Handling an Over-Priced Family Reunion

Overly Expensive Family Reunions

How do people handle over-priced family reunions? My immediate family, all grown siblings and parents who are all in various U.S. locations, had a summertime family reunion. It was at an expensive resort with expensive amusement parks and attractions nearby for the kids. It came with a kitchen so we were able to keep some food expenses down, but people still ate out. As a mom in a one-income family, we can't afford this level of vacation, while my siblings (dual-incomes) seemingly can. I felt pressured and angered that I was forced into spending money, and subsequently did not enjoy this vacation. How do other people handle these delicate situations?
Ann in Midwest

Alternative Family Reunion

It sounds like you have two problems here. The first problem is how to plan a family reunion that isn't too expensive, and then how to persuade your family members to go along with it. To address the second question first, I would recommend just being honest with your family members about it. When the subject of the next family reunion comes up, tell them candidly that money is tight for you and you can't afford another resort vacation like the last one. Then (this is key) propose a realistic alternative that you can afford and the family can enjoy.

So, how can you hold a family reunion without spending too much money? Obviously, the cheapest option is to gather at somebody's home. Whether you can do this depends on the number of people involved and the size of the biggest family house available. If you do hold the reunion at one family member's house, other family members should help out to avoid putting too great a burden on the host, in terms of both money and work. Thus, all family members should chip in for groceries and share the responsibilities of cooking, cleaning, and looking after the kids.

If no one has the space to host the family gathering, then you need to look for another site that can accommodate everyone at a reasonable cost. Consider renting a cabin (or a few smaller cabins) at a camp or a state or national park that has housing facilities. Look for a site that has a kitchen available so that you can still cook for yourselves and avoid the cost of eating out. A camp or a park will also offer a variety of choices for healthy outdoor recreation, rather than "expensive amusement parks and attractions." If it rains, you can enjoy inexpensive indoor activities such as party games. Charades and Fictionary (also known as Balderdash) are good choices for a large group.

There are several articles on The Dollar Stretcher site that offer more suggestions about planning a family reunion at low cost. Planning Family Reunion on a Shoestring discusses the topic in broad terms, while Family Reunion Fun and Family Reunion Fun Part 2 focus on activities for the family. Parties, Picnics and Potlucks provides some food suggestions.

It's Okay to Decline Family Reunion Invitation

Difficult as it may sound, it really is okay to decline an invitation. If pressured, be honest and tell them you can't afford it, or that you are saving your money for another purpose. No explanations are really required. "No" is a complete sentence. If you choose, you might want to volunteer for the next reunion, planning a potluck at a local park with games, food, and lots of time to enjoy each other's company.

Affordable, Fun Family Reunion

I live near a state park and have noticed that many families use the park for family reunions. All they need to do is reserve a pavilion (or several) for use. The park has swimming and boating facilities as well as fishing opportunities. They engage in picnic type games such as horseshoes, cards, softball, etc. Actually, in my opinion, these types of games allow for more conversation among family members than riding amusement rides. After all, the purpose of a reunion is to visit and catch up on what is happening in the lives of others.

Volunteer to Organize Next Family Reunion

First, volunteer to organize the next reunion. (In our family, grown siblings take turns in organizing the reunion, but we are all interested in saving money and doing things together rather than visiting major attractions that cost a lot of money.) If you organize the reunion, you control the cost to a great extent. Choose a place that offers multiple recreational opportunities within reasonable distance from where folks will stay. While we try to spend most of our time together, we look for venues that provide easy access to shopping, hiking, or other activities to appeal to various ages and interests.

If you are able to have the reunion off-season or during a "shoulder season," you'll save a bundle. If not, make reservations well in advance. State parks with cabins are great. Each family can have a cabin or half of a cabin, and if you reserve early, you can get them next to each other. West Virginia state parks are excellent, and many offer great hiking trails, canoeing, swimming, ranger programs, craft classes for the kids, nightly get-togethers with singing and story telling, etc. You can also find very large privately owned cabins, cottages, or lodges to rent in various areas by searching the Internet, so that you can find a place near favorite tourist destinations if you wish.

If your family has a hobby in common, perhaps you can find a place near a museum or other attraction having to do with that hobby. For instance, consider a rock and roll museum, a miniature railroad park, a famous pottery, a highland festival, etc., providing day trips that will interest family members.

Our extended family takes turns cooking supper, so that each nuclear family cooks once or twice a week, and we might grill out or order pizza once during the week. On special occasions, we might have a theme night like luau or a 50s party for an anniversary. These are great times for kids to spend a day making decorations and cooking special foods, and it's especially fun if it's a surprise party for grandparents.

If every family brings a favorite game or large jigsaw puzzle, there is usually plenty to do. We traditionally have a canasta tournament over five days, which means someone has to figure out a schedule of partners and, in the end, calculate who is the high scorer and wins the trophy, which is passed on at each reunion. For younger members, there may also be an Uno tournament, or youngsters may play canasta with an older mentor to privately answer questions on strategy during the game. Other families may prefer croquet, beach volleyball or another type of competition. This is a time for sharing projects that can be done together, including crafts, playing music, making up a family trivia game, or other activities that build your family history together.

For those who are determined to go to an expensive theme park, you could designate the first or last couple of days of the week as add-on days. Those that want can come early or stay late and go on to do the costly stuff on their own, while the frugal ones consider the reunion successfully concluded and return home in a relaxed and solvent state.

It's Time to Stop Worrying What Others Think

The reason that backing out of tradition based events is so hard is because of the speculation and gossip that surrounds those who don't attend. Does your attendance feel forced? Are you concerned about what others may think or say if you don't attend? Would you rather have a smaller vacation with just your family?

If you're not having a good time and can't justify the expense, now is the time to make a change. There are a couple of options you could consider.

  1. Call up the "organizer" and tell them that due to circumstances beyond your control, you and your family will not be attending. You don't need to go into detail or lie about the circumstances. The truth is that it's your choice and you don't owe anyone an explanation. If you're worried about being badgered, keep your lines simple and vague, rehearse your statements, be firm, and say the same thing to everyone who calls.
  2. You could call a couple other relatives and see how others are feeling about these reunions. You may discover that some of those two-income families are struggling to keep up appearances and putting themselves deeper in debt. Other members may be relieved that someone finally had the courage to stand up and verbalize what everyone else is thinking. Others may even jump on your bandwagon.

Just remember that your number one obligation is to your immediate family. If you aren't comfortable spending the money on extravagance, then trust your instincts and don't worry about what others think.

Ideas for Keeping Down Family Reunion Costs

Our family had a family reunion this past summer and we kept costs down in a variety of ways.

  1. Two of the relatives live in the same town, so we opted to have the meeting there. They each made some room available to out-of-towners, so that helped bring down housing expenses for some of us.
  2. We also negotiated a group rate at a local hotel. Family members mentioned the family reunion name and got a discount on their hotel rate when making reservations.
  3. We used local facilities. We rented rooms at the local recreation center for lunch and dinner, so we had access to the center's facilities, which included pool play area for children and a lap pool.
  4. We reserved park space at a nearby park and played games there one afternoon.
  5. We bought food at a local warehouse like Sam's Club or Costco and then passed on the costs to the attendees. We charged per person and kept food costs down that way.
  6. The first night's gathering was at one of the relative's home, so the only cost was food.
  7. We designed and made our own nametags, banners, and decorations.

Each of these activities, reservations and food cost money, time and personal effort, but it was very rewarding and kept costs low. Some of us donated some items, like a cake, balloons or goodie bags, but most of the costs were distributed quite equitably, so that each person's costs were about $25 (not including hotel). Those with families with many children averaged about $15 per person.

I think family reunions should be about building bridges of communication and getting to know each other. If you spend too much money on fancy places with many amenities, you end up trying to do too much (to get your money's worth) and not having enough down time to just meet, sit and chat.

Save Money on Family Reunion with Youth Hostels

For many years, my extended family has had annual one-day reunions. They are always the Sunday before Labor Day and always in the Portland, Oregon area, which is central for most of the family. Since everyone knows when and generally where, the people from out of town can make their plans. We have rented community centers, Grange halls and picnic areas in parks.

For the last several years, we have rented a picnic area in an amusement park. It costs about $100 for the day, and we pass a hat for reimbursement. The park provides bracelets for unlimited rides at a discount for us. There is a covered shelter so we can enjoy the reunion no matter what the weather.

Consider youth hostels. There is a great hostel on Vashon Island near Seattle that is like a dude ranch, with a bunk house, teepees and covered wagons for sleeping. They also have a tent area. One year my grandson and I spent several days there and a group was having a family reunion while we were there. Hostels are inexpensive and I think they all provide cooking facilities.

Many state and national parks have group facilities. You may need to put your name on a waiting list or a lottery system. One state park in Oregon has a lovely lodge that is popular for family reunions. It is large enough for several families, and the cost divided by the number of people is nominal.

One of my friends has her family reunion in a huge beach "cabin" every year. It has about 10-12 bedrooms.

Depending on the time of the year, you may be able to get a good off-season rate. For example, consider a ski lodge or college dorms in the summer or a church youth camp in the fall, winter or spring. And finally, don't forget camping.

A Camping Family Reunion

We are a single income family of 8. As you can imagine, it costs us a small fortune to go on vacation! To address financial issues, we have our seven-day family reunion every other year. We travel to a different location around the country so everyone has the opportunity to vacation closer to home, but the family members "in charge" are given the task of finding reasonably priced accommodations. This is not always easy, but we do get two years to save.

By rotating planners (We use two hosts with one experienced from the last reunion and one "new" host.), we get different activities and points of view. And, I can help plan two reunions over four years. Most importantly, because money is always the issue with six children, we plan for natural playgrounds like the beach, mountains and National Parks.

To keep costs down, we have rented houses/cabins that sleep 24 and share food costs, creating a cooking schedule to break up the workload. Even the husbands and kids get a night to prep meals! Our condos or cabins usually include amenities like swimming pools and tennis courts and have free or low cost rentals of bikes, scooters, canoes and motor boats. We also try to book in areas with historical value so we can take a day or two to use the trip for tourist/educational purposes, many are free of charge.

Two reunions back, we took a day trip to Fort Sumpter while staying in Myrtle Beach, SC. Last reunion we did the mountains of Pigeon Forge, TN. While Dollywood was a main attraction, we also were able to visit the National Forest and Gatlinburg. This year, it's at Sanibel Island, Florida. Our condo and groceries (built in kitchens are a must!) are really the only expenses other then the gas to get there. We'll take a day trip to the Everglades and enjoy a potluck BBQ with the extended family.

Our get-together times are spent playing games, whether board, cards or competitive sports. We plan one restaurant night where everyone is invited, but not expected to attend. As a rule, everyone is on their own to enjoy their vacation in their own way.

Do not give in to the pressure of eating out! Go grocery shopping on the way to check-in. Do not give into the pressure of amusement parks unless you budget for it! Do not feel guilty about saying "No!" It's your vacation, and you should enjoy it without going broke.

Take the Next Step:

  • For more information on National Parks please visit: http://www.nps.gov/
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