Food & Nutrition, Getting Started

Breakfast of FI Champions – Part 2: Overnight Oats

I wish my Overnight Oats looked this amazing each morning

This is my second post in a series: Breakfast of (aspiring) FI champions: Making a nutritious and filling breakfast to fuel your FIRE with Overnight Oats.

We started in part one with the coffee, now we’re moving on to the actual food.

Overnight Oats: I got this idea from a write-up in the Costco magazine that turned up in the mail at the beginning of the year. I’m sure I had seen it elsewhere a few other times before, but this time it really looked like an appealing option. I also think Overnight Oats are now starting to get some traction with a broader audience in recent months; my wife mentioned to me that her co-worker was also recently singing the praises of overnight oats, and diligently making up a batch in the afternoon to keep in the staff room fridge for his breakfast the next morning.

My base ingredients:

  1. Raw Oats – Half a cup
    1. I’m using Quaker Oats “Old Fashioned”, which cost me $3.99 at Wal-Mart for 42 ounces (2lb 10 oz, or 1.19kg)
    1. I previously had a smaller container of Quaker Oats “Steel-Cut”, and I think to be honest I liked them better. I suspect it was the way that they were cut that helped them to absorb more of the liquid overnight and provide a better consistency.
  2. A milk product – 2/3’s of a cup
    1. I’ve tried both 1% milk and almond milk
    1. My preference is currently “Almond Breeze Unsweetened Chocolate” (40 calories / serving) which set me back ~$3.50 for a half-gallon carton from my local “Stop and Shop” store.
    1. I just bought some unsweetened Walnut milk for a similar price and I’m excited to explore what this will taste like with my next batch
  3. Yogurt – Half a cup
    1. I’ve bought Chobani Non-Fat Plain Greek Yogurt from our BJ’s store at $4.99 for a 40 oz (2.5lb, 1.13kg) tub.

Other ingredients to consider:

  • Chia Seeds: these are packed with omega fats and I’ve been adding a teaspoon or two to each batch; thankfully we had them in the cupboard already
  • Vanilla essence: If you really enjoy an extra kick of vanilla flavor
  • Spices: I enjoy exploring the addition of spices like ginger or cinnamon to my batches
  • Hot chocolate mix: I enjoy adding a teaspoon of dark chocolate hot cocoa mix for just a bit of sweetness to improve the taste of it all
  • Nuts: I added some glazed pecan pieces in one recent batch and enjoyed the crunch and slight sweetness 
  • Fruit: I’ve also sliced up banana and put it into the mix as well. Keep in mind any fruit you add should really be consumed within 24 hours. When I mix up the base ingredients, I’m generally fine with them sitting for up to 48 hours.

Nutrition and Cost

Now I’ve made some choices in the ingredients to keep things pretty low in sugar, but the nutrition of these ingredients combined makes for a pretty stunning and comprehensive meal. By my calculations from the base ingredients in the proportions that I’ve detailed above, this gets us to:

  • ~240 calories per serving
  • 17 grams of protein per serving
  • 4 grams of dietary fiber per serving (from the oats)
  • 4 grams of natural sugar per serving (oats and yogurt)
  • 3 grams of monounsaturated fats and 1.5 grams of polyunsaturated fats
  • ~$0.93 / per serving (Oats = 13 cents, Almond milk ~30 cents, Yogurt ~50 cents)

Personally, I think these is some pretty impressive nutritional statistics for a healthy start to the day. One of my favorite aspects of using these Overnight Oats is that it is a very filling and satisfying meal, and I don’t feel hungry for many hours, which has in turn reduced my snacking before lunch.

I also just picked myself up some mason jars at Wal-Mart to make my oats in moving forward. To date I had been mixing them up in coffee mugs and covering them with aluminum foil while in the fridge.

A fresh batch of my real world Overnight Oats ready for the refrigerator

A cold breakfast combo for a FIREY appetite!

I’m not eating this for every single breakfast, but I have eaten these most mornings, and particularly during the work week since the beginning of 2019. I do have a personal goal to lose some weight this year, and I suspect a regimen like this could help me to reach those targets.

That takes my breakfast combo of Overnight Oats at 93 cents, and my Cold Brew Coffee at 26 cents to a grand total of ~$1.19 per breakfast.

In conclusion, I feel like this breakfast is a solid step forward from a financial and health perspective. Have you tried Overnight Oats yet? If so, what other ingredients are you using to make them delicious?

Food & Nutrition, Getting Started

Breakfast of FI Champions – Part 1: The Coffee

The fuel for my morning commute

This is my first post in a series: Breakfast of (aspiring) FI Champions: Making smarter choices with your coffee consumption can improve both your wallet and health.

Welcome to the Breakfast of FI Champions series, and to kick things off, coffee is deservedly the foundation of this discussion around breakfast choices. I need my coffee to get going in the morning, like many of us do, and specifically I prefer iced coffee; and yes, I generally prefer it even through the frigid temperatures of winter.

There was a time years ago when I would try to regularly stop in at Dunkin Donuts a mile or so from my office and order myself a large iced coffee, and if I was feeling extra extravagant, an old-fashioned donut to boot. As time went on, I slowly came to the realization it was no good for me or my wallet and this couldn’t continue.

In recent years I have developed a taste of cold brewed coffee. There is something about it that seems to reduce the bitterness of the coffee, and as a result I can happily drink it straight without any sweeteners or dairy. I captured this image in our local Walmart today and this is by far the tastiest brand of packaged Cold Brew Coffee that I have ever tasted: StŌk. I would highly recommend trying it as a special treat, my personal favorite is the green labeled un-sweet flavor. There is just something about how smooth and tasty it is without any flavoring agents or anything. However, at the end of the day its just too cost prohibitive for everyday consumption.

Stok Cold Brew was less expensive than my Dunkin Donuts habit,
but I needed to bring my daily coffee costs down even further

Even though $4.42 per bottle would get me ~3 servings and that was roughly what I was paying for a single Dunkin Donuts coffee, it still wasn’t entirely satisfying; there had to be more I could do to optimize my coffee drinking while supporting a more economical approach.

Then came my own cold brew kit from Amazon with a metal filter and enormous glass mason jar. At this point, I’m buying 45-ounce bags of Dunkin Donuts coffee at Costco, and brewing up two jars worth per week; I find that I get about three large coffee servings out of each jar, so I need the second one to safely get me through the week.

The bag of coffee ordinarily costs $17.49 for 45 ounces, and I generally use 12 tablespoons per jar that I’m brewing up, which the internet tells me is ~2 ounces of coffee, so this works out to about $0.78 / jar of cold brewed coffee, or about 26 cents per morning serving (assigning zero cost to my water and ice) 😉

Preparation and Process

I tend to brew it up on a Sunday evening, and Monday morning I’ll pull the filter out and dispose of the coffee grinds, top up the jars with water, and I’m ready to roll for another week.

I also really enjoy my tall 24 ounce vacuum sealed Contigo travel mug during my one hour plus commute. It has an amazing ability to keep the coffee cold; there are often days where I still have ice cubes rock solid at the bottom of the mug after sitting there all day long. The push button auto-seal function also does a great job of keeping me from spilling it on myself as I drive along.

I could always find less expensive brands of coffee, but at 26 cents a serving I’m feel pretty good about my morning cup of Joe being pretty economical and helping me get to FI a little faster. I also have to be reaping some health benefits by cutting out the dairy, sweetener, and occasional donuts that were consumed in my earlier morning routine from a few years ago.

What does your Breakfast of FI Champions look like from a coffee or morning beverage perspective? How are you handling coffee consumption to better align with you goals of becoming FI?

Getting Started, Goals

Writing a Financial Independence Mission Statement

Laying the foundation to build our journey towards FI

Writing a Financial Independence Mission Statement can help to articulate and crystallize the framework for your journey forward

Earlier this week I really enjoyed the latest edition of Paula Pant’s Afford Anything podcast with the New Year’s topic of “One Tweak a Week in 2019”. The action item that particularly resonated with me was the concept of creating your “Why?” in 100 words or less: Why are you so interested in, and committed to pursuing the path towards Financial Independence?

Maybe it could be called a Purpose Statement or a Mission Statement; for the sake of making a decision and moving forward I’ll just go with the latter in this post.

I had never really thought about a Mission Statement outlining my reason and rationale for pursuing FI; ever since becoming familiar with the concept it just felt intuitively aligned with what I wanted to achieve and how I would prefer to live.  

Recently I’ve developed an interest in creating Mission Statements, but I am still trying to follow through on the creation of these. I’m told that Mission Statements can be created for various dimensions of your life: Work, Family etc. Overall, I think it makes a lot of sense because:

When you can clearly articulate what it is that you believe in and are working towards, you have a much higher probability of success.

In a way I guess it shares some similarities to the goal setting I completed for 2019 in my recent post, however I believe this FI Mission Statement should be more of a holistic summary, outlining a long-term and overarching vision. In the true spirit of “just getting started”, let’s take a stab at this:

My Financial Independence Mission Statement:

“We are seeking to increase our savings rate and accelerate our journey towards a life of Financial Independence. Spending less on material goods will simplify our life, be healthier for the environment, and allow us to focus on what matters most. Financial Independence offers the ultimate freedom: The ability to spend your time and efforts focused on the people and endeavors that deliver you the most enjoyment and meaning. This journey should be enjoyed, and will be the result of an accumulation of many positive choices and practices that compound over time, along with our net worth.”

Well, what do you think? Once I got started it became a challenge to squeeze in all these thoughts and concepts into 100 words or less. I feel pretty good that it captures the key elements that are important to me, and I do think this could be something that is pretty durable for the long-term.

You’ll notice there is no mention of escaping from the corporate world or W-2 jobs, and that’s the way I want it. I see FI as something where I’m being pulled towards a life that is more desirable, rather than being pushed away from the grind of regular employment.

There are also no specific goals: savings rates, net worth, date for achieving FI etc. That makes sense for me: the reality is that life will throw us curve balls and these targets will fluctuate over time depending on the circumstances we are facing in that moment. I’m thinking of my Mission statement being the foundation and structure of my journey, much like the constitution is the foundation that sets up the government. My annual goals for the year can serve to capture the more near-term and tactical objectives that I want to achieve.

What about you?

Have you created such a statement for your journey? I’d enjoy seeing and hearing about statements that others have created, and the opportunity to compare and contrast the elements of each.

I think Paula also put out the concept that you could use this Financial Independence Mission Statement as a screensaver on your phone, as a regular reminder of what you’re working towards; She’s full of great ideas!

Save, Savor, and Soar!

Personal Finance

Credit cards: make them work for you

Two of our favorite credit cards for our day-to-day purchases and
supporting our journey towards Financial Independence

Credit cards: They can help you or hurt you; it all depends on how you choose to use and manage them

Credit cards can be akin to a sharp knife: incredibly useful for many things, but you need be very careful and avoid cutting yourself with fees and interest. Overall credit cards can be very supportive tools to apply in your journey to Financial Independence, and to achieve this primarily requires the discipline to follow two simple rules:

  1. Spend carefully on items that you both need and can afford
  2. Pay your bill on time and in full

Now just because its straightforward, doesn’t mean it’s easy; banks know that many people will fail to follow these rules and in turn become very profitable customers for them. Retailers often gladly accept credit cards knowing that users will generally spend more on credit cards than they would with hard cash. Many credit cards carry interest rates 18% and higher, which can quickly grow your debt if you fail to pay it off immediately.

Having a credit card is often an important part of building a credit score and becoming an adult in the United States, as it can demonstrate that you are responsible paying down your debts.

The benefits of using credit cards: rewards that save your hard earned cash

The primary reason I use a credit card wherever its feasible is because when I follow the rules above, I can generally earn at least 2% back on everything I spend. It’s wonderful when large fixed expenses in my life, such as monthly childcare charges, can be billed to a credit card. When used like this credit cards can support your path to financial independence.

Our family loves redeeming credit card points for two key purposes:

  1. Summer vacation and general summer spending, when my wife’s teacher income pauses
  2. Christmas “thank you” gift cards for the many teachers and other people who help our family out through the year (Kids’ teachers, Dog walker, Bus driver etc.)

Redeeming credit card points helps us to navigate those challenging months of the year where income or expenses tend to be a little more challenging than usual.

In 2018 we have become much more intentional with Travel Hacking, which makes the most of lucrative introductory bonus offers that various credit cards will offer for opening and hitting specific spending requirements; when you have monthly childcare bills like us, these targets can be very achievable. You’ll see more about our 2019 trip to Hawaii this coming summer, which will be heavily subsidized from our Travel Hacking efforts in recent months.

There are two cards that have stood the test of time in my wallet, and these are the reasons why I appreciate them so much:

Capital One’s Venture Card

  • You can earn 2% back on every single purchase that you make
  • You get the best deal when you redeem rewards points for gift cards or choosing to erase travel related expenses (the full 2% of all spending). They have a broad selection of gift cards that are very practical for our everyday needs e.g. Amazon
  • There are zero foreign currency transaction fees if you are overseas
  • It’s a Visa card, so its accepted virtually everywhere, like the Costco gas station
  • They currently offer 50,000 bonus points for new members who spend $3,000 in the first three months, which is equivalent to $500 in gift cards
  • The annual fee is $0 for the first year, then $95 annually; Personally, I can make up so much value in gift cards and travel rewards throughout the year that I feel this is fair and manageable

DISCOVER Cashback Card

  • While most purchases only generate 1% rewards, every three months (quarter), they will have a bonus category with 5% cash back (Restaurants, Gas, Amazon etc.)
  • An important point to remember is that you need to activate the bonus category to be eligible for this amount; you usually get reminder emails to support you in this effort or can do it in their very user-friendly app at any time in the weeks leading up to the new Quarter
  • I consider this is my “side-kick card” that suddenly takes priority for any purchases that may align with the 5% category.  During the last few years Amazon has been the bonus category for October through December, so we take full advantage of this for Christmas gifts
  • Keep in mind that the most you can earn with the 5% bonus category is generally limited to $75 for the Quarter ($1500 of spending per Quarter can qualify for the 5% back). This is usually still hard for me to achieve in my day to day spending.
  • These rewards can be used in a very broad range of options and many gift cards
  • There appears to be no annual fee, and during your first year they will automatically double the number of Cashback rewards you earned

These two have been staples in wallet for years now, and I’ve been very happy with them.

More recently I have been using the Chase Sapphire Reserve card for most of my Dining and Travel expenses, which offers 3% rewards on these two categories, and these can be worth an additional 50% when spent through their own travel center. However, with the $450 annual fee it charges ($300 of which can be covered by an automatic travel category credit, lowering it to $150), I’m still trying to figure out if this card will deliver enough value to stand the test of time in my wallet over the long haul with these other two.

What about you?

Are there any newer credit cards that you think I should be changing to for my default and basic everyday credit cards ? What credit cards are you leveraging on your path to Financial Independence?

Details provided on credit cards have not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through the credit card issuer Affiliate Program. Full Disclaimers

Goals, Motivation

Pushing the accelerator on our Financial Independence goals in 2019

It’s time to set some goals and take action.

We’re laying out our financial goals for 2019 to accelerate our journey to Financial Independence (FI)

I want to start by wishing everyone a Happy New Year, and success with your endeavors for 2019!

I’m particularly excited about implementing new goals and ideas to push the accelerator down a little harder for our journey to FI.  The FI Community really did seem to capture a lot of mainstream media attention during 2018, and I’m sure that will be sustained as we see new developments in the near future, such as Scott Rickens’ documentary Playing with Fire.

I’ve thought hard about what specifically I want to achieve this year from a financial perspective, and I think it all boils down to these four key topics:

  • Expand out our Emergency Savings account to 6+ months of living expenses: At the moment it’s sitting at a value between four and five months of expenses, and I want to pad that out further for more peace of mind.
  • Eliminate all of our student loans and consumer debt before the end of 2019

There are several components to these debts:

  1. Paying off the last of our second-hand minivan: Once we’re done with this ~$3,500 of debt, we will have zero car payments outstanding and own two reliable vehicles outright that are meeting our family’s needs
  2. Paying off the new windows for our townhouse: Several months ago, we replaced quite a few windows throughout our townhouse. It was frustrating to pay so much money, but it was badly needed; it’s a convoluted topic worthy of its own dedicated post to explain more.
  3. Paying off my student loans from business school: I’m down to ~$13,000 outstanding and keen to eliminate this before year-end
  • Sustain maximum 401k and 403b contributions, and begin layering in 457b contributions: We’ve just started 403b contributions as I detailed in a recent post, and we’re still adjusting to what that means for our monthly budget. I suspect the 457b contributions may not begin until around September, but let’s see what 2019 holds and whether the elimination of debts can free up some of our cash-flow to get all three accounts funded this year.
  • Contribute $5,000 to my after-tax investment account and building out my portfolio: This account will naturally fluctuate up and down depending on the market, but I’ll be satisfied if I can manage to invest another five grand and grow my portfolio.

So, there you have it, that’s what I aspire to achieve financially during 2019. It feels good to write things out like that and share it; you can keep me accountable and I’ll let you know about the successes and failures as the year unfolds.

I’m also really looking forward to our Hawaii trip planned for July. We’ll follow up soon to discuss how that’s coming together in our efforts to maximize the awesomeness while minimizing our cash costs.

Best wishes with your financial goals in 2019; I hope you’re also feathering those nests and optimizing, so you can also FI and fly free.

Investing, Personal Finance

The Robinhood app: My experience and impression

Robinhood has a great interface that makes investing straightforward

Robinhood for Financial Independence: Key aspects when considering this app for trading stocks as part of your journey

This Christmas I got a copy of “The Simple Path to Wealth” by JL Collins, and I’m excited to dig in and really understand index investing even better than I currently do; I have no doubt that at the end of it, all the arguments and logic will support it as an investment strategy will make complete sense as the cornerstone of most people’s portfolios.

At the moment the bulk of my net worth is in my 401k and already allocated to index funds, but I do also really enjoy investing in some individual stocks using a Robinhood account. Their claim to fame is that they offer zero cost stock trades. It was created by two gentlemen who had experience on Wall Street building high tech trading platforms, and they recognized the real cost of trading stocks was actually pennies versus the typical $4.95+ that most platforms charge to buy and sell stock.

Nothing is free: So how does Robinhood make money?

It’s a smart and reasonable question to ask: So how does Robinhood make money? I originally went out on a limb to begin using Robinhood because I noticed they were backed by a number of big players, such as Google Ventures. I have now been using it for several years and have been thoroughly impressed and happy with my experience. I know the gentlemen on Stacking Benjamins have long been skeptical of Robinhood because the company has never provided complete clarity on how exactly they are making money.

I suspect these are some of the core avenues that they making money:

  1. Selling the trading information – I’ve read they sell the trading information from their platform – article . When I perform market orders I also sometimes wonder if my trade was truly executed at the best available price, however at the end of the day it may look off by a matter of cents, and I’m still saving dollars versus buying stock on other platforms.
  2. “Robinhood GOLD” – appears to be a lending aspect of Robinhood, which supports margin lending and temporarily borrowing funds to trade stock and take rapid advantage of opportunities. For small account this service looks to cost $6/30 days, but larger accounts can be charged up to $200/ 30 days for access to such services
  3. Trading international shares – international stocks based on exchanges outside of the United States appear to have costs ranging between $35 and $50 per trade.

I have a full list of Robinhood fees and schedules here if anyone would like to explore and understand them in more detail.

Why do I choose to buy individual stocks?

I am a curious researcher at heart, and I enjoy learning about companies and analyzing them. I am a self-confessed nerd, and I really enjoy looking at various factors such as:

  • Price to earnings ratios (P/E ratios), and forward P/E ratios
  • Cash on hand, and debt load
  • Profit margins
  • Dividend yields
  • Return on Equity
  • Areas where the business is investing for the future

I also feel a thrill when I do buy the stock, knowing that I’m steadily and actively building my “perpetual money-making machine” brick by brick. The beauty of zero cost is that it now becomes economical to buy a single share of stock when your paycheck arrives e.g. one share of Verizon for $50, where historically you would have paid another ~10% or more in fees for such a transaction at traditional brokerages.

At the end of the day I am investing after-tax dollars with Robinhood, and this will likely always remain a relatively small part of my net worth versus retirement accounts and indexing.

Robinhood for Financial Independence: These are my two suggestions

  1. Steadily accumulate and diversify for the long-term

Simply because there are no costs to trade stocks, doesn’t mean that you should go crazy buying and selling whenever you feel like it. I prefer to steadily accumulate stocks into a portfolio of companies I consider to be high quality and with a reasonable likelihood of growing well into the future. There are some exceptions, but by and large I’m focused on buying and building up over time. I don’t pretend to be the next Warren Buffet, but I do really appreciate and respect many of his general philosophies with investing. Buying quality companies and holding them for the duration is how I try to invest in my own account. I also like to get greedy when others are fearful, and I like to buy more than usual when there are market corrections and some companies appear to be “on sale”. I’m also focused on diversifying across at least a few companies and industries, and I want to spread out potential risks that could suddenly surprise even companies that we may consider well-managed.

  2. Always avoid the fees

I think minimizing fees is just an important rule of thumb to stick with in general when it comes to investing. Robinhood GOLD sounds cool and interesting, but I’m not prepared to borrow money to invest in stocks, and pay at least $6 / month for the privilege to do so. A nice feature that they offer free of charge is to get access to up to $1000 of capital as soon as you execute a transfer to Robinhood, even if it will actually take a handful of business days to officially be withdrawn from your external bank account and applied to your Robinhood account. This can be a nice feature if there is a market correction and you want to pounce on what you determine to be “good value” for a company.

Index only? You decide

So, there you have it, my experience and impressions of Robinhood in a nutshell. I can totally understand the logic of always choosing to use index fund investments, but personally I get a lot of enjoyment from getting a little more hands-on with stock investments on a small scale.

If anyone is considering Robinhood as a piece of their own journey, if you want to sign up here we would both receive a single bonus stock because of the referral. This is most likely to be something small, like Ford which is currently trading for less than $8 a share, but every little bit counts towards build that investment portfolio out.

I hope you find it useful as you consider whether it makes sense for your situation.

Disclaimer – I am not a financial advisor, and I recommend that you consult with a financial professional before making any serious financial decisions. The content on FIandFlyFree.com is for informational and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed as professional financial advice. Should you need such advice, consult a licensed financial or tax advisor.

Additional disclosures can be found here

Investing, Personal Finance, Retirement Savings

Finding satisfying 403b and 457b plans

Exploring 403b and 457b plans? There were a few important considerations as we dug into the different options available to us.

While many public schools across the country offer pension programs for their teachers, I think it’s fair to say that they are now regularly looking at ways to scale back benefits for new teachers, and over time many states are facing long-term fiscal challenges that will likely eventually lead to broken promises for their pensioners. We live in New Jersey, so I think about this a lot!

So, the smart thing to do would be to empower teachers with alternative programs, where they could take greater ownership of their future retirement plans and progress. My wife is a public-school teacher and among a group of professions who are fortunate to have a variety of vehicles at their disposal for retirement savings which includes both the 403b and 457b plans, which are both pre-tax investment vehicles. In 2019 such professions could fully fund these with $19,000 per account. The episode of ChooseFI where they outlined that it was possible for teachers to fully fund both of these accounts simultaneously has to have been the most life-changing tip so far, that will really help us in our journey; the next step is to make and free up enough money to achieve those full contributions.

Retirement savings for teachers though 403b and 457b plans will likely gain increasing importance in the years ahead, as pension plans become increasingly strained.

The catch with these plans: Watch the fees and expense ratios

The kick in the pants for teachers and other professionals with these options, is that schools will often offer a limited set of investment companies to open one of these plans with, and in many cases, these plans will only have mutual fund or annuity options with relatively high fees and expense ratios attached. This is a New York Times article that nicely captured my frustrations with this:

The index funds that so many in the FI community adore for their simplicity and low cost, are often unavailable or not easily found by the teachers. Often schools will have representatives from various providers visit and run seminars to encourage and educate the teachers about the 403b and/or 457 plans that their companies offer, but I get the impression that in general they tend to focus on selling options that are most profitable for themselves. After some research into options offered at my wife’s school, I could find two programs that worked best for us:

  1. The NEA Direct Invest program by Security Benefit

This option is a lower cost self-directed investment tool. It currently costs $35/year for balances below $50,000, and that disappears once the account balance exceeds $50,000. You will find investment options in here that include a handful of Vanguard Index funds with Expense Ratios as low as 0.04%

2. The Lincoln Investments Participant Directed Platform (PDP)

This program is not mentioned anywhere on Lincoln Investments options, and I only found this option because of conversation threads I found online (such as Bogleheads and 403bWise ). It sounds like the state teacher’s union (NJEA) has an agreement in place with Lincoln to make this platform available, even if they don’t actively encourage or advertise its existence.  We recently emailed Lincoln ( inquiries@lincolninvestment.com ) and gained access to the documentation to establish an account. It looks like the annual custodial fee is $35 and there are also offer a variety of Vanguard Index funds with low expense ratios.

Our decision and next steps

Ultimately, we chose the Lincoln Investment PDP for simplicity, because it appears that platform will support both 403b and 457b plan contributions, while the NEA Direct program currently only offers a 403b. Our long-term goal is to simultaneously fully fund both a 403b and 457b plan. That would allow us to be saving $38,000 in pre-tax income towards retirement for my wife.

To date we have been fully funding my 401k contributions, and historically avoided contributing to 403b and 457b plans because we were always so demoralized by the available investment options and associated fees. To be honest I realize that has probably been a mistake on my part. Saving in less than ideal mutual funds, and their typically higher expense ratios (>0.5%) is still better than not saving at all, especially when you factor in the tax savings associated with these retirement savings vehicles.

Knowledge is power, and we are now on the path towards fully funding a 403b and 457b plan for my wife, and utilizing more optimal vehicles with low expense ratios to boot. We’ve only just started on this path with 403b contributions, and it will take a bit to adjust our life and budget without that $19,000 in pretax income, but I’m hoping we can stretch ourselves in 2019 to also begin funding the 457b plan, and then ultimately long-term progressing towards fully funding the 457b and really maximizing our pre-tax buckets.

Some may argue that the 457b should be the priority, because you could access those funds at an earlier age if you separate from the employer, which is a key difference to 403bs and supportive of FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) aspirations; but to be honest I feel that’s splitting hairs, and I’m determined to quickly get the stage where both are being fully funded, its just going to take time, focus, and determination to get there.

I’m a geek, but I find it exciting to think about getting to a stage where we will be saving $57,000 before taxes through our combined 401k + 403b + 457b plans across both of our jobs. Steadily contributing that for a decade with compounding could really lay a solid financial bedrock to FIRE things up. 

Good luck to everyone exploring their 403b and 457b plan options, and stay wary. I’d love to hear what others have done to optimize the 403b and 457b options that may be available for their professions.

Disclaimer – I am not a financial advisor, and I recommend that you consult with a financial professional before making any serious financial decisions. The content on FIandFlyFree.com is for informational and educational purposes only and should not be construed as professional financial advice. Should you need such advice, consult a licensed financial or tax advisor.

Additional disclaimers can be found here

Hawaii 2019, Travel Hacking

Flying from N.J. to Hawaii for $89.60

We’re just getting started with travel hacking, and this summer we’re taking a trip to one of our dream destinations: Hawaii

Hawaii has been coming up regularly as a dream destination within our family for several years now. We have been getting more intentional with our travel hacking and credit card opening throughout 2018, and I really wanted to push the envelope and take the opportunity to see if we could pull off an amazing vacation for 2019 with the fruits of our effort and focus.

We’re dreaming of the sites to see on Kauai

I know the topic often comes up in the FI community: “How do I get my partner / spouse on board with the FI lifestyle?”. It can be challenging to have significant others fully buy into a life of less spending now, to help build and shape an exciting tomorrow. While I haven’t faced many challenges in my own personal situation, booking this trip truly has been a ‘game changer’ in helping to clearly prove the amazing benefits that can result from getting intentional with travel hacking. Lately my wife has been far more dedicated to the cause, and she has even been getting into the research to help identify what card we should open next to piece together an amazing and complete vacation for as little cash as possible.

So how did we travel hack and book these flights?

I think there are a handful of important traits that are very important for FI and successful travel hacking to get the most value for your efforts:

  1. Be as flexible as possible – In our case the points necessary to fly from Newark to LAX was the lowest for the entire month during July 4th, a date when most people want to relax and celebrate rather than travel.
  2. Be creative and optimize – In this case we’ll be flying to and from LAX with United Airlines, and then flying American Airlines from LAX to Kauai and back. Is it convenient this way? Not particularly. Did it provide us with the flights we needed at the lowest expense? Yes!

The non-monetary “travel miles” expense for the trip cost us 130,000 United MileagePlus Mile, and 100,000 British Airways Avios Miles.

United MileagePlus:

The outbound United Flight was a mere 50,000 miles (12,500 per person) given the July 4th date, and we splurged a little for the 80,000 miles (20,000 per person) return flight, because we felt flying direct would save us headaches with the kids.

I first took out a United MileagePlus credit card several years ago, and that included a 50,000 mile sign up. To be completely honest and transparent, I have also had some occasional Business class airfares to Europe for my work that have also steadily accumulated over the years to help cover this total number of miles.

British Airways Avios Miles:

With American Airlines partnered with British Airways as a OneWorld partner, this made flight options from LAX to Hawaii relatively easy. Astonishingly it only cost 50,000 Avios miles each way to Hawaii and back (12,500 miles per person per flight), for a total of 100,000 Avios miles to go from LAX to LIH (Kauai) and back to LAX.

This past Summer I took out the British Airways Visa Card from Chase. They provide you with the opportunity to earn up to 100,000 bonus miles depending how much you spend on the card: 50,000 miles after $3,000, another 25,000 miles after achieving $10,000 in spending, and final 25,000 miles with $20,000 in spending for the year. Now I want to be clear that the primary reason I successfully charged $20,000 to this card over a matter of months is because I was able to use it for paying down an existing student loan that I had. I was prepared for paying off that student loan at that time anyway, it just worked out in my favor to do so using this tiered credit card reward program. So, by the end of the Summer I had earned 120,000 Avios miles, when you added in the points per dollar spent on various categories.

Here we come Hawaii

Well, there you have it: Our family of four is flying to Hawaii in the Summer of 2019 for 230,000 airline miles that we mostly acquired from travel hacking, and $89.60 of hard cold cash to cover the “September 11th Security Fees” of each flight segment.

Stay tuned for future posts as we share our plans for covering the hotels and rental car. At the end of the day I have no doubt we will spend a reasonable amount of cash during this trip for various adventures and sightseeing tours; This past summer my children got a taste for zip-lining and I have no doubt that will be a priority of theirs for Hawaii too. However, my goal is to really build out a truly amazing and enjoyable vacation that everyone will remember, leveraging as much travel hacking and rewards as I can reasonably use, to deliver us a vacation at a tiny fraction of the cost that most people would be spending.

We’re really doing this, we’re travel hacking our way to Hawaii this Summer. Let’s do this!!

Background, Getting Started

SAVE. SAVOR. SOAR!

Save. Savor. Soar! This is our tagline and mission as we approach this journey to Financial Independence.

I think these three words succinctly capture what this journey is all about for me, and I’d like to stick with this as our tagline for FI & Fly Free:

  1. SAVE: In general, we need to save at a relatively extraordinary rate compared to the average person, to build that “perpetual money-making machine” that will fund our freedom
  2. SAVOR: Tomorrow is not guaranteed, and its important that we enjoy the journey itself towards Financial Independence (FI). Personally, I want a sense of balance between saving aggressively, but also choosing to pursue and fund areas of my life that bring a lot of joy: travel, giving, etc.
  3. SOAR:  Take the reigns and live your dreams: Fly Free!

More of our Backstory: Early in our journey to FI

I work in Healthcare and my wife is a teacher. We currently both enjoy most aspects of our jobs, and I think our careers still carry a lot of opportunity for growth in the coming years, but personally the allure of having complete control of our time and daily efforts is strong.

We live in New Jersey (NJ) with two children, and they bring an enormous amount of joy to our lives, but between work and family it can often get extraordinarily hectic. While Mr. Money Mustache is a personal hero of mine, he’s not particularly supportive of the New Jersey and New York region when pursuing FI; primarily for weather and cost of living reasons based on what I read, but I’ll do my best to challenge these assumptions and overcome the odds.

I consider myself both curious and highly analytical, and I enjoy both thinking deeply and writing. All of this combined should yield a lot of interesting ideas that readers could consider for their own journeys.

We are not currently at or near FI, we are relatively early on in this journey to be honest. We do currently have a higher than normal household income, but I think you’ll find us to be relatable and down to earth in many ways. I don’t envision us embracing extreme frugality to achieve FI, but I’m positive we can and will embrace a relatively simple life for living in “Jersey”. There is still plenty of fat to cut from our spending, and I’ll keep note of the areas where we are streamlining things to help raise our savings rate.  

Today we live in a townhouse, and we own two basic cars with a lot of miles. We use credit cards and are a few months into a more intentional travel hacking process, but recognize how critical it is to pay them off in full every month.

Front-load the sacrifice

In a recent episode of ChooseFI, I believe they were speaking with the White Coat Investor and the phrase came up: “Front-load the sacrifice”. This is such a visually rich phrase that really sums up what is necessary to achieve FI, and FIRE (Financial Independence and Retire Early) in particular.

It again gets back to the space shuttle analogy, and putting that hard work and effort in at the beginning to get the momentum going, and then over time you will have things so much easier.

I’ve chosen to focus on FI rather than FIRE specifically with this blog. I still need to explore the analytics and quantifying what it will take to get us to FI, but I am envisioning and dreaming of a roughly ten to fifteen-year journey that will have us retiring in our early fifties. And when I say retire, I’m more envisioning pursuing hobbies and maybe my own business; I don’t anticipate stopping all work indefinitely. Maybe some extended travel and exploration after wrapping up the standard employee work.

Hey, thanks for sticking with us and reading through our second post!

Getting Started, Motivation

Just. Get. Started.

This is the very start of our financial independence journey blog, and the theme is fitting: It’s important to just get started.

There is a good chance that you will find this to be a simple and consistent theme for people pursuing financial independence, and living a meaningful life in general: The single most important thing is to take action, and get the journey started.

You don’t need to have experience. You don’t need to have all the details figured out, and a perfectly efficient way to get there. Just getting started with putting your ideas and dreams into action will immediately put you ahead of so many others in this world.  

The most important aspect is really just be willing to get started and give it a try, bringing a positive and curious attitude to think about how you can continually improve your approach, and before you know it you will be soaring through the air faster than a falcon.

This blog is an authentic example of me living by this very philosophy. I don’t know how to build websites, or how to navigate WordPress,but I’m getting started and I will just keep iterating and trying different things to continually improve it.

It seemed like such a fitting topic for our very first blog post, and I genuinely feel it is the most critical aspect to keep in mind whenever you are interested in pursuing something new. There is an enormous gap between wanting to do something and actually doing something, and the reality is that most people can’t be bothered.

In many ways its very similar to a rocket launch: So much of the energy that you need to expend will occur at the very beginning to get you off the ground. But after a few moments you start that momentum and things get easier. As you push onward you begin to find the atmosphere thinning, earths gravity losing its grip, and before you know it you are traveling faster than you ever thought would be possible; You’re really flying!

Welcome to FI and Fly Free (FI&FF)!!

We’re so excited to have you here, thank you for taking the time to explore this. I really see the purpose of this blog as being an outlet for chronicling our steady journey towards Financial Independence (FI), which I feel is the purest form freedom that I can imagine.

The FI&FF goal: To be inspiring, entertaining, and delivering practical ideas to help others towards FI

My hope is to build a platform that readers will find interesting, inspiring, and generate ideas that could be considered for their own journeys. I’ve heard the gentlemen at ChooseFI use the phrase “aggregation of marginal gains”, and I’m a big believer of this philosophy to just keep making minor improvements and efforts, that will compound over time to generate substantially better outcomes in how we live.

What to expect:

I’ll aim to release two posts each week, and I’ll try to keep these posts bite-sized and something that can be read in less than five minutes. I am still working a W-2 job, so there may be periods where my work life gets crazy and the posts suffer, but I’m determined to be disciplined with the regularity.

About Us:

I believe we have done a reasonably good job at managing our financial lives compared to average already, but as you know, we in the FI community want to achieve the extraordinary, and you’ll see there is still an enormous amount of room us to optimize and accelerate us down the path towards Financial Independence.

At this point we do not have a specific amount of money or time frame in mind for achieving Financial Independence; We’re just seeking to continually raise our savings rate and optimize our efforts and approaches. As we find and explore new tools to help us evaluate or turbocharge our progress,we’ll share it all here.

We don’t have all the answers, but I hope you’ll consider walking with us on this meandering journey, and that ultimately together we can: FI and Fly Free. We’re glad you just got started.