How To Start Budgeting For Your Next Big Vacation


August 16, 2017

Parents today deal with a number of financial concerns when it comes to raising kids, and travel is just one of them. Whether it’s an unexpected flight to visit family, or a monumental trip to Disneyland, costs can mount quickly. It can leave you with a pile of uninvited debt, or frustrated withdrawals from savings accounts to bridge the financial gap.

With summer drawing to a close, you may be staring at your bank account, dreading (or dreaming!) of a big trip for next year, and wondering how on earth you will afford it. Fear not: we have tips for you to get your family on that vacation you’re dying for, how to do it without breaking the bank, and how to get our kids to help plan and save for it.

When to start saving

First, sit down as a family and discuss your expectations of what the trip will be like, and where to go. Perhaps you’ve decided on a location, but your partner or children have certain ideals about splurges like dining out or shopping. It’s good to get together and hash these out before you decide on your total budget. By doing this, kids feel included, valued, and that their opinions matter. They will also be more emotionally invested in the trip, because they feel involved in planning. We recommend starting to save as early as ten to twelve months in advance. This seems early, but it will decrease the pressure on your monthly budget. Don’t have ten to twelve months? You can still apply the principles below!

What to include in your budget

Begin researching the best prices and keep a small notebook or list to compare them all. A spreadsheet is really helpful here, where you can make a list of each category and where to find the best rates. Some of the things to include would be: Hotel or lodging expenses (try and Kayak for price comparisons), flights or rental car, gasoline (you can use a gas estimator if you want to get a closer estimate for budget purposes), new clothes like swimsuits, hiking shoes, etc, dining out or food costs, tickets to events or theme parks, parking fees or passes, and any applicable taxes or fees. Other incidentals like bug spray, sunscreen, tylenol, and small items can be included in a miscellaneous category.

Add these together to achieve your target amount. Break this amount down into weekly or monthly goals, depending on how many months you have to save (i.e.: If your trip is in 5 months, you might divide it into 20 even savings goals). Share this amount with your children, so they understand how much money is needed, in practical terms. Add in a little wiggle room for unexpected costs or’s better to prepare slightly high than come in too low.

Create a tangible, visual goal

Once you have your target amount), involve your children in making a visual aid. A colorful spreadsheet works well for older children, while younger ones will likely enjoy looking at a “thermometer” posterboard that you can mark with small and large goal amounts and color it in as it fills up. Want to involve them even more? Have them think of things they would “want” on the trip, and help them create their own mini savings goal to add to the pile!

Another fun idea is to keep the vacation money, either all of it or portions) in jars or envelopes, and to have your family count it together once a month and watch it grow. This is particularly helpful with young children who may not understand why other things may have to be sacrificed to hit the savings goals. Statements like “I know you really would have loved to buy X, but we have made great progress saving towards our trip to Hawaii! Thanks so much for helping us get to our goal! Let’s count together and see how much more we have saved!” are helpful and encouraging.

Look for sneaky ways to save

Increase your savings and make your dollars work a little harder by buying gift cards for fuel or dining (search Google to see nearby restaurants at your destination). For example, Kroger groceries sometimes offers double fuel rewards for gift card purchases. By purchasing a gas or dining card, you can decrease your regular fuel budget in the months leading up to your trip (which means more money into savings), and use the gift cards on your trip!

Other ideas include packing your own lunches, especially on road trips where a small ice chest is easy to bring along and can save a ton of money, and bringing your own pre-purchased souvenirs with you, like Disney dresses, lanyards, or tees, for example, instead of purchasing overpriced items there.

If you foresee having a hard time controlling your kids’ spending on the trip, you can grant them an “allowance” made up of prepaid cards like FamZoo or gift cards for them to be able to use on those “extras” that they suddenly must have, like that ice cream or souvenir on the trip. This also fosters healthy budgeting habits; when their money is gone, it’s gone!

What if you don’t hit your goal?

We know that life happens. The car needs new tires, or a child needs new sports equipment. Perhaps you reach the time of your trip, and realize that you have not met your target goal.

First, go back and review the expenses you first wrote down, and decide what can be cut out. It might be possible to eliminate a fancy dinner out, or an extra day at the theme park, in order to get closer to your goal… you can replace a high-expense item on the agenda with a lower one like a day at the beach or a state park! Ask your children what items they think can be removed, and vote if they can’t agree on which ones. If you don’t foresee a lot of incidental items coming up (especially closer to the trip), you can lower the amount of ‘wiggle room’ you initially wrote down.

Lastly, get together as a family and think of creative ways you can earn extra income to avoid accruing debt, like having a yard sale, selling unwanted things on eBay or on Facebook, baking cookies or selling lemonade, and doing a “spending freeze” (where you only buy essentials for a month). If you still cannot meet your goal, call a family meeting where you can brainstorm a less expensive vacation (overnight trip, camping, or waterslides, etc.), and discuss foregoing a large trip for another year.

This may be very disappointing to young children, who may not understand why you can’t go on your big vacation. Be sure to also use positive wording and acknowledge their feelings, by saying things like, “I know this is very disappointing. Mommy is disappointed too, but I am so excited to go to X (smaller trip) with you, and we can make a countdown until our big trip next year!”

By implementing these simple tips, and including your family in the process, you can go on a vacation without the stress of a credit card bill welcoming you home! Your children will also witness the hard work, planning, and sacrifice that goes into an expensive vacation, and you will set them up for financial success.

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