Myself and two lovely teenagers just returned from a two week trip to the other side of the U.S.
The addition of the third person in our merry band was fairly recent, and at the last minute we decided to bring the dog as well, which changed our plans a bit and in previous years could have completely derailed my budget.
The past six months of redefining my relationship with money served me very well on this trip. I managed to stay within budget in spite of making a few not-so-frugal choices that were for the benefit of our whole group. There were definitely some key elements to my success:
I planned ahead.
We’d planned this over the entire year, and I’d put money aside each month. We knew after returning from a bike tour last year that we wanted to do another family vacation. I requested my vacation time in November and specifically chose a time of year that wouldn’t affect my paycheck much or my son’s ability to get a summer job.
We knew we wanted to go to the west coast, since it had been six or seven years and we’d previously visited regularly. We knew we wanted to see friends and family but also to go on a bikey hikey adventure of our own. I started looking into possible destinations that would be within a day’s drive of visiting loved ones.
My budgeting for this trip was ruthless. I did have one month where I used a portion of my vacation savings to pay down debt- a month without as large a surplus as I’d been accruing. This worked because I’d worked out a solid debt payment plan that I’d been sticking to and knew I had a little wiggle room.
We meal planned and purchased groceries.
This saved an incredible amount of cash! We did end up eating more gas station snacks on the way home, but comparing notes I think I spent $1000 less on food than the last time just my kiddo and I traveled out west years ago! I’m proud of my co-travelers for agreeing to this idea. We did go out to eat once when visiting family/friends, and visited a coffee and ice cream shop, but continued to eat our grocery store stash otherwise even in the “urban” part of our adventure.
We camped rather than staying in hotels.
If I’m adventuring solo, I tend to camp for free – there are multiple directories online showing public lands that allowing camping. This was initially our idea, but with the addition of the (elderly and deaf) dog and another person, both of whom hadn’t done a lot of backcountry camping, I decided it would be wiser to stay in established campgrounds. I’ve had great luck staying in KOA campgrounds in the past, and especially like that they allow check-in after hours without a reservation, which we did to be able to drive longer hours. Another benefit of car/tent camping is that there are always sites open in campground that also serve RVs.
When we did stay in a hotel, we got one heckuva deal.
My one regrettable decision of the trip: we have generous friends that offered us a place to crash during our urban adventure, but I felt awkward taking them up on their offer since I hadn’t seen them in years, we had so many other people to visit, and wouldn’t have been around any one place much. Of course, after seeing them, I am kicking myself that we didn’t, because we would’ve had each night together and like all lifelong friendships we’d picked up right where we last left off.
We therefore stayed in a hotel that we price shopped, talked down to a weekly rate that was even cheaper (I’ve never done this, being an introverted weirdo, but it paid off!), and used a discount code to book. The hotel offered a full breakfast (eggs, meat, yogurt, loads of veggies/cheese/fruit, cereal, oatmeal, waffles, biscuits and gravy, almond/soy/dairy milks, and on!) and had a refrigerator and microwave in the room for our other meal purchases, so that brought the value to the equivalent of staying in campsites. It was nice having our own space to retreat to and use as a basecamp, and it probably made the daily routine much easier for our dog.
We didn’t buy trinkets.
This may sound trivial, but I cannot tell you how much I’ve spent in the past on souvenirs or T-shirts or a new pair of shoes just because I’m on vacation (yeah that one) and of course, always books in local bookstores! Collectively the three of us spent less than $30 on items that we didn’t bring with us.
We made do with what we had.
This goes along with the last point as well as planning ahead. In the past I’ve done things like not bother to pack toiletries and just pick them up along the way. We made sure we brought everything we needed, and shared amongst ourselves for the times we were lacking (like an extra blanket, sweatshirt or dental floss) rather than purchasing new items.
We sought out free activities.
On this trip, it was easy to find free things to do, since our main goals were to bicycle and hike. Our friends also share a love of the outdoors, so even in the urban portion of our trip we went hiking on two separate days (bringing our own food). For families with younger children, many campgrounds, state parks, and city parks have free events all summer long – all the campgrounds we stayed at had activities planned each night, from bonfires and s’mores making to star gazing walks through the forest. City museums often have free family days if you have the flexibility to plan around the dates they are offered. As a kid just staying in a campground and swimming in the pool every day was a luxurious vacation!
We practiced good communication and checked in regularly with one another to ensure we were all having a good time.
This has always been important to me on trips – to make sure my son was able to do something he wanted to do, and not just being dragged around from family event to family event then whisked back home. I feel it was even more important this time, since the three of us haven’t traveled this extensively together and we all had slightly different goals. We had a rule that we’d stop off anywhere that looked interesting to any of us, which led to some great finds in places we hadn’t seen before. We also had discussions on the way home that led to skipping a day in Yellowstone, which had been on the docket “For Sure” the entire time, but all three of us felt good about the decision.
We had a fantastic adventure and bonded as a family.
I had a few hesitant moments at different times throughout the year, realizing that I was pushing my financial freedom date back by saving for this trip. But my biggest “why” for achieving that goal is to have more time with the people I love. With my son being an adult and his life taking its own shape, we both relish the adventures we are able to experience together now, and I spent too many years pushing off vacations (weekend camping trips and the like, nothing extravagant by any means) in the name of saving money. The kicker: I can’t tell you where the heck that money went, because it didn’t end up in my portfolio. It’s important to me to find a balance between my long term badassery goals and cherishing the relationships I have right now.
This trip was the right now, and it was so good to reconnect with old friends, my family, and to deepen my relationship with my son and his girlfriend. This experience only motivates me even more to buckle down now that I’m home, because it’s exactly what I want more of down the line.