Frugal Friday: Early Bird train travel.

It seems like travel hacking is splashing itself all over the internet lately – Americans flying first class all over the world for about $11.50, all due to the amazing reward points they can get on their credit cards.

This isn’t going to be a post about that.

This is about how I’ve tweaked my morning routine to take advantage of the scheme called Early Bird train travel that operates here in Melbourne. 

Two years ago I was living a kilometre away from work in the house I’d owned for 20 years. Classes start at 8:50am, so I’d leave home at 8:36, drive through the back streets, park in Hall street, walk briskly to my desk, scoop up the books I’d left in a pile the day before for my first two classes, grab my keys and I’d be walking in the classroom door at 8:50 every day without fail. I did this for 12 years and I had it down to a fine art. People in my staffroom knew it was time to grab their books and go to class when they heard me say, “Good morning!” as I came through the door.

Then I moved 21kms away from work. I experimented with driving into work and taking the train. The train is a 5-minute walk from my house, with a 10-minute walk at the other end to school. Both modes of transport took just under an hour each way, so the only real benefit was the comfort of the car vs the extra steps on my fitbit with the train. So I started driving in. Call me lazy – I don’t care.

Then late last year, this happened.

ARGH!!! Why?!? Of course, there was no note on the windscreen. It cost me just over $300 to get fixed.

Suddenly train travel was looking far more affordable.

So in the September school holidays, I got the car fixed, charged up my Myki for the train and discovered an interesting titbit of information about something called the Early Bird. If you begin and end your train journey before 7:15am on a weekday, you don’t get charged for the trip. They’ve obviously brought it in to try and reduce congestion on the morning peak travel times. Hmmmm……….. Maybe I could be a civic-minded citizen AND slash my transport bill in half at the same time?

This meant that I had to do some Maths. I steeled myself to the task. If I got up an hour earlier each morning I could travel to and from work for only $2.80/day, instead of $5.60. On the face of it, it wasn’t much of a saving. But if you multiply that over a week… $14 instead of $28… or over a 10-week term… $140 instead of $280…. the numbers become more interesting.

I decided to give it a go. I also decided to track it on a chart, so that I wouldn’t lose sight of the money I was saving. I knew that if I was staying late for some reason, or I needed to go somewhere after school, I could always drive in. But why not take advantage of an offer for free transport?

So on day 1, term 4 I got up very early and made my way to the station.

Here are the downsides to doing this:

  1. In order to catch the train that guarantees me to get to my destination a full 10 minutes before the 7:15 deadline, (because of possible train delays) I have to leave the house by 6:20am to walk to the station. This means getting up at 5:30am. OMG.
  2. It tends to be a little nippy first thing in the morning.
  3. I have to be organised with my lunches and breakfasts. It defeats the purpose if I score a free train trip but have to buy my lunch from the canteen because I was too sleepy to get my act together in time to make lunch.
  4. If I’m running late, I have to run for the train. I’m not a fan of rapid movement.
  5. It was a massive adjustment for the people in Staffroom 2. For a couple of weeks, people were getting to their classes late because I was no longer saying, “Good morning!” at 8.45. The habits of 12 years or so are pretty hard to break.
  6. They raised the price of the trip by a massive 14c on Jan 1. This makes the Maths more difficult. Thank goodness there’s a calculator on my laptop.

Here are the pros:

  1. It’s really nice to start each day with a few wins. Getting up as soon as the alarm goes off in what seems like the dead of night? Win. (I cheat a bit here… the dogs sleep in my room so as soon as the alarm goes off Poppy jumps onto my bed with joy, giving massive head butts and cuddles, so it’s impossible to hit the snooze button and go back to sleep.) Leaving the house at 6:20am so I don’t have to run? Win. Touching off with my Myki and seeing ‘Fare deducted: $0.00? Win. Walking to school and seeing nearly 4,000 steps already on my fitbit? Win.
  2. Usually, I’m the only one in the staffroom when I get there, so it’s nice and quiet. I put the kettle on for a cup of coffee, I go to the ladies to put my makeup on, I come back, fire up the laptop and eat breakfast at my desk, browsing on blogs or Facebook. As people drift into work, the place slowly gets louder and livelier. I’ve had my quiet start to the day and I’m now ready for the rest of it.
  3. If I need any photocopying done, there’s no queue. Correction? It’s nice and quiet.
  4. I have to be organised with my lunches and breakfasts. (Yes, I know this was in the cons list, but it’s also a pro.) I’m not hungry at 5 in the morning, so I tend to take a couple of hard-boiled eggs for breakfast and I eat them at breaky time… about 7:30. It’s awful when I don’t have an easy breakfast to grab – the default position is a ‘fast’ morning or day, which is good when I’m slightly pudgy but not so good if I’m starving. My lunches tend to be leftovers from the night before or a Mystery Meal from the freezer.
  5. My car will hold its value for far longer. In a normal week, I’ll only take it out once or twice, as I can pick things up from the Aldi around the corner on the way home; if I need to go to a shopping centre I can get off the train at Southland and then hop back on the train to come home; and I hate wasting time on the weekends so I group shopping visits together… all leading up to low kilometres on the clock and no wear and tear on tyres etc.
  6. My overall transportation costs have plummeted. I was buying a tank of petrol every 2 weeks at $50-$60 a tank. Now, it’s around 6 weeks between refills. (It’d possibly be more, but I’m teaching Evan21 to drive so we’re using fuel on that.) 
  7. The table of running savings. Admittedly, I don’t much like doing the Maths for it, but it’s getting to the stage when it’s really starting to add up. Sometimes a friend from work will offer to drive me home, especially if we’re here working late, so I get double dipping on that day. It’s lovely when they offer, but I certainly don’t go chasing it… that’d be rude.

I know that if I saw $183.26 on the footpath I’d bend down to pick it up! It’s nice to know that it’s still in my bank account, but also kind of creepy when you think that it’s a sizeable chunk of money that I would have had to have spent if this offer from Metro trains wasn’t in place.

This is such a little thing, but I like the idea of seeing little opportunities and taking advantage of those that are do-able in your life. Transportation is a big expense for many families, so being able to get to and from work for under $15 a week is insanely cheap. After all, I geoarbitraged to save money and to get ahead, not to spend it all on train rides and petrol!

Of course, I’ve been doing this as the mornings are light and the weather is fine. Spring and summer are ideal for early morning starts. It’ll be interesting to see if my resolve crumbles as the winter kicks in. I don’t run the heating overnight and my beautiful hardwood floors are chilly the first thing in the morning…

I’ll keep you posted.

#winning

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Geoarbitrage: all the cool kids are doing it #1.

When Tim Ferriss coined the term ‘geoarbitrage’  about 10 years ago it meant outsourcing work to a cheaper region or country, usually over the internet. Nowadays it’s clear, after listening to podcasts and reading FI blogs, the term has morphed in the FIRE world into a descriptor of when a person geographically moves to an area that has a much lower cost of living.

Traditional retirees have been doing this for years… both sets of my grandparents did this in different ways after the breadwinners retired. One set moved up to the Gold Coast in the late 1960’s when the cost of living was far cheaper than Melbourne and the weather was far better. The other set stayed in Victoria, but sold their house in Murrumbeena and moved to a 1/4 acre lot in Inverloch, in Gippsland. They bought a caravan and spent 6 months of the year up in Cairns, during their beautiful winters, and then they’d drive down to Inverloch to spend time with us during Melbourne’s beautiful summers. Both sets of grandparents chased the sun but did it in ways that were gentle on the finances and offered them all a great quality of life.

Nowadays it’s becoming more common for traditional retirees to look at moving to a country that offers far more bang for the buck than simply living in Australia does. A couple of months ago I was walking the dogs and I started up a conversation with a guy who lives a couple of streets away. He spends 8 months of the year in Malaysia with his new wife and tiny child and rents out his house in Melbourne while he’s away. He loves the lifestyle, the climate and how cheaply he can live there and he only comes ‘home’ to see his adult children.

Also, a very good friend of mine is looking at giving up work in the next couple of years and has almost fully decided to up stakes and live in Thailand when he finally pulls the pin on working. He’s travelled there a fair bit, even having extensive dental work done there that was prohibitively expensive for him in Australia, and he knows he could buy a near-new apartment with a pool and aircon within a stone’s throw of the beach for what we would consider peanuts. He knows that with his investments and the pension, he would be able to enjoy a lifestyle that would be out of reach for him here. 

People in Australia also look towards Bali, but the disadvantage with beautiful Bali is that Indonesia doesn’t let foreigners buy land. You either have to buy something as a silent partner and hope like hell that they don’t walk away with your money, (which happened 2 years ago to someone I know…yikes!), or you go over there and sign a long lease on a property. I saw this ad on Facebook yesterday and thought that it was a perfect example of Geoarbitrage in action.

In today’s exchange rate, $100,000USD equals $125,140AUD. Considering that the prices of residential real estate in Australia are some of the most expensive in the world, a person could free up a lot of equity in their house by selling their million dollar property, tucking the surplus into investments and living the high life in that Balinese villa for the next 30 years. Who knows? Considering the age s/he retires and their state of health, that 30-year lease might just see them out. Bali has the schmicko hospital that was built there after the Bali bombings, the cost of living there is minuscule and family and friends are a short plane ride away. (Well, to be fair, Australia is so big and so isolated that very few places are a short plane ride away, but you get my drift.) It’s a viable strategy for those who love the tropical climate and the relaxed lifestyle that places like Bali and Thailand offer.

But what if you don’t want to move to another country to live, but at the same time you don’t want to work till you’re 70? What if you want to get your toe into the property market but price tags of 1.5 million dollars for a 3 bedroom fixer-upper in McKinnon are seriously out of your reach?

Geoarbitrage isn’t just a tool to use to inch closer to early retirement. It’s possible to utilise it for other reasons as well. I have a friend in his 30’s who really wanted to own his own home but knew that the million dollar+ price tags of Melbourne houses were always going to be beyond his reach. He decided to think outside the box and bought a lovely little house in Ballarat for less than a third of the price that he would have paid where he was originally living. For those who don’t know, Ballarat is a regional town about 120kms west of Melbourne. It’s a large city of around 110,000 people, so it has pretty much all of the amenities that you’d need … including a university that my youngest son, Evan21, will be going to for the next 3 years. My friend J is really happy with the move, with the only practical downside being his commute. He travels into the city by train, but because it’s a country-line train there are fewer services, so he really doesn’t want to miss his train! He’s already negotiated a couple of “work from home” days a week, but of course, if the commute gets too arduous, there’d be nothing stopping him from looking for a job closer to home. Flexibility is the key.

With a concept like geoarbitrage, you have to seriously weigh up what you are gaining vs what you are giving up. There’s always going to be a downside, but the thing you have to measure is whether the advantages massively outweigh the disadvantages. The decisions that people are going to make about whether or not to do it are as individual as they are. Some people are deeply rooted to a place for dearly-held emotional reasons and they wouldn’t DREAM of relocating, whereas others could quite easily sell up and move on without a backwards glance at the place they’ve left behind.  Then there are all the people who fall into the middle ground, which is probably most of us.

When I next write about this, it’ll be a post entitled, “Geoarbitrage: all the cool kids are doing it #2”, where I’ll share how I tweaked the concept to come up with a move that suited the Frogdancer family’s situation.  It was something I never expected I would ever do, but in life there’s something I’ve learned: never say never!