Taking Off For 4.5 Months: The Money Thing

One thing many people ask is how we managed this financially. I don’t actually find this question offensive, as some worry, because I get it. It seems unattainable, so how do you actually make it work? Based on the number of people who have asked me this, I thought I’d write about our process.

We started planning about two years prior to our departure. One of our first arguments discussions was over how to set aside the money we needed. I wanted to set up a separate account strictly for the trip. Hubs didn’t want another bank account, preferring that the money just be in our savings account. I manage the daily finances, so I won.

I opened a new savings account, labeled it “Sabbatical,” and started saving. I own a small…ok, very small…it’s just me…consulting firm. It’s not enough to support us. Oh, who am I kidding? It couldn’t support us for even 2 weeks, but it does bring in some money. And, both Hubs and I are Adjunct Faculty at our local university.

But we should be living solely off of Hubs’ main salary. So that’s what we did. I took the university paychecks and any money from my consulting gigs and put it into the sabbatical account. If there was any extra money that came in from bonuses or tax refunds (yeah, right), I put that away too. And I swore that I would not touch it.

And then I looked for a credit card that had no international fees as I knew we could waste a ton of money on fees alone. I highly recommend the Bank of America Travel Rewards card — no annual fee, no international fees, and a great rewards program.

And then I nickel and dimed the heck out of lodging. I actually drove myself a bit crazy trying to find the best deals. I would have 10 webpages open: comparing prices; looking up TripAdvisor reviews; figuring out bedding options; getting into such minutiae that by the time I resurfaced, I would find that I was 200 miles from the original location I was considering. Finally, I gave up and tried to do bookings with the most generous cancellation policies possible so that when I had time, I could do more research and change the bookings. For the record, I never did change them (well, except once in Belgium, and that is fodder for a different post).

Did we set a budget? No, we actually didn’t. We figured out the major things such as flights, rental cars, trains, and lodging, and then we estimated the rest of the costs. We calculated in the fact that certain expenses don’t go away: we would still have a mortgage (although we did amazingly end up with renters for 4 months); still pay car insurance (which we were able to reduce significantly for the time we were gone); and we would be paying for medical insurance as we considered that critical. We came up with a VERY approximate figure of what we needed, and realized we could manage it as long as we stayed close to that number. We knew that if we stuck to a strict budget, we would be continuously stressed out and not enjoying the experience the way we planned. And, honestly, in the back of my mind, I figured I would either ramp up the consulting or go back to part-time work if I needed to when we returned. To me, it was worth it.

The one thing we also decided was that we wouldn’t go crazy on souvenirs. We planned for our pictures to be our most precious souvenirs, and decided we would buy a few things along the way if they really called to us.

One of the things we did worry about, however, was the kids. We assumed they would want 1,000,000 souvenirs, and we weren’t really sure how to manage that. So, we talked through it as a family. The kids had saved a fair amount of money, and they were also given some money for the trip by special family members. We explained to them that their savings would count for the bulk of their souvenir money, and that they would still receive allowance on the trip.

Little did we know what an amazing decision that would be. We gave each kiddo a journal for the trip. At the back of the journal, we had them start a ledger. They put in the amount of their savings accounts in dollars. When we arrived in England, we took the current exchange rate and helped them do the conversion. Each Sunday, we had them add in their allowance. And, when we became desperate, we instituted a 1 Pound (later to become 1 Euro) sleeping bonus for each night they went straight to bed. We continuously reminded them that those sleeping bonuses weekly added up to even more than their allowance. I think I would have paid almost anything for peaceful sleep.

So, what did they subtract from this ledger? I do have to say that once in awhile, they subtracted a Pound or a Euro due to sheer brattiness. I actually, in one of my better parenting moments, tried to take away 50 Euros from Missa B, but Hubs decided I probably just needed to eat and would then be more rational, so he overruled me and doled out a much more reasonable consequence (thank you, Hubs!)

And, the kids subtracted their souvenirs. We agreed to pay for all postcards and additional journals if needed (Missa B filled up three), but informed them that they would be paying for all additional souvenirs. This is a page from J’s journal:

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The “math” lines are to correct for math errors after we went back and did monthly balancing. 

Best decision we ever made. Not ONCE did either kiddo ever beg for a souvenir. They went into stores carefully evaluating their options to figure out how they wanted to spend their money. They never asked us to buy them anything because they knew that wasn’t how it was going to work on this trip. And they made amazing decisions. Missa B decided to collect bookmarks, so she always looked to find special ones at the sights we visited. JJ decided he wanted magnets, and he found amazing ones along the way. They also bought larger souvenirs at special spots, but they were really conscious about their choices, and we were so proud of them.

And SO relieved we were not constantly having to say “No”. We ended up being willing to go into almost any souvenir store they asked to visit because we knew it would be a pleasant experience.

We also agreed we would pay to send souvenirs home. Didn’t budget for that one, but man, we should have! It costs SO much to send things overseas! But, traveling lightly was key for us, and that meant sending souvenirs home.

So, now we’re back. We all have souvenirs we love; we have literally thousands of pictures; and we have tons of happy memories. And soon, we hope to once again have a savings account.

 

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T-3

The cabinet door opens and slams shut.

The pantry door opens and slams shut.

The refrigerator door opens and slams shut.

And then I hear it. The wail of a hangry 9 year old: “I HATE EUROPE!”

And we haven’t left yet.

I get where she’s coming from. We have spent the past several weeks packing up the house. Not just for the trip, but for the renters who will be living here for the next 4 months. We’ve hauled at least 6 bags to Goodwill; given over 100 books to the local library; and had to use our neighbors’ garbage can because ours was overflowing (thank you, Stacey!) We have cleared out so much that simple things, like trying to find a decent snack, have become impossible.

And, as is typical in this family, we’ve all had different ways of responding to these events.

Missa B: Completely and utterly ticked off that there is no food in the house. Keep in mind that she doesn’t bother to search until she is beyond the point of reasoning. So even when I offer this vegetarian things that will work for her, “Would you like some black beans with cheese?” I invariably receive a resounding “NO!” at the highest decibel possible for a pre-adolescent. Not sure what she is complaining about; this is one of our snack cabinets at the moment:

Actually, I noticed after taking this picture that the English muffins and the buns are moldy, so maybe she has a point.
Actually, turns out the English muffins and the buns are moldy, so maybe she has a point.

JJ: This is my sentimental one. The one who gets teary-eyed as he crawls into bed at night, insisting that he doesn’t want to leave the house. He is, however, also practical, popping up from his bed between sobs to ask, “But it would be really awkward if I stayed in the house with the renters, wouldn’t it?”

As we packed up his stuffed animals, he gave each one (we’re talking over 100 of them) a kiss, whispered in their ear, and made sure the right animals were next to each other in the box. And, of course, he wrote them a note to be placed in the box as well.FullSizeRender (6) FullSizeRender (7)

Hubs: Beyond ecstatic. Rejoices at every garbage bag filled, every bag headed to Goodwill, every book going to the library. Constantly asks me how I cannot find this process completely invigorating. Asked that I give him this type of cleaning/purging as his only birthday present each year. Vows that we will do this each spring. “Absolutely, dear,” I respond. “As long as it means an extended trip to Europe.”

Hub's Closet. Pretty typical.
Hub’s Closet. Pretty typical.

Me:  Just plugging along. Finishing some projects; half-finishing others. Doing whatever strikes me at the moment. Then remembering something and going to do it instead. I do have lists, and I’m using them, but I find I am adding items as opposed to crossing them out. I have packed up so much stuff that it feels good, but there is always so much more to do. And, the food thing is getting to me too. There is only so much grocery store salad bar and sushi that one can take. So, when I mentioned to my mother-in-law that we were pretty much out of food, she came up with a meal plan for the week…at HER house. Have I mentioned that I have an amazing mother-in-law? Yep, that’s where we’ll be at 5:30 pm today, and I’m not the least bit ashamed to beg. And when I asked her what we could bring, and she texted back, “Nada,” I didn’t argue. (To my own wonderful mother — don’t worry, you raised me right. I never go anywhere empty handed, except for tonight.)

Bed frames and bedding are gone. I feel like I am in college again. And, yes, only  one of us gets cold at night.
Bed frames and bedding are gone, as is pretty much everything else in the room. I feel like I am in college again. And, yes, only one of us gets cold at night.

So now it’s down to the wire. We’ve got 2 days to finish packing the house, start packing our bags, get the cars out, let friends raid the fridge and freezer, and turn over the keys. Yet, this is what the office looks like:

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I keep reminding myself that Saturday is almost here. Or, as we like to count in our house: one baseball game, one softball practice, two volleyball clinics,  and one softball tournament to go!

It’s All About the Pace

Yesterday we were told by an acquaintance, “Keep in mind that the kids will need downtime. They will probably go crazy in some museums.”

This morning I got an email  from a woman who recently took her 9-year-old twins to Amsterdam. She started by saying, “My husband and I both thought they were whiny brats!” She then clarified that, in retrospect, she realized they weren’t so bad considering they had endured 12 hours of flights and up to 2 1/2 hours in some of the museum lines.

Later today, I was walking with some friends, and one of them said, “The kids won’t remember much from the trip.”

It’s become a theme. Not that we haven’t thought about this theme; I personally have thought about it a lot. Our original plan had been to rent a house in a small village for 2 months and just kick back…learn what it’s like to live in a foreign country and stroll to the local boulangerie each morning to get our pains au chocolat. But we had to cut back that dream when we learned more about the Schengen Zone and visa concerns as we wanted more than an additional month to explore the rest of Europe.

But, we assured ourselves, we would still do this at a leisurely pace. We wouldn’t do 1 or 2 night stays; we would extend our stays in most locations. And then somehow our route ended up looking like this:

Capture

I wish I were kidding, but I’m not. This is our actual itinerary. Looking at it makes me realize that we are doing anything but taking this at a leisurely pace. Or that it had been planned with any type of logical thought process.

So, we remind ourselves that our itinerary is a little more insane complex than originally intended, but that we will still take it at a pace the kids can handle. When we go to an art museum, we’ll hit the gift shop first. We’ll let the kids pick out a favorite postcard and then search for that painting. If the kids need a day off, we’ll find a local park and let them run. If the day’s plans are going awry and we find ourselves with becoming whiny brats, we’ll change our plans. When we feel like we are skipping something important, we’ll remind ourselves that this doesn’t have to be our only trip to Europe (until we look at our bank account and realize maybe it does).

And then, I plan. And I fall into that trap that so many of the major sites have set up so professionally.

“Book 7 days in advance — save 25%!”

“Take a look at the online calendar! Notice that there is currently NO availability for June or July!”

“Book online and avoid all the lines! But hurry, space is limited!”

Before I know it, I have my wallet out, and I’m buying tickets for a site we haven’t even confirmed we were going to see. I’m checking to see how many days in advance I need to book to get the best deal and which calendars are already looking really full. And the downtime we were looking for in Bath is filled up with side trips to Longleat and Stonehenge.

So much for spontaneity. Planned spontaneity seems to be more my thing.

And I have it on the calendar for August 2nd.

Brain Spin

23 days.

23 days.

Writing that makes me nervous. Just when I think I have most things covered, I come up with something that suddenly seems critical. Or 100 things that are, of course, beyond critical.

Do the kids have light jackets? She does, but his isn’t going to work. Next thing I know I’m doing a mad search on L.L. Bean and Land’s End and throwing things into the cart as long as they will arrive on time.

Those pants I bought…when are the alterations supposed to be done? And where did I even take them to be altered?

Did I put a hold on all the magazines? Did I stop the newspaper? Did I forward the mail? When am I supposed to call to take off the liability insurance on the cars since we won’t be driving them? Driving…did my international driver’s license, which I probably don’t even need, arrive? Don’t forget to take our US driver’s licenses with us. And the AAA card. Can’t get the discount at the first hotel unless the card is with us. Can’t get to the hotel unless we have the printed copy of the bus confirmation. Did we pay for those first hotels? And when is the remainder of the payment for the house in Burgundy due? Payment. Don’t forget to take some Euros and Pounds.

To say it’s overwhelming is an understatement.

I feel like my days are full of checklists that never end. And everything takes longer than I expect.

It doesn’t help that JJ has daily swimming lessons. And that both kids have baseball/softball anywhere between two and four times a week. Sometimes in places 45 minutes away. Sports. Lessons. Must remember to call the piano teacher so JJ is on her schedule to take lessons when we get back.

But I keep plugging along. Trying to focus and not panic when I suddenly remember that I haven’t unlocked the old cell phone yet. I requested the unlock code in December. Where is the unlock code? Actually, where is the stupid phone?!

On the flip side, there are things that are getting done:

  • JJ has a passport. It only took 2 rejections and 3 1/2 months, but we have it. In the safe. Where it will stay. Until we take it with us. Must remember to take it with us.
  • Lodging is booked. 8 hotels, 3 hostels, 6 homestays, 13 B&B’s and 5 apartments later, we have lodging. No idea what we’ve paid for and what we owe, but unless we miss a payment, we have lodging.
  • Cars are almost done. After 4 months of searching (https://carperdiemcarryon.wordpress.com/2015/04/), I finally picked a car to lease only to be told after I made the reservation: “That model is no longer available, but we can offer you a FREE UPGRADE…” A FREE UPGRADE to a car with a smaller trunk and much worse gas mileage that I could have leased for $200 LESS on their site. Back to the drawing board.

Oh…there is one other major thing happening. We found a wonderful family to rent our house while we’re gone. Which is awesome. But it also means we I have to pack up a lot of the house so they can stay here.

So, in the midst of all of this, I am packing up the house. So far, I’ve taken 3 huge bags to Goodwill. Which is awesome. But packing up the house wasn’t on my pre-trip checklist.

My checklists seem to go in the wrong direction.

23 days…let the countdown begin.

At least something is decreasing.

Packing

We’ve had a lot of discussions about packing.

How much stuff do we bring?

What type of stuff do we bring?

How does one pack for 4.5 months that span two seasons and still have manageable luggage?

I used to travel for a living. As for the packing part — never got that one down. Once we got together and headed out on trips, Hubs would say, “How did you travel around the world with this much stuff?!”

My response?  “You can always pay someone to carry your bags no matter the country.”

Truly — this is how I used to travel (notice the early ’90’s hair):

IMG_0362 (1)

Which brings us to this trip. We made a decision early on — one carry on bag and one backpack per person. Period. And then we started talking about what goes inside the carry ons and backpacks. A few key things we’ve discussed:

  • No jeans. Too heavy. We live in jeans. Europeans don’t. Ok, no jeans. Although I do still think about it.
  • Layers. Must have good layers. Hubs wears nothing but short-sleeved plaid button-down shirts every day. I mean…every day. (His co-workers who are reading this are laughing right now.) How does one layer plaid shirts? Two button-down plaid shirts?! So, when he wasn’t paying attention, I bought him a cashmere sweater. I went for cashmere because I knew he would fight the sweater thing tooth and nail. But, Rick Steves recommends cashmere due to its weight, so I knew that gave me an in. I was right. Sweater is going in the carry on!
  • Easy wash underwear. I know, TMI. But seriously, you need to be able to carry minimal underwear that can dry quickly when washed in the bidet. (Yes, I know that is not what bidets are for, but desperate times call for desperate measures. As a matter of fact,  my father-in-law says he just wears his in the shower and washes them that way. That was TMI for me.) So, we paid a lot of money for very little, quick dry material.
  • Toothbrushes. For some reason, we decided we had to have foldable travel toothbrushes. I think this one is extreme, but if Rick Steves recommends it…
  • Packing cubes vs. compression bags? We have yet to agree on this one. He wants packing cubes; I want compression bags. So, right now we have both. And, I have a feeling it may stay that way because we have much bigger items to argue about discuss.
  • Tight swim trunks for the boys. Hubs hates this idea, so I have sent him multiple articles showing him that if doesn’t get something now, then he gets to buy it out of a vending machine in France. Haven’t discussed this with JJ yet; had to get Hubs on board first.
  • Loveys. We started prepping the kids about 6 months ago. They each have non-negotiable loveys they need to bring with them. Missa B has Rite-Aid and Lambie — they are both small, so that works. But heaven help us if she loses one of them. JJ has Delicate Cougar who is just too big. So, I started working on substitutions. I believe we agreed on one that we actually have 6 of in the house. Lose one? No problem! We have more back in the States! I think this will work. Until the tears start to fall the morning of our departure because Delicate Cougar is staying behind. In a box. Actually, now that I think of it, he will have to move to Grammy and Grandpa’s (Delicate Cougar, not JJ) because I don’t think JJ could handle the idea of him living in a box.

We’ve talked about a lot of other things, and I feel like we’re constantly looking up items on Amazon or running to the store to make sure we have everything. As if we were going somewhere where stores don’t exist.

We had a mini trial run this weekend. We did a quick  trip to meet our new niece. We packed up and were pleased by our minimalist attitudes towards what we were bringing.

We got in the car and took off on a 5-hour drive.

An hour into it, I turned to Hubs and asked, “Did you put our suitcase in the car?”

“No…did you?”

I guess you don’t need quick-drying underwear if you aren’t taking it off in the first place.

Finding Four Wheels…What’s So Hard About That?

I have 4 hours. 4 entire, glorious hours to myself to work on the trip planning.

Today, car rentals and leases. 4 rentals and 1 long-term lease to be exact.

I would be lying if I said I hadn’t attempted to tackle this before today.  8 to 10 times before today, actually. I try to keep all the relevant information in mind:

  • An automatic car would be better in England as we have no clue how to drive on the other side of the road. However, if the price difference is exorbitant, then go with a manual.
  • Same thing for Ireland. However, we’ll be used to driving on the other side by the time we arrive, so might be easier to do a manual if needed. Credit cards do not cover insurance in Ireland as 10% of accidents in Ireland involve tourists. Keeping that in mind, go with the smallest car that makes sense as the roads wind a ton, and the possibility of losing a side mirror is high.
  • France rental — don’t care. Driven there before and feel ok about it. Actually, plan on me driving as I will not be driving in England or Ireland — the idea terrifies me. Hodophobia is the fear of traveling. I’m going to call this Anglohodophobia. Believe me, it’s real.
  • Italy rental — one credit card covers insurance; one doesn’t. Remember this when placing booking. And remember that we just added more trains in Italy which alters the rental dates.
  • Lease — compare going direct vs. going through a consolidator. Remember that the price on the website probably doesn’t include the fees for picking up in Brussels and dropping off in Milan.
  • Everywhere — check trunk size to make sure all 4 carryons and 2 smaller backpacks fit (ugh…that reminds me that I need to look into a backpack for myself…add that to list of stressors).

I plunge in. I look at websites, take a few notes. I decide to go with a consolidator recommended by Rick Steves. My in-laws worship Rick Steves, and the guy has an insane European business, so that should be good. And the idea of doing all of this through one place sounds great. I try and put out of my mind that I already called this consolidator a couple of months back and talked to someone there for a LONG time. Then I didn’t act on the information. Which is good because our plans changed. But what if I get the same guy? Will he remember me?

I call. I am sure this is the same guy. I reassure myself that all New Yorkers sound alike — it’s got to be a different guy. We talk for a LONG time, mostly about leases. I feel like I’m getting a bit confused as I talk to him. That might have something to do with the fact that I’m simultaneously doing internet research, so all the prices are becoming a blur. He tells me that if I do all the leases and rentals through him, I can get a 5% discount on each rental. I find a rental online that is $1000 cheaper than the lease. I decide to call him on it, explaining that in my “prior” research (2 seconds is prior, isn’t it?), I found much cheaper prices. One thing he mentions that seems valid is that my credit card probably doesn’t cover a rental longer than 30 days. I use that as my out and tell him that I will call my credit card company and then call him back on Monday. He says his name is Alfred.

Yep, the same guy. There just aren’t that many Alfreds in the world.

I hang up and find a note where I have the number for the credit card travel insurance information. I call it — it’s an international collect number. I hang up. Then I remember that one of the credit card companies sent me a document outlining rental car insurance. Second page in black and white: insurance coverage terminates after 30 days.

OK — we need to do a lease. I look at the website of the consolidator where Alfred works. Wait a minute…why is the lease $350 less online on their site? I decide to call Alfred; after all, we’ve talked so much that I feel like we’re buddies. I tell him what I found online, and he becomes slightly brusque, telling me, “I can’t get you that price. That is only online. And, if you book online, then I can’t give you 5% on the rentals.” I thank him for the information and hang up. I’m not sure we’re still buddies.

3.5 hours have passed. I have leased nothing. Rented nothing. If I just bite the bullet, I could still get this done today.

Instead, I decide to write a blog post.

Escapism is my reality.

So You’ll Be Homeschooling?

I am not cut out to homeschool. For those of you reading this who homeschool, I tip my hat to you. I do not have the patience, motivation or concentration required for my kids to be successful if I were their teacher.

Mostly the concentration. See, in the world of Myers-Briggs, I’m an ENFP. The prayer of the ENFP says, “Please help me to focus on one thing…Oh look! A bird!…one thing at a time.”

I imagine homeschooling in my world would go something like this:

“Ok, math time. If Sarah has 5 oranges…oranges! Hey, guys, we’re really low on fruit and a bunch of other things. We should probably head to Costco now before it gets too crowded. Gather up some books, and we’ll get in the car.”

Probably the only thing they would learn is how my brain works. And, I’m not convinced that’s beneficial.

But, when people hear about our trip, the next question after “Is it just for fun?” is inevitably, “So, you’re going to be homeschooling the kids?” It actually never comes out as a question. It’s a statement. As in there is no question that we should be homeschooling.

I want to respond with a resounding “Yes!” I want to say that we’re gathering the books they need from school, and we’ll be following along with their classrooms. I want to say that we will set aside two hours every day dedicated to schoolwork and that when we are in the same rental for 4 weeks in France, we’ll be spending at least half of each day studying.

But I’d be lying.

I knew, however, that I did need to touch base with the school because I would also be lying if I said I was ok with them being behind on schoolwork when we return. I don’t want us to have an amazing trip only to return to 7 months of tears and frustration as the kids try to catch up to their classmates.

So, in January, I scheduled a meeting with the school principal. My goal was to find out how we could keep the kids up to speed while we were gone. I talked to the principal about what we were doing, where we were going, and how we wanted to partner with the teachers to make sure we had everything in place for the kids to be successful.

A smile came across her face as I started talking about our plans. Her eyes lit up, and she started talking faster as she said things like, “Do you think Missa B would be able to do a blog? Her classmates could follow where she is and what she is learning!” We talked about math and reading basics, and she agreed to put me in touch with teachers in the next grade to see if there were books we should bring or if we could keep up online.

And then she said something that stopped me in my tracks.

“I just want to be sure that you aren’t focusing too much on all the books and what has to be done. I want to be sure they are out there learning about history, cultures, and the world they’re going to see. The lessons they learn out there will be so valuable, so don’t get too caught up in the daily academics. Let them learn by being there.”

Hubs and I have always been convinced that the kids will learn so much on this trip. But in today’s world of Common Core Standards and kids sitting through days of doing nothing but testing, I wasn’t convinced the school would see it the same way. What a relief it was to have an educator on our side. An educator who understands that there is so much to learn in this world, and it doesn’t all have to come from a classroom. An educator who basically told me it would all work out and who agreed to help along the way, without insisting on certain requirements.

So, we won’t necessarily be homeschooling. We’ll be meeting with teachers so we’re all on the same page, but we won’t stress about it.

And, when I start to worry about dividing fractions, I’ll let our principal’s words ring in my ears:

“Let them learn by being there.”