How We’ll Save $500 on Our Next Vacation

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Pic Neil took in Hawaii


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.)

2014 camp budget

2013 camp budget



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17 Responses to “How We’ll Save $500 on Our Next Vacation”

  1. burl covan says :

    I always bring too much stuff but I agree bringing staples from home helps to not over spend at the grocery store.I personally do not like walmart so i go to the publix.I bring olive oil,spices,rice,potatoes,onions,garlic,some flour and bread crumbs just in case we catch fish. this allows us to only buy meat or sea food. but like you said its money we already spent but we would not have to buy these things again if we felt we wanted them while on vacay. things like oil and flour go a long way and we use them but usually always bring some back home as well.we also go to walmart and home depot and ask for broken pallets for fire wood.It is always dry hard wood and FREE.they also always have boxes for FREE too.

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for sharing your list of staples. You sure know how to camp!

    • Indre Howell says :

      Driving straight through is probably more possible while you are young. But don’t forget that vacation is also about rest and relaxation. Sometimes you have to spend a little extra to get that. We have found that coming home exhausted from a vacation sucks. So planning alot of activities during that time isn’t worth the money. Even if they are free, be careful you don’t exchange quality time for constant activity. Slowing down on vacation is necessary and good for the mind, body, soul and relationships. Well, this is coming from a middle-aged woman who raised three kids and is looking back at past vacations.

    • Kalie says :

      Great advice, Indre. Honestly, I don’t think there’s a way to come home from a camping trip with 2 little ones and not be exhausted! But just hanging out is my favorite part of the trip.

  2. Dan Brooks says :

    I would take a vacation/ trip just to have Bojangles’ Dirty Rice!

  3. Mrs SSC says :

    Sounds great! I always find that vacation is one area where costs can go out of control quite easily. I like to bring a small cooler with food to cut down on the fast food costs – plus, I’ve found that I feel better if I don’t down a bunch of chicken nuggets and a milkshake in the car! We also like to rent vacation houses – rarely hotels, just because having a kitchen to cook in really cuts costs. This summer we have a 9 hour drive with two toddlers – the last week we’ve been trying to figure out how to handle that – because hotels with toddlers aren’t that much fun!

    • Kalie says :

      Yes–I definitely feel better NOT eating fast food all day. Having a kitchen saves a ton of money. We’ve even found hotels with kitchens but rental homes are nice when you have kids. We typically make it 9 hours before everyone melts, so it’s doable. Not relaxing but you’ll survive!

  4. Elroy says :

    Isn’t there a cost to driving your own vehicle? While not immediate, 1500-2000 miles is not a small hit to the old iron carriage. 1% if you assume you’re going to put 200k on your vehicle.

    Either way, have fun! One of my favorite spring breaks is when a friend and I went and camped on the beach in Florida.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, there is a cost of wear and tear. Are you saying to estimate 1% of the vehicle’s value?

    • Elroy says :

      Say you purchase the vehicle for $xx,xxx […] and you expect to drive the vehicle 200,000 miles. Divide the 2 numbers, and that is your depreciation of the vehicle, per mile. Upkeep is more difficult, but your depreciation alone will be your lowest number. So, if you purchase a vehicle for $20k and expect to drive 200k, you’d depreciate the vehicle by $100 driving 1000 miles. Double that, and you’re @ $200 for your trip. Plus, oil change, tires, etc.

    • Kalie says :

      1% based on 200,000 mile lifetime makes sense. Thanks.

  5. Taylor Lee @ Engineer Cents says :

    Sounds like a good plan! Took a roadtrip with the BF last year and we were doing some 8 hour car rides which were manageable, but I imagine could be tough with kids. Good luck!

  6. Abigail @ipickuppennies says :

    Other than FinCon, the only vacation I take is to Las Vegas every two or three years. We can drive there in about 6 hours, and we don’t rent a car. We now have a more fuel-efficient vehicle, so it should be even cheaper now.

    We do take some snacks with us. This means we don’t have to go out every time we’re hungry.

    Next time, I want to spend less time in casinos and more checking out some of the free/cheap touristy stuff.

    Last time, we used our card rewards to pay for the hotel, so that cost $25 for resort fees.

    • Kalie says :

      A short drive makes a big difference. Any other trips we’ve taken have been within 5 hours’ drive. Free hotel stays are the best!

  7. Anne - Money Propeller says :

    Dear gas price: THANK YOU FOR DROPPING! That will make such a big difference alone.
    I wish you all the best driving that far with kids!
    It sounds like your trip is going to be awesome. Doing a meal rotation with friends also means you don’t have to stress about cooking all the time, and get to try new things 🙂

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