Save Money for Your Family Vacation

by Teresa Higginbotham

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"Mom, can we go to Disney World?"

"Our family survey reports Yosemite is the best family vacation spot in the U.S."

"We need to visit the relatives this year, but we just can't afford it." Have these conversations been heard in your house? Taking a vacation today has become incredibly expensive. A trip to Disney World? For some families this seems easy, for mine it would take a winning lottery ticket or an act of God. So many households are struggling just to get all the bills paid every month, so taking a vacation can take a backseat. The truth is though, that it is these very families who really need that vacation. If you are scrimping and saving all the time, the idea of cutting loose and ...spending can be pretty liberating. So what are some ways to get that family vacation? First of all you need to have a plan.

Where do you want to go? Discuss this as a family. Are you going to Aunt Martha's in the next county or are you going to EuroDisney? If you are really stretched financially, start small. We found we could afford a 4-day weekend to a nearby city. We hit museums, zoos, restaurants, and historical monuments. Research your destination. Use the library, the Internet, a relative or friend in the area. We found a great restaurant for kids we never would have known about if I hadn't asked a cousin about it. Once you have your destination decided write it down on a savings worksheet. Put the worksheet on the front of the refrigerator. This helps your family to remember the goal you have set.

What travel arrangements will you need? Are you going by car, plane, bus, train? Once you know how you're going to get there come up with a cost of your travel accommodations. If you're going by car, don't forget to add the gas. Try to get a bottom line total of how much it will cost you to travel there and back and add it to your chart.

What kind of lodgings will you require? If you're staying with relatives, great! If not, find hotel rates in the area and figure out (1) how much it will take per night and (2) how much the total bill will be for your family. Add this to your chart. What kind of entertainment/meal money would you require? Plan the expense of eating out. If you rent one of the family suites now so popular, you can save substantial amounts on your food bill. We stayed at a suite with a microwave, sink and refrigerator. We brought soda, cereal, milk, bread and sandwich meat from the local grocery store. This way we ate out for dinner and maybe lunch. Figure out how much you want to spend per day on restaurant meals. Then add it together to get a total. Add this to the chart.

Then think about what you will do at your destination. If you are going to a museum, how much will it cost for your family to get in? Swimming with the dolphins? How much? My niece once saved her birthday money to get to do this and I thought it was a great way to teach her why we save for things. Decide what you want to do and then calculate how much each activity will cost and put it on the chart.

Now, add it all together and take a deep breath. This may be the point where you have to modify! Maybe not. How are you ever going to get all that cash together? I can't guarantee these strategies will get it the total amount for you, but they just might help.

  1. Save your change. Whatever you have left in your pocket at the end of the day, put in a jar. You'd be amazed how quickly that change will add up.
  2. We rarely go to the movies at our house because it is so expensive. We do rent videos, though. If you rent many during the month, try cutting down on them. Take that three bucks and put it in your savings.
  3. Pack lunches. Do your kids eat cafeteria food every day? Send in a sack lunch for a month or two. When they start to complain (and they will) remind them that this is a contribution to the family vacation fund. Don't get trapped into packing a lot of prepackaged convenience food either. Lunchable type products can cost as much or more than what your kids are eating in the cafeteria. You can buy plastic containers and make your own. Cut up a piece of sandwich meat, a little cheese, stick in a cookie and a juice box and send it to school. You can also pack your own lunch. Sometimes popping over to the sandwich shop can get costly on a regular basis. Figure out how much you've saved each week and write a check to your vacation fund.
  4. Have a yard sale and clean out those closets! You'd be surprised what you have that someone else might be willing to pay for. Look through your garage or basement. There has to be some gadget or appliance you no longer have a use for. Be sure to price your items and put them out in an easy to see way. Don't just stick them out there in a box and say, "make me an offer"!
  5. Visit yard sales. If you don't yardsale already, now is the time. You can pick up kids clothes, your clothes, dishware, appliances, furniture, books for you and your kids, anything! Before you hit all those back to school sales in the fall try hitting a yardsale. A pair of jeans is a pair of jeans (spoken like a mother whose kids aren't teenagers yet).
  6. Don't buy anything new for six months. Now I'm not talking toilet paper here. I talking about a new car, recarpeting the house, a new freezer. A big ticket item. Unless you desperately need this item, try to hold off until after the vacation. Decide which is more important to you.
  7. Stay away from the mall. Where can you go to find prices inflated up to 100%? Try your local mall. Stay away. Shop in less expensive stores and keep those kids away if you can. You won't get weak if you don't get tempted. Shop the dollar store.
  8. Economize on gift giving. There are many ways to do this. If you have to supply a gift for every kid in your son's class who has a birthday, consider buying in bulk. One time I found a popular board game marked down from $19.95 to $3. (It was a drug store and it looked like they had bought several for Christmas and it was now January). I bought 5 games. We used those games up! It was great! (Got a birthday? Here's a game.) If you find a sale, think about how many birthdays you will have to get a gift for in the next six months.
  9. Plan before you grocery shop. This has been one of the most effective money-savers in our house. You sit down with the weekly sale flyer. It works even better if you do this with coupons. Find a sale and try to match a coupon. By the time you finish, you will have a cheaper eating week and you will have organized yourself to the point where you don't have to ask yourself, "What shall I make for dinner tonight?" Also by planning ahead you will cut down on those drive-throughs. Think about cutting that bill from $10-$15 at the burger joint to between $4-5 at home.
  10. Cut out any extra services you have in your home (temporarily). Do you have a lady who cleans your house? Someone who cuts your grass? A regular baby-sitting date? These are tough things to do without if you are used to it, but could you do without it for just a little while? Or cut down to using the service just half the time. Could you clean those carpets yourself with a rental from the supermarket?

On top of all these things, find ways to generate extra money by collecting cans, baby-sitting, tutoring, whatever you can do. You may not reach your total vacation expenditure, but these strategies will help provided you remember to squirrel away what you've saved. If you buy a pair of jeans for $1.00 at a yard sale then write a check to your vacation fund for the other $18.00(or more) you would have spent at the store.

Families need vacations to rest and rejuvenate from the busy lives we lead. Take a small one or a big one, but try to find a way to take a vacation!

Teresa Higginbotham is also known as "Tightwad Tess." Contact her by email at

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