Frugality: Travel Hacking, An Introduction

From the get-go, when Mike and I were asked to lay down our priorities in terms of lifestyle and life goals, traveling was near the top of our list. It goes without saying that traveling comes with a price that can interfere with our equally important goal of gaining financial independence. It’s hard to commit to a trip across the world when I know I will come back to an ever-growing student loan. So I am so excited to share with you guys a way that allows us to travel the world, without breaking the bank.

We do something called travel hacking.

I first discovered Travel Hacking on Choose FI’s Podcast, Episode 9: Travel Rewards; How to Travel the World for Free (here). In less than an hour, they had me hooked! I remember coming home and re-listening to the entire episode with Mike. We forwarded the podcast episode to our core group of ten friends, in the hopes that they also would like to join us in this adventure, so that we may travel the world together. We continued to study Travel Hacking by taking the free Travel Miles 101 course. We reached out to our financial adviser to ask if it was too good to be true, and were happy to learn that he, too, dabbles in this life hack, and that it would be a very beneficial thing for us to do. I highly recommend anyone interested in traveling the world for (nearly) free to first listen to the podcast episode (in order to get a taste of what this entails), and then to take the free Travel Miles 101 course. I think it would be best to leave all the nuances to the pros and to simply refer you to these two sources, giving all credit where credit is due.

What is travel hacking?

Travel Hacking entails using the benefits of Credit Card Reward Programs in order to gain points that can be used to buy flights, hotel stays, and even car rentals. The idea is to open credit cards and hit the minimum spend criteria in order to attain the massive 40k, 50k, 80k points. These points are incentives for the new cardholder to hit a certain spending within a certain amount of time (usually 3 months) since opening the card. So that is exactly what we do. There are multiple strategies in order to do this, which the sources detail really well, and which I won’t touch on in this post. If you’d like to learn some of these strategies, I refer you to the Travel Miles 101 course.

Keep in mind that while this is extremely useful and beneficial for traveling, it can be destructive if attempted by people who have not achieved disciplined, financial responsibility. The credit card companies win if you open credit cards, purchase products with them, and do not pay off the total amount in full. This leads to high interest rate charges that will lead to more financial harm than good. It also isn’t good if it results in you spending more than you would normally. The card holder needs to be well-restrained. Mike and I treat the credit cards as if they were debit cards. We don’t increase our spending for the sake of gaining more points. In due time, the points will come.

Alternatively, the credit card companies will also win if you fail to hit the minimum spending. You would have opened a credit card for no reason! This requires a very organized person who will keep track of minimum spends, and dates the credit cards were opened, and dates when minimum spending should be reached. So how do you responsibly meet minimum spend when your day-to-day activities do not meet it? There are many ways to ensure you hit your target spending before the time is up. You can use the remaining amount needed to buy grocery or gas gift cards, which could be used in the future. This is a way to guarantee getting the massive point-payout without reckless spending. Another way to meet minimum spend is to prepay bills, such as electrical bills for upcoming months. Having the bills off your mind is a big plus.

Why is this so great?

Imagine this scenario. You open a credit card that requires a $3000 minimum spend in three months. When you spend $3000, you will get a points equivalent to $1000 in flights, which is a 33% rate of return. You can’t get that anywhere! If you were to get that in a taxable investment account, you’d have to pay taxes on your gains. This is 100% tax-free. And may I say that 33% rate of return is not the best rate out there. This should be even more appealing for people who are in higher tax brackets. For people who make six figures, you are sitting in a 25% tax bracket, and if you add to that health insurance, FICA, etc., you may even be approaching closer to 40% marginal tax. For you to take a $5k vacation in a year, you will need to earn $7, 8, 9k to pay for that vacation. With travel hacking, you can do that for free. You can then keep that $7k available to other aspects of your life (aka student loans).

What’s the catch?

Our biggest concern, obviously, was credit rating. Even though we have absolutely no interest in signing up for even more loans right now, mortgages and car loans included, we still don’t want to completely obliterate our really good credit scores. Turns out, there is a very minimal impact on your credit score. Credit scores will go up and down, naturally, within 10 to 30 points within a normal month anyway. That’s just how credit scores work, and it is not a precisely fixed number. Now, if the people attempting travel hacking are financially responsible people, so their credit score would likely be around the 800 range. The maximum that it has dropped for some travel hackers is 25 points, which is irrelevant, because a score of 750 is sufficient to guarantee you most loans. And the funny thing is, these scores jump right back up, because you are constantly paying (in full) multiple credit cards. By spending responsibly, travel hackers can increase their credit score to more than what they started with in the course of a few years. Yes, initially, the hard pull when you apply for the credit card leads to a 2-5 point drop, but it is temporary and it is completely gone within 18 months. Now if you are, for some reason, extremely worried about your credit score or you have a low credit score, or you have plans to take out a mortgage or a loan in the next year, then this strategy is not for you. Do not do travel hacking if for any reason, whether psychologically or financially, you need your credit score to be a certain number.

For Mike and I, we started this journey with decently high credit scores. We decided that, even if our scores dropped as much as 30-50 points, would we be okay. The answer to travel hacking for us was a whole-hearted yes. If the trade-off is $6-7k worth of travel (for free), that would save us $10k (pre-tax) a year, which we can then attribute to other assets or to paying down debt. Since we have no plans to buy a house in the next year, we are not very worried with the short term negative effect it could have on our scores. And our credit scores would still be considered good, if not great! We are more excited about the long-term benefits.

So where has that led us?

We discovered Travel Hacking in October 2017, which is very, very late compared to a whole community of travel hackers who have been doing this for multiple years! It has been almost 5 months.

For 2018, we are able to book the following flights, for free.

Mexico City, Mexico

San Francisco, CA

Portland, Oregon

Calgary, Canada

Sydney, Australia

Melbourne, Australia (from Sydney)

Christchurch, New Zealand (from Melbourne)

Christchurch, to LAX

Pending trips: Costa Rica

The best part?

Slowly, our friends opened up to the idea of travel hacking too! Our trip to SF reunites our group of ten college friends, and the pending Costa Rica trip is being planned among a group of us, as well. It has increased our ability to grow with people we care about, and to spend time with them, and to just see the world.

Travel Hacking is fantastic, but not for everyone. So learn about it, to see if it’s right for you!

Ways to Celebrate Valentine’s Day

Before we get the nay-sayers out there screaming that this is a fake holiday, let me just say that yes, maybe it is.  It doesn’t mean I like celebrating it any less, all the same. Despite the commercialization of this (and every other) holiday, I believe there are ways for us to celebrate, mindfully. And while this may seem like my excuse to be a romantic, if only for a day, I’d like to plead my case and convince you otherwise, that this is in the interest of getting away from the commercialization and coming a step closer to the actual deal, which is to celebrate love. In other words, hopeless romantic on the loose.

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While the advertising companies are spending billions of dollars trying to convince the world of the different ways one needs to show love, I’m over here singing a song of a different tune. I view Valentine’s Day as another opportunity to celebrate without getting carried away with the spending and the accumulating. And while some may bitterly feel a bit left out this holiday, why don’t we just gravitate a little further away from the traditional Couple’s-Only Club, since we’re already uprooting conventional observances of Cupid’s holiday anyway? Here are my ways to spend Valentine’s Day, frugally, and with less waste.

Frugally  – To Do List for the 5 Love Languages

Quality Time – Avoid the crowds and stay in. We all know the cliche of spending “quality time” with your loved ones by going out for a lovely candlelit dinner at a fancy restaurant, or getting some concert tickets to your favorite band, or watching a movie at the theatres, thanks to movies toting these very things. But might I say that all of these require spending? It may be the inner introvert in me, finding every excuse to avoid large congregations of people, but it’s also the super frugal Fran inside of me, dreading dropping hard-earned pay for something so trivial. So instead of dashing out the front door to spending time driving and waiting in long lines, why not just spend real quality time with each other, by substituting with a home-made dinner for two (left-overs abound!), the playing of your favorite records, or Netflix and chill. Likewise, if you must go out, get outdoors and play.

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Acts of Service – Skip the buying of gifts, substitute acts of service. So I know this isn’t for everyone. There are five love languages, gifting being one of them. Some people just really appreciate gifts. This one just happens to be easy for Mike and I, because we both fall under acts of service. Because of that, we have an easier time letting go of the gifts. Last Christmas, in an effort to disconnect from gifting and everything it brings, I substituted some the present of actions rather than things. I went to the local library and borrowed books on coffee so we may learn about it together. I YouTubed a way to pickle red onions, Mike’s favorite condiment for tacos. I stitched new Velcro onto Mike’s 3 years old motorcycle gloves, so that the latches stick again. A $5 cost instead of a $200 cost. My hands were sore from sewing through stiff leather with an easily bendable needle, but he was pretty stoked. For this Valentine’s Day, I asked for a particular gift from Mike. That is, to remove the rust from the bottom of our cast iron pans, simply because I’ve been too lazy to do it myself. If this style of loving just isn’t for you, then read on ahead for the gift list, below.

Words of Affirmation – Memorize a poem, nix the card. I like words, there’s no doubt about that. My clinical notes in the office are jokingly referred to as essays, and birthday cards just never have enough space. But I have a confliction with buying cards in general. It is undoubtedly much more aesthetic to add a store-bought card to any occasion, and I do have an achilles heel for all things presentable. However, the cost of the fancier stuff run north of $5, sometimes even going so far as to cost more than $10! Additionally, layers of paper that pop up from these gorgeous cards are drool-worthy, but also a bit gut wrenching. Drama aside, I’ve tried to avoid buying cards lately, and have substituted either a small handwritten note, or just a verbal  expression of emotions. For the Whitmans out there, why not memorize a poem? For those who just can’t do without a card, try the card alternative below.

Physical touch – Let your imagination run wild. Not much needs to be said with this one. Probably the most frugal of the five, good old fashioned loving is all it takes. Skip the expensive spa dates and learn massage techniques together. Find ways to get in touch throughout the day, by phone, via text, in a game of tag. Its quite obvious which love language I speak the least. Ending all awkwardness here and now. You just be creative.

Receiving Gifts – Welp! This one can’t be helped. If acts of service did not make the cut, then may I suggest a few thoughtful gift ideas, that won’t break the proverbial piggy bank, and would be loving to the planet at the same time?

Less Waste – The Gift List

This is what my Valentine’s Day wishlist would look like if ever I had one. Unfortunately, I used my wish on the de-rusting of an aforementioned Lodge pan. That was enough for me, but if you are in need of other gift ideas, have at it.

A haircut. I actually asked for this for Christmas last year. I hardly get haircuts. As in, once every 2 years, or once every year and a half. I would love to get them more frequently, but honestly, it gets to be too much for me. Hair is one of those things I used to obsess about as a tween, but it’s all been-there, done-that. I chop it off shoulder length, then just let it grow to the small of my back. On repeat, since college. I also attend one of those generic Fantastic Sam’s places where I pay $20 to chop off most of my hair. Although I did find a location in San Diego once that had happy hour, where the haircut only cost $8 between 5 and 6pm. Score!

A tree instead of flowers. In the U.S.A., about $2 billion worth of cut flowers are bought each Valentine’s Day. While flowers are a compostable gift, and not entirely bad for the environment, what if we try gifting plants itself. A plant can stay alive for a really long time, care-taker depending. These can range drastically, from a $5 succulent from Home Depot, to a $200 tree. Pick what works for your price range. For me, I’ve got my beautiful fiddle leaf, pretty as can be.

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A plantable cardSooooo, after my long spiel about my issue with cards, I did come across these plantable versions. You read right. These cards are made from seed paper, which is 100% compostable. Alternatively, when planted in the ground, these cards claim to grow wildflowers (!!). Which conveniently goes in line with my thinking above.

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Self-Care Products. As I grow older, I embrace this concept of self-care a lot more. There are plenty of self-care products out there that are paving the way by being environmentally friendly, cruelty free, and all natural. Ranging from luscious bars of soap, to shampoo, to beard balm, you name it. These are products that we would use on the daily anyway, so why not gift them something they need?

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A collection of Recipes. Better yet, your recipe collection, attached to a tin can of home-made cookies (or bread, what have you).

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Valentine Celebrations with Everyone

Galentines Day –  popularized by single ladies all over the world, this is now being celebrated by besties everywhere, regardless of the relationship status. Ways to celebrate? Do activities together, such as a yoga class in someone’s living room, or a cooking session in one’s kitchen. Just make sure not to fight over who gets clean up duties.

Dudes’ Hangout – pretty standard kick back, commonplace among Mike and his friends. Pizza and video games? Or have everyone bring a six pack of different brews, and do a beer tasting at home. Coffee cupping sesh also an alternative.

Hosting for Friends and Family – I love to host. Gathering twelve people around our table just makes my heart sing. Why not invite the entire family or crew over and use this holiday as an excuse to eat, drink. and be merry? Cheers!

A Little Bit of Self Love

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  • Early morning meditation.
  • A cup of coffee, made the slow way.
  • Find the time to relax in the middle of the work day.
  • Skip work all together, and spend time at home with family.
  • A decluttering session, mid-February.
  • A candle lit bubble bath for one, music optional.
  • Cuddling up with a book and a blanket.
  • Go to bed at an early hour.

Honestly, the self-love category is my favorite list.

Happy heart week!

 

The Ever Growing List of Things I’ve Given Up in the Name of Frugality

My ultimate goal is to pay down my student debt of $550k as fast as possible. I turned to frugality as a way to do that. I’ve given up some excesses in my day to day life in order to reach my goal quicker. I find that it’s not a shame to be more selective, but rather a source of pride. Plus one if the decision ends up being eco-friendly. And the list goes on…

  • Gym memberships, specifically yoga-related. Substitute yoga at home, swimming laps at the community pool, and biking everywhere.
  • Weekly Sunday brunches. Learned how to make equally as good breakfast dishes at home.
  • The thought of a new car. Still driving my high-school ride.
  • Happy Hour Thursdays. Weekly football viewing now occurs at home.
  • Regularly dining out at trendy, fancy restaurants. Once a month Ramen date, still a likely occurrence.
  • Shopping, in general.
  • Cable TV at home. Thought about nixing the internet too, only for a moment.
  • Buying books. Exchanged my habit for public libraries instead.
  • Alcohol. Initially, paying money for it was a main factor. Additionally, positive health outcomes.
  • Outsourcing house-cleaning and maintenance jobs. Learned how to fix a continually running toilet, efflorescent cement floors, and clogged drains to name a few. Also a fan of touch up painting as a “hobby”.
  • Paying $15 to watch movies at the theatres.
  • Drinking anything but water at restaurants.
  • Buying music.
  • Paper Towels. Substitute washable dish rags instead. Also eco-friendly.
  • The idea of buying things new. Became a big fan of buying things used. Even bigger fan of hand-me-downs and borrowing.
  • Driving everywhere. Biking to local errands becoming more common.
  • Paying for parking spots. Will walk reasonably extensive distances to avoid paying for parking.
  • Personal space, specifically, an entire floor in our loft. Got a roommate in order to decrease monthly rent, a not-so-traditional way to reduce spending, in order to live in the house of our dreams.
  • Buying bottled water. Opting for filter water not only saves the environment but also saves money. I carry a water bottle around everywhere and fill up at public water fountains.
  • Buying lattes every week. I learned how to make them myself at home, latte art included! Also applies to $8 avocado toast.
  • Buying bread. I bake my own bread, and feed my own yeast. Also, started selling my extra loaves to people as well.
  • House decorations. I really embraced the minimalist esthetics, and it’s a plus for me because there are less things to clean and organize, and the space always looks neat.
  • Frequent haircuts. I cut my hair once every 2 years, which people say is sooo unhealthy, but is it really when my hair continues to grow faster than most people I know? I don’t have split ends and I still consider my hair pretty thick. Then again, I don’t shower in hot water and I don’t blow dry, curl, or dye my hair, barring twice a year exceptions.
  • Make-up and beauty products. I no longer wear make-up on my days off, and I only wear a dash of eyeliner and mascara on the days I go to work. I wash my face with regular soap, and avoid moisturizers and other unnecessary (and at times, harmful?) products. I used to have a habit of painting my nails every week, but I am haven’t painted them in over a year. They’re healthier than before, always trimmed, and match every outfit.
  • Snacks. When I was still in college, I realized that I was being unhealthy by reaching into the pantry for chips or ice cream. I challenged myself to stop buying snacks to prevent myself from eating bad foods, but also to cut my grocery bill. It’s worked and I stick to the habit of cutting out snacks from the list to this day.
  • Going to theme parks and concerts and festivals. This kind of goes in line with the movie theatres thing, but I substituted all of these hyped and commercialized experiences for explorations and hikes with friends.
  • Speaking of friends, I gave up the relationships that were centered around spending. I realized that we unfortunately had different visions as to how we want our lives to be, and it comes down to our core values being different. For those that were willing to hang out with us without the instagrammable scenery, we remained friends. Some of these things were harder to give up than others.
  • Going to Target, “just because”. This is the worst, am I right? Also, Trader Joe’s. I will have a mission and a list when I go into stores and groceries, and I stay focused on my goals.
  • Fast food. We originally stopped getting fast food because we didn’t want things that involved plastic and single use containers. However, getting rid of fast food is also amazing since it reduced our spending. It is so easy to think, “Oh, it’s just cheap fast food, so no big deal.” But the pennies do add up. And it is important to remember that fast food is not entirely healthy, so the cost of treating things such as high cholesterol and diabetes down the road will be increased if eating fast food is a common occurrence. Don’t get me started on our college days…
  • Buying pre-made meals and sauces. Cooking most things from scratch was also started to reduce plastic, but it also prevented me from buying things that are wayyyy too overpriced for what you are getting.

More to come…

The True Cost of Gas

Today was my day off and I woke up to a beautiful, sunny, blustery day. In a cheerier mood, I thought to myself, maybe I deserve spending $3 to buy myself a coffee today at a local coffee shop where I could work on my blog. Typically, I wouldn’t be so thrifty, but today is such a good day and we have been pretty good the last couple of weeks on our spending. I could also swing by the local public library and borrow as many books as I can find on coffee, to start my adventure on becoming a knowledgeable coffee connoisseur. But there was one thing that was nagging me, more so than the overpriced coffee that I was about to purchase. It was the thought of driving, albeit a few miles, to the downtown area to reach the coffee shop and library. Granted, there are 7 mph winds, so while the distance is very easily biked, I was being a wussy pants and was trying my best to avoid the biking. However, I’ve also been avoiding driving for unnecessary ventures the last couple of weeks. While no one is interested in my own personal report, I will anyways report that I have been really good about clumping all of my errands on the same drive in the same area. Aiming to decrease my carbon footprint in terms of miles driven, I asked for my dad’s 15 year old bike, whose front brake doesn’t even work, and who’s handlebar rubber handle is missing. It doesn’t shift gears well anymore, risking unhooking the chain every chance you take at getting to a different gear. But I’ve asked for it to avoid buying a brand new bike, and it has given me a lot of joy in the last few months. On top of using it for pure enjoyment, I’ve tried biking to work and to the local dry cleaners. But I am still a novice and a wussy pants when it comes to biking everywhere to decrease my car usage.

Enter Mister Money Mustache and his ever reliable extremism. If you’ve never read his blog, you definitely should, because a majority of time, it’s just the slap in the face that I need to build up my reserve to get things done, to save money, or to just be a decent human being. While trying to make my decision about what to do, I figured I’d read just one blog post from him, and lo and behold, the one that ended up being next on my list was called, “A life lesson on gasoline”. Life has a sense of humor that I will never get tired of.

I came upon a video on the price of gas, and while there may be inaccuracies in the numbers (who really knows), I think the take away message is well-known, but highly ignored.

The video mentions the price of gas in Germany, and I can confirm this as true (now that we’ve driven the Autobahn and had to fill up our own gas tanks in Germany). But honestly, you don’t have a lot of Germans complaining about the gas prices, because the majority of them bike everywhere. Visiting big cities such as Frankfurt and Munich, there were very few parking spaces, and a plethora of bicycles. People used their bikes to commute to school in Heidelberg, or commute to work in Munich, grabbing an early morning baked good at a bakery, and grabbing coffee at a local cafe. It was so prevalent that, while I did not go to Germany to photograph bicycles in particular, I noticed that they somehow found their way into my photos.

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Instead of pedestrian signs, you were more likely to see signs telling you when there’s a bike crossing, or where bikes were allowed and not allowed.

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You don’t see  bicycle parking lots in Los Angeles, a city where there are allegedly more cars than people. In the State of California, there are reported to be 775 vehicles per 1000 people, which is a ludicrous number to me, assuming children and teenagers do not need a car for themselves. So I guess we can all strive to make a change, especially after all the global warming that has been occurring. In order to implement that change, we need people to be less of a wuss, myself included. The only way to do that? Strengthen our belief in our ability to bike in gorgeous, freaking, California, by showing bicycle parking lots in the snow in Amsterdam. Or bicycle parking lots in Germany on a rainy day. Or by reading Mister Money Mustache early on a Wednesday morning.

Not wanting to steal any of his content, let me just refer you to the article, and other articles that can fire up your reserve.

A Life Lesson on Gasoline // The True Cost of Commuting // Get Rich with Bikes

So that was it. I question it no more, and bike I must. Might as well be outdoors, enjoying this blustery, sunny day and getting a workout while I’m at it. Plus I’ll save on gas, and downtown parking. Not sure if I’m willing to give up the coffee today though. You win some and you lose some.

A Simple Holiday Gift Guide – 10 gifts for the holiday season

Call yourself frugal, minimal, mindful, whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. There’s still the matter of gift giving for the holidays. Unless you’ve found a way to completely let go of gift giving without hurting or disappointing your closest loved ones, there’s the issue of buying more material goods that could do the planet more harm than good. Gift giving is a bit of a funny thing. You hand someone something to celebrate a birthday or holiday, as a way of saying, “Here’s a piece of the Earth I killed for you in your name.” Extreme much? Yeah, I am sometimes, but there’s a little bit of truth to that statement, don’t you think?

It’s taken a bit of time for me to find a balance in my gift giving strategy. There is the issue of giving someone something they actually want. If there’s a specific list or wish, I don’t stray much from that, only because the point of gifts should be making someone else, and not yourself, happy. But it doesn’t hurt to ask if you could do an alternative. And for those people that didn’t insist on a particular item, there are always these options. Here are my top ten gifts for the holiday season.

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+ Home baked cookies – wrapped in linen napkin or placed in a reusable container (also being gifted). If your group of friends or family is anything like ours, bring it to a party Pizookie style. We recently served a pizookie this way at our Friendsgiving dinner, and it was way more fun to grapple over each other, digging in with our own spoons, and frantically trying to eat more than your neighbor. It was an awesome way to end a group dinner, bringing us together to literally share our meal. Grossed out by the idea of sharing? Make traditional individual cookies, plate, and top with a heaping scoop of ice cream.

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+ Your best homemade sauce in a mason jar. This is great whether it’s pasta sauce, a secret dressing, or a favorite dip. It is a sure way to bring a little piece of your home into someone else’s. Mike and I share a love for Mexican food, and in the last year, we’ve found a Tomatillo Sauce recipe that tastes almost as good as our favorite sauce in Valle de Guadalupe. Made from scratch, we wanted to share this sauce with our friends and family. We gave away little jar samples as a gift for attending our Thanksgiving dinner. The “Thank You” email sent the next day included our three go-to ways to cook with this tomatillo sauce, from something as simple as chips and salsa, to chilaquiles and enchiladas, which added even more of a personal touch!

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+ A bouquet of everlasting flowers from a local flower shop. I am a huge fan of supporting local farmers, florists, and small shops. Stop by your local florist and ask for a bouquet of flowers that dry beautifully. These in particular are Everlasting bouquets from Petals and Pop, a local floral shop in Huntington Beach. These bundles will last through multiple seasons, and technically, could last forever if left alone. Place in a mason jar or a vase to your liking.

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+ A bar of soap, without the wrapping, tied with a reused bow. My favorite gift that Mike and I ever received during the days leading up to our wedding was a single bar of soap, unwrapped, from my friend Jo as a housewarming gift. On it was a handwritten note tied with a single bow that read, “In my culture, a bar of soap symbolizes prosperity.” The simplicity of the gift stunned me, but it’s something I never forgot. It was my favorite present because she gave us a gift that symbolized a wish.

+ A mini Christmas tree for holiday cheer. Having an early party this season? Bring in a mini Christmas tree, small enough to stand on a coffee table or on the floor. Nothing beats bringing some natural element or other into the home. Plus, the smell of pine is a winner.

+ A reusable shopping bag, with some produce bags and linen bread bags, or mason jars, collected over time. I love these items, and they are particularly useful and actually friendly to the environment. I have a couple of tiny produce bags for fruits and veggies, and a disarray of totebags. The point isn’t to match (although matching is a plus!) but to have a sense of sensibility and practicality when it comes to shopping for those holiday dinners your loved one is about to throw.

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+ Homemade candles, infused with your favorite scents. There is nothing I love more than lighting scented candles. These are easily homemade in a mason jar or a jar that once held a previous candle. It’s great for lighting dark afternoons, when the sun has just gone done but the sky isn’t dark enough to turn on the lights. I love working by candle light in the evenings. There’s something romantic and peaceful about that, and it reminds me of childhood days in the Philippines when the electricity would go out and we only had candles to get us through to the morning. Click here to learn how to make one of your own.

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+ A stack of your favorite books that you’ve read this past year, ready for de-cluttering. I had a goal of reading through the leftover unread books that I foolishly hoarded in my early twenties this past year. But the year flew by so fast, that it seems I only got through seventeen or so books. With my new ways, I no longer feel the emotional tie to books like I once did, and can’t wait to part with them once I have sucked all the knowledge out of their beautiful smelling, yellowing pages. But what to do with them has been a dilemma. I’ve donated a bunch to my sister’s charter school, which does not have a library and wherein she is trying to create a collection of books for her high school students to read. Some of my favorites, I’ve held on to and gifted to fellow bookworms for their birthdays. So why not do the same for the holidays? Choose some of your favorite reads, add a review or synopsis, and wrap them stacked and with a bow. Their book lives are not yet over.

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+ A bottle of wine, brought to a holiday dinner party. Since giving up alcohol, I have constantly been trying to pawn off bottles and bottles of wine at every dinner party we’ve hosted at our house, and then some. It’s a great, merry addition to a party, and a good gift for any host or hostess. Plus, you and the guests may get something out of it too!

+ Handmade cards, for future birthdays and other well wishes. I love giving cards with every gift, but I hate paying $5 for them. I have recently acquired a novice level skill of using a calligraphy pen and could use some practice. I figured, why not practice by making a set of handmade cards? I started to do just that, then grouped ten cards together to gift to someone else for the holidays. Practiced a new skill, and saved someone $50 worth cards for the following year. Win win.

** All gifts were given sans wrapping paper, and tied with a bow that has been re-used from previous gifts that I’ve received.