Financing Family Vacation (Part 2)

Have you recently went on your family vacation and wondered how you could have spent less money on some of the daily activities?  As I write this, we are returning from the vacation with my side of the family.  We vacationed in West Bend, WI (located about 45 minutes north of Milwaukee) as it was a central gathering point where my parents, brother & sister-in-law, plus myself & my wife could all spend a week together and take a few days to visit grandparents.

I recently wrote about how we save money when planning a vacation.  In this article, I will share some of the ways we save money once we hit the road.  If your family is like ours, there are a few “Plan Bs” in your vacation itinerary.  One example from this vacation was a mom & pop restaurant we were going to visit was closed for the weekend as the owners were vacationing themselves.  What other delicious restaurant did we find instead ?  Hint: We rely quite heavily on Yelp & Trip Advisor.

To give some background with this vacation, we stayed at a campground for most of the week.  We saved a decent chunk of money compared to staying in a hotel or rental house ($30-60 per night at a campground compared to $100+ for a hotel/house).  This meant there were some upfront costs as you need access to a tent or camper to stay at most campgrounds.  It also meant we had to stay about 45 minutes away from most of our activities as traditional lodging was out of our price range this summer.  It just made sense to camp and to enjoy the great outdoors this summer!

How We Saved Money

My family isn’t very extravagant.  We do not take vacations primarily to go shopping at the various malls & outlet stores, go golfing two or three days, or visiting amusement parks.  We have done a combination of the previous activities in the past, but we have found that you do not need to spend a boatload of money to have fun.  Having very young children helped us realize this fact (who need picking flowers & playing with dirt could be so much fun?), plus, juggling naptime.  In a few years, we will definitely plan a trip to Disney, etc.

National & State Parks

We like to hike and are blessed to live just down the road from Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  Like any tourist, we also like to explore new trails when we have the opportunity to visit new places.  In the West Bend area, we visited the Kettle Moraine State Park and spent the day hiking several scenic trails.

The great thing about national and state parks is they are free or cost only a few bucks (no more than $15 per vehicle) for a day pass.  Hiking is a great way to get exercise, see something new, pique the interest of children who love the outdoors.  More & more parks also offer a child-friendly visitors center that will still allow parents to get their “museum fix” and to help provide an educational lesson at the same time.

Try Other Sports Activities

Between sticking to a budget and including a 1-year-old in the mix, families view vacation differently than singles or couples.  In addition to hiking, we also partook in the child-friendly activities of bowling & disc golf.  We were able to find a good alley that only charged $3 per person per game.  Admittedly, we had to take turns holding our daughter in between throws once her fascination with the bowling balls and pins ran out, it was a great trip down “memory lane” as my wife & I went bowling several times.

My brother & sister-in-law also introduced us to a game called disc golf (you might know it as Frisbee golf).  We challenged each other at a city park near our campground in West Bend.  Disc golf is similar to regular golf, but a lot quicker & cheaper (most parks do not charge a fee).  A course will have 9 or 18 “holes” and you need to maneuver around trees, rivers, brush, etc.  You don’t play this game with just any Frisbee, you have differently weighted discs like a driver, mid-distance, and a putter.  Disc golf aficionados might have a whole assortment of different discs, just like a golfer normally has 2 or 3 woods, several irons, & maybe a wedge or two (plus the putter).

West Bend, WI Vacation Ideas
Example of Frisbee Golf. You throw the disc into a metal basket. The chains help “catch” the disc.

I’m am not much of a Frisbee player, but I enjoyed the competition of the event and would be willing to play again.  My wife & I thought this was a Midwest game, but found out there are several courses just a few minutes away from us.  Perhaps one day we will get our own set & go golfing in the near future.

Enjoy The Activities At The Lodging Facility

The swimming pool at your campground or hotel might not be as awesome as the waterpark you are planning to visit, but children love swimming pools.  If your lodging offers a pool or rec room or other activities, you have already paid for these amenities and might as well take advantage of them.  Our 1-year old loved the pool & swings at the campground and we just had to walk to get there in between meals & naptime.

Tracking Expenses

I mentioned earlier that I would tell you how we track our expenses while on vacation.

Step 1: Set A Budget Before Vacation

We changed our plans several times due to holiday closings & weather, but we only chose alternate activities that fit within our budget.  There were several restaurants or museums we wanted to visit, but, they were out of our price range this year.  Break down how much you want to spend in each of the following categories:

  • Lodging
  • Food
  • Fun (Sightseeing, Sporting Events, Entertainment, etc.)
  • Transportation

Now, compare how much you wants to how much you can actually afford.

If you put money aside in a “Do Not Touch” account for vacation, you might have a headstart on this step.  You know you need a place to eat & sleep, so these two expenses are the most important.  If they are the bulk of your budget, the “Fun” category will be the first to be reduced to stay within your means.

I mentioned earlier that we normally do not take many expensive vacations, and we were surprised what we could do for free or next-to-nothing this past week.

Step 2: Keep Track of Your Current Expenses

With a budget amount in mind, keep track of every expense while on vacation.  It can be on a notepad or using an app like Mint or YNAB.

We factored roughly how much we would pay in gas & Chicago tolls to get to & from Wisconsin.  And, we also knew our fixed costs like lodging & (to a certain extent) grocery shopping for the meals we would eat at the campsite.  All these amounts were written down.

Eating at restaurants & sightseeing (includes souvenir shopping) are the two largest variables in meeting the budget once the vacation begins. 

We originally had plans to eat at a particular restaurant until we found out they closed for July 4th weekend.  So, we got on Yelp and found another similar restaurant with a similar price rating.  Once we got to the restaurant, my wife & I still looked at the menu and ordered within our price range, but, we did splurge a little on dessert during the trip.  It's vacation so we know we will spend a little more than usual, you just need to know when it is ok and when to say “No.”

Step 3: Live A Little

You cannot go on vacation and still live as if it is the Great Depression.  Do not spend with reckless abandon, but part of “going on vacation” is to take a break from reality to refresh yourself.  If you believe in the “Pendulum concept” one person will eventually swing from one extreme to the other.  Spending in moderation is easier said than done in many instances, but it is easier than you think.

Part of that is doing something you wouldn’t do back home.  It might be touring a Basilica or going zip lining.  The possibilities are endless.  Also, take the opportunity to see if you can participate a similar event at your lodging location (you already paid for the amenity) or follow the recommendations of other travelers on websites like Trip Advisor.  There are lots of free or cheap secrets out there to discover.


We had a good time on our vacation.  We value quality time with family and do not need expensive experiences to help satisfy this need.  We enjoy doing activities together and trying new things, instead of only sitting around the house like any other weekend back home, and we save throughout the year in order to afford this annual opportunity.

The underlying piece of advice is to be open-minded and flexible.  Sometimes it is hard to get an accurate picture of what a vacation will cost until you arrive at your destination.

Just as a plan will help make your schedule more efficient to make every desired activity flexible, your wallet will be happy with a plan as well.  If this is a new concept to you, you will be surprised how much fun you can have on a “cheap” vacation!


What are your plans for vacation?  What else have you done to keep vacation expenses low?

Thanks For Reading,







Josh founded Money Buffalo in 2015 to help people get out of debt and make smart financial decisions. He is currently a full-time personal finance writer with work featured in Forbes Advisor, Fox Business, and Credible.