Creating SMART Travel Goals

Both Brett and I have always been big fans of setting goals and then working to achieve them, whether that’s downsizing or moving to Hawai’i or saving for travel.

We create our goals using the SMART criteria, and it’s worked especially well for travel planning. The SMART acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound. Long before we ever travel, Brett and I sit down, talk about what we want to do, what we can afford, and then make our travel goal the SMART way. We’ve been using this method for many years, and it’s led us to success over and over again, no matter what we want to achieve.

Here’s how we use the SMART criteria when creating a travel goal:

  • Specific: Being specific means knowing exactly what we want to do. Instead of saying We want to travel or We’d like to visit xxx, both of which are vague, we spell out exactly where we want to go, when we want to go, and who will be going. We want to visit Japan with our daughter for a week in March during her spring break is very specific while We’d like to go to Japan is not. The first example has a where, when and who will be traveling, while the second example is just an idea.
  • Measurable: This means creating a precise way to quantify our goal. A travel goal contains both time- and money-related aspects, and both require some research. Instead of We want to stay 10 days and spend less than $10,000, a measurable goal is We want to spend 10 days and nine nights. We want to pay less than $700 each for airline tickets, no more than $xxx for lodging and our total budget can be no more than $8,000 (or whatever we decide our top limit is). The top limit of our budget is the number we will be working toward, and the time aspect is making sure we can take vacation at that time or that there’s nothing else that might make it difficult to travel.
  • Achievable: The travel goal needs to be what we know we can attain and complete in a specific amount of time. Giving ourselves a goal of saving $8,000 in a year for our trip is not achievable if we know that will be impossible, or that we’ll need to raid our savings or use credit cards or borrow money (and we don’t want to do those things). A specific SMART goal would be: We need to save $8,000 in the next 12 months (~$670/month) in order to make this trip during spring break. We’ll set up a monthly savings allotment, save all our refunds and gifts, save all change and $1 bills, and find other ways to save as much as possible. If we are sure we can achieve our goal, then we go for it; otherwise, we start over or reset our parameters with what we know we can achieve.
  • Realistic: This part of the goal is tied very closely to achievable, and allows us to visualize the results of our efforts. Besides just getting to our destination and knowing where we’ll stay, we also need to think about what we can afford or will have time to do when we’re at our destination. Realistic means that while we may dream of flying first class or staying at the Four Seasons, there’s no point in doing so if it will consume all or most of our budget, and not allow us to do anything else at our destination. However, if flying first class and staying at the Four Seasons is our dream, then we’ll have to reset our original time parameters or figure out a way  to earn or save more within our original time constraints.
  • Time-bound: We make sure we have a timeline for achievement. Setting a SMART goal for travel not only requires that we set the actual date for travel that we work toward, but that we also research and set specific time-goals along the way. So, while we’ve figured out that we can save $8000 in a year to cover all our expenses, we also need to know time-sensitive issues that will arise while we’re saving. For example, We will need to have $2500 of our $8000 by such-and-such date to purchase airfare and reserve our lodging (because we don’t want to leave these until the last minute). Besides air fare and lodging, our trip may also involve several other time-related issues that arise before actually traveling, things like booking tours, or getting restaurant reservations, so those may need specific time deadlines as well. Once again, research is our friend.

Because Brett and I can’t just whip our checkbook and cover any trip whenever we feel like it, using the SMART criteria has meant we’ve been able to make most of our travel dreams a reality without using credit cards or dipping into our regular savings, or putting ourselves into debt. Setting up a SMART goal can take a little more time, but almost always ups the chances for success.






Laura & Brett’s Big Adventure

mystery-signBrett and I are planning something BIG for 2018, but that’s really all the detail I can give right now. We are currently in the research and saving stage, and have set some goals to achieve by the end of the year:

  • Save at least $7000 this year for our adventure next year. If it were just the two of us, this would be easy; in fact, we could probably save a whole lot more. But, we still have three children we’re responsible for, two of whom need plane tickets to and from the mainland a couple of times each year ($$$$), and one still at home that has numerous expenses related to high school and college admission and who still needs to be fed and clothed ($$$$). This is going to be a difficult goal for us to reach, but we’re going to give it our best shot. I will try to update our saving goal each quarter.
  • Research, research, research. You know this is fun for me, and I’m going to get to do a whole year and more of it! The first thing will be to find and reserve lodging, but there are other smaller tasks that I’ll be doing as well along the way.

I’m sorry this is all I can reveal at this time, but I just wanted to let you know that something is on the horizon. Something BIG!

Maybe I should call it Laura & Brett’s Big Mystery Adventure™?

A New Year’s Worth of Goals

I don’t remember when, but someone once advised making goals versus resolutions when approaching the new year. Goals are something you work toward; resolutions are something you have to keep (and are therefore easily broken).


Lovely, isn’t it?

In that spirit, here are my/our goals for the coming year:

  • Refinish our dining room table top. At our first house here on Kaua’i, the dining room sat on the west side of the house, and the afternoon sun beating through the window literally melted the finish on the table in places. The table top is solid cherry butcher block and right now it looks awful. So, Brett and I are going to strip off the old finish, clean and lightly sand, and then refinish with mineral oil.
  • Stick with exercise. I’m increasing my time on the recumbent bicycle this month from two 10-minute sessions to two 15-minute sessions. It’s not a lot, but I think if slowly increase the time and tension, at the beginning of each month, and don’t overdo it, I’ll be more successful in sticking with it. I’ve already got two fans in position to keep me cool. I’m cleared to walk again, so am going to try to get out on the Coastal Path with Brett a couple of times a week as well. I have to be very careful though not to aggravate the bursitis in my right hip, or I could easily find myself with back problems again.

    Proud to say that I can already read all but xx of these kanji!

    Proud to say that I can already read all but five of these kanji!

  • Continue to work on learning Japanese and Portuguese. Both are impossible languages, for me anyway (all those diacritic marks in Portuguese!), and very, very different from each other, but so far I’m still enjoying the process, so want to see how far I can get by the end of next year. I’ve found that having to check off my study time each day is already a big step toward staying motivated.
  • Save, save, save. We plan to put away as much as we possibly each month and see where we end up by the end of the year, but we have big expenses for YaYu in the spring (AP and SAT tests and Key Club convention on Oahu), and may have to help with WenYu’s college expenses next fall, although she plans to cover those herself as much as possible. Besides taking YaYu to whichever college she will be attending, a BIG trip for 2018 is already in the planning stages – I’ll reveal all later. I’ve gotten our 2017 Christmas savings account started, with a goal of $720 by next December, ($60/month), and I’m back to earning Swagbucks to add to that amount.

    I could easily stay here for a night - the St. Regis in Princeville.

    I could easily stay here for a night – the St. Regis in Princeville.

  • Take a Kaua’i staycation. When YaYu is at her Key Club convention in May, Brett and I want to splurge and spend a night at one of the resorts on the island. There are several wonderful ones to choose from, and some offer kamaaina discounts.
  • Cut back on news and social media. I w-a-y overindulged in both this past year. I like to know what’s going on, but have decided I am only going to read one newspaper and one blog going forward, check Facebook and Instagram twice a day, and everything else can go away. It’s going to be very important to stay informed, but I need to be more discriminating about it. I unfriended a few toxic people on Facebook recently, as well as “friends” I haven’t heard from in well over a year or two, if ever.
  • Read 52 books. I’m going to set up a separate page here on the blog and track them. My overindulgence of news last year kept me from reading as much as I should have.

And that’s it! I think these are pretty doable, and I’ll try to update you here on our progress as we go through the year.

First Trip to India

Photo: Wolf Price

Photo: Wolf Price

I had no desire to visit India until my son asked me to go.

He was living in Nepal and ready for a fresh adventure after volunteering in Kathmandu.

I had missed out on Morocco when he asked me to go with him and a friend when we met in Spain (I had to go to Italy for the first time) so no way was I going to say no to India and a chance to let my son lead me to a brand new country.

So I jumped in with no prior knowledge of India except for seeing the movie Gandhi.

That first trip to India and Nepal changed my life, turned me upside down, and electrified my bone marrow. I was never the same again.

The photo of me above was shot right after rafting down the Ganges River in the winter; drenched with icy waves over our heads as we paddled to stay afloat.

Of course we had to volunteer for the front paddling positions in the boat which means you get the worst of the waves over your head and the rest of the passengers just get sprayed.

But I never felt so alive in my life.

My son pushed me to go.

I just wanted to read a book that day.

India blasted open my spirit, forcing me to leap way out of my comfort zone.

Photo: Bartnikowski, Dalai_Lama in India

Photo: Bartnikowski, Dalai Lama in India

I was cold in the Himalayas, I got deathly sick, but I also ate tasty delectable food, was immersed in a multitude of religions, saw the Dalai Lama teach at his home in Dharamsala, had my eye balls seared with women’s colorful clothing, met gurus, saints, and friendly elephants!

There is nothing India doesn’t have but order.

Amritsar, photo student from Miri Piri Academy, during the class I was teaching

Amritsar, India photo credit: student from Miri Piri Academy, during the class I was teaching

There aren’t any rules in India: you can have bonfires in the street with cows who want to get warm in the high ethers of the Himalayas.

People drive recklessly. Watch out crossing the street. You don’t want to get mowed down by a motorbike or attacked by a monkey.

Some monkeys are mean in India, one stole my new dress off the clothes line and I didn’t find it until 2 hours later in the dark with my flashlight.

I’ve since been to India 4 times solo. And as soon as I left that first time, I wanted to go back. I found myself in Bali which seemed awfully tame compared to jolt your eyes open India.

What made me buck up and get strong?

The fact that yes I’m deliciously free and can make all my own decisions.

This is a huge opportunity for possible risk but it was also a leap into the unknown, an adventure beckoning, a bewildering array of options, food I couldn’t identify and stumbling happily through a language I didn’t understand.

I tried to learn Hindi and the Nepali language.

“Sundar” means pretty in Nepal. And meeto-cha means this food is yummy. That’s all I learned and actually I didn’t need to know anymore on that first trip.

After traveling with my son for a month, we went solo on our own paths. And boy did my India adventure change.

Being solo is misunderstood in India.

Local people from India wonder why you’re not traveling with your in-laws, 7 children and two sets of grandparents. Really.

Many people want to help you in India, some are scammers, and some are saints. Both will approach you especially when you are solo.

Here is what I do now. I surround myself with a shield of white light and send out the message with my mind, you will not approach me unless I invite you.

It works.

Do you remember the Beatles White Album? Much of it was written in Rishikesh, where I shot the photo below.

The Beatles stayed at a now defunct ashram with Maharishi on the Ganges River while they learned meditation and wrote songs.

Rishikesh, India, Ganges River_Photo: Bartnikowski

Rishikesh, India, Ganges River_Photo: Bartnikowski

What I did was I was lay on the marble floor of this gorgeous “ghat.” (a river side temple, dock, or bathing spot)

The nightly puja was happening.

My tripod was only 6 inches high, one of those tiny jobs that don’t extend, but even though a policeman’s foot was inches from my head, I got this shot from a unique angle.

My body commanded me to capture it.

That’s the real secret of how I get the money shots. My body tells me to shoot and I listen.

So this was our happy hour of prayers, offerings, songs, and chanting.

Puja persuaded me to stop drinking wine when I hadn’t decided to give it up.

But Rishikesh is a holy town in the foothills of the Himalayas; you can’t get booze there.

I was not going to get on the boat, cross the Ganges, and go into town to purchase low grade wine or spirits.

I had spirits at the puja so instead of a cocktail I joined the young Hindu priests, the head swami, and countless tourists from India and worldwide.



I was in heaven.

Afterwards we would meet with Swami for a blessing (darshan) then I’d walk back to my room at the ashram, or go hook up with Skype, being careful not to step in the cow flops along the path.

Yes India has the internet. And this was in 2006.

But India is the mothership. All roads lead to her.

You don’t have to go to the Himalayas to turn your world upside down pineapple cake but it was just what I needed after living in Palo Alto, California, the epicenter of Silicon Valley for 29 years, not knowing that outside this comfortable bubble of technology, splendor, and genius, there was a world named India that whispered to me, Just Do It.

So I did and I thank my son for inspiring me to do it.

I took 3 months off from life in Palo Alto, turned down work, closed my apartment door, paid the rent which was significant, and set out for India, Nepal, and lastly, Bali.

If you ever hear the call to go to India, do it. Your life will never be the same.

Wolf, my son, and me.

Wolf, my son, and me.

Mary Bartnikowski is an author of 4 books, award-winning photographer in Palo Alto, Hawaii, and worldwide for 29 years.

She has led programs at Apple, Stanford, Intel, and globally.

Join Mary and Escape to the Best Island in the World, Relax, Recharge, learn yoga and photography on Kauai, in a private luxury 3-day retreat, fall asleep to ocean waves at the Islander Resort, and explore the power places of Kauai, for one or two participants.

Learn More or call 808-542-4566

Looking Into the Crystal Ball: Future Travel Plans & Goals

gty_crystal_ball_plane_js_150213_12x5_1600I am always thinking of travel. OK, maybe not always, but I think about it a lot. Almost every day I’m reading someone else’s travel journal, or clicking on their pictures on Facebook, or looking at Kayak or Google Flights or AirBNB or something else related to travel.

I can’t help it. I love to dream about traveling, I love to plan travel, and I to travel. It’s almost like I’m addicted or something.

If you’ve followed me for a while, you know that I am a long-term planner. Thinking long-term is what made it possible for us to move to Hawai’i, and what has allowed us to even think about traveling on our retirement income. It also showed me that things come up and happen a lot quicker than you might think they will. I start with a travel idea (and check with Brett to see if he’s interested), then start putting some flesh on the idea’s bones to see if it’s doable, and what it’s going to take for us to make my flicker of an idea a reality, both in what we want to and can see and do, and how much we have to save.

I am currently thinking out to three years in the future at this point. Three years is how long it took us to make our Hawai’i dream a reality, and I know that having those ideas on my radar will go a long way to making sure they happen. Current travel plans are front and center right now and get most of my attention, but there ideas starting to simmer on the back burner are also getting some attention these days.

Here’s what’s on our upcoming travel plans look like so far:

  • Waikiki Getaway (June): I almost can’t believe this is happening in less than a month! Our hotel (an ocean-front room at the Hale Koa) is booked and paid for, airline tickets have been purchased and paid for, and transport to and from the airport to Waikiki has been arranged. We’re there for just three nights, but that will give the girls enough time to do some shopping, and for Brett and I to decompress on the beach with some mai tais.
  • Take WenYu to College (August): Airline tickets, hotels and rental cars have already been booked for this trip and mostly paid for. There’s still a few things to figure out, but we have plenty of time to get those taken care of.
  • Japan Visit (March 2017): Our stay at the New Sanno Hotel has already been reserved, and I am just starting to look at air fares for Brett, YaYu and myself. There’s been a couple of good fares put out already, but I’m feeling pretty sure there will be better prices this summer or early fall.
  • A New Mystery Vacation™! (December 2017): I’ve come up with what I think is a terrific and doable idea for a family Mystery Vacation™ over Christmas break in 2017. I’m just starting to look at lodging options and what airfares might be that time of year and so far nothing has screamed No Way Lady! Lots can happen between now and then, but the idea is simmering. I’ve been told though that this time, once air fare and lodging have been booked, I have to reveal the destination. No last-minute announcements will be allowed.
  • Take YaYu to College (August 2018): For obvious reasons this has just been penciled in so we stay aware.

    Beautiful Rotorua, New Zealand

  • Fall Getaway (September 2018): This is just something that’s being penciled in as well on our virtual travel calendar. Brett and I had originally thought we would go somewhere for up to two months; now we’re looking at more like two to three weeks. New Zealand’s North Island is at the top of the list for both of us.
  • Spring in Japan (February – May 2019): This will be the first of our annual 90-day stays in Japan. We currently can’t even think about where we might stay in Tokyo because our son and daughter-in-law are planning to buy a house or condo in 2017. They’re pretty sure they’re going to stay in Tokyo, and not move out to the suburbs, but that’s not set in stone.
  • Meiling’s Graduation in Oregon (June 2019) Again, just penciled in right now.

We’ve got some long stretches in there where we’re not going anywhere, but will use those times to beef up our travel account and figure things out. The hardest part is going to be the two years between Spring 2017 and 2019 when we won’t visit Japan. We can’t visit beginning February 2018 as U.S. visitors are only allowed to stay 90 days out of a 365 day period, and visa extensions can be very difficult to obtain. It seems like it will be too long to go without seeing our grandchildren, but hopefully our son and family will be able to make it here to Kaua’i during that time. If not, we’ll figure something out.

Change Your Life

Suddenly your gut says one thing and your mind says another.

What to do?

Looking back over the last 10 years of world travel I see that when I trusted my gut and didn’t over analyze a decision the path opened up before me and sometimes it was even lit with sunshine.

Thinking didn’t get me to the source of my own wisdom. It appeared as a tiny nudge in my gut, or a soft whisper in my heart.

One time a voice woke me up and told me Go Home! I was living in San Francisco, 35 years ago, and was wondering if I should go back to New York where I was born.

Clearly I got my answer and was startled by the dramatic way it came to me.

So I bought a one-way ticket and crossed the entire country by train, California to New York. It took 4 days but I knew it was the right thing.

I had connected to my own divine guidance.

You can’t look in a Lonely Planet guide book for it. You can’t ask someone else what to do.

No it wasn’t comfortable and it wasn’t easy but leaping out of your comfort zone isn’t pleasant. It can be messy going into the unknown.

But every time I’ve done it, my life opened up in a way I never would have predicted.

I used to try and meet up with my son Wolf, who has traveled in 50 countries, I’ve only been to 32, and it was difficult to pin him down to one country.

Then when I went on my first round the world no-itinerary global adventure, I couldn’t be pinned down either.

Learning how to let go of planning made me wake up.

And thats how I got to Hawaii. By trusting my gut, what I call waiting for my instructions from Grand Central God.

But you can call it anything you want.

You can test it out by asking your gut little things through out your day. Which way to drive to work, who do I need to get in touch with right now?

I love how when I trust it, I get to a place that I would not have envisioned being in.

The other part of it is to stay positive and focus on a remarkable result but without being attached to the outcome.

I’m still practicing that one.

But every day brings new opportunities to let go and see what your divine guidance says to do.

The more you listen to the layer of truth under your reasoning mind the sharper it gets.

Sooner or later you won’t be able to ignore it.

Recently I found a little cottage to rent here on Kauai and everything checked out but there was just one thing. My gut said no. I wanted my gut to say yes.

I have a strategy for hearing my guidance. When I go to bed, I present the issue or question and I know as soon as I open my eyes in the morning the answer will be there, shining on the inside of my eyelids, in my heart waiting to tell me.

The answer was no. And I immediately felt relieved.

This is all the evidence we need to trust our guts.

Trusting your gut changes your life.

Was there a time in your life when you didn’t listen to your thinking mind and went ahead and acted on your own inner guidance?

Do you want peace of mind, a room of one’s own, and a battery re-boot?

Learn Yoga and Photography on Kauai with me in a 3-Day Private Luxury Retreat. Relax and Recharge. Have the best rest of your life being lulled to sleep by ocean waves all night long. Learn More Here.

Burma, One Woman’s Love Affair

One of the best countries to travel solo is Burma, AKA Myanmar.

I spent 31 days boating and bussing across this incredible, new to the Western world, country and I was amazed.

Warning: Don’t listen to any media news about this isolated and remarkable country. Ask a person who has actually visited Burma.

What did I love?

The non-stop devotional people who are kind caring and told me where to get off the city bus in Yangon before I asked.

This is the mark of a compassionate culture.

I didn’t want to leave, everywhere you looked, more lovely souls.

Example. My passport fell out of my camera bag in the taxi from the airport and I didn’t know it until I was checking in at my guesthouse and noticed I didn’t have it.

The smiling taxi driver returned it within the hour, without being asked to.


The Hidden Places

I’d never heard of Pyinoolwin before arriving in Burma, but this place soothed my soul, the orchids and flowers in the botanical garden got me awake and strolling at 8AM in the morning.

I met kind women gardening who painted me up to look like them.

Yangon and Bagan are filled with little known temples, markets, and beckoning Buddhism that doesn’t make you feel like you have to be Buddhist. It’s serenity on tap, a simpler life than what most people are used to. It’s in the air and the soil.

Maybe even in the water but I didn’t drink any. I buy bottled when in Asia.

Burma has everything, kind people, holy places, simple tea shops selling noodles, and markets where the farmers will talk with you as they slice their fish, put out their wares, and haggle over price.

I didn’t feel unsafe at all. Yes I know what happened to Aung San Suu Kyi, but she’s off house arrest and things are beginning to change in this amazing country. Political prisoners are starting to be released and Burma is waking up to the fact that tourism can be good.

Don’t wait. Go now. You will never regret it. 



Want to see more of Burma and discover the highlights of my 31 days exploring this mystical country?

Check out my Myanmar issue of Vagabond Travel Mag in the itunes store. It’s for iphones and ipads.

Everything you ever wanted to know about Burma but didn’t know anyone who had the answers.

Here is the link.

Vagabond Travel Mag

See my gallery of photography from Burma here

Mary Bartnikowski is an award-winning photographer, author, educator, retreat leader, and lover of world travel. She has led programs at Apple, Intel, Stanford University, and globally. Come say hello at and get a free ebook, Secrets of Stunning Photographs.

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.

A Clean Start For the New Year

i-wanted-to-lose-10-pounds-this-year-only-20-more-to-go-2214bI’ve never been one to make new year’s resolutions; goals are more my thing. This past year I’ve managed to accomplish a little over half of the goals I set at the beginning of the year, so I’m pretty happy about that.

One thing I did not accomplish however was a small goal of losing just eight pounds. In fact, not only did I not lose eight pounds, I probably gained an additional 10 or 12. I have no excuses. I got lazy, ate too much, did too little exercise and the pounds added up.

I currently feel miserable and sluggish. Many foods I use to like just don’t appeal to me anymore, and sometimes I feel like I’m just going through the motions of preparing meals and eating. But, I do not want to “diet” again. I need to shake things up, and these past couple of weeks I have been giving a lot of thought to what might be the best way to do that.

I’ve decided that rather than setting any long-term goals for the year when it comes to exercise and diet, I need to take things in more manageable chunks. This year I’m going to try and do things just a month at a time and see how it goes. If it’s going well, I’ll go another month and so on. If it’s not working, is too hard or uncomfortable, or there’s some other reason I’m not happy or satisfied, then I’ll switch things up again and start another month’s run.

Beginning on Friday, January 1, and continuing through the first weekend of the year, I am going to do a juice fast. That means only fruit juice, a very limited amount of coffee, green tea, and lots of water for three days. Then, for the rest of the month I plan to continue with a vegan diet (for me only; Brett and the girls will eat as they currently do). I don’t think this will be a permanent change for me, but I’d like to remove all dairy, meat and eggs from my diet for a month and see how I feel. Beginning in February, I will slowly start adding things back into my meals in small amounts . . . if I want them. I’m hoping that by the end of January I’ll have a good sense of how my body feels after going without certain foods and whether I actually miss them or can do without them longer term.

As far as exercise goes, I will be waking myself up at 5:30 a.m. in order to take a walk or ride the exercise bicycle (if it’s raining). As I’ve said several times, I am NOT a morning person, but these days my post-menopausal body seems to start sweating and never stop if I move around in any sort of warmth and humidity . . . and it’s warm and humid here all day. So, I’m going to give early morning exercise a try when it’s a bit cooler and less humid. The girls don’t get up until around 6:45 a.m., but Brett will be up and can walk with me if he wants. Again, this is just for the month of January. If it works out, then I’ll continue on in February. Otherwise, it will be back to the drawing board.

Brett and the girls agree with me that this is doable, and have said they will help in any way they can. We’ll see – I think at the end of January I’m either going to feel more energized or exhausted beyond measure. I’m hoping for energized.

So, a new year and a clean start. One month at a time.

Can We Kick Up Our Savings?

Spending cuts, isolatedBack in 2009, when we got serious about getting rid of our debt, I became hooked on personal finance (PF) blogs as well as blogs on frugal living and/or what is called “simple living.” These blogs were loaded with ideas, and provided quite a bit of motivation as we took our own journey to becoming debt free. As our debt decreased and then disappeared though so did my interest in the PF blogs and others’ attempts, successful and otherwise, to pay off their debts. I still read them, but not as actively as I did before.

My interest in frugal living blogs, on the other hand, has remained steady. As we revamped how we lived and how we spent, I became more interested in the ways others practice frugality and how they save. Some of what I read was a bit too much for me (i.e. downsizing to just 100 things, or extreme couponing), and some blogs had a holier-than-though attitude, but most offered useful tips not only on how to save and live more simply, but also how to adopt a more frugal mindset and enjoy living a more frugal life.

Becoming even more frugal helped us get out of debt, made it possible to retire and move to Kaua’i, and now allows us to live in a high-cost area and still save and dream about future travel. But, as we currently have given ourselves a big savings goal for future travel, I’d like to crank our frugal ways up a bit if we can to help us save. The question we are mulling over now is: What can we or do we want to change or do better so we can save more?

These days though I find fewer and fewer, if any, tips or ideas on the frugality blogs I read. We’re already doing most of the things that are recommended or have already removed non-frugal things from our budget. Currently the only obvious thing we can find to cut is our basic cable TV. Cable is necessary here if you want to watch any broadcast TV, but we’ve discovered over the past year that we really don’t watch any except for a couple of shows on PBS. So, after the end of the final season of Downton Abbey next year (which I still want to see on the “big screen”), we’ve decided our small cable bill will go away and we’ll only watch what we can stream from Netflix and Amazon. We currently have a very affordable pre-paid family phone plan through T-Mobile, and haven’t found anything better that gives us the texting, data, etc. that gets regularly used by all of us. Also, by keeping our current plan we can help our daughters keep their expenses down while they attend college. Meiling is already paying us each month for her portion of the bill ($20), and WenYu and YaYu will do the same when they head off to college ($10 each).

We’ve cut back our monthly food budget by nearly $350/month since we arrived last year, but are still limited by what’s available here on the island and the fact that the girls still at home are BIG eaters. Neither Brett nor I have any interest in researching and chasing down food deals on the island, so Costco remains the best choice for reasonably priced food, supplemented with produce from the farmers’ market and speciality items from either Amazon or local stores. We still make a list when we shop, and stick to it. We rarely eat out either, just for very special occasions only. Any items from Amazon are paid for with gift cards earned through Swagbucks.

I’m not sure what’s left for us to do or even if we can cut back any more. We can’t lower our rent unless we move, and what we pay here is actually very reasonable for the area and includes all our utilities. Our car and rental insurance are already very, very low, and our gasoline expenses have been less than a third of what we budgeted. We use the library, and the activities we enjoy here (i.e., hiking or going to the beach) are free. Health insurance is thankfully not an issue as we are retired military and Brett is now on Medicare with Tricare providing no-cost supplemental insurance. We rarely buy new clothing, and we’re already way under our budgeted amount for that and other expenses.

We’re definitely not perfect and certainly far from experts on frugal living, but I feel there are still changes we can make. I’m stumped though as to what those might be or whether they’re ones we’d even want to make at this stage. Brett thinks we’ve hit the sweet spot and just need to go with what we have and enjoy it.

Can we get more frugal and still live a quality life in Hawai’i? I honestly don’t know right now. We’re in what feels like a good place, but I’d still like to do a little bit better.