This guest post from Elizabeth Howell is part of the “reader stories” feature at Get Rich Slowly. Some stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success — or failure. These stories feature folks from all levels of financial maturity and with all sorts of incomes. Elizabeth is a Canadian science/business freelance journalist who runs a blog on space exploration, Pars3c. She’s currently pursuing her Master of Science, Space Studies by correspondence at the University of North Dakota.

I’m a sucker for space. Not the architectural kind, but the rockets kind. The astronaut kind.

I saw the movie Apollo 13 when I was a young teenager, and that hooked me. Permanently. During high school, I spent most of my spare time reading about the Apollo astronauts and wishing I could watch one of their rockets take off in person.

Alas, I was a generation too young. But I kept my launch dream alive. I became a journalist in Ottawa, Canada when I grew up. I talked constantly about space on Twitter. And through Twitter, people at NASA began to get to know me. That’s how I got my first invitation to a shuttle launch.

Shuttle launch
Endeavour launches from Kennedy Space Center. Photo by Jim Grossmann, NASA.

The experience (as many who have seen one would attest) was addictive, so I spun that into two more launches — all in six months. The cost? About $5,000.

I asked myself constantly, “Is this foolhardy? Am I spending the money in a sustainable fashion?” Here are the factors I considered each time, before I flew down:

  • What is this experience worth to me? I waited nearly 15 years before going to see my first shuttle launch. My dream of seeing one didn’t waver in all that time. Plus, the shuttle program is ending in 2011, so I knew there would be scarce chance of easily seeing humans go up again for the foreseeable future, pending commercial launches or a trip overseas to watch a Russian Soyuz take off. Although seeing the launches would be costly, I knew it was an experience I would not forget.
  • What does my financial situation look like? At the time I went down for the launches, I was lucky to have flexible hours and a permanent part-time job. I also had spent years building up an emergency fund and maxing out my RRSP (the Canadian equivalent of a Roth IRA). I had no debt and good cash flow. I accepted that my decision to go see the launches could delay other long-term goals, like buying a house. But given my passion in space, I felt I could wait.
J.D.’s note: Elizabeth is describing conscious spending — the intentional choice to focus on one part of your life at the expense of another. This is a Good Thing.

  • How is my cash flow? I also made a concerted effort to cut down expenses. I don’t own a smart phone, I rarely eat out and I don’t watch television. The same month I saw my first ship fly, I moved into a cheaper place — a decision that saved me $1,800 over six months. That alone made my frequent trips more sustainable.
  • How can I save money on airfare? I live in Canada, an expensive three-hour flight away from the Floridian coast. I couldn’t use frequent-flyer miles as shuttle dates change too often to risk it. So I had to be creative. The first time I flew down to Florida, I booked a cheap fare on an airline that had a very expensive change fee. Big mistake. The launch was delayed a couple of weeks, and I had to fork over about $300 more (on a $500 flight) to make the new date. The second time, I smartened up and chose an airline with more reasonable change fees. I ended up actually saving about $50 when the shuttle date changed, since the fees were so low and the new flight took place at a less convenient time.
  • How can I save money while I’m there? I packed lots of granola bars and other snacks for the flight and trip, saving me hundreds of dollars in food. I also picked a reasonably priced hotel room with a fridge and microwave, within walking distance of a grocery store, so I could eat in. And I avoided Florida attractions and instead brought books with me, so I wouldn’t spend hundreds of dollars at tourist traps on top of the launches.

The result: Three trips of a lifetime, and the knowledge that I managed to see all three existing shuttles fly into space before the program ended. For me, $5,000 was worth that feeling.

What big goals have you saved up for — and how? What sacrifices did you make to meet them? Please share your tips in the comments below!

Reminder: This is a story from one of your fellow readers. Please be nice. After more than a decade of blogging, I have a thick skin, but it can be scary to put your story out in public for the first time. Remember that this guest author is just learning about money like you are. Henceforth, unduly nasty comments on readers stories will be removed or edited.

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