Ten Financial Lessons This Summer Taught Me

The past few months have been extremely topsy turvy in terms of finances for us. We replaced one of our vehicles. We went on a long-planned and fairly expensive family vacation. We did a bunch of smaller home repairs and did all of the planning for some home improvement projects (which are ongoing as I type this). We’re in the process of rearranging and repurposing several rooms in our home.

All of those things have been planned for a while, many of them planned for years, and they’ve all come to a head all at once. It has made this summer long and stressful and full of little financial lessons for us.

Here are ten key things I learned from this summer.

A Vacation Doesn’t Have To Be Expensive To Be Meaningful, Enjoyable, and Fun

Last year, our family vacation was a camping trip. We used our daughter’s free Every Kid in a Park National Parks pass to visit a few national parks in the Great Plains and into the Rocky Mountains (Badlands and Yellowstone) and camped there. We brought almost all of our food with us. It turned out to be an incredibly inexpensive family vacation. Our biggest expense in our final tally was gas – not food, not lodging, not entertainment, not tickets.

This year, our family vacation was a long-planned trip throughout several southern states with my wife’s parents, culminating in a few days at Disney World. We ate almost entirely at restaurants and stayed at hotels. Our expense was almost ten times what we spent on our camping vacation.

Guess what? I actually enjoyed the camping vacation more. I felt more at peace on that vacation, simply because of the relaxing nature of camping and time spent in nature. I felt less compressed for time. I felt a tighter bond with my wife and kids throughout that whole trip. I’d choose it in a heartbeat. I didn’t hate or even dislike the Disney trip, I just felt … overstimulated and not very relaxed on the whole trip. I felt like I was constantly spending a lot of time running errands or trying to figure out how to jam fifteen things into the next three hours.

What’s the lesson here? A memorable vacation doesn’t have to be an expensive one (and vice versa). A great vacation is one that leaves you feeling relaxed while also experiencing something outside of the relative norm of your life, and you honestly don’t have to spend a lot doing that.

Schedule Travel with Breathing Room for Serendipity… and It’s Cheaper, Too

As I hinted above, one of my biggest frustrations with our summer vacation this year was how tightly scheduled it felt. It seemed as if every day had a tight itinerary that kept us moving from one thing to the next to the next to the next, day in and day out.

This wasn’t relaxing. This was actually pretty taxing. I came home from “vacation” much more tired than when I left. I didn’t feel recharged in any way.

Compare that to our national park vacation the year before, where we went on hikes almost every single day. I monitor my step count each day and my average daily step count on the national park trip was substantially higher than our vacation this year, yet I felt relaxed and calm most of the time and it was far less expensive.

Why? A big part of it was simply serendipity. We didn’t overly schedule our vacation the previous summer. The only planning we really did in advance was to figure out what nights we were staying where – that’s it. Our driving legs weren’t particularly long, either. On a given day, we’d discover at least two or three things that were worth doing purely by serendipity, and it was wonderful. Most of those things were free – quirky roadside things, nice parks to explore, and so on.

Let your summer vacation have a lot of breathing room. Don’t over schedule it. What you’ll find is that the gaps fill in naturally with unexpected little things, plus the whole trip ends up feeling much more relaxing.

When You Need a Home Repair, Start By Talking To Your Social Network

In May, we experienced a nasty hail storm with softball sized hail. Unsurprisingly, this damaged our roof – after the storm, you could easily see that some shingles were damaged. I climbed up there to take a look and there was damage easily visible to even my untrained eye.

A friend of mine who knows a fair amount about home repair projects stopped by the next day and took a quick look. He said it was fine for the time being but that the roof would need to go in the next year or so in order to avoid permanent damage to the layers under the roof and then, shortly thereafter, possible leaks.

At that point, Sarah and I decided to just get it replaced now, so we contacted our insurance and went through all of the steps to get it replaced properly (as it was something beyond the scope of what we wanted to handle ourselves).

During that process, we needed to gather some quotes for roof repair. Rather than simply calling the first name we could find, we instead asked our social network for help. Sarah and I both reached out to a bunch of our trusted friends and asked them if they had roof repairs done recently and, if so, who did they use and how was the experience.

We got a lot of feedback, both good and bad, on various home repair businesses in the area. That feedback pushed us to three different options, each of which gave us a quote in very short order. We went with one and the job was done beautifully within a week at a very reasonable cost, and they handled interactions with the insurance company with no problems at all. Our roof looks great and our cost out of pocket was minimal.

The lesson here? When you need a repair, talk to your social network and see who they’ve used for similar repairs in the past and how that experience was. Did they do a good job? Was the price reasonable? The more data you gather, the easier the choice actually becomes.

If You’re Considering a Home Improvement, Try Doing It Yourself

Along with the major roof repair, there were several smaller issues that cropped up around our house in the last several months. A couple of old light fixtures failed, for starters. A cabinet door broke. A significant hole was poked in the drywall while moving some things around. A faucet started leaking constantly and the handle broke off. A toilet started running constantly. A doorbell stopped working.

None of these things were disasters and none of them were major multi-day projects, but they were still issues that had to be dealt with.

Several years ago, we would have just called a repairman to handle these things. It would have cost us a significant amount of money.

Instead, we handled each of these things ourselves. Sarah and I each handled a few of these on our own; for the rest, we worked as a team to get them done. All it took for each one was a trip to the hardware store, a viewing of a Youtube video, a walkthrough document, some spare time, some tools from our garage, and a couple of quick Google searches for little things that weren’t going right.

Most minor home repairs are things you can do yourself. You don’t need to call a plumber to fix a toilet that keeps running or a faucet that drips. You don’t need to call an electrician to replace a light fixture or install a ceiling fan. You can do these things yourself, and you’ll likely save hundreds in doing so.

Everything That Isn’t Urgent Should Get Several Quotes

If you have an issue that isn’t an immediate crisis (meaning you have power and running water and your house isn’t flooding or literally falling apart), take your time with whatever project you have in mind. If it’s above your ability to handle it, get recommendations from your friends and put together several quotes.

Sarah and I have been planning a small home addition for a few years now and we decided a while ago that this summer was when we were going to move forward with it. Part of that process has involved gathering recommendations from friends and gathering a lot of quotes along the way.

By gathering a lot of quotes and cross-checking those quotes with the businesses that our social network trusted and the ones that they didn’t, we were able to quickly reduce our choices down to two businesses and then select our preferred choice, who has been incredibly professional throughout the process.

Whenever you’re not in a crisis mode, gather lots of quotes for any project you’re doing unless you already have someone you highly trust.

Time Invested in Preventive Maintenance More Than Pays for Itself

Over the past few months, several of our friends have experienced unexpected breakdowns. One person’s air conditioning system failed. Another friend had a tire blow out on a country road. Yet another had a refrigerator fail while they were traveling.

None of those things happened to us, or have happened to us in many years. While part of that is luck, another key part of it has been preventive maintenance.

I keep a pretty lengthy preventive maintenance schedule for our home and cars and do my best to stick to it. I’m always doing little things like putting air in tires and replacing filters and brushing off coils. The goal with all of those things is the same: I’m trying to extend the life of our costly possessions so that they don’t break down unexpectedly and cause us a bunch of additional expense.

Because of those steps, we’ve been able to avoid a lot of unexpected failures over the years. We’ve actually had a lot of “luck” in this regard, but part of that “luck” is simply keeping up with preventive maintenance.

A Trusted Mechanic Is Invaluable

When we made the decision to replace our old Honda Pilot with a newer family vehicle, that decision was encouraged by a mechanic we’ve used for many years. He was very open and clear with us about the reality of our old Pilot – it had an immediate repair that needed to be done very quickly and some other repairs that were coming down the road.

He told us that if he were in our shoes, he’d trade off that vehicle now rather than putting another dime in it. He said that he could do all of those repairs for us, but the total cost would be much of the cost of simply replacing it and we’d get a lot more features and a lot more life out of a replacement. Furthermore, he did a “quick fix” that enabled us to safely drive the Pilot for a few hundred miles while figuring out what to do.

We knew a replacement was coming, but thanks to our trusted mechanic, we were able to move on at just the right moment.

How do you find a trusted mechanic? Again, start with your social network. Start using a mechanic that’s recommended by friends and see how it goes. Get quotes on some repairs from multiple mechanics and then start relying on one that seems to consistently have good prices and service. As you build a relationship, a good mechanic will give you invaluable advice like this and help you know when to move on from your current car, which will save you a mint.

Let Your Neighbors Harvest Your Garden While You Travel and They’ll Probably Return the Favor

During the summer, we went on vacation as well as on a few weekend camping trips and a family reunion. During those trips, various vegetables were producing in our garden and we knew that we couldn’t harvest them.

Rather than just letting it rot, we told our neighbors that they could just walk in and pick whatever they like while we were gone. Three different families took advantage of this and when we returned home, nothing had gone to waste.

This essentially cost us nothing. We’re getting lots of vegetables and herbs now from our garden, which is great.

The real perk, though, is that those neighbors have returned the favor to us. Each one of them has reciprocated that offer to us while they were traveling. The result has been that we’ve, at times, had an abundance of vegetables available to us in wide variety.

Having a good reciprocal relationship with several neighbors around you pays off over and over again. For now, it’s been the vegetables that have had a nice payoff for us; at other times, it’s been other things, like pet care or lawn care or child care or borrowing tools. They’re valuable relationships.

Don’t Make Financial or Personal Decisions Without Knowing What’s Really Going On

This incident isn’t really related to us, but to several people close to us. Two good friends of mine decided to get a divorce earlier this year. They’re both moving to separate cities in the fall. There were no kids involved, thankfully – just two people who realized that their relationship wasn’t working any more.

I’m not going to say who is to “blame” in the divorce. I don’t think a relationship breakdown happens very often where only one person is to “blame” – it’s usually a result of multiple failures on both parts.

Another person that I know in large part because of that couple broke off a business relationship as a result of that divorce. He was closer to one of the people in that couple than the other and seemed to make that decision based on that closeness.

However, from my angle, that decision was made based on really questionable information. There were stories shared on social media about the relationship that weren’t 100% true – I witnessed some of the things discussed with my own eyes, so I know they’re not true. Yet, people were making big business decisions and personal choices based on that partial information.

That’s a mistake. Regardless of whether your first instinct is right or not, take some time and make sure that you actually have facts and not secondhand gossip before making major business or life decisions. Things aren’t always what they appear, especially through the lens of secondhand gossip. Sure, you might end up making a big decision, but at least give it some time and gather the facts first. Unless urgency is required, don’t make a fast major decision.

Don’t Become Too Attached to Things

Part of the rearrangement of rooms in our home involves me moving my office into another part of the house where I probably won’t have quite as much space as I once did. My board game collection fits on the current shelving space allotted to it, as does my book collection, but both are going to shrink significantly in the coming months.

This means that both collections are going through a purge. I’m having to make a lot of decisions about which books and games I’m going to keep and which ones I’m going to give away or trade away or sell.

As I move through this process, I’m beginning to realize that a lot of the motivation I had for keeping books and games is emotional attachment. Usually, it’s because I remember a great experience reading a book in the past or a great experience playing a game in the past, but I’m not really thinking about whether I’ll read the book again going forward or play the game again going forward.

Once I start looking at things in terms of going forward, some cuts begin to make obvious sense to me. I’ve been steadily trimming both collections over the last several months in anticipation of the move and the choices have been easier because of this realization.

Final Thoughts

Life is a giant experiment. New situations are constantly being thrown at you. You’re going to make mistakes. The key to a great life, I think, is to constantly learn. Figure out new approaches to the new problems before you, watch some of them succeed and some of them fail, see what you can learn from that, and use those lessons for new approaches.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.