How to explore the US on a budget

How to travel the USA on a budget

My passport recently expired, and I’ve got no travel plans on the horizon any time soon. Just a long list of DIY house and decor projects to tackle (the closest thing to it will be getting travel photos printed and travel footage organised over the winter)!

I suspect my next trip though – whenever that might be – will be back to the US. There’s more competition on routes now and airfares are dropping, which is exciting. And once we’re actually over there it’s not terribly hard to travel on a budget.

Getting around the US

I’d love to do another road trip. We travelled around almost entirely by car (minus a cheap bus trip from NYC to DC) and it was super comfortable, convenient, and frugal. Petrol is practically free compared to the prices we pay here, and we managed to rent a car for just over $40 a day, including insurance. I recommend starting your search with CarHirePlanet. If I was travelling solo, I’d look at joining a tour group with the likes of Grand American Adventures.

Figuring out where to stay

In some big cities there’s just no getting around it – you will be paying out the nose for a place to lay your head. But between Airbnb and Booking.com (plus many generous blog friends who opened their doors to us) we managed to find accommodation for around $50 a night on average.

We moved around on a loose schedule, usually booking at the last minute (the only place this backfired was Boston, where even cheap motels were over $100). If you’re up for it, consider caravan parks, campgrounds and homestays too.

Seeing the sights

Planning ahead is the key here.

If you’re planning to spend a lot of time in national parks (and there are so many! Some of my favourite spots were definitely National Park material) it might be worthwhile to invest in an unlimited annual pass.

If you’re more of a big city person like me, major centres often have a lot of free attractions; and of the ones that aren’t, many have specific hours or days where you can get in for free. And if you’ve got a lot to pack into a short time span, then the CityPass may be for you – definitely one for travellers with more money than time.

How getting a dog changed my life

Getting a dog changed my life

It’s safe to say that getting a dog was very high on the agenda after buying a house. (A refresher: NZ is heinously pet unfriendly when it comes to renting – “No pets and no smokers” reads basically every rental listing ever.)

I had no idea how to choose a dog, really. I wanted to adopt pretty much every single dog listed for adoption on TradeMe, and once at the SPCA, it was just as tough. Heartbreaking, really (I may have gotten a bit teary.) Especially the older ones.

This little lass was just over a year old and had been awaiting adoption for many months. Her previous family lived in government housing and couldn’t keep her.

She’s super affectionate, very alert and aware. She has to sniff ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING and find out what you’re up to.

She’s also a bit of a chewer, although hopefully that will fade with age.

She settled in quite quickly, I thought, but a coworker said it would probably take time. And indeed, a couple months in she’s suddenly started to REALLY play with her toys properly – in particular the first two I ever got her – and it warms my heart.

Also, turns out that talking out loud to something that doesn’t talk back isn’t as unnatural as I thought it would be.

Owning a dog has forced/taught me to be:

Tidier

I’ve always struggled with neatness. I have some Type A tendencies that I tap into in order to combat my core messiness and keep on top of life, but organised chaos tends to be how I roll. Now I’m learning to shut doors, put things away, and this dovetails nicely with home ownership as I can now finally store stuff away and know that’s how it’s going to be as long as I want it that way. I’m not much for decor, but practical solutions I can get behind … and home storage is my new addiction. Basket, shelves, hooks, racks … I want them all!

More active

It’s always a struggle, especially in winter. We live near some great parks and tracks, luckily, and often run into other friendly dogs along the way.

Patient

I’m not a naturally patient person. But I know I need to lead calmly by example and focus on positive reinforcement. While she’s quite well behaved there’s room to improve (and I have lots to learn too) and we’re just about to start obedience classes!




She brings me so much joy. I look forward to seeing her at the end of every day, and it makes me want to rush home. Sometimes she’s a pain in the ass; for a couple of dark days early on I was afraid we’d bitten off more than we could chew, that she’d never calm down and be manageable. But I wouldn’t give her up for the world.

Link love (the hustling edition)

NZ Muse link love

In the past I’ve said yes to freelance opportunities that turned out to be huge pains in the ass, more often than not. So I was a bit wary about one that recently crossed my path. But happily – even though it was in an industry I have zero interest in – between their ridiculously lovely and passionate boss, the great brand story, their willingness to pay good rates and just generally being nice to work with, it was surprisingly fun.

Finding satisfaction in work is a multi-headed beast.

This week’s links

What to do with your broke but wonderful boyfriend (such a surprisingly common problem!)

I work hard to meet my needs – and even harder for my wants

The real problem with all those ‘How I got out of tons of debt fast’ articles

The tenets of financial wellbeing

A lovely story of compromise and coming together on money

When to give up and when not to

Finally, there’s lots of good stuff in Sheryl Sandberg’s commencement speech, which I’m just catching up on now. I am glad she acknowledges her immense privilege – it completely aligns with my post earlier this week on the value of financial security when you’re going through hardship. Sucky times suck bad enough without having to stress about money, too.

All else being equal – wouldn’t you rather have the money?

Wouldn't you rather have the money?

Money can’t buy everything, it’s true.

But when going through hard times for whatever reason, I know I’d rather not add financial stress to the fire.

Seriously: would you rather be suffering while broke or suffering while  financially secure? It’s a no brainer.

Going through a separation or divorce? Imagine adding the constant stress of struggling to pay the day to day bills, on top of all that.

Going through health issues? Wouldn’t you want the option of the best treatment money can buy?

Hard times are hard enough without having to worry about finances. Having money reduces that burden; shrinks the heap.

All the health and marital woes I’ve gone through stem directly from financial stress and struggle. The one thing I was grateful for during that time was that at least I wasn’t trying to do it on a journalist’s salary at that point. Literally every problem I’ve been saddled with in adulthood could have been solved with money in one way or another. (Yes, I’ve been fortunate in that regard, and I do acknowledge this.)

To everyone who says that the hardest experiences they’ve gone through were when they actually had plenty of money (subtext: and it didn’t do me a damn bit of good!), here’s an honest question for you. I ask: would you rather have endured those shitty times WITHOUT the money?

Of course you would give up the money to make the Bad Thing go away, that’s a given. But that’s not the question here; it’s not would you rather be free of the Bad Thing and in exchange go back to being broke? The question is, if the Bad Thing was unavoidable, would you prefer to deal with the crisis while being financially stable … or not?

Take life insurance, for example. It can’t make up for the loss of a loved one, but it can alleviate or eliminate major worries during an already difficult time.

It’s incredibly freeing to not have to make decisions solely based on the dollars and cents. To have the option of thinking about overall value, rather than just the bottom line.

Life is expensive. Having money means having choices.

*Part of Financially Savvy Saturdays on brokeGIRLrich, Disease Called Debt and Frame to Freedom*

Link love (the salted caramel edition)

Ever since I left home young, I would describe my relationship with my parents as ‘complicated’.

We’re not touchy feely. We’re not even very talky. Getting past the past has been a slow and more or less silent process. Over time, the cracks have patched themselves.

Shortly after moving into my house, while putting away the various bits of the Christmas gift package they got me, I came across a handwritten card that I’d originally missed when I opened it.

I read it, and cried. It was a little strange, reading something that had been written a few months ago, with all that had happened since. There was no judgement or disappointment in it, only unconditional support – just as the following months came to prove.

It’s funny that I found myself back in my childhood home 10 years later. But as much as I needed to leave when I left, I really needed to return when I did.

This week’s links

Sometimes Mother’s Day is complicated

The things we did not do

Examining choices around name changing and marriage

How do you find a cause you care about?

The upside of being highly sensitive

When misery clouds your financial judgement

Working for The Man sure has its upsides

And finally, it’s time we examine the messages we’re sending about creative fulfillment

How’d she manage to pull off buying a house? (blood sacrifice and dark magic, duh)

How I bought a house in Auckland on a single income

It’s too easy, for those of us who have somehow managed to scrape into the hallowed ranks of Auckland homeowners, to fall into the trap of blaming everyone else for their own poor financial choices and unrealistic expectations.

I’m determined not to do that.

I know that simply cutting back takeaways is not going to get you into a house.

I know that rents keep rising; when I was at university $350 a week got you a three bedroom rental in the humble suburb where I grew up, and today it gets you a one bedroom.

I know that prices and incomes are all out of whack, and yet, the way things are here, it generally makes sense to buy if you can.

Basic housing – dry, warm, healthy, affordable even – is a luxury in Auckland and it shouldn’t be. Renters are treated as second class citizens in every way. The quality of rental housing is abhorrent. There’s no stability. I note without pleasure (okay, maybe a LITTLE grim pleasure) that relatively well-off media commentator types who once often spoke out about what a waste of money it was to buy a house have now started families and oh, promptly gone and purchased property to live in.

I’ve put off writing more about the nitty gritty of buying my house – the financials, that is.

In a way, I feel like I haven’t truly earned it. And maybe more importantly, I’m nervous about the inevitable judgement that’s going to come my way.

Do I owe anybody any details? No. But might transparency benefit someone else out there? Maybe. And if the struggling house hunters who opened up about their finances for the Herald’s Home Truths series can do it, I probably should too.

Here it is.

Based on my pre-approval, I set out to buy a property $500k or less, using the Welcome Home Loan scheme (allows first home buyers to get in with 10% deposit, subject to other conditions). The majority of my deposit came from my KiwiSaver. (It’s never been affording mortgage payments that poses an issue, but rather the down payment.)

At this point I was temporarily staying with my parents, and they were helping me house hunt. There wasn’t a lot in my price range at all, let alone properties that were actually fit for residence. The two places in my budget that I wanted to make an offer on (though I was pipped to the post on those) … let’s say my dear mum wasn’t very impressed with the properties.

But as I told them: beggars can’t be choosers, and I’m a beggar in this market. My criteria is whatever I can afford, and within that, whatever I think I can live with. I was prepared to compromise on various things as required – basically anything, although not everything. Slim pickings weren’t necessarily a negative. I’m chronically indecisive so a narrow range of options was actually a good thing for me.

They also offered to help out, moneywise. I was very appreciative of the offer – and also very reluctant to accept it. My preference was to buy within my original budget, on my own steam, but together we started looking at some more expensive properties as well.

The more we looked, the more it made sense. The phrase ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’ comes to mind.

The prospect of them topping up my buying power went against my core principle of Doing Things On My Own. And yet they genuinely wanted to. Rather you pay us than the bank! It would mean a better house – still absolutely in entry level territory, but more liveable and better located. And importantly, potentially a forever home. I’ve moved so, so much while renting and it has been exponentially more soul destroying each time. I always wanted to buy a house and then never move again if at all possible. I just can’t imagine dealing with the stress of moving PLUS throwing the logistical headache of both selling and buying into the mix. Obviously people do it all the time, but I can tell you right now that climbing the property ladder is not for me.

The final price for my house was $595k, so with them making up the difference, means I owe them close to $100k. A little less than that now, after a few months of repayments.

So in the end, I didn’t take a Welcome Home loan, just a regular one – but it worked out for the best. As a result, the rest of the loan process was a lot simpler and shorter (less paperwork). And I didn’t get the $5k government HomeStart grant, but that would basically have been cancelled out by the Housing NZ premium applied to the WHL anyway. Turns out that’s a bit of a wash as a single income home buyer…

Withdrawing KiwiSaver money for my first (and hopefully last) home puts a major dent in my retirement savings, it’s true. But I’m comfortable with that choice, having pondered it for a couple of years, and still being young with time on my side. Saving for the future is important – but so is having a stable and healthy living environment in the present. (One word: mushrooms.) And while I don’t see my home as an investment, having a paid-off house will be a huge benefit come retirement. There’s a lot of talk right now about how Generation Rent will be at a disadvantage in this regard, and for good reason. Having discussed this with people at work who know much more about finance, mortgages and the economy in NZ than I do, I feel confident in this decision being the right one for me.

Probably more painful – emotionally anyway – is the fact that I accepted family help. Now I’m just like basically every other Auckland homeowner my age. Even as a loan rather than a gift … this makes me one of those awful privileged millennials tapping into the Bank of Mum and Dad. Let me tell you, that stings.

But pride ain’t everything, and I’ve said before that I wouldn’t look a gift horse like this in the mouth should it cross my path. I’m happy (understatement: DELIRIOUSLY HAPPY) and apparently so are they. A win-win, I suppose. Heck, for health reasons alone, I can tell you it has been so, so worth it already! I rub rosehip oil into my stress scars each night (from the chronic eczema that literally evaporated once I moved into my house) and I know I made the right choice. I pinch myself most days, wondering if this is actually my life, and feel so grateful to be here.

It’s bloody expensive to live well

Living well is expensive - it takes a lot of money just to get by

Who says money can’t buy happiness? Life is expensive. A basic life – at least in NZ – is expensive, and a good life even more so.

Money buys a place to call home

It’s an incredible feeling to know I never have to move again unless I want to – as long as I keep paying.

It’s an equally incredible feeling to wake up and NOT start sneezing immediately, every single day. I no longer dread middle-of-the-night awakenings (for whatever reason) because I’m not automatically going to be a huge snotty mess. To have the whole house be the same temperature. To not have condensation on the windows.

I bow to you, mighty HRV system. You cost practically nothing to run overnight and yet make such a huge difference.

My physical health (not to mention my mental health) has been boosted legions by owning my own home. Money has literally bought me better health.

Money buys a way to get around

Having a reliable vehicle is so important, particularly in a one car household. Buying cheapo cars has never worked in our favour; taking out a car loan turned out to be a wise choice. Spending more for a car that will last is not indulgent; it’s rational.

Money buys decent clothing

Having bras that fit is crazy awesome but it’s definitely not the cheapest. Quality ethical clothing, ditto – and I must confess I don’t actually make this a huge priority. I hope I’m doing a little to help by thrift shopping as much as possible. And I might add to this, other items that touch the skin – namely, bed linen, good sheets are a must!

Money buys real food

I love my carbs. Yet I know I really need to eat more fruits and veg. But they’re so much more expensive (as are nuts, seriously)! A loaf of bread or a bag of pasta gets you so much further than the equivalent spend on apples or tomatoes. And don’t even get me started on the cost of good cheese and meat. Yeah, I’m a glutton.

I was watching the mini series Chef’s Table recently. It was a joy to see the artisan growers the top chefs source from, and just how much thought and love goes into developing those amazingly flavourful, organic crops – but it ain’t cheap, for obvious reasons. The plan is to grow more of my own, but I’m never going to be completely self sufficient.

And you know what, quality dog food isn’t the cheap stuff, either. I don’t think the preservative and grain laden kibble is the best for my girl, and I’m pretty certain she gets more hyperactive after eating it.

Money buys getaways

I love travel, but NZ is just so darn isolated. My hostel days are past me, and I’ve never been into camping. But that’s okay, because I love my home and I’m nesting hard; I’m totally happy to be a hermit for the foreseeable future.

Leaving saved my marriage

How an ultimatum saved my marriage

I have never really believed in ultimatums.

But there were no other options left.

If the price of stability and a home was being alone, I realised I would take that deal in a heartbeat. See also: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

You need to set your own boundaries; decide:

what you want and need

what you can and cannot accept

what you expect and deserve

It isn’t selfish to put your own oxygen mask on first. To stay true to your own goals. To refuse to  allow someone else to derail your dreams and hold you back.

The end of 2015 was a low, low point for us. I think we both found ourselves disappointed in one another, to varying degrees.

It was an opportunity to reevaluate our priorities (or, for me at least, to reinforce mine and validate my decision), and have the space to take a step back and reflect.

Sometimes, you gotta burn things down if there’s going to be any hope of rebuilding them again.

The one in which I talk about bras

stella mccartney stella lace plunge bra
Currently mooning over…

They say most women are wearing the wrong bra size. You’ve probably heard it a million times; I know I have. Like ‘tailor your cover letter’, it’s something I know, and understand, but it took a long time to truly CLICK.

Thanks to Reddit’s A Bra That Fits, I’ve been re-educating myself. I’ve never been properly fitted in my life. For one, budget meant I never went to the kinds of places where they had professionally trained staff – and those kinds of stores intimidated me to hell anyway. Add to that the fact that I barely needed a bra at all and there was just no point. I muddled through and congratulated myself on being able to get away with not having to spend tons on pricey bras, unlike my chestier friends.

But recently all my bras more or less reached the end of their usable lives at once. I figured, let’s do this right!

Reddit was right. I needed a smaller band and bigger cup. And as it turns out, shape is really important! Lots of styles just won’t work for me. There’s really nothing to it but trying a bunch of brands and sizes, as they’re all so different. (I think that Stella McCartney just might be my holy grail brand … but wow, they are NOT cheap. For now, I’m making do with other brands until I can jump on a sale or bring myself to shell out.)

To be honest, I’m still on the hunt for the honest-to-goodness perfect bra, if it exists. Realistically, it’s a crapshoot. The odds are terrible. Consider all the variables: width, height, spacing, projection, firmness, fullness (and that’s across both vertical and horizontal planes)…

But having a pro fitter actually in there with me, sizing me up and bringing me specific bras that she thought would fit well, was life-changing.

Fun fact: I’ve been putting them on wrong forever. See, I assumed bras should just FIT and if not, well then they’re the wrong size – you shouldn’t have to manipulate yourself to fit into a bra. But no, the scoop-and-swoop technique is for real. In Japan, they even had a step-by-step diagram in the changing room of the bra shop I went into explaining exactly how to scoop and swoop.

Even more galling? T knew ALL THIS TIME and never said a word. Duh, he said, you’ve basically just been using them as nipple covers (um, yeah! That’s all I needed!)

In short: my husband knows more about bras than I do, and wearing bras that fit is rocking my world.


Link love (the gratitude edition)

NZMuse - Link love roundup with awesome reads from the week

I had originally hoped to buy a house one or two suburbs over, ever so slightly closer to the city (it was a bit of a long shot, to be honest).

I’m glad I didn’t. It worked out for the best.

I love that there are so many great places to run and walk with the pup (and a dog park around the corner). Two major cycleways/walking paths, one that passes horses and vineyards. A short bush/forest trail, even.

I love that we are close to crazy cheap supermarkets and grocers, and down the road from an amazing bakery.

And I love the fact that I can actually get a seat on the train (because it fills up FAST along this line).

I live nearly equidistant from two train stations – they’re about 20 minutes walk from home, though one is slightly closer and can be easily done in 15 at a brisk pace. The train station is just a couple of minutes from my office at the city end. And the train is just so darn civilised – it’s smooth, great for people watching and occasionally there’s wifi.

There is a bus stop practically on my doorstep but it’s slightly more expensive and less frequent. Plus, traffic.  Ugh. There lots of roadworks on nearby so it takes forever to get to the motorway (but at least once on the motorway it’s fine, plus the sea views and the horses near the onramp are easy on the eye). It is a longer walk at the city end to my office (10-15 minutes) but slightly less walking overall still, and it’s more sheltered if it’s raining.

This week’s links

Luck matters – more than you might think

The biggest wastes of time we regret

Every dream starts with this

Simple pleasures

Why we read

Succumbing to lifestyle inflation

A better approach to networking

Convincing a partner to get a better job

And a succinct but bang-on summary of the Auckland housing market