Hey all, here’s what we’ve been up to the last month. Let’s just say travel has eclipsed blogging.
We drove about eight hours south to see the eclipse. It was awesome. Traffic getting home was not awesome. We were only about halfway home by 10 pm and decided to stop at a hotel. Those Marriott rewards sure came in handy, because others we knew traveling back from the vicinity did not get home until 6:30 am!
Neil found a great place to view the eclipse– a library next to a splash pad. It was perfect for entertaining the kids leading up to totality.
It’s also why Neil is wearing his swim trunks while photographing the eclipse.
On the way to totality, we camped at Mammoth Caves.
We didn’t realize you need to book tickets ahead of time, so Neil waited in line for over an hour and scored us a tour. Our son squeaked by in the free age category by just two days. There’s the personal finance tie-in: late summer birthdays are good for tourist attraction admission.
I was a little nervous about descending into the cave, but our daughter was more than comfy. She fell asleep near the end.
A couple weeks before our eclipse adventure, we headed to a beautiful campground in Michigan. If only our station wagon had wood paneling!
Things we did: camped with friends, picked the biggest blueberries I’ve ever seen, swam, kayaked, biked to town, got ice cream, played Uno, toured the light house, hiked in pouring rain, made s’mores over the fire.
Things we didn’t do, but probably could have: contracted lice from a family of nine, been eaten by bears, gotten lost in a National Forest, and blown away in 18-20 mph winds (we only lost our tent’s door mat).
Light house tour was fun. We all made it to the top.
The light house’s Fresnel lens. In tact ones are apparently rare.
View of the bay next to our camp site.
The “lunkers,” as my son calls them.
Beautiful little beach a minute’s walk from our camp site. The kids would swim during sunset.
After camping, we took a steamship ferry across Lake Michigan since Neil had a meeting for work in Green Bay.
We stayed at a tundra-themed waterpark hotel in Green Bay. I took the kids down the slides. So. Many. Times.
The National Train Museum in Green Bay was free with our reciprocal membership benefits. There were lots of old trains you could go in. My favorite was the mail train on the left.
It’s been a whirlwind. During our few stints home we were busy preparing Bible teachings, making garden-fresh salsa, and having play dates before school starts. Neil also had a men’s retreat, and is getting ready for a short-term mission trip to India. I’m both soaking in the last days of summer and longing for the structure of the school year.
How has your summer wrapped up? What did you think of the eclipse?
The Hidden Luxuries of Camping
We’re gearing up for our annual camping trip to Florida. Many people view camping as “not a vacation,” worse than a last resort when it comes to travel. Us, we’d rather travel more often in less style, than vice versa. Camping allows our family to take more trips while sticking to our annual vacation budget. Between now and the end of summer, we have five camping trips planned, with talk of a couple more one-nighters in the works.
Some camping trips are more “glamping” than others. To me the difference is all in the bathroom facilities, proximity to water, and electricity hookup. Other have preferences about the foliage, campground amenities, nearby attractions, or the size of the sites. Our Florida trip is definitely our most glamping trip—it runs us around $700 including a rental car. Here’s why I consider this camping trip luxurious:
- A room with a view. Camping is the ultimate room with a view. Rather than paying $150+ per night for a beachfront hotel, I pay $100 for the week and open my tent door to beautiful Florida foliage and sunshine–most days at least! Just a couple miles away, within the campground, is a gorgeous, expansive beach.
- We eat food I didn’t prepare. Between a couple inevitable (and budgeted for!) Bojangles stops on the way down and back, and the meal rotation we participate in with friends, I get to enjoy a few meals I didn’t cook myself. That’s a relative rarity and one I thoroughly appreciate. We also eat more processed foods, which is simultaneously gross and glorious, and makes my life so much easier for that week.
- We will rent a car. As part of our overall car cost strategy, we rent a car for this annual 2000 mile trek. Renting allows us to avoid putting undue wear and tear on our already-older vehicles. It costs us around $200 and sometimes we are able to use coupons. Though the main reason is to be kind to our vehicles, it’s an added perk that should something go wrong, we won’t have to halt our trip to personally fix it—a not unlikely scenario in the cars we own. And of course, driving a newer rental vehicle is quite lavish compared to our 14- and 15-year old rides.
- I will shower without my children in the same building. I’m really excited about this one! At home, I’m liable to be interrupted when someone has to use the toilet (we have two, people!), beg to join me (the toddler), or just ask me random questions about Star Wars plot points. In the camp ground’s remarkably nice shower house, the water temperature and pressure might not be ideal, but at least I am alone.
- We use paper products. Disposable napkins, cups, plates, forks…the irony of depleting earth’s resources while enjoying her beauty is not lost on me. Some friends wash reusable camp dishes, but I soak in the glory of simplied meal clean-up.
- We have instant entertainment. The campground contains a beautiful ocean beach, kayaking, nature trails, and a turtle pond. Then there is biking, the playground right next to our site, and the fact that over 100 of our friends are there with us. Not only are we in good company, our kids have a dozen of their pals right there to play with. No need to break out the calendar to schedule play dates. We just mosey on down the road and see who’s out. It’s a child’s dream—being outside all day with your friends, riding bikes, going to the beach, and best of all, being dirty.
- Speaking of which, I can look a mess. I’m not one for fussing over hair and makeup, but in normal life I feel compelled to at least look presentable, and maybe like I’m even trying a little. At camping, I refuse to straighten my hair, put on mascara, or anything of the sort. Ponytail and sunscreen is the extent of my beauty routine there. I always find it a bit comical to see the young ones getting done up in the bathroom. I’m sure they find the sight of me comical, or perhaps horrifying. Maybe I’m the reason they’re in there with their makeup bags!
- I don’t have to clean my house. In essence there is less cleaning because dirt is just part of the experience. No vacuuming, dusting (not that I actually dust), less dishes and laundry. Yay! I always pack too many clothes for the boys, forgetting they don’t change often while camping. I’m also secretly looking forward to using the dryer instead of my laundry lines at home.
- My husband will be there. One of the best parts of camping trips is having Neil with us all week. I suppose this goes for every vacation, but it’s more noticeable there because camping with kids absolutely requires us to work as a team. I always leave feeling closer to him and more cohesive as a family.
- I take a break from technology. My phone, my laptop, and Internet connection are all wonderful luxuries I wouldn’t want to live without. They’re also conveniences I didn’t miss one bit last year. I was completely offline all week last year and didn’t even notice until we were on the way home. It was a much-needed break from status updates, the blogosphere, and all the random distractions of the Internet. It was awesome to just enjoy the moment with my family, friends, and nature.
Perspective is everything. I could think about the drive, the dirt, the bugs, the kids getting off their schedules…or I could think about just how refreshing it is to camp in a warm, beautiful place with my family and over 100 friends. Not to mention the savings. An affordable spring break beach vacation? Yes, please.
More on camping, if you’re interested:
Open the Door to a Lifetime of Vacation Savings
How We’ll Save $500 on Our Next Vacation
10 Fun Facts From Our Camping Vacation
Have you ever reframed a frugal choice as luxurious? Have you/would you consider camping as a way to vacation more often?
10 Fun Facts From Our Camping Vacation
We returned from our annual week-long camping trip and it was a wild ride as usual. The weather was great, travel was easier this year, and the beach was a blast. As usual, we have crazy poop and sleep stories to tell, as well as a few ways we saved and (accidentally) spent money.
In other news, check out my article “How Having Kids Has Improved Our Finances” on the Society of Grownups blog.
- Camping is a lot more fun when you don’t have a baby. Although I had great fun the last four years, I couldn’t believe how much easier this year felt. I wasn’t pregnant, nursing, or chasing a 1-year-old. It was awesome! By the final night I was quite tired and crabby, but I went to bed early and bounced back just fine.
- Camping is a lot more fun when the weather is nice. The last two years have been relatively cold or rainy, so we especially appreciated the dry, warm weather this year. We spent a lot of time on the beach, which is free aside from the excessive amount of sunscreen I lather on my fair skin (and the kids’). My daughter could scarcely be kept away from the ocean when it was time to head back to camp, and the boy built some awesome sand creations.
- Camping is a lot more fun with a playground next to your camp site. We’ve always picked a site next to the playground, but until this year, the playground consisted only of a swing set and some open space. This year brand-new playground equipment entertained the kids throughout the day, although it stressed me out at first because my son kept taking his toy light saber over and trying to battle strangers. Turns out most kids want to play Star Wars and it wasn’t much of a problem after all.
- Camping is a lot more fun with friends. About 150 people from our church camped this year, including around 20 friends our age, plus their kids. This makes for lots of free entertainment and good memories, from impromptu Disney song dance parties to conversation around the campfire. Neil enticed a group out to the beach one night to watch a rocket launch from Kennedy. They had a great view and everyone’s favorite part was Neil’s excited commentary on it. He loves space.
- Unplugging for a week is awesome. “What Happened When I Unplugged For a Week”–doesn’t that sound like a great post title? I wish I could pull it off, but it’d be utter click-bait because nothing happened. It wasn’t hard. I didn’t even realize I’d done this until the end of the week. I barely thought about personal finance or blogging or email. The kids didn’t ask me for TV. I did benefit from others using their data for directions or info a few times. But it was nice to be consumed with family, friends, nature, and survival (i.e. camp cooking and dishes).
- Camping with kids always involves some shenanigans. The bathrooms are a little bit of a walk, and when you’re four and distracted by playing Star Wars with your friends, it’s hard to get there in time. I’ll just leave it at that. Also, on the first day we discovered my daughter’s ability to escape her pack ‘n’ play. During her first tent nap time, she got out, took a brand-new bottle of sunscreen, and spread it on our clothing, toiletries, and part of our bedding. Luckily it was oil-free sunscreen and came out of everything easily.
- Neil loves camping so much, he goes a overnight backpacking trip with his friends. This annual tradition is also known as manhike or campception–that is, camping within camping. He always comes back with some interesting stories. This year’s involved lots of spiders.
- Reading on vacation is the best. The last couple years have been so hectic we barely got to read. This year was a marked improvement. Neil listened to the entire audio book of The Big Short and I read most of Raising Boys By Design.
- Traveling during Easter means you should book your free hotel stay ahead of time. We were debating exactly when to leave and waited until the day of to book our free Marriott stay. There were no rooms available—at least not free ones—and we ended up spending $95 to stay overnight. We didn’t really have another good option since we’d already packed up camp, it was around 1 pm, and we had a 14-hour drive ahead of us. And were tired from a week of camping! So it was money well spent in the situation, but we will remember this in the future and plan ahead. We often book from the car on the way back, an hour or two ahead, but this doesn’t work on Easter weekend.
- Renting an SUV doesn’t mean you’ll have a lot of space. We had a free rental at Enterprise, accumulated after about 10 years of renting for business travel—and decided to use it for the trip since our vehicle has had some lingering problems that would be very inconvenient to deal with on the road with two kids. We decided to pay the $50 to upgrade to an SUV so we could fit our camp gear, but they gave us a crossover with less space than our station wagon. We fit everything, though! Here’s the $ pie chart:
Anyone ready to try camping?
Pretend to Be Spendy: How to Churn Credit Cards with Low Expenses
“We don’t spend enough to churn credit cards.” If this is you, congrats! Not spending enough to rapidly rack up rewards is a great problem to have.
Despite maintaining fairly low living expenses, we’ve always used at least once credit card in order to benefit from its rewards. We’ve earned many free plane tickets and hotel stays through credit card rewards, all without paying a penny in credit card interest. But only in the last year have we tried “churning” credit cards to increase the number of rewards we earn.
Credit card churning refers to opening one or more credit card accounts, spending enough to get the rewards, and then moving on to the next card. Many cards offer the largest bonus to new members, often after spending a minimum amount within a given period.
Disclaimer: we hope this site helps you manage your money wisely and credit card debt is a dangerous snare. Please don’t use credit cards unless you know you can do so responsibly, without paying interest. Of course you shouldn’t buy things you can’t afford. But you also need to have emergency savings in place to use credit. Otherwise, you’re one emergency away from falling into the vicious cycle of consumer debt.
Obviously it doesn’t pay to spend extra to earn the rewards. But if you can reap rewards simply by paying your normal living costs, why not? We only churn one card at a time. We’re not going to accumulate enough points for a jaunt to Europe any time soon, but rewards do help defray our less glamorous travel costs.
We’ve earned rewards from cards such as Marriott Starwood Preferred Guest, Chase Sapphire Preferred, and PNC Points Visa. Below are our strategies for meeting the minimum spend as a frugal churner. Some require you to “buy ahead” by making purchases you will definitely use in the future. This tactic won’t allow you to churn cards indefinitely. You can’t artificially inflate your spending forever and still save money through the rewards. However, if you are trying to earn a specific reward, such as free plane tickets for an upcoming trip, it’s worthwhile to meet that minimum in ways that fit your low-cost lifestyle.
1. Buy gift cards that can be used for your normal expenses. Think grocery stores, gas stations, or other retail stores you may frequent, like Target. We’ve purchased discounted gift cards on eBay.
2. Stock up on staples and household goods. Buy extra staples like pasta, rice, beans, sauces, or canned goods. Stock your freezer with meat or frozen vegetables that are on sale. Stock up on toiletries, cleaning supplies, paper products, or other household items you’ll definitely use.
3. Build an emergency supply kit. If you’ve been putting off creating an emergency supply kit, meet that minimum spend by stocking up on first aid supplies, canned goods, candles, and other items recommended on this supply list.
4. Shop at ALDI! You may have heard that last week, ALDI started accepting credit cards nationally. They are expanding and building more stores, so if you don’t have one near you, maybe you will within the next few years. Although I’m used to using my debit card there, if I need to meet a minimum spend I will absolutely use a credit card, since ALDI is where I do the majority of my routine shopping.
5. Charge business travel to the card. If you book work travel on a personal credit card, sign up for a new card before your next trip.
6. Time churning with travel. Before booking a trip, open a new card to earn travel rewards. Once you earn those rewards, open a new card to cover any additional expenses before and during the trip. Since you’ll spend more than normal on a vacation, it’s a great time to start accruing your next round of incentives.
7. Time with other big expenses. It makes sense to open a card before funding a major home or car repair, remodeling project, or if you’re anticipating other major expenses.
8. Buy gifts. What gifts will you need for upcoming weddings, birthdays, showers, or other special occasions? Instead waiting until the week before to purchase the gifts, buy them ahead of time. And stock up on cards and wrapping supplies at the same time.
9. Contribute to a charity. The vast majority of our charitable giving comes from our checking account, but when we wanted to give to a special cause recently, we used the card instead. Don’t get me wrong—credit card rewards are not a good motivation for giving to charitable causes. But if you’re planning to make a donation anyway and online credit card payment is an option, it’s a good way to meet that minimum.
10. Choose cards carefully. Select cards that offer rewards you actually plan to use. What good are free plane tickets if you don’t want to fly? Also, some cards offer incentives without a minimum spend. Other cards have lower minimums that will be easier to meet. Find the offers that make sense for you.
Ultimately, if you have low expenses, you don’t need a ton of rewards. You are able to fund your lifestyle, and any rewards you receive are icing on the cake. We’ve found a happy medium of enjoying a certain travel rewards without devoting much time to churning, and without inflating our spending.
Do you churn credit cards? What other ways can frugal churners meet the minimum spending?
What Seeing Real Poverty Showed Me About Pretending to Be Poor
A few weeks ago I shared my Thoughts From India and Lessons Learned In India (my first guest post). But as my henna fades, I’m afraid my convictions from my trip will, too. One insight I desperately want to remember is how seeing real poverty left me more motivated than ever to “pretend to be poor” in order to share more resources. Witnessing wide economic disparities firsthand was a poignant reminder that I’m just pretending; our lifestyle is truly luxurious by global standards. It was also a good reminder of why I’m pretending, and an encouragement to continue, so I can help those who aren’t just pretending.
By pretending to be poor, I mean living below our means so that we can have extra to give and save. We would never claim to actually be poor or deprived in any sense, and we’re quite content with our lifestyle. Our tongue-in-cheek title comes from a proverb and one of our main goals goals of financial flexibility is to help the destitute. In fact, I believe generosity can be a more effective motivator for wise financial habits than early retirement, financial independence, or even debt payoff. (Read why in the post Get Rich With Generosity.)
I didn’t visit the streets of Calcutta, but I saw one of the world’s largest slums, the massive encampment spanning the outskirts of the Mumbai airport grounds, described in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. I was comfortably bubbled behind the airplane window and can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to walk through its paths, but the sea of blue tarps that is home to one million people left an impression.
On our way to visit a village church we drove through narrow dirt alleys crowded by small, low-roofed homes. These are the real tiny homes, without the high-tech innovations to make them comfortable.
At a children’s home, I met hoards of kids whose parents can’t afford to take care of them. They are well cared for in the homes, but they still live in conditions we’d consider sub-par for our children—twelve to a room in bunks, with a small cubby for their personal belongings.
Another team from our church visited a remote village that our church sponsors. Before the sponsorship program began, they had so little food that at times meals would consist of starchy water leftover from cooking.
In the streets, beggars, often with small children, knocked on our van’s windows. You want to help but you don’t know if they are being exploited, or if a small handout would do much good anyway. And you certainly can’t help everyone in this situation.
We all know this level of disparity exists, and you don’t have to travel the globe to see it. A few years ago I volunteered at an inner city after school program where many of the elementary-aged kids went home to empty houses and no dinner. But in everyday life we are largely sheltered from these extreme conditions. We don’t have time in our busy schedules to enter into the mess we know exists. So instead we simply feel sad when it comes up in conversation.
Evoking guilt is the furthest goal from my mind. I believe contemplating inequity and doing something about it can inspire us to resist our culture’s tide of lifestyle inflation like nothing else. As we deflate our lifestyle we aim to inflate our usefulness, in part by helping others. I wrote about how to Get Rich With Generosity & have experienced that giving away money is one of the best ways to become more disciplined with money. However, it’s not really about getting rich or poor, and certainly not about inflating my ego instead of my lifestyle.
Before my trip, I’d occasionally receive a letter from a charity we donate to, outlining a need and requesting additional funds. For the most part I viewed these letters as annoying. “I’m already giving what I want to give to this group,” I’d think and trash the letter without even reading it.
I just received a letter from the organization I traveled with, explaining their fundraising needs for a special training conference. Now that I’ve seen their ministry firsthand, I understand why supporting the conference is so important. Many of the pastors live on a very small stipend, provided by their own congregation after two years of outside sponsorship, and may lack basics such as electricity, shoes, or access to transportation. Far from an annoyance, this letter became a welcome opportunity to practice noblisse oblige and participate in God’s work across the world.
I can’t respond to every letter by sending money, but I’m now equipped to make better decisions about these requests. I have a whole new schema for the realities in developing areas. More than ever I see sharing with others as a way of striving toward equality: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality” (2 Corinthians 8:13).
No one can eliminate poverty, but we can help improve the life of one person. Or maybe two or three or ten. I encourage you to consider sponsoring a child in poverty. Many charities have a program for child sponsorship because the need is vast, as is the potential for impact. If you’re looking for a trustworthy group, I witnessed India Gospel League in action this summer, and friends of mine highly recommended Compassion International after seeing their work firsthand. Both are doing balanced, legitimate, cost-effective, holistic ministry to truly impoverished people.
Do you think helping others can be a financial motivator?
Thoughts from India
I just returned from India this weekend, and while my jet-lagged brain is struggling to form coherent thoughts, I wanted to share some highlights.
I loved the overall experience. The people we met were warm and interesting, the food was amazing, and our itinerary included many powerful experiences. Much of what I learned is more personal than personal finance, but I’ll try to share the most relevant bits here.
I had the privilege of meeting a child we sponsor, and his mother. I didn’t know his mother was coming, or that she was his mother at first. She spoke a little English and was translating for us. Since they send translators from the children’s homes, I thought she was a caretaker there. She was blatantly mothering him throughout the meeting, and at some point I asked if she was his mother. When she said yes, the meeting suddenly became even more emotional. As a mom, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be find yourself unable to provide your child’s basic needs. She kept saying “very thank you” over and over. Rather than feeling like I’m so great for helping out this family, I felt very humbled. I don’t deserve the many blessings and advantages that allow me to help them. And although I don’t know the exact circumstances of their family, it’s safe to assume that forces outside of their control have contributed to their financial situation.
I was able to tell women that they are valuable in God’s sight. This is not a predominant message in many of their homes. We spoke to groups of 100-250 women, mostly from rural villages. We also got to hear a few of the women’s testimonies. Some recounted tragic stories, but the overall theme was one of overcoming through faith.
Since becoming a mother, I’ve been trying to imagine a more global and historical perspective on marriage and motherhood than what I’m immersed in here in suburban America. While we can barely keep up with ever-changing car seat laws, Indians pile a family of five onto a small motor scooter and zoom off into traffic that looks like anarchy to the Western eye. I adhere to my children’s nap time almost religiously, but saw Indian kids sleeping on said scooters, and floors or tables anywhere. The heat must help—I could have passed out on the floor, too! Contemplating the arranged marriage tradition and hearing the stories of traveling pastor’s wives also shed light on how cultural my notion of marriage is.
I didn’t miss much from home, except maybe toilet paper in public restrooms and being able to drink tap water. And there were a couple days that our schedule didn’t allow for a decent dose of after lunch caffeine. Turns out it’s really hard to stay awake while sitting for 10 hours in 95 degree heat! But I’ve returned with little taste for American food, and tried to recreate an Indian dish last night. I also didn’t miss Facebook, texting, or email. I’m sure the short-lived nature of the trip made it easier to get on without these. Of course, I missed my family and friends, though I never got homesick. I was able to call my family three times, including on my son’s birthday.
I also noticed that things didn’t have to be perfect. India is extremely diverse so I don’t want to over-generalize, but in the circles we were with, people didn’t seem to mind if the music wasn’t perfect, if the conference got off schedule, or if their clothes and sandals match or fit perfectly, for example. I’m sure a lot of this arises out of not having the option for perfection. They are used to the electricity going out regularly for brief periods (which is rough when your only cooling comes from ceiling fans). They are used to their kids wearing too small clothes we wouldn’t think of putting our children in, because we don’t have to. It struck me that I spend too much time trying to make my living room look perfect or my teachings for India perfect, when no one but me even cares. Striving to match our lives with the sleek, immaculate images of edited advertisements only wastes time and frustrates us as we fail to comply with impossible standards. I hope to take our principle that Life is Not About Your Preferences to a new level with this insight.
We were completely pampered. I don’t think I opened a car door or poured a cup of coffee for myself while there. We experienced a much more service-oriented culture, which was sometimes hard for us self-reliant American to take. However, I also feel pretty triumphant for having flown on 13 planes in 15 days, survived two weeks away from my family, conquered the squatty potty, feasted on spicy foreign cuisine without digestive distress, and taught large groups through a translator in significant heat & humidity. Venturing outside my comfort zone built my faith and confidence, and I believe this experience has increased my flexibility and usefulness in many ways.
Seeing real poverty has only increased my desire to pretend to be poor, (tongue-in-cheek a la Proverbs 13:7) so that I can have more to share with the truly poor. And it’s given me new vantage points on living with contentment, defining necessity, and the depths of human creativity for making do, or doing without.
What have you learned from traveling? How do you strive for perfection in unnecessary ways?
I’m Off to India!
So I’m leaving for India in 2 days! I can’t believe it’s finally here. I’ve experienced a huge range of emotions about this trip in the year since I was invited to go, from extreme excitement to major nerves to downright dread. For about 8 months it didn’t even seem real, and now I can’t wait to be there. I’m weary of preparing; I just want to do what I’ve been anticipating for so long.
Though I’ve been brewing lots of ideas for money-related posts, I’m in full-time India mode. I’ve set aside all the personal finance thoughts swirling in my mind to steep myself in what I’ll teach in India. I’ve prepared two conference teachings, a personal testimony, and some other materials should I be asked to speak at the last minute. My bag is 95% packed. I have one errand to run. Yet I feel wildly unprepared. Who wouldn’t? I could get ready for this trip forever. But as with personal finance, and so many other areas of life, you could read about it and prepare forever. At some point you just have to do it. Take the first step toward your goal.
And so, I’ll step onto that plane. I’ll keep studying hard and praying hard. And then some day next week, I’ll step onto the podium, open my mouth, and start speaking. If I waited for these teachings to be perfect, no one would ever hear them. I’ll teach women I’ve never met who are from a culture foreign to me. I can’t rely on humor, allusions, or certain illustrations as I might here. I can’t rely on my wording because I’ll teach through a translator. I could do a great job or completely bomb it. But it isn’t about me, and honestly, I won’t even know whether it’s well-received. My hope is that God will use what I’ve prepare to encourage the women who have taken an equally big step to attend the conference.
During hectic times I’ve wished I could just prepare for India—nothing else. Of course, this isn’t how life works. My kids still need a mom. My husband still needs a wife. My friends still need a friend. Thankfully everyone has been incredibly helpful–except my 1-year-old! Even my son has encouraged me that it’s going to be great, I’ll have so much fun, and he won’t miss me at all (um, thanks?).
The same holds true for money: we could all be great with our money if life didn’t get in the way. We could save way more if we didn’t have anything else going on. We’d spend so much less if we didn’t have kids who get sick or cars that break or houses to repair. It helps to remember this is what money is for—meeting our needs, and those of others.
I’ve had to remind myself of this as I spend a hefty sum on this trip (ameliorated by many generous donations!). It doesn’t make sense from a purely financial perspective. However, it aligns exactly with our goal of financial flexibility—taking opportunities that fit in the bigger picture of our life purposes. In fact, this is why we aim for flexibility instead of financial “freedom.” I’ve wanted to go on an international missions trip for 10 years. When the opportunity finally came, the price tag didn’t stop me because we are willing to spend on what we value, and we’re able to in part because we’ve reduced spending on what we don’t value. God also provided funds for the trip through many generous donations, including a nearly-free car that Neil was able to fix up and sell. While we try to be good stewards of our money, the donations and car sale profit was pure grace. We didn’t deserve any of this help.
I am hoping to gain some insight into pretending to be poor as I see another side of the world, though I can’t predict what I’ll discover. Surely I’m bound to learn something, and I can’t wait to share it when I return. I’m not sure that I’ll have wifi or the ability to post while I’m there. And I doubt Neil will be able to post amidst keeping these babies alive for two weeks without me. So until then, namaste!
How does travel fit in with your priorities? And what have you learned from traveling?
Open the Door to a Lifetime of Vacation Savings
Camping is sometimes called “pretending to be poor,” so it’s no surprise we love to camp. Spending time in nature with family or friends makes for an inexpensive and highly fulfilling vacation. Yet many otherwise frugal people haven’t tapped into the incredible on-going savings of camping. So we hereby issue the Pretend to Be Poor Camping Challenge: give camping a try! Spend at least one day & night camping, in order to open the door to a lifetime of frugal, fun vacations. And if you’re thinking “you couldn’t pay me enough to go camping,” you have to read on about all the proven personal and family benefits that pricier vacations fail to deliver.
A word of encouragement to non-campers: I never camped while growing up. I first ventured into the hobby as an indoorsy college student with no camping skills, came to love the experience, and have camped 3-4 times a year ever since. We even camped for a week with a two-year-old and barely-four-month-old, and had a blast. (Read about this crazy adventure in “Camping with Kids” on my mom blog.) If I can learn to like camping, so can you! And there are so many benefits for you, your relationships, and your children (if you have them).
Inexpensive vacation. Camping is, of course, supremely frugal if done right. For example, we camp in Florida during spring break and spend $107 for the site for the week. We couldn’t get a hotel there for one night at that price! We camp in a tent, have used the same camping gear for over ten years, and only upgraded to a larger tent because of our growing family. With the simple investment in a camp stove (about $50 new), you can shop at a discount grocery store and cook all your meals easily that way. Or cook exclusively on the fire. Read more about our $500 week-long camping vacation here.
Don’t have camping gear? There are many ways to come by it cheaply, and you don’t need a fancy camper, RV, or lots of accessories to have a good trip. Our family camping gear includes a tent, propane stove, air mattress (now that we’re “old”), sleeping bags, cheap camp chairs, and basic cooking implements. If you’re not ready to invest a lot in supplies, ask to borrow gear from a friend or family member. Check garage sales, Craigslist, and thrift stores for used items. You probably already have things like flashlights, bug spray, pots & pans, and old blankets in your home. On long trips we buy wood from Craiglist while there.
A sense of accomplishment. Chillin’ in nature is also rife with intangible benefits like the deep bonding between campers, the soul-rest of time in nature, and the fulfillment of learning skills or mastering challenges. Learning to pitch a tent, build a fire, and keep your children alive while pitching a tent and building a fire, all inflate one’s sense of usefulness. While camping may not be as easy as lounging poolside, it combines leisure and accomplishment in a most delightful way.
Closer families. Nothing has brought us closer as a family than the zany challenge of camping with two little kids. I know we wouldn’t feel the same sense of satisfaction returning from a resort vacation or Disney World. More than anecdotal evidence supports my closer-family camping hypothesis. Camping has been identified as a the number one predictor of family cohesiveness. It correlates with families who like each other, still spend time together even when the children are adults, and have close relationships. Camping has also been linked to better grades for school children. Ready to book a camp site yet?
It’s no surprise that camping is good for kids since every family member has to contribute. (Okay, maybe not the four-month-old.) Kids learn skills like how to build a fire, roast a hot dog, hike, fish, swim, and identify plants and animals. They’re also forced to play without high-tech toys or entertainment and develop adaptability. Many campgrounds offer free activities for kids, like scavenger hunts, nature walks, concerts, or dances.
If you’ve ever stayed in a hotel with young children, you might imagine the advantages of camping. The kids can run around outside during the day instead of being contained to a hotel in between sight-seeing. The germ content of dirt concerns me far less than whatever lurks in hotel carpet and bedspreads. I was worried about our kids being able to sleep in a tent, but all the exercise and fresh air wears them out & they sleep great, as many camp moms will testify. I can’t emphasize how happy our kids are while camping, even as infants. Our son loves talking about past trips and cries when daddy goes backpacking without him!
Let go of your standards. Camping forces us to let go of our often arbitrary rules for “civilized” life. I relish leaving behind the Internet and make-up bag for a weekend or even a week. I may have peed places other than the toilet, showered once all week, cursed in front of my toddler (about needing a shower), let the kids go barefoot all day, and helped my kid poop over a tree root. And Neil may have rinsed a poopy toddler sans swim diaper in the ocean. It’s all part of the fun if you can laugh about it.
Choose your challenge. The continuum of camping options allows campers to “choose their own adventure.” From wilderness backpacking to “glamping,” pick your desired mixture of leisure vs. challenge. Pitch a tent in your backyard if you need to ease in. Our city maintains a campground less than two miles from our home, which is perfect for short trips that don’t require much planning. Check out whether your local parks have camp sites available. Or camp to save on lodging near your next sight-seeing destination. Whatever you decide, just be sure to look up at the stars, enjoy good conversation around the fire, and don’t forget the s’mores.
What do you like about camping? Or what are your hang-ups?
Are Short-term Missions Trips a Scam?
I’ve already alluded to my upcoming short-term missions trip to India this summer. While staying in India is relatively inexpensive, flying an open jaw there in late August is not, and we’ll also do a fair amount of flying in-country, which also hikes the price. Friends and family have generously donated toward my trip, and I cannot express my gratitude enough. In addition to taking the edge off the $3500 price-tag, knowing that a host of comrades are behind me offers inexpressible moral support.
Neil also “raised” a portion of the cost by flipping a car. With fairly minimal effort, he turned an $1800 profit on a car a co-worker sold him at a killer friend price. More on this soon.
But short-term missions trips invariably raise questions about the best use of funds, and as this is a fair objection I’ve wrestled with myself, I hope this post will provide some answers. The trip may also raise an eyebrow from a personal finance perspective and here I’ll address why it’s worth the money to us.
Couldn’t that money be better used over there?
Could the $3500 cost of the trip feed a lot of hungry kids, dig some clean-water wells, or fund many micro-loans? Absolutely. I care about those causes, and we donate monthly toward poverty relief and church-planting in India & Ethiopia. In fact, generosity is one of our goals for pretending to be poor. You can read about why to give away money in these posts:
- The Treasure Measure
- Get Rich With Generosity
- Inflate Your Usefulness, Not Your Lifestyle
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Money
I also believe this trip will change my sense of agency and urgency regarding these causes. Neil’s (somewhat less expensive) trip to India two years ago spurred him to help raise the awareness and funding to sponsor an entire rural village, bringing in food, clean water, hygiene education, agricultural development, education for children, skills training for adults, and spiritual leadership for those interested. The Adopt-a-Village program is a $75,000 total commitment over five years. This far exceeds what it cost Neil to witness the stark needs in a rural village first-hand, though it was certainly not a poverty tourism trip.
I’m hoping the trip will change not only my commitment as a donor and an advocate for people in need, but also bring some perspective to my admittedly cushy life. I know I shouldn’t complain when the store is out of the exact type of milk I want; I know I shouldn’t bemoan the “heat” when my thermostat reads 82 degrees and I “have to” decide whether to turn on the air conditioning. Friends who have visited testify that nothing puts our first-world problems into their proper place like visiting a developing area.
Another reason I consider it worthwhile to go is that the organization, India Gospel League, invites people to “come and see.” They operate on a streamlined budget, with relatively little spent on overhead, administration, staff, etc. They know the needs firsthand and what our trip costs could accomplish if spent elsewhere. Yet they invite us because:
- They invite sponsors to see where their money goes each month. Visiting overseas is by no means requisite to entrusting an organization with money. However, IGL’s value of eyewitness trips indicates a level of transparency.
- They invite sponsors to meet their sponsored children and/or villages. Neil’s trip highlight was meeting our sponsored child. I’m hoping to meet him as well, and imagine this will impart a new passion for praying for him and writing him. We’ve certainly sent him a lot more gifts and letters since Neil met him.
- They invite foreigners to teach the Bible, for a couple reasons:
- People like to hear those from other countries speak. We’re the same way, right? Maybe they achieve better conference attendance by bringing in cross-cultural speakers.
- As an American, I’ve had more ready access to Bible teaching than the average village woman in India. This doesn’t make me more qualified; I’ve simply been blessed with advantages like literacy, Bible classes, and other resources.
- They understand these trips strengthen partnership and interdependence, which is IGL’s vision for their relationship with foreign churches. They are very emphatic about outside financial support being temporary, and using funds effectively. For example, “barefoot pastors” receive outside support for two years, at which time their church takes over financial support. Programs like vocational training, elementary through post-secondary education, and micro-loans all “teach people to fish” rather than simply giving hand-outs.
There are many other things we could do with the money I’ll spend on the trip. However, it is for opportunities like these that we want to be financially flexible.
Can I really do anything useful in two weeks?
Along with my team, I’ll teach two women’s conferences of 50-100 women who pass the knowledge and convictions to the women in their villages. So while teaching a couple times through a translator seems like a pittance compared with the world’s needs, there is potential for a ripple effect. Again, I don’t feel qualified as a great speaker, but I trust that IGL understands how to leverage our efforts, and God certainly does.
We’ll also visit two house churches and do a song and dance (literally) for the children’s home at the mission base. We’ll play with kids, meet our sponsored children, tour IGL’s facilities, and interact with adults. Neil served lepers lunch while there; others prayed with cancer patients. The main reason I don’t think this trip is a scam or waste of time is that the Indian leaders have ongoing, established work there through local churches. We are just partnering by bringing our resource of Bible teaching at their request.
If you’re interested in sponsoring a child, pastor, micro-loan, or otherwise donating to India Gospel League, check out their web site to learn more. It’s a great way to inflate your usefulness instead of your lifestyle by improving someone else’s life significantly.
What do you think of short-term missions trips? Or spending on travel in general?