It’s All Fun and Games Until You Have to Save Some Money

Dreaming about travel, thinking of places you want to travel, making plans, and making the actual trip are fun. But, actually getting someplace takes money, often lots of money. And, because we are not independently wealthy, making our travel dreams come true requires saving. And saving is work. It can fun work for some, but it’s still work, and takes determination and persistence.

We live on an adequate but not-very-big fixed income in one of the most expensive places in the country. We still have one child that we are helping with college expenses. However, we’ve always been able to find (sometimes creative) ways to save for travel without compromising other areas of our lives.

The big secret to our success? We make saving for travel a priority.

Last time we set off on a big adventure we needed to save a lot. Like over $30,000 a lot in order to upfront fund what we hoped would be at least three years of travel. We did it, but had the luxury of a little over two years to put that amount away. It wasn’t easy but we were persistent.

This time around we want to save at least $20,000 to get started on our next Big Adventure. We’ve put ourselves back in persistent mode again. We’re using the same playbook we used before and so far it’s going well. Here’s our game plan for reaching our our goal:

  • Not buying stuff. I can’t began to say how much we save by not spending. We used to be able to talk ourselves into buying just about anything, but these days we’ve become even more skilled at talking ourselves out of buying just about anything. It’s actually fairly easy because we don’t seem to need much these days.
  • Saving our change and $1 bills. We had been saving change and $1 bills for as long as I can remember and it does add up.
  • Saving credit card rewards. We don’t use our credit cards very much, and rewards we earn could be used toward plane ticket purchases, but for now we’re prefer to have what we do earn deposited into our savings account.
  • Earning Swagbucks. Earnings from Swagbucks this year and next will fund at least half of our airfare to Pennsylvania for YaYu’s graduation, and hopefully half of the cost of flying to Japan. That means more money will be staying in our travel account.
  • Gradually increasing our savings. We have a set amount automatically transferred from our income into a special travel account each month, and that amount will increase next year when we no longer have set aside anything to assist YaYu. Any cost of living increases in our social security and military retirement income next year and 2023 will also go into our travel savings as do any and all rebates, rewards, etc.
  • Selling all our stuff again. Before we depart in 2023 we will be doing some extreme downsizing – everything must go this time! While we put around 1,500 pounds into storage last time, this next time we plan to keep very, very little, just what can be mailed in flat-rate boxes to our daughters.

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” – William Hutchinson Murray

We have committed ourselves to reaching our goal, and the work has begun. We know we can do this! With dedication and a lot of hard work in the past we’ve paid off our debt, made our dream of retiring and moving to Hawai’i a reality, and saved enough to travel the world full time. We are facing this next saving challenge with the same commitment and determination – we can do this!

A Fun Distraction

Road trip! (photo credit: Katie Moum/Unsplash)

A couple of weeks ago, with all the bad news about the COVID pandemic around the world, Brett and I took a deeper look at our Plan B, an extended road trip around the continental U.S. We wanted to see if it was indeed possible and what it might cost compared to our original Big Adventure II plan.

The Ultimate National Park road trip

The exercise really got going when I came across a map for the Ultimate National Park Road Trip. Brett and I have often dreamed of doing a western National Park loop trip, but here was one that stopped at all the parks in the U.S.! For a few days he and I poured over the map trying to decide which direction we’d go and where we’d stay. I investigated Airbnb rentals in the areas we chose, we figured out the best state to set up residency before we set off (Washington), and we evaluated whether to buy an RV or a car (new or used), and with a car should it be hybrid or not, sedan or SUV, and so forth.

For several days we were caught up in the excitement of trip planning, imaging a nomadic life on the road for a few years before settling down. We even figured out how we could still fit in an annual trip to Japan and started heading down the road of convincing ourselves that maybe this was the better way to do the second round of the Big Adventure.

And then we crunched the numbers. Comparing those to our original plans we discovered there was no contest: overseas travel was the easy winner. A road trip would cost us a whole lot more.

The Toyota RAV4 Hybrid was the best choice for size, comfort, MPG, and cost. We were quite surprised to find that buying used made only a slight difference in the price.

The reason? Purchasing and operating a car put a huge dent in the budget. Even with a substantial down payment, even with choosing a economical car (our ultimate choice was the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid), the cost of owning and operating any car would take a big chunk out of our monthly budget. It didn’t matter whether we bought new or used, the total cost each month would be a lot (not just the monthly payment but also the gasoline, insurance, and other operating costs). We told ourselves that at the end of our journey we would at least own a car, but then remembered our ultimate goal is to not own a car. An RV purchase was even more out of the question, but we also found Airbnb rental prices to be higher in the U.S. than many places overseas. It would be something of a struggle to stay within or under our monthly budget for lodging for almost any place in the U.S., even staying in one location for a month.

We also realized we are not crazy about being in the U.S. during another election year.

It was a fun diversion to think about doing a big road trip versus traveling overseas again, but in the end our original plan proved to be the more frugal and exciting choice for us. Our goals for the future are solid and we want to stick to them. We know we can do a road trip if things comes to that, but for now it will continue to retain its Plan B status.

The Neighborhood Next to Ours

The neighborhood next to ours in Portland

Back when we lived in Portland, the neighborhood next to ours was filled with street after street of large, beautiful homes, with big, green, well-manicured lawns and exquisite landscaping. The homes run the gamut of styles, from English Tudor to French Provincial, 50s Post Modern to Old Portland Foursquare, Mediterranean to Dutch Colonial. Volvos, BMWs, Mercedes and other high-end or new cars often sat in the driveways, and several of the homes had swimming pools. It seemed at least two, if not more, homes on each block had signs in the yards proclaiming that renovations, remodeling, or landscaping work was currently taking place there. The streets were lined with huge, leafy elms which kept the streets cool and inviting even on the hottest days, which was why I enjoyed walking there in the evenings during the summer.

It used to be my dream to live in this neighborhood. I wanted a beautiful lawn and landscaping, a bigger house for our family, a big elm tree in front. And for a while, Brett and I probably could have bought one of these homes. We instead bought a cheap house with a tiny yard up the hill from this neighborhood, with no trees at all in front. That turned out to be one of the best decisions we ever made considering what happened to Brett’s income a few years later. Because we bought the cheap house we were able to weather his loss of income and then climb out of the debt that we accrued. We’d have gone bankrupt if we’d bought the bigger house, but instead made a profit when we sold our house before moving to Hawaii.

The cheap house turned out to be a great house, perfect for our family in a perfect location.

These days I shudder when I think about the prices of homes for sale here on Kaua’i, or in other places we considered moving, and the annual taxes on those homes. I can only imagine how much the upkeep would be, as well as things like heating them in the winter or cooling in the summer. We had a small patio installed at our cheap house, a real wake-up call to what extensive landscaping and maintenance would cost (a LOT). I don’t even want to think of how much we would have paid to furnish a larger home, even with vintage or used furniture. Actually, a bigger home would probably have ended up mostly unfurnished, but I’m sure we would still have been craving stuff to fill it rather than feel satisfied with what we had. We would have been living in neighborhood full of Joneses, trying to keep up with and most likely failing and feeling miserable about it.

This is our dream apartment for the future. Brett and I can happily imagine living a space this size these days (photo credit: Beazy/Unsplash)

I never saw it coming back then, how minimalism has become more and more attractive to us as we grow older. We don’t want or desire so much space now, so much room to fill and maintain. We’ve learned how to live in small spaces, including how to carve out individual space so we don’t feel crowded, even in a one-room studio. The older we get, the fewer things we want to own. It’s been a surprising journey finding how little we need or want, and what we can easily let go of.

I can no longer imagine myself in one of those big houses back in Portland. These days I admire houses around the island but don’t covet them any more. I’m no longer looking at real estate websites and dreaming about the houses that might work for us somewhere. Our dreams these days are of living in other places around the world, borrowing someone else’s house for a month or so, for as long as we are able, and then finally ending up in a small apartment, with just the right amount of stuff.

Saving, Saving, Saving for Travel Once Again

Posted on  by Laura & Brett

For some people, saving is easy. For others it’s a matter of discipline. We fall somewhere in the middle, but tend move closer to the easy side when we’ve got a goal to meet.

We’re saving now for a return to our nomadic life. We’re throwing every spare dime we can into our travel account and making saving a priority because once again we have a big goal that we’re excited about.

Our unexpected and sudden move to Kaua’i last year was expensive. We had to buy a car, rent an apartment, and purchase everything from scratch to set up housekeeping again, from furniture to kitchen goods to linens to small appliances. Because everything was shut down because of the pandemic, there were no yard sales, and thrift stores were also closed so bargains were few and far between. While we got lucky and were able to buy our old car back from friends, everything else had to be purchased new, from Costco, Walmart, Amazon, and two furniture stores on the island that graciously opened for us and allowed us to shop privately (but no delivery – we had to rent a van and pick up and move our purchases ourselves). We paid $$$$ to have our stored items shipped back over to us, but it was good to have our own stuff back with us even if the movers did lose one of our boxes.

To put it mildly, the move decimated our savings. Still, we’ve been able to live well on our income, help with YaYu’s college expenses, and put a small amount away every month into our travel savings. We were able to pay for our recent car repairs. But there hasn’t been much of anything else left over for travel except for that small allotment every months and from saving change and $1 bills.

However, now that we have a travel goal once again, to say we are once again motivated to beef up our travel savings would be an understatement. Wants, other than wanting nice, healthy balances in our travel account, have been set to the side. Brett and I have everything we need, and are now working at finding ways to tuck more into savings any way we can. I will continue earning Swagbucks to earn as many airline gift cards as possible. We’ve decreased our grocery budget a bit and so far are doing fine with a smaller amount. We have found ways to cut back on driving to keep those expenses lower. YaYu’s college costs will finish in January 2022, and after her final payment the amount we now dedicate to her will be directed into travel savings. I’m not sure there’s ever a good time for this, but Brett ages out of his life insurance policy this year, and that long-time monthly payment will go into savings instead. We are already making adjustments to future travel plans in order to save more. For example, while we still plan to go to Tokyo in the fall of 2022, we’ve decided to only visit for a month, and that there will be no fancy walking tour this time. We can do some great day hikes in the Tokyo region and through the city on our own. In other words, every spare dollar or cent that comes our way for the next two years will be saved.

We’ve accomplished big goals before – we paid off nearly $60K of debt in three years, and in the 18 months between when we decided to take our Big Adventure until the time we left, we saved just over $30,000, and with less discretionary income than we have now. We won’t have much to sell this time to add to our savings, but by carefully sticking to our budget, and keeping to needs versus being tempted by wants, we believe we can come close to that amount again in the next couple of years.

We’ve once again moved ourselves over to the easy side of saving, but are bringing our former discipline back again to reach our goal this time. We can do this!

Happy Anniversary To Us!

Brett and I celebrated our 42nd anniversary this past Monday. In the past we’ve usually gone out to dinner to celebrate, but this year we ended up doing something different that gave us more for the same amount of spending. 

We had originally thought we’d have dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant, but we turned out to be nervous about dining in, especially with the return of visitors to the island and cases of the virus already starting to climb again. Also, we knew the restaurant would be expensive, and we just weren’t as keen as we thought on spending so much for one meal.

However, the idea of someone else doing the meal prep and cleanup continued to appeal to us and we came up with the idea of giving ourselves a Day of No Cooking. We wanted to challenge ourselves to keep the cost of a full day of restaurant meals the same or less than what we would have spent for one meal at a fancy restaurant. We knew there were plenty of affordable restaurants offering good food, outdoor dining or socially distanced seating, and enhanced cleaning in our area that could make our plan work.

Here’s how the Day of No Cooking went:

The first stop of the day was for breakfast at the nearby Kalaheo Cafe. They offer both socially-distanced indoor or outdoor dining, and we chose an semi-isolated indoor table by an open window. We each had a cup of coffee, and shared an order of kalua pork Eggs Benedict. I am not sure how anyone finishes a full order of this – one half of it (and no hash browns – Brett got those) and I was stuffed! It was very, very delicious though and a wonderful start to our day. The pastries on offer were very tempting as well but we managed to leave without eating or buying one.

We had planned to head to Hanapepe after breakfast to explore the Habitat for Humanity thrift & rebuilding store as well as drop off some clothes, but we sadly discovered it was closed on Mondays. We don’t need or want anything but have always wanted to check out this big store. Our upstairs neighbor furnished over half of his apartment with some very nice things from this place, and we’ve heard other good things about it from others. We ended up going back home for a while with a decision to visit later this week.

It was pouring rain by the time we started down to Hanapepe Old Town for our lunch at Japanese Grandma’s Cafe. We had heard good things about this restaurant, and had wanted to eat there since before we left the island in 2018. We figured lunch would be less expensive than dinner, and we were not disappointed. I had originally planned to order tenzaru (tempura shrimp and vegetables with cold soba noodles) but the calorie load for that meal is outrageous, so instead ordered hayayako (chilled tofu) and vegetable futamaki (sushi). Brett ordered a tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet) bowl topped with a soy-ginger sauce and a nice salad. Even though it was raining it was still warm enough to eat outside (under cover). Our waitress surprised us with a very tasty slice of house made matcha cheesecake to help celebrate our anniversary!

One taco al pastor for each of us.

Plans for the day had included a late afternoon walk at Kukuiolono and then picking up takeout for dinner from Paco’s Tacos up at the park clubhouse. A continuing downpour kept us from walking, but we still wanted those tacos! Brett somehow also included beans and rice when he placed the order so he had those as well, and we enjoyed our delicious tacos with some added cilantro, onion, and a few tomatoes and along with a couple of celebratory gin & tonics.

The day was supposed to end with scoops of Lappert’s ice cream, but when it was time for dessert neither of us wanted to go back out in the rain, and we also really didn’t want another dessert. We had eaten enough.

The total cost for our three meals ($88, including tips) was slightly less than we would have spent for dinner and drinks at the restaurant, and our time together was priceless. The total number of dishes that had to be washed in the evening was six: morning coffee cups, glasses for the G&Ts, and the plates for our tacos. We had such a good time that we decided to make a Day of No Cooking our annual anniversary event, no matter where we are in the world at the end of every March!

Saving On Our Minds

How can we maximize savings when living in an expensive area? How can we cut back when there’s nothing much to cut? How do we allocate what goes into two important savings accounts and continue to put away money each month for our child’s college education? These are some of the questions Brett and I have been pondering these past couple of weeks as we think about increasing the amount we save each month.

What was somewhat easier for us to do in the past is not so easy these days as we have nothing to sell, nothing much to cut back on, and completely different commitments. Our streaming services are all free or in the case of Amazon Prime, one we’re not willing to cut because we (maybe unfortunately) need Amazon here. Our insurance, phone, and Internet services are already as low as we can get them, and all utilities are included in our rent. We don’t have cable. We drive an older car with great mileage, so our gasoline expenses are already low, less than $50/month, even with the higher prices here. Maintenance expenditures loom though. We have nothing to sell – we did that before we left in 2018 and everything we have accumulated since we returned needed and used – there’s nothing “extra.” During more normal times I suppose we could find jobs, but there are currently none of those on Kaua’i, and if there were others that have been out of work for months on end need them more than we do.

While we continue to save for YaYu’s college expenses we also want to save for a future downpayment and for future travel, which remains very important to us (especially as we have family living overseas). This past week Brett and I combed over our budget and figured out the maximum we can put away each month from each of our income streams. The money we put away for YaYu is already set, but we found some other $$$ to put into other accounts although how much goes into each one may shift as we figure out the best ways to allot that amount.

However, besides paying our savings accounts, what else can we do to save? How can we increase the amount we put away when we’re already living very, very small.

With some thought, there are a few things we can do, as it turns out:

  • Continue making a budget each month and sticking to it. Put the money into savings first, then spend. And, always, always try to spend less than what’s budgeted.
  • Food: We already have a fairly tight food budget, but I believe we can cut it back a little bit more. One way is to follow Coco Chanel’s maxim for accessories: Before you go out, look in the mirror and take off one thing. We can do the same with our grocery list – before we shop, go through the list and remove at least one thing (if not more). Also, we need to be even more mindful of needs versus wants. We have lowered our farmers’ market budget from $20/week to $15, and still are able to get a lot of good produce with that and I’m sure we can do the same with our regular grocery lists. Also, we need to be sure there is no impulse shopping or stopping at the store for one or two things “we forgot.” We need to get what we need for the coming week(s) when we do our regular shopping. There will always be exceptions to this (like finding ground pork at Costco), but we can keep this to a minimum.
  • Change/$1 bills: Continue to challenge ourselves to always have something left over any time we shop and put that change aside each time. It really does add up.
  • Cut back on driving: We take one day off a week from walking, so that gives us one no-drive day a week. Brett has figured out though that six loops of our dead-end street equals three miles, so we can do a couple of days a week here and keep the car at home. Less driving means less gas and more saving. We can also strive to be more mindful of combining errands and keeping our gasoline purchases at two a month.
  • Use what we have on hand: I need to be better about always, always, always checking the pantry, fridge, and freezer before making a menu or putting something on our shopping list. Same for buying toiletries and other household items. I haven’t been as good about this lately as I have been in the past, but it makes a big difference in our spending. This is not just for food though – both of us have plenty of clothing, and other than a new pair of walking shoes, have everything else we need. Necessary items like new shoes can be added to the budget ahead of time.
  • No more purchasing books. I bought several books last year, especially when it was a book that had a long waiting list at the library, or something we both wanted to read. This year we’ll wait for the book to become available, however long that takes, and Brett has already started going through my Kindle library and reading things we already own.

These are a few of the small changes we can make, but generally, by being more mindful and careful about these sorts of thing we know we can make a real difference in the amount we are able to save.

Brett has also signed up and is earning Swagbucks again in order to pad our Christmas budget this year. He’s not as gung-ho as I am about it, but what he earns will make a difference and allow us to keep more in our savings accounts.

The blue one was the first temari I ever made, the purple the second. My style is monochromatic and subdued while Japanese temari style tends to be multi-colored and bright.

Finally, I’ve also decided I want to begin making kimekomi temari again to sell on Etsy, and possibly at some local shops. I checked some kimekome sites on Etsy and they do well, but my temari have a very different (i.e. more Western) aesthetic and have sold well in the past. I have supplies on hand now to make only two of them, but have found online sources for more supplies, including the ball cores and new fabrics. However, package service between Japan and the U.S. is still restricted, expensive, and takes a l-o-n-g time (the package our son sent took over four months to get here), so I am going to wait to order until those restrictions are lifted. If this endeavor goes well, I can also purchase more supplies next time we’re in Japan.

This is our last year of helping with YaYu’s education costs, so that will help next year, and I’m sure other things will come up along the way that allow us to save even more. We can do this!

How We Did It

(This is an updated version of a previous post.) 

Some friends once asked us for a blueprint of how we set up our nomadic life, and how we sustained it. The first point we made was that we weren’t the first to do this nor would we be the last, and how we did it was definitely not the only way. We met other nomadic couples during our travels, and every one of them was doing long-term travel differently from us and funding it differently as well. Our inspiration came from Michael and Debbie Campbell, the original Senior Nomads, but everyone who has committed to a big travel adventure is doing what works for their energy level, bucket list, and budget.

Our full-time travel lifestyle started from a casual comment Brett made one day when we were trying to prioritize a list of travel destinations. We were still living on Kaua’i at the time, enjoying our life there (well, except for the humidity), but YaYu, our youngest, would heading off to college in a few months and Brett and I were eager to hit the road on our own and go somewhere we hadn’t been before. As we were discussing different locations, Brett said, “I wish we could see them all.” We both stopped immediately, looked at each other, and at the same time asked, “Could we do that?” We spent the next few weeks talking about the possibility of traveling full time and crunching numbers, and eventually figured out that by saving every extra penny we could, getting rid of almost everything we owned, and giving up our life in Hawai’i we could make a big travel dream happen.

Many people have assumed that because we traveled full time we must have a large retirement income but that wasn’t and isn’t true. We’re definitely not made of money (our income would probably surprise most people), but we’ve found it was possible to travel full time on our income as well as cover our expenses with careful planning, no debt other than my student loan, and an ability to stick to a budget. Our situation was somewhat unique in that we didn’t own a home when we began traveling and our daughters earned enough from work to supplement the scholarships and financial aid they were awarded and paid their own college expenses. Although the Senior Nomads were homeowners when they set out, they still initially sold all their stuff and rented their house while they traveled, and we could have done the same if we had still been homeowners. Because our income came/comes primarily from government pensions – Social Security and Brett’s military retirement (and a small pension from Brett’s last employment) – it was/is consistent from month to month which makes budgeting easier. All we had to do was figure out how to live off of that income while we traveled beyond covering travel expenses, a couple of fixed payments, and getting our college-aged children to and from places. We had/have no other extra income, no big investments to manage, no secret slush fund, and we didn’t take money from anything but our travel savings. Instead of paying for rent, utilities, gasoline, insurance, car repairs or home maintenance we used our income to cover airfare, Airbnb rentals and daily living expenses.

Our travel lifestyle worked from two different directions: 1) we carefully planned ahead and 2) we had a budget and stuck to it. For almost a year and a half before we set off on our Big Adventure, we saved as much as we could to cover as many up-front travel expenses as possible, like our train journey across Australia and our tour in India, and as many flights, Airbnb reservations and other expenses as we could. That got us started and we were able to sustain the rest of our lifestyle on what we received each month as we went along.

Planning ahead for where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do gave us plenty of time to find affordable flights and/or other transportation, and affordable Airbnb lodgings as well. Nothing was left to chance and there was very little to no spontaneity involved when it came to those big decisions. Once we committed, we were committed – there was no backing out or changing our minds, mainly because we would have lost quite a bit of money if we had. We also continued to put money away into our travel fund every month to cover transportation and lodging expenses ahead of time.

The only fixed bills we had each month were my student loan payment and our phone plan, deducted from our pay automatically each month. So, the amount we had in disposable income each month didn’t vary. That income covered lodging and long-distance transportation costs, groceries and (very) occasional dining out, local transportation, admissions, souvenirs, etc. Brett maintained a diary of all our spending every day to keep track of how we were doing and to let us know when we might need to cut back or tweak things a bit (he still does this every day). We had to adjust that amount and lower our daily spending average when we started putting money away to help YaYu graduate from college without any debt or at least with as little debt as possible. We were also fortunate that we have military healthcare which covers us worldwide. In fact, we learned that because we have military insurance we didn’t qualify for regular travel insurance! Our credit card benefits covered most of the other travel insurance items, such as canceled flights, lost luggage, etc.

We initially thought a year or so of full-time travel would be enough, and afterwards we’d be ready to settle down somewhere, but we found the longer we traveled, the more we wanted to continue. We had a much better time than we imagined, and learned things along the way to make the experience go more smoothly. For example, we discovered we preferred longer stays of at least a month in a location versus moving every few days or even every couple of weeks – we tried that and it was exhausting – and that longer stays usually provided a sometimes substantial discount for housing. We worked it out where we got together with each of our daughters a couple of times each year as well as spent time in Japan with our son and his family. We made the lifestyle work for us and not the other way around. While we are happy to be back on Kaua’i these days, in hindsight we realize we maybe should have fulfilled our stay in Japan, and then traveled on to Mexico and stayed put there as getting resettled on Kaua’i ended up costing us much more than expected. However, it’s been an extremely safe place to ride out the pandemic; the same probably could not have been said of Mexico.

There is no one-size-fits-all way to do long-term travel. How one accomplishes it or adapts to it is completely customizable according to one’s own circumstances, financial and otherwise. We flew from place to place, but have met others that were doing long-term road trips around the U.S. and Canada, staying in Airbnb rentals in the locations they visit. Some were pulling a trailer or driving an RV and camping. Other people we met were housesitting and others had kept their homes but did house swaps. The one thing everyone seemed to have in common was living within their means and living with minimal possessions, and prioritizing experiences rather than having things to show.

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. 

Although the lifestyle is not for everybody, if you’ve ever dreamt of trying out the nomadic life for a while, I firmly believe a way can be found to make it happen in a way that works for each person or couple or even family. All that’s needed is imagination and the courage to take the first step. Oh . . . and, no pandemics.

How (and why) I Earn Swagbucks

I first learned about and began using Swagbucks back in 2010, when we were in the throes of getting rid of our debt. Back then I focused on earning Amazon credit, which helped us cover the cost of lots of small, necessary but sometimes expensive items, things like vacuum cleaner bags and such. The Amazon credits I earned through Swagbucks over the years funded Christmas and birthday gifts, numerous household items, and Southwest Airlines gift cards to help defray travel costs. I earned enough to get myself a Cuisinart food processor and slow cooker, and even earned enough to purchase a much-desired KitchenAid stand mixer for only $4.95 out of pocket.

I’ve done Swagbucks off and on over the past decade, but I am back at it again as I want to earn Delta Airlines gift cards to help cover our travel expenses in the future. Swagbucks now offers $500 Delta cards for 50,000 Swagbucks each, which is a LOT, but doable. I have a goal this year of earning two of those Delta cards, so that means earning 100,000 SB. I divided 100,000 by 365, and come up with a baseline amount I need to earn each day: 275 Swagbucks. Somedays that amount is easily and quickly earned, but other days it’s a slog and I honestly wonder if it’s worth the time. I keep plugging along though.

Swagbucks is a completely legitimate rewards program that lets people earn gift cards by doing the things they are already doing online, things like searching, using coupons, shopping, playing games, etc. Every activity you do using Swagbucks has the potential to pay out in points, called Swagbucks (SB), which can then be redeemed for awards.

I have what I consider a BIG advantage when it comes to earning Swagbucks these days: I live in Hawaii. A new Swagbucks day begins at midnight PST, meaning a new day starts for me at 10:00 p.m. HST, or even better, 9:00 p.m. during daylight savings (because Hawaii does not observe daylight savings). This means I can get a head start on earning for each day, and can sometimes meet my daily goal before I go to sleep (easier when a new day starts at 9:00 p.m.). It also helps that I’m retired and my time is pretty much my own to organize each day. Earning Swagbucks is easily accomplished while I’m watching TV, but I also check it out throughout the day when I have a little extra time.

Although I earn a good amount of Swagbucks every day, I am in no way a fanatic. There are many ways to earn on Swagbucks, but I only do a few things. For example, I never take advantage of any of their “special offers,” nor buy things advertised on the site. I don’t enter contests, download or use coupons, nor do I watch videos. All of those things will earn Swagbucks, sometimes lots of them, and if they work for someone else I say “great.” 

Here’s the five ways I earn:

  1. I pay attention to and earn my daily goal every day. This is an easy way to earn extra Swagbucks every month. By making or exceeding the first goal every day of a month (the goal is listed in a bar at the top of the Swagbucks page), I earn an additional 300 Swagbucks. Added to that are the extra SB I earn each day by making the goal (there are two goal levels; I only aim for the first and lower one, but I do earn the upper goal and extra Swagbucks a few days each month). By making sure I reach the goal every day, I typically make an additional 500-600 SB each month – that’s 6000 -7200 Swagbucks a year! You can win smaller amounts by making your goal every day for 7, 14, or 21 days in a row, but the whole month is the big enchilada.
  2. I take a few surveys every day. This is the quickest and easiest way to earn the most Swagbucks. Being able to handle rejection is a necessary skill to earn Swagbucks this way because I get kicked out of way more surveys than I am chosen for, but I usually manage to do at least three or four every day. Sometimes I get lucky and get one survey that covers my daily goal, but that doesn’t happen very often. There is usually a long list of available surveys under the Answer button (I do Gold surveys only, and avoid Peanut Lab surveys unless I am desperate). I go for surveys that pay out the most for the least amount of time, usually less than 20 minutes. If I don’t get a hit from any of those, then I’ll move to the 20-30 minute range, but I almost never will take on a survey that requires any more time than that. Surveys often have glitches and sometimes I don’t get paid, or they quit mid-way, or something else goes wrong – it can be very maddening and frustrating at times. I have learned though to take a screen shot of the closing page so that I can file an official help request if I don’t get paid for some reason. The Swagbucks Help Center is usually (but not always) quite good about making sure I get the SB I’ve earned.
  3. I use the Search function. I do this twice a day, and earn anywhere from 10 to 50 Swagbucks. I have a list of search terms I work through every day, with a couple of stops along the way to check out the sites I’ve searched for, but I just click through most of the list until I get the reward. It takes me less than 15 minutes total. In the past I used to run everything through Swagbucks search, but their search engine is not the best, and the way I do it now is faster and easier.
  4. I play games once a day. I earn 10 Swagbucks a day for playing two of their free games, Pyramid Solitaire and Mahjongg Dimensions (there’s one more free game but I don’t enjoy it). Pyramid Solitaire is quick so I earn six SB through that, but while Mahjongg Dimensions slower it’s more fun and I earn another four SB playing that (2 Swagbucks for two rounds with both games). It may seem foolish playing games, but that 10 bucks has sometimes meant the difference between winning a 7 SB bonus or a 21 SB bonus. Other games cost to play so I avoid them.
  5. I shop through Swagbucks if I am ordering something online. This doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I earn extra SB if I run the order through their site. Swagbucks has a long list of online companies that team with them, and you can earn anywhere from 1% of your purchase in SB and on up if your order qualifies.

That’s all I do these days to earn. For me, it’s easy, uncomplicated, and doesn’t take up too much of my time, although there are days when I seems like it does. I do a lot of my surveys, searching, etc. in the evening when I’m watching TV, and have made it a habit to check Swagbucks first whenever I pick up my computer to see if there might be a survey I qualify for. There are lots of good tips out there about how to maximize your Swagbucks earnings; they are worth searching for. 

For the record, it’s been difficult to earn these first few days of the new year (holidays can be tough), but I’ve managed to meet my goal each day, and things are beginning to pick up again. I just ordered the $500 Delta card that I earned last year, and I’m determined to earn another two of them this year – $1500 will go along way toward covering the cost of our flights in 2022!

Budget Challenge: Grocery Shopping on Kaua’i

Brett and I have a standing challenge whenever we go food shopping: buy what we need but try to stay under budget if possible so there’s something leftover to put into the travel savings. Between Walmart, Costco, Safeway or Big Save Market, and the weekly farmers’ market we have a wide selection of places to shop, but staying within our budget can be difficult because prices here can be high, sometimes a good deal higher, than they are in most places on the mainland. We’re very good at knowing the difference between a need and a want though, and telling ourselves “no” whenever we have to. We shop for groceries three times a month, weekly if you count our Wednesday trips to the farmers’ market, and we try very hard to not have to go to any store in-between shopping trip if at all possible. We no longer do “big shops” or stock ups because we don’t have the storage space like we did in the past nor do we like spending such vast sums.

Last week was a good week for us, shopping wise. We had budgeted $160 for the week, but spent only $128.80, and put $31.20 into our travel savings ($11.20 into the change/$1 bill jar and an additional $20 bill for good measure). Here’s how we did it:

We ALWAYS shop with a list, and by the time we make it to the store it usually looks like the one above. The circled items are the items that made the final cut; others were deemed either not necessary or not necessary now and were added to this week’s list. Two of the circled items on the Costco side did not get purchased: sparkling water and a beach towel ($9.99 at Costco). Costco had no affordable choices for sparkling water, and although we had the funds for a beach towel we decided it could wait. It will eventually need to be purchased and will go on a list in the future.

We spent exactly $41 at Walmart, and got everything on our list except for soba noodles and Yoshida (teriyaki) sauce, neither of which they had. We couldn’t find suitable substitutes there for either so decided to look for those items at Safeway, which was going to be our last stop of the day.

Our Costco list ended up being quite short, but we didn’t need much. We spent $50.10 there and now have enough dental floss for months to come (it was on sale this month). It’s sort of strange to leave Costco with so few things these days – when we lived here before any trip to Costco meant a cart filled to overflowing.

We sometimes stop at Safeway because it’s pretty much right next door to Costco and on our way home. Along with the head of lettuce and the big locally-grown tomato for our hamburgers we also found the brand of soba we like and some teriyaki sauce that worked for us. The soba cost more than it usually does at Walmart, but the teriyaki sauce was on sale and cost less so it evened out. Still, we spent $17.70 total for these four items, which is a lot and a good indicator of why we don’t regularly shop at Safeway here. Milk was also on our list but they didn’t have what we were looking for (a quart of 1%), and we decided we didn’t need it this week after all.

We budget $20 every week for the farmers’ market, and this past week spent every bit of it on a big bunch of bananas, two huge papayas, a large dragonfruit, three cucumbers, green beans, green onions, and a head of cabbage. 

We will go shopping again tomorrow, but with a smaller allotment than last week, and then go once again next week. Both shopping trips will pose additional challenges as we need to make sure we shop smartly to get ourselves through a three week stretch before our next piece of income rolls in again. That’s a long time to go without shopping, but we have plenty of protein on hand (meat, chicken, and fish) for the two of us, a good supply of other pantry staples, and along with the produce from the farmers’ market every week we should make it – fingers are crossed!

(If you have any questions about individual prices here for items we bought, let me know in the comments and I’ll look them up.)

Following My Own Advice

Looks like someone else has a change/$1 bill jar to help save for travel!

Although both domestic and international travel is currently out of picture, this down time is the perfect time to save for future travel. Although we have come up with a travel plan for 2022, we have no way of knowing how much the total cost for that might be, with air fares the wild card. So, we are on a mission to save as much as we can between now and then, and have set some annual goals for saving.

Back in 2017 I posted this list of ways to save for travel. They’re all still good advice, and a reminder that if you want to travel, make saving for travel a priority. Here’s how we’re doing now (in blue):

  1. Set up a dedicated travel savings account, and start a monthly allotment to that account. How much you can deposit into your travel account each month will depend on your regular operating budget, but even a small monthly amount can add up quickly. Currently the amount we add to the account every month is very small, but we still automatically put away a set amount every month for future travel. The amount we can add to the account will be adjusted as income that is currently going for other things (for example, YaYu’s tuition) is freed up.
  2. See if you can save on regular budget categories, and then put the difference into your travel savings. For example, if your monthly food budget is $700, see if you can find ways to save and get it down to $650, or $600. At the end of the month, put the difference into  your savings. This has been difficult to do so far because of YaYu being with us, and because of increases in the cost of food. Our food budget should drop off though at the end of this month, and although we’re keeping the amount the same, we should have some extra every month to go into savings.
  3. Do a “no-spend” week, or month, and deposit all usual discretionary spending amounts into your savings. If you stop and pick up a coffee every morning, don’t for one week. Same for going out for lunch while you’re at work, or eating out or picking up dinner. Plan ahead, keep track of what you would have spent on those things, and then at the end of the week, or month, deposit that amount into your savings. This isn’t to make yourself miserable while you save, but rather to see how much you can add to your savings. Good advice, but we have next to no discretionary spending right now.
  4. Save your change and $1 bills. Brett and I put away around $700 – $800 per year doing this, although one year we saved over $1000. We try to use cash as much as possible, and when we get coins back we immediately put them aside. Same for $1 bills. When we use our debit card, we always round up to the nearest $5 if possible (i.e. if the amount owed is $11.17, we round up to $15, and $3.83 goes into savings). This might require some effort at first to remember to do it, but after a while it becomes a habit. Once we have $25 in $1 bills, or are able to roll our change, off it goes to the travel savings account. We also used to occasionally set aside $5 bills – it’s not as easy to do as with $1 bills, but once in a while we feel we can. Twenty of those though and we’ve got another $100 saved. We are currently only saving $1 bills and change right now, but we are not shopping much these days so are putting away less than we used to. We have been using our debit card when we food shop versus cash, but starting this month we’ll go back to cash as that is where the dollar bills and change come from. We take it for deposit when we have at least $50 saved. I also just read an idea of once a month or so, tuck away $10 or $20 right when you get your cash, and pretend as if you never had it. We might give that try.
  5. Recognize needs versus wants. This also takes some training and effort, but start asking yourself if you really need that new t-shirt, or burrito from Chipotle, or whatever from IKEA, or whether you’d rather enjoy coffee and a croissant in Paris or a week on the beach in Hawai’i. Same for your food shopping – go with a list and stick to it. There’s nothing wrong with looking, but visualizing your saving goals while you look can help keep you more focused on what you need versus what you merely want. This practice might not immediately put money into your savings account, except that you’ll probably have more money left at the end of the month that can be saved for travel. We’ve got this down.
  6. Dedicate all refunds, rebates and gifts to your travel savings. We get a nice rebate every year from Costco and from our insurance company – both of those go right into our travel savings. Same for our annual tax refund. Unfortunately, no one sends us money for our birthdays any more :-(. We don’t get many of these rebates now, but they still all go into the travel savings account. We had reverted to regular membership at Costco before we started traveling in 2018, but went back to the Executive level a couple of months ago for the rebate as we buy all our gas at Costco and shop there at least three times a month.
  7. Get a travel rewards credit card. If you’re good about paying off your credit card every month, this is a great way to earn either miles that will help reduce the cost of air travel, or cash back that can go into your travel account. Brett and I use our credit card to pay recurring monthly expenses like our cable bill and phone bill, and then pay it off every month. Our card rewards can be used to either book travel or receive a check – we always take the check. We don’t use the card to pay for groceries because we’ve found that using cash and setting aside the change and $1 bills we get back is more than would be generated in rewards from the card. Warning: use reward cards carefully. Be sure pay off your credit card balance every month. You don’t want to end up with a huge credit card bill that you have to pay versus putting away money for your travel dreams. No changes here. 
  8. Sell things you don’t need or use any more. Take an inventory of your stuff every once in and while, and use Craigslist, eBay, Facebook or other sites to sell unused and unneeded items around your home, with the money you earn going straight to your travel savings. You can also become a savvy shopper at thrift stores or yard sales and find items that can be refurbished and resold online. Someone I know carefully bought high-end clothing brands at thrift and consignment stores and resold them for a profit on eBay, earning enough in a year to finance a trip to Europe. Someone else I know resold books that she picked up for a song at yard sales. Katy over at The Non-Consumer Advocate is in a master class when it comes to the resale game. We have nothing left to sell right now except for a rug that was in our shipment that doesn’t really fit anywhere in the apartment.
  9. Get a part-time job. I’m retired now, and have absolutely no interest in doing any part-time work, nor does Brett, but we’ve done this in the past. For example, the extra I made working as a substitute went into our savings that got us here to Hawai’i. Depending on how much time you have, or how motivated you are, a second gig can be anything from a couple of hours a week to a regular part-time position. Dedicate those earnings to your travel savings. There are no jobs on Kauai right now even if we did want to work.
  10. Be creative. Pick up change off the ground. Return bottles and cans for the deposit, if you can in your state. Clip coupons and put the money saved into your travel account. Use Swagbucks and earn $$ through PayPal. There are all sorts of small ways out there to add to your travel savings. It might not seem like a lot, but it all adds up. I am earning Swagbucks again to earn airlines gift cards for future travel, although I’m no where near as fanatic about it now as I was in the past. Otherwise, we still pick up change, and recycle bottles and cans (no more Diet Coke cans to go back though; these days it’s sparkling water cans).

Just as small amounts here and there can quickly drain your checking account, small amounts can also beef up your savings in a hurry. Our goal is to reach at least $13,000 in travel savings by September 2022, but as always, we aim to do better than that if we can. We have mapped out where the savings will be be coming from and when, but hopefully this will be enough, along with the airline gift cards I’m earning, to get us to and from YaYu’s graduation in the spring, and to Japan and on to England and back in the fall. Game on!