by Kathryn Elliott
My old vacation mentality was “I’m gonna splurge, and I’m gonna like it.” Well, that model flipped upside down and crashed with the economy in 2008, so my friends and I decided to test-run a new vacation strategy. We planned and executed Spring Break 2011: “Road trip on a Budget.”
Our destination was post-Katrina New Orleans. My personal budget was $300. I withdrew the amount in cash and intended to hitchhike home if necessary. So here’s the spoiler alert. I came in $50 under budget. I side-stepped a few financial pitfalls and fell head first into others, but at the end of the week, I drove home still tasting beignets and swaying to jazz riffs.
Why did I have such an easy time relaxing and spending on this trip? According to behavior decision theory, the science of why and how people make choices, I took the hit all at once by setting aside $300. By the time I got to New Orleans, I had effectively “spent” that money. Instead of feeling buyer’s guilt for each purchase, I experienced the satisfaction of maximizing my pre-paid vacation.
Professor Akshay Rao teaches a course on behavior decision theory at the University of Minnesota. Rao explained to me that I was like a gambler whose unexpected winnings become flexible dollars to pay for things he otherwise wouldn’t have. "People attach value to money depending on its source," Rao said. The source of my money was my vacation budget so I was disinclined to waste it, but willing to pay for superfluous pleasures.
One of the big-ticket savings that made it all possible was staying with friends in the area, instead of a hotel. At $90 a night, renting a tiny room for the four of us would have added up. We got over our embarrassment and called up the friends a few weeks ahead to ask for hospitality. They were happy to let us take over their basement. With a little networking, we saved $450.
Another big saver was our decision to drive instead of flying. We decided to use the car with the most efficient gas mileage and took turns paying for gas. I filled the tank twice and spent a total of $70. A round-trip ticket from Minneapolis to New Orleans costs $400 right now. And granted, most vacationers don’t want to spend a day of their trip in the car. Make that two. Fortunately, as young, healthy college students, we decided our ability to rally in the car beat the convenience of flying. With our lodging and transportation decisions, we paid a fraction of the typical cost.
Continuing on, the rest of our savings came from smaller, cost-effective decisions and lady luck, a portly woman who worked at Swampy Joe’s. The swamp tour is a required activity in New Orleans if you’re not from the Florida Keys. Khaki-wearing, tour-guides beckon from doorways in the French Quarter, and their average fee is $49 including hotel pick-up.
Fortunately, my friends and I found a coupon in our hosts’ long-abandoned entertainment book for half off a $29 swamp tour. Then, lady luck allowed us to apply it to our group four times so we each paid the bargain price of $13. For this piddling sum, we had the good fortune to watch our tour-mates, a large group of dodderingly energetic old people from Chicago, provoke a lazy alligator with that most supreme invective: “Coward!”
We spent a full day exploring the famed French Quarter on our own, ducking in a tourist center to grab a map and do-it-yourself walking tour with blurbs at each stop. We lingered at and were not lured in by the flea market hawkers. We waved goodbye to the Natches, a waterwheel riverboat a la Tom Sawyer that wanted to charge us $25 a piece, and chose to walk along the river. We convinced our hosts to take a day off school and work to drive to a beach on the Gulf of Mexico. We did a grocery run and each threw down $10 for food, gas and an entire day of blissful inactivity.
I must admit, there were a couple times when we flubbed or forgot about a necessary expense. The good news is, by sharing both the preventable and the inevitable, I’m reducing the net effectiveness of all New Orleans’ crooked schemes. My first piece of advice is to carefully consider the all-day trolley pass, or any other sweet looking discount. My friends and I paid $5 for the day pass and only rode it twice. I could have taken photos with two street performers with the leftover money.
Another Business School professor at the University of Minnesota, an accountant by the name of Ed Joyce, helped me understand why I did that. “You were buying insurance,” he explained. If I had wanted to get on and off the trolley multiple times, I knew I would not spend more than $5 doing it. I paid for that security, so in a sense, I didn’t waste my money. A principal area of unexpected pocket-lightening in New Orleans was the tipping. I tipped musicians, I tipped the statuesque men who posed on corners and I tipped waiters. Most popular vacation destinations have some kind of tourist trap, be it street musicians or lei-selling hula dancers. These people often make a living off the kitschy gig, so if you don’t want to be a miser, do the research in advance and set aside some money for tipping the locals.
My next advice is going to seem obvious, but I guarantee it gets forgotten when you’re anxiously making sure you have sunscreen and binoculars as you begin your day of mega-tourism. BYOW. Bring your own water. I spent $5, including a $1 tip for the visored Tootie Frootie man (see what I mean), on a passion mango smoothie. Pure thirst-quencher. I had no smoothie craving. I could have made room in the old fanny-pack for a water bottle.
Professor Joyce told me his instinct as an accountant was to call my budget a constraint. "Normally," he said, "budgets are imposed by a higher-up and therefore restricting." I made my budget by choice, though, and it did a few good things. It left me free to splurge within an amount I was comfortable spending. My friends and I derive satisfaction, what economists call “utility,” from buying dust-covered antiques and being generally thrifty. We benefited from the saver-satisfaction that our budget facilitated. Each atypical vacation activity was the second-hand store equivalent of a good pair of combat boots. See for yourself the “Summer 2011: Road trip on a budget” season is just beginning.
Kathryn Elliott will graduate with a B.A. in journalism from the University of Minnesota in December 2011. Her work has been published in The Word Among Us magazine and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. She's currently the science and technology reporter at the Minnesota Daily. Visit her blog at oldnewsnation.tumblr.com.