Sunday, February 10, 2013

Extravagant L(G)iving

I've been struck by the number of readings/talks/sermons about giving/tithing that I have heard lately. I always assume that means God is trying to tell me something.

In our adult Bible class Sunday, we were studying 1 Corinthians, specifically Paul's instruction to the churches in Corinth and Macedonia. The two churches were quite different--one parish was more wealthy than the other. Paul took this opportunity to tell the "richer" church that they should learn how to give more generously like the "poorer" church. This started a discussion amoungst members of the class, but especially by two men who had been born into poverty (in this case, Africa and India) and then had moved to Hong Kong. Both of these men said that when they were poor and had to literally rely on God for food and other daily needs, sharing with those around them and giving to the church was not difficult, in fact, everyone just lived this way and by in large they were quite happy. Now that they have had some manner of success, living in Hong Kong making good money, they struggle more with tithing because there are so many other bills to pay and families to care for. Why is it harder to trust God when He blesses us with more, they wonder? And yet neither of them think the answer is moving their families back into poverty.

While we were on our trip over Christmas, our family, kids included, couldn't help but feel the harsh contrast of the cushy life on a cruise ship and the grinding poverty in the countries we were visiting. During the trip, as a family we were reading the book Crazy Love, by Francis Chan, (great book, by the way), and he too was stressing how hard it is to really love God when materialism gets in the way. As I have reflected on all of these thoughts and events lately, I 'd like to share some observations.

I have noticed that several friends I have who were born poor in countries where severe poverty is still common place (India, Vietnam, Africa) don't have negative attitudes toward the wealthy or the poor that Americans tend to have. They don't feel all this guilt now that they have more. They also don't think that if wealthy people just stopped being wealthy,somehow the poor would suddenly have "enough." Indeed, they accept that fact that there really will always be poor people. They also tend to focus on the spiritual needs of the poor over the physical needs, emphasizing the importance of the soul, all the while sharing what they have. They innately understand that overall the world is a better place today than it was before industrialism. There are medical breakthroughs, well-digging equipment,  and other technolgy that has changed lives for the better, and it all happened because someone, somewhere had the money to create it. One friend I know who preaches around the world to some of the poorest relies on some of his richest friends to get there. He doesn't begrudge them their money for a second and knows that God has blessed them so that they can bless others, including him.
I, on the other hand, look at all I have and feel all this guilt. I know I am not alone on this. How much is too much? What do I give and what do I keep? Am I sinning if I am living comfortably when so many don't even have clean water and basic food? What does comfortable mean? There is a big movement afoot right now amongst evangelicals to "live like Jesus;" to sell their stuff, give up their good job, make less and give all but their basic necessities to the poor.  While I think you should most certainly do this if God convicts you to do so, I wonder if that is really the only answer. If everyone becomes destitute, will the world be better off? One man in Chan's congregation sold his McMansion, gave up his lucrative job, and moved in with his parents. Really??  Why is it fine for Mom and Dad to work to support you, but not to support yourself? Hmmm? Kids, take note: ask your parents for their input before you decide that this is what God wants!!

But for me? No real answers, just thoughts. You only have to read the "about me" section to know that making a lot of money has never really held much appeal to me, and yet I still struggle in finding a proper balance. Mike and I have seen the blessing of the Lord in so many ways as we have commited our financial lives to Him over the last 20 years. It will be interesting to see how He leads over the next 20.

I'm curious to hear your thoughts. I've talked to enough people to know that I am not alone...

Friday, February 8, 2013

Easiest DIY Laundry Detergent EVER!!

(photo from debt proof living)
I am super excited to bring two of the ingredients for this homemade laundry detergent back to Hong Kong next summer...I can buy the blue Dawn here.
I have seen many, many recipes for making your own laundry detergent, but I must confess, I had never tried any myself! There were two primary reasons: one was that I often paid close to nothing for store brands by combining coupons and sales, making the ingredients for the homemade detergent more expensive. The other reason was that many of the recipes involved grating and "cooking" bar soap, and that seemed rather messy, although I would have tried it if not for reason #1.
Fast forward to Hong Kong, and I find myself in the land of rare coupons/sales and ridiculous prices for detergent. I find myself frustrated every time I do laundry. (I mean, who wants to pay actual money for detergent when there are airline tickets to buy?!?) Then, I saw this recipe pop up on several frugal sites lately, and I realized this is the ticket for me. Bringing back a box of  Borax and washing soda next summer should supply enough detergent for the whole school year...and it is getting rave reviews from those who are trying it. I had often used Dawn in place of Woolite for delicates, so this recipe makes total sense. Here it is:
3 Tablespoons Borax
3 Tablespoons Washing Soda (NOT baking soda)
2 Tablespoons of original blue dawn
Put the first two ingredients in a gallon size container and add two cups of hot water. Mix until dissolved, then add the Dawn and fill slowly with water to reduce sudsing. This obviously produces a watery mix, and most folks are reporting using a cup to a cup and a half per load, depending on the size of your machine and the load size.
Easy! Let me know who tries this first!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

AMEX Platinum and my newest frugal adventures

As many of you know, over Christmas break we went on a HUGE, REALLY BIG, family vacation:
(at the Great Wall of China)
(drinking Red Bull energy drink in the country of origin: Koh Sumui, Thailand)
 We travelled by cruise ship, plane, train, tuk-tuk, taxi, rickshaw, bicycle, ferry and bus. We visited 7 countries in 21 days: Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore. We visited Saigon, Bangkok, Beijing and a myriad of other smaller cities. Even though I saved about 40% overall on the trip, I actually spent a lot of money--all paid for up front, of course. I may delve into the psyche behind all that in future posts, including the reasons why I would most likely NOT do what we did again, but today I wanted to share a little bit about my newest frugal hobby: "earning" free travel.

I have known for quite some time that there is a whole frequent-flyer community out there whose lives are totally consumed with accruing points to use for travel. I'm sure you have heard the stories of folks who take extravagant trips around the world all for "free" using airline and hotel rewards. I was always intrigued, but with a family of six, our travel for many years consisted of 24 hour van-rides to visit family. Earning enough points to fly us all for free seemed all but impossible. And the bottom line: it is. Most bloggers who do the point thing for a living are either single or have no kids. They are minimally subsidized by companies who advertise on their blogs. There are exceptions, but they are rare.

Until now, my forays into the point world had consisted of using earned points to stay in Microtel, Motel 6 and the like and flying the family to Florida (almost) free. Recently, I earned enough points to fly my daughter to HK round trip and fly her to Maine for her BFFs wedding. Not shabby, but not great either.

Now that we are living in Hong Kong and my daughter is off to college, I have much more of an incentive to spend as little money as possible on trips back and forth to the US and I also have much more potential to earn FF points. Hence my new found hobby. It's like taking couponing to a whole new level. As with my other money saving strategies, the end result is having not only more money for things I want, but also having the ability to give more away.

I haven't done much yet in the point world, but I have been doing a great deal of reading. My current goal is to NOT pay for 2 of our 5 tickets home this summer. (This seems achievable; that's the thing about goals, they need to be realistic and achievable.) Maybe next year, when I know more, I can shoot for a bigger goal. So, what is my current strategy? Glad you asked.

There are a myriad of credit cards that have great sign on bonuses, and back in the fall I did a lot of research. At the end of the day, the cards you sign up for should align with your goals (for example, a Hyatt card won't do me much good if I don't ever stay at Hyatt). So, in September I signed up for an American Express Platinum card. (Let me just say up front, you have to have a really good credit rating to get this card.)  This was a pretty big deal for me because this card comes with a hefty $450 annual fee that is not waived for the first year. Am I nuts?? But, I knew it would pay off in this case, and it has. The sign-on bonus was 25,000 points. I knew I would use the card to pay for our cruise, and I was given a $600 credit back to my account after signing up for the (already discounted) cruise, plus double points on the money spent. That, along with the bonus points, will give me almost enough points for a free ticket home this summer; I shouldn't have any trouble accruing the rest of the needed points (so there's one of my free tickets home!) Approximate worth: over $1700.00 total.

There are lots of perks that come with this card. I can get $200 a year waived in fees for any airline, and you can change the airline after the start of every year. In October, I chose American Airlines and bought a $200 gift card online. The money was credited back to my account in 3 days and I used the gift cards to pay for my daughter's last leg from Chicago to Cleveland. I will switch airlines to whichever  we choose to fly this summer and get another $200 to spend on anything from baggage fees to food purchased. There's another $400.

You also get lounge access at almost all airport lounges, with perks like free internet, sleeping space, showers and everything from snacks to full buffets, many for the whole family. This will equal some free meals for us, and possible a few quiet nap sessions: Priceless.

Along with these perks, I will get free upgrades on car rentals and hotels and lots of shopping discounts, should I choose to use them. They offer great travel insurance and purchase protection, even on items that you lose! An added bonus is that here in HK, platinum status has a whole myriad of perks separate from my US card,  but so far, I have been able to use them all here! I get BOGO free movie tickets (nice, because movies are so expensive here), and 50% off at many restaurants. Nice. I've already saved about $50 USD.

As you can see, my initial $450 has already "saved" me over $2100, well worth it, IMHO.

What's next? An App-O-Rama. Goal: 10 free hotel stays, another free international flight, and hopefully a week long van rental this summer. Intrigued? Stay tuned for the details!