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5 budgeting tips for travel — even if we can’t go anywhere yet

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So far 2021 hasn’t provided the fresh reset we were all hoping for, but the year may still inspire people to start healthy new habits. And for those with the privilege to do it, budgeting for future trips could be that new habit.

Jill Schlesinger, CBS News business analyst and author of the book “The Dumb Things Smart People Do With Their Money: Thirteen Ways to Right Your Financial Wrongs,” says that while everyone wants an easy answer to the question of how much one should spend on travel, it’s not that clear-cut.

Unlike fixed costs like your rent or car insurance, travel is a discretionary item, which means it’s not one of the essential parts of your financial responsibilities.

“There are no hard and fast rules about what percentage of your budget should go to travel,” Schlesinger says.

She says you can figure out your discretionary spending by subtracting your rent, bills and groceries from your income then put whatever, if anything, is left over toward future adventures.

Aside from how much you need to save, there’s the question of how, exactly, to save it. Of course, experts such as Schlesinger have their strategies, but we also wanted to hear how regular travelers put trip money aside. Here are tips from both professionals and people who save for travel like experts on how to start budgeting.

Find a budgeting buddy

Making smart financial decisions is easier when you have support.

“Why do we have people join running clubs? They don’t cost money, but it’s somebody who is going to get your tush out there on a cold day and run,” Schlesinger says. “If you have somebody like that in your life who can sort of be your buddy with financial goals, it’s a similar thought process.”

That person can be your life partner. It can also be a friend you think is good at managing their money, or is at least interested in the idea. Either way, the goal is to hold each other accountable — when one person is contemplating another comforting pandemic purchase, the other can remind them of their upcoming vacation plan.

Start a spreadsheet

Many people who budget for travel use spreadsheets to keep track of costs and logistics.

D.C. resident Kenna Swift is one such person. She started with this free travel budget spreadsheet template, then made tweaks that fit her trip needs. Down the left-hand column, she has each day listed, and across the top she has items like airfare, lodging, tours, tickets and other major items.

Other travelers build spreadsheets from scratch, using tabs to separate the many parts of their financial lives. One tab may serve as a bill calendar, one for savings and one for travel. Every time they can, whether that’s payday or otherwise, they’ll allocate money into a travel savings account and jot down their progress in their spreadsheet.

In Manhattan, Kan., Jeff Sackrider — who’s eyeing a hiking trip in Utah or Arizona once he gets the vaccine — uses Google Docs for his travel spreadsheet needs. He divides costs into four categories: transportation, room charges, food and shopping.

The doc goes beyond finances, too. Sackrider writes down where, why and how he traveled, as well as the memorable things he did, saw and ate. For example, in April 2019, he sped past a Lamborghini on the Autobahn in a BMW.

“It’s fun to be able to look back on past trips and remember them that way,” Sackrider says.

Download budgeting apps

Spreadsheets give you nightmares? Try downloading a budgeting app.

San Francisco resident Charlotte Speck downloaded the savings app Digit to build a travel budget around 2017 and has been a fan ever since. For $5 per month, the app — which is insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation — checks your income and spending on a daily basis, and it deposits varying amounts into your Digit savings account. Once the pandemic is over and borders reopen, Speck hopes to use future savings toward her honeymoon in Portugal.

Schlesinger recommends downloading Mint, Clarity Money and even your bank’s smartphone apps to help track spending and plan a budget. Other popular options include Dollarbird, TravelSpend and — for a more hands-on approach — YNAB, an app whose name stands for “You Need a Budget.”

Based on its “Four Rules” method, the app promises to help users learn to budget so you spend and save your money confidently. Users can choose from a $11.99 monthly plan or $84 for a year-long subscription. If you start using the app and hate it, YNAB also offers a 100 percent money-back guarantee “no questions asked,” according to its website.

Hoard your miles for travel

Folks who have been using points-accumulating credit cards during the pandemic may have a chunk of miles saved.

Vermont-based travel writer Dana Freeman swears by using a credit card as much as possible to accrue miles, then using all those miles on her travel needs.

“Wishing I could pay my kids college tuitions on a credit card,” Freeman joked in a tweet. “I figure that would get me two first class tickets to anywhere.”

By charging everything she can, and always hunting for credit-card offers for bonus points, Freeman has 200,000 Chase Sapphire points, and 60,000 with Amex Platinum. She is hoping to take a trip to Europe in the fall.

Don’t have a travel rewards credit card? It’s a good time to sign up for one. Washington Post columnist Christopher Elliott says travel loyalty programs are desperate to keep customers during the pandemic and are going the extra mile to hold onto business.

“They’ve reduced or waived annual fees on credit cards, added bonuses, and tapped the brakes on point devaluations,” Elliott reported.

Whatever you do, don’t go into debt for your future trip

However tempting, don’t rely on a credit card if you don’t have money saved for a trip.

“It’s pretty much a bad idea to go into consumer debt for anything,” Schlesinger says. “Consumer debts are really hard to pay off. The interest rates are so high that the vacation that you thought was going to cost three thousand dollars over the course of a couple of years may cost you six thousand dollars.”

Figure out how much your trip is going to cost you, and work on saving the money you need to cover that cost ahead of time. Once you’re on your trip, stick to spending what you can afford so that you’re not stuck paying off debt long after your vacation is over.

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