What I Learned from Our First Cash-Only Vacation

For our first anniversary, we decided to take a little weekend trip to St. Louis to celebrate. We were both hesitant to go on a mini-vacation just as our debt snowball was really beginning to roll, but we felt that we needed to get away and enjoy having fun together as newlyweds for a while. Throughout this first year of marriage, we've been so intently focused on working hard, getting out of debt, being frugal, and getting healthy that we haven't set aside much time for fun. This seemed like a good time to change that, albeit cautiously.

I've shared on here previously that the YOLO mentality got me into financial trouble. Traveling has always been #1 on the things I wanted to do in life, and back in 2012, when I had that big life-altering awakening, that pivotal YOLO moment, I started planning trips to all the places I wanted to go. And I got to swipin' my brand new Capital One Venture card. I went to Asheville, Nashville, Pensacola, Disney World... and every purchase, from hotels to dining out to random souvenirs, went on the credit card.

After all those trips, I knew it would be hard to vacation differently. But I also knew, after putting the Dave Ramsey methods into practice for the last several months, that a cash-only trip was our only option. So, this is how we gave it a try.

1) We planned months in advance.

Though I'm SUCH a planner in all other areas of life, I'm a somewhat spontaneous trip-taker. I once decided on a Thursday to go to the beach for the weekend on Friday. When you aren't wealthy, such spontaneous trips mean only one thing= swipey swipey. Chase for this, Capital One for that.

This time, we started planning four months ahead, in January. I started putting at least $20 of my budgeted personal cash into a Vacation envelope. We used leftover budgeted gas money to buy a $25 Shell gas gift card, which we also set aside in the vacation envelope.

By May 13, when we left for St. Louis, we had over $100 cash to use on dining out and $25 to put toward gas for the drive home.

2) We packed food for the drive to St. Louis.

We left for our trip after work on a Friday, which meant we were tired and hungry and ready to get on the road. It would have been SOOOO easy to stop at a fast-food joint on the road, but we didn't want to do that. So, the day before we left, we meal-prepped: tuna salad on toasted Ezekiel with kettle-cooked chips and apples.

It was in the fridge, ready to go when we were. So in reality, having the food in the car with us from the start saved even more time than we would have had we stopped along the way for a burger.

3) We took advantage of the continental breakfast.

Our hotel provided a wonderful, complimentary, continental breakfast. Though we always do Shakeology for breakfast, we decided to have our shakes for dinner instead so we could have the free hotel breakfast. Which brings me to this...

4) We only ate out for one meal each day.

Shakeology made this so easy. We portioned out our Shakeology powder at home before we left, got some almond milk and a couple of bananas, and took the knock-off NutriBullet with us. We used the ice vending machine at the hotel to get free ice, then we made our shakes right there in the hotel room for dinner!

This worked SO well because these meals were 1) already paid for and way less expensive than a meal out, 2) faster and easier than even the McDonald's drive-thru, 3) SOMETHING NUTRITIOUS. When you're vacationing, clean eating goes out the window so easily, but doing our Shakeology for dinner allowed us to get in at least one healthy meal each day.

5) We made LUNCH the one meal out.

We talked about doing Shakeology for lunch, but decided against it. Why? Look at any restaurant menu. The lunch prices are far cheaper than dinner. This saved us quite a bit as well when compared to what we could have spent had we gone out for dinner instead.

Oh, and since we only allowed ourselves one meal out each day, we hit up Trip Advisor and Google reviews to make sure we got the most of it. We went to the top-rated places in St. Louis (and even one place that was featured on the Food Network).

5) We hit up the free attractions and only paid to do the things we REALLY wanted to do.

This was probably the hardest thing for me, because I love being a tourist. But let's take the Gateway Arch, for example. It's there. You can walk up and see it. Take pictures of it. Take selfies with it.

For an additional $13/person, you can ride to the top of it. Matt and I could have done this, but it would have cost us $26. Did we kinda want to do this? Yes. But only because that would have given us the "complete Arch experience."

At this point in our debt-free journey, it seemed a little silly to me to pay an extra $26 we didn't have just to get the "complete" tourist experience, when we had plenty of fun admiring the structure from the ground. So we passed up the tram ride to the top and visited the free museum at the Old Courthouse across the street, where we had a great time learning about the history of St. Louis, the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the Oregon Trail.

And we still visited the Gateway Arch.

6) We made our photos our souvenirs.

Maybe this was easy for me after the whole KonMari experience, but I didn't want to waste money or random little St. Louis trinkets. And believe me, we came across plenty of them. Gateway Arch paperweights, t-shirts, Christmas ornaments, pretty much anything.

At the petting zoo we visited, they took our photo in front of a green screen at the park entrance. On the way out, they tried to sell us this photo for $20. We were tempted to give in, but we'd already taken several photos ourselves for free. And it's not like this little petting zoo was Disney World. It just wasn't worth it.

Now. All of these things are great and make us sound like the most practical, frugal newlyweds ever.

So let's get to the bad stuff, the other things we learned from- our mistakes.

1) We put the hotel on our credit card.

SOUND THE ALARMS!!! The biggest no-no in Dave's book! We didn't know how to get around this one, because the hotel said they needed a credit card for incidentals. We thought it was okay because we'd turn around and pay it off with cash, BUT Dave would not approve.

In hindsight, we should have asked if a debit card would be fine, but we were too timid when they specifically said credit card. *Face palm* We'll know better next time.

2) We used the debit card for our spending after the $100+ cash ran out.

Better than a credit card, for sure, but we lost track of our spending until the end of each day when we balanced our checkbook in the hotel room. Even though we weren't swipin' the Capital One card, we spent way more than we wanted to and made it much more difficult to pay off the hotel stay we put on the credit card! (Yes...the downward spiral begins.)

All in all, we did better than either of us has ever done on vacation, separate or together, but we still managed to mess up. The main lessons we can take away from this experience:


It's never too early to start saving money for a future vacation. The sooner you start, the better off you'll be. If we'd started placing $20+ aside for this earlier, we wouldn't have resorted to swiping the debit card and losing control when the cash ran out. To put it simply, like most Americans, we went on vacation before we could truly afford it, and it got us off track.

We did, however, do very well planning our meals, fuel, and excursions to be as inexpensive as possible, so I'm acknowledging that now. I hope we can be just as savvy (and even more so) next time around.

2) Ask the hotel about using a debit card.

I feel so guilty and stupid about this one. We should have asked. Next time, we will. And if using debit isn't an option, we need to make SURE we have the exact amount to cover the credit charge in our checking account. Then, we need to immediately pay that amount to the credit card. That is all.

3) It's ok to relax every now and then.

On the way home, I started working myself up into near-panic-attack mode. The thought of having to go back to work the next day... let's just say I had a difficult time dealing with it.

So, I tried to teach myself something in the midst of the panic. All the fun, carefree, wonderful times we had together on our trip? We can have more experiences like those if we can only refocus even more intensely on our snowball now and pay off our debt sooner.

Because that's all that our debt does- it ties us down in jobs we dislike, in situations we despise, in joyless, fun-less, obligatory misery. The debt is in control. So, we must learn from our mistakes here and let them re-energize us along the journey to freedom.

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