How Do We Do It?

budget-travel

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.

6 thoughts on “How Do We Do It?

  1. Nicola says:

    Long time reader but first time commenter! You have an exceptionally lovely family and an enviable relationship with your children and your amazing husband. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be able to read snippets from your life. I’m always inspired by how you manage and by the wonderful things you are able to do with your family. I hope you never feel like you have to justify to your reading audience how you are able to manage financially. It’s really no one’s business. Anyone who thinks it is their business is frankly a little nuts. Please continue to delight us with your inspiring life!

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    • Laura says:

      Thank you so much for your lovely comment!

      I certainly have never felt that I have to justify how we live or how we spend our income, but it does make me angry when it’s insinuated that we are ripping off the government or other taxpayers by lying or being less than honest about our income and lifestyle (which has happened in the past and recently), or accused of “living on the dole” and that we’re somehow headed for financial ruin. I actually wrote this post a few days ago – I wanted to show that if something is truly important to you, whether that thing is travel or a hobby or music lessons for your children or owning a vacation home, etc. – that it is possible to find a way to accomplish those things. In our case it’s making the choice to live frugally and without debt, for others it might be something else. The part about college and financial aid was expanded a bit because those insinuations had recently popped up again.

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  2. Hawaii Planner says:

    Great post, and very inspiring! And, are you sure you aren’t scamming anyone on the whole college situation? 😉 As someone who worked three jobs through college & had (very) lower middle class parents, got scholarships & took loans out, I find your situation very relatable. No scamming involved! 🙂

    Love hearing about how other people make things work. We definitely prioritize traveling as well, and enjoy spending time with our family (our own immediate family, as well as my parents, sibling, etc). Feel super blessed to have a family I really enjoy to be with.

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    • Laura says:

      Thanks, HP! I love reading about all your family get-togethers. Our immediate family is close, but I am not close with my brother and sister, and other than his sister and her husband (who we all adore), Brett is not close with his other siblings. Brett and I have worked hard to break the dysfunctional patterns that ran through both our families, and think our children will have a much closer relationship (especially the girls, although our son has turned out to be a fantastic big brother,even though he’s nearly a generation older).

      We started in early with the girls about paying for college, and how to do it without going into debt, long before it became a national issue (writes the woman who is retired and still paying her graduate school loans). Starting at community college has always been on the table, but Meiling and WenYu worked hard and chose their schools wisely, and ended up with terrific financial aid. Our fingers are crossed that YaYu can pull off the trifecta!

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  3. anexactinglife says:

    Fantastic post! This is what living frugally is all about: scrimping and saving in some areas to fund splurges in other areas, depending on your own interests. You have found such a good balance. Reading between the lines, you have made a lot of good choices that have paid handsome rewards: a loving marriage, a focus on family life, careers to retire from, following your dream of living in Hawaii. Congratulations!

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    • Laura says:

      Thanks! I agree: save and scrimp where you can in order to afford to splurge on other things. Those splurges are different for everyone – wouldn’t it be boring if there was just one way of doing things, or if we all wanted the same things?

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