Travel Hacking the Canadian Rockies

A four-night, four-star trip for next-to-nothing.

I’ve been so eager to tell you how we took second-honeymoon style trip to the Canadian Rockies for pennies on the dollar.  We started travel hacking about 2 years ago and using points and miles has definitely helped with our travel game.

After booking our trip to Australia last year, I had a bunch of American Airlines miles left.   Reading Bryce’s blog about how to use the Fairmont VISA gave me an idea- I’d been dreaming of staying at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise since I was a teenager- travel hacking the hotel was the ticket!

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First, I booked our flight from CMH -> Calgary using 75,000 AA miles.  Here’s what I would have paid using the same flights but paying cash.

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Instead, here’s what I paid:  75k miles + $123.60 in taxes and fees

Savings on flights:  $1,232.40

You can accrue AA Advantage miles by signing up for 2 Platinum Select Citi AAdvantage cards- if you got the business card and the personal card, you’d immediately have enough miles.  More info HERE.

Our first night of the trip was at Emerald Lake Lodge (review).  Not only was the place exquisite, it’s very pricey.  One night was $329 CAD + taxes.  Our bill at check out for one night + dinner in the lounge and breakfast in the dining room was a whopping $497.89 CAD!

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Before we left home, the Barclaycard Arrival + was offering a sign-up bonus for 50,000 miles after spending $3k in the first 3 months.  We used the card for all of our expenses on the trip, plus  all of our personal expenses and my husband’s business expenses.  After less than 2 months, we hit the minimum spend on this card- giving us 50k points/ $500 in travel credit.

The charge at Emerald Lake Lodge converted to $375.82.  See how I erased the purchase below:

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Showing we hit the minimum spend and all the points we accrued.
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You can only erase purchases that cost over $100 each. These are the options Barclay gave me.

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So for 2 nights and 2 great meals: FREE

A savings of $375.82

Next we spent 2 nights at the aforementioned Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.  This travel hack involved signing up for the Fairmont Visa Signature Card.  We applied for this card over a year ago in order to have time to earn the miles and have open availability for the resort.  This card also requires spending $3000 in the first 3 months, but with that comes a bonus of 2 FREE nights!

After achieving the minimum spend I called Fairmont and booked the two nights at the Chateau Lake Louise (you must book directly with Fairmont resorts to use your free nights).  The resort quoted me a resort fee of $13/night, but I wasn’t charged it at checkout.

Here’s what our nights would have cost without credits:

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$669 CAD is currently $501 USD per night!!  Just having this credit card saved us $1002!

Earning Premier Status also gives you breakfast and dining credits at the resorts.  We were able to use 2 of these at check-out. The parking was $30/night.  Here’s our first bill from the resort and then a second one showing what we paid after the credits were applied:

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We had horrible weather while at Lake Louise (our mountain view room became a fog-view room), so we really just enjoyed the resort and the room service (YES!).  Our bill at check-out (after Fairmont dining credits) was $163.12 CAD.  This came to $123.13 USD and we were able to erase the entire stay using the Barclay points.

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Total cost of 2 nights at the Fairmont + Dining if paid for out of pocket and without credits:  $1002 + $216 USD ($288.12 CAD) = $1218

Total spent for 2 nights at Fairmont + gluttony and room service after HACKS = ZERO

The last night of our trip was in Banff.  I had prepaid for the hotel through AAA.  In hindsight, I could have also booked the hotel with the option to pay at check-out and used the Barclay points to cover it.  However, it was the least expensive option by quite a bit- we stayed at the Banff Aspen Lodge for $133 USD.  The room and amenities were just fine, but I would recommend this more for budget travelers or families.

Total for air and 4 nights before Travel Hacking: $3082.82

Total for air and 4 nights after Travel Hacking: $256.60

Savings: $2,826.22

Bam!!  The Canadian Rockies was one of the most magical places we’ve ever visited.  I think I’ve covered everything, but if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments section. I’m not the final authority on all things travel hacking- I recommend reading 10xtravel.com for more info!  I love them so much, I wrote a blog for them!

Have you done any travel hacking?  Maybe you’ve been the Canadian Rockies?  Maybe you cry, too, when you see a dream come true?

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** I’m undeniably one of the world’s biggest haters of debt.  We only use these credit cards with the premise that the uses are already budgeted for and the cards are paid off EVERY month.  I don’t recommend using a credit card if you lack self-control.  My husband is also self-employed so we can easily hit the minimum spends just by charging his gas and other work expenses along with our household expenses.  More HERE.  End sermon. **

 


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Budgeting 101

(i.e. How you afford to do the things you want to do)

You can read lots and lots of financial advice.  There are books and blogs and e-courses,oh my!  However, we’ve found that truly the ONE thing you must have if you want to succeed financially is the dreaded B word- a BUDGET!

The months when we get off track with our budget are the months that we lose sight of the big picture.  Creating a budget gives you the space to save, invest, and prepare for emergencies.  Even if your income is small, giving “every dollar a name” (Dave Ramsey stuff right there) and living under your means allows you to do this.

If you don’t have a clear picture of what money is coming in each month and what your set expenses are each month, how can you prepare?   What happens when 2 of your little ones get strep and the Dr visit + the medicine is $190 (hmm, wonder who this happened to?), now your sickness becomes a financial crisis.

Once you budget consistently for 3-6 months, you’ll notice something.  You will hardly check your bank account!  There’s no need to check it- you’ll know that you have the money because you told that money where to go!

We’ve been doing a budget each month since 2006.  It’s never one-size-fits-all.  You must meet each month and discuss the changes for that time.  Utility charges vary by season, kids need clothes and shoes at different times of the year- you must anticipate these things.

 

A few friends have asked what we have in our budget, so I thought I would post the Excel list of our budget below.  Obviously, you may have more or less categories, but this gives you a good idea to start with!

Here are the items that we budget for every single month, along with some notes:

Church giving
Compassion Int
Missionary
Mortgage
Utilities
Electric
Water
Gas
Telephone
Trash
Automobile Gas
Grocery {Cash}
Blow/Fun money {Cash}
Eating Out {Cash}
Diapers
Health Insurance
Life Insurance 1
Life Insurance 2
Work expenses
Husband’s spending money {Cash}
Newspaper
YMCA membership
Planet Fitness Membership
Chiropractor
Babysitting {Cash}
Clothing
TOTAL SPENT Should Equal Total Pay

 

Budgeting Tips:

  1. Some items are not listed (like car insurance) because we’re able to swing them through my husband’s commission.  In your own budget, I would recommend breaking down your larger expenses into monthly expenses (you’ll notice I do this for our term life insurance policies).   For instance, maybe you pay your car insurance twice per year and the cost is $600.  Instead of trying to come up with $600 in June and December, allot $100/month in your budget and then DON’T TOUCH THAT MONEY.  When the bill comes, the money will already be in your checking account.  You can also do this in saving for Christmas or other big purchases.
  2.  You must use (some) cash.  It’s very hard to adhere to a budgeted number if you only use debit or credit.  We take out cash on the 1st and 15th each month to pay for groceries, eating out, blow money (usually ends up being eating out) and babysitting.  Having money that can be physically touched causes a different emotion than swiping a card.  I’ve tried using debit/credit for groceries and I always underestimate how much I’ve spent.  Seeing that there’s only $30 in my grocery envelope shows me that it’s time to buckle down and eat from the pantry or freezer, instead of making another trip to Kroger.
  3.  A budget works better when you stay out of debt.  Don’t look at your monthly budget like, “Oh, we have an extra $165 dollars every month, we could afford an upgrade on xyz.”  Negative, ghostwriter.  You’re looking for money to save, invest, and give.  Stop asking if you can afford the payment and start asking if you can afford IT.  (Notice there are no lines for a car payment?)  You can’t get out of debt if you keep taking on more!  Whatever you need to do to push yourself- do it!
  4. If there is money leftover, start saving for an Emergency fund (if you don’t already have one).  A $1,000 should be enough in the short run to cushion you against car repairs, a leaky roof…or strep throat. 😉
  5.  Notice these are just expenses.  I didn’t add lines for saving, investing, or even vacations.  Add whatever you need to add as long as you aren’t spending more than you make!

 

Do you do a budget?  Is it like napkin-worthy or do you really stick to it?  What’s your #1 budgeting tip?

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There’s Nothing Evil about Making Money

Dave Ramsey will often say, “Money is amoral.” It is just a tool.  It is neither evil or good. Can money be used for evil or good?  Absolutely.  However, the $20 bill in my wallet is not evil itself,  it’s just sitting there waiting to be plucked out for groceries or the babysitter.

Oftentimes the Bible is misquoted by folks that say, “Money is the root of all evil.” Negative.  The Bible says, “For the LOVE of money is a root of all kinds of evils.”  (1 Timothy 6:10).

If you love money more than God or people when you make $30,000, you’ll have the same issue (and idol) if you make $130,000.  Or 1.3 million.

If your desire to make more income comes from a heartfelt desire to better provide for your family, but also to be able to give more away, who is to judge your motives?  Let’s give an example: My husband and I, since taking Financial Peace University, have believed that 10% to charity was a minimum amount that we felt comfortable giving.  We don’t believe in the Old Testament tithe, per se, but 10% is a minimum we believe to be a jumping off point.  God has provided us everything anyhow, it is only our money to steward.  

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We could argue then whether that’s 10% of net or gross  income, and we’ve moved from the first to the latter. But for accounting ease, let’s use gross.  Let’s say that first year we started budgeting, Brian and I made a combined $43,000 (I didn’t pull tax returns or anything, but that seems about right).  So that year, let’s say we were able to give $4300 to charity (which may be just a bit high).  The second year I got a different job and was working more hours, as well as had a few part-time gigs, and that year we collectively made $58,000.  So that year our giving would have been closer to $5800.

Now, who would say that I should have not pursued a better job?  How did us as a couple, making $15,000 more per year, hurt anyone?  Would anyone say we were being greedy?

Now let’s talk about those evil people in the 1%.  🙂  Let’s say that they have been thoroughly blessed and they make $250,000 per year.  This enables their 10% to be $25k!  Wow!  $25,000 going to fund missions and orphanages and pregnancy centers.  A single mom walks into their life and they can easily write her a check for $1000 and feel no pain, whereas my husband and I at $43,000 would have felt the ache of giving $1000 to someone.

I just finished an excellent book by Crystal Paine, the founder of MoneySavingMom.com.  I admire Crystal not only because she is a brilliant blogger and business owner, but because she is a transparent woman who shares her victories (and even a few failures)!  Crystal’s new book, Money Making Mom, is a must-read for every mother, working or at home, that would like to make a few extra dollars – either to help Junior play in the football league, to start a non-profit, or just to take some of the pressure off of her breadwinner husband.

The wisdom Crystal shares is business advice that I can endorse because 1. She  doesn’t believe in going into debt to start a business and 2. She knows the reality of “balancing” a family and a business.  She actually shares how at one point she was working TOO hard and staying up too late-or all night- and letting her health and sanity get out of whack.

After Crystal offers page after page of start-up business advice, she states the following,We should focus on making money to impact our family and loved ones for the better, In addition, our focus for making money should be to help those who are struggling in our community and around the world.”  YES!  We don’t go out there and work hard just so that Skippy can have an XBox and we can live in the nicest house on the street, we make more to SERVE others through our finances, but also through our time that we get back.

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It’s not immoral to put money aside for retirement or buy yourself a few nice things. It is wrong though to be so tied to your business or your lifestyle or even your DEBT, that you can’t live for others and give back to your community.  When we love possessions more than people, we are loving money (or what it can give us), instead of pursuing excellence to better our families and their future families.  Crystal sums this nicely with, “If you want to live an amazingly fulfilling life, you must live for something bigger than yourself, something besides material desires, words of praise from others, or a long list of accolades.”  We can fight against the culture by how we live.  We need to stop viewing money as evil and see how WE can be the ones to truly use it for good.

 

money making mom bookMoney Making Mom can be purchased at Amazon

 

**As a part of the Money Making Mom launch team, I was given a free copy of the book.  I was not compensated for my views, though, and all opinions are my own.

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4 things I always buy at Aldi

Mr. Yoder Toter and I have always been frugal food shoppers, but having three children has added a dimension of buying things that we never did before.  Whereas I used to eat the only bowl of cereal each morning, there are now 4 bowls of cereal.  Or instead of using 4 pieces of bread for a sandwich, we’re up to 8 or 9.  All of this change has prompted some modifications to how I shop.

Aldi has swept in and become the hero of the day, saving me cold-hard-cash on many products I use every single day.

Aldi isn’t always the most convenient place to shop– they don’t have everything like a WalMart or Target, and many items are seasonal. Maybe even more depressing, our Aldi does not have large carts for bigger families (no 3 or 4-seaters, here).

Those cons aside, I save significant money just from shopping these four categories.

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1. Snacks

Our kids can put away a box of graham crackers in the time it takes me to change a load of laundry.  Aldi’s prices on crackers, chips, snack-sized fruit cups, and more, can not be beat.  The kids are pumped when I get home, and it saves me significantly over Target or Kroger.

2. Organic products

I’m a stickler for organic apple juice and produce.  Aldi is carrying more and more organic products in their stores, including canned diced tomatoes, black beans, and spaghetti sauce.  I even found grass-fed cheese there this past week (move over Amish Country, this may be my favorite cheese ever).

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This cheese is amazing… and Australian. Run, don’t walk, to Aldi and get some.

 

3. Batteries

With a brood like ours, we go through AA batteries like water.  Every other gadget in this house is consuming batteries and at $1.99 for a pack of 8, I can be sure to save a bunch when I buy my batteries at Aldi.

4. Frozen foods

Frozen vegetables, pizzas, and waffles are all at a price much lower than the competitors.  They also offer many convenience-type meals which are great for a busy season (we ate a lot of their frozen manicotti after C was born) or if I know a sitter will be here.

What type of products do you buy at Aldi?  Is there anything I’m forgetting? 

Also, just a fun Aldi fact, the carts in other countries take different amounts of money- while we only pay a quarter here – it’s a whopping $2 coin Down Under!

I was not compensated by Aldi for sharing my affections. 
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Why Don’t Americans Travel More?

“This girl is a world traveler.”

This was said by a 88-year-old lady I know, after we had a short chat about my time as an exchange student in Australia and my trip to London a few years ago.  While, in my book, this may be one of the sweetest compliments one can receive, it really isn’t true.  I have only been to 4 other countries (and that’s including Canada) and I’ve maybe only seen ⅓ of the US states.  But those statistics are actually pretty good for a 31 yr old in our country.

The numbers are a little shaky, but according to one study, only 46% of Americans even have a passport.  And only 32% of Ohioans.

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So why don’t Americans travel more?

Possibly the #1 reason that most Americans don’t travel is money. It’s not that we don’t have access to money or jobs that would make enough money, it is the inability of most Americans to save for a overseas trip that may require a few thousand dollars.  Also, I would say the average American would also rather blow $100 on a steak dinner at Ruth Chris than $120 on a passport.  Or $50 on taking the family to a movie than $60 to tour a museum in another state.  Just to get passports for our three children (and the photos), we spent $340.  We knew that to make our travel goals a reality that this money was going to have to be allotted, and so we made that happen.  No rocket science there.

Brian and I went to Australia in 2006 and 2008.  At the time we had a few friends and colleagues say to us, “well I could NEVER afford a trip to Australia.”  This was always an awkward question for us because at the time we were not making good money at all.  It’s not like we were rolling in dough that just afforded us the ability to be able to wake up with $8000 in our checking account to be able to afford a trip Down Under.  However, we did drive used paid-for cars (no car payments) and we also budgeted every dollar that we earned.  We also picked up side jobs whenever possible.

Another crucial component, at that point neither of us owned any student loans.  If someone is shelling out the equivalent of a house payment is student loan payments, it’s hard to blow some change on a big trip!   I believe if money was handled more wisely and people made it a priority, they would have the money to travel (at least a little).

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I believe the #2 reason that Americans don’t travel is that we don’t have a travel culture in America.  Outside of the annual trip to Myrtle Beach, I believe some of this is that we have just set our standards too low (I mean, Myrtle Beach is great, but the $2000 you spend on lodging and entertainment there could be spent towards a week out west seeing some of our nation’s most beautiful sights).  Since every other person is only going to Myrtle Beach, we aren’t starting conversations at dinner parties about the cobblestone streets of Italy or the Queen Victoria market in Melbourne.

Last, I think we are just indifferent.  I just finished reading Jon Acuff’s book Start and he talks repeatedly about how the path to average is easy and everyone else is on it so there is no negative feedback from your friends.  It’s easy to take the family to Myrtle Beach every summer, but it’s more work to save an additional $2000 and fly the kids to Phoenix to see the Grand Canyon and Sedona.  It’s a logistical dance to take a car seat and a stroller and 2 kids and backpacks and toys.  The choice to travel is no different than any other choice we make in our life.  If we make it a priority and we are willing to make the sacrifices, it will be worth it…and we can make it work.

What do you think keeps Americans from traveling?  Have you ever chose to stay home just because it was easier?  Do you have a passport?  Do you think the cost of passports deters Americans from taking the first trip towards overseas travel?

 

(P.S. Don’t hate me if your favorite spot is Myrtle Beach.  I’ve been there a few times and it’s ok, I just have so much more of the world I want to see).

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