Tag Archives: savings

Vacationing vs. living like locals: Can we afford an extended stay in Europe?

For the past few days, Tony and I have been going over an idea that might be completely insane.

I’ve written a lot about our plan for a two-week vacation in Europe next May. Both of us always wished we’d taken the opportunity to study abroad in college, and this vacation seemed like the next best thing — one last big trip before we start our family.

One thing has continued to plague me, though. We didn’t really want a vacation. We didn’t want to stay in hotels and live like tourists for a whirlwind two-week trip. We wanted the opportunity to live like locals, absorb the culture, and experience life in another part of the world. We don’t want to move abroad permanently, though. Living 800 miles from family is hard enough; I can’t imagine living an ocean away.

While talking about this, we started considering a crazy idea.

Tony will finish student teaching in December 2010. It’ll be another 4-6 months before he can start looking for teaching jobs for the following fall. We were already wondering how to spend that time. What if we spent two or three of those months in Europe, living like locals instead of tourists?

Obviously, two or three months in Europe will cost more than 2 weeks. But after doing some research, I’m surprised to discover the difference isn’t that huge. Living like a tourist costs $200-$400 a day with restaurant meals, hotels, and excessive travel. Living like a local costs much less, and since we’d be there in the late winter/early spring, everything would cost less than we’d pay in May, the beginning of the high season.

Our biggest expense would be housing. Renting a furnished apartment in France is less expensive per night than a hotel, but still more expensive than we’d pay in normal rent. We’d likely spend about $425 a week on housing or $1700 a month (utilities included). Ouch. But we could make up for the high cost of housing by cooking our own food, avoiding expensive tourist activities, and living frugally.

Based on rough calculations, we’d need to save $7,500 – $10,000 for two months in Europe. Here’s the breakdown:

Airfare: $1200
Housing/utilities: $3400
Food: $800
Travel: $500 (Trains, bus fare, etc.)
Fun stuff: $800
Total: $6700

I added up all of our regular living expenses that we’ll have to pay while we’re away. We’d be paying these expenses whether we were traveling or not, but I’m including them since travel will delay our job search:

Debt: $400
Travel health insurance: $250? I’ve done some research, but not enough to have a solid estimate.
Cell phone: $200
Total: $850

Based on these calculations, we’d need $7,550 to pay for the trip and our living expenses. I’d be more comfortable if we could save a full $10,000, which would give us a nice cushion when we return to cover our living expenses without using our emergency fund.

That means we’d have to save an additional $1,550 -$4,000 on top of our emergency fund and the $6,000 we already planned to save for Europe. We’d have an extra 7 months to do it. If we really buckle down and put every extra penny into savings, I think we can meet that goal and then some.

Maybe it’s just a pipe dream. It’s certainly not practical at all, but I kind of like the idea of doing something a little crazy and impractical before we settle down and live like adults — as long as we don’t add to our debt or spend our emergency fund. I can think of a million more practical uses for $7,500 — debt repayment, part of a down payment on a house, paying cash for a used car, an extra plush emergency fund. None of them are as appealing to me as this once in a lifetime experience.

So what do you think? Are we completely out of our minds?

Surviving the summer without spending our savings

Tony’s summer vacation has officially started. He won’t be teaching or taking classes again until the end of August. Unfortunately, this means we’re losing a third of our income for the months of June and July.

We’ve been anticipating this temporary loss of income all year, so we prepared by putting aside most of the money we’ll need to cover Tony’s salary without using our emergency fund. But now I’m looking at that money, a pretty hefty chunk of change for us, and thinking about all the things we could do with it if we could save it.

Our original plan was for Tony to find a part-time job. Any extra money he made would go toward replenishing that savings. We’re not giving up on that plan yet, but it’s tough out there. He’s applied for about 20 part-time jobs so far with no returned phone calls. When he follows up, he’s told, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

It’s frustrating, but this is exactly why we saved the money. We knew it might be difficult for him to find a part-time job this summer, especially since we share a car and he’s limited to jobs that are accessible through walking or our city’s limited public transportation. So the money is there if we get into trouble, but even if he doesn’t find a job, we’re challenging ourselves to spend as little as possible for the next three months.

Here’s what we’re doing:

We’re temporarily halting savings.

It seems silly to take money out of savings only to put it right back in. We currently save about 60% of Tony’s income every month including retirement. For the months of June and July, we won’t be putting the full amount into savings. It seems counter-productive, but the point is to live only from our income without dipping into our savings. If we can make it through the summer without spending it, then we’ll be able to double what we would have normally saved in two months.

We’re participating in a no spend month.

I’m intrigued by the idea of a “No Spend Month,” from SmallNotebook.org. We’ve never tried a cash budget system, but we’re going to give it a shot one month this summer. We’ll probably wait until August when our finances are likely to be tightest.

We’re working from a three-month budget.

Every month I set a zero-based budget based on our expenses and income. This summer, since our monthly income is reduced, I’ll be setting a zero-based budget for three months instead of one.

Here’s why: Because I’m paid every other week, there are two months out of the year when I get three paychecks in a month instead of two. July is one of these months. Because I base our budget on our total monthly income instead of my yearly salary, this feels like “extra money.” When it’s split up over the course of three months, it helps cover some of the gaps of our lost income. So I added up all of the paychecks I’ll receive over the next three months, divided them by three, and set a monthly budget based on that.

We’re cutting our overall expenses — slightly.

After adding up our total income over the next three months and cutting out savings for two of those months, we come surprisingly close to our normal monthly income without moving money from savings. We’ll make a few adjustments to spending to cover the remaining gaps. I’m hoping that the no spend month at the end of the summer will help us increase our savings by even more.

Anything extra will go straight to savings.

If Tony does find a part-time job, it won’t change our plans. We want to save as much as possible this summer, and any extra income will go directly toward savings. We’re still hoping he’ll find something, because this will help us save so much more!

If all goes according to plan, we should be able to double the amount we would have put into savings this summer. Here’s hoping we can do it!

How do we measure up to national averages?

One of the main concepts of frugality is that life isn’t a competition when it comes to finances. I try to avoid comparing myself to other people, because we inevitably fall short in terms of material possessions.

Just for fun, though, I took a look at some national averages to see where we fall on the spectrum. I was actually surprised to discover that in some ways we’re right on target. I had hoped we’d be considerably more frugal than the national average, but it turns out we’re pretty average.


I couldn’t find any hard and fast statistics newer than 2004. As of 2004, the average American spent 21% of their income on housing costs. But that was 5 years ago, and so much has changed since then. According to CNN Money, mortgage costs should equal no more than 28% of your income. Our rent is about 26% of our monthly income, so it looks like we’re pretty average in that respect.


This is my favorite category. :) As of February, the national personal savings rate reached 4.2%. We save a minimum of 21.5% of our after-tax income every month. Yay us!


I’m sort of bummed about where we fall here. According to the USDA food plans, families of 2 living on a “thrifty” food plan spend $82.10 a week on food. Doesn’t sound too thrifty to me. We typically spend $60 a week at the grocery store, but our monthly food costs are closer to $400 total, or $100 a week.

We’ve become increasingly lazy about monitoring food costs, and those extra trips to the grocery store and occasional meals out really do add up. So we’re closer to the “low-cost” food plan, which is about $104.60 a week (again, that doesn’t really sound “low-cost” to me). We’ve always struggled with food spending, and this little comparison exercise has really opened my eyes. We need to crack down.


The average American owes $8,329 to credit card companies. We owe $0 to credit card companies. Woo hoo! When it comes to student loan debt, we fall above the national average, though. The average American student graduates with about $21,900 in debt (that’s $43,800 per couple). We owe about $60,000 to student lenders, or about $30,000 each. That’s about 37% more than the average. :(


Again I struggled to find recent statistics for what the average American saves for retirement on a monthly or even yearly basis. I guess there are too many factors. But a number that gets tossed around a lot as a “recommended savings amount” is 15% of your income. We’re just getting started on retirement savings, and we made the decision to start slow for now at a 3.5%. Not so good, but our plan is to ramp up our retirement savings when we finish paying down our debt and get our liquid savings where we want it to be.

This was an eye-opening exercise that really showed me where our strengths and weaknesses lie. We should be able to easily cut our food costs, netting us about $160 a month for savings and debt repayment. We just renewed our lease, so there’s not a lot we can do about our housing costs until we move, but when we move we’ll try to get below the national average. I’d like to fall on the lower end of the scale in all of these categories (except savings and retirement, of course).

How does your budget compare to national averages?

Comfort & complacency – frugality’s worst enemies

A year ago, our situation was drastically different than it is today. Our savings was depleted after months of bringing in less than we needed to make ends meet. We had a little money in the bank, but not enough to sustain us for very long.

We were living frugally out of necessity. Though our spending was cut to the absolute minimum, I estimated that our savings would last only a few more months. I could count the number of restaurant meals we’d had in a year on one hand, and we never spent money on anything but necessities. We were in frugal survivor mode.

A month later we were married, enjoyed a frugal honeymoon in Washington D.C. that we’d saved all year to take, and came home with a little nest egg from generous friends and family who had attended our wedding. I wanted to save the money, but I feared that our situation would force us to spend it to continue paying our bills in a few months when the rest of our savings ran out.

Thankfully, I was hired at my job a week later. The additional income helped us start saving again, pay down our remaining credit card debt quickly, and turn our financial situation around.

Eleven months later we have no credit card debt, 60 percent of our emergency fund in the bank, and we’re on our way to paying cash for a vacation in Europe all on the equivalent of one full-time salary. We’re considerably more comfortable and nowhere near as stressed about money. And yet, we’re still in danger.

The more comfortable we become, the easier it gets to edge toward the lifestyle we’ve fought so hard to resist. When I look at our bank balances, I feel calm instead of stressed. But that makes me more likely to forgo cooking dinner for a meal out. We can afford it now, right? When I see a good deal on clothing or books, I’m tempted to drop the cash. I deserve a little treat for my hard work, don’t I?

Comfort breeds complacency, and while I’m okay with being a little more lax about our spending than we used to be, I don’t ever want to be complacent. I always want to be mindful of our spending to ensure that every penny we spend is for good reason. I’d rather go out to dinner to spend a date night with my husband than head to a restaurant because I’m too tired to cook. I’d rather save our money for one memorable experience than fritter it away on a thousand little things I won’t remember a week later.

Now that we have more income and more savings, our finances are less stressful, but our impulses are harder to control. When I see a big screen television on sale or browse a bookstore, I’m no longer resisting because I can’t afford it. After all, the money is right there. I could easily withdraw it from our savings account and buy any number of things. The more comfortable we become, the harder we have to work to fight it.

Lately I’ve felt complacency creeping in, replacing the desperation to keep our heads above water that we felt last year. I’m aware of just how much money we’ve saved and so tempted to spend it. The struggle to pay our bills has been replaced with the struggle against our culture and our spendthrift natures.

Every day I remind myself that our goals are more important than frivolity. It’s a constant battle, but it’s one that I’m willing to fight. The reward of accomplishing our financial goals is much greater than the brief satisfaction we’d get from instant gratification.

Simplifying our banking system

When Tony and I first combined our finances, we decided to open one joint account for the majority of our spending, bills, and other banking, and a personal account for each of us. The plan was to keep a small balance in our personal accounts and use them for discretionary spending, gifts, and other personal expenses.

It’s been almost two years since we combined our finances, and the personal accounts have turned out to be more hassle than we expected. We very rarely used the personal accounts. Last month a debit card mix-up almost cost us in overdraft fees. After that, we decided to go ahead and simplify our banking by consolidating our accounts.

The first step was the make sure we didn’t have anything linked to those accounts. Since the personal accounts were never meant for paying bills, this was relatively simple. Tony’s paycheck was being direct deposited into his personal account. Once the funds cleared, he transferred the money to our joint account. Why we made things so complicated by doing it this way, I have no idea. He alerted his payroll department to the change, and they set it up so that his paycheck will be deposited into our joint account from now on.

A 10-minute phone call today was all it took to transfer the tiny balance from our personal accounts and close them out. It felt pretty good to cut up the personal debit cards. Already our financial system feels much simpler.

Last week I received an email from ING Direct, the online bank where I keep all of our savings. Right now they’re offering a $25 bonus to savings account holders who open a checking account and make three purchases using their debit card.

I’ve been considering opening an ING Direct checking account for awhile. Since ING is online-only, it takes 3 days to transfer money from my savings to our checking account at Wachovia. By opening an ING checking account, I’ll have instant access to our emergency fund in case of an emergency. Transfers are instant, and I’ll be able to use our debit card to access the money. Of course, the $25 bonus just for using my debit card will be nice, too.

ING Direct also offers a relatively high interest rate for checking (currently 0.25%). I’ve considered moving all of my checking to ING, but even though I’ve never had an issue with their customer service (representatives are always helpful, friendly, and even available on the weekends), I still like using a brick and mortar bank for my regular banking. Maybe someday I’ll take advantage of the high checking account interest rate and switch over completely, though.

I briefly considered opening two separate ING checking accounts, one for me and one for my husband, so we could get two $25 bonuses. But then I decided I didn’t want to be back where we started with two extra checking accounts we don’t use. So we’re happy with one for now strictly for emergencies.

We’ll each receive a debit card for the ING checking account, and it will look completely different from our joint checking account debit cards, so we’ll be able to avoid any mix-ups.

I’ve been incredibly happy with my experience with ING Direct for my savings account. The interest rates are considerably higher than normal savings accounts (currently 1.5%). If you’re interested in opening your own ING Direct account, send me an email and I’ll send you a referral link. If you make an initial deposit of $250 or more you’ll qualify for a $25 bonus, and I’ll get $10 for referring you. Let me know and I’ll send it along!

I feel so much better now that we’ve simplified our money management. What about you? Is your system working for you, or is it time to reevaluate?

Living life under the frugal microscope

Since the economy tanked, it’s become a little easier to live a frugal lifestyle without facing judgment. No matter how bad the recession gets, though, we still face people who just don’t get it. We’re constantly answering rude questions about how we choose to live our lives.

“Why are you throwing your money away on rent when house prices are so low?”

Because we don’t have money for a down payment and we’re not ready to lock ourselves into a mortgage anyway.

“You mean you share a car? Why?”

We don’t want to take on the expense of an additional car when we can easily survive with one. Not only would another car mean an additional car payment, it would also mean more insurance, more gas, and more emissions.

“What do you mean you don’t go out to dinner or buy yourself things? You work too hard not to enjoy life.”

We do work hard, but we’d rather save for future goals than spend all of our money today on things that matter less to us.

“Why wait for the things you want? If you want to take a vacation or buy something, just charge it now and pay it down later.”

I’ve lived through the stress of high interest credit card payments. No thanks.

It’s frustrating to face this judgment from people around us. Our closest friends and family are supportive, but we still face a handful of acquaintances that don’t understand our choices. Instead of accepting that we’ve chosen to live differently, they treat us like we’re deprived and practically living in poverty because we don’t make the same choices they do.

I must admit that it can be tempting to give in. I would love to eat out a couple times a week, refurnish our apartment now, take off this summer for Europe instead of waiting another year, take advantage of a housing market that’s pretty much bottomed out. But I know we’d never reach our goals if we gave in, and those goals are more important to me than getting what I want right now.

Fighting the temptation is easier than facing the judgment, though. Maybe someday I’ll be that person that truly lives the life I want to live without caring what others think, but for now it’s just annoying.

I feel like living the frugal lifestyle puts us under a microscope. Because our choices are different, people feel like they have the right to comment on things that are none of their business.

The worst part is, when I answer their questions, they tend to act defensive. I’m not judging their choices, and would never compare their situations to my own, but when they ask me why we live the way we do and I explain myself, there is always a feeling that I’m judging them for not saving, living on credit, or taking on a mortgage they probably can’t afford.

How do you handle the frugal microscope?

Start saving now & watch your savings grow

When we first started saving money, it was overwhelming. We’d been living off savings for months with barely enough money to pay our bills, let alone save. I didn’t feel like we had any room to breathe, let alone save money.

Then we got married and I was hired full time. Suddenly our monthly income doubled, but the savings we’d been using to supplement our income had run out. We also had to add expenses we’d dangerously put off while I searched for employment: health insurance, renters insurance, and student loan repayments that we’d put in forbearance. Despite our income increase, we were still making just enough to pay our bills.

Our savings account started with the money we’d received from generous friends and family at our wedding. It was a nice little $2,000 nest egg, and it motivated us to find a way to start saving. We started moving money around, budgeting more strictly, and we were able to put $100 a month into savings.

I felt good about saving, but I still knew it wasn’t enough to reach our goals. But then the savings snowball began. We paid off my credit card debt, and we were able to increase our monthly savings. Then we both got raises, which increased the amount even more. Little by little, we managed to grow our savings to $550 a month in liquid savings and $100 a month for retirement.

If you want to start saving and you’re feeling overwhelmed, my best advice is this: save something. I know, it’s the oldest rule in the book, but it really is true. Save what you can. Even if it’s only $50 or $100 a month, the most important thing in the beginning is getting into the habit of saving.

Once you start saving, that little amount of money in the bank will motivate you to save even more. Whether you increase your income or decrease your spending, you will find ways to make your savings grow.

The most important this is don’t wait. The longer you continue spending every penny you earn, no matter how small your income may be, the harder it becomes to start saving. Instead of watching your savings account grow with your income, your expenses will grow. The more you earn, the more you spend. If you wait for a magical moment when your income increases enough that you can save painlessly, you could end up waiting forever.

Once you start saving, though, you suddenly have an incentive to spend less, save additional income instead of spending it, and increase your savings even more.

Saving is never easy in the beginning, but you have to start somewhere. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t feel like you’re saving enough. It’s better to grow your savings a little bit at a time than to grow your spending.

An update on goals & a progress report

I can’t believe it’s only been about 8 months since we committed to frugality and began saving our emergency fund. Our progress has been slow, but it’s started to pick up since we paid off our credit card debt.

Beginning in January, we doubled our monthly savings amount. Hopefully that means the progress meter I added to my sidebar over the weekend will begin to move more quickly.

Our summer savings account is actually complete … we’re just waiting on a tax refund check from the state of North Carolina. Once that arrives, it’ll go directly into our summer savings account to cover Tony’s income during the two summer months when he doesn’t receive a paycheck for teaching. We’re hoping he’ll be able to find a part-time job over the summer, and all of that extra income will go directly into the emergency fund.

As for the Europe savings account … well, that’s pretty sad so far. Our plan was to finish funding our emergency fund and then begin saving aggressively for our trip to Europe. We’ve had a slight change of plans.

It’s easier for me to stay motivated toward a goal when I can watch its progress, so we decided to open a new savings account and save separately for Europe. Opening a new account for Europe doesn’t change the total amount we have in liquid savings, it just helps us to track our savings to reach the two separate goals.

Since Europe is a fun goal, seeing the progress meter move should be extra motivating. Whenever I want to make an unnecessary purchase or spend money, I can take a look at our progress and remind myself that our tight budget will be worth it in 14 months!

After assessing our progress and our goals, I realized that we weren’t saving enough to reach them. So I shifted my budget around and cut down some of our discretionary spending to increase our monthly savings amount by $100. I’m hoping we can sustain the increase, but we’ll have to see how it goes.

Our emergency fund will remain our top priority, but we’ve begun saving a small amount for Europe every month, too.

Based on our current rate of savings, here are my projections for completion:

Emergency fund: Completed by July 2010

Europe fund: Completed by May 2010

Hopefully, we’ll bring in some additional income this summer and we’ll be able to finish sooner.

I’m glad I took the time to assess where we are and where we need to be. I was able to make a change to our savings before it was too late! Have you assessed your goals recently?

Menu Plan: 3/28 – 4/3

We had a wonderful relaxing Saturday doing nothing, but that meant we spent all day Sunday running around trying to make up for lost time. Now I wish I had just one more day to relax. :(

But I really can’t complain. I slept a full 12 hours Friday and Saturday night to make up for my post-trip exhaustion. It was glorious.

We had a surprisingly good week at the grocery store. There was a great deal on chicken breasts, so we stocked up with $15 worth (about 9 pounds). Even with the chicken and a small skirt steak for the fajitas, our total was only $57.

Here’s the meal plan for this week:

Sunday: Bacon-wrapped chicken and roasted new potatoes
Monday: Leftovers/sandwiches
Tuesday: Steak fajitas
Wednesday: Chicken and vegetable spring rolls with rice
Thursday: Bean and cheese burritos
Friday: Pizza

Lunch for me: Artichoke pasta salad

For more menu ideas, check out OrgJunkie. Happy Monday!