (the new megaship “Mardi Gras” that holds over 6K passengers); the first cruise was about 60% occupancy while the second one that was two weeks later was over 80%. Cruising is definitely coming back. Would have been fun to do it at Christmastime but they usually jack the rates up that week for obvious reasons.

    The dividend harvesting season is nice between Dec and Jan. Mutual funds and ETFs we hold pay both their year end dividends and capital gains that month, while our dividend stocks usually pay out their Q4 dividends in Jan and even as late as Feb for some. It is nice to have a reasonably good income coming in from passive sources.

    Continued best wishes to you and your readers in 2022!

    1. Good to hear your cruises went well. Wow, I’m surprised the boats were that full! Ours was noticeably empty and kind of sad at times. A lot of the musicians would play their set, and maybe 2-3 people watching them. I mean it’s great because you can be front row and ask them to play your faves but not the normal fun atmosphere of the olden times.

  4. Congratulations on an incredible year! I’ve really enjoyed following your travels this year, and hope that we’ll be able to ramp up travel again this year (fingers crossed).

    Living a great life with a family on that low of a budget budget is an amazing thing, especially when nearly 1/3 of it was on travel! Best wishes to you and your family for a happy, healthy and prosperous 2022!

  5. Happy New Year Justin. Nice summary of 2021 and what a great way to end the year with a nice gain.

    Best wishes for 2022

  6. That looks like a really nice cruise. Did they have good snorkeling opportunities there?
    My family is planning to go to Costa Rica sometime this year, depending on the COVID situation.
    Good luck in 2022!!

    1. There were some excursions you could book and I’m sure they have decent snorkeling. I didn’t bring my gear this time around since the one nice beach we definitely planned on visiting didn’t have great aquatic life last time we were there.

    1. The past 3 years, we have had Ambetter or Bright Healthcare and both companies offer cash rebates of $500 per year per person for various fairly simple activities. Like getting flu shot, going to annual physical, filling out a 5 minute health survey, etc

      1. Curious about your experience with Bright Healthcare. They are the cheapest option in my state, but in researching I found scads of horrible BBB reviews about their claims handling and customer service. I ended up going with Medica as they seem to be the safe, established choice in my state (although when we’ve had them before we haven’t had any claims so can’t really speak to their claims handling).

        1. I have to admit to being a very infrequent user of healthcare. Only got routine annual physicals/checkups in 2021 when on Bright Healthcare plus a few free $0 copay prescriptions so not much experience. Everything was paid 100% as I recall, except maybe a few bucks for some lab tests maybe.

  7. Do you find that you are still able to get good utilization out of AirBNB? I feel like they’ve added so many junk fees over the years, doesn’t seem any cheaper than a hotel. Maybe AirBNB inflation is just very real.

    1. Yes, pretty good deals abound. Of course my economics are different – I’m booking for a family of five so typically need 2 or 3 bedrooms and really appreciate the extra bathroom(s), full kitchens, big living room(s) etc. So 2x a hotel price is often still a great deal given we benefit from other stuff beyond the beds.

      That said, I would say we normally don’t pay more than about 1.5x the price of a hotel room to get a much larger, equally nice Airbnb. A good example was $75/nt x 2 rooms in Page AZ for some pretty basic 1 star roadside motels, vs $110/nt for a pretty nice, big 2 BR place a block down the road. It’s also easier with all of us in the same place vs spread across 2 rooms.

      But you are right – we are seeing a lot of inflation in lodging. Hotels, airbnbs, etc. USA feels worse than overseas right now. Soooo many places we cringed at paying $100-200 for not-great places that we would usually get for a lot less. Or get a lot nicer place for the same price. National Park proximity also meant prices were WAY up.

  8. We enjoyed a terrific 11-day, Southern Caribbean cruise over the holidays. Perfect weather and a good time. Never felt in danger and all went well. The ship was only at 2/3 capacity, which also was nice…. We are back cruising, with Panama Canal in April. …. I always enjoy your updates.

  9. I agree with keeping everything flexible in regards to travel bookings. Any tips for monthly Airbnb bookings which typically don’t have good cancelation policies?

    1. Always possible to negotiate a cancellation I guess? Not sure. I’ve booked a 27 day stay with flexible cancellation (plus 1 more day) but negotiated to get the 28+ day rate before. I found out you cannot book long term stays with the gift cards so that was the reason in my case.

  10. Wow, my total Spending for 2021 was 31,855. Almost exactly like yours and I have rent in it too so…not a bad year after all. I whish I had your investment income tho but I’ll get there. Cheers and happy 2022

  11. I’m curious what your total annual gross income is.
    Is it in the $90,000 – $100,000 range?

    Also can you give more information on the health insurance plan?
    What is the co-pay, deductible, annual out-of-pocket maximum? Does it include vision?
    What is covered exactly? (Maybe post a link to the plan benefits webpage of the plan you have?)


    1. AGI is $46000 most years. That’s just below the 150% of Federal Poverty Level so I get cheap/free insurance.

      Copay/deductible/max OOP varies annually but is generally: $0-10 copays, $0-250 deductible per person, max OOP $500-1500/person.

      No vision and dental for adults generally.

      1. It’s interesting dividends are from after tax investments. Since you are pretty open about your net worth, what % is after tax, and do you do roth conversions to get your AGI up to 46000 since your income was roughly 22000 ?
        How do you decide between Roth conversions versus say harvest after tax gains ?
        Just curious as you seem to have it all figured out from where I sit.

        1. Yes, I do Roth conversions. 2021 was about 17,000 I believe (although I’ll probably end up doing $2-3k of traditional IRA contributions to get back down to $46k AGI. % of dividends in taxable – probably about 25%. I think I was estimating $11k in dividends from taxable acct (much of that is qualified dividends and therefore 0% CG tax rate).

          I flip between harvesting gains and roth conversions and often do both in the same year. Make sure to do at least enough roth conversions to use up your 0% bracket, for example. So about $26k for married filing jointly. Then if you could use a higher AGI do tax gain harvesting above that (on top of whatever dividend income you have). And I have consulting/blog 1099 income in the mix so that usually uses up a big part of my 0% standard deduction bracket.

          1. This is a different Chris. Do you have an explanation post of tax harvesting and all these things you are discussing in this comment? Or could you point me in the right direction to where I could learn more about this. I read personal finance blogs for my education and my husband is planning to semi-early retire in a little over a year. Some of the things I do not understand. Like tax harvest and Roth conversion. Well, I know what a Roth conversion is but not when or why to do it. My husband works for Wal-Mart and they just announced they are able to do this, I believe. Thank you!

            1. Chris2

              Tax Gain Harvesting is purposely selling a stock in to lock in the gain knowing you will pay tax on it. Why someone would do this is that gain could be taxed at 0% if you have a low enough AGI in a given year.

              I find this site useful. Another 2 part series I like is on the GCC site. It does a good deep dive into what makes more sense traditional or roth given your own personal circumstances.

              I think for me….if my marginal tax bracket is 10 or 12% I’m taking the money or going roth. 22% marginal or higher doing the traditional to delay $0.22 on every $ saved, hoping to pull it out and only pay $0.10 on every $.

        2. Thank you chris1. This is very helpful. My husband still works. I work very part time. Last year we owed the IRS I think $18. It was awesome. His 401K is in Wal-Mart and a large part of it is Wal-Mart. He plans to early retire next year for a couple years to go traveling and then find a job for about five years before officially retiring. Everyone says don’t put all your eggs in one basket but since he’s so close to retiring, I hate to be risky with the money. (We do have other investments but that is by far our largest and inside of that 401K I think a large percentage of it is in WM). I will definitely check out your link.

  12. Another great post.

    Do you have Grandma’s special pork recipe anywhere on your blog? I’d love to have it. 🙂

    1. Then it wouldn’t be grandma’s secret recipe! 😉

      Something like:
      fish sauce
      soy sauce
      brown sugar
      oyster sauce
      black pepper
      fresh minced garlic
      bbq sauce

  13. We pay $1200 a month for our health insurance. I really need to learn how to be about 150% below poverty level to get subsidy for ACA.
    Any advise?

    1. I imagine it’s tough to do so while working full time. When retired it’s not too hard if you have some $ in a taxable account and in Roth accounts (only capital gains count as income for ACA, not the return of your basis; withdrawing your roth contributions or 5+ yr old roth conversions don’t count as income at all)

  14. We took a cruise during Hurricane Ivan almost 20 years ago. The ship went to entirely different ports than scheduled since Key West was evacuated and much of southern Florida was closed. One of the added ports was Costa Maya which at that time was a brand new port. Mexico had built a multi-million dollar huge new pier for cruise ships in a “build it and they will come” belief. At that time there was very little there beside jungle. A small-ish tourist oriented mall selling handcraft trinkets (likely made in China) and jewelry. The same overpriced junky jewelry as every other port. Only a short walk away was the original village – just a couple of shacks that housed fishers and their families. As near are I could tell the cruise ship business wasn’t going to help the original inhabitants. The mall workers clearly weren’t locals. Just my little walk down memory lane.

    Glad to see that travel is back as your largest expense category. That’s always inspiring.

    1. Costa Maya has grown a lot since then but it’s not entirely different. We’ve never made it down to the little fishing village nearby but I think some folks go down there to get away from the port crowds and drink beers by the beach. Unfortunately they built a wall around the port which made it hard to walk down the beach to that nearby village so it’s either a long slog along a boring road or getting a taxi down there.

      We walked around the mall, did some window shopping, watched the swim with dolphins attraction, got up close to the flamingos on exhibit, then hung out on the beach in the port for a while. Nice little break from the ship but the ship is really nice too! 🙂

  15. Hi Justin, congrats on the successful cruise. I am looking to book MSC cruise for December 2022 or April 2022. Did you directly book on their website or did you book through a travel agent? What kind of room do you suggest for a family of 4 (economical)?
    How much did the 7 day cruise cost your family?

    1. I’ve booked directly and used an agent, at various times. Slightly prefer booking directly just because their booking system doesn’t play well with travel agents’ booking systems so with an agent there is an extra go-between if you need to fix something with the booking.

      For a family of 4, the cheapest room will be an inside cabin that sleeps 4. MSC usually does some variation of “kids sail free” so you’ll just pay the ~$150/person tax for the 2 kids if they stay in your cabin.

      December and April are often some of the most expensive times to cruise just because of spring break and Christmas. That said, we’ve found deals during both times of year in the past. Good luck!

  16. Okay thanks Justin.
    We did the Royal Caribbean Cruise this past December for 5 nights and we loved it. I booked it in Sep 2021 and got the 5 nights with gratuities for around $1400. Their private island Coco Cay was the star aspect for us but due to high winds the captain did not dock and we had to return without the coco cay experience. Now if I look at their websites the prices are crazy high.
    MSC looks reasonable comparatively. I see that you have used MSC twice I believe. Do you like them better than Carnival and Celebrity cruises etc?
    Also would you recommend a 11 night cruise on MSC Divina? The reason I ask is, I felt from the pictures that their top deck and the water area and play areas are not as much as compared to their other MSC ships. But you know the Divina first hand. The 11 nights is costing $2777 with gratuities. Just want to ensure the kids wont get bored on Divina for 11 days.

    1. That’s too bad about the private island. Those are usually some of our favorite ports of call just because there aren’t any aggressive people selling tours or goods, and the focus is just relaxation and fun.

      We have sailed on MSC several times. I think Divina 4x, Armonia 1x and Seaside 1x. Divina is a nice, big ship but still only 2/3rd’s the size of the biggest Royal Caribbean ships. Divina doesn’t go all out with waterslides, rock climbing towers, etc like some of the Carnival and Royal Caribbean ships do. It’s a little more muted. They do have a decent waterslide but just 1 and it’s not super huge (2 loops I think?). Plenty of pools and hot tubs (indoor and out).

      The real attraction is the kids club. Our kids used to enjoy it a lot when younger, and there will be a ton of kids during Christmas and Spring Break. So that plus the water activities plus 4-6 ports of call during an 11 night should be enough to keep kids busy I would think. That price works out to $63 per person per night including gratuities so it doesn’t seem really excessive. We had a spring break cruise booked for about the same per person nightly rate.

  17. Oh I forgot to ask you Justin. I love Thai food. Where do you guys buy the Thai groceries from here in Cary/Raleigh? I try to make the Pad Thai sauce at home but mess it up all the time.

    1. We usually shop at “Total Oriental Foods” Or “Saigon Market” (Same place but it sometimes shows up as 1 or the other when you search). Just off of Wake Forest Rd near the Lidl and SuperWalmart. This shop is owned by a guy from Laos so he specializes in Southeast Asian goods. Fresh products, decent prices. He does a lot of wholesale to restaurants too so it helps keep things reasonable for us retail customers.

      In Cary, Grand Asia Market is decent but prices seem to be consistently higher and not as mush SE Asian variety. I’ve been shopping there since I was a little kid riding my bike over to buy haw flake candy! H-Mart on the west side of Cary is great, or so I have heard but I’ve never ventured out that far. Uncertain about their SE Asian specific offerings.

  18. Okay thanks Justin. This is very helpful, I appreciate it. I will definitely try the stores you recommended. Thank you.

  19. As usual great post, Justin!
    I had a question regarding FAFSA. Does the savings balance outside of retirement accounts impact your ability to get financial aid for college tuition?

    Thank you,

    1. It depends on income. I believe with the new formulas that go into effect for FAFSA for 2023 (so based on income tax returns for 2021), AGI of 175% or less, you still get the maximum Pell Grant regardless of income. I’m not sure how they factor in the taxable assets for FAFSA though.

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