Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Vacation savings and splurges

We just returned from a week-long family vacation in Colorado. We decided to do something completely different than anything we've done before: we rented a cabin in the mountains. This is probably the first vacation that our kids did not even bring their swimsuits! I grew up in the Denver metro area, so we've been to Denver a few times for family visits, but this was our first major Colorado vacation.

Here are some ways we saved money on this trip:

*  We only ate out once a day. We bought groceries when we arrived and stocked our cabin. Usually we ate breakfast at the cabin and packed a lunch with us (yes, we are THAT family that picnics at attractions!) I figure this saved us at least $50 a day (we are a family of 5), or $350+.

* We bid on a rental car through Denver is one of the more expensive cities to rent a car, and although I searched for many online discounts and coupons, the Priceline rate was about $150 less than anything else I could find.

* We flew on Spirit Airlines instead of a more mainstream airline. Our tickets were only $117 each. That price was at least $100 per ticket cheaper than anything else available. With Spirit, you have to read the policies carefully, or you will be charged extra money. For example, if you don't print your boarding pass online or at a kiosk, you are charged $10 a piece. Also, all food and beverages cost extra. Pre-paying for checked luggage is the cheapest way to go. Spirit allows a free small carry-on if it fits underneath the seat; otherwise, carry-ons are $100 at the gate. We packed lightly, so we fit everything for all 5 of us in just 2 checked bags.

* We used an online discount code for airport parking, saved 15%.

* Before our trip, I scoured the internet for coupons for the attractions we were going to visit. We found a Groupon for one, and several online coupons for others. In total, we saved about $120 vs. just walking up to the gate and paying full price.

Now, our trip wasn't all about saving money. We did have some major splurges:

*  Our rental cabin was our biggest splurge. We saw it on and fell in love with it. Initially, we were looking to rent a condo or a cabin in Colorado Springs. But, in retrospect, we all agreed that the cabin was totally worth the extra money.

* Flying instead of driving was another splurge. Originally, we planned on driving. The drive takes around 14 hours, and we would do it in 2 days each direction. Once we saw the $117 airline tickets, we did the math. Flying cost us more initially, but we also saved 2 days of pet sitting, gas, a day of hotel, etc. In the end, flying cost us about $300 more...but well worth it to us.

*  Eating out--even though we only ate out once a day, we didn't want to waste our splurge on a chain restaurant that we could get back home. We researched restaurants on, and picked ones that were unique and highly rated. We found some real treasures in Manitou Springs and the surrounding areas. Our kids' favorite restaurant was the Airplane Restaurant in Colorado Springs, which was inside an airplane.

The outside of the Airplane Restaurant

Eating inside the airplane

The cockpit was available for the kids to play in before and after they ate. They didn't want to leave when dinner was over!

My husband and I enjoyed a little gem of a restaurant that was just a mile away from our cabin. The Wines of Colorado in Cascade had peaceful, creekside dining.

So although we only went out to eat once a day, we did pick restaurants that were pricier than fast food and some major chains.

Favorite attractions:

Our kids' favorite attraction was The North Pole. I went there when I was 5 years old, and I wondered if it would still seem as magical to my kids. It did not disappoint! The North Pole is a Christmas-themed amusement park at the base of Pikes Peak. There are 25+ rides (mostly carnival-type rides) and Santa is there at his house! My 2-year-old could ride all of the rides except for one. This is a great park for kids ages 2-10.

The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo was also another great day. This zoo is on the side of a mountain, and for me it ranks right up there with the San Diego Zoo. It was highly interactive for the kids, and the animal habitats were phenomenal. Not to mention the gorgeous views!

The highlight of the trip for me was taking the cog railway to the top of Pikes Peak. It was truly beautiful. We lucked out--the temperature was about 50 degrees on top with no wind, so it wasn't too cold.

My oldest loved touring the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine. He is really into Minecraft, so he found touring a real mine fascinating.

We also enjoyed the Ghost Town Museum (only $15 for all of us to get in), Garden of the Gods (we took a Jeep tour), and the Downtown Aquarium in Denver.

Attractions that were not as big a hit with us included the Cripple Creek Railroad and the Dinosaur Resource Center in Woodland Park. We made the mistake of going on the Cripple Creek Railroad after we did the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, and it just paled in comparison. Plus, we were all covered in soot after the ride. The Dinosaur Resource Center was a bit difficult for my two younger kids since there was a lot of reading involved, and they were short on attention. But I think families with elementary-aged kids or older would like it.

After each vacation, I make a music video and a photo book so our kids remember it.

Prior to this vacation, our last two family vacations were Disney cruises. And I must admit, we were spoiled by them. Mainly because the cruises have activities for all ages at the same time. If my kids got fussy doing something, they could always go to the kids clubs and do what they wanted. On a vacation like this one to Colorado, we all had to stick together in one rental car. There were definitely times when my kids got sick of something (like too much scenery) and started whining and complaining. And, on the cruises, my husband and I got time together by ourselves. Not so on this recent vacation, which made us a little more tired and exhausted. We didn't feel as relaxed after this vacation as we did after the cruises. But, we all experienced something different. And we can't go on a Disney cruise for EVERY vacation. But we will return to them soon. For our own sanity. :)

We would like to return to the Pikes Peak area of Colorado when our kids are older, so that we can do some of the more intense activities, like hiking and white water rafting. This is the first vacation spot we've been to where we would seriously consider buying a home. (Ha! After we win the lottery, of course).

Have you been to Colorado? What was your favorite part?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Golden Ticket!

I am a big fan of Dave Ramsey, the financial guru who helps people get out of debt. However, I don't agree with 100% of his philosophies--and the biggest difference is my opinion on using credit cards. I think that if you can stay within your budget and pay off your credit cards every month, credit cards are great tools to get extra awards and freebies!

We charge everything we can to our credit cards (anything that doesn't have an extra fee for using a credit card) and pay off our cards monthly so we don't pay any interest or finance charges. We charge groceries, utilities, travel, our kids' activity fees, etc. Over the past several years, we used a credit card that gave us 1% cash back for most purchases (2% or 5% on certain categories). And that was ok, as we would cash in our bonus every year or so and have some extra money.

We are bombarded with credit card applications in the mail daily. We normally don't apply for new credit cards, but last year, we decided to apply for new Disney Visas. Just for opening the cards, we got $400 ($200 each), which we used to pay for a few nights at a Disney resort prior to our cruise last year. We have had the cards over a year now and have accumulated more "Disney dollars" to spend on a future vacation.

But this year, I was inspired to see what other credit card rewards and incentives are out there. I was also inspired by my sister-in-law, who was able to use credit card airline miles to pay for a trip to Europe for her family of 4. She recommended that I check out a few blogs for inspiration and instructions.

The blog I've read most frequently is Million Mile Secrets. Based on the info in that blog, we decided to switch up our credit cards again earlier this year. My husband applied for a Marriott Rewards Visa, and I applied for the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Visa (two cards, a business card for my freelance jobs and a personal card).

Our changes have paid off--we received 4 free nights at Marriott just for opening the card, which we will use for our anniversary this year and a vacation next year.

But the biggest payoff is I now have 110,000 Southwest Rapid Reward miles and a Southwest Airlines Companion Pass! This companion pass is like a golden ticket for us, because it means that whenever I fly Southwest (either a paid flight or using miles), my husband gets to fly with me for FREE! This pass is good through the end of 2014.

To get the companion pass, you either have to take 100 Southwest flights in a year, or earn 110,000 miles in one calendar year. Each credit card I opened offered 50,000 miles for spending $2000 within the first 3 months. We used the cards as our primary credit cards throughout the year on our regular expenses until we reached 110,000 miles.

Southwest Rapid Reward points are valuable because Southwest has no blackout dates. That's right, NO BLACKOUT DATES! The points for flying are also based on the fare, not a standard amount of points for each flight. Based on current prices, and the fact that my husband flies for free, it's looking like we can make our Rapid Reward points cover two family vacations next year and one special 10th anniversary trip just for my husband and me. For a family of 5 like us, this is a HUGE savings on airfare! I'm estimating that we are saving about $2500 in airfare by having these points.

I know some people make credit card rewards a full-time hobby (or part-time job). We are not that extreme (yet). But I do see value in changing up our cards every year or so to take advantage of new sign-on freebies. (We have checked our credit scores, and they've only gone up since we switched cards).

Do you use credit cards for rewards or incentives? What is your best reward?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Preparing for a layoff

I was 13 years old when my dad was laid off from his job. My dad worked for the same big oil and mining company for over 25 years. I remember in the months leading up to that day, he would come home and tell my mom, "Bob and Vern got packages today." That was the way layoffs were back in the ' "got a package." My dad's package included a pension buy-out and severance pay. He was 48 years old.

It was a tense time for sure. My dad was the sole provider for our family. My parents had 3 teenagers to support, including one about to enter college.

Finding work proved to be difficult for my dad, as he had no experience with computers. My mom had a college degree, but hadn't worked in 18+ years. She decided to go back to school to learn computers and get some refresher courses. She re-entered the workforce at age 50. My dad was out of work for about a year, and finally got another job that didn't pay nearly the same as his old job.

My parents never talked to us kids about our money situation, and only recently I asked my mom how we survived that period. At the time my dad was laid off, my parents had no debt. No mortgage, no car loans, no debt. Period. They managed not to accumulate any debt during that period by living off my dad's severance, their savings and very careful budgeting. Looking back, I'm amazed that they made it through without going into debt.

We had always lived on a very small budget when I was a kid, but things were even tighter during this period. I wouldn't wish this situation on anyone. But, living through a layoff as a kid has made me want to be prepared as an adult for the same situation.

My husband and I have so far been lucky in the layoff department. Both of us have worked for companies through layoffs and were spared multiple times. But, that doesn't mean we are immune to layoffs in the future. And now that my husband is our main provider, it still makes us nervous that his company is about to announce some major layoffs next week.

I wish we were in as good a position as my parents were, but we're not. However, we're not totally unprepared. We've talked about how we would survive a layoff, and we have a layered plan to keep afloat. We've talked about what spending cuts we would make, things we could sell and ways to earn extra money. We have sworn off any new debt, even 0% debt. My husband keeps in touch with many of his old co-workers, so networking after a layoff would not be awkward.

Our "layoff preparation plan" is not perfect, but it has given me peace of mind to know that if it happens, we will get through it.

Have you been through a layoff? Do you feel prepared if you were to get laid off?