Does Avoiding Credit Cards Save Money on Trips?

A month ago, I wrote about how my wife and I planned to leave our credit cards at home so we wouldn’t bust our budget when we traveled to Kenya.  Did it work?  Yes, it actually did.  We got back last week, with no vacation-debt and a bit of money leftover in our checking account.   We faced some surprises in Kenya, but we made it through ok.   The total bill (minus the flight and prep work):  only $2,318.   That includes hotels (8 nights), food, gifts, etc. for 13 days in Kenya,  2 days in Dubai, and 1 day in Uganda.

To recap:   My wife and I were traveling to Kenya to introduce our son to his maternal grandmother and extended family.  It was a two week trip, and the last time we went (before we had our son, Luke), we blew it.  We went deep into credit card debt because we hadn’t planned ahead.

For this trip, we set up our “Choice Architecture” to help us spend our money wisely:

  1. We saved up our money upfront – we felt the sacrifice before the trip
  2. We decided to leave the credit cards at home and only spent what we had in our checking account for the vacation
  3. We didn’t make a detailed budget, but instead we planned our trip to avoid places that were expensive and of low-value to us, and focused on high-value, less-expensive places

What worked?  Well, I have to admit upfront, we couldn’t quite stomach leaving all of our credit cards at home.  We were too worried about emergencies.  So we took one.   And, we did actually use it once – when our kid got sick and we had to take him to a hospital (he recovered quickly, thankfully).    Otherwise, our pact to avoid credit cards worked.    We used cash and debit only.  And, like the research in behavioral economics says, it was a bit uncomfortable spending cash.  When we had to take paper bills out of our wallets, we thought about it more, and we found ourselves not buying stuff we didn’t need.

We had planned to check our balance to see what we had left as we went, and use that as feedback on our spending.   Feedback is essential for this process to work – it’s what alleviates the burden of budgeting and tracking each expense, because you automatically adjust your spending behavior in small ways every day, rather than consciously trying to control spending.

Unfortunately, the feedback mechanism we’d planned didn’t work out.   We were in rural areas, without many banks that accepted our debit card (or our credit card either, by the way), and without good Internet access.  So, we couldn’t check our balance regularly.   So, we kept a small notebook.  We tracked how much money we’d withdrawn – and thus what the balance should be – and that worked.   Tracking every little purchase was too much of a pain, and took the fun out of things, but tracking the withdrawals was no big deal.   When we did have Internet access, we used HelloWallet to double check that our notebook was correct. 

Planning our trip to avoid expensive places worked great.   We avoided disagreements and misunderstanding between us while we were on the road (and stressed).  We also spent lots of time with family, and going out to eat good food.  Near the end of the trip we found that we were good ok, so we splurged a bit on souvenirs (and bargained like the devil for them, too ;).  

All in all, our strategy worked well.   Not quite perfectly, but good enough.   We crafted our trip to help us spend less, and didn’t rely (only) on self-control or a detailed budget.    We set up a feedback mechanism so we’d learn how we were doing and adjust our spending without needing to think consciously about it all of the time.   We didn’t argue about money.   And, Luke got to see his grandmother.  

Has anyone else out there tried creative ways to control their spending?


(Photo by Images_of_Money)