Missing spring break? How to save money on vacation travel

I’m slowly coming to the terms with the fact that I’m never getting a “spring break” again. I finished college 14 years ago, so I’m not sure why it took me so long. My teacher friends’ Facebook posts have me itching for a vacation, but I can’t take one now, so I’m planning  this year’s trips instead. Since we have a few weddings this year, and it is our year to travel to the East Coast for Christmas, our vacation time and budget is already accounted for.

We travel fairly often, usually for weddings, to see family or to meet my brother and his wife in Vegas for a weekend. Travel costs do add up, but Chase and I both grew up traveling regularly, so we prioritize this in our budget rather than buying each other gifts throughout the year. I wish I had an unlimited travel budget, but for now I use these five ways to save money on vacations:

1. Book early.
We’ve been lucky that our friends have chosen to get married in beautiful vacation destinations, from secluded islands off the Gulf Coast of Florida to Mexico and beyond. Destination weddings are great (who doesn’t love going on vacation with their friends ?), and we have another one in Mexico this year. Though the wedding isn’t until October, I booked our trip last week. Especially for popular destinations during peak season, travel prices will go up as you get closer to your travel date. The price for the same package has gone up $80 since I booked. Book early if you are certain you will be going!

2. Buy package deals.
Another way to save money is to buy package deals on one of the many travel websites: OrbitzCheap Tickets, etc. The discount varies depending on the site, so it’s worth spending a few minutes online checking around. For our Mexico trip, we saved $300 by booking our air and hotel together, and saved time by booking them both on one site. I also have less clutter in my inbox, since I received just one confirmation email.

3. Use airline miles.
I love my United Visa and Delta AmEx, but if I didn’t use the miles, it wouldn’t make sense to have them. I’ve written before about the ways we’ve used our miles for everything from our honeymoon tickets to Hawaii to a hotel room for Chase’s holiday party. Don’t forget to check mileage balances and use your miles before they expire!

4. BYOB (or food)
When we arrive at our destination, our first stop is at the grocery store. I know better than to think I’m going to cook  on vacation, but I know we will eat snacks by the pool or have drinks on our balcony. When we have a car, we stop by the grocery store and buy the necessities (in our case: water, Coors Light and crunchy snacks). We’ve even been known to ask the cab to stop at the store on the way to our hotel from the Las Vegas Airport. The minibar is pricey, and having some basics in your hotel room will help keep you on budget.

5. Stay with friends or family.
I grew up on the East Coast and Chase is a native Californian, so we’re lucky to have great friends and family spread all over the country. Some of our closest friends live near Palm Springs and it’s one of our favorite local getaways. Staying with friends or family is great because not only do you save money, you get to spend time with people you love. One note though: bring a small gift (wine, flowers, etc.) and treat them to dinner. It’s the least you can do to thank them!

Our Mexico trip is booked, and I plan to book Vegas, New York City and North Carolina soon. I’ll also do a girls weekend at a local spa, and take some family trips to see our friends in the desert and Chase’s parents at their lake house. No spring break for us this year, but we’ll still have fun while saving money!

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Staying out of the red with the Target Red Debit Card

piggy bank

Clay’s new piggy bank

Everyone knows I prefer online shopping, but before my infatuation with Amazon and Diapers.com, my first love was Target. It is less chaotic than Wal-Mart, with good prices and the ability to buy diapers, a new TV and applesauce all in one place. When my kids were babies, I would sometimes go to Target after they went to bed and walk around aimlessly, enjoying time to myself and checking out inexpensive (but cute!) home decor options or workout clothes. I rarely do that anymore, but in general, if I’m going to a brick-and-mortar store for something, there is a good chance it’s Target.

You’ve all been at Target (or other retailers) when the checkout person asks, “would you like to save an extra 5 percent and open a store card?” Since Chase works for a credit counseling company, I know the dangers of store credit cards, as they have some of the highest interest rates in the industry. So even though I love to save money, my immediate answer is “no, thank you.”

After turning down the 5 percent savings for years, I changed my tune last Thanksgiving, after my mom told me about the Target Red Debit card. While we use our rewards credit cards for larger purchases, I use my Bank of America debit card the rest of the time. She was at Target with me and asked why I didn’t have their debit card. She explained that it is linked directly to your checking account (just like your debit card) and that you save 5 percent on every purchase. You also get free shipping for Target.com orders, which may be the biggest advantage for me. Normally Target only offers free shipping if you spend $50.

Last night, Clay asked for a “boy version” of Avery’s piggy bank, which I bought at Target a few weeks ago. He’s making really good progress with saving his money and I want to encourage him to save. I also don’t have time to go to Target this week. After a few clicks on their site, I saved 5 percent and it will here by Friday (with free shipping). The Target Red Debit Card is my new favorite way to save time and money!

10 Cures for a Holiday Debt Hangover

Card

Most people use credit cards for holiday purchases, even if they intend to pay them off in the new year. Since Chase is a Certified Personal Finance Counselor and Educator, he has some great advice, and I thought his post about paying off holiday debt could be helpful. A longer version of the post below was originally published here. Check out his company’s blog if you’d like to learn more about budgeting and managing your credit wisely.

The holiday season has to come to an end, and for many consumers the new year brings credit card statements reminding you of purchases you made. If you racked up credit card debt when holiday shopping, we will give you a few tips on how to pay off your credit cards. Setting up a plan can keep holiday credit card debt from going deep into 2013.

1. Get organized – Collect your statements and see how much you owe. In order to set up a plan to pay off debt, it’s important to know exactly how much you need to pay back. Gather your statements or go online and check your balances.

2. Budget time – If you have a budget, take a good look at it and see why you fell into debt. If you don’t have a budget, it’s time establish one that works for you and your family. One thing to try when setting up or adjusting a budget is to track your expenses for an entire month to see where your money goes.

3. Adjust your budget – If you are falling behind every month take a look at your budget and see where you can make cuts, whether it’s the small expenses or a large fixed expense. If you previously did not have a credit card payment or if your payment will increase, add the new payment amount to your budget.

4. Do the math – Look at a credit card debt calculator and find out how long paying off your debt will take and how much you will pay in interest. Understand the benefits of fixed credit card payments, how to calculate APRs and why making minimum payments can lead to years of financial hardships.

5. Set your goals – Establish goals for paying off debt. If your debt is just from the recent holiday season, paying it off could be a short-term goal – maybe in the first quarter of 2013? If your debt has been building up for some time, your goal may be a long-term one.

6. Interest rates – If your interest rates are high, make sure you look into your options to pay back debt. Contact your credit card companies and see if you can have interest rates lowered. Lower interest rates will always save you money and time when paying off debt.

7. Pay extra – This is, of course, easier said than done. If you have extra funds at the end of a month, send an extra payment to your creditors. Sending extra payments can go a long way toward paying off debt early and can save you in finance charges. Every extra payment you send will go directly towards the principal still owed on the account. Paying down the principal will mean less interest paid for every month thereafter.

8. Monitor your progress – It’s important to monitor all of your accounts every month. Making payments is just one part of the equation; you should always open your statements or check your account online. Monitoring accounts allows you to be sure your payments are posting and your interest rates have not increased.

9. Don’t “Rob Peter to Pay Paul”- No matter how desperate you are to pay the bills, don’t: raid your retirement funds, take out a payday loan, or prioritize credit card bills over necessities, such as paying housing costs.

10. Begin planning for next holiday season – One thing about paying off debts and how much we hate it is…we can do something about it! It just takes a little planning. In earlier tips we encouraged you to start a budget and set goals for paying back the debt. We can do the same thing by planning for gifts and setting aside cash for those purchases prior to “Black Friday.”

Regardless if your credit card debt is just a hangover of your holiday shopping and a few hundred dollars or has been building for years to thousands of dollars, paying it off as soon as possible will relieve stress and save you money in the long run. Use our free tools to help you set up a plan and pay off your debts as soon as possible, with the least amount of finance charges. Don’t get discouraged, stick to your plan and become debt free!

Credit cards: bring on the rewards!

Years ago, when Chase and I were dating long distance and flying cross-country every other week, I signed up for two credit cards that I thought could benefit us: the Delta Airlines SkyMiles American Express and the United Airlines Mileage Plus Visa. Just for signing up, I was given bonus airline miles, and I continued to accrue miles with our travel. At the time, I wasn’t really using the cards for purchases, and I was missing out.

Like many Americans, I use credit cards regularly. I still have the Delta AmEx and the United Visa. We are fortunate that we are not dependent on our cards to make ends meet, so I’ve learned to use the rewards associated with the cards to my advantage. We use the Delta or United card for online shopping and any in-person purchase we make over $200. I also have it set up so everything from our DirecTV bill to Clay’s preschool gets billed directly to one of the cards. I receive mileage credit for bills we have to pay and put those miles back to work for our family.

Chase’s office holiday party is next week and our friends reserved hotel rooms downtown. We wanted to join them, but I didn’t want to spend $200 with Christmas coming up. I thought about it for a week, then yesterday I remembered I could use airline miles for a hotel room. After a quick visit to United’s Mileage Plus web page, we’re staying at the same hotel as our friends – for free!

This is my first time using miles for a hotel room, but we use them for free plane tickets all the time. In October, we traveled to Tallahassee for FSU homecoming on free Delta tickets. We flew to Hawaii for our honeymoon on United frequent flier miles. I used an annual companion pass from Delta for another Florida trip earlier this year. The miles also come in handy when an emergency arises. When my grandmother passed away, I was able to meet my mom in Nebraska for the funeral with just two days’ notice and no out-of-pocket costs.

There is one caveat to using credit cards for rewards: you have to be disciplined and pay off your cards in full every month, or you will get yourself in trouble. Chase works for a non-profit credit counseling company and I know the evils of credit card debt. If you don’t think you will be able to pay the cards off each month, don’t use them. Interest charges will far outweigh the perks!

I mention the airline mileage cards because those are the ones we use. There are annual fees for both cards, but at under $100 per year they are worth it since mileage credit is not the only perk. I’ve also heard great things about the Costco American Express card, which gives you cash back every year.

I’m already looking to see where our miles can take us next year. How about you? What other credit card reward programs do you like? I’d love to hear other ways to cash in on credit card rewards!

It’s your money and you’ll spend how you want to

There was a time, not all that long ago, when I wouldn’t think twice about spending $200 on a pair of jeans or $30 on shampoo. I had no mortgage, no child care payments and loved the way that designer jeans fit and the smell of the fancy shampoo. I haven’t bought full-price jeans in five years. I buy drugstore shampoo. Like most parents, my spending priorities changed when I had kids.

I blame it on “mommy guilt,” which can rear its head when you spend money or time on yourself, rather than your kids. I suffered from mommy guilt pretty often until Avery was almost two. I bought the kids nice clothes and nothing for myself. I rushed home after work rather than working out. Then I realized, with money as well as time, my kids would be better off, if, every once in a while, I spent on myself.

I’m not suggesting that you spend money you don’t have (credit cards are evil!), or that you let your kids wear shoes that are a size too small so you can buy new boots. But I do think it’s okay for moms to look at their disposable income and allocate some to themselves rather than spending it all on their kids.

When I’m contemplating a purchase (of a good or service), I determine if it will make me happier, and if so, it’s probably worth it. I couldn’t stand the carpet in our house. All the carpet cleaner in the world could not make it look clean, so last year with my bonus, we got new carpet. Do I fantasize about carpet? No. Is it exciting? No. But does it make our house look 100 times better? It sure does, and I still smile when I look at it. For many moms, it’s the little things.

Personally, I am willing to pay for things that make my life easier (cleaning lady, store-bought Halloween costumes and party decorations, etc.). These things cost money, but they also give me back valuable time. Chase and I also prefer to spend money on experiences rather than stuff. In our nine years together we have bought each other maybe three gifts. We’d rather use that money to do something together. But that’s our spending priority, and while I don’t want more stuff, some people do and that’s okay too.

A friend of mine was coveting a nice purse for years. She has three kids and felt guilty at the thought of buying it for herself. Finally, she gave in and she loves it. Another friend has a great interest in (and talent for) home decor. She redecorated her home and it looks beautiful. Some of the ladies I work out with spend most of their money on their kids, but like to buy nice workout clothes. They make them feel good. For these women, their kids have all they need, and the moms are happy. It’s a win/win.

Everyone’s spending priorities are different, but for those of us with a bit of disposable income, it’s sometimes possible to find a little room in our budgets for ourselves. I would never judge another woman for how she chooses to spend her money. They work hard and deserve to treat themselves on occasion. Purses and shoes aren’t my spending priority, but a night away is.

It’s your money, so you should spend it how you (and your spouse) want to. Enjoy!

Make the call

Everyone knows I hate two things in life: wasting time and wasting money. It’s a constant struggle, balancing the desire to get the best price for things we need without a huge time investment. This morning I was reminded how a few minutes of my time can save a decent amount of money.

I’ve had an ongoing battle with cable companies. I’ll be nice and not name names, but the two companies I’ve tried in San Diego make me crazy. The service is fine, but they offer promotional rates that expire shortly after you sign up, and suddenly you find yourself spending $160 a month on basic cable and Internet service. The inconsistency of billing is maddening for anyone trying to maintain a budget, so three years ago I switched to DirecTV for our TV services. While they also offer promos, they last longer and can be extended easily (see below), so I’m a happy customer. Unfortunately for Internet access, I was stuck with the cable company.

I received the cable bill yesterday and saw a $30 fee for a phone line I was told would be free to install, and my monthly rate for Internet service had gone up $10. I dread spending time to make these calls, but I was doing some Web research, so I dialed them up and worked while I was on hold. Once I reached a representative and asked about the fee, she immediately credited it back to my account. It is frustrating that I had to call for that to happen. What if I hadn’t? They would have gladly debited my bank account the full amount. So then it was on to the $10 monthly increase. The billing lady told me that a promo had expired (surprise, surprise) and when I asked to have it reinstated, she said she had to transfer me to another department. Four minutes of bad music later, I was told that they could not add a promo because I have a contract. I calmly explained that being a contract customer should make me more deserving of a discount, not less. Somehow, magic occurred and she was able to apply the discount. Of course this is only for six months, then I’ll have to call back again. Total time spent = 10 minutes, five minutes of which I was able to multi-task and do work. Money saved = $30 now plus $60 over the next six months. As annoying as it was, saving $90 for 10 minutes of my time is probably worth it.

As for DirecTV, I made a similar call to them last week, though it was much faster, without anyone ever saying no or transferring me to another department. Although my promo had expired, they found a new 12-month credit for me right away that saved more money ($25 a month, when before it was $20) and also let me know I was eligible for a free equipment upgrade. I didn’t have to plead my case and it took less than five minutes, all while sitting outside of my office building enjoying San Diego sunshine. Saving $300 in five minutes. Definitely worth it!

All of this being said, I have to admit that I recently noticed that a $5 credit is no longer being applied to my cell phone bill, and I haven’t taken the time yet to call Sprint about it. I guess it’s a bit ironic that the call I haven’t made is the one that gives me the ability to call anyone at all. I’ll put that on my calendar for next week…because it’s worth the time to make the call!