Real numbers: Budgeting for a weekend away

Repeat after me: track or you will fail.

It doesn’t matter if it’s money, or fitness, or watering your plants, if there is something you want to accomplish and it takes more than a single step to get there, you need to build awareness of where you are relative to where you need to go.

A few weeks ago, I talked about what happens when you don’t track your spending on vacation. The answer, in few words, is that you spend way more that you expect to.

But why does that matter? I mean, it’s vacation after all.

True, but you don’t want credit card bills as souvenirs.

I didn’t use credit cards. I had the money.

Yes, but what if I told you that you could enjoy your vacation just as much if you tracked your spending and spent less? Because that extra money we spent didn’t materially make us happier or change the trip. It was unintentional spending, the kind you don’t notice.

And what is the pleasure in spending money when you don’t notice it?

So this past weekend, my partner and I had plans to head down to Southern California for a long weekend. And this time, we agreed on the rules: create a budget together, check on it every night, and stick to it.

And since it’s more real if actual numbers are involved, I’ll tell you what we budgeted for.

Start with what is important

You can use a single “Adventure” category for a trip or some time away. And that’s how I usually like to do it when I track something on my own monthly expenses.

But during the trip itself, we wanted to drill down and get specific.

This actually makes things easier. If you just said “I want to spend $500 this weekend“, where did that number come from? You have to derive that number from something, otherwise it’s meaningless.

So we asked ourselves: what do we want to do this weekend?

This was a discussion, both about actions and destinations, but also about feelings and what is important. So in addition the above, there were also questions like:

  • How comfortable/luxurious do we want to feel?
  • Are there any ways in which being extravagant would feel good?
  • What is most important to us in how we spend our weekend together?
  • What isn’t so important to us?
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Money decisions don’t happen in the spreadsheet; they happen in the heart. And whether you’re doing this alone or with a partner, this remains true.

Our budget

  • Taxi: $30. The cost to get to the airport. We planned to take public transit on the way home, but timing on the outbound portion made that make less sense.
  • Rental car: $100. I use Costco to rent cars, and it’s saved me hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars over the years. We figured this out in advance that we could get something for around this price.
  • Gas: $50. Don’t forget the gas. I always want to rent small compact cars, because all cars are nice enough, and I don’t need anything bigger. We budgeted for 1.5 tanks of gas, given where we were going.
  • Knott’s Berry Farm: $120. Don’t judge. I’ve talked about my love of roller coasters before and Knott’s Berry Farm is amazing. I’m also grateful to have found a partner who shares my enjoyment of these places.
  • Food $160. This is always the X factor for me. I love spending money on food, so I don’t want to skimp, but I also want to be sensible. Also, this was a joint decision. So with a four day trip, we budgeted to spend an average of about $40 per day.

Total: $460. That was our goal.

(Note: We didn’t include hotel and airfare in this budget, because those had already been taken care of previously. This was only for expenses during the weekend itself.)

The execution

One of the most likely reasons why someone might not track their expenses while traveling is that it takes time away from the vacation itself. Who wants to come back at the end of the night and write down your spending when you’ve been out late, or you have to get up early (or both)?

But if you know this in advance, then you can counteract it by setting rules. No sleep until you’ve tracked. You’re not going to do it in the morning, so don’t say you will. Don’t put it off.

And make it easy. I might be a spreadsheet guy, but I literally used a piece of one of those little pads of paper that they give you in your hotel room. That’s how technical I got. I didn’t use an app.

I also took this on. While my partner and I made all of our decisions together, I was the one who elected to do all of the mechanics of tallying up every night. In the morning, we talked about how we were doing, and made any adjustments as necessary as a team.

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Results

There were a number of interesting lessons that came from this experiment.

  • Don’t forget a category. One of the more important categories is what I call Fun/Misc. These are things that don’t fit neatly into any other category. It can be anything from sunscreen to a t-shirt. And guess what category we forgot! That was such an epic fail. In order to cope and stay in budget, we decided to reduce our spending in other categories.
  • Adjust as necessary. This deserves its own point. You are allowed to change things as you go, and sometimes you may have to. That’s okay, just know what you’re doing and why.
  • It never hurts to overestimate. Round up! Everything costs more than you think it will. (Especially in California.) We ended up deciding to get a cab back home, and we didn’t budget for it. On the other hand, we really didn’t need 1.5 tanks of gas. One paid for the other.

And since you’re wondering, our total spend on this trip came to: $448.

Bullseye!

We spent less on food than we planned for, which helped us with all the other spending that we forgot about. Some things cost more, some cost less, but the extra money that we spent on food at Knott’s Berry Farm (whose prices are as ridiculous as one would expect), was offset by other parts of the trip where we didn’t need to spend much on anything.

Was it worth it?

Money decisions don’t happen in the spreadsheet; they happen in the heart.

For me, the answer was yes. But there were a few reasons.

  • Awareness. Knowing how I act and what I do, and being able to adjust this as necessary based on information I collect is a very satisfying process. I learn about myself in this, which can be perennially valuable.
  • Intentionality. The one thing I disliked the most about how our trip to NYC worked out is that we spent a lot of money and didn’t realize it. We didn’t really know where it was all going. I want to be mindful of what I spend my money on,as it feels better.
  • Connection. It wasn’t all about me. This was an opportunity for me to connect with my partner and figure out what was important to her as well, so we could come together and create some time together that was authentic, special, and fun.

Awareness, intentionality, and connection. And people say budgets are bad??

Wheee!
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