I’ve hiked the Camino de Santiago in Spain, swam the turquoise waters around the Seychelles Islands, and surfed the swells off New Zealand’s coast. I’ve shopped in Prague, admired architecture in London, and scaled castle walls in Ireland.
Where were my children during my international travels?
Except for the castle walls — at which point they were harnessed in tightly and wearing helmets — they trailed peacefully behind me, single file, licking their ice cream cones as they regurgitated classic literature relating to our location.
At least, that’s my reality until I open my eyes.
It’s then that three different scents of morning breath meet me. Six eyes stare me down, willing me to wake up and feed them breakfast. I try to postpone their hunger, but they outnumber me.
Reluctantly, I leave my world traveling behind and wonder if there’s any food in the cupboards. It’s still a week from payday and the hungry munchkins ate all six boxes of cereal in seven days. That equals .86 boxes of cereal a day! The birds are chirping the sun is shining, and all I can think is, Wouldn’t the beach be awesome right now?
Yes, I answer myself, it would — unless I had to stay in a condo with a kitchenette. Kitchenette = ability to cook meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner).
Why can’t we afford a vacation? How much does one even cost? Is it the food, the gas, or the hotel that helps keep Visa workers employed?
I unload the dishwasher and turn to stack the plates in the cabinet as I daydream about restaurant meals. I freeze — face-to-face with the villain keeping me from my dream of a family vacation. (No, it’s not my husband. At this early hour, he’s still sleeping.) It is my French door, pull-out drawer, filtered water, stainless steel refrigerator. Her matching sister, my super-powered, ultra-hot, 7-cycled dishwasher helps foil my vacation plans, too. In fact, as I turn circles in my kitchen, I catch a glimpse of the 42-inch flat screen plasma TV, the leather couch, the new curtains, and the shiny red laptop.
Doo-do-da-doo-doo. The jingle of my front-loading washer and dryer rouses me from my daze.
What is keeping us from a vacation? It’s me.
I need to ask myself, what do I value most? I spend my nights dreaming of experiencing the world with my children, but spend my days helping our country slow the economic recession. Why am I not putting my money where my heart is?
Experiences and memories are what my heart craves. But my spending habits often betray my heart. For example, six months ago we weren’t planning for travel; we were too busy spending money on stuff. What I didn’t spend on stuff, I miserly stuck away in an account, always feeling poor and never believing that we had enough for a rainy day.
I think the hardest part has been realizing that the stuff doesn’t last very long in a house with three young boys. My treasure is daily dented by hockey pucks, tarnished by permanent marker, and crushed by impromptu wrestling matches.
Doo-doo-da-doo-doo. I wake up from my daydreaming. My priorities need to shift.
Today, these are my humble attempts at saving for a family vacation:
I don’t like yard sales but I love craigslist. I made a list of stuff that we were’t using and started selling it off, piece by piece. Sure, sometimes the money has gone to bills or shoes, but most of it goes into an account.
2. Mutual Gifts
When Nathan and I receive a little bonus (and I do mean little), we stick it away. Recently we received $100. We’ve decided to hit Virginia Beach in the fall, when we can get a hotel room for $39/night. That’s two and a half nights! Woohoo!
3. Mystery Shopping
Yes, I know it’s corny and there are some really bad advertisements out there. But I have made some beautiful paychecks for very small amounts of work. I’ve shopped at a major nationwide coffee chain, my husband and I have had dates nights at restaurants that would never fit in our budget, and we have taken the kids put-putting, bowling, and just out to ice cream. I fill out a short survey and get reimbursed for the required purchase plus a small stipend for gas and time. For those of you who live in rural areas, the bonuses can be as large as $120 for a single shop. This is very abnormal, but possible. Plus, if I know we are headed out of town, I look for mystery shops at our destination. If we are lucky, we get to try something new for almost free! There are safe sites out there.
4. Checkbook Cheating
This is a really fun way to trick myself. In my checkbook, I round all of my record keeping to the next highest dollar amount. For example, if I go to the store and spend $29.16 on groceries, I record it as $30 in my checkbook. It’s like a virtual change jar. In one year alone, I put away almost $600 as a cushion in the account. I’ve gotten so good at my system that I’ve added an extra step. I do all my monthly spending on our Discover card. This earns us around $800/year in cashback bonuses. To keep from accruing credit card debt, as soon as I charge it on my card at the store, I also pull out my checkbook and record the transaction (still using the rounding technique). I get to save in my virtual change jar, make money on my cashback bonuses, and not carry any credit card debt month to month.
5. Good, Old-Fashioned Sacrifice
We just bought a house, so the temptation to spend, spend, spend is overwhelming. However, my husband and I have decided to just be more aware of our spending habits. We weigh the impact on our monthly budget and decide, “Do we or don’t we?” Most of the time, we don’t. Sure, I go without new clothes more often. My husband stopped his Blockbuster pass. But the kids have chosen to sacrifice as well. Our oldest was invited to play travel soccer. We decided together, as a family, that our monetary resources should be saved for a more family friendly event, like a vacation. They are excited to be a part of the planning!
6. Go Local
Don’t underestimate local benefits for residents. I just found out that Bush Gardens, while very expensive, offers season tickets to local residents for only $10 more. That makes the $250 well worth it if my family of five can go several times in one entire spring and summer! As soon as our three year old stops running away in large crowds, we’ll be there.
These are just a few ideas that are working for our family. Some families prefer to stay home. I recently read an article that suggested you invest in your home and make it your very own retreat. In that case, I’m about to list a 42-inch plasma TV on craigslist. I’m sure your husband would love it.
I think the important lesson for me is this: Take time to name the things I value in life. Then, whatever my priorities, live them well. If I can do this, whether at home or at a faraway beach, I will have no regrets when my last child leaves home. And honestly, isn’t that what it’s all about?
[This article was originally published on June 21, 2009 as “Piggy Bank Holiday.” We love it so much, we’ve republished it for you.]