Sunday, June 28, 2009

Boats on the brain

If you were to peer through a window into my mind right now, you would see a lot of boats bobbing along in the current of my thoughts. Most of them would be monohulled, between 32 and 45 feet in length; many would be full keeled. You might see a few catamarans, too, although I doubt we'd ever get one (they're beautiful, but they're expensive). Cape Dories and Island Packets would dominate the fleet.

I've been spending a fair share of time drooling over ads for used sailboats and pondering the possibility of attending a boat show sometime in the next year. Meanwhile, Trent's been at the library, checking out books by young sailor Jesse Martin and venerated single-hander Joshua Slocum. We've been reviewing the budget, calculating, and projecting; we've been working and saving and paying off debt. Both Trent and I are 100 percent dedicated to making the journey to the future we want to achieve, which is to purchase a boat, live on it, and sail the East Coast (and maybe beyond). We are no longer thinking in terms of if we will achieve this, but when we will achieve it, and how. Just because it's an unusual way of life compared to the way most Americans do things doesn't mean it's an impossible, unsafe, or stupid goal, so we're not going to listen to such doubts.

Trent and I have never been the kind of people who come up with an idea and take years to implement it. Usually, we act pretty quickly. Finances have definitely set the pace for the implementation of this plan, but we'll see where we're at in 2011. Maybe we can get this show on the road/in the water sooner than we'd initially thought. Meanwhile, plans for the next year include doubling our savings (at the least), sailing on our local lake, and perhaps signing up for a one week coastal cruising/bareboat class down in Florida. 

*This reverie has been interrupted by a two-year-old boy who wants to slam every door in the house.*

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The ocean does exist after all!

We just returned from our four-day vacation to Destin, Florida. 

Hotel: four hundred some dollars. 

Food, gas, and other expenses: two hundred some dollars. 

Feeling the sand beneath my feet: priceless.

In other words, it was totally worth it, despite the cost. I have no regrets. The icing on the cake was that my son - who, last summer, changed the interior of our car forever by getting dramatically carsick at least four times - did not throw up. Pretty impressive, considering that it takes about eight hours to get from here to Florida. 

Dramamine: also priceless.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A good day

Some days are hectic, anxiety-ridden, and less than fun. In the last six months, I've had more of those days than I'd have liked. Because we're trying to spend less money, I haven't been able to make myself feel better by buying stuff the way I used to. But today was a good day: balanced, focused, and satisfying. And frugal - or mostly so, anyway. 

Our day:

-Our son woke up congested, with a mild fever. We called our doctor, who told us he had no openings. Trent decided to go instead to The Little Clinic at our local Kroger store, where a nurse practitioner saw our son right away and diagnosed him with allergies. The visit was about $65, much less than a trip to the walk-in clinic we usually go to. Knowing there's affordable medical care around the corner is a relief in itself!

-My husband went to the library to work. I spent the morning and early afternoon coloring, playing cars, snacking on crackers and string cheese, watching an Elmo video, and looking at picture books with our son. I've had more uninterrupted time to spend with him lately, and it's been really nice.

-Trent came home, and I went to my little office (a desk in our bedroom) to get some of my own work done. Relaxed and refreshed, I knocked out my tasks in a couple of hours.

-Ate dinner: cheese sandwiches and carrot sticks!

-My neighbor, also a mom to a toddler, stopped by with her little boy and invited us on a walk. My day ended with a friendly, comfortable chat and some exercise.

I'm not a very "Zen" person (I'm more of a Type A personality), so when life decides to grant me a zen kind of day, I'm thrilled. :-) I feel like I accomplished a lot, spent quality time with my kid, met my work obligations, and had some time to myself, too.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Treat yourself to a free adventure story

If you're looking for an adventure story as compelling and entertaining as almost anything you'd find on the shelf at Borders, and one you can read on your lunch hour (or while pretending to work), check out a blog written by Zac Sunderland, who, at the ripe old age of 17, is close to completing a year-long sailing circumnavigation of the globe:

Even if you're not into boats or the ocean or that sort of thing, you might enjoy his journal. It's about tenacity, determination, optimism, and resourcefulness. Most of us could probably use a little inspiration and motivation in those areas.

As a side note, I'm impressed by his writing. It's pragmatic and engaging. There's a lot of continuity and interesting detail in his posts. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Observation and vacation

Observation: "Looking for Freedom" is the name of a David Hasselhof song. No offense to Hasselhof fans, but this disturbs me. Perhaps we should have done a little more research before selecting the blog title.

Moving on...

We decided to book the trip to Destin because I needed a break. Using Expedia (which is having some excellent last-minute hotel deals), we found a relatively inexpensive beach hotel that's received good reviews on Tripadvisor and booked a room for four nights. 

We'll try to stick to a budget while we're there. The hotel offers a free continental breakfast, so we won't have to pay for that meal. The rooms have refrigerators, meaning we can easily buy sandwich makings at the grocery store and avoid overpriced restaurant lunches. Knowing us, we will probably eat out for dinner, but we located a few nearby restaurants that aren't too costly (like Panera). In terms of activities, we intend to enjoy the beach, and that's about it.

To pay for it, I put the expense on my credit card, transferred money from the savings account to the checking account, and paid off the balance on the card. I'm pretty sure Suze Orman would disapprove of using emergency money to pay for a vacation. Sorry, Suze. I am not waiting until I'm 35 years old and have 8 months of expenses in the bank to go on a getaway.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

One year of debt reduction: A summary

Here's the promised post summarizing our credit card debt reduction progress of the last year (since June of 2008). I've also included some of the key tactics we have successfully used in this process.

Following is a graph showing our debt reduction. As you can see, we started out last June with upwards of $22,000 in credit card debt. Currently, we have about $2900 to pay off:

Here are the techniques and tactics that have most helped us up to this point:

1. Having a goal we care about. By far, this made the biggest difference. Before we solidified our sailing goals, we had little incentive to pay off our debt. We were meeting our monthly payments, and (at the time) weren't in danger of defaulting. When given the choice between using our money to pay off debt or using it to do something fun, we'd inevitably choose the latter. Our sailing dreams changed that.

2. Taking on extra work. Whatever contract offers we received in our line of work, we took them. This allowed us to designate our "extra" earnings for debt reduction.

3. Staying in touch with our credit card companies. When Trent's credit card company suddenly ramped up his interest rate, he took some time to develop an argument as to why this was unnecessary. He called customer service, explained the situation, and let them know why it would be beneficial to them to lower his rate. He was ready to transfer the balance to another card if need be. The approach worked, and they dropped the interest rate.

4. Doing some research and making cuts where we were willing to make cuts. With a little research, we found we could cut back to basic cable (which gives us access to many of the programs we like to watch) and save about $90 a month. We also researched our cell phone plan; after discovering we could get a special discount through one of our employers, we ended up saving about $16 a month there. We also cut back on going out to eat and expensive vacations (though we did decide to spend some money on a short summer getaway). We were not willing to do away with television entirely, nor were we (and by "we," I mean "I") willing to forego an occasional trip to the coffee shop. 

5. Being a little obsessive. We checked our accounts on a regular basis and tracked our progress. I know many people would say it's unhealthy to obsess about money, but obsessing about debt worked well for us. 

Just $2900 to go! I'm proud of how far we've come, but trust me, I'm not bragging. We have a long way to go; our student loan debt far surpasses our credit card debt. So... we've almost reached base camp, but we have quite a trek ahead of us before we get to the top of Everest. 

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Frugality bites

Yeah. I said it. Frugality bites.

At least I'm honest.

So let me get this straight. We find it necessary to pay upwards of $500 to fix the car, and hundreds of bucks for dental work, and about $400 a month for the most threadbare of health insurance policies, and another couple hundred bucks to figure out why the toilet won't stop leaking... but we don't get to go anywhere fun this summer because we've convinced ourselves that whatever money Murphy (of Murphy's Law) deigns to let us keep, we should save.

Boo. Boo, I say.

Last night, I was thisclose to spending $400 on a four-day trip to Destin, FL (who am I kidding... I can talk about staycations 'til the cows come home, but I'd much rather go on a "real" vacation). Luckily, I live with a responsible adult - aka Trent, my husband - who quickly said, "I'd love to go to Destin, but are you sure you don't just want to put that money into the savings account? You know, toward the boat we're going to buy one day?"


I'm still not sure the Destin trip won't happen, but at least I now know how to put the brakes on my Expedia addiction. 

I just want to see the ocean and feel the sand beneath my toes. Is that asking too much? 

My grandfather grew up during the Great Depression, and he never spent anything. Never traveled much, never bought himself new clothes, never updated his car. I respect the frugal way in which he lived. I even benefited from it: when he passed away, the money he left funded my undergraduate education. 

But it seemed like he never had any fun, and I wish he had. I wish he'd done something for himself. I wish he'd enjoyed himself more. I don't want to be like that.

On the other hand, I don't want to be like I used to be, either: a shortsighted spendthrift.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Just humming along

So far, the summer's been pretty uneventful: lots of work, lots of trips to the park, lots of visits to the public library, several excursions to Sonic during Happy Hour for half price cherry limeades. Last week, I attended a whirlwind, somewhat stressful professional development conference; I was very happy to get back home to my regular snail's-pace existence. 

If this is what a frugal summer without vacation is like, well, it isn't too shabby!

I've scheduled some time off from one of my gigs during the month of July. I'll still have work to do, but I'm hoping to get at least one day off per week. That should give me the opportunity I need to rest up and recharge for the rest of the year. I'm hoping to get some work done on our house (painting baseboards, maybe filling up some planters in our tiny backyard) and spend more quality time with our son.

At some point in the next week, I want to post a debt reduction update. It's been a year since we started our debt reduction journey. I'm proud of how far we've come and yes, I want to share it, along with some of the things we did to catalyze the process. Getting out of credit card debt isn't easy, and it doesn't happen overnight, but it can be done!

In the meantime, I'm curious... What are you doing this summer? Staying home? Going on vacation? Traveling? If you have any tips on fun, creative things to do with a high-energy toddler without breaking out the big bucks, please do share!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The sailing dream, a year later

I write a lot about debt reduction and frugal living, but don't be fooled. This blog is really about our dream: sailing.

A year ago, when we decided we wanted to reduce debt and save so that we could buy a boat one day, here's what I wrote in my journal:

Trent and I both love the water. He grew up swimming, fishing, and boating. I grew up decidedly on land, but when I spent a month on a tall ship back in 2004, sailing got into my blood. To this day, I get shivers when I think of sitting up on deck in the middle of the night and looking up to see the masts reaching up for the stars. I also liked a lot of the things that other people dislike about boats: the constant cleaning and maintenance, the lurching around in bad weather, the challenge of making dinner while your food is sloshing over the edge of the pan...

It would be so cool to do something so different, something that would allow us to travel as much as I want us to travel. And why not?

Although our devotion to this dream occasionally waxed and waned in the months following, we now find we're even more excited about sailing than we were 12 months ago. This is not normal for us. We usually move from idea to idea at breakneck pace. We usually live in the moment. We usually live for now, not for the future. But the sailing goal has such a strong hold on us that we're willing to give up a lot of the instant gratification we're so used to. Since June of 2008, we've paid off almost $19,000 in debt and surpassed our savings goal by 150%. We ramped up savings and frugal living in January. We've cut back on vacations (no vacay for us this summer), going out to eat, cable, home decorations, and book purchases. We've taken almost every job contract offer we've received. Though it's sometimes a major drag, we've basically changed how we live because we want so badly to achieve the sailing goal. That's how much we want it. 

Oh, and we learned how to sail, and we loved it.

We know we'll never have the money to buy a new, 70-foot yacht and sail off to Tahiti for the rest of our lives. However, we do think we'll be able to buy a used 32- to 40-foot sailboat in 4-5 years, live on it, and cruise down the ICW to the Florida Keys and maybe the Bahamas. We're hoping we can continue working online; this would allow us to basically dock for several weeks at a time, make some cash, and then move on. I'd love to try the live-aboard lifestyle. I think it would offer us the challenge we're looking for. We'd have to work together, all three of us, to overcome problems and obstacles and to live successfully. We'd have to be self-sufficient. Based on what I've learned so far about who our son is (high energy, can't sit still, loves being outside), I think this would really benefit his growth and development, too.

I know this will seem weird to some people, but it's just a different way of life, and we want to try it. It might be cramped, it might not always be comfortable, and it might not be as secure as a house on land. But neither Trent nor I feel especially comfortable in our current situation, either. We feel like outsiders in suburbia. Our house is little but cozy... There are a lot of things to do... People are friendly and helpful... yet we feel like we're not exactly in the right place. We want to get off the beaten path, if only for a couple of years.

So we're planning and preparing. It's going to be a long process. I'm learning a lot about myself and my family right now, though. I'm surprising myself, for one thing, by being able to work for a future goal instead of going for whatever I can get right now. I'm learning that the simpler life gets, the better it seems to get... Yes, I'd love a vacation, but I've also been enjoying those nondescript evenings at home with my husband and son, playing with cars or watching a movie. I've been enjoying baking my own bread and pizza. I've started reading more... I'd definitely slacked off on that, but now it's something I do when I have time to fill. I'm learning that buying stuff won't make me feel better. I'm learning to wait to make decisions, especially decisions involving our money.

So that's where I'm at with sailing. Basically, this is the thing that gets me up in the morning, and this is the thing that makes me want to sacrifice most of the "extras" I've always assumed I needed. I'm so excited about how far we've come, and I can't wait to see what we'll be able to accomplish toward this goal in the next year.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Charged twice!

I'm frustrated right now because we were charged twice for a major purchase we made not too long ago. Unfortunately, it's going to take a couple of weeks to sort it out, leaving our bank account a bit parched and an unwanted balance on our credit card.

Here's what happened: We decided to renew our contract with our pest control company. Pests are a major issue here in the South, and I don't want to worry about critters crawling around/eating our house, so part of our budget includes regular pest control service. Last year, we paid one fee to cover 12 months. This year, when we renewed, we asked if we could get a discount by renewing for 24 months. The company agreed and charged our credit card the agreed-upon amount. We paid it off. All set, no problem.

Two weeks later, they randomly charged our card again for the same amount! Being sleep-deprived parents who simply want to keep on top of their credit card expenses, we paid it...before realizing a short time later what had happened.

Long story short, the pest control company can't just undo the extra charge (because we already paid it), and it's going to take them two weeks to get us a check to reimburse us. I am not happy. We should have taken better care to identify the double charge in the first place, and we shouldn't have paid it - but it bothers me that these people were so lax in their accounting that they made the mistake (a financially big one, too - two years of pest control isn't inexpensive, at least not to us). 

Plus, we're paying for the car repair we needed last week.

When it rains, it pours. Again, this is why we have the emergency fund, but it bothers me to dip into it for something so unnecessary.