April 19, 2017

Singing the no-vacation blues

It's been 6 years since our last vacation: how should we break this drought?I’m a recovering workaholic and it’s been 6 years since my last real* vacation.**

*defined as a time where I wasn’t required to log onto work and I didn’t do it more than once out of worry that something had become a steaming pile of waste on fire.

**maternity leave doesn’t count as a vacation in any stretch of the word and I will slap you with a wet fish if you try to argue with me about that. Fair warning.

Despite my recovering workaholic label, this isn’t entirely a situation of my own making. I didn’t mean to go this long without a true break. We haven’t just been sitting at home, dully Kermit-flailing at our keyboards in an endless grind. We’ve logged more travel for fun days in the past few years than I have in my entire career before this! It’s just that I’ve been making it work by doing it all, at the same time: traveling, working, and now, also parenting.

It hasn’t been without its flaws but it has included some amazing food so it’s hard to argue against the logic that if I can have it all, by doing it all, why not?

Because when you’re a recovering workaholic, you shouldn’t be looking for reasons to keep your work strapped to your hip!

Truly, the trouble with knowing that you can’t coast on talent, knowing that you made it to this point in life or work by dint of unbelievable amounts of hard work is that it’s incredibly hard to care about the research that says taking a break and refreshing your brain is good for you AND your work. That was my problem, early in my career. Stepping away meant I was losing ground and will have to work harder to catch up on my return. Like Leo McGarry (The West Wing) who didn’t want to take out the time for his AA meetings, I don’t want to be a half hour dumber than everyone else!

But that’s stupid. For one thing, information acquired as it develops takes far more time than catching up on most situations to get up to speed. It actually only took Leo about three minutes to arrive at the same place everyone else was waiting, for their next update. Surely nothing at my job is so complex or critical as Aaron Sorkin’s fictional White House, The West Wing version! (versus the American President version which is a whole other thing).

For another, your brain is a resource and running it continuously without respite is shoddy brain ownership. Even actual machines need downtime and maintenance.

What’s my point? My point is that even knowing all of the above, it’s been six years since my last vacation.

Money is about to be anywhere from pretty tight to OMGTIGHT, but you know me, I’ve already made contingency plans. I have a stockpile of points / miles and I will plan a real vacation.

But my laptop may still come with me because my addiction to being connected is not on the table for discussion at this time. One problem per post, please.

Assuming a small budget and travel companion who varies from being an utter delight to a tiny terrorist, and a preference for being with Seamus rather than boarding him, I think we may be talking road trip!

Colorado? Canada? Washington?

:: Where would you head after a long vacation drought? When and what was your last vacation? 


September 28, 2016

FinCon16 recap

FinCon16: My first FinCon in San Diego!Money Blogger’s First FinCon!

Y’all. I haven’t shown my face publicly as a money blogger in ten years. Plus, I’m an introvert. FinCon16 seems like a Pretty Bad Idea for a pseudonymous blogger. But it also sounded like an awful lot of fun and so, with some persuading, the 6th annual year of the PTMoney FinCon was my year.

I met so many people and didn’t want to depart with haste, not even once.  Oh wait, I did, once but that was just from one session.

The thing about FOMO

When I finally got off the hotel shuttle and walked into the hotel, I barely suppressed the urge to raise my arms and bellow “TO ME, MY MONEY NERDS”. Only the knowledge that going all Professor X on the half empty lobby might end the fun Very Quickly stopped me.

Friends on Twitter were feeling the FOMO well before we left, and it’s certain that if I weren’t a veteran of SDCC and ECCC (comic cons, my other love), that feeling could have ruined the trip from the get-go. Heck, I was Right There, and by arriving late in the day, I was already missing out on all the Wednesday activities – the Experian dim sum lunch, the chance to meet and chat with people before the conference madness started.

The reality is missing out isn’t a risk, it’s a certainty. Even while on site, I was missing out because there was just simply no way I’d make it to every session, meet every person I wanted to meet, and achieve All The Things. For example, I almost got to say hi to Tonya of Budget and the Beach but she was moving too quickly, I never found Kathleen Celmins of Frugal Portland, Mr. 1500 Days was only identifiable on the first day in a sheep tee, and those are just the few that my sleep-deprived brain can recall right now.

The only sure thing about my health is I can never accurately predict if I’d be physically up to it. As my dear friend Abby knows only too well, chronic fatigue is an unpredictable, abusive drunk that can attack you at any time, without rhyme or reason.

Thankfully, a long history with SDCC has taught me that it’s not worth agonizing over that which you can’t do – enjoy the moment you’re in.

Hugging the stuffing out of old friends

I wasn’t prepared with a list of people that I wanted to meet but I tweeted reminders to myself each day to keep myself from going full-introvert and social-avoidance. It’s been too long since I saw Lazy Man and Money or J.Money. I just met Athena in person this trip, but I’ve been her sounding board for so long that I’d forgotten we’d never met. Thanks to Abby of I Pick Up Pennies, Donna Freedman of Surviving and Thriving, and Crystal of Budgeting in the Fun Stuff, I had introductions to a plethora of people and made some wonderful new friends.

If you’re an introvert, I highly recommend getting adopted into an extrovert’s clan. Riding that extrovert’s wake makes a huge difference in whether you hide in a corner and pretend that plant is fascinating, or have an awesome Saturday ooohing over JD Roth’s puppy videos, and Pauline’s Great Dane.

Also, they’re way better at making introductions to others when my response to “Hi, I’m [Blogger you read].” was a halting “Hi! I’m .. uh … oh. What name do I use?”

Luckily, Joe Taxpayer, Maria Nedeva, Sarah Li Cain, Ms. ONL, Cait Flanders, Femme Frugality, Jessica Moorhouse, and Emma Lincoln were kind souls who didn’t hold it against me.

Highlights …

The best thing I did was have friends who understood my limitations existed and helped me stay engaged without pressure.

The best thing I did before coming was spending years forming deep friendships with people. Who knew that would make this meeting thing so much better?

My favorite quest was Abby’s and my quest to find a water bottle. She had lost hers, and I’d forgotten to bring mine, so we swept the Expo Hall in search of the perfect replacement bottle. In the process, we collected some other fun, decent quality, swag: a beach mat, Vanguard’s fantastic zippered tote, an insulated thermos small enough for PiC’s coffee when we road trip, an insulated tote that’ll be great when we picnic, a Swagbucks gift card, and a handful of unbelievably soft t-shirts. I’d sworn off collecting any more t-shirts but these were like cloud puffs. They had to come with me. JuggerBaby’s favorites were all from Donna’s picks: a squishy blue pig, a blow-up beach ball, the emoji plushes. PiC also loved the running socks I snagged for him. All useful things!

Ghost riding in the Vanguard bag, the infamous Ally cookies, one of our breakfasts

The best surprise was winning $500 in the PennyHoarder social media giveaway! I’d been concerned about the cost of the trip since AGSL hasn’t been generating income this year and this was an awesome offset.

The best unexpected edit to my agenda was that PiC braved TWO solo flights with JuggerBaby so that they could join me and have a birthweek dinner together.

My favorite session was a tie between the FIRE talk and Grant Baldwin’s talk on booking speaking gigs (which, if you know me, is the opposite of what I’d be interested in). The former was just interesting chatter about how the panelists choose to live their FIRE lives, the latter was clear, great actionable information, and persuasive.

I’ve been going to San Diego for over ten years, but I loved seeing it through the eyes of other non-Californian bloggers. Everyone had a sunset photo!

…and lowlights

The grossest moment was that jerk security guard working for the hotel accosting me to say that if I ate that cupcake I was holding it would ruin my figure.

The second worst moment was understanding that I wasn’t the only one who had to hear unsolicited comments about our appearance. Other attendees commiserated with their reports of harassment after I vented my frustration on Twitter.

This shouldn’t be something we have to deal with.

In the words of Monty Python, “it got better.” I made an official report, PT Money and Jessica Bufkin (the event organizer) dealt with it, and though the hotel’s handling of the situation is purely crap, I am satisfied that FinCon doesn’t sweep the harassment of their attendees under the rug. Next step: heading it off before it happens.

Last, the final keynote speaker was bad. For a minute I wasn’t going to discuss that but if not here, then where?

The speaker sent an interminable period bragging about how he’s rich and oh by the way, SO rich. He was so over I was convinced it was some absurdist parody, but it wasn’t.

I walked into a business conference, and walked out of a frat house presided over by an entitled pontificating Frat Bro bragging on how he’s rich and had sex in the company bathroom. Such business. Very class. Wow.

fc16

The key points he made that would have been useful were:

  • making it as an entrepreneur takes time, work, and many failed attempts to pay off,
  • winning the lotto isn’t the way to get rich,
  • there was probably a third but it was lost in the grandstanding.

The point he really made was: When you have enough money, you can do and say anything you want. Remind you of any particular unqualified political candidate?

He clearly had some fans, particularly when he started flashing cash and stuffing it down the shift of his attendee helper, perhaps signalling the shift from a frat house to a strip club, but there were plenty of quietly disgusted attendees later on as well.

The money part

Airfare, $600
I planned for my flight, but then PiC and JuggerBaby flew down too! For a limited time, JuggerBaby is free as a lap infant. Boy howdy is it going to be painful to start paying for a 3rd seat always.

Dog boarding, $150
It was just too much for PiC to manage all of Seamus’s medications and supplements while chasing a child so he was better off taking a short vacation with our sitter. He got to run with the pack, and cuddle with a puppy, so you know he wasn’t missing us at all. And the sitter is great – she does all his medications, takes them for hikes, and washed his bedding for us!

Hotel, $760
I originally agonized over the decision to have a single room to myself but it was the right call, not least because of my surprise visitors, but also because I needed a bit of quiet decompression time each night. Which isn’t to say that my FinCon buddies wouldn’t have been good roommates, but sometimes you just need to be alone.

Also! I signed up for the SPG Double-Triple your points promotion just before we went, and opted for the Green Choice program, so my 4-night stay netted around 5000 SPG points.

Transportation, $75

The shuttle to and from the hotel was free for all of us. Free and they were pretty good – I didn’t fear for my safety going to and from.

We walked to the restaurant for dinner the one night we all went out together and to the deli for lunch but that was about it for accessible dining. We had to catch cabs or Uber to and from the Gaslamp.

We had to park at the airport at the other end (darn car seats!) and after a coupon, the cost was around $40. Coupons for airport parking, who knew? And before you ask, yes, I absolutely checked for cash back rebates on top of that but there wasn’t a stackable deal. Had to try!

Food, $100

I picked up some provisions, transport kindly provided by Abby, at the local grocery store but I should have grabbed more. Breakfast provided by the conference each morning was hit or miss. Each day, the provisions were fewer and ran out faster. As Ms ONL noted it was noticeably beige food: carbs, carbs, more carbs. I was hankering for some protein and roughable but it wasn’t happening at breakfast.

FinCon provided tickets for food truck lunch on our first day. Abby wisely insisted that we hit the lunch trucks first before the place filled up. To absolutely no one’s surprise, I had the BAT (bacon, arugula, tomato) grilled cheese sandwich. Bacon and tomato? I’m there. Tomatoes and greens? Taste bud heaven. I was so full that I had to pass on the Vanguard cupcakes that day. (Not the next day, though!)

As a birthday treat from Crystal, we had In’n’Out burgers for lunch the next day. Then it was all about the Mexican food: awesome chips and salsa to go with our carnitas for my birthday dinner, and enormous burritos on Friday night across the street from the Ignite event. I missed some hosted Happy Hours, unfortunately, let’s pretend the nibbles there weren’t amazing.

We need a suite with a kitchen so we can throw together some healthy meals. Too bad we couldn’t book out an enormous Residence Inn and host family style meals. Cooking for small scale groups is bonding, right?

TOTAL, $1685

FinCon17: Dallas?

As much fun as I had this year, this is too expensive a conference to attend two years in a row without business goals in mind and business income to cover it.

San Diego is on the same coast and our bill was a whopper.

I did pick up a badge during the Flash Sale but that’s no guarantee of my attendance.

At a minimum, the flight and hotel have to be booked on miles and points if AGSL isn’t earning enough to send me out. Say it isn’t, then I have about 7-9 months to amass enough points and miles to book in time, assuming our other travel commitments don’t eat into the stash.

I have to be able to take 5-6 days off work to travel as well. I’m still swamped under a mountain of work and the outlook isn’t good for the next six weeks. That’s got to change, or I might collapse under thousands of emails!

Making Connections

A great point that both Ms. ONL and Ms. Montana made was that a huge part of this blogging conference was meeting people. Whether just socially, or for specific mentoring, we grow, strengthen and deepen our relationships when we spend time with each other. Even for an introvert, this was a wholly enjoyable event because of the socializing, not in spite of it, and that’s saying something!

Not everyone can spend this kind of money or effort to attend, though – it’s a lot of money and a lot of time. Heck, obviously I’m not sure if we’ll be able to repeat the experience, Dallas-style, but I’m taking steps to making it happen.

:: How do you make and maintain connections to your people? Who are your people? Would you be interested in attending FinCon, as a blogger or a reader?

August 22, 2016

San Diego Comic Con 2016 Recap

SDCC 2016 Recap: Yet another year of conventioneeringOur travel cost breakdown

Food and lodgings, $200
Gas, $150
Parking, trolley: $100
Gifts and things, $150

Total: $550

I normally love San Diego Comic Con. Perfect weather, all geek all the time, lots of fresh air and walking and being surrounded by people who are just there to enjoy the goodness.

These days, it’s so much more fraught to prepare for. The lottery system for the badges. The lottery system for the hotels. The lottery system for the parking passes. Everything depends on luck and that has my insides clenched with worry that we’ll miss something this time. This year I did miss something. We didn’t get a slot in the lottery and forgot to secure parking passes after the lottery was over. I panicked, then a friend saved me with her extra passes. (They were pricey but uber convenient for our JuggerBaby needs.)

I found myself dreading the week, rather than anticipating it. I wondered if it was a mistake to go. By the time we were a week out, already having spent far too much time working and hosting guests, a probable panic attack set in and if I could have, I’d have cancelled the whole thing.

Thankfully, by the time we reached San Diego, most of that feeling had dissipated.

On food.

We have a tradition of staying with family friends – friends who have become family, over the years – and San Diego just wouldn’t be the same without staying with them. They’re not just good company, Mama S is an amazing cook and does a fantastic family dinner every night. I could eat that baked pasta and garlic bread for a week straight. I could eat the pancit and lumpia for a month. It’s probably a good thing that it’s not an option…

We packed our lunches and snacks, as always, to avoid the atrocious and overpriced convention center food and enjoyed leftovers for breakfast. Best week of eating all year long.

SDCCA

On having fun.

SDCC is just too big. It overflows from the convention center out to all the nearby hotels and their ballrooms. The whole area out front is usually packed with promotional booths for tv shows, with prizes and treats. This year it was an enormous Superman statue, the Batmobile, and a Kristen Bell show, with an ice cream parlor theme. The crowds and the lines and the noise and all of it don’t bother me. It should. I normally hate all of that. But for this? It’s just right.

The downside is that I logged far more steps than is healthy for me. We had to walk three miles to get to the Marriott to get our badges on Wednesday whereupon they insisted that JuggerBaby had to physically be with me to pick up zir badge. So that was a wasted trip and then we had to go back with zir on a busy Thursday, wasting precious time between naps.

We took it almost as easy this year as we did when I was pregnant, but this time we shared the extra load. JuggerBaby rode piggyback in our Craigslist-purchased ErgoBaby ($50!) with me in the mornings when I was fresh, PiC backpacked zir in the afternoons. We walked the floor together discovering all kinds of new cute things, and visiting old favorites. It was a weird year, we bought more art then anything else and that’s never happened before.

I caught a couple of panels while PiC and JuggerBaby went exploring on their own. That always feels a bit luxurious because, though PiC is happy to give me a break, I always have a tinge of guilt that he’s doing all the heavy lifting whether I’m there or not so we tend to stick together more than not.

:: Do you have an annual vacation destination? What would it be if you didn’t? 

June 22, 2016

Our experience: Flying with your toddler won’t kill you

How to fly with a toddler Depending on how it goes, you might wish it had, but it won’t.

Spoiler Alert: We survived flying with an active, task oriented, curious, very mobile toddler!

We took two trips this year that required flying, changing time zones for one. The flights ranged from pretty good to Are we there, yet??

We flew Alaska Air for the first time in a decade, and discovered they were both pretty infant-friendly, and had a nifty 20-minute baggage guarantee that meant we waited zero time at baggage claim. I LOVED that. There were no other children on our Alaska Air flights but the flight attendants were actively engaged with us as parents, and offered us coloring books and crayons. They also encouraged us to belt JuggerLB in when appropriate, reassuring us that safety was more important than avoiding crying. All of that was really helpful in calming my slight case of nerves since it was our first flight and I didn’t know how ze would react to all of it. This flight was only about three hours so it was a useful data point in seeing how an airline might handle parents flying with children, and how JuggerLB handled travel.

We then crossed time zones with United, which had no baggage delivery guarantee, but was pretty quick. On the flip side, they misplaced our stroller for a while, and that gave us a bit of a scare. They weren’t actively unfriendly towards kids, but they definitely didn’t have anything for them either. While we were prepared to entertain JuggerLB, every little bit helps.

Booking midday and midweek flights

At this stage of life, I’m finally all about the Tuesday / Wednesday / Thursday flights.

We flew with JuggerLB as a lap infant but since the midday and midweek flight was only partly full, the flight attendants shuffled seat assignments to make sure we had a seat for hir anyway. As long as we didn’t get the absolute back row, we didn’t care where they put us. On Alaska, at least, it seemed to be such a routine thing they didn’t even mention it to us. The drawback of booking a midday flight is that it cuts into both morning and afternoon naps, and for a shorter flight, JuggerLB isn’t about to sleep and miss a minute of travel fun.

Getting to our destination with plenty of daylight, whether in a new city or getting back home, was a new and delightful change. We typically get in late at night when we travel and I much prefer the midday arrival. We had time to settle in and have a leisurely dinner without cutting into a full night’s rest.

Things I found especially useful

For quiet play, I left all the chiming or electronic toys at home. Instead, we packed board books, plastic rings, colorful window clings. Your mileage may vary from airline to airline but on one flight, we were offered a small box of crayons and coloring book which we happily accepted, and everyone was given snacks and drinks in plastic cups which came in very handy for more toddler distraction.

We packed multipurpose washcloths for cleaning up spills, to hold taut and form a pretend tray for LB to stack toys on, and save my clothes from sticky accidents. Drool bibs were a must because a teething toddler is drippy drooly, empty water bottles doubled as toys, and hir velcro tabbed shoes were entertainment for a solid ten minutes at a time.

We had our own snack bag: crackers, pretzels and cheese, raisins and pre-cut fruit all staved off the hunger between milk sessions. Ze was being weaned off bottles for our first set of flights but travel was not the time to be fussing about cups with those uncoordinated hands. SFO TSA was remarkably efficient, by the by, they simply sent us through with hir, and scanned all hir liquids, the stroller, and the car seat, and even helped me carry the car seat over to our pile of stuff after the security check. Pleasant and helpful – never knew they could be so good!

Plastic baggies were huge time-savers. I stored clean clothes, extra empty bottles, diapers and wipes, and medicine in them. When things spilled, as they do, the wet stuff went into the plastic bag and we moved right along.

First flight recap

LB was bouncy-excited about a plane full of hostages to hir. They were all in one place and couldn’t escape!

We were lucky, the flight attendants were already rearranging the passengers for weight distribution so they graciously made sure that we had an extra seat for LB. Wonderful surprise! We did lots of in-seat play, focusing on keeping hir attention on us and our games, taking advantage of that third seat to move more freely and keep toys on the seats. Ze zeroed in on rearranging the seat back reading material for at least 20-40 minutes, so we were scrupulously careful about not letting hir actually touch the seat back. The people in front of us weren’t crankypants and giving us the evil eye to begin with, like some child-haters do, and we weren’t about to give anyone cause for it.

When the wiggly was uncontainable, the two of them did lots of walking up and down the aisle, waving and smiling. Ze made a friend of most people with hir smiles, and more probably with hir generally quiet play. I think ze hollered in excitement about three times and cried once. But ze completely missed takeoff and landing, impervious to the pressure changes, and may that forever be the case.

Second flight recap

We did all in-seat play, due to unexpected turbulence, but we had a few unlooked for perks. The plane wasn’t full, again, so the attendants rearranged seating to give hir a seat which the person in our row was offering to do (random nice people!) when he thought we’d been separated, AND the middle seat in front of us was empty. That meant we could let hir play with the seat back materials and also use the tray. We don’t let hir use or touch the trays if people are in the seat. Ze likes to bang things on the tray, or bang it up and down, and that’s just rude.

We thought we needed the iPad but we never even got to most of hir regular toys because ze was having so much fun pulling out the safety cards and rearranging them. I’d brought some cool window clings that ze didn’t quite know what to do with so we spent half an hour with me placing them on the window and hir removing them. Those things probably won’t be able to cling to anything ever again.

Third flight recap

I felt like a terrible parent when we realized that ze was having teething pain after we took off. Ze has never noticed take off or landing, I should mention, so far ze has had good luck with the change in pressure. May that always be the case! Since ze hadn’t been drooling or teething for a few days, I’d packed up all hir medications and checked the bag. ERROR. I won’t be making that mistake again! An hour into the flight, ze was huddled, miserable and feverish, and in need of Motrin.

We lucked out in sitting near a lovely family with an infant of their own, and who hadn’t foolishly checked in their medications so they gave us their travel bottle. I offered to pay or replace it but they waved me off. It’s amazing how nice some people can be.

We had some trouble getting hir to take all the meds but the side effect of hir discomfort was that ze took two catnaps on the long flight. That’s totally abnormal and was clearly because ze wasn’t feeling well but it got us through the flight somewhat less exhausted than if we’d had to entertain hir for the full 5 hours.

Fourth flight recap

No such mercy on this flight, though. Not that I’m wishing JuggerBaby was sick, even if ze is easier when sick. I just hoped that ze would have found it old hat enough at this point to relax and nap. Instead, ze played hard and grouched harder. There was some crying on this flight, and that sucked. We took it in turns to play, feed, and distract hir, wishing heartily for time to pass faster.

Obviously we made it back safely and each in our respective pieces but you couldn’t have sighed a bigger sigh of relief than we did once ze was fed, clean, and put to bed. HOME SWEET HOME.

:: Do you find flying stressful? What makes it easier? 

June 20, 2016

Emerald City 2016

Emerald City Comic Con 2016: We'll definitely do this againOur travel cost breakdown

Lodgings, 48,000 StarPoints / $0 (cost if paid out of pocket, $859.65)*
Airfare for 3, $350
Rental car, $250
Boarding, $450
Taxi, $50
Groceries and eating out, $240
Gas, $20
Gifts and things, $100

total: $1460

* This is why I love my SPG American Express. We pay a $95 annual fee, and redeem an average of $500-$1000 in hotel room value per year.

On food.
Meals were eclectic. Usually our lunches or dinners are the highlight of the food experience but it was flipped this trip. Lunches were picked up from a food truck (meh) and sandwich shop (awesome). Dinners ranged from fantastic Indian food, to average sushi (which still makes me sad to this day, I was so looking forward to it), to sandwiches from the amazing deli. We supplemented with the free Noosa yogurt they kept handing out at the convention center – JuggerBaby is a HUGE FAN.

Breakfasts were the fun stuff. PiC would take JuggerBaby out for an adventure every morning and they’d bring me back some yummy tidbit from Pike Place or something thereabouts. Favorites: Piroshky Piroshky, The Crumpet Shop, Honest Biscuit and Top Pot Donuts.

On tourist stuff and having fun.
We were in town for Emerald City Comic Con and to meet up with local friends. It’s great to be centrally located or located close by one another so we can easily spend a little time on the Con floor and then get back for JuggerBaby’s nap or to have dinner with friends. We still haven’t been to the Space Needle but I’d like to one day, just to do it.

:: Have you visited Seattle? Do you have any must-see or must-eat recommendations? What’s your usual travel budget for a longer than a weekend trip? 

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