We Can't Afford Family Vacations, And I've Learned To Let Go Of That Guilt

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
By Tanya Little / Shutterstock

The other day, I was scrolling through Facebook when I saw an article about how important family vacations are for kids. It was the kind of thing I’d seen many times before, something along the lines of “instead of buying your kids a ton of stuff, save your money for valuable bonding experiences, like family vacations.”

The friend who shared that article captioned it with a big, fat obnoxious thumbs up, and I couldn’t help but remember that the friend who’d shared it was in a totally different income bracket than I am — one where family vacations are a normal part of life, totally factored into her family’s budget with zero hesitance.

In essence, I found myself feeling insanely jealous. It’s not something that happens to me that often, but there I was, wanting to scream into my phone, “Yeah, for those of us who can actually afford family vacations!”

The thing is, I totally agree with the sentiment of it all. I think kids having varied experiences — getting to travel outside of their towns, possibly coming into contact with other cultures and having good chunks of uninterrupted bonding time with their parents is more valuable than any toy or other material possession out there. These are the magical things you remember forever from your childhood — and with good reason.

But sometimes these things like travel and vacations are entirely out of reach for many families. My husband and I both work and are able to provide for our kids. Our home isn’t lavish, but it’s comfortable, and our kids attend good schools, in a safe, welcoming neighborhood. They have toys and TVs and video games, but not in excess. And we can go out to dinner sometimes, though maybe not as often as other families.

It’s just that anything outside of all that is really not within our budget. Plane tickets for a family of four can easily run into the thousands. And staying at a hotel, even a budget hotel or an Airbnb? Totally not something that we can afford right now. I could stop buying my kids any toys or games or extra treats, and we still wouldn’t have enough to fund that type of adventure. The toys are not what’s holding us back.

We are lucky because my husband’s family owns a cabin in upstate New York that we can stay at for a week or two each summer. And we have friends and family in various nearby states who are happy to put us up for a few days if we ever want to visit. But all of that is local-ish, within driving distance.

We have never been able to fly somewhere unless someone else is paying (I have family on the West Coast who will fly us out sometimes). And it is a super-rare, extremely amazing treat if we ever get to spend a night or two at a hotel — and that is usually because we are attending someone’s wedding or Bar Mitzvah.

The idea of traveling somewhere by plane, altogether, just our family? Nope, not really. Staying at a resort? Going to Disney? No, never done it, and maybe never will.

I know I’m not alone. There are many of us who can’t afford family vacations, and who sometimes feel twinges (or more!) of jealousy looking at someone’s awesome vacation pics or maybe even remembering vacations we took as kids. There are many of us wondering if our kids are missing out on the magic and the memories, and feeling intense guilt over that fact.

But we are also the parents who make extra efforts to make magic out of what we do have. A campout in the backyard. A morning of science experiments on the kitchen table. An afternoon of sidewalk chalk and sprinklers. A hike through a nearby park. A trip to the museum. Even an excursion to the local library or playground can be special if you make it so.

Last week, my kids were off of school. One afternoon we took them to a cheap nearby mini golf place and then to their favorite pizza place. “Best day ever!” they both squealed all the way home.

It’s totally possible to replicate the goodness of a vacation with your kids even if you can’t actually take one. I think it comes down to spending quality time with your kids — making the intention to be truly present with them. Put down your phone. Set aside work matters and other stressors for a good chunk of time. Be silly and spontaneous with your kids.

And make an effort to expose them to new things — whatever your budget allows. Maybe it’s a drive to a nearby town you’ve never been to. A book or film about a culture they’ve never been exposed to. Maybe you just sit outside on a summer night past their bedtime, watch the fireflies lighting up, and talk about what life was like when you were a kid.

Whatever it is, you make the effort, you set the mood, and it becomes magical for your kids. See, those of us who can’t afford vacation can do something else: We can make the ordinary extraordinary for our kids. And that is something they will surely remember for a lifetime.

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