Closing Out the Books on March

We had a very good month in March, spending wise. Right until the last day, that is.

February ended with a daily spending average of $56.93, with nearly $200 in spending over our monthly budget amount. We were determined to be more careful in March, and by March 30 we had managed to get our daily average down to $44.39, which included Meiling’s and her boyfriend’s arrival and our getaway to Odawara (our son took care of almost all our expenses there).

And then March 31 happened.

To celebrate our anniversary, and because we had two of our four children together who don’t get to see each other very much, we took everyone out to the Sunday Brunch at the New Sanno Hotel – six adults and one child (there was thankfully no charge for our granddaughter). And, following brunch, we went with Meiling to the Meiji Shrine and down into Harajuku where we treated all of us to crepes. On the way home we stopped in at the grocery store and bought some extra items for Meiling to bring home. Our spending for the one day ended up at $270.96 which brought our March average up to $51.69, and our daily average spend in Japan to $52.35. Ouch.

We are not off to a particularly good start in April either, with our daily spend average right now hovering around $57 (the day at Disneyland didn’t help), but we have the rest of the month to get back on track. I think we can do it because other than Brett’s birthday this month, and Easter, there are no big events coming up, just small outings and trips for groceries for the two of us. We shopped at the discount grocery store this past weekend and saw a considerable difference in the amount we paid, so that will help.

Fingers are once again crossed that we get through this month under our desired average of $50/day.

Closing Out the Books on February

Two trips to the commissary and one to the Navy Exchange in the past two weeks exploded our daily spending average for February. The commissary on the Yokosuka base was huge, with many affordable temptations but we stuck to necessary items only (I consider Diet Coke necessary).

February was not a good month, budget-wise.

We always knew that our stay Japan would be expensive and push the boundaries of our budget. Following two weeks in Sydney and New Zealand, we arrived in Japan slightly over budget. Our first two weeks here ratcheted our daily and monthly spending up even more. With a few no-spend days so far this week we have managed to get our daily average back down to a more acceptable level, but we’re ending the month with a daily spending average of $56.93 ($194.04 for the month). Ouch.

The biggest reason for our higher average in Japan were trips to the commissary and exchange at NAF Atsugi and another trip this week to the commissary at the Yokosuka naval base. Although prices were low we bought a lot of stuff to settle in and replenish supplies, as well as things we needed in the apartment, like food storage containers, extra toilet paper, and laundry supplies.

The upside is that we are starting March with a comfortable amount of yen in our wallets, and we are well-stocked with essentials and pantry basics. We will need to buy produce, meat and other smaller items (i.e. butter, yogurt) from the Japanese supermarket in the next few days but otherwise spending should be at a minimum.

February – not our finest month when it comes to staying on track with the budget. I tell myself that it could have been worse, and that we’ll hopefully see a better monthly average at the end of March.

Closing Out the Books On January

Four no-spend days on the train helped our bottom line, but sadly not enough.

January should have been a very low-cost month for us, but it didn’t turn out that way. We had more no-spend days than any previous month, and yet our costs outside of those days turned out to be quite high, and as a result we ended the month over our daily spend limit by nearly $5.50/day, or a total of $170.50 for the month. That’s not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but it was still troubling for us.

Our short stay in Hong Kong is where we really got into trouble, spending-wise, because any way we sliced it, Hong Kong was an expensive city. We saved in some areas, but other things caught us way off guard, like the huge (and surprising) cost to get our laundry done at the hotel, for example. Our casual lunch out at Stanley (a sandwich, some fish & chips, and two iced teas) was nearly $60US. It cost us twice as much to eat at Hong Kong Disneyland than our admission, and so on. A few taxi rides didn’t help the bottom line either. We made up for some of that overage once we got to Australia, which we have found to be very affordable in comparison, and hoped we’d be able to come in just slightly above our goal of $50/day by the end of the month. Our purchase of two $50AU Opal cards and a few groceries yesterday dashed those hopes.

However, with our Opal cards and groceries now in hand we are off to a good start in February, and hopefully we can keep things under control for the rest of our time in Australia, and then in New Zealand and Japan, although we will be having to buy (expensive) gasoline for the car in New Zealand, and two spendy tickets to get into Tokyo from the airport. But otherwise we should be OK, and are keeping our fingers crossed.

I also discovered that along with tracking our daily spending averages, Brett has also been tracking our daily steps and miles walked. Yesterday, for example, we walked 5.3 miles, and Brett took 14,333 steps (around 16,000 for me). The amount surprised me, considering how hot it was. Good thing I got most of those steps in before I fell and broke my toe!

It’s time for a pedicure again too!

Late yesterday afternoon the front edge of my flip-flop caught on the edge of a step as we were entering the David Jones department store in downtown Sydney (looking for a moisturizer/sunscreen replacement), and down I went. I was otherwise OK, but knew fairly soon that I had broken something in my foot because the pain in my toes was at a whole different level. However, I could still walk and we made it back home and out to dinner last night. I decided not to go to the ER because I knew all that would happen was there would be an X-ray confirming the break, my toes would be taped together, I would be told to elevate and ice my foot, and we would get a bill (I have broken a toe before). Instead, we stopped at a pharmacy and bought some tape, I taped the toe myself, and am keeping my foot elevated and iced as much as possible, and it’s all feeling better today. Brett is out with my brother this morning touring a couple of museums while I rest my foot, but I will be ready to do some limited walking later today and we plan to go tour the opera house tomorrow morning before my brother has to head back up to his home in Queensland (where there has been heavy flooding).

We have four more full days in Sydney though before leaving for New Zealand, so we should have enough time to do and see everything we’d like before we go. I’m having a very nice reunion with my brother as well!

Closing Out the Books On December

Our new “skinny” travel journal, ready to be made fat with travel tales and spending receipts.

We had to purchase a new daily journal/spending diary this month – the last one ran out of room at the end of November. It was just one of several extra expenses in December, and we went through a long stretch during the first half of the month where we were not sure we would or could come in either at or under our budget. However, at the end of the month we came in just under – huzzah!

Because of the girls joining us for much of the month, and because we had to re-provision several items before we hit the road again, we upped our daily limit in December from $50 to $60 per day. Our food spending and travel re-provisioning however, especially the initial amounts, took us w-a-y over and out of our budget not long after we arrived in Portland, and it took a few weeks of low- to no-spending to chip away at that rather appalling large daily average (over $200) and get it back to where we needed it to be. Our daily average at the end of the month is $55.96, so we’re very happy about that!

January is thankfully going to be a much less expensive month (we think). All of our expenses in India, including all meals, admissions and transportation, are covered – the only spending there will be tips for our drivers/guides and souvenirs (I want to buy a couple of pieces of silver jewelry in the Chandri Chowk bazaar in Delhi). Our time in Hong Kong will be all about eating, but we plan to mix restaurant meals with inexpensive street food and don’t think we’ll have a problem staying at or under our daily budget. We’ve got six days in Perth after that though where we’ll have food and transportation costs, but when we get on the train on the 27th once again everything will be paid for in full (meals, drinks and tours) until the end of the month. Our goal is to hopefully end January with a surplus, a good thing because in February costs will be going up again, especially since we will be eating and sightseeing in Sydney, have to pay for (expensive) gasoline in New Zealand, and Japan can always be counted on to be expensive. The cost-of-living raises in our Social Security and Brett’s navy retirement have come at a good time and will help our bottom line in the coming months.

We feel like we did very well with our finances in 2018, so here’s hoping we do as well or better in 2019!

Closing Out the Books For November

The daily journal and spending diary is almost full – we’ll be picking up a new one for Round Two when we’re in Portland.

As of tomorrow we will have been on the road for 102 days, mostly living out of our suitcases, but also taking time to unpack and rest, relax and recharge when possible. In another six days we will begin our journey back to the United States for a month’s visit in Portland, and time with our daughters and friends over the Christmas holiday.

We woke up yesterday morning to a rainy, blustery day, the kind where the wind turns umbrellas inside out every few feet. We had planned to go out and explore around the neighborhood, but instead only made it to a nearby supermarket for a few supplies, and got soaked in the process. We spent the rest of the day, warm and dry, in our cozy apartment doing laundry or with books and computers, and Brett got our travel and spending diary up to date for the month.

Our biggest savings come from fixing our own meals “at home” versus eating out. We found the waffles in the grocery store’s bakery –  just 70¢ each and very delicious!

November turned out to be quite an expensive month because we did so much. We constantly worried that we’d end up over budget, even with being as careful as possible. Besides eating gelato every day in Florence we paid for several admission tickets and a couple of tours; we took side trips to the Cinque Terre and Siena which included train tickets, national park admission, and an overnight hotel stay in Manarola; we ate out six times (lunches in Monterosso as Mare and  Riomaggiore, an expensive (but amazing) Tuscan meal in Siena, dinner in Florence and dinner and lunch in Rome); stopped for coffee or snacks now and again, and we also bought train tickets down to Rome from Florence as well as a taxi ride when we arrived and a driver when we left to come to Lisbon. All of it added up – without regret – so it was a pleasant surprise to discover that we managed to keep our daily spending average for the month to $49.02/day, just under our $50/day limit. Yeah us!

The total for our first grocery run in Lisbon has us thinking we’ll probably spend less here than we did in Italy, and once we’re in Portland we know where to shop and save. Some of our Christmas shopping has already been taken care of (using funds from our Christmas savings), but we have a few more things to get once we’re in Portland. We plan to go out to eat a couple of times with the girls (dim sum!), but budget- and spending-wise next month is looking good, and we’re actually a little ahead of where we want to be!

Closing Out the Books for October

There are two more days to go in this month, but from the way things look now we will end up just slightly over budget for the month. Considering how the month began though we’re very happy with where we’ve arrived at the end.

Our goal in October, as in September, was to keep our average daily spending to no more than $50/day. That amount is to cover daily food and snacks, transportation costs (other than train journeys between cities or countries or rental cars; those trips were prepaid), entrance fees and tours, and any other miscellaneous expenses that come up.

An Italian breakfast “burrito” for Sunday brunch to use up leftovers (gnocchi, meatballs, and pesto with scrambled eggs in an Italian “tortilla”).

We spent the first three days of this month in Switzerland, but even with carefully watching our spending the costs for that short trip had our daily spend average at $123.83/day by the time we got back to Strasbourg on October 4 – yikes! Thankfully Strasbourg was a very affordable city and we were able to keep our daily spending there to around $40/day or less, and brought the monthly average down to $54.78/day by the time we left for Bordeaux. Our time in that city proved to be slightly more expensive than Strasbourg though so our daily average didn’t move as much while we were there, but Florence has turned out to be an affordable place to live and as of today our daily average for October is down to $51.25/day, or $38.25 over for the entire month. We can live with that.

A frugal early afternoon treat on a stormy day: coffee with a couple of biscotti.

November will be one of our “long” months; that is, we will be covering five weeks versus four between our Social Security payments. There is some Christmas shopping we plan to do while we’re in Florence, which we have covered in the budget, but we’ve also decided on two other purchases we want to make here and will have to fit those in somehow. Thankfully we have already set aside funds for museum entrances in both Florence and Rome so those won’t affect our daily spending amount.

Thunderstorms and rain have allowed us to stay home and recharge for a couple of days.

A couple of other items, unrelated to current spending, have popped up this past month and are going to have to be dealt with when we’re in Portland in December. A slightly chipped tooth has been causing some minor pain from time to time, enough to be annoying, so I’m going to have to see a dentist and get that taken care of. Also, while we were in Bordeaux, continual walking on (uneven) cobblestones began aggravating the bursitis in my left hip something fierce, which in turn has ramped up my lower back pain. There are cobblestones everywhere in Florence, so I take Aleve every day which helps some, but the pain has definitely had an effect on how much I can walk (between two to three miles, but not much more). I was grateful for the thunderstorms yesterday because they kept us inside and allowed the bursitis to settle down a bit. However, I am probably going to have to get a cortisone shot (which I have avoided up until now) when we’re in Portland in order to be able to enjoy the rest of our adventure in 2019.

Our life in Hawai’i feels like something in the far distant past these days, but the reality is we’ve only been on the road for a little over two months. So far what we’ve seen and done has exceeded all our expectations, we’re having a grand time, and we’ve managed to stay within or very close to our budget. Brett and I have settled nicely into our travel-team roles, continue to greatly enjoy each others’ company and have fun talking about what’s going on and planning what to do each day (and what to eat!).

On Track With Our Travel Budget

Every evening Brett writes down in a small journal what we did that day and what we spent that day as well. He brought along a roll of tape, and fastens each receipt received into the journal (he took this idea from the Senior Nomads). Finally, he enters the amount for the day into his travel spreadsheet and averages our daily spending to make sure we’re staying at or under budget.

As the first full month of travel for the two of us comes to an end it’s gratifying to see that we have been able to stay under the budget we gave ourselves of $50/day. We were able to keep our daily average to under $40/day in South America, but Paris (and Normandy somewhat) turned out to be more expensive than we imagined. In both of those places, whether it was admission fees, tips for tour guides, a meal out at a restaurant, filling the gas tank (very expensive here compared to American prices, over $6/gallon), everything cost more. Our Paris expenses also included the (totally worth it) taxi ride from the airport to our apartment in Montmartre, and our trip out to Mont Saint-Michel also turned out to be more expensive than usual (but again, worth it). However, with everything averaged we are still ending up the month under $50/day. Strasbourg is proving to be far more affordable – we’re back to around $40/day. We’ll end this month with a daily spending average of $47.92/day.

Our main savings come from eating “at home” versus going out to eat, although we haven’t denied ourselves that experience.  We don’t consider ourselves to be “on vacation” and just as we did in the past, eating out is an exception and planned in advance. The first thing we do when we arrive at a new location is find a nearby grocery store (and a bakery) and buy provisions for several days. Although I imagined it might be otherwise, I’m just not interested in cooking even though all the kitchens in the homes where we’ve stayed have for the most part had decent cooking equipment. We keep our meals simple but healthy, although sometimes I think we could be eating more vegetables. Breakfast is typically yogurt with granola (or muesli) and fruit, or a pastry with coffee and orange juice. We often skip lunch but then maybe have coffee or another small treat in the afternoon. We enjoy drinking a glass of wine every evening, and usually have cheese, salami, sausage or paté, fruit or vegetables, and maybe nuts along with crackers or sliced baguette. If we feel hungry later in the evening we have a bowl of vegetable soup. We’re currently trying out some ready-made main dishes from the Whole Foods-like store that’s close by. The meals are large enough provide servings for at least two nights, and so far they’ve been delicious (and also full of vegetables!).

Fifty dollars a day might seem like a lot for two people who are eating at home, but that amount goes far beyond providing food – it covers everything we might spend during the day beyond food. Those things have included but are not limited to transportation costs, admission fees, laundry, paid toilets now and again, a sandwich or pastry at a train station, an ice cream cone or a bottle of water on a hot day, or a small treat like a few macarons from a bakery. It all adds up, and quite quickly sometimes. Our daily spending while we were in Paris topped $70/day, so we’re thankful for the lower prices here in Strasbourg.

I can’t imagine trying at this point trying include in our budget the costs of getting from city to city or upcoming lodgings – my hat’s off to the Senior Nomads for managing that for almost five years. I’m grateful that we were able to save and take care of most of those expenses before we set out on this adventure so the rest of our monthly income is available for upcoming or unexpected expenses, such as the balance on our India tour which is coming due next month. Starting out with only two monthly bills (my student loan and our phone bill) and arranging for both to be paid automatically each month has also made life on the road much simpler, and our budget much easier to manage.

This is just one month out of fifteen though, but it’s been good to see how we handled expenses, and learn which things we can get better at, which things we don’t need, and where we can loosen up a bit.

Family, Money, Travel: Part II

My own frugal ways were self-taught. Because of the mixed messages I had received about money growing up, I went through many trials and plenty of errors before I figured out how to manage money, and more importantly, how to budget and live within or under my/our means. Brett’s income while he was in the navy forced me to quickly learn how to live on a (very) small income. When our son was born, after our bills were paid (rent, utilities, a washer & dryer payment, and payment towards the debt Brett’s previous wife had accumulated in his name), we had just $18 a week for groceries, including baby formula and baby food. I’m still not quite sure how we did it, but we never went hungry. I made bread from scratch and we ate lots of beans and pancake suppers, and little to no meat, but our bills were always paid on time. Although it took real effort we were able to get out of debt in less than two years, before heading off to our first tour in Japan.

I don’t know how it is now, but back then the military did not pay for everything when you moved to a new duty station – that turned out to be a myth. Although Brett received a per diem allowance, it was very small and we still always had to come up with a majority of our moving expenses, things like first and last months rent for an apartment while we waited for government housing and all those other hidden costs of moving. Buying a house and settling in anywhere was also out of the question because Brett was transferred to a new duty station (rotating between sea and shore duty) every 2 1/2 to 3 years, and mortgage interest rates were hovering for a while at around 15%-18% back then. Thankfully the navy moved our household goods for us and bought the plane tickets for our flights to Japan and back. Brett always had to take two months advance pay every time we moved to cover all the extra out-of-pocket expenses (almost all of our moves were across country or overseas), causing us to spend the first 24 months at our new duty station paying that back rather than being able to save much of anything for the next move. It was hard to catch up and get ahead but we left the navy with no debt and a good amount of savings. I worked when I could, but with Brett deployed most of the time, we both felt it was more important for me to be home for our son rather than at a full-time job.

During our navy years I learned how to make do with less, how to budget, and the beginnings of how to evaluate the difference between a need and a want. We were always able to pay our bills on time. We ate well, and traveled when we could. However, I still frivolously spent on things – those old feelings that owning the “right” things would make life better continued. We accumulated debt from time to time, and then had to work and scrimp to pay it off, a pattern that continued even after Brett retired to civilian life. When we adopted the girls our financial situation changed dramatically and I finally began to understand some of what it must have been like for my parents. Eight years ago the change in Brett’s employment situation took us to a point where debt threatened to ruin us, and we got serious about paying it off for good and changing how we lived. All those frugal habits I had taught myself and practiced over the years came fully into play, and not only did we pay off our debt, but we were able retire and move to Hawai’i. We happily live a much simpler life now, we’re comfortable and confident about our finances, what we have, and where we’re heading next. The most surprising thing of all has been the realization that some of the frugal choices I make these days mirror some of my parents’ – I apparently did learn a few things from them.

Shasta trailers were famous for the fins on the back. Our family of six camped in one this size one summer for a fun and memorable vacation.

I mentioned in Part I of this post that my family almost always took a vacation every summer. As a teacher, Mom always had the whole summer off from work, and she LOVED to travel so she made it a big part of our lives too. Mom always planned interesting and fun trips for us: one year we went camping up and down the California and Oregon coasts for three weeks, living in a Shasta trailer that my parents rented. Another summer we took a surprise trip by train to the Grand Canyon for a week (still the best vacation ever for me), and one year we did a summer-long driving trip back east to New England and then down the Atlantic coast, visiting cities, historic sites and natural wonders. Twice we moved to our grandparents’ beach house for the summer, where we grew a garden, walked to the beach every day and went beachcombing every evening, checked out books and jigsaw puzzles from the local library. We didn’t have a TV there, just a small transistor radio so Mom could listen to Dodger baseball, and we played lots of croquet on the vacant lot next door which my grandparents also owned. We sometimes took trips over to Tucson, Arizona during the winter so Mom and Dad could visit old friends there and often visited other sites around the state as well. We visited San Francisco, Yosemite and many other southwest national parks. Mom had to take continuing education courses every few years while she was teaching, but she would register for those at out-of-state colleges so she could “get away,” and my siblings and I would stay with friends and family during those weeks. I always chose to stay in Indiana with cousins, and have fond memories of lazy summers filled with all the fresh picked sweet corn and tomatoes I could eat, my grandmother’s yeast biscuits, and my aunts’ delicious fried chicken and gravy (I still dream about that gravy!). On the drive back to California Mom always made sure we did plenty of sightseeing, and we stopped at every historic marker we came across. Our family never traveled overseas or to places like Hawai’i or Alaska though – too expensive – and the only foreign country we ever visited was Canada. I wonder now if those kinds of trips might have been possible if we had lived somewhere other than San Marino.

This motel would have checked all the boxes for us kids: a pool with a diving board AND a slide! The only thing that could have made it better would be beds with the “Magic Fingers” massage option.

Traveling was the only time my parents seemed relaxed about money. While we always stayed in cheap motels they made sure there was a pool for us to swim in each evening. There was often nothing but apple juice and pretzels for breakfast (the morning meal was never Mom’s strong suit) and we picnicked on cold cuts, cheese, crackers, and apples for our lunches. However, we stopped every afternoon for pie and coffee (or sundaes for us kids) and we always went to a restaurant for dinner each evening – no fast food. My parents paid for tours and for tickets to visit every historic or important site along the way with no grumbling about the cost. If we were going to go on a long trip, like our summer trip back east, they tried to come up with ways for us to earn a bit extra throughout the year so we had spending money for souvenirs and treats and wouldn’t be bothering them to buy stuff.

Of course, because there was no discussion or conversation about it, I always assumed our vacations and travel was something they just took out their checkbook and paid for. I was an adult before Mom told me that she had always kept a travel savings account and funneled every extra penny into it. She always kept a “penny jar” (sort of like our change/$1 bill jar) on her kitchen window sill and literally saved every penny to put toward those afternoon pie and coffee stops. Although I wasn’t initially aware of it, I was learning valuable lessons about the importance of saving for travel as well as how to travel well on a budget, and ultimately that experiences were more rewarding than things.

It seems to me now that I picked up lots of what I now know about financial matters and money management from the things my parents didn’t do versus what they did.  And while it took me a long while to figure things out, the best lesson I learned by omission was that while you don’t have to reveal everything about your personal finances to your children, it’s important to give them an idea of what’s going on, what your priorities are, and why you make the choices you do. Children should be part of the family “team” when it comes to finances, even at a young age. They deserve and can learn from even a simple explanation when you say “no” to one thing but “yes” to another, or why you choose to spend for one thing versus another. Children can also be taught, with encouragement and support, how to save and make frugal choices with their money – it shouldn’t be assumed that frugality is an innate skill or something that can be learned through observation.

In spite of all the mistakes and stumbles Brett and I have made along the way, we’ve always tried to be open with our kids about our finances while still retaining our privacy, and to help guide them when we can. We’ve tried to model generosity too and work to provide some of their wants as well as meet their needs. When we haven’t been able to afford something, we’ve been honest about why and explained that we would try to provide it later. I’m not sure of how well we did, but all four seem to be good money managers, all have a generous spirit, and they all love to travel as much as we do. It’s exciting and rewarding these days to watch them work toward their dreams, budget for the things they want as well as save for their futures.

I haven’t written about the influence Brett’s family had on him when it comes to finances and money. He grew up in circumstances about as different from mine as possible, yet had a happy childhood. His story is his own to tell, but in spite of the differences we’ve made a good team over the years.

Family, Money, Travel: Part I

Last week in The Frugal Girl, a question was posed: “How did your family of origin affect your financial habits?” As I read through Kristin’s response and the comments from other readers, most said they had been raised in frugal households, and learned their frugal ways there. I was also raised in a frugal home, but didn’t really figure out about living simply and frugally until somewhat later in life. I’ve been thinking about the question the past few days, and it’s brought many memories and deep feelings to the surface. I’ve thought carefully about how things were and how they’ve turned out. This post ended up as something rather long-ish, so I’ve broken it into two pieces – Part II will be up on Thursday.

My parents grew up during the Great Depression, and both came of age and served during WWII. Neither of their families were poor, but they weren’t well-to-do either, and both my mother and father were raised in homes that practiced frugality even before the Depression arrived. My mother’s father owned an independent insurance agency, and my dad’s father managed the Department of Motor Vehicles in Indiana, and both remained employed during the Depression. My mom grew up in an exclusive suburb of Los Angeles, San Marino, and my dad was raised on a farm in Westfield, Indiana, just north of Indianapolis, where they grew crops for sale as well as their own vegetables, and also raised chickens and cows. My parents met at a sorority-fraternity dance at the University of Arizona following World War II, got married a few months later, and eventually ended up back in San Marino where they raised four children. My mom taught biology and math in the San Marino school district, and my dad became the Los Angeles area credit manager for GMAC. Their two incomes put our family in the middle of the middle class.

When I think about the messages and lessons I received about money growing up, the best I can say now is that they were mixed. We always had enough to eat (although always the cheapest of everything – I didn’t know until I was in my teens that there was a cut of beef other than chuck), decent enough clothes to wear, and we took a vacation or traveled almost every summer. We had good health and dental care. We lived close enough to Disneyland that we visited somewhat often (usually depending on who came to visit), and my grandparents owned a beach house in San Clemente that our family used frequently because we were just a little over an hour and a half’s drive away.

However, money or finances was never a topic for conversation at our house unless it was to tell us we couldn’t have or do something. My siblings may have different memories, but I have no recollection of any positive financial discussions on any topic, ever. I’m not sure why that was – either my parents thought it unseemly or that family finances was one of those things children didn’t need to know. They never talked about why they chose to live so frugally or about the lessons they had learned growing up in the Depression (except about the hardships), or what they were saving for or why.  Neither my siblings nor I ever received an allowance or any instruction on money management. Although my parents provided for us, we were also expected to figure out how to earn our own money for the things that they considered “extras.” I began babysitting when I was 11 or 12 years old (for 25¢ an hour), and saved my money to buy many of my clothes, or at least the fabric and notions to make them – I bought or made most of my own clothes beginning in middle school and all through high school. Christmas was miserable for me, and I always dreaded going back to school to hear about all the wonderful times my friends had had and the gifts they received, or see the new clothes they were wearing. My mom set up a Christmas Club savings account every year but it always felt like my parents begrudged having to spend anything on Christmas, and the gifts my mom purchased for us were for the most part cheap, often with little to no thought put into them. My dad always gave us a little money before Christmas so we could shop, but it was usually barely enough to buy everyone a bar of soap.

I understand now that besides raising four kids my parents were also saving to be able to put each of us through college (no student loans or grants back then), and have funds for emergencies when they arose (and they did). They did not use credit cards or borrow beyond their mortgage, but that was more something I sensed then rather than heard from them. The result though was that their frugality came across as stingy, cheap, and uncaring – frugality was never a positive. One of my strongest memories of my parents was when I think I was 13 or 14, and they bought our family a color TV. It was meant to be a surprise, and the day it was delivered my sister and I were home from school, but we sent the delivery man away, not because it wasn’t safe to let him in the house but because we knew that even in our wildest imaginations there was no way our parents would ever spend their money on a new, let alone a color, TV and he must have gotten the name mixed up with someone else.

Of all the factors that affected my early views on money, probably the most influential was my parents’ choice to settle in San Marino. To this day I don’t understand why we lived there, and I didn’t understand it at the time either. I know my mom wanted to live in San Marino because her parents** did, because the neighborhoods were close-knit, and because it was a beautiful city with amazing schools, but the cost of living there was well out of my parents’ league in spite of their two incomes (the city was also lily white at the time, and I’m ashamed to admit that aspect must have appealed to my parents as well). San Marino was (and still is) a very expensive place to live and it was often difficult and discouraging for me to live in a place where everyone else seemed to have not just everything but so much of it, and where it felt like money never seemed to be an object except for our family. We certainly weren’t destitute, but I know now we could have lived just as close to our grandparents and had an easier time of things financially if my parents had chosen to live in South Pasadena, San Gabriel, Arcadia, Pasadena or any number of other neighboring cities. We would have gotten a good education too.

In hindsight though, things might not have been as different as I imagine. Later in life, when my mom had a solid amount in savings and a steady income, she was still always moaning about being “broke” and not having enough money, the same complaint I heard all the time growing up. I wonder if us living less expensive location would have or could have changed those perceptions. Both of my parents were good savers but they never seemed to have figured how to invest, or make their money work for them so that they could someday follow their dreams. For years my dad, who had been a navigation officer in the navy and loved being out on the ocean, talked about buying a “tuna boat” and taking us around the world, but he never did anything to make his dream or anything resembling it a reality. He slogged along in a 9-5 environment his whole career, never rising very high up the chain and becoming more bitter and resentful as he went along. His bitterness and failure to go after his dream deeply affected me and my later views about money and dreams.

Drill team girl (what surprises me in this picture is not that I was ever this young and thin, but that you can see the mountains in the background – usually they were completely obscured by smog)

It also always seemed in our family that boys were more valued than girls when it came to how our family’s money was allocated. The favoritism could be blatantly overt at times too. For example, my parents bought all of my older brother’s clothing from a top men’s shop in Pasadena, and his expensive shoes from a high-end local store. The clothes my parents bought for my sister and me, on the other hand, came from cheap discount stores (and we didn’t get any more clothes than my brother), and I sometimes had to use my babysitting earnings to buy shoes when I got to high school. Both my brothers also played hockey for years, and new skates and other equipment was purchased without complaint or question for them every year, sometimes more than once a year if they grew out of things. My parents also spent time and $$$$ driving them to games and practices around L.A. County or to send them to exclusive hockey camps. I had two years of private clarinet lessons, and got my teeth straightened, but my sister and I were often refused things we asked to do, told they were too expensive or my parents didn’t have the time. I earned a place on the high school’s school drill team in my sophomore year, but instead of receiving congratulations the first thing my dad did was yell at me about having to buy the uniform (which cost the same as a pair of hockey skates).

Anyway, at age 18 I headed off to college not knowing the first thing about money or how to manage it, or if as a female I was even worthy of managing it. I just dreamed of having it. I was not afraid to work, and knew how to save for things I wanted in the short term, but I was pretty much a confirmed spender at that point in my life, always desiring, and buying the things my friends or others had, believing that when I had those things life would be better. I was considered a goofy, immature, frivolous person by my family, and if I’m honest, when it came to my finances back then I lived up to that reputation.

My grandparents’ house (on the right) was a very special place for me. My grandmother planted the (now very big) ginko tree in front when I was a little girl.

**My grandparents were also solidly middle middle-class, but they were able to buy a beautiful Mediterranean-style house in San Marino in 1925 at a bargain basement price when the builder went broke and couldn’t pay my grandfather his insurance premiums. My grandparents were always very frugal, and they were careful, dedicated savers who invested in property throughout Southern California whenever possible (they even owned an orange grove at one time). They always took good care of their home and possessions. My mom once said her parents were actually quite stingy, but they were always very generous to me and my siblings. I think my grandmother (my grandfather died when I was seven) turned out to be a stronger positive role model, financial and otherwise, than my parents ever were.

Money Matters

If you’ve been following along for a while, you know that we’ve been saving like crazy for over a year to pay upfront for most of our big travel adventure. We set up and have been feeding our dedicated savings account with a regular monthly allotment along with every extra spare penny we’ve gotten along the way.

We’re at a stage right now though where, for the first time in a long, long while, we are carrying a balance on our credit card; that is, we’ve overspent our savings in order to make upfront reservations for the trip. We knew this was going to be the situation for a few months, but it’s still a bit uncomfortable for us, to put it mildly. We could take funds out of our regular savings and pay it off, but the plan has always been to pay for our travels using only dedicated travel savings and proceeds from the sale of our household goods and car. We’ll chip away at the balance for the next couple of months and have it gone by the time we depart in August, if not before.

While we travel we’ll live on our regular monthly income, and plan to put the amount we’re currently paying for rent into a separate savings account to build a sort of secondary emergency fund, if you will. This savings should also give us a nice cushion to land on when our adventure ends. When we leave Kaua’i we’ll have just two monthly payments – my student loan and our phone bill – and they’re already set up on auto-pay. Otherwise we’ll have no other bills – no rent, no utilities, no gas, no cable, no car or rental insurance, etc. – our income after putting away savings should be more than enough to cover food, inter-country transportation, side trips and other daily expenses each month.

We plan to travel and live as frugally as possible along the way. The Senior Nomads recently said they shoot for two no-spend days each week and we think that’s a worthy goal for us too. Not only will this help us to stay within our budget, but also require us to get out more and explore our surroundings rather than depend on tours, tickets, etc. to entertain us. I’m not sure yet whether we’ll be able to go without gelato for two days when we’re in Italy, or avoid stopping into the patisseries or boulangeries for two days when we’re in France – we’ll have to see about that. We may need to set up a separate gelato or bakery fund that we can dip into.

I’ve always been a firm believer that by setting realistic goals, financial or otherwise, and supporting them with careful, well-thought out, long-term plans dreams really can come true and be sustainable. We’re about to once again test those beliefs in a big way!