My #next5 financial goals

When we are slogging our way through paying down debt, we often forget to see the light at the end of the tunnel. We just see debt starring us down and it seems like we will be in this stage of life forever. I’ve been feeling that way for the last few weeks. Today, I am intentionally taking a few minutes to search for that light with a little help from some friends of mine.

Sometimes fate kicks me in the butt when I really need it. Today, my friend Camilla at No More Hamster Wheel wrote a post about looking ahead five years.  She asked “If Nothing Changed in the Next 5 Years Would You Be OK with That?” It got me thinking about what I want my next five years to look like financially. It also inspired me to rewatch Kevin Buchanan’s video about your #next5 years.

So what do my next five years look like financially?

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1. Pay off our non-mortgage debt in 18 months.

When I look at it that way, the road doesn’t seem that much longer. We’ve been at this for a long time and seeing that we are 18 months away from that goal is huge for my motivation!

2. Build up a nice, beefy emergency fund.

After we finish paying off the debt, I can’t wait to have more cash in the bank. This will allow us to weather most storms that come our way.

3. Pay cash for a nice trip for our 15th wedding anniversary.

Our 15th anniversary is May 18, 2016. We should be able to pay off the rest of our debt, build an emergency fund and save up for our trip. I’m not sure if we are going to go back to Las Vegas, where we got married, or go back to Italy. Either way, it’ll be awesome and paid for with cash.

4. Move to a lower cost of living location.

Connecticut is a very expensive place to live and with that high cost of living comes restrictions on what we can do with our dreams. Moving to a lower cost of living location would allow both of us to spend more time, if not full-time on our dreams.

5. Be completely debt free.

I currently have a five year plan to be completely debt free if we were to stay in Connecticut. If we do end up moving, we will do so in a way that I can still be completely debt free by 40. Hitting this goal would give us an incredible amount of freedom going forward. I can’t wait to have a payment free life!

Of course, we have a lot of other financial goals, like saving more for retirement and purchasing a newer car for my husband, but these are the five that keep me going. These are the five that get me through those months when I’m tired of living on such a tight budget.

What are your #next5 financial goals? How can I help you get there?

Vacation planning insanity

This year is the big ten year wedding anniversary. It’s hard to imagine that I’ve actually been married that long. We decided that for our anniversary we would go to Italy this year. It’s something that we’ve always wanted to do, but we kept pushing it off for “a better time.” I’m not really sure what “a better time” would be, but that’s what we kept telling ourselves. Well, about a month ago, we decided that there was no better time. If we were going to go, we should go now. We’ve got the time and the money so it’s a good time to go.

After a lot of research, we decided we would take a cruise on Norwegian Cruise Lines. I like the idea of freestyle cruising and it was a way for us to see what we wanted without being on tour buses all day, every day. At first, we were going to go in August. Then I started researching pricing. If we decided to go in June, we could save over $1,500 on our trip. That’s a good reason to go earlier, at least I thought so.

I was amazed at the differences in pricing among different booking sites. Make sure to check any groups that you are associated with. There are discounts out there via AAA, AARP, Unions, warehouse clubs (BJ’s, Costco, etc) and various other organizations. We booked our trip through BJ’s travel services, because the pricing was the best and we got other incentives, like a free on-board credit and a BJ’s gift card. If you book with certain credit cards, there may be other incentives as well. Check with your credit card companies before you book to see what they are offering.

You also have to be really careful about “free upgrades” and other bonuses your travel company may be offering. Norwegian Cruise Line was offering free mini-suite upgrades if you booked a balcony room. When we were going over the pricing with the agent over the phone, we realized that the air fare with that free upgrade was $600 more per person that the air fare for a balcony room. I would highly recommend that you book your reservation over the phone. It was completely worth it to talk to someone who didn’t work for the cruise line but took a lot of cruises. The representative at BJ’s travel was a great resource for us. She had lots of tips and suggestions, plus she was willing to go back and forth looking at different pricing options with me.

Sometimes the pricing on the website is deceiving. We found that a package that looked less expensive at first glance, turned out to be much more expensive. Again, this is why I suggest calling a representative so you can ask all of your questions.

If you are considering going abroad and don’t have a passport yet, it might be a good idea to just get it now. When I went to the U.S. Passport website, there are some places on the site that state the waiting time is 4-6 weeks, other spots say four weeks and some spots say up to 8-10 weeks. Because we waited, we ended up having to pay the expedited fee of $60 per passport. Make sure you get your passport early. When we booked the cruise, we couldn’t finish our registration with the cruise line because we don’t have our passports yet. Hopefully, they’ll be here soon.

Now that we’ve gone through the headache of booking the trip, we are both really excited. For the first 24 hours, I just kept saying “Hey Honey, we are going to Italy” with a silly little smile on my face.

By the way, it’s amazing how frugal you get when you are trying to build up as much spending money as you can for your trip. I may have no pantry left when we get home but at least I’ll have good spending money.

My little cash experiment

I’ll start by saying that I really want to go on vacation. A real vacation. Over the past twelve years, Jeff and I have gone on one real vacation. That was our wedding in Vegas. All of our other vacations have been local, a family visit or a few days for an event. I decided that this year, I would start saving for a major vacation. I want to take a cruise to Italy. I’ve always wanted to see Italy and I’ve been looking at the cruises that visit the country. It looks like a lovely idea and it’s a lot of money.

Since we are still paying down debt, I did not want to divert any of those funds for the trip. I needed to find a new way to cut back my spending to save for this. In January, I started using cash again. I’ve done this periodically through the years to help tame my spending but always went back to the debt card. This time, I put my debt card away (aka one of the cats stole it) and have been using cash for the past month.

Each time we get paid, I take out a certain amount for gas, groceries, eating out and other things we’ll need for the next two weeks. I based this amount on what we’ve been spending in the past using the debit card. I can only use the cash I have. Once it’s gone, I’m done spending. When I’m about to take out money for the next two weeks, I count up how much money I have left. I deduct that amount from what I take out of the bank, bringing my total back to the fixed amount I should start my two weeks with. The money I saved goes into my vacation account.

In the first month, I saved $97.00. I’ve got a few days left until we get paid again and I’ve still got about $60 left. I’m going to need a few things this week and gas but I’m hoping to still put $30 in the account. I always tend to spend more at the beginning of the month, since that’s when we make the big trip to the warehouse club to stock up on cat food, litter and other things we need for the month. The majority of the money I put in the savings account last month was from the 2nd half of the month. I would be thrilled to put $30 in for the first 2 weeks.

I know $100 doesn’t seem like a lot, but when your total biweekly allotment is $300, I cut my discretionary spending for a four week period my over 16%. Not too shabby. It’s funny when you are holding something in your hand and realize that this could be money for Italy. I’ve put a lot of things back in the past month.

Credit and debit card issuers state that the average person spends 8-10% more when using plastic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made a purchase and not even known how much I spent. I know I had the money to cover it, so who cares right?

I know that if I would have had my debit card on me, I would have purchased a new vacuum last month. Mine needs a ton of repairs and it would be more cost effective to get a new one. Instead, I bought an $8 broom and dust pan. I’ve got all hardwood floors and it actually takes me less time to sweep, plus the broom gets into all the crevices in the floor. Oh how we think about things when we’ve got greenbacks in the wallet and a cruise on the mind!

Vacation wrap-up

I always have mixed feelings about vacations. I have a blast during the day but at night, I always wish I was home in my bed with Jeff and the cats. This vacation was no exception.

We drove up to Framingham on Friday morning. We stopped by the hotel to see where the closest commuter rail stop was. Although check-in was not until 4:00, they let us check in at 11:00. Nice bonus! Our room cost us $118.63 for the two night stay. Nsheratonot bad when you consider this is where we stayed:

My husband thought it was awesome that the place looked like a castle. The room was very nice, although the bed was extremely firm. I really missed my Select Comfort bed (but then again, I always miss my SC bed when traveling). The staff was really nice and extremely helpful. They provided us with subway maps and a map of Boston to help us get around.

We took the commuter rail into the city ($4.00 for parking and $25 for round trip tickets on the rail). I could have driven into the city and parked there for about $20, but I would have had to pay tolls into the city, approximately $7 and the additional gas I would have used probably would have made up the difference. Plus, I didn’t have the frustration of having to drive into Boston. The commuter rail was completely worth it.

Once we got into the city, we purchased $12 worth of subway fairs (3 rides each). We got on the subway and went down to Quincy Market. We ate lunch there ($17 for burgers, fries and soda) while pondering what to do for the rest of the day. By this time, it was about 2:00 in the afternoon and Jeff had never done the tourist thing in Boston before so we decided to purchase trolley tickets. The trolley takes you all around the city, with nine stops where you can get off. Our trolley ride also included a harbor cruise so for $34 each, it was a pretty good deal. I just wish we had gotten into the city earlier. Since the trolley pickups concluded at 4:30, we only got off at one stop. The entire tour of the city took about 2 hours, including getting off at the USS Constitution for a quick (free tour). Had we gotten to the city earlier, we could have gotten off at more stops and explored the city a bit more. The tour guide we had on the trolley was awesome though. He got to see where Ben Franklin was born, where Paul Revere started his run to let us know “the Regulars are coming” (not the British, since they were all British back then), and where many of the founding fathers are buried. At 4:30, we got onto the boat for the harbor cruise. It was about an hour long. The narration was taped, which was a bit crappy, but it was still very informative. Boston Harbor is really pretty so it was fun to go do that. When we got off the boat, we walked over to a free event Volvo was having (which we heard about from the trolley guide. He indicated there was supposed to be free food, but the line we decided it wasn’t worth it.

We walked back to where the harbor cruise was and decided to walk to the North End to get some Italian food for dinner. It always amazes me how good Jeff is at finding good wine and good places to eat. We walked by this small restaurant, Jeff looked inside and decided this is where we should eat. The food was amazing. I’m annoyed with myself because I didn’t even look at the name of the place when we walked in and since we paid cash I have no receipt either. We had a wonderful dinner, Veal Parm and Chicken Marsala, salad, bread, Jeff had a beer and I had a coke. The total with a 25% tip was $51. The service was great. My water glass was never empty (which was good because I drank a lot of water that night) and they brought us more bread with our meal which was great for dipping in the sauce. The food was SO GOOD.

When dinner was finished we walked back to the subway and connected back up with the commuter rail. It’s funny because I did not look at the schedule at all, but we arrived back at the station about 20 minutes before the train was scheduled to arrive. Had we missed that one, we would not have been able to catch another one for 2 hours. You’d almost have thought we planned it (we are just REALLY lucky sometimes). We got back to the car and stopped at a convenience store to get some drinks (much less expensive than getting something at the hotel). We got 4 bottles total for $5.

Since we had already blown most of our budget for the weekend, we decided to explore New Hampshire a bit on Saturday. We got McDonald’s for breakfast ($11) and headed off for adventure. We drove all over and had a really good time. We like to explore, what can I say? We are a bit odd. We stopped for coffee in Concord ($5) and walked around a bit. The downtown is pretty cool with lots of little shops. I found a local yarn shop and spent $20 of my blow money. We ended up driving down the coast of New Hampshire, looking at all the pretty houses and enjoying the smell of the ocean air. After all that driving, we were pretty tired so we picked up some Wendy’s on the way back to the room ($16).

Sunday morning, missing the kitties like crazy, we went home. It was so good to be home. The cats showered us with love when we came through the door. I think they missed us.

My budget for this vacation was $300. I also brought $40 in blow money. The hotel room was $119. Food and fun was $224. Plus, I bought $20 worth of souvenir yarn. Total spent on the trip: $363. So we were $23 over budget, but I had $400 in my vacation fund this month, which means I still have $77 in the vacation fund. So while we did go a bit over budget for this trip, I still have money in the vacation fund to start saving for the next one.

We had such a great time and didn’t really spend a lot of money. We did spend money in the city but we had a quiet roaming day on Saturday to make up for it and I’ll have a new pair of socks to help remember the occasion. They’ll be my 8th anniversary socks.

Happy Anniversary, Jeff. Eight years and still going strong.  I can’t wait to see what the rest of our life looks like. I love you.

Vacation anyone?

Every year, Jeff and I go away for the weekend of our anniversary. It just also happens to be the weekend our town has this huge Shad Derby (it’s a fishing thing, well not really but it used to be). Originally, we were going to go to Hershey, PA but it was a long drive and I couldn’t get the deal I wanted on a hotel so we decided to go to Boston instead. Well, sort of. We are going to stay in Framingham for two nights. We’ll spend one day in Boston and one day in Worcester at an armor museum. Since I lived in Boston when we started dating ten years ago, I think this trip is pretty fitting.

My budget for the weekend trip is $300, including lodging, food, entertainment and fuel. Whenever I plan a trip, I head over to hotels.com, travelocity.com or some other travel site to see what hotels are going for in the area I want to travel to. Then I go to Priceline and bid about half what the other sites are publishing for their rates. For this trip, we are staying at the Sheraton in Framingham, a three-star hotel for $50 a night. The lowest price I found for this hotel was $99 a night, which was also the lowest price I found for this level of hotel in the area. When I travel, I like to stay at nice hotels because I don’t travel very often. However, just because I like to stay at nice hotels, doesn’t mean I like to pay the nice hotel prices.

Whenever I use Priceline, I always use the “Name your own price” feature. I start dirt cheap and work my way up in price until I get the deal I want. It requires some patience but I have gotten some really great deals. I generally save at least 50% off the lowest price I find elsewhere. Last summer, we went to Indianapolis for a wedding. We stayed at a four star hotel in downtown Indy for $46 a night. When I went back to compare prices after I won the bid, the lowest price I could find for the same hotel was $219 a night. Not a bad deal.

Here are a few things to consider when trying to get a good hotel deal:

Location, location, location – how much time will you spend traveling once you get to your destination? Do you want to be able to park your car and walk around the city or town?

Parking – If you stay in a large city, you may need to pay to park. When we stayed in Indy, we had to pay $20 a day to park. I didn’t mind since we had gotten such a great deal on the room. I could have stayed outside the city but It still would have cost me more than $66 a night and we were in the heart of the city.

Quality – I probably could have stayed in a one or two star hotel for a bit less, but I’ve never been disappointed when staying in a three or four star hotel and with Priceline, I’ve always gotten a great deal.

So out of our $300 budget, we’ll spend $118 for the hotel (including taxes and fees), the museum Jeff wants to go to will cost $18. I’ll use about a tank of gas so another $25. We are going to take the commuter line into Boston and take the “T”, Boston’s subway system to get around while we are there. I’m figuring about $20 for that. That leaves us with $119 for food and fun for two days.  We’ll do cheap eats while we are there. Since I lived in Boston for a year, I know my way around cheap eats. I’ve also got $40 budgeted for “BLOW” money this month which I think I’ll take with me in case I get inspired. Usually when I go away I buy a skein of sock yarn to commemorate the trip. It’s much less expensive than most souvenirs and more meaningful because I get to make a pair of socks with the yarn and then I’ll think of the trip every time I wear them. It’s good stuff.

So today, I’ll be doing laundry, packing and cleaning up a bit to get ready for the trip. Tomorrow we get in the car and off we go! I’m so excited. This is our 8th wedding anniversary. I can’t believe we’ve been married that long. The time has just flown by. It’s been a crazy road but a fun one.

It was also ten years ago this week that I left Boston to come home for good. I spent my freshman year in Boston and it just wasn’t my thing. It was really expensive to live there so between work and school, I was completely drained. After finals, I was asked to work commencement. I stayed a few extra days, working 12 to 14 hours a day and then hanging out with everyone at night since we were all leaving for the summer. Some nights I got in at 3 or 4 in the morning, then had to be to work for 6. I didn’t get much sleep that week. I came home the last morning at about 6am and started packing. My mom and Jeff were coming to pick me up that morning to take all my stuff home. Jeff and I had been dating for about two months at that point. I ended up falling asleep while packing. I must have turned off my alarm when it went off and I was so sound asleep, I didn’t hear the phone ring when they called from downstairs. My mom got worried and had security call the resident assistant on duty. The RA said she would go upstairs and get me. When the RA returned, they had the wrong kid. The RA tried to convince my mother that this girl was in fact her daughter. The RA tried to convice the girl that this was indeed her mother and her boyfriend. Not a very bright RA. My mom just about blew a gasket. She was fairly certain that this $35,000 a year (at that time) university had lost her daughter. They finally let her come upstairs and let her into my room. She was not pleased at all! I was so tired after four or five days with no sleep, the only thing that could wake me up was the sound of my mother having a panic attack in my room. At least she bought me breakfast and I lived to laugh about it ten years later.This really has nothing to do with saving money on vacations but it is a really amusing story.

What’s the best vacation deal you’ve ever gotten?