We finally settled on our vacation plans for the year! I was debating between doing an international vacation this summer or a road trip north through Oregon / N. California national parks and such. We decided to pull the trigger on the Germany/France trip this summer, and I am so excited! I’m having lots of fun planning the logistics, and will share more after we return.
Germany / France – $2,300:
We decided to pull the trigger on the Germany/France trip this summer, and I am so excited!
We’re leaving on a Sunday (for a Monday arrival) and returning the following Tuesday. We’ll be renting a car for most of the trip, and heading to the Alsace region of France from Germany. Out-of-pocket costs are expected to be $2,300, which includes a (hopefully overly) generous budget for daily food/misc. spending.
- Total: $2,300
- Flights: $115 (fees associated with booking)
- Train/Taxi/Etc.: $186
- Car Rental, Fuel, and Parking: $456
- Lodging: $344
- Food/Entertainment/Misc.: $1270
Flights – We are buying the tickets on airline miles for me, and a flight combined with a work trip for T. We are using some banked hotel points for a subset of the lodging. Other than that we are using a mix of AirBNB and hotels.com.
Lodging – I’ve used AirBNB many times, but have mixed feelings about it. As a consumer, it often fits my needs and provides a better value than the traditional mid-priced hotel I’d otherwise choose. However, I don’t like the light touch AirBNB takes on cracking down on illegal use of the site, and I worry about how it impacts major tourist cities. To balance this, I chose rentals of private rooms rather than entire apartments for this trip. To me, it seems like a more appropriate use and also allows us to meet a local host – and we don’t plan to cook or spend lots of time at the lodging. On the other hand, I enjoy the privacy of a hotel, so the AirBNB nights are limited. The hotels booked with points are in really nice hotels, which is a fun treat that I wouldn’t splurge on if I had to pay with cash money.
Ground Transit – This will be our first car rental abroad, but it will give us a lot of freedom and flexibility. Since we are spending most of our time outside of the major cities, relying on public transit would be a hassle. We are still taking advantage of trains for parts of the trip. T was (rightfully) uncomfortable arriving jet lagged and immediately hopping into a car in a large foreign city, so we’ll take the train to our first stop, sleep the night, spend part of the day there, then rent the car. This is less efficient and adds some expense and time – but it beats the alternative. We’ll drop the car at our last stop (where T will stay for work for several days longer than me), and separately take the train to the departure airport. This budget also includes transit to/from the airport in the US, which can add up.
Midwest Trip – $150:
T’s parents rented a cabin at a lake for a week. I’ll visit for a weekend, and T will stay for the week (mostly because we don’t want to plan \ another long duration dog care). We still had a bunch of Southwest miles from our long-distance marriage days (how did we ever manage that?!), so flights were booked with those. We may need a car for the weekend, but this should be a pretty inexpensive trip.
Camping / Hiking – $200:
We have a 2 night stay at a dog-friendly drivable cabin booked for late summer. There has been murmurs of backpacking trips, but I don’t realistically think we can fit it in this summer. At least, I’m not going to plan it! If someone else does, I will try to sneak it in.
Midwest for Christmas – ???:
We’ll book tickets for this pretty soon. Paying with cash, these tickets run $600+ each, so I’m hoping to use miles for at least one of the tickets. I will replenish my miles balance a bit on my upcoming international work trip, then we’ll make the call on the best way to book these. As long as the mileage “cost” doesn’t go up, we will be able to cover both.
I hate cable internet companies.
I’m talking about one in particular, but all I’ve ever worked with seem about the same. Of all the things I hate, I hate most that they offer “affordable” prices for 1 year “promotions”, then the price increases. I recently noted a jump in our internet price, and went through the yearly ritual of calling and negotiating a better rate. I dislike making phone calls and I don’t really like negotiating either. After a few days of trying to get my husband (who has similar phone dislikes) to do it for us, I gave in and called our internet company.
First, they make it hard to find out the pricing for new customers. You have to enter your address, and if they detect you have an account already, they demand you sign in (so they can show you upgraded packages and not “new customer” teaser prices). New customers are offered 25 Mbps for $50/mo – or even better, 10 Mbps for $30/mo. After asking if I wanted to pay more for some higher data rate (who needs more than 25 Mbps??), they finally offered me the $50/mo promotional price. I accepted (although I was not happy with the price) – but then the representative said they needed me to wait on the line to get tech. support help to make this happen. I was unhappy with the price and unimpressed with the fact that it would take time to implement, so I just hung up.
Next, I signed into my online to my account again. I eventually found a website loophole that seemed to allow me to order the $50/mo internet myself without calling anyone on the phone. I got part-way through the order process, but then had to choose between a $60 appointment for someone to “install” my internet, or a $15 for a self-install kit to be mailed to me. (The webpage also told me I needed a new modem. I don’t.) A “live chat” box popped up, so I asked if I could by-pass this step since I already had this exact service and don’t need any new setup. They told me no, and that the $15 self-install kit included a code that could not be e-mailed or texted “for my own security.” I said that was ridiculous and left the chat.
At this point, I had been rude to two employees and still hadn’t gotten a reasonable rate. I feel a little bad about being rude, because it isn’t their fault and they probably are paid poorly and it must be a miserable job. But what does the company expect?
I tried calling one last time, but this time I was smarter and got myself routed to the customer retention department. I complained about my bill, and the representative again offered me upgraded packages. “I don’t want more services, I just want it to be less expensive.” She asks how I felt about my previous rate, then reinstates the $40/mo rate I was paying – for another 1 year “promotional rate.”
I sort of won, but also sort of lost. I’m still paying more than I was as a new customer, and I still wasted at least 30 minutes of my life cutting $20/mo from my internet bill. It still feels expensive. It still is more Mbps than I need. I’ll still have to do it all over again next year.
This anti-consumer behavior is disgusting and infuriating. Why isn’t there real competition? (Not to mention they can now also sell all of my data to advertisers.)
Do you have to go through this pricing shenanigans every year too? If not, what is your secret?!? How much do you pay for high speed internet? Does anyone have an internet company that they actually enjoy doing business with?
We are over a 1/3 through April, and I’m finally jotting down my March progress!
Mortgage prepayment / check fraud: We mailed a $10k check in for mortgage pre-payment, but it never arrived at the servicer. We cautiously assumed lost in mail and put a stop payment on the check and monitored the account. There was eventually a fraudulent $60 charge at a grocery store in a nearby not-so-nice town. Everything was reported and refunded, the account was closed, and there was no lasting damage – just frustration and time. This was partly our fault for using an unsecured mailbox for checks, and we won’t be doing that any more. In related news, we bought a new mailbox…
I finally sent in the new check this week, so that should take effect soon!
House: If the growth in value of our house was converted to yearly salary, our home has out-earned me since we moved in. Insert your own caveats about home equity being inaccessible and on paper only, sellers commission, the money we put into it, potential for a crash, estimate coming from unreliable internet assesments, etc. Caveats aside, that a is still a pretty mind boggling computation.
Per my insistence, we haven’t started the shower re-tile / bathroom remodel and are sharing the other shower without any issues. No new projects until we’ve finished the ongoing project! We did get a bunch of drainage rock put in our patio (meaning we had the rock delivered and hauled it by bucket to the back). There is still a lot of work to go to finish this off, but much of the heavy labor is done. Maybe I’m optimistic. We are the slowest DIYers ever. The bathroom will not be a DIY project, for that reason!
Taxes: We still haven’t done our taxes completely.
I’m annoyed at TurboTax and other tax software giants for lobbying against a more sane approach to taxes. We have to fill out Schedule C for a single reimbursement from a government review panel, which bumps us into “small business” category. I’m not quite brave enough to do the free fillable forms, particularly because we procrastinated so long and don’t have much time. Next year, I vow to use a free alternative to stop supporting this industry. These tax software companies have their place, but their place shouldn’t be serving people with relatively simple tax situations for >$100. I’m also annoyed that there is a difference in product and significant price difference between downloaded and online. Why? Anyway, we’ll get a slight net refund this year between federal and state. I didn’t do a terrible estimating taxes this year!
Travel: I didn’t travel for work at all in March. We had our first dog sitting experience for one of Ollie’s dog friends, and it went really well! This is related to travel because we now have two families to trade dog-sitting responsibilities with, and both have high energy nutty dogs like we do.
We still haven’t decided if we’re doing a Germany / France trip, or if T will attend his conference alone. Other proposed summer holidays include a backpacking trip, a trip to the Midwest to visit his family at a lake cabin, a trip to a fire lookout tower near Mt. Shasta, and my family is considering visiting us in California. None of this is planned yet, except the fire lookout.
May is looking to be busy for travel, but work travel should slow down after that.
Net Worth / Savings: The markets continue to go up, and I’m trying to brace for an inevitable correction. I haven’t really seen a big correction since I was pretty early in my savings trajectory. My 401k will be fully funded with my June paycheck, then I’ll focus on cash and mortgage pre-payments again.
The first half of the year our cash flow is limited – my 401k is front loaded, and we both pay full social security taxes, but everything is going well.
Net worth is on the rise for the year, up about 10% for the year so far. This is mostly stock market gains which I’m not convinced will stick…. but I’ll take it for now!
After my initial tax estimates, we have not finished filing them. Usually, T finishes them off. We may just pay the exorbitant TurboTax fee (since we need extra forms to handle a reimbursement resulting in a 1099) if he doesn’t have the time/energy to go through them by hand in the next few weeks. We’ll see.
Our house held up to the crazy amounts of rain without any water in the crawl space (yay for the drainage project we did when we moved in). However, the shower in one bathroom is leaking a little. The likelihood was noted during the inspection – but we decided to wait until it was a problem before addressing it. For better or worse, the bathroom is tiny, so it will be a relatively small project. We’ll spend a month or two to gather ideas & plan (while using the other shower exclusively), then hire the job out this summer when T’s schedule is slightly more flexible. The shower tile is original 1950s teal green, so it will be fun to get something a bit updated!
The patio project still is not done, but some progress was finally made again after months of rain. T is in charge of this one, so I try really hard to not worry about it until he needs my help. It is working, but I also have to be patient with progress.
This is going great right now! My boss in Colorado is excellent and I enjoy working for him. I’m not sure whether my particular arrangement would work out with many other people leading the team, so I’m very grateful that it is working. It is going to be a busy month, but everything is really good.
I originally wasn’t planning on going on a big trip with T this year, but I’m tempted to tag along to his conference in Europe this summer. The ideal plan is that I fly out ~2-3 days after him (save on dog care costs/impositions), come for the social banquet at the conference, spend a day or two wandering by myself, then we spend a handful of days exploring together. If I can use points / miles for my flight and the extra day of hotel, it is pretty cheap – just food/entertainment and dog care. We’ll see – I have to explore what we’d want to do, and if it is worth using vacation and dog care for. 🙂
I got to visit my family in the Midwest for a few days in January, which is always a really great time. My niece and nephew have grown up so much, and it is so much fun to spend time with them. The adults commiserated over the new administration and the direction of our country, hoping for the best and making plans to fight for it.
We’re still spending a lot of time hiking and training our high energy adolescent dog, who just turned two years old. He’s fun, sweet, energetic, time consuming, imperfect, lovable, goofy, and such a good boy!
Work is going well, although it is very full lately! Most of my tasks are enjoyable, and it’s a fun phase of the project. I feel lucky to be working on it with such great people. The travel is still not bad – about one week per month to a place I like, on a schedule that I set. I also just confirmed that I’m slated to give a short presentation at the big design review in the UAE later this year – which is awesome visibility! I’ve presented at similar reviews in my job at Los Angeles, but haven’t had the opportunity for this job yet. I was assertive and offered in a way that would make it easy to say no, but my awesome lead supported me.
I’m trying to average 70k steps per a week – which is very different than 10k steps a day and gives me a bit more flexibility to slack off a bit during the work week.
Tenure-track academics generally get a detailed review about halfway between hire and tenure review, and T’s all came back very positive! Yay! There have been rumblings about how funding of science will go in the current administration. A disruption to this would impact his ability to fund his students and continue to build a group rather than him directly, but obviously he needs to have students. His area is not one of the known targets, but still, it all seems a bit unpredictable.
T still has to do his Christmas thank you notes. I want him to write his notes to his parents stating that we have used the money to make a donation to the ACLU. I am 99% sure they voted for Trump, although we didn’t talk about politics over the holidays. It is not a useful conversation to have, despite them being in a swing state. If they were my own parents, I would discuss it. (We did make a donation, but it isn’t directly correlated to any specific Christmas present. He probably will just write a normal but very late thank you note.)
I also have a list of other places that fight injustice, and am picking one each month to support. I have not historically put my money where my politics are and voted with my dollars. However, in a blue state with blue reps, it seems like donations are the most effective way I can resist. I think the second most powerful thing is helping in nearby swing districts for the 2018 elections. I’m also attending a local branch of the March for Science. Because this all is NOT normal.
Our our first 2017 mortgage pre-payment will be $5k, and I sent it in this week. I’ve lost some of my early excitement and enthusiasm over mortgage pre-payment. It is discouraging to note how long it will take us… but the pace I’m striving for balances other goals and liquidity with the reality mitigating an expensive market.
I did the first pass of our taxes in TurboTax, but we may end up doing them by hand (online free IRS fillable forms) for final submission. TurboTax asked us to upgrade to the most expensive package to handle expense reimbursement for serving on a government grant review panel. They reimburse a flat per diem for lodging, airfare and meals, but it results in a 1099-MISC as non-employee compensation. I believe we just have to fill out Schedule C-EZ to deduct the portion that was expenses (and Schedule SE), but the TurboTax won’t let us do this without paying even more. I expect a small refund overall ( ~$500 or so).
It was notable what TurboTax said our tax bill would be before I entered all our itemized deductions for state taxes, property taxes, and mortgage interest. Ouch. This is helpful to keep these tax implications in mind when I mentally compare our former rent with our current house expenses.
And that’s it! We’re just plugging away at our fairly boring goals and trying to hold unnecessary spending down.
Our goals this year are really simple – minimize spending, then allocate the savings that results from that!
1. Retirement accounts maxed for each of us. I plan to front-load mine to the first half of the year, and T’s will be spread throughout the year evenly. There isn’t a real reason behind this strategy, but it is what I did last year and I liked it.
2. Mortgage prepayment of ~$30k. This is a little more than 2016, but it seems to be the right thing to do. Owning a home in a super expensive market drives this choice. We have been doing our best to mitigate that now so that we’ll have flexibility to afford kids here in the future. We’ve talked about other options, but it is pretty unlikely we’d leave T’s job.
3. General increase in cash/liquid reserves of $20k. Some of this might be allocated to a home maintenance fund (we’ll need an expensive roof at some point in the next decade), the rest will go to general long term savings / cash reserves. My targeted savings fund for when we may have a kid in the future is already nominally funded to cover unpaid time off, although I should double check my calculations. It also would be a good idea to optimize my strategy for where we hold the cash.
4. Split any remaining savings 50/50 between mortgage and cash savings. The amount in this bucket will depend on what our overall spending turns out to be. I want to set a spending goal of $90k, but our plans (travel, home projects) aren’t firm enough to know if that is achievable. I’m thinking I’ll have another $10k, but it could be more or less.
Our total spending in 2016 came out to be $105,025, compared to $104,900 in 2015 and above my 2016 target of $100k. Spending included $10k in auto spending that wasn’t initially slated for 2016 (due to Volkswagen scandal our timeline was accelerated) – the target excluded this. I was nominally successful at reducing our spending in other areas by almost $10k, even though I missed our goal.
Reductions in spending compared to 2015 – Home Maintenance, Pets, Food/Drink
The biggest reductions were in Home Maintenance (which is a fluctuating category) and Pets/Pet Care (which I expected). We also spent slightly less on groceries, $900 less on restaurants, and purchased less wine. Although I like the wine club we are a member of, I’m thinking we may quit this year. We haven’t had the time/desire to go to Napa anymore, and we don’t really need any more wine for our “collection”.
Increases in spending compared to 2015 – Clothes, “Home/Misc”, and Travel
The biggest increase was in Transportation, which was due to the new car.
We spent more in the clothing category, with big ticket items including some boots that I wear to work almost every day, two high quality raincoats, a Lo&Sons OMG bag, and replacement hiking boots for T.
Electronics spending increased and included an iPhone SE to replace my busted iPhone 5 and Bose Noise Canceling headphones. Home spending increased and included some more blinds, some dining chairs, and lots of miscellaneous stuff. I suspect a detailed look into this category would reveal several mis-categorized charges, but it isn’t critical to me to dig into it. The “other” category includes a used bike for me ($400).
Our insurance costs went up, but this is mostly due to paying insurance for the new car in December when our regular car insurance bill wouldn’t have been due until 2017.
We did the minimum traveling in 2015 (visiting family), but in 2016 we added on to a conference and went to Portugal and Barcelona. It was a frugal trip, but still cost money. We also bought flights to visit our families and did some other very small weekend trips.
Spending Plans for 2017
1) Better Tracking. I didn’t do a good of a job of tracking spending as we went, so I took dumps of all of our transactions and categorized them after-the-fact (often 2+ months later). This year, I think I will go back to manually entering transactions as they occur, and using electronic logs to double check. This should give us better categorization. I have a big category of “other” and “home” and such, and I know what kinds of things that might include but I don’t have insight into the details. I know we spent more on Gifts than indicated, but they were categorized as purchases for ourselves.
2) Reduce Home/Other spending. This goes with the item above, but I want to reduce that category in general. Tracking it more closely should help out a lot.
3) Reduce Food/Drink spending further. As I said, I’d like to cut out the wine club and also reduce restaurant / grocery spending some small amount. Although going out to eat and buying whatever we want at the grocery store are both things that we really enjoy, there is some room for improvement that shouldn’t impact our lives too much.
4) Monitor the rest. The other categories are not too concerning to me. Clothing is higher than I’d like but in family with previous years. I’ll monitor it. I expect pet spending will drop, although we’ve been talking about some private training lessons again early this year. We will likely spend a bit more on home maintenance, but the plans aren’t settled and major projects aren’t anticipated. I refinanced my student loan with Earnest to an even lower rate this year. When I think about it, I’m tempted to simply pay it off with cash on hand. Yet it is a lower rate than my mortgage, so it doesn’t make sense I keep holding onto it. I allow myself to pay $100 extra each month as a compromise. We’re still paying for earthquake insurance, which is very expensive and probably not the best use of funds – but it gives me peace of mind.