A Real Vacation

There was a little boy about four years old in the doctor’s office excitedly telling the receptionist about his recent camping trip to New Hampshire and how much fun it had been. His mom enthusiastically intervened, instructing him, “now tell her where we’re going for a real vacation!” When he looked puzzled and didn’t answer right away, the mom shouted out “Disney!!” – clearly much more excited than the child about this. He didn’t know that the camping vacation which he had so greatly enjoyed had not been real.

I recently got back from vacation.  Not a week of day trips to the ‘lake-down-the-street’; this was a real, 9-days-in-Orlando-Disney-World-holiday; a perfect opportunity to celebrate our daughter’s high school graduation with a big happy family vacation, no holds barred.

The cost for 4 adults in Disney is high. To the best of my calculations we were in it for about $5,000, and that’s probably conservative.  My family set a financial goal and saved for this. We work disney
hard to have a good lifestyle, why should we not occasionally reward ourselves? It all seemed perfectly normal. We were one small family among a sea of others enjoying the same. But, it hit me one morning while we were enjoying a character breakfast, and the bill came to $160 for the 4 of us. Did I eat enough bacon to make it worth that cost?? Probably, but I digress….

Appalled, I declared, “We are grotesque Americans!” The sudden onslaught of negativity surrounding the costly vacation was like a deluge. How could we spend so much on something so indulgent? We are responsible people with a mortgage to pay, college to fund and children to care for. We give our time and treasure to help various non-profits because we are very socially aware and responsible people. We are part of the solution, not the problem; or so I thought.

My defense mechanisms initially allowed me to convince myself that this was beyond the normal experience for us, an exception to our generally frugal lifestyle. As a rule our vacations are humble in nature. Until I realized that’s not exactly accurate either. My mind flitted through some of our previous travels; from tropical treks to domestic destinations as well as countless local junkets around New England. Is this normal? Is it ok? Should we be proud or ashamed? And what are we teaching our kids?

vacationAccording to American Express, the average vacation cost in America is $1,200 per person, easily reaching or exceeding the $5,000 range for a family of 4. Certainly there are many who spend well more on luxury vacations. We see it glamorized on social media as we attempt to play catch-up with our peers. One-upping is not only socially acceptable, it is encouraged. We feel that we are somehow failing if we don’t keep up with our neighbors. We stretch ourselves to the financial limits to equate ourselves to the well-heeled, whose perfect Facebook posts include gleeful images of the beautiful family on their tropical vacation, all clothed in color-coordinated designer outfits.

We see those happy faces by design, the ideals that people allow us to see; a glimpse at what they wish to portray as their norm. But social media isn’t an indicator of economic health or happiness. Nobody displays their worst pictures, personal or relationship struggles or financial difficulties on Facebook or Instagram.  We only see an image that makes us believe someone has it better than we do and somehow we are compelled to play along.

After some contemplation, I realized that there is no shame in splurging on that occasional high-cost vacation, in fact it’s a perfect opportunity to teach kids by example how to achieve goals with budgeting and planning. Setting financial goals to achieve objectives is of paramount importance, a crucial lesson which cannot be downplayed. The problem is that we often inadvertently teach our children to equate good times with money; the save-vacation
of things instead of the value of the experience. So is it realistic to have fun without spending bundles of cash? Maybe it requires making a commitment to yourself to worry less about what other people are doing.

There is value in all experiences.  The following are some suggestions for having it both ways….

Make memories without breaking the bank: (and yes, please do post happy pictures to your social media of choice)

  • Take a hike; regardless of where you live, there are parks that offer hiking or recreational trails.
  • Hit the beach (my favorite).  Oceanside or lakeside, there is something rejuvenating and relaxing about being near the water.
  • Check out your local library for discounted (sometimes free) passes to local attractions & museums.
  • Backyard campfires are popular with all the great fire pit options out there. Invite a group of friends or family to join you.
  • If you can find one, go to a drive-in movie. Remember how much fun they used to be?
  • Attend minor league or college sporting events. Lowell Spinners; Cape League baseball, etc.
  • Museums, amusement parks and zoos usually offer discount rates for a season pass. If your family will take advantage of going often, do the math and see if it makes sense for you.
  • Plan a camping trip. Swim in a river. Cook over a fire. Stargaze. Sing Kumbaya. (kidding; or not)
  • Make your adventure technology free. Ask your kids to put down the phones, iPads, etc. for a while and enjoy the experience. Set the bar by doing the same yourself. Exceptions can include taking a photo or 2.
  • Take a day trip. Think of a fun destination and drive there; feel free to stop along the way if something looks interesting. Three hours to Vermont for an ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s? Done that. Not ashamed. The journey is often better than the destination.


Reinforce the value of setting Financial Goals for those “splurge” fun times:

  • Work together to determine exactly where and when you would like to go. Be specific.
  • Research prices for airfare, hotel, meals, park tickets etc. Compare package deals vs. purchasing individually. Make sure you include incidentals and include a “contingency” for overrun. Do you have any earned air-miles saved? Also, consider all-inclusive resorts to save money.
  • Once you have your destination and total costs determined, set a future travel date. Calculate how much money you would need to save monthly or weekly in order to accomplish the goal and include this as part of your budget.  If it seems unrealistic, adapt your plan. You can make adjustments to the travel date or to the destination or length of time to reduce the amount you need to budget.
  • Include all family members in contributing to the cause. Kids need to have some “skin in the game” to have a sense of achievement at the end result. If they are too young for traditional jobs, allow them to earn with a chore-based monetary reward system and encourage them to put some towards the goal.
  • Important: Write the vacation goal down and display it where everyone can see it on a regular basis. Include pictures and embellishments. This reminder will help stave off impulse spending that could throw your plan off track.

Goal-setting and budgeting are invaluable tools to reaching long-term objectives. I think experiencing a mix of local excursions as well as the occasional splurge will help your children to know that there is adventure available in all directions and price ranges. A vacation doesn’t always need to be expensive to be “real”.


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