How I Let the Siren Song of Summer Travel Get Me Deeper into Debt

I didn’t check my ballooning travel fund with excitement — because I didn’t have one. Instead, I had a credit card.

Photo credit: Christine und Hagen Graf, CC BY 2.0.

It all started with a quixotic New Year’s resolution (there is no other kind): Travel more.

Looking back, I’m not sure what exactly sparked that pact at that particular time. Had I seen one too many white-sand beaches on Instagram? Read more than my share of “Where to Travel in 2016” articles, which dangled cities near and far in front of my nose like a hypnotist’s watch? Did I take Chicago’s icy scorn a bit too personally?

It didn’t matter, because within moments I had convinced myself that traveling as much as possible in 2016 would be good for my soul.

What I didn’t consider was how I’d come up with the funds for these trips. For too long I’d eschewed having a budget. It’s a horrible, awful, no-good way to live — I know. (Or at least I know that now.) But the method, or lack thereof, hadn’t gotten me into much trouble at that point. I had what I thought was a measly amount of credit-card debt; the number boomeranged around $1,500 but never strayed far. I reasoned that my situation could be worse — adding another couple Gs wouldn’t do me any real harm in the long-run.

But let’s call a spade a spade. What I did that night was shut off the logical part of my brain. I looked at it lying there, prostrate and weak, gasping for breath — and I took a pillow and smothered it till it was still. Then I wiped my hands of it.

The work began right away. I pestered friends about their schedules; I pored over Airbnb listings like I’d be moving in permanently. As the months ticked by and the departure dates drew nearer, I didn’t check my ballooning travel fund with excitement — because I didn’t have one. I was still set on paying for my trips with whatever money happened to be in my checking account . . . and my steadfast, always faithful credit card.

Photo credit: Maureen, CC BY 2.0.

Trip Number 1: Sedona, Arizona

I’m counting this one even though it wasn’t technically summer when I went in April. It sure felt like it, as the temperature thundered past 90 each day. Once my work trip to Phoenix ended, I rented a car ($112.60) and drove solo up I-17, the mountains on all sides serving as watchful guardians. I stayed in less-expensive Oak Creek, on the southern edge of Sedona, for two nights ($221.10). The alien beauty of the red rocks captivated me. Each hike I went on presented a new surreal landscape, displacing any ugliness I carried in my head.

Thankfully Sedona’s main attraction — hiking — is free. But a week prior to the trip, I decided to stay an extra six hours once I got back to Phoenix and catch an evening Cubs-Diamondbacks game ($25) at Chase Field, flying out on a red-eye ($220) after the game. It was too late to change the original flight without sticking my employer with a hefty fee, so I bought the one-way ticket myself.

Total Cost: $1,042.69

Photo credit: vxla, CC BY 2.0.

Trip Number 2: New Orleans, Louisiana

My first time to the Crescent City — raucous and unique as it is — was not without its disappointments. Airbnb toilet that didn’t work? Check. (There was only one in the house and five of us. No further explanation of that anguish needed.) Hotter than Satan’s crotch? Check.

But the part of the trip that surprised me most with the quiet anxiety it gave me? Splitting bills with my four best college buds. A surprising number of New Orleans restaurants don’t allow customers to use more than one credit card to pay a bill, which meant one person had to foot it and the others paid her back later. Also, a couple of my friends still owed me a portion of their Airbnb share ($176 total per person), which I had booked with my account. Instead of addressing the outstanding debts like an adult, I exhibited zero chill and fretted internally until everyone had paid me. In retrospect, this anxiety should have been the first indication that I had chosen to fund my trips all wrong.

Total Cost: $1,036.03 (with the other big-ticket item — my flight — coming in at $367.20)

Photo credit: Rachel Kramer, CC BY 2.0.

Trip Number 3: Grand Rapids, Michigan

For a couple days, a mix of friends and acquaintances and I explored the low-slung but lively city of Grand Rapids. My high-school friend would be ending her singledom in July, and we were there to mark its passing.

After receiving a blessedly detailed e-mail from my friend’s sister on the weekend’s agenda, I finally did my wallet a solid and projected the cost of the trip: $200. Drinking and eating would be the focal points, but we also spent an afternoon canoeing on the Rogue River ($20). The water was so shallow that it would have been a fine place to teach a baby how to canoe, but I still felt relaxed and reinvigorated floating under those cathedrals of trees.

Total Cost: $311.92 ($111.92 over budget)

Photo credit: Brian, CC BY 2.0.

Trip Number 4: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

With views from every angle of either the sparkling skyline or tree-stuffed hills, Pittsburgh’s an under-appreciated Mid-Atlantic diamond. My boyfriend and I went to the ’Burgh for two nights ($190) because it was my birthday and I wanted to watch the Cubs play the Pirates at the prettiest ballpark in America (ticket cost unknown, but based on where we sat it’s safe to say he splurged). While they ended up losing spectacularly, we adored the city and the Pittsburghers we met.

Total Cost: $301.17

Photo credit: Benjamin Lipsman, CC BY 2.0.

Trip Number 5: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The impetus for this day trip was a Cubs away game on the Brewers’ home turf (sensing a weakness here?). The boyfriend paid for the food and drinks; I handled the tickets and the small amount of gas it took to get there and back. The highlights: (1) whiling away the day at Von Trier, a German-influenced cocktail bar outfitted with dark wood, stained glass, and antler chandeliers; and (2) experiencing Miller Park’s retractable roof in action. Baseball nerdery in all its glory.

Total Cost: $187.20

GRAND TOTAL: $2,879.01

Now that it’s all said and done, all the miles driven and flown, I wonder what would I do differently if I could do it over again. I’d have more sense to say no to the invites, to consider my credit-card balance before booking those Airbnbs and blocking off dates in my calendar.

But I’m also thankful for these trips, not only for the privilege of being able to experience life outside my own limited sphere, but also because they were a wake-up call to my champagne-and-caviar way of spending. My appetite for acquisition can be stoked by even the smallest trinket; I see it and covet it until the desire renders me blind. Now I’ve been gifted with a hazmat suit of self-knowledge. Not only do I need to curb my robust day-to-day spending on food and drinks (not simply alcohol but also coffee, bottled water, etc.), but I need to travel smarter. That, of course, means to actually budget for trips. Identify a goal and put money aside incrementally. Forgive yourself when you fall short, but hold yourself accountable.

My newfound resolve was immediately put to the test. A longtime friend asked me to go to Madeline Island with her and her family mid-August; another good friend invited me on a Labor Day trip to Austin and Dallas. It was particularly gut-wrenching to turn down the Madeline Island trip (lake life, greenery, a blissful lack of humans compared to Chicago). But I reminded myself that I have six to seven months of penance ahead — months of saying no to extravagant expenditures and yes to homemade dinners and evenings spooning with my laptop.

I’ve been avoiding taking control of my finances for too long, and now is the time to finally plot a course in the right direction.

This article is part of our ‘Summer Series’ collection. Read more stories here.

K. N. Wilson is a writer, reader, web lover, and public bathroom aficionado from Chicago.

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