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…

Black Friday

I don’t want to say a lot about Black Friday. I was hesitant even to make an entry. Firstly, because it’s an American Holiday, and the Canadian version will come exactly one month from today, and secondly because I don’t feel I could eloquently and accurately give my point of view. I don’t want to participate in today at all. I don’t want to hear about people being trampled to death at Wal-Mart, or clerks being spit on and cursed out for not handing over a toy. I don’t want to know how much was charged to credit cards, how long it will take Americans to pay off the debt they accrue for Christmas, or how many dollars in profits the big corporations make.

I think all those things are what the news puts up to the public so we can all marvel at the amount then giggle sheepishly, a little embarrassed but mostly entertained by our antics. But do we ever feel guilty? Never.

I think we should.

What I want to know is, why doesn’t someone figure out the carbon footprint of rabid over-consumption? Few people think of it in that context, but yes, your shopping is directly tied to how fast we consume natural resources. If everyone stopped shopping for sport, we would be wrecking the globe at a significantly slower pace.

So how many extra tons of CO2 were released into the air making products for Black Friday?

How many non-unionized third-world workers were beaten to get that toy to the shelf?

How many children did it take to sew that article of clothing?

I’m not against buying things, and I love a good sale, but I don’t support the idea of buying for the sake of buying. I don’t subscribe to the idea that “one is good but three is better”.

I know my iPhone comes from a factory where worker suicides are kind of an issue. I know I have a pair of jeans from Old Navy that may have been sewn by a nine-year-old. I’m guilty. But I’m making Black Friday (and Boxing Day a month from now) no-spend days, because I don’t need more for the sake of having more — and you don’t either. A good sale is not an excuse. Make your purchases count: buy what you need, then stop. Just s t o p.

If you must shop, shop local and shop green. Buy gift cards for food and services. Seek out a local chocolatier and get a sampler box. Get tickets or a season pass for a local theatre or museum. Just don’t buy stuff. Don’t buy anything that will sit on a shelf or in a basement. Don’t buy anything that can be thrown out. Don’t buy anything that’s made of plastic or made in China. It is not a good deal, and it is not worth the price.

Shopaholicism: it’s just a shirt

I like shopping. Sometimes. Sometimes being in the mall just flat out annoys the shit out of me. Nevertheless, I like trying on new clothes and testing out different styles. I like to see what’s new and popular. I love the feel of silk dresses, cashmere cardigans and leather purses, so I have to go to stores to enjoy these luxuries because I own so few myself. Really, shopping without making a purchase is kind of like going to the library: you get to temporarily borrow and enjoy something before returning it so the next person gets a go.

However, I am such a sucker for a friendly salesperson. Seriously, they can sell me anything. When I go into a store to buy jeans, and the sales clerk hands me 3 shirts to try on with them, it’s more likely than not I’ll leave with the whole lot. As a person, I would never consider myself a pushover (kind of the opposite, really) but I can get swept away in pretty fabrics with little more than a tap in that direction.

My only saving grace is that I am absolutely shameless about returning things. After I get home and the shine has worn off, I think nothing about shoving everything back in the store bag and handing it all over again, which is exactly what I did yesterday with over $180 worth of stuff. I don’t worry about the commute back to the mall or dragging down the clerk’s commission, I just want my refund. I know this is something I need to work on, because it’s a shameful display of willpower and a colossal waste of time & effort, but in the meantime, at least it keeps me from over-spending.

Generally when I shop for anything, from groceries to make-up to clothes, I do so with a list. With the exception of idiotic impulse buys I’m tricked into by friendly retail staff, anything I want I put on a list in my budget spreadsheet, and I keep it there for a month before I let myself go buy it. This accomplishes a lot for me as far as spending goes: 1) I  get time to evaluate each purchase and prioritize what’s most important, 2) I budget for what I want 3) delayed gratification is so much sweeter and comes with no regret.

Shopping with a list also puts wants in perspective. I put the price next to every item I want, and the total right now hovers around $2000. Only in that context can I realize the actual cost of my wish-list, and exactly how many hours of work I need to buy it. Without this itemization, a dress here or a sweater there plus some make-up here and an iPhone 4 there just doesn’t add up the same way. And the truth is, I’m not the only one easily manipulated by sales staff: we all fall for the impulse buys more often than not, it’s why sales staff are trained to feed you add-ons in the changeroom. Unfortunately, this leads to massive amounts of debt and over-spending, which will feel barely noticeable at the time it is actually happening.

It’s important to exercise self-restraint when shopping, and the easiest way to do it is before you even get in the store. Rewind even further and try to stay out of fashion magazines and off of store websites at home. If you are looking for new things, make a list of what you want, rank items by importance, and set a budget if you don’t already know the prices. Then make the effort to shop around. I promise nothing will save you more money than visiting as many stores as you can to seek out the best price for what you want. Waiting another few weeks or even a month before going back for it is even better, because this will let you catch any upcoming sale. I know this last point is difficult to subscribe to: we’re not really trained to put off acquiring stuff, and concern about the store selling out of your size is a legitimate worry — it happens to me all the time! But at the end of the day, you have to remember: it’s just a shirt. It’s just a dress. It’s just a pair of shoes. There will always be a new shirt/dress/shoes you adore. Shirt/dress/shoe ownership is not a missed opportunity in your life, and not getting the item you wanted will never actually matter to anyone, so you should try to not let it matter too much to you.