As a teacher and father of four kids, summer vacations is something that we plan for with a lot of anticipation and look forward to.
From the beginning of our marriage, traveling was a necessity because my family didn’t live in the U.S. We took a few trips down to my native country in South America and enjoyed ourselves. Nothing extravagant, and for the most part we had where to stay for free.
As the years went by, we got more responsibilities and our trips became more sparse; instead of traveling every year, we did it every other year, then every four, five, and now we really don’t go anymore due to political and safety reasons. Especially after becoming parents it was just too much to afford the airplane tickets. For the six of us to fly there would be easily over six thousand dollars. Thankfully, we never got crazy with credit cards to make it happen. I wasn’t thinking about Financial Independence back then, but I always had in my mind the idea of “you can’t pay for what you can’t afford.” So, we were Ok with it.
At some point, we had a trip to Disney that was gifted to us by my in-laws. We all traveled together to ” The Magic Kingdom” and sure we had a great time ( the most exhausting time ever). But definitely a great contrast with what we have been doing for the last 8 years.
Most of us you know how hard it is for adults to escape social pressures and collective desires for wishing things. Even more difficult it is for kids when they go to school and talk to their peers. Working in a school it is not unusual to hear kids talking, even those in financial need, how they spend their weekends going to a plethora of places such as movie theaters, arcade places, trampoline ville, coffee shops, etc; especially in the winter months, although summer time doesn’t lag too far behind. Those kids conversations translate into lots of “wants and demands” from our kids, particularly at a young age.
We have never liked those places for our kids. Not even the play places from fast food restaurants. We also hate the idea of paying money to buy little trinkets through tickets and reward games. We feel that all those places are germ pools. I don’t think of ourselves as germophobics, but you know how it is, kids are sneezing, coughing all over the equipment, balls, game controllers and it is just inevitable.
Beyond that, there is also that feeling of being overwhelmed by people all wound up trying to win prizes, frenetically, shouting out their excitement with a soundtrack of some random upbeat pop music blaring from somewhere. Kind of like the same feeling as when you go to a mall. Everybody is there to consume food or buying goods of some sort.
Or like going to the grocery store when you are hungry, right? You end up buying more than what you actually need. You go to the mall, where everybody is buying and consuming and it looks so normal. Why not buying an ice-cream cone to each one of your kids so they can be like everybody else? Before you know it you are nearing your first hundred dollars spent; even when you could’ve pleased the family sweet tooth with a 2 for 1 sale at the grocery store for under $5 and still have ice-cream for another night.
Well, when it comes down to vacation time there are plenty of places where you can spend your money as if it grows on trees. Waterparks, amusement parks, museums, aquariums, zoo, you name it.
In our case, about 8 years ago we decided to go camping with our two first girls. My wife had some camping experience with her parents, and I also had my share of camping with friends in my native country.
With the girls being not older than 4, we decided to take a trip around The Great lakes. We started in our Chicago suburb and went up north through Wisconsin to spend the night with a friend, who kindly offered to host us in the Upper Penninsula of Michigan; better known as the U.P.
Beautiful scenic driving, great conversations with my wife and lots of sharing with the kids, as well as the expected crying and bathroom emergency needs.
We crossed the whole peninsula and made our way towards the Mackinac Bridge. We didn’t quite know where we were going to spend the night but were up for whatever.
My wife had heard about a place called Leelanau County, west of Traverse City, with various camping opportunities in the area. We decided to take the drive and made it to one of the campgrounds late that night. We helped ourselves to a campsite, set up and spent the night.
The following morning we woke up in the middle of a gorgeous forest about 50 yards away from the turquoise blue shores of Lake Michigan, with miles of white sand. Lots of historical sites to explore, mom and pop restaurants, quaint little towns and just magnificent scenery everywhere. Since that one time, we have been going back every summer to spend our family vacation time together in the same spot.
With my photography side hustle, I have been lucky enough to travel as far as Hawaii to cover a wedding event. I absolutely loved it. Also, in my younger years, I traveled on a dime to Europe a few times to stay with friends and explore what I could.
You may be asking, so what? Well, to each their own, but when I think about what makes a vacation a “vacation”, to me it is not necessarily where you go, or how fancy of a place you stay at. Sure a nice dinner by the ocean might be nice, but like the little trinkets you get at the arcade place, those things wear off. How much you spent in a hotel room, the wine you drank, the water slide at the water park, and all those things are just that. Things! What truly makes a difference in your vacations is the people you are with; how many times you laughed, chatted and truly spent time together.
Visiting a nice place is nice; don’t get me wrong. But I question how many times we judge our vacations by the level of fanciness and price tag on it vs. quality time that we spend with each other.
It took me a while to realize that I was just as happy going camping in Michigan with my family as I can be going to Hawaii to a fancy hotel. It may seem simple, but this thought really enlightened me. Many times we absorb desires from our social environment and we fall into the trap of making an irrational connection between happiness and material things. At the same time, these connections are costly and perpetuate a self-imposed obligation of keeping incurring into the same expenses that we expect will grant us happiness.
If there is one thing I love about the pursuit of FI is the idea of helping me align my priorities; time with my family Vs. possession of material things.
Usually, our summer vacation runs for about $1500. Six people plus a dog, for two weeks of camping, full of canoeing trips, kayaking, paddle boarding, swimming, biking, rock hunting, cherry picking, beer/cider drinking, lots of fires with smores and sharing.
I would not trade my very affordable vacation for Mickey ears or the most amazing Luau.
How about you? What’s your affordable way of having a memorable and affordable vacation?