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!

Until One Is Committed

“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. 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 FAVOUR ALL MANNER OF UNFORESEEN INCIDENTS AND MEETINGS AND MATERIAL ASSISTANCE, WHICH NO MAN COULD HAVE DREAMT WOULD HAVE COME HIS WAY. I HAVE LEARNED A DEEP RESPECT FOR ONE OF GOETHE’S COUPLETS:
WHATEVER YOU CAN DO, OR DREAM YOU CAN, BEGIN IT.
BOLDNESS HAS GENIUS, POWER, AND MAGIC IN IT!”

William Hutchinson Murray

(This was first posted on January 16, 2018, but it seems timely once again, even in this time of unknowns.)

The best description I ever heard of the China adoption process was that putting the dossier together was like doing your taxes over and over and over and over and over and over . . . again and again and again and again . . . .  A slew of documents needed to be assembled upfront: a home study, birth certificates, marriage certificate, medical reports, police reports, financial statement, adoption statements, immigration forms, etc. – there were nearly 20 documents required in all. Each one of them had to be notarized in the state where they originated, then each notarized document went to the Secretary of State of that state for the notary to be certified. After that, the entire stack, by now nearly three inches high, was sent by courier to the U.S. State Department for certification, and then to the Chinese Embassy for each document’s final certification and approval. Four copies had to be made of every page of the entire dossier and only then could it finally be sent to China and put in line for us to be matched with a child.

The process took several months to complete, and along the way, there was always the possibility for China to tweak or change their requirements. For example, we were almost done with the dossier for Meiling’s adoption when China suddenly announced that physicals could no longer be more than six months old, and ours were seven months old at that point. Panic! But, our doctor squeezed us in, and every other part of the certification process worked flawlessly (for a change) and in just a few short weeks the dossier was finally complete and off to China in late May of 1996. Matches and referrals were taking only three or so months back then, so our hopes were high that by the time we returned home in August from taking our son to college we would have news of a new daughter.

However, when we returned home and called our agency the news was not good; in fact, it was very bad. China had shut down adoptions for families that already had children, which of course included us. Our agency was moving families into other adoption programs, but China had been the only program that worked for us because of our ages (we were each over 40 years old). What had happened, we later learned, was a power struggle over the international adoption program had broken out between two different political bureaus in China, and adoptions had ground to a halt while they fought it out and reorganized. (We also learned our agency was convinced at the time that the entire program was going to collapse.)

All of our hopes and love, and quite a bit of money, had gone into the adoption process for more than a year, including all of Brett’s and my work assembling our dossier. I was in graduate school at the time, and my work began to suffer because I could barely concentrate. Brett unhappily slogged off to work each day as well. Our son was at college in another state, so it was just the two of us at home each evening, and we were glum, depressed, and unsure of what to do or how to proceed.

On one particularly bad day, one of my professors emailed me the quote above, and told me to “hang in there.” I shared it with Brett that evening, and we talked about how deeply committed we still were to adopting from China and had been from the start. All sorts of unexpected and serendipitous events had happened and helped us along the way to make our adoption dream so far a reality, and we decided that rather than pull out we would stay with it to the end and see what happened, no matter the outcome. We both felt in our hearts that our daughter was waiting for us there.

The William Murray quote was a turning point for us. And, it has proven prescient ever since. When we have committed to something, whether it was adding an additional child to our family again through adoption, or getting ourselves out of debt, or moving to Hawai’i, or planning a trip – when we have committed ourselves, as the quote says, Providence has always moved too. Things we couldn’t have imagined happened to help make our plans a reality, and we were given the drive, vision, and persistence to see our dreams come true and our goals reached.

Commitment has been the step where we’ve gone from “do you think?” or “should we?” to “let’s do this” and then started figuring out how to accomplish it. The path to success has not always been straight or smooth or easy, but time and experience have shown that the unexpected does and will occur along the way to help, especially when we need it most. As each journey continues we begin to see things in different ways and act on them accordingly, with our commitment to finishing growing stronger the further along we get.

As the new year began in 1997 we were still waiting, but Brett and I had reached the depths of despair. There had been no positive word from our agency for weeks, and we felt like we were hanging on to hope by our fingernails. We had enjoyed having our son home for Christmas, but he returned to school on January 9. So, when the phone rang on the morning of January 10 I assumed it was him asking about something he had forgotten and wanted us to send. I had been lying on our sofa, crying and asking God for some kind of a sign, that if there was to be no adoption to let us know somehow and we would let it go, but if we were to continue to hope then we would continue to hang on. When I answered the phone though it was not our son but our social worker: “Laura, there’s a baby girl waiting for you in China.” On March 12, 1997, in the hallway of a hotel in China, we met our little Meiling for the first time and she was ours.

This was the only picture we received of Meiling before we met her.

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!

Restocking the Travel Savings

Our travel savings account currently registers at $0.00. Every last penny is gone, although all of it was used just as intended: for travel. If we are ever going to travel again though we need to build it back up again and there’s no reason not to start now.

Before we began our Big Adventure in 2018, we were able to automatically save a nice amount in the travel account every month, with some transferred automatically right into savings and the rest from other sources. However, we are currently committed to helping YaYu graduate from college without debt, and we are putting away over a quarter of our income into savings each month toward that expense. If we’re lucky, the amount we save will cover the difference between her financial aid and what she owes. YaYu has always paid a big piece of that difference with scholarships and summer work, but there will be no job for her this summer, and the external scholarships have run out. Also, she was previously one of three, then two, in our family attending college, but for the next two years, she will be the only one and her aid will be less because of that. She has saved every refund she has received so far this year and received a notice that she will receive a couple of thousand dollars in additional grant aid next year, but what she will owe next year is a big unknown. The first bill will come due in July (along with news about whether the college plans to reopen in the fall, another big unknown), and once she gets that we will either be able to relax a bit or have to figure out how to tighten our belts a little more. She may have to borrow, but we hope to keep that amount, if it happens, as low as possible. 

As we have no idea what travel costs may look like in the future, we have no idea of what sort of savings goal to set for ourselves other than it will have to be very modest for the time being. Our goal is simply to try to save as much as we can. We want to have enough to get us to YaYu’s graduation in 2022, which will be a good start at seeing what we can accomplish.

Here’s what will be going into the account:

  • We will initially be transferring $25/month into our travel savings each month. It’s very little, but if we find we can afford a little more later we will increase the allotment.
  • We will again be saving all our change and $1 bills. We’re not using cash as much these days as we did in the past, so this won’t build up as fast as it used to.
  • All refunds from recycling will go toward travel.
  • All other refunds and rebates, like the annual rebate from our insurance, will also go for travel. We’re not expecting many of these though.
  • We receive a lump-sum payment each year from Meiling (and this year will from WenYu as well) for the cost of keeping them on our phone plan. It’s not a huge amount as our phone plan is very low cost but we will put these payments into our travel account.
  • If we can somehow ever come under our monthly budget for food, the difference will go into travel savings. Likewise for gasoline. Under current conditions, this is something else that’s unlikely to happen, but we’re going to try.
  • Any other miscellaneous money that comes our way will go straight into travel savings.

If we’ve learned anything from the past it’s that slowly but surely, even small amounts put away eventually add up to something bigger, and more quickly than one might imagine. And, YaYu will eventually graduate and what we currently put away for her can go toward travel once again.

We’ve done this before and we know we can do this again. We don’t know what the new rules for travel will be yet, but we do know it’s the right time for us to get started saving for it.

Back to the Future: The R-Word

I was very surprised when I came across this post from January 2011 because I thought this part of our journey had come much, much later.

Brett and I have long called ourselves “accidental retirees.” We had never thought much about or discussed retirement although we did save, but at the beginning of 2010 we did not believe we would ever be able to retire. We were drowning in debt at that point, had depleted our savings, and we were still raising young children – retirement was nothing more than a pipe dream. While we had committed ourselves to getting out of debt we were unable to see ourselves ever surviving without being employed somewhere. However, it appears that after just one (very difficult) year of debt reduction, we were not only thinking about but apparently actively starting to plan Brett’s retirement!

The game-changer was not only the elimination of over half of our debt, but discovering Brett would qualify for an additional family allowance from Social Security. Before January 2011 we had no idea such a thing even existed, let alone that we would qualify for it. I remember Brett and I talking with a counselor at Social Security, and finding out that because we had three children under age 18 that we would receive the full allowance, at least for a couple of years. With that, and with Brett’s military retirement, a small pension from his employer, his regular Social Security, and our debt eliminated, retirement became an affordable reality.

Brett did not retire in 2012 – that didn’t happen until June 2013 because stuff continued to happen and the rest of our debt did not get paid off as quickly as we hoped. However, at the beginning of 2011, we finally knew where the path we were on was taking us and how we were going to get there, and we had an even bigger motivation for finally getting rid of our debt. That journey never really got much easier, but knowing what awaited us at the end made a huge difference. 

The R-Word

No, it’s not Rest, Relaxation, Reuse or Recycle. The R-word here is Retirement. 

Brett is eligible to retire (Social Security-type retire) in just a little over a year. This is both exciting and somewhat frightening at the same time. The date is coming fast too, although frankly, not fast enough for Brett. He wants to be done with work yesterday, although he plans to continue working at his current position until the end of 2012. His huge desire to retire is the primary factor behind our urgency to pay off our debt.

The conventional wisdom is that you should work as long as possible, and put off taking your Social Security benefits in order to draw the full benefit upon retirement. We’re in a somewhat unique position though because we have dependents under the age of 18, so Brett will be eligible to receive the full family allowance for a while along with his standard Social Security payment. It makes sense for him to retire earlier rather than later. Social Security, along with his military retirement and pension from his current job, will provide us with an adequate income when he does leave his job. He will probably continue to work part-time somewhere because he’s not a sit-around sort of guy, but that’s an unknown for now. Right around when the time comes for our youngest (YaYu) to age out of eligibility for the allowance, my Social Security and pension will kick in to bring our income back up, although my pension will probably be just enough to buy milk every month. We’re not going to be rich by any stretch of the imagination, but we’ll be OK, especially if we don’t have any debt.

One thing we are talking about now is whether to stay in Portland or move elsewhere and if so, where? Brett and I are both getting tired of the rain and the cold of Portland winters, but the girls love it here. Any move would have to be done after Meiling graduates from high school in 2014 as she does not do particularly well with change, and is the most embedded here. But I’m not sure we will want to stay an additional four years after that for YaYu to graduate. We have long dreamed of moving out to the Oregon coast, but realize we would face the same weather there as we do here. Although I’m originally from California, I have little desire to go back there, and any place on the east coast would be too far away from our son, daughter-in-law, and grandson in Japan. Hawaii is a possibility, although the cost of living is quite high there. We have lots to think about, and thankfully don’t need to make any quick decisions.

We made some not-so-smart financial choices in the past and would be in even better financial shape if we’d done a few things differently, but we also did some things right or smart, like making the commitment for Brett to stick it out with the navy for 22 years, even though it was not an easy life. Adopting three children when we were in our mid- to late-40s was maybe not a smart financial move, but the right thing for us, and the best thing we ever did in every other sense. Going back to school in our 40s and borrowing for that was also not the brightest choice we made, but we’re both glad we have our degrees, and in Brett’s case it has paid off. Sticking with his current employer for all these years has also turned out well, although he could have made more money elsewhere. His Fortune 500 company has provided incredible benefits that no one else could come close to matching, and some of those will continue to be there after retirement.

If I know just one thing now, it’s that time passes way more quickly than you ever think it will and suddenly something like actual retirement looms. When we were young, when Brett was deployed, time seemed to stretch out forever. I never gave much of a thought to retirement or what we’d be doing or how we’d pay for things but all of a sudden . . . here it is. “Old people” were always talking about retirement and saving and investments but we felt like we had forever to get there. How wrong we were! We know that Social Security, in its current form, should be there for us and for that we are immensely grateful. For our son, or our daughters, or others younger than us, maybe not. We’re lucky and we know it.

P.S. I was doubly surprised to see Hawaii mentioned this early as well, as I remembered that as coming much later too.

P.P.S. Neither of us has ever had to (or wanted to) work after retirement – with a changed, more frugal lifestyle, our income, approximately two-thirds of what we earned pre-retirement, has turned out to be enough that we haven’t needed additional employment.

Planning for the Future

Without revealing too much, for now, Brett and I finally have put together a solid, sensible, and workable plan for what we’re doing following our short visit to Portland in June when Brett meets with the surgeon and sets a date for his parathyroid surgery (it’s non-urgent and he’s hoping to get it done in December).

The amount we currently contribute toward YaYu’s college expenses each month has had a deep impact on how much we can put away each month for travel expenses. We’re not able to save as much for our transportation expenses (airfare, train fares, etc.), and our travel savings account is now, for all purposes, close to empty. Thankfully all major transportation has been covered through our trip to New England in June, but we still need to purchase airfare from Boston to Portland in June, and then transportation when we depart Portland. We should be able to fit both of those into our monthly budget between now and June if we’re careful, but it’s no longer as easy to do as it once was.

Also, we want to come to a decision about whether to continue traveling or slowing and settling down. There are strong plusses and minuses to each side, with the biggest and most difficult question until recently being where to settle. We’ve pretty much decided at this point that we want to return to Kaua’i, but we also know we’re not ready to do that yet for a variety of reasons.

The plan we’ve come up with tackles these two big issues: 1) whether we’re ready to settle down or want to keep traveling and 2) continue to help YaYu pay for college while rebuilding our travel account.

We will arrive at our upcoming mystery destination on April 20, and after a couple of weeks of settling in we will start looking for a long-term furnished rental there. We will finish our initial stay in the mystery location toward the end of May and afterward will visit New York, attend WenYu’s graduation, spend some time in Maine, and finally head to Portland in June so Brett can meet with the surgeon. Following that, we will return to the mystery destination for a 12-18 month stay (we will fly back to Portland in December for Brett’s surgery and possibly for our annual holiday reunion with the girls). During our long-term stay, we’ll have the opportunity to further explore a fascinating area that’s new to us as well as get a sense of what settling down long term again feels like without having to make any big or permanent investments. We’ll be able to see whether or not we really are ready to finally stay in one place or whether we’re still too restless. 

Our current idea though is that following at least a year-long stay, we’ll do one more big round of travel and visit a few more places on our list. That, of course, will depend on how much we can save and what our health is like. The idea though is to seriously think about ending our full-time travels after YaYu’s graduation in 2022 and head over to Kaua’i afterward. We still plan to travel, but with a more permanent base underneath us.

Of course, as the saying goes, “Man makes plans and God laughs.” But, we’ve done our research, and the plan is workable, affordable, and a good compromise between continuing or ending our nomadic lifestyle. Unlike other plans we’ve come up with, the entire family is on board with this one, and think it’s a great choice for us going forward.

We’ll reveal more once we arrive at the mystery location. In the meantime, we plan to continue to enjoy our time with family in one of our favorite locations, Tokyo! 

Food Shopping in Japan Week 3: What We Bought, What We Spent

This was a very different week for our food shopping budget because this past Saturday we went out to the commissary at the Atsugi base and bought a LOT of stuff there.

Atsugi is the closest large military facility, but it took a long time to get there due to traffic issues (coming back was much easier, thank goodness), and we were all more than a little tired when we arrived. We stopped first at the exchange, where Brett and I bought an inexpensive Crock Pot ($19.99), some measuring cups, a set of measuring spoons, two bed pillows, a package of pillowcases, and a bottle of body lotion. We got lucky when we checked out and won a 15% off everything coupon, a very nice surprise.

We got all this plus three 12-packs of Diet Coke at the commissary for $193.63. The hard part was finding room to put it all away!

After shopping at the exchange, we stopped for lunch in the food court (Brett and I shared a Subway tuna sandwich), and then it was time to hit the commissary. As we discovered last year, the commissary is now about three times larger than it was when we were stationed at Atsugi (1989-1992), with a selection about three to four times larger as well. We took our time going through the store and filling up our cart. Our total at the commissary was $193.63, and along with our exchange purchases and lunch, we spent a total of $253.50. We brought $400 with us, so left with $146.50 still in our wallets.

Because of our commissary shop, we didn’t need as much from Seiyu this week, mostly just produce and dairy, along with a few other things. We spent ¥4929 ($45.43) out of our weekly ¥10,000 allotment and put ¥5,000 back into the envelope.

Dairy: We bought another liter of low-fat milk, 2 containers of yogurt (still just ¥99 each), 15 Yakult, a half dozen eggs, and we splurged on some New Zealand salted butter (¥498/$4.59). The eggs are called “red eggs” because the yolk is so deep orange it’s nearly red.

Produce: This week we got 2 ripe avocados (small, but just ¥87/80¢), one tomato, a head of lettuce, broccoli, 2 cucumbers, and 4 bananas. The cucumbers had gone up in price this week to ¥87/80¢ each also. We’re planning to use the tomato and lettuce for lunchtime BLTs later this week, and the avocados will be for avocado toast for breakfast some morning. I can’t remember the last time I saw an avocado for under $1 in the U.S. and was surprised by the price here as they’re definitely imported. We didn’t buy any strawberries or apples as we still have some from last week.

Pantry: We bought just a couple of things in this area: 3 packages of CookDo (mabo dofu, pepper & pork stir fry, and sweet & sour pork, still on sale for ¥155 each) and two fancy instant udon packages (¥178/$1.64 each). Brett chose tempura shrimp noodles and I got kitsune (fox) udon, so-called because foxes supposedly like the fried tofu (aburaage) on top. They’ll be good for lunch one day.

Paper goods: One 12-pack of “Ariel” 2-ply toilet paper was ¥398 ($3.67), a bargain compared to what it costs in the U.S.

Miscellaneous: Seiyu had bags of KitKats on sale for ¥198/$1.83 per package! They didn’t have a big selection, but we found three flavors we didn’t already have: matcha, dark chocolate, and yuzu green tea (yuzu is a kind of citrus fruit), a new flavor for us. I also got a few take-out items from the prepared food section for my lunch: a pickled plum onigiri (rice ball), steamed kabocha squash, and coleslaw. The three items cost ¥386/$3.56.

We didn’t buy any meat this week which is one reason our total was low, and there were a few other items we decided we could go without. I forgot to get Pam at the commissary on Saturday though and was hoping I could find a similar product at Seiyu, but no such luck. We are now two KitKat flavors short of reaching our goal!

Closing Out the Books for January 2020

With two of our girls with us in Portland until the day before we left, nine days on Kaua’i, our usual travel day expenses, and then settling in once we got to Tokyo, we assumed we would go w-a-y over our daily spending average in January.

But that didn’t happen. We ended up with a daily spending average of $34.94, just under our $35/day limit.

Looking back, YaYu and WenYu helped us eat down all the food we had remaining in our Portland Airbnb and we spent very little during those final 10 days in Portland. We stuck to our pre-determined spending limits while we were on Kaua’i and left with cash in our wallets. Other than a couple of cups of coffee and two breakfast sandwiches, we bought nothing on our travel days and let our hotel or the airlines feed us. And, we “paid” ourselves upfront for a month when we arrived in Japan, a pre-determined amount of 80,000 yen, instead of using our debit card over and over. Because of that, we have carefully watched our spending so we don’t run out before our next “payday.” Our son and DIL have helped with a few expenses, such as our transportation from Narita airport, some local travel expenses, and a few meals at their home. Those have helped our bottom line as well.

We ended January with a total of ¥42,800 on hand out of our original ¥80,000 (¥23,000 for groceries, ¥10,800 for dining out, and ¥9,000 for miscellaneous expenses). We added $400 to that for commissary/exchange shopping which we did this past Saturday, February 1 (we have $146 of that remaining). There is zero yen left in the envelope for transportation but our PASMO cards still have over ¥4,000 on them which should last us for a while. We will replenish our yen supply again on the 15th of this month, withdrawing another ¥80,000 and dividing it among the envelopes.

Based on the current exchange rate, ¥80,000 equals around $740 (which means $60 gets left in our bank account). With the additional $400 in U.S. dollars we added in, we have a total of $1140 available for the month of February. Divided by 29 days, that’s an average of a little over $39/day for the month. However, the average will drop to around $24/day in March, so we’re challenging ourselves to keep our spending average as low as possible to get ready for that. Once again, fingers crossed!

Closing Out the Books for December and the Year

We knew there was no way we were going to be able to stay on or under budget during December and in that respect, we were correct. We ended the month with a daily spending average of $47.34, back near our $50/day limit versus staying close to the current $35/day limit. Most of what was spent this past month was for food, lots and lots of food. We’ve eaten well but not extravagantly, and I’m not sure where we could have cut back – there’s been no waste, and we bought little to no junk food or sweets either. Other than a very few items, like Brett’s beard trimmer, his new carry-on bag, and a couple of books for me, there’s been no buying things other than travel supplies and provisions. Our daily spending average is what it is – it just costs more to feed a family.

I also went back through all our spending in 2019 to see how we did over the span of 12 months. There were several months of under average spending (more than I thought), but of course there were several months where we ended up over our daily average. I added up how we did each month, whether we were over or under budget, and came up with a total of $848.96 over budget for the entire year. Divided by 12, that’s $70.75/month over what we had planned to spend.

I have mixed feelings about that number. I’m of course disappointed, but it’s also not as bad as both Brett and I imagined it might be. Our worst overspending occurred when we were in the U.S. because we tended to do “big shops” at places like Costco, and also spent extra on re-provisioning our travel supplies. Side trips, like the ones we took while we were in England or out to the Oregon coast this past summer, also drove our spending up as well. We bought and spent more than planned in India, but otherwise did not go crazy buying things or going out to eat frequently during the year, although they happened from time to time. We have no regrets about those experiences however. Some places we visited during the year turned out to be more expensive than we had estimated (Hong Kong, for example) but other places were as expected or even a bit less. In Japan and England, our two long stays, we started off spending over our monthly averages but over time we learned and adjusted, and by our final months in each place we had it down to below average.

Overall it was just an OK year, spending wise, not a great one or even a good one. We were able to cover the amounts we were over each month, and we don’t feel as if we wasted money on anything or any experience. The cost-of-living increases in our income this year will cover the extra per month if we repeat 2019’s spending patterns, but we know we can do better. Our goal for 2020 is to come in under average every month.

Closing Out the Books for October 2019

Our souvenirs from Oxford: Brett got a Cheshire Cat mug (one of his all-time favorite literary characters) and I got a plastic-free reusable/sustainable travel cup in the Japanese “octopus” pattern at the Ashmolean Museum (the silicone top and sleeve and can be used on other cups). Both were purchased using a coupon, and cost less than £10 ($13).

We tried.

We tried very hard to stay at or under our Daily Spending Average this month, but between our visit to Edinburgh and our time in London and Oxford with YaYu, October ended up being an expensive month for us and we are ending October with our DSA at $45.08. That’s $10/day over budget or $310 this month. Ouch.

We did a bit of traveling this past month, and we did buy a few things. Brett and I each got a cashmere scarf in Edinburgh (discounted because we bought two), and we also bought some shortbread and a bottle of gin when we toured the Edinburgh distillery. We ate out only once a day, nothing fancy, but otherwise, all meals were eaten at our apartment. We bought nothing in London other than three Oyster cards for transportation (£40/$52 each) and ate just one meal out a day while we were there as well. Even though we chose affordable places to eat (for London, that is), it was still expensive, usually in the $75+ range for the three of us. In Oxford, we walked everywhere, ate one meal out (full tea at the Randolph Hotel) and Brett and I stopped for coffee and cake at a cafe after YaYu departed. Brett and I also bought ourselves a coffee mug while we were there, our preferred souvenir these days. Along with the small rabbit pillow we got for YaYu (less than $25) before she arrived, it didn’t seem like much but it all added up and here we are.

We spent £43.50 ($55) on this week’s groceries, enough to get us through until we return from our trip to Bath next week. That amount also included a few more items not shown because they will be used later for gifts.

We are finding food costs, if bought in a store like Aldi or Tesco, to be very affordable, much less than we paid in Portland last summer. We average around $50/week on food, with our monthly grocery store expenses less than $300 (our food budget is $450/month). However, everything else seems to cost much more here. Our round-trip bus ride over to Moreton-in-Marsh every week is £9 ($11.50), nearly triple the cost of a similar ride in Portland, and that’s after getting a discount because we buy a round trip ticket. A cup of tea and scones costs approximately $10 per person but we’ve learned to get a plate of two scones and share a pot of tea to save on that expense. We don’t do that very often though, maybe twice a month, and consider it a British experience we couldn’t do elsewhere. The different gins we are enjoying are also something unique to being in Britain. We’ve bought four bottles here of specialty gins, costing us about $180 total, but those have and will last through our entire three-month stay. They’ve been an absolutely delicious treat and we have no regrets (and we’ll go back to drinking cheap wine after we leave).

Anyway, we’ll keep trying and hope for a better result next month. We’re not quite sure where to make changes or cut back at this point. Brett tracks everything we spend, every day, and we think carefully about each purchase we make. We had several no-spend days in October and we’ll try to increase the number of those. Maybe $35/day is unrealistic, especially in an expensive country like England (and Japan) and perhaps we need to adjust the amount we’re putting away for YaYu’s college costs. We’ll see how November goes because December is also going to be an expensive month when we have all the girls with us for nearly a month.

Closing Out the Books for September 2019

Worth every penny . . .

September was a very good month budget-wise. Well, it was until we got to the last two days of the month. Spending on just those two days blew up all our good work and we ended up with a higher put us above where we wanted to be, by a little over $5/day.

On September 29 we visited the nearby village of Broadway, and besides our usual stop for tea and scones, we also purchased a small gift for YaYu, and we picked up two bottles of gin at the Cotswolds Gin Distillery Shop. Specialty gin is not cheap, but it’s something we can’t get back in the U.S. and something we’re especially enjoying during our time here. At the very least, the two bottles we purchased (plus the one we later bought in Edinburgh) will be enough to get us through until the end of our stay in the United Kingdom. Anyway, our DSA before entering Broadway was $35.45, upon leaving the village it had jumped to $38.75.

The last day of September was our travel day up to Edinburgh. We bought a few snack items at the village shop the day before to have on hand on the way up and bought one bottle of water on the train. But, there was a Kiehl’s shop in King’s Cross, and since I needed to buy moisturizer anyway (I had planned to look for it next week in London) I went ahead and bought a jar at the station shop. We had a light lunch at King’s Cross (sandwich for Brett and Moroccan bowl for me) and a small dinner after we arrived in Edinburgh at an Indian restaurant just down the street from our apartment (which provided leftovers for next evening’s dinner). However, adding in our bus fare over to Moreton to catch the train and a taxi from the station to our apartment once we arrived, by the time that day finished our DSA for the month had climbed to $40.24. Ouch. It could have been a lot worse, but careful spending earlier in the month saved things from really getting out of hand.

Because of our visit to Edinburgh, we have started off the month of October with our DSA above where it should be (it’s currently just slightly over $38/day), although it is dropping quickly and we should be back to around $35/day or less by the time we leave for London at the end of the week. It will climb back over $35/day again while YaYu is here, but then we’ll have the rest of the month to bring it back down. With cold weather and rain in the forecast, we won’t be going out as much as we have been, and if we’re careful we should be ending the month at $35/day or a little below, right where we need to be.