How Do We Do It?


How do we manage to save and pay for travel? How did we manage to afford a week’s vacation at the Grand Canyon, or our upcoming getaway to Oahu? How can we even think of taking a trip back to Japan next spring?

Aren’t we retired and living on a fixed income? Don’t we have two, soon-to-be three, children going to college? Aren’t we living in one of the most expensive places in the United States?

The answer to all the above questions is yes. We do live on a fixed income. We will have two, soon-to-be three, children attending college. And the cost of living here on Kaua’i is higher than many places back on the mainland.

How are we able to afford to travel as much as we do and afford all of the above?

Here’s our big secret: We live below our means.

We have three sources of retirement income: 1) Brett’s military retirement, 2) our Social Security benefits, and 3) a pension Brett receives from the last company he worked for (I rolled my retirement into an IRA). WenYu and YaYu also currently receive a monthly dependent benefit from Social Security, but that ends when they graduate from high school, and we are required to provide proof that the money is used to support them (the cost of which is considerably more than what they receive from SS each month). All of it isn’t very much, but it’s more than adequate for our needs.

We live simply. We rent a small but comfortable house, less than 800 square feet. Although the rent is slightly more than we’d like to pay, it is what it is for Kaua’i. We are very careful with our energy use, and keep our utility payments low. We actually use and pay less here in Hawai’i for gas and electric than we did in Portland, but we don’t have heating bills any more, we cook outside more, and use the slow cooker more, rather than heating up the stove or oven. We dry much of our laundry outside. We’re conservative with water use. We have basic cable/WiFi, but mainly watch TV on Netflix or Amazon, and we still use the low-cost family phone plan we had on the mainland. The girls don’t have data plans for their phones (Meiling does, but she pays for it herself). We fix things when we can rather than replace. Clothing expenses here are less compared to what we spent back on the mainland because we don’t need as many clothes. Entertainment is free – we go to the beach, we go watch the sunset, Brett hikes, we get books from the library, and so forth. The girls stay busy with school clubs, sports as well as community service projects.

We don’t have any debt other than my student loan. We use our credit card to earn rewards, but pay it off every month.

We own one four year-old dependable car that gets great gas mileage, a 2012 Honda Civic sedan. We bundle errands so that we’re not driving all over the place (which is hard to do anyway on this island). Our monthly gas expense has also turned out to be less than it was back in Portland, even though gas prices here are higher.

We eat well, but we do it on a budget that we have been able to bring down by several hundred dollars a month since we first arrived here. We’re able to get great prices on produce at our local farmers’ market, and save by bulk shopping at Costco and Amazon Prime, and occasionally Walmart, buying just a few fill-in items at the local, but more expensive, grocery stores. Other than our weekly visit to the farmer’s market, we shop just once a month, and only step in a store otherwise for things like milk or eggs. Brett makes the girls a lunch every day; they often take leftovers. We rarely eat out, and if we do it’s usually at small “local” spots where we can get a good meal at a low price. If we do go to an upscale restaurant for a special occasion, we let them know we’re kamaaina (local) and usually receive a discount.

We take advantage of the benefits Brett receives because of his military service, which include low-cost car and rental insurance, military hotels and recreation services, and low-cost health and dental insurance. We don’t pay premiums or for prescriptions, but have to meet a deductible and pay a percentage of other costs. Brett is enrolled in Medicare, and I will join him next year; the military insurance will stay as our supplemental. We also have a less than negligible tax burden here in Hawai’i because of our income sources and because we rent (we still pay federal taxes though).

But wait! What about all those college expenses? Surely we have to be hiding something or scamming the federal government or someone in order to cover our children’s educational costs so we can spend our own money on traveling.

Nope, there’s no hidden wealth, no secret stashes of money, no undeclared or unreported income. Believe me, we have provided more financial documentation to the federal government and the colleges the girls applied to than we ever did for any mortgage. The total amount of federal financial aid both Meiling and WenYu will receive next year will be less than $4000, around 4% of their combined total college costs. They were both eligible for much more, but are turning it down because they won’t need it. All three of our daughters have known for many years that they would be responsible for their own college expenses, and they have worked incredibly hard (and are still working, in YaYu’s case) to earn scholarships to pay for college. Both Meiling and WenYu were awarded scholarships and grants by the colleges they (will) attend as well as outside scholarships, and Meiling currently works 20-30/hours week to pay for her room & board. We take care of some of their expenses (dorm room needs, luggage, clothing and such), as well as the girls’ travel between college and home, mainly using the frequent flyer rewards we have saved. Their brother pays for their books.

We budget and save for travel because it is important to us – we value experience. We would rather travel than buy things or live in a bigger house or own a home right now or drive a fancier car or go out to eat all the time. We put away money every month for travel; it’s a line item in our budget. It’s not a lot but it adds up month after month. If we spend less than our monthly budget amount in other areas, the leftover goes into our travel fund as well. We save all refunds and gifts, we use rewards from our credit card, and all those $1 bills and the change we save (about $1000/year) goes toward travel too. And, when we take a trip, we do it on a budget, and we stick to it.

That’s how we do it. Living below our means, and saving and taking advantage of the opportunities we have earned or been given allow us to get up and go somewhere else a few times each year, to see family, friends, and eventually, we hope, more of the world.


Mystery Vacation Debrief

Grand Canyon view from the front of the El Tovar hotel
Grand Canyon view from the front of the El Tovar hotel

We’re home again! We arrived on our beautiful island safe and sound but exhausted yesterday afternoon, and closed the books on a wonderful family vacation. It will take a couple of days to finish unpacking and such, but it’s good to be home.

Hopi House, designed my architect Mary Coulter.
Hopi House, designed by architect Mary Coulter.

Only two things happened to mar an otherwise perfect time. WenYu got sick the day after we arrived at the Grand Canyon, and after initially thinking her malaise was due to the altitude (the South Rim of the canyon is 7000 ft. above sea level) and dehydration, it turned out to be a mild case of food poisoning. We have no idea where it came from since she and I shared dishes Thursday evening and Friday morning and I didn’t get sick, so our best guess is that it was caused by one of the pieces of fruit she ate at breakfast Friday morning. Whatever it came from, she was very sick on Friday evening and was not feeling herself again for a few days.

WenYu (feeling better) and YaYu on a Rim Trail hike
WenYu (feeling better) and YaYu on a Rim Trail hike at the Canyon

One other small thing was more of an annoyance: We heard from one of our waiters at the El Tovar that if we had time we should check out the meteor crater just east of Flagstaff on our way to Sedona. We checked in with the concierge to get any information he could share and get directions. I had visited the crater when I was young (and it is impressive), and since we had some time we decided to drive out to see it only to find out that the site is privately owned, and the admission to enter would be $59 for our family. No way were we going to pay that to look at a big hole in the ground! We were annoyed that the concierge did not think to inform us of the charge to see it before sending us all the way out there, when that’s part of his job!

Sunset approaches

Otherwise the trip went perfectly:

  • Flights: I never saw a lower price for flights in and out of Phoenix than what I paid, so was very happy I bought them when I did. All our flights left and arrived on time, and Hawaiian Airlines is the only U.S. based airline that still provides complementary food service!
  • Rental car: We got a terrific rate through Costco and had a brand new Mitsubishi Outlander for the week for just $362. It was very roomy and comfortable, got great mileage and Brett said it was fun to drive.

    Looking back at the El Tovar from Bright Angel.
    Looking back at the El Tovar from Bright Angel.
  • Hotels: We stayed at the Comfort Suites Phoenix Airport the night of our arrival on the mainland and the night before our departure. Nothing fancy, but the hotel was clean, comfortable and convenient, and they had a nice free breakfast. The El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon was worth every penny we spent for the service, comfort and location, location, location. In Sedona we stayed at the Best Western Plus hotel on the west side of town. We got a terrific rate through Travelocity (better than the Phoenix hotel!), and our room was lovely. The views from the hotel patios were nothing short of breathtaking. This hotel also offered a great free breakfast, and we were in walking distance of restaurants and a Whole Foods market. I would stay at all three hotels again (Note: If you want to stay at the Grand Canyon be prepared to book a full year in advance to get a room at any of the in-park lodgings). One surprise for me was seeing that the little rustic cabins at Bright Angel Lodge are still being used – my family stayed in one 52 years ago when we visited the Grand Canyon, and they were “rustic” then!

    A happy YaYu and her happy mule, Willow, at the end of our ride
    YaYu and her mule, Willow, both had a great ride
  • Activities: Two activities were ones I pre-booked for the trip: a 2-hour mule ride along the Grand Canyon rim, and the Pink Jeep Broken Arrow tour in Sedona. Both activities were a BIG hit with all of us – they were fun, but educational and gave us views of the area we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. The guides for both really knew their stuff too. The mule ride is another thing that has to be booked early (like almost a year in advance) as spaces fill up fast. It was sad seeing so many people lined up at the desk each day asking if there were any cancellations (which rarely happen). I also booked our Pink Jeep tour several months in advance. They had five jeeps go out for just the 5:00 tour the day we went (tours go out every half hour), and the woman we spoke to when we checked in said they had been turning people away all day. We also enjoyed a Native American dance, music and storytelling performance held outside the Hopi House last Sunday afternoon – the music and dances were beautiful, and the hoop dance was nothing short of incredible. The dances are done by local Native American college students as a way to help pay for their education (there is no charge to watch, but most everyone leaves a small monetary gift), and we were there for their first performances of the year.

    Native American dancer
    Native American dancer
  • Meals: We discovered our first evening at the Grand Canyon that portion sizes for meals were HUGE. We’d eat a big breakfast every morning, and then not need to eat again until dinner, except for maybe a small snack in the afternoon. Even when we split a meal we left the restaurants feeling very full. The food was good and well-prepared, so how WenYu got sick remains a mystery. Our favorite breakfast spot was the El Tovar dining room – very classy – and although we tried both the Bright Angel Lodge and the Arizona Room for dinner, the Maswik Lodge food court and pizza pub turned out to be our favorite – they had a big selection of good food at lower prices than the restaurants, and we had a nice hike over and back from the El Tovar. In Sedona we had delicious Chinese food the first night – we walked to the restaurant, Szechuan, from our hotel – and the second day we ate twice at the Wildflower Cafe in town. They had very reasonably priced sandwiches and soup for lunch, and we had pasta dishes for dinner. Before heading out of town on Wednesday, we had breakfast at the famous Coffee Pot Restaurant (“101 Omelettes”) – delicious! I think the most we ever spent in one day for food was $110 for the four of us. By the way, it was somewhat difficult to stick to vegan eating on the trip, although I tried. It seemed someone was always garnishing my dishes with sour cream or some other dairy product even though it was not listed on the menu. I did eat eggs for breakfast a couple of times, and also had some smoked salmon, but otherwise was able to find vegan dishes.

    The Watchtower at Desert View, also designed by Mary Coulter
    The Watchtower at Desert View, also designed by Mary Coulter
  • Souvenirs/Miscellaneous Expenses: I budgeted $200/day for food, souvenirs, and other expenses and we came in under budget every day. Brett bought himself a couple of t-shirts and a ball cap; I bought some silver & turquoise earrings and a book, Over the Edge, about all the known deaths that have occurred in the Grand Canyon (or, as one woman told me, all the stupid things people have done over the years). We heard rave reviews about the book everywhere we went, so I finally broke down and bought it. Brett and I also bought a Native American-made ornament for our Christmas tree, and we bought Meiling a necklace and pair of earrings. Miscellaneous expenses included gas for the car, a gift for the dancers, and admission to Slide Rock State Park outside of Sedona. The girls had their own money to spend, and bought lovely (and useful) items.
Colorado River view from the Watchtower
Colorado River view from the Watchtower

It truly was a wonderful vacation. I loved being able to get together with my childhood friend in Williams, before we headed to the Grand Canyon, and having dinner with friends Lori and Todd in Phoenix the evening before we departed. I loved the time I got to spend with Brett and the girls. We even got to stop at a Trader Joe’s in Phoenix for a few things! We also received a couple of pieces of good news while we were away, which I will be sharing with you shortly.

Rock crawling in Sedona
Rock crawling in Sedona
Slide Rock State Park - the water was cold, but a few brave souls were giving the slide a go.
Slide Rock State Park just outside Sedona – the water was cold, but a few brave souls were still giving the slide a try.

The family said they are up for another mystery vacation as long as I don’t wait quite so long to reveal the destination. I’m thinking Christmas 2017, but I’ve got to unpack from this one first!

Sunrise on our last morning at the canyon
Sunrise on our last morning at the canyon