Architect the Perfect Family Vacation Without Creating Debt

My wife and I are taking our “summer” vacation in three weeks (hey, it’s been busy at HelloWallet, so “summer” is coming late).   We’re introducing our new son to my wife’s family, which will be amazing.   My wife is from a small town in Kenya, and the trip is a Big Deal for us – we’re spending two weeks there and visiting lots of friends and family.

We’re also praying that we don’t go broke, like we did the last time we went there.  We never did anything crazy or expensive – we stayed with friends and ate at home when we could, but we still went deep into debt.   I honestly just don’t know where the money went; small things added up on us.

The new trip is in three weeks, and we don’t have a budget yet.    I’m the Research guy at HelloWallet – I study how important budgets are – and I don’t have one.

What’s a budget for?  It helps you track and control your spending.  We desperately need to control our spending when visiting family like this; last time, it took us over a year to get free of the credit card debt.   But, budgets are about personal self-control; there are other ways to control spending.   So, we’re controlling our spending by designing our trip better.

First, we’ve been scrimping and saving money up front.  Our vacation money is in its own separate account, and will be the only thing we use during the trip.   We know our burn rate for essentials, and thankfully have that covered.

Second, we’re leaving the credit cards at home.  We’re only spending money that we have, and every time we check our balance it will be clear what’s available.  We’re using debit and cash only. 

Third, my wife and I have talked about what’s really most important to us on our trip (family, good food, little souvenirs), and what’s not (seeing the sights, everyday shopping).   We’re planning our basic itinerary now, to avoid the places where we blow money on stuff we don’t really care about. 

Basically, we’re doing what’s called Choice Architecture [1] – setting up our decision making environment so that it’s easier, and more likely, for us to make good decisions.  That means removing the triggers that cue us to spend, by avoiding certain shopping malls and layovers on our trip.  It also means making impulse spending more real and psychologically costly, by avoiding credit.   Credit card money doesn’t “feel” real, so people spend more on credit.   We’re also building in a feedback loop for our spending behavior – with a clear signal from the bank on what $ we have available to spend, and automated alerts (through HelloWallet, of course) if it looks like we’re getting into trouble.   It also means feeling good about the things that we do spend money on and removing anxiety.   If there’s money leftover in the vacation account, great, it’s ours to enjoy (or to pay off debts!)

By changing our Choice Architecture, we aren’t relying on a herculean effort to control our impulse to have fun on vacation.   We can learn from our past experiences, but that doesn’t mean we can fundamentally change who we are (easy-going people that aren’t that good at tracking spending).  I don’t mean to pooh-pooh self-control – it’s vital, and we all benefit by exercising it.    But, there’s more to staying on track than that. 

The trip is coming up, and I’ll tell you how it goes.   We’re optimistic that a good Choice Architecture will help us avoid the money disaster that happened last time.   Honestly, we’re planning to create a more formal budget as the time approaches, and seeing if we can beat it.   Thankfully, setting up that budget only takes a few minutes in HelloWallet 😉

1. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein develop this concept in their book “Nudge”: It’s an insightful, easy read about Choice Architecture and the subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways that the decision making environment shapes our choices. There’s a good summary of the idea with examples at