The 2019 Road Trip: Time to Plan

A quick guide through my road trip planning process. If you’ve struggled to plan your own road trip, this is a great post for you.

It’s that time of year again…. when the fiancée gets restless at work and we find ourselves hitting the road for a much needed vacation. Now if I was really motivated, I’d start planning trips ahead of time (knowing he’s going to drop the “I want a vacation” bomb on me with only a week or two to plan) but I haven’t gotten to that point yet. Instead, I find myself once again planning a last minute road trip with only 2-weeks notice. Fortunately I’ve got the planning process down to a science.

One of the reasons I don’t plan ahead is that I never really know where he’s going to want to go. You may ask why he gets to choose and not me? For one thing, he’s the one paying. For another thing, if you’ve been to my bucket list page, you may notice I want to see pretty much everywhere in the world, so it’s very likely that I also want to go see whatever he chooses. This year it happenes to be Salem and Boston, Massachusetts.

You may find the idea of planning a trip like this to be pretty daunting, especially since I’ve been given a very tight budget of $2000 for a 9-day trip! Let me break down my planning process for you.

First… is it doable? I look at the cost of driving (it’s about 1000 miles each way, plus a couple tanks for excursions/detours), the cost of hotels in the area we want to stay (if we have the car, we can stay outside the city and save some cash), the cost of the activities we want to do (in this case whale watching is a big one) and how much it’ll cost us to eat. If he’s giving me a budget of $2000, can we do it? In this case,

  • Hotels on the road ($100/night x 3 nights)
  • Hotel in Boston area ($150/night x 5 nights)
  • Fuel (80 gallons @$3/gal = $240) – my car gets awesome gas mileage
  • Tolls (about $80)
  • Parking (Salem- $10/day, Boston $30/day)
  • Whale watching ($60/person = $120)
  • Souvenirs ($50) – my fiancée collects Hard Rock Café shot glasses and we’re planning to pick up 5 of them on this trip!
  • Food ($60-70/day x 9 days = $600) – we’ll pack a cooler in the car on driving days so we can eat at nicer restaurants when we’re in towns.

That total comes to about $2200. Our general budget is pretty close to the target and, if we can cut a few costs here and there, we can actual get in right on budget. For now, we’ll leave the budget at $2200. If you’re interested, check out the final road trip stats on Day 9 to find out how we did.

Once the trip is a go, I start planning the driving portion. In this case, we’ll take 2 days to get there and 3 days to get back, leaving us 4 full days in the Boston area. I look at the direct route… 15 hours total. Then I start to look around the middle of that route (thanks Google Maps!)… looks like Niagara Falls is exactly half way for us… sweet! So our first night we’ll have dinner, see the falls, and stay somewhere in that area. On the way back, we’re going to stop at 4 Hard Rock Cafes to expand our shot glass collection (Connecticut, the Bronx, NYC and Pittsburg). We’ll hit the first 3 on driving day 1 and try to make it as far as Hershey, PA before finding a cheap roadside motel. The next day we’ll stop for lunch at the Hard Rock Café in Pittsburg, PA on our way to Cleveland, OH, where we’ll find another cheap hotel. Then the last day will just be driving from Cleveland home, which is only about 5 hours.

Next, I fill in some leg stretch stops. I don’t like rest stops for leg stretching. Sure they’re convenient, but I’d much rather get off the road a short way and see something interesting. We’ve always enjoyed this in the past. Our favorite leg-stretch-spot was Elephant Rocks in Missouri. State parks often offer free admission and wildlife refuge areas are also nice. In this case I’ve added stops to see Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, Eagles, and Dinosaur footprints, as well as our tour of Hard Rock Cafe’s. We’ll also be driving through some cool cities like Albany, New Haven and New York City, so there may be opportunities to stop there. I’ve already created my google maps drives with all the stops plotted along the way, and sent links for those to my phone so I’m ready to navigate.

The next step in the planning process is to decide what we’ll do on those 4 days in the Boston area. I make a huge list of everything I can find to do in the area and what the weather is expected to be on the days we’re there. Then I block out our days.

  • Day 1: Salem
  • Day 2: Whale watching (AM)
  • Day 3: Boston
  • Day4: play it by ear

That gives me an easy framework to put all the must-do activities into. In our case, we want to take advantage of all the free walking tours and historical sights because we want to save money, but also because there are so many interesting things to do are that are free and we figure they’re worth taking advantage of before we start throwing money at things. Salem has walking tour maps available online, which I downloaded and printed. The same is true for Boston. On my itinerary I added links for information about relevant sites we’ll see on those tours so we can read more about them as we walk. I also checked the hours of things we wanted to stop at to make sure they’ll be open. Then I added all the other items to the 4th day, categorized by location, so we can see how we feel and what we really want to see… but also to allow room for spontaneity. We may find something that wasn’t even on my radar that we feel like exploring and there needs to be time to do that. I call it our “flex day”.

Side note: We noticed we’re visiting a lot of National Park Sites, so we picked up a National Parks Passport Book to start getting our visits stamped. It was only $10 and will be a nice encouragement to continue to visit National Parks in the future.

Finally I start booking the things that need booking. In this case, the Boston area hotel and the whale watching excursion.  Turns out we have a free night we hadn’t redeemed yet and we found a hotel for around $135/night instead of $150. It’s about 1/2 hour drive from everything we want to do, which is convenient enough for our needs. We saved a little over $150 total on that, even with all the outrageous booking fees. Then I looked at the offerings for whale watching tours. The one I’d originally used to budget left from Boston and cost $60/person. There was another that left from Gloucester (closer to our hotel) that only cost $48/person, plus they offered free parking…. yay! When I was buying our ticket, I noticed a place to enter a Groupon code, so I quickly popped over there and got an amazing Groupon for 1/2 price tickets with no blackout dates. I bought the Groupon and used it immediately to buy our tickets. Our whale watching excursion only ended up costing us $48 total… saving us $72 off what we budgeted…double yay!!. We have already saved more than the $200, bringing our budget back under that $2000 mark, and we haven’t even left yet. We did decide to buy a couple pairs of travel binoculars with our “windfall”. They only cost $10/each on Amazon (including delivery within 24-hours), but I think they’ll help make the whale watching experience more rewarding.

Speaking of leaving, that happens tomorrow morning! Today is laundry and packing day. We checked, replaced and topped off all the fluids, bulbs, tires, etc in the car earlier in the week; and we have gotten the house mostly ready to leave (alert the neighbors, clean out the fridge, etc). In the morning we’ll let Alexa know she should listen for unusual noise in the house (did you know she could do that for you?) and take out the trash on our way out the door.

I’m going on an adventure… and you should too!

Finances… Otherwise Known as Torture.

Finances are one of those topics most people dread talking about, reading about and, more than anything, doing anything about. Dealing with finances usually means lots of numbers and even more deprivation. Do you enjoy your morning cappuccino? If so, that’s too bad, because most financial advice columns are going to tell you that’s the first thing you need to give up to become financially fit. It’s a numbers game, and if you feel like you’re winning at it, just read a few tidbits of advice and you’ll feel like a loser pretty darn quick. This is especially true for me right now. I’ve been a full-time college student for 5 years now; there’s no going to architecture school part time. This means I’ve incurred a mortgage-worth of student loan debt and, since I was rarely able to work more than 12 hours per week, my finances are a mess in other areas as well. The financial segment of the Level 10 Life didn’t look so good during my assessment.

I have a small IRA that would make a 21-year-old pretty envious… which would be great, if I wasn’t 45 already. By now, I’m supposed to have 3-times my annual salary saved and I’m only at 1/100th of that. I had a small 401k once upon a time, which saved us from homelessness during the recession, but unfortunately disappeared in the process. I wrote down my expectations for Level 10, cried a while, ate way too many cookies, and then resolved to figure out (somehow) how to get there. One thing I realized is that I will never live enough hours to get there on wages alone; it’s going to take some other strategies to do it. So, I spent the last half of August reading about finances. I’m not talking about the articles that tell you give up that morning coffee because, let’s face it, at this point that is not going to cut it. I’m talking about how money works and especially, how it works most effectively.

I decided to start living on only 70% of my already meager income. Since I’m not working at the moment, this amounts to back child support my ex owes me from 15 years ago, when he decided not paying child support for over a year sounded fabulous. We came to an agreement at the end of that time that he would continue to pay support when the children were grown until that back support was paid off. It’s a small amount, but it’s something. I also contacted all of my utilities and negotiated lower rates on my monthly bills, redid my car insurance and am emptying out and selling items I’ve had in a storage unit. I’ve cut my monthly bills by about $400/month and am making a little money on the storage unit stuff. I’m also helping a friends who just had surgery by cleaning her home once a week for a few weeks. But just having money coming in isn’t as important as how to spend it, so I created a financial plan and have stuck to it for the first month so far. Here’s how it goes.

All the money I receive for the month goes into a “holding” account. This is a savings account that earns interest. This is not the money I will spend this month; it is for next month. This way, I know for certain ahead of time what amount I am working with and what I can and can’t afford that coming month. Plus, the money earns a small amount of interest while it waits to be divided. At the beginning of the month, I divide up the money in my holding account as follows:

  • 35% – Needs – these are things I need to live, like food, shelter, transportation for work, electric and natural gas. The food included here is the basics. Anything fancy falls under the wants.
  • 21% – Wants – this is anything I want, such as wifi, cellphones, restaurants, movie night, or that morning cup of coffee. It doesn’t matter what these items are, but I cannot exceed this pre-determined amount in the month. If the budgeted funds are gone, I have to do without it until the next month. If I want to upgrade to the iPhone X, I might have to give up coffee for a few months. Simple and effective.
  • 14% – Debt Reduction  – I have a small amount left on my car loan and will soon have to start paying on student loans. The required monthly payment is in the needs category above, but whatever amount is here is what I add to the payment of my highest interest debt so that I get the loans paid off faster.
  • 10% – Passive Venture – this is set it and forget it investing. I have a small investment account with a low-fee index fund and a couple shares of stock, all of which have reinvested yearly dividends. It is usually making money at a slightly better rate than inflation. I’m working on diversifying my portfolio now to include bonds, gold, and commodities to protect against market fluctuations. There may be other opportunities for this segment of money at a later time, but right now this is where it’s going.
  • 10% – Active Venture – this is the money that supports the side-hustle. This is the money that could be used to start an online dropship business or purchase real estate.
  • 5% – Retirement – There’s a lot of advice on retirement funds. I have a Roth IRA and try to make sure I fund it to the max whenever possible. Even when I can’t, I always try to put in a small part of my income into it so I feel like I’m making some kind of progress.
  • 2.5% – Emergency Fund – I’m determined to be ready if another recession hits. I’m working on having a 1-year emergency fund to keep me going. It’s being funded slowly but surely and is always kept in an interest-earning (1.2% APY) savings account. I’ll be moving it to a higher-interest Beam account (2-4% APY) as soon as they get to me in their gradual roll-out process… I’m on the list!
  • 2.5% – Personal Goal – I think it’s important to have something you’re working for that is set aside from the rest of your finances and special. In my case, I’m going to Italy… maybe not this year, or next… but eventually. It keeps me excited about my financial plan because if I stick to it long enough, I will have an amazing trip to look forward to.
  • Charity – You may have noticed that the above categories add up to 100 already and may think I’m being awfully selfish. In reality, I am donating another valuable resource at the moment… time. Non-profit organizations definitely need money to keep them going, but they also need people willing to donate their time. While I’m working towards putting myself in a good place financially (so I can ultimately give more money) I am donating my time on a regular basis. It’s important to me to always give back somehow, so that will always be part of my financial plan.

I know my plan may take a bit of tweaking as I go along, but it’s a good mix of taking care of my current needs and my future needs simultaneously. It’s hard to get used to living on 70%, but as I see my investments going up, my loans going down and my net worth being positively effected, it makes me feel better about that awful budgeting and even allows me to fully enjoy an occasional cappuccino, guilt free!

Nikon D50