Friday, February 20, 2009

Crunching the Numbers: Vacations on a Budget

About six years ago, shortly after Hubs almost died from a scary illness, he was laid off from his job with only 30 days notice. It was really a scary time; we had to sell our house, he went back to school, and then I was injured at work so for a time, we were surviving on student loans and Worker's Compensation benefits.

Those marriage vows that say "for richer or for poorer" really mean it. We had to change our life style quickly to survive, and change we did.

The funny thing is that we never really felt deprived, but instead realized that our happiness wasn't tied to the things we had or the money we could spend on going out. Instead, it was all about being together and there is SO much you can do that costs very little!

Today we both have great jobs that I think are probably pretty safe from the layoffs that are hitting people so hard, but the lessons from those days stuck with us. People are always asking me one major question:

"How do you afford those road trips?"

Here's the answers!

Eating out

At home during the year:

I suppose it helps that my Hubs is the pickiest eater on the planet, and that we have hardly any restaurants in our town to choose from, but during the year we almost never eat out unless it's a special occasion. We don't do fast food and brown bag all our lunches. I like to cook, and usually I can whip something up that is even better then the local restaurants for a fraction of the cost (like my butter chicken!). Our only weakness is a Sunday visit to a local coffee shop, which usually costs us about $6 a week. Considering that many families eat out at least once a week, this must save us a fortune!

While we are vacationing though, it's different.

Out on the Road:

Firstly, we stay at hotels that have breakfast bars and we use them because, hello! That is saving you at least $20 right there! While you're at it, why not even grab a piece of fruit or yogurt to take with you for later as a snack? A hotel with a good breakfast bar always gets high marks with us and we always use them.

Restaurant eating for three weeks takes a bit of strategy, both health-wise and money-wise. Usually, Jake and I split an entree because the portions in most USA restaurants are MASSIVE. Either that or I order from the senior's menu, which surprises a lot of people. It's not that I'm trying to be cheap, either-it's that I simply can't eat the amount of food from the usual menu! The bonus is that it IS cheaper and wait staff, once you explain why, are usually great about it. Another alternative is to order an appetizer, which can be a smaller portion as well. If we can't eat all of what we ordered we take the leftovers with us, and they often become that night's dinner, supplemented with stuff from the food bag.

A food bag is something we bring on every vacation. It's stocked with drinks, snacks, microwaveable soups, instant oatmeal, cereals, and things that if we just want a quick, light meal we're good to go. It can be supplemented by a visit to the grocery store where you can stock up on fruit or veggies, cheese, hummus, and pita bread. Sometimes if we splurge on a big lunch, we just don't feel hungry for dinner and instead raid the food bag. It's perfect on the road when it's easy to buy something at a fast food restaurant or pick up a drink from a gas station, it's even easier (and cheaper) to raid the food bag.

The most we have spent on a day's worth of eating out for our family of three (2 adults + 1 teenager) is about $60. Most of the time it is around $45-$50. The least we have spent is $18.


At home during the year:

We are an outdoorsy lot here in the Cookie Jar, but we're also content with simple things. Sunday hikes are a favorite of ours, as well as mountain biking and just hanging out together. We don't have hobbies that cost a lot of money and we don't really follow music or movies, so the lure of the latest download or trip to the theater is non-existent. In fact the joke is that we really must be fans in order to make the effort to see it at the theater!

Out on the road:

On vacation, half the fun is doing stuff! We still are content with outdoorsy things so visiting National Parks tops our list of fun things to do and believe it or not, if you're looking for an economical vacation, this is totally THE way to go. For $80 to buy a national park pass, you can visit any national park, most national monuments and more for an entire year. We usually buy one and get two summer's worth of vacations out of it. We bypass the expensive theme parks and tourist traps, instead plunking our money down for museums, parks, cultural excursions, and the occasional splurge of a Hummer tour, train ride, boat tour, renting a jeep for 4x4ing, etc. We plan our trip well-researching what attractions are available, how much they cost, and then deciding on a few that we'd really like to do.

Cost of Living

At home during the year:

There's various things you can do to save money at home. We use a drying rack instead of running our dryer all the time, turn down the hot water heater, don't leave our electronics on, and consolidate trips to the store to save gas. All the little bits really add up!

Out on the Road:

The biggest thing is to plan ahead. We usually make reservations with hotels at least 5-6 months in advance, especially for hotels near busy national parks or in the cities. We consider staying outside of the urban areas, since closer to the city or a major attraction usually means higher priced hotel rooms. I research and am not afraid to bargain with the reservation clerks! The most we will pay for a hotel room is $150 a night, although the average is around $115. I check back often for lots of deals because you never know what you'll find!


At home:

I'm not a recreational shopper. In fact, I hardly ever buy anything and if I do, I sort of feel guilty doing so! Case in point: I have this terrible, warped plastic cutting board. I know that I need a new one, but I just haven't been able to bring myself to buy one. So for 10 years I've been using this awful thing that rocks when I try to cut something on it. I mean, it works, right?

I probably could do a little better in that department. Suffice it to say that where we live, there are no decent stores, so it's hard to shop for things. As a result, we rarely ever go shopping unless we really need something, and then we go to the city.

It's easy not to spend money if you're not in the stores, you know.

On vacation:

During our holidays is the one time where we do some serious shopping. Why? Well, things are usually much cheaper in the USA and when we hit those Outlet malls, we stock up. We never buy useless souvenirs, but instead things we'll actually use like bed linens, clothes, and shoes. It depends on what we find, but we usually spend around $500 in total.

The road trip total, including gas, lodging, food, and entertainment for three weeks? About $3000. The 3 days, 4 nights we spent at Disneyland 4 years ago, including food, lodging, tickets, and souvenirs? $1500.

I'll pick the road trip every time.

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