Life [....] it has caught up to me. Between spending about $25 million at my job this last month, 3 trips up to the “badlands” in prime tourist season [that's said with sarcasm] and having my parents in & out – I’m still trying to hash out my taxes, let alone this blog. My wife finds me crashed out at my computer just about every night – with TurboTax still displaying $8000 in red. And I have over $50k withheld already!
If you haven’t been following, this is a series on our trip we travel hacked to SE Asia.
In 2007 I went to Thailand for work. And I had planned to visit Myanmar (aka Burma). Then some stuff went down [....] you know, like shooting people and monks in the street. I chickened out, probably for false reasons, and have regretted it ever since. So, this was a little “personal” for me. My wife is a good sport, and I’m grateful she comes along for these crazy trips with me.
We took Air Asia’s DMK – MDL flight, which was relatively new for the time. I opted for this flight because it put us upcountry where we wanted to be anyway and saved us the horrible overnight bus ride.
Despite everything I could dig up research wise for traveling in Myanmar, we should have had reservations for hotel rooms. Problem is the economic sanctions, so no one can take “collateral” for a reservation. Because of this, the hotels either tell you they are full but they really aren’t or they trust people to show up who end up making a boat load of reservations and then the hotel waits for them and then ends up with an empty room they won’t rent to you.
We just trusted things would work out and had no reservations. Against many people’s advice. But the best beta I could dig up was on Thorn Tree (Lonely Planet’s discussion board). There is a contributor there named Montyman and he has been to the country many times and willingly shares and helps people out. At the very least, he can fake a good traveler, but I think he’s legit. He put together some information in Thorn Tree’s SE Asia FAQ, and it is known as Montyman’s FAQ73 (which is really 75 somehow). Montyman seemed to be telling people just going would work out, and I trusted it would.
I had actually tried to make arrangements through a travel agent and they wanted $3000 or something stupid. That was the same amount I spent for our entire trip!
We landed in Mandalay which put us upcountry already. How I was sad to miss out on an overnight bus ride. We did our song & dance at the airport and as walked out – BOOM! Taxi drivers up the wazoo. Prices were being thrown around and we had 2 different guys attached to us. The further we walked, the cheaper it got. Then they started bidding against each other. I just stood there in what I thought was pure negotiating genius. Eventually, I could tell one was a little bothered by where the price was going and we accepted an offer. Then we realized we were being thrown in a shared Taxi, but the 2 “chaps” from the UK were nice enough and let my wife sit shotgun.
We asked to be dropped off at the train station, as we wanted to take the train. We followed the advice of the Man in Seat 61 which I believe to be generally good advice. Unfortunately, this is one of those times the advice sucked.
We purchased our train tickets and then had 10 or so hours to burn. I had read somewhere that we could leave our bags at the tourism office at the train station, but we couldn’t find it and after asking many people, we gave up. We walked across the street [which is an adventure in itself] and there was a hotel. We decided to ask if we could pay a bit of money to have them store our bags until the evening – which they kindly did for free.
With the burden of our luggage literally off our backs, we roamed the town. My wife was disgusted at all the Betel Nut in the street. But, we had things to see. My wife loves antiques, so we went shopping for some. The first place we looked for was a bust. We then crossed town [and popped into a Cyber Cafe real quick to let our parents know we made it ok] and landed in heaven for my wife. We went to the Sunflower Arts & Crafts. The man had a lot of good stuff, and frankly I wish I would have bought more from him. My wife ended up getting a good sized laquered horse puppet for $100.
With our shopping success behind us, we headed out to find some Dinner, check out the night market and then catch our train to Bagan.
We then headed to the train station to await what I thought would be a good night’s sleep on a train. Turns out, there was good reason we were the only westerners on the train. I also had to promise my wife I would never put her on a train in Myanmar again [....] done!
Bagan – Land of a Million Pagodas
Our overnight train got to the train station at some stupid time. It was still dark. As soon as we arrived some man walked on and said he was our taxi. Unfortunately for him, we hadn’t arranged any transport and I wasn’t ready to just hop in the car with some weird guy [which, btw, differs from a normal taxi somehow?].
My wife had to use the restroom and she asked a guy at the ticket office where one was. He shook his head like he knew exactly what we needed, grabbed a key and took us to a locked room which said “VIP” above the door. It probably had the cleanest western toilet in all of Myanmar. We decided to hang out in the VIP room until the sun came up and we would then walk into the city.
After some time passed and being a “VIP” in Myanmar had run its course, we walked the 2-3 miles into the city. Bagan has to be the only city on earth with an airport closer to the city than the train station. We enjoyed the walk and the friendly Burmese people smiling and waving.
With all the scuttlebutt about not being able to find a hotel room, our number one priority when we got to town was to look for a hotel. Another reason we didn’t want to catch a Taxi to town at 4 am, there would be no place to go. We were wondering around town and a man with a horse cart offered to take us around and help us find a hotel room. By this time, it was about 9 am and people were checking out – so that was good timing. He wanted a couple bucks for each hotel we stopped at, but I just arranged for him to get us a room and then take us around Bagan for the day. My book published in 2008 [actually released in 2007] said it should cost about $6-$8. In all reality, it was $25 4 years later. Stepping back the 300% increase is a little stunning, but still an excellent deal to have help finding a hotel and someone to take you to all the sights for an entire day.We went to about 6-7 hotels and it was nice to just have the guy yell through a window or door so we didn’t have to go in to all the places. We found an opening early on, but I didn’t think my wife would be happy with it for $15/night. So we moved on and found a place at the Eden Motel Bagan (old complex). The rooms were decent with air con and much better than the first available room we found. And for $10 more per night, well worth it.
After dropping our bags off, we booked our bus ticket over to Inle Lake for the next day and then set off to see the sights.
Our final stop was at Inle Lake. It is a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains in the Shan state. The bus ride, although it took all day, was a beautiful ride. And when we arrived, we were told there wasn’t a single hotel room available in Nyuangshwe – which is the town on the lake. Since foreigners can’t technically stay anywhere other than licensed hotels, we were told the loop hole was at the Buddhist Monastery.
We actually got a bit excited about the possibility of staying at the Monastery. We arrived, excited when a “representative” of the monastery told us they wouldn’t take us in. The story goes [....] hotels had rooms open and they were pissed at the monastery because foreigners would rather stay with the monks for next to nothing than pay a little more than next to nothing to have their own room. I asked where these supposed “open and available rooms” were, as I was at this point more interested in sleeping than arguing over where I was going to sleep. The monastery, of course, had no idea.
We left, feeling rejected that not even Buddhist Monks would have us, on a search for a needle in the haystack – the elusive “available” room. Some fellow foreigners told us to head to the Remember Inn which was close to where we were anyway. These people were way helpful and the guy called like 15 hotels for us so we didn’t have to walk all over. No dice.
We were then told by the guy working the front desk to go back to the Monastery and tell them he had called 15 hotels and none had rooms. If they still wouldn’t take us, he had a room his nieces lived in and an occasional bus driver would sleep in there when the rest of the rooms were full – that would be our room.
We headed back the monastery where the “representative” went back to the grand master or whatever he is and pleaded our case. While he was gone, we got the low down about the monastery from a guy who was stranded in town for the last 3 days. All you really need to know is this – 1 toilet, 60 people.
The grand master rejected us a second time, but we at least had an ace up our sleeve. We headed back to Remember Inn and the guy had the room ready for us.
The next step was finding our ride out of Inle Lake – in which my hope was an overnight bus to Yangon, tour the city for the morning and then catch our flight back to the states. Buses were booked for a week out, flights were booked for a week out and trains were booked for a week out. We worked with a “travel agent” who said she would call in the morning and try to get us a flight as that was our best bet. We also booked our boat tour with her the next day.
Exhausted and hungry, we ate at a little food stand across the street and I went to bed. My wife wanted to see a puppet show so I sent her out alone.
The next morning we got up to take our boat tour. You may have noticed the fisherman on the featured image. That’s show with the traditional dress and old style fish net, but they really do fish that way. They stand on the end of the boat on one leg, wrap their other leg around the paddle to maneuver around and then they have both hands free to deal with their nets.
We then headed to Indein which one must fight all the touristy kitch to see the amazing pagoda ruins. We also dodged the “camera fee” by walking around back.
Inle Lake is shallow and large. So you can go to the middle of the lake and many people live there. We visited a weaving shop where they notably took lotus stems and turned it into thread, which they then wove into certain textile products. We bought a small scarf about 5″ wide and it ran about $60.
The last notable site to see while on Inle Lake are the floating gardens. The people “harvest” the plants growing in the lake and then pack around the roots of what they want to grow as the dirt. They then grow vegetables to trade at the market. Pretty cool stuff!
We then arrived back to town and got the good news from our travel agent. She had booked us two tickets to Yangon for the morning we were suppose to depart back home. It worked out perfectly, but I’m a nervous nelly and I didn’t like there was no contingency plan [....] it was the only option I had. We got issued our “tickets” which we carbon copy books that the travel agent filled out. That didn’t help my nerves.
We caught our plane early in the morning and landed in Yangon right on time. The original plan was to ditch our bags and then head out to see Yangon. But we landed in hot & humid Yangon from the nice cool mountains. And we were at the end of an intense trip which left us exhausted.
We walked from the domestic terminal to the much more chaotic international terminal and found a seat to park our cabooses. It’s kind of a shame when the Shwedagon pagoda is so close to not go see it, but we were beat. We actually ended up switching flights to catch an earlier plane to Bangkok.
Myanmar has to be my favorite country I ever visited and I hope to return some day.
What is your favorite place you’ve ever been? Where is the one place you want to visit?
If you’re like me, you’re dreading 4/15. Dreading it. Not because I hate paying taxes [well, maybe I do], but because I hate gathering all the information. Let’s face it, putting numbers into a computer program and watching something poop out the other end isn’t that bad. Gathering all the documentation is a PITA.
But, if you’re
cheap frugal like me, you’re looking for options to file as easily and cheaply as possible.
Fill out the paper forms
Yes, you heard me right. You download the forms from the internet [....] you no longer have to go to your library to pick them up [....] and then you fill them out long hand. The IRS also has forms where you enter numbers using a computer and they do all the calculations.
Pro: Cheap. Con: Time consuming, especially if you make a mistake.
Free IRS e-file
If your income is less than $58k you can do a free online e-file through the IRS website. The $58k is regardless of your tax filing status, so it isn’t $116k/yr if you are married filing jointly.
If you’re income is $52,000 or less, you can take advantage of VITA, which are volunteers “trained” by the IRS which offer free clinics and tax preparation help.
Pros: Free and Fast. Cons: Not available to everyone.
Go to a Tax Preparer
You know the guy in the Statue of Liberty outfit standing on the corner holding a sign all day? Ever wonder how often and where he goes to the bathroom?
These people offer you to bring in all your crap and then they’ll save you all this money. If you think the frumpy woman in her mid 40′s reading 50 Shades of Gray while she waits for a customer to stroll in is the best place to get tax advice [....] this is your place. As you can tell, I’m not a big fan of these operations.
They’re also expensive, plan to pay $190+. They also have an online option. One company’s fees range from $0 – I assume that is only if you file a 1040EZ and no other schedules – to $50 if you need to file a schedule C when using their online option. It’s another $28 to $37 if you need to file a state tax return.
If this is the route you want to go, you can look up a local provider through the IRS webpage. Common providers are H&R Block, Liberty and Jackson-Hewitt.
Pro: A “professional” can help you navigate the daunting tax forms. Con: Pricey, dicey “professionals” doing your taxes
These are very common, and a useful tool for modeling taxes throughout the year. The most popular of these is TurboTax. There are many editions and you can select the one for you based on which schedules you need to file.
As always, you’ll need to either pay or find another method to file your state income taxes [....] assuming you have them. Some editions allow for multiple filings of federal taxes, so if you split up the small $20-$80 cost 5 ways, it becomes more economical.
The software you purchase is a great tool. And once you start using it, it will pull your previous year’s information in – which is way handy. We use TurboTax and find it to be worth the cost.
Pro: Automated & easy. Con: Costs money.
This is very similar to TurboTax, but it gets its own category. If you love TurboTax, but hate spilling the money each year – TaxAct.com is your solution. It is accurate and easy to use – just like TurboTax. The only way it differs is it is free for federal returns. We would use TaxAct but we split TurboTax with my in-laws [....] actually my in-laws supply it to us.
Pro: Automated & easy, free. Con: ???
Use a Professional Tax Preparer
You can hire someone, like a CPA to do your taxes. These people tend to be more knowledgeable about more complex situations than the franchised “pros.” You usually get a human to answer the phone and excellent customer service. Especially since a lot of these people have gone out on their own, you seem to get the attention you need.
We used to have a CPA we hired to do our taxes. She ran about $500. Some people love the personalized service, but I found it to be just as much of a PITA than doing it myself [which costs $500 less]. We still had to gather all the forms and answer a bunch of questions – which I figure to be about 90% of the work. These companies just have a software equivalent of Turbotax. We also had a blatant error by our then CPA and when I pointed it out to her, she had no interest in helping with our audit for the state. It goes without saying [....] the relationship fell apart after that.
Pro: knowledgeable, excellent service. Con: Way spendy.
How will you file your federal income taxes?
I have a beautiful office in the new house. Beautiful. It has raised panel walls with stain grade wood, built in cabinets and bookshelves, and my favorite – coffered wood ceilings. So, you can understand my frustration when I was unpacking boxes in my beautiful new office and water was pouring down on my head. My mother was showering in our guest bath right above the office.
Some background [....] we shopped for a home in Denver for a while. The house we got is a nice house, has a nice layout, but isn’t anything we would build ourselves. It did come with over an acre, and that is a big deal in Denver. It was a screwed up deal to begin with, but a long story short, the seller’s WAY underlisted it. Our appraisal came in almost $90k higher than our purchase price, which is almost unheard of. In turn, the sellers quickly realized this and we didn’t get a home warranty. And I probably wouldn’t have wanted the home warranty to fix the bathroom above our office, as I wanted to remodel it.
If you haven’t been following, this is a series on our trip we travel hacked to SE Asia.
After our horribly long wait to cross the border, we found a Tuk-Tuk (150 Baht that we shared with another gal we met in Banteay Chhmar) to take us to the train station. We opted for the train because it was cheap (~50 baht or just under $2) and I think there is some value in riding by train than a “van.” It took slightly longer especially since the kid trying to fill the van could have hopped us to the front of the immigration line.
Nonetheless, we made the train with a few minutes to spare and I grabbed some snacks for the road. Here is where I think I made my mistake [....] I was hungry and a man walked by with some snacks. I bought a “Thai Hot Dog” which my wife claimed tasted like fish. More on that later.
This was my second time to Siam and it was to be a short one. We enjoyed our ride through the Thai country side, enjoying the breeze on our face.
We arrived in Bangkok’s Hualamphong Train station after dark. We then caught the subway to the skytrain to our hotel in Sukhumvit. If you’ve never been to Bangkok, Sukhumvit is a more modern area of the city which has a Sky Train. Sukhumvit is also known for its ex-pat community. If you’re worried about navigating Thailand, Sukhumvit is a good place to get your feet on the ground.
We checked into our windowless room on Soi 8 and then went out for a quick bite followed by a massage. It was a long day of traveling and we hit the sack. My wife was excited to go to the Chatuchak Market the next day.
We awoke and I felt like I had talked down to the King. My stomach hurt and well, I spent the next day in the hotel room. I’ll let you all read between the lines there. Not wanting to ruin my wife’s trip to the market, I sent her on her way as you can simply take the Sky Train. She loves shopping for “deals” and I would have hated to deprive her of that. Besides, hanging out with me in a windowless hotel room in the condition I was in would be like getting beat with a sack of potatoes.
Chatuchak is a great market, and you can literally buy anything there. My wife was after baby girl clothes, and that is what she mainly came back with. Here are some of her pictures.
For our second full day, we had booked a cooking class. We booked through Blue Elephant. It was a good class, but rather pricey. It was no better than the Chiang Mai Cooking School I had been to a few years prior. All cooking classes in Thailand are probably pretty similar [....] you’ll learn a fair amount, but you’ll always feel like cattle being pushed through the program. Because they are all so similar, I wouldn’t pay a premium for any. The one advantage of the Blue Elephant morning class was we got to go to a market and see how to select various ingredients, sort of worth the cost of the Blue Elephant school. Sort of.
The next morning we awoke early to catch our flight to Myanmar. Air Asia is a great airline [....] translation: cheap. They had recently just moved their operations from Survarnabhumi aka BKK [the "main" airport] to Don Muang aka DMK.
We hopped a cab which was about 300 Baht or $10. The flight to Mandalay aka MDL [....] which was a new thing [....] was smooth and on time. It was interesting, as it was loaded with westerners and I’ve never felt the excitement and anxiety that everyone had. We were all excited to go to Myanmar, and it showed.
A Roth IRA remains to be one of the least understood retirement investment vehicles in the US. In the simplest form, the difference boils down to this – pay taxes now or pay taxes later. One can easily become muddled in this analysis. I suggest the Roth IRA benefits 2 groups of people, the “poor” and the “rich.”
What is a Roth IRA?
A Roth IRA is a tax advantaged retirement investment vehicle. In other words it is a place where you can save money for retirement, hopefully paying less in taxes at some point along the way. IRA stands for Individual Retirement Account and the Roth type has rules which allow a individual to contribute post-tax [....] meaning you paid taxes on your contribution [....] and then never be subjected to income taxes again on qualified distributions.. “Tax-free growth” is often kicked around the old campfire.
Mike Rowe – opera singer, voice of The Deadliest Catch, and creator of Dirty Jobs – gave an interesting TED talk. I’m addicted to TED. Mainly because it is something chics dig. Or, it’s just a good podcast.
I’ve been incredibly lucky in life. I have my own challenges and problems [....] which I can only pay someone to listen to me complain about them [....] but for right now, money ain’t one of them. [cue Jay-z's 99 Problems]
Life isn’t about collecting money or stuff. And without getting too philosophical or religious, life is [....] more or less [....] about being happy.
I went through the exercise of booking our 2014 vacation flights the other day – Delhi and Beijing.
We like to take a big vacation once a year – just me and the wife. [You can read about our trip to SE Asia here.] We feel this is good for everyone – Us as a couple, the girls and their grandparents. Fortunately our baby girls have grandparents begging for more time with them. And even more fortunate is a young innocent mind which quickly grows a fond attachment to whomever is taking care of them. It’s what Michael Scott calls a win-win-win.
Being a home renovation enthusiast [....] aka DIY wannabe [....] it’s hard for me to avoid the “big box” stores. That doesn’t mean I need to let them bend me over the barrel though. Below are the ways I save money at Lowe’s and Home Depot:
Always pay with a gift card
I never swipe my credit card at Lowe’s or Home Depot. Never. That’s a strong statement since I never say never. I always have a gift card that I have either bought at an office supply store (5 pts/$) or that I have bought for a discount [....] thank goodness OfficeMax is a stone’s throw between the two for me.
You can almost always find a discounted gift card online. I use Gift Card Granny (I don’t recommend buying from eBay) and find the steepest discount and usually pick off $500 or so. Any of the normal suppliers are fine to use and if you use CardPool don’t forget to use TopCashBack for and additional 2% discount (yes, I benefit from you clicking the TopCashBack link – sign up early and often!)
Every once in a while, a retailer will run a special on gift cards. As the saying goes, you gotta strike when the iron is hot! A couple years ago Micheal’s ran a father’s day special where you paid $40 for a $50 Lowe’s gift card. We spent about $3500 or something stupid. But we were finishing a basement and we knew we would spend it all [....] and we did. So, keep your eyes peeled for deals. You can always see if my ¡Deals! page has anything interesting to you [....] you know, if saving money is important to you.
Order online when possible
While the days of Lowe’s 20 minute guarantee have gone the way of the dodo bird, there are still many benefits to ordering online. 1) points and/or further discounts. 2) if they get boogered up, complain and you’ll usually get a gift card or 10% off.
Both Lowe’s and Home Depot have an extra 3% discount if ordering online through TopCashBack. Or you can use EV Reward if you’re into points & miles. This take a little planning, but it usually worth the effort.
I have numerous times received 10% off my entire order because Lowe’s website wasn’t working properly. I couldn’t make my order online for whatever lame reason Lowe’s had and I would place my order over the phone. With a little grumbling and letting them know Home Depot doesn’t have this problem, a 10% off was laid on me. If they tell you your order is ready and it really isn’t, complain. Be polite, but firm that your time is valuable and they told you to come by to collect the order. It has happened to me multiple times, and usually the manager will give you a $20-$25 gift card just to get you to shut up.
Use Competitor’s Coupons
My experience is Home Depot is clamping down on this, but think more than just the Lowe’s 10% moving coupon. Harbor Freight has been matched [....] ymmv [....] and my local ace hardware sends out a coupon once every couple weeks.
The store will usually match it, ask to talk to a manager if the cashier balks. I aim for the most apathetic looking cashier, but sometimes I get some lip. Bonus points if you have a huge cart and get the manager in front of you. If the manager isn’t playing ball, I walk and mention I am going to the “other store” which most of the time gets me what I want. Also dialing the corporate number and finding an ear that will listen more often than not helps. I usually start the call with [....]
Hi. I spend between $10k and $15k per year at home improvement stores. In the last 3 months I’ve spent about $2500 at your stores and I just had an experience which made me question your appreciation of my business [....]
I don’t lie, I don’t exaggerate, I just lay out the facts. I also like to use the phrase, “stepping over a dollar to pick up a dime.” Just because it explains the situation perfectly and I like saying it. In the few cases that has gotten me no where, I politely end the call, make another call and find someone with an ear I like better.
10% Military Discount
Do you know someone who has a military ID? If so, they can help you out. All military personnel – active, reserves and retired get 10% off everything every day. All they need is a military ID. Fortunately, my in laws both carry military ID’s. I don’t call them out to save me $10 every time I shop, but the few times I have spent in the $1000′s of dollars, they agree to meet me at the store.
Beat Competitors’ Price by 10%
Every once in a while you find a competitor who runs an ad for a product which is cheaper than Lowe’s or Home Depot is selling it for. I simply bring in the ad and work the guy in the back to discount it 10%. Once s/he gets it all keyed in I ask them to save the order under my name so I can think about it for a bit while I do some more shopping. When I head to the front cashier, again I target the most apathetic looking cashier [....] aka teenagers [....] I use a 10% off coupon – or have my in laws help me. If you try to do this when the guy in the back types it up, you’ll get shot down.
Bonus points if you can combine many of these things.
How do you save money on your home improvement projects?
We’ve added a pupusa, and we’ve moved. And by move, I don’t mean across town. To another state. We used to live in Utah, which meant we not only had access to Utah’s excellent 529 plan, but we also received a tax deduction for it. In future years, we won’t get that tax deduction if we continue to contribute to UESP. To recap, my Baby Bird has roughly $15,000 saved for college – she is only 2 years old. My Pupusa, has $3600 plus whatever my in-laws have throw in, so it is around $7300, she is only 1 month old.
The danger of 529 plans is if my kids don’t want to go to college. In which case, I’ll be hit with taxes and penalties. Most likely, I will leave the money locked up in the plan with the hopes that some form of my posterity will eventually want to become “educated.” Either that, or I blow it on woodworking classes down at the local community college. Still, I don’t want to get too much wrapped up in 529′s.
To be fair, my in-laws contribute to the max to their own 529 plan for our kids. We don’t technically control that money. But, they are fair people and I don’t anticipate them taking the money away from my kiddos. They provide us with an annual update so we can plan accordingly.
Going forward in 2014 [....]
- Contribute $5000 each kid into the Colorado 529 plan
- Contribute $5000 each kid into an I-bond account
- Work on developing a business so my kids can have a Roth IRA
#1 and #2 are pretty straight forward. #3 is more difficult, but I believe to be incredibly valuable. My hope is to have a bunch of cash-ola locked up in a Roth IRA for my girls to go to college. While Roth IRA’s can’t technically be used for education expenses [....] ok, technically they can, but just the penalty is waived [....] you can always tap your contributions. My intention is to give the girls a little jump start on retirement, let them learn from mistakes through trial & error and have some money they can use for education (contributions only – hopefully).
Now, I just need a business. More on that later [....]
As always, one should first make sure their house is in order before worrying about others. We max my 401k ($35k/year w/ employer match), max my wife’s Roth IRA (backdoor) and do another $20k-$30k in taxable investing. We feel we are on the path to our goals, which is why we dip our toes in the world of college education savings.
Are you saving for your kid’s college education? If so, where do you invest it?