Saturday, July 11, 2009

Travels with Frugal Ferret

It's amazing how one week of vacation can bottleneck a whole month of my life.

I took the last week of June off. This meant frantic, 12-hour-day scrambling for the week before at work, to set things up for my absence, followed by frantic, 12-hour-day scrambling upon my return, to catch by up. Hence, no posting. Broken up by a week of no posting because I was doing some massive lounging about.

My vacation was a bit of a personal-finance odyssey. When we dropped down to a one-job family in March, the first thing to go was our travel budget. I refer to Australians as People Who Do Not Stay Put. Within nine years of moving here, David managed trips to all 50 states. (I'm still one short: Hawaii.) Usually, we squeeze in a summer road trip and several extended weekend trips. This year, we're not weekending anywhere we can't reach by BoltBus.

But I had a wedding I couldn't miss in Denver, and as long as I was schlepping most of the way across the country, it seemed a waste not to try to tack on a trip to Seattle. Crash space was on offer in both cities, so I could make the trip for only the cost of airfare.

I still didn't want to spend several hundred dollars out of pocket if I could avoid it, so I cast about for other options. Like credit-card reward points.

The points that mysteriously disappeared from my Amex card when it rolled from an In NYC card to a Blue card in January happily reappeared about six weeks later. Amex's Membership Rewards system lets you use points to "pay" for travel purchases -- like airline tickets.

The bad: The redemption rate is a bit worse than the '10,000 points = $100 rate' that seems to be the going rate for what credit-card rewards points optimally buy.

The good: Because you're using points to pay off Amex Travel, instead of using the airlines' frequent-flier programs, this kind of redemption doesn't seem to run into the rampant blackout dates and other restrictions that airlines slap on their programs. The flights I wanted were easy to book. In the end, I shelled out just under 43,000 points to pay for about $380 in air tickets.

Of course, then I managed to blow all my frugality cred by spending all the money I saved on airfare on various glutinous foodie fits, but I think that's a fair trade.

The other reason my vacation was personal-finance themed was that I stayed in Seattle with Karawynn of Pocket Mint, whose zeal for the frugality mission astounds and inspires me. My idea of cost-cutting is remembering to order a case of inexpensive wine in bulk every month or two so I won't be tempted to make one-off runs to the shop for pricier bottles to drink with dinner. Karawynn calculates the savings involved in making her own bread. ($1.20 per loaf. Now you know.)

While discussing the cost of Starbucks-vs-homebrewed coffee, we somehow established that $3 coffee is a favored extravagance of Wasteful Weasels. "Karawynn doesn't like Wasteful Weasels," her partner Jak said sadly, mouring a tad for the days when he would make a run out for fast, full-cream coffees instead of brewing his own (which taste better!) with rationed half-and-half.

And thus did Pocket Mint's proprietress acquire a nickname referenced frequently through the rest of my trip: Frugal Ferret.

(Frugal Ferret was particularly horrified when Jak and I emerged from Voodoo Doughnut with a box of five, though I'm not sure if that was more about the indulgence of dropping $15 on sugar or for the sheer calorific destruction we wreaked. Either way, the Triple Chocolate Penetration was worth it.)