The expensive vacations your family typically takes rarely leave you feeling as happy as you’d hoped, and they put a terrible squeeze on your bank account. For the sake of your fulfillment and your finances, you’re willing to try to cut expenses this year…but where to start?
Here, nationally recognized financial adviser Donna Skeels Cygan offers 15 suggestions to help you plan a memorable trip that doesn’t break the bank:
Plan ahead… The earlier you start planning your trip, the more money you’ll likely save. Look for discounts on flights, tickets, hotels, and more. Research inexpensive or free activities at your destination. Then vacation with a budget-minded plan. Remember, spur-of-the-moment might be fun, but it also tends to come with a big price tag.
…and don’t forget to tally up all of the costs. We’ve all encountered hidden (or at least in impossible-to-read fine print) costs, fees, and taxes that come with hotel stays, plane tickets, etc. As you plan your vacation, don’t forget to take these things into account, as well as incidentals like food, gas money, sunscreen, etc. Don’t nickel and dime yourself into busting your budget!
Consider staying close to home. In general, the further you travel, the more expensive a trip becomes. So even if you’re used to crossing the country (or even an ocean), consider vacationing in a place that’s a tank or two of gas away. If you visit your state’s (and neighboring states’) tourism websites, you’ll probably find more than a few interesting destinations.
Visit Aunt Millie. Do you have relatives or close friends who live in another part of the country? If so, consider asking them if you can come for a visit. (Maybe you can return the favor later.) It’s a good opportunity to see a new place and reconnect with loved ones.
Plan several small trips instead of one big one. If your budget can’t comfortably accommodate a one- or two-week vacation each year, decide to take those more expensive trips every two or three years and plan smaller trips in between. (Several small trips are also a good solution if your family can’t agree on which big trip they’d like to take.) Day or weekend trips don’t drain your bank account nearly as much, but can still be enjoyable for your family. State and national parks, museums, zoos, summer concerts, and baseball games are all great ideas.
According to Cygan, planning several weekend getaways can actually provide more happiness than a major vacation, especially if you’re on the “rat race treadmill.” Not only will mini-vacations provide a sense of adventure and relaxation as you explore nearby towns, simply anticipating an upcoming weekend away from a hectic lifestyle can increase one’s happiness.
Book a room in the great outdoors. If your family is open to camping, skip the hotel and sleep under the stars (or perhaps a tent!). If you don’t own equipment, many outdoor stores will rent tents and sleeping bags. And “camping food” like hotdogs and s’mores is very affordable. Best of all, figuring out how to put up that tent, telling stories around a campfire, and “roughing it” together will lead to great family memories.
Knock a star off your hotel… Yes, we all enjoy cushy hotels. But be honest with yourself: How long will your family really be in your room? Chances are, you’ll only be sleeping and showering there. Forgo bells and whistles so that you can feel better about spending money on daytime activities.
…or find a home away from home. Believe it or not, in many locations, it can actually be less expensive to rent a home than it is to book a hotel room. (Take a look at sites like www.vrbo.com and www.homeaway.com.) And as a bonus, you’ll probably have access to kitchen and laundry facilities.
Hold a garage sale to raise funds. Before embarking on your trip, go through your house one room at a time and commit to purging. Set aside items you don’t really like, don’t use, or that are worn or broken. (Be ruthless—ask a friend for help if you think you’ll need the support!) Then, hold a garage sale and donate anything you don’t sell to charity. You can earmark the money you make to pay for an aspect of your vacation: boarding the dog, meals at restaurants, gas, or just guilt-free mad money. And as a bonus, once your trip is over, you’ll come back to a home that’s cleaner, less cluttered, and more pleasant—adding to your sense of peace.
Have a “values talk” before your vacation. Before embarking on your trip, sit down as a family and identify what you really want to do while you’re away so that you aren’t mindlessly running around and spending money. Consider your values and talk about which past vacations have been most meaningful to you and why. (You may be surprised by the answers!) Focus on choosing activities that will create lasting memories—chances are, you’ll cherish them more than “stuff.” With this plan in mind, it will be easier for all of you to be more frugal about things you probably won’t remember two weeks from now.
Factor in some “down time.” While at first glance this may not seem like a money-saving tip, it actually is. When you pencil in some time to just hang around your hotel pool, for instance, by default you won’t be running around spending money. Plus, this gives you some breathing space to enjoy your family and just bask in the time you’re spending together—these are the moments true happiness is made of.
Pay in cash whenever you can. Research has shown that we spend roughly 15 percent more when we pay with a credit card as opposed to using cash. Of course, you’ll probably have to use a card when booking your airline tickets and reserving a hotel room, but once you get to your destination, plan to use cash. If you have to reach into your wallet and count out bills in order to pay for a meal or memento, you might just decide that it isn’t worth the money after all.
Look for cheap eats. If you’re driving, pack a cooler with sandwiches so that you don’t have to stop at restaurants along the way. Once you get to your destination, swing by a grocery store and pick up ingredients for quick and easy meals, like Pop Tarts, bread, peanut butter, and snack crackers. And for meals out, ask your hotel about coupons and early-bird specials.
Say no to cheap souvenirs. Just about every tourist destination on earth sells magnets, t-shirts, stuffed animals, coffee mugs, and other branded merchandise. Make a family pact not to spend money on this stuff (which, let’s face it, will probably be collecting dust on a shelf within a month). If you do purchase a souvenir, make it something your family will use and treasure; for instance, a local handmade craft you can display in your home. Before whipping out your wallet, try to make a habit of asking yourself, Does what I’m about to buy really matter to me, or would I rather put the money toward something more meaningful?
Start saving for next year. Once you’ve returned home from this year’s vacation, start saving for next year’s trip. (Not only will you be saving money; you’ll also be saving yourself future financial anxiety!) Cygan recommends using the Christmas club accounts used by banks in the 1960s as a model. Put a set amount into your vacation fund each week or month and make extra contributions from tax refunds, bonuses, or raises.
You can also involve your kids in your vacation club account by having them contribute a set amount of their allowance or birthday money. Create a colorful paper link chain, and add a link every time the fund increases by $20. The chain will become longer as the vacation gets closer. This is a great way to teach your kids the concept of saving over time for a goal—and to show them the satisfaction it brings!
Donna Skeels Cygan, CFP®, MBA, is the owner of the financial advisory firm Sage Future Financial, LLC and the author of The Joy of Financial Security: The art and science of becoming happier, managing your money wisely, and creating a secure financial future. She has been recognized numerous times as one of the top financial advisors in the U.S. She seeks to help her clients take control of their money in a way that maximizes their happiness.
Cygan has contributed to articles and has been quoted in national newspapers and magazines, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Forbes, Kiplinger’s, and Investment News. She has appeared on TV programs in New York, Seattle, Portland, Phoenix, Minneapolis, and Memphis, as well as on many radio shows across the U.S. She also enjoys speaking on many topics related to money and happiness. To learn more, visit www.joyoffinancialsecurity.com .
About the Book:
The Joy of Financial Security: The art and science of becoming happier, managing your money wisely, and creating a secure financial future (Sage Future Press, 2013, ISBN: 978-0-989-77844-2, $24.95, www.thejoyoffinancialsecurity. com) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.