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Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer…

July 8th, 2012 at 06:06 pm

Summer in the City of Trees is my favorite season. Dh and I spend time enjoying our adopted city before our serious travels begin again in the fall. This week we are having a heat wave in our neck of the woods, with six 100+ degree days predicted. Nonetheless, I love summer and the fun that comes with it. Before retiring, summer was our major down time and although we enjoyed it to the max, returning to work always loomed in the back of our minds. Now that we're retired, there is a carefree aspect that adds special enjoyment to summers. An best of all, many of our local activities are free or reasonably priced.

Dh and I are having our bikes tuned up in preparation for some riding on the greenbelt or the municipal park, two great areas for riding, with some long shaded stretches mixed in. It's fun, free, and healthy. Another low cost activity is a visit to the Botanical Gardens, where we have gone several times in the last few weeks. Once for a food and wine tasting fundraising event and once for a lengthy walk. We are members, so we get in free but non-members pay a very reasonable fee of $5 adults/$3 seniors. And, admission is free on Tuesday and Thursday mornings between 7:30 and 9:00 a.m. in the summer. Tai Chi classes are offered for a small fee every Saturday morning in this gorgeous setting, and also summer concerts on Outlaw Field. The gardens are next door to the historic Old Penitentiary, another fun place to visit.

On Tuesday afternoons we usually go to the movies, often to the theater where admission is $1 (only on Tuesdays, but $2 all other days). The movies offered are usually 2-3 weeks from their release date, so not too old. The house cleaners come every other Tuesday, so we started going to the movies to get out of the way and like it so much we go almost every week. Sometimes, depending on the movie, we'll go to the "regular" theater where we pay $7.50 to get in, but still less than the $10 we used to pay in CA.

We belong to the local Audubon club and have gone on several field trips they organize. These field trips are free, and although sponsored by our club, you don't have to be a member to participate. Last week 14 of us participated in a daylong trip on the "Bluebird Trail" to check many bluebird nest boxes and watch the banding of the baby birds. On that trip we counted 42 species of birds, including a golden eagle. We took two other birdwatchers in our car, and each chipped in $10 each for gas. Paying one's fair share for gas is the only "requirement" and the group leader determines the contribution amount.

On Saturday mornings the downtown farmer's market offers fresh, locally grown produce at reasonable prices, and much of it is organic. In addition to fruits and vegetables, this is a good place to get flowers, plants, bread, pastries, cheese, wine, and interesting arts and crafts. Before or after visiting the farmer’s market, you can treat yourself to breakfast or brunch at one of the excellent downtown restaurants like Goldie's, one of our favorites.

If you enjoy a good wine like me, a good day trip is to some of ID's wineries. A 30-minute drive will take you to the heart of the Snake River Valley AVA (American Viticulture Area). The SW region has 24 wineries and the SE region has 5. Too far for a day trip, the northern region has 5 wineries but is worth visiting if you are going that way. I'm happy the wine industry is booming in ID because in my younger days I lived 30 minutes from CA's Napa Valley, renown for its wines, and I love sight of beautiful vineyards, especially in the fall. There are endless events and concerts offered throughout the year at many of the wineries.

For an extra-special activity, there is the Idaho Shakespeare Festival featuring a variety of performances throughout the summer. We have tickets to see The Mousetrap in about a week when my DS and BIL are here. We'll pack a picnic dinner, a nice bottle of wine, and some dessert to enjoy before the performance begins in the beautiful open-air amphitheater at 8:00 p.m. Not too far from the Shakespeare Festival is Barber Park, the beginning point for floating or rafting the Boise River in the summer months. We haven’t tried this very popular activity that takes you six miles down the river, but it sure looks like fun. Alcoholic beverages and glass bottles are prohibited on the Boise River and PDFs are recommended.

To get out of the heat, we can always go to one of the many museums (e.g., World Center for Birds of Prey, Boise Art Museum, Black History Museum, Basque Museum, Discovery Center, Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial, etc.) or, if its not too hot, it's fun to rent a paddle boat at the park, go to the zoo, or walk the trails at one of the amazing parks. And, I can't say enough about the simple enjoyment of a BBQ on one's own patio, with family and friends, or just the two of us and lots of good food.

Another activity that keeps us busy in the summer is our volunteer work with the Red Cross. While it certainly is not "fun" to go to the site of a disaster, it is very rewarding to be able help families that have experienced a disaster. In our area, this almost always involves house fires and sometimes floods. This summer has been busy so far during the weeks dh and I have been on-call, especially during the hot, dry and windy days. Considering how popular fireworks are in this state, I'm surprised we did not have too many fires around July 4th.

Although we love to travel to explore our beautiful world and learn more about other cultures, some of the most interesting and enjoyable activities are right at our doorstep. Although I don't blog often these days, I still like to read the SA blogs. One reason I don't blog often is that I don't have a lot of financial insights to offer on a day-to-day basis. But I can say this: if you plan and prepare adequately in your working years, retirement will be all you dream of and more. However, don't forego enjoying life before retirement. Balance is important... spend some $$ now but save some for later. Hope everyone at SA has a safe and relaxing summer!

I was going to post some pictures but there seems to be a problem with the SA server... maybe later.

So what do you do all day?

April 3rd, 2012 at 02:43 am

Yikes! Has it really been 3 months since I last posted? I am alive and well living happily ever after in retirement. 2012 is the first year we've had only one house to deal with, so our life has gotten simpler (and cheaper). It was a good financial move to sell the CA condo last fall. A question that sometimes comes up from family and friends who work: What do you do all day? Well, we manage to keep busy, and at times busier than when we worked.

My volunteer time with the American Red Cross has been a rewarding experience so far. In between travel, I am on-call as a member of the Disaster Assessment Team. Dh is also a volunteer and sometimes goes with me on calls. In the last month I've had 7 calls, all of them in response to house fires in my city and some neighboring cities. I'm getting to know other volunteers and making new friends, another benefit of belonging to this group.

More and more, we're adapting to the colder climate and enjoying spending more time in this beautiful part of the country. But now when the weather gets TOO cold, since we can no longer escape to CA, we plan getaway trips to warmer areas. We're still not ready to be snowbirds in one particular place so we've been migrating all over the globe. January and February took us to Florida and Caribbean for about a month, an experience that was mostly good.

Our trip included a two-week cruise on the Crown Princess, the ship that made the news because over 500 passengers and crew got sick with norovirus. We thought we'd escaped the epidemic but dh and I both got sick the day we disembarked. We were sick enough to visit the ER and we spent the good part of a week recuperating at our timeshare condo. So the last week was not so good, but the other weeks were wonderful. We've taken many cruises and this was the first bad experience, so we're taking a break from cruising for a while but not for good.

The weather at home has been nice enough that I've worked in the garden a few days. I won't plant my annuals until mid-May, but the perennials are starting to sprout and in need of thinning and pruning. We're having the exterior of our house painted and it will happen this week if the weather cooperates. It's been a fairly mild winter but with some strange weather. One day it's in the 70s... the next day it may snow. If the painting doesn't happen this week, it will have to wait until mid-May when we return from our next trip.

Next week we'll leave for Guatemala, where we'll spend about a month. We'll start with a ten-day Caravan.com tour that begins in Guatemala City but we are going a few days in advance. We think Caravan's prices are reasonable and we enjoyed the Costa Rica tour we took with them last year. After the tour we'll be in Antigua with friends and end with a week at a hotel/resort, also in Antigua. We will visit the schools where we used to train our SJSU student teachers and spend time with students we are sponsoring. We have planned a side trip to the Mayan ruins in Copan, Honduras, during the latter part of the trip.

The only thing I can share related to saving money is I got a very good deal on our tickets to Guatemala. We are flying first class for about $100 less than the price of an economy class ticket. I did it by using award miles combined with purchased miles to complete the transaction. Also, we are staying at a lovely resort in Antigua for only $159 a week by booking it through our timeshare exchange program.

I do have one financial goal for 2012 that supports my philosophy of giving. This year I would like to make my contributions through a donor-advised charitable fund. So far, I am leaning toward the Schwab Charitable Fund. My plan is to use appreciated stock to establish the fund and use future contributions to support my non-profits of choice. I want to proceed in the most-cost effective and tax-friendly manner. A charitable fund seems simpler than establishing a foundation that involves lots of paperwork and requires management.

Well, I haven't been blogging much because our financial life is really pretty boring these days. I guess it's better than having drama related to money (or lack of). The years of focused planning and saving have paid off in terms of providing a comfortable and secure retirement, and for that I am grateful. We planned for the future and now we are living it. Life is good.

Happy Easter to all! I took this picture of lilies at our hotel last time we were in Guatemala.

A Year of Splendid Retirement

January 1st, 2012 at 06:20 pm

Yesterday dh and I were discussing how quickly 2011 flew by. After all, we are retired... shouldn't life seem a little slower? So where did the year go? And how are we doing financially... where did our money go?

January - Our "National Geographic Experience"
We started the year on an Amazon River cruise where we spent 4 weeks visiting everything from remote villages to the industrial city of Manaus. Our trip back to the USA took us to Devil's Island and several Caribbean countries. It was amazing and we learned so much about the flora, fauna, people and cultures of the Amazon Basin!

February - Family Time
Spring in Idaho was quiet and restful. We took a road trip to our condo in Silicon Valley, stopping to see family in Oregon along the way.

March - Time for Family and Friends
Went to Newport and Gleneden on the Oregon Coast for a week with dh to enjoy bird watching and the ocean. Later I took a "girls only" trip to Las Vegas to celebrate a friend's 70th birthday. Dh and I ended the month with a week in Cabo San Lucas for our niece's renewal of vows.

April - From NYC to the Rain Forest
The first week was spent with my sister from CA in NYC visiting my grandnephew (her grandson). Later that month, we were in El Salvador to see family for a week, followed by 10 days in Costa Rica on a Caravan.com tour, one of the best travel bargains around.

May - R & R
Had thyroid surgery... prognosis is good despite some unexpected news. Appreciated being home to rest and recuperate, and my daughters and dh were wonderful during this time. Prepared my garden for planting.

June - Home Sweet Home in ID
The garden is starting to bloom, I volunteered for the Red Cross, and took a four-day trip with dh to beautiful Yellowstone. We decided to sell CA condo... we just don't use it enough to justify expense of keeping it.

July - Cutting Ties to CA
The best part was that my sister and BIL from CA came to visit us in ID for a week of fun. We got an offer on the condo... drove back to CA. It was wonderful to spend time with CA family, including dh's family reunion in Soledad. Cleared out CA condo in expectation of closing escrow in August. Rented a storage locker in ID and hired movers to help us with items we are keeping.

August - Summer in the City of Trees
So happy with our beautiful flower garden in ID... annuals and perennials galore! Volunteered some more and enjoyed a relaxing summer in this beautiful city of trees (that is the meaning of Boise), biking on the greenbelt, and going to the fair, museums, parks and the zoo.

September - European Adventure Begins
We FINALLY closed escrow on our CA condo! Left on September 25 to celebrate with newly retired friends in for Barcelona, Spain, the gateway for our next adventure.

October - Wow... what a month!
We were in Europe most of October, exploring 8 different countries... an amazing experience. The best part: four days with my favorite cousin and his delightful family in Switzerland. Did some volunteer work for the Red Cross when we returned to ID.

November - So Much to be Thankful For
My DSS came home from Iraq, safe and sound after one year working as a medic with his National Guard unit in a particularly dangerous area. Thanksgiving in Idaho was lovely, hosted by DD1. After Thanksgiving, dh and I left for Cabo San Lucas, one of our favorite SUNNY and WARM places.

December - Escaping the Cold
Went to Cabo San Lucas for three weeks. Came home in time to celebrate happy holidays with 3 of our 4 adult children. DSS want to relocate to ID. We decorated the house and put up our tree. It was wonderful! I especially love the ornaments we've collected from our world travels.

On the Financial Front... where did our money go?
I spend less time on things financial now that we're retired. It's not that I care any less about personal finance... it's more that we are on autopilot. We have a property manager handling the rentals, so I do not get involved much. The financial planner I've used for 25+ years does a good job with the tax-deferred investments, so I don't worry about those. Our income is fixed and direct deposited to the bank, and most bills are on auto-pay. Life is simpler now.

I track our retirement income in four basic categories. "Living" is everything we spend that is not travel, giving, or saving: medical, property taxes, food, entertainment, clothes, auto, etc. I was surprised our net worth grew 4.87%, excluding real estate (I expected less). This represents the growth (averaged) of taxable accounts, tax-deferred accounts (to be tapped at 70 1/2), and stocks/mutual funds. I adjusted figures to exclude cash generated from the sale of the CA condo.

Distribution of our 2011 net income is as follows:
~ Living 32%
~ Giving 12%
~ Savings 31%
~ Travel 25%

We spend a lot on travel, made possible by diligent pre-retirement planning and saving. Our expenses are low, our income is fixed (~30% goes to taxes), we save almost one-third of our net income, and we are in relatively good health. This is the "go-go" stage of our retirement. The "slow-go" and the "no-go" stages will follow, but for now we are actively crossing items off our bucket list. 2011 was a good year!

Happy New Year to All at SA!

A Snowbird Experiment

November 24th, 2011 at 06:13 am


Now that we permanently live in a colder-in-the-winter part of the country, the snowbird lifestyle is gaining appeal. On Saturday dh and I will leave for three weeks in warm and sunny Cabo San Lucas. We'll stay in a one-bedroom condo at the Hacienda Encantada, a resort that sits on a point with great views of the arch and the Sea of Cortez.

Some snowbirds we know flee the cold for 3-6 months. Our relatively short trip to Cabo is an experiment of sorts... I guess you could call us "semi-snowbirds"... but the point is we're getting away from the Idaho cold to see how we like this area for extended winter getaways. We'll explore future options such as renting an apartment or a house. Cabo is home to large numbers of retired Americans and Canadians, so it must be a good place to spend the winter.

I reserved a "studio suite" with timeshare points from last year, trading a week in Lake Tahoe for three in Cabo. The unit has a full kitchen so we can eat meals in whenever we want and shopping will be easy with a Walmart and a Costco within a 10-minute drive. Resort amenities include laundry facilities, free parking, and free wifi. And although the resort offers an “all inclusive” option for meals/drinks, it is not worth it to us. We tend to eat healthier by cooking our own meals and dining out occasionally. My budget for these 3 weeks is $3,000+-.

So far, the costs are:
RT airfare for two: $1084
$154 per week Exchange Fee: $462
Car rental @$183 a week: $549
Food and gas: ~$500 (est.)
Excursions/misc.: ~$500 (est.)

We've never been to this resort, so I hope it lives up to our expectations based on the website and Trip Advisor. If we like it, we may decide to go back every winter for 3-4 weeks or longer.

Castles and windmills...

November 2nd, 2011 at 03:24 am

...are some of my favorite memories. It's been a week since we returned from our European trip, and our life has fallen back into a comfortable routine. We had an amazing trip visiting 8 countries in 30 days, but it is good to be home. We stayed within our budget, but I did spend on an item I couldn't resist: a carved Black Forest musical cuckoo clock. It hasn't arrived yet but I have the perfect spot for it when it does, and it can be turned off if it drives us crazy.

Life in Europe is very expensive, especially in Switzerland. For example, in most countries, gasoline ranged from a low of ~$6 a gallon to ~$8. Understandably, many Europeans walk extensively, use public transportation, or ride bikes. We certainly can't complain about paying under $3.50 a gallon in Idaho. Food was expensive, both in markets and at restaurants. Of course, if we lived in Europe we wouldn't dine out as often. A meal that is ~$40 in the USA ran ~$70-$75 in Barcelona and even more in Geneva. Two coffees and two pastries at the Starbucks in Basel was $29. (Yeah... dh had to get a Starbuck's fix.)

I loved Amsterdam with its beautiful canals and was fascinated by the Dutch custom of bike-riding everywhere. It seemed there were more bikes than pedestrians. Not surprisingly, the Dutch, in general, seem very fit... I didn't see many overweight bike riders. People of all ages and professions cycle everywhere, often with kids, pets, and packages in tow as you can see in the above link.

What would I do differently? We had to pack for two climate zones (the warm Mediterranean and cool fall weather in Switzerland, Germany and Holland), so next time I would try to avoid this to pack lighter. Instead of taking as much cash in USD, I would just get more Euros from an ATM. Businesses give a lower exchange rate than banks when you pay with USD. It worked well to use my Chase Sapphire card when I could, and the Schwab savings debit card was used at ATMs... neither charge foreign exchange fees.

All in all, it was a great trip. We enjoyed traveling with friends during the first half, then spending time with my Switzerland family, and finally ending with a romantic week-long cruise on the Rhine. People tell us we're "lucky" to travel as much as we do, but in reality it's due more to years of focused planning and saving for retirement rather than luck.

Here are some pictures of the trip:


The view from Erice, a medieval town in Sicily, Italy.


The Parthenon at the Acropolis of Athens, Greece.


The Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey.


Montserrat... a monastery near Barcelona, Spain.


The United Nations compound in Geneva, Switzerland.


Old homes in Strasbourg, France.


Marksburg Castle in Braubach, Germany.


One of the many windmills in Kinderdjik, Netherlands, used to pump water to reclaim land from the sea.

Travel $avings

September 24th, 2011 at 06:20 pm



Tomorrow dh and I leave on our next adventure, a month-long trip that will take us to eight European countries. The first leg of the trip will be two days in Barcelona followed by a 12-day Mediterranean cruise to celebrate a friend's retirement. Then we are back in Barcelona for a few days before flying to Geneva to spend time with my cousin. After a few days in Geneva, we'll take a train to Basel to begin a one-week cruise on the Rhine. Our trip will end with three days in Amsterdam before returning to the USA.

While planning the trip I discovered it's sometimes cheaper to buy a round-trip ticket, even though you just need a one-way fare. For example, a one-way flight on Swiss Air from Barcelona to Geneva was $592 (Economy Class). By booking a round trip ticket, I paid $177 (and it is Business Class to Geneva and Economy Class for the "return" trip). Baggage weight limits are lower in Europe and we each have a 50 lb. bag. Business class allows more weight, otherwise I could have spent ~$35 per RT ticket.

Other savings: I booked the first cruise through Costco Travel, and even though the price was exactly the same as through Royal Caribbean, Costco gave us a $500 on-board credit. The river cruise was a 2-for-1 special on Viking. I will use my Chase Sapphire card to pay for hotels in Barcelona, as well as meals and extras, because there is no foreign transaction fee with this card. And at home, I saved ~$150 by putting the garbage, paper, and TV satellite on hold, and by skipping one of our bimonthly house-cleanings.

Recovered Unclaimed Money

September 17th, 2011 at 06:12 pm

Today my dh got a check in the mail for $63 from the State of California. This came about after I read an article a few months back that said there are millions of dollars in unclaimed funds in the CA treasury. I checked and, sure enough, found dh on the list of people with unclaimed property. Dh's money was from an escrow he closed about 20 years ago. Apparently the title company never thought to mail the excess to the address of the home he bought. Dh completed the application for a refund, following the instructions on the website and the check followed in a few weeks. Follow this link to find out more.

We finally closed escrow...

September 7th, 2011 at 12:36 am

on our California condo... three weeks late, but at least it's done. We had to be patient due to buyer's loan issues that necessitated signing FIVE extensions to the contract. It's a good thing we knew and liked the buyer otherwise we would have gone with the backup offer and would have had a speedier close.

It's been over a month since we moved our belongings from the condo. Although we really loved our home, we decided to sell because we just didn't use it enough to justify the expense of keeping it. It will be nice to save the money we've been shelling out each month for expenses plus the substantial equity from the sale. Moving and consolidating two homes into one was a project I do not want to repeat anytime soon.

We hired a nationally known company because we thought they would be more reliable. Wrong. The movers showed up 12 hours late. We had to stay in a hotel an extra night because they started the job at 9:30 p.m. and worked until 12:30 a.m. Then they started at 8:00 a.m. the next day and finished at 1:30 p.m. We spent the next night in Nevada because we left CA too late in the day to make it all the way home. Of course, the final cost was MUCH more than the estimate, and even though the movers were respectful and friendly, they were not as careful with our furniture as some of the local movers we've used.

All in all, we survived the move and the furniture survived, although with a few more scratches than before. The task of blending two households into one involved sorting items for donation, giving away loads of extra furniture, household items, and clothes, putting some furniture into storage for my stepson, and shredding old financial records and personal papers. Whew! Glad that is behind us but it has given me renewed motivation to streamline financial record keeping and to think twice before buying anything new for the house.

Thinking About Disasters

August 21st, 2011 at 01:55 pm

When dh and I moved to ID in May 2010 we applied and were accepted as Red Cross volunteers. We completed the required training and are now members of the Disaster Action Team (DAT). We are on call several weeks during year, with the dates aligned to fit our travel schedule. This week, even though we are not on call, we were asked to assist with emergency services in two local communities after house fires. It seems the people "on call" were not available but fortunately we were able to step in.

After an emergency, such as a fire or flood, the Red Cross typically provides 3 nights in a hotel for the displaced family, plus money for clothes/shoes and food allowance for a week. It's not a huge sum, but for families that have lost everything, it makes a difference and is much appreciated. The Red Cross also helps procure medication lost in the fire and puts families in touch with community-based resources to help them rebuild their lives (e.g., counseling, housing, etc.). The Red Cross aid must be requested within three days of the incident.

The cause of one fire was electrical and the other was accidentally started while filling a gas generator in the garage. In both cases, the homes were destroyed and 11 people were left homeless. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured but the experience made me think about the importance of having:

~ an emergency evacuation plan for the family;
~ a plan for temporary/emergency shelter for family pets (one family had two 100 lb. dogs and no hotel was willing to take them);
~ a list of medications for everyone in the household;
~ a list of important phone numbers such as insurance, credit cards, etc. (I periodically email my list to myself so I can access it from anywhere).

Update on the Condo Sale

July 28th, 2011 at 03:01 am

Tomorrow dh and I leave for CA to finalize the sale of the condo... escrow papers will be signed on August 2. We are selling it for 95% of what I paid in 2003. That is how bad the real estate market is in Silicon Valley. Still, I'm grateful it sold, although I won't celebrate until escrow actually closes on August 15. I've seen too many sales unravel at the last minute.

The woman who is buying the condo is a neighbor and a lovely person. She lives with her sister who owns the unit attached to mine and she even has a key to our condo. I gave it to her a few years back because she keeps an eye on things while we travel. So now the sisters will have adjoining homes. How wonderful! I really like our complex and it is rare for a unit to come on the market, so I'm happy our house ended up with someone who already loves living there.

While we're in CA we'll be busy attending dh's family reunion, spending time with friends and my sister, and packing and preparing for the move. The movers will arrive August 3 and there's much to do. I'm giving away a lot of furniture and household items to avoid bringing them back to ID but we will still have plenty that is being moved.

We rented a storage unit in ID for the furniture and household items we're keeping. Dh wants to give all of it to his son who would like to buy a house when he returns from his deployment in Iraq in November.

In the event escrow falls through, we may decide to rent the condo. Our realtor says she can rent it for about $2,500 a month which seems high, but I'd rather not go that route. We also have a backup offer but I don't know the details. In any event, with the furniture gone, we wont be staying there again so we will just wait and see what happens.

And, finally, after much debate, we are selling the Prius to dh's daughter for a great price. She needs a reliable car but she has very bad credit so she can't get a loan through a bank. In the past, she has always been unreliable about repaying loans from her dad but my dh bails out his kids time and time again. He and I are very different in this regard, but that's the subject of another post.

Bubble and Squeak

May 25th, 2011 at 10:28 pm

Today we deviated from our usual breakfast of oatmeal or cold cereal and had a different but delicious breakfast using left over mashed potatoes and cabbage (very frugal):

Menu
~ Bubble & Squeak
~ Organic pork sausage patties
~ Fried Eggs

I decided to make bubble and squeak after watching a British comedy where it was mentioned. Apparently it is a common dish in the UK and it gets its name from the noise it makes while cooking. It's a good way to used leftovers. There are many variations to the recipe, including using meat in the mixture. Following is the recipe I used.

Bubble and Squeak
3 tbsp. butter
1 small onion
2 c. shredded cooked cabbage
2 c. leftover mashed potatoes
salt and pepper to taste

Saute onions in butter until tender. Combine cabbage and mashed potatoes. Add to skillet, and press with fork to form large cake, cook over moderate heat until well browned. Loosen cake with spatula, slide onto plate and flip back into skillet so uncooked side is down. Cook until browned. Slice into wedges and serve.

A Busy April

May 8th, 2011 at 08:26 pm

First of all, Happy Mother's Day to mothers everywhere. May your day be a special one. Dh and I went out for a lovely brunch and we will be having dinner tonight with my daughters. It should be a lot of fun.

April came and went in a whirlwind. Early in the month I was in NYC, spending a quiet week with my sister and grandnephew. We managed to do lots of sightseeing and shopping. I especially enjoyed the annual Macy's Flower Show. When the week was over, I headed back to Idaho and my ds, back to her teaching job in CA.

Mid-April was tax time, and unexpectedly, we got a $713 federal refund. This was due to adequately estimating our withholding, not because we had any write-offs to speak of. As expected, we owed a tidy sum to the state. One good aspect of living in ID: our CPA charged $290 compared to our California CPA who charged $925 to do our taxes last year.

On Friday, April 15, we left for a week in El Salvador. Easter week is seriously celebrated there, and it meant most of my family had the week off (government sector workers) or part of the week off (private business workers). The city, usually a crazy hub of people and cars, was calmer because many people leave the city for the quiet of the mountains or sea shore. We stayed with my cousin and dh enjoyed bird-watching without having to leave the grounds of her home. This is her garden:


Plants we know as house-plants flourish outdoors in the tropical climate of El Salvador:


These cashews grow on a tree outside her kitchen. The fruit is used for a refreshing beverage, and the nut is roasted:


On Good Friday, we left El Salvador for Costa Rica to begin a 10-day excursion. We traveled with a company called Caravan.com and I highly recommend it. The cost is reasonable ($995 per person for 10 days) and includes three excellent meals a day, all excursion fees, baggage handling, and 9 nights at 4 and 5 star hotels. We traveled in a very comfortable bus and although there were 40 in our group, the trip was orderly and well-managed. Caravan uses a seat rotation system that is fair and eliminates competition for the "best" seats.

We loved Costa Rica, a clean and safe country. I've traveled to Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Panama, but Costa Rica is the first Central American country where one can drink the tap water in most places and not get sick. Costa Rica's infrastructure is advanced compared to other Central American countries, largely attributed to the fact Costa Rica has not endured destructive civil wars as have the others.

We expected to see lots of wildlife and were not disappointed. Here our guide, Derek, holds a rhinoceros beetle that is sucking juice from sugar cane:


We traveled to Tortuguero Island, and although not the season for the annual sea turtle migration to the sea, a very worthwhile two-day visit. We saw many howler monkeys, lizards, toucans, egrets, herons, and caimen, and more. We stayed at Laguna Lodge, in the midst of the rain forest. This is the view from the nearby Tortuguero Village:


Then on to Fortuna for two days where we stayed at a comfortable hotel called Magic Mountain, located at the foot of the Arenal Volcano, seen here from the plaza in town:


Our last two-day stop was in Guanacaste on the Pacific Coast, where the weather was warmer and the terrain dryer. We stayed at the Marriott Resort and Spa and had great rooms. Here is the view from the nearby beach:

Amazing Amazon Experience

January 26th, 2011 at 08:16 pm

We're back from our month-long trip to the Amazon Basin. We traveled 1,000 miles on the Amazon River in Brazil to the industrial city of Manaus, then turned around and sailed back to the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way, we stopped at several smaller cities and remote villages. It was a memorable National Geographic-type experience, and definitely worth the time and expense.

Money-wise, it was a pricey trip but we stayed within our budget. We plan big trips about a year in advance and save systematically to our travel account so the trip was almost completely paid for before we started. We budget extra funds for unexpected events and spontaneous activities. Nowadays, we buy very few souvenirs (except for my grandniece and nephews), but we do take lots of pictures. Thank goodness for digital photography!

Health-wise, we did fairly well. Dh caught a stomach bug that lasted about two days. I was bitten by fire ants while visiting Boca da Valeria, a remote village near Parintins... very painful but fortunately, I didn't have an allergic reaction like I do with bees. Our doctor in the USA gave us meds for all possible ailments, including malaria, so we didn't have to see the ship's doctor like some of our fellow-travelers.

A few highlights and pictures from our trip are posted on our travel blog if you are interested.

Lessons from Financial Fiascos

December 3rd, 2010 at 01:56 am

Most of us have made poor financial decisions at some point in our lives, and I am no exception. I was reflecting about some of my worst financial decisions over the years and thought maybe someone else can learn from my mistakes:

1975 - After the death of my mother and father within a few months of each other, my sister and I sold my parents' home in SF to a relative of our estate attorney. We were young and naive and did not know the sales price was extremely under market value. We essentially gave away a home that was worth much more, especially because of its prime location. Selling the house wasn't the issue, it was making an uninformed decision... we sold it without consulting anyone else (e.g., an appraiser) and trusting our attorney 100%. Of course, we were young, vulnerable, grieving the loss of our parents and inexperienced in real estate matters. Lesson learned: Just because you have known someone for years and they seem kind and fatherly, it doesn't mean they won't take advantage. Think twice, wait a while, talk to others.

1983 - Newly divorced, I entrusted $22,000 to a family friend, a stockbroker, who talked me into the same investments he recommended for his parents. Big mistake. Today, I have approximately $1583 to show for that investment, and a K-1 that won't go away. It was a lot of money back then (and still is!). Lesson learned: Don't let someone talk you into an investment by using an emotional or personal rationale like "I had my parents invest in this." Do your research.

But did I learn my lesson? Nooooo... keep reading and you will see why. First, some background to explain my stock market experience:

1995 – I was a late bloomer getting into the stock market and started buying stocks after researching some major companies, some of which were blue chip. Since I was a beginner, I had a fellow teacher who shared copies of Value Line to help with my research. I focused on companies whose products or services I liked or used, and bought individual stocks in lots of 100-500 shares for several years. My portfolio was doing moderately well until...

1998 – I broke away from my strategy and bought some technology stocks based solely on my dh's raving about how these were the "up and coming" companies, and how his stocks had quadrupled in value, blah, blah, blah. So I bought (VRSN, XICO, XLNX)... and, about two years later, all of these stocks tanked with the dot.com implosion. Why I listened to my dh who had even less knowledge than I did, I don't know.

Then, to make matters worse, I kept those duds for years, despite the fact they could not possibly recover in my lifetime. I eventually sold these dogs, despite my "buy and hold" strategy. Most of my original stocks have been a solid investment, despite taking a beating in the most recent meltdown. Thankfully, I did not take dh's advice to sell my AAPL stock! But the experience gave me cold feet for buying more stocks and I lost my interest in the market for quite a while.

Nowadays, I am ultra conservative when it comes to new investments in the stock market. When I allowed myself to be influenced by my dh's enthusiasm and confident attitude... any maybe even a little by greed, I paid the price. Since retiring, I'm reluctant to buy more stocks, but for the younger folks, there are some bargains to be had.

Stocks I'm glad I bought and held: AAPL, ABT, AMZN, MSFT, WMT, PG, GE, SBUX, HPQ. Slow and steady, my original stocks have grown by an average of ~9.5% a year, excluding APPL which has had phenomenal growth. But then there were duds like WAMU, which became worthless. Lesson learned: Do your homework and think for yourself, then you have no one else to blame for your decisions.

"Self-trust is the first secret of success."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

How I Saved $4840

October 5th, 2010 at 05:01 pm


Tomorrow morning dh and I leave for three weeks in Peru, flying out of SFO. We usually fly coach unless I can get a great deal like the one I did for this trip.

We are flying first class RT and the tickets for this itinerary would have cost $5,868. I ended up spending "only" $1,028.26 for two RT tickets to Lima by doing the following:

~ Used most of the the miles I had in my account (not enough);
~ Paid to transfer 15,000 miles from dh's account (still not enough);
~ Bought the remaining miles I needed to make the transaction.

If we had flown coach our tickets would have cost around $1,410 for two RT fares. Our first class tickets are still ~$400 cheaper than the coach fares.

I have to admit it takes time, research, and creative thinking, but there are ways to not only save money on air fare but to end up with better seats. In case you're wondering why I didn't use my miles for coach fares, they were not available. Airlines limit the number of fares that can be purchased with miles in each of the seating categories.

Pay Day and a Raise

October 1st, 2010 at 02:40 pm

Before I retired, payday was always the last weekday of the month and it was my responsibility to pick up payroll checks at the Business Office and take them to my school site for distribution. If an employee had direct deposit, they got a voucher instead of a paycheck. Paydays always put everyone in good spirits even if it was only once a month. We usually had a staff potluck that added to the upbeat mood.

Now that we're retired, our "payday" is the first day of the month and our pensions are direct deposited to our bank accounts. Deposits to savings are automatic and since most of our bills are on auto-pay, there are few, if any, checks to write. There are no more contributions to be made to our retirement accounts. Our fine-tuned budget works well to meet our needs. Payday does not seem all that special anymore.

Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised today when I checked my bank account and saw I received the 2% COLA, which is supposed to be issued every October 1. Due to the bleak state of the California economy, I was afraid there would be no COLA. To celebrate, I'm taking dh out for pizza... so there goes my raise.

We keep telling ourselves we're fortunate to have pensions backed by legislation that supposedly makes them secure. But the skeptic in me wonders how long California will stay solvent. So I'm wary of the worst that could happen and glad we've saved enough to at least pay our basic expenses if our pensions dry up. As bad as it would be to lose our pensions, at least we’d have a roof over our heads and be able to buy groceries. But our traveling plans would need serious modification.

My dh often comments that being retired is like having a week of Saturdays. And I'm not complaining... it's great to have the time and flexibility to do whatever we feel like doing and best of all, to have "jobs" we can't be fired from. But I still miss the celebratory atmosphere of payday.

Love Our Senior Discounts

September 17th, 2010 at 07:27 pm

For the past week, dh and I have been staying at Brian Head, Utah. Many people have never heard of it but it is in a beautiful corner of the state, high (and I do mean high) in the mountains. With the summer crowds dwindling, we thought this would be a good time to visit nearby Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park.

Two years ago, dh purchased the lifetime senior pass to enter any national park, along with up to three adult guests. The senior pass is a bargain at $10 and is available to anyone 62 or older. The entrance fee to Zion and Bryce Canyon is $25 per car or $12 per person, so we saved quite a bit. We also used it to enter Cedar Breaks National Monument, although the entrance fees there are only $4 per person.

We opted to stay in Brian Head, an hour and a half scenic drive from the national parks because we reserved a comfortable 1-bedroom condo at a beautiful lodge for only $139 for the week. This was done through our timeshare exchange program. The elevation at Brian Head is 10,350 feet, something we were unaware of although it turned out to be a good thing. In about two weeks we will be traveling to Peru and staying at Brian Head gave us an idea of the effect of high elevation on our bodies.

It did take about a day to get acclimated to the high elevation, but we learned some important things: stay hydrated, take it easy for a day or so, eat carbs, and avoid alcohol.

Here are some pics... while they last:

Cedar Breaks National Monument is only 5 miles from Brian Head. Here they get 400 inches of snow annually and close the park in October:


Bryce Canyon visitors can drive right in. It has spectacular vistas... it's like a cross between Sedona and the Grand Canyon:


Zion National Park is open from May 28 until December 1 and is a national treasure. Visitors can go deep into the park by shuttle only, and these run every 6-8 minutes. There are many hiking trails, from moderate to challenging. We went on two hikes, to the Weeping Wall and the River Walk. Here is a shot of some of the interesting Zion hoodoos:


Making the Decision to Retire

August 19th, 2010 at 06:09 am

How much money will I need to retire comfortably? This was the burning question I pondered for several years before retiring. My retirement planning involved some specific steps to answer this question and it helped me feel confident in my decision to retire. Even though I retired two years ago when the economy was imploding, I have not regretted it for a moment.

Here is what I did to come up with my answer:

1. I determined the annual income I would need in today's dollars. This involved creating a budget that allows for unexpected expenses and also a healthy amount for travel. My basic budget categories are:

Housing (includes expenses for second home)
Utilities (includes phone)
Food/Misc.
Auto (gas, maintenance, insurance, registration)
Medical
Charitable Donations/Gifts
Personal Allowance (includes clothing)
Insurance
Entertainment
Travel Savings
Regular Savings
Taxes

2. I chose my planned retirement date: August 19, 2008.

3. With input from my accountant and financial planner, I analyzed the market value of my investments. These included both taxable (cash, stocks, real estate) and tax sheltered accounts (IRAs, 457 and 403b). Taking into account a conservative rate of return on these investments (2%), we projected values at 70 1/2, when Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) kicks in.

4. I requested a benefit estimate from my state teacher's pension plan. In my case, I knew the exact amount of my pension and that it is supposed to have a guaranteed 2% annual COLA.

5. I calculated the withholding on my pensions at approximately 25%.

6. I determined my pension WOULD NOT keep pace with inflation (using a 4% lifetime average inflation rate). In the future it would mean saving less and/or drawing from my retirement accounts to supplement my pension income (definitely will need to do so by age 70 1/2).

I put all this data on a spreadsheet and saw that I could afford to retire on my chosen date, even though waiting three more years would have provided a significantly higher income. In my case, the additional money was not worth the stress generated by my work. My job as an elementary school principal was taking a toll on my health (e.g., high BP) and I wanted to retire on a high note, rather than after I'd burned out.

These are the steps I took to "crunch the numbers." There are plenty of calculators available online, some of them very useful. However, I just used a simple Excel spreadsheet. I did this exercise at least once a year for about 4-5 years before retiring. I knew it was time to retire when I began to review my retirement spreadsheet every month!

My husband retired in 2009 so we are now both able to enjoy a completely different life. People sometimes ask what we do to keep busy now that we're retired. The reality is that we are always busy, but what we do to keep busy is our choice. It's wonderful to have so much control over our lives. We love to travel and have documented some of our adventures on our travel blog.

In addition to retirement income planning, we downsized in 2006 to a condo in Silicon Valley. This was a good move because we sold our big house when prices were high and we were able to move to the condo that we had bought in 2003 but had rented out. We used profits from the downsize to buy our Idaho home for cash, so there is no mortgage. So now here we are in beautiful Boise where we have relocated. We still have the CA condo, but it is now our second home.

Before/After and More

July 18th, 2010 at 06:58 pm

Hope everyone is having a great summer. Ours has been busy. We are back in Idaho after spending two weeks in Hawaii and then two weeks in our CA condo. The Hawaii trip was planned to help my DS and BIL celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. My dh had never been to Hawaii and he liked it so much he wants to go back... I LOVE Hawaii, especially the weather, so we will go back in 2011.

We spent the first week on a cruise circling the islands of Maui, Hawaii, and Kauai, and the second week we spent in a timeshare condo on Oahu that I exchanged through Interval International. Here is a view from our room:


One of my favorite memories is of the spectacular Naapali cliffs in Kauai:


-----------------------------------------
Back in Idaho, the landscape contractor completed our patio project. I love the low maintenance aspect of our new patio. Our back yard is very small and faces an alley that gets very little traffic. BEFORE all we had was a patch of lawn and a concrete patio:


Now we have pavers and rock planters with excellent soil and an automatic watering system. Dh and I spent the last two days planting. The planters contain perennials and I also have 8 large pots with annuals. Here is a picture AFTER the project was completed:


Vent Cleaning Scam

June 19th, 2010 at 03:43 pm

Yesterday morning we had the vents to our forced air heating and cooling system cleaned and the process was a nightmare. Why? We chose a company based on a coupon we received in the mail, and they had a hidden agenda. We get coupons all the time but I chose this company because they gave a "15% senior citizen discount." All the coupons charged about $65 for the service which included "free" dryer vent cleaning.

So why was it a scam? Well, the minute the two men started the job, one got busy working while the other, Leo, said their "service" included a free inspection of our furnace. Hmmm... first red flag.

After the inspection, Leo began a high pressure sales pitch trying to sell equipment and services ranging from $850 to $150. Leo began by telling us our furnace needed cleaning and the air in our house was 70% more polluted than the outside air.

First of all, a few months back PGE came out and inspected our furnace and said all was OK. We said no to the $150 furnace cleaning. Then Leo wanted to sell us a UV Cleanser... $850 but we would get a special price of "only $499." Again, we said NO. I told him I don't spend that kind of money without researching it first.

Then Leo insulted me by asking, "Are you Jewish?" I responded, "Are you suggesting that I do not want to spend money because I'm Jewish? It's very insulting to make remarks like that about any group of people, and it's none of your business..." I would not be ashamed to be Jewish but I was angry because it projected a pejorative attitude. When Leo saw how angry I was, he said, "Oh, I'm Jewish" and he walked away.

Next, Leo tried to sell us a washable filter for $150. We already use high quality disposable filters (~$20 each) and it had recently been replaced, so we said no. Leo then said he (Leo) could not believe my dh would not spend money to have clean air in the house, especially since I have allergies (something my husband shared when Leo asked why we were having the vents professionally cleaned).

Then we found out the service did not include cleaning the cold air return vent... that was $35 more. I said OK on that only because they had the grill off and hanging and it's located in a place that is too high for our only ladder to reach. Since moving to this condo, we've given away most of our tools and equipment.

Next, Leo told my husband we had holes in the vent off the heater and poked his finger through one to show him. But wait, for $200 he would duct tape it. By now my husband was fed up and told Leo to just go. So we ended up paying $65 + $35 minus 15% discount. My dh later patched the vent holes... he said he couldn't prove it but thought Leo purposely made the holes.

I had planned to pay by CC to get points but ended up paying cash because the invoice required me to put my CC number and CVC code. Leo was such a hustler that there is no way I would let him have this information. I later called the company and told them I would be filing a complaint with the BBB and explained why. They offered to return 50% of the cost.

So the lesson learned from all of this is that next time I decide to have our vents cleaned, I will ask some questions before booking the appointment:

~ Will you try to sell me other services or equipment?

~ Does the service include cleaning ALL the vents, including the cold air return?

~ Is the technician named Leo? :-


April Update

April 30th, 2010 at 03:13 am

It's been a while since I last posted to my blog. April has been a busy and expensive month. I say expensive because of all the taxes we paid... Thankfully, we had savings to cover our bigger-than-expected Federal and State tax underpayment. Then there were also property taxes due on our CA home. So glad that's behind us!

In mid-April we spent two weeks in Mexico, mainly to visit the World Heritage archeological sites near Villahermosa and Merida. These are both very safe cities but I especially loved Merida, a beautiful colonial city with a rich history.

Giant Olmec stone head in La Venta Park near Villahermosa. These are as big as a room:


The Museum of Anthropology in Merida is worth a visit:


The archeological site at Uxmal:


One day, we drove to mangrove forests of Celestun on the coast. Dh had a blast bird-watching. Celestun is the feeding ground for thousands of flamingos:


The Yucatan is riddled with sinkholes, called "cenotes." These are usually filled with clean water and are popular as cool, underground pools and for cave diving. These limestone cenotes are connected by a vast underground river system:


About the trip:
~ We didn't get sick;
~ We had great accommodations through our timeshare (Hyatt Regency in both cities);
~ While in Merida, we saved money and had more flexibility by hiring a private driver for the day instead of going on a group tour. We were able to see and do much more for less than $60 a day;
~ We went over on our food budget because we invited our driver to eat with us each day, but he was knowledgeable and helpful;
~ The weather was good... some days actually a little too hot (over 100 degrees) but after Florida, we welcomed it;
~ Speaking Spanish really helped us get around.

One thing that really "gets" to me when we travel in Third World countries is to learn how LOW the minimum wage is in some countries. At ~$5 USD a day Mexico has a minimum wage even lower than EL Salvador, where I was born. I don't know how people live on this, but they do.

It also distresses me to see so many stray dogs that look like they're starving. They wander the streets looking so pathetic, but what can you do? There is no SPCA that I know of and people are mostly indifferent to these poor creatures. If you try to feed them, people look at you as if you are crazy.

At La Venta Park, people do feed the coatimundis... it's the local practice. These raccoon-like animals can be quite aggressive, and even chase you if they think you have food.


And, yeah, they caught me!


In the next few days I will be posting more on the World Heritage sites on my travel blog, in case you are interested.


Cancel Your Credit Cards Before You Die

March 23rd, 2010 at 03:00 am

A friend sent me the following and it so funny, I just had to share. He swears it's true but even if it's not, it's good for a laugh:

Cancel your credit card before you die...

Be sure and cancel your credit cards before you die.

This is so priceless, and so, so easy to see happening, customer service being what it is today.

A lady died this past January, and Citibank billed her for February and March for their annual service charges on her credit card, and added late fees and interest on the monthly charge. The balance had been $0.00 when she died, but now somewhere around $60.00. A family member placed a call to Citibank.

Here is the exchange:

Family Member: "I am calling to tell you she died back in January."

Citibank: "The account was never closed and the late fees and charges still apply."

Family Member: "Maybe, you should turn it over to collections."

Citibank: "Since it is two months past due, it already has been."

Family Member: "So, what will they do when they find out she is dead?"

Citibank: "Either report her account to frauds division or report her to the credit bureau, maybe both!"

Family Member: "Do you think God will be mad at her?"

Citibank: "Excuse me?"

Family Member: "Did you just get what I was telling you - the part about her being dead?"

Citibank: "Sir, you'll have to speak to my supervisor."

Supervisor gets on the phone...

Family Member: "I'm calling to tell you, she died back in January with a $0 balance."

Citibank: "The account was never closed and late fees and charges still apply."

Family Member: "You mean you want to collect from her estate?"

Citibank: (Stammer) "Are you her lawyer?"

Family Member: "No, I'm her great nephew." (Lawyer info was given)

Citibank: "Could you fax us a certificate of death?"

Family Member: "Sure." (Fax number was given)

After they get the fax...

Citibank: "Our system just isn't setup for death. I don't know what more I can do to help."

Family Member: "Well, if you figure it out, great! If not, you could just keep billing her. She won't care."

Citibank: "Well, the late fees and charges will still apply."

(What is wrong with these people?!?)

Family Member: "Would you like her new billing address?"

Citibank: "That might help..."

Family Member: "Odessa Memorial Cemetery, Highway 129, Plot Number 69."

Citibank: "Sir, that's a cemetery!"

Family Member: "And what do you do with dead people on your planet???!!"

(Priceless!!)

You wondered why Citi is going broke and need the feds to bail them out!!

No Penalties due to Safe Harbor

March 14th, 2010 at 07:22 am

We went to our CPA today to have our taxes done. 2009 was an unusual year in that dh worked full-time and also received his pension for 6 months as part of a faculty early retirement program. I also worked part-time as a consultant and for the university. So the visit confirmed we owe a BIG chunk to both IRS and the Franchise Tax Board. We were not able to use any of the rentals as a write off due to income limits.

Because of safe harbor tax rules, we are exempt from an underpayment penalty because we withheld more than 110% than in 2008. Phew! In 2010, our income will drop but we still need to increase our withholding according to our CPA. I am learning that we will have very little we can itemize now that we're retired: property taxes, mortgage interest, charitable donations... and that's about it.

In 2010, we increased charitable contributions to include a large donation to a Guatemala school to be used for scholarships. But just as we thought, the CPA says it is not deductible because the school in Guatemala is not affiliated with a US charity. Back in January, we decided to donate to the school even though it might not be deductible, but it sure would have been nice.

Our FL trip: the good, bad, and the ugly

March 9th, 2010 at 10:50 pm

Well, we're back from two weeks in Orlando and overall we had a great time.

The Good
~ A side-trip to the Everglades... awesome! You can read more about the Everglades on my travel blog if you're interested in the flora and fauna of this immense area. I took some great pictures of gators and birds.

~ Disney World... we visited the four parks (Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom) and Magic Kingdom twice. I bought our tickets from a discounter at Denny's at a good savings, paying $418 (including tax) for two adults for 5 days, single park per day option. I researched the best days to attend and we never had to wait more than 5 minutes for any of the rides.

~ Floridays Resort - For Week 1, we had a lovely two-bedroom apartment with all the amenities including free Internet, W/D, and a full kitchen. We got a good deal through Expedia and our accommodations came to ~$105 a night including the surcharge added upon checkout. It was located close to everything, but it was way more space than we needed. Two people do not need a two-bedroom apartment with three TVs but this was the smallest unit available. We probably could have saved a little more by shopping around (maybe ~$85 a day) but it was a last-minute trip. This is a great unit for 4-6 people and the resort is beautiful.

~ St. Augustine - This was an easy day-trip from Orlando. What a great, historic city with so much to see. In retrospect, we should have planned to stay several days. We used dh's senior pass, good at any national park, to get in free to the Castillo de San Marcos. Here I am at the city gates.


~ Our rental car from Alamo was a good deal... the pick up and delivery was easy, and we saved ~25% though Costco plus got a free day. This was a good investment because it gave us flexibility to go to the attractions or anywhere else without having to follow shuttle bus schedules. We were able to go to Tampa Bay, Daytona Beach, Miami, St. Augustine, the Everglades, and more.

~ Arabian Nights... this was a good dinner and an amazing performance featuring beautiful horses. We paid only $13 for the two of us to get in and had great seats. I'll explain more later.

The Bad
~ We went over budget on meals by ~ $9 a day... so not too bad. We just couldn't resist those snacks at Disney World, and they are not cheap. For example, a Haagen Daz bar was $3.75. I also had not budgeted $14 a day for parking at the Disney resorts, but it was well worth it to have the flexibility. But as much as I love to save and always have a budget, our travel account is padded so we can absorb going over budget without causing any distress.

~ The weather was COLD... even colder than back home in Silicon Valley, but we dealt with it by layering and it didn't dampen our spirits. It did mean no swimming or sunning, though.

~ I got sick... a serious sinus infection sidelined me for a day and required going to urgent care, but I was soon on the mend. The visit and 2 prescriptions were only $40, thanks to our good health insurance.

~ Westgate Lakes... Week 2 was at this resort and it was a timeshare exchange that cost only $139 for the week. That being said, I won't get too nit-picky, but let's just say we won't be staying there again if we can help it. Mostly, it has to do with the management and not the facilities which are older. We were given wrong information about basic things such as the location of the laundry facilities, the "free" breakfast, the housekeeping service, etc. At check-in, before giving your room key, they pressure guests into considering a timeshare sales pitch, which leads me to...

The Ugly
~ We decided to sit through their 90-minute timeshare sales pitch in order to get our almost-free tickets to Arabian Nights (normally ~$64 per person). We did not want to buy another timeshare and once they figured that out, they were rude and ugly. But they did "dismiss" us before the 90 minutes was up and we still got our tickets.

~ My dh actually went on two "scary" rides with me. After riding DINOSAUR at Animal Kingdom, I took a photo of the photo they try to sell you when you get off. We are the two on the right in the very back. Yeah... we are a pretty ugly sight, for sure. He also went on Thunder Mountain, so I'm proud of him, but I had to go on Space Mountain by myself.

Black Card

February 12th, 2010 at 04:39 pm

We get solicitations for credit cards on a weekly basis and usually I just shred them without bothering to review the details. Yesterday we received another solicitation for a Visa Black Card and curiosity got the best of me so I read the details. Thanks, but no thanks. H*ll would have to freeze over before I ever get one of these cards.

To start with, there is a hefty annual fee of $495 for the main cardholder and $195 for additional members. In return the member is entitled to the services of a 24-hour concierge, VIP lounge access at airports worldwide, and other travel perks. Oh, and there is an "exclusive rewards program," too... 1 point her dollar spent, redeemable on LUXURY items, whatever those might be. Whoop-dee-do! I'd have to spend at least $50,000 just to recoup the annual fee.

Although Visa touts the card as "the world's most prestigious and versatile card," I'm not impressed. I don't care a whit we are "pre-qualified" nor that that membership is limited to "only 1% of US residents."

I rolled my eyes at the last line of the solicitation: "Made with carbon, the Visa Black Card is guaranteed to get you noticed." Are there really people out there that need to be noticed that badly? I am just the opposite... I like being discreet, especially when it comes to spending money in public places.

Getting Creative With Coffee Filters

February 11th, 2010 at 07:06 pm


A friend sent me an email with these tips on using coffee filters and I thought it would be worth passing along.

Who knew! And you can buy 1,000 at the Dollar Tree for almost nothing, even the large ones.

1. Cover bowls or dishes when cooking in the microwave... coffee filters make excellent covers.

2. Clean windows, mirrors, and chrome... Coffee filters are lint-free so they'll leave windows sparkling.

3. Protect China by separating your good dishes with a coffee filter between each dish.

4. Filter broken cork from wine. If you break the cork when opening a wine bottle, filter the wine through a coffee filter.

5. Protect a cast-iron skillet. Place a coffee filter in the skillet to absorb moisture and prevent rust.

6. Apply shoe polish. Ball up a lint-free coffee filter.

7. Recycle frying oil. After frying, strain oil through a sieve lined with a coffee filter.

8. Weigh chopped foods. Place chopped ingredients in a coffee filter on a kitchen scale.

9. Hold tacos. Coffee filters make convenient wrappers for messy foods.

10. Stop the soil from leaking out of a plant pot. Line a plant pot with a coffee filter to prevent the soil from going through the drainage holes.

11. Prevent a Popsicle from dripping. Poke one or two holes as needed in a coffee filter.

12. Don't use expensive strips to wax eyebrows... use strips of coffee filters.

13. Put a few in a plate and put your fried bacon, French fries, chicken fingers, etc. on them. It soaks out all the grease.

14. Keep in the bathroom. They make great "razor nick fixers."

15. As a sewing backing. Use a filter as an easy-to-tear backing for embroidering or appliqueing soft fabrics.

16. Put baking soda into a coffee filter and insert into shoes or a closet to absorb or prevent odors.

17. Use them to strain soup stock and to tie fresh herbs in to put in soups and stews.

18. Use a coffee filter to prevent spilling when you add fluids to your car.

19. Use them as a spoon rest while cooking and clean up small counter spills.

20. Can use to hold dry ingredients when baking or when cutting a piece of fruit or veggies. Saves on having extra bowls to wash.

21. Use them to wrap Christmas ornaments for storage.

22. Use them to remove fingernail polish when out of cotton balls.

23. Use them to sprout seeds. Simply dampen the coffee filter, place seeds inside, fold it and place it into a plastic baggie until they sprout.

24. Use coffee filters as blotting paper for pressed flowers. Place the flowers between two coffee filters and put the coffee filters in phone book.

25. Use as a disposable "snack bowl" for popcorn, chips, etc.

OH YEAH THEY ARE GREAT TO USE IN YOUR COFFEE MAKERS, TOO.

Change of Plans, Part 2

February 10th, 2010 at 07:56 pm

Our trip to Peru in February was canceled due to torrential rains and ensuing floods that washed away the railroad tracks, but we have rescheduled for October. We've been looking forward to the trip for months and the cancellation was a letdown that left us itching to go somewhere, anywhere. Fortunately, our 2010 travel savings has enough to allow some "unscheduled" travel, so I researched "last minute" deals. Unable to resist the bargains, we decided on two weeks in Orlando, Florida. Our itinerary includes St. Augustine, Miami and the Everglades, and the Disney World parks.

Some things that saved money:

~ The first week was booked through Expedia as a package that included airfare, so we saved over $500 (another condo with a kitchen);

~ The second week was booked through our timeshare (Interval International) and will cost $139 for the entire week (studio condo with kitchen);

~ The day-long excursion to Miami and the Everglades was booked using a discount coupon;

~ The car rental was booked through Costco Travel at a 25% savings plus one free day;

~ We will prepare one or two meals each day at the condo, a healthy option that will save money.

We are set to leave next week. Now, if only I could talk dh into going on the "scary" rides with me at Disney World...

Rental Nightmare Update

January 5th, 2010 at 07:19 pm


In June, we hired a property manager who promptly evicted the tenants at one of our rentals. Back in August I posted about how the evicted tenants had trashed the house. I am happy to report that the property is FINALLY back to normal and it has been rented effective January 1. It was expensive to renovate and if it were not for the sad state of the real estate market in ID, we would sell it in a heartbeat. We are finding that rentals require far more work than we have the energy for.

One of the mistakes we made was hiring a property manager who wanted to do all the work himself. In the long run, he cost us more money because he has a full-time job apart from his rental management business, and he did the work when he had time. He is a hard-working, honest man, but it took him way too long to complete the repairs. And since we were in CA most of the time, it was "out of sight, out of mind." But we are grateful he was able to evict the tenants who had stopped paying rent.

So, more than $15,000 later, here is where the money went:

~ Six PITI payments @ $835 each
~ New linoleum and carpets
~ Two coats of KILZ on the subfloor
~ New paint throughout
~ New blinds on all windows
~ New backyard landscaping (top soil, lawn, sprinkler system)
~ New DW and micro-vent
~ Electrical outlet repairs
~ Trash hauling and cleaning (it was utterly unbelievable)
~ Utilities, including the $329 water bill of former tenants

As it was, the house would not have been ready to rent by January 1 if it had not been for my DDs and SILs who spent the day after Christmas helping us finish up the cleaning and repairing the front and back doors. The property manager was out of town on a family visit and dh and I were determined to get it ready.

You may be wondering if the evicted tenants vandalized the house. They did not! This was the result of four years of living in a house without ever cleaning it. We made the mistake of not having a property manager for several years and not bothering to do an annual inspection. So, most of this is our own fault for being lax about an investment and "assuming" all was well. We paid dearly for our mistakes and learned something about human nature through this experience.

There are people who are simply not clean... they think nothing of fouling their own nest, worse than animals. I have a hard time understanding what would compel a human being to live with animals and their feces... how do they present a semblance of normalcy outside the home? In my career as a school principal, I saw youngsters removed for "neglect" from filthy homes that were cleaner than this one.

And, no, we will not try to recover anything from the former tenants. It would be like trying to get blood out of a turnip. They apparently lost their jobs and like many people living on the edge, were only a heartbeat from being homeless. I feel sorry for these people, especially the children in this family.

New paint, carpets, and blinds:


Sparkling clean kitchen with new micro-vent:

This Time It's Real!

December 5th, 2009 at 05:18 pm


The day after I retired in August 2008, I took a part-time job at a local university supervising student teachers. Then my dh decided to retire in July 2009 from the same university. But he went back to work full-time for the Fall 2009 semester under a program allowing retired faculty to work 50% for up to five years.

My part-time work brought me full-circle... I began my career as a teacher and I ended it as a teacher. In between, I spent more than 15 years as an administrator but teaching has always been my passion. The most enjoyable aspect of my "retirement job" was working with my students, a dedicated and passionate group eager to begin their teaching careers. And while the job helped me transition from intense full-time work to retirement, it also prevented me from doing some things I really want to do.

So, when my dh decided to opt-out after just one year in his post-retirement program, it was my cue to bow out too. Now it's official... as of yesterday, we both are completely work-free and 100% retired. Our goal is to take time for some serious traveling so we can decompress, regroup, and reflect about what we want to do for the next 20 years or more.

So now we are free to travel the world without the encumbrance of jobs, and we have made plans. At various times in the next year we will be somewhere else: Panama, New York, Peru, Mexico, Hawaii, Bryce Canyon, Brazil, the Amazon... and maybe other places not yet dreamed of. So far, 120 days are scheduled. Some trips will be on our own, some will be cruises, and the Peru trip will be with Exploritas, a travel program formerly known as Elderhostel. We are also looking into a volunteer trip to Latin America through Habitat for Humanity, if the dates work around other commitments.

Some people don't like to travel at all, but it's always appealed to us on many levels. We learn about other cultures and people, and in the process we learn more about ourselves. And, although it's the perfect escape for some people, we're not the types to spend all our time sipping margaritas under a palapa on a beautiful beach somewhere. Well, maybe I could handle it for a day or two, but that hedonistic life would eventually get old. We especially want to see places that are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

So how will we pay for all of this, especially now that we're retired? We didn't hit the lottery or inherit money. Travel in retirement is NOT as difficult as one might think... it's about choices, planning, saving, and of course, dreaming. We've gotten into the habit of saving something every month, plus any extra money that comes our way in our travel savings, so our 2010 trips are fully funded and then some. Our frugal lifestyle helps... we live comfortably, but below our means and saving is easier because we are debt free (except for a small mortgage).

To keep in touch with family and friends, I've started a blog that focuses on different aspects of travel, including some money-related topics. I'm encouraging dh to blog along with me, and he seems open to the idea. If you're interested in reading our travel blog or if you'd like to write a guest post about one of your trips, share photos or travel tips, please visit Sage Travelers. My last post was about the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain.

We Were Poor But Didn't Know It

December 3rd, 2009 at 05:39 pm


The other day I was visiting my 93-year-old friend who loves to reminisce about her youth. My DF said she didn't realize how poor her family was until she was in about third grade. That's when some classmates started teasing about her threadbare, hand-me-down dresses. A lot of folks were poor back then, but it seems that with a large family, they were very poor. Her simple lunches consisted of rice with a few vegetables and sometimes a hard-cooked egg and a piece of fruit, taken to school in a little tin pail... an actual pail, not an insulated lunchbox.

Her mother prepared nutritious but economical meals that my DF loves to this day. Of course, now she knows the ingredients were more affordable for her family back then: rice, beans, oatmeal, potatoes, fruits and vegetables grown in the backyard garden, and bread baked at home. They ate a lot of soups, stews, and casseroles. Meat was a luxury and they ate very little of it.

My DF shared that her parents taught her to take care of her belongings and appreciate what she had, not covet what others had. And, in the midst of the Great Depression, they had very little. In the evenings, her parents read to their children, played cards, or the family listened to the radio. They seemed to focus on spending time together and enjoying being together as a family. All the kids had chores and if the older ones worked, they contributed most of their earnings to the family coffers.

I admire that my DF's parents raised their children to feel happy and positive about their lives, even though they were poor. While it's good parenting to educate children about money, it should not be done in a way that makes them anxious about "being poor." After all, a child is powerless to impact the family's finances. Kids thrive when they feel loved and safe, and it does not cost to provide these things. My DF is a prime example... not only did she thrive, she is a resilient and remarkable lady.


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