10 Things to do on a Cheap Vacation.

This summer, my family  took a six-day cheap vacation.  Technically, it was a “stay-cation”, but I hate that word.  Our goal was a fun time, on a budget, for 3 kids–one, two, and nine–without driving the adults nuts.   Obviously, if you’re not herding small children, some of these choices may not be for you.

  1. Zoo.  In St. Paul, there is a free zoo that is more fun than the paid zoo in the area.  There’s a small amusement park, a playground,  lots of picnic benches, and even animals.  We packed a cooler full of food and drinks and hauled the kids to Como Zoo for a day.  If there isn’t a free zoo near you, find a local petting zoo.  They are good for a few hours.
  2. Go Antiquing. Make sure you stay on a budget.  It can be more fun to feel the history in antique stores than to feel the fleeting thrill of an off-budget purchase.  This isn’t much fun for small children.
  3. Children’s Museums. We have access to a “Museum Adventure Pass“.   We used one to go to The Works Museum, which is a hands-on science exhibit not far from our home.  It wasn’t busy and the kids had a blast.  Most metropolitan areas have a wide variety of childre-friendly museums.
  4. Municipal Pool. We spent an afternoon at the city pool.  Aside from gas, this was one of the most expensive events for our vacation.   Residents get a discount, but it was still $30.   I discovered that my two-year-old loves big waterslides.  She comes out of them with a death-grip on the inner tube and a huge smile on her face.  It was a double tube and she sat in my lap.
  5. Game Day. Spend a day with the TV off and games on the table.  Make some snacks and prepare for some of the best quality time you can have as a family.
  6. Picnic. Pack a lunch and go somewhere quiet.   Go to the park.  Go to the country.  Grab a bench on a sidewalk somewhere.  Just have a leisurely lunch and take the opportunity to connect with your family.
  7. Hike. Find a trail somewhere and just walk.  I’ve found that it easy to have deep or sometimes even awkward conversations while walking.  You may find out things you never would have guessed.
  8. Visit Family. Hotel on the go?  My parents live more than 2 hours away, so they are always thrilled to have us visit with the grandchildren.   Be nice, bring some food to help out.
  9. Bike. The final day of our vacation, my wife and I left the kids in daycare and kept the day to ourselves.  We had breakfast in a nice little cafe.  We went antiquing.  Then we went out to the park where we were married, had a picnic lunch and went for a bike ride together.  It was our anniversary.
  10. Apple Orchard.  Around here, they are everywhere.  Pick-you-own apples, a petting zoo, pony rides.  If you go in the fall, there is usually a corn maze.  You can by real apple cider and any number of baked goods.
  11. University Exhibits.  Check your local colleges, especially the public universities.  Most of them have a PR program to maintain public interest and funding.  Even the private schools will usually have fund-raisers for some programs.  We recently attended the raptor show at the University of Minnesota for free with our Adventure Pass.

Vacations don’t have to be expensive to be fun.  Counting gas, food, and the occasional souvenir, we took a 6 day cheap vacation packed with activities for well under $400, possibly even under $300.

How do you save money on a vacation?

Update: This post has been included in the Money Hacks Carnivals XCV.


Babies Are Expensive

From the comments here.  The discussion is on how much it costs to have a baby.  Edited for clarity.

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Actual birthing costs vary. We’ve had three kids over ten years and birthing costs have varied from $250 out of pocket to $8500.   Our highest and lowest price births were 20 months apart. The highest price birth involved induced labor with an epidural. For the lowest out-of-pocket price, I added my wife to my policy before the birth, so she was double-covered. If one of your policies is less than ideal and there are multiple policies available, I recommend doing this. It saved us thousands.  All told, If things go well, you could slide for as little as $1500 total.

For the highest price birth, we threw ourselves on the mercy of the finance department. They have a charity fund to pay the bills of the less fortunate. We qualified…barely.  If you have a medical bill you can’t afford, ask if there is a grant or donation you can apply for.  Always ask if there is some way the bill could be lowered.

Breast-feeding beats the heck out of formula, financially, but breast-feeding doesn’t always work. Ignore the boob-nazis who insist you are slowly killing your kid by using formula. I’ve got 3 kids, and each had different feeding issues.

Baby formula runs $19 for a big container at Sam’s Club, or a large percentage of your soul at most other big box stores.  Formula alone will pay for your membership in under a month. For a big eater, that’s $20-30 per week. For a normal eater, 2-3 weeks. For planning purposes, assume $100/month in formula costs for the first six months, when food starts coming into play heavily. After that, the formula expense goes down, but not away for at least 6 more months.

Diapers are painful. Not just the smell–though that hurts, too, sometimes–but the expense. I currently have 2 in diapers; one is potty-training. Our monthly costs for diapers, now, are about $75. It was easily twice that when they were younger. Figure at least $100 per month in diapers.  Unless your baby has irritation problems, go with cheap diapers. Leak-guard is a joke.   If you are relying on leak-guard to keep the contents inside the diaper, you aren’t changing your baby often enough.

I couldn’t begin to guess at how much you’ll spend on baby clothes.  I have never bought clothes for our kids. Whatever didn’t come free from friends and family walked into the house of it’s own volition, following my wife home from the store.

Toys are an almost purely voluntary expense. You’ll get as much as the kids needs free, as presents. You’ll go overboard and give the kids 10 times that, without realizing it. Don’t. For the first four to five months, its fingers and toes will be entertaining enough. After that, if there are more than about ten toys, it’s too many; the kid will never get attached to any of them. Keep it small. It’s better for the kids and the budget.  Little kids prefer boxes to toys, anyway.   Give the kid a shoebox instead of a Leapfrog.  Really.

Portraits suck, too. If you have to get them done professionally, get a membership that covers sitting fees, and use coupons. I recommend JC Penney’s. Using judicious coupons and the membership, we get portraits for under $20.

Baby food is probably cheaper to make in a food processor, but you can’t beat the convenience of the little jars. If you watch sales, you can stock up affordably. Mix every meal with some rice or oatmeal mush to stretch it, without making it unhealthy. Depending on your kids, and how much you listen to the “experts”, this is a nonexistent expense before six months. Our kids started eating baby food in their second months, at least a little bit.

Babies are expensive. Don’t doubt that for a second, but ignore the polled averages when it comes to expense.  Hand-me-downs, thrift stores, and good sales cut the expense a lot.

How do you save money and value with a baby in the house?

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How Cheap Can a Disney Vacation Be?

Earlier this month, I took my family to Disney World.   That’s me, my wife, and my three kids (ages 8, 9, 16).    Disney is one of the most expensive vacations you can take in the U.S.

Wishes: A Magical Gathering of Disney Dreams i...

Wishes: A Magical Gathering of Disney Dreams is the largest fireworks show ever presented at the Magic Kingdom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We went from one Saturday to the next, in the beginning of August.   August is just after peak season, so prices and crowds were down a bit from early summer.   During the school year is out of the question because my wife is a school bus driver at an understaffed company.  It was a bit hotter, but the price and family availability balanced out the heat nicely.

We stayed in a 1 bedroom resort on Disney property.  It was a bit more expensive, but the room slept all five of us, my wife and I had a separate bedroom, and it was equipped with a full kitchen and laundry.

This wasn’t cheap.

We spent:

  • $1595.96 on airfare and car rental, as a package
  • $75 on upgrading the seats on our flight one way, because those were the only seats available next to each other.
  • $131.11 upgrading our rental car during pickup.   The third row seating was nice, both for our day trip to Cocoa Beach and for our grocery run with five suitcases.
  • $4396.21 for the hotel, 4 days of Disney parks, and the included Magic Bands.  Magic Bands are the awesomest way to handle hotel rooms, resort tickets, and food.   You don’t need to carry a wallet in Disney World.
  • $715.26 on things charged to our Magic Bands, including miscellaneous coffee, snack, and water purchases in the park, a few small souvenirs, approximately $380 at in-park restaurants, and a couple of gifts for the people who took care of our pets while we were gone.
  • $15 for parking at the Cocoa Beach Pier
  • $152.28 for lunch at the restaurant on the pier
  • Roughly $350 on groceries and one fast food drive through meal one night
  • $118.31 at the horrible Wolfgang Puck Express restaurant at the Disney Springs shopping center
  • $31.59 on gas for the rental car.
  • $47.35 for a movie to kill time between hotel checkout and airport check-in
  • Total: $7628.07

We saved:

  • $1404.14 by using signup bonus miles from two Chase Sapphire cards, bringing the flight plus rental to $188.82 plus upgrades.
  • $1870.16 by using Capital One Venture card rewards.  A bonus reward on one card, and regular miles on another.
  • Total: $3274.30

Grand Total: $4353.77

We had about $2000 of that saved before we bought the tickets and $2000 more budgeted to pay the remaining bill quickly.  $4350 spent on a trip with a $4000 budget isn’t too bad.

We opened the rewards cards more than a year ago to make sure we’d hit the sign-up bonus qualifications in time.

A few Disney tips:

  • Your first day in the park, find a Disney Vacation Club booth.  Go to a timeshare sales pitch.   For real.   It’s a low-pressure pitch that’s over in 45 minutes if you’re not interested (and you won’t be.  Timeshares–especially at retail price–are stupid.  Don’t sign up.) that will net you three tap-and-go fast passes and a $100 gift card.    The fast passes alone saved us about 3 hours of lines.
  • Install the Disney app.  You can get directions to rides and manage fast passes and dinner reservations.
  • Subscribe to Touring Plans.  It costs $10 if you have a coupon, and there’s always a coupon.   You can plan out your day at each park, including fast passes and breaks.  It will give you wait times and walking times and suggest what is possibly the most efficient way  to see everything you want to see.    We saw 90% of everything everyone was interested in without running around.   You really can do all of each of the parks in 4 days.
  • Take breaks.   We got there early, then left a bit after lunch time to head back to the hotel for food, rest, and swimming.    We came back shortly before dinner and spent the evening.   That skipped the hottest, busiest part of the day and helped avoid small children getting crabby.  Take breaks.
  • Go to each of the parks on their least busy day.  It’s easiest to see it all if you plan to be there when fewer other people are competing for line space.
  • Don’t waste your fast passes on rides with short lines.   We made it through the Pirates of the Caribbean line in 10 minutes.  That would have been wasteful.
  • Try to book all of your fast passes in the morning, so you can schedule new ones for later in the day.  You can’t add new ones while you have pending ones on your account.
  • Use the timeshare fast passes at Magic Kingdom.  They don’t have to be scheduled and must be used on a moving ride.   Magic Kingdom is the heaviest concentration of moving rides, and they have the longest lines.
  • Have fun.  For real, don’t forget to have fun.   If people are getting crabby, pack up and head to the hotel for a few hours.   The only park that makes this a pain is Magic Kingdom, since they hide the park a mile away from the parking.   Don’t force the park experience, just let go and let things happen.   Says the guy who brought an optimized agenda to each park

This was a good time for us.   I’m glad we waited.  We’re in the short window where the girls will remember the trip and the boy hasn’t moved out and gotten a busy life of his own.

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Birthday Parties are Evil

This is a post from my archives.

I hate birthday parties.   Well, not all birthday parties.  Not even most parties.  Just the expensive-for-the-sake-of-expensive parties.  The bar-raising parties.  The status-boosting parties.  I’m done.

My son is seven years older than my first daughter.  In those seven years, with only one kid, we managed to spoil him regarding birthday parties.  Every party was big and there were a lot of presents. That’s an expensive way to run a birthday and it is a lot of stress.   We even moved the parties home, but still invited all of our friends and family.   It was much too stressful.

A good friend used the pizza and game place, buying tokens for everyone at the party.  That’s incredibly expensive.  Even if I  wanted to, I couldn’t afford that for three kids.   There’s an element of keeping up with everyone around me, but I just can’t make myself care about that anymore.  They aren’t paying my debt or cleaning my house.  They don’t get a vote.

My  plan this year was to have a sleepover for my son.   He had five friends spend the night, playing games and watching movies.  They giggled and squealed for eighteen hours, all for the cost of some take-and-bake pizzas and snacks.  It was a hit for everyone involved. The other parents got a night off and all of the kids had a blast.

My girls are one and two.  We’re done with parties for them, too. They got big parties for their first birthdays.  Those are parties for the adults; the kids don’t care.  In a few years–even a few months–they won’t remember the party.   My older daughter’s birthday will be a trip to the apple orchard, followed by cake and ice cream.   She’ll get presents.  She’ll get “her day”. She’ll remember that her birthday is special, without costing a lot of money.

We want them to have fun.  We want them all to feel special. We also want to manage their expectations and keep the parties from breaking the budget.  So far this year, it is working.

How do you run a birthday party on a budget?

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