Head for middle ground when traveling on budget

Your Money

March 14, 2004|By JANET KIDD STEWART

IS YOUR wallet ready for spring break?

An odd assortment of travel opportunities means that by the end of March, I will have already hit the road (or taken to the skies) four times this year. Great for beating the winter blues, not so great for keeping the wallet full.

Worse, two of the trips are real budget killers. Our kids, ages 8 and 5, and I couldn't pass up tagging along to Walt Disney World while my husband attended a recent conference. And a dear friend's baby will be christened this month in London, where the American dollar won't buy a bag of chips from a street vendor right now. "We'll eat beans," my friend promised in an e-mail after I fretted about the exchange rate.

The Magic Kingdom delivered on all fronts, but it was in the Pirates of the Caribbean gift shop that I had a meltdown that Cruella de Vil would admire. It wasn't even noon and as the kids clamored for a $6.50 bag of treasure (colored plastic rocks), I quickly calculated that including the hotel, breakfast and park admission tickets, we had already spent somewhere north of $600.

A new hourly personal best, and I let the kids know it.

Of course, it only took a few minutes to realize how ridiculous it was to close the barn door on a $6.50 souvenir.

When travelers stretch their budgets to their thinnest, does it negate the restorative effects of the holiday? Is it better to eat beans in London than never to have gone at all?

It's all about finding a middle ground, said Kathleen Gurney, a Sarasota, Fla., therapist who specializes in the psychology of financial behavior. She recently counseled a client who paid for a Disney trip for herself and eight family members that she really couldn't afford.

"She no longer has fond memories of the trip" after the financial realities set in, Gurney said.

Gurney said I might have avoided the gift-shop rant with better planning.

Ask each family member what they'd value most and prioritize the spending that way, she said. Or give kids a special trip allowance and let them handle some money themselves.

She did like my recovery plan after the gift-shop scene. We bought an autograph book and had a ball running all over the park stalking characters, including Cruella, for their signatures.

"It's something that was actually used while on the trip and will generate memories later," she said.

"Families benefit from going on vacation with a budget, but you don't want to end up making yourself feel poor while you're there," said Gurney. "The point of the vacation is to make you feel enriched."

And like dieters who learn to reward themselves with new clothes instead of food, don't view big-ticket vacations as rewards for frugality, Gurney said.

"Look at the reward as living with less stress and debt," then decide what you're comfortable spending, she said.

E-mail Janet Kidd Stewart at yourmoney@tribune.com.

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