Teodora Pirciu didn’t order the wine she wanted at dinner, even though she was on vacation to enjoy herself. Instead, she had water. As she chewed her food, thoughts of her bank account gnawed at her mind. Ms. Pirciu knew she would insist on paying the check for her son and her new boyfriend. She just didn’t know if her credit card would be declined.
At the time, nearly a decade ago, Ms. Pirciu was a 27-year-old single mother, barely covering the necessities with her job in politics and sporadic gig work as a D.J. She had already rushed in to pay for the hotel before her long-distance boyfriend — a high earner who had no idea she was struggling financially — could do so. He had paid for his flight and everything else, until that last dinner.
If her boyfriend had paid for the entire trip, “I would have felt inferior,” Ms. Pirciu said. “For a very long time, I had this mentality issue, and I felt like I wasn’t worthy because, you know, I can’t afford this tiny thing — a long weekend.”
For many reasons, it can be too easy to get swept up in a vacation plan that only later — once you’re already on the beach trying to relax — do you realize you can’t afford. But with a few strategies, during the planning and while on the trip, you can avoid stretching yourself financially.
Ms. Pirciu, now 36, couldn’t bring herself to confront the reality of her finances at the time. As a result, the vacation set her back financially for a few months. Eventually, she had to ask her boyfriend to borrow money for rent.
“I just wanted to prove to myself, to him, to my son that I could pay a three days’ trip,” Ms. Pirciu said. “And now that I’m thinking about it, it’s stupid, it’s so stupid. But the truth is, it meant a lot to me back then.”
Before you go: Look the whole cost in the eye
Financial experts recommend you don’t agree to take a trip until you are honest with yourself about what you can and cannot afford.
“It’s still surprising how much of a factor your ego and your pride come into money decisions,” said Chris Browning, host of the “Popcorn Finance” podcast. He believes it’s part of the pressure we start to feel at a young age to do well in school, earn a good degree and land a high-paying job.
“Saying that you can’t afford something is almost equal to saying ‘I’m a failure’ in a lot of people’s minds,” he said.
Mr. Browning recounted going on several trips that were out of his budget because he was optimistic about the expenses, making estimates that had him forgoing meals and eating just a few snacks a day.
“It’s almost like I purposefully didn’t do all the math on how much the trip was going to cost me,” he said.
Some travelers conveniently leave out typical vacation expenses from their calculations — like airport transportation, tolls and parking fees — because they want to believe a trip will work out.
Mr. Browning suggests looking back at a vacation you took and examining bank statements to see how much you actually spent, and on what. Then set up a real budget for the next getaway before you leave.
Once you know what you’re able to spend, be honest with your travel companions. People often make up flimsy excuses to get out of a trip they can’t afford instead of telling the truth, Mr. Browning said. One problem with that is they could be argued out of the excuse.
If a friend wants to go deep-sea fishing, for example, and you say you have to watch your kids rather than admit your credit cards are maxed out, the friend may offer to have their teenager babysit. Problem solved. Only that was never the real problem.
“For me at least — because this is something that I’ve dealt with, too — the way I’ve gotten over it and started to work through it is by just being honest with people,” Mr. Browning said.
Instead of white lies, try offering more affordable alternatives, suggested Oneika Raymond, a television host and travel writer. If your friends want to do a weekend in Las Vegas and you can’t afford to stay at the MGM Grand, propose renting an Airbnb. The trick is to find options that cost less without significantly diminishing the experience, then offer them up to the group.
“I think that a lot of the stress comes from the unknown,” Ms. Raymond said.
During the trip: When you realize you’re in trouble
When Mr. Browning was on vacation in Hawaii in 2012 and was smacked with high food prices, he suggested some less expensive activities for the days ahead to offset the cost of meals. Traveling usually comes with its share of surprises (including surprise costs), but it’s often possible to adjust the expenses even as the trip is happening.
An app like Splitwise can help keep your costs down on a group trip. If you’re sticking to water and skipping appetizers as the rest of your crew is slamming shots and ordering filet mignon, don’t worry. The app does the work of tracking everyone’s share (and removes the anxiety of splitting a hefty tab equally).
During the trip, account for how much you’re spending daily. You may need to sit out specific activities, like a restaurant meal in favor of a grab-and-go lunch.
Another strategy is to think about what you can add to a trip, rather than what you can remove, to save money. Ms. Raymond recently went on vacation with a group of friends, one of whom was a professional nanny. Knowing the accommodations were a bit out of her financial reach, her friend offered to babysit the children one night so that the parents in the group could go out. In exchange, they covered the cost of her accommodations.
“It was win-win for everyone because the parents were able to go out and have a good time, and know that the kids were with somebody that we trusted and knew really well,” Ms. Raymond said.
Consider offering to be the trip’s chef, or the weekend’s designated driver. You might not need to spend as much money if you can be creative and mine your talents.
Last resort: Consider backing out
Sometimes it’s worth examining if you should just skip the trip altogether.
Start by weighing the importance of the vacation to your life against the detriment it could cause your finances. Pico Iyer, a travel writer and author of “The Half Known Life,” made that calculation five days before a work trip to Iran in 2013 when the entire staff of the publication that had hired him was laid off, risking his assignment and financial backing. At the time, Mr. Iyer said, U.S. citizens going to Iran had to pay for a guide and luxury accommodations. On top of that, it looked as if a war between that country and the United States was imminent.
“I was in a quandary,” Mr. Iyer said. “But finally I decided that it might never be easy to go to Iran, and a war would make it more difficult. And I’d been longing for this trip for 30 years. I had to take the leap and be prepared to shoulder the $8,000 myself if need be.”
How can the rest of us apply this consideration to our own travel dilemmas, which more often involve not being able to afford attending a friend’s bachelorette party or an aunt’s 50th birthday cruise?
Lauren Bowling, a financial expert, said setting specific financial goals can help you assess whether a trip fits into your overall financial picture. “If there’s an immediate goal you’re working for, I think that helps make a decision,” she said, citing, as an example, a plan to buy a home in the first quarter of next year.
She also suggests asking yourself whether staying home will really help you move the needle toward achieving your goals. If there isn’t something specific you are trading the trip for, Ms. Bowling said, you may end up regretting opting out. If you decide not to go, however, she suggests sending along a small gift, such as flowers, which will cost a lot less than the full trip.
For Mr. Iyer, however, saying yes to a trip to a place you’ve never been, even if it means taking a financial risk, is worth more than going into credit card debt for, say, a new couch.
“A trip is much more likely, in my case, to transform me than anything material I would acquire at home,” he said. “And so therefore it’s worth the risk, because the beauty of a trip is I don’t know who’s going to come back from it. And the hope is I’ll be someone quite different from the one who left home.”
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