How to Take Vacations for Little or Nothing

A sign I saw in a delightful little bar in St Pete Beach. The owner was actually a fairly young guy from New Jersey, who had said “fuck it” one day, moved down, and started a totally new business. He had me thinking about whether maybe I, too, should make a major change and literally make vacation my day job. However, thus far, I have taken zero steps towards doing so.

Happy Monday! I almost feel a little silly writing this post as I haven’t taken anything beyond a few day vacation in about four years now, but it’s the second to last post in my Annual Expenses series, so I’m doing it anyway. Over 2017 and 2018, I averaged $300 per year in vacation spending, which included nothing at all in 2017 and short trips to Wisconsin and Tampa Bay in 2018. The minimum level of spending in the vacation category would, of course, be zero, since this is an entirely optional category. That said, I sure could use a vacation. Anyway, let’s get into it.

My first piece of advice on cutting vacation expenses is to use the specific advantages you have. If you have a job that involves a lot of travel, you may be able to use rewards programs with hotels, airlines, rental car companies, restaurants, etc, to very nearly eliminate the need to spend money on those areas altogether when you go on vacation. If you live near a cruise port or somewhere else awesome, you can probably get a last minute deal for practically nothing if you’re vigilant. Don’t overlook the low hanging fruit.

My next best tip is to use credit card churning to pay for some or all of your vacation. While the situation has deteriorated dramatically over the last year, there are still some cards available with large enough bonuses to cover a round trip flight or two, several nights at a hotel, etc. Keep in mind that you need to plan ahead to make this option work. I recommend four to six months, unless you’re looking to get multiple cards, in which case you probably want to start working on it a year out. Some people don’t like churning for various reasons. My take is that if you do the math and figure out what you’re getting “paid” per hour of actual effort (keeping in mind that this is tax free), it makes a lot of sense to work through whatever issues you have. Very few people make THAT much per hour in their day jobs. If you want to look into this option, this post or this post talk more about churning and this website is probably the best source I know of for detailed, up to date information on what specific cards are offering at this particular moment, whether it’s a good deal or not, etc. You can also check out www.reddit.com/r/churning/.  

Vacation doesn’t necessarily mean going anywhere exotic, or even outside of the United States. Road trips are a great way to go on a vacation without spending a fortune. The more people in your family or group, the better the value since each additional person in your vehicle will reduce your gas mileage only slightly, but would require an entire additional plane ticket if you flew. Think of all the amazing things there are to see and do near where you live. I bet you haven’t even been to them all yet. And there are 49 other states full of them, just waiting to be discovered. You can even get suites in extended stay hotels that have kitchens in them, allowing you to avoid eating some of your meals in restaurants. This type of hotel is usually on the more affordable end. For example, Marriott’s Townplace Suites is usually around $100 or so per night in my experience. Or if you’re adventurous, you can even bring camping stuff and avoid some hotel nights altogether. I myself am not that variety of adventurous. But if you are, more power to you.

One other idea is to use online travel sites. Many of them just aggregate the same deals you could get buying from airlines, hotels, or car rental companies directly. However, some of them offer “blind” deals that can save you some serious money. With those, you commit to buying before you find out exactly what you are getting. But with the hotel deals, for example, you usually get to pick an area of a city and the number of star hotel you want. I remember paying less than $50 a night for a few hotel rooms that regularly went for $100+ doing that back in the day.

And as usual, Costco can save you money here as well. They have an entire travel division offering a wide range of vacation options. They also offer rental cars, which have been the best deals I could find more than a few times. But then, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you already know that my answer to just about anything is going to be “check Costco first.” It won’t save you money every time, but often it will give you a great product or experience for about the same price as a significantly lower quality one.

So there you have it – some ways to save money on traveling from a man who travels for work and almost never for vacation. But remember, that is only my current state. One day when you’re sitting on a beach somewhere, you’re going to look over and see me enjoying some delicious vacation-y looking drink in a seriously relaxed fashion. You won’t know it’s me, of course. But if you follow some of these tips, maybe, just maybe, you will have spent as little as I did to get there. Have a great day, Everyone!

How I Keep My Utility Expenses Low

I’m sure there are some energy company buildings in there. Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

Happy Monday! I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving break and filled it with happier and less stressful activities than work. Today, I’m going to tell you how I keep my utility expenses down. Over 2017 and 2018, I spent an average of $1100 a year on utilities. While I spent 2017 living in a three bedroom house in frigid Wisconsin, in 2018, I enjoyed the advantage of living in a 700 square foot, one bedroom apartment. My cost per year in my current situation is closer to $600. If you have a 2500 square foot house, you’re obviously going to be spending more than I do. So that is actually the first example of how I keep this expense down – I simply have less space.

First, let’s address one other advantage I have today that many households do not: choice. In most places I’ve lived, there is one utility company in town and they raise rates with impunity every chance they get. Not so in Houston, the energy capital of the world. While I believe there are only two electric companies here, there are almost countless service providers to choose from. And each of them has multiple plan options. There are plans that are oriented to save money for all different levels of use. The key is that you have to figure out how much you use, do the math, choose the best plan, and then repeat the process and switch at the end of the term when your rates would otherwise be raised through the roof. Living in Houston, it is possible to keep your electric bill under $100, or often even $50, at almost any reasonable level of use. And since the weather is good enough that I’m often still using the AC in December, there really isn’t much need for natural gas. So in many cases, all you have are the electric bill and the water bill (usually about $30 a month in my case).

But in spite of the seemingly infinite population living in Houston, most people do not, in fact, live here. What can you do if you don’t? Use less. There are a million tips out there on how to reduce your electricity and natural gas consumption so I won’t go into too many here, but in general, your biggest electricity hogs are your refrigerator and whatever is connected to your thermostat. So optimizing those items will probably be the best place to start. You can adjust the temperature of your refrigerator and freezer to find the best balance between spending a fortune and having food go bad (I never really had a problem when I tried it). Programmable thermostats are great, but the most effective method for battling that thermostat is resilience in the face of slightly uncomfortable temperatures.

From there, you may want to try something like the Kill-A-Watt Electricity Use Monitor. If nothing else, it will get you thinking about electricity use and give you a better understanding of which types of devices use a lot and which don’t. As for water, you can get low flow faucets, toilets, showerheads, etc, that will help cut down on use. But usually this is a fairly cheap bill.

Saving on utilities isn’t anything groundbreaking – it’s mostly all about use. Choosing a modest housing option in the first place is a huge part of it. From there, investing a little bit of thought into what you’re doing goes a long way. To be honest, this would have been a much better post years ago, when I was paying over $100 a month total and that was still on the low end for my area. Utility costs are so low in Houston that I’ve had the luxury of getting lazy and have nearly forgotten most of the measures I used to use to keep them that way.