Friday, March 17, 2017

Our February Basic Budget

February is behind us, and for me that feels great. I love to turn that calendar over to March--it feels so "springy!"

February is the month when I traditionally try to save all my receipts and take a look at our monthly budget. This year was a little "off" because we were gone the first 4 days of the month, and that goes into a separate "travel" category, but other than that, it was a very typical month. So here it is, with prices listed first in US $ and then in Hong Kong $.

Hong Kong Expenses:

Tithe/Charity: 15%
Savings: 30% (approximate---retirement and college fund/building fund/general savings)
Transportation: 58/450 (money for public transport, what we put on our metro card each month, which isn't all used in any given month)
Cell Phone: 34/267
Internet: 34/266
Gas: 17/133
Electric: 42/325
Groceries: 285/2207 (includes toiletries, paper goods)
Eating out: 260/2017 (this is embarrassingly high, but did include a special Valentine dinner, taking a friend out to eat, and several school lunches)

Our US expenses are much more difficult to calculate. We have purposely tried to set as many payments as possible to come due when we are home for the summer. This includes car insurance, life insurance, home owners insurance, college bills, significant mission giving, home maintenance on our home in Maine, vehicle costs on our old van and car (including maintenance, taxes, registration, inspections, gas when we are get the idea) It all adds up to a BIG thousands-of-dollars-chunk-o-change, so we put money aside for this each month.

We are also currently juggling 16 credit cards, all of which I pay on time and on line. 11 of these have annual fees ranging from $49 to $450.  I am planning on cancelling 4 of these within the next two months.

This has also been a very big year (school year, that is) of travel for us, and I purposely included this in our budget. By the time we go home this summer, we will have traveled on 12 international trips (2 of those will be job related). We will be visiting 11 different countries and will drive to or through 7 US states and possibly a couple of Canadian Provinces. That is quite a significant number of miles, but I am so happy that we will actually come in under what I budgeted, due in large part to the many free hotel nights I have been able to get and some fantastic deals on airfare, including $125 round trip tickets from HK to the US this summer!!  Next year, we will tone it down considerably, but it's been a swell empty nester ride!

I realize I am posting this well into March...Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Friday, February 10, 2017

Friday's Frugal Five....easy Hummus recipe and FREE yogurt coupon!

You know how that first week of work feels after vacation? Yeah. That was this week. And to add insult to injury, we had immunization day on Tuesday, which happens twice a year and they are hands down my two most stressful days. BUT, this one went off with barely a hitch, and the good news is that both days are over for the year! 130 kids immunized. Woot Woot!

My five frugals for the week:

1) DH and I went for our annual dental cleaning/exam/x-rays. Yes, I know I should go twice a year, but it seems to be hard enough for me to get in one visit, so I am happy with that. We're still in the no cavity club ☺This is part of the dental plan at our school, so the cost OOP is ZERO. Happy to have that over for another year. Do you have a dental plan as part of your benefits? Then you have no excuse...use it!

2) I picked up two free movies and 3 partially filled bottles of perfume (one being my favorite brand) from the free table in our teacher lounge.

3) I finished our US taxes using Turbo Tax (well, 99%--awaiting one piece of info), AND I will save $20 doing so because I have a account. Another not-so-fun-task marked off the list. Double the fun for us since we have to file in Hong Kong and the US, but the HK tax year runs April 1-March 31, so I have another couple months before the second filing is due. (For inquiring minds: the US is one of only 2 countries that requires you to pay taxes on income earned in another country even if you pay taxes in the country where you work. The good news for us is that you only have to pay on anything above $100K USD per person or $200K per married couple, and that is never going to happen while we are in HK, but we are still required to file.) I also filed our annual FBAR, another fun US government requirement if you have bank accounts outside the US. In theory, this helps them track down criminals, but honestly, if you are hiding your money in an international account to avoid paying taxes, are you really going to report it?? Seems to me it simply makes more work for us honest folks.

4) My American Express Platinum card lets you choose an airline annually and gives you $200 back per calendar year if you book any incidental fees (baggage fees, lounge access, etc)  with that airline using your card. They also let you book gift cards if you choose American Airlines. Since I want to cancel this credit card later this year, I went ahead and bought my gift cards so that I will get that $200 bonus in for sure.

5) I made hummus from scratch! First time, and I have my sister Fae to thank for inspiring me when I was home at Christmas. I LOVE this stuff, but it is quite expensive to buy it pre-made in Hong Kong. Here is the recipe I used, and it doesn't use tahini paste, which tends to be the most expensive ingredient. DELISH!

And for my readers with a US address, a few freebies for you:

Get a coupon for a free cup of Noosa yoghurt.

Now through February 28, get a free glazed donut with a coffee purchase at Krispy Kreme. (So jealous right now!)

And here is a free sample of Breathe Right strips

And for Hong Kong readers, there is a fun contest on facebook right now compliments of Farmer's Market. Enter here for a chance to win $1100 HKD worth of grass fed beef tenderloin. Contest ends February 13th. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Dubai Part 4: Camel Burgers, fun in the desert and 2 free nights at Park Inn by Radisson

This is Part 4 in a 4 part series about traveling/saving money in Dubai. You can read the rest here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

We spent our last full day in Dubai taking the train back to downtown Dubai, visiting some more big malls and having a camel burger and some camel milk yogurt, for which I had purchased a Cobone (think Groupon).  Interesting texture, but not bad! The camel milk yogurt was actually quite good. 

In the afternoon and evening, we went on a desert safari, which is the real reason I had wanted to go to Dubai in the first place, and we were not disappointed. There are many tour organizations out there; we chose Platinum Heritage Safari, mostly because of their great reviews on Trip Advisor, and also because I liked the fact that I would riding around the sand dunes in a genuine 1950s Landrover! So cool! 

They picked us up at our hotel, gave us traditional head gear (which you get to keep), and drove us out into the desert, where we went on an hour long safari, watched a falcon show, got henna tattoos  (don't worry--they fade in a few days!), rode camels, watched traditional dancers and swordsmen, and had a meal of Arabian coffee, hot camel milk (it's salty!), camel and mutton dishes, rice and several other things I can't remember in a bedouin camp. It was as amazing as I thought it would be. The desert has a beauty all it's own. 

Our last two nights were free compliments of my Club Carlson Visa Card(issuer is US Bank, this is not a referral link). Club Carlson offers 4 different Visa cards, including one with no annual fee, which each come with varying levels of perks. I have their premier signature card, which gives you 85,000 points if spend $1500.00 in the first 3 months. You also get 40,000 points annually and Gold Status with Club Carlson as long as you the card. This gives you early check in/late check out and several other benefits, but the 40.000 annual points makes this card a keeper for me.

We stayed at the Park Inn by Radisson, within walking distance of the Mall of the Emirates, which boasts the largest indoor ski slope! How crazy is that? 

The hotel was also very close to the metro, had a nice roof top pool that we had all to ourselves, and a fully equipped kitchen. As a Club Carlson member, we had another nice fruit basket waiting for us, along with some sweet treats and bottled water. This room would have run us $420 USD for two nights, and although it was the least expensive of all our hotels, it was by no means inferior. 

So, to summarize our savings in Dubai (approximated):
Free night at the Waldorf: $680
Free night at Ramada Downtown: $400
Free night at Grand Hyatt: $400
2 Free Nights at Park In by Radison: $420
Savings by using Cobones for day trips and food: $100
Savings by booking early/sale on Emirates: $200

Total: $2200

Could you do Dubai cheaper than we did by staying in hostels? Sure thing! But this was a fun experience, and in my top 3 vacations ever. 

Tell us where your dream destination is! Are you saving for it??

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Friday's Frugal Five & Freebie

This week was Chinese New Year Holiday in Hong Kong, which meant that we had the week off (Reason #214 why I love working in a school!). Of course, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to travel, but I didn't want to travel far, spend much money or plan back-to-back activities, so I opted for a week at Las Flores, a Bed & Breakfast in Cebu, Philippines. We didn't plan any activities before arriving, so it has been a low key week of reading, Scrabble games, kayaking, swimming and breakfast/dinner on the veranda. Even the internet has been sporadic at best, a welcome reprieve in itself!  No matter where we go or what we are doing, we can find ways to make the most of our money. Here are 5 ways I saved this week:
Las Flores

1) I had the B&B owner set up an afternoon of boating with a local fisherman. For $32 US, we had an 1.5+- boat ride up and down the coast of Cebu on the beautiful Camotes Sea. He dropped us off at our own private beach for an hour or so, where we were able to snorkel among the reefs. This was a first for me, and I now understand its allure. The live corals and colorful sea creatures are a world that many of us never see, and it's hard to put into words how captivating it is. We easily could have paid up to $200 US per person with an travel agency, and I daresay that our secluded adventure was just as good. I only wish I had a waterproof camera! The underwater picture here is from the website My Cebu.
This is very similar to what we saw, but with more fish.

Local boat arrangement....
....and ride. 

One of the creatures we saw--the Horned Sea Star, (also called Chocolate Chip Star) about 8" long.  Don't worry, we put him back.

2) We ate local. Breakfast was provided, and was quite sufficient. I used American Express Travel to book, and was able to combine points with cash to only pay $35 US per night, which was a fantastic price. We stayed 7 nights, and there was only one other family and one single lady here for a couple of those nights, so it seemed like we were staying at a friend's house. There is a restaurant on site that offered us very affordable meals for dinner, and we could come down barefoot to the back porch. Our favorite was a huge Salmon steak with little baby potatoes and fresh vegetables for $9 US. The local Marlin was fabulous also. Everything I tried was delicious. We also went to a couple of local restaurants for lunch--the most we paid was $4 US for both of us, bottled soda included. We didn't look for any high end places...we didn't need to! I don't think I can cook at home in Hong Kong for the prices we paid here. 

Local rice/coconut cakes served roasted on a banana leaf. 5 cents each, and very yummy!
Local Chicken Place.

So named because you have to "Duck" your head to enter!

 3) I asked the owner if there were any places in town to get a pedicure and a haircut, knowing that it would likely be cheaper than Hong Kong and I had nothing but time.  She actually arranged to have a lovely lady come here. I got a manicure, pedicure and haircut--better than any I have had in Hong Kong--for $20 USD-- while sitting on my balcony listening to the waves. I rarely get mani-pedis, in fact, this was only my 3rd pedicure ever, and getting to know this sweet local woman was priceless, and oh-so-worth-it!

My hairstylist/manicurist. I wish she lived in Hong Kong! (She let me use this picture...thank you, Doris!) 

5) I read books and magazines and played games provided by the B&B.  Better than a library!

5) We ate free meals coming and going at airport lounges and on the plane. Lounge access is a favorite perk of one of our credit cards (through Priority Pass), and it's nice not having to make a meal right before/after a trip. Hong Kong has 3 different Plaza Premium Lounges, all with different hot and cold food options.  Also, Asian airlines tend to give you a hot meal even on a short flight. Our flight from Manila to Hong Kong was less than 2 hours, but we still got a meal. 

6) (Oops, one more than 5 frugals!) I only brought back these free pretties for souvenirs....the best kind!

And finally here is a freebie for my US readers, a first aid kit! Just fill out the form and it's yours! Dubai part 4 is in the works...

Monday, January 30, 2017

Dubai Part 3: Burj Al Arab, Abu Dhabi and a free night at the Grand Hyatt

This is part 3 of a 4 part series about our travel deals in Dubai in October, 2016. You can read Part 1 and Part 2 first. 

After eating a leisurely free breakfast at the Waldorf, we spent some time exploring the grounds of the hotel before going on to our next adventure, which was an afternoon meal reservation at the Burj Al Arab, the world's only 7 Star hotel. The Al Arab is built on another man made island, and you can only go inside if you are staying there, or if you have a reservation at one of their many restaurants.  I had originally thought it would be fun to spend the night here, but the least expensive rooms go for over $2000.00 USD per night, so this was obviously out of the question. While the structure, built to resemble a sail, is certainly impressive, it reminded me of something straight out of Las Vegas or Macau, with its over-the-top golden glitzy splendor.
View from above. It was never this clear when we were here. Always dusty. 
In the lobby. They gave me roses!

Baked Alaska.

After our meal, which was nice, but not something I would do again, we took a taxi from the Waldorf to our next free hotel, the Grand Hyatt. It was quite late at night when we arrived, and I accidentally left my cell phone in the taxi....which also had my debit card it it.  Although the concierge at the Hyatt was very helpful, and I did end up getting the phone back, it made for a stressful evening and I didn't get very many photos of the hotel itself. The pool and grounds around the back were quite lovely, and I wished we had more time there. As a Platinum Elite Hyatt member, (which you receive simply for having a credit card with them,) we were again given a room upgrade with a lovely fruit basket. (In case you are wondering, I did carry all this fruit with me from hotel to hotel!)
Personally, if I could keep only one hotel branded credit card, it would be my Chase Visa Hyatt Card. (not a referral link.) When you sign up and spend $2000.00 in 3 months, you get 2 free nights at ANY Hyatt properties in the world. Some of these hotels are over $1000 a night, so this can be a fantastic perk. The best part is, every year on your card anniversary, you get one free night at any Category 1-4 hotel. That was how we scored this free night in Dubai, and considering it would have cost about $400 USD, it's well worth the $75 annual fee. You also get free room upgrades, early check in/late check out and free wifi. Last year, Mike and I used our free night stay in Hong Kong. Because the hotel happened to be really busy that night, and because I was a Platinum Elite member, they upgraded us to a Club Executive room for no charge, and we were able to eat a free dinner and free breakfast in the Club lounge.  Nice! Something else to keep in mind: If you are married, you should always sign up for these credit cards separately, so that you can both get all the perks.  We get 2 free nights with Hyatt each year. 

The next morning, we used a  Cobone (like Groupon) for an all day trip to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, which was about 2 hours south of Dubai. If I remember correctly, this only cost about $30 USD per person. The tour was a "group tour," but there were only several other people in our van, so it was not very crowded. They picked us up and dropped us off at our hotel, and gave us bottled water and juice drinks. This day ended up being far more driving than actual site seeing, as it was rush hour when we returned, and we were the last people to be dropped off, but it was still a good outing at a very reasonable price. We visited the Sheik Zayed Mosque, the largest in the world, and Ferrari World, which I suppose is self explanatory. We also stopped at a few other tourist spots and malls.

The stone work in the mosque was stunning. 

Ferrari World.

Upon our return, we went to our final free hotel, which I'll tell you about in part 4!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Dubai Part 2: A free night at the Waldorf Astoria!!

This is Part 2 of a 4 part series about our travel deals in Dubai in October, 2016. You may want to read  Part 1 and Part 3

(Disclaimer: This first activity was NOT Frugal!!)

During our second day in Dubai, we had high tea at AT.MOSPHERE, a super swanky restaurant on the 122 floor of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. We've seen some pretty tall buildings, but the Burj is simply mind-boggling. To say that the tea was over-the-top (pun intended) would be a huge understatement. I'm not even going to tell you how much it cost. If you decide to go, you can figure it out.  Of course, the views are astonishing.
View from 122 floors up! Those rings are part of the fountain show. 
Our table.
Berries with cream, complete with a real, edible gold leaf. I thought about selling it on ebay, but I ate it instead. 
Part of the tea Menu....some served only here. Creme Caramel Tea, anyone? There's a page of coffee drinks and a whole page of mocktails also. Oh, and guess what? You can order as many drinks as you like! 

 Little Bites, with yummies like lobster, foie gras, and melt-in-your-mouth rare beef. This was followed by miniature "main courses," which are not pictured... 

 ...which was followed by traditional tea cakes and scones with accompanying generous serving of clotted cream, whipped butter and jams. Overall, absolutely amazing. We were completely stuffed. 

After waddling back to our hotel, we took a taxi to our next destination, the Waldorf Astoria Dubai. It is located on the famed Dubai Palm, a man made land mass in the Gulf built in the shape of palm tree. Looking at pictures, one might be tempted to think it's not that big, but we were located on the right side of that outer ring, and it took a good 45 minutes to get there after crossing the main bridge. In other words, you are no longer close to downtown or the metro, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but you should be aware of it if you choose to stay at any of the hotels in that area. 

Waldorf is under the Hilton portfolio, and I was able to attain Diamond Status with Hilton through a "status match" promotion Hilton ran last year. They were giving Diamond status to those who had Platinum Elite status with IHG (The Intercontinental Group), which I received by simply signing up for their credit card. (Yes, it's a crazy game, but it's a hobby I enjoy!) This was the first time I had ever stayed anywhere as a Diamond member. Let's just say it was eye-opening. 

When we arrived at the property gate, we had to show the guard our reservation. The front door was maybe 50 feet from the gate, and yet 15 seconds later when we pulled up, the doorman opened our door and a lady in a suit held out her hand and said, "Welcome, Mrs. Cliff, we have been expecting you. Please follow me." We were escorted past the lobby/check-in to a private room where we were handed cool, wet towels to "refresh" and glasses of fresh squeezed kiwi juice. One of the managers told us all about our room, handed us coupons for free drinks, and escorted us personally to our room! He stopped to show us the restaurant where we would get our free breakfast in the morning and told us about the hotel on our way. Once in the room, he pointed out our welcome fruit basket, red velvet cakes and water and told us how everything worked. He handed us his card and told us to call his number directly if we needed anything at all.  

The welcome amenities. 

Honestly, I was feeling SUPER awkward the whole time. I kept thinking, "Wait, I think you have the wrong people. I'm just a little country hick from the back woods in Maine, you must have made a mistake." I also realized that this is what some people expect all the time...and that's a little mind- blowing.

Exquisite lobby.


Comfy bed.

Cushy robes.

Bath with Salvatore Ferragamo toiletries.

Super wide boardwalk that was always empty.

One of several pools.

View from the beach of the Persian Gulf.

We spent the afternoon at the pool and beach, and were so stuffed from our "tea," that we only ate  some of our welcome fruit and cakes for dinner and called it a night. The breakfast buffet was literally the most extensive I have ever seen. Custom made coffee/tea drinks, a huge selection of fresh squeezed juices, a section of local foods and every traditional breakfast food you can imagine. Sadly, I didn't take any pictures. 

Overall, this was by far the nicest hotel stay we had while in Dubai, and quite possibly anywhere for that matter. This night would have cost over $680 USD, so I won't be staying again anytime soon!

This freebie was compliments of my American Express Platinum card (not a referral link). This card has a whopping $450.00 annual fee, but is usually worth it the first year, and was definitely worth it last year when they ran a special 100,000 point sign on bonus for a short time. Right now, they offer 40,000 points if you spend $3000.00 in 3 months. For that you get a free Priority Pass membership, which gives you access to over a thousand airport lounges world wide (which we use frequently!), a $200 a year airline credit (which runs on the calendar year, so you can use it twice in your first year of membership), $100 reimbursement for global entry, free boingo wifi, and numerous other perks. This on top of the value of the points. I used some of my points to book directly through AMEX travel. I can't remember how many points it was, but it was less than using points on my Hilton card (more on that one later, perhaps.) 

My goal in writing is to inspire you to travel...and to teach you how to make the most of your money!

And that's a wrap on day 2. More to come.