Vacation Budgeting with Kids

For spring break this year I wanted to take a trip but our vacation budget prohibited anything involving airfare or theme parks. Washington, D.C. was the perfect solution. The drive was relatively short – four hours – and considering that nearly all the museums have free admission, all we’d be paying for was our hotel and meals. In budgeting our trip, however, I forgot to add one important line item: shopping.

Yes, the museums are free, but the museum shops are not. The first day or two I gleefully followed my 5- and 8-year-old kids around as they hunted for souvenirs. By day two my daughter had amassed a drawing notebook, a bag of colorful rocks, a wool beret and a Cherry Blossom T-shirt. My son had only one purchase: the White House pencil case he had been longing for.

I noticed a trend: My kids kept saying “Can I get?” and I kept saying “Sure!” My husband was a co-conspirator, joining them in their puppy-dog stares when my hesitation had them fearing I’d say no. “We’re on vacation,” he said. “Let them enjoy it.”

But all of this souvenir hunting was adding up. After spending $127 at the National Gallery of Art Shop , mostly on things for the kids, I realized this had to come to an end or this vacation would make me regret we hadn’t just booked a flight somewhere. The solution? I put the power of the purse in their hands.

“You each have $30 to spend on whatever you want; but, once you spend it, that’s it. You’re done,” I said. Suddenly, their shopping habits changed. My daughter’s price point on items fell significantly and her shock over the cost of items rose significantly. (“Astronaut ice cream? Why would someone even pay for that?” she said. “It looks gross.”) My son, on the other hand, was suddenly much more interested in shopping. Everywhere we went he looked for prices and kept repeating, “If I buy this, how much do I have left?” A natural-born miser, he had a hard time parting with his money and likely bought less than if we hadn’t given him a budget. My daughter, a natural-born shopper, enjoyed the financial independence her own money gave her.

I asked some friends how they handle budgeting their kids’ vacation spending. One encourages her sons to save up the money they get for allowances and their birthday for use when they travel. This way, none of the child’s spending comes out of mom’s or dad’s pocket. Another has a “one purchase a day” rule, and that can be either souvenir or snack. Once they pick their purchase, they can’t ask for anything more.

While at Walt Disney World, Chrissie Lograno-Weinstein gives her kids a vacation allowance that is used to purchase Disney Dollars, a kind of traveler’s check just for use at Disney. “Many parents are now purchasing them to teach kids the value of money on their Disney vacation,” says Lograno-Weinstein, who runs the Disney travel agency Pirates and Pixie Dust Vacations. “Once they realize that spending their Disney Dollars on souvenirs means that they are going to be limited in their purchases, they’ll control their buying.”

Whatever the method, I realized that giving your child the power of her own purse won’t only save you money, it will teach her a valuable lesson: money is not an infinite resource.

What are your tips for vacation budgeting with kids?

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