Booking our first family vacation with Chase Rewards

We’re just dipping our toe into the travel optimizing pond here and I was a bit nervous. It required opening AND using a credit card, so if that makes you nervous, don’t do it. We had to be disciplined and used the card for most purchases and a few large purchases, like summer camp, to maximize points earnings.

Here’s what we did, as well as a few mistakes we learned from:

  • We both opened a Chase Sapphire Preferred card and spent the required $4,000 (each) easily within three months to earn 50,000 bonus points (each). Lesson learned: We forgot to have my husband use my referral code when he applied, missing out on 10,000 bonus points.
sailing on the delaware
Sailing on the Delaware River, pining for the Bahamas
  • We set a goal: get enough points to get our family of four to the Bahamas or any Caribbean island over the week of Thanksgiving. Of the Chase rewards travel partners, Southwest was clearly the best option with the lowest amount of points required: I estimated 140k – 150k points for our family, however November travel dates were not released when we were planning.
  • Searched for the best deal: Southwest didn’t release their winter travel dates until May 31, so we knew we had to earn the required points by then. When the flights were available, we had 133,775 total points earned. I used Southwest’s low fare calendar to find the best combination of dates that would give us a 5- to 7-day Thanksgiving vacation with our points, but I kept coming up short.
  • Transferred points from Chase to Southwest: you can’t book Southwest through the Chase portal, so a points transfer is required. This was pretty easy. I transferred 73,000 Chase Rewards points to my Rapid Rewards account and it appeared immediately. I then transferred 60,000 of my husband’s Chase Rewards points to my Rapid Rewards account and when it didn’t appear immediately, I had a minor freak out. When transferring from Chase, you have to enter the cardholders name on the Chase site, plus a Rapid Rewards number. I used my husband’s name with my Rapid Rewards number and when the points didn’t appear, I assumed that using his name with my Rapid Rewards number was a big mistake. The Chase customer service was absolutely great and while we were talking through how to course-correct, the points appeared! I just needed a little patience.
  • Purchased additional Rapid Rewards: Since we didn’t have enough, I purchased 7,000 rapid rewards points for $134 to give me the points required to book our trip.
  • Booked it! It was a rather smooth process despite my human errors. Here’s the breakdown:
    • Earned Rewards: 133,775
    • Purchased Rewards: 7,000 ($134)
    • Total Redeemed Rewards: 139,776
    • Taxes and Fees: $463
    • Total: $597 = $149.25 each!
  • Versus Actual Costs: Flights: $3416.16 +  Taxes/Fees: $664.16 = $1,020.08 each. We saved $870 each – that’s $3,480! There’s no way we would have or could have spent that. And these prices are already higher than they were when I booked just five days ago.

Another thing I learned from the Marla Tanner interview on ChooseFI is that you can, in fact, redeem British Airways miles through Chase. I tried to figure this out online and couldn’t, so thank you Marla for teaching me that you actually have to call the airline. I will keep that in mind, but I think we’ll stick with Southwest for now because our next travel goal is a rocky mountain ski vacation.

A huge thank you to ChooseFI for teaching us how to travel for less!

How we are saving up to 50% on our energy bill

I thought we were in cruise control, fully optimized with our recurring, monthly bills. Until I got an email from our energy supplier.

We’re in Philly with PECO as our energy utility/distributor. About a year ago, just pre-FI for us, I made the switch to a renewable energy supplier, sourcing all wind-powered energy. I can’t remember the intro rate, but it was a good rate – cheaper than the traditional energy providers, and I strongly believe in supporting renewable energy.  Plus, they had an incentive of an annual rebate of 3% of your annual charges back in an account credit. If I did my math right, that’s about a $60 credit we’ll get. This rebate email is what prompted my energy bill digging. The email didn’t state the amount of credit was I getting, just that it was there to claim. There was no amount or timeframe. This lack of info was annoying. So, I dug in:

  1. Our bill has been steadily rising. They don’t provide the KWH rate for each billing period (ugh), but I see we’re paying a bit more and not always when we’re using more energy.
  2. I’m pretty sure that whatever intro rate I had has since gone up; I’m going to take my 3% credit and make a switch to a lower cost supplier that is also renewable. You can do this in PA!
  3. Our energy use is rising.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has a program called PA Power Switch which allows electric utility customers to choose from a wide selection of energy providers. They vary by proximity, variable versus fixed price, term length, contract fees, and percent that’s renewable energy. This sounds confusing, but it’s not. It’s a very user-friendly search tool and even I understand it.

Here’s where I’ve landed:

  • Our Current with a Renewable Supplier: 0.1429 per kWh
  • Cheapest Traditional Energy Option: 0.0585 per kWh
  • Cheapest Renewable Energy Option: 0.0725 per kWh with 24 month term

Because of my love for this planet, I’m going to support the renewable energy option that offers a kWh rate of 50% lower than my current. (I don’t mind the 24-month term.)

PECO Billing
Our annual energy costs + daily average temps courtesy of PECO

And the PECO site also offers great energy usage analysis and some easy energy savings tips. We’re are doing the following immediately:

  • Cold water laundry – my boys stink, I feel hot water is necessary, but I’ll switch to cold and see
  • Unplug electronics
  • Turn off power strips – why do we leave WiFi and the other office components on all day when we’re not home?!
  • Adjust TV brightness – apparently the factory default is a “showroom” setting. We have it on 0-2 hours per day, so not sure this will have much of an impact.
  • Tell everyone to turn off the lights when they leave the room!

So, we’re lowering our usage and lowering our rate. It will be very interesting to see how much we actually save per bill. Full transparency: Our last bill was $175 with an average daily use of 25.8 kWh. I will update in a month!

Connecting Financial Independence with Environmentalism

Yesterday was Earth Day. Every day is Earth Day.

A part of the path to FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) involves consuming less and this really resonates with me. It’s not being frugal to save money, but it’s being frugal to really think about what you need versus want while considering the true value of each purchase. I haven’t been too great at this lately, but all big purchases get scrutinized for their value.

I’ve written about the every day things we do without – cable, subscriptions, expensive cell phone bills, eating out, etc. – and the big ticket items we’re doing without – kitchen remodel and pretty much any large home remodel that applies to this old house. Obviously none of these things are necessary, so these aren’t tough decisions. We have debt and spending money on anything else seems foolish.

And I can be foolish. This laptop I’m using is physically breaking down with missing parts, dents and dings, and running very slow at times. Couple that with a very persistent, soon to be birthday boy asking for a gaming laptop. And we’re getting one. What’s the value in that? Our family laptop will die and now we have one that the kids won’t complain about. There’s a lot of value in that.

But, I digress. Back to the planet.

nc sunset.jpg

 

Listening to NPR’s Living Green segment yesterday got me thinking there’s more we, as a family, can do. Computers aside, I think we’re pretty good with our environmentally-friendly and frugal and then, sometimes we’re not.

  • Paper products: We use cotton napkins, but we always have a roll of paper towels. Keeping cotton napkins, cloths and rags handy will help reduce that waste.
  • Compost: We don’t. We did in Seattle but in our Philly ‘burb, it’s available, but cost prohibitive. We have room in our yard to do something about this. I’ve composted yard waste, but I’d like to get a vessel so we can compost food waste, too.
  • Food: I’ve been trying to cut out meat during the week, but sometimes the convenience of cooking what we know wins. We can make a more concerted effort on this.
  • Water: We do wash a lot and we don’t have an efficient machine. We adjust the water levels, but it’ll be interesting to see if we save any water by running full loads only.
  • Clothes: I need to find a second hand store I like!
  • Stuff: We have too much! It drives me nuts. I need to purge and minimize. I feel like I’m always doing this, but I’m not making progress. I will start with one room at a time, working from the top (bedrooms) to bottom (basement).
  • Plastic: Stop buying the ziploc bags and use reusable containers and bees wax wraps.

I’m going to see if my library has All You Need is Less – this book was mentioned in the radio show.

I think the food and clothes will yield the biggest cost savings, but it’s not about the cost, it’s about the planet and, in turn, our health.

Calculating our savings rate and realizing how much we’re not yet saving

ski shadow family

I’ve been meaning to calculate my savings rate and finally got down to it: 29%. Eh. I thought it would be more, but I’m maxing my 401k and the kids college will be funded by real estate.
I haven’t yet calculated my husbands, but I anticipate his is about the same but with a few differences, like funding our HSA. 
We’re working to pay down debt, so our savings rate will remain flat for the foreseeable future (three mortgages!).

Here’s the breakdown:

  • 401k: 15% (*just reduced to 13% due to bonus)
  • Employee Stock Purchase Program: 8%
  • FSA: 4.4%
  • 529: 1% – this is just sad
  • Roth IRA: 1%

I wonder what our debt paying rate is? I’m not sure what that’ll tell me, but it will be interesting to calculate. It also varies based on other household spends like kids activities and household repairs. And skiing.

Retiring early and paying for college at the same time … is it possible?

I have nine years. What will college cost in nine years? It’s a daunting thought and I try my best to avoid it. And think I must I live on Fantasy Island when I say I’m going to retire at the same time I’m sending my two kids off to college. I honestly don’t know if early retirement will be able to happen at the same time. (Loans are not an option – personal parenting goals.)
College is a wild card. Or maybe I want it to be a wild card because all my (limited) research shows tuition will about double and that’s scary. The Vanguard college tuition calculator provides a pretty basic estimate of anticipated costs. Low-ball estimate is that a four-year college education at $100,000 today will increase to $167,000 in nine years.

  • 529s: Today’s standard for college savings. Put it in post-tax, pull it out for education-related expenses without penalty. We have two, established by the kids’ grandfather when they were babies. Our nine-year-old has ~$12k today. We contribute $100/mo. At this savings rate, using a compound interest calculator, this will be almost $40k in 9 years. Maybe enough for one year if we stay at the same contribution rate.
    • We increased our college savings another $100/mo into each of our Roth IRAs. (No, we’re not at the point where we can max these out yet.) Withdrawing from a Roth prior to age 59.5 carries penalties, unless for a qualifying reason. Your child’s education is one.
    • And there’s this: “… most parents should max out their Roth first then look at funding a 529 plan.” With that, we will make a plan to max these out. I wonder if we can squeeze that into 2018?
  • Community College Transfer: I really like the idea of saving on tuition by going for two years at a community college then transferring to a four-year, but there seem to be more drawbacks than positives. Maybe this will shift to being a more common practice in the future, but I can’t plan on that.
  • Having recently moved from Seattle, I’m wondering … perhaps moving back to enjoy the mountains and sound, while taking advantage of UW’s Dual Enrollment would be worth considering. (Reason #458 we should move to Seattle.)
  • Scholarships? This Washington Post article is old, but it probably still stands close to the truth today: 19% of high GPA students receive academic scholarships and 0.7% receive athletic scholarships. This would be really great, but I can’t count on it.
    All PGA players start somewhere
  • Go Pro: Our younger son is eight and has declared that he will be a professional golfer. So be it.
  • Real Estate: Our obvious choice and we’re so so so thankful we have it, because I really don’t think we could achieve the savings rate we’d need to pay for college without loans. We have two rental homes in the crazy Seattle market. We’ve owned one, our ex-primary, for 11 years and the other for four years. Either of them would more than pay for both kids to go to college at today’s average tuition rates. We can’t predict what they’ll be worth in nine years. I don’t have a crystal ball. But this is what will pay for college and enable us to retire around the same time.

    ​I hope.