O’Connor: Don’t be Dopey — save for that vacation

Brian J. O'Connor
Detroit News Finance Editor

When it comes to this summer’s vacations, savings is back in style. According to a survey from CreditCards.com, 8 in 10 Americans who plan to take a vacation this summer will pay for some or all of it with savings rather than financing the trips with credit cards.

CreditCards.com also found that a really savvy portion of us (13 percent) will finance this year’s getaways with their credit card rewards points. And, in an impressive show of fiscal discipline, the majority of Americans — 54 percent — said they’ll skip traveling because they don’t have the money.

“Americans are just really debt-averse right now,” says Matt Schulz, CreditCards.com senior industry analyst. “With the Great Recession still pretty fresh in our minds, and folks dealing with student loan debt or the high cost of housing, the last thing they want to do is take on more debt.”

I just road-tested the cash vacation concept with the Funny Money family at Disney World, aka “The Costliest …” I mean, “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Let me tell you, there is nothing so empowering to a vacationing dad as traveling with a substantial wad of cash.

The Long-Suffering Mrs. Funny Money: “Look, it’s Cinderella! Let me get a picture with her.”

Disney Handler: “I’m sorry, Cinderella needs to leave.”

Me(pulling out a $20 bill): “Hold on, Cindy. Your prince has come and his name is Jackson. Say, cheese!”

And here’s another $5 for a selfie

Now Cinderella will tell you, “A dream is a wish your heart makes,” but I say put a deadline and a dollar sign on that dream and it becomes a goal you can realistically afford.

Once I booked the plane tickets last fall, the vacation deadline was set, and previous trips gave me a good handle on the budget. All that was left was to start saving, which I did in cash because it can be a huge motivating force.

I trotted out a glass Mickey Mouse cookie jar I received years ago with some press release, and put it on the counter. The idea was to use the Dream Box method to teach my son, Funny Money Jr. or, as I call him, Li’l Money (’cuz that’s all he leaves us), a lesson in how regularly saving small amounts of money can build a significant pile of cash.

The point of a Dream Box (or jar, envelope, coffee can, old gym shoe, snood or what have you) is to save for a fun, concrete financial goal, and to do it in cash. Rather than abstractly transferring money to some unseen savings account, you’re watching the cash pile up.

Every night when I got home, I’d call Li’l Money up from the rec room and hand him my leftover change from the day, which he’d happily plunk in the jar, which also got all our refunds on can and bottle returns, change from his purchase, and all the coins I found when cleaning out my (t)rusty Buick Roadmaster wagon for sale.

While the Disney jar was fine for small change, it would’ve been way too tempting to sock away the balance needed to cover a one-week vacation out in the open, so bills were tucked away in a separate folder. That included cashed expense checks from work, health plan reimbursements and payments for the occasional freelance writing assignment.

And hit the sofa cushions!

To keep that money from turning into the family ATM, those bills were safely socked away. Our previous home came with a wall safe, and when we bought this house, I picked up one at an estate sale. Into the safe went the greenbacks, where I could still watch our progress without it becoming depleted by frivolous so-called “emergencies,” such as paying for school pictures, tipping the pizza delivery guy or replacing a blown transmission.

Once we hit Orlando, we put most of the trip’s expenses on a rewards credit card. As soon as we returned, I headed to the bank, made the deposit and paid off the charges. And the only interest I paid was carrying the plane tickets for a few months — along with pretending to like “It’s a Small World.”

As for Li’l Money, he’s already saving for the next trip. This time around, I’m hoping he won’t gripe about rolling up the coins for deposit. Only a teenager thinks counting out money for his dream vacation is akin to cutting the lawn with a pair of nail clippers. It turns out Disney World isn’t the only place with a guy called Grumpy.


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Twitter: @BrianOCTweet