Goodbye, Great Lakes

We did it. This morning, I entered the last payment on Kris’ student loan, which means we kicked $19,000 of debt to the curb in 2015. Goodbye, Great Lakes! How does it feel?  Pretty good. I’ve been thinking about this day for a long time and am pleased we made this a priority. It just goes to show what planning can do because I am not a natural saver. I love spending money. It’s my favorite, actually. So how did we do this?

Caveat: of course, it helps that we are DINKs and have money to throw at debt, but it wasn’t without sacrifice.

Every dollar had a job to do and was already accounted for. There was no “leftover” at the end of the month to spend on silly things. I planned ahead of time for expenses that are out of the ordinary, such as license registration and car insurance, along with the usual monthly expenses.  That gave us an idea of how much we could put toward the loan every month, and the goal of finishing it in September.

We cut back. This is sort of self-explanatory and a no-brainer. Less dinners out on a whim on Friday night (Outback, we’ve missed you) and more meal planning at home. Less impulse purchasing on iTunes and more thought put into needs vs. wants. This part wasn’t easy and we weren’t perfect, but having a budget of $100 “fun” money made us recalibrate the extras we buy every month. This was slow and difficult and felt like a punishment sometimes, but on the flip side, I appreciate $100 a lot more now that I did when I would easily drop that at Target without a thought.

Side hustles! I resold clothes on eBay and wrote a few freelance articles. Kris also sold an article and he worked on a project with a professor for some extra cash. We sold some furniture and some other things we weren’t using. The extra cash helped us get through some tight spots. I don’t know if these are something we can develop further, but it was exciting to have a little unexpected cash.

What now? Our other big goals were Europe (ticket purchased!) and LASIK for me (appointment is made!). We are now saving up to afford those things and we look forward to working on a solid emergency fund and throwing a little extra toward retirement.  Or, you know, some coconut shrimp at Outback every now and again.

Philly Food

So everyone knows Philly is famous for its cheesesteak. Let’s get this out of the way: we didn’t make it to Geno’s or Pat’s. You have to leave something for next time, right? We did, however, have tons of delicious food and Philadelphia blew me away with the variety. Every meal was a treat and I can’t wait to go back and eat.

One of our first stops was Campo’s. Did you know that the hoagie is actually Philadelphia’s official sandwich? Weird, but true. In 1992 the mayor made it so. I don’t understand why a city needs an official sandwich, but…so be it. We ordered a hoagie and a cheesesteak to kick our culinary adventure off.

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I loved the hoagie, which surprised me. After a few bits of the cheesesteak, I finished the hoagie. I guess I wasn’t as big a fan of cheesesteak as I thought, but it was a very hot day and cheesesteak is a hot sandwich. We did order the cheesesteak with traditional Cheese whiz. The Cheese whiz ends up melting a bit and it isn’t as gross as most novices assume. Anyway, Campo’s was delicious and their sandwiches were huge.  We left clean plates.

Reading Terminal Market was fantastic.

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It reminded me a lot of Pike Place in Seattle, but it had more places to buy sandwiches and a large area to sit, along with a large selection of fresh fruits, veggies and meats. We met for lunch here one day. I had to try the cannoli from Termini Brothers Bakery. They had a giant bag of cannoli filling suspended from the ceiling. I wanted to crawl in there.

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I had a magical turkey stuffing sandwich from The Original Turkey. Kris and I both ate sandwiches from DiNic’s, which got a lot of press from the Travel Channel. My sandwich was hot, greasy, and lived up to my expectations. Go there hungry.

A vendor of the conference Kris was attending opened up Reading Terminal after hours for us one night. It was a highlight because this place was bumping during the day, so to see it turned down was very fun. Different vendors were open and we sampled more food, even though we had already eaten dinner at Barbuzzo, a Mediterranean restaurant.

Nutella crepe:

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The candy case at Chocolate by Mueller:

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I wanted to try everything. I did try the chocolate covered Oreos and wasn’t disappointed.

Here’s the fruit stands, very similar to Pike Place:

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Reading Terminal is a must if you go to Philadelphia. You can’t go wrong with finding something to eat there.

Philadelphia has the U.S.’s third largest Chinatown, which we were both surprised to find out. Our hotel was a few blocks from it, and one night when Kris was pressed for time we wandered over for a quick dinner. We ended up at Penang. I had the pad thai which was soooo freaking tasty that I’m still dreaming about it. As an appetizer we ordered the roti canai. Its similar to a flat croissant with a curry-potato dipping sauce. It’s apparently a Malaysian dish. Very good!

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I also saw Utz potato chips. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but I don’t think I’ve seen these in the Midwest. I have, however, heard Judge John Hodgman talk about them at length on his podcast, so I bought a bag. They reminded me of a thinner and saltier Pringle. I also felt better about myself because I didn’t have to cram my hand into a can to eat them. Winning!

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We also sampled some Tastykakes. This is apparently some sort of Hostess sibling. Perhaps a step-sibling. Tastykakes was the one disappointment. I did like the coffee cake flavor, but I guess I was born and raised on Hostess and Little Debbie. I don’t have room for Tastykakes in my life.

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We had so much good food that I think we’re still working off the calories. On the plus side, we now have many reasons to go back. And now I’m off to the kitchen to see what’s in the fridge…

Philly Recap

Back in mid-July (seems so long ago!) we had the chance to go to Philadelphia for a five day trip. Kris was there for work, attending the American Association of Law Libraries annual conference. In the past, this conference has taken us to Seattle and Kris went to San Antonio last year, so we try and turn it into a fun trip. It’s not as fun as a real vacation since Kris has to work, but I’m getting used to exploring cities on by my lonesome. Plus, we couldn’t pass up the chance to see Philadelphia together. Our first date was to see a watch party of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Philly was HOT. The temp index was in the mid-90s. I don’t do well when it gets that hot, but I tried my best. I usually ended up in the hotel during the hottest parts of the day. Luckily, there was a Keeping up with the Kardashians marathon going on.

Day one we tried to hit up a lot of things since this was one of two days we’d both be able to see things together. We checked in to the hotel and then hit the streets to go see the Mutter Museum, the museum of medical oddities. They don’t allow any pictures, but suffice it to say it was disturbing! I have a pretty strong stomach, but the heat combined with travel and then being confronted with medical oddities made me feel a little nauseous. It was very interesting, though, and worth checking out, especially if you dig science.

Isn’t Kris short? This skeleton was one of the medical oddities. There were a lot of skeletons and preserved fetuses. Consider yourself warned.

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After that, we hustled across the downtown to get to the Liberty Bell. Apparently, it underwhelmed this history nerd.

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We then crossed the street to see Independence Hall. The urge to watch National Treasure was strong!  We did the short tour and got to see where the Declaration of Independence was signed.  Cool and also free.

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The next day, since Kris was conferencing all day, I checked out the Museum of Art. You know—Rocky steps! I left early and climbed the steps before the museum opened, but even in the early morning I was sweating profusely. I half ran them, half walked them.

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spent a long time wandering around the museum and snapping pics. Amazing collection.

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Highly recommend, even if you aren’t super into art museums.

Also pictured: City Hall, the Rocky statute (which is hidden away from the Museum of Art like a redheaded stepchild) and Independence Hall from the outside.

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I also checked out the Magic Gardens. It was unassumingly tucked into a regular looking neighborhood, but the inside was quite amazing. Makes me miss art class!

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I also took a very tourist-y Duck tour where they drive you around to see the sights on land and then we took a quick boat ride in the Delaware. It was a good afternoon pick to avoid the heat, but not a must do. I did learn that whenever a new building goes up in Philly, a certain percentage of the construction budget must be donated to the arts, which explains why Philadelphia has so many statues and art. Hint hint, Madison.

We also (maybe because we were a bit tipsy) stomped around in the fountain by Love Park.

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On our last day, we went to Eastern State Penitentiary. It was an old prison designed like the spokes of a wheel, with prisoners being separated from each other as a way of rehabilitation. So, basically solitary confinement for each prisoner. The prison was closed in 1971 and it became very run down after that. Now it is a U.S. National Historic Landmark. There were a few high school classes touring when we went through, in fact. The Penitentiary has a haunted house that would be amazing, I bet. The place was creepy enough during daylight.

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So creepy. I’d go back to Philly for two things: the haunted house and the food!  Oh, yes, food recap up next.

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Feels like we did 31 fun things to celebrate my birthday this weekend. I’ll let the pictures do the telling.

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Did you get your free slurpee? I had to brave the traffic of Art Fair on the Square and some serious road construction by Regent Street, but I got my fill of blue raspberry.

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My first double red blood cell donation went fine. 
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A Madison tradition. There’s a Gritty in Sun Pizzle, so that’s the one we went to. You can drink for free, but I only had one because I’m pretty sure the nurse at the Red Cross said I would die otherwise.
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We scored a ton of books at Albertfest.

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Cat show on Sunday. Kris is either thrilled or terrified.

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A Bengal cat. So pretty!

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They are Siamese, if you please.

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Kris found this at Goodwill.  Ha.  Warrior pride amirite?

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I ended the weekend at the cat rescue. This kitten is smaller than her food bowl!

Not pictured: we saw Inside Out (very good, but I got teary eyed a few too many times…must be getting sentimental in my old age). I also partook in two birthday naps. It was a low-key and fun weekend.

Maquoketa Caves

Last month we went camping in Iowa. It’s hard to believe, but Iowa has some cool stuff going on! I never really think of Iowa as a vacation destination because it’s…well, Iowa. But I am a big dummy for writing it off.

We took off on a Friday afternoon and drive about two hours to Dubuque, where we stopped for dinner and to ride the scenic Fenelon Place Elevator. I had never heard of the elevator until a Pinterest search. Pinterest has featured a large role in a few of our vacations and alerted us to some interesting things to see and do. The Fenelon Place Elevator is a funicular railway (fancy way of saying a steep vertical rail) and it carries a cable car up and down a hill on the edge of the Mississippi.  For $3 each, we got round trip tickets and we had the cable car to ourselves. It was a cheap thrill in the best sort of way, and made me a little nervous to watch the cable drag us up the hill.

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The view of Dubuque:

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From there, we ate at Crust for dinner, which was delicious. They served little pieces of fried bread as a (free) appetizer. Yum.

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After some arguing about directions, which I’m sure shaved a few years off our marriage, we made it to our final destination, Maquoketa Caves State Park. Here is a picture of the wrong way dirt road we ended up on:

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The park is home to a system of trails that link up a network of caves. The caves vary in climbing difficulty. We stuck to mostly easy climbing, but even that resulted in muddy hands and knees. I’ve never valued my iPhone flashlight more, either. It’s a good idea to bring clothes you don’t mind getting dirty, solid hiking shoes, a flashlight/phone with a light, and to layer your clothes. The caves were very cool temperature-wise but the rest of the hiking was hot.

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The caves were awesome. It was fairly busy on Saturday as quite a few families came to the park. The park itself is free to visitors, which was great. We took about three or four hours to do most of the trails and caves.

We camped overnight on Friday for $13/night. Apparently Iowa doesn’t require state park stickers like Wisconsin does (Wisconsin’s sticker is $25 annually and you need it to get into most state parks). The camp ground was small but clean. I’m not a fan of sites that are super close to each other, and there were, which led to overhearing a drunken fight between brosephs at around midnight. Ugh.

Saturday evening found us in the town of Maquoketa.  We randomly stopped at Goodwill because I had finished my book and wanted another to read. Kris spotted a hardcover copy of And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, which was a small miracle. I had the book at home checked out from the library, but they only let you keep it for two weeks when it’s a new/popular book. So we snapped it up for a buck vs. paying $17 on Amazon. Goodwill for the win.

After shopping,  we ate dinner at the Decker Hotel in their downstairs bar and made sure to watch American Pharoah win the triple crown.

All in all, a nice, low-key getaway with some interesting sights.

Keeping Motivated

It sure isn’t easy to keep financially motivated when there are all sorts of fun things to do now that summer is here.  While we have made excellent progress on our debt ($9k in four months!) it’s an every day battle between spending and focusing on our larger goals.  One of our big goals for next year is another international trip:  Europe!  I’ve never been.  It’s been nine years since Kris went.  We are penciling in two weeks next April and I’m so antsy I’ve been checking flights already.  It won’t be cheap, though, obviously, so I wanted to hang some motivation where I could see it.

It took a while to find them, but I snapped up these nine 8 x 11 oak frames from Goodwill for about $3/frame.  I’m trying to like oak (really trying since that’s the main wood in our house) but these would not do.

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I am a big fan of rubbed oil bronze, and I was curious about this paint (about $8 at Home Depot).

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It’s essentially a dark, dark brown/black with gold flecks.

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Pretty.

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1 (4)Two.  I probably could have done a third, but I was lazy and I also had to go stain the deck so I left the frames out in the sun to dry.

I scoured the internet for vintage travel posters and settled on ones I like.  We are planning on seeing all of these cities, in this order.  Vienna is kind of a cheat since we’ll probably just do a quick stop there, but I suppose it counts.  I knew I wanted nine pieces, so I found the middle poster after some searching.  It kind of looks like Kris and me.  You know, if I owned a plaid coat and he wore a hat.

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I found the perfect spot in our study and went to work.  They still aren’t 100% perfectly aligned, but I will continue to mess with them.

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So, there it is.  Our Europe 2016 trip hanging on the wall to remind us that we have bigger things ahead of us and a good reason to save up and maybe not spend all the monies.

My Own Cat Island

Japan has an entire cat island!  I think it might be time to scrap our Europe plans and go visit.

Japan’s Cat Island!

But the chances of getting Kris to go along with that are slim to none.  So, I’ve started visiting my own cat island.

Darling Pet Rescue (Darling as in the last name of the vet tech that runs the place, not darling in a barfy sentimental way)   is a non-profit shelter in Cottage Grove.  I volunteer there every Sunday night and do glamorous things like cleaning litter boxes and filling food and water dishes and folding laundry.  In exchange, I get to pet all the cats and come home covered in cat hair.  Here are some of my favorite kitties!

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So many pretty cats!  Some of the cats there are feral, which I’ve never really been around.  Apparently feral cats get along with other cats, but not humans.  The feral cats are ideal as barn or farm cats and keep mice at bay.  The other cats are domesticated and most love to get pets.  I can’t wait until spring because I’ve been promised that there will be kittens galore.

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The owners also work with dogs and they have their own awesome dog, Steven, who puts up with all this cat nonsense and is pretty chill about it.

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The kitties are always happy to see me and ready for some love.  It warms my cold black heart to see these little paws.

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So, until I can talk my way into getting more cats, I’ll have to be content with visiting the kitties and coming home to this pile of fur.

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Going Over Budget

I might have been overly optimistic when counting our cash for this first quarter.  I overestimated our tax refund by about $900 and then some money we had counted on coming back to us from overpaying our escrow account this first year will be held back, too, as  “cushion” by our mortgage company.  Total, we fell about $1,600 short of what we thought we’d be bringing home in these first two months of the year.

On top of that, we (perhaps stupidly, perhaps not) signed up for a Chase Sapphire card in advance of our big Europe trip in order to start racking up airline miles.  The 40,000 point bonus comes only after spending $4,000 in three months.  The problem:  we don’t normally spend that much in three months outside of our mortgage, etc.  And you can’t funnel student loans through it.

I arranged and rearranged our plan this year and we decided to go ahead and complete our kitchen appliances.  Here is the dismal before:

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Lover-ly.  I especially like the fake plant eating the window over the sink.  I couldn’t live with the black dishwasher for long, so I slapped a stainless steel magnet over the front, but that couldn’t help the fact that the dishwasher was original to the house (20+ years).

We went to Menards and thought we were making the best decisions.  We went with a floor model, deeply discounted LG dishwasher with $100 rebate and a reasonable microwave under $200.  We were gung ho about installing these things ourselves to save money. Famous last words!

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It didn’t go well.  The dishwasher we came really close to installing ourselves, but the water going in wasn’t working because the line was kinked.  The microwave was a whole cluster of badness and we found out pretty quickly we’d need to move our outlet into the cabinet above the stove.  We needed a plumber and an electrician.

Our little DIY project quickly exploded in our face and pushed us $425 over budget which was depressing.  On the up side, we are doing amazing at knocking down Kris’ student loan.  We’ve taken it from $19,000 at the start of the year to just $13,200!  We won’t be able to pay off the rest as quickly as we have been, but we are still on track for finishing it up in September.  You know, pending nothing terrible happening.  *knocks on wood*

In the meantime, we have our updated appliances to stare at.  And they are a good reminder that budgets aren’t always set in stone and it’s far better to underestimate than overestimate.

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Geocaching…What Is It?!?

I have a new hobby that is pretty much free and a lot of fun and gets you outside.  It’s geocaching (pronounced geo-cashing).  The idea is that you are given a set of GPS coordinates and your goal is to find a hidden container.  The container can be just about anything and can be big to extremely small.  The container can be hidden in plain sight or require some serious sleuthing.

The most essential part of geocaching has been the app I downloaded to my smartphone, appropriately titled Geocaching.  There is a free app that shows you caches hidden nearby, or for $10 you can get the full app that allows you to search all caches.  After finding our first cache, I decided to spend the $10 for the full app and I don’t regret it.  This app also gives you clues, lets you log your finds, and comment on the individual caches.  It tracks your GPS coordinates and lets you know when you are close to the cache.

Here is Kris finding our first cache, which was hidden about half a mile from our house:

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As you can see, inside the camouflaged plastic container there is a log book that you can write in, and various small knickknacks.  You can take something out of the cache, but you are supposed to leave something behind if you do.

While we were home for the holidays, we checked out some caches in Rib Mountain, Wisconsin, where I am from.  My dad came with us.

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Kris found the next two caches we looked for and I was pissed happy for him.

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Finally, I found the last cache in the park.  This was a very cool one, hidden in a tree trunk in the woods.  The hints said it was a little stinky.

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Inside the hollowed out (fake) skunk was a log book.  People get so creative with the caches that it’s very fun to go find them.  Once found and you’ve logged your victory, you put the cache back in the exact same spot so the next geocachers can find it.

We also found one in Niles, Michigan, about a quarter mile from Kris’ parents house. This one was a magnet stuck on a street sign.

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Caches are really all over, and wherever you live, there are probably quite a few within walking distance of where you live.  Some caches are unavailable during different times of the year (they get buried in snow or weeds grow up around it in summer).  That’s where the app becomes very helpful because it has those hints.

There was one cache near our house that we didn’t find (you can log these online as DNF).  We are determined to find it this spring when it’s warmer and easier to be outside searching.

Overall, geocaching is a great activity and fun for your whole family.  Someday Kris and I look forward to putting together a cache and hiding it for others to find.  We can’t wait to delve into this hobby some more.

2015, the Year of the Finance

2014 was amazing for me.  Got married, bought the house, traveled internationally twice, did a ton of home improvement projects, paid off both cars, and got assigned to some different attorneys at work (a step in the right direction jobwise because I’m working for the boss man now).  It’s a year that will be hard to top, if not impossible.

What will 2015 bring?

I have some pretty lofty goals for this year.  One of the biggest is to knock out my husband’s student loan.  We worked hard after we got married in May 2014 to drop that sucker from $26,500 to $19,000.  Our goal in 2015 is to get rid of it forever and then focus on my loan, which is sitting pretty at $13,100 right now.  We will get that down to under $9,000 by making our usual payments and then plan to kill it in 2016.

As an aside, I hate student loans and wish there were better education out there about loans. That being said, my husband and I both have master’s degrees that helped us land the (good) jobs we’re currently in.  We probably would have both taken out a little less in loans had we been better informed, but there is no way we could have gotten our degrees without loans.  I hope anyone taking out loans, especially young people, research their options and study what repayment will mean to them.

We also plan on doing a little more with the house.  I am currently obsessing about buying a fainting couch for our library.  We would like a new dishwasher and a bigger microwave with a vent.  Because this happens every time I make breakfast:

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We’re also investigating new bathroom floors and countertops.  My wish list for the house is about $70k long, but we can only tackle a little bit this year since we are being so ambitious elsewhere with our money.  I think we can double our net worth this year, pushing us into the six digits.  I use mint.com to track our net worth and keep tabs on our debt.

We also have some FUN lined up to keep us sane while we save money.  My office gave us $200 in Wisconsin Bed and Breakfast gift certificates as a wedding present that we’ll use in early March to go up to Bayfield, Wisconsin and hopefully see the ice caves.  We will also be camping up there in August, so it’ll be cool to see the contrast.  We’re staying at the Old Rittenhouse Inn, which I’ve always wanted to stay at.  When I was a kid, I remember seeing this giant, beautiful mansion and thinking I wanted to live there.  Well, staying for a night will have to cut it for now.

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credit:  rittenhouseinn.com

Kris has a work trip in Philadelphia that I’m planning on tagging along with in July.  I’ve always wanted to see Philly, so I’m looking forward to that and I better start mapping out my thrift store plan.  I mean…my plan to see history stuff.  Yeah.

Best of luck out there with your plans for 2015!