Sunday, October 20, 2013

To Mexico We Go!

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to encourage parents to take their kids on family vacations. It seems that whenever I tell people about a trip we are planning on taking, the popular response is "are you taking the kids?" Of course we are! And everyone seems so surprised. 

Of course it is going to be a different type of traveling When you bring the kids. And if the last time you travelled outside the country was the summer after high school when you took that backpacking trip through Europe, then you're going to have a little less freedom to do only what you want. Or if your last tropical vacation was "Spring Break in Cancun" then a vacation to Mexico with your kids will be a somewhat sobering experience for you. But if you have kids, I imagine you're like me and enjoy playing and spending time with them. 

When I backpacked through Europe by myself, many years ago, I had no plans, no money, no real precautions. And when my husband and I started traveling together, all our trips were booked extremely last minute. This is usually the thing to do in order to get the best prices. But when you're traveling with three young children you need to plan ahead, make reservations, and definitely take precautions. 

Be prepared for anything. Pack every single medicine you may need. I don't think I have ever been on a vacation where I haven't administered either ibuprofen, Benadryl or a band-aid to at least one out of three of my kids. It's always better to be safe then pay $6.00 for band-aids. 

Having pre-set reservations for your accommodations and transportation will save a lot of time and money. We spent a good month researching resorts in Mexico, reading reviews on Trip Advisor and researching prices on different travel sites such as Expedia and Kayak. We found it was cheaper booking directly through the resort, rather then going through a third party. Makes sense. Then we booked our flights separately as well, also spending many hours online, to determine the lowest airfare prices. I spoke with other resort guests and they booked flights and resort in a package seal and paid hundreds more then us. Booking flights in the middle of the week always gives you cheaper fares then on the weekends. We pre-booked airport parking and saved nearly 50 percent! We booked transportation to our resort separately and saved again. The more we save, the more vacations we can go on is how I look at it. 

A trip to an All-inclusive in Mexico is probably one of the easiest trips to do with your kids. While it may not satisfy the single globetrotters appetite for travel,  it offers connivence, family time, and fun for kids. And if the kids aren't having fun then you're not either! We picked our resort based on its kid-friendly reviews. And a resort that offers a type of daycare/entertainment for kids, allows a little more relaxation time for mom and dad. 

 One of the most important mind sets to have when traveling with kids is flexibility. You should make plans, but know that they can, and probably will, change. You and your spouse need to be on the same page when it comes to going with the flow. I would love to tell you that we got to our resort and spent 10 perfect beach, pool and excursion filled days in paradise. But the truth is, by day four my baby, Grayson, developed a fever. So I took Jaidyn and Addy to dinner and a kids show and my husband stayed with G and had room service. We did the same thing the next day, except this time Addy joined the party in the room with a fever as well. I took Jaidyn to dinner and a show and he had room service again. I was more then willing to stay behind this time but he wanted to watch the Red Sox game anyway! With two out of three kids sick during the day, we took turns staying in the room. I went snorkeling and did water aerobics at the beach then he had pool bar time. Of course we would rather be doing it all together, but when vacation plans change for the worst, you really are better off making the best of it. Being angry, bitter and feeling sorry for your somewhat ruined vacation will get you no where. There's always next time!

Our trip facts & costs:
Where we stayed: Grand Bahia Principe Coba, in Riviera Maya.
 We loved: the kids water park and easy access to everything from our room. The kids club was so good that our girls didn't want to spend any time with us! The beach was farther then I liked, but was was beautiful and a section was cleared of rocks for ouch-less swimming.
Resort Cost: 10 days in Paradise for all five cost us approximately $1425

Airfare: $1400 for four tickets (babies fly free, so take 'em while they're young!)

Bag fees: $100, but you can try to book a flight with a carrier who doesn't charge a fee.  We usually fly Spirit or Southwest or Jet Blue but they didn't have any flights left with decent times. 

Transportation: $170 for our own personal driver and SUV. So worth it. This last leg of the trip can be the worst part. Having to stop at other resorts to drop off other travelers is a pain, when you just want to get to your own resort. Spend the little bit of extra money here. 

So where are we at? $3095. That's a grand less then D-World would have cost us for the same things. I don't think it's too bad. Put $300 a month into a vacation savings account and you'll have it in a year, and plenty of spending money too. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Budgeting Basics: The Envelope System

I'm guessing in almost every couple there is a saver and a spender. But my husband and I like to do things together - so when we're saving together it's great - but when we're spending together, watch out budget! Somehow having the other person there with you makes it seem like it's ok to cross that budget line. And it's always big stuff - like vacations! Of course now we have a vacation "envelope." Back in the olden days of our lives we would just go on vacation and figure out how to pay for it when we got home. We were very spontaneous with our weekend getaways, making memories and leaving a trail of debt along the way. Eventually we received a wake-up call. It doesn't take more then your credit card being declined at the grocery store to put things in perspective. We had to start living within our budget. 

My husband read Dave Ramsey's book Total Money Makeover. The first thing he tells you to do is write down your monthly income then list all your expenses. "Give every dollar a name," he says. When you first do it you may find out you're living beyond your means. For most people it's a fancy car with a payment that crushes their budget. For others it's a love of shopping. For us it was a little of everything, but mostly it was lack of any sort of budget. As soon as we started tracking our dollars, we wanted to be able to control our dollars. We used the "envelope" system. You literally put cash in an envelope that is labeled with that Dollar's name. For instance, "Food."  Clothing, entertainment, gifts, kid's activities - anything you spend money on over the month gets an envelope. The vacation envelope is important to us. It's not essessial to most, but to us it means time together, time with the kids, time away from all our work worries. If we have to cut back on spending in another envelope in order to go on vacation we will. We consider it a priority. When I pull up to my daughter's school in my 2002 mini van that looks like the ugly duckling next to some of the other parents' cars picking up their kids, I remind myself that driving it means I get to go on vacation,  and that makes me smile. 

But recently I had to go back to basics with my clothing budget. I had been using the YNAB app (You Need A Budget) which is great, don't get me wrong, especially for more complex budgets, but I was putting clothes on credit cards instead of taking the cash out of the envelope, which allowed me to overspend one month, taking me into the negative for the next month. I went over the last two months. Perhaps it was my Back to School shopping Saga at Justice or my shopping spree at Goodwill when everything was 50% off. I always say that the occupational hazard of working at Old Navy is the temptation to buy! Either way, I went over. So now I have to put the clothing cash in the envelope. And you know, now that it's cash, I don't want to spend it! There's something about it being cash that makes me almost afraid to spend it. I know when it's gone it's gone. That's why Dave Ramsey is so anti credit card. He knows that people will spend more if they have a credit card then if they're paying cash.  So if I want something at the end of the month or if Old Navy has a big sale, I know I want to have that money to spend. I think this is part of the beauty of the system. Half the battle of budgeting is mental. Getting yourself to curb your spending and ask yourself: "do I really need this?" I've listened to Dave's podcasts and heard him argue with someone about them using a credit card to earn points ( or miles, or whatever). His main point is that when you don't have to pay for it right away, you are tempted to just buy it, and figure out how to pay for it later, leaving a trail of debt along the way. And I don't want to go back to that trail ever again!