How I Save Money on Vacation (and How I Don’t!)

I’ve been vacationing a lot lately. Call it what you will — a quarter life crisis, extreme debt fatigue, insanity — but I managed to spend 4 out of 6 weeks traveling from the end of June to the beginning of August. Basically, I decided to uproot my life and move across the country. Before I actually left on my road trip, I spent a week each in North Carolina and Toronto. And now, I am writing this in the middle of my two week vacation/move across the country. Let’s go with insanity…

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Anyways, I’m learning more about my travel tendencies including where I save and where I splurge when it comes to travel. Check out my cheap travel hacks as well as the things I refuse to skimp on.

How I Save

1) Lodging. Hotels are ridiculously expensive. Even the crap hotels can break the bank. I’ve found a couple of ways to combat this.

Some people scour the web for great deals and plan way ahead of time. While I admire these people, I’m not one of them. To be honest, I don’t even know where I’m staying tomorrow night.

My two favorite ways to keep lodging cheap (or free!) are couchsurfing and travel rewards from credit cards. Couchsurfing.org connects travelers all over the world and allows members to request to sleep on the couch (or extra bed or sleeping bag) of other members. Sounds creepy, but we’ve had great luck with it (as I write this from a Couchsurfing host’s extra house — yeah, they gave us a whole house for two days). People in general are decent, remember that.

Travel credit cards are amazing too. We spent 6 nights in Canada for FREE using reward points. I know a lot of you have credit card debt, have you cashed in your rewards yet?

2) Souvenirs. This one is pretty simple, I just don’t buy them. Your loved ones don’t need cheap t-shirts with a tacky screen print of a place you visited recently. They just don’t. They also don’t need key chains with their names on them or half a coffee cup because _________ was so expensive. Just…no.

Actually, I don’t really shop for anything that isn’t consumable on vacations. So pretty much just alcohol. I really like getting local alcohol.

3) Tours. I don’t go on bus/ferry/boat/whatever tours. Why? Well besides the fact that they are filled with your grandmother’s friends and screaming children, they are ridiculously overpriced. Chances are, you are healthy enough to walk. Educate yourself on the sites you are seeing online and burn some calories.

How I Don’t

1) Food. Okay, I do save a little on food. When I travel, I focus on independent, low to medium range priced restaurants. I don’t go to crazy expensive places but I enjoy the local places. I’ll shell out the extra few bucks to avoid chains and I don’t pack my meals. #SorryNotSorry

2) Beer. I will occasionally order wine or cocktails, but I usually order beer on vacation. Once again, this is all about experiencing the local market. This is how I order beer on vacation, “What do you have that’s local and light*?” Server rattles off three or four options. “Okay, I’ll take the best one.” Super easy and I try some great beers this way. *Yes, I am a light beer drinker. I am not ashamed.

How do you save money on vacation? What is your favorite splurge? What’s the dumbest souvenir you’ve ever given or received?

The Problem with Keeping up with the Joneses

The personal finance world heavily advises against purchasing in order to keep up with “the Joneses” — that proverbial family that always seems to have two new cars in the driveway, 2.5 kids in an expensive private school, and the latest designer duds. There are several reasons for this: it’s materialistic, it limits your savings and often increases your debt load, things won’t bring you happiness, blah blah blah. While it is not ideal, many people spend with the intention of impressing others. Not all of us, but some of us are never going to be those people that purchase only what is necessary and forgo the luxuries. For those people, I have a better reason why jonesing for what the Joneses have is derailing your finances.

You don’t stop at the Joneses.

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Let’s turn the Joneses into a family, okay? Your next door neighbors are now the Joneses. Provided they aren’t ridiculously frivolous spenders, “keeping up” with them probably won’t land you in the poor house. The problem is, the “Joneses” aren’t one family. People who spend partly to impress others aren’t just emulating the spending habits of one family. You are trying to keep with the Joneses, the Smiths, and (let’s face it) the Kardashians.

You (one family/person/couple) are trying to purchase the same — or better — things as multiple other families.

This isn’t an uncommon practice. Millions of Americans (and I’m assuming Canadians) try to “keep up” with multiple families who are all in turn keeping up with multiple families. It’s a complete and utter fiasco. Before you know it, you are sitting there with three brand new leased vehicles, a house four times as big as you could ever need, and a “collection” of vintage designer purses, wondering how you got to that point. It’s the spending hangover from hell.

But of course, you can’t show anyone that it phases you. No one talks about money after all, it’s impolite. You might start digging yourself out of the hole, only to be derailed again by well-intentioned-but-totally-misguided friends and family that want you to spend, spend, spend. After all, you work hard. You deserve it. And god forbid Mrs. Smith start spreading a rumor that your topsoil isn’t organic or Mr. Jones tell someone about your refusal to split the bill equally after you ordered salad and a water instead of filet mignon. I mean, what would people think?

The problem with keeping up with the Joneses is that everyone is a Jones. It is not realistic to keep up with every spendy person you know. It doesn’t end well. It can land you with a heap of buyer’s remorse in an even bigger heap of debt. That’s not something you want to show off, is it?

The Joneses are everywhere and it can be tempting to spend like them. In the end, it’s not about the stuff. You see people who seem happier than you who happen to have these flashy gizmos. You are comparing your real life to what other people put on display. Don’t compare your behind the scenes to someone else’s highlight reel. You owe it to yourself to ignore the Joneses — numerous as they may be — and spend to enrich your own life. You may find that happiness doesn’t come at that high a cost…

More Options for Cell Phone Calling

Facebook recently chose Canadian users to test a new iPhone app– a mobile feature that can be used to make free VoIP phone calls from one Facebook user to another.

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The app works using  voice over internet protocol (VoIP) technology, which means it uses a Wi-Fi connection when available or your cellular data package if you are on the go or in an area where you cannot access Wi-Fi. It does not count as minutes towards your phone calling plan, which could be helpful to many people who have to pay a pretty penny for airtime.

Skype is a pretty popular service that works in a similar manner. Up until now I have only used Skype as a means to speak one-on-one with my plethora of friends who travelled to teach English overseas after graduation (is this some sort of post-grad requirement I missed?), but it seems that technology is making it increasingly easier to communicate for less money each month.

I own a cell phone that has a pretty decent but basic plan. I have unlimited text messaging, free calling evenings and weekends Canada-wide, and no data plan since I no longer was using it at all. When I want to call my family or friends before 7pm on weekdays, it’s usually too expensive to bother. Using Skype or the new Facebook feature would be a great way to save more money on my monthly bills.

Although this could be an option that would allow you to save a lot of money, there are a few issues that arise from it’s use. First of all, it can only be used on an iPhone, though that may change if they decide to fully release the product. There is also the issue of security. By sending information over Facebook, Facebook may conveniently place in the small print the right to own or monitor this information. With Skype there can often be delays and issues with connections which could present an issue for this app as well.

To the frugal people out there who hate paying the sky high fees for Canadian cell phones: there is hope! As the VoIP world continues to grow perhaps we can get away with having very basic or no phone line at all. For now, this is a free way to make some long distance phone calls to friends, family, and significant others.

Would you consider using this app to call others on your cell phone? Would you change your cell phone plan if this became a widely used app?

The little things that make me frugal

While I would definitely classify myself as moderately self-indulgent, I’m not sure if it reaches that of my peers. I have some inherent frugal habits that keep cash in my pocket without me even having to think about it or make an effort. These include:

Keeping my natural haircolor. Growing my hair long and never bothering to highlight or dye it means I only see the hairdresser twice per year for a trim.

I pack my lunch. Every day. Food courts have nothing to offer except very expensive, nutritionally-devoid food substitutes. Just say no!

I brew my own coffee. Oh, I love Starbucks, and my local baristas will definitely see me stroll in for a latte on weekends, but as a general rule my daily brew during the week comes from home.

I don’t read fashion magazines. I don’t think there’s any other behavior that I’ve given up that has single-handedly done as much good as quitting my glossy-pages addiction. Getting rid of my magazines was motivated by my zeal for the minimalist movement, but it did a lot more for me than clear my bookshelves: I reduced my wants and my sense of not having enough. I found a survive just fine on a very small closet. I have no know idea what this season’s “must haves” or “hottest finds under $50” are, and know what? I don’t care.

I think of prices in the context of hours. I’ve calculated how much my graduate student stipend works out to hourly, and I keep this in mind when I’m buying. While a few beers at the end of a hard day might be worth an hour of work, a Coach bag would actually take me days to earn. Reasonable? Not really. I understand working days for food and shelter, but when accessories and clothing start costing me so many hours of my life, I find them much less appealing.

I only buy groceries once a week, and I go with a list. This keeps me from making impulse buys or double purchases, because I shop with a plan and only get what I need.

I don’t drink pop! Or juice, for that matter. And never anything that comes in a single-serving bottle. While I’ll sometimes buy milk, most of my daily beverages are water.

I take public transit, bike or walk everywhere. I will NEVER take a taxi if a bus goes along the same route and I think nothing of walking 5, 10, or even 30 (yes, thirty!) blocks in the right weather.

What habits to you have that keep money in your pockets with little to no effort?

In With The Old

Last night I took my winter boots into a shoe repair shop to redeem them from their current state of disarray. I purchased these boots last year (or maybe the year before?) for ~$250 and essentially wore them to their death. They’re knee-high black leather boots, with a flat, ice-gripping soles and a sheepskin lining. They’re probably the best winter boots to grace the Canadian landscape ever, and if that wasn’t enough on its own, they look great with everything.

It’s for these reasons I wore them day-in, day-out through every imaginable weather, fall through spring. In addition to sun & rain, they saw -40C and snow, and sometimes I even made them walk through those snow drifts — you know how winter is: often you don’t have a choice. While the leather still looks good as new, the rest of the boot is suffering: I’ve worn the soles clear off at the heel on both shoes (to the point that the wood or whatever beneath it was also getting worn off!), the lining at the heel inside both boots, and I broke the zipper off one of them. Seriously, the shoe guy looked at my boots, then at me like I was some sort of abusive parent or something.

Poor boots.

Knowing repairs could get pricey, I looked around for a replacement pair. Nothing I found was quite as good as my well-loved winter boots, unless I was willing to shell out $250 again. I wasn’t. So today I coughed up $100 to replace the soles, inside lining, and one zipper on my most favorite pair of winter boots ever. Yes, it was expensive but there’s a few things that committed me to this decision over buying a new pair:

1) I LOVE these boots. I cannot find boots that match in quality, warmth, and keep-me-from-falling ability quite like this pair.

2) Part of the expense of the repair is my own damn fault. If I had brought them in sooner — BEFORE I had worn the soles clean off and damaged the base underneath — I probably could have saved at least 30-40% on their repair cost.

3) Giving them away or tossing them out would be a complete waste of very high-quality footwear. The leather is gorgeous, and still in impeccable shape after a horrendously cold Canadian winter. I’m sure I get at least 5 more cold seasons out of these, if not more!

4) This is cheaper than buying new boots of similar or better quality. So my $250 boots are now costing me $350, that’s still less than buying a new pair for another $250 and having it cost me $500.

5) This is consistent with reducing my mindless consumption of stuff. It seems totally natural to buy replacements when something gets worn out or broken, ESPECIALLY CLOTHING, but I do feel its important to try to make do with what we have and to put energy into maintaining what we already own. Now instead of consuming two pairs of boots in two (three?) seasons, I’m only using one AND I’m supporting a local business!

Now, I get them back next Wednesday!