Brad travel hacks his way to rewarding relationships
Brad Barrett created a blog to help share how he and his family visited Disney World for very little money by using travel rewards points earned from responsibly using credit cards. He shared it with some coworkers but word quickly spread and before he knew it, he had developed a relationship with executives in the corporate office — something that would’ve never happened had he not shared his passion for helping them learn about travel hacking as well.
In this episode, we talk about how once we’ve all reached a certain qualification level, genuine personal connections then trump all technical skills. And how anyone who feels that sharing their hobby or passion at work will be a hindrance, should know that in all likelihood it’s actually a really big positive.
Brad Barrett works as a Travel Rewards Coach and Personal Finance Expert. He is a CPA turned “travel hacker” who helps people learn how to travel for nearly free using credit card rewards points. Prior to this, he worked in public accounting and then in corporate tax for Bimbo Bakeries USA.
He graduated from University of Richmond – Robins School of Business with his Bachelor of Science in Accounting.
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TravelMiles101 – Free 15-day email course
Shocking Simple Math Behind Early Retirement – Mr. Money Mustache links referenced during the podcast
How to Go From Middle Class to Kickass – another Mr. Money Mustache links referenced during the podcast
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John: Welcome to Episode 50 of the Green Apple Podcast where each Wednesday I interview a professional known for a hobby or a passion making them stand out, like a green apple in a red apple world. I’m so sick of hearing people say that they aren’t the stereotypical accountant or lawyer or engineer because I honestly believe that the definition of stereotypical professional is completely upside down. We aren’t all nerds who only do work and go home and do more work. Just to prove this I’m doing a little research for a book I’m writing about corporate culture so it would be really cool if you could just take 60 seconds to do my anonymous survey by going into greenapplepodcast.com. You click the big green button there. It’s only a few questions because I know you’re super busy, but the more data points I have the more legit my research so I really appreciate it.
Okay, now it’s time for this week’s guest, Brad Barrett, a CPA turned travel hacker, who helps people learn how to travel for nearly free using credit card rewards points. He graduated from the University of Richmond and worked in public accounting with Arthur Andersen and then KPMG before doing corporate tax on the industry side with Bimbo Bakeries USA. He’s the creator of travelmiles101.com and richmondsavers.com and he’s with me today on the Green Apple Podcast.
So Brad, I’ll jump right in to it with the question that we all want answered, what is it that made you think one day “Hey, I should start a travel hacking blog”?
Brad: I dabbled in creating websites, like previously I did some kind of wacky stuff where I sold like firewood storage racks… just way too long of a story to go into that. And then I wound up creating a personal finance website just to kind of get my thoughts on paper. I’ve always been interested in personal finance and I guess that’s kind of that geeky CPA side of me and just tried to create a site that would be interesting to people, that provided some value. And I got into this world of what’s known as travel hacking. So travel hacking sounds insane, hacking anything sounds a little bit out there —
John: Right, right. You’re flying to Russia to visit the Snowden and hang out, like “What’s going on here?”
Brad: Yeah. So basically, travel hacking is using credit card rewards points to travel the world for free or close to free which is awesome, right. You hear hacking though, you hear credit cards and hopefully accountants and consultants and whatnot, you guys out there saying “What the heck is this guy talking about?” This is like alarm bells going off.
But the same thing happened with me, it sounded a little too good to be true. And I just did a ton of research, thousands upon thousands of hours, found some sources that I really trusted and then I said, “Okay, this seems legit. Let me get my toe into it.” Basically, what you do is you open up targeted credit cards to get these massive sign-up bonuses. A card will give you like 50,000 miles for opening it up, putting a couple thousand bucks, spending on it. Obviously as a good CPA would you, you’re paying on time and in full every month so there’s no interest expense of anything like that, and then you get this big 50,000-point bonus, so 50,000 mile bonus, and then you literally move on to a new card, so you open a new credit card.
So you’re just essentially continually opening these cards and just racking up millions of miles potentially. My wife’s also a CPA and we’ve earned I think it’s close to 2.5 million miles.
John: Oh, my goodness!
Brad: Yeah, it’s crazy, right, without even traveling. We have young kids and we haven’t traveled all that much honestly, it’s not like we’re globetrotters. So yeah, 2.5 million miles. I have like two cents per point and worth about $50,000 in travel, so that’s a heck of a lot of money.
John: Yeah, and as an accountant who doesn’t like free stuff? That’s like a coupon, that’s like Christmas time, that’s so great!
Brad: Yeah, it’s amazing. Since we put all of our normal life spending on our credit cards anyway and paying it off every month, it’s like getting like 15% to 30% rebate on every dollar we spend in life. So it’s like when you dive into it you’re like “Holy cow, this is a no-brainer”. Anyway, that’s the little detour into what travel hacking is. I got a ton of research and I wound up putting together a trip to Disney World actually for my wife and I and our two kids. I think we spent like $150 for the whole trip.
John: Holy moly! Wow, yeah!
Brad: We saved like $4,000, stayed on site at Disney, picked up the park tickets for free, the flights to Orlando. So I wound up writing a post about that on my personal site, richmondsavers.com, and it wound up getting picked up in like this really big article in the New York Times which was like crazy for us obviously. Then I wound up getting on MBC and CBS and Lifehacker and Huffington Post and all these places and it’s like my dopey little personal finance site was all of a sudden like in the news.
So I kind of quickly realized there were lots of families out there like ours that could make use of this knowledge. So I wound up in starting to teach people how to do this and taught a bunch of people at work which I’m sure we’ll talk about in the next couple of minutes and just teach people all across the country. People are saving a whole boatload of money doing this. So that’s my story in a couple of minutes.
John: No, no, that’s amazing. So how does something like that come up at work? I think it’s great that you were sharing it and teaching others. How do you bring that up in the office?
Brad: That’s a good question. Obviously, any time you bring up any kind of hobby especially like when you have like a website and potentially a business on the side, there was definitely a little trepidation as far as like “Should I be bringing this up, is this something that’s normal to talk about at work”. But I had a couple close friends, I guess my immediate boss was basically my closest friend at work. We would always just chat about personal finance and things like that and just about life. I started talking about this and he was just amazed by it and he wound up doing it with his family. They took a nearly free trip to Disney. They’ve traveled all over the place using this concept too.
That was kind of like the icebreaker, like I started speaking with him and he did it and word just kind of filtered out a little bit. Then I started helping some people like up at the main corporate headquarters, I even emailed with someone like the senior vice president of the company, my blog post on how to do this Disney trip. It wasn’t something where I was like overtly “Oh, let’s spread this as far and as wide as I can”, that’s not my style. You kind of mention it to people and it’s interesting. And there’s no like downside, there’s no “Oh, I’m going to get fired if someone finds out about this” because there was nothing bad or it had no impact on the company certainly. But yeah, it kind of got out there and I wound up — and I’m not sure what the total number of people that I helped in the company was but there’s definitely a bunch.
John: Yeah, yeah, I think that’s so great how you just start small and you start with people that you already know or that you’re already friends with, you already have a working relationship with. But it is amazing how it just a little bit of color in this gray world, it’s so vibrant that everyone else like gravitate towards it like the lightning bugs, they’re just like “Oh, my gosh, there’s somebody actually doing something, let’s check it out” sort of thing and how quickly that spreads and up the chain. I think that’s amazing too, you’re emailing with C-suite executives into your corporate headquarters. Like who else in your department is doing that, nobody, simply because of your hobby and your passion which is crazy. It had nothing to do with your work skills or anything else type of a thing which I think is so cool. That’s awesome, that’s so perfect.
Brad: Yeah, it really was neat, getting my name out there in the company with people that I otherwise wouldn’t have any working relationship with. So yeah, it was a really neat thing for sure.
John: Yeah, yeah! I think that’s so great. Do you feel like this hobby in particular, a lot of times people think “Oh, it’s just a hobby”, it’s just whatever, but a lot of times I think that there are skills that you’re developing that do translate to the office. Did you feel like any of that happened with this?
Brad: That’s a really good question. Certainly, the interpersonal skills. I’m used to being just a tax accountant, kind of sitting away in my office and doing my thing on Excel and whatnot. It definitely expanded my horizons as far as speaking with different people across the company as we’ve mentioned and just kind of… yeah, I’m trying to think like how else it would have positively impacted me…
John: Or maybe your blogging, I would imagine that probably helped with your writing skills because that’s extra practice you’re getting outside of the office.
Brad: That’s a very good point. Yeah, you can definitely make a strong argument, written and oral communication skills were both increased fairly significantly. And also that’s the art of confidence for I was a manager level but still pretty junior in the company certainly and emailing and helping on the phone with top level executives at a huge company, that’s pretty cool and that definitely bolsters confidence. I’m not sure I can directly tie like increased responsibilities to this but it’s not that big of a leap because I wound up in corresponding with these people instead of… This one gentleman, certainly very top level, if he had a question for the tax department, he sometimes came to me directly as opposed to going to the VP of the department. That’s a pretty cool thing.
John: No, that’s a super cool thing, man, yeah. And that’s something that if you just stayed in line and professionalism kept you boxed in, just do your tax stuff, what your chargeability rate, and it’s like that would have never ever happened, not in a million years. No, that’s such a great example, man, and that’s so encouraging to everyone else who’s listening that’s like “It doesn’t matter” — no, it straight up does.
That was my story as well. When I was with PWC, I was hand-selected to be on the largest financial services client, I wasn’t only the best one possible and didn’t know but I was pretty good but then you also are authentic and you’re genuine, you’re likable, those are things that they don’t teach you in school and they don’t have a charge code for but those things matter and that’s great, man, such excellent examples.
So going back to the beginning, what made you want to get in to accounting to begin with? I mean no one grows up wanting to do taxes, like how did that happen?
Brad: I’m still not sure I made the right decision frankly but I guess at this point it kind of augmented to that, right? But actually, if I could just hop back to that last thing we were talking about real quick. Personal connections, this is one thing like I’ve found in life like there are lots of qualified people, there are lots of smart people, there are lots of people smarter than you and I.
But personal connections matter and they matter in every aspect of life. Like I’m a website owner, or blog, I hate that term “blog” but we’ll use blog, I guess. You would think this is like an online world where really it’s all online, personal connections should matter very minimally. I found just like any aspect of life, personal connections pretty much trumps — once you’re qualified, once you’re minimally qualified and meet the requirements, personal connections are what make the difference. Like you said, being genuine, people can see through the networker, you can see that person from a mile away. But when you make genuine human connections with people, it’s just matters, it really does. I can point to huge success with my websites from going to a conference and sitting down and having a couple of beers with one or two guys who would become lifelong friends of mine. I appeared on their podcasts and their websites. You can’t put a price on that because it literally is priceless, it’s having these relationships. That just matters. I just think it’s so important.
John: Yeah, yeah. I love that you said that, how once you’re minimally qualified which we’ve all passed the CPA exam, we all have an accounting degree, or if you’re a lawyer or if you’re a consultant, we all have pretty much that minimum qualification. And it’s this other side that no one talks about, that there’s no chargeability code for, that no one encourages, that’s the side that trumps everything else and that’s such a key point that you made that I just wanted to reiterate that. That was fantastic. That’s why it’s the Green Apple Podcast because everyone else is the stereotype, the red apple, and just that little bit makes you different and all of a sudden you’re on the phone with C-suite executives at your corporate office. So I just wanted to reiterate that because that was so good, so good. But I want to hear the story of how you stumbled into this accounting world.
Brad: So let me go back to your question. Honestly, it’s hard to even piece together how that happened.
John: It’s like a car wreck, you’re just like “I don’t know what appended, it’s just what it is.”
Brad: Like PTSD, I’m trying to block it out.
John: Yup, yup!
Brad: I went to the University of Richmond. They have a wonderful business school there. And accounting is basically like the number one major, basically because there’s just one amazing professor, Professor Hoyle. He actually wrote the advanced accounting textbook that many of you out there would have used. He was just incredible. He taught through this Socratic Method, he was just peppering you with questions. It was such a different class and like you had to prepare so significantly or he would make a fool out of you. Not to be mean-spirited but just to show that hey, you need to prepare for this. I think in that preparation and then kind of really going that extra mile for accounting, it got me interested.
And frankly I wanted to take more classes with Professor Hoyle. I took advanced accounting with him which was an elective and I think I got like an A- in it. I really remember to this day because that was the proudest I’ve ever been. It’s just an A-, it wasn’t that great of a grade, right, but it was like holy cow, I think I was the only one or one of two people in the whole class that got an A. I truly earned it. I could definitely point a lot of how I got into accounting literally to this one professor which is really, really cool. I actually still live in Richmond, I’m from Long Island, New York originally but we wound up settling here in Richmond. I still email with him and see him every couple of years, so it’s really, really neat.
John: That is neat.
Brad: Yeah, it’s very, very cool. How did I get into tax?
John: Right, you just got off the elevator on the wrong floor, that’s probably what happened.
Brad: Do you remember like when — it was like internships, like new year and it’s like that big side of that point were coming in, like “Do you want to do tax or audit?” and I’m like “I have no idea. How could I possibly know?”
John: Right, I want a paycheck.
Brad: Yeah, seriously, I really like that paycheck. Actually, when you’re a 20-year-old kid that was incredible. No joke, I quit like audit for two of the big size and and tax for the other three and it was like–
John: That’s so good, that’s so good.
Brad: I am really honest, there was no thought at all.
John: Right, right, right. But during the interview process it was very thought out, “This is what I really want to do.” That’s hilarious, that’s so funny, man. That’s so funny. PW was the only one to give me an offer from the Big Five and it was so funny because when we got into training they were pumping us up with “You’re the best and the brightest and you’re hand-selected”. And I’m like “No, we weren’t, are you joking right now?” I slid in like Indiana Jones under the wall that’s coming down, like “Don’t tell me I’m the best and the brightest. Who’s buying this stuff? Just give me my fleece and I’m out of here.” But that’s awesome, man.
But to transition back to the travel stuff, what would you say are some of the coolest — the trip to Disney sounds awesome, but what are some of the coolest travel moments that you can recall, places that you visited, or amazing stories like that.
Brad: For sure. Clearly, the Disney trip was the one that started it all. My parents were able to go, my in-laws. I mean we had this big like three-generation trip. It was just really, really neat. And two months ago, we went to the San Francisco Bay Area, four roundtrip free flights, eight nights in a suite at a Hyatt House which was very cool, just a nice trip. The whole trip cost us, really I kid you not, $45 for the flights and lodging. It was very cool.
John: And I think we have a picture of that on the greenapplepodcast.com. I’m curious, before you got into this travel hacking world, was there another hobby that you kind of shared with coworkers or was this kind of the thing that popped it for you?
Brad: That’s a good question. I would say this was really the thing that kind of popped it open, to use that term. I did talk a lot about I guess personal finance with some of the people in my immediate department. When you use the term “personal finance” that sounds like absolute drudgery, but it’s more like if you’ve ever heard of this community online called the FIRE community, Financial Independence Retire Early. Has that ever crossed your plane?
Brad: It’s like ultra-saving, living below your means, but basically being able to kind of wrest control of your life decades early as opposed to working until you’re 70. Naturally that’s not exactly the most peachy thing to talk about at work when you’re working for–
John: Right, right, right. How do I get out of here as fast as possible, right?
Brad: Yes, yes. So that was kind of a more on the D.L. than anything but it’s certainly something I spoke about with a couple of people and kind of just tried to get into that world and just be a little bit smarter about our finances. I call it kind of like living an upper middle-class life, just smarter. It’s like if you just make a couple little modification, you really can essentially live the same life as anybody, just become wildly wealthy like in fairly short order. It’s kind of a cool thing. And that’s beyond the scope of this podcast, obviously, but yeah, if anybody’s ever looking to learn about that, there’s a site that I love, it’s an oddly named site that is called Mr. Money Mustache. Again, very odd name but it’s a wonderful site, it’s one of the best sites around. If that’s something that interests you, I highly recommend it.
John: Yeah, yeah. I’ll put a link to it on the show page as well for people that are listening. So when it comes to sharing and creating this culture of sharing and learning about each other and developing these relationships, how much do you feel is it on the organization, whether it’s Big Four or Bimbo Bakeries or what have you, how much is it on the individual, how much is it on you to actually just speak up and develop those connections with coworkers?
Brad: In my experience, it was really 100% on us individuals and that could differ obviously from firm to firm, company to company so I’m not sure what I think is the perfect optimal level. And I think creating personal connections matters in life, I think firms, it would be in their interest to kind of foster that amongst coworkers and teammates probably more than they do frankly.
Brad: Why I like my job was because of the two or three close friends that I have in my department. Good company, it certainly is a good company to work for probably any other one off the street, but was I working for my company? No. I was interested in going to work every day to kind of help the department and help my friends and colleagues. I think that kind of stuff comes by creating a team. I think it’s to the detriment of a lot of companies when they don’t understand that. While I said it’s probably on the individual in my personal experience, I think I’d like to see in the corporate world not again that contrived team building let’s go do trust fall. Not that there’s anything wrong with that–
John: No, no. It’s fun to let them fall and be like “I don’t trust you either, so we’re good.”
Brad: I’m not sure. I love to hear your thoughts, across the different podcasts you’ve done, have you found ways or companies can effectively do that.
John: I think the smaller the group, the more the tone at the top matters. So if it’s within maybe your little department or whatever, that manager impacts you a lot more than the tone at the top and the C-suite. Because if the C-suite is really curmudgeonly and whatever but your manager is really cool, well then you’re sheltered from all of that and it’s just within your little world that you operate.
But I do think that it starts from the bottom-up, I really do, because even if the company’s really fun and really cool, if you don’t share then you’re not part of the team, you’re not as invested, you’re not as engaged and all those things. So as much as the company can open up and make that happen, I think it still lies more on the individual. Certainly, the organization can help out by making it a little easier and by having role models of others that are also sharing and what have you and showing that it’s okay.
But I think that the book that I’m writing kind of shows that professionalism, too much of it just weighs you down and it really suffocates your personality, and there isn’t a charge code for socializing or there isn’t a billable hour for learning about my client or coworker. Well, why not? Why not? I mean, really the amount of productivity that’s done, there’s a good four hours at least a month that people are goofing around so why don’t you just give them that time to go do their hobby, do their passion, and come back and talk about it. That would be so huge, everyone would want to work there, why not? And then like you said, those relationships, the trump all the skills and the world.
So yeah, I do think that it is a little more on the individual, like you said. That was with me too, I was just being me and then 12 years later a partner remembers me who I have never even worked with. That’s what’s mind blowing to me. And I guarantee that 12 years later people are going to remember you easily and it’s just because you were being you and not afraid to — you were good at your job, I’m not talking about bringing drama to work, I’m talking about this is a passion of mine, I’m genuinely interested in this, this is inside me, I can’t keep it in anymore type of a thing.
The other thing that I think is really cool about these hobbies and this passion is that before you started working you had this passion and while you’re working you still have this. And after you’re done working you still have that passion, it’s a constant and your work is not a constant. And I think that people forget that because they have bills to pay, sort of a thing. But anyway, that’s my two cents on that whole thing.
I guess just to wrap it up here, what might be some barriers that you think might hold people back from not wanting to share or maybe even in your own instances of being hesitant at first to open up.
Brad: I think people would probably be possibly embarrassed, or maybe embarrassed is a little bit too strong but you’re just feeling uncomfortable sharing their own passions or just kind of opening themselves up especially if there is kind of that stodgy culture from that top that you mentioned. I think people have to understand that it’s not going to be a hindrance to their career, it’s in all likelihood going to be a big positive and creating these relationships that we talk about on this call, they matter and they are important.
So just try to get over– I think a lot of us, well I speak for myself here. I’m introverted by nature. I would generally be perfectly content to just sit at the computer and not get out of my comfort zone. But I think it’s important in life to grow and to get out of that comfort zone and especially if it’s something you’re passionate about… I mean, you can hear me on this call, I just love talking about this stuff, I think it’s just so interesting. Like if you have a passion, bring it to the world, people are just stuck in their little lives and frankly adults aren’t learning that many new things on a week to week, month to month basis. Something like this, travel hacking, as crazy as it sounds, even if someone doesn’t do it, just learning about it, it might help them down the road, they might be able to recommend a friend or a colleague who could take a free trip. You just never know the kind of down the road impact, positive impact, of just kind of learning something or opening up or whatever it may be.
I think that’s how I would encapsulate it is just kind of get out of your comfort zone and just don’t be so worried about what people are going to think or if the culture accepts it. And like we said, you can start small, start with your friend or start with a couple of people in your department and talk about it. And obviously, you’re going to know if it goes over like a lead balloon, if you’re talking about something insane then probably they’ll talk about it. But if it’s something cool that people are interested, you’re going to find it real quick.
John: Yeah, yeah, that’s excellent advice, man. It’s so perfect, Brad, that’s awesome, really perfect. But before we can go on a trip together or hang out, I always have my 17 rapid fire questions, the get to know Brad type of thing. So I’m going to fire this thing up and see how you do here and we’ll get going here. You might want to get a seatbelt. All right, the first one, do you have a favorite color?
John: Blue, all right. How about a least favorite color?
Brad: Probably red.
John: Red, okay. How about the two colors of Richmond, aren’t they? University of Richmond.
Brad: You’re exactly right. That’s funny, I didn’t think about it.
John: Little bit of a sports nut. How about Star Wars or Star Trek?
Brad: Star Wars, I’m a huge Star Wars fan.
John: How about when it comes to computers, a PC or a Mac?
Brad: PC just because it’s cheap, honestly.
John: Right, right. I grew up on PCs, I’m not going to try and learn a Mac. When it comes to a mouse, a right click or a left click?
Brad: Left click.
John: Do you have a favorite Disney character?
Brad: That’s a good question, my kids watch Disney movies all the time. I like the Beauty and the Beast movie so let’s say one of the main characters.
John: Sure, sure. Beast, let’s do it. No, I’m just kidding. How about do you have a favorite tax form?
Brad: Oh, God, no, no, I never want to look at a tax form ever again in my entire life.
John: None of them, and that is actually the right answer. There are normally not right answers in this but that is the right answer. How about do you have a favorite number?
Brad: Yeah. I guess number 4, that was always my soccer number growing up so that’s always been my favorite.
John: Okay, yeah, solid answer. How about boxers or briefs?
Brad: How about boxer briefs.
John: Oh, fancy, look at you, yes! How about do you have a movie that makes you cry?
Brad: I feel like a lot of those sports movies like Rudy, Field of Dreams always catch me in. Some parts of like Braveheart also, that’s not sports but yeah, I guess I’m such a crier when it comes to movies.
John: Me too, man. My wife is always making fun of me so don’t worry about it. How about cats or dogs?
Brad: I’m not an animal person honestly. I would lean more towards cats but neither.
John: Sudoku or crossword puzzle.
Brad: Sudoku, definitely.
John: How about do you have a favorite sports team?
Brad: Yeah, the New York Mets. They’ve been my team since–
John: Right, growing up in Long Island, there you go. No, no, last year they made it to the World Series so that was impressive. How about do you have a favorite food?
Brad: Is everything an okay answer?
John: Yes, that is an appropriate answer. Are you more of an early bird or a night owl?
Brad: Early bird, for sure.
John: Early bird, nice. Oh, man. How about do you have a favorite comedian?
Brad: Can I say you?
John: Oh, you can say me. And last one, favorite thing you own or favorite thing you have?
Brad: Can I say like my freedom maybe, kind of go a little more abstract?
John: Sure, that’s a solid answer, yeah.
Brad: Yeah. I did leave my corporate job fairly recently. The freedom that it affords me while it’s extraordinarily difficult to be an entrepreneur and I think you and I would bot h caution people from doing this unless it’s slam dunk. The freedom that it enables me to spend time with my kids and have a better quality of life, it’s been amazing. So yeah, we’ll go a little more abstract and say freedom.
John: Yeah, man, that’s probably the best answer so it’s hard to argue that. That’s for sure. So thank you, Brad, so much for being with me today on the Green Apple Podcast.
Brad: Yeah, you bet you. I really enjoyed the call. Thanks a lot.
John: That was really, really good. I like to tell Brad that there are a lot of smart qualified people doing what you do but it’s the personal connections that not only matter but actually trump all technical skills. If you’d like to see some pictures of Brad with his family on different vacations and to sign up for his free travel hacking online course, go to greenapplepodcast.com. And while you’re there, please click the big green button and do my research survey.
Thank you for sharing this with your friends so they get the message that we are trying to spread which is to go out and be a green apple.