Family Fun Without the Big Bucks

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Vacation time is almost here.

There, we said it. Smiling yet?

Few words are as effective at boosting a person’s mood as the thought of a getaway to a beach, theme park, cabin or foreign city. And few words can deflate a person’s wallet or purse as fast. An American Express survey found that the average family spends $4,000 on a vacation, including airfare.

That kind of money is usually spent on the more popular family destinations. Here are the top five, according to a Daily Finance study, which tracked the number of hotel rooms rented during weekends in June, July and August:

  • Chicago, Illinois (2,278,775 rooms rented out of 2,803,528)
  • Orlando, Florida (2,185,424 rooms rented out of 3,068,620)
  • New York, New York (2,098,682 rooms rented out of 2,464,931)
  • Los Angeles/Long Beach, California (2,026,780 rooms rented out of 2,548,711)
  • Washington, D.C. (1,995,200 rooms rented out of 2,692,044)

Now, we’re all for making the kind of life-long family memories that go hand-in-hand with an awesome vacation … as long as you do it smartly. There is no quicker way to overspend than to go into vacation mode without a plan. You’ll spend without thinking, and the bills will quickly add up.

Related: Create a Budget In Less Than 10 Minutes with EveryDollar. Learn More 

All of those top destinations are built for family fun, but remember that family fun can happen without big bucks. If you haven’t been saving for your big vacation, don’t go into debt just to make memories—alter your plans this year and start saving for next year. Patience and budgeting will pay off. To help you plan a getaway on the cheap, here are five suggestions for pulling it off:

  • Look close to home. The two biggest costs associated with vacations are air travel and hotels. If you pick a place close enough to drive to (say, three hours away), you can eliminate one of those huge costs right off the bat. Think of how many fun spots there are to visit within 200 miles, give or take, of your home.
  • Bring your own entertainment. The point of a vacation is to have fun and be with your loved ones, and neither of those things necessarily cost money. Bring some books, board games, fishing rods or other forms of free fun to keep you busy part of the time. It will give you a chance to recharge your batteries in between destination-related activities.
  • Take advantage of free stuff to do. Piggybacking off the last bullet point, you might consider making your destination a place where you can do something that costs nothing, such as visiting the beach or camping. Call the local chamber of commerce or tourism bureau to find out about all the free and kid-friendly opportunities.
  • Eat in. Not every meal has to be consumed at a restaurant. Stop off at the local grocery store and buy some food for sandwiches or maybe get some cereal, milk and bagels for breakfast. That way, you can eat fancy for dinner and not bust a budget by Wednesday.
  • Pair up. A popular idea is to go on a getaway with friends to help split the cost, especially if you are getting a vacation rental house. Your children and their children can have fun playing with each other, and you know the old saying–the more, the merrier.

Don’t stop here. Use these tips to get your mind working and find creative ways to lower the cost of your vacation. The more frugal you are able to be, the more money you have to put toward other goals you have. And all of that can be easily tracked and monitored with a family budget in place. It’s never too late to start.

parenting | @ChrisBrownOnAir