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Vacation Costs: Barcelona, Lisbon + others

July 29, 2016

I use the term “free” loosely, as obviously points have monetary value.  These are our the costs for the trip.  We visited Barcelona for several days, as that is where T’s meeting was held.  T had been to Barcelona and wanted to go elsewhere for vacation, and we settled on Portugal.  We traveled to Lisbon by plane (used miles – my original plan of using an overnight train tickets got quite expensive by the time we were ready to book), then stayed there mostly.  We did a day trip to Sintra, and spent one night in Cascais, and one night in Porto.

All and all, it was a lovely trip and I’m glad we went!

Cost breakdown:

  • Flights:  Free (work trip for T, miles for me)
  • Airport transit:  ~$100. We didn’t travel together for all legs, so I had to pay to get to/from the airport.
  • Rail tickets:  $122 for 2 high speed train tickets round trip from Lisbon to Porto
  • Hotels:
    • Free for first several nights (coinciding with T’s work trip)
    • Free with SPG points for 4 nights total
    • Paid for 1 night at $101
    • Paid for 1 night at $46, cost reduced by a voucher (earned primarily through work travel)
  •  Entrance fees to sights paid by credit card (mostly the Sagrada Familia, one other): $82
  • Cash spent on food/wine, port to take home, entrance fees to castles and such, metro rides, taxis, etc.:  $1283  Of this, ~$300 was T’s expenses during work days and are reimbursable.
  • Dog sitting for 11 nights: $495 –  yup, $45/night!  He’s a handful, so we are picky about who we can leave him with.  So far, we’ve only left him with people have (or have had) high energy dogs and know how to manage an adolescent male puppy.

It was a bit more expensive than anticipated, but very reasonable for the duration.  I was hoping the food costs would be slightly lower and was continually surprised by the cost to visit various sights – but we also didn’t try super hard to be frugal in these areas.

There is at least these small rewards from work travel.  Not only do I get the miles I earn from flying, I also book everything on my personal card and get reimbursed.  This gets me even more miles/points, depending on the card I use.  We’re also allowed to use and other discount sites to book, which earns us free credits over the course of the year (one free night per 10 stays).



Settlements, cars, house projects

June 29, 2016

Amazon & Ticketmaster Settlements: The initial happiness of finding out I had some Ticketmaster vouchers was quickly squashed when I realized that they are only “potentially eligible” for free tickets.  I’m pretty sure I won’t use them.  The Amazon settlement was a little better for me, in that I’ll actually be able to use my $17.  But don’t expect any future settlements from anyone  – binding arbitration is the name of the game these days.

VW Settlement: Speaking of settlements, remember how we bought a brand new car in 2011?  We were super excited about the clean diesel technology, the great fuel economy, and the overall savings in fuel costs… And the hatchback!  It could fit so much stuff – we transported a lot of things that you’d never expect to be able to fit into a car.  I will never own a car with a trunk again!   I was pretty thrilled with our choice.

Except… it was all based on lying and cheating, and we’ve actually been driving a polluting car!  They finally sorted out the settlement, and T calculated they’ll do a buy-back/settlement, and we’ll get ~$20k and be carless.  Our A/C has been mostly busted for some time now, but we’ve been avoiding fixing it ($$) until we knew if we were keeping the car.  Due to the A/C issue (and a dent that I don’t want to talk about), we’ll likely go with the buy-back option. We haven’t decided if we’ll go with something new or used this time.

Car wish list:  I want a wagon or hatchback (maaaaybe a subcompact-crossover) a with respectable fuel economy, preferably with higher clearance.  It would ideally fits the dog crate without folding down the seats (our current setup requires folding down 2 of the 3 seats in the back).  Or we could get a crate/setup more custom designed to fit into cars nicely.  The desire for high clearance is to make some of the dirt roads we like to drive on to go backpacking passable  – but we did actually rent an SUV for our last trip, and could continue to do that as needed.  One thing we noted was that while the SUV we rented (Jeep Grand Cherokee) had some extra width to it, it actually didn’t seem to fit much more stuff than our Golf.

House Project:  Through the CA Earthquake Brace and Bolt program, combined with a county tax rebate associated with our house purchase, we’re getting ~$7k of earthquake retrofitting work done for a cost-to-us of about $1k.   It mostly consists of adding shear panels to the cripple walls.   Hooray for tax subsidized home maintenance projects!

June Updates

June 21, 2016

I had most of this drafted a while ago, then… Orlando happened… and I couldn’t figure out what to say.  This latest tragedy hit me harder than previous ones (HOW ARE THERE SO MANY?!), but in the end, I have nothing to add to the conversation that hasn’t been said better by someone else. I don’t have anything eloquent to say, but I’m just sad on so many levels.


Money Bullets:

  • Net worth was up 2% as of the beginning of June – slowly climbing!
  • I have chunk of money ($5-$10k) set aside for mortgage prepayment.  I don’t think there is a reason to delay sending it, but I haven’t sent it yet.
  • We hired a dog trainer for some one-on-one work on a few skills (mostly recall).  We paid for 5 lessons up front, and completed the first two. We have a smart dog who is generally compliant – but he’s still a adolescent and willing to ignore our commands if it means he can play with fun dogs instead of walking nicely with us.
  • On top of that, we signed up for a class through the local humane society. This was to practice with him in in a high distraction controlled environment, and because it is a good value.  I think we’ll do Canine Good Citizen later this year if it works with our schedule.
  • We bought 8 used dining room chairs on Craigslist for >$100/chair, but still don’t have a new dining room table to go with them.  T is in charge of this search.
  • My cash buffer accounts are lower than usual, which is not unexpected.  Travel reimbursements will help out with this.

Work is mostly good.

I had an international trip last month.  My role is such that the trip wasn’t very stressful for me, other than the physical inconveniences of a long flight. I had a chance to connect with a few colleagues that I don’t regularly spend time with, mostly in social situations, which was nice.

The main drawback of my job right now is that a fair percentage of my work is either alone or requires me to travel.  The “alone” work is great for a days at a time – but gets a bit boring if it stretches out too long. The regular travel is to a quite lovely place – but I do really like being home with my husband and my dog.  I mitigate it the best I can, and it is working. In fact, they asked me if I had plans through 2019 or so. Um… not yet?  Geography aside, it is a great job.

I’m a bit worried that I’m taking too much on – so I just need to stay cognizant of what is on my plate, be sure that I know what I’m saying yes to, and keep my priorities in order.

Other life stuff is good too!

My in-laws visited for a week in May, and it was great to see them.  We had lots of extra people (5 adults+2 kids) in our not-huge house, but it was not a problem at all. (Yes, I invited them to stay, and it was mostly our idea!)

I  don’t have any plans to go back to visit my family this summer, but am trying to come up with a long weekend late summer or fall.  Everyone is doing well, though my mom might need surgery for the third year in a row (all separate medical incidents).

I’m planning a trip to Portugal this summer.  T’s flight was covered by business travel, and mine was paid for with points. I also finally figured out how to use my Starwood Points to cover hotels – so the costs will be mostly for copious amounts of food and adventuring.  Yay!  We’re focusing on Lisbon, Sintra, and Evora – although it is still possible to change things up if anyone chimes in with an amazing recommendation.  I did want to visit Porto, but thought it would be better to not spend all my time in big cities (we’re flying out of Lisbon).  I just don’t think there is time to do much.

We spent last weekend camping in a fire lookout tower near Mt. Shasta.  I highly recommend this, although you have to book months in advance to get a weekend slot.  Dog friendly!



That’s all for today – just wanted to get this posted before June was over!

Links and such

May 2, 2016

When I’m anxious about something, I tend to pay more attention to our finances – especially when the thing I’m really anxious about has nothing to do with money. I had some self-induced work related anxiety this week, and to heck if I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about personal finances! Anyway, here are some links from around web.

A beautiful post about bread.

Obama, out.

Many  middle class families can’t absorb a $400 emergency.  “Many middle-class wage earners are victims of the economy, and, perhaps, of that great, glowing, irresistible American promise that has been drummed into our heads since birth: Just work hard and you can have it all.”  While the author acknowledges his own financial illiteracy and poor choices, he points out that many others make similar poor choices, and it is very easy to do so.  What struck me was his comment that he “assumed [he] would always overcome any adversity, should it arrive”.  I, like many other pf bloggers, like to prepare for the worst.  When I get worried, I often have to tell myself that I probably can overcome adversity if I’m well-prepared, because I’ve done it before.

I recently watched The Big Short, and subsequently read a lot about the movie and the financial crisis, leading to this article about a programmer who went to jail for stealing code. While not a programmer, I related to his frustration that the jury could easily be manipulated since they don’t have the training to understand why he might have taken certain steps.  I very much related to his interest in the technology over the business problems, and admired his complete acceptance of his fate.

After refinancing my student loan with Earnest, I did some researching about SoFi in general. Some of the mortgage products they offer include 10% down (no PMI), various ARM options, and interest only mortgages.  This all sounds a little scary to me. Their target market is “High Earners, Not Rich Yet” (HENRY).  Other lenders are in this game as well.  I can’t find any useful information about what kind of rates they are offering (compared to normal banks) on their site, but I’m curious. I’m a little concerned about what happens when the tech boom weakens. How does their business model hold up?

I was skimming GRS in a moment of nostalgia/boredom, and came across a generally poorly written article that included this: “PayScale found that, even after adjusting for factors like experience, education and training, responsibilities, and company size, women on average earn 2.7 percent less than men. One reason is that the study found women are 2 percent less likely than men to ask for a raise.”  That 2.7% seems way lower than any numbers I’ve seen. I went to the source article (which I had to google for since it wasn’t linked in the GRS post), and this was a PayScale analysis done on salary profiles in their system with “proprietary algorithms” to analyze.  OK. Other googling came up with about 5-8% when you “control” for the same work. Freakonimcs had a great podcast on this, discussing that the lower pay tends to be correlated with “temporal flexibility”, which tends to fall on mothers.

An already popular post on how to avoid striving to meeting feminine expectations and to be a bit more selfish at work was a good read. I appreciated the comment where Grumpy Rumblings suggests reading “What Works for Women at Work”.  I skimmed the available pages on Google, and plan to buy it and read it.



May Money Updates

May 1, 2016

General Money Status

  • I have ~$5,000 in pending travel reimbursements from work (~$2000 submitted, ~$3000 that can’t be submitted yet). I’m allowed to get the tickets paid for directly, but I like getting the points/miles, so I usually don’t.
  • We’ve sent $25k in mortgage prepayments this year, but I consider that meeting last year’s $25k target, which I delayed.  Although these have a big impact, it feels like they should have EVEN MORE impact… But the way to make progress is to keep whacking at it.
  • I increased my 401k withholdings and will be done with this by August (no match to be concerned about).
  • We bought our December holiday flights home. We didn’t really save money, but we know we’re going and had a lot more choices in times/connections booking this early compared to August/September.
  • YTD net worth increase is 16%, most in retirement savings, some in home equity, some in cash.

Spending averages in Q1 (Jan – March):  I’d love to trend this data quarterly, but am not convinced I actually will get around to it.

  • Food, grocery + costco:  $426/mo average, less than 2014 average of $500/mo
  • Food, Restaurants:  $229/mo average, less than 2015 average of $335/mo
  • Pets: $128/mo average, less than 2015 average by A LOT
  • Clothes/Shoes: $158/mo average, more than 2015 average of $43/mo
  • Travel: $233/mo, mostly from January for non-reimbursable personal expenses during my work trip and personal travel following.

This tells me I should be careful with future clothing purchases (I bought a work bag that I’ve been coveting for ages), but that everything else is roughly on track.  Food spending is kind of cheating, because we both traveled for work more than average and had reimbursable meals. That won’t continue into the rest of 2016 at this level, so we should continue to be diligent, especially about restaurants/going out.

Notable expenditures in Q1 (Jan – March):

  • Gutter replacement for deck:  $1,000. We tried to DIY this last year, but ended up needing to call a professional in to get it right.
  • Used bike: $400.  This has been on the wish list forever, I finally found something that met my needs.
  • Dining room lighting:  $340.  No more crazy swirl track lights that I hated!
  • An extra $500 to my student loan, just because.

If spending continues on this pace, we will spend a total of $97k in 2016, compared to $105k in 2015 and $94k in 2014. (Spending includes regular mortgage principle payments, but not pre-payments.)

Earnest Student Loan Refinance

April 23, 2016

Note:  Just like all posts on this blog, this is NOT a sponsored post.  I’m sharing my positive experience and offering a referral code.

Unlike most personal finance bloggers I know, I still have student loans on the books and I’m not in a rush to pay them off.  I have cash on hand (and then some) to kill them, but I prefer to keep the cash on hand.  Extra cash is going to our mortgage. I had my loans set at $225/month with a 4.25% interest rate (fixed at the time of consolidation in 2007). At that rate, They would have been paid off in 3.5 years, and I would have paid $682 in interest over the remainder of the loan.  A couple hundred per a year in interest is in the noise of my overall financial picture, so I’m just not worried about it.

Enter Earnest. There is a slew of new loan companies on the scene offering competitive rates for competitive borrowers with non-traditional underwriting processes.  SoFi and Earnest are the more heavily advertised ones, and I got a rate quote from each.  Since Earnest let me choose my monthly payment amount & shorten my loan term, they were able to give me the best rate.  Everything went quickly and smoothly in the process. It was very much a Silicon Valley company designed for millennial who can’t stand bad web design, inefficient processes, or too many phone calls.  I got my rate quote within minutes, and the approval process was also very quick.

I now have a 2.15% variable rate loan for the next 5 years. If I continue with my $225/mo payments, they will be paid off in ~3.5 years with $320 in interest total. I chose a variable rate because if it ever gets undesirable, I can simply pay down the cash and clear the balance.  The required payment is $150/mo, which would result in them being paid of in 5 years with $488 in interest.  The savings is modest at this point, but there seemed like no reason NOT to do it.

$200 signing bonus: I followed a promo link to earn $200 cash back  (which  reduces my effective rate to about 1.3%).  Are you interested in refinancing with Earnest and getting a $200 bonus?  Follow my link!  Note that you lose federal benefits if you refinance, so if you plan on taking advantage of them, Earnest is not for you.  You also need to have good credit and generally be a low risk borrower, so they aren’t for everyone.

The future of student loans: A one-size-fits-all federal loan might make sense when we are 18 and in school, but I’m now a very low risk borrower.  There is virtually no chance I’m not going to pay my loan, but I’m still not in a huge hurry to do it.  It is nice that there are new options that recognize my low credit risk and reward it with a low rate.

The student loan system as it stands has major issues, and I applaud companies that are taking new approaches.  Yet, knowing that the point of federal aid is to give more people access to college, and knowing that, for example, SoFi started by offering loans only to Stanford business school graduates, there is a small part of me that wonders what the overall effect of companies like this will be. If more privileged borrows get favorable rates, doesn’t that imply that the more risky borrows will end up with higher rates to balance?    In the long run, will Earnest, Sofi, and similar companies skim off the high quality student loan borrowers, leaving more risky options to the government-backed programs? If the government wants to subsidized higher risks borrowers, they may have to do it in a more direct and transparent way.

Do you have student loans, or did you pay them off quickly?  Would you consider an alternative lender for a refinance?

What are you good at? And how does that hurt you?

April 22, 2016

Intent and Intense: As part of a review earlier this month, our team in general got extremely positive feedback along the lines of: it is great to see a group of such competent people explaining what they are doing, and that it all comes together. Along with that positive feedback was a warning that we were a very “intent and intense” team, and we should just be aware of that, and to make sure the people down the chain are being heard.

I liked that description, but understand the warning that goes with it. Like many traits, it is a strength that has a flip side.

A long-ago post on Ask A Manger got me thinking about talents, and I’d had half a post drafted for a while that discussed strengths and their associated weaknesses As I have matured in my career, it has been easier for me to pick out my strengths and figure out what types of roles I’m likely to excel in. I’m a big believer in strengths-based management, and mitigating your weaknesses.

Here is what I think are my top 3 professional talents are, and the other side of the coin that comes with them.

1. Talent: Picking out the key information that matters when making a decision or designing a system.  Similarly, listening to three paragraphs of information and distilling it into the two or three sentences that matter.

Associated weakness: I have limited patience for ramblers who won’t answer direct questions. My mind can wander if someone goes too deep into details that I have deemed irrelevant. Proofreading is the bane of my existence, so I try to avoid doing it.

2. Talent:  I’m good at accurately assessing situations and predicting eventual outcomes. I see things that others miss, and quickly do “if this, then that” logic trees in my head assessing the best and worst case scenarios (sometimes they aren’t different). I am good at predicting how various options are likely to play out, what is likely, what is possible. Sometimes I can use my insights to influence outcomes, sometimes only play defense.  I am good at planning contingencies. I’m rarely without a plan B.  If it becomes likely that plan A isn’t going to work out, I also will have plans C, D, and E.

Associated weakness:  Sometimes I trust this ability too much, and judge possibilities as unlikely before I truly have enough information to do so. I’m receptive when others point this out, but if no one is there to point it out, I may charge ahead believe something is a foregone conclusion – when it might not be. If I have considered a problem in-depth, I trust my judgement almost absolutely until new information is brought to my attention.

3. Talent: I have a strong initiative and willing to take ownership.  If you give me a task, I not only will do it, I’ll understand why I’m doing it, make sure that it is being done to my standards, and take care of any dependencies that are required for it to be a success. If something that affects my responsibilities isn’t being done, I’ll take it on if I can. This is a common trait of high performers, but after working with someone who simply didn’t take ownership or need to understand what he was doing, I felt the need to call it out as one of my an important talents. The person had other strengths, namely that he was very calm and agreeable no matter what the request. This is the one is most analogous to the “intent and intense” comment we received.

Associated weakness: I adopt problems that are not my own, resulting in stress that I don’t need.  I probably annoy people by occaisionally doing things myself rather than letting people do their jobs. For example, I spent 4 hours (7 pm until midnight) completely redoing something that a junior colleague had spent a not-insignificant amount of time on. I felt terrible about it – but we had a deadline, he had a other stuff to do, and the product he was working with couldn’t be adapted to meet what I needed. We had to start from scratch, but I wasn’t about to make him do it.  (A more effective approach would be to pay closer attention to progress so I could redirect much sooner. I overestimated his ability/intensity.)

What about you?  What are you good at? What undesirable outcomes go along with the things your best at? 

Closing thought: “We can’t take any credit for our talents. It’s how we use them that counts.” Madeleine L’Engle


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