This blog may make it seem like everything always goes “our way” and that we never have setbacks or disappointments, and that things are just easy for us because we have good incomes. Well, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as we just returned from our trip to Amsterdam and people have directly told me, “I’m so jealous!” or “You’re so lucky!”

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail, but I just want to be clear that my husband and I don’t always have it so easy, we aren’t really any more lucky than the next person, and that the good things that happen for us are usually the result of a significant amount of hard work, planning, and usually budgeting.

We are very lucky to have each other, and to each support each other’s dreams in very tangible ways. A small example of this is that I’ve been talking about learning to skateboard for over two years, and finally, my husband had a co-worker with an unused longboard and he decided to make her an offer for it. He’s now teaching me how to ride, and made sure we both got helmets soon after this photo was taken:

skateboardA larger example is his graduate school experience. We discussed him going back to school for quite a few years before he actually took the GRE, looked at various online programs compared to classroom options, applied, and was accepted to both programs he applied to. We have managed to put him through school without student loans, thanks to many people–primarily his supervisor and co-workers who have adjusted to his changing schedule each semester and worked to help him reduce his hours as he transitions toward full-time student status with no job. He is basically paying his own tuition, and my income covers all of our regular expenses so that this can happen.

But we’ve been through some pretty crummy stuff, too. There have been professional setbacks of various types, personal disappointments, strained relationships, and medical issues. And don’t forget that we started our marriage in quite a bit of debt, with a long period of unemployment for my husband while I was only working part-time. I don’t write about these things, but it doesn’t mean they don’t happen to us, just like they happen to everyone else. The best we can do is try to make better decisions and think of our future selves.

It’s likely going to be a significant amount of time before we can take another vacation that involves getting on a plane, since my husband will (God willing) be graduating next spring and also (God willing) starting a new job sometime (hoping very soon) after graduation. This is one reason we decided to get back to Europe this spring, so soon after our last trip, because school schedules and life are quickly going to get in the way of any trips. And our hope is that we will eventually be able to save up a down payment for a house, maybe by our 10th wedding anniversary. All of this is a long way off, but I’ve always been motivated by long-ranging goals.

Trip to Amsterdam: the details and the budget

I promised I’d write a blog post on the details of our trip, so this is what I hope to accomplish:

  1. Details of planning
  2. Costs
  3. Assessment

After our trip to Europe last summer (Cologne, Germany and Paris), we decided our one day in Amsterdam wasn’t nearly enough to see everything the city has to offer. We made it to the Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh Museum on that trip, and even though we were both recovering from terrible colds, it was a highlight of the whole trip. I started watching airfares to Amsterdam pretty much as soon as we got back from Paris. I did a bit of research and decided we could likely make it back in May, just after my husband’s finals week and just before the tulip season ended (the major garden, Keukenhof, closes mid to late May).

bikeIn October, I got an alert about a low fare from, and almost couldn’t believe it: $838/ticket, with one layover each way in Philadelphia. Compared to the $1,575 we paid for airfare in July, this seemed an incredible price. I decided to snap it up, and also bought insurance for about $50/ticket, just in case we ended up needing to cancel since we had booked so far in advance. Total: $1,776.72 for airfare and insurance.

Next came apartment hunting. We prefer apartments to hotels, since you get a kitchen and laundry, plus a bit more space to spread out and relax, for either less money or similar to a hotel, plus more privacy and the feeling of living like a local. Similar to finding a place to live, you want to maximize certain things and minimize other things. My main tips for searching for an apartment are:

  1. Figure out priorities before even looking at listings. For us, this was: comfortable bed, location relative to sights and transportation while being relatively quiet, and little amenities like a well-equipped kitchen/bathroom and laundry in the unit so we could pack light. I also noticed that women’s apartments generally appear more comfortable and have more of the little comforts that we’d expect: throw pillows and blankets, a real couch vs. a futon, cooking utensils, nice shampoo you can use so you don’t need to pack it, and even a bottle of nail polish remover if you need it.
  2. Look at the location using Google Street view to get a sense of the neighborhood and what’s nearby. By “walking” your neighborhood before you even arrive, you get a great idea of how it may fit your needs. By doing this, we discovered our location was very residential but was just around the corner from an ice cream/coffee shop and a grocery store.
  3. Check out public transportation to and from the apartment, from the airport, from all the locations you hope to visit, etc. Our location meant we got to skip visiting the Central Station on our first day in Amsterdam, which was good as we were both sleep deprived and carrying heavy backpacks. We got to hop a bus that dropped us less than a mile from the apartment. It was also close to two tram lines: one took us to the Museumplein and one took us toward Centraal Station.

We found a balance of these things with a place in de Pijp, the former student area of Amsterdam that’s south of the canal belt. For 11 nights, it cost $1,484 total, with all fees. It was exactly as we expected, and our host was very lovely, meeting us there and explaining how to use the washing machine, the coffee maker, etc.

apartmentNext was our travel budget and daily activities. This is the one area where you really don’t want to scrimp, because you’re there to see and do things, and you don’t want to be thinking, “Ah, I can’t really afford to go to this museum…” Thankfully, many large cities overcome this by offering a discount card of some type, and Amsterdam is no exception. In our guide books and online, we kept reading about the Museumkaart (Museum Card), and how it was about 60 Euros but got you into over 300 museums in the Netherlands, and over 30 in Amsterdam alone. This generally would pay off if you visited five places with the card, and since we were planning to hit all of the major museums (Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh, Stedelijk), plus whatever else struck our fancy on our 11 day trip, it made a lot of sense. Plus, you can use the card as many times as you like for admission to the same museum, so you can visit for a short period of time and decide to come back if you didn’t have your fill. Also, if you didn’t much like something, you don’t feel like you “wasted” the entry cost.

rembrandtSouvenirs is another area where you can either spend a lot or very little. My limit was about 10 Euros for a single item for myself, plus we brought back many little gifts for family and friends, mainly small things like postcards of art, key rings, notebooks, bracelets, etc. My favorite item I got was the little Playmobil Milk Maid after Vermeer’s painting in the Rijksmuseum. It was 4.90 Euros. I also picked up a little seed pearl bracelet at the Hermitage Museum and basically haven’t taken it off. My husband got a few nice art-related things: a journal, some colored pencils, a Museum Guide for the Rijksmuseum, and a book called “Art Is Therapy,” but none of them cost more than about 15 Euros.

milk maidOne area we didn’t economize as much was on food. We ate out about twice every day (breakfast was always at our apartment), and got coffee many times to help overcome to time change. We could have done more meal planning and packed lunches, but Amsterdam prices are similar to the US: if you’d feel uncomfortable wearing jeans into a restaurant, it’s probably too expensive, whereas we stuck with restaurants filled with people in their 20s and early 30s and the menu items were around 5-10 Euros. This meant that our most expensive meal, after we visited Keukenhof and got over 20,000 steps on our FitBits, was a lovely Neapolitan pizza place where we each got a pizza, plus each got beer, and split a large piece of tiramisu for $41.29 total. Most meals were around $20 or less. Lastly, transportation within the city was easy with our OV chipkaarts for the trams/buses and even the train we took to The Hague. We spent $132.40 on our cards and the costs to load them, and we each had a bit of money left on the cards after our trip to the airport, so we can bring them when we go back someday.

tulipsTotal for food/souvenirs/transportation: $1,794.45 (we had exactly 15 Euros left in cash after leaving the Schiphol airport, so we gave 5 to my cousin who just graduated from high school and kept the 10 for our next trip!).

Grand total: $5,055.17. It was worth every penny.

One other thing I should add is that we have the BarclayCard Arrival MasterCard with chip and PIN, which was absolutely essential in the Netherlands–many places ONLY took cards with chip and PIN, not cash. With the rewards we have racked up this year, we have saved $450 so far, and now that we’re back, we have more points and more reimbursements to do over the next three months, so that $5,055.17 is actually $4,605.17 and dropping. Update: as of 6/5, the new total is $4,486.17. Depending on the bills that come in over the next couple months, that will likely drop by another $73.66 for a grand total of $4,412.51. Not too shabby for a lavish 11 day European vacation!

OBA view

Brief update

I’d like to make a brief update to note that my husband and I are still on track with our goals, and things are going well. My husband is more than halfway through his graduate degree, and is receiving a lot of high praise from his professors. The major hurdle right now is obtaining an internship for next year, and while he’s has some excellent leads and interviews, nothing has materialized yet. We are both hoping this works itself out soon so we have a better sense of what his schedule will look like for fall/spring semesters.

We are still planning to pay directly for his tuition without student loans. We discussed maybe taking out a loan for one semester (maybe his very last), but he only qualifies for unsubsidized loans and so interest would accrue and origination fees also are a bummer, so we’ve decided this isn’t a good option.

We also have another big trip planned for the spring. Details and a budget will be shared when we return.

It’s also the anniversary of the Affordable Care Act being signed into law, and I just want to note that this has literally saved us thousands of dollars since I was able to sign up for health insurance via our state exchange. My employer’s coverage was a fairly expensive HDHP, and via the state exchange, MNsure, I was able to get a much lower cost plan and put my benefit dollars into retirement savings instead. It’s also a huge relief for people like my diabetic sister who can rest easy knowing they won’t reach some ridiculous lifetime maximum or be denied coverage due to a preexisting condition.

Our European adventure: budget and tips

In July, we took a two week trip with my mother and sister to Cologne, Germany and Paris, France, with a one-day side trip to Amsterdam, Netherlands. We did this somewhat inexpensively, but not as cheaply as we probably could. I’ll break this down into a few simple steps…

  1. Host an exchange student
  2. Get her to date a German guy
  3. Get them to move to Germany
  4. Go visit them and partake of the wonderful hospitality

Toasting with our Kolsch beer! Left to right: Cata (who lived with my family for a couple years), my sister Andrea, my husband Steve, me making a weird face, and the only German in the photo, Tony on the far right–we had just been at the Cologne Pride Parade

But if that doesn’t work for you, a few other tips:

  1. If you’re into travel, get a travel rewards card like the BarclayCard Arrival+ MasterCard, and get the PIN/chip version of the card–your US swipe card likely won’t work anywhere in Europe except at some ATMs for getting cash (I am serious about this, the card has saved us over $900 this year! The annual fee is waived the first year, and if you keep traveling, the fee will be a drop in the bucket compared to what you can save)
  2. Pick your vacation time–we were limited to July because of work/school schedules, which isn’t the best time since it’s peak tourist season, but nobody will freeze to death in July


    It was around 95 degrees on this day in Paris in the Tuileries park (I’m wearing the long-sleeved shirt to keep the sun off)

  3. Start scanning websites like for airfare many months in advance of your trip; try to be flexible about exact departure dates (leaving on a Tuesday or Wednesday seems to be cheapest)–agree with any travel companions on what constitutes a good airfare price drop, and immediately purchase it (using that travel rewards card) when you see it (or you may literally never see that low price again! EVER!)
  4. Scope out rentals on sites like AirBnB–we had really good luck with this for an apartment in Paris–prioritize your important rental components; we’re fans of a washing machine so we can pack lighter, and mention of comfy beds or a quiet neighborhood within walkable distance to some sights is a huge plus
  5. If traveling to a country where you don’t know the language, try to learn at least the basics, “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Thank you,” “Please,” “Excuse me,” and “Do you speak English?” Seriously, this is super helpful… Get Duolingo on your phone… I’ll wait while you download that…
  6. Learn some basic food ordering terms, like how to say “I would like two scoops of raspberry gelato, please” in whatever language you might need, and practice politely pointing to menu items for those things you can’t pronounce


    Ordering gelato for about the third time in two days

  7. Pack as lightly as possible; literally no one ever comes back from a trip saying “I wish I packed heavier”–you can buy what you’re missing (even if that means you attempt to buy shampoo but get conditioner and so then buy body wash and use that as shampoo the rest of the week–c’est la vie!)
  8. Nice tip from our German friends: keep about 10 Euro plus some coins in your pocket, and keep your wallet more tucked away… it makes buying that crepe or postcard or scoop of gelato really easy and quick, and you don’t reveal to anyone on the street where your wallet is… Seriously, get ready to buy a lot of gelato, the love for gelato is real and lives on…


    The love is real

  9. If arriving in a foreign city where you’ve never been, it can be fun (and prepare you for navigating) to take a little Google Maps street level tour of your area–I did this for the walk from our Metro station in Paris to the apartment, and it was nice to see potential landmarks (a carousel, a Starbucks) and also see what street signs look like and where they are positioned… Trust me, dorking around with no internet connection, attempting to use your nearly dead phone to look up a map, while carrying your luggage, is not fun
  10. If available, get an offline (GPS only) map for the city you’ll be in–I really liked the Ulmon maps of Amsterdam and Paris (nice tip: you can ‘pin’ locations before you leave, so you can have your metro station, apartment, nearby grocery stores, etc. all pinned before you even arrive)
  11. If you’ll be communicating with someone ‘back home’ regularly, an app like Viber can be really handy
  12. Get out and do stuff, walk around, sit in a park or at a cafe and people watch, draw/sketch, play a card game, take photos, generally just enjoy your trip and the people that you’re with… It’s seriously the best part!

Andrea and Cata admire some art at the Ludwig Museum (Magritte painting in the back)

Steve got a haircut in Germany from John, and it was awesome!

Steve got a haircut in Germany from John, and it was an awesome souvenir! John spoke about five languages, and was extremely nice


We got a copy of Cologne Memory as the perfume museum, and played it in a park (Andrea smoked all of us… dang, she has a good memory)


In our Metro stop… the guy on the left is not amused at the tourists taking photos of him ;)

A kiss in front of the love locks (Notre Dame in the back on the right)

A kiss in front of the love locks (Notre Dame in the back on the right)

You can see more of my favorite photos from the trip in this Flickr album. Enjoy!

And for those who want a price breakdown, here it is:

  1. Airfare for two during high season: $3,150
  2. Daily average expenses for food, tickets, etc.: $90 or $1,260 total (my mom paid for groceries in Paris and friends fed us well in Germany)
  3. Staying with friends in Germany: $0
  4. Staying in an apartment in Paris, my mom insisted on paying for all of us: $0
  5. Total trip cost: around $4,500

New goals

It’s been an age since I last updated, and not for not trying. I have a bunch of drafts saved since I’d get an idea for a post, and then decide not to publish it. I think I’m to the point where blogging about money isn’t as motivating as it used to be. Paying off the debt was an accomplishment, and then once that happened, it kind of felt like we were ‘done.’ Sure, we’re saving now, but it doesn’t have the urgency that paying off the debt did. And, it kind of feels like bragging. We’re proud of our accomplishments and know we are very lucky and blessed to be able to do what we’ve done, but we don’t want to make anyone else feel bad about their situation. So, it’s a fine line.

I think laying out our new goals may be helpful:

  1. Continue paying for husband’s graduate school tuition without loans.
  2. Continue saving aggressively for retirement.
  3. Put some savings into taxable investments for potential future home purchase.
  4. Continue saving for travel.

So far, it has worked well to put the tuition bills on a rewards credit card and then claim the rewards for travel, then pay off the bill when it comes due. Upon some advice via the MMM forum, we got the BarclayCard Arrival MasterCard for travel, which has netted us nearly $900 in rewards this year (which includes the $400 bonus for signing up). We took an amazing trip to Germany and France in July, which wasn’t too horribly expensive, though it was a splurge in some ways but not in others (we stayed with friends for one week and my mother rented an apartment for us for the other week). We both really enjoy travel, so we want to keep doing that as time allows. I may do an entry just on our trip, so will save details but share one photo…


Me (blue dress) and my sister (scarf in hair), walking along a street in Paris. It was about 100 degrees that day, so I feel bad for the guy in long sleeves and pants!

We are waiting to consider a home purchase until after my husband is done with graduate school. His future job has the potential to be higher paying than my current job, so we don’t want to get tied to a specific geography until we know where he’ll be working. Right now, we are perfectly situated within about a mile from each of our workplaces and from school, and we like the convenience of that so would want to try for a similar situation once we know where he’ll be. One challenge for us is that we aren’t really handy or into yardwork, so we’d have a lot to learn upon buying a home,plus it would be more work to maintain, so it might not be the best option for us, since we’ve managed to live in a one bedroom apartment for six years.

We happily celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary just a few weeks ago, as well, but didn’t do anything too lavish to celebrate. We both had the day off, so just spending quality time together was nice. We saw an afternoon showing of ‘The Hundred-Foot Journey,’ and for dinner, went back to the restaurant where we had our reception, and they gave us a free appetizer and dessert. It was a lovely day.

Don’t take financial advice from broke people

One of my favorite Dave Ramsey sayings is “Don’t take financial advice from broke people.” I think this is great, because if your goal is to not be broke, why would you do anything that a broke person tells you to do? Unless they are warning you not to do what they did to become broke, be wary of where you get financial advice, and always do your own research.

Look, there are a lot of financial blogs these days. And pretty much anyone can write a book and publish it, purporting to be an expert on just about any topic they choose. Dave Ramsey used to be broke, but managed to do what he does best–give folksy, easy-to-understand financial advice to the average person–and amass a fortune doing it. He’s great at telling people that bankruptcy is worth avoiding–because he and his wife Sharon lived through it.

I am pretty wary of most articles, blogs, and books on personal finance, because the type of advice they typically offer doesn’t fit with what I already know about money and investing or simply doesn’t go far enough for my taste. My latest favorite is Mr. Money Mustache, because I have no quibble with how he managed to save over 50% of his income for 7 years and retire at age 30. Also, he has laid out all of the numbers for anyone to see how they did it. He’s also shared their annual spending, which is actually pretty boring, and I hope to do similar posts in the coming months. We don’t have a huge stash at this point, but we’re definitely at a point where we easily save more per month than we spend. I hope to do a post on how we do that sometime soon. Stay tuned!

How to get married for less


How to get married for less than $25,000

Every year, we hear about the average cost of weddings, and every year that goes by that I’ve been married, I am thankful that we spent about $5k for 50 guests to share our wedding day with us instead of something larger and more costly. So today, I will share our wedding budget and how we kept costs down. We also planned the whole thing in about 6 months (engaged in early February, married in early August). I’ll add some photos, but you can see more on my Pinterest board. Our wedding happened pre-Pinterest, so now there are many cost-saving ideas out there. Our goal was to have an elegant, low-key wedding with our closest family/friends. My parents liked this idea a lot, and were supportive of a small wedding, and so paid for nearly all of it. I think the ultimate breakdown was that we paid about $1,000 and my parents paid about $4,000.

Wedding Budget

Food and Beverage        $1,600.00
Books for table numbers        $200.00
Wine      $0.00
Total:    $1,800.00

For our reception, we chose a local fancy restaurant, with no dance. We really just wanted to be able to talk to each of our guests, and we had no desire to dance the night away. Originally, we were going to use the restaurant meeting room space, which had no rental fee, but they generously offered to set aside part of the main restaurant (they have curtain things to make areas more private) so we could more comfortably seat 50 people, also with no fee. They also happened to have musicians that evening (a pianist and violinist) so we got to enjoy the lovely music without dancing. We used our favorite children’s books as table numbers (I think we had 7 tables) so the restaurant staff knew where to seat folks based on our rather complicated seating chart (we didn’t want chaos with seating since we were in a small space). We did pay a corking fee to bring in our own wine for toasting (most of our family aren’t big drinkers and DH’s aunts gifted us with the wine), and we limited meal options to two selections so we could anticipate the cost. At the end of the night, my dad just paid the check like you would at any restaurant, and the owners generously gave us a $50 gift card as a wedding present-we used it on our 1st anniversary to go back and celebrate.
2955940894_8016003670_oAttire and Beauty:
Gown/Alterations        $175.00
Headpiece        $50.00
Bride’s Shoes        $75.00
Groom’s Suit        $200.00 (gift)
Total:    $300.00

My gown was a J.Crew wedding dress on sale which I bought before we were even officially engaged (short story: I had loved the style for a long time and so when I saw it went on clearance, my now husband said to just get it, since he was in the process of ring shopping). I had a custom floral hair piece made by Myra on Etsy (no veil), and I got my ruby red silk Caparros shoes on Zappos, which went perfectly with my silk wedding gown. My husband’s godmother is a tailor/seamstress and helped with slight alterations to my gown and also generously purchased a nice black suit for him to wear, and we got a red tie that matched my shoes. My sister did my hair on the big day and I did my own makeup.

Location Fee        $300.00
Officiant Fee/Donation        $100.00
Musicians        $250.00
Total:    $650.00

We got married at our church, which happens to be the local Cathedral, an already beautiful space. We didn’t add any decorations, since the space was newly remodeled. They charged parishioners $300 for the location, plus suggested a $100 donation for the priest. We hired one of the regular church cantors (songleaders) to sing, and one of my cousins played the piano and helped us choose wedding music, which was a very lovely personal addition to the ceremony/mass.

Flowers and Décor:
Roses        $135.00
Hypericum        $109.00
Ribbon/pins        $10.00
Bird nest for rings  $10.00
Total:    $264.00

We used Fifty Flowers and Grower’s Box for the bouquets that we put on the tables at the reception venue and which I held, plus boutonnières for our attendants and petals for the flower girl. My mom and a close friend helped me put together the flowers, and my mom had purchased clear vases at Goodwill and Savers to put them in–probably paying about $.50 per vase, so I didn’t include that in the price. We then let folks take home the vases/bouquets to enjoy, and we kept one. I made a little bird nest for the ring bearer to carry in our rings with supplies from a local craft store.

Photographer        $500.00
Printing of photos        $200.00
Album from Target        $20.00
Videographer   $0.00
Total:    $720.00

This is the one area where I would recommend spending money, because the only thing you have at the end of the day are memories, and photos are a great reminder. We had a friend who was a skilled photographer, but who had never before shot a wedding, do our photos. He’s now a professional wedding photographer in the Twin Cities. One of my cousins did wedding videography for us as a gift, which was very generous. My uncle/godfather owns a photo printing shop and printed all our photos at a nice discount. I put 4×6 shots into an album from Target, and we also framed a number of photos which are still displayed in our apartment.

Invitations/Reply Cards        $300.00
Announcements:     $50.00
Envelopes        $25.00
Postage        $95.00
Total:    $470.00

We designed our own invitations in Photoshop, and had a local printer print them. We purchased fancy folding envelopes from some website I can’t remember (they were like folders), and got custom stamps with our engagement photos on them from Zazzle. Since we had a small wedding, we sent announcements out to those we didn’t invite to let them know our new names/address.

Wedding Rings:
His Ring        $325.00
Her Ring        $120.00
Total:    $445.00

We got both of our rings from, which I highly recommend. They are great quality, and have free engraving. They were the cheapest we could find for 18k white gold bands. We tried on bands locally to get an idea of width and get our accurate ring sizes.

Car Rental        $0.00
Total:    $0.00

My close friend’s boyfriend (now fiance!) worked for a local car dealer, and got us an awesome vehicle as our “getaway” car, and also acted as our chauffeur. It was amazing to ride in a VW Phaeton, and we actually went through the Starbucks drive-through in it before going to our reception. This was an amazing gift.

Favors (Mr. B’s Chocolates)        $140.00
Favor boxes        $30.00
Total:    $170.00
Personal Additions:
Marriage license        $40.00
Premarital Weekend by Diocese        $140.00

We hated the idea of throwaway wedding favors, so we did something everybody loves: sweets. We got fancy Belgian-style chocolates in our favorite flavors and bought favor boxes online. This was the only truly “putzy” thing we did for the wedding, assembling those boxes and putting two chocolates into each box. We then set one box at each place setting at the restaurant, and we heard later that people loved this, trading each other for different flavors. Also, a Minnesota marriage license was $40.00 in 2008 (no idea if that’s gone up), and we were required to attend a marriage preparation course by our diocese, which cost $140. I would say this was worth it, as we also got to meet with a married couple for our premarital counseling and find out where we differed on our premarital assessment (required by the diocese).

Grand Total:    $4,999.00