Traveling on a Scratch Budget

I recently took a two-day road trip out of state to take my son back to school after winter break.  The last time we made this trip I easily spent over $600, on meals, my hotel stay, multiple takeaway coffees, and a few purchases at stores.  Every time I purchased gasoline on the way to and from I bought snacks and caffeine (licorice and trail mix have long been my road trip fuel) (OK and Pringles too).

This time, including all food, gas, hotel, and taking my son and his friend to dinner for $53, I spent $228.12.

Things I did differently this time:

I Brought My Own Food

I shopped my kitchen, and my food list for two full days and one night included dried nuts and fruit, canned tuna (brought a can opener), tea, bananas, and eggs.

Where the food-making magic happens!

Eggs?  Yep!  I’ve had an Instant Pot for a couple of years and it makes a great traveling companion.  I used it to hard boil eggs in the morning and have also used it for steel cut oats in the past.  On trips where I’ve stayed more than one night I’ve used it as a slow cooker and have had hot soup or chili after a day of winter hiking.  I have a large soft sided cooler that I normally use as a lunch bag, which can easily hold enough food for three or four days’ worth of perishables for hotel room cooking.

I brought my container of nuts and fruit with me throughout the day so I’d have a snack handy instead of mindlessly buying a granola bar or sandwich.

I Brought My Own Caffeine

I made coffee at home before we left – this seems like a no-brainer, but I’ve long used the excuse of a road trip to justify picking up a latte at my neighborhood coffee shop…. and any local shop I spot along the way…. and sometimes St*rbucks.  I had free hotel room coffee in the morning, then filled up my travel thermos with more free hotel room coffee before I checked out.  Using my thermos meant that even though I didn’t leave town until later that evening, my coffee was still hot for the drive home.

I Price-Shopped My Hotel With Google Maps As A Guide

I think many of us do this already, but in the past I’d just go with the cheapest offering on Priceline or Hotwire.  This netted me some fantastically low rates, but often meant staying in a suburb, necessitating driving in and out of the city for the event I was attending.

This time around I still used Priceline, but kept a map of downtown open in another tab – I could see exactly how many blocks each location was to the university campus where I’d be spending most of my time, and could see the parking options.  Choosing a hotel within walking distance of campus meant I could leave my car overnight for free and not pay for parking or driving, which saved more than the $15 difference in rates between downtown and the suburbs.

I Altered My Hotel “Spa Night” Routine and Savored the Morning

I don’t stay in hotels very often – I prefer camping – and in the past I’ve resented the cost when I’m coming in just to go to bed and then check out in the morning.  This year I’ve focused a lot on the abundance and, well, plain fun in my life.  I’ve made a ritual out of getting in to my room, running a bath, opening a newly purchased book, and sipping wine while surrounded by bubbles.

Ahhhh….

Since I’ve given up purchasing alcohol as part of the Uber Frugal Month Challenge, I brought tea from home instead.  I also brought a paperback my mom sent me for Christmas.  The ritual was just as luxurious and relaxing and felt so good after walking in the winter air.

My room was on a high floor, with a mix of building heights scattered around it, so I kept the shades open on the windows, waking to my alarm before dawn.  I started the coffee maker and pulled the armchair over to the window, marveling at the shadows of the buildings with older architecture and the sleek reflections of the moon on the newer glass-fronted buildings.  I sipped coffee and watched the sunrise, the shapes around me turning from black to blue to golden as the sun came over the horizon.

Cuppa coffee and this view…not too shabby….

My room was not booked “with a view” (this downtown has quite a spectacular one depending on location), but what I could see was still amazing.  Instead of dragging myself grudgingly out of bed after too little sleep and heading out to find a latte, I spent an hour watching the city slowly come to life, the empty streets starting to sporadically fill with cars, the changes in light, and appreciating the sheer wonder of the sun rising at all.  What a great way to start my day.

I Spent the Day Writing and Reading Without Spending a Dime

My son wanted to spend time together in between his classes, so I planned to bring my book and laptop to stay busy.  Historically I love spending time in a new coffee shop, scribbling notes, typing, and absorbing the scents and sounds of espresso machines and people studying and working and visiting around me.

I’d even planned to do so on this trip – there is a local small chain that roasts their coffee beans daily and has great ambiance.  Instead, I stayed in the campus center and made myself at home at one of many study areas.  I had my tea for the hot beverage crutch, but my son actually treated me to a coffee as the campus center served the local chain’s brand.  It was so, so, so good 🙂

Delicious brew and free wifi

The big temptation of being in the campus center is that I love bookstores and office supply stores.  I’d left my trusty journal at home, and I spent an entire day sitting within view of a bookstore full of notebooks and pens that were desperate to get my attention, looking all crisp and colorful in their window displays.  Between the support of the Uber Frugal Challenge Month community and my commitment to spending nothing on unnecessary items, I discovered the notepad function on my laptop and had fun exploring a different way to get my scattered thoughts into writing.  Posting in the community not only gave me suggestions, but just the act of saying out loud that I wanted to Buy Something Trivial showed the impulse for what it was.

Being tempted to purchase something gave me the chance to practice saying no to myself, and also resulted in a better appreciation of my usual routine of writing on paper.

I Said Yes To Dinner At a Restaurant

I treated my son and his best friend to dinner before I left for home.  I ate a good-size snack beforehand, so I kept my order to a salad.  All of us stuck to water, and we had a great time talking and telling stories about Christmas and college roommates and crazy things our dog has done.

I Avoided The Snack Traps

Brrr. If I could’ve filled my tank without leaving my car, I would have.

I filled up my gas tank before I left my hometown, and then immediately upon arriving in my son’s college town (it was nearing empty).  This ensured I wasn’t stopping midway to be tempted by candy.  On the way home I stopped once to fill up and use the restroom, but ignored the food offerings and had no problem going back to my thermos and fruit/nut mix.  It probably helped that the air temperature reading in my car was -10F the whole way home; I didn’t want to get out of the toasty cabin any more than I had to 😉

Overall, it was a combination of knowing that I had $0 budgeted to spend on fluff, and planning ahead for my food and beverages, that kept me on track. 

 

Have you traveled with a frugal outlook?  I’m sure there are lots of great tips I haven’t yet thought of!

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December Reflections and a Gentle Reminder

Family portrait fail…. cat got bored, dog got curious, people were too busy laughing at the futility of getting dog and cat to sit nicely in proximity to each other 🙂

December was a month of spendy spending.

The majority of outflow was already budgeted for but a chunk of overtime on one paycheck led to a couple of impulse purchases that could’ve easily waited.  I’d increased my holiday food budget after going over plan at Thanksgiving, and went even further over plan in December.  Part of this was due to a last minute (as in Friday 12/23) request to have some of my son’s friends over for Christmas day and dinner that resulted in grocery/small gift shopping at 4pm Christmas Eve.  I wouldn’t trade that choice for anything, however, as I’m an introvert that rarely hosts and it was an absolute ball!  One of the biggest reasons I want to reach financial independence is to be able to choose time with my loved ones over my budget every time.  It was so much fun to cook for more than just me/kiddo, and my already-planned simple menu was vocally appreciated (just another reason I love spending time with this group of people!).

Alright, on to the numbers!  First up, bills:

My lower water usage in the winter is reflected in my bill.  Because I’d planned for December to be a larger-than-usual spending month in other areas, I was still able to pay more toward my debt than the minimums.  A pleasant surprise!

 

Now ‘fessing up to the grand ol’ internet what I chose to spend my hard-earned money on over the month:

I’ve included my 2016 monthly averages as a check for myself — 2016 was out of control for spending without paying attention in some months and July alone led to me researching frugal living ideas.  On one hand my misstep is a good thing because it led me to a whole online world of personal finance where before I’d been happily settled in the minimalist/simple living gardens of the internet.  On the other hand, my spending rate was by no means sustainable!

  • Groceries —  $284 was spent on December 23rd and 24th alone!  Eek!  Aldi was out of quite a few things on my list including a meat cut that ended up being quite pricy at the third store I went to after discovering many close by 4pm (hello katscratch!).  Aside from the main dishes, that were gobbled up within the day, snack foods have kept us going for the past week and provided New Years Eve snacks, so my ineptitude in planning for teen appetites on the small bites side worked to my advantage after all 🙂  Without surprise-hosting for both holidays I would’ve spent approximately $180 less by my list but it was so fun having people over that would’ve been on their own – I’m pretty sure we collectively saved money by eating together and definitely created more Christmas cheer and New Year’s optimism!
  • Pets — One bag of cat food.  Dog is still going strong on his giant Costco bag.  Last year’s average was affected by end-of-life expenses for one of our kitties.

    My trusty winter steed!
  • Bikes — Um, yeah, I spent quite a bit on winterizing my son’s mountain bike for my commute usage.  Studded tires, bar pogies made by my bike mechanic, full coverage fenders that had to be custom-fit, ski goggles with a clear lens, and platform pedals (my son is a clipless pedal rider; I am decidedly not after months of trying).  All of which I waited to purchase until I knew I’d get proper usage, and all of which were researched and will last years and years.  It’s actually been fun riding in icy and snowy conditions and the tires made all the difference on our group ride this month – a nice night with no wind but freezing rain that caused more than a few spills among the group (but not me!).
  • Auto maintenance — One pair of Bridgestone Blizzak snow tires for the front.  I was going back and forth about these but after being called in to work on a weekend and not getting there for over an hour due to slipping on side roads, I took the plunge.  These also will last years and years…. I held out last year but ended up renting a car with 4WD to drive to my kiddo’s college in January so the expense will be worthwhile.  My auto shop is amazingly honest and fair-priced, always giving different options including used parts, so I went with their recommended tire for my vehicle.
  • Gasoline — Three fill-ups.
  • My spending — Replacement of two items: a coffee grinder (I’ve been without for months but pre-ground coffee is starting to bother my stomach) and ski goggles.  The initial goggle purchase fell under my commuting budget but I LOST them loading my bike onto a bus rack and found a pair half off after Christmas.  I’m going to try riding with the stock (not clear) lenses.  I feel pretty dumb not even noticing mine went missing, but they made a world of difference in cold and wind where my glasses were fogging up like crazy.
  • Family/Friend Funtimes / Say Yes! — $29 for dinner out with the kiddo, $53 for a fatbike rental for kiddo on our group ride (these rides are SO MUCH FUN), and $76 for board games and puzzles at our favorite store.  The latter is already providing many returns 😉
  • Everything Else — gifts, including last minute items for holiday guests, cards, and pre-purchasing a particular gift for a friend’s birthday next summer.
  • Kiddo’s Expenses — includes all his food, transportation, and school expenses plus entertainment spending.  This month included a new pair of shoes.

 

I spent a lot of money this month.

You spent WHAT?!?! And no dog treats?!

If I wasn’t a diehard YNAB user that looked at last year, looked at my current hobbies and needs (namely cycling), and put money aside for the past four months, I would not have been able to make my spending work this month.  I wouldn’t have been able to easily absorb the impulse spending on guests and games, and I probably wouldn’t be starting the new year without adding to my debt.

It’s OK to be gentle with myself that I spent a lot of money, because my spending made my life better.

My hobby spending led directly to great conversations with new friends on our group bicycle ride as well as bonding with my kiddo both during the ride and  cycling in the snow on our way home.  Other than the disappointing spend on replacement goggles for cycling, every line item I reviewed was in line with my priorities to first and foremost Say Yes to time with those I love.  The goggles were in line with my priorities to not freeze my eyeballs or fog my lenses to the point I can’t see at stoplights, so I suppose that’s still a win 🙂

It’s OK to be gentle with myself for my missteps last month, because I learned a lot and loved even more.

A few months ago I would have looked at my spending and felt incredibly guilty, then probably even more anxious over how in the world I’d gotten so close to digging myself back into a hole.  But looking back at this month?  I feel grateful that I only had to experience the sensation of snowflakes in my eyeballs one night so far.  I feel exhilarated at the idea of continuing my monthly group bicycle rides, and inspired by the long-time cyclists that have taken my very-novice self in as one of their own.  I feel absolutely smitten with cycling in the dark and snowy icy roads when nobody is out, even though I’m only riding to the train station.  The early hours are magical and I get to experience them by feel and sound and smell, warm in my winter clothing and gear, where last year I was miserably still in my cold car, half asleep and resenting the hour.  I spent two holidays at home with people I care about, laughing and eating and telling stories, and not a hangover among us.  We ate some darn tasty food and played some delightfully fun games.  I am loving my life and am finally at a point that going over budget won’t destroy the rest of my finances.

It’s more than OK to love my life right now even though I work more than I want and spent more than I want.  I’m living a relatively easy life in a fabulous city with fabulous friends, recently turned strangers into regular cycling buddies, and have a loving family.

Looking back at my numbers over the course of the year, I made some huge blunders but learned a LOT and now have a concrete plan for the future.  What a great end to my year!

The best part is that my calendar tells me I get to try again next month!  It’ll be even better this time around because I’m getting crazy frugal with over 8000 other Frugalwoods’ followers, so the future is looking pretty great.

How was your December? Your year? Are you making drastic changes or fine-tuning financial choices for 2017?

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Saying Yes and a Challenge for the New Year

I’ve never been one to make a list of resolutions at the end of each year, but I do like to embrace the the time from the solstice through the calendar new year as a fresh start and a time to reflect.  My new commitment to writing here to keep myself accountable, however, has led to being quite enthused about setting finance goals for 2017.  After tracking my spending for a year, and really looking closely the past few months, I feel like I finally have a handle on the good and the bad of my money habits.

The Frugalwoods’ Uber Frugal Month challenge came at the perfect time for me — and did all the prep work that I’d been musing over for several weeks, by outlining specific steps to identify goals and set plans.  My first step is to figure out why I’m doing all of this in the first place (aside from paying off debt!).

 

My biggest reason to aim for financial independence and at least partial retirement in the next 10-15 years is to have more time for all the things I love to do.  Right now I spend approximately 46-52 hours per week related to my job when I’m not on call, and in the winter I find it difficult to do more than laze about reading and drinking tea on my days off from work.   I am passionate about the work I do, but if I were part time I’d be more likely to be equally passionate about house projects, gardening and canning, bicycling, and scheduling time with my family and friends more than twice a year when our calendars miraculously align.

I would like to be financially independent so that I can visit loved ones without agonizing over my budget.  Most of my family lives across the country from me, as do many of my friends.  While I don’t anticipate ever being a person who jumps on a last-minute flight to attend a birthday party in another state without having planned ahead, I would like the flexibility to make planned visits happen more frequently.  My parents’ age is also a motivation for me to attain financial independence, as I would want to be there if anything were to happen that required assistance from myself or my brother.  Right now this would mean taking a formal leave from my job, which would be unpaid after I used up the paid time off hours I bank each year.

Now that I’ve identified for myself the longterm goals to inform my choices, it’s time to break down specifics for the challenge.  From the Frugalwoods’ goal setting prompts:

Why am I participating in this challenge?

I’m hoping to better define my frugality muscles.  I’m hoping that my cutbacks in the past couple of months lead to new ideas and habits of frugality that I haven’t yet discovered.  The challenge itself is aligned with goals I wanted to focus on anyway, but the camaraderie will be a huge boost.  The motivation of following along with Mrs. Frugalwoods’ emails and with other participants will be great fun!

 

What do I hope to achieve?

Finding new savings in my monthly budget will help me pay off a larger chunk of debt, and may lead to ongoing savings.  I’m anticipating the challenge will provide continued enthusiasm for my financial and personal goals.  Admittedly I’m still in the honeymoon phase of frugality, but starting the year with a fresh mindset and a concrete outline will certainly help.

While my longterm life goals were touched on above,

What are my ten year goals?

I am a person who has always resented having to articulate a 5- or 10-year plan.  It’s not at all a surprise, then, that I’ve floundered about for 15 years with minimal growth in my retirement savings.  Based on my current spending needs, in ten years I would like to be fully financially independent but will at least be close (15 years is my outside goal based on several calculators).  I think being flexible and able to adapt to sudden life changes is essential to emotional peace, but unless something radical happens, this is a very concrete and attainable goal.

In ten years I would like to have the choice to retire, depending on healthcare options for my ongoing medication needs (primarily allergy and asthma related).

In ten years I would like be able to perform most of my home’s routine maintenance and repair projects myself.

What about my current lifestyle might prevent reaching these goals and what can I do about it?

Not saving enough!  I am committed to sticking to an aggressive savings plan and feel that flexing my frugality will become easier as new habits are formed.

I also don’t wish to let my newfound frugality focus negatively impact my relationships.  So far my close friends are very supportive, but this has the potential to backfire if I allow money to become an excuse for not participating in events.

I’m going to focus on saying Yes more, to social opportunities with my friends and family.  This sounds counterintuitive to spending less, but I’ve never been a social butterfly and it’s too easy for me to turn down a loud cafe when I have delicious coffee at home.  The tipping point for me was being invited by my son and his friends to the mall before Thanksgiving…. I declined, then realized I’d just passed up an increasingly rare chance to spend time with young adults I truly love having in my life.  I made a commitment to myself to say Yes in those circumstances, even when it means I’ll end up spending more money than I would on my own.

Say Yes….

Aside from being a really great Elliott Smith song, Say Yes will be my undercurrent for the coming year.  I find it so much easier to embrace changes in my own habits when I can frame them in terms of what I gain rather than what I lose.  For example, starting in October I committed to creating an early-rising morning ritual, getting up at 4:30am and leaving to bike to work around 5:30am.  I’ve tried this many times in the past, but the only time I was able to make rising before I had to a habit was when I worked out at the gym before work with my carpool partner.  This time, instead of dragging myself out of my warm bed and resenting how dark my windows were and how tired I was, I started thinking about looking forward to making a cup of coffee, that I would get to enjoy while sitting with the cat rather than sipped at stoplights.  I take the time to absolutely savor that cup, noticing the warmth in my hands, the steam rising, and my favorite morning smell of roasted coffee beans.

I’ve started rephrasing the stories I tell myself.  Instead of thinking “Ugh I wish I didn’t have to work so early tomorrow,” I have actually written down, “I am looking forward to my morning coffee and the quiet of predawn, and I will awake refreshed and rested!”  I’m telling myself Yes, and after 20-odd years of struggling to get up in time, I’ve embraced and now love the quiet meditation on my day that starts me off in a peaceful, pleasant mindframe.

Several years ago when I had to do a restriction-based food trial, I found that looking at the foods I could eat was vastly more useful than thinking about the things I couldn’t.  Because of seeing those six weeks as a learning opportunity rather than one of deprivation, I greatly improved my cooking skills as well as my health.  Now I find myself saying Yes to choosing to feel healthy and whole rather than saying ok to the frequent cookies and candy in the break room, and it has gotten easier every time.

Other ways I am saying Yes include enjoyment in sitting down with my notebook and my favorite cooking websites to outline my meals for the workweek; saying HeckYeah to invitations to go bicycling even when it’s icy and cold outside; taking transit through the middle of my bike commute to keep my lungs happy in the winter air; and saying Yes, I have enough and I am grateful for the things I have.

I’m looking forward to starting the Uber Frugal Month challenge!  Later this week I’ll outline the specific tactics I have planned.

Are you joining?  Is January a time for you to “reset” or do you update goals throughout the year?

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It’s My Birthday! Birthday Fun on a Scratch Entertainment Budget

How can you have a birthday party without the hassle of invites or money or providing food?  Attend a public event and party with strangers!

 

My birthday has always fallen on or around Thanksgiving, and I am ridiculously introverted, so it’s been easy to forgo celebrations of the party type.  There was a year, however, in which I spent waaaay too much money on a “fancy” dinner that taught the kiddo and I we much prefer simple home cooking to noisy trendy restaurants.

Last year's spread with homemade strawberry-balsamic-jalapeno jam. Yum!
Last year’s spread with homemade strawberry-balsamic-jalapeno jam. Yum!

In my younger years I’d sometimes lament the fact that all my friends were out of town for the holidays, but embracing my solo nature has led to absolute delight at staying in with a book, a bottle of wine and some good cheese. And pumpkin pie! This has been a tradition for several years and doesn’t make a dent in the grocery budget since I typically have plenty of Thanksgiving leftovers to stretch a few weeks.

 

This year, my birthday fell on Friday and the kiddo was home, so we decided to join a bicycle ride open to all skill levels.  We met the group at a local brewery at 4pm, and received a gift provided by a local bike shop (Free Present!).  Rolled out at dusk and I was grinning the entire 11 miles to the break site — I was well-layered, there was almost no wind, and the 35F air was rejuvenating.  I’d only ridden one group ride prior to this, an introduction ride with a local bike club, so I found it incredibly fun riding in a gathering of 25+ people (Free Party Guests!), following taillights and riding in the glow of strong headlights along the riverfront.  I saw parts of my city I’d never noticed before, and a view of the skyline that glittered against the cloudy sky.

The bonfire site was nestled in a semi-secluded wooded section next to the river, with snacks and drinks hidden earlier (Free Birthday Drink!) and food donated by participants (Free Birthday S’more!).  Stories were bantered back and forth, and the atmosphere was relaxed with a lot of laughter.  After the site was cleaned up and the group readied to leave, fireworks were set off (Free Fireworks!).  The ride back was just chilly enough to feel special, and in full darkness the surrounding bike lights and a few bluetooth speakers made for a very festive ride  (Free Adventure!).

Bikes, Beers and a Bonfire!
Bikes, Beers and a Bonfire!

Back at the brewery, we each received drink tickets (Free Beer!) and congregated in an area of the bar.  The bartender, on learning it was my birthday, wouldn’t let me pay for my second beer or any other drink for my kiddo and his girlfriend (Free Birthday Drinks!).  The group was large enough to make chatting easy with no pressure to socialize, and everyone already had at least one common interest in cycling. I learned a lot of good winter biking tips from a few folks, and am pretty excited to attempt the next ride in December (Free Gift for the Future!).

Our total dollars spent: $5, in the tip jar.  Total hours of sheer joy at being alive and hearing laughter and bicycle rubber on pavement:  Seven.  I fell asleep with a smile on my face and woke up the next morning feeling so grateful for my family, my community, and having the rest of my life to look forward to — THAT, for me, is what’s really worth celebrating.

 

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