How Grocery Savings Can Take You to Disney World

Turn Savvy Shopping into Family Travel

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:

  1. 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!*
  2. 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”.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Book your trip and use the remaining $700 to $1300 (or more with added interest and cash back) toward flights, rental cars, or food. Find more ways to save on airfare and rental car!

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.

Travel Well on a Budget, Part 3

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 27

Today’s post is all about maximizing vacation fun without blowing your budget. After putting in all that time to get the best value on transportation and lodging, you don’t want to let activities put you over the top. The good news is that every town and city has free or cheap things to do. You just gotta know where to look.

Check Local Blogs

Bloggers offer all kinds of information for free. 😉 You can find the best playgrounds, hiking spots, beach access points, climbing hills, swimming holes, and bike trails by reading a local blog. If you search “free things to do in _____”, scroll down past the Google maps, Trip Advisor, and big magazine publisher suggestions. You wanna hear from the locals! Once you find blog articles, check the dates to make sure it’s a recent post. It’d be pretty disappointing to head to a local swimming hole only to discover it’s been covered by a parking lot since the article was written. Also, search for a few other kid-friendly favorites, such as “free museum days in (location)” or “free festivals in the month of ______”. If you’re traveling to the Austin area or Texas Hill Country, I recommend Dripping with Kids!

Use the Yelp App for Dining Out

I don’t usually use Yelp when I’m at home, but I find it useful while on vacation. Not only does it help me to find restaurants that are highly recommended or great for a family, but because these are places I’d be checking into for the first time, I might get a free appetizer or BOGO offer for trying them out.

Order the Souvenirs in Advance

If you know your kids will want a sweatshirt or a magnet or a stuffed animal as a souvenir from the amazing place they’ve visited, look for great deals online BEFORE you go. The souvenir shops are usually over-priced, and once you set foot inside, you’ll likely cave and buy a lot more than you budgeted for. Who can really resist a cheesy painted sign that says, “Resting Beach Face” or an ornament with Santa riding the ski lift??

Deals on Tickets

This is a tough one! If you’ve planned your vacation around going to a theme park for several days or a week-long music festival, you have no choice but to spend a big chunk of your travel budget on tickets. Right?

I’m still working on how to get the best deals in these areas, but if I can’t find discounts directly through the venue’s website, I always check Groupon. It often offers discounted tickets for festivals, small amusement parks, museums, or concerts.

I’m also a big advocate for zoo memberships if you’re like us and enjoy checking out the local zoo while visiting a new city. Most zoo, botanical garden, and aquarium memberships offer reciprocal admission, saving you 50% to 100% on admission fees.

Another tip is to check with other memberships you have, such as PTA, AAA, AARP, etc. or with your hotel concierge. My final tip is to compare the cost of a season pass to day passes. If you’re planning to visit an attraction or resort (such as for skiing, fishing, or boating) for more then 2 days, it might be cheaper to buy a season pass.

Save on Parking

Many attractions charge high parking fees. Look for ways to skip that added expense. Your hotel may have a shuttle or public transportation nearby. Or there may be street parking a little further away, so most of the family can get dropped off at the front and then Mom or Dad can go park the car.

Save on Food

Check the food and drink policy for the venue or park before you travel. Many will allow you to bring in your own snacks and drinks. If not, though, most have picnic tables for you to enjoy a cheap meal just outside their gates and save the rest of your cash for something better.

Today’s action step is to jot down on your travel budget spreadsheet some of the activities you would want to do on vacation. Place a star next to the ones you could potentially do for free (or really cheap). Then, do a little research to estimate costs of the other activities. When you actually book the trip, do a deep dive to try to find discounts on them.

Travel Well on a Budget, Part 2

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 26

There are so many options on where to stay while on vacation these days… from luxury hotels to extended-stay motels to RV resorts to cabins to vacation home rentals to tent-camping. Even with a large family, many hotel rooms can now accommodate everyone. It can be really hard to narrow down the choices and make a decision.

The good news is that when there are various options and abundant supply, the buyer often benefits from all that competition. You just have to be prepared to do the research.

Once you’ve settled on which type of accommodations will provide the best value and experience for your trip, the following list can help you save money on them …

Check Rewards First

Just like shopping for airfare, check with your credit card rewards and/or your hotel chain membership to determine whether you have enough points to book a night or two at a hotel. If you don’t have a hotel card or rewards membership, but your trip is several months away, consider applying for a card with a great bonus offer so you can collect and redeem miles at least a month before your travel dates.

We recently applied for the Hilton Honors AMEX, thinking ahead to two destinations this year with excellent (but expensive) family-friendly Hilton resorts. Because of the bonus offers and by using the card to pay for part of the stay (thus maximizing the points per purchase), we should be able to get 4 nights covered with points this year.

Get the App

Hotel apps can also help you earn free nights faster or offer upgrades and discounts. I like the hotels.com app. I’ve earned two free nights (1 free after 10 nights) and taken advantage of significant savings due to “secret prices”. Also, if you access hotels.com through the Ibotta app, you can earn cash back for your hotel purchases.

Map It

When searching for a hotel or vacation home, I always use the map function to make sure I understand where a hotel is located before clicking to find out more info. The maps on the search sites often show tourist attractions, the airport, and parks in the area so it’s easy to determine how close the hotels are to everything.

If your goal is to minimize transportation costs, stay close to it all. If your goal is to minimize lodging costs, stay a bit outside the city or in a small town nearby.

Take Advantage of Filters

When it comes to a hotel, I look for at least 3 stars, a very high review rating, and amenities that will save us more money, such as free breakfast, free wifi, free parking, in-room kitchen/ette, free airport shuttle, etc. Bonus if there’s a nice pool, water park, playground, and/or hiking trails onsite… something that can entertain kids between other planned activities.

Keep Your Options Open

When I find a great hotel 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 re-do my hotel search then to see if the hotel we booked has a better deal or if another one has dropped in price.

Alternatives to AirBnB/VRBO

Looking for a vacation home rental but don’t want to pay the excessive fees? Ask your friends or put up a post in Facebook groups. Often times, a vacation home owner will be willing to rent it out without going through these sites (especially if you’re a friend or acquaintance).

You can also try local property management companies or Vacasa to find the same homes listed on AirBnB or VRBO at slightly cheaper rates (and fewer fees).

Another tip is to find a few homes you like in the area on the major rental sites, then reach out to the owners directly to negotiate a lower rate, especially if the homes are still available less than a week before your travel dates. Send an email to 4-5 owners offering the price you’re willing to pay. Chances are, at least one will agree to take less than their listed rate rather than make nothing on a vacant home.

In summary, finding great deals on vacation lodging requires a bit of time, research, comparison shopping, and possibly some negotiation. It’s worth it, though, to save that money to put toward activities while on your trip or to have enough left in the budget to book your next vacation!

Today’s action step is to continue to do research on the places you’re interested in traveling to this year. Add estimates for accommodations to your travel budget spreadsheets.

Travel Well on a Budget, Part 1

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 25

Living life on a budget doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice living well. Our family has a savings rate of about 25%, of which a large portion goes toward investing for our future. However, we’re still able to maintain a healthy travel budget so that we can enjoy life now while still prioritizing saving for retirement.

We have an annual travel budget of $12,000. That can go fast with a family of 6, but we find ways to make it stretch. In 2020, we took the following trips as a family (while following mandated protocols and state-specific restrictions):

  • A week at Disney Land and Universal in Feb (pre-pandemic)
  • 6 days in New Mexico and Colorado in March (departure just before pandemic closures)
  • 5 days in Colorado (again) in July
  • A week in Wisconsin in July
  • Several weekend trips to the beach and to see family over the year
  • 2 days camping at a state park in Sept (plus several day trips to other state parks)
  • 5 days in Lake Tahoe in October
  • 6 days in Wisconsin (again) in December

In addition to trips with the kids, my husband and I spent a weekend alone in Boston in January and a weekend in Charleston in November. I was also able to do a short getaway with my mom and sister for their birthdays in November.

That equates to over 50 nights away without going over budget! Strategically earning and taking advantage of credit card points, as mentioned in yesterday’s post, helped a lot. We also stayed with family for about 20 of those nights, saving money on hotels or vacation rentals. But being flexible with travel dates and doing the right research also led to big savings.

Today’s post will focus on tips for the transportation aspects of travel. The following 2 days will be focused on accommodations and activities.

Airfare

Check credit card miles and what they might “buy” you first and foremost. If you don’t have a travel card, but your trip is several months away, consider applying for a card with a great bonus offer so you can collect and redeem miles at least two months before your travel dates. (Advice from yesterday’s post applies here.)

If the above option is not actually an option and you need to find the best prices on flights, check the Google airfare search tool first. All you have to do is type in “flight from _________ to _______” in the Google search bar, and you will be provided a calendar of fare prices for multiple airlines. If you can be a tad bit flexible with when you travel, you can simply choose the cheapest dates to fly when looking at the calendar.

Certain days of the week are often cheaper to fly than others, usually Tues, Wed, and Saturday depending on the location. (It can be cheaper to purchase on Tuesdays and Wednesday as well.) For popular tourist destinations, avoid weekend travel. For popular business destinations, avoid weekday travel and morning flights around 8-10 am, especially on Mondays and Fridays. Choosing off-season months to visit a specific location can also save hundreds or even thousands of dollars, such as visiting Boston in winter or traveling to a popular beach in early November.

I also search nearby airports for better prices. I’ll do a comparison of 3 to 4 airports within a 3-hour drive from where we live, as well as from our final destination. I’ve saved hundreds many times by selecting an airport just 1 to 3 hours away. For example, when we go to visit family in the Green Bay area, we often fly into Chicago, then rent a car to drive the rest of the way. Even after paying for the car, we usually save $500 – $1000 on the airfare.

Additional Savings Tip: Take advantage of flight times to give you *more* days on vacation. If you want 3 full days for your trip, book the earliest outbound flight 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.

Transportation in your Final Destination

Rental car or public transportation? Walk it or Uber? The decision on whether to rent a car or use other forms of transportation has to be based on not only the cost of the car but other factors as well.

Are you staying in a walkable city? Will your hotel charge parking fees? Is gas especially pricey where you’re staying? Do you need a car because you feel safest with your kids in car seats instead of in your lap? Is Uber or Lyft readily available in that destination? Will you be taking any long day trips from your location or did you fly into an airport that’s a bit of a drive from where you’ll be staying?

If, after this analysis, you decide you need to rent a car, use these tips to get the best rates.

Road Tripping

Taking your own vehicle definitely saves on airfare and a rental car in your final destination, but it can help save on many other expenses as well. It might be helpful to factor in these additional savings and skip air travel altogether.

However, you may decide that the added savings aren’t worth the extra time you spend in the car, especially if you’ve found incredible deals on flights and a rental car using the tips listed above. Before determining that driving is the best value for your trip, do a comparison of gas costs to airfare. Use this calculator to get a good estimate.

Today’s action step is to make a list of where you want to travel this year. Download (and print) a travel budget spreadsheet for each major destination on your list. Use some of the tips above to determine the best dates for those trips based on airfare prices or to decide whether driving would be a better value. Jot down a few scenarios including traveling to/from nearby airports or staying in a location that limits transportation needs once you’ve arrived.

Keep those spreadsheets nearby because tomorrow, we’ll dive into saving on accommodations.

Reset Spending Habits with Fun Challenges

Financial Freedom in 2021! Take Action: Day 10

We’ve talked about making changes to the Big 3 expenses, but in order to reach a maximum savings rate for your family, it may be time for a (mindless) spending reset as well. I love to take on mini-challenges throughout the year to reset my spending habits and to make this financial independence journey that much more fun.

This doesn’t mean that life has to be emptied of valuable experiences or that your home has to qualify for a minimalist lifestyle website. It just means that you use a specific challenge to identify what you’re capable of and what’s most important to you. Basically, these challenges are opportunities to cut the fluff.

I propose that you engage your family (or friends) in a fun money-saving challenge at least once per quarter. Here are a few ideas:

Spend-Nothing Week: Try spending an entire week eating what’s left in your fridge and pantry and participating in free entertainment options, like game nights and hiking. After the week ends, reflect on whether you missed out on anything significant.

Free-Activities Month: What if you spent an entire summer month participating in only free activities as a family? Think beach days, picnics, bouldering, swimming in rivers and lakes, neighborhood scavenger hunts, and playground-hopping.

Purge Week: De-clutter one room per day and pull out items no longer useful to you. Think of rooms like the attic, closets, playroom, and the garage. Then, as a reward, list all of those items for sale online the following week (and donate those not worth selling). Use 25% of the money to do something really fun together and save the other 75% toward one of your priorities.

Budget Birthdays: Challenge the whole family to participate in budget birthdays for the year. Set a spending amount, such as $50 for the fun and $50 for the gifts, for each birthday celebration. Get creative in finding free locations, use hand me down decorations or items in your home for decor, and stick with homemade treats. As for gifts, try freecycle, buy-nothing sites, or consignment shops to find new-to-you items.

A Month of Eating In: Can you do it? Can you make it a whole month without fast food, your favorite take-out, or a night out at a restaurant? You can do anything for 30 days, right? It would be a great challenge for a reset, and when the month is over, you’ll think twice before just grabbing a dinner that’s convenient rather than saving the money and the extra calories. You might also get pretty savvy in your own kitchen and make use of what you have already in your pantry.

Vacation for <$500: Challenge yourself to plan a family vacation for under $500. You can do it even without tent-camping. Stay tuned for tips on frugal travel.

Today’s action step is to commit to a few challenges this year. Get out your planner and write them in.

When a challenge ends, reflect on what you learned from it. How much money did you save? Did you identify anything you really missed out on and want to make a priority in the future? Did you identify things that you’ve been spending on that really aren’t that important? Was the challenge fun or stressful? Are you ready to do another one?

Road Trip Checklist

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.)
  • Extra pair of tennis shoes for each person
  • Your Essentials Car Kit, suggested by Dripping with Kids
  • 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.)
  • Gallon of water for refills
  • Road Trip Bingo and other favorite family games
  • Joke, riddle, and/or trivia book to read aloud
  • Spiral notebook and markers for each child with age-appropriate journal prompts, blank pictures to color (glue them to a page), and/or interesting facts related to the places you’re visiting
  • Surprise magazine, book, or busy hands activity, such as lacing cards, play-doh, and sliding puzzles.
  • Small pillows and blankets, plus a family-friendly downloaded audio book
  • Binoculars
  • Electronics and headphones
  • A list of activities for each stop that you found on a local blogger’s website
  • Cash
  • Emergency tool kit, extra set of car keys, and inflated spare tire

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