Trip Report: My Trans-Siberian Adventure

I just got back (read: still totally jetlagged) from my 19-day trip on the Trans-Siberian/Trans-Mongolian Railway, and it went better than expected! I had really wanted a group tour situation, but I had trouble finding such an option so I went with a well-organized but independent program with The Russia Experience, the 17-day No-Frills “Classic Eurasian Experience” with an upgrade for Mongolia because DamnitIWantedToStayInAYurt!! For $3000, I got 7 nights on a train in 2nd class, 2 nights in a yurt, and 7 nights in budget hotels plus some meals, a guided walking tour of St Petersburg, pick-ups at airport and train stations, and some other thoughtful details. I flew United BusinessFirst class to St Petersburg and from Beijing on air miles, woohoo! Loving that hobby!

RUSSIA

Getting the visa was the worst part – it was such a clusterf*** that most people trying to get one were contemplating cancelling their trips. But St Petersburg is a real jewel, followed by my first overnight on the train to Moscow, where I shared a compartment with a Belgian-Russian couple who clearly knew how to take the trains. Then I had a fantastic time in Moscow with my Russian travel roommate from last year’s South Africa trip. She insisted that I try foods from the assorted former Soviet states, and drove me around Red Square and prime examples of Stalin era architecture and monuments. It was so cool to see her again!

The train to Ekaterinburg took about 27 hours and was my least favorite part of the whole trip. It was overly warm, I got stuck with an upper berth, and the people with lower berths kept them made up as beds all day which means I couldn’t sit normally…so I planted myself in the cool, empty restaurant car with a notebook and Kindle for about eight hours, drank a ton of tea, did a lot of writing for work, and chatted with a pair of Russian soccer fans desperate to practice their English. Ekaterinburg itself is rife with Romanov history, which made for a great day trip, and my second day was a “depression day”, where I didn’t do much of anything. Eh, it happens, and I don’t think I missed out on much.

MONGOLIA

It took three solid days and four nights to get from Ekaterinburg to Ulaanbaatar, and those were fun! I had it in my head that the restaurant car was a fairly social atmosphere, but what I found was that Russians don’t use it at all. So it turned out to be a great way to meet my fellow travelers. A pair of German grad students dragged me off the train at one stop and made me eat “platform food” (which involved blinis filled with mystery meat), and I met two other folks – a Dutch woman and an Australian man – who, it later turned out, were with the same outfit I was, and we ended up all together at the yurt/ger lodge and onward train to Beijing. The Mongolia leg was fully escorted (Buddhist monastery, city center, Genghis Khan monument, etc) and the yurt was beautiful. Someone sneaked into my tent every morning and night to light a fire in the stove and warm things up, we really pulled in the other guests for a more social atmosphere, the main horseman was in the midst of his 3-day drunken birthday celebration, it was just wonderful :)

CHINA

I’ve never been to China and feel it’s worth its own trip to visit, so I only had one full day here while I waited for my scheduled flight. I didn’t expect to like Beijing, but I was pleasantly surprised. I stayed in a little budget hotel in the traditional alleys (hutongs) of the center, took an excursion to a jade factory and the Great Wall, and the next day met up with my new Dutch friend for a taxi to the airport. Oh, did I mention that the new Dutch friend lives in the same neighborhood as I’ll be staying in Amsterdam this fall? Funny how that happened…

April Travel-Money Tidbits

I’ll just do the quickest possible rundown for what I did in the month of April to further my new mile-mongering hobby and pre-existing since 6th grade travel addiction.

New Credit Card: US Airways from Barclay’s

USAirwaysCCThis card has zero fee the first year and you get 35,000 US Airways miles after first use. I bought a pizza for $8.50. Ensuing years will be about $89/yr for the fee but that gets you a 10,000 mile renewal bonus. 10,000 miles is worth $150-200 to me, so it’s worth it. However, the main reason I got this card is the merger with American Airlines – the program will disappear with the airline, and the miles are expected to become AAdvantage miles. What will happen to the card remains to be seen, but I got my 35,000!

Buy Low Sell High isn’t just for stocks

To boost my miles balance so I’ll never starve, I started applying my trusty “coupon ninja math” skills to buying bargains that earn me a lot of points, and sell them through Fulfillment by Amazon. So far so good! In the month of April, I sold 5 small kitchen appliances for a profit of $94 and 5000 airmiles. I don’t really expect that profit to stick – sooner or later someone is going to return one as ‘broken’ even though it’s fine, and I won’t be able to sell it as New. My frugal loins are girded for this eventuality.

Screwing up with Starbucks

StarbucksFrappyI bought some Starbucks cards at a bigger discount than usual with the intent of reselling them through a second-hand gift card site. So far, all transactions have gone off perfectly, no funny business. However, I didn’t answer the due diligence questions from the gift card reseller when they surprised me with a phone call one morning, and now I’m working my way through an abominable amount of coffee credit (but not by drinking it!). Alternative resellers offer a lower % of the value and that puts me at a slight loss. Four friends have stepped up so far to get their hands on some discount mochas at break-even, which is awesome all around (yay Athena & Erika!). Oh, why did I get into this, you ask? To meet minimum spend requirements for the new credit cards. This isn’t something I’ll be doing again. The goal was to make miles and not lose money, and I’m probably going to drop $50-$100 on this mistake. Hissss.

Day-Oh! Montevi-Dayyyyy-Ohhh!

MontevideoI’m a total dork. I kept singing the capital of Uruguay to the tune of the banana boat song the whole time I was on the unexpectedly quiet streets of Uruguay’s capital the second week of April. I snagged an awesome fare on American Airlines that I had completely covered by gift cards from my customers (totally unrelated to the above fiasco). I proceeded to earn 1380 miles for 7 nights in a nice, cheap 3-star hotel and 11,000 airmiles on the actual airfare… plus a 1500 mile apology deposit from AA because their entire computer system crashed the day I returned. I came home to have a friend-of-a-friend for a houseguest, and we hit Brother Jimmy’s BBQ during 1/2 price appetizer happy hour and earned me a 1000 mile bonus as part of the American Airlines dining program.

As for the trip…meh. I’m still figuring out this whole depression thing and should stick with either an activity-based vacation or an organized tour for the time being. It didn’t help that I caught a cold and pretty much slept for the last 3 days of the trip.

The Awesome Cost of Becoming an Aunt

Aunt Katie, my clothes don't fit and my mom hates SNAPS!

My clothes don’t fit and my mom hates SNAPS!

10 days ago, my sister gave our mom her first grandchild and he is such a bundle of perfection that his dad is having a fit about going back to work today after a week’s paternity leave. Our mom flies out to see little Calvin and to calm down my stressball sister (it’s just the way she is), reassuring her that she’s doing a great job. Because she is! She’s just got new-mom nerves.

I’m not rich-rich, but I’m Amazon-rich!

My sister lives an hour from the nearest Target and Costco, and buying locally is hideously expensive. I’ve got this wonderful combination of a big fat Amazon gift card balance and Prime 2-day shipping. See that adorable picture to the left? That’s the first picture of him in clothes rather than baby blanket togas because 0-3 month outfits are too big on him. At the same time, my sister realized that her ideal of never using baby wipes and only warm washcloths was both impractical and icky. Two days later, she was happily washing 8 brand new zippered sleep-n-play suits (she found all the snaps on onesies to be a huge pain) and using Seventh Generation wipes for diaper changes. Not bad for -$60 off my credit balance.

Then over the weekend I saw a deal on Burts Bees baby wash on Amazon – a 3-pk of 12oz bottles for $15.50. My sister is trying to use as much organic or natural products as possible, and I know she’s a Burts Bees fan. I also got a great deal on Aveeno baby products back in January, so the timing is good for a “refill”.

Impressed by how fast things got delivered, she texted me this morning about getting him some new bottles because his lip is getting very red. Yeah, breastfeeding didn’t work out for her – she had massive reduction surgery 15+ years ago, so her odds were not good to begin with. Anyway, I have a feeling that the redness she’s seeing is pretty common and not avoidable, but who cares – she needs bottles anyway. I overnighted the 5-bottle gift box from Amazon for an additional $3.99 and the rest will get there in 2 days. Another -$55 off my balance.

This is why I didn’t go crazy with big shower gifts. I sent little practical things as deals arose on Amazon and will continue to do so as she finds her way to the right balance of what’s good for the baby and what works for her. I’m also blatantly trying to “buy” the first invitation to visit, since she’s barely tolerating my mom – pregnancy turned her into a germophobe. Harumph.

Working the Travel Angle

My sister unfortunately lives in Aspen, and the only airline that has consistently served that destination is United, and so there are rarely any “deals” to fly there. Luckily, they have the best frequent flyer program, and I’ve got my account stocked with 72K miles and another 55K hitting next month. That’s 5 free visits to hang with my little nephew, with one checked bag free :)  Oh yeah, I’m workin’ it alright.

How have I managed that many in a month? Well, a friend of mine shops for her family at Walmart and spends at least $100 every week…so I buy a $100 gift card for her every week and she PayPals me $100 cash for it. That’ll be worth about 5K miles per year. I earn 5 miles/points per dollar spent on cell/phone/cable/internet – that’s 1050 miles a month for me. I’ve also put my mom’s plan on my bill and she pays me instead of the cable company, boosting my miles by another 850/month. Those are just the easy things I normally pay for and that I’ve arranged with people I can trust. That’s worth a Calvin visit each year :)  Yes I’m doing a lot more than that to beef up the miles, but even if I lose interest in this new mile-mongering hobby, this will tick over painlessly for one ticket a year. Yay!

 

Credit Cards That Fit My Life

After a couple of weeks of dithering – which is both symptom of my Brain Cloud and my fear of making financial mistakes – I pulled the trigger on getting new credit cards. I suppose this means I technically have four now, and here’s why:

OLD: Citibank Dividend MasterCard

I’ve had this card since 2001. Would be 1989 if I hadn’t tried some other card of theirs for a while, which apparently counts as something totally different. I get 1% cash back, and for the first time ever I opted into their quarterly 5% bonus categories…which is a load of crap, it should be automatic. Anyway, it’s nice this quarter because it includes drug stores and I had that plague-flu. The interest rate on this used to be good pre-2009, but now it will never be less than 17% or something like that – doesn’t matter because I pay it in full every month. No annual fee. This card had a limit of $7800, which I just had lowered to $4000 in preparation for getting new cards.

OLD: Bank of America Signature Visa

I have a really low prime rate-based interest rate on this card, no annual fee. I got this card in 2000 because my brother’s tuition from 1995 had been sitting on my previous Citibank card at 17% interest, with my mom making the payments. Then a year or two before declaring bankruptcy in 2004, my mom used it to for a $3K car repair. Since bankruptcy, this has been my mom’s card for big stuff, like flights or helping out with my sister’s wedding expenses, and she always checks with me before using it. I don’t mind because having a card that carries a balance with 5-7x the minimum paid each month probably makes me look like a more profitable customer than I otherwise am with my pay-it-off-immediately habits. Two weeks ago I took my $12K limit down to $3K, sparking one of the funniest displays of fake sobbing from my mom about cutting her credit off.

NEW: United MileagePlus Explorer (Chase) Visa

ChaseExplorerI got this card for a few reasons, all related to United Airlines. First, it gives me 50,000 airmiles if I spend $1000 in the first 3 months, plus an additional 5000 for adding a second card holder. A friend of mine had her washing machine die completely the day before my card arrived in the mail, and I put her new one on it – $1290. I’ve already received a check from her for half, and the other half will arrive in a couple of weeks when the billing cycle closes. DONE. Second, it gives a free checked bag on United flights. United is the only airline servicing Aspen at the moment, where both of my sisters live, plus I have a “niecephew” due next month. There will be at least two visits to Aspen this year. Aspen is a VERY expensive domestic destination, rarely less than $540 roundtrip. This is by far the best use of airmiles because of that. The annual fee is $95 but waived the first year, and we’ll see how this card suits me between now and the fee coming due for 2014. I was given a limit of $15,000, which I promptly had reduced to $5000 when I activated it because I was initially rejected for…

NEW:  Chase Ink Plus Visa

ChaseInkNot 100% sure I have this, because there have been a few hoops to jump through. First, they said I had applied for too many cards, when I had applied for the above one (personal) and this one (a business product). So I called the reconsideration line and answered their probing questions; I was submitted for approval with a $5000 credit line. Then someone called me two days later claiming the previous representative didn’t ask me enough Patriot Act questions. So I scanned and emailed copies of my EIN number and bank statement. I’m waiting to hear, but since I am legitimately incorporated and that’s not even a requirement, it shouldn’t be a problem. To get the 50,000 Ultimate Reward points (which I’ll convert to United airmiles), I need to spend $5K in 3 months. Right now I’m holding off on about $700 in purchases so that I can put them on this card as soon as I get it. Why do I want this one? Well, the airmiles – duh! – plus you get 5 points per $1 for phone/internet/cell services and office supply stores. I can juggle my spending habits to earn 1500 miles per month on like $250 of stuff I buy anyway. I like! I anticipate this will be a card worth keeping and paying the $95 fee for.

THE PLAN

I was going to get rid of the Citibank card because the BofA one is older, but it now looks like the average age of your credit card accounts is what gets recorded on your credit report rather then your oldest account. Am I right? So if I keep them both, the average age will be 6 years and that seems okay to me. Since applying, I realized there is another more appropriate Chase card for me that I might swap out the United one for next year…we’ll see. And yet another card that delivers some awesome cashback for my spending habits, though no cool intro offer (well, at the moment).

MoneyMate >>> TravelMate?

Hey, personal finance readers. I used to love what I call “micro” finance blogging, but I’ve suddenly gotten very nervous about having my money info out there for the world to see and possibly use against me. Bear in mind that I’ve had an IRS audit pending for the past 7 months or so, and an absentee CPA making it difficult – so difficult that I now have a docket number in tax court and a list of sliding scale tax attorneys. Ugh, my grandfather was one of those back in his day, and he was a crotchety geezer. But I digress.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I’ve been battling a “brain cloud” of severe clinical depression, which became quite debilitating in September. I’m still not out of the woods, but it’s no longer completely paralyzing. There are some costly ramifications from those months of being a complete wreck and unable to deal with the IRS audit (up to $10K in taxes and fines), a lab bill from September that got sent to collections before I was capable of attempting negotiation (they want QUADRUPLE what they accept from Blue Cross for the same stuff), and loss of income from being in no state to work some days.

Blog Re-Focus

GlobeTrotting1In November, I went to South Africa for three weeks and…it saved me. Yes, bungee jumping off a 700-foot bridge got me out of my head so successfully that I got some clarity and peace that had been lacking for years.

The only thing that has, without fail, made me happy to do or even think about is, unsurprisingly, TRAVEL.

This doesn’t mean I’m not still doing a little Rite Aid couponing or shoving money into my Roth IRA or savings accounts – I am. I’ve been financially responsible all my life and that won’t change. But from now on, I’m going to write about spending/saving for what makes me happy. So there will be a lot of travel focus – where I’m going, why I want to go there, how I’ll live, different things I do to make it affordable, that sort of thing. I hope you all don’t run for the hills.

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Dear 2013: Be OVER already!

My year has gotten off to a rotten start. Now I could be an optimist and tell myself that there’s nowhere to go but up… but hey, I’m on prozac – that should be indication enough that I’m not an optimist. So, on Day 9 of the year, here’s where I stand:

PLAGUE – On January 1, I came down with something. I think it’s the flu, but I’m waiting for blood results to rule out anything exotic from my trips to Africa. This is Day 9 and I’m wheezing like an asthmatic smoker who just climbed a hill after washing five dishes. Five.

INCOME – The cough has made my throat weak and I’m slightly nasal. I sell my voice, so this means I’m down about $1000 in income. I haven’t been able to do any behind-the-scenes work because I’ve been taking Tamiflu, which pretty much knocked me out for 5 days.

HOME – I found out yesterday that the building doesn’t allow the moving of furniture in or out on MLK Day. It’s bad enough they only allow it M-F 9am-5pm, but now I can’t even get it on the one day my friends can actually deliver it during the week. This could mean throwing out a couch I love and a bed I only used for a year.

But this stuff is small potatoes compare to the biggie….

IRS AUDIT!!!!

Suddenly I’m *hoping* for an audit. It turns out my CPA, who hasn’t responded to any of my 10-12 emails/texts/calls since Nov 30, never contacted the IRS about my audit. He had me complete a power of attorney form for him to fax them, so he could handle it as my representative. He told me he was waiting for a case number to be assigned because of that. Then he said they were waiting for my 2011 tax returns to be filed to see if they wanted to throw them into the audit. ALL LIES. There was no fax, no phone call, nothing. When I called the IRS today about my Notice of Deficiency, it was the first they’d heard from *anyone* about my case. In fact, I was listed as a no-show for an audit that was scheduled like 6 months ago! Turns out they mailed that notice to an old address and it got returned, but that didn’t stop it from going down on my record as a no-show. That’s right folks, I’m getting screwed from all directions.

Although I’m insufficiently medicated for my brain cloud issues and thus easily overwhelmed, I’m now doing my own audit. I’m filing a petition with the tax court to have the assessment redone, and someone will contact me about the nuts and bolts in a few months. But I am doing it myself. I can’t trust anyone and I’m not paying for incompetence when I can be semi-competent for free.

Success by Accident

I’m actually a planner by nature – not a Type A level planner, but still a very practical, troubleshooting type (and I’m SICK TO THE BACK TEETH of people telling me that my troubleshooting = negativity). But Chris Guillebeau’s blog post today about starting a small business while working a full-time job made me realize how all of my successes as an adult came by accident. I did things in a weird, unconventional way that just worked out.

Some of you know I fight the natural tendencies of a single, overweight, not terribly young New Yorker to become jaded and neurotic. Sometimes it’s a very conscious battle, and I’ve done things like give up my home of 7 years and move cross-country and chill-out (sweat-out?) for a month in Tanzania just to shake things the hell up. I guess you could say that at the core of it is this belief:

Life Is More Interesting When You Say YES

I’m not afraid of the unfamiliar. Just because I don’t know anyone who has ever done something first – emigrated not once but three times, started a per-min phone business, resolved a fat chunk of depression through hypnosis, etc – doesn’t stop me from doing it. If an idea seems a little odd, I go straight to “what’s the worst that could happen, and how will I feel if that’s the case?”… and then I say yes if it’s tolerable. Sometimes I lose, but those are short term and make great conversation fodder while the wins go on for ages and create further opportunities.

I won’t even tell you the odd path that got me into bodywork because it really wasn’t smart (get your mind out of the gutter – in was unsafe, not shady), but somehow it has gotten me all the way to certification in a very unique and bizarrely effective method that will soon be my primary income. I think. Honestly, a lot of damage was done when I got kicked out of class and told to try again after $2000 of private remedial instruction, and my neck gets all stiff just thinking about my training. See? That’s what I get for planning, lol.

A Family of Nay-Sayers

I don’t know where I got this “character flaw” from. Why flaw? Because I come from a family where everyone automatically says no to anything new and unfamiliar, which is pretty much everything I’ve ever succeeded at. Of course their minds have started opening up when they see how many of my “crazy ideas” work out. I was a difficult teenager but not in the classic way – I was quiet, studious, babysat excessively to save for college, not at all social (bullied in 7th-8th grade), never wore make-up/drank/dated. But I wanted things that made no sense to them, so my parents weren’t quite sure what to do with me. They got stuck with an oddball, though I’ve made up for it with great presents funded by my successes. Heh.

What I’m Saying YES To Now

I just took an unusual apartment situation that brings looks of fear and anxiety to others – except Manhattanites, who pat me on the back for getting such a bargain. I pay 25% below market for a 1BR/1.5BA furnished duplex (in NYC, that means an apartment with an upstairs and downstairs) because the owner uses the other bedroom (it’s really a 2BR, but we have no access to each other’s room) one weekend a month and some holidays with his family – during those visits, I am not here at all, there is no overlapping. I sacrificed personal style for the ease of not moving my furniture around for a short time, and before that sounds like no big deal to you, I HATE FUTONS. It works very well for my current situation and I save a disproportionate amount of money!

I’m also saying Yes to truly developing the per-minute sideline into something pretty spectacular so that, if I do decide to pursue the career I just invested 17 months and over $20,000 in training for, I’ll have a sizable passive stream of income and a maximum return on the reduced amount of time I’ll be devoting to it.

What I doubt I’ll say Yes to is… doing my own IRS audit (suggested by a non-tax CPA friend – the insanity!). They hit me with that nugget of joy & happiness a few weeks ago and I see my delightful CPA (whom I’d kinda fired 9 months ago) on Wednesday to discuss. And my envelopes of receipts from the years they’re auditing are missing. Either I gave them to him to scan and keep electronically, or they’re hiding in a box somewhere I haven’t discovered from my many moves in the past 18 months. Neither of those looks good.

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