May 31 2017

Washington, D.C. trip report (and how you can do it, too)

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washington monument with sun
My family recently returned from a 5-night stay in the Washington, D.C. area. We had a great time!

Quick run-down:

  • We stayed at the Marriott Crystal Gateway in Virginia. It was 120,000 Marriott points + $10/day for the upgrade to club level. We also paid $25 for a roll-away. Total with tax out of pocket was $84.94. This was 96% off the cash rate, which would have been $2,135.We flew Southwest to Reagan (DCA) and our round-trip was around 30,000 Southwest points total, plus tax ($5.50 per person, per way). Cash fare would have been $59+tax pp one-way. Total tax  for the 5 of us was $55.

 

  • We used the Park Ride Fly lot and my Chase Sapphire Reserve coded it as reimbursable travel, so the $47 was erased on my credit card statement. I will count it here though, since you can make the argument that you pre-paid it via the card’s high annual fee. $47
  • Our Metro fare as paid by my Sapphire Reserve was also erased. I put $40 total on my CSR, $40 on my Chase Freedom (back in January just to get the metro cards; I hadn’t planned on getting the CSR yet so that’s why I didn’t put the whole thing on there). I had to put an extra $8 in cash on our Metro cards for the final day. Let’s call it $88 for Metro.
  • We visited free sites, including the White House, Smithsonian Air & Space museum, Smithsonian Natural History, Smithsonian American History, National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Renwick Gallery, National Archives, and monuments along the National Mall. $0
  • Tips: bag people, housekeeping, shuttle drivers, and when we made a meal out of it in the hotel lounge I left a tip on the value of the meal. $75
  • Food, miscellany, souvenirs: $527

Total: $876

amor robert indiana scuplture gardenOur Southwest points came from my husband’s work trips last year, and two round-trips were from my account which were leftover from when I had a Chase Southwest Visa. We still have enough points for a family round-trip to one or two more locations, possibly more. This is our fourth family round-trip flight, and we have only paid tax for the last three trips! (Our first trip had a huge reimbursement from our Barclaycards, but we booked the cash fare for that flight).

Our Marriott points came from some of my husband’s work trip stays, but the bulk of it came from the sign-up bonus from my AmEx Starwood card. Those points transferred to Marriott at triple the value. When you stay 5 nights at a Marriott on points, the fifth night is free.

I chose the Crystal Gateway hotel because of its fairly inexpensive point redemption value, but also because it was one that could fit our family of 5 (two double beds and a rollaway was the best I could do, but some area hotels didn’t even have a rollaway or pull-out couch option). It also was connected via tunnel to an underground mall and a Metro stop. The yellow and blue lines connected there, which was convenient for our visits to the National Mall.

Further, access to the club lounge was a tremendous value. We had access to the hotel’s breakfast buffet in their restaurant, which included an omelette station, a variety of hot foods (and NOT powdered eggs), fresh fruit, and the usual continental fare. For other hotel guests eating in the restaurant for breakfast, the charge was $15 per person per day. Nope!

Throughout the day, we could pop in the lounge and grab some fresh fruit, yogurt, a cookie, and drinks. In the evenings, they had an assortment of good appetizers and on several evenings I turned it into a mini meal. Other days, we ate at the connecting mall or at a museum food court. We weren’t too concerned with ultra-economizing here.

We had TSA Pre-Check (my husband already purchased his, and I had mine reimbursed by my Sapphire Reserve) and that meant our whole family could go through the pre-check line. No taking off my shoes, no pulling out my toiletries. It was a shorter line and less hassle.

Overall, it was a great trip and I’m glad we did it! I’m even happier that we could do it with substantial savings via points. white house library

Where next?

Our points reserves have a high balance for future trips, thanks to the hefty sign-up bonuses and regular spending on our cards. We haven’t used any of our Chase points yet, and have about 258,000 Ultimate Rewards between our two accounts. It will continue to grow, since we’re putting the majority of our regular spending on those. We have about 18,000 Starwood points (or triple it at a Marriott) and about 130,000 Southwest points. Good grief, that is a lot! I wrote some general ideas for future travel in this post, but we’ve already tweaked it somewhat by doing our D.C. trip in spring 2017.

At this time, I’m planning on keeping our current cards (2 Sapphire Reserves, my Starwood AmEx, a Chase Freedom and a Freedom Unlimited, and a no-fee Disney Visa. The Disney Visa had a promo for 4% back on utility purchases through the end of August, so we’ve shifted those bills there for some Disney dollars.

I don’t have plans in the near future for another credit card sign up, though eventually I will perhaps try and get my own Freedom Unlimited (and have my husband refer me for an extra $100 right now, tempting!). Also considering some hotel cards with annual free (actually let’s call it what it is: discounted) nights.

My credit score has improved from all of this and is in the low 800s, up from the high 700s.amelia earhart red vega

How you can do it:

If you are starting with 0 points, it is possible to accumulate enough points to do this trip yourself through credit card sign-ups and your regular spending. Or, a 5-night stay at some other Marriott and a low-fare Southwest round-trip. Here are a few ideas:

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards trifecta
    1. Chase Freedom (15,000 sign-up plus minimum spend in bonus categories = 17,500). No annual fee.
    2. Chase Freedom Unlimited (15,000 sign-up plus 750 on minimum spend = 15,750). No annual fee.
    3. Chase Sapphire Preferred (50,000 sign-up plus at least 4,000 on your minimum spend. More if in bonus categories) = 54,000. Annual fee waived first year.
    4. Total for these 3 with only minimum spending (you can earn way more points by using the Chase Ultimate Rewards shopping portal and of course your regular spending) = 87,250
  • If you have a spouse, refer him or her for those cards and you will get a referral bonus (typically 5,000 to 10,000 points for that referral) and they’ll get the sign-ups, too.
  • Check rates for your hotel and airfare in the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. You’ll want to pool all of your Ultimate Rewards points into one account, the Sapphire Preferred (or Reserve if you went for that option). Then, book your stay through the portal OR transfer your points 1:1 to a partner, such as Marriott, Hyatt, IHG, Southwest, United, and others. Do the math on which is a better redemption option for your points.

I suggest the Chase combinations because they are the most open-ended cards for a variety of travel redemptions, thanks to their portal and the ability to transfer to partners. Further, both of the Freedom cards are good long-term keeper cards, as they earn a lot of points and have no annual fees. The $500 in 3 months to get the bonus points is also doable. You will need a premium Chase card (in this case, the Sapphire Preferred or Sapphire Reserve) to have the ability to transfer your points to travel partners.

If traveling on points intrigues you, but it just won’t work out for a few years (maybe you have a family or work situation prohibiting travel right now), then consider doing the two no-fee Chase Freedom cards and just banking up your points for now. You’ll accumulate a chunk through your regular spending, and when you’re ready to travel at some point, you can then add a Sapphire Preferred or Reserve at that time.

Other ideas:

You could do a combination of Chase cards and co-branded cards

  • Marriott Visa (40,000 points + statement credit, or 80,000 points no statement credit. I have seen various offers lately)
  • Southwest Visa (40 – 50,000 points depending on offer). Do two types of the Southwest Visa paired with card spending and travel and you can get the Southwest Companion Pass. Can be a fantastic deal!
  • AmEx Starwood 25,000 points triples to 75,000 at Marriott with annual fee waived in first year

Many of the co-branded cards are also issued by Chase bank. You’ll want to read up on the 5/24 rule to know more about which cards to prioritize and how to space your applications.

Even if you don’t go whole-hog and go for all points on your hotel and airfare,  covering a portion of your trip is decent savings.

Please get in touch if I can help you map out some possibilities.


Posted under Points, Travel | Comments Off on Washington, D.C. trip report (and how you can do it, too)
Mar 10 2017

3 time-savers I’m obsessed with right now

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I’m busy (aren’t we all?), but also kinda lazy (maybe it’s just me). Here are three things that are saving me sanity, time, and in some cases money, and I’m super-thankful they’re in my life right now:

Stitch Fix

I’m now on Fix #4 and I’m obsessed!

I tried this styling service once back in 2014, but I wasn’t ready for it. Of the five items I received, I liked two. I sent them back because I thought they were a bit pricey for what they were (I think $48-58, if I recall?), and I ended up regretting returning them. I liked that top and cardigan, and I didn’t find others in store that were quite the same, either. Whoops.

On a whim this year, I scheduled my second Fix. I changed my style profile to reflect my current aims, and I went into it with the understanding that yes, these items are going to cost more than I would pay at Target. I’m paying for a styling service and their algorithm the mega convenience factor, and some nicer-quality items. I ended up keeping all 5 items in my second Fix and received a 25% off discount for doing so. A $20 styling fee with each Fix covers shipping both ways, and can be used as a credit toward any purchase in that Fix. Return it all and you lose your $20, though.

My total with 7% sales tax and minus the styling fee was $196. Yikes! Comes to about $40 per item. Some of these were Stitch Fix (affiliate link, thank you!) house brands, and others you can find at places like Nordstrom. I was glad to see “made in USA” on the label of one of my tops.

If you bank with PNC, activate the Stitch Fix offer on PNC Purchase Payback. I jumped in on one offer before it expired and got $10 back on my $20 styling fee, and activated a new offer that popped up for an additional $10 back (which applied toward my purchase). The timing of both worked out to $20 off that Fix, plus 1.75% cash back on my purchase by using that PNC Visa. If you don’t bank with PNC, try Cash Back Monitor to see current extra offers for new customers. Oh, and I would certainly appreciate it if you used my referral link! I’d get $25 credited to my account. Thank you!

I left feedback for my stylist, requested her again, and I turned around and scheduled my 3rd Fix since my wardrobe really could use some help. I was more picky about what I kept. I received pants, a scarf, and three tops. The pants were too tight and I didn’t like the color, the tops were cute but not on me, but I liked the scarf a lot. The scarf was the only thing I kept. You have the option of exchanging for a different size at no charge. The size was fine but I just didn’t love the tops or pants.

I pinned this scarf and received it in Fix #3. Kept! It has a large width and I can tie it in several ways.

I pinned this scarf and received it in Fix #3. Kept! It has a large width and I can tie it in several ways.

For Fix #4, I requested the same stylist. This Fix was another 5/5! I don’t expect that all of the time; I think 1-2 items kept is still doing well. I received white Kut from the Kloth jeans, Henry & Belle skinny jeans in a teal color, two tops (both USA!), and some denim shorts. Nothing was from my Pinboard specifically, although I had very similar styles pinned. The Kut pants are priced the same or better as what I’m seeing on Nordstrom.

I like the clothing I’m receiving and that I’m trying things that I wouldn’t think to pick out on my own, but still feel like me. I like that I do not have to set foot in a store. I really don’t have time to do that on my own, and if I brought kids along…I wouldn’t have the greatest outcome in terms of what I selected for myself. Shopping for clothing in a store just overwhelms me and I don’t enjoy it.

Henry & Belle Nicholas skinny jean. Stitch Fix exclusive wash. Super soft and feel great! Kept. Most expensive pants I have purchased, but the 25% off helped. Still most expensive.

Henry & Belle Nicholas skinny jean. Stitch Fix exclusive wash. Super soft and feel great! Kept. Most expensive pants I have purchased, but the 25% off helped. Still most expensive.

Further, in a store or online, I tend to gravitate toward huge sales and the clearance section because that’s my nature. In doing so, I might miss out on nicer things that sell out quickly. For example, my stylist sent me white cropped jeans, since she saw that I had pinned some similar and she said white sell out fast in their inventory. I believe that, as I have never been able to find white jeans that I liked on my own.

So typically, I browse online and order from some retailer and either keep it or return it on my own. I will still do this for some items, but it does take time to find what I want. Working with a Stitch Fix stylist and their data has them take care of that part, too. Oh, and have you seen the style cards that come with each Fix? They are yours to keep, and I think they are really helpful.

Check out my Stitch Fix Pinterest board to see some of the items I’ve received and what I’m saving as inspiration.

P.S., Stitch Fix now has a wider range of sizes: maternity, plus (as of February), and men’s.

 

One of my style cards. This top came in my February Fix

One of my style cards. This top came in my 2nd Fix. It is dark green (super soft fabric) and has a floral thing mixed-media going on at the bottom. Made in USA! Never would have tried it on my own, but I like it!

 

 My Instant Pot

Is the Instant Pot worth the hype? Oh, yes ma’am, it is. I got one when it was on sale last year for around $70ish, and if you set a price alert on CamelCamelCamel, you can be notified the next time there’s a price drop.

I haven’t yet found a cookbook that I love, but check your library to see if there are any good options for you. Here is a chicken and wild rice soup recipe that is delicious (my cousin shared this one with me). Keep your owner’s manual handy for a quick reference to cooking times.

I’ve used it to make rice, soups, stews, and just cooking up meat in a faster way. Frozen chicken breasts can cook up fast, and it regularly saves a day when I fail to plan ahead for dinner time. It is particularly good for inexpensive,  tough cuts of meat. I could never get stew meat as tender as I can get it in the Instant Pot when cooking it in my slow cooker or on the stove.

I make hard-cooked eggs in it, and what’s magical about using the Instant Pot is the shells peel without drama. No matter what tricks I try on the stove, peeling eggs ends up taking forever and makes the eggs look battered. Not so with the Instant Pot!

Mine is a 6-qt model, but if you have a large family, I think it is probably worth getting a larger size so you won’t run into capacity issues for really big cuts of meat or a big ol’ pot of soup. I tried doubling the chicken and rice soup recipe and the results weren’t as good. Do not overfill.

I haven’t used my slow cooker since getting the Instant Pot. Not quite ready to get rid of it, but…I think its days could be numbered around here.

Kroger Click List

I’m trying out Kroger Click List as a time and money saver. The first three pick-ups are free and after that, it is a $5 charge. I’m on my 4th pick-up and plan to continue.

You make your list online, use digital or physical coupons, choose your pick-up time, and pull in to a designated parking spot during that time frame. Call the phone number on the sign post in front of you, and someone will wheel out your groceries and load them in your vehicle.

I. Love. It.

I’m an Aldi regular, but when you think about how many times you’re handling an item at Aldi, it just is a bit time-consuming: Grab item from shelf, put in cart, load onto conveyor, bag items, put in vehicle, bring into house, put away. Ugh. Contrast that with Kroger’s service, and I’m bringing in the groceries from my garage I’m putting the item away.

Kroger’s prices are generally pretty competitive, and if I take care to schedule a pickup for when I’m already out running errands, it is a huge time-saver and sanity-saver. Not having to take three kids inside a store? Yeah, there’s cost savings there, too, when you factor in the impulse things  that inevitably make their way into my cart.

One weird thing — I ordered one pack of 12-ct chicken drumsticks. They gave me 3 packs, and charged me for all 3. I contacted customer service to let them know (and haven’t heard back). I can handle substitutions since they clear it with you when you check out, but I just don’t need that many chicken legs at once. Hopefully this was an anomaly.

Bonus time-saver: I can access previous purchases and quickly add regulars to my next cart.

How about you? Any sanity savers you’re loving right now?


Posted under Groceries, Personal Finance | Comments Off on 3 time-savers I’m obsessed with right now

Hey! I'm Kacie, wife and mother of 3. I write about my family's finance: how we save money, improve our spending, and plan for the future.

I hope I can inspire and encourage you to improve your situation. See disclosure.

I'm adopting a much slower-paced posting schedule, and treating this as a hobby blog now.

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