Family Finances: Traveling with multiple kids and a light wallet

Got small kids and think travel is out of your reach? There are ways, friend. There are ways.

Photo by Amanda Gibson.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Managing your money is not about having lots of money, it’s about living the life that brings you the most joy and satisfaction. Unless you have a clear idea of the life you want to live, you won’t live it. If you’ve read this column before, you know that my husband and I value1 security in retirement, quality education for the kids, careers that bring us creative satisfaction and allow us flexibility in how we use our time, and a comfortable home.

Those are the biggies, and things for which many of us strive. Today I thought I would address another value that always gets a line in our budget no matter how tight: travel.

I had my first real travel experience in college. I did a three-week study abroad in Scotland. It took me out of my comfort zone. It was exhausting. It was exhilarating. Scottish people aren’t that different from Americans–we both speak English, our legal systems are similar, we both drink whiskey–but I learned so much about the world by seeing it from another perspective. Since that trip, my husband and I have been able to travel to Puerto Rico, Argentina, England, Italy, and many other amazing places. Now that we have kids, it is important to us that they learn to be willing to get out of their comfort zone and to get to know cultures different from our own.

2 Little Monkeys

Of course, travel was much easier to afford when we were both full-time employed with no day care bills or private health insurance premiums. But now I’m back in school. And we’re expecting our third in November. So this year we took the summer off from traveling. OH EXCEPT THAT WE WENT TO BALI. Yes my friends, my husband, my mom, and I took our four year old and one year old for a two week stay in Bali.

This was the first time any of us had been outside the western world. It was incredible. The Balinese people are the friendliest people I have ever met–they have the most genuine smiles that fill their whole faces. And you should have seen how they made over our toddler. Even shop-keepers would forget all about trying to sell us something and fall all over themselves to touch him, baby talk to him, or scoop him up to show him the koi fish that were swimming in little ponds everywhere. The air in Bali is permeated with the sound of soothing Balinese music, incense, and flowers.2 Experiencing Bali was, for me, a lesson in chilling out and appreciating the beauty of life.

Balinese Silversmith

But enough fun times, back to money. Since this column is dedicated to starting a discussion on how families make financial decisions, I thought I would let you in on how we paid for the whole shebang and how much it cost.

We save up all year long for our travels. We have a money market account, which makes about .00000001% interest right now, like bank savings accounts. The purpose of this account is not to generate returns, but to sit there nice and quiet until we need it. We use this account for big, unusual expenses, like work on the house or really big medical bills. Because our plane tickets were $4500, this cash came out of our short-term savings too.

We were able to cash flow the rest of the expense of the trip. A passport for our youngest was $185, which will be good for the next five years. That was really the only pre-trip expense we had. We pack as lightly as possible. We bring snacks for the flight out of our kitchen. Even my travel guide to Bali was a Christmas gift.

While in Bali we stayed in a four bedroom, luxury, steps-from-the-beach villa that included full-time staff. What do you think we paid? Four million? Eight million? Zero. My husband and I have traveled via home exchange for several years now. Home exchange is where you stay in a stranger’s home and they stay in yours. I hate hotels. Even the nicest are impersonal and smell funny. When you stay in someone’s home, you have a kitchen and washer and dryer. You’re outside of the tourist area, and you stay where real people live. Home exchangers tend to be people who love to travel, and they’ll give you all kinds of tips about culture and restaurants. At this point, we’re absolutely spoiled rotten and will never go back to paying for hotels. I do pay about $100 per year to subscribe to, and we do have some costs associated with allowing someone to stay in our home during that time, but all said, we save a significant amount of money by traveling through home exchange.

Boys on Sanur Beach

While we were in Bali, we paid for food, souvenirs, and experiences. We tend to scrimp on food and souvenirs when we travel, although we did bring back a really beautiful piece of art this time. Most of our money went to experiences. We had a private guide take us around a good portion of the island. We visited an art gallery in a Balinese city famous for its art. We went to a monkey preserve where the monkeys will come right up to you. We spent a lot of time at the beach. My husband learned to kite surf.

Bali is a very inexpensive place to visit, and even though there were five of us, we ended up spending a total of $1,300 while we were there.

If you’re doing the math, that totals $6000, which is an expensive travel experience for us. It has been many years since we spent that much on travel, and it will be a while before we can work up the savings (and the nerve) to fly small children to the other side of the world again. But for us, this was an experience worth our hard-earned cash. Our family’s horizons were expanded, and we’ll never be the same. So will we forgo a life-changing travel experience in 2016 in the interest of saving money? Heck, no. We’re planning a home exchange to Iceland!

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How about you? Did you take a fantastic trip this year? Did you instead save your cash for a really cool experience/thing/person in the future? Are you, like me, crazy enough to take little kids on planes? How do you budget for your travel experiences? Got any tips?

  1. By value I mean things you are willing to throw cash at. 
  2. It sounds like I am waxing poetic, but I’m being for realz. I sneezed during every glorious open-air morning shower because of all the incense and flowers. 
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Amanda Gibson

Amanda Gibson used to teach folks about money at the Fed. Now she spends her days reading history books, raising kids, and thinking of ways to rule the world.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Betty White on said:

    Although I am slightly biased because Amanda is my great niece, this is a terrific article. I share her belief in the benefits of travel for all ages and admire her ingenuity in making it affordable.

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