How much does it cost to drive? Driving cost calculators and tools

My girlfriend recently bought a new car. After 23 years, she sold her 1997 Honda Accord to a guy who’s more mechanically inclined than we are. Kim upgraded to a 2016 Toyota RAV4, and she loves it.

One of her primary considerations when searching for a new car was the cost to drive it. In her ideal world, she would have purchased a fully-electric vehicle but it just wasn’t in her budget. The RAV4 hybrid was a compromise. According to fueleconomy.gov, it gets an estimated 32 miles per gallon. (And actual users report 34.7 miles per gallon.)

Cost to drive a RAV4 hybrid

Kim’s quest for a fuel-efficient car prompted me to revisit apps and online tools that help users track their driving and fuel habits. I’ve written about these in the past — and, in fact, this is an updated article from 2008! — but haven’t looked into them recently.

Here’s a quick look at some of my favorite driving cost calculators, tools, and apps.

Cost to Drive

Cost to Drive (stylized Cost2Drive) is an easy-to-use web app that estimates how much you’ll spend to drive from point A to point B. Enter your starting point (address, city, state, or zip code) and your destination, enter your vehicle information, then click a button.

Cost to Drive input

That’s it. Cost to Drive calculates travel distance, approximate driving time, and an estimate of your fuel costs. Here, for instance, is how much it would cost to drive from Portland to visit Kim’s brother in Groveland, California.

Cost to Drive output

This tool is handy for road trips, of course, but it’s also useful for extended journeys. Before Kim and I set out on our R.V. trip across the U.S., I used Cost to Drive to estimate how much we’d spend on fuel. (I was way off, but that’s not the fault of the tool. I overestimated the fuel economy of our motorhome!)

This isn’t the sort of tool that you’ll use every day, but it’s certainly useful enough to bookmark for later use.

Folks in Europe — and possibly the rest of the world — might want to play with the Via Michelin app, which offers route planning and driving cost calculations.

Fuelly

While we only used the Cost to Drive once for our R.V. trip, we used the Fuelly app every single day. And I still use it today.

Fuelly is primarily a smartphone app with which you can track your vehicle’s fuel economy. Whenever you stop to pump gas, you enter mileage and pricing info into the app, and it computes how much it costs to drive.

Here, for instance, are two screencaps from Fuelly showing how it tracked info for our motorhome.

Fuelly cost to drive screenshot  Fuelly cost to drive info

To get more accurate estimates of the cost to drive your vehicle, you can also log maintenance info in Fuelly. And, as you can see, the free version of the app is ad supported. Ad-free premium versions are available, and they include added features.

While the Fuelly website doesn’t offer a lot, there’s one feature that I think GRS readers will find interesting. If you select the browse vehicles option from the main menu, you, you can get a profile of driving info for all Fuelly users. Here, for instance, is what the app has tracked for other folks who own a 2004 Mini Cooper, like me.

Fuelly individual model info

Fuelly cost to drive info

GasBuddy

A decade ago, GasBuddy was a gas price aggregation tool. It collected fuel price info from across the United States, and served it up so that visitors could find the best prices in their area.

Today, GasBuddy is still that website, but it’s a whole lot more. For instance, you can look up a chart of gas price trends over the past couple of years.

Gas price trends

Or you can find local maps and national maps of current gas prices.

Local gas prices

National gas prices

And because it’s 2020 now, GasBuddy offers a smartphone app featuring all sorts of tools to help you calculate (and reduce) your fuel costs.

FuelEconomy.gov

FuelEconomy.gov is the official U.S. government source for fuel economy info. Like all U.S. government sites, it’s a treasure trove of data and resources.

The site includes a car finder (and comparison) tool (also available for iOS and Android devices), a vehicle power search, a fuel savings calculator, and more. There’s even a page exploring extreme MPG!

The site also provides some widgets for site owners (like me!) to share with their audience. Here’s

Find a Car Tool

This tool lets you look up official EPA fuel economy ratings for vehicles back to the 1984 model year.

   

Gas Mileage Tips

This tool displays a fuel-saving tips and provides links to additional tips on fueleconomy.gov.

Each year, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency produce a Fuel Economy Guide to help buyers choose fuel-efficient vehicles. You can find guides from recent years in the Get Rich Slowly file vault, if you’re interested: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.

If you’re into alternative fuels and advanced technology vehicles, the U.S. Department of Energy has a bunch of different widgets to play with at their Alternative Fuels Data Center.

Sidenote: Many folks want a new Tesla or Prius in order to minimize their impact on the environment. This isn’t as straight-forward as it might seem. The calculations are complicated but the bottom line is this: In many cases, it makes more sense to keep (or buy) an older fuel-efficient vehicle than to buy a new one. That’s because the manufacturing process itself is the source of roughly 25% of a car’s environmental impact.

The Bottom Line

It’s important to note that even the best driving cost calculator has limitations. Most of these tools track only fuel costs, which are a small portion of the overall cost to drive your car.

Your true cost of car ownership includes the purchase price,insurance, maintenance, and more. According to the American Automobile Association, the average new vehicle costs 62 cents per mile to drive. AAA figures the average driver spends $9,282 per year on her automobile.

To truly determine how much you’re spending to get around, you need to take matters into your own hands. Find a cheap notebook or pad of paper. Grab a pen or pencil. Whenever you make a trip – even if it’s just down the street – log the time and the distance. Write down how much you spend on fuel and maintenance. Tally your car and insurance payments.

Do this long enough and you’ll begin to get a picture of your personal driving costs. At any point, you can simply divide the amount you’ve spent on your vehicle by the number of miles you’ve driven to learn how much it costs to drive.

What you do with this info is up to you!

Note: This is an updated article from the GRS archives. The original version from 03 December 2008 was woefully out of date. Some older comments have been retained.

Source: getrichslowly.org

How to prepare for a natural disaster

My world is on fire.

As you may have heard, much of Oregon is burning right now. Thanks to a “once in a lifetime” combination of weather and climate variables — a long, dry summer leading to high temps and low humidity, then a freak windstorm from the east — much of the state turned to tinder earlier this week. And then the tinder ignited.

At this very moment, our neighborhood is cloaked in smoke.

I am sitting in my writing shed looking out at a beige veil clinging to the trees and nearby homes. The scent of the smoke is intense. My eyes are burning. After everything else that’s happened this year, this feels like yet one more step toward apocalypse. So crazy!

Fortunately, Kim and I (and the pets) are relatively safe. We’re worried, sure, but not too worried. Our lizard brains make us want to flee. (“Fight or flight” and all that.) But our rational brains know that unless a new fire starts somewhere nearby, we should be safe.

Here’s a current map of the fire situation in our county. (Click the image to open a larger version in a new window.)

Map of the wildfires in our county

The areas in red are under mandatory evacuation orders. (And the red dots are areas that have burned, I think. They added the dots to the map this morning.) Residents of areas shaded in yellow need to be prepped to leave at a moment’s notice. And the areas in green are simply on alert.

See that town called Molalla? That’s where my mother and one of my brothers live. My mother’s assisted-living facility was evacuated to a city twenty miles away. My brother and his family voluntarily moved from their home to our family’s box factory. But even that doesn’t feel 100% safe. (The box factory is located just to the left of that cluster of red dots at the top tip of the yellow area around Molalla.)

Kim and I live near the “e” in Wilsonville. We’re more than twenty miles from the nearest active fire. We should be safe. But, as a I say, we’re worried. So, I spent much of yesterday prepping for possible evacuation.

Update! As of Sunday afternoon (September 13th), things have calmed for us. The evacuation notice has been lifted for our area. The weather is changing. Rain is only a day or two away. So, we’re standing down. Now, having said that, there are still many people in our country who remain evacuated, and there are others who have lost their homes. (My brother’s town and home will probably emerge unscathed. Probably. For now, though, they’re still evacuated and living in an RV at the box factory.)

Natural Disasters

We Oregonians don’t have a protocol for emergency evacuations. It’s not something that really crosses our minds.

While the Pacific Northwest does have volcanoes, eruptions are rare enough that we never think about them. And yes, earthquakes happen. Eventually we’ll have “the Big One” that devastates the region, but again there’s no way to predict that and it’s not something we build our lives around. (Well, many people have been adding earthquake reinforcement to their homes, but that’s about it.)

In the past fifty or sixty years, the Portland area has experienced four other natural disasters.

Now, in 2020, we’re experiencing the worst wildfires the state has ever seen. That’s roughly one disaster every ten or fifteen years, and it’s the first one during my 51 years on Earth that’s made me think about the need for evacuation preparedness.

Kim and I have been asking ourselves lots of questions.

If we were to evacuate, where would we go? What route would we take? What would we carry with us? How would we prep our home to increase the odds that it would survive potential fire?

Let me share what we’ve decided and what we’ve learned. (And please, share what you know about emergency preparedness, won’t you?)

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Evacuation Preparedness

The first thing we did was brainstorm a list of things that were important to us. Without reference to experts, what is it that we would want to do and/or take with us, if we were to evacuate.

  • Our animals (and animal supplies).
  • Phones, computers, and charging cords.
  • Important documents from our fire safe.
  • A bag for each of us containing clothes and toiletries.
  • Sleeping bags and pillows.
  • Sentimental items. (We have no “valuable”.)
  • Create a video tour of the house for insurance purposes (be sure to highlight valuable items).
  • Move combustible items away from the house.

After creating our own list, we consulted the experts.

In this case, we looked at websites for communities in California. California copes with wildfires constantly. (And, in fact, Kim’s brother and his family recently had to help evacuate their town due to wildfires!) For no particular reason, I chose to follow the guidelines put out by Marin County, California. I figured they know what they’re talking about!

The FIRESafe MARIN website has a bunch of great resources dedicated to wildfire planning and preparedness. I particularly like their evacuation checklist. While this form is wildfire specific, it could be easily adapted for other uses, such as hurricane preparedness or earthquake preparedness.

The ready.gov website is an excellent resource for disaster preparedness. It contains lots of info about prepping for problems of all sorts. You should check it out.

Creating a Go Kit

FIRESafe MARIN and other groups recommend putting together an emergency supply kit well in advance of possible problems. Each person should have her own Go Kit, and each should be stored in a backpack. (In our case, I have several cheap backpacks that I’ve purchased while traveling abroad. These are perfect for Go Kits.)

What should you keep in a Go Kit? It depends where you live, of course, and what sorts of disasters your area is susceptible to. But generally speaking, you might want your kits to contain:

  • A bandana and/or an N95 mask or respirator.
  • A change of clothing.
  • A flashlight or headlamp with spare batteries.
  • Extra car keys and some cash.
  • A map marked with evacuation routes and a designated meeting point.
  • Prescription medications.
  • A basic first aid kit.
  • Photocopies of important documents.
  • Digital backup of important files.
  • Pet supplies.
  • Water bottle and snacks.
  • Spare chargers for your electronic equipment.

That seems like a lot of stuff, but it’s not. These things should fit easily into a small pack. Each Go Kit should be stores somewhere easy to access. Kim and I don’t have Go Kits yet, but we’ll create them soon. We intend to store them in the front coat closet.

Writing this article reminds me of one of the first posts I shared after re-purchasing Get Rich Slowly. Almost three years ago, I wrote about how to get what you deserve when filing an insurance claim. This info from a former insurance employee is very helpful (and interesting).

Final Thoughts

I spent much of yesterday prepping for possible evacuation. This isn’t so much out of panic as it is out of trying to take sensible precautions. I gathered things and put them in the living room so that we can be ready to leave, if needed. If authorities were to upgrade us from level one to level two status, I’d move this stuff to my car.

Also as a precaution, I moved stuff away from the house and thoroughly watered the entire yard. (Not sure that’d make much difference, but hey, it can’t hurt.) I created a video tour of the house that highlights anything we have of value. And so on. This took most of the afternoon.

This morning, I can see that the neighbors are doing something similar. We’re all trying to exercise caution, I think.

Kim and I will almost surely be fine. Although the smoke is thick here at the moment — it’s like a brownish fog, and it’s even clouding my view of the neighbor’s house! — there aren’t any fires super close to us. And barring mistakes or stupidity, there won’t be any threat to our home.

Still, it’s good for us to take precautionary measures, both now and for the future. And it’s probably smart for you to take some small steps today in case disaster strikes tomorrow.

Here’s a terrific Reddit post about what one person wishes they’d known when evacuating for wildfire.

Source: getrichslowly.org

How to build credit the quick and easy way

Most Americans know that it’s important to build credit but many don’t know how. If you’re one of those confused about how to build credit, you’re not alone.

In 2019, CNBC reported that around 40% of Americans don’t know how credit scores work. This is a disappointing but not altogether surprising statistic since credit-building is still absent from curriculum at most schools. Good for you for seeking out this valuable information!

Today, let’s cover some credit-building basics. In this article, I’ll share some tips on how to build credit quickly and easily.

What is Credit?

Credit is simply the ability to use borrowed money.

When you think of credit, you probably picture credit cards and loans (student loans, auto loans, mortgages, etc). But you’re also using credit when you use services like utilities, rent, and your cell phone plan.

Companies provide these services with the expectation that you’ll pay for your usage each month. That’s why you need to have some established credit to qualify for an apartment or a cell phone. And if you’ve ever been asked to put down a deposit for your utilities, it’s because you didn’t have enough positive credit history to assure your utility provider than you would make your payments on time and in full.

To build credit, you have to prove you can be trusted to meet your financial obligations. The only way to do this is to start using credit. Not sure how to get started? No problem, we’ll get into that in just a moment. But before you start your credit-building journey, you deserve to know why good credit matters.

Good credit opens financial doors. When you have a positive credit history, you’re more likely to qualify for an apartment rental, credit card, auto loan, or mortgage when you have good credit. But, just as importantly, you qualify for better interest rates on your loans.

Interest is the cost of borrowing money. The better your credit, the lower your interest rate. And the lower your interest rate, the less you pay to borrow money.

Take a mortgage, for example. If your credit score is just okay, you might be able to get an interest rate at 4.997%, but with excellent credit, you could get a rate as low as 3.408% (using late 2019 rates). Doesn’t sound like a big difference, does it? But on a 30-year mortgage for a $200,000 home, that interest rate difference can save you $185/month in interest. Over the life of your loan, you save $66,754 in interest!

The bottom line? Good credit pays. Bad credit is costly.

How to Build Credit

Okay, so how do you start building good credit?

Using a credit card to build credit is a quick and effective option. But be certain you use your credit cards wisely. Never spend more than you can afford to repay. And if you can pay your balance in full every month, you’ll never have to pay a cent in credit card interest!

Here are four ways to use a credit card to build credit:

  • Become an authorized user. Ask a parent or guardian if you can be an authorized user on their credit card. Because the parent or guardian will be responsible for your credit card spending, the credit card company isn’t taking much of a risk by allowing you to be an authorized user. So you’re extremely likely to be approved as a user so you can begin building credit.
  • Secured cards. With secured credit cards, you have to put down a deposit before you can use your card. If you were to fail to pay your bill, the credit card company would keep your deposit.
  • Student cards. Student credit cards come with low credit limits to help students learn to use credit responsibly without getting into too much debt.
  • Store cards. Store cards are typically easier to qualify for than general credit cards because they generally have fairly low limits and can only be used for certain stores.

If you’re afraid you’d get into too much debt with a credit card (and good for you for being self-aware and honest!), there are ways to build good credit without getting a credit card.

Here are three options:

  • Student loans. For many of us, student loans are the only way we can afford college. While student loans aren’t ideal, at least they help you build your credit.
  • Auto loans. As with student loans, auto loans are a necessity for many of us. And while we hate the higher interest rates, at least they provide a way to purchase a car and build credit.
  • Ask for service credit to be reported. Service credit is less about borrowing money and more about owing money for services. Utility bills, rent payments, and cell phone plans all fall into this category. In most cases, your on-time payments aren’t reported to the credit bureaus. But if they were reported, they would help you build good credit. So contact your providers and ask if they can report your on-time payments.

It typically takes about six months to establish credit. That may sound like a long time, but remember, lenders need to see a history of responsible usage before they will trust you enough to lend you money. In terms of your overall financial life, six months is a drop in the bucket.

Start small. Maybe get a secured or student credit card. Put just a few necessities on your card each month and pay the bill in full before the due date. Then, in six months to a year, apply for more credit, like a second credit card with a higher limit. Use this card in the same way as the first to demonstrate that you can be trusted to remain responsible even with more credit.

Continue making payments on time every month, and before you know it, you’ll have excellent credit!

How are Credit Scores Calculated?

A key part of your credit history is your credit score. Your credit score is the numerical rating you’re assigned based on your history of credit use. You’ve probably heard the term “FICO Score”. This is one specific type of credit score.

Your credit score is composed of five key factors:

  • Payment history: do you pay on time? Aim for zero late payments.
  • Utilization: how much of your available credit do you use? Try to use less than 30% of your available credit limit.
  • Length of credit history: how long have your accounts been open? The longer, the better. That’s why you don’t want to close your accounts.
  • Recent activity: have you applied for more credit recently? Applying for too much credit in a six-month period looks suspicious.
  • Credit mix: what kind of loans do you have? You generally don’t want to have only short-term, high-risk loans. Lenders are more comfortable if you have a mix of credit cards and installment loans (like a student loan, auto loan, or mortgage).

These five factors aren’t weighted equally. Some matter more than others. Here’s the breakdown for calculating your FICO Score:

  1. Payment history: 35%
  2. Utilization: 30%
  3. Length of credit history: 15%
  4. Recent activity: 10%
  5. Credit mix: 10%

For more on this subject, check out our handy guide to your credit score (and why it matters).

FICO Score Components

How to Increase Your Credit Score

Once you open your first credit card or get your first loan, you’ll increase your credit score over time simply by making on-time payments each month. If you’re worried that you’ll forget to make payments, set up auto-pay so you never have to think about it.

And there are a few other things you can do to quickly and easily increase your credit score.

  • Correct any errors on your credit report. Errors on credit reports are surprisingly common and can drag your score down. Get a free credit report online at least once a year to check for errors.
  • Don’t apply for too many cards at once. Space out your applications by six months to a year.
  • Don’t carry a large balance. Keep your balance under 30% of your available credit to show that you’re not overextending yourself.
  • Don’t close your accounts. Even when a credit card is paid off, keep the account open and use it for necessities once in a while. This will increase your credit history length and your overall credit score.

Having good credit is critical to your long-term financial health. To build good credit, you have to use credit tools wisely. Consistently making your payments on time is the best way to increase your credit score over time.

Building good credit doesn’t happen overnight. But it also doesn’t take much time or effort. Just use your credit responsibly and make those payments on time every month. Within six months to a year, you’ll have an established credit record.

But remember: Just because you have a credit card doesn’t mean you need to incur interest charges or credit card debt. Pay your bill in full every month to avoid credit card trouble.

Source: getrichslowly.org

Wishing for a walkable neighborhood

“You sure slept in late,” I said to Kim this morning.

“I know,” she said. “I was up for two hours in the middle of the night. I was thinking about you. I was thinking about everything we talked about at our family meeting.”

“For two hours?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Kim said. “My wheels were spinning. I was trying to figure out why you’ve been so unhappy since we moved to this house. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced it’s because we don’t live in a walkable neighborhood. That’s so important for you. I think it makes a real difference to your mental health.”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” I said.

Walk Score: Seven

Actually, when we moved to this place two-and-a-half years ago, the lack of walkability was a very real consideration. I thought about it. I talked about it. I wrote about it. In the end, though, I decided that the pros of the move would outweigh the cons.

Our current home has a Walk Score of 7

Since we moved, I haven’t thought much about the lack of walkability here. I’m aware of it, sure, and I sometimes bemoan the fact that I can’t just walk for errands. But Kim could be right. This could be a critical factor in my (lack of) recent happiness.

  • The condo had a Walk Score of 68, a Bike Score of 81, and a Transit Score of 37. Our current country cottage has a Walk Score of 7, a Bike Score of 24, and a Transit Score of 0. (The only reason our Walk Score isn’t a zero? There are nearby schools and parks.)
  • At our old place, the 0.5-mile walk to the nearest grocery store took ten minutes. Now, the two nearest grocery stores are both 1.5 miles away — or half an hour by foot. (Plus there’s 625 feet of elevation change on one route, an average grade of about 7.5%.)
  • At the condo, walking to restaurants took a little longer than walking to the grocery store — by two minutes. And there were a dozen good eateries to choose from! Here, it’s the same 1.5-mile walk to reach lesser-quality restaurants (and, again, half of them are at the bottom of a huge hill).

When we lived in Portland, it was easy to walk for nearly every errand. If the place I needed wasn’t in the half-mile radius of our immediate neighborhood, it was almost certainly within the one-mile radius of our extended neighborhood. And some summer afternoons, I’d make the 2.7-mile walk to the next neighborhood over in order to access even more stores and services.

Here, outside of the two shopping centers that are 1.5 miles away, there are two additional commercial pockets that are each 2.9 miles away (at the bottom of the hill). Those walks are doable — but not often.

Gone are the days when at three in the afternoon, I’d decide what to make for dinner, then walk to the grocery store to pick up ingredients. Gone are the days of spontaneously deciding to walk to Thai food for lunch. Gone are the days of walking the four miles into downtown Portland from the condo to meet readers and colleagues.

A Cascade Effect

Before we moved, I averaged about 12,000 steps per day. Last month, I averaged 6287 steps per day. Most of those steps are from walking the dog. A few times per year, I’ll walk for errands. Mostly, though, I drive.

Other indicators are worrisome too. In the thirty months since we’ve lived here, I’ve gained thirty pounds. (I’m pleased to report that I seem to have arrested this weight gain, however, and am now losing weight.) My net worth has dropped $300,000 (!!!). I now get a few social interactions per week instead of a few per day.

I can’t say there’s a causal relationship between the move and these changes (although it sure seems likely). And I’m not saying that I want to leave this house. Because I don’t. I told Kim as much this morning.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to improve your mental health,” Kim said this morning. “Even if it means moving.”

I waved her off. “I think you’re probably right about this. I think the lack of walkability probably has had a huge impact on me. But I don’t want to move. That feels foolish. I love this place. I love my life here with you and our animals. I don’t want to leave.”

Instead, I think I need to force myself to get out and walk more. I need to accept where I live and walk regardless.

A decade ago, when Kris and I were still married and living on the other side of the river, I was in a similar situation. The nearest grocery store was exactly one mile away. There were a few restaurants within 1.5 miles of the house. If I was feeling ambitious, I could walk the 2.7 miles to the nearest downtown area to access even more stuff.

For most of the time I lived in that house, I did not walk for errands. But during my last couple of years with Kris, I learned to walk. It became something I looked forward to. By the time we split up, I was often walking the five-mile roundtrip to the nearest town for lunch. I think that’s something I could (and should) do here.

The nearest restaurant to our house

Time to Walk

“You know what?” Kim said as we prepared to walk the dog this morning. “I think you might want to consider renting an office somewhere nearby. Even if it’s just a small place. It’d be a way for you to get out of the house. And if the office was somewhere walkable, you could scratch that itch too.”

Maybe Kim’s right. I don’t know.

This morning, I sifted through Craigslist to see if there’s any local office space for rent. There is, but not much. Five miles from our house, in the center of the next city over, there are two spots available.

  • The first space is 129 square feet for $325 per month.
  • The second space is 161 square feet for $425 per month.

Both of these spaces are in the same building, and the building is in the heart of a walkable downtown where we already do many of our errands. Plus, there’s a Regus shared office space at the bottom our our hill, about 2.5 miles from the house. That’s certainly walkable in summer and bike-able most of the year. (There’s no much else in that particular neighborhood though.)

I’ve already sent email regarding the office space. Tomorrow, I’ll drop by the Regus building to check out my options there. I think Kim may be on to something here.

In the meantime, I’m absolutely going to make myself walk more often — despite the fact that meterological winter starts today. When the cats need food, I’ll walk to the pet store. For small shopping trips, I’ll walk to the grocery store. And once or twice each week, I’ll walk to a local restaurant for lunch (and to work).

Instead of being passive, instead of allowing myself to be unhappy due to my circumstances (circumstances that I chose), it’s time for me to be proactive, time for me to do the things that I know bring me increased well-being. And that means walking.

Source: getrichslowly.org

Experimenting with ultra-light packing: How I packed light for 20 days on the road

Hello from Portugal!

Last Thursday, I returned to Europe for the fourth time in the past ten months. This time, I’m here for work. I’m speaking at yet-another chautauqua about financial independence and early retirement. As always, it’s fascinating — and the people attending the event are amazing.

For this trip, I decided to experiment with ultra-light packing. I am not a minimalist, but I like minimalist travel. I wanted to see if I could carry everything I needed for 20 days of travel in a single small backpack.

After traveling to thirty countries in the past twelve years, I’ve learned that “more is less” when it comes to packing. It’s senseless to carry things you’re not going to use. And most of the time, you don’t need to pack items you’ll find (or can buy) at your destination.

It costs less — physically, mentally, and financially — to travel light.

Here’s a quick look at my current ultra-light packing experiment (and how my packing habits have changed over the past decade).

Packing for Africa

Since my first overseas trip to England and Ireland in 2007, my packing has…evolved. Twelve years ago, I carried far too much. I brought along anything I thought I could possibly want or need. It was crazy. Then, to make matters worse, I bought a ton of stuff as the trip went along.

By the time I flew home, I was overloaded.

Trip by trip, I’ve learned to pack lighter. By February 2011, this is what I packed for three weeks of travel to southern Africa.

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Holy cats! years earlier, I was still carrying all sorts of stuff I didn’t need. My mind is boggled. A radio? Binoculars? $500 cash? Tons of books? What was I thinking?

By the Africa trip, though, I was starting to pack for function rather than form. I still carried some items (including my bags) that I thought looked cool, but in the back of my mind, I’d begun to grasp the concept that fun, efficient travel has little to do with what you pack and everything to do with your experience in the moment. And when you’re burdened by baggage, it’s tough to be in the moment.

Packing Light for Ecuador

Fast-forward three years. Here’s what I packed for fifteen days in Ecuador during late summer 2014. Although I still carried items that went unused, my choices were mostly functional by this point and had little to do with form.

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The system I show in this video is still my standard system. In fact, for our trip to Italy and Washington D.C. last month, I used these exact bags. And the items I packed inside the bags were similar to what I was carrying five years ago. (The major difference? I rarely use zip-off pants anymore. I’m not nearly as paranoid as I used to be.)

For my current trip to Portugal, I decided I wanted to experiment with ultra-light packing. Could I compress everything for 20 days of travel into a single “personal item” that fits under an airplane seat? Would I regret taking so little?

Ultra-Light Packing for Portugal

Here’s what my ultra-light packing attempt looks like for my current trip to Portugal and California.

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My bag for this trip is a Synapse 19 from Tom Bihn. It’s roughly 11-1/2 x 8 x 16 inches tall. As the name implies, it holds 19 liters of stuff. What kind of stuff?

For this trip, I’m carrying:

  • My laptop (a 13″ MacBook Pro) with associated cables and adapters.
  • My phone (an iPhone X) with associated cables and adapters.
  • A small notebook with pens and pencils.
  • An envelope containing various travel documents.
  • Two ziploc bags with travel-sized toiletries. (One bag contains liquid items for TSA.)
  • A packing cube containing one wool t-shirt, one button-down travel shirt, three pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks, and a pair of shorts. (I’m also wearing similar socks, underwear, a pair of pants, a wool t-shirt, and another button-down shirt.)
  • A pair of sweats that I rolled up and secured with a rubber band. This was a last-minute addition, but I’m glad I brought them.
  • Three “pouches”: one with electronic stuff, one with sleep stuff, and one with outdoor stuff (like mosquito repellant and sunscreen).
  • A few miscellaneous items, such as gum, my European power adapter, my retainer, my Kindle, and my reading glasses.
  • A ziploc bag for my cash and change, plus a ziploc bag with my passport and other travel info.

I’ve been on the road for five days day now. It’s been very easy. My biggest complaint is that I don’t have a second pair of footwear. I like to have flip-flops or Birkenstocks with me, and I don’t have those for this trip. (Plus, I had to wash my underwear last night because I’m only traveling with four pairs. Only a minor inconvenience, though.)

My bag is full, but there’s still a little room for me to pick up stuff along the way. That’s good, because I’ve already been given two t-shirts!

Whereas there are often items that go unused in my luggage, this time I’ve used almost everything. I haven’t used my collapsible chopsticks yet (I rarely do, but they don’t take much room) and, surprisingly, I haven’t used my reading glasses. I haven’t used my Kindle yet either, but I suspect I will during the latter half of the trip.

Final Thoughts

So, that’s my experiment with ultra-light packing. Will I do this again in the future? Yes, I think I will. But only selectively. Ultra-light packing is a terrific option for trips where my environment is relatively constant (I’m mostly in hotels, for instance) and I have no companions.

But on last month’s vacation to Italy, Kim and I had to pack for hot and humid weather, for air-conditioned hotels, for hiking, for business meetings, etcetera. There’s no way I could have fit everything in one small bag. Besides, when I’m traveling with other people, the advantages of packing light are reduced somewhat.

Ultra-light packing is a terrific tool to have at my disposal. It’s easier than you might think. After five days, I’m certain this system will work for the entire twenty-day trip. And I’ll bet nearly anyone could make this work for a weekend.

Source: getrichslowly.org

My spending goal for 2020: Spend less on food

I’m pleased to report that 2020 is off to a fine start. As I mentioned in my year-end review, 2019 sucked for me. I have high hopes that this year will be a vast improvement. So far, it has been.

The biggest change is that I’m not drinking alcohol. While this is meant as a January-only test, it’s possible that I’ll extend the experiment. It’s saving me money and making me more productive. Plus, it may be helping with my anxiety and depression. I like that. (Thanks to the GRS readers who sent me private notes about their own struggles with alcohol. I appreciate it.)

I’ve made other small changes this year too. While I didn’t make any resolutions — I rarely do — I’m using the new year as a prompt to alter some of my habits, to do things differently.

One area that both Kim and I want to focus on in 2020 is our food spending. In 2018, I spent an average of $1038.03 per month on food. While I don’t have complete numbers for 2019 (my expense tracking was messy in the latter half of the year), I know that while my food spending declined, it didn’t decline by much. I want to change that.

To that end, Kim and I are making a couple of changes. For one, I’m canceling HelloFresh…at least for now. Plus, there’s the whole “cut out alcohol” thing. While alcohol isn’t included in my food spending, it contributes to my food spending. It leads us to eat out more. We want to reduce our restaurant spending in 2020.

Let’s take a closer look at how I hope to spend less on food this year.

Good-bye, HelloFresh

Last year was the year I experimented with HelloFresh, the meal delivery service. Mostly, I like it. Mostly. I like the HelloFresh recipes. I like the convenience. I like the company itself.

That said, there are enough downsides to HelloFresh that starting next week, I’m dropping the service. Part of this is because of me. Part of this is because of HelloFresh itself.

On the me side, I need to walk more. I need to get more exercise, and I need to experience my neighborhood. As part of that, I want to make regular trips to the grocery store — by foot.

Also on the me side, I like greater variety than HelloFresh offers. It’s not that HelloFresh doesn’t offer different meals and cuisines — because it does. But the recipes themselves have a relentless sameness about them. Yes, you can choose Italian or Korean or American dishes, but the preparation is always always always the same. It’s boring.

Those are the problems with me. There are also problems with HelloFresh itself.

For instance, I’m sick of the never-ending push to get me to promote the service to my friends. Get lost. Every week, the HelloFresh package contains a plea to share sign-up codes with friends. Every week when I choose my meals online, there’s an additional plea to share sign-up codes with friends. Every week in the follow up e-mails, there’s a plea to share sign-up codes with friends. I’m over it.

But the biggest strike against the service is its inability to get produce right.

Most weeks, there’s at least one meal with a shitty piece of produce. It’s usually (but not always) a tomato. One meal I prepped last week had a rotten lemon. (I’ve never even seen a rotten lemon before!) It’s as if there’s no quality control.

And at least once per month, a vegetable is simply missing. Absent. Not in the bag. During Thanksgiving week, for instance, I was prepping a meal with asparagus almandine, which sounded awesome. But the package I received contained no asparagus. I scrambled to find a substitute — Brussels sprouts — but it was a poor replacement.

The Cost of Convenience

Plus, there’s the cost. When we first tried HelloFresh in June 2018, I crunched the numbers. Meals from HelloFresh cost about $10 per person. If I were to purchase the ingredients myself, the cost was just over $3 per person. At three meals per person per week, I’ve been paying an extra $175 per month for groceries that I don’t need to pay.

When I signed up for HelloFresh, I did so because I hoped it would save me money. I hoped that it would keep me out of the grocery store (which it does, actually) and that in turn would reduce my grocery spending. I tend to make a lot of impulse purchases at the supermarket, so this seemed like sound reasoning.

The results of this experiment were inconclusive. For the first half of 2019, my home food spending (HelloFresh and groceries combined) dropped from $620.92 per month to $553.45 per month. But during the last two months of the year, I spent $729.38 per month. Was that year-end spike because of the holidays? The huge Costco trip I made in early November? I don’t know. Maybe I should dive deeper.

In any event, if I did save money, it isn’t nearly as much as I’d hoped I would save.

That said, Kim and I have really enjoyed many of the meals we’ve ordered from HelloFresh. And we’re especially keen on the recipe cards. They’re a lot of fun. They make cooking simple — even if they are relentlessly the same.

Because I’m a nerd, I’ve saved every recipe card from every HelloFresh meal we’ve ordered. And to get nerdier yet, I’ve both graded each recipe and taken notes on it. In other words, we have a customized illustrated “cookbook” containing over 100 different recipes. (Plus, all 2500+ of the HelloFresh recipes are available for free from their website.)

Going forward, I intend to use these recipe cards to plan and prep our meals. Instead of ordering from HelloFresh itself, though, I’m going to walk to the grocery store (carrying my backpack) to buy the ingredients. This should prevent me from buying crap we don’t need while allowing me to obtain better produce than HelloFresh tends to send.

We’ll see how it works.

Here’s another way Kim and I have come up with to cut costs on food: batch cooking. It’s nothing new, I know, but it’s new to us. We won’t do once-a-month cooking, but we’ll each pick one recipe per week and make a larger version of it.

I’ll pick one HelloFresh cards and make three nights of the meal, for example. Last Sunday, Kim prepped a big batch of pork tacos that we’ve eaten for dinner the past three nights. And so on. We think this’ll keep life simple and keep me out of the grocery store.

Rascally Restaurants

Kim and I will also try to cut back on food spending this year by reducing how much we dine out. Left to our own devices, we choose restaurants much of the time. That gets expensive.

  • In 2017, I spent an average of $567.97 per month on restaurants. Kim spent some unknown amount too (but much less).
  • In 2018, I spent an average of $389.63 per month on restaurants. Plus, Kim spent some. So, we made big gains in 2018, but our spending was still high.
  • As I mentioned, my records are incomplete for last year, but I know I spent $288.04 for restaurants during the last two months of 2019.

From 2017 to 2019, we cut our restaurant spending in half. That’s great progress! Still, there’s room for improvement.

I spent an average of $66.47 per week on restaurants last year. My gut feeling is that this is basically dining out once per week. I know from experience that our typical check is about $55, which includes our two meals plus two beers each. After tip, that’s $66. That’s our standard meal. (And it’s usually on a Thursday night.)

So far in 2020, we’ve had one restaurant meal and it cost us exactly $34 (including tip). If we’d both had our typical two beers, that check would have been about $58. By not drinking, we saved ourselves more than twenty bucks!

Kim and I do enjoy eating out together, so it’s not something we want to eliminate. Instead, we want to be more mindful about how and where we dine out when we do dine out.

We’ve already shifted our focus from fancier places (which is where we were eating in 2017) to cheap and tasty spots. But now we’re interested in finding places that are even less expensive. And, at least for now, we want to be careful to avoid spots that might tempt us to drink. (Our favorite pub has great food and a cozy environment, but we both know it’s madness for us to eat there. It’ll make us want to drink beer.)

It’s far to early to predict how this whole restaurant thing is going to go in 2020. But we’ve thought of a couple of ways to cut costs (in addition to the “not drinking” thing.) As I said, we can turn our attention to less expensive eateries. Why go to the fancy Mexican place with “gourmet” tacos that cost $8 or $9 when we can go to the cheap place down the hill with $4 tacos? Let’s try that new ramen spot.

Plus, we might try take-out this year. Neither one of us has ever been a big proponent of ordering food to go, but I think it makes some sense right now. On my way home from the new office, I can pick up something tasty for dinner from the Thai place or the Italian place, maybe. We can have the restaurant food without restaurant temptation.

The Last Big Win

Food seems to be the last major place that I can trim my budget. My austerity measures in 2019 yielded excellent results, and I’ll continue to pursue those in the future. But I’ve cut most of my discretionary spending as far as I want to cut it at present. Food is the exception.

  • I averaged spending $1176.06 per month on food in 2017.
  • That dropped to $1038.03 in 2018.
  • During the last two months of 2019, I spent an average of $1053.28 per month on food.

As I say, we’re making progress, but I feel there’s more to be had here. This is the last big win left in my budget. It’d be great if I could trim my food spending to, say, $800 per month (or lower!) in 2020. That’d be a fantastic drop from $1200 each month in 2017, right? I’d call that a victory.

On a food-related note, I should point out that eliminating (or reducing) alcohol could also save me plenty of money. During the past three years, I’ve reliably spent about $250 per month on alcohol — and that doesn’t include alcohol in restaurants. Going dry could help my health and wealth.

Source: getrichslowly.org