Want to take a fabulous family vacation this year? Spend a few months in some exotic part of the world? Travel for a year with your kids?

Sure! But there’s a problem…no trust fund.

In 2014 we decided that we wanted to travel for a year with our kids. Sadly, we have no trust fund either.

But you know what? We started digging into the blogs and online articles about other long-term travelers to find out how they saved up the money to travel, and it turns out none of them were rich.

They all started by setting up a separate vacation savings account, setting a savings goal based on projected trip costs, and decreasing spending. Some, like us, supplemented their travel savings with a side hustle.

If you have kids, you know that your costs as a family are more than for singles, and that your travel costs increase. But saving for travel is still possible, and travel with kids doesn’t have to be crazy expensive.  You don’t have to fly to expensive places, stay in pricey hotels, or hang out at exclusive resorts. There are plenty of cheaper ways to travel with family, and they all offer the family time, sense of adventure, and feeling of getting away that you’re looking for.

Whether a luxury or budget traveler, single, couple or family, chances are that like us, you’re going to have to tighten the proverbial belt and save up some money for travel.

Close up of American dollar bills and coins

How We Saved the Money for a Year-Long Family Sabbatical

We estimated that our family sabbatical year would cost $40,000, and gave ourselves five years to save that amount. That meant taking $500 out of our budget each month.

The unavoidable first step: look at where the money is going

How does one go about living on less?  The same way anyone either pays off debt or saves money, right? We religiously set a budget at the beginning of each month, conscientiously tracked all our expenses, and ensured that our spending fell under the threshold we had allocated to various categories.

We wrote everything down, knew where every penny went. Used jars. Maybe envelopes. Or an app.

Except we didn’t. We tried. And we failed.  Again. You see, we have a history of budgeting fails – primarily because we suck at tracking our spending.

I know, I know, careful and documented tracking of spending is one of the cornerstones of basic financial management.  Every book, every blog, every subreddit devoted to personal finances stresses tracking. As one of my favorite personal finance bloggers, Mrs. Frugalwoods says of tracking spending, “This is Step #1 in building a financially healthy life.”

We tried everything:

  • keeping a small notebook
  • keeping a digital memo or note
  • setting up an email account just for tracking spending and emailing every purchase to it
  • keeping receipts and adding them up at the end of every day, and subtracting that from our month’s spending limit
  • an assortment of money tracking apps.

No dice.  I don’t think we ever made it past three days. Eventually, after much agonizing and anxiety, we gave up.

But it’s okay. Our automatic transfer method of saving generally works for us. We set up electronic transfers for all of our bill payments and retirement savings to come out of our bank account the day after payday.  Whatever’s left is what we get to spend.

Because we automated all of our recurring bill payments and some savings, mentally tracking the remainder is doable. We only have to stay on top of what we spend on groceries plus the very few other things we buy in a typical week.

I was, for a while, frustrated by our inability to fully track our spending, but eventually reminded myself that financial management is like so many other things – parenting, retirement, your marriage, your decorating, your career – there’s the ‘perfect’ way to do it that the media repeatedly tells us is the way it must be done in order to be done right, and then there’s the way that works for any given individual or family. Which, if it works (and so long as no-one’s getting hurt), is not a lesser way.

However, it is important to figure out where your money goes. knowing where your money goes is pretty critical for being able to figure out where you can cut back. How to know where the money is going, if like us, you’re hopeless at tracking expenditures?

Our solution: use plastic. Your credit or debit card record will list for you what you spent and where.

Wandering Family Man and I use our credit cards whenever possible (and pay them off each month).  Every few months (well, admittedly, I try for every month, but in the end manage about seven or eight months each year), I plug all of that months’ transactions into pre-set categories in a spreadsheet, just so that we have an approximate record of how much each category costs us – how much do our utilities cost?  How much do we spend to own and run a car? Has our grocery bill gone up?

Man pulling some money out of his wallet

Our money tracking spreadsheet showed us, early on, that Wandering Family Man had a habit of carrying cash and not knowing what it was spent on, and I had a habit of grabbing coffees and snacks when out and about.  Until we added up those costs, we had no idea those habits were costing us over $300 each month. Seeing it in black and white made us plug those money leaks almost immediately!

Once you know how much you spend, you can turn your mind to how you can spend less.

57 ways to cut expenses and save for travel

The following is my brain dump of everything the Wandering Family does to live frugally.  Many of these were already in place when we started to save money for our family gap year. When we started saving for the trip, we went back through the list, tightened up on those items on which we were slacking, reaffirmed (again, sigh) our commitment to eat at restaurants less often, and added a few new-to-us strategies that I’ll list at the end.

Decrease large, recurring costs first

Being frugal in the day-to-day is important, but decreasing the routine costs associated with (typically) housing, utilities, transportation and food will get you further faster than line drying clothes and packing a lunch.

Accommodation

    How we saved:

1. Be thoughtful about accommodation costs: One of the smartest financial things Wandering Family Man and I have ever done: buy less house than the bank says you can afford. When we started shopping for our house, we calculated how much mortgage we could afford if the bigger income earner were on a parental or disability leave, and based our maximum house price on that. Our real estate agent was not happy. Our house is smaller and uglier than our friends’, but we are less house-poor, and have been able to move our money around to meet our shifting priorities, rather than have it tied up in a large mortgage payment.

2. Lower your mortgage payment. Normally, we overpay our mortgage as much as we can in order to pay it off faster. Because we were doing that, we were able to free up some travel savings by lowering the mortgage payment and switching the payment schedule from bi-weekly to monthly. This means that it will take longer to pay off the mortgage, but since we plan to rent out the house during our gap year and beyond, we’re okay with that.

Utilities

    How we saved:

3. Switch from oil heat to natural gas. We wish we had done this as soon as we bought our house, instead of waiting for five years.  We installed a high-efficiency tankless hot water heater and radiant heat furnace that runs on natural gas. It paid for itself in less than two years. The gas bill is 300% lower than the oil bill was, and our electricity bill went down, too.

4. Buy high-efficiency appliances that are smaller than usual.  We have a condo-size fridge and a condo size dishwasher even though we live in a normal size house.  Our electric bill is delightfully low.

5. Line dry clothes.

6. Don’t flush every time.

7. Shower at the gym or at work, if possible.

8. Wash clothes with cold water.

9. Open the dishwasher to dry dishes, instead of allowing it to complete its “dry” cycle. I actually called Bosch to ask how to turn off our dishwasher’s drying cycle. The agent thought I was nuts.

10. Decrease the size of the garbage bin. We didn’t actually manage this one, but you might. In our city, our cost for garbage disposal depends on the bin size we choose.  Composting, recycling, and reducing waste could allow us to have the smallest size bin, saving around $30 each month.

11. Replace incandescent light bulbs with LED bulbs.

12. Install a programmable thermostat. Our heat goes down when we’re not home or are asleep.

13. Cut cable. Wandering Family Man and I have never had cable. We used to watch whatever channels we could get with an antenna; when all channels switched to digital, we stopped watching altogether. Between raising kids, cleaning our house, making food and beer, our side hustles, our hobbies, and reading a good book once in a while, I’m not sure how we ever had time for TV!

    Things we didn’t do, but you could:

14. Turn your hot water heater’s temperature down.

15. Have one phone. You likely don’t need a landline and a cell phone.

16. Periodically shop around for a new internet and cell phone provider. Too often we sign up for a good deal, and then just renew it over and over out of convenience. There are plenty of smaller providers out there who may have a better deal for you.

Transportation

    Things we did:

17. Car-share instead of owning. We used to have a Zipcar membership and loved it. We only bought a car because I got a job out of town. I have run the numbers, and car ownership costs us three times more than did car-share + public transportation + rental car for multi-day trips.

18. Buy used, fuel-efficient cars. As a couple we have owned two cars. Both have been Honda Civics that we bought three years used from a Honda dealership. Both have been extremely reliable, good on gas, and lasted until they were over 10 years old.

19. Minimum liability, maximum deductible. Accidents happen, but usually they don’t, so we hedge our bets and take out only the minimum liability insurance we can. That, together with maximizing our deductible, keeps our insurance premiums at a minimum.

20. Carpool. For several years I drove a full car of people to work every day and back. Sometimes I missed being alone with the radio, but more often I loved the conversations we had, especially since most of my carpoolers were originally from other countries. From what it’s like to be a gay man in Jordan to how to arrange one’s own marriage online, my car has heard it all.

21. Ride a bike. Due to a severe carpal tunnel -like injury, I wasn’t able to ride a bike for ten years. I have one now, and wow, biking is awesome. It’s also free once you have the bike.

Things we didn’t do, but you could

22. Wash and clean your car yourself. I couldn’t rightly put this in the list of what we did, because we never wash our car’s exterior.

23. Change your vehicle’s oil and seasonal tires yourself.

24. Don’t speed. Ahem.

Food

How we saved:

25. Minimize eating out.  So hard, but so effective…the markup on restaurant and take-out food is really high.

After much trial and error, what works best for us is to plan a couple of meals out each month at restaurants we really like, and to write them on the calendar.  When we don’t feel like cooking and are tempted to go out or order in, we look at the calendar to remind ourselves that we have a nice meal coming up, and make spaghetti instead.

26. Pack meals to eat at work. I was a failure at making lunches for myself to take to work. Even though don’t want to spend $7 on a lunch at the company cafeteria if I can bring lunch for less than half of that, if it isn’t “grab and go”, I won’t do it.

What finally worked for me was making extra supper each night and packing the leftovers as complete, ready-to-eat meals in these Systema Stacking Microwavable Plates. Having a meal ready to grab-and-go made all the difference, and the Systema plates are the only food storage containers that are both stackable and microwave safe.

For those days on which there are no leftovers available, I keep a few frozen dinners on hand – not as cheap or as nutritious as a homemade lunch, but still better than eating out.

27. Use a price book for groceries. A price book is a notebook in which you track the cost of items you buy regularly (or want to buy). We use a price book to keep track of the price of our usual grocery items at the various grocery stores near our home. When sales are advertised, our price book helps us gauge whether the sale price is good, and for those things that are not on sale, our price book tells us which store is cheapest.

We shop at two or more stores each week to ensure we are getting the best price for each item. If a store offers price matching, we can often avoid a trip to another store.

Our price book, saving us from overspending on TP

28. Plan meals to decrease food waste. Planning meals for the week, when we manage it, allows us to build in “leftover nights” to help minimize food waste and to plan how to use up an unusual ingredient bought for one meal in subsequent meals.

Hopeless at meal planning or cooking in general? Try $5 Meal Plan, which does your meal planning for you, complete with grocery list.

29. No coffee, lunch or snacks out. We bought good travel mugs and compact thermoses (thermi?), and never leave the house without a drink and snacks in our bag.

30. DIY some prepared food. We bake muffins and granola bars, make our own muesli with ingredients from the bulk food store, and make yogurt in our Instant Pot (we were late Instant Pot adopters; now we use it every day).

31. Make your own beer. Wandering Family Man has been brewing beer for six years and he’s gotten really good at it. He installed a beer tap in our kitchen pantry so we don’t have to bottle.

He estimates that his cost per pint is approximately 60 cents. A pint of beer at our local pub is usually $6 or more.

The beer tap we installed in our pantry. Homebrew on one side, carbonated water on the other

Things we didn’t do, but that you could:

32. Eat less meat. I have not had any luck getting Wandering Family Man on board with this one.

Money Management

How we save:

33. Try not to finance purchases.  If we know we have to buy something expensive we start saving for it as far ahead as possible.

For example, we know we buy a car every eight years or so, and we like to buy used in the $10,000 range, so we have a perpetual auto-transfer set up that moves $110 out our main bank account into a “car savings” account every month. In eight years we have $10,000 with which to pay for our next car with no financing.

We actually use our Tax Free Savings Account for this (Canadian thing), so that the interest on our savings grows tax free.

34. Put as much into tax-deferred registered savings funds as possible. In Canada, that’s usually a Registered Retirement Savings Plan.  We save in our RRSP for retirement, but we also saved all of our family gap year money in our RRSP.  

We won’t have income during the gap year so we’ll fund the trip with RRSP withdrawls and pay income tax on that money at the lowest tax rate. We also try our best to put our tax returns into our RRSP.

Hand writing "tax" in a paper dayminder

35. Don’t incur interest or late fees. That means paying the credit card every month, returning library books on time, getting overdraft protection on the bank account (if it’s free) to avoid NSF (insufficient funds) fees, and being careful not to get parking or speeding tickets.

Buying Stuff

How we save:

36. Buy used whenever possible. We buy the vast majority of our non-consumables used, including clothes and shoes, but not including electronics and appliances (we like warranties and get a free extended warranty when we buy electronics on our Capital One Aspire credit card) and upholstered furniture.

We shop, in order of preference, at garage sales, hosted estate sales, thrift stores, and local online auctions.  We also walk our neighbourhood a lot, and scope out any “free boxes” we see on the curb (“shopping at the G” as our friend calls it).

37. Use cloth everything. We use cloth napkins, cloth rags, cloth handkerchiefs and I switched to cloth toilet paper, all of which are second hand or DIY. Wandering Family Boy and Girl were cloth-diapered and we use cloth wipes that my mom made from second-hand terry towel robes and flannel. Those wipes are now our favorite rags – they even clean glass with no streaks! Speaking of cleaning….

38. Clean with vinegar and water. We have a spray bottle of vinegar and water, and that’s all we ever clean with, other than the dishsoap we use for mopping our floors. House smells fine; at least, as fine as it would if we spent money on fancy, bad-for-the-environment cleaners.

39. Don’t buy books; libraries have those and more.  We have a great library and as such, do not buy books. We attend free kids activities and borrow museum passes from the library. We borrow magazines of DIY projects we want to do and scan the few patterns we want to keep, instead of buying DIY magazines or books.  When I work away from the office, I use the library instead of a coffee shop.

Keep an eye out for local sharing opportunities: our neighbourhood also has a tool library and a toy library, and a great makerspace, all of which allow us to use rarely-needed equipment without having to buy it.

40. Minimize makeup and skin care products. Sunscreen, sunhats, drinking water and exercise will make you look younger than any expensive foundation will. I stopped wearing makeup and no one noticed, even in my professional office work environment. Or if they did notice, they didn’t say anything, which is just as good, IMO.

41. Floss before you brush, brush twice daily, and skip the juice. Cavities are at best inconvenient and at worst, expensive. Flossing before I brush changed my life. I thought I had “soft”, cavity-prone teeth. Haven’t had a cavity since.

42. You only need four pairs of shoes.  Shoes usually last at least a year.

43. Make your own greeting cards. Have you noticed that greeting cards have gotten quite expensive? We pick up paper craft bits at garage sales for almost nothing and make all of our special occasion cards. The kids get a fun craft project and writing practice, and we save around $100 a year.

44. Mani-pedis, beard trims and the like can be done at home. Find a free way to feel like you’re treating yourself.

45. Spend less on Christmas. My family members each make a list of “bigger” items we’d like for Christmas; the rest of the family then picks one and buys it as a group gift.  So we all get one really good gift plus a stocking. The kids get a few more, but really, kids don’t need a huge pile of Christmas gifts.

46. Seek cheaper alternatives to recurring purchases and costs. If you keep an eye out, you may find less costly providers for all manner of services. Is there an electricity provider with better rates? A cheaper internet provider? We even found a cheaper way to send mail than using our (Canadian) national postal service – with Chit Chats Express we cut our costs to send mail and packages almost in half.

47. Get stuff for free. Regularly scope out online listings for free stuff on Craigslist, Facebook and Freecycle. Hoping something specific will pop up? Set up an alert using If This Then That to receive an email when an item is posted.

Kids

How we save:

48. Cloth diaper. We cloth diapered for less than $100 by using flats together with wool covers I made from thrift store sweaters using this free soakers pattern.  You can find all-in-ones or pocket diapers second-hand, or if you’re lucky like I was, on the curb outside of someone’s house.

We wet our aforementioned fabric wipes with water from a spray bottle, and after use, deposit them in a large plastic bucket (with a lid) that we bought from a bulk food store for $1.50.

49. Breastfeed. Not everyone can or wants to and I’m not judging, but those who breastfeed will reap the frugal rewards.

50. Don’t buy prepared baby food. Try baby-led weaning or blending your own baby food. We’ve had great success blending all sorts of food and serving it in these refillable squeeze packs.  Portable, cheap and the kids love them, and the packs have lasted for seven years so far with no leaks.

This jedi mind trick has also been known to work:

Parent: Hungry? Here’s a bowl of applesauce.

Toddler: NOOOOOOOOOOO

Parent *puts applesauce in squeeze pack*: Hey, want a squeezy pack?

Toddler: YAAAAY (eats all of the applesauce in the pack)

51. Let people know you’re hand-me-down friendly.

52. Find some used kid-stuff stores. Bonus if they’ll let you consign stuff back.

53. Look for free baby and toddler activity drop-ins. These can be found at community centres, YMCAs, libraries and churches.

54. Try cheaper classes. Our darlings’ dance careers will not suffer from having taken their first ballet classes at the community centre rather than the posh neighbourhood dance school.

55. Keep an eye out for local school fundraisers and auctions. We scored a week of March break camp for $75 last year at a local school silent auction!

New-to-us frugal strategies we added to our repertoire to save for our family gap year

56. Have “No Money” days – random days where you aim to spend no money whatsoever.  It sounds silly but it’s really quite effective – we are creative about what we do to fill a No Money Day, and it helps knock us out of the habit of spending money. Along this same line you could also try Frugalwood’s Uber Frugal Month Challenge.

57. Go long and go natural. I have little money or time; having my hair colored and cut took a lot of both. Plus, I already have my man, so why do I need to be blond? I stopped colouring and grew long hair that only needs a quick trim every four months or so.

Wandering Family Man stopped cutting his hair more than a decade ago and had a man-bun before it was cool (if it ever was). Boy prefers long hair too, so is also on the every four months haircut schedule.  Girl, just two, barely has hair.


I’m sure I’m missing some things we did to cut costs, but these are all I can recall at the moment. None of these decrease our quality of life; if anything they increase it by allowing us to feel like we have options.

Resources To Get You There

  • Chit Chats Express – for cheap shipping from Canada to the U.S. and worldwide
  • The Complete Tightwad Gazette – we only buy reference books that we will refer to again and again. This is one of them. Soooo many good money-saving strategies, and a fun read to boot.

Pinnable image of dollar bills with text that says "57 easy ways to cut costs so you can travel more"