Monthly Archives: December 2013

A big hurrah for 2013!

I’m prepping for my December debt update and a bigger 2013 recap, but had a lot of excitement happen in the last 36 hours…and just needed to blurt it out for one last post of the year!

I snuck in a short solo trip home to California for Christmas…it was kind of an “impulse trip” I didn’t really plan for, but so well worth it. I had been sticking to my budgets pretty well the last couple months and had enough to cover the flights, which weren’t actually any more expensive than a cross-country flight usually is ($515). I’d been so good about not travelling much all year and still had vacation days left to burn so off I went. Stayed with the parents and didn’t do much other than visit loved ones and go running nearly every day, so my only cost for 5 days out there was probably the flight!

After taking a red-eye flight back to DC yesterday morning, I picked up the car from the Honda dealership and the valve adjustment only ended up being $326! Much less than the $511 I was originally quoted. I’m glad I waited to go back, because in the meantime I had found a random coupon from one of those neighborhood coupon packets for 25% off any service or repair at this particular Honda dealership. (Aha! I knew there was another reason we took it to the one right in our neighborhood…) Now you math nerds will know that $326 is cheaper than 25% off $511 ($383), so I’m also confused why the price before the coupon was less than the original quote. But I didn’t bring it up, of course! This doesn’t help my confidence that these quotes aren’t just random numbers pulled out of their butts. Anyway, knock on wood, the car is running very smoothly now, and no more “check engine” light coming on.

This morning was my first day back at work since Christmas Eve’s eve, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn we only had to work until noon (woohoo!), tomorrow we’ve got off for New Year’s (which I already knew), and one of my coworkers alerted me to check my bank account. Because our Christmas bonuses were direct-deposited this morning! WOOHOO!!!

It’s amazing how much less stressed I feel when a big chunk of money lands in my lap. Even if most of it is earmarked for student loan debt and doesn’t go in my pocket. I promptly ran some numbers and made a huge payment to Sallie Mae once I got home. 75% of the Christmas bonus. Then I signed up for one of the triathlons I wanted to do (the price goes up tomorrow). The rest will get put into the savings/emergency/triathlon/travel fund. I’m not going to go crazy like I did the last time I got a bonus and am pretty excited to announce my new numbers in the December report. Stay tuned!

Anyone else get their Christmas bonus? Happy new year!!!

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The Broke Ass Triathlete’s Guide to Planning a Cheaper Race Season

It’s that time of year again! Time to scramble to plan the 2014 race season and register for races during the “early bird pricing” period, before they go up on Jan 1st. Here are 10-ish tips from your veteran broke ass triathlete (14 years experience and counting!):

1. Sign up early but not too early. You want to sign up early enough for events where the price goes up the closer to the event, but not too early, as you never know about unexpected injuries, changes in your fitness level, or if there are other life stressors or events that may be happening (weddings, graduations, big project at work). You don’t want to throw away money on entry fees if you end up not even getting to the starting line, as there are so many with a no-refund policy. (This happened to me at the very first Ironman I signed up for back in 2001. Bye-bye $350. At least it wasn’t $675 like it is now…)

I personally like to limit myself to 6 months in advance. At this point, I’ll sign up for triathlons in May and June, along with some trail running events before then, but am holding off on anything afterward. It’s just too far out to plan. I know this doesn’t work if you are trying to get into an event that sells out crazy early, but see “race smaller grassroots events” below.

2. Local races vs. destination races: Race locally. You save on travel expenses (gas and hotels) and get to sleep in your own bed and eat foods you are familiar with. I recently signed up for an annual membership to this local running club; for just $35 per year, you get free entry to one or two running events they hold every month! There are no t-shirts or finisher medals, but I’ve done so many for so long that I don’t really need all that swag unless it’s a very special race. Last year I committed to only racing triathlons (and running races) that were within driving distance, because flying with your bicycle is a whole ‘nother hassle (and major expense if you don’t know how to work the system).

3. Race smaller grassroots events. I used to race a lot of the big name, “brand name” events (*cough* WTC *cough* Ironman), but found over time that the prices have gotten overinflated, they’re less personal, the events are over crowded and you get less “bang for your buck.” They also tend to sell out a year in advance, which is too far out for me to plan these days. I love doing smaller events because you get to meet the race director and a lot of times it’s a family affair; you get to see that they really put their heart and soul in it and care about the athletes. They charge less and you can usually still sign up a month in advance, if not the morning of the event.

4. Opt out of the race t-shirt. I signed up for a trail running race recently where there was an option to not get the race t-shirt, in which case you could save $5 off the registration price. I have enough shirts, so I checked this box to save a little bit of cash, and room in my dresser!

5. Make those destination races count–with friends! If you do want to go further from home, plan to race and travel with friends to split up costs. Sharing the race experience with friends is what makes it extra fun, after all! I love to do this because some of my favorite triathlon friends don’t even live in the same state that I do, so we hardly see each other as it is. So why not make the race a reunion as well, and save on costs together? Genius.

6. Discount codes. Before handing your credit card number over, do the same thing that you would do if you were shopping online (at least what I would do, anyway): Google the race name and “discount code”. Sometimes they are posted on Facebook pages, local club websites, or even printed in magazines. I’m also a member of a big national club, Team RWB, which costs nothing to join, and gives huge discounts on races they want big club representation at. Disclaimer: I’m a member of the club because I support their cause, not for the discounts as I didn’t even know about them til later! Bonus perks 😉

7. Limit race frequency. Really think about if you’ll be prepared enough to do every race you’ve written down, or if you may end up half assing them. I used to race TONS, and I know there’s truth in the theory of “racing yourself into shape.” At the same time, racing very frequently does not always produce the best results if you are not able to train much in between races, or give yourself adequate recovery. Moreso, going with the purpose of this post, racing frequently as a way to get faster is not cheap at all. I’d rather put in some solid training for free, and have a handful of races that I can really perform well in. Originally I had up to two Olympic triathlons per month on my tentative 2014 schedule until I realized that racing every other weekend was too expensive and just not practical in terms of building up the speed and endurance I wanted. Especially since I only ended up putting in enough training to race one triathlon (an Olympic distance) last year–let’s not bite off more than I can chew. (I’m really good at that.) I’m limiting it to one Olympic triathlon per month, some even 6 weeks apart.

8. Limit length of the race season to prevent burnout too. For me, triathlon season is May through September (or even October), and I’ll do some running races from November through April. A pretty even 6 month/6 month split, with some overlap as I’ll still throw in some running races throughout tri season to keep some spark in the running legs.  I like to be done before Halloween, so I can enjoy that holiday along with Thanksgiving and Christmas (as evidenced by my current state of fitness…). When I used to race more competitively, it was a February through November triathlon season. Whew. That was exhausting to both my body and my bank account! This year I may “only” do 4 Olympic triathlons. We’ll see.

9. Take into consideration the types and distances of the events that will keep your mind, body, and wallet from getting burnt out. Triathlons tend to be more expensive than running races, but Olympic triathlons are also much cheaper than half and full Ironmans. (They also require less training, which match my current work demands much better.) Right now, “early bird pricing” on some local Olympic triathlon events are as low as the $75-$80 range, which is similar pricing to (if not cheaper than) some of the big name marathons and half marathons. I’ve seen typical Olympic tri pricing more in the $120-$160 range, ugh. Tiny local running events (as mentioned above with no shirts or medals) can be found as low as the $5 to $10 range.

10. Set aside an annual budget for racing. This is something I haven’t employed before, as I used to throw race expenses into my monthly “Fun Fund”, which didn’t always work as there are many times you sign up for something x months in advance. Or like around this time of year, when you may sign up for 3 or 4 events at all once. I like the idea of limiting myself to how much I can spend in terms of entry fees and travel expenses for each event. These costs tend to be spread over the course of the year, so it makes sense to lump them into an annual budget vs. a monthly budget. I have yet to come up with a number for the annual racing budget, and I’ll probably do an annual travel budget as well. They’re in the works!

Bonus tip from college racing days! Camp instead of booking a hotel, or get hooked up with a homestay. When I was a young little tri newbie in college, we always picked the camping option as many races are at lakes with campgrounds. This could be as low as $20 or cheaper for a tent spot, compared to about $80-$100/night for a hotel/motel. You can also cast your net wide in your circle of friends, teammates, or alumni networks (hello, Facebook!) and try to get hooked up with a homestay. When I rowed in grad school, we would often get hosted by a local alumni family at regattas that were in the next state over. The other great thing about being a part of a national team like Team RWB? You can take turns hosting or homestaying with other teammates in different parts of the country!

Good luck this upcoming season! Any tips I’ve left out on how to keep your racing costs down?

the case of the misfiring cylinder vs. misfiring check engine light

Twas the morning of Christmas Eve’s eve in the Bacon Payoff household (an efficient and frugal one-car household) when I got an early call from Mr. Bacon as he was on his way to work. The car was stalling at stoplights and the check engine light had come back on. NOOOOO! He had me quickly look up train tickets to his hometown for later that night, since we were heading up for Christmas with his family. Luckily unlike plane tickets, we were able to secure train tickets for the “day of” super duper cheap–$43 to $48 each way.

Now about a month ago, I had finally taken our car into the dealership to figure out what the “check engine” light was telling us. It comes on and off periodically, but was hardly ever persistent, and seemed to come on when the weather was cold. Sometimes. (There wasn’t really a pattern.) I should know better about taking better care of my car, but growing up in San Francisco, my uncles owned an auto repair shop in the city and they always took care of anything to do with car troubles. Obviously I was spoiled. 😦

So that month ago appointment told us that there was a “misfiring cylinder” and the first step was to “adjust the valves”, which would cost $511 and wasn’t guaranteed to fix the problem. Once we dropped off the car for a day to get this done, we would have to “wait and see” if the check engine light came back on. If it didn’t, then everything was hunky dory. If it came back on, obviously the problem wasn’t fixed with the $511.

Now even though I had some money socked away in the emergency fund for “car issues”, I still balked at paying $511 for a service that wasn’t guaranteed. Besides, it was hard to find a day when either of us didn’t need the car…

Typical car-sharing use of the one-car household during winter (too cold and wet for bike commuting):

  • Mondays are Mr. Bacon’s turn to drive, I carpool with a coworker as I live on her route to work.
  • Tuesdays and Thursdays I drop him off and pick him up if he has a 12-hour shift (unless he’s got the day off, then it’s mine).
  • Wednesdays and Fridays, I walk the 30mins to work and Mr. Bacon drives.
    (I work about 5 miles from the office location I’m at Mon-Tues-Thurs, and only 1.5 miles from the other location Wed-Fri.)

Soon after the diagnosis of a potential “misfiring cylinder”, the check engine light stopped coming on. So…I would often chuckle at myself that this seemed more like a “misfiring check engine light”. Oh, so clever. NOT! Since the light didn’t come back on for weeks upon weeks, I chose to be blissfully ignorant. Until that fateful morning of Christmas Eve’s eve. 😦

Anyway. We are both out of town for a week and in the meantime left the car at the dealership (which is conveniently located a block down our street, don’t even get me started on how to pick a good auto repair place). I got a phone call from them Tuesday, saying the error code was still the “misfiring cylinder”, so we would have to proceed with the $511 valve adjustment we had discussed last month. Grrrrg.

SO. This tale of the one-car household is to be continued, as are the tales of living on the financial edge. We did not get a Christmas bonus at work before Christmas, unfortunately, but word is that we most always get one, sometimes before Christmas, sometimes not til the end of January, sometimes via direct deposit, and sometimes a big paper check. I remain hopeful and grateful that I stashed some of my last bonus into the emergency fund!

Hope everyone had a Merry Christmas!

Budget Refinement: Trimming the Fat!

You know what cracks me up about Sallie Mae’s website? After you sign in with your username and password, the next page has you enter your SSN and DOB…for “extra security”. You know, so someone can’t hack into the “manage your loans” page and…pay your loans off for you.

Right?! I wouldn’t mind if a hacker wanted to pay my loans for me!

Anyway, Friday was payday, the second paycheck of the month. (The first one goes mostly to rent, the second one goes mostly to student loans.) I figured I would go ahead and dump my $1,000 extra payment to Sallie Mae, since interest compounds DAILY. Which still pisses me off to no end every time I think about it. I actually made a third column in my nerdy spreadsheet, next to the “conservative” and “more aggressive” plans, that shows  my decreasing total balances each month, how much my payments were, and how much I paid in interest.

That interest column has ranged from $227 to $424 each month! Augh!! Keeping that interest in mind and staying pissed off about it will continue to be my biggest motivator.

So in my last post, I was saying how my current budget allows me to throw $1,100 (actually $1,112) in extra payments at Sallie Mae, but I’m hoping to get a raise soon, which will let me contribute $1,334 like my game plan tells me to start doing in January. BUT. As much as I think a raise is inevitable, I don’t know when it will actually happen. (Staying positive–it’s not if, but when!)

SO. I decided it was time to look at the budget again and do some more tweaking to see where I could free up more money for the loans. I’m going to keep my actual income and rent confidential, and we can leave the other fixed expenses alone (cell phone bill and gym membership). Let’s take a look at the variable expenses:

  • Auto & Transport $120
  • Groceries $550
  • Fast Food $65
  • Restaurant $65
  • Home Supplies $100
  • Cash $120
  • Fun Fund $200

Ok, let’s break this down…as I’m doing this, I’m also looking at my “Trends” in Mint.com over the last 12 months. It seems like the perfect time to do this now, because I’ve been living here for just about a year now!

AUTO & TRANSPORT: These expenses have actually been pretty consistent and include gas, tolls, parking and public transit. Since me and Mr. Bacon share a car, and he was the one using it most for a while (I was walking or biking to work), he pays for most of the gas tank fill-ups. Meanwhile, I’m the one that pays for the E-Z pass (that’s our regional toll tag). I’m still on my dad’s auto insurance plan (THANKS DAD!!) and don’t have a car payment either. I did start driving to work 2x/week since I’ve been needing to do some outside calls, so I fill up the gas tank some times, but my company will also reimburse me for some of that travel. So that should offset the auto expenses if they go up, but they’ve actually been holding fairly steady. I averaged $124/month for the last 12 months! Which is probably just slightly higher than $120 because I got new windshield wipers in August. I have friends with ridiculous auto budgets ($400-800) because of gas and car payments, so I guess I’ll consider myself lucky in this category!

EATING (NOM NOM NOM): This includes groceries, fast food, and restaurants (sub-categorized to keep me on track). Mr. Bacon tends to pay when we go out to eat, and I’ll pay for the groceries most of the time, but occasionally it’s vice versa. I most always pack my lunch (brought up as a frugal Asian–my mom never gave us lunch money and always packed our lunches growing up), but every now and then will buy lunch if I’ve run out of stuff at home or felt lazy. So that’s “fast food”. Also if we are on a road trip, which we do at least once or twice a month. I actually tend to spend under $100 a month for dining out (fast food + restaurants combined). In debit purchases anyway…we’ll discuss cash soon enough. Groceries I think we can bring down to $500 from $550. There was a brief period over the summer where I went a little hog-wild on the groceries. It hit a max of $695 in August, at which point I was all “whoa, Nelly!” and reined us back in.

HOME SUPPLIES: you know what this category is? In all honesty, it’s my Target budget. (I am cringing in embarrassment.) Home supplies should technically be things like toilet paper and toothpaste and cleaning supplies…you know…”stuff you get at Target”. But we all know how hard it is to leave Target without spending $100 or more! It’s like a black hole of awesomeness! So having a Target budget of $100 is almost like giving myself permission to spend $100 at Target each month. That’s no good. Target and Amazon and Costco are the three places that are black holes for my wallet. So this budget needs to be cut back pronto!

CASH: self-explanatory. I don’t know how I came up with $120. Because it’s 6 x $20 bills? I usually keep a $20 on me which goes to random stuff like coffee at work (only on very tired days), the occasional lunch at work, or going out with friends so that splitting the bill doesn’t get too complicated. It’s kind of there as spillover from the EATING category, if you really think about it. I probably only take out a $20 bill each week (my bank, Chase, isn’t in this area so it’s usually just $20 cash back from the weekly grocery trip), so let’s cut this back to 4 x $20 = $80. Oh! It does also go to replenishing the laundry card, which me and Mr. B take turns doing. (We live in a high-rise apartment and unfortunately don’t have a W/D in the unit. Sucks.)

FUN FUND: This has gone to anything from clothes, to race entry fees, to gifts for others and mp3’s. In 2014 I’ll do something different and allocate a specific amount I want to spend on triathlons and running races for the year, and throw it into the savings account, so I can withdraw it when I need it. Meaning I can (should?) cut the Fun Fund back to $100. $200 is a lot of fun to have for a whole month when you are trying to pay off student loans! Probably too much fun. I’ll also make a one-time “gifts” budget for this month with Christmas coming up. And I need to figure out what to do about putting aside Travel money…

Here we go! The New Budget:

  • Auto & Transport $120 (same)
  • Groceries $500 (-$50)
  • Fast Food $65 (same)
  • Restaurant $60 (-$5)
  • Home Supplies $70 (-$30)
  • Cash $80 (-$40)
  • Fun Fund $100 (-$100)

Total decrease in variable expenses: -$225

Add that to the $1,112 I was contributing extra to Sallie Mae, and now I can put a total of $1337 extra to the student loans on my current salary!

So what do your budgets look like compared to mine? Are there any stores that are black holes for your wallet, or any categories you can trim the fat off of?

Snow Day nerdiness

We got a snow day today in DC! Really exciting, because I’ve been fairly tired from work and ended up taking a 3.5-hour nap after dropping off Mr. B at work this morning. I guess I really needed that!

Since it’s the end of the year and also coming up on my first year with this “new” job, I thought I’d nerd out and actually sit down and work on a spreadsheet “Game Plan” in Excel. The goal is to get from $92.6k down to ZERO by my 36th birthday. I picked 36 since it’s in about 4 years, which is November 2017. Being Chinese-American, the significance of that is that it’ll be my zodiac year (there are 12 animals, so every 12 years is your animal). It’s a totally arbitrary self-imposed deadline, just like how my credit card deadline was “Labor Day 2013”. And by arbitrary, I also mean some early number crunching was telling me trying to get this done by my 35th birthday (another nice, round number) was a little too crazy.

So I ended up doing both a conservative plan, and a more aggressive plan. Both of these involve putting in extra payments each month (in addition to the minimum payments), in addition to the two “extra paychecks” each year (I’m paid biweekly, so there are 26 paychecks per year, and most months we get two), and potentially two bonuses per year (mid-year and Christmas if the company is doing well).

The conservative plan would have me paying an extra payment each month of $1,334, half of each “extra paycheck” post-tax, and half of each bonus pre-tax. (I hesitate to put all of the actual numbers on the blog.) This is assuming the Christmas bonus is the same as that crazy mid-year bonus…but of course I could be wrong, and will change that accordingly when I find out this month. This would end up taking my grand total down by $25,000 each year, and will get me out of debt by Sept 1, 2017. A solid 3 months before my birthday!

Then there’s the more aggressive plan. I’d start off with the same $1,334 extra payment each month in 2014, with 75% of each extra paycheck and half of each bonus pre-tax. Each year after that, assuming my salary goes up also, the monthly payments will be $100 more, the contributions from extra paychecks will be $200 more, and the contributions from each bonus will be $500 more. Whew! This is why it’s the more AGGRESSIVE plan, duh. This is based on many assumptions, but I’d like to think I’d get paid more each year. In this scenario, I’d pay off $26,000 in 2014, then $28,600 in 2015, and a hefty $31,200 in 2016. That leaves only $3,100 to pay in 2017, all in the month of January (which is also an extra paycheck month!). SO…in the more aggressive plan, I’d be totally done by the end of January 2017. WOW! That’s only in 3 years and a month from today! And technically, it would be before the 2017 Year of the Rooster even begins on Jan 28, 2017. COOL.

It does make me feel much better to get a game plan down, and I think $1,334 extra per month is a very realistic amount to put towards my loans starting in January. My current salary and budgets have me being able to contribute $1,100, but I’m having my one-year review coming up soon and there is chatter about a raise and putting me on the company’s phone plan (which would save me $93/month). I’ve got much more work experience along with increased job responsibilities at my current position now, so it would only make sense. Keeping my fingers crossed!

Hope you are all safe and warm!

The November report

Good-bye, November! I paid my first hefty “extra” payment to the evil Sallie Mae this month, a solid $1000 in addition to the $224 minimum (on the 20th…remember the other $242 minimum on the 6th was already included in last week’s belated October report).

The current balance as of 12/5/2013: $92,608.80.

That’s a $996.73 decrease since the previous month, another nice dent in the total amount, to go with the one I made in September, and apparently “only” $227.25 of that was interest. And since the birth of the blog, that’s a huge $2,418 decrease in the total amount!

The big thing in November was our trip to California, which was about a 9-day trip. This actually kept the grocery budget down significantly since we were only home for 2/3rds of the month ($300 in groceries out of $550 allocated, yeah!).

So how to keep a 9-day California vacation for two on the cheap? We had procured the flights back in April, using frequent flier miles from when I used to travel a lot. Me and Mr. Bacon got to fly first-class both ways, which was both of our first times doing so, and very nice since my man has uber long legs and the flights were 5+ hours long. We stayed at my parents’ in the San Francisco area for the most part, and Mom Bacon let us borrow her car when we needed it, eliminating the need to rent a car or stay at hotels. We did a mini road trip down the coast to L.A. for a few days, so the 3 nights not spent in SF were on the road. We paid for hotels for 2 of those nights in Big Sur and Ventura Harbor, and the 3rd night my sister graciously hosted us at her apartment in L.A.

Food wasn’t a huge expense as we mostly ate with family and friends, or at home with Mom’s cooking (mmm mmm). Many of these times, our meal companions would pick up the tab since we had come from so far to visit (ah, the Chinese art of fighting over the bill), which was never assumed but certainly appreciated. Me and Mr. Bacon also tend to eat on the cheap when road trippin’–after all, he had to have his first In-N-Out burger experience!

Free things we did: the many beautiful beaches along the Pacific Coast (yep, we did the scenic drive all the way to L.A., seeing wharfs and sea lions and elephant seals). In L.A. we saw the Hollywood sign, checked out the stars on the Walk of Fame, and managed to get free tickets to a taping of the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

The most touristy thing we did that wasn’t free, was the “Ride the Ducks” ride in San Francisco–and it was totally worth it! Mr. Bacon even managed to get us the locals’ discount, completely inadvertently. (The salesgirl asked where we were from, and he mentioned I was from the area.) So they were $27 each instead of $35 (and no processing fee when paid on-site instead of online)!

The most crazy expensive part: a night at the Big Sur Lodge. This was the first night we headed down the coast on our side road trip; we had a late start to the day and took our time stopping by so many beaches and vista points for pictures! We had originally looked at places to stay in San Simeon, where there were multiple cheap motels, but it was 1.5hrs further south, AND it was Daylight Savings weekend. So it got dark earlier than we had expected, and when it got dark, it got DARK. Highway 1 down the coast is not well lit and full of twists and turns. (We were also full of East Coast jet lag and not fit to drive both tired and in the dark.) There was also no phone reception! We couldn’t just call up different hotels in the area, we actually had to drive back and forth on a 2-mile stretch of road and knock on doors of the different lodges, rustic motels and campgrounds. We didn’t have any camping gear, so our cheapest option was talking down a $200 room to $180 at the Big Sur Lodge–promising not to use the second bedroom with the twin beds. Which ended up being about $200 anyway with taxes, more than twice what we had planned to spend at a cheap surf motel on the coast. But it was a nice, clean and warm room (though Mr. Bacon did grumble that there wasn’t even a TV for all that we paid for!) and we were happy to have a safe place to rest.

I also had my belated stash of Chinese New Year red envelopes waiting for me at home (since I haven’t been home all year), along with an early Christmas gift from Mom of cold, hard cash (the Chinese favorite), so this helped offset some of our trip costs. Thanks Mom!

Once we got back, the rest of November went pretty swimmingly, budgets were stuck to (or like the grocery budget, went way under, whoop whoop), which allowed me to throw $1000 at Sallie Mae. I plan to continue these $1000 (or more) extra payments each month, and there is rumor of Christmas bonuses at work, which I’m crossing my fingers for. It’s my first year at this job, so I don’t want to get my hopes up, but it sure would be nice! Would I be able to even get my balance under $90k for the first time ever? Now that would be really nice…

Coming up in a near future post, for the runners and triathlon nerds…planning next season’s races, i.e. throwing some money at entry fees before they go up in price on Jan 1st!