One of the misconceptions I’ve had in this journey to becoming debt free is that I had to tighten my belt and not do the things I’ve wanted. To an extent, it is a wise idea for sure; I carefully budget for movies, eating out, and going out with friends. Having a set limit means I can’t just go out all the time and spend, and I’ve resorted to many not-so-fun nights at home. I think that while my debt is so massive, this is actually a healthy thing.
However, I’ve also neglected doing big, extravagant things in the name of saving money, such as relaxing vacations, or random adventures. I’ve had neither vacation nor adventure in the past two years, really. While that is a good idea finance-wise, it’s a horrible plan for a person’s psychology. The fact is that as Americans, we are far too busy, overworked, and underpaid to neglect setting apart time to take care of ourselves, to rejuvenate and get perspective. I’m a guy in my mid-twenties; I am supposed to be going on adventures and exploring right now. Since I haven’t, my vigor has atrophied. I feel blah and mediocre, and my conclusion is that I must take a vacation.
However, how is one to take a vacation where there is no money? Furthermore, how does one not feel so guilty about spending money on a vacation when there is plenty of debt to be repaid?
The answer to the latter is simple; I don’t feel guilty because if I keep neglecting myself, I’ll burn out at work, I’ll burn out in life, and there will be no energy left to keep up with everything life throws at me. I’ll try to fill life up with things again, which will sink me back into debt even more. The principle of interest works both ways; while sacrificing money in debt payments results in more payments down the road, sacrificing a vacation right now might result in a complete catastrophe.
The answer to the first is not as simple. Vacations are, simply put, expensive. While relaxing in the bahamas for two weeks would be awesome, I can’t afford several thousand dollars either! After using all the logic God gave me, I concluded that a trip to Washington D.C. was the perfect vacation. I’ll share some of my tips here, so someone hopefully benefits.
- Think About Proximity – A good vacation spot has to be far enough away to keep you from getting sucked back in to life, but close enough to keep travel costs down. D.C. is less than $200 airfare from Atlanta, which is great! Another thing keeping travel costs down is that it’s easy to walk once there, or take public transit. Either way, a perfect place location-wise.
- Find Cheap Lodging – I have a friend that just moved to the D.C. suburbs. Furthermore, he’s been wanting me to come up for a long weekend quite awhile now. Lodging costs will be zero. While it may be more difficult for a family to do this, there is also no harm in asking. I remember a time when I was a kid, we went to visit family and my parents stayed in one family member’s house while we kids stayed in our favorite aunt’s house. We both got a break from each other, and a family of four had free lodging. Win-Win.
- Consolidate Dining Costs – Most people ruin their food budget by eating out all the time. Since I’m staying with a friend, we can cook several nights. This means we can use our money to eat very nice meals strategically. What’s better, 5 decent meals out, or 2 really nice meals out and eating at home the rest of the time? Breakfasts are cheap this way, and I may even get stuff to pack quick lunches a few days, keeping total food costs around $100.
- Consider the Attractions – D.C. is a hotbed for things to do for free. Almost all the museums are free or cheap, and there are a plethora of them. I know two of my interests are politics and the arts, and D.C. is a great place for both. The only thing I’ll be really spending money on is if I see a show at the Kennedy Center, which I probably will. You can’t beat a city with enough free things to keep you busy for a full month if you wanted.
- Share Your Trip – Talk to people about your trip! They may suggest places to go or things to do. Or, like my roommate, they may know someone who can get you an exclusive tour of something. In this case, it is possible I can get a White House tour through this contact (rather than the 3-4 month waiting period through Congressional offices). Others may advise you on things to ignore, and some may even want to make it into a road trip! I found 3 friends who may want to go with me (and possibly do different things while there), but this keeps down travel costs, and those friends may tell other people who can help us out with the trip too!
- Time it Perfectly – In my case, I wanted it to be soon, but still have plenty of time to save up for it. I chose mid-April for many reasons. First, summer has not yet begun, and summer is peak season. Spring breaks should be pretty much over by that point. The weather is still somewhat cool at that time. It overlaps two paycheck periods, so I can work straight until I leave, and then work straight when I come back, meaning I don’t sacrifice any time off work even though it’s a whole week (and in my case, time off means I don’t get paid). Plus, it centers around the weekend, which means that my friend can take two days off and still hang with me pretty much the entire time. It’s two months away, which is plenty of time to save for it, yet two months is not a long time to wait for a vacation. All said, it is the perfect time to take the trip!
- Know Your Limits – The total cost for my trip is around $600, even assuming I go over in some categories. That is NOT a lot of money, and I can easily save that in three paychecks. Furthermore, I will receive a fifth paycheck while there, which means that if something bad happens and I need extra money, it won’t hurt me so much. Plus, the structure of the trip means that each paycheck can go toward something different. I’ll purchase the airline tickets this paycheck, other tickets and car reservation on the next, and then save for food on the last. The fourth will go toward “extras” on the trip, like possibly a new lens for my camera.
- Know Thyself – I know my personal physical limits, and planned days around light walking accordingly. There’s nothing worse than a vacation when you come home tired each day, so while I want to do a lot of things, I consolidate it in a way to where I’m not ever exerting myself. Plus, I’ll not be afraid to simply just not do something if I’m not feeling it. While I want to observe a Supreme Court session while there, maybe the better option is to just take their quick tour. Also, I just finished saving up for a nice camera (a Canon Rebel XTi), and D.C. is the perfect place to shoot the type of photography I like. While some people would choose different things to do there, I know my likes and dislikes and choose accordingly. That said, don’t fall into the “prepackaged tour” trap. Spend time planning out your vacation. Trust me, the planning alone is already making me feel energetic and ready to take on life. Don’t sacrifice that for a bit of convenience, especially when it means you might not fully enjoy everything on your trip.
So, all in all an exciting trip I have planned. A full week, no sacrifice with work time, cost is less than $600, everything is perfectly tuned to my interests, and a few friends might even join me (but not join me on EVERY thing). That sounds like a perfect trip to me. Plus, with properly saving the money beforehand, I won’t be regretting it 4 months down the road when I’m still paying on it. Putting vacations on plastic is a sure way to keep yourself home forever, and it will feel good to come back from it and STILL have less debt than when I left, thanks to the magic of automatic payments.
So the lesson here is to not neglect yourself when on the journey to financial freedom. Don’t feel bad about taking a vacation, just plan it so well that nothing is wrong about it. Then save the money (and extra money) ahead of time, and you are all set. It doesn’t have to be the Bahamas to have a great time and relaxing trip, but with a few basic tips like these you can maximize your Vacation ROI and make it even better than a plain old island adventure.