April 2018 - Smart Money Seed

4/19/18

How I Took A $4000+ Flight To Hawaii For $82-And How You Can Too!

4/19/2018


Smart Money Squad, how have we been doing? It’s been a while since I last checked in. That’s because we’ve been working hard behind-the-scenes on some awesome content, all in the name of saving you some money! Today, we get to talk about one of my favorite topics…TRAVEL!

Who doesn’t love flying on the cheap? I know I’m always looking for the best deals on flights, hotels, excursions, you name it…but that often comes with a time investment. I’m here to take the time commitment away from you, giving you the step-by-step details you need to book that awesome trip you’ve been planning for years. Want to go to Europe? How about a cross-country baseball trip? Everybody has their own travel dreams, and with our points & miles game, we can achieve that and much more.

If you need a back-to-basics crash course on some of the methods we use to travel on the cheap, check out our 'Vacation Like a Baller' piece. Earning enough points & miles to see the world for free may seem hard, but I can promise you it's not as bad as it looks. Take it from one of our own, Christian, who's knee-deep in trying to earn the Southwest Companion pass from two credit card bonuses. He's doing an excellent job and is well on his way to snagging some awesome flights with Rosie, all on the cheap.

To take a page from one of my favorite trivia games (HQ), let's get down to the nitty-gritty. We're cleared for takeoff...here's the step-by-step guide you need to book the trip of your dreams, all for a fraction of the cost!


Step One: Narrow In On Your Destination

The first mistake lots of travelers make is casting a wide net when deciding where to travel. While it’s nice to have lots of ideas on where you want to go, if you can nail down exactly where you want to take a trip, it’ll pay dividends in the long run. We need to make a decision on where we want to go so we can pinpoint exactly what type of points we’ll need to make that dream a reality!

For Kayleigh and I, that was a stellar points redemption to the tropical oasis of Hawaii. We traveled with Kayleigh’s parents, who were generous enough to pay for our lodging while we were there for 8 (EIGHT!?!) days. As I type this, it’s snowing in Ohio in April, which is certainly making me long for pina coladas on the beach with no Sunday scaries inbound.

Our view from the lanai in Ko'Olina, Oahu. Not too shabby!
Pina Coladas, No Work, No Worries
Anyways, since we did not need to pay for our housing, we were determined to book killer flights in the cheapest way possible. We only had a couple of stipulations:

  •     Aim for a lie-flat bed on the way home.
  •     Ensure we can pick our seats (aka not be stuck in the middle of a 4-wide row)
Other than that, we were comfortable with any airline that could take us from Columbus to Honolulu and back. Destination, check. Now it was time for the hard part…how the hell do we pay to get there?

Step Two: Identify The Miles You Need To Get There

This is the step most people lose interest in the points & miles game. If I had a nickel for the amount of times I hear “it takes too much time” or “it sounds too hard”, I’d at least have enough money to beat Alex & Christian at NBA Jam for a whole night at the arcade. (On a side note, you don’t want these Indiana Pacers hands. Reggie Miller=cheat code!) I’m here to tell you it’s not that hard to figure out exactly what you need to get where you want to go. 

While I could go on a tangent about every mileage program & how to use their points to fly, we’d be looking at about 20+ posts. I love you guys…but maybe not enough to write that much today. So for now, let’s look at the airlines we used to book our Hawaii trip: Delta & American.

Leg One (CMH-ATL-HNL): Delta Airlines

For our departing flight from Columbus to Honolulu, Kayleigh and I elected to use Delta miles. Delta is a bit tricky with their award booking in that they do NOT publish an award chart. There’s no set-in-stone price for award booking, which can make finding a specific redemption tough to find. All it takes is a little research to find that flights to Honolulu from Columbus can be found for as little as 30,000 miles one-way (and sometimes cheaper)! With that in mind, I just searched flights from CMH-HNL for the Sunday after our wedding to see what was available. This is what came up:

Flights from Columbus-Honolulu for only 30,000 miles one way!
This is a cheap redemption for a flight from CMH-HNL but comes with 2 layovers. Kayleigh and I were able to get a similar mileage price for a one-layover flight from CMH-ATL-HNL, which worked perfectly for us. Our experience goes to show it pays to check the award charts when you have a trip in mind-you never know when a great deal is going to pop up, and when you see it, SNAG IT! For those that don’t want the multiple layovers (and we don’t blame you), I found this option for 53,000 miles:
Less Layovers=Happy Travels!

No matter what option you go, we’ve identified that Delta is a viable option and we’ll need to earn Delta miles for this portion of the trip. While there are definitely cheaper Delta options (booking through Flying Blue, transferring alternate FF points, etc.), for the sake of simplicity, we'll stick to strictly Delta miles.

Leg Two (HNL-DFW-CMH): First Class on American Airlines

As I previously mentioned, I was looking for a flight where I had a lie-flat option for my return trip. These flights normally cost upwards of $1,500 one way and are not within most of our traveling budgets. Personally, I’d rather spend the $1500 doing amazing things in Hawaii-and that’s why we play the points & miles game. I had identified American Airlines as a potential option for this trip & luckily, they actually post their award chart online for ALL destinations. Let’s take a look at what a trip home from Hawaii typically costs:

You can fly from Hawaii-Mainland US for only 40k miles one-way in BUSINESS/FIRST CLASS!
From the chart, you can see that American has “SAAver” awards from 40k miles one way, while their normal redemption rate will cost you 67.5k miles. Again, this seems like a lot of miles on the surface, but we’ll find that earning that many miles is much easier than you think. Taking a look at flights a week after our original flight to Hawaii would allow you to see these redemption options:
First Class Redemption Options HNL-CMH

Economy Redemption Options HNL-CMH (20k miles one way!)
Two very different types of redemptions: one first class flight for 67.5k miles with all the bells and whistles, and one economy flight with a killer redemption at 20k miles! Again, this all depends on your personal preference for travelling. Kayleigh and I wanted the lie-flat seats on the way home, and therefore we opted for the first class flights on our February Hawaii trip. If you’re on the fence about first class, I say GO FOR IT. Here’s a few pics from our Hawaii first class redemption:


Kayleigh was digging the "Pod"-style seating!
Nicer Interface & ALL THE LEG ROOM
Adjustable Controls For The Seat


Full Service Dinner Menu
Drinks Menu (All Included!)

Mixed Nuts, Tito's & Golf-Never a Bad Combo!


Can't Beat An Ice Cream Sundae At 30,000 Feet!
Needless to say, Kayleigh & I really enjoyed our first long-haul first class flight. Drinks were had, food was consumed, and the best part? We were both able to lie flat at the end of the day and actually sleep on a plane, something that both of us struggle with.

Ok, Smart Money Squad…you still following along? We’ve identified exactly what kind of miles we need to make this trip a reality. Now we just need to earn them! Let’s look at some of the cards you can utilize to book that dream trip you’ve been planning.

Step Three: Earn The Miles You Need To Travel

Now that we know we need Delta & American miles to travel, we can take a look at a few of the cards that can get you the mileage needed to book your trip. Here’s a sampling of the cards available on the market for Delta and American:

Delta
·       AMEX Delta Gold Card-Earn 50,000/60,000 miles after spending $2,000/$3,00 in the first three months from account opening; $50 one-time statement credit after making Delta purchase; $0 annual fee for first year ($95 2nd year); free checked bag.
·       AMEX Business Delta Gold Card-Earn 50,000/60,000 miles after spending $2,000/$3,00 in the first three months from account opening; $50 one-time statement credit after making Delta purchase; $0 annual fee for first year ($95 2nd year); free checked bag.
·       AMEX Premier Rewards Gold Card-Earn 50,000 MR points after spending $2,000 in the first three months from account opening (MR points transfer 1:1 with Delta, equating to 50k Delta miles).
·       AMEX Business Premier Rewards Gold Card-Earn 50,000 MR points after spending $3,000 in the first three months from account opening (MR points transfer 1:1 with Delta, equating to 50k Delta miles).

American Airlines
·       Barclaycard AAviator Red-Earn 50,000 miles after making your first purchase with the card after account opening. Comes with a $95 annual fee, not waived first year.
·       Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select-Earn 50,000 miles after spending $2,500 in the first three months from account opening; $0 annual fee for first year ($95 2nd year); free checked bag.

·       Citi Biz AAdvantage Platinum Select-Earn 60,000 miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months from account opening; $0 annual fee for first year ($95 2nd year); free checked bag.

These are just a FEW of your options in the points & miles world that can get you exactly where you need to go. Kayleigh and I used only two cards each on this list to book our flights. While there is certainly a stigma around having multiple credit cards, I’m here to squash that. My credit score keeps going up with the more credit I accumulate-and so do my mileage accounts!

For those of us that can’t meet minimum spends on these cards in three months, another reminder-we go over all the ways you can meet minimum spends without actually spending money in 'Vacation Like a Baller". Check it out-it's literally saved Kayleigh & I thousands of dollars throughout our travels.


You can absolutely use these cards to your advantage to travel around the world for free-and there’s no reason you shouldn’t! To summarize the mileage-earning portion of our free trip, just do the following:
  1. Calculate how many miles you need to get to your destination.
  2. Find the credit card offer that earns the appropriate mileage for the trip.
  3. Meet the minimum spend requirement using your natural spending/SMS alternate methods.
  4. Spend miles on your destination!

Cleared For Landing

All in all, Kayleigh and I were able to fly round-trip to Hawaii for pennies on the dollar. Our Delta/American flights’ cash price equated to $4,159.38. Now, I talk a big game, but I certainly don’t have that much money to be blowing on flights. However, with credit card bonuses & some fees we incurred from meeting the minimum spends, our final net cost was $82 for our flights.

Breakdown:
  •          $22.40 in taxes & fees for the flight
  •          $60 in activation fees while meeting minimum spends for the credit cards

If I told you that you could fly round-trip to Hawaii with one leg in first class for $82, you’d tell me I was crazy, right? Nope-that’s the reality of the points & miles game.

So what’s holding you back? Join us in travelling the world for pennies on the dollar-it’ll be the best decision you ever made. Until next time-safe travels!

From the top of Diamondhead!


Cheers,

Ty

4/6/18

My Newbie Travel Hacking Journey Part 2

4/06/2018


Happy Friday Smart Money Squad! The weekend is upon us and the Tribe is playing their home opener - that's my definition of a good day! (Smart Money Seed unanimously agrees that the Tribe is the best team in baseball, no questions asked).

Like I mentioned last week, I'm following in Ty's footsteps and venturing into the amazing world of travel hacking! I've got my eye on the Southwest Companion Pass which will allow Rosie to fly for NEXT TO NOTHING on any flight I book, even if I book the flight using points.

Click Here for last week's article if you missed it.

What's happened since last week?

My Southwest Plus card came in the mail and I got my account set-up and ready to roll. I'm really enjoying the Chase app, it's super easy and convenient to use! (Yes, I've lived under a rock for the past few years. I've mostly used smaller banks that don't have a fancy iPhone app.) I'm still waiting on more details with the business card, but they told me that process may take a few extra weeks.

Now that the Plus card is ready for use, the next step is meeting the $2,000 spending threshold. I've decided to accomplish this through a combination of everyday spending and manufacturing spending. I'm planning on using $500 over the next month or two on regular expenses (groceries, gas, restaurants, bars, entertainment, and certain bills that can be easily paid with a credit card), and then practice Ty's manufactured spend recommendation for the remaining $1,500.

Need a manufactured spend refresher? CLICK HERE!

Yesterday I took my first big step in the process and purchased the Visa OneVanilla gift cards from CVS, just like the Doctor ordered. Being the rookie travel hacker I am, I was a little nervous, so I made Rosie come with me for moral support - thanks Rose!! Buying the gift cards was like taking a hot knife through butter - easy and painless.

What's the next step?

Now that I've acquired the coveted gift cards, I need to convert the funds into my bank account. Again, following the Doctor's orders, I'm going to take the money order approach in attempts to limit the number of fees I'll have to pay.

I plan on purchasing and depositing the money orders within the next few days, so I'll let you guys know how I do it and where I go. Don't tell her yet, but I'll probably drag Rosie to the store with me for that too!

Is travel hacking right for you?

Not sure if the world of travel hacking is right for you? Talk to Smart Money Seed. We have a resident expert and two others that are rapidly learning! Leave a comment or message us on Facebook - we'd love to hear from you.

That's it for today, back to the weekend vibes Smart Money Squad!

4/3/18

My 7 Step Blueprint I Used To Become Debt Free In 14 Months

4/03/2018


Let's go back in time for a moment to May 10, 2015. 10,000 of my closest friends (including our very own Ty Henze) and I are dressed in our finest black robes on what was inevitably the hottest day in the history of mankind.

It's finally time to put the college days behind us and join the real world.

After Archie Griffin's speech about regaining Woody Hayes' trust after fumbling on his first collegiate play, I admittedly start daydreaming about what's to come instead of cheering on the 1,000 or so new doctors getting their names called individually (yes that process is as brutally boring as it sounds).

Here's a brief synopsis of 21 year old Alex's life:
  • Starting job at Marathon in just over a month
  • Upgraded from the '94 Corolla for the 1.5 hour daily commute
  • Signed up for a $19k car loan for my new 2015 Ford Focus
  • $11k in student loans
  • Dwindling bank account under $1,000 for the first time since high school (the east coast baseball trip and countless beers were totally worth it)
  • Moved back to Bucyrus to save money on rent (and enjoy plenty of home cooked meals)

That equated to about $600 total monthly loan payments, $0 in rent, and about $200 per month in gas for the long commute.

To summarize, my financial situation looked like this:

$30,000 Debt
$800 Monthly Payments ($200 non-debt payments)

I was by no means in dire straits especially when you consider that the average student loan debt and average auto loan are $30,000 each. But the idea of throwing that $600 out the window each month for the next 4 years really pissed me off.

SO I DECIDED TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!

I'll never tell you that paying off your debt is the only way to achieve financial success. But if you really feel like your student loans or other debt is your biggest obstacle holding you back, then quit complaining and do something about it.

Get focused, make sacrifices, and change your life.

/rant.


My Debt Free Blueprint

My story is a little bit different than most, and I'll be 100% transparent about three important factors.
  • Becoming debt free was not my plan from day 1.
I knew I wanted to save money to allow for financial flexibility in my life, but I didn't know until about 6 months in that becoming debt free was what I wanted to do with that money.
  • My plan did not maximize my return.
Since I valued flexibility so much, I decided to make my normal monthly payments and save the extra money in my bank account until I was ready to pay everything off at once -- then I spent $25k in one day. I could've saved a few bucks by making payments along the way, but I preferred the flexibility of building up my bank account. 
  • I did not make every possible sacrifice to pay debt as quickly as possible.
I had plenty of fun going down to Ty's apartment almost every weekend to hit up the bars and the Ohio State football games, taking trips to New York to see Amanda. We believe we're here to enjoy life and balance short term gratification with long term success. Sure, I could've paid off my debt a few months earlier, but I wasn't putting myself or anybody else in any financial danger by enjoying myself within reason (I took the bus to NYC twice -- never again). 

I would never recommend completely throwing away your early 20s to pay off debt unless your situation absolutely calls for it which is certainly the case for some. The key is to understand your situation and to live within your means. If you've lived outside your means in the past and now have loads of credit card debt, you should probably be making more sacrifices now than if you just have student loan debt. 

Step 1: Maximize Income

Regardless of what I was going to do with my money, I knew I wanted to make a lot more money than I spent especially for those first couple of years right out of school. Amanda had 2 years left until graduation, and I didn't exactly know where life would end up taking me at that point. I did know that I wanted to be prepared for wherever that was.

I worked my full time job at Marathon, mowed 2 lawns, and worked several weekends (including holidays like Labor Day and Memorial Day -- my birthday weekend) at Home City Ice. I spent my free time building a business with my dad (which wasn't successful but taught some important lessons) and a blog with Christian (which led to Smart Money Seed as you all know it today).

And yes, I still made time on the weekends for Ohio State football games and general shenanigans with Christian, Ty, and the rest of my friends. No, I wasn't neglecting Amanda -- she spent the 2015-2016 school year in New York City.

Step 2: Educate Yourself

I spent most of my 1.5-hour daily commute listening to Dave Ramsey, Pat Flynn, and Tim Ferriss. Pat & Tim provided the knowledge and motivation I needed to start working toward my dream of entrepreneurship, and Dave put this bug in my ear to start thinking about how quickly I could accumulate wealth if I wasn't throwing away $600 each month.

Like I mentioned earlier, I wasn't in dire straits like seemingly half of Dave's callers. Although making incredible sacrifices to throw every penny I could find at my debt would've maximized my return and allowed me to pay it off in about half the time that it actually took me, I didn't feel the need to go extreme. 

I still had my fun and spent money on stupid shit from time to time, but the idea of a debt free life became very appealing. Ultimately, I decided I wanted to pay off my debt so I could start investing in myself and my entrepreneurial journey.

Step 3: Set Your Target

Once I decided I would work toward my goal of becoming debt free, I set a target to pay off my debt in 2 years total. I planned to live with my parents for a year and save like a madman during that time. I finalized this goal after about 6 months (I had already started saving the second I started getting paid), so I had about a year and a half from the time I dialed in my focus until I planned to be debt free.

I actually ended up working a little more for Home City Ice than I had anticipated and spent an extra 8 months with my parents which really helped me supercharge my savings and pay off my debt in 14 months -- a full 10 months ahead of schedule!

Step 4: Make A Detailed Plan

I'm not going to sit here and pretend like I made a detailed budget to turn my debt free journey into an exact science, saving the same exact amount of money each month. That would be a bold faced lie, and you know I love you guys too much to lie to you.

I did make a calculation to figure out how much I needed to save each month. I knew some months would be more expensive like December when I bought Christmas presents and a New Year's Eve trip to NYC for Amanda and me. I also knew some months would be less expensive like February when I hibernate besides going to work. I also knew some months would bring in more money because I get paid bi-weekly and some mowing months are busier than others.

The moral of the story is I did make a detailed plan in the sense that I knew how much money each month made the math work, but I did not follow that plan to a t. I tracked my progress each month and made adjustments as I went. Clearly this plan worked for me because of my ridiculously low expenses, but I would expect most people realistically may need to be a little more scientific and disciplined in their tracking than I was.

Step 5: GET STARTED!

I often suffer from analysis paralysis. As I mentioned, I didn't fully commit to a goal of becoming debt free until 6 months in. Luckily I had made up my mind from the start that I wanted to make saving money a priority (not my ONLY priority), so I wasn't starting from scratch at 6 months.

Having a goal you're motivated to work toward is always the most important factor -- not necessarily having a perfect goal. If you've committed to a goal of becoming debt free, GET STARTED! Quit listening to the people telling you about how stupid your decision is and how much better return you could make through investments. 

You've done your homework, and you know exactly why you're doing this. Quit seeking validation and get going. I wanted flexibility to do whatever I want with my income by lowering my fixed costs and effectively giving myself a $600 monthly raise. 

Step 6: Check & Adjust -- But Stay Committed

Like I mentioned earlier, my living situation didn't play out exactly as I expected, and I was able to pay off my debt ahead of schedule. You may change jobs (for better or worse), relocate, or start a family during your debt free journey. We all know the only constant in life is change. 

You need to be adaptable enough to change your plan to accommodate whatever curveballs (good or bad) life throws you. The key is to make sure you're not making excuses or becoming undisciplined and unnecessarily delaying achieving your goal. Stay committed and be honest with yourself.p

Your goal isn't really about the debt itself. Visualize what it is you really want to do with the money you're not throwing away to your debt payments every month. Keep that in mind when you experience temptation to cheat yourself and make a bad decision that would knock you off track.

Step 7: Make That Last Payment & CELEBRATE!

Whether your plan includes chipping off chunks of debt over time or one large lump sum payment like mine, the point is YOU DID IT! Tell your friends and family and go celebrate! I definitely should've had better plans for my first debt free day -- I didn't really do anything special. Make your plan early to help you visualize and stay committed throughout your journey!

Are YOU On A Debt Free Journey?

Paying off debt is really hard. If you're on a debt free journey, let us know so we can help support you! We'd love to answer questions whenever you have them or just offer a pat on the back from time to time. Accountability is key when working toward any goal. 

If you're not comfortable sharing your journey with the rest of the squad, slide in our DMs on Facebook or Twitter (don't tell Amanda, Kayleigh, or Rosie), or email me at Alex@smartmoneyseed.com. We want to help you kick debt's ass!