I’m feeling the relief that comes from having put more attention, and intention, into recovering the RE part of FIRE. Summer feels much more mellow, even if “summer” in our parts means June Gloom and Fogust, and summer summer means Fire Season. Here are a few thoughts on unditching the dryer (for data) and an accidentally frugal vacation, three ways.
All For Data: Unditching The Dryer
Coastal fog notwithstanding, we do have sunny days and interior drying space, so I decided to do a little ditch-the-dryer experiment. Line drying clothes is common practice for us and in the FIRE community, but our spendy San Francisco neighbors (they of the 5,200 sq ft. McMansions that cost $3m+, who exude all the stress to go along with it as they pace their balconies with bluetooth headsets and scream on phone calls) look askance at our garments waving in the wind. More typical are our FIRE-curious neighbors, or actual-already FIRE neighbors (several houses on our nondescript block of 860 sq ft. boxes), who say “Line drying makes sense, but how much money do you really save?”
The answer? $40-$50/month. I dried most (not all) of our laundry for one month and that was the difference in our bill, in this area, at this time. That’s a lot of groceries, a few bottles of wine, a tank of gas or, even better, an easy way to get $480-$600 in an emergency fund over the course of a year if that’s where you are in your debt-payoff or pre-FIRE journey.
The Accidentally Frugal Vacation
The funny — and fun — thing about frugality is, I think, the auto pilot part: when it’s an easy, ingrained habit you don’t think about, yet benefit from. In this case, the habit had a life of its own, and taught me a lesson I’ll incorporate on purpose, forevermore.
Every year, for almost 20 years, some friends of mine and I have rented a house in the same Undisclosed Vacation Location. It is a land of vacation house rentals, from dirt-cheap single rooms for $90-$150/week, to $10k-$20k/week ocean-front mansions. We started going to this place for our frugal vacations 20 years ago because, for about $300/week and a $80-120 roundtrip Southwest fare per person, eight of us got a seriously deluxe, 7-day vacation in a house WITH A POOL AND HOT TUB BY THE OCEAN.
There’s not much to do in Undisclosed Vacation Land, and we’d load a suitcase up with Costco quantities of booze, buy some groceries, catch up with one another, and lay about for a week. Heaven. I recommend it.
Prices have crept up over time, but by going in the off season (post Labor Day instead of mid July or early August) we still get fabulous deals. This year, though, the most fabulous deal was an accident in our favor.
Because we’re so familiar with Undisclosed Vacation Land at this point, the addresses of houses we’ve rented in the past (some multiple times) accumulate and float around in our (now aging) brains: 333 Tree Walk, 555 Frugal Fish Path, you get the idea. And some of the addresses are very similar to one another: 555 Frugal Fish Path and 515 Fancy Fish, say.
In my squarely middle-aged, elder-care-addled brain, I’d confused these two houses. (I’m joking, but not. Hang out with someone who has dementia for the better part of a few days and you, too, can eventually be confused about what’s what.) 555 Frugal Fish Path is (clearly, with its fake name), the more frugal choice of the two houses. It’s not on the waterfront, has a less-great pool and a historically malfunctioning hot tub, but is otherwise a wonderful house.
515 Fancy Fish is FANCY. It’s big, has been updated a bit, sleeps more people, and is on the waterfront with a small private beach. The pool at this house is basically infinity style, given how it’s situated on the deck. In the off season, 515 Fancy Fish is listed at $10k/week.
But in my mind, 515 Fancy Fish was the address of 555 Frugal Fish Path. So I asked the summer let agent about 515 Fancy Fish, all the while meaning 555 Frugal Fish Path. The agent suggested we offer $7k for the week, $3k under the rental asking price, and see what the owners said.
Pish, I thought. $7k/week is still quite a bit more than we paid for 555 Frugal Fish Path two years ago. “Yeah!” my friends said. “Offer $4,800. That’s closer to what we paid last time.”
So I did, completely unaware that I was actually asking to pay less than half the listed rental price for 515 Fancy Fish. The owners asked for $5,500 all told ($1,500 less than the agent had advised), cleaning fees and all. $5,500/week divided by nine friends is $611/person. If our $300/week per person coastal fancy-house vacation has, in the course of 20 years, doubled to $611/person, I am okay with that.
The funniest part, of course, is that I still hadn’t realized my mistake. I thought we’d rented 555 Frugal Fish Path. I didn’t understand the deal we’d gotten until my friend and vacation co-planner heard the address and said “What?! We got what for how much?!” “It’s not that crazy,” I said. “It’s close to what we paid two years ago.”
“Except that’s NOT where we stayed two years ago!” he said. “515 Fancy Fish is where we stayed TEN years ago, during the financial crash when people couldn’t rent those places to cover the mortgages.” And then we laughed and squealed about our deal, and got to tell the rest of the crew that, indeed, we were back at 515 Fancy Fish for 555 Frugal Fish prices.
As frugal as I am, I never would have asked to pay less than half as my opening bid. And to be honest, I was mortified when I realized what I’d done, even though the owners had come back with a price they, clearly, were willing to tolerate. Why? I don’t know. Because it feels like too much to ask? Too rude? Too bold? And yet, the outcome can’t be denied: we saved $4,500 *per week* compared to people who would just rent the house without asking. The savings quickly made up for any temporary blush of shame. That is a huge, memorable lesson, and reason enough for me to repeat a behavior I would not have tried on my own.
Used It So As Not To Lose It
The rest of the vacation is frugal, too. Husband and I had flight credits on two different airlines, due to trips that were canceled for elder-care-emergency reasons. We’re flying to vacation on one airline and back on another and, in so doing, used ALL of our $400 worth of flight credits before they expire in 6-9 months. I know we already spent that money, but not losing it is huge. We don’t fly much (mostly for environmental impact reasons) so we don’t have many opportunities to use our flight credits.
Frugal as I am, the two-airline move is not one that naturally occurred to me. I had to see combined-airline offers on flight deal websites before I realized I could book the same one-way legs, at the same prices, AND use up all of our flight credits. Even in post FIRE life, I’m still learning to play the frugal game better.
Getting Over Conceptual Discomfort: Trusted Housesitters
Anyone in the FIRE journey knows that it’s more about changes of heart, mindset, and behavior than it is about money. It’s about what each of us needs to be happy, and the numbers vary accordingly. As we examine and change our spending in light of our life goals, we get comfortable with what initially seems like discomfort: eating out less or not at all; living car free; etc.
And yet, most of us also have a healthy sense of skepticism that helped set us on the FIRE path in the first place (and that made us skeptical of it, too). It’s the skepticism that made us ask “Is this all there is?” of stressful jobs; look upon crowded chain-store parking lots wondering what on earth everyone always seemed to be buying; and re-examine and read every thread on the entire Internet about the 4% rule.
All a long way of saying that, for me, every new thing I hear about creates a healthy tension between these two things: knowing that the willingness to change can create better outcomes than I ever imagined (no job again, ever, as of age 38), and maintaining healthy skepticism that, hopefully, prevents me from making poor decisions. This was the case when my shared-frugal-values neighbor across the street told me about TrustedHousesitters.com (not an affiliate link) when I wondered aloud about cost-effective ways to avoid a $106/night dog-boarding charge for that upcoming vacation, which would have added $1k to our vacation cost. UGH.
Trusted Housesitters works like this: You pay an annual fee to the website, $119 (but I searched for an online coupon and got it for $89). Everything else is free. You create a profile of yourself, house, and pet(s); list the dates you need a house sitter; and people who want to travel cost effectively apply for those dates. There are two levels of verification checks and, like a lot of similar sites, people have reviews and references listed.
But a total stranger in our house, with our dog, for a week? I felt resistant and wary at the idea but, I noticed, no worse than I did about some of the friends I was thinking of asking, and certainly no worse than I did at the idea of a dog in a kennel situation for eight nights.
I respect and trust our Mustachian-living neighbors immensely. They are not abstract, and are some of those trusted house sitters. They bought their gorgeous, primo-view, San Francisco house nearly 20 years ago in what was then an “undesirable” (for whom?!) area. He’s a contractor, she’s a social worker, they have two kids. They paid off their house four years ago and painted it to celebrate. They teach their kids about trade-offs and hard work, constantly. The kids water our garden and get our mail when we’re gone for short trips (and we pay them, even though their parents admonish us for that). The parents rent the house on AirBNB when they go on vacation, and stay in destination places as house sitters, because that’s how you pay for vacation.
And yet, and yet…a stranger, with our dog?
So I did what I always do: checked the Mr. Money Mustache forums and found that folks either used, or house sat, or both on Trusted Housesitters.
I decided to try it. I paid the $89 for the year, created a profile, and listed our dates. I received four applications in a matter of hours and put our listing on hold; I didn’t want any more to evaluate. Lo and behold, I already “knew” one of the people who applied from two different online communities, the Mr. Money Mustache forums and another community dedicated to one of my hobbies. The name and profile photo in each online community was similar enough that I quickly linked the three and asked “Hey, are you also so-and-so and so-and-so?” She said yes.
We spoke by phone and I feel good about the situation, far better than I do about either a kennel and other folks watching the dog. I’ll post about how it goes after our trip, but after going through the process, I can better see how everyone benefits. Even in post FIRE life, I keep getting comfortable with initial discomfort, and learning about new ways — like house sitting! — to travel more frugally. These may all be “duh” moments to you, but other people’s duh moments add up to my big savings, so I take them with gratitude.