A Simple Financial Formula For a Stress-Free Family Vacation

How a simple family vacation budget plus five minutes of categorizing spending each day turned an otherwise financially stressful trip into one of the best yet.

This year I brought my family from Vermont to Seattle to explore the city while I participated in Tiller’s remote team gathering.

It was a few days of vacation for them, and a few days of rewarding and intense teamwork for me.

However, our trip was nearly derailed with expensive, extensive overnight travel delays. We spent an unplanned night and day in Phoenix, plus an extra night and day in Washington.

Endless Layovers

Vacations are notorious for blowing budgets up.  

Vacations are a potential financial minefield:

  1. Everything is more expensive than anticipated.
  2. Unexpected travel delays = expensive extra food, transportation, and lodging.
  3. Travel exhaustion makes convenience more appealing than frugality.
  4. After months of disciplined saving for vacation, the rebellious freedom of spending is often too fun to resist.

Plus, like diets, financial routines are often ignored on vacation. And when you ignore your financial routines, you end up feeling guilty, stressed, or both. That’s a terrible way to experience vacation.

Fortunately, I had (sort of) planned ahead for this trip.

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I created a loose daily budget of about $200 per day. That’s way more than we spend at home, but actually a bit lower than average for a family of four on vacation.

I also earmarked $500 for “emergency funds.”

To be fair, in my mind some of those “emergency funds” might have gone to an epic last night out, or a particularly enticing gift.

In the end, we had to use most of our emergency funds for the extra nights of travel delays. But I’m very grateful we had that money set aside.

5 minutes of tracking spending each morning = a much more fun vacation.

This was the first vacation when I actually tracked and categorized our family spending each day, just as I do at home.

And just like home, it took less than five minutes per day.

Knowing what we were spending and what we had left made our trip vastly more pleasant. I’ll never ignore this routine again while traveling.

Here’s how it worked in five steps:

  1. I open my Tiller-powered Google Sheet (I use the Monthly Budget).
  2. Categorize all of the previous day’s spending.
  3. Quickly sum yesterday’s total.
  4. See if I spent more or less what I planned in my loose budget.
  5. Decide to skip fancy coffee and drink the free stuff in the hotel (kidding – I never skip fancy coffee).

If we spent a little more than planned one day, we simply spent a little less the next day.

Family Vacation Budget
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Tracking our family budget and making deliberate choices about where to spend became part of the adventure of the trip.

And rather than feeling like we were missing out, we felt empowered about where to spend.

This was great for the kids. They saw how we were engaged with our spending. They joined in with strategizing where to save – even forgoing a $16 Lyft ride and walking back to the hotel, so we could go to the ice cream arcade the next day.

Crucially, we grownups felt at peace with our vacation spending.

Family Budget Vacation Spending

A few minutes of categorizing and tracking spending each day on vacation might sound tedious.

However, you’ll feel more confident and relaxed and better able to enjoy your vacation when you know what’s happening with your money.

You might also quickly catch overcharges that often happen while traveling. I did – the hotel mistakenly charged us for two nights on our last night in Seattle.

Finally, one of the best things about tracking spending on this vacation is that we’ll create a more accurate budget for the next one.

I can’t say this trip was a money win. But at least it wasn’t a money fail.

I was hoping not to spend all of the emergency money I’d budgeted for our trip.

But since it was there, it meant we could explore the Phoenix desert and then the mountains outside of Seattle without feeling desperate, annoyed, or pinched.

Those extra days became the favorites of our trip.

The more engaged you are with your money, the more relaxed you’ll feel, and the more you can enjoy the journey.

Edward Shepard

Edward Shepard

Marketing Lead at Tiller. Writer. Spreadsheet nerd. Get in touch with partnership ideas at edward @ tillerhq.com.

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    • #93384
      Edward Shepard

      How a simple family vacation budget plus five minutes of categorizing spending each day turned an otherwise financially stressful trip into one of the best yet.

      [See the full post at: A Simple Financial Formula For a Stress-Free Family Vacation]

    • #93385

      I just returned from a 12 month worldwide vacation for which my wife and I nearly zero plans for destinations, accommodations, or transportation. But what we did have was a fixed budget. Impossible to plan for, some might say, but it’s not. Despite the lack of plans, we set a daily budget ($83/day inclusive of ALL expenses), tracked our spending, and we finished the adventure a year later at less than 4% over budget. Some days we spent 3-4 times our daily budget (ahem, I’m looking at you Norway!), and other times we were able to gain a safety buffer (yay, most of Asia!) Some days we only ate one meal, and other days we treated ourselves to a fancy dinner. We had fun, extravagant, spendy outings, and we had $1/night Chinese hostels. As our spending curve ebbed and flowed, we adjusted as necessary. Our financial deficit (or surplus) would factor into the plans for the next destination. We didn’t have a way to make more money, but we had control about where, how far, and how often we would move around. Short on cash? Move somewhere cheaper and stay a while. Built up a comfortable surplus? Check out an expensive continent/country. Any travel is possible, on nearly any budget. You just have to be real with yourselves, track your spending, and don’t stick your head in the sand. Keep an eye on things: If you can’t afford it, stop doing it. Bottom line, if you don’t measure it, you can’t crush it. So yes, track your spending; Tiller can help.

    • #93386
      Tiller Money

      Your trip sounds amazing – and totally inspiring. Love the concept of a worldwide trip without preset destinations. What an epic adventure.

      I’m going to steal your line as a new life motto as I daydream about a trip like this: “if you don’t measure it, you can’t crush it.”

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