If your kids are like mine, they beg daily to go to Disney World or to stay at a hotel for the buffet breakfast and awesome pool. I’m pretty sure I know where they get it from; I research travel deals more often than I’d like to admit. With our family’s wanderlust, we set a high budget annually for travel, but we also try to find creative ways to free up some additional cash to pay for spontaneous trips we just can’t pass up. This is part of why I continually seek ways to save as much as possible on our food spending each month.
In 7 EASY Ways to Save on Groceries, I shared how our family of 6 got our grocery budget down from over $1200 per month to closer to $900.On average, we continue to save about 17% – 25% of our total on each trip to the grocery store by using coupons and capitalizing on weekly sales and clearance offers. We also use ibotta to get up to $8 cash back per receipt. Over the last year, with the exception of the months at the start of the pandemic, we saved nearly $3600 on groceries and earned about $112 in cash back from ibotta. That amounts to $3,712 that could be put toward additional investing or travel!
Let’s see how this math plays out for a “typical” American family. The average grocery costs for a family of 4 in America is between $800 and $1,000 per month. If a family can reduce its grocery spending by 25% over the next 12 months, that would give a family an additional $200 – $250 per month to go toward other opportunities. If that money were invested and compounded annually at 8%, those grocery savings would amount to approximately $36,688 – $45,860 in cash at the end of 10 years. That could be a down payment on a house or a trip around the world! It could even allow you to retire an entire year earlier.
However, if you need more short-term motivation, those annual savings of $2,400 to $3,000 could take your family of four to Disney World or any other favorite vacation destination each year. Here’s how:
Use a hotel rewards card for all your grocery shopping. At the time this was published, Hilton Honors offers a 150,000 point sign-up bonus as well as 5x points for grocery spending, meaning that your annual spending of $7,200 would provide you with 186,000 points to use toward hotel stays. (That’s just with grocery spending, not including anything else you’d put on that card.) *Important: Only sign up for a credit card if you are able to make your payments every month on time!*
Transfer the amount you save in groceries each month into a high-yield savings account and give that account a clever name to keep you motivated, such as “Meeting Mickey Mouse”.
Use the calendar function on Disney’s website to find the most affordable days to visit Disney World (or do research for cheapest time to travel to your desired destination/theme park). Mid-week travel in August and September is often when you’ll find the best prices. For a family of four, 4-day passes to Disney World Resort (1 park per day) come out to $1,708.28.
Find the best hotel using your points. Log in to the specific hotel chain associated with the credit card you signed up for (Marriott Bonvoy, Hilton Honors, World of Hyatt…), and search the dates of travel associated with the lowest-priced theme park tickets. Select the option to “Pay with Points” or “Use Points”. A quick search turned up dozens of hotels priced at 20,000 to 30,000 points per night. With the Hilton Honors example above, you’d have at least 186,000 points available to go toward this stay, which would cover 6 to 9 nights away.
This method of motivation to save on groceries not only works for you, but it’s a great way to get your kids on board with learning about the benefits of frugality too. If a trip to Disney World is promised, kids may be willing to try more off-brand foods, finish the leftovers in the fridge, and help with meal planning and prep! It’s a win-win for everyone.
If you’re a frugal family that likes to travel, you’re no stranger to road trips. Despite the bickering, bathroom needs in the middle of nowhere, and numb bums, road trips are good for the soul… and the travel budget.
Not only does road tripping allow you to save on airfare and a rental car in your final destination, your own vehicle also provides you ample space to bring all the extras that wouldn’t typically fit into your carry-on bag. This is where the real savings comes in.
With the following road trip checklist, you can prepare for those often unanticipated expenses that pop up while traveling with kids.
Road Trip Essentials
Clothes, separated by location or travel stop, rather than by person (We finally learned that when going on a multi-destination road trip to pack for each location rather than by each person. We pack one bag with bathroom/PJ items for everyone, and then we will pack and label a single duffle bag with everyone’s clothes for each location to prevent having to bring in ALL the luggage at every stop.)
Medicines and creams (anticipate it all!) – Itch cream, antibiotic ointment, lots of bandaids, Benadryl and other allergy meds, pain relievers, Tums, aloe, and Rx meds
Travel or toddler potty if traveling through open country (can work for adults too … just remove the collection bowl)
Individualized snack boxes or coolers that can slip under the seat (To prevent impulse fast food stops, pack each person his or her own heaping pile of favorite healthy and unhealthy snacks/meals. For younger kids, pack homemade happy meals in easy-to-decorate white paper sacks with crayons, stickers, and other little surprises inside.)
A few years ago, I was invited to write an article for the Houston Zoo website and newsletter as the Member of the Month. I’ve never been more excited to work for free. Maybe this could be considered my first blog post! Here is an excerpt from it:
My family has had a membership at the zoo for about 7 years. In the first couple years, I pushed a single stroller with my eager and curious daughter, planning each visit around her favorite animals: the elephants, sea lions, and big cats. Soon enough, I was cruising around the zoo with a double jogger, making sure that each visit included a carousel ride, a trip to the playground, many animal sightings, a crawl (or two or three or thirty) through the tunnel in the Natural Encounters house, and a stroll past the monkeeeeeys for my son. Now, we go as a family of five with two big kids leading the way and another eager and curious daughter in the single stroller. We never miss the African Forest, which houses my favorite animals, the majestic giraffes, and my husband insists on going through the bug house, despite the terrifying cockroaches, because he was one of the engineers for that exhibit. We all challenge ourselves to see if we can make it to every corner of the zoo. We don’t want to miss anything!
After submitting this article, it hit me that the zoo truly was one of our family’s happy places, and we vowed to visit zoos all over the country whenever we travel together. However, zoo admissions continue to increase, and many of them have added pricey experiences you can feel tempted to take advantage of when you book online. This is where a zoo membership can make a huge difference!
I am still a proud card-carrying member of the Houston Zoo despite moving away 3 years ago, and I’ll tell you why.
Paying for one zoo membership not only gets you in for free at that zoo for an entire year, but it also gets you in free or 50% off admission to dozens of other zoos and aquariums across the country. Check out this site to see which zoos and aquariums are included. https://www.aza.org/reciprocity
In the last two years, my family has visited the Cameron Park Zoo three times, the Fort Worth Zoo, the Houston Zoo at least three times, the Oakland Zoo, the Dallas Zoo, and the San Antonio Zoo. Because of the membership benefits, we’ve saved over $400 on zoo visits while traveling, and that amount does not include the savings we’ve been able to pass along to friends through free day passes and inviting them as our guests. I also saved precious summer cash when I used to enroll my kids in camps at the zoo.
Special Zoo Events
Most zoos have special events for Halloween (Zoo Boo), the holidays (Zoo lights), and in the spring or summer (Zoobilee) to which members get free or reduced admission. Many zoos also have free yoga classes, education events for children, opportunities for overnight campouts, and toddler/infant socialization times. Additionally, most zoos offer a member morning each month that allows you to get in one hour earlier than the normal opening time and feature specific animal talks. Members also get discounts on carousel or train rides and gift shop purchases.
Animal Conservation and Taxes
100% of your zoo membership is considered a tax-deductible charitable donation going toward animal and habitat conservation. Saving money on family experiences and taxes too… win-win!
Did We Stay Under our Budget of $500 for a Boston Vacation?
I love a challenge! I often assign myself nearly impossible challenges to stay motivated in my savings journey, and the budget I set for a trip to Boston was no exception. I challenged my husband and myself to take in as much of the city as possible on a budget of only $500, which required finding several free things to do in Boston. Read on to see how we managed in this challenge and to find out how you can see Boston on a budget too.
Boston is wicked cool; it offers the best of almost every type of vacation. If you prefer to learn about history, Boston has you covered. If you’re a foodie and want to taste unique cuisines, Boston will satisfy your palette. If you want nightlife and the excitement of a big city, that can be found in Boston too. With so much to do and see, it’s actually quite difficult to do it all in 3 days, and it’s even more difficult to stay on a budget.
Airfare – Thankfully, we had reward miles, so airfare wasn’t a factor in our budget. However, even if it was, I love using the Google Airfare search tool to find great fares. All you have to do is type in “flight from _______________ to Boston” in the Google search bar, and you will be provided a calendar of fare prices for multiple airlines. We used rewards, but it would have only cost us $116 each to fly round-trip from Austin to Boston. Sidenote: Airfare to Boston is a tad bit higher (not outrageous) between April and November, as these are reportedly the best months to travel to New England; in doing a quick google flight search, I just found American Airlines flights in the peak of summer from Austin to Boston for $157 round trip.
*Additional Savings Tip: If you want 3 full days for your trip, book an outbound flight first thing in the morning and a return flight late in the evening. The airfare is usually cheaper at these times, and you get 3 full days while only paying for 2 nights of hotel.
Getting Around the City – Downtown Boston is very walkable, and most tourist attractions, restaurants, parks, and hotels are close to each other. Book a hotel close to Faneuil Hall, and you can walk to most places on your list. The subway and the trolley are also available for distances a little further away or for tired legs. To travel from the airport to your hotel, both Lyft and Uber are available, so you can go on the apps and find the best deal. It cost us less than $18 each way.
As mentioned, there are several hotels in the downtown Boston area that are close to most attractions. Because of all this competition, you can find a deal! Here’s my hotel booking trick… after booking airfare, I check sites like hotels.com and kayak to find a good value. I always use the map function to make sure I understand where a hotel is located before clicking to find out more info. I look for a hotel that is at least 3 stars, has a very high review rating, and is in a safe and convenient location. I also search for additional amenities that will save us money, such as free breakfast, free wifi, and/or free airport shuttle. When I find a great option at a decent price, I book… but only at the free-cancellation rate. Then, I set an alert/reminder in my phone to go back and check hotels again just before the final cancellation date. I usually re-do my hotel search about 3-4 days before we depart.
For this trip to Boston, I ended up cancelling the original hotel I had booked, which was priced at $319 for the trip, and booking one right in the heart of downtown. The location couldn’t be beat, and the last-minute price for 2 nights was $187.16! (I’ve decided not to disclose the name of this hotel because it is undergoing renovations and has a few kinks to work out, but feel free to message me for more details.) There were several additional hotels nearby that would have been less than $200 for the 2-night stay. There are also motel, small apartment, and hostel options in the downtown area that are very affordable. (Sidenote: Traveling during summer will probably double these prices.)
Once these basics are sorted out, then comes the fun stuff! What will you do and eat while there? Based on the money my husband and I had already committed to hotel and transportation, we had $276.84 leftover in the $500 budget for food and entertainment. The options in the Boston area are endless, and we stumbled across many free or low cost ones!
Clam chowder, lobster rolls, wood-fired pizza, Italian meatballs, fresh sushi, colorful gelato, oysters on the half-shell … the delicious offerings on every single block of Boston are incredibly tempting. The food is pricey even if it’s not your top priority, but here are a few ways we tasted the local fare yet kept some costs down.
Peruse the markets – Boston has several indoor markets with enough food options to satisfy every unique taste bud for an entire week. We strolled through Quincy Market and Boston Public Market, both in the financial district/waterfront area of town. These markets offered everything imaginable, from seafood to protein bowls to soup and chowders to sweet treats to Chinese food to made-to-order pasta and so on. We ate at the markets a couple times and spent around $10 each for a meal. Another friend highly recommends Eataly, on the west side of downtown, which seems to be the perfect stop for a foodie with its huge selection of foreign cheeses and specialty wines.
Apps and Drinks with a Side of Tourism – We decided to combine sightseeing with dining. The bar that the favorite 90’s TV show, Cheers, was modeled after is located in the beautiful, historic Beacon Hill neighborhood and right across from the Frog Pond and Duck Crossing at the Boston Common Park. On the walk to the pub/restaurant, you’ll take in unique architecture, people watching, park beauty, and historic sites. Then, once you descend the stairs from the street to the iconic bar, just like in the TV show, you’ll hear the theme song and realize you’re entering the bar “where everybody knows your name”. To save a little money on your tab, present this coupon to your server or bartender.
Another must-see pub is the Bell in Hand Tavern; it claims to be the oldest tavern in the country. While sipping on a beer, wander both sides of the tavern and check out the paintings and other artifacts on the wall. Also, the bartenders are happy to answer questions about the history of the bar. They have yummy craft beers on tap, a full restaurant menu, and live music most evenings.
One more option for dining and sightseeing while also saving money is lunch at the Chipotle in the location of the Old Corner Bookstore on the Freedom Trail.
Ravioli e Tiramisu Por favore – What’s a visit to Boston without a trip to Little Italy? Officially called the North End, it is the oldest neighborhood in the city, and it’s right on the waterfront. With over 80 restaurant options, you can walk and check out menus in the windows to compare prices and choose something within your budget. (Find a list of food and attractions in advance at https://boston.cbslocal.com/guide/a-guide-to-bostons-little-italy-the-north-end/)
Keep snacks on hand – We stopped at a grocery store to stock up on a few munchies to have for late night and mid-morning to save us from eating out more often than our main meals. We also skipped the temptation to buy a coffee or snacks while at the airport and just waited until we got on the plane.
Total amount of money we spent on food, coffee, and delicious craft beers was $215.25. Subtracting this from the $276.84 we had remaining, we were left with only $61.59 for entertainment and activities. We had to kick our resourcefulness into full gear and managed to spend absolutely nothing on visiting historic sites and touring the city.
FREE Things to Do
Here is a list of my top FREE things to do in Boston (based on our visit).
Freedom Trail – This is a 3-mile walk through the city with 16 historic sites to visit. Some of these sites have admission fees. Here are a few you can enter for free:
USS Constitution Ship and Visitor Center: You can board the ship for free with a sailor as a guide, which is pretty darn cool, and you can also peruse the visitor center for free. If you venture over to the official USS Constitution Museum, you’ll need to pay (technically a donation) to enter.
Old North Church: This church is a must-see! Its steeple is the location of the hanging lanterns that prompted Paul Revere’s famous ride, and there is much more history to take in. There is a fee for admission, BUT if you attend service on Sunday morning, which I definitely recommend, you can enter for free, worship in an historic sanctuary, and will be invited to stick around and explore the chapel.
Faneuil Hall – Multi-story museum, gift shop, and national park visitor info center
Boston Common Park – America’s oldest city park with walking trails, dozens of historical plaques and memorials, a visitor center, Frog pond (with ice skating in winter), and a very rich history. Follow up this visit with a drink at Cheers right across the street.
Massachussets State House – Schedule a free tour on a weekday.
There are several other sites along the trail that are worth passing by or walking through. A few have admission charges, and some may totally be worth the fee based on your interests. Next time we go, we decided that we’ll visit the Paul Revere House, which has a $5 admission fee.
Book Shops and Libraries – If you love rare finds, first editions, and that quintessential old bookstore vibe, check out Commonwealth Books. Another unique and historic bookstore is Brattle Book Shop, known for its large selection and great prices. If a cool library appeals to you more, check out Boston Public Library’s Central Library in Copley Square. In addition to thousands of books and an interesting history, this library offers free art and architecture tours, an adorable children’s library, Saturday afternoon concerts, and three cozy cafes.
Holocaust Memorial – Don’t miss out on your opportunity to walk through this incredibly emotional and moving memorial. It includes quotes and historic accounts shared by survivors of the Holocaust.
Abigail’s Tea Room at the Boston Tea Party Museum – Do you want to visit the site and learn the story of the Boston Tea Party without paying the museum admission price? Here’s a little secret… you can enter the gift shop and check out the interesting selection of souvenirs and collectibles, then cross a bridge right over the Tea Party ships to Abigail’s Tea Room in the back. There are costumed employees willing to answer any question you have, plus 17th and 18th century table games you can play as you sit in the cafe on the water. For a mere $3.50, you can purchase a mug and sip on unlimited amounts of tea, all of which are flavors that were dumped in the Tea Party in 1773, including George Washington’s favorite.
Awesome City Parks and Playgrounds – Believe it or not, kids live in Boston too. And they have incredible parks in which to play carelessly while enjoying the cityscape in the background. Boston Common and the Boston Public Garden are a part of the Freedom Train mentioned above. We also stumbled upon Martin’s Park, which was constructed as a memorial to the youngest victim in the Boston Marathon bombing. This playground is so much fun for the young (and the young-at-heart) with fast slides, plenty of climbing opportunities, and a life-size pirate ship to play make-believe. Local kids like to search for the bunny that calls this park home and hangs out mostly in the garden area. Another unique park is the Lawn on D, an urban escape with architectural play structures and lawn games for all ages. There are daily events, as well as food and drink available on site too.
Boston Harbor Walk – Take a peaceful walk along the waterfront and watch ships sail in and out of the bay. There are also several places to stop along the way for a snack, to read about the city’s history, to take an epic selfie, and even to soar 14 stories up an elevator for a stunning view at Independence Wharf. You can also sneak a peek at the New England Aquarium Harbor Seals right behind the ticket booth and even see the sea lion show through a large window in the back of the aquarium along the harbor walk.
Worth the Splurge
Car and Coast – We opted to rent a car and drive up the coast for stops in witchy Salem, the fishing town of Gloucester, a cool brewery in New Hampshire, and a lighthouse viewing on the southern coast of Maine. We spent $41 for car rental for a day, $18.11 for gas, $2.65 on parking in Salem for a quick lunch break, and $3.50 on tolls. You could also choose to go south to visit Providence, RI and then continue on to relax on the beach in Cape Cod.
Ferry Ride– Most of the ferries were taking a break for the winter, but when they fire back up again, you can hitch a boat ride to several cool places, including Provincetown/Cape Cod, the Harbor Islands, the USS Constitution, Salem, or just to do some whale watching.
Whew! That was a lot! Have you been keeping track of our spending? Did we win our budget challenge? If you don’t feel like going back to do the math, I’ll do the hard work for you …
After splurging on the rental car for a trip up the coast, plus spending $10.23 on a souvenir Christmas ornament and a small bag of lobster-shaped gummy candies for the kids, the total amount we spent on 3 days in the Boston area was $514. So, it wasn’t quite under $500, but it was close enough, right? I am really looking forward to visiting wicked cool Beantown sometime in the near future with kids in tow next time, and I’ll be sure to take on yet another budget challenge then too. I hope you get a chance to explore Boston on a budget soon. Happy Savings!