Originally published at ING Direct
Until summer of 2007, I lived a fairly miserly life, constrained mostly by graduate school finances (or lack thereof). A good life, yes, but one with limited travel and few indulgences.
I got my first full time job in July, but I barely had a minute to spend my new income before a series of events changed me—and how I viewed saving and spending.
A few weeks after I turned 24 and five months before my wedding, my soon to be mother-in-law called to tell us she was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer.
Suddenly, passing our weekends in Starkville wandering around the woods and playing online seemed like such a waste of time. We began going to the Coast often to visit our respective families. For the first time, I could see our parents, who before seemed so permanent and secure, as normal fragile people. I noticed their growing medications on the counter. I became upset when my father picked up smoking again. And even more unnerving, my grandmother and uncle were gravely ill. Suddenly I was more aware of how mortal we all are, myself included.
We put more miles on our cars in the next five months than we had in the previous three years. Hospital visits, funerals, last Thanksgivings, last Christmases, last hugs, promises of future visits when things would be better. I found myself treasuring these visits, more than anything I had ever put in a bank. Trips to the Coast and to North Carolina were like emotional savings deposits for when these people wouldn’t be here.
The wedding came in December, and my mother-in-law was not only able to be there—she was able to dance, despite having recently relearned to walk. She succumbed to the illness on January 31, 2008. We unfortunately did not arrive to the Coast while she was still conscious, and in some ways I feel we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye—but I know we spent those last months traveling so much to do just that.
It’s still hard two years later. You always expect your parents to be there forever. To hold your kids, help you move into your first house, see you at your most successful.
Susan, my second mother, was only 55. In her short life, she had done many things, met many people, saw lots—including a trip to Ireland she loved. I like to think she did not have many regrets. The first year following her death, we returned to the Coast at least monthly, sometimes more, to visit our families.
In retrospect, we realized we hadn’t done many fun things during our first year of marriage or seen our many friends spread across the country. We decided to take them up on offers to visit, and started spending more money on travel than on savings. We kicked off a year with more weekends out of town than in, mostly visiting friends and family across the Southeast. Starkville is a fine small southern college town, but there is a great big world out there and I intend to enjoy its smorgasbord of tastes, sights, and sounds with the people I love while we’re still breathing.
Top 10 Things I Do to Afford Travel:
1. Limit bills. No cable. No Internet on my (free) phone. Older cars have cheaper insurance and tags. Shelter dogs come fixed with shots. We do our own haircuts and styles at home, sleep with the heat on 55, and use the fire place for more than decoration.
2. Plan and cook meals ahead for lunch and dinner for the week. This week I ate homemade tacos of ground turkey, chickpeas (I really really love chickpeas), shredded cabbage, poblano peppers, jalapeno peppers (I froze from my garden last year), tomatoes, and cheese. Each morning I scoop a little into some Tupperware and then I spread it over my tortillas at work and pop them in the microwave. I drink water with my lunch and have a grapefruit for an afternoon snack.
3. Find local free or cheap entertainment: campus events, hiking, biking, and photography at the nearby parks, book club (though my book club told me not to write about them), and gardening heavily (I grew over 30lbs of produce last year and am looking to double or triple it this year).
4. I never go into debt for a purchase. If the money isn’t there, I never buy it. It’s harder to get out of a hole than to never fall in it.
5. On a trip, I hit the grocery store first: loaf of bread, sandwich meat, cheese, a gift for our hostess (beer, flowers, wine), fruits, nuts, etc. We usually allow ourselves to eat one meal out a day. We often cook meals for our host as a thank you for having us.
6. We travel where we have friends and family. This saves us in hotel costs, and we get the inside scoop of where we’re visiting. Places we’ve stayed with friends and family: New Orleans, Memphis, Birmingham, Washington DC, Wilmington NC, Orlando. Upcoming places we plan to visit: Pittsburgh, NYC, and Bloomington, Indiana.
7. Before we travel, we research where we’re going. We look for free and cheap events. DC was great because almost everything has free entry.
8. We travel with our dogs. Mostly because I can’t emotionally bear to board them, but it also saves us boarding fees. If we can’t take them with us, we usually don’t go, though the parents are always happy to keep them if we’re going someplace near them. Then we just drop the dogs off to get fat and spoiled.
9. We walk. Walking is a great way to explore a city. You see things you can’t from a cab or your car. I’ve met some very interesting people walking and found nice stores. At Mardi Gras our host asked if wanted to walk the eight blocks down St. Charles or take a cab. We walked. Met a circle of singing girls who loved my Lady Gaga wig and serenaded me with “Bad Romance”. Got in a little exercise, and enjoyed a beautiful warm day in February.
10. We’re childfree, not childless. I once saw a sign at the Sweet Potato Festival that said, “Children are for people who can’t have dogs.”
I don’t feel guilt for any trip we take because we can afford it through our saving methods, which I’ve ramped up recently for bigger trips. We’re happy to have more balance in our life again, taking trips for fun and reconnecting with family and friends, and still managing to save while we’re at it. FYI, we did stay in town the entire month of March, but a little birdie says we’re going to Mexico for a destination wedding soon, and I’m wrestling with May. Family meet up in ATL, wedding reception in Birmingham, Memphis Zoo trip, and the East Atlanta Beer Fest.