Welcome to Butch on a Budget

Hi, I’m Kaylie! I’m 25 and I’m at the beginning of my journey to financial independence (FI). I’m starting Butch on a Budget to help keep me motivated and accountable, and also share my experiences as someone who is just starting to figure out this money thing.

I don’t work in tech or make a particularly high salary. I work for a public college and make less than $45K each year, pre-tax, but I love my job. The start of 2020 marks the end of my first full year actively working towards FI. There’s still a long way to go (but much less than 40 years), and plenty of room to optimize my spending, but I’m happy with how things have progressed so far and I’m excited to continue this journey and share my experiences with you.

Like many people, I was first introduced to the concept of FI/RE through Mr. Money Mustache. I dove in, reading through the blog in its entirety. Then I found new blogs, listened to podcasts, and read the classic personal finance books, plus some that were more recently published from leaders of the FI/RE community (all checked out from the library, of course).

My now wife, Cassie, was a little skeptical at first (I’ve been known to have some crazy ideas in the past that don’t always work out according to plan), but after many conversations and dreaming up the life we want to live, she’s as excited as I am. (Though she leaves most of the research, planning, and general geeking out to me.)

This blog is a place for me to share the lessons I learn, my updates, stories, recipes — pretty much whatever I feel like writing down that’s related to money and living a good life. While it’s mostly just something I’ll use to keep me accountable and on track (and start rebuilding my writing habit), I also hope that it might be helpful to others who are just starting out or thinking about starting their own journey to FI/RE.

Oh, and the blog name? Well, I’m (soft) butch, my wife is femme, and I’m on a budget. Sort of.

Welcome, I hope you stick around!

5 Reasons Why You Should Save for the Future (Even When It Feels Like the End of the World)

When I’m talking to someone my age (who is making at least a moderate amount of money) about saving money, a common response I get is that they don’t really see the point or feel motivated to save — because they don’t feel hopeful for the future. 

Sometimes this lack of hope is related to the climate crisis. Sometimes it’s the political landscape. Sometimes it’s because of the constant clickbait and memes telling them that buying a house or retiring just isn’t possible for their generation – even if they are making a solid income. 

And usually, it’s a combination of all three.

I get it. It can be hard to feel particularly hopeful about the future right now. But that’s all the more reason to work towards building your nest egg. 

If you find yourself in the camp of not feeling motivated to save for the future because you’re not sure there is even going to be a future, I’m hoping this post will give you a few reasons to change your mindset.  

1. More Money, Less Stress

This can feel like a “no shit, Sherlock” moment, but stick with me. 

If the constant breaking news alerts on your phone are already stressing you out enough, you might as well do what you can to eliminate any unnecessary financial stress. Work within your circle of control. 

Money alone definitely doesn’t buy happiness. There are plenty of miserable billionaires and millionaires out there. But having just enough money can help you feel confident building the life you really want. This alone can help give you a little boost of hope by simply not feeling stuck or out of control.  

When you have financial breathing room, you feel less stressed. Financial stress is heavy and can take a brutal toll on our mental health and relationships, making our now even more stressful, while the future feels tenuous at best. 

When I first was learning more about personal finance and beginning to pay down our debts and save a little bit of money, we immediately noticed how much making even just a little bit of progress helped alleviate a significant amount of stress. Experiencing this stress relief was one of the primary reasons I stayed motivated on my financial goals. 

I also noticed that when I had a littel bit of money saved up, I felt less compelled to spend on discretionary (ahem, stress-shopping) purchases. So much of our spending on things, clothes, and food is emotional spending fueled by the stress or overwhelm we feel. 

By creating more space between what you earn and what you spend, you’ll create a good safety net that will break you out of the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle and have you well-prepared to handle the next big expense that comes your way.

2. You Can Use Your Savings to Change Your Life (for the Better)

Keep up the savings and put your money to work for you, and that cushion will turn into a small mountain of money quicker than you think – trust me. One of the things that can make us feel exceptionally hopeless is the feeling of being stuck and not having options. 

Having a small pile of money gives you more options. There’s no doubt about it. It puts you in the driver’s seat. And it doesn’t take a million dollars to feel like you have capacity to change your life for the better.  

Ever dreamt of moving to a new state? Having a couple months’ worth of expenses saved may give you the courage you need to pick up and move. 

Thought of quitting your job and growing your side hustle passion project into a full-time gig? Or even just quitting to find a less depressing job? Having a couple of months of expenses saved helps with that, too. 

When Cassie and I were in debt, we were forced to make reactive decisions that didn’t align with building the life we wanted to live. Instead, all of our decisions were made for financial reasons.

Since turning things around and building up our savings, we’ve been able to make some pretty big decisions that have improved our life. Notably, Cassie quitting her salaried job to work for herself and build her own business, and my decision to take three months off this past year. 

Instead of the lack of money making decisions for us, being in control of our money gives us the freedom to make decisions for ourselves. 

Save enough and invest it wisely and working itself becomes optional. When I learned about FIRE and realized that being financially independent at a relatively young age was possible I felt like I could take a huge breath of relief.

I don’t know about you, but that alone made me feel more hopeful for the future. It showed me there was an option other than working nonstop for 45 years — and I knew immediately I wanted that alternative. Buying my time is way more important to me than buying whatever miscellaneous thing I find at Target this week that I’ll probably forget about in a month. 

3. Cutting Back Lets You Give Back

When you have more breathing room in your own budget, you can use some of that extra cash to give back to causes that are important to you, help those directly in your network or community, and invest in ideas that you think will make our future a brighter, less scary place. 

Being financially secure opens up so many more opportunities for generosity and allows you to give without adding to your stress. Financially supporting the work you think is important, or funding the ideas and communities you want to see more of in this world can also ensure you are tapped into a community focused on possible solutions to the problems we face rather than just the problems themselves – which in turn can help us all feel a bit more hopeful. 

4. Less Spending = Less Resource Consumption

If you are particularly worried about the climate crisis and environmental degradation, then saving money can be a big win-win scenario. By designing your life to be more sustainable, you should be inherently spending less.

There are countless examples of how the more frugal option is also the more sustainable option and vice-versa, like:

  • Buying used items
  • Borrowing items from others before buying something new
  • Eating less meat
  • Walking, biking, or using public transportation
  • Living in a smaller house and adjustin the temperature to conserve energy

But most importantly, it’s just…not buying the things. It’s choosing to consume less. 

We recently did a no-spend monthyou can read about the results here – and out of everything we stopped ourselves from buying that month, we only went back and bought two (an airfryer and some silicone meal prep cubes). All of those other potential purchases weren’t necessary, but if we would have made them we would have spent an extra $1,000 and consumed that much more resources. 

5. Find Joy and Connection in the Slow Down

Cutting my own spending taught me a lot of lessons about the joys of simpler living that have greatly benefited me in more ways than padding my bank account. Many of the things I did originally to save money, I now do just because I enjoy them more than the alternative. 

I’m a pretty extroverted and social person. I used to accept pretty much any invite to grab a drink or dinner that came my way. This meant we had a pretty busy schedule and were spending a good chunk of money going out with friends.

Now, I say yes to fewer invitations. Being more intentional with my social calendar freed up my schedule for a nice slower pace and has created space for deeper connections. Now, we tend to have more casual hangouts at our house and in our backyard that lend themselves to more genuine conversation and friend time. I much prefer a fireside conversation and board games than straining to hear each other over a loud crowd and paying $14 per cocktail. 

In a similar vein, when trying to save money, your quickest way to make progress is to cook more at home. I find that when we are sticking to our meal plans and cooking our own food, I feel so much better physically and mentally. I’m eating healthier foods, am less likely to skip lunch at work, and enjoy the act of cooking.

Even when I’m tired and don’t feel like starting, once I pour myself a drink, put some music on and start chopping up vegetables, I immediately am glad I decided to cook. It’s a good way to wind down from work, and it’s fun and tasty!

So, that’s it. Five reasons why I think you should save, even when you don’t feel very hopeful about the future. Decrease your stress, increase your options, contribute to solutions, consume less, and slow down. I bet if you make some changes now, you may even find yourself growing a little hopeful after all.

YNAB More Money Challenge: Final Results!

We’ve officially finished YNAB’S 30 Day More Money Challenge and the results are in! If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, go ahead and check out my original post here and my update at the halfway point here

When we started this challenge we set the goal of saving $1,000. Did we make it? 

According to our paper tracker the answer is no. In reality the answer is yes. 

According to our savings tracker where we documented all of our savings each day, we saved a total of $914 over the 30 days. Not bad, but a little shy of our original goal. 

However, I’m confident we definitely saved more than $1,000 thanks to doing this challenge. When I used YNAB to compare our average monthly spending over the previous 4 months to our spending in January, I saw that we spent $2,707 less in January than the previous 4 month average. 

Even though the previous months were characterized by higher spending for the holidays, it wasn’t that much higher, and it’s safe to say that at least $1,000 of that savings can be attributed to the More Money Challenge and probably closer to $2,000. 

The best part was, even though we spent a significant chunk less than the previous months, it didn’t feel like we were really cutting back too much. The fact that the challenge forced us to stop and take a moment to think before we made lots of small but usually default purchases really helped reset some of our spending habits that had been creeping up. And it’s a wild to see how those little habits added up at the end of the month.

In fact I think that’s why we didn’t hit the $1,000 goal on the paper savings tracker. The last week of the challenge we got kind of sloppy about tracking our savings, because as the month wore on, we stopped having so many urges to consume things that at the end of the day there wasn’t much we could say that we would have bought but didn’t. 

In fact we didn’t write down any savings on the tracking sheet at all for the last 6 days. Was it because we didn’t actually save money or because we had stopped wanted to spend it as easily through out the day? I think it was the latter.

Our tracked savings in the second half of the month were actually mostly due to returning things we had bought the previous month and realized we didn’t need, canceling a subscription we weren’t using any more, and skipping some smaller purchases here and there. 

I will admit, we had a really rough week for other reasons at the end of the month which did result in us caving and getting take out one night, despite the strict no dining out rule. I don’t feel bad about it.

All in all the experience of doing the More Money Challenge was great! We both have already talked about wanting to incorporate a no-spend / no dining out week once a month for the upcoming year. I figure if we can do that, it would be the equivalent of doing 3 of these challenges a year but spread out to make it a bit easier and sustainable, while also having the benefit of keeping the lessons fresh in our minds.

Based on our results from this past month that could mean an extra $3,000 – $6,000 saved at the end of the year!

If the More Money Challenge sounds like something you’d like to try, you can find the workbook here. Happy Challenge!

How to Combine Your Finances as a Couple

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Cassie and I have merged a lot more of our finances over the past year. In the long term, joining your finances can greatly simplify your financial picture. It’s also helpful for really tackling your financial and life goals as a team — but it can be a bit daunting to know where to begin and what to do. 

Since we’ve recently been through this as a couple, I thought it would be helpful to write a little guide on some steps to take when joining your finances with a partner. 

I won’t be talking about deciding whether to combine finances in this post, since I’ve already written about that elsewhere, but rather what steps to take once you’ve already made the decision to merge them. 

I’ve split the guide into three parts for clarity: New Accounts, Old Accounts, and Budgeting Together. 

Opening New Accounts with a Partner

When first joining finances, you’ll likely find that you’ll need a few new accounts. You can either accomplish this by opening a truly new joint account or by adding your partner as a joint account owner on your existing accounts. 

If you’re fully joining your finances there are at least three joint accounts you’ll want to have.

Joint Checking Account

A few years ago, we opened a new joint checking account with Ally that we each funded monthly to cover shared bills like our mortgage. We chose Ally because they offer interest-bearing checking accounts as well as high-interest savings accounts, and they also support Zelle and have a simple user interface.

But don’t forget to actually send your income to the joint account! It needs to be funded in order to actually be useful.

Don’t forget to update your direct deposit to flow into your new joint account. Now that we’ve fully joined our finances, we have both of our incomes direct deposit straight into this account, since we now pay all of our bills and credit cards from here. 

Joint Savings Account

You’ll want to open a joint high-interest savings account to start saving for those larger financial goals that you share, whether it’s a vacation, buying a house, having a kid, or something else entirely. When you open this account it’s a good idea to discuss what you are hoping to save for and to set a goal amount to set aside each week or month. We have a high-interest joint savings account at Ally as well. 

Sometimes people will ask me why they should bother opening a high-interest savings account when they could either keep their regular savings account or put that money into the market and earn a higher return. As of February 2023, our annual percentage yield (APY) on our Ally savings account is 3.4% and it has no monthly service fees — compare that to the average brick-and-mortar APY of 0.01%. You can actually save and earn money in these types of accounts!

Investing in the market is also worthwhile, but when it comes to things like saving for a house or your emergency fund, I recommend having that money easily accessible. So, high-interest savings account it is.

Joint Credit Card

Opening a new joint credit card where you are both authorized users and both have your own card is helpful for covering all of the day-to-day spending. We make almost all of our purchases on our joint credit card so that we earn points, and then pay it off every month from our joint checking account. 

Since your joint credit card will likely become your default card for most purchases, it’s a good idea to pick one with good rewards and a decent sign-up bonus. If you travel a lot, consider the travel cards available to you. If you’re a Costco aficionado, consider their card — “good rewards” is relative to what you’ll actually use and benefit from, so keep that in mind when you search.

Dealing with Old Accounts when Merging Finances

Decide Which Accounts to Keep or Close

Since you will both likely have your own personal accounts already, you’ll want to make a list of all of the accounts you hold and decide which ones you want to keep and which you want to close. 

For example, I kept my personal checking account because it’s associated with a bank that has a brick-and-mortar location near us. Since our joint account is through an online bank, we thought it was a good idea to also keep an account open with a bank with a physical location for occasions when that is helpful. 

We also kept most of our individual credit cards even though we don’t use them as often, since closing them can hurt our age of credit and lower our credit score. You also may have a credit card that you love and want to add your partner to as an authorized user and just make that your joint card. 

Now that you are consolidating things there should be some accounts you can close. For example, I had a personal high-interest savings account. I was able to close that and transfer the money to our joint savings account. We also had a few credit cards with annual fees that we chose to close to avoid continuing to pay the fees.

Change Autopay to be Funded by Your Joint Account

For the credit cards you decide to keep, you’ll want to set them up to autopay from your new joint account since your regular income is now going to that account. 

You’ll also want to make sure any recurring bills that were set to autopay are now set to come from your joint checking or credit card. There may be a lot of these, so I recommend making a list of all that you can think of, updating them all at once, and then each time one pops up that you forgot, update it when you find it. 

This is also a good time to also see if there are opportunities to save by bundling together, such as on car insurance, cell phone bills, and other things you may both be paying for independently.  

Updating Your Beneficiaries

Another important step is updating your beneficiaries on any existing accounts (checking, savings, retirement, investment) to be your partner. You can do this easily online and it should only take a few minutes. 

You should also make sure your partner is listed as the beneficiary if you hold a life insurance policy, and that they are listed as a co-owner of any shared physical assets, such as a home or car.

Start Budgeting with Your Partner

Once you’ve done all of the nitty-gritty logistical things to combine your finances, now you have to figure out how to manage the day-to-day of your money as partners with joined finances. Meaning, good ol’ fashioned budgeting together! 

I’ve written a whole other article about this topic specifically, which you can read here! But I’ll also outline the basics quickly again below. 

Determine Shared Financial Priorities

First things first: you should get on the same page when it comes to your priorities around spending as well as short- and long-term financial goals. 

If you haven’t yet had many discussions around money, I suggest checking out this post as well to get you started.

Set Shared Expectations

Set some expectations around spending. What is the dollar threshold for when a larger purchase needs to be discussed with your partner before being made?  What is the amount of judgment-free fun money you will set aside for each of you each month? 

Budget Using All Accounts (New & Old)

Make sure you include all of your accounts (both joint and pre-existing personal) when tracking your spending and categorizing purchases. This is easy in You Need A Budget, but make sure to take the time to link up all of your accounts to whatever budgeting system you’re using! 

This will give you a lot of clarity around how much your life as a couple costs, makes it easier to align your spending with your priorities, and lets you see the progress you’re making toward your financial goals. 

Check-In on Your Financial Life Regularly

Budgeting is a verb. It’s an ongoing process and your budget requires regular maintenance and adjustment. Make sure to schedule time to come together regularly to categorize spending, make a spending plan for new dollars, and make any necessary changes to the budget. Regular maintenance should probably happen once a week or so, whereas you should also plan to have larger conversations around your goals and priorities every 6 months or so.

Combining our finances helped us feel more like a team when it comes to planning out and saving for future goals, and it helped us have more productive conversations about our money and priorities.

Choosing to join your finances is a big decision and not one that should be made lightly. It’s also a spectrum, so you can pick and choose what pieces make the most sense for you to merge. If you and your partner have decided you want to join your finances, congratulations, that’s a big step, and I hope this post was helpful!

YNAB More Money Challenge – 2 Week Check-In and Savings Update

We’ve officially been dong the More Money Challenge for two weeks.

Based on our calculations, we’ve saved $303. That’s mostly thanks to skipping a coffee out, cooking a few times when we normally would have caved for takeout, skipping on after-work beers, and putting the brakes on a few random purchases we probably didn’t need in the first place.

The full breakdown is below, but you can scroll past that if you don’t care about the line-item view.

Day #Money SavedWhat We Didn’t Buy
1$5Coffee at Starbucks
2$101Souper Cubes, beer, dinner out
3$82Returned candles, Didn’t go to the brewery, didn’t buy an airfryer
4$20Dinner out
6$10Brewery (again…)
7$50Thai food
9$20Didn’t drive to Tampa
12$15Cassie didn’t buy something, but she literally can’t remember what it was.

I also returned an item that didn’t work, but was only a few bucks — I probably wouldn’t have bothered with returning it if we hadn’t been doing this. But hey, now I have that $6 back!

While $303 is what we’ve tracked based on things we almost bought, I also know we’ve saved more than that if we compare our usual grocery and dining out bills at this point in the month. We’ll see how that all shakes out at the end.

The good thing is I haven’t felt restricted or bummed out about not buying the things. Though, I’ll be honest — following the “no dining out” rule has been made much easier, because we had two celebratory family meals out that my parents paid for.

One thing that’s been a bit surprising for me is that in the first week, I was having to stop myself from buying things more than Cassie. As the days have gone on, I’ve found that we’re both less likely to want to buy something in the first place. In the second week we had a number of days where our “money saved” was $0 — not because we spent money on things, but because we didn’t have the urge to in the first place.

I’m excited to see how how numbers roll out at the end of the month, and I’ll keep posting updates as we move on through!

How to Easily Open a Roth IRA with Vanguard in 15 Minutes

I know a lot of people who want to invest their money and save for retirement but feel totally overwhelmed about where to start.

They are afraid that opening an account will be confusing and complicated — and think that even if they open an account, they wouldn’t be sure what to do with it.

The reality is that opening a retirement account for yourself is simple, quick, and easy. In this post, I’ll take you through the steps (including screenshots) of opening a Roth IRA with Vanguard. Each step only takes a minute or two, so if you follow along you should have your account set up in around 15 to 20 minutes. 

Why Open a Roth IRA?

If you want to know a bit more about what a Roth IRA is, its benefits, and how it compares with other retirement accounts you can read this post here

The Cliff’s Notes version is that Roth IRAs have two important benefits. First is that you invest post-tax income so all of your future earnings and distributions are tax-free. Second, you can withdraw the money you’ve contributed anytime without penalty – it’s only your earnings that can’t be withdrawn until 59 ½ without penalty – giving you much more flexibility. 

Both of these reasons are why I highly recommend a Roth IRA as a great vehicle for retirement savings.

Why Use Vanguard for Your Retirement Accounts?

I recommend opening an account with Vanguard for a few reasons. First, they have a mutual ownership structure, meaning that rather than being owned by private owners or public investors hoping to profit off of you, they are owned by the Vanguard investors themselves who hold their mutual funds. Which, in this case, would mean you.

Because of this structure, Vanguard has some of the lowest expense ratios (aka fees) in the business. Currently, Vanguard’s average expense ratio across its funds is 0.09%, compared to the industry average of 0.49%. This seemingly small 0.4% difference could save you over $3,000 on a 10-year investment of $50,000. Lengthen that time horizon to 30 years and you’ve saved over $30,000 by going with the lower fee fund.

And finally, because of these low fees and their choice of index funds, their funds tend to outperform their competitors.

Alright, so if you’re ready to open your very own Roth IRA account with Vanguard (and you make less than $153,000 as a single person) go ahead and open a new tab now so you can follow along. 

How to Open a Vanguard Retirement Account

Step 1: Go to Vanguard

Go to vanguard.com and select “Personal Investors.”

Step 2: Open a new account

Select “Open an Account” on the top menu bar.

Step 3: Answer a starter question

Give them some information on the type of account you’d like to open. Select “open a new account with money from my bank.”

Step 4: Create an online profile with Vanguard

Choose to set up a new Vanguard account.

Press continue on the next page. 

Step 5: Select your account type (retirement)

Let them know what kind of account you are wanting to set up by selecting “Retirement investing.”

Another selection box will pop up underneath, and you’ll select “Roth IRA” before pressing continue. 

Step 6: Finish the application

Complete your application by providing some personal information.

Step 7: Link your bank account and fund your initial investment

Connect the bank account you would like to fund your investment account with.

And then determine how much you would like to transfer to Vanguard to fund your initial investment (you can also choose to make no initial transfer and make a transfer at a later time).

Step 8: Wait for application approval

Wait for your application to be processed. This usually happens pretty quick (often instantly) but sometimes it may take a few days. 

Step 9: Purchase your funds

Your money will initially go to your “Vanguard Federal Money Market Fund.” This fund is essentially just a savings account for your money until you purchase the investment funds you want to invest in. This may be the part you feel most nervous about, but don’t worry — I’ve got you covered with some basic tips!

In order to actually invest your money and have it start working for you, you’ll need to go to your account and click the 3 vertical dots next to “Transact” in the right corner.

You’ll choose “Buy Vanguard Funds” if you plan on purchasing a mutual fund, or “Trade Vanguard ETFs” if you plan on purchasing ETFs. They’re essentially the same thing, but if you’re investing less than $3,000 you’ll need to start off with ETFs.

Once you select your purchase option it will take you to a new screen where you will select which fund you want to purchase, how many, and when. You can see an example of this filled out as if you wanted to purchase VTI below.

  • Buy” means you want to buy shares — simple enough.
  • The symbol refers to the stock ticker symbol that references the fund you want to buy — you’ll type in which one you want to purchase.
  • The amount is the number of shares you wish to purchase, or you can purchase fractions of a share by putting in a specific dollar amount. The amount you select will depend on how much money you have available in your money market fund.
  • Market” means that you want the purchase to be completed instantly, or as soon as markets open. Market orders are always day orders because they happen that day or the next business day.

Once you have it filled out and you have enough money in your money market fund, you’ll be able to click preview order and confirm your purchase.

This is probably the part that you’ll feel the most overwhelmed and may not know what you want to invest in. That’s okay! You haven’t done this before. Luckily for you, the best investing is usually simple investing — buy low-cost index funds, hold them for a long time. I’ve listed a few recommendations funds below that you may want to start with, but don’t be afraid to do your own research as well.

Recommended Index Funds and ETFs for New Investors

All my recommendations are broad, low-cost index funds and ETFs. If you want to learn more about why I recommend investing in low-cost index funds check out this post

VTSAX – Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund

VTSAX is a large blend index fund that tracks the Total Stock Market Index, which means that when you buy a share of VTSAX, you’re actually buying a small share of over 4,000 companies. Its expense ratio is only 0.04% but since it is a Vanguard Mutual Fund, it requires a $3,000 minimum initial investment. If you don’t have that, don’t fret, that’s where ETFs come in — see below.

VTI – Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF

VTI is essentially the same share as VTSAX, just in the form of an Exchange Traded Fund (ETF). Don’t worry about the difference. It also tracks the Total Stock Market Index, includes stocks of those same 4,000 companies, and actually has a slightly lower expense ratio of 0.03%. Since it’s an ETF rather than a mutual fund, there is no large minimum investment when you start out.

VOO – Vanguard S&P 500 ETF

VOO is another large blend index, but rather than tracking the total stock market, it tracks the S&P 500. This means when you purchase a share of VOO you getting a small piece of 500 of the largest U.S. companies. The expanse ratio is also 0.03%.

ESGV – Vanguard ESG U.S. Stock ETF

If you’re looking to be a more socially-conscious invester, you may want to consider including this fund in your portfolio. While this is also a large blend index fund, the companies it invests in must meet certain criteria regarding environmental, social, and corporate governance issues. For example, it “excludes stocks of companies that do not meet certain labor, human rights, environmental, and anti-corruption standards as defined by the UN Global Compact Principles.” Due to the slightly extra oversight required, this fund has a slightly higher expense ratio of 0.09%, though still significantly lower than similar funds outside of Vanguard.

All of these recommendations are based on the premise that you are planning to invest for the long term using a buy-and-hold strategy.

Bonus Step: Set up recurring transfers.

Once you have your account, it’s best to automate your contributions on a weekly or monthly schedule. To do this just go to your “Profile and Account Settings” in the top right. Click “Set up a recurring investment” and then add an automatic transaction for the frequency and amount you wish.

The contribution limits for 2023 are $6,500 for those under 50 and $7,500 for those 50 and above.

Note: If you are purchasing ETFs you will need to remember to log in to purchase the ETFs with the money that you transfer into your Vanguard Money Market Fund. Otherwise it will just sit in that savings fund rather than being invested. I suggest making it part of your weekly budget check-in. If you are purchasing mutual funds, you are able to set up automatic purchases directly into those funds, which is convenient and reccomended.

And that’s it! You’re all set up, congratulations!

A Financial Reset After the Expensive Holiday Months: YNAB’s 30-Day More Money Challenge

Anybody else feel like their bank account needs to catch its breath after the whirlwind of spending that is the holiday season? Cause mine sure does. 

I’ve been an avid YNAB user for a few years now, but have never actually done their 30-Day More Money Challenge, despite being intrigued. I downloaded the workbook a few months ago, but never actually did anything with it (check the water ring in the header image). However, after what seemed like constant spending over the holiday months I thought that now would be the perfect time to print out the workbook and try it out. 

Basically, the More Money Challenge is a 30-day challenge to cut back your spending and put those savings towards one of your goals.

There are three simple (but challenging) rules. 

  1. Track your spending, every dollar.
  2. Only buy essentials.
  3. No dining out. 

Yesterday, we sat down and filled in the first few pages. 

The first thing we had to do was identify what we were saving for – that is, what we planned to do with the money saved during the challenge. We decided we would put the savings towards our future downpayment. For you, it might be the same target, or maybe you’ll use it to pay off debt, fund a vacation, or set up an emergency fund!

The next step was setting a target. The workbook told us that the average participant saves $1,000 over the challenge, so we decided to set our target for $1,000. This seemed like a lot, especially since I feel like I already try to keep our expenses on the lower side, but I figured why not go for the average.

Next up was to decide how we were going to track our spending. This one was easy because we already use YNAB, but they also give you a handy dandy paper sheet that you can use as well. 

The tricky part was up next. We had to list out our “no-spend rules” and list any exceptions. They give you a few examples of what rules and exceptions people have made in the past, which was a helpful starting point. 

We came up with the following “No-Spend Rules”:

  • No Amazon purchases
  • No “Stuff”: meaning stick to the essentials of groceries, gas, meds, pet food, etc. 
  • No alcohol
  • No coffee out
  • No new plants or garden stuff! – Cassie’s a sucker for the farm and garden store

And our “Exceptions” included the following:

  • We could buy the new pitchfork we’ve needed (but should try to buy one used) and could buy up to 2 bags of soil if needed for our seed starters for the spring garden.
  • We promised to take my brother and his girlfriend out to a fancy bar as part of a belated birthday gift now that they were in town, and we would still do this. 
  • We could use existing Starbucks gift cards to get a coffee out as long as the gift card would cover the full cost. 

After setting our rules and exceptions, it was time to do a little prep for the no dining out rule by taking a pantry inventory of what we already had and meal planning for the first week. They provide you with some useful sheets to help keep track of your pantry inventory for future planning.

Knowing what we had on hand made it easy to plan meals around things we already had. Turns out we had some pretty sweet stuff in the freezer that I had forgotten about – looking at you, ravioli!

The final pages of the workbook include your savings trackers. One has a line for each day of the challenge for you to document what you saved by listing what you wanted to buy but didn’t and how much it would have cost. The other tracker is a fun visual tracker that lets you color in blocks as you make progress toward your target. Since our target is $1,000, we get to color in a block every $18-ish dollars we don’t spend.

The way you determine your savings is pretty simple. If during the day you think “Oh, I should buy [insert thing here]” but then you jump in and say “No, Kaylie, I’m doing the More Money Challenge” and so instead of buying the thing you go, “oh, right, I guess I won’t buy it then.”

When you don’t buy the thing, you get to count that as a win and add how much you would have spent as savings. It should be a real thing or meal you would have actually probably bought if not doing the challenge though, and not just a passing thought.

In addition to the money you save by not spending, you can also add to your savings by earning some bonus money. You might sell things online, return something you maybe otherwise would have forgotten to, or pick up a small gig like dogsitting. 

Now that we’ve filled out the workbook and set our target, we’re all set to start our More Money Challenge tomorrow! I’ll be posting some brief weekly updates in case you’re interested in following along with our progress, and I’ll post a longer recap with final numbers at the end of the challenge. 

For now, we’re enjoying our final takeout meal.

You can download your own workbook and participate here

And you can sign up for YNAB here – even if you only sign up for the 34-day free trial it will help make your tracking process easier during the challenge! If you use this link and sign up after the free trial we’ll each get a free month! Win-win!

My 2022 Financial Recap

2022 was an interesting year. I changed careers (and took some time off in between), Cassie launched a new part of her business, both of us lost our grandmothers, we spent more time with friends and family, and I felt like we oscillated between finding a good rhythm and blowing it up. 

This year feels simultaneously like we slowed down the pace, and like the entire year has been a bit of a blur. I’m not quite sure what that means, but I do feel like I should probably spend some time processing it all since it was a year of some pretty big transitions. 

One of the positive things we did this year was finally fully join our finances. We finished up the process when we got back from our trip to Ecuador in September. It seemed like the right time with my career shift and Cassie still building her business, plus it would simplify things for us day to day. Our finances were already fairly joined, but we finally took care of the few things we hadn’t yet done and actually started using our joint YNAB budget exclusively. 

Moving forward this means I’ll have a clearer picture of what our household expenses are – which will make long term planning a lot easier. However, since we made these changes part way through the year, it means it’s a bit more complicated to do the typical end of year recap that I usually do with all of the detailed numbers. 

Because of this, I’ll just go over some highlights, and next year you can expect a full recap of our household expenses.

My Income: $68,205

Even though I took three months “off work” I still had my highest earning year to date. This was thanks to still working as a part time consultant for my previous employer and to making more in my new role. 

My income listed here is after tax, but does include dividends, selling a few things online, dog sitting and my half of the rental income. We keep the rent low, because we know there isn’t nearly enough affordable housing where we live, so that money is really just enough to cover that half of the mortgage, property taxes, insurance, and maintenance on the property.

My top 10 expenses

These expenses are just my half (unless otherwise noted), since we only joined our finances near the end of the year.

1. Sabbatical Travel – $9,124

You can read more about what I did here and here! This includes flights and other transportation costs, accommodations, all my food and drinks during this time, activities, supplies I bought for the trip as well as paying for a portion of my youngest brothers trip to Peru and both Cassie and I’s costs for the Ecuador trip.

2. Rental Costs- $6,402

Since we live in a duplex this includes half of the interest on the mortgage loan, as well as half of the property taxes, insurance, and any repairs. This year we had some electrical work to replace the weather head, a roof patch, and some small things around the house. We also get the kids gift cards on their birthdays.

3. Mortgage interest, property taxes, home insurance – $3,835

My half of our half of the mortgage interest, property taxes, and home insurance. Unfortunately, our property taxes and insurance are both going up a good chunk next year. I also never include the principal portion of our loan as an expense since it’s adding to our equity.

4. Groceries – $3,018

Self-explanatory. Less than last year at least!

5. Student Loans – $2,369

I’ve still been making payments even though they are frozen. Hoping the $10,000 gets forgiven in the new year and I’ll pay the rest off quickly once we’re done saving up for our next down payment.

6. Friend’s Wedding – $2,082

My best friend/cousin got married this year and I was the Maid of Honor. This includes flights for the bachelorette weekend, flights for the wedding, a suit, gifts, and other expenses.

7. Fun Money – $1,939

Concert tickets, drink tabs, new board games, tickets to plays, etc.

8. Vet Bills – $1,867

Carob had a health scare this year so a large chunk of this is related to those vet bills. Could have been a lot worse — thank you, pet insurance!

9. Dining Out – $1,449

Self-explanatory. Slightly less than last year!

10. Auto Maintenance – $1,382

New battery for my car, 4 new tires, oil changes, and a few other small things here and there.

Joint Net Worth: $210,642

For the first time, I calculated our end-of-year net worth using both of our assets and debts. This includes a conservative estimate of our home’s value as well as the home loan, student loans, investment accounts, checking and savings accounts, and any balances on our credit cards as of Dec. 31.

Given the 20% drop in the stock market, I’ll happily take it.

I’m excited that now our finances are fully joined I’ll have a much more solid idea of our household spending and savings rate going forward — and to be able to share that with you next year!

A Useful Approach to Setting and Making Progress on Your New Year’s Goals

As we reach the end of 2022, many of us will probably be reflecting on the past year and spending some time setting some goals or intentions for 2023.

Given that when the clock strikes midnight, we’re not likely to become a completely different person, it’s important to make your goals or intentions realistic, sustainable, and relevant to your actual priorities in order to give you the greatest chance of success in the long term. 

Not everyone sets goals for the new year, but I’m a sucker for rituals and I appreciate the excuse to reflect, recalibrate, and realign. 

Start with a question

When determining what my goals would be for 2022, I asked myself what I wanted more or less of in my life. 

The answers to this question could be tangible things (like more money or less clutter), something less tangible (like more connection or less stress), or a personal trait you’d like to work on, such as developing more patience or being less judgemental. 

I brainstormed using this question for a while and filled up a note in my phone with what came to mind. I ultimately identified three themes that a lot of my wants fell under. 

I wanted less waste. I wanted more energy. And I wanted to be making more tangible progress toward our next steps, like moving out of Florida to a more preferred destination. 

Brainstorm the “how

While a lot of goal-setting advice will tell you to make your goals very specific, I prefer to keep my goals broad. And instead, get specific on the how, creating a menu of options that could help me reach these goals.

This method helps me be creative in how I might approach getting more or less of whatever it is, allows for a more holistic approach, and gives me options that I can move between throughout the week while still making progress, which leaves room for imperfection. 

For example, rather than setting a goal to exercise 4 days a week, my intention for the year is to have more energy. I can accomplish that by, yes, exercising, but also by incorporating any of the following practices or habits into my life:

  • Exercising or stretching
  • Drinking enough water
  • Not drinking alcohol
  • Being in bed by 10:30 pm
  • Not skipping meals
  • Eating plant-based and homemade meals
  • Foregoing TV and using that time for more creative pursuits
  • Spending time with people that give me energy 
  • Taking my vitamins

Having brainstormed ways that will help me keep my energy levels up, rather than having a strict exercise 4 days a week goal, I can instead just focus on checking a few of these low-lift things off each day and enjoy the benefits. 

If you have a goal related to improving your financial picture, your menu could include options like:

  • Ingest some type of financial education media (read a blog post or book chapter or listen to a podcast)
  • Send $50 or more to an investment account or high-interest savings account
  • Categorize expenses and give dollars jobs in YNAB
  • Complete a buy-nothing day. 
  • No-eating-or-drinking-out day.
  • Sell something I’m not using or no longer want to earn a little extra cash
  • Apply for a job with a higher salary
  • Pay more than the minimum on a credit card balance

Ask what seems reasonable when setting your expectations

Next up is to determine what feels reasonable to expect from yourself as you’re starting out the year.

For me, I listed 9 tangible things up above that I believe will help me have more energy. Given that some of them are pretty basic (drink water, take vitamins, go to bed on time, etc), I think it’s pretty reasonable to expect myself to check off 4 out of the 9 each day, knowing that consistency is more important than perfection.

If I find after a few weeks that I’m consistently hitting my 4-a-day goal but only checking off the low-hanging fruit, I might raise it to 5 a day and see how I do.

If you were working off of the example list for a financial goal above, you may start off trying to complete 3 or 4 items a week. For my goal of making progress on our plans to move out of Florida, I’ll probably have a goal to complete 1 or 2 items a month (primarily hitting our monthly savings target with some other logistical and research-related items thrown in there). 

Make your goal a verb not a destination

The adjustment and adapting I mentioned above is key to the sustainability and success of your goals. Just because I’m setting a goal for 2023 in January doesn’t mean it has to stay static for the whole year. You should spend some time every few weeks reflecting and adapting based on what’s working, what’s not, and if it’s still serving you. 

Again, let’s say you were using the menu related to a personal finance goal above – halfway through the year you may have paid off all your credit cards, and now want to change that item to be to pay extra on a student loan, or some other item entirely. Or maybe you find your enjoying learning more about personal finance and so you make a change to a have a daily target to read some kind of personal finance education content, but are sticking with a weekly or monthly target for the other tasks. 

For me, this will look like creating a note on my phone with those 9 things, and checking off each day how many I complete. If I hit my goal of 4 in a day, I’ll make a mark on my calendar so I can track consistency, and try not to miss two days in a row. 

Making this a quick daily check-in keeps me engaged in the process, lets me acknowledge my progress, and is likely to help me stay motivated. Because my goal isn’t about the result, but about the daily process, I’ll be much more likely to stick with it.

I can follow this same structure with my other two intentions of being less wasteful and making more progress toward our next steps as well. 

If you plan to make any goals or resolutions for the new year, try using this structure and let me know how it goes. You can also check out this older post about how to help stay motivated when working towards goals.

How We Spent Two Weeks in Ecuador

The final third of my “sabbatical” was to be spent in Ecuador with Cassie. We had visited twice before, both times with family, and wanted the chance to explore just the two of us. Ecuador is a great place to travel to — there is so much diversity among the landscapes, the people are incredibly friendly, and it’s a smaller country so it’s easy to get around. Plus, as a bonus they use the US dollar, so you don’t have to worry about exchanging money. 

Also, fun fact, my parents are retiring there next year and bought a condo on the coast that we could stay in for free for a portion of the trip. The plan was to be there for a month; two weeks relaxing on the coast and two weeks exploring and hiking in the mountains and cloud forests. 

Sadly, Cassie’s grandma, who helped raise her, passed away suddenly just a couple of days before we were set to leave. We had already planned to take the month off of work so we were easily able to drive up to Pennsylvania to be with family, help with the house, and take some time  to just be in the initial shock and grief. 

After two weeks and some discussion about what we should do, we decided to rejoin our original itinerary for the second half of our planned trip. We skipped the coast and flew straight into Quito, picking up from there. 

Given the circumstances, we decided that instead of the many hikes and exploring we had originally planned, we wanted to make the trip as relaxing and luxurious as possible. This meant we spent a lot of days just hanging around our room reading, watching tv, enjoying the cool weather with a drink in our hand, getting massages and sitting in hot tubs, playing cards, and napping. It also meant we canceled some of our planned stays in shared hostels and extended our stays in the nicer lodges and resorts (which actually led to our room being upgraded in both instances!). 

Quito – 1 Day

We flew into Quito on a red-eye and immediately collapsed into bed the night (erm, early morning) that we arrived. We stayed in the Secret Garden Hostel in Quito and the next day enjoyed breakfast on the rooftop enjoying the expansive views of the city and surrounding mountains.

That afternoon we  grabbed a taxi up to the teleferiqo for even more views of the city. Cassie’s really afraid of heights, so I always get nervous about how she’ll feel about stuff like this, but she did really well (even if my hand almost got squeezed off on the way up). 

Once we made it to the landing point, we hiked a little ways up, swung on the swing, and enjoyed a hot chocolate and carrot cake in the little cafe up there. There is a longer hike you can do all the way up to the top, but we were still acclimatizing to the altitude and wanted to take it easy. I was just happy to sit and spend time together after being apart for a month while I was in Peru. After we came back down, we walked around the Floresta neighborhood and checked out Frida Tacos for lunch. We ordered way more tacos than we could eat, but they were all delicious.

Cotopaxi – 5 Days

The next day we took a van with other hostel guests who were headed to the Secret Garden’s sister hostel in Cotopaxi. We stayed here the first time we visited Ecuador and immediately knew we would want to come back for a longer stay.

I highly recommend making a visit to this place. The grounds are beautiful (and include a delightful and friendly pack of llamas), you eat family-style with the rest of the guests, guaranteeing you some great conversations and interesting characters, and the food is delicious. Oh, and did I mention that it’s completely unplugged?

No wifi, no cell service, nothing. We stayed in one of the Hobbit Holes, which was super cozy and had an unbelievable view of the Cotopaxi volcano. 

You can also book tons of great activities and hikes through the hostel during your stay. When we stayed here the first time we did some of these activities, including the free waterfall hike — and a fateful horseback riding excursion where we found out my youngest brother is very allergic to horses and Cassie’s horse tripped and threw her off (she was okay).

This time, we decided to not book any activities and just enjoy hanging out around the grounds relaxing, taking walks on our own, soaking in the hot tub, playing cards, reading in our hobbit hole and on the big net, and feeding the llamas. 

Part of the reason we didn’t do any of the structured hikes was because Cassie had a much harder time acclimating to the altitude than previously. We also really just needed to do nothing – and it was glorious.

Isinlivi – 4 Days

Our next stop was Isinlivi, a very small town on the Quilotoa Loop. Our original plan was to hike the 3-day loop, stopping for two nights in Isinlivi to enjoy the Llullu Llama Lodge. As I mentioned at the start of this post, we decided to cut back on physical activity and increase the luxury on this trip and so we ended up extending our stay at the lodge.  

Though we were excited to slow down the pace, we were bummed to miss out on hiking the full loop, so we decided to still hike the second day’s portion from Isinlivi to Chugchilan, and I’m so glad we did. The whole day we were met with beautiful views, diverse landscapes, and just the right amount of challenge. We took a slower pace and stopped to enjoy lookouts and snacks along the way and were still able to complete the trek in a little under 6 hours. 

Since the region had experienced heavy rainfalls earlier in the season, we were worried that more of the trail would be wiped out and muddy, but other than one or two early sections of mud, it was completely fine.

Once we arrived in Chugchilan, we enjoyed a big lunch at one of the hostels/restaurants in town. We followed up lunch with some ice cream and good conversation with fellow hikers who we had met at the lodge the night before, then caught a ride back to the Llullu Llama. 

During our stay we also took a day trip to Quilotoa Lake – which was gorgeous – enjoyed the spa at the lodge, walked around the tiny town, and drank many many mojitos made by the friendly bartender and property manager, Giovanni. Dinner and breakfast were included at Llullu Llama and the food was quite tasty every day.

Baños – 4 Days

Our next destination was Baños. On our first trip to Ecuador back in 2019, everyone we met (including locals) kept asking us if we were planning to go to Baños, and when we answered “no” we were always met with disbelief and a strong recommendation to visit. So on this trip, we made sure to book a few days to explore this town known for its volcanos, hot springs, adventure sports, and many, many waterfalls. 

Unfortunately, the day we arrived in Baños, I was feeling sick and spent the whole first day in bed, watching Netflix, and soaking in a hot bath. On the upside, this was another place where we decided to cancel our hostel stay and instead, extend our fancier stay at the Samari Spa & Resort. This change of plans resulted in another upgraded room. Our new room was basically a house all to ourselves (including a yard), had the biggest jet tub I’d ever seen, a fireplace, and a truly giant comfortable bed. 

The grounds of the resort were so beautiful that we spent some of our time walking around a small nature trail on the property and just staring in awe at the thin waterfalls cascading down the bright green mountains surrounding us. 

The town itself was different than I was expecting. After spending time in the small cloud forest tourist town of Mindo (try saying that five times fast) on our 2019 trip, I was surprised at how big and busy Baños felt. At certain times of day, the traffic on the main road could be quite busy, and in the city you’ll be approached every few minutes by someone trying to sell you souvenirs or adventure excursions. This was also the place where we were most consistently disappointed with the food, though maybe we were just unlucky in the respect.  

All that said, Baños is still incredibly beautiful and worth visiting, and I would definitely go back. I think I was just expecting something different after hearing so many people recommend it. 

On one of our days we took a drive out of town to do a short hike around the Pailón del Diablo Waterfall, translated to the Devil’s Cauldron, named after the way the water appears to bubble upwards from the force of the water falling, causing it to look like intensely boiling water. 

The walk to and around the waterfalls was beautiful and wet. We were drenched thoroughly by the end from the water splashing back out at us along parts of the narrow trail. There are also portions where you have to crawl through small caves on your hands and knees. There were parts where we couldn’t stop laughing while watching people attempt to make the walk in ponchos that were no match for the falls, which is one of the strongest in South America. 

On the drive to the falls we also stopped at a few of the roadside attractions for some exposure therapy for Cassie’s fear of heights. We walked across the glass bridge and took a terabita across another gorge to get up close to another waterfall and admire the rushing river beneath us and other falls in the distance.

Our last day in Baños was mostly spent relaxing by the pool, soaking in the spa, and getting couples massages. Ahh, the life. 

Quito – 2 Days

As we reached the end of our trip, it was time to return to Quito to spend a couple days before our flight back to the States. While we stayed at the Secret Garden when we initially flew into Quito, we capped off our trip staying in a little studio Airbnb overlooking Parque la Carolina. 

This was the perfect location as we spent most of our days wandering around the park, eating ice cream, renting a peddle boat, people watching, and exploring the botanical gardens housed in the park. 

We also were walking distance to one of the best restaurant districts in the city, and we took full advantage of that. Our first night’s dinner was at Somos, a female-founded restaurant rooted in local ingredients and Ecuadorian tradition. The food was phenomenal and the night was rounded out with a visit to their downstairs speakeasy, Sed, for Ecuadorian-inspired cocktails.

We made good friends with the bartenders, who donned us in ponchos and hats, and ended up drinking much more than we anticipated since they kept making us drinks on the house that they were excited to share with us. Hands down these were some of the best drinks I’ve ever had, one of which I’ve tried unsuccessfully to replicate at home on multiple occasions. (Unfortunately, Sed is now closed, but you can still get delicious cocktails at Somos itself.)

On our second day, we ate lunch and dinner at De la Llama (it was that good), which is another contemporary Ecuadorian restaurant. We stuck to seafood for entrees, trying the ceviche, grilled swordfish, and shrimp chupe (my fave) but a surprising standout was the duck baos that we shared as a starter. 

While I felt a little sad on the drive to the airport that night knowing my sabbatical was coming to a close, I also was excited to get home. I looked forward to enjoying time with my parents before they move to Ecuador next year, seeing my dog Carob, and sleeping in my own bed (and not having to wear the same three outfits over and over – although honestly that last part I really didn’t mind).

While we almost skipped this trip,  I’m so glad that we decided to still go on a shortened version of it. While traveling can be tiring, the way we structured this trip to be very intentionally unplugged and balanced with activity and luxury left me feeling deeply rested and present in a way I hadn’t been in a long time. 

Let’s just say that I’m already scheming on when I can take my next sabbatical. 

How I Spent 4 Weeks in Peru

As I outlined in my previous post, I recently finished up my three month “sabbatical” between jobs, and I spent one of those months traveling around Peru with my two younger brothers.

I’ve wanted to go to Peru since I was in 8th grade. One of my teachers, himself an avid traveler, said it was his favorite place he had visited. But 15 years later, I still hadn’t gone! Even though I had been looking forward to this trip and building it up for so long, Peru still didn’t disappoint.

Here’s a quick rundown of how we spent the month, where we stayed, and of course, some restaurant recommendations. If you’re looking for what we spent, check out the original sabbatical post — that breaks it down a bit more.

Lima – 3 Days

We flew into Lima from Fort Lauderdale and stayed at the Kokopelli Hostel in Barranco. We spent 3 full days exploring Lima. During that time, we took a street food tour, wandered around the historic center (including the Plaza de Armas), drank pisco sours, walked along the Malecon, went surfing in the Pacific, and ate a lot of delicious food. 

The highlight of these first few days of the trip was definitely surfing. Despite the water being quite cold, the waves were perfect, the views of the cliffs towering above were incredible, and I finished the session feeling exhausted in the best way possible. 

Doing research before my trip, a lot of blogs said that Lima was a pretty skippable city that most people only stayed a day or two in and only because most flights fly in or out of Lima. I disagree, I loved Lima and could have spent much longer than we did there. Honestly, I would consider living there if the opportunity presented itself. The weather was perfectly cool and breezy, the views along the coast were stunning, it felt historical and modern at the same time, the people were friendly, and the food…the food.

Lima has an amazing food scene, and this is where we spent some extra time and money. Some favorites were the pork buns in Barrio Chino during the street food tour, a fancy dinner at Merito, and a big family style lunch we shared with some new friends at Isolina

I really enjoyed getting to share long meals with my brothers during these first few days, it gave us time to talk, catch up, and joke around.

Huacachina – 2 Days

Next up, we took a 5-hour bus to Huacachina to see the sand dunes. While Huacachina itself isn’t much more than a tourist town, the surroundings are truly breathtaking. I was honestly surprised at how majestic the towering sand dunes were in person — it really does feel otherworldly. We didn’t have much time here, but we stayed at Bananas Adventure Hostel, so it was easy to book activities and make the most of our short time. 

We took a dune buggy ride, went sand boarding, and watched the sunset from the top of a dune. And in case it just looks majestic to you — walking up a sand dune is an incredible workout (I was crawling at the end). I’m also still finding sand in my shoes two months later a free souvenir if you will. It all added to the magic, though.

The region of Ica, where Huacachina is located, is also a major grape growing region in Peru. Because of this we also chose to go on a wine and pisco tasting tour. All of the hosts at the wineries thought it was hilarious that my youngest brother, who is 20, couldn’t legally drink in the US and so they kept giving him extra samples. The wine they make there is very sweet and not much like the wine we’re used to drinking back in the US. Pisco tastes a bit like tequila but it is actually made by distilling fermented grape juice — which is why a lot of the wineries also make pisco and pisco creams. Our favorites were the coffee and coconut pisco creams.

Unfortunately, on our last day I left the wallet with all of our passports in it in the taxi we took on the way back to the bus station. Oops.

Lima – 3 Days

The original plan was to spend just one night back in Lima before catching a flight to Cusco. However, because of the aforementioned lost passports, we had to extend our stay by a few days so that we could get our new passports.

On the bright side, we did get to see the inside of a US Embassy (big DMV vibes on the inside), found the Curayacu Tiki Bar to get us back into vacation mode, and listened to some great street performers. 

Shockingly, getting our temporary emergency passports was pretty easy and quick. On the other hand, transferring our entry stamps ended up being a much longer and unnecessarily stressful experience — but it all worked out in the end. 

Cusco – 6 Days

We arrived in Cusco a few days later than planned, but we still had almost a full week here before leaving for the Inca Trail. Cusco was also the last stop that my youngest brother, Brian, joined us for (sad). Because we enjoyed our stay at the Kokopelli hostel in Lima so much, we stayed at their hostel in Cusco as well. It was walking distance to the main plaza, had comfortable rooms, and a nice bar with balconies. 

We spent the first few days acclimating to the elevation (Cusco sits around 11,000 feet above sea level — so we were huffing it up the stairs those first couple days), exploring Cusco, and eating. One of the cooler things we did was visit the Cusco Planetarium where we received a lesson on Inca astronomy followed up by some outdoor stargazing and looking through big telescopes.

We also took a tour of the Sacred Valley to soak up some knowledge about Andean history and a bean to bar chocolate making class to soak up some deliciousness.

Honestly, when in Cusco, it’s tough to beat just sitting on a balcony with a cold drink or hot coffee enjoying the views. One of the things I loved most about this trip was how much time I spent outside. Whether sitting on a balcony with a drink, hiking the Andes, or walking along the coast I got to enjoy so much beautifully cool weather while knowing I was getting to miss the peak of Florida summer heat.

Some food highlights were Green Point, which serves plant-based Peruvian food,  KION Peruvian Chinese, Jack’s Cafe (the best french toast), and the trout at Yaku. 

Originally we planned to also do either the Rainbow Mountain or Lake Humantay hike but between taking time to acclimate, wanting time to rest before the Inca Trail, and the timing of Brian’s flight, it just didn’t happen.

It’s good to have an excuse to go back anyways. 

Inca Trail – 4 Days

Finally, it was time for me and Liam to start the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu.

The hike is just over 26 miles split up over 4 days, but involves a decent amount of inclines and declines. Honestly, I was a little (very) nervous about how I would do coming from flat, sea-level Florida. I ended up not needing to have worried so much — while day two was a little challenging due to the elevation increases and many, many many steps, it was all very manageable and I ended my days tired but feeling good. 

The views throughout the hike were incredible (including at night – you could see the milky way!), the people in our group were great, and the trail wasn’t crowded – at times, you could go a couple hours without seeing another group. All-in-all, the experience was even better than I expected, and I definitely recommend it.  You feel super accomplished when you get your first peek at Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate, and the four days being completely unplugged from wifi and cell service is something I’m already eagerly planning to replicate. 

We booked our guided trek with Alpaca Expeditions and while they are pricier than many of the other companies, I would definitely recommend booking with them. The guides and porters were amazing, they pay their people well and make sure they are outfitted with the appropriate gear, and they have strict weight limits for what you can bring.

Plus, the food they prepared for us was truly delicious (though I forgot to take pictures – see unplugged!). I’m still thinking about the corn cakes and chicken soup from Day 2. 

Cusco – 3 Days

When we arrived back in Cusco we stayed in an Airbnb so that we could ensure a long hot shower and a quiet night’s sleep after going four days without a shower and sleeping in a tent.

We really took it easy during this leg, walking around town, taking naps, reading, and picking up some gifts for family and friends back home. Nothing too exciting, just enjoying the weather and wandering. Liam also treated himself to a massage to work out the Inca Trail muscle tiredness.

Arequipa – 5 Days

We flew from Cusco to Arequipa, where we stayed in a Selina Hostel. Arequipa is a super unique city that felt different from the other places we visited, largely because of its architecture. It’s surrounded by volcanoes, has a river running through it, and is near Colca Canyon. We didn’t visit Colca Canyon on this trip, but we did go white water rafting in the Rio Chili. We also visited the Andean Sanctuaries Museum and explored the historic center. 

Otherwise, we spent a lot of our time eating and drinking – the city is known for its craft beer scene. However, before we hit the breweries we’d usually start our day with breakfast at Eco Brunch, which had delicious waffles, coffee, and breakfast sandwiches. Then, we’d sit and play some cards.

We love games, so we also checked out a place called Baraunda which was a cool board game bar that had a good selection of craft beers and big variety of board and card games to play. 7 Vidas taproom had good beer and some tasty appetizers as well, but the true standout was a place called Nowhere. They had a great selection of unique beers, including some great sour beers, and their burgers and Peruvian poutine were both incredibly delicious. My brother and I may or may not have gotten quite drunk here, bought t-shirts, and drunkenly called my wife and parents afterwards to request various streaming logins in an unsuccessful attempt to watch Shanghai Noon. Don’t judge.

As for food, Pasta Canteen was a super cozy little place where we found ourselves having dinner one night. The pasta is made fresh daily, you get to customize it with your favorite ingredients, they serve you a salad in a cute little jar, and you can’t beat the value. 

Lima – 2 Days

We ended our trip back in Lima to catch our flight back home. We spent our last couple days walking around the Museum of Contemporary Art and sipping fancy cocktails at a fancy beach bar/restaurant overlooking the pacific. Liam went surfing again, enjoyed some arepas and ice cream, and found more homemade pasta at a tiny place called Manduco (a small family-owned restaurant down an ally in Barranco with truly some of the best past I’ve had in my life). 

All-in-all, the trip was amazing. I loved getting to explore a new place and meeting new people, I loved getting to spend time with my brothers and getting to know them better as the adults they now are, and I loved that even when I was flying home, I had another trip planned just a few days later