Traveling on a Teacher’s Salary

So far in this blog’s short history, I have talked a lot about both traveling and personal finance. most of those posts have focused on the how. This post focuses on the why.

Why do I choose to spend a comparatively high percentage of my income on travel and everything that goes along with it? Why does the prospect of actually being in a place that holds historical significance fill me with nearly inexpressible joy and wonder?

As a child I temporarily satisfied my thirst for exploration with books. I read books from diverse settings in both time and place. While I read those books and often much after I finished those books, I lived in my imagination, personally taking the place of a beloved character in the events the author did not yet describe in the book.

As I moved into adulthood, simply imagining these places was no longer quite enough. As a newly minted eighteen year old, my traveling adventures began with a high school graduation trip, my first trip north of the Mason Dixon line, to New York City.

In stunned awe I took in the sights and sounds of the city, of things I had seen on Friends and in “You’ve Got Mail.” Places like Central Park and Times Square stunned me with their diverse beauty. I stood in silent reverence on the site of the former Twin Towers and signed my name to a remembrance wall for those who had perished merely twenty-one months before. I craned my neck to see Lady Liberty’s torch. I called my grandpa in giddy glee from Ellis Island to ask when his mother immigrated only to find out that she actually came through Boston. I ate lunch where Harry met Sally and slowly melted in the bleachers of old Yankee Stadium to chants of “1918” as the Yankees faced the Red Sox.

Many vivid memories remain from that trip. A lifelong passion found expression. For the next several years as I progressed in my education my father subsidized my travel. First came our trip to Washington, DC, a fitting trip for a recent Bachelor’s in History graduate. I reveled in the history that abounds in our nation’s capital from the Smithsonian Museums to Mount Vernon and Monticello. Two years later, Dad and I took off on a graduation road trip in which we visited twenty-five states in fourteen days. That trip included sites like Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, Jackson Square in New Orleans, the Grassy Knoll, the 6th Floor Museum in Dealy Plaza, the Oklahoma City Memorial, Pike Place Market and the original Starbucks, the Ingalls’ Homestead in South Dakota, Mount Rushmore and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois.

I could spend pages describing all of the places that God has given me the privilege of visiting. None of those descriptions would even approach being able to describe the thrill I felt, for example, when my tour bus first crested a hill and I glimpsed the iconic pillars of Stonehenge. These few paragraphs, however, more than prove my point.

One of my favorite financial bloggers, Frugalwoods, best describes how I have chosen to finance my passion. If your main goal is to travel the world, pause before you buy that diet Dr. Pepper and ask yourself whether you would rather spend that money on the drink or on traveling the world that God has created. (Obviously, I rephrased her point with examples more applicable to myself.) This question and my answers to that question have helped fund further adventures and have helped me better explain what drives how I spend my money.

I started thinking about this post during a recent department meeting. In that meeting one of the items on the agenda was determining the date on which we would gather in the summer for planning, an extra day for which we would be compensated by Title I funds. After I disclosed that I would be on a plane headed to London the day following the last teacher work day, everyone started considering the day before I left as the primary option. While that would be convenient, we would not get paid for that day because it was a regular contract day. I will also add that my disclosure of my London trip was met by the usual casually jealous comments. Those comments, which i hear all the time, quickly paled in comparison to a specific comment from another coworker. I asked if we could consider a non-contract day so that we could be paid like those from other departments will be. She told met hat I would not notice that $150 in my paycheck, not after all the taxes were taken out. It really wasn’t that much.

Many things went through my head then and also permeated discussions of that comment, which she made several times throughout the remainder of that meeting. Most of those thoughts initially centered on speculation that privilege on her part led to the comment. While that certainly factored in, I believe that there also may be a cultural norm ascribing privilege to all those who are able to travel, especially overseas. Many times the other participants in conversations about my travel wish that they had enough money for such adventures or wonder how I can afford so much travel on a teacher’s salary. Perhaps that factored into my coworker’s inaccurate statement. Perhaps she assumed that because I could afford a European vacation, I would not notice the extra $150 in my paycheck.

On the contrary, I can afford a European vacation because I pay attention to every penny in my paycheck. I have never earned a large salary in my entire working career. According to my Social Security records (which you can access by setting up a free account on their website), I have only twice earned above thirty thousand dollars in a calendar year and even then just barely. Those numbers do not scream privilege yet God has blessed me with no debt, a head for numbers and a steady, sufficient income.

Over the years I have made travel a priority. I am also debt adverse. Those two main motivations have helped me travel far more than many might think possible. Sometimes that meant postponing the trip because I had not yet saved a sufficient amount. Sometimes that meant choosing a less expensive attraction like the Chicago Symphony rather than Hamilton with Wayne Brady playing Aaron Burr. All the time it means planning and budgeting well. For example, that London trip? Both Mom and I contributed to saving for it. The final budget came out to $5100 for two people. So far I have spent $4100 of that budget with the only things left to purchase being transportation (like the Underground and one or two Uber rides), food, and a few small souvenirs. We will likely end up spending less than $5,000 for two people to travel to England and Scotland for a total of eleven days including travel time.

That is how I can afford to travel on a teacher’s salary. I prioritize my spending by reminding myself about my ultimate goal. I prioritize how I spend my time by planning ahead of time, both the trip and my budget. I look for ways to maximize experience while minimizing the expense. The next time you start to say that you can’t do something and give in to jealousy of someone who can, redirect that effort into finding what truly brings you joy and figuring out how, not if, you’ll get there.

Sugar vs. the Budget

I have known for a while that my sweet tooth has teetered on the edge of out of control. As a child I drank a minimum of a can of soda a day. I loved fruity candy like Twizzlers and Starbust and once filled up the center portion of my Trapper Keeper notebook with Starburst wrappers in less than a month.

I loved sweets so much I could fill several paragraphs with examples. That, however, is not the point.

Over the years I have started to wean myself off of the sugar overload. First, the summer before my senior year of college I decided to challenge myself to cut soda out of my diet, at first for 30 days and then extended indefinitely. Two years later, I started actively trying to lose weight using sparkpeople and calorie counting. Turns out, those sugar laden drinks and foods weren’t all that healthy. (No duh, right?)

The sweet tooth persisted. Just this year, as I mentioned in an earlier post, it has come to something like a head. I decided to wean myself off of sugar starting with the little candy I keep in my desk for student rewards. Then I watched “Fed UP,” an excellent documentary about childhood obesity and sugar’s toxicity. I didn’t learn anything new, really, but the presentation pushed me in a direction I was already leaning.

Since the end of February, I have been working on weaning myself off added sugar. (I plan to dedicate an entire post to this some time in the future.) Here’s where the budget part comes in.

For as long as I have been on this journey towards greater frugality and minimalism, I have been working diligently at lowering the grocery line item in my budget. I’ve cut out the weekly treat item that I used to put o=in my cart back when shopping at Trader Joe’s wasn’t like getting a piece of legislation through Congress. (Trader Joe’s is still awesome; Woodruff Road is not.) I batch cook my meals to save both on cost and tiem so that my meals are ready to throw in my lunch bag each day. I buy bigger portions of commodities, like a 20lb bag of rice, than is normal for a single girl.

All these tweaks have been beneficial to my budget. In February I notched the lowest monthly grocery total I can remember, $107. I knew that wouldn’t last. This month? $210

Yes, it hurt just a little to see my monthly spending nearly double month to month and increase $60 from normal. Yes, I bought some bulk household items like dishwasher pods. That was only part. The biggest reason for the increased cost came from my attempt to find suitable, convenient snacks without added sugar.

I have started to add back apples to my daily diet. I also now try to have some oranges on hand to satisfy my sweet craving in the evening when I get home from work. I purchased a bag of unsulfered dried apricots as a possible alternative for school day snacks. (This does not seem to work for my “runger” on speedwork days.) I purchased blueberries so that I could start adding flavor to plain Greek Yogurt. (There is a ridiculous amount of added sugar in flavored yogurt.)

This is still a work in progress. I keep coming across staples in my diet, staples that provide an immense amount of convenience to my fully-packed teacher’s schedule. So far, the convenient, healthy options appear to have the ability to put a serious hurt on my budget.

As of right now, I do not have any clear answers; no winner has been decided. In one corner sits a determination to clean up my diet from sugar’s toxicity. The other corner holds the frugal minimalist coached by the time-sucking teacher schedule. Hopefully I will soon be able to transform this from a fight to cooperative teamwork.

Uber Frugal Month – A Recap

Although a few things unexpectedly cropped up, this month was a rousing success both in savings and goal terms. I’m going to go line by line over everything I have spent this month. Don’t worry, this list isn’t very long.

$396 – tithe. This is non-negotiable, the first thing that I do with my earnings, no matter what. I usually try to tithe at least 10%.
$100 – gift. I give this to my mom and stepdad each month to help them pay down debt. She has done so much for me over the years. It’s the least I can do.

Rent and Utilities
$300 – I am incredibly blessed in my living situation. My mom has told me many times that I do not have to pay rent because the rent from my two roommates covers the mortgage payment. I choose to pay rent though in the form of contributing to their debt repayment.
$63.46 – Verizon, cell phone bill. I have briefly looked at possible ways to lower my bill. I do not like how high this is. At the moment, it does not seem likely that I will be able to switch in the near future but I will keep looking.
$9 – pest control split three ways. I hate bugs; this is $9 well spent
$19.99 – Charter internet, split three ways. Unfortunately, Charter is the only Internet provider for my subdivision. We are stuck with the $60 monthly charge for this necessity.
$39.08 – Duke Energy, power bill split three ways. When this is my cost after the bill being split in three, I cringe. Winter and summer power bills do that to me.
$13.49 – water, split three ways. I worked really hard to lower our water bill this month by taking shorter showers, using just the amount of water I need to wash dishes and things like that.

Other Regular Monthly Expenses
$16.47 – gas for Siena, my car. I get gas each time I go out to Costco which is usually every other week. The prices are always cheaper. The first few years of my Costco membership I did not take advantage of this savings. I would have had to use my debit card. The cash back on my credit card was better than the savings per gallon. Then this past June Costco switched to Visa. My switch was a no brainer.
$115.94 – groceries. This is one of the lowest totals I have had for groceries. While I would love to keep it this low, there were a few times this month where I got into a food rut caused by not having excess around plus a lack of imagination on my part. Also, I have only one freezer meal left from my massive prep back in August before the start of the school year.
$12.71 – Netflix subscription. I am watching less TV than I used to but this subscription is used by several people in my family. I’ve thought about asking them to contribute but at $2-3 per month, it seems petty.

Regular Monthly Savings
$15.22 – car taxes. I started setting aside money each month to pay my yearly car taxes so that I would not be taken by surprise like I was the first year I had to pay for my “new” car.
$20.00 – Christmas. Since the process worked well with car taxes, I decided to start doing this for Christmas. Hopefully this year I will still be able to save in November and December 2017 unlike 2016.
$300 – At a bare minimum I devote $100 a month to each of my three savings funds: travel, house in cash and emergency.
$40 – Health Savings Account. I am currently transferring this on top of the $20 withdrawn pretax from each paycheck. At the next possible opportunity I will up my pretax contributions as well. When I first filled out the paperwork I was coming from a period of income uncertainty which played a significant factor.

Other Expenses
$9.53 – Starz add-on Amazon Prime subscription. This is the charge that I hate the most this month. I actually generated it at the end of last month when I wanted to show a portion of a movie to my students on the last day before Winter break. It was a movie I had shown to my students back when I taught Spanish. At that time I had a DVD copy but I assumed that I had gotten rid of it along with 95% of my other teaching materials when I left teaching back in 2011. I not only found the DVD during my minimalist purge a couple weeks ago, I also discovered that what I thought was a free trial was not actually because I had already used the free trial months ago.
$82.85 – This was my total for teaching related expenses, higher than I would like. Part of that was caused at the end of the month when I found myself participating in a new rewards system for some of my kids. I liked the idea that another teacher presented but had no idea that he planned to put it into place that very week. The other portion is for the prizes for the rewards system that I’ve had in place for a while. I want to figure out a cheaper way to get their prizes. Plus, three rewards systems (the school has one too) is too many. I need to work on this or I will go nuts trying to keep it straight.
$11.14 – new journal. Since writing is a priority to me, this was a mandatory expense. It just happened to fall in this month.
$45 – Performance Therapy. Once again, this charge is related to my goals for the year and is thus mandatory, for me.
$124.01 – new running shoes. They wear out and have to be replaced.

Additional Savings
$460.84 – It felt really good to transfer this money back to my travel savings account. I have categorized it as savings since it is going back into the savings account. Technically though, I am paying myself back for the money I “borrowed” from my account to cover expenses that cropped up (like needing to buy a new laptop) during the time I had no income.
$183.42 – I had hoped to be able to contribute more to my travel fund but what I was able to save brought my monthly savings rate to 40.91%. Definitely a success.

After breaking everything down, what did I learn from this month? DO I consider it a success? Short answer to the latter? Yes!

The biggest takeaway, one that I did not expect, was the realization that I am incredibly blessed. God has given me so much. Intentionality causes one to slow down and savor, to be thankful for everything that I do have. That to me is more valuable than any dollar amount saved.

2017 – The Financial Year Ahead

By the time this post publishes, the year will be 10 days old. That’s what happens when I have limited my posting schedule to once a week during the school year. (#lifeofateacher)

Back to the post…

A year ago I wrote out a financial goals/philosophy post. Even though I never published it, I found it to be a good exercise. It would be nice to resurrect that post but I could not publish it in its original form. So much has changed since then. Life changed. It has a habit of doing that, some years more than others. 2016 was the year of unexpected change for me in more ways than just financial, as I mentioned in my running goals post.

That, however, is a post for another day.

Today I focus just on my financial goals for the upcoming year with the full knowledge that things can change in a heartbeat.

I’ll start with the overall goals.

First, I want to become more intentional with my spending. I have already been working on this but have gotten a little sidetracked lately. One thing tends to lead to another. I started teaching again, without all the supplies I had given away when I thought that I had left the profession permanently. My hard drive started failing so I had to buy a new computer before receiving my first teaching paycheck. Things just kept cropping up. I had planned to have my travel fund reimbursed over a month ago but I had to keep “borrowing” the money I had budgeted to pay back. Becoming more intentional will help curb spending and help me reach my second overall goal.

Second, I want to increase my savings rate from 30% of my income to 40%. Originally, before I looked at the numbers, I wanted to save 50%. It’s a number I’ve seen bandied about by a number of personal finance bloggers. After looking at the numbers I realized that just because a number seems pretty, doesn’t mean that it is the right number for me. (In a future post I plan to go over my spending, the breakdown and categories and etc, so I won’t discuss that here.)

30% is definitely not a small amount. However, I have big goals. Plus, I want to be a good steward of my money. This helps get me there. That total savings rate breaks down into a few categories: emergency fund, health savings account, travel fund, life goal fund and adoption fund. My thought process behind the individual allocation for each of those different funds will come in a separate post.

In addition to those two yearly goals, I have a few short term goals. This section may be a section that I add to as the year progresses and short term opportunities present themselves.

First, I am participating in Frugalwoods Uber Frugal Month Challenge. Frugalwoods started me on my frugal minimalist journey. (I already had a propensity towards this lifestyle; I just needed a little nudge.) When I first read about their uber frugal month, I thought about it but decided to choose certain aspects of it while not adopting the whole thing. This time I felt motivated. This will help me with my number one overall financial goal. I have been going over my expenses, all of them, and eliminating all that are not fixed mandatory expenses. Sometimes that elimination will be according to dictionary definition. Sometimes that elimination will actually be a substitution with a less expensive alternative or a reduction in a category like groceries. I think some smaller goals will come out of this.

Second, I want to minimize spending while maximizing the experience on my UK trip coming up in June. (There will be plenty of posts coming from that trip.) This will be my third international trip excluding three mission trips to Ecuador. I have learned a lot from each trip and although I still have more to learn, I consider myself a fairly savy traveler. Already I have minimized spending in the area of lodging by finally using Airbnb like my sister has been recommending for ages. For nine nights and two people – this excludes one night on a sleeper train which combines transportation and lodging – I spent $710. That’s approximately $500 less than what we spent in Rome and even more of a savings from my first trip to the UK five and a half years ago. I hope that we will be able to spend less than $5000 total although we have enough in the travel fund to go up to $6000. (That’s taken 2 years to save up!)

2017 is going to be a great year!