Hey all, here’s what we’ve been up to the last month. Let’s just say travel has eclipsed blogging.
We drove about eight hours south to see the eclipse. It was awesome. Traffic getting home was not awesome. We were only about halfway home by 10 pm and decided to stop at a hotel. Those Marriott rewards sure came in handy, because others we knew traveling back from the vicinity did not get home until 6:30 am!
Neil found a great place to view the eclipse– a library next to a splash pad. It was perfect for entertaining the kids leading up to totality.
It’s also why Neil is wearing his swim trunks while photographing the eclipse.
On the way to totality, we camped at Mammoth Caves.
We didn’t realize you need to book tickets ahead of time, so Neil waited in line for over an hour and scored us a tour. Our son squeaked by in the free age category by just two days. There’s the personal finance tie-in: late summer birthdays are good for tourist attraction admission.
I was a little nervous about descending into the cave, but our daughter was more than comfy. She fell asleep near the end.
A couple weeks before our eclipse adventure, we headed to a beautiful campground in Michigan. If only our station wagon had wood paneling!
Things we did: camped with friends, picked the biggest blueberries I’ve ever seen, swam, kayaked, biked to town, got ice cream, played Uno, toured the light house, hiked in pouring rain, made s’mores over the fire.
Things we didn’t do, but probably could have: contracted lice from a family of nine, been eaten by bears, gotten lost in a National Forest, and blown away in 18-20 mph winds (we only lost our tent’s door mat).
Light house tour was fun. We all made it to the top.
The light house’s Fresnel lens. In tact ones are apparently rare.
View of the bay next to our camp site.
The “lunkers,” as my son calls them.
Beautiful little beach a minute’s walk from our camp site. The kids would swim during sunset.
After camping, we took a steamship ferry across Lake Michigan since Neil had a meeting for work in Green Bay.
We stayed at a tundra-themed waterpark hotel in Green Bay. I took the kids down the slides. So. Many. Times.
The National Train Museum in Green Bay was free with our reciprocal membership benefits. There were lots of old trains you could go in. My favorite was the mail train on the left.
It’s been a whirlwind. During our few stints home we were busy preparing Bible teachings, making garden-fresh salsa, and having play dates before school starts. Neil also had a men’s retreat, and is getting ready for a short-term mission trip to India. I’m both soaking in the last days of summer and longing for the structure of the school year.
How has your summer wrapped up? What did you think of the eclipse?
We’re gearing up for our annual camping trip to Florida. Many people view camping as “not a vacation,” worse than a last resort when it comes to travel. Us, we’d rather travel more often in less style, than vice versa. Camping allows our family to take more trips while sticking to our annual vacation budget. Between now and the end of summer, we have five camping trips planned, with talk of a couple more one-nighters in the works.
Some camping trips are more “glamping” than others. To me the difference is all in the bathroom facilities, proximity to water, and electricity hookup. Other have preferences about the foliage, campground amenities, nearby attractions, or the size of the sites. Our Florida trip is definitely our most glamping trip—it runs us around $700 including a rental car. Here’s why I consider this camping trip luxurious:
- A room with a view. Camping is the ultimate room with a view. Rather than paying $150+ per night for a beachfront hotel, I pay $100 for the week and open my tent door to beautiful Florida foliage and sunshine–most days at least! Just a couple miles away, within the campground, is a gorgeous, expansive beach.
- We eat food I didn’t prepare. Between a couple inevitable (and budgeted for!) Bojangles stops on the way down and back, and the meal rotation we participate in with friends, I get to enjoy a few meals I didn’t cook myself. That’s a relative rarity and one I thoroughly appreciate. We also eat more processed foods, which is simultaneously gross and glorious, and makes my life so much easier for that week.
- We will rent a car. As part of our overall car cost strategy, we rent a car for this annual 2000 mile trek. Renting allows us to avoid putting undue wear and tear on our already-older vehicles. It costs us around $200 and sometimes we are able to use coupons. Though the main reason is to be kind to our vehicles, it’s an added perk that should something go wrong, we won’t have to halt our trip to personally fix it—a not unlikely scenario in the cars we own. And of course, driving a newer rental vehicle is quite lavish compared to our 14- and 15-year old rides.
- I will shower without my children in the same building. I’m really excited about this one! At home, I’m liable to be interrupted when someone has to use the toilet (we have two, people!), beg to join me (the toddler), or just ask me random questions about Star Wars plot points. In the camp ground’s remarkably nice shower house, the water temperature and pressure might not be ideal, but at least I am alone.
- We use paper products. Disposable napkins, cups, plates, forks…the irony of depleting earth’s resources while enjoying her beauty is not lost on me. Some friends wash reusable camp dishes, but I soak in the glory of simplied meal clean-up.
- We have instant entertainment. The campground contains a beautiful ocean beach, kayaking, nature trails, and a turtle pond. Then there is biking, the playground right next to our site, and the fact that over 100 of our friends are there with us. Not only are we in good company, our kids have a dozen of their pals right there to play with. No need to break out the calendar to schedule play dates. We just mosey on down the road and see who’s out. It’s a child’s dream—being outside all day with your friends, riding bikes, going to the beach, and best of all, being dirty.
- Speaking of which, I can look a mess. I’m not one for fussing over hair and makeup, but in normal life I feel compelled to at least look presentable, and maybe like I’m even trying a little. At camping, I refuse to straighten my hair, put on mascara, or anything of the sort. Ponytail and sunscreen is the extent of my beauty routine there. I always find it a bit comical to see the young ones getting done up in the bathroom. I’m sure they find the sight of me comical, or perhaps horrifying. Maybe I’m the reason they’re in there with their makeup bags!
- I don’t have to clean my house. In essence there is less cleaning because dirt is just part of the experience. No vacuuming, dusting (not that I actually dust), less dishes and laundry. Yay! I always pack too many clothes for the boys, forgetting they don’t change often while camping. I’m also secretly looking forward to using the dryer instead of my laundry lines at home.
- My husband will be there. One of the best parts of camping trips is having Neil with us all week. I suppose this goes for every vacation, but it’s more noticeable there because camping with kids absolutely requires us to work as a team. I always leave feeling closer to him and more cohesive as a family.
- I take a break from technology. My phone, my laptop, and Internet connection are all wonderful luxuries I wouldn’t want to live without. They’re also conveniences I didn’t miss one bit last year. I was completely offline all week last year and didn’t even notice until we were on the way home. It was a much-needed break from status updates, the blogosphere, and all the random distractions of the Internet. It was awesome to just enjoy the moment with my family, friends, and nature.
Perspective is everything. I could think about the drive, the dirt, the bugs, the kids getting off their schedules…or I could think about just how refreshing it is to camp in a warm, beautiful place with my family and over 100 friends. Not to mention the savings. An affordable spring break beach vacation? Yes, please.
More on camping, if you’re interested:
Have you ever reframed a frugal choice as luxurious? Have you/would you consider camping as a way to vacation more often?
We returned from our annual week-long camping trip and it was a wild ride as usual. The weather was great, travel was easier this year, and the beach was a blast. As usual, we have crazy poop and sleep stories to tell, as well as a few ways we saved and (accidentally) spent money.
- Camping is a lot more fun when you don’t have a baby. Although I had great fun the last four years, I couldn’t believe how much easier this year felt. I wasn’t pregnant, nursing, or chasing a 1-year-old. It was awesome! By the final night I was quite tired and crabby, but I went to bed early and bounced back just fine.
- Camping is a lot more fun when the weather is nice. The last two years have been relatively cold or rainy, so we especially appreciated the dry, warm weather this year. We spent a lot of time on the beach, which is free aside from the excessive amount of sunscreen I lather on my fair skin (and the kids’). My daughter could scarcely be kept away from the ocean when it was time to head back to camp, and the boy built some awesome sand creations.
- Camping is a lot more fun with a playground next to your camp site. We’ve always picked a site next to the playground, but until this year, the playground consisted only of a swing set and some open space. This year brand-new playground equipment entertained the kids throughout the day, although it stressed me out at first because my son kept taking his toy light saber over and trying to battle strangers. Turns out most kids want to play Star Wars and it wasn’t much of a problem after all.
- Camping is a lot more fun with friends. About 150 people from our church camped this year, including around 20 friends our age, plus their kids. This makes for lots of free entertainment and good memories, from impromptu Disney song dance parties to conversation around the campfire. Neil enticed a group out to the beach one night to watch a rocket launch from Kennedy. They had a great view and everyone’s favorite part was Neil’s excited commentary on it. He loves space.
- Unplugging for a week is awesome. “What Happened When I Unplugged For a Week”–doesn’t that sound like a great post title? I wish I could pull it off, but it’d be utter click-bait because nothing happened. It wasn’t hard. I didn’t even realize I’d done this until the end of the week. I barely thought about personal finance or blogging or email. The kids didn’t ask me for TV. I did benefit from others using their data for directions or info a few times. But it was nice to be consumed with family, friends, nature, and survival (i.e. camp cooking and dishes).
- Camping with kids always involves some shenanigans. The bathrooms are a little bit of a walk, and when you’re four and distracted by playing Star Wars with your friends, it’s hard to get there in time. I’ll just leave it at that. Also, on the first day we discovered my daughter’s ability to escape her pack ‘n’ play. During her first tent nap time, she got out, took a brand-new bottle of sunscreen, and spread it on our clothing, toiletries, and part of our bedding. Luckily it was oil-free sunscreen and came out of everything easily.
- Neil loves camping so much, he goes a overnight backpacking trip with his friends. This annual tradition is also known as manhike or campception–that is, camping within camping. He always comes back with some interesting stories. This year’s involved lots of spiders.
- Reading on vacation is the best. The last couple years have been so hectic we barely got to read. This year was a marked improvement. Neil listened to the entire audio book of The Big Short and I read most of Raising Boys By Design.
- Traveling during Easter means you should book your free hotel stay ahead of time. We were debating exactly when to leave and waited until the day of to book our free Marriott stay. There were no rooms available—at least not free ones—and we ended up spending $95 to stay overnight. We didn’t really have another good option since we’d already packed up camp, it was around 1 pm, and we had a 14-hour drive ahead of us. And were tired from a week of camping! So it was money well spent in the situation, but we will remember this in the future and plan ahead. We often book from the car on the way back, an hour or two ahead, but this doesn’t work on Easter weekend.
- Renting an SUV doesn’t mean you’ll have a lot of space. We had a free rental at Enterprise, accumulated after about 10 years of renting for business travel—and decided to use it for the trip since our vehicle has had some lingering problems that would be very inconvenient to deal with on the road with two kids. We decided to pay the $50 to upgrade to an SUV so we could fit our camp gear, but they gave us a crossover with less space than our station wagon. We fit everything, though! Here’s the $ pie chart:
Anyone ready to try camping?
Camping is sometimes called “pretending to be poor,” so it’s no surprise we love to camp. Spending time in nature with family or friends makes for an inexpensive and highly fulfilling vacation. Yet many otherwise frugal people haven’t tapped into the incredible on-going savings of camping. So we hereby issue the Pretend to Be Poor Camping Challenge: give camping a try! Spend at least one day & night camping, in order to open the door to a lifetime of frugal, fun vacations. And if you’re thinking “you couldn’t pay me enough to go camping,” you have to read on about all the proven personal and family benefits that pricier vacations fail to deliver.
A word of encouragement to non-campers: I never camped while growing up. I first ventured into the hobby as an indoorsy college student with no camping skills, came to love the experience, and have camped 3-4 times a year ever since. We even camped for a week with a two-year-old and barely-four-month-old, and had a blast. (Read about this crazy adventure in “Camping with Kids” on my mom blog.) If I can learn to like camping, so can you! And there are so many benefits for you, your relationships, and your children (if you have them).
Inexpensive vacation. Camping is, of course, supremely frugal if done right. For example, we camp in Florida during spring break and spend $107 for the site for the week. We couldn’t get a hotel there for one night at that price! We camp in a tent, have used the same camping gear for over ten years, and only upgraded to a larger tent because of our growing family. With the simple investment in a camp stove (about $50 new), you can shop at a discount grocery store and cook all your meals easily that way. Or cook exclusively on the fire. Read more about our $500 week-long camping vacation here.
Don’t have camping gear? There are many ways to come by it cheaply, and you don’t need a fancy camper, RV, or lots of accessories to have a good trip. Our family camping gear includes a tent, propane stove, air mattress (now that we’re “old”), sleeping bags, cheap camp chairs, and basic cooking implements. If you’re not ready to invest a lot in supplies, ask to borrow gear from a friend or family member. Check garage sales, Craigslist, and thrift stores for used items. You probably already have things like flashlights, bug spray, pots & pans, and old blankets in your home. On long trips we buy wood from Craiglist while there.
A sense of accomplishment. Chillin’ in nature is also rife with intangible benefits like the deep bonding between campers, the soul-rest of time in nature, and the fulfillment of learning skills or mastering challenges. Learning to pitch a tent, build a fire, and keep your children alive while pitching a tent and building a fire, all inflate one’s sense of usefulness. While camping may not be as easy as lounging poolside, it combines leisure and accomplishment in a most delightful way.
Closer families. Nothing has brought us closer as a family than the zany challenge of camping with two little kids. I know we wouldn’t feel the same sense of satisfaction returning from a resort vacation or Disney World. More than anecdotal evidence supports my closer-family camping hypothesis. Camping has been identified as a the number one predictor of family cohesiveness. It correlates with families who like each other, still spend time together even when the children are adults, and have close relationships. Camping has also been linked to better grades for school children. Ready to book a camp site yet?
It’s no surprise that camping is good for kids since every family member has to contribute. (Okay, maybe not the four-month-old.) Kids learn skills like how to build a fire, roast a hot dog, hike, fish, swim, and identify plants and animals. They’re also forced to play without high-tech toys or entertainment and develop adaptability. Many campgrounds offer free activities for kids, like scavenger hunts, nature walks, concerts, or dances.
If you’ve ever stayed in a hotel with young children, you might imagine the advantages of camping. The kids can run around outside during the day instead of being contained to a hotel in between sight-seeing. The germ content of dirt concerns me far less than whatever lurks in hotel carpet and bedspreads. I was worried about our kids being able to sleep in a tent, but all the exercise and fresh air wears them out & they sleep great, as many camp moms will testify. I can’t emphasize how happy our kids are while camping, even as infants. Our son loves talking about past trips and cries when daddy goes backpacking without him!
Let go of your standards. Camping forces us to let go of our often arbitrary rules for “civilized” life. I relish leaving behind the Internet and make-up bag for a weekend or even a week. I may have peed places other than the toilet, showered once all week, cursed in front of my toddler (about needing a shower), let the kids go barefoot all day, and helped my kid poop over a tree root. And Neil may have rinsed a poopy toddler sans swim diaper in the ocean. It’s all part of the fun if you can laugh about it.
Choose your challenge. The continuum of camping options allows campers to “choose their own adventure.” From wilderness backpacking to “glamping,” pick your desired mixture of leisure vs. challenge. Pitch a tent in your backyard if you need to ease in. Our city maintains a campground less than two miles from our home, which is perfect for short trips that don’t require much planning. Check out whether your local parks have camp sites available. Or camp to save on lodging near your next sight-seeing destination. Whatever you decide, just be sure to look up at the stars, enjoy good conversation around the fire, and don’t forget the s’mores.
What do you like about camping? Or what are your hang-ups?
Every March we camp for a week in Florida. And every year it costs over $1,000. Outrageous, I agree. Especially when the camp site we share with another family costs only $107 for the week. We budget yearly for the trip and value it more than the money we spend on it. But this year we want to spend less while still enjoying ourselves, partly because we think we can do better than a $1000 camping trip. Consider this an example of our ongoing attempt to challenge our spending and find ways to improve.
When you’ve been fairly thrifty for a while it can be hard to see new areas to cut back. We’ve found that saving money is always a work in progress. We don’t spend a lot of time pouring over our budget and bills; in fact, we don’t even make a monthly budget. But once you develop a basic mindset of spending aversion and challenging your expenses, you realize that “needs” are relative and find yourself naturally rethinking one area at a time.
Obviously not going on vacation would be cheaper altogether. But the rest and relaxation–oh wait, we have kids now—the fun moments and memories are well worth the price. Time away from the daily grind (especially if it’s time spent at the beach) can be refreshing and give new perspective, inspiration, and motivation that will energize everyday life upon return. And our Florida camping trip is a rare blend of family bonding and fun with friends, since over 130 people from our church camp together that week. It’s a little slice of heaven on earth, or at least it is when the weather is nice and the bugs aren’t bad. I could list all the money-saving, nature-enjoying, soul-nourishing advantages of camping but that would be another post altogether.
Here’s our plan. Hopefully it helps other vacationers and expense-challengers, this spring break and beyond.
1. Not renting a car. The past few years we’ve rented a vehicle, in part to save wear and tear on our not-brand-new vehicles. But our station wagon has proven to be reliable. I actually love the idea of a family vacation in our trusty station wagon! Up-front savings = $290 (based on last year’s 10-day rental).
2. Less time on the road. Usually we travel two days each way. Since having kids we’ve broken it up because they reach their max after about 8 hours in the car. This year we hope to make it there in one day. Wish us luck!
Of course, driving 900 miles is inherently not frugal. This is a great example of why we aim for financial flexibility instead of getting rich or practicing extreme frugality. If over 100 comrades weren’t heading to the same place the same week, we wouldn’t be driving this far. But it makes for an awesome time, lots of memories, and plenty of helping hands for pitching tents, chasing kids, cooking dinner, and other camp chores. To us it’s an opportunity well worth the expense and hassle.
We usually stop at a hotel, and while we often use hotel points to get free stays, less time on the road will save on purchases like fast food and coffee. Plus we have Subway gift cards saved from Christmas. Estimated savings = $25 on the way there.
3. Fuel costs. We will save on gas this year since prices are down by over a dollar a gallon compared to last year. Estimated fuel savings = $125.
4. Buy less at Walmart. We do one big shopping trip for supplies and food at the beginning of the trip. (Read how I normally avoid Walmart without running lots of errands.) But SuperWalmart is so big and busy that I get overwhelmed and over-buy because I never ever want to go back there again. This year I’m going to slim down my list based on what we didn’t end up using last year. We really don’t need every kind of breakfast food we ever eat, for example. Joining a meal rotation with some friends will allow us to buy larger amounts of a few things to cook for a crowd once, which will also save money.
Since we won’t rent a car, I can pack it earlier in the week. This is an advantage because I may be able to bring more staple foods, diapers, and camp supplies from home. Estimated Walmart savings = $30 (or more).
5. Eat less fast food. I’ve always packed food and snacks to eat in lieu of fast food. But we have a weakness for Bojangles; you just can’t get fried chicken and sweet tea like that in the North. We’ve agreed to rein it in a bit by eating packed lunches more. We also got completely ripped off at the taco stand right outside the campground when we were heading home. The food was under-seasoned, under-portioned, and over-priced so we’ll avoid it this year. Since we cook dinner at the camp site we save a lot compared to eating at restaurants all week. If we skip the taco stand and just one Bojangles trip, the savings = $30.
6. Simple sight-seeing. The bulk of our recreation arises from what this trip is all about: spending time with friends in nature. Hiking, swimming, building sand castles, riding bikes, and chatting around the fire cost next to nothing and are what I look forward to most. We also enjoy walking around historic St. Augustine and the Spanish fort for free (you have to pay to go inside). Our kids will be surrounded by their friends, providing hours of free entertainment.
We’ll avoid the high-cost tourist traps (or treasures?) and try to put in as many hours at the beach as the weather and baby allow. There’s also hiking to the turtle pond, where you can observe turtles, fish, and birds. For paid sight-seeing, we’ll visit the Jacksonville Zoo for half-off with our zoo passes from home. Neil wants to buy a Groupon for a catamaran rental inside the state park. He also plans a one-night men’s backpacking trip, which costs a bit extra in food & gas. The ladies enjoy an afternoon out as well, for the low cost of a cup of coffee. But just give me a library book and an hour alone and I’m a happy camper. I can’t count as savings what we’ve never spent, but I’m sure a family could easily dish out hundreds for sight-seeing.
So our projected savings total $500. To be fair, some savings will be offset by purchases made back home (but for better prices), the (lower) cost of packing lunches, wear and tear on the car, etc. We also have camping supplies leftover from last summer. But if we can shell out less than $1000 this year we’ll consider it a win.
Whether you’re planning a trip or not, don’t be afraid to challenge your spending and find areas to improve. This mindset will help you gain flexibility, and might even afford you more vacations in the future. If you’re interested, here are our 2013 and 2014 trips stacked up. Neil meticulously added every expense so these are the real numbers. (“Food” includes restaurants, groceries, camping supplies, ice, propane, Walmart misc.)