Written by David Dentinger
Illustrations by Robert Hune-Kalter
etchikan’s Seasonals have the perfect amount of wealth. We have enough spare cash, education, freedom, and desire for adventure to carry us to this glorious town in Southeast Alaska. We are so very
lucky to have gone against John Muir’s advice and come to Alaska young, when we are at our maximum capacity to take advantage of the opportunities provided by this island.
Some cruise passengers, many friends and family on Facebook, they see us in our rubber boots and our muddy rain gear and smile with jealousy, wishing they could drop everything and experience an Alaskan summer. But they can’t! They’re too poor, too rich, too successful, too tightly bound by the steel or silken restraints of traditional achievement, chasing the proverbial American dream into middle age until finally making enough money to visit this place for 6 hours before being ushered back aboard a floating human feedlot. Seasonals everywhere know exactly what I’m talking about.
When it comes to our Seasonal finances, we occupy the Goldilocks Zone of bank accounts. We have enough to pursue this unusual lifestyle, but not so much that we are kept from it. We work hard, we play hard, the point is to live life and live it well. We gave up the white picket fence for the chance to see a humpback whale breach, to lock doors for bears more than burglars. Our greatest feat is the eschewing of materials.
At the same time, we make good money during our summers in Alaska, good by wanderer standards at least. It’s likely what enables us to keep coming back here year after year while having such grand adventures during the off-seasons. The only problem is, we make money in that same town built to extract every penny possible from those sometimes generous tourists. Many of us are lucky enough to work for tips, but in short order our wallets can start swelling by day and shriveling at night.
A person’s finances are much like their yard. You can keep them nice and neat, ignore them and let them get messy, or you can tend to them like a garden and it will start to reward you for your efforts. Gardening is a good analog for financial planning because most of you reading are more into herbs and blueberries than mutual funds, but also because if you manage your finances, they'll go to work on your behalf. What follows is some basic advice for the casually employed heroes of our generation. The first part on saving money while you're here, the second on what to do once you have a little.
THE DIRTBAG SCHOOL OF FINANCE
I'd call myself a cheap bastard. I cut corners when I can, and always spend less than I earn when I'm working, but I’m no dirtbag.
Dirtbags (in this and many instances a compliment) are unbelievably frugal, cut every possible corner, and sometimes don’t spend anything. That being said, let us all doff our caps to the Dirtbag of dirtbags, the Queen of Cost-effective, Mary of House Maley, Master of Bear Screaming and Protector of Tips. This lady has badass summers on the cheap, every summer. Here are a few habits she employs that you can use to preserve that precious Alaska money.
Dump your tips at home in a safe place. When Mary goes out she carries between 0 and 20 dollars and her ID… sometimes. If she somehow encounters an alien bartender or bouncer in this town, more money saved.
Make friends with everyone you meet. You never know when the zipline guides are going to feel like asking randos along for a free nocturnal zip. Polite mooching isn't just a respectful way to target salmon and halibut. It's how you get the most out of Ketchikan for free! Always say thank you.
Develop outdoor hobbies that make you happy. Hiking, fishing, frisbee, snorkeling, berry-picking. Mary’s latest one is climbing. Driving out to a rock face with friends on a sunny day and bashing yourself against moist granite isn't my jam but your bank account will swell along with your bruises. Anything that takes you out of the bar and into the woods is good for wallet, liver, and soul.
Eat at home and cook as a group. Back in 2015 I caught Mary eating S’mores for lunch, more than once. These days you'll find find her seeking her vegan powers through a steady diet of home cooked vegetables. In both cases Mary avoids the overpriced freeze-fried fare that defines Ketchikan’s culinary scene. Assuming it's not all S’mores, eating at home is healthier, cheaper, and if word gets out, you'll make friends. Mary has a knack for hosting feasts where people come together to eat, drink, and laugh until they forge a rainy Tuesday night into one of the gems of the summer. Develop this habit. You save money, become popular, try new foods and drinks, and if you invite me I'll do all the dishes.
A HOBO HISTORY
No advice on saving money in Ketchikan would be complete without a nod to our good friend and vagabond, Jason Baldwin.
Here's a man who truly embraces stylish vagrancy. Homelessness is only as bad as your attitude, and with the right jacket and sunglasses, no one will know it but you… and all your friends who have hot water, wi-fi, and kitchens.
To be fair Jason was never truly homeless, he merely lived in the crawlspace above the dock shed where he worked. He had a full mattress up there in the uninsulated darkness, and all his Ketchikan possessions were strewn around the sleeping area.
Access to this grotto was accomplished via a rickety wooden ladder. There was no plumbing. I never actually made the harrowing climb up into Jason’s loft, though it's believed he was not the only one to spend a night there that summer. If anyone reading can claim to have lived through a night in that dock shed, the editors of this magazine would be intrigued to hear your story.
All rumormongering aside, being flexible with his living space had major benefits aside from it's cost-efficiency: It got him out of the house (that he didn't really have) and forced him to have adventures. On an average night in July of 2015, you'd find me home alone eating a ham sandwich and drinking boxed white wine. Where was Jason? Probably cold and dirty walking the streets of our fine city doing something worth reading about. The lesson? Be open to nontraditional living situations. Roommates, sailboats, power-trollers, pickup trucks, porch-turned-room expansion projects. A very talented educator who despised me once said, there's no learning without a little discomfort. If you get stuck in a suboptimal place, go see what you can learn about Ketchikan or yourself. Relish the extra money while you're at it.
An important aside. If your employer offers housing, take it. If your employer doesn't offer, ask
What Gets Measured Gets Managed
In 2015, Ryan Deininger recorded every single tip he made with the goal of analyzing exactly what makes a tourist shell out for the maximum gratuity.
Earnings, dates, number of tours, number of tourists, day of the week, weather conditions, everything was taken into account to find patterns and invaluable bits of actable information.
While the pseudoscientific Ketchikan tour guide community continues to debate this topic, Ryan's compulsion to meticulously keep track of his earnings was a sound one.
At any time he could tell you precisely how much he had earned and this gave him a deeper understanding than most of us about how much he was spending. Budgets are about taking control over your life, and enable you to more effectively chase goals, dreams, and rainbows.
SEASONALS PAY THEIR DEBTS
So now you're having a great summer and you’re saving lots of money. What's next? You could buy happiness through the purchase of some high quality gear that might empower you to adventure.
You could take a fellow seasonal up on their offer to guide you on a wild journey through Central America, Eastern Europe, or Southeast Asia.
You should do these things and more, but consider this: you’re seasonal, unshackled from desks and fast food, and gaining valuable life experience which may look more badass than you'd think on a resume. People like us have a tough time knowing where they'll be in five years, let alone thirty, and we revel in that uncertainty. Chances are you're going to be living this Seasonal life for a long time. So here's some long term financial planning advice for the seasonally rich:
Pay down your debts. Student loans, credit cards, whatever. Many are up here with that exact goal in mind. Chip away at that big wall between you and the rest of your life each summer, recognize that each payment you're making on those loans was generated by your long days spent frolicking in the Alexander Archipelago. You're literally having fun in order to pay off debts. Along the way, establishing good credit will help you upgrade your life as you gain resources and experience. We know too many Seasonals-turned-business owners to ignore this possibility. When opportunity knocks, you want to be as ready as you can be.
Once you're debt-free. Get a Roth IRA. Do your own googling to confirm if that's the right call for your needs, but for most of us that the federal government calls “casually employed”, this is the ideal vehicle for retirement saving. Find a low cost index fund and set up a monthly contribution, start small if you like. As with all financial decisions, you need to do your own research. If you can read and think critically, you can do this yourself. No financial advisor needed, no visits to a bank, you don't have to leave your house, just fire up a laptop. One of the most profitable lies the investment banks and financial advisors tell is that investing is too complicated for the average investor to understand. Wrong. You saw through the lie of the white picket fence, now pierce this one. A few hours poking around online and you can make a sane choice about a mutual fund. Invest the time, it'll be the most profitable few hours you'll ever spend online.
Many of you are thinking, why would I ever put a cent of money into a bank account that penalizes me for withdrawing from it until I'm 59.5 years old?
Do it because that penalty grants power. The power to stay calm during a financial crisis, keep adventuring, hang on tight, and let the market recover. For the rest of your life, while you're out spinning fire on a beach or drinking a beer encouraging someone else to look cool and risk getting burned, that money will be working and growing (tax free!) on your behalf. Then when you retire it will be waiting for you, unlike social security. Take pride in your independence and intrepid spirit, and take steps to ensure you can always afford these excellent habits.
Is it insane to pitch retirement planning to our community? Maybe so. By definition we are less motivated by money than most of our brethren in this country. If we really were trying to get rich we'd be meaner or into computer programming or not in the position of living it up in the Alaskan summer. We all lived through 2009. We've watched our economy change. We've learned to fear and loathe the stock market, but if you live this life of narrow margins and want to give your hard earned cash a chance to blossom, mutual funds have just about the lowest barriers to entry and the lowest effort to maintain. Betting on stocks for a day or a year is gambling. Betting on the entire American economy for decades is wise.
That which we are, we are, one equal temper of planktonic hearts. I feel protective towards all my seasonal brethren across this globe. I would not see your hard won wages and tips whittled at by inflation. There's so much more excellent information out there online about these topics than I could ever delve into here. All I'm hoping is to inspire some thought. Your finances, like your health, are yours and yours alone. To be healthy in body, mind, and portfolio, you need to be ready to advocate and research for yourself.
Websites you should look into to start this process: