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How I earned 6% Cashback and 20 points per dollar on Spending this year

 

“Daddy, can we fly on a plane someday?” A simple question set forth by my daughter January of this year. As a father and husband I wanted nothing more than to book a flight to some beautiful destination at that moment. Unfortunately, in my capacity as the personal financial planner I am much less flexible. Absent a wealthy philanthropist deciding to sponsor our family sometimes we will not be afforded certain luxuries.

 

 

A few days later my brothers returned from a ski trip and my mother suggested that we take a big family ski vacation during Christmas Break. In the same way that my daughter’s idea to fly on a plane sounded fun, this also sounded great. However, my mind slipped back into the “how can I make this happen” mode. Obviously to even consider this kind of endeavor we would need to tighten our purse strings and save as much money as possible. We would need to purchase at least 3 plane tickets, which would cost at least $300 each. At this point I stumbled upon credit card offers that may help my family out.

 

 

I have been a long time user of a couple different cashback reward cards and feel that these are fantastic. The first card I signed up for was an American Express Blue Cash Preferred Card that would earn me $200 sign up bonus and 6% cashback on any grocery purchases. At this point I figured that I would buy gift cards from Kroger and use the extra $200 bonus to pay for these. This card also has a 0% intro rate for 12 months so it was nice. This card is very nice, but is only part of my overall spending strategy. It seemed that the more I looked into credit card offers the more benefits I found.

 

 

After that card I found the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card which has a 40,000 point signing bonus which can be used as a statement credit and be worth $400! I signed up for this card as well, met the spending and got the bonus points.

 

 

My biggest score of the year I will be writing in more detail about in a few days, but I was able to sign up for 2 Southwest credit cards. This netted me 106,000 points which are good toward about $1,908 worth of flights, but it actually gets better. When you earn 110,000 points in one year you earn a “Companion Pass”, this allows me the opportunity to bring a companion (my wife) along with me for free on any trip I book. Even if that flight is booked and paid with points. This effectively doubles the value of my points.

 

 

So far this year, as of 7/30/2013, my wife and I have racked up many miles, points and cashback. These have been earned through cashback portals and credit cards. In cashback alone we earned more than $775 in cashback. Even after paying the $75 annual fee on my AMEX we have earned over $700 cashback this year on our AMEX, Discover, Gas Reward Card and TopCashBack. We earned nearly 6 cents back on every dollar spent. We used this money to purchase a computer, which I built.

 

 

Even more amazing is our return on points and miles! We have earned over 400,000 miles! Even if you value these at only 1 penny each this means we have $4,000 worth of travel in our future. However, 235,000 of these miles can be used toward Southwest, which means they are worth about 1.8 cents per mile (doubled to 3.6 cents per mile with Companion Pass)! If we used all of these for flying Southwest we could get as much as $8,460 worth of travel on those 235,000 miles. Most of these points and miles came from bonuses and they all came from spending money normally. We earned nearly 20 points per dollar spent. That is like getting a 20% (or more) discount on everything we bought, even after finding the lowest prices.

 

 

In order to maximize our points per dollar spent we focus our credit card spending on those cards that provide the biggest payoff. I have a 6% Grocery Card, 5% Gas Card, 2 points per dollar on restaurant and travel. Even with these bigger returns my focus is on meeting spending limits on individual cards that offer big bonuses. If I need to spend $5,000 in 3 months to earn 60,000 points this is far more lucrative than the 5% or 6%. So if I am at the grocery and have not hit my $5,000 amount I will use the card with a spending goal rather than a 6% grocery card.

 

 

Using credit cards has been very lucrative for us this year and we look forward to taking many enjoyable trips at a deep discount. The use of credit cards inappropriately can be very dangerous. If you do not have the money to spend in cash, then using a credit card for spending is out of the question as well. We pay off our bills every month and have not paid any credit card fees over this amount of time. Also be sure to not bite off more than you can chew. For instance if you spend $1,000 a month normally do not sign up for cards that will require you to spend $4,000 each month in order to get the bonus.

 

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Lower Grocery Budget without Extreme Couponing

 

junk-foodphoto

Food expenditures are probably the easiest places to make budget cuts for younger Americans, but the grocery budget is also the easiest to justify keeping.  After all, statistics show that most Americans eat food on a regular basis (citation needed).  In fact, many scientists would probably agree that food is nearly a necessity for human survival.  With all of these facts buried in your brain, spending money on food is viewed as a necessity and unconsciously we reason that “our bodies need the nourishment and our bodies are worth the expense”.  There is nothing wrong with this assertion on the surface we do need to feed our bodies quality foods in order to keep them working in optimal condition.  Unfortunately, drawing a line between expense, nutrition and necessity is based on flawed logic.

Let me be clear, I am not advocating only consuming a dense diet void of any taste, but I would reason that spending more on your groceries does not make you healthier or love yourself any more than the rest of us.  I have drilled down into my spending data for the past few years and have noticed some amazing trends.  The statistics show (in my household), that those times when our food bill is lower correlate with better eating habits.  So, I can back into the reasoning that spending less on food makes my family healthier (not even considering less stress that accompanies bettering your financial situation).

I know that there are those among you that will argue, “it’s cheaper to eat unhealthy foods than it is to eat healthy.”  In many ways this assertion is correct, but there are moves we can make that swing the scale in our favor.  We must learn to value our food differently.  Rather than looking at food’s value on a calorie per dollar basis, we need to evaluate foods on a nutrients per dollar basis.  It’s much easier to get full on high quality foods.  Try this experiment, eat as much chicken and broccoli as possible, then eat a similar meal from McDonald’s.  You will consume more nutrition, get full on far fewer calories and spend less.

Eat at Home

Without question eating at home saves money.  If you are spending more by eating at home, you’re doing it wrong.

 

Go to the Grocery for Big Trips After Dinner

The times when we eat most unhealthy and spend the most money happen to coincide with those times when we have less food available at home.  Too often my wife and I will look in the refrigerator or pantry and say, “You want to go get some dinner?”.  This plays out poorly and expensively in two ways.  First, if we go out to dinner we will spend between $10 and $30 for that meal.  Option 2 is that we go to the grocery with our hungry eyes.  We purchase those items that would not be part of a normal shopping list.  From a psychological perspective it’s much easier to handle these smaller expenditures.  You don’t feel like you’re spending much money if you just spend $25 on most of your grocery trips.  It’s easy to splurge when your total is relatively low, plus you’re hungry and you’re worth it.

Going to the grocery for one big trip each week is easier to handle because you are less likely to make off the wall purchases.  Going to the grocery on a full stomach keeps your brain in control of food purchases.

Make a List

Knowing the items that your family consumes is important for shopping successfully.  Some items that we always try to keep in our house are Bread, Chicken Breasts, Ground Turkey, Ground Beef, Frozen Vegetables, Cottage Cheese, Peanut Butter and the list goes on.  The point is that we have taken a mental inventory of those items we eat on a regular basis and we buy them when they are on sale.  These tips also can be applied to other non-food items as well.  We are not super rigid with our lists, but we know that keeping these key items on hand around our house give us many of the ingredients needed for dishes we eat regularly.

Shop the Sales or go to a Salvage Grocery Store

This likely goes without saying, but making purchases when items are on sale is pivotal to saving money.  Knowing the list of ingredients your family enjoys is key, but so is purchasing these items when they are at their lowest prices.  At our local grocery store the regular price on a loaf of “Nature’s Own” bread is about $3 per loaf, but at the local Salvage Grocery Store they sell the same exact bread for $1 per loaf.  It’s the same delivery guy and everything.  Very often, going to a salvage grocery store is a better deal than even regular couponing and sale shopping.  Most recently, I found a 10 pound  “Black Forest Ham” that is normally found behind the deli counter.  At the local deli they charge more than $5 per pound on this item, but I bought this for $2 a pound.  Always keep stocked up, it might cost more up front, but you spend much less over time.

Buy a Freezer

Frigidaire Freezer

Around the holiday season 2012 my wife and I really started to embrace the stocking up on sales mentality.  We found turkeys were deeply discounted for Thanksgiving.  We ended up buying 6 of them in total and each one was a great deal.  I think the two cheapest were less than 20 cents per pound.  We also found glazed hams for at GFS for $1.30 per pound and ground turkey for $1.45 per pound.  We bought 100 pounds of the ground turkey and 5 hams.  We spent a ton of money, but we used my parent’s spare freezer to store these items, but it was running out of room.  It was then that my wife and I decided that we needed our own freezer.  We ended up purchasing a stainless steel upright freezer that was on sale at Lowe’s.  We ended up spending about $600 for the freezer, but by having the freezer we were able to capitalize on sale prices.  One of our first purchases after buying the freezer was buying boneless skinless chicken breasts by the case at Sam’s Club.  Normal price for chicken breasts seem to hover around $4 per pound or more.  We ended up buying 100 pounds for $1.77 per pound.  Our freezer has already saved us more than it cost in the ability to always eat sale priced food.

Credit Card Cashback

Of course anyone who has read the blog knows that I advocate getting money back by using credit cards for purchases you are making anyway.  So while you’re buying food on sale you might as well get a bonus discount after all your sale prices, coupons and smart shopping are considered.  With the exception of Sam’s Club, I can get cashback for grocery purchases.  One card give 5% at grocery stores, another gives 6% cashback at grocery stores which can really save quite a bit of money over the course of a year.  If I spend $6,000 a year at grocery stores then I will get $360 cashback on my American Express card which is pretty great for expenses I would incur under any scenario.

Start a Garden

Vegetables can be quite expensive when purchased at the grocery store.  My dear wifey bought bell peppers last week at Kroger for 50 cents each because she needed them for a recipe she had been eying.  We have grown accustomed to having a garden, but with the move and home renovation we did not get one planted soon enough.  Today we went to the local farmer’s market and actually purchased pepper plants for 50 cents each.  Even if each plant only produces one pepper we will be ahead.  We planted a late summer garden today and all of the seeds were a bit over $10.  Hopefully this small investment and minimal sweat equity will end up paying for itself many times over as we enjoy our fresh organic vegetables this fall for minimal cost.

 

 

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Walt Disney World on a Budget – Saving Money (Tickets) (Part 3)

Save Money at Walt Disney World

Save Money at Walt Disney World

 

Finding a place to stay and determining the best method of travel is only the beginning of the expense for a trip to Walt Disney World.  If you were just wanting to drive to Orlando, Florida and stay in a hotel the total outlay for such a trip would be quite low.  Unlike other Florida vacations, where your family relaxes carelessly (and cheaply) on the beach, you will find no beaches in Orlando.  This is where careful planning might pay off.

The last time I took a trip to Walt Disney World was in 2011.  We had actually thought about visiting Walt Disney World and Universal Studios.  I actually love Universal Studios and find it to be very fun.  However, due to the pricing structures of bothe Walt Disney World and Universal Studios the economics of visiting both parks is difficult to make work.  Both companies charge more for a single day ticket than they do for a multi-day ticket (on a per day basis). From a business perspective it’s a fantastic choice, but for a family wanting to enjoy both parks it can work be difficult to accomodate.  A 1 day ticket to WDW is $95 per adult and $88 per child 3-9.  A 7 day ticket, by comparison is $302 and $282, which breaks down to $43 and $40 per day.  Let’s imagine that on day 8 you wanted to go to Universal Studios for this extra day you would pay about $90 per adult and $85 per child.  Alternatively, you could spend your 8th day at a Disney Park again for an extra 10 bucks per person.  This really complicates the vacation math and in my case made us stay with Walt Disney World for the duration of our 6 day trip.

Ticket Inflation

When you are trying to vacation on a budget, the last thing you want to hear is for someone to recommend you buy in advance of your journey.  In 2011 2 adult tickets for 6 days were $242 each for my wife and me.  This same ticket in 2013 would cost me $296 through Disney.  This is a 18% increase in 2 years!  So one surefire way to save money on your tickets is to buy them early!  When’s the best time to plant a tree?  20 years ago.  When’s the best time to buy a ticket to Walt Disney World?  20 years ago.  If you cannot swing buying them years early definitely buy them before the yearly price increases.

Cheapest Tickets

When purchasing tickets outright the best company that I found was Undercover Tourist.  In 2011 their price was better after tax than Walt Disney World tickets were priced at before tax.  Remember that Undercover Tourist shows total price you pay while the Walt Disney World website just throws the tax in at the end.

Ticket Discounts

Although I purchased my tickets from Undercover Tourist in 2011 I do not know if they are truly the best choice today if you are willing to take a little extra time.  I used the ticket comparison calculator for 2 adults and 2 children on a 6 day ticket the total from Undercover Tourist would be $1,103 while the price through Disneyworld.com is $1,145.  Certainly Undercover Tourist is $42 cheaper which makes them 3.67% cheaper.  If you just want to buy tickets quickly, this is a good bet.

However, if you time your purchase right you can save more than this by paying with a gift card.  Sign up for an American Express Blue Cash Preferred (special offer through card match tool)which gives a $250 sign-up bonus 6% cashback at grocery stores and 0% interest for 15 months ($75 annual fee).  Let’s assume you only get this card for your Disney trip and that’s it.  At my local Kroger they offer an incentive of 2x fuel reward points on any gift card purchase.  During certain times of year they offer 4x fuel reward points on any gift card purchase.  What does that mean?  Every 100 points earned is good for 10 cents off per gallon.  I went to Kroger when they offered 4x fuel reward points and used my American Express card to buy gift cards to pay for Walt Disney World.  The price is $1,145 which will earn me $68.70 cashback and 4,580 fuel reward points.  The rule for gas points is you can redeem up to 1,000 points for $1.00 off 35 gallons of gas.  Purchasing tickets with this method would earn $68.70 (6% cashback) +$250 (sign up bonus) – $75 (annual fee) + $157.50 (gas savings) = $401.20 in total savings on a family of four.  That works out to 35% off which is better than the 3% off offered by Undercover Tourist.  Plus, the 0% interest means you can pay your card off slowly like a nice savings account.  If you really want to amp up the savings take all of your gas with you on the trip and you will be filling up on $1 off gas!  I would not condone, recommend or try this trick myself, you would be saving cash on gas.

Ticket Choices

I have read other advice in the past and have heard many people suggest that people buy Park Hopper,  No-Expiration and other more expensive tickets.  I found the incremental cost to purchase these tickets were not cost effective.  This just goes to show that there are no right answers if two people will recommend opposite things.  As adamant as I am to not get the Park Hopper option, other people suggest it’s “a must”.  I believe Disney is expensive enough and there is enough to do without worrying about such an option.  For instance, if you go to Magic Kingdom, you can leave in the middle of the day and go back to Magic Kingdom.  With a little extra planning you can easily get by without the Park Hopper.

Park Options

Just as opinions vary on what upgrade options should be added to your ticket there are many strong opinions on which parks to see.  I find Epcot to be quite boring when compared to the excitement of Magic Kingdom.  I believe that Animal Kingdom has promise, but currently there’s not enough to do in the park.  That being said, I have had people come up to me and say “Animal Kingdom is so great!” or “I could spend the whole week at Epcot”.  I think that spending a week in Orlando and wasting every day at Epcot would be a punishment.

When my family went we had 6 days.  We went to Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios twice and Epcot and Animal Kingdom once each.  I used touringplans.com and undercovertourist.com to plan my trip.  I actually made a spreadsheet and evaluated each day based on expected crowd levels.  I also looked at the calendar to be certain that we were in attendance during “must see” events.  We went to Hollywood Studios on at least one day when Fantasmic was showing.  Without good preparation we could have easily just gone to the park and not known what we missed.

 

 

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