How do I afford it?

One of the Questions I get most often is: “How do you afford all the travel, etc. with a family your size?” I guess when you have a family of 6 (almost 7) and travel as often as we do, this is a valid question that many people wonder about. Especially, when I am a stay at home mom and we are one income family. Plus, we do not make a 6 figure income, contrary to what many people assume and we are not in debt and never have been.

Well, I am extremely frugal, I can find a deal on almost anything, only buy things on sale (and stock up until the next sale), buy clothes/shoes on extreme sales that are cheaper than used clothes – that is how we get many things. However, I do have more tricks to get us travelling on the cheap.

Now before I share this, I MUST INSIST that you have to consider the following items before you continue to read:

  • You MUST be willing/able to pay off credit cards in full each month
  • You must be (mostly) debt free

Seriously, these things are non-negotiable. We pay off our credit cards in FULL EVERY MONTH. We never charge more than we can afford. I am strict in watching what, where, and how we spend our money. Extremely frugal, remember? Otherwise, this would not be worth it. Getting into debt is never worth it – EVER! Plus, the only debt that we have is our home. (someday…. someday… that will be gone too…. but not for several years). If you have a history or a tendency for credit card debt, I must highly caution you against this and to quit reading now. This does not work for everyone. Please know what you can handle and keep yourself out of debt. I am very strict and we are very good at regulating ourselves and our spending. I always strongly caution people of this before telling them, which is why I am hesitant to tell people… but since I am asked sooo often…. Here we go, so I don’t have to repeat myself so often.

I actually make a lot of money each year from credit cards. We make a ton of money in cash back from our cards. I simply charge just about everything. HOWEVER, I track EVERYTHING we spend, as if we were paying it from our checking account (or using a debit card). Tracking and keeping your spending in check (as if you are using cash) is the key! I earn between 2-10% back on everything – from our groceries to internet services – something you simply cannot do with cash and it costs me nothing.

A few years ago, I learned about how to use sign-up bonuses for travel. I never liked signing up for new cards, thinking it would hurt my credit score. After a TON of research (which is recommend EVERYONE does before trying this!! Educate yourself!), I realized that is not the case. There are many myths about credit scores. I know a ton about credit scores and what goes into them now. Our credit score has actually increased since I started this. FYI – my credit score is currently 823 (850 being prefect. Anything over 800 is an outstanding score). I studied many blogs, websites, and made a game plan. Everyone’s plan is going to be different, depending on where they live, their family situation, and what their goals are.

When I first started, my goal was to get our plane tickets to Disneyworld for (mostly) free. For a family of 6, this would be a feat! I discovered that Southwest airlines often offers 50,000 miles for signing up for their cards (google and see if it is available. It’s usually available every few months or so). I decided to go for it. I signed up for their Premier and Plus credit cards ($99/$69) for 100,000 miles total (50K per card). That was more than enough for all our plane tickets to Orlando for only $168 in annual fees. I simply canceled the cards before the year was up (keep them almost the full year). Plus, if you earn 110,000 miles in a year, you get a free companion pass. I did that, and my son was able to fly for FREE for 2 years, because I earned that right after the new year (I earned that the beginning of January 2014, and he flies FREE through December 2015), so I only actually had to buy 5 tickets, since he was now FREE with the companion pass.

I had enough points leftover from that, plus with my son flying free, to pay for our trip to Washington DC to visit my family this summer. That was a TON of tickets for the $168 in annual fees (plus there was probably $100 in taxes). 12 round trip tickets!!  I used sales on Southwest to make my points go as far as possible! I think the tickets I got to DC were the cheapest I’d ever seen tickets  (they were 6,000 points! AMAZING DEAL! So I used even less points than I thought – I actually still have points left…) Southwest lets you re-book, and get the lower price, if your tickets go lower! No cost to you! I used that often 🙂

I supplemented my Southwest points by signing up for the Chase Sapphire – earning me another 45,000 miles on Southwest (you can transfer your points to Southwest for free!). The annual fee is waived the first year, so it cost me nothing and I cancelled before the year was up! So those 45k miles were FREE! I thought I would need it for our DC trip, but since I got the tickets so cheap, I still have 40,000 miles in Southwest, so I guess I didn’t really need it! Oh well! There for the next trip, right??

My personal favorite airline card now is the Alaska Airlines card. We fly Alaska ALL THE TIME. It is one of the main carriers where we live and flies to all the places we want (Southern California, Florida, DC, Hawaii). It is my favorite airline. If you google it, you can get 25k miles (enough for a round trip), a companion pass, Free Checked bag (up to 6 people!) and a $100 statement credit. There is a $75 annual fee, but the $100 credit makes that not a big deal. The best part, is you can sign up for this card often, and still get the points. I now do it 2-3 times a year. I do it for both my husband and I, getting double the benefits/points (big family! We need lots of points saved!). I cancel each card before the year is up, thus getting 25k miles, a companion pass, and $25 for each card. I try to be a VERY good Bank of America customer, just because this is so valuable for us. The great thing about Alaska, is they have MANY partners, to get you all over the world! I already have a plan to get my whole family to visit Guatemala (my favorite country!) using their miles.

Since I didn’t have enough to get us all to Hawaii for free, (I had just started with them, after doing Southwest), I bought 2 tickets, used 2 companion fares, and used miles for the 2 other tickets.  Thanks to their fare guarantee program, I was able to save money when our ticket prices decreased, and I now have enough of a credit to pay for our plane tickets for upcoming trip to Disneyland (using the credits, and my companion fares)!

As for hotels, I have a couple of favorite cards for that too!

I LOVE my Chase IHG card. This is my FAVORITE Hotel credit card. I got 80K points when I signed up (google and see what the best offer is now – I think it is like 70K now). The fee was waived the first year. However, I KEEP this credit card, even with a $49 annual fee. Why you may ask? For that $49 annual fee, I get a FREE night at ANY IHG hotel worldwide! For only $49!!! This year, We used that night at the Times Square hotel in New York City. That hotel room would have cost us $400 on sale, per night. We only paid $49 – our annual fee! That is an AMAZING deal. Seriously, a hotel night anywhere for $49 is a GREAT deal. This is well worth keeping around! We also have a Holiday Inn near our airport, that offers free parking for 30 days – so we can stay the night before our flight for free, plus get free parking for our trip – SWEET! Plus you get an entire year to use your free night. There are also many larger room options for bigger families, like ours, to use our points/free night on. You also get Platinum Elite Status, giving you upgrades, bonus points, and perks at check-in.

We also have the Marriott Chase card. I got 70K points for signing up and a Free night certificate (google for the current best offer) and the annual fee was waived the first year. The annual fee is a bit higher $85, but you get a free night certificate each year as well, making the annual fee worth it, in my opinion. You only have 6 months to use the certificate, so this card/perks/fees are not nearly as good as the IHG card, but they aren’t bad, especially since we stay at Marriott often. You also get Silver Elite Status – which always gives you perks and upgrades at check-in.

With the Marriott and IHG cards, we also get no foreign transaction fees, so we don’t have to deal with that when we go visit our Sister-in-Law in Canada!

We also have the Club Carlson card.  We got 85K points for signing up and the fee waived the first year. We get 40k each year that we keep the card. For us, that is almost enough to pay for 2 nights/or 2 rooms at the Radisson near our airport (it’s a NICE hotel). They have connecting rooms, so we can get 2 rooms together. Plus you get 2 weeks of parking for free, per room (with a shuttle to the airport). For the $75 annual fee – that is CHEAPER than paying for airport parking AND we get 2 hotel rooms. Plus, we stay there enough, they know us, and always upgrade us to the VIP floor (especially with our Gold Elite Status)  – complete with free snacks, food, drinks, and free breakfast buffets. Not to shabby for $75 a year!

We also picked up the Citi Hilton card with 60K points. This card has no annual fee. There aren’t really many perks for the card – my husband gets Gold Status with his work for free anyway – but there is no fee, so it is a card we can just keep around (build a longer credit history), not worry about canceling, and we still got a couple of free nights from the deal.

Because of these cards and perks, when my grandma died, we didn’t have to worry about the cost of hotels, etc. to go to her funeral. We simply used our points/free nights to be able to go and see family, without the worry of the last-minute cost of travel.

For everyday use, I also have my favorite cards. Once I hit the minimum to get the bonus points/miles/credits on the travel cards, I don’t use them much (or cancel before the year is up), as I have other cards that give me a MUCH better return on everyday spending. ALL of my Everyday cards had NO Annual Fee!

I love my Chase Freedom card. They will often have a sign up bonus of 20K points or $200. There is no annual fee. They have 5% cash back categories every quarter. Right now, they have 10% back on Amazon and Audible. Love this card. Had it for MANY years now.

I, of course, have the Disney Visa, but don’t use it much. Only 1% back is not the best deal I have, but no annual fee, it is worth to keeping around for the Disney perks! We’ve had it for years!

Fidelity Amex card – We use Fidelity for all our investing (Roth IRA, 401K, brokerage account, etc.) and they offer 2% back on EVERYTHING. This is always my go-to everyday card. I use this card the most, since you get a flat 2% on everything, where most cards are just 1%. We have saved sooo much money into our Roth IRA because of this card. 2% back on everything, is better than nothing (which you don’t get with cash…. unless you carry a balance, hence why you NEVER carry a balance! Pay off each month and simply make 2% back to invest! Grow that 2% bigger!!!)

My Amex Costco card has been great for gas (3% back), but they are not going to be around much longer, so I can’t recommend it any longer 🙁 We’ll see what becomes of the card when it turns into citibank – I am anxious to see the rewards/benefits. When I went to cancel one of my Alaska cards, they offered to switch it to a no annual fee BankAmericard Cash Reward card. No credit report run and keep my credit history, so I went for it (since it cost me nothing) and I now get 3% back on gas with that card – so I guess it will replace my Costco card for gas (unless the new card has equal benefits/cash back)

I also have an American Express SimplyCash Business card. No Annual Fee. I got it mainly because they gave me $400 to get it and I get 3% back for Restaurants and 5% back on cellphone services. I also love my Amex cards for offers they give you!! For example, they just offered me a $15 credit for spending $60 on Amazon – Hello automatic 25% off! We got the offer times 2, since my husband has a card on my account as well! (I used it to buy Amazon gift cards)

Basically, if I don’t get 3-5% back on something, I at least get 2% back with my Fidelity card. So when looking for a card for yourself, look for benefits that work for you, your family, lifestyle, and needs.

I also have an Amazon and Target store card to get 5% back/off all my purchases.

Many cards will offer other bonuses and offers to make/save you money. Just have to watch for them – in the mail/online. For example – I have an Old Navy card that I got years ago. I rarely use it (but we shop Old Navy often) unless they have a good offer. There is no annual fee. They recently gave me $50 for using it once, as an offer I got in the mail. I used it to buy something for like $3, and got $50 in rewards!! That bought me 6 new pairs of Jeans for my kids, basically for free! Ummm – yes! SCORE! Watch for awesome deals to use your cards. I get them often for my different cards, making me more money and getting us more free clothes/travel/discounts/etc.

*phew* That was a lot! And yes, that is a lot to keep track of. Start small! Stay organized – I am VERY organized and on top of this. I like using Mint.com to keep organized! Again, this is NOT for everyone. Don’t try to do it all at once. I’ve been doing this for years. Do your research!

To keep the cards/reward points active that I want to keep, I simply set them up to automatically pay a certain bill each month, like phone, internet, natural gas, netflix, etc. I then set the card up to pay itself off in full automatically each month. Makes my life easier 🙂 I actually set up ALL of my cards to automatically pay themselves off each month – no worries about when it is due, or making sure it gets paid. Automatically set and forget it! But still pay CLOSE attention to everything you spend! As if you were spending cash!! (I’m serious about this. Don’t get into trouble/debt!)

For our upcoming trip to Southern California, I just signed up for the Barclay Arrival card. I will get about $450 in rewards to use on travel. I plan to use that money to pay for a night at the Legoland Hotel and for our rental car. The annual fee was waived the first year, and I plan to cancel before the first year is up. So my cost will be nothing for that!

Remember, I have a high (823) Fico/credit score and I pay everything off, every month – NO exceptions! I act like I am paying cash. Please do NOT go into debt. Start off small – do NOT jump in with 5 cards to start! Track your credit and keep up to date with your credit report. Again, do your OWN research on what is best for you/your family/your needs/your situation. Make a plan and travel goals to see what cards would suit you best.

Now this is what works best for OUR family. It works for our travel goes and where we live. Consider the airlines that fly to where you want to go. Think about the hotels you stay at. Each person’s needs will be different from ours.

Now how I get the Disney Villas for really cheap, is a whole other, complicated post for another day! (if you know me in real life, ask me, and I’ll let you know!)

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