Living (and Traveling) Large on a Middle-class Budget

The other day, my daughter came home from school and mentioned that her class was discussing where everyone will be going this summer. Most kids will be driving to visit relatives in other states, others will spend a few nights at a local beach. My daughter said that she will be going to Fiji, Australia and New Zealand.

I actually always tell her  not to talk about our trips too much. We live in a poor area, and I certainly don’t want any of the kids to feel resentful. Next month her class is going on a filed trip to Animal Kingdom, and the school offered a 6-month installment plan to make sure all the parents were able to afford it.

Anyway, after she mentioned our South Pacific plans, her fellow classmates assumed that my family must be filthy rich. My daughter goes: “Oh no, my mom uses internet money for our trips!” She was talking about miles and points. The truth is, she is only partially right.

I’ve said many times that the idea of “100% free travel” is just an illusion, a marketing gimmick. Travel can be quite expensive, and often you have to give something up in order to afford it. So that’s what this post will focus on. I really don’t want to come across as an obnoxious lifestyle guru who has it all figured out. Not even close!

We don’t save as much as we should towards retirement, we eat out too much and we hardly ever clip coupons. Often, we do the opposite of what finance gurus tell you to do, like taking out a six-year loan (at 0% interest)  towards a sports car. But we do travel more than the usual middle-class family, without going into credit card debt. Here is how:

1) We built a simple house when we were newly married and paid it off in 12 years.

We got a mortgage for $64k, with an acre of land included. Our house has a living area of 1,400 square feet, which is more than enough for  a family of four. I realize that $64k mortgage is not really feasible in most parts of the country, but the principles still apply.

I recommend that you don’t try to keep up with the Joneses by getting a ginormous house.  Huge houses come with huge mortgages. They also cost more to upkeep. Every dollar you spend on your fancy “shelter” is one less dollar you can put towards travel. Buy (or build) a modest home and resist an urge to upgrade even if you are making more money.

2) I don’t buy  jewelry or any other trinkets.   

This one is more of a preference, but I refuse to spend money on shiny objects. Every year, like clockwork, my husband asks me to pick out a nice wedding ring on our anniversary. And every year I say No. I’ve kept my $100 ring and have no plans to replace it.

If you are planning to propose, I strongly recommend you ignore the ridiculous notion that you have to spend two-months-salary on an engagement ring. Says who? Use the money towards your honeymoon instead.

3) When it comes to my clothes, I use “ask and ye shall receive” principle. 

Many of my friends like to buy new stuff and they end up taking the old clothes to Goodwill. I mention to folks that I will happily accept hand-me-downs. As a result, I end up getting what I need for free 99% of the time. Sure, I do buy clothes now and again, like that $1 shirt I picked up at Walmart for my trip to Bora Bora.

4) We don’t replace furniture every few years. 

Ok, I’ve  probably taken this one too far. I did finally replace my recliner last spring, five years too late.

But really, does one  need a brand new sofa every four years? Speaking of…

5) We don’t replace cars every four years. 

I’ve mentioned our splurge towards  a new sports car. While it’s not the most practical purchase, to put it mildly, it’s something my husband really enjoys. He also promised to keep it for at least ten years. While I’m a big believer that possessions in general do not substantially  contribute to your happiness, I think it’s perfectly fine to invest in few nice things. In our case, my husband likes Apple products and Ford Mustangs. Done!

6) I don’t mind off-brand groceries 

Most of the time I shop at Walmart. Do I like the store? Nope. But it usually has better prices compared to Winn-Dixie. I absolutely love ALDI and wish we had one in our town. Seriously, check it out if you get a chance.

7) I try to maximize miles and points hobby to its fullest potential. 

For me, that means constantly switching credit cards which results in collecting enough miles and points to pull off at least one nice vacation per year. I rarely buy points unless I need to top up my account for a specific award. I have certainly made mistakes, but overall, this hobby has opened up opportunities that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.

 

It also made it easier to splurge on experiences without feeling guilty. Sure, I could stretch my 80,000 Hilton points towards two five-night getaways in our state of Florida. Instead,  I burned them on one night in Moorea, French Polynesia  because…why not?

8) I married a smart/capable guy.

I can go on and on how I’m good at saving money, but the truth is, I’m fortunate to have a husband who provides well for our family. When you grew up poor, middle-class income bracket makes you feel filthy rich.

9) I started this blog almost five years ago.  

From my experience, making money from miles and points blogging is anything but easy. It’s been very much a mixed bag for me, so if that’s your main goal, stop right there. Unless you got into it early and worked your tail off ever since, the ROI on your time is probably questionable at best. And due to all the recent  bank restrictions, things are only getting worse.

Then there is  “paranoia living in an echo chamber” atmosphere that permeates this community. At times, I feel like Alice in Wonderland, with everything being upside down. This hobby is the only place I know of, where the value of getting $550 in exchange for one measly ding on your credit score is up for a debate.

It’s also a community where it’s perfectly acceptable to leave your personal credit card referral links in the comments of someone else’s blog (without permission), yet it’s not OK to have affiliate links on the site in which you’ve invested thousands of dollars, not to mention, thousands of hours. And my personal favorite:  reader contacting a consumer advocate to see if she can sue a miles and points blogger for helping her get into credit card debt. 

That being said… I’m extremely proud of the fact that I was able to turn this blog into a modest money-making enterprise. It has never been  a huge amount, but over time, it added up to a substantial chunk. In fact, the reason I’m able to go to Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia this year is because of readers’ support.

And trust me, I’m not trying to tug at your heartstrings. It’s the truth. This blog has been subsidizing my travel over the last few years, and I owe it all to you, guys. Of course, part of the credit goes to Nancy for coming onboard.

So, my point is, if you are half-good at something and have true passion to keep going despite all the nonsense around you, there is a good chance you may be able to monetize it. You probably won’t become a new Apple, Amazon, whatever. But you may be able to make a few bucks while helping others travel for pennies on the dollar. How cool is that?

 

Author: Leana

Leana is the founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.

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18 thoughts on “Living (and Traveling) Large on a Middle-class Budget

  1. Well said. I like your blog and think it provides a very necessary and appreciated perspective. Keep up the great work!

  2. I need to follow your example about spending on clothes. It’s my expensive vice. And especially before a trip, I want all new fancy stuff! Ha.

    • @Jennifer I assure you, I have plenty of expensive vices! The main one is eating out at Carrabba’s. That ain’t cheap. And listen, nothing wrong with getting some cute clothes now and again. I’m thinking maybe I should get few decent outfits for Bora Bora.

    • @R Phillips I really appreciate your encouragement! I know I don’t thank my readers enough but rest assured, your kind words matter.

  3. This really hits home. I love exotic destinations and feel I can’t talk freely about the trips we take with a lot of people. They just don’t understand how we afford it, since we don’t earn a lot–and as I am a US ex-pat moderately exercising the hobby while living in Europe, it is literally impossible for the people around me to take advantage of the same opportunities even if they wanted to do all the researching, record-keeping and mental gymnastics required. Even though our flights largely taken care and we often pick low-cost countries, there are a LOT of costs to traveling that add up fast, and the amount of money we spend on our trips would *still* be considered extravagant by a lot of people around us.

    But I’m used to being considered weird by people, and the trade-of in this case is certainly more than worth it. 🙂

    • @Debra I was always considered weird, so I can certainly relate! I agree that people in US have it made when it comes to miles and points. Even with all the restrictions, one can easily collect enough for one vacation per year. Well, assuming they have a good credit score. It’s unheard of in Europe to be able to get 50k miles after signing up for just one card. I remember thinking it seemed too good to be true when I started in this hobby. Of course, there is a catch, and one can get into debt if they are not careful. But the upside is saving thousands on travel.

  4. Thanks for sharing some of the reasons why you can travel more. We also raised 3 kids in a 1288 sq ft house and paid it off in 18 years. We’ve been here for 42 years. We own 2 older Hondas. I like to shop at thrift stores. I think some of it comes down to choices. I choose to spend time playing this game and travel for a lot less. I enjoy experiences rather than things. I’m willing to start people with the basics of this game, but most don’t really want to put time or effort into it anyway. I used to feel guilty for traveling so much, when others said they couldn’t afford it, but I’m over that!

    • @Lynn It absolutely comes down to choices, so you should not feel guilty about traveling so much. Sure, some people are barely making ends meet, and they simply can’t go to exotic places no matter how much they try. If you are middle class, it’s a different story. Unless there is a medical condition that drains family’s resources, one can make trade offs in order to afford travel. Sure, big house and new car every few years are all nice to have, but they are not essential. Oh, and my in-laws have raised three kids in 1,300 square feet house and managed just fine.

  5. Love your blog and can relate to all of it. Thanks for all the good advise. I too don’t care about any bling or fancy clothes. Married a gifted tradesman who loves to build and fix things. In a car I want one that is reliable. Buy used – keep it until it gets too expensive to fix.

    • @Hilde A capable husband who is a hard worker is such a blessing! I know I take mine for granted sometimes and I really shouldn’t.
      I definitely don’t pass judgement on those who buy fancy things and cars. Besides, my husband’s Mustang was a huge splurge. But it’s true that it comes down to choices when you have limited means. I don’t really care about the bling, but travel is my passion.

  6. Big thumbs up for Aldi. We always stuck to generics at Kroger, but then made the switch to Aldi not realizing what we were missing. It’s saved us around 30% a month on our grocery budget, and with a family of 5 that’s a lot of cash.

    To me our travels feel more awkward when at the office. We’re planning a 10-night trip to Costa Rica next summer, and I’m sure that will raise a few eyebrows. I don’t talk about my miles/points hobby, partially because I don’t have the time to be someone else’s coach, and the MS landscape in my area is touch and go as it is… I don’t need some noob mucking it up.

    • @Projectx Aldi is terrific! The closest store to us is about 40 minutes away, so I don’t get there as often as I would like to. For families on a budget, it’s a great place to save money on groceries.
      I actually don’t talk about miles and points unless someone brings it up. I don’t do MS, so not concerned about that aspect of it. I just find that 99% of the time people will not do anything about it. So why bother? Plus, not everyone should be doing it. It requires an OCD personality and patience to look for sweet spots, which constantly disappear. This hobby is very much a moving target, and you have to truly love all the idiosyncrasies that come with it.

    • @Hilde You can transfer either SPG points (takes few days) or Membership Rewards (instant). That said, you can use other programs if you want to fly Delta. Just a few examples: Korean Skypass and Air France Flying Blue.

  7. I feel like I came to this hobby late (just a few years ago), but we have already been to D.C., NYC, Alaska, San Francisco/Pacific Coast, Boston, Spring Training Baseball, Maui and Kauai. I have trips tentatively lined up till 2022, and I’m up for the challenge as most of them are out of the US. Let the stockpiling of points & miles begin.

    The other day, my husband thanked me for all of the vacations. Kind of made me cry because he knows that there’s no way we would be able to afford to go anywhere without this hobby.

    @Leana, I’m excited to hear how your South Pacific trip turns out. It’s always a learning experience when I read trip reports.

    • @Stephanie That’s a pretty nice haul for just few years. Well done, my friend! I’m glad your husband is so supportive. Travel is a wonderful gift to give to your loved ones!

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