The Cost of Playing the Credit Card Game

If you know me, you know I am a HUGE fan of paying with a credit card whenever possible… it doesn’t even have to be my own purchase nor my own money. You never pay full price and there are SO many other perks. My travel gurus out there such as one of my favorites Chris Guillebeau even credit (pun intended) using cards as a huge part of their travel hacking strategies. On the other hand, many of my financial gurus such as Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey have warned against using credit cards.

Why are some people die hard fans and others won’t touch a credit card with a ten-foot pole? Are credit cards worth the cost of going so deep into compounding debt? Do you really need a credit card? Which one should you get and why?

Before I answer these questions, let me take a stroll down memory lane to share how I first became into credit cards…

I became officially obsessed with personal finance, ie credit cards, back in 2007. I was a college sophomore, right before that economical mess that has seemed to define my generation a bit. It started with a mistake of refreshing the page when applying for my first credit card and ending up with two. I got two Chase Freedom cards in the mail and after some research, I decided that the best thing to do was to just call and decline one. The customer service rep asked if I wanted to combine the credit limits. I just mumbled, “Uhhhh suuure, why not.” which took my already high 10k limit on each to a whopping 20k. I knew absolutely nothing about debt nor credit card perks, but when I was given $150 for doing almost nothing, but using the card, I was sold. Since, I have been super responsible with paying on time and have never been denied a credit card application. The rest is history. But then again, it’s not. I use my cards almost every day and I have used them since to help pay themselves off and to travel as much as I can.

So what are all these credit card perks I keep mentioning that I have? Well, here you go…

  1. No annual fee
  2. No foreign transaction fees (usually plastics charge 1-3% Eek)
  3. Link to Mint.com where I track all my transactions
  4. Immediate text/email transaction alerts when I use the card
  5. Autopay so I never have an outstanding balance
  6. 24 hour card replacement
  7. $24k credit limit
  8. 30% cash back/miles intro bonus
  9. Up to 25% cash back on online purchases – my favorites include flights and hotels.
  10. 5% cash back on activated quarterly bonus categories up to $1,500 in combined purchases like gas stations, local commuter transport, grocery/drug stores
  11. 3% on travel and supermarkets up to 6k
  12. 2% cash back on everything else
  13. 10% more cash back when redeemed to linked account
  14. No minimum or expiration date to redeem cash back
  15. FICO score updates
  16. Zero Liability Protection which means you won’t be held responsible for unauthorized charges made with your card or account information.
  17. 24/7 Access to a Customer Service Specialist gives direct access to a customer service specialist ready to assist you anytime, from anywhere in the world with your travel, shopping, dining, entertainment and everyday needs.
  18. Purchase Protection which covers your new purchases for 120 days against damage or theft up to $500 per claim and $50,000 per account.
  19. Price Protection which means if a card purchase you made in the U.S. is advertised for less in print or online within 90 days, you can be reimbursed the difference up to $500 per item, $2,500 per year. I just give them the item to search and they’ll let me know whether they have found you a better price.
  20. Extended Warranty Protection which extends the time period of the U.S. manufacturer’s warranty by an additional 24 months, on eligible warranties of three years or less.
  21. Return Protection which means you can be reimbursed for eligible items that the store won’t take back within 90 days of purchase, up to $250 an item, $1,000 a year.
  22. Trip Cancellation/Trip Interruption Insurance which means if your trip is canceled or cut short by sickness, severe weather, and other covered situations, you can be reimbursed up to $10,000 per trip for your pre-paid, non-refundable travel expenses, including passenger fares, tours, and hotels.
  23. Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver which provides reimbursement up to the actual cash value of the vehicle for theft and collision damage for most rental cars in the U.S. and abroad.
  24. Baggage Delay Insurance reimburses you for essential purchases like toiletries and clothing for baggage delays over 6 hours by passenger carrier up to $100 a day for 5 days plus trip Delay Reimbursement which reimburses you if you (and your fam) are delayed more than 12 hours or requires an overnight stay for meals & lodging, up to $500 per ticket.
  25. Access to purchase tickets to “thousands of events annually, including presale tickets and VIP packages to the year’s hottest concerts, sporting events, dining experiences and family entertainment, plus complimentary movie screenings and more” with updates via an email newsletter
  26. 1:1 Points transfer to United MileagePlus, Southwest Rapid Rewards, British Airways Executive Club, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, Korean Airlines SkyPass, Singapore KrisFlyer. Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, EVA Air Infinity MileageLands, Etihad Guest, Air France / KLM Flying Blue, Garuda Indonesia Frequent Flyer, Malaysia Airlines Enrich, Qantas Frequent Flyer, Qatar Airways Privilege Club, Thai Airways Royal Orchid Plus, Air Canada Aeroplan, Air Berlin Top Bonus, Air China Companion, Air New Zealand Airpoints, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, Alitalia MilleMiglia, All Nippon Airways (ANA) Mileage Club, American Airlines AAdvantage, Asiana Airlines, Delta Air Lines SkyMiles, Emirates Skywards, Hawaiian Miles, Japan Airlines (JAL) Mileage Bank, Lufthansa Miles, Saudi Arabian Alfursan, Hotels include Westin, W, Sheraton, Le Meridien, Four Points by Sheraton, Hilton HHonors, Marriott Rewards, Hyatt Gold Passport, IHG Club (Holiday Inn, Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza), Ritz-Carlton Rewards

If you’re thinking WOW, I’ve never heard of this card (congrats on knowing card perks) or if you’re thinking WOW, I should get a credit card (not so fast, dear reader), I do have to tell you: These are the best perks of all my credit cards combined. There is no perfect credit card. There are only credit card strategies, and they have all have to do with you – how you handle your credit and what you want in life.

First and foremost, before I get into choosing a card, I deeply implore you to treat your spending on a credit card as cash that you have available to you now – not money you will have after your next paycheck or when you mom pays you back or when you get your refund. Having a balance on your credit card can cost, according to Investopedia, an “astronomical” average of 12.31%. Many people use sticker shock to get people to realize the danger of this. This is from creditit.com

Most credit card issuers require a minimum payment of 1% to 2% of your balance. So let’s assume, for example, you owe $6,000 on a card with a 15% annual percentage rate (APR) and your issuer requires 2% of that balance as a minimum payment. You’d wind up paying close to around $9,184 in interest, were you to only make that $120 minimum for the full 355 months it would take to pay that $6,000 balance down.

They go on to use the words: anxiety causing, tempting, dire consequences, dragging, etc. to explain credit card debt. Just don’t do it! I do understand that in many cases that people have used credit cards as their very last resort or have used a card with 0% APR. At this point, a new credit card may not be your next best move – building emergency savings so you never have to repeat that situation would be. Bottom line: Being on the losing side of credit cards sucks.

Phew! Glad I got that out of the way. Now here’s the good stuff. Here’s how to get on the winning side. Here are some tips I have for optimizing your credit card game before applying for a credit card:

  1. Know that you’re going to get approved before you apply. Here’s a checklist from NerdWallet to make sure. When you apply for a card they will pull your information aka a ‘hard inquiry’ or a ‘hard pull’ which could lower your credit score by a few points. Apply when you know you’ll get the credit so it’s worth it.
  2. Figure out what you want in your wallet. If you see a perk that you don’t already have, find out which cards have it. NerdWallet’s card search tool is great. BankRate and WalletHub have one too.
  3. Compare any bonuses between cards. This, to me, is the most complicated part, but once you figure that you’ll get approved and what you want in a card, your list of credit cards to research should be more focused. Cash back is pretty straight forward, however many cards give point bonuses which basically means you’ll have to learn another currency, in a sense. My cards usually value about a cent per point, so I simplify my life by rounding from there. Miles trip me up so I don’t tend to mess with those. How Hawaii can be less than 3k miles from California but “cost” 50k miles blows my mind. Yeah… I have some learning to do too. Meanwhile, ThePointsGuy  and ViewFromTheWing do a better job at points math than I’ll ever do.
  4. Look for the best intro bonuses for the card you want (if there is an intro bonus). A great tool to use for evaluating if you’re getting the best possible bonus is  USCreditCardGuide.com‘s historical analysis on offers. If you are not given the best offer right away, you may be able to ask directly (I remember increasing my Chase Sapphire bonus because I knew it was 5k points lower than a friend’s offer!). You may just have to wait just like this post by the Points Guy details. It may have been written in 2014, but it’s still applicable.
  5. If there is an offer, plan how you’ll make the minimum spend. I’m a big fan of manufactured spending to meet requirements without spending unnecessarily spending. You want the offer, not the debt!
  6. After being approved for your card, plan your next move. See what card you’ll open in 6 months, a year, or more. Just because you have many cards, doesn’t mean you have to always use them all. That would be ridiculous! Use them temporarily for the intro bonuses, when you need the perks (write them down if you need to!), and to increase your overall credit line. Just don’t lose them even if the card has purchase protection. That’s definitely not worth the risk. If the card is no longer worth the annual fee, ask to downside or if needed, cancel. Do know that canceling you card may affect your score however, because it reduces your overall credit line and alters the average age of your credit card. It might be better to just take a scissor and snip it. If needed, hit up other credit card geeks and ask for their opinions. Some bloggers and consultants even offer free personal advice. There are things you may not know until you have the card. Like how much you hate the Ally credit card even though you *love* their savings account. I’ll save that for another post.
  7. On the same note of not losing your card, don’t lose the perks by not maximizing them. Stay organized! I’m very low tech in that I write down which cards are good for what. For example, I know for the past 3 months, I get 5% cash back in local transportation because I taped a piece of paper on an area of my card that won’t get in the way of swiping/chip reading. I also scribble my credit limits on them and update it every few months. With the right budgeting (currently I use YNAB), I don’t have to worry about auto payments because, first and foremost, I make sure I always have the cash in my checking account. Many credit card junkies like Miles to Memories and The Points Guy share how they organize their collection of dozens of cards. Also, apps like Wallaby can help with organizing your cards. Keep the ones you’ll use in your wallet and keep the rest in a safe place 🙂 Pro-tip, save the phone numbers for each of your credit cards on your phone in the rare case that any of them get lost.

Now, the moment you all (maybe) have been waiting for. What credit cards do I use, eh?

Ahem, I have 8: Chase’s Freedom and Sapphire, Citi’s ThankYou Preferred and Double Cash, American Express’ Blue Cash, Ally’s CashBack, Capital One’s Quicksilver, and New York & Company’s card. Currently in my wallet: my Sapphire for 2x points when I eat out, Amex for 3x with supermarkets, and Double Cash for everything else.

How do you play the credit card game? Has credit card usage cost you anything? Have you ever taken advantage of credit cards realizing it could actually cost you to not play the credit card game? Please share 🙂


Published on March 16, 2017

Updated on August 18, 2017

 

 

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The Cost of Having a Checking Account

Sticker price: -$978 a decade

Instead, make $1,600 in a decade.

Should a checking account cost anything? In my opinion, hell no. And in an ideal world, not only should a checking account not be something you pay for, a checking account should pay you.

According to the LATimes, only 28% of checking accounts are free & the average monthly maintenance fees are about $13 costing about $150 a year. According to a

Also, according to a NerdWallet study, the average cost of checking accounts in a decade is $978 and for the more than 109 million U.S. households that have checking accounts, the total average annual cost of the accounts is about $10.7 billion. Moreover, they add, “if those households switched to one of the most consumer-friendly checking accounts, they’d save $7.3 billion altogether in just one year.”

WOW.

Earlier today, I opened a Wells Fargo checking account. With a sign-up bonus, I was paid $255. Technically I won’t see that money for a couple of months, but it’s worth it anyway. Free money is free money! I’m adding it to my suite of awesome checking accounts [see my list of 5] which I will never pay a penny for.

Basically, I found out about this $250 offer through thepennyhoarder.com (one of my favorite personal finance sites) and it was too good to turn down. On the downside, to keep it free I have to either have direct deposit (my income is too inconsistent to depend on that) or make 10 debit card payments. That latter one is easy because I found out that I could do one of two easy things which take no more than a few minutes each 1) pay my MetroCard in 25¢ increments 4x in one shot 2) pay my health insurance with a minimum of at least $1 (I haven’t tried smaller amounts) 10x in one shot.

Doesn’t this lovely photo of someone having a warm drink looking out into the cold outside just make you want to earn money from home? No? Well, at least one of your problems wouldn’t be worrying about paying a corrupt bank when you just want to put your money somewhere! Ahem, more on my bank philosophies another time.

wellsfargocapture

I don’t know how long I’ll keep up that 10x monthly payment habit or if I’ll get a job I want to set up direct deposit for. If I don’t want it anymore, I could definitely live without it. I’ll cancel it and recycle my card and all the damn paper they’ve sent me. It wouldn’t be the first time I did all that. Last year, I opened a Capital One checking account just to be paid $25. Not too shabby for 20 minutes of work. Two years ago, I think I did the same thing for TD bank. In college, it was Chase. Opened, got paid, canceled. The only downside is that I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of any new member bonuses they have for the same banks.

On average, I’ve earned $150 in bonuses/interest per year plus all I save from the headaches and fees of many popular accounts. In a decade, I’d say I would make about $1,500 – and I get to invest that hundred-ish I would have spent elsewhere bringing my “price” to an extra $1,600 in my pocket, er, checking account, just for not using all those overpriced accounts.

I could also live without all those checking accounts because I have this ideal combo (no ATM fees internationally, free checks, 1% interest, a physical branch close to home, access to my balance/transactions via text, referral bonuses, and values which align with my financial independence goals) of checking accounts which I’ve almost perfected…

  1. Charles Schwab*: I remember this “Investor Checking” account being a bit confusing to open because you have to link it to a brokerage account (which I have $1 in), but I knew one thing which is that I never have to pay an ATM fee again… anywhere in the world. Plus I got more checks than I’d ever need. This is my main account and I haven’t paid anything to maintain it.
  2. Ally: Technically, it’s not a checking but, with a combo of the Money Market Account and Online Savings, I have a debit card and interest of 1%. Yeah, I can only access it 6x a month but having that to put an emergency fund is pretty convenient. There is also $10 available for reimbursement if you’re not using a connected ATM… which there are many of.
  3. Capital One 360: For a few years, I didn’t want to bank with a branch for of all the fees and minimums, but I found out that this account not online had no minimum but also had the benefit of having cash deposit options… like Wells Fargo will also have once that’s all set up. Ally and Charles Schwab don’t have options to run up to an ATM and deposit cash, but with Capital One 360, I do. Also, when I opened it, they gave me $25 and if you use my link, you’ll get that too. Lastly, when I was without a bank branch, I would “deposit” cash by giving it to someone I trust then asking them to write me a check which I would use an app to deposit or have them send me money through my Cash account.
  4. Rush Card: Does a prepaid card qualify as a checking account? Not sure, but, well I got about $26 from just opening it, have a no-fee ATM near my house at a Sterling bank, and have a card. It took some time to fund it via my PayPal, but free money is free money. I’m not sure how long I’ll keep it, but if I use it just once every 90 days, there are no fees. I don’t think I would want to give any money to them either. It’s led by Russell Simmons and as an org, there was an incident in Oct ’15 that they were sued for and I haven’t heard great things about their customer service. They’re coming out with more of a rewards program though sooo, I may just stick around.
  5. Digit: I’m also not sure if this qualifies as a “checking” either. I suppose it doesn’t because it just holds money like PayPal, Cash, etc. but one thing I love about this “auto-saving” account is that it has an awesome mission (worth quoting, “We’re finance hackers that see the overwhelming pile of crap that exists in the world of consumer finance and have taken up arms to improve the status quo through better software and better customer experiences; which will lead in our calculations to a financially healthier population.” Besides their values, my favorite part about Digit is the ability to text them when I want to know my balance and recent transactions.

Two other checking accounts I have which are worth noting:

  1. Aspiration: Great values like Digit, but the interest isn’t as high as Ally’s, actually the interest is more than Charles Schwab and there are no international ATM fees… hmm I might switch out my Schwab for Aspiration now that I think about it. I’ll let you know!
  2. Bank of Internet: I’m still setting this one up, but there’s a way to get 1.25% interest without a minimum sooo I’m figuring that out.

So what about your checking accounts? Have you ever had to pay for any services or are you “paid” for having them? Was this a helpful post? As always, let me know your thoughts in the comments, please.

PS NerdWallet has an awesome search tool to find a checking account combo that works well for you which filters from your zip code, average balance, and monthly direct deposit. Check it out!


*These links are not personal affiliate links except for Capital One and Digit…and I don’t have access to my Cash app code so I just used my sister’s =)

Written on January 27, 2017

Updated on February 4, 2017

Deodorant Making: Saving myself from buying deo (& all its chemicals)

Sticker price: -$200 a decade

Instead, make it yourself, spend a tenth of that, and save yourself from all those harsh chemicals.

I could trace my deodorant switch back to when my cousins were trying everything they could have a baby. That included trying to reduce any chemicals that affected them. I offered to start some experimenting with them to show some solidarity and most habits stuck with me. A few of those included using a menstrual cup, watching the foods I ate, and not using store bought shampoo, conditioner, or deodorant.

I started making my own deodorant originally to limit the chemicals I had absorbing into my body, but quickly realized it’s one more thing I can minimize in my life & save money on. Instead of paying, say, $5 every few months (or $200+ a decade!) for 2.6oz deodorant, I buy coconut oil, baking soda, & cornstarch which lasts me much longer. If I were to entertain the idea of knowing exact measurements, it would look something like this: $10 on a 12-ounce jar of coconut oil, $1 for a small box of baking soda, and $2 for cornstarch.

I take equal parts coconut oil, baking soda, & cornstarch and mix them until it’s a pasty consistency. A teeny 3-ounce container could last me 6 months when I take about two fingernail’s worth every time I put deo.

With those costs, I could spend the $13 to last me a few years instead of $20ish for one year with ordinary deo. So basically I spend 40 cents a month on my deo instead of $2 a month for regular deo, saving me about $20 a year all the while ditching all those nasty chemicals that mess with my system. Plus, making it is pretty fun.

Have you ever made your own deodorant? Do you know anyone who does? If so, how’s it done? Do you find that you’re saving money? Please share!

PS Here’s an article by OffTheGridNews that details how they recommend you make your own deodorant. Check it out.

Manufactured Spending aka MSing aka spending money I don’t have to get money

Ever since I started getting into credit card bonuses, I’ve been curious about the best ways to spend without spending.

For example, there may be a card that, after signing up and spending, say, 3k in 2 months, you get a $400 bonus or 30k points or whatever. $3,000?! That’s a lot to spend on a credit card, no?

Well, I don’t spend 3k in 2 months, but others definitely do – and pay with a debit card or with cash. Fail. Let me pay for it and venmo me or pay me with the cash you would pay them! Boom. I get points or free money and maybe you’ll get the flexibility to pay me in a few weeks. I don’t care. I have a month-ish to pay it off anyway. Of course, this comes with a lot of trust that people will pay you back. I usually don’t worry about that and it hasn’t bitten me in the ass ever.

I want to write this now because I just opened a new checking account with BofI and I was pleasantly surprised that I could fund it with my credit card. Whaaa?! How long and how much?! For an initial deposit, I could only fund up to $100 so I immediately put in my info from my new Ally credit card which has a $100 bonus when you spend $500 or more in the first 3 business cycles. Score! That’s $100 “spent” to help me reach that goal.

For other MS purposes, I usually am not focused on bonuses but on my points, especially from travel and large purchases in different cash back categories. For example, if my Chase Freedom card is giving me 5% cash back on groceries, best believe I’m telling my family to let me swipe after a $100+ purchase of theirs. Give me the cash and I’m straight to the ATM next door to put in my account.

I remember I used to have a Chase checking and just my Freedom card. My favorite MS moment was when a bunch of people would be out to dinner with me and they all want to pay with cash. I remember getting hooked on MS after a birthday party put about $900 in cash on a bill which I swapped to put it ALL on my card. I had/have about a 20k spending limit, so it wasn’t so bad. I think I ended up with $100+ in cash back which paid off my part of the meal and more.

My favorite ways to MS whether for an intro offer or just to get points/cash back are:

  1. Giving my card to my favorite travelers who book their flights and pay me right away  One of my favorite buddies is in Finland and has my Chase Sapphire Preferred card saved and uses it as much as she can. Thank ya, El!
  2. Helping others book their flights then asking them to just pay me (sometimes I use points and end up making way more cash =])
  3. Swiping for others when they’re paying cash for groceries or other in-person shopping
  4. Swiping for a stranger who’s putting $10/$20+ on their metro card and I’m all – heyyyy I need cash and can I just swipe you?
  5. Signing up my sister or good friend as an authorized user for my existing cards
  6. Buying gift cards for others who will give me cash for them
  7. Kiva loans! Not only do I love supporting microloans, but I get my money back at some point =)
  8. Putting my credit card on my mom’s EZPass then having her give me cash when the bill comes in

Side note: I’m currently trying to find a checking act at a physical bank which doesn’t have a bunch of minimums and fees. I think Capital One 360 may be the answer but I haven’t tried bringing coins to a teller yet. I do believe I can deposit bills into the ATM, though. I’ll double check. [Update: I can use a Capital One ATM to deposit cash into my 360 account, however, I would need to roll my coins to get them deposited. CoinStar charges 11% for their coin machines! ugh) I suppose I could also jump on my mom’s checking acct at Chase if needed. I believe she’s grandfathered in for no minimum… I’ll check.

Ways I don’t MS because they are currently illegal or too much work:

  1. Buying and reselling things
  2. Buying currency and then depositing it into a physical bank (no longer legal and I no longer have a physical bank to deposit cash).
  3. Using some Walmart bill pay thang. I’m in NYC and Walmart is in west bumble so no. It does sound convenient that you can buy a pre-paid card to buy a money order to then deposit $ into your account but… too much work.
  4. Using some AmEx Serve gift card thing… I’m pretty sure that was canceled. There are probably other ways, but… too much work. I think it also involves what I mentioned in #4.
  5. Prepaying costs like rent or mortgage… I haven’t figured that out yet.

MSing may seem like too much work or risking my credit… and maybe I’ll get more detailed about what I’ve earned from it… but I’ve become much savvier and have racked up so much!

I recently starting thinking about this more too because I wanted to sign up for the Sapphire Reserve which gives 100,000 bonus points after you spend $4k in the first 3 months. It has so many awesome bonuses but I decided against it for now because I don’t know how I’ll be able to get 4k in MS and that $450 annual fee is a doozy.

What’s your experience with manufactured spending? Any tips?

Some posts on MS I’ve read in the past week:

Written on November 16, 2016. Updated on November 22, 2016.

[very rough draft] What did a three week trip to Cuba cost me?

Before planning my trip to Cuba, I saw flights for $700+ and travel packages for over $1K. Then, boom – I saw a sale from American Airlines and bought the tickets a few hours later with two good friends. I ended up spending no more than $890 in total for my three weeks. This is how.

Pesos Convertibles CUC = $1 USD = 26.5 pesos nacionales MN or CUP. The asterisk shows in which currency I paid in.

Pre-trip costs

  • $261.76: Flight from September 7 to September 29, 2016
  • $85: Travel Card license visa

Total: $346.76

Wednesday, September 7th

Day 1: After the currency exchange at the Cienfuegos airport (I got pounds before the trip because they take a huge % if the exchange from USD (do they even exchange USD? not sure but I think not), we trekked down the road for 5 sweaty minutes to find a bus stop. At this bus stop, we started our Cuba transportation education. We learned that camions are run with horses, guaguas are the local buses, and motoretas are motorcycles driven carts… not to be confused with sidecars (pronounced see-de-cars) which are also motorbike run but with the cart on the, wait for it, side. Also, maquinas are cars. I forgot what the bike run carts are called… oh yeah, bicitaxis. From here we tried to make our way to Santa Clara to meet up with my traveling buddy’s cousin who would host us for a few days. Little did we know how lovely and light on our wallets this trip would be…

  • 10 CUP: Camion hasta Las Cruces
  • 20 CUP: Comida at this restaurant called Cosmopolitana. El had this meat and I had a salad with steamed squash.
  • 2 CUP: Guagua a Santa Clara
  • 480 CUP: Restaurante for 5 people. El, her cousin, and two of his friends went to a restaurant near the center of Santa Clara. This is when El and I learned that habichuelas and frijoles are not the same thing. Steamed green beans are not the same as saucy red beans over rice.

Daily total in USD = $19.55

Thursday, September 8th

Day 2: After a long night of conversation, mosquitoes, sweat, and heavy sleep at El’s cousin’s, we wanted to visit the university where El’s aunt had studied and one of the best on the island- the University of Santa Clara. This began our Cuba university education. We learned that visitors are not as freely welcomed as we though (we were interrogated while walking around and checking out the campus) and when we went to security and the main office to ask if we could see a class, we got a flat no. Well, more like an exasperated, “You have to be a matriculated student to even step into a class!” As the rebels that we are, El and I roamed around campus and with awesome luck, found a class of tourism majors learning English… without a professor. We sat down, made some friends, and everyone ditched class.

  • 10 CUP: Motoreta
  • 10 CUP: Camion a la universidad
  • 70 CUP: Almuerzo at the university. After we ditched class, we got lunch with some students with the class!
  • 106 CUP: 1.5 liter of Cola
  • 30 CUP: Helado for 3 people. One of the students stayed with us right before it started to pour. Transportation was so so tough, so we jumped on a crowded truck in our first of many hitchhiking experiences. Apparently, hitchhiking is very common in Cuba. There are even ‘puntos amarillos’ which are pit stops that drivers can pick up passengers aka hitchhikers aka people who just need a ride and can sit in your empty car space.
  • 20 CUP: “Tour” with our new friend. He almost refused to accept this, but after long conversations about him wanting to get into tourism and being hard up on money, we wanted to show a bit of respect for his time and also pay for his transportation to meet up for some live music later. We repeated learned from this trip that giving Cubans money by surprise was not the most socially acceptable thing.
  • 15 CUP: Guagua a la casa
  • 2 CUP: Guagua
  • 10 CUC*: Club Mejunje for 2 people. We tried to pass to get the Cuban resident discount but figured it would be better not to. Great place for live music and impromptu dancing.
  • 2 CUP: Guagua a ?
  • 30 CUP: Celidas Honestly, I don’t remember what this was. A restaurant? I’ll try to remember.
  • 3 CUC* 76 CUP Maquina a casa

My daily total in USD = $24.13

Friday, September 9th

Day 3: This was a pretty relaxed day. I remember it was drizzly and all we did was roam and eat around the city center of Santa Clara. On this day, we learned that the pizza we had here tasted like cardboard and the dinners were much much much better. Too bad we didn’t keep better notes as to where we took the guaguas too, but perhaps we’ll meet again and jog our memories. On this day, we started our Cuba internet education and learned that people flock to the city center to get a wifi connection card- for THREE DOLLARS AN HOUR. This may have been the most (relatively) expensive purchase on our trip. The Internet is such a luxury here.

  • 10 CUP: Motoreta
  • 4 CUC* 100 CUP: Pizza
  • $0.60 CUC* / 20 CUP: Chocolate
  • 3 CUC* / 75 CUP: Cena at Cresta y el Molinillo
  • 2 CUC* / 48 CUP Guagua a ?
  • 3 CUC*/ 75 CUP: WiFi

$12.98

Saturday, September 10th

Day 4: We headed over a couple hours to Sancti Spiritu and after some walking, we found the sweetest couple who owned a casa particular – our first to stay within Cuba. Ah, our Cuba casa particular education! What a varied, beautiful, different, etc. way of hosting tourists. It’s like Airbnb if almost every house had an extra room and it was more word of mouth than online. Some are actually on Airbnb, but they’re much cheaper in person. In our experience on this trip, a casa particular costs $20 – $35 a night. Also, they all have a sign outside their door and have to hand write their guests’ info to send to the government for compliance.

  • 40 CUP: Camion de Santa Clara a Sancti Spiritu
  • 25 CUC + 6 = 33 CUC for two of us with tip (we tipped?): Casa particular in Santi Spiritu… maybe that was for breakfast? Note to self, don’t rely on memory for a budget listing.
  • 100 CUP: Almuerzo
  • 20 CUP + 6 CUP: Helado
  • 12 CUC* 312 CUP – Almuerzo
  • 2 CUC* 48 CUP – Museo de la Guayabera. This is where El broke her bag and when she asked for a needle to help mend it, a lovely lady who worked there sat down to chat with us and started sowing her bag. It was heart warming.

$53

Sunday, September 11th

Day 5: This was the first September 11th that I didn’t do anything formal in memory of September 11th. It was on my mind all day. I didn’t hear anything about it, nor were was it something that came up in conversation. Instead, we headed to one of the most touristy parts of western Cuba (apart from Havana of course) and I didn’t get a good impression. It was too touristy for me – too many cameras, slow walkers, and (relatively) overpriced restaurants. I’d give it another chance, but here, we learned quickly that it was much more entertaining to hang out with the hilarious couple (Pedro and Melba) at our casa particular (our second one!) and much more delicious to eat with them than to go to the restaurants with all the other tourists. Ah, we learned so much about Cuban tourism here. El even had the chance to drive a bicitaxi and joke around about picking up tourists.

  • 1 CUC Coche a terminal de Santi Spiritu (not sure/forgot what the difference between coche and maquina are…)
  • 100 CUP Maquina a Trinidad de Santi Spiritu
  • 15 CUC* 260 CUP Guitarra Mia

$19.77

Monday, September 12th

Day 5: Ah, what a fun day this was. Just when I was about to dismiss Trinidad, El and I saw some awesome views via bike to the beach and on the rooftop of a soon-to-be closing museum. It was still overpriced like the meager lunch at the beach of rice and salad and $1.50 for water. If only we had brought a filter or something to purify water. This would end up being our second (relatively) highest priced item – internet and water.

  • 10 CUC* 240 CUP: 2 bikes to Playa Ancon
  • 2 CUC*  48 CUP: 2 bike parking at Playa Ancon
  • 5 CUC + 2 CUC*: Food in Playa Ancon
  • 2 CUC: overpriced 1500ml water Bottle
  • 1.5 CUC: 1500ml water bottle
  • 4 CUP* instead of 4 CUC: Museum paid in cuban peso =D The person collecting the entrance fees said it was 4 CUP for Cuban students/residents and for non-Cubans it was 4 CUC. That’s a difference between 4 bucks and 16 cents. HUGE. We knew it was closing very soon and just gave four pesos. We didn’t feel guilty at all.

$22.66

Tuesday, September 13th

Day 6: At this point, we felt great about being in Cuba, excited about our travels, comfy about our budget, and super safe in our skin. Why we felt so good? Honestly, it felt different there – the land was beautiful and people were sweet as crazy. At this point, we would be taking all we read from our trip guide – Lonely Planet – with a grain of salt. We also became well versed in the dual currency. El served as our pocketbook and I smiled and looked pretty. I started getting more into the actual math of what we were paying for so when we paid $3 for a watered down drink in a room full of over-toured bored Germans, I was irked. They weren’t even playing trova.. at LA CASA DE LA TROVA! Anywho, I was still loving life and looking forward to adding in our 3rd traveler – El’s boyfriend who doesn’t speak Spanish =)

  • 17 CUC Lunch
  • 6 CUC Internet
  • 50 CUP: Tip for musicians at restaurant
  • 26 CUC* 263 CUP: El’s vestido, cloth gift
  • 6 CUC: damn Drink (casa de la trova?)
  • 1.5 CUC: 1500ml water
  • 88CUC: casa particular with Pedro and Melba

$76.39

Wednesday, September 14th

Day 7: We woke up super early to catch a bus to the airport in Cienfuegos. We started our love affair with cheap delicious tortillas (fried egg in bread) and juice. Ah and the coffee. I think I drank coffee every single day. Who could say no to those nice tiny cups of sugary black coffee? =) Also, our budget got pretty blurry… literally. I was forcing myself to write sleepily at night or on a bus and we may or may not have had a cold water bottle condensate on the paper. At this point, we actually didn’t care about our budget. We knew we wouldn’t go over after doing the math. Deep down, I was torn as to either be excited about how far our budget would go or be deeply troubled by the monthly $40 salaries of Cubans. I wrote about that confusion and how much I couldn’t grasp the socialistic environment we were witnessing in a dizzying loss of words. I would spend the rest of the trip thinking about la revolucion, and Che, and all that is Castro. It felt like another world.

  • 100 CUP Camion a Cienfuegos. Pedro did us a favor and took us down to where the buses were before the sunrise. We were slightly lost and waited on a few different corners, but when Cienfuegos was announced, we ran with our backpacks before it filled up with the crowd.
  • 4 CUP 2 tortillas. Right when we got out of the bus, we found our favorite tortilla spot. 2 CUP?! It was perfect for breakfast. We then took a local bus to the airport. We slowly figured out that G wasn’t there – not on the flight nor at the airport. At the same time we were trying to find him, a guy was trying to figure our how he’d get back to Tampa after missing his flight. We ended up getting to know him and adopting him in as our third wheel. We also found out foolishly that not only had we mistakenly though G was coming on the 14th, but he did too… only to trek back home from the airport after a whole day ordeal and come back the next day, his actual flight day. Let’s just say we could laugh about it now… hah.
  • 6 CUC internet for two cards We quickly realized that we should probably just stock up on these especially after the fiasco at the airport. Luckily the cards did work at the airport, but did they sell internet cards there? No siree. Nor could they contact American Airlines in the states.
  • 20 CUP Water *the best place to buy water was at this chain store called… let me get back to you on that*
  • 5 CUP Avocado. Looked fresh. Was not fresh.
  • 28 CUP Tortilla and jugo, this time at a different spot after finding out our awesome tortilla breakfast spot was out of huevos. We had our avocado cut up and put in our egg sandwiches too. Seemed like a great idea, but we should have learned how to pick out a good avocado first.
  • 1 CUC Taxi maquina from the Punta Gorda (we walked along the Malecon during the sun set for about an hour and didn’t want to walk
  • 20 CUC Dinner for 2 at this nice restaurant by the city center.

$32.93

Thursday, September 15th

Day 8: Today was the actual day G was coming. We woke up early and decided we would rework our original calendar and leave Cienfuegos to Havana that night. It ended up being the most epic transportation attempt we made. Poor G who was confused as to why we didn’t just take a tourist bus. We were intent on making it without depending on Viazul which is basically an all tourist bus. We (as in El and I) wanted to hitchhike and take local transport. I, personally, believe it was very worth it, but to say it was easy would be a grave understatement. After a long blurry day, we made it to Havana.

  • $5.50/$2.25 CUC (75 cents each) 3 Postcards
  • 4.80 CUP Bread
  • 25CUC Casa Particular
  • 15 CUP ??
  • 3 CUP: ?? Airport a ??
  • Coche from airport 9 CUP
  • 90 CUP agua
  • 40 CUP Paraiso (10 CUP pizza, 2×3 CUP jugo, y sandwich)
  • 2 CUC Coche (horse) a punto amarillo
  • 20 CUP maquina a pto amarillo a cuatro caminos
  • gratis bus down road
  • 45 CUP bus to Aguada
  • 15 CUP coche with 15 year old
  • 150 CUP musical bus to la Habana
  • 60 CUP (mini?)car to taxi
  • 4 CUC taxi to door

Friday, September 16th

Day 9

—- blurry page—–

Saturday, September 17th also at Havana? The tour?

  • 30 CUP desayuno
  • 3 CUP guagua
  • 25 CUC taxi to Matanzas with the antisocial guy. We waited at the bus at Havana with no luck. We would have had to wait for at least 3 hours for the next bus so we negotiated a 30 CUC taxi.
  • 10 CUP guagua to the university
  • 2 CUP guagua from the university
  • 20 CUC books from — (Elyem)
  • 6.40 CUC dinner
  • 7 CUC for another dinner?

next day

  • 136 CUC Doctor and Nurse for G
  • 30 CUC for Marta
  • 11 CUC Brunch
  • 30 CUP Guagua a Varadero

24 CUC Bodega del Medio

18 CUC Esquina restaurante

3.5 CUC Pool and bowling

30 CUC Hostel Varadero

30 CUP Membrillo sandwich

70 CUC cab to Las Terrazas

3 CUC lake and baths

11 CUC Eating in baths

40 CUC Vegetarian restaurant

42 CUC horse around the terrazas 1.5 hours

3.8 CUC water, cheese, mar(?)

$37 veggie restuarant #2

$2 wifi

$52 House for 2 nights plus water

$24 bus to Vinales with Viazul

13 CUC nice restaurant?

40 CUC horses for 4.5 hours

7 CUC terrible lunch

$3 two big bottles of water

$14 CUC soveniers

$1.75 ice cream

4 CUC house drinks

2 CUC hat rental

5 CUC taxi mural

15 CUC tried to get a free coke which didn’t work

$50 + $17  casa + dinner

8 CUC taxi to pinar from vinales

$13 lunch

$25 casa particular

3 CUC water x 2

32 CUP breakfast

15 CUC Pinar to la Habana

50 CUC Pinar to Giron

12 CUC Dinner at cocodrilo

7 CUC bike ice?

9 CUC Bikes

22 CUC hostel plus tucola(?)

35 CUP lunch tortilla (?) giron

6 CUC snorkeling

10 CUC Greg’s dinner in pinar?river? what?

20 CUC bus from giron to cienfuegos

10 CUC paladar

7 CUC museum bay of pigs (El only paid $1 for the movie)

1.75 CUC ice cream

1.90 CUC Huge 5L water

.7  CUC 1.5L water

18 CUC dinner at lagarta(?) punta gorda

10 MN tortillas

$2.70 bakery splurge

$3 CUC Ferry to fort

$10 Fort museum

21 CUC lunch at el botella

23 CUC dinner at Doña Nora

2 CUC tip for pianist at Doña Nora

September 29th

  • 4 CUC horse to airport
  • 8 MN tortilla bkfast
  • 10 CUC misc?

Heard this while I was writing. I laughed out loud… Communism jokes aren’t funny unless everyone gets them