Vacation on a Shoestring (without sleeping in a tent)

vacation main imageAh … vacation. Goodbye, Day-to-Day Worries. Step aside, Hustle and Bustle. Welcome, Relaxation. These are the sentiments that come to mind when I  close my eyes and picture my family on vacation. That is, until I consider the price tag that comes with a holiday for a family of five.

Ideally, we would set aside money each month in our “vacation” budget. We try, believe me we do. But inevitably unexpected expenses arise that we’d rather not tap into our emergency stash for, and we rationalize dipping into our vacation fund. The result is a pretty pathetic vacation sum come summer.

But family vacations are important to us, and we are determined to spend quality time together outside the four walls of our home and six-square miles of our city. And while my boys wouldn’t mind if our accommodations involved a tent, I require a real bed on my vacations. So, we find ways to vacation on a budget that don’t involve camping.

This summer, we chose to travel one state away to Springfield, IL: Lincoln’s hometown. Our big boys (8-year old twins) developed a keen interest in the Civil War at the end of last school year and have wanted to learn more. They even memorized the Gettysburg Address on their own accord — I’m not kidding! Here’s how we vacationed in Springfield on a shoestring budget.

Road-Trip It

While Springfield is well within driving distance for us, we almost always drive to our destinations to save money. Even when traveling back to Texas from Wisconsin, we drive — it’s just so much cheaper. Not only is gas plus a night or two of lodging along the way almost always less expensive than five plane tickets, we save the expense of having to rent a car once we reach our destination.

The key is knowing the limits of your family and not planning to drive too many hours each day. Be realistic, and plan to stop often and stay the night along the way. We find that six hours is the longest we can drive per day with a 19-month old. It might be shorter or longer for your family. If you push it, you’ll all be miserable, and that’s a pretty crappy way to start a vacation.

I pack activity bins for the kids to keep busy in the car. Books, Mad Libs, Nintendo DS’s, and good old-fashioned games like I Spy do a bang-up job of passing the time. And there’s always the Quiet Game with an ice-cream-cone-at-the-next-stop for the winner if you get desperate.

Rent a House

Have you ever thought about the cost per square foot of a night’s stay a hotel? It’s outrageous. And, if you have a napper like us, or kids who go to bed earlier than you, a hotel room is less than convenient. At minimum we rent a multi-room suite, but we’ve found the most cost-effective and comfortable accommodation is almost always a rental home.

We use (Vacation Rental By Owner) and have never had a bad experience. These are usually second homes that families rent out when they themselves are not using them. Read the reviews, they usually steer you in the right direction. If people are saying the place is a pit, it probably is. But, if most folks report that the place is clean, comfy and a good value — that’s probably the case.

In Springfield, we rented the Purple Awning House that we found via VRBO. At $90/night, this was an incredible deal when compared to the hotels in the area. And at 1000+ square feet and two bedrooms, there was ample space for our three kids to stretch during our 4-day vacation. The home is a charming 1920’s bungalow that adequately met our needs. The house is old, and while well maintained, shows its age with slopped floors, a vintage oven, and worn bathroom fixtures.  But it is smartly decorated, located just a short distance from all the major Lincoln-related attractions, and met our needs just fine. We wholeheartedly recommend it to you and your family if you don’t mind a little age with your charm.

Plan to Cook

I know, I know. Your idea of a vacation doesn’t involve cooking. Mine either. But, saving more than $100/day by cooking two of three meals quickly convinces me that a little time in the kitchen is worth it. We eat breakfast and dinner in, and eat out for lunch. The ability to store groceries and cook is another convincing reason why renting a condo or home is the way to go.

I bring my crock pot to make cooking dinner as pain-free as possible. Yep, I pack up my slow-cooker and set it up as soon as I get to my

The daily Starbucks run was our splurge.

The daily Starbucks run was our splurge.

destination. I prep my family’s dinners  the evening before, then throw it all in the crock pot the day of. By the time we return to the home from a day of sight-seeing, dinner is ready.

We eat cereal most mornings, but I plan to make pancakes at least one day of our vacation. To make the cereal seem like a treat, I buy a box of “sugar” cereal. Well, it’s still organic, but contains more sugar than I would normally buy. Seriously, the kids think they are in heaven. While bacon, eggs and blueberry waffles every morning would be nice, I’m not about to slave away behind a griddle at the start of every day.  (By the way, I also pack my griddle because it makes our pancake morning easier than flipping a dozen cakes in a single frying pan.)

Lunch is our only meal out. It is generally a fairly inexpensive meal, especially compared to dinner, and we love avoiding the hassle of packing a lunch every day. But if your budget doesn’t afford a restaurant lunch, packing a family lunch each day is very doable if you plan ahead.

Meal Plan & Grocery Shop Before You Go

I hate to meal plan. I really do. But, I find that the stress it relieves is well worth the effort. (To read about how I meal plan for my family when we aren’t on vacation, see this post: Saving Supper.) I plan breakfasts, dinners and snacks for each day of vacation before we depart. I grocery shop accordingly, and pack all the food and condiments we need for the meals I’ve planned. I literally put all the dry goods in a laundry basket and all the perishable items in a large cooler. Haul them both to your rental home, and you’ve just saved yourself a bundle of cash on food!

While you could grocery after you get there, I find that buying at least the dry goods beforehand is cheaper. If you are anything like me, you know the local stores where you can get the best deals on what you buy. When traveling to an unfamiliar city, you are stuck shopping at the store nearest your accommodations regardless of its price-point. If you are planning a multi-day road trip, you might choose to shop for perishables when you arrive. But, in my experience, you save money buying your dry goods before you leave.

Take Advantage of No & Low-Cost Activities

Research the attractions at your destination, and plan to offer your family the free and low-cost options. If yours is a beach destination, you have your major attraction in your backyard (and it’s free!). But if your vacation destination is land-locked (like Springfield, IL), take some time before you leave and make a list of the fun activities that won’t break the bank.

We had LOTS of great options. So many, in fact, that my husband and I agreed we could have used one more day in Springfield, as we only saw a fraction of what the city has to offer. Here were the free/cheap activities we took advantage of:

Lincoln Park

Free.  A large park right across the street from our rental home. Great play equipment, running trails, ice-skating rink, public swimming pool – these free or very cheap activities are doable for almost any vacationing family. We played at the park every day, and my husband and I took turns running on its trails each morning.

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

$12 adults, $6 kids 5-15. Kids under 5 are free. The museum was one of the best we’ve ever visited — a must see!

Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site

Free (donations accepted). A re-creation of New Salem as it might have been when Abraham Lincoln lived there. See his general store, neighbors, and other areas of commerce as it might have been back in his day. Our boys loved playing with the toys children enjoyed 150 years ago!

Lincoln Tomb

Free. This beautiful monument is the final resting place of Abraham, Mary Todd, Tad, Eddie and Willie Lincoln. This was my husband’s favorite site during our visit.

Lincoln Home National Historic Site

Free. You’ll need to arrive early in the morning to secure tickets for your guided tour, and the effort is well worth it. Our interpreter was full of interesting facts and entertaining stories of Lincoln and his family while living in this home.

Old State Capital

Future legislators?

Future legislators?

Free (donations accepted). Just imagine Lincoln saying, “A house divided against itself cannot stand” while serving in the House in this very building. Our whole family, even Jax, enjoyed touring the Old State Capital!

Route 66 Drive-In Theater

$7 for movie-goers 12 and older. $4 for those 11 and younger. My husband stayed at home while the baby slept, and I took the twins to the

The drive-in might have been the twins' vacation highlight!

The drive-in might have been the twins’ vacation highlight!

drive-in. This was their (and my) first drive-in!

You Can Afford a Vacation!

Family vacations are what childhood memories are made of. But, today’s high cost of living can make such excursions seem elusive and extravagant. Planning ahead and bypassing luxuries such as air transportation and eating out exclusively can bring family holidays within reach.

Free and cheap fun in the land of Lincoln.

Free and cheap fun in the land of Lincoln.

Keep in mind that it takes very little for your kids to have a ball. Our big boys were simply excited to sleep in a new bed, play in a new park and watch a movie in the back of our minivan. Learning more about Lincoln and reciting the Gettysburg address in the Lincoln Museum were simply icing on the cake.

Next year, we think we’ll plan for a beach vacation. Yep, we’ll drive. Yep, we’ll bring the crock pot. While Disney and other high-priced outings will make their way into our itinerary eventually, they’ll take a back burner to our low-cost trips for now. That is, at least until our boys kick their fear of costumed characters to the curb.


We Were on TV Talking About Age-Appropriate Toys

While I generally don’t blog about topics directly related to our store:, today’s an exception. We were invited back to Fox6 Real Milwaukee shortly after our first appearance (here’s that link if you are interested: to talk about toys. Specifically, I was asked to address age-appropriate toys and common mistakes parents make regarding toys for their kiddos. Well, I couldn’t resist. I could talk about toys for hours!

Click the pic to view the video of our Fox6 Real Milwaukee segment.

Click the pic to view the video of our Fox6 Real Milwaukee segment.

Pinterest to Real Life: Water Wall

Water Wall

I’ve vowed to stop using Pinterest unless I actually attempted some of the super-cool looking ideas just sitting (and sitting) on my boards. I’m happy to report that, this summer, I’ve cooked, baked and crafted some pretty amazing finds that I’ve pinned. The  [Water Blob]  was such a huge hit that I was eager to try another outdoor kid-centered activity via the 20 Moms’ ebook, [Camp Mom]: the Water Wall.

My favorite activities are ones that my 8-year olds, Chase and Noah, and my 18-month old, Jax, will all enjoy. The hope was that my big boys would get a kick out heading up the construction phase, and they all would love playing with the finished product.

Materials List

1. [2×6 or 3×8 wood lattice] $8-15 at your big box store (or you can use any old piece of wood you have lying around or a section of your

We only purchased the lattice for this project.

We only purchased the lattice for this project.

backyard fence if you have one)

2. Several plastic bottles, funnels or tubes (we only had bottles, so that’s what we used)

3. Thin, bendable wire, twine or other means of securing bottles to lattice (or small nails if you are using a solid board). We used gardening wire because it is coated and won’t rust.

4. Hack saw and scissors for cutting your bottles

5. Rubber mallet and Philips screwdriver for piercing holes in your bottles

6. Tub or other plastic container to catch the water at the bottom of your wall for re-use

Constructing the Water Wall

1. Stand your lattice (or board) upright.

Constructing the wall was the best part for the big boys.

Constructing the wall was the best part for the big boys.

2. Cut the bottoms off your bottles with the hack saw or scissors. We found that the hack saw worked well for large juice bottles and to start the initial hole in the bottles made of thinner plastic. Using scissors to finish cutting those thinner bottles worked best.

3. Starting from the top of your lattice or board, secure your first bottle. Keep in mind that your

kids will need to be able to reach the top to pour the water. We started ours as high as we could because our older boys thought it was fun to climb the table (or stand on a chair) to dump the water.

4. Continue securing bottles down the lattice, testing your water path as you go. We wanted a few “water entries” so we added two additional ones off the side of the lattice as we went, ensuring that the water paths from the different entrances met at some point.

5. Secure your lattice or board so it won’t fall over when used. We tied our lattice to the edge of our cedar plank-topped table with twine.

My Review

Fun Meter | 5 out of 5 stars for the little guy; 3 stars for the big boys


Jax definitely has more fun using the constructed water wall than the big boys. The fun for the big boys came from building the project, but they lost interest in the final product after a while.

Jax, however, loves watching the water pour from the higher bottles as his big brothers experiment with pouring water at different rates from the three “entrances.” But, his favorite activity is filling up the pitcher and pouring the water himself. We made sure to make an entry at a Jax-friendly height. While we’ve only been using the wall for a couple of days, he never tires of the filling and pouring ritual — and the pride on his face when he watches the water drain from bottle to bottle is heart-warming.

To conserve water, we use our rain barrel water. If you chose that route, just make sure no one drinks it! By placing a tub under the last bottle on your wall’s path, you can re-use the water for another tumble down the wall or to water your flowers.

So far we’ve only poured plain ol’ water down our water wall, but here’s a few ways we might use it in the future:

1. Have contests to see whose pour reaches the bottom of the lattice the fastest.

2. Add small objects (counting cars, marbles, rocks) to the water and see if they make it to the bottom of the wall. (Make sure that your littlest people don’t put those tiny objects in their mouths.)

3. Using those same small objects, experiment with tossing them down the wall with no water and see which ones make it to the bottom.

4. Pour different colored water (colored with food coloring) into two different entrances simultaneously to see what color water results when they are mixed at the end (e.g., yellow and blue water to make green).

5. Experiment with using different pouring angles to determine the technique that results in the least amount of water “lost” over tops and edges of the bottles.

Because the finished product is more successful at holding the interest of the little ones, it gets 5 stars from Jax. While older kids enjoy it too, it offers less in the form of attention-staying power, thus earns just 3 stars from the 8-year olds.

Ease of Construction | 3 stars

While I thought both the twins would love constructing the water wall (I even let them use tools including a hack saw!), only Chase sincerely enjoyed it. After Noah cut a few bottles and secured one, he asked if he could be excused to read a book. So, Chase (who’s generally more into engineering-type play anyway) and I worked together to finish the project. And we really did have a blast creating the water path together. It was fun watching his excitement as his strategy came to life.

I did, however, think this was going to be a much easier and quicker project to complete that it turned out to be. Because we were always trying to keep Jax entertained and out of harm’s way (think hack saw, scissors and sharp screw drivers), progress was slow. It was also tricky to determine where exactly to pierce our bottles and secure them to lattice so our water would flow how we wanted it. I let Chase do much of the cutting, piercing and path mapping. While it would have been quicker had I done it myself, the construction was part of the fun and the primary learning experience for my older boys.

Ease of construction with kids assisting gets 3 stars. Doing so sans kids would earn 4. While it’s not all that hard, it’s still a process that takes some time.

Go Ahead, Make Your Own Water Wall!

Even though my big boys aren’t head-over heels with the final product, it was definitely worth the cost and effort. Because we saved bottles that we would normally recycle and used gardening wire we had on hand, we spent less than $10 on this project. Building it with Chase was a quality, bonding experience, and I predict that Jax will gather and pour water down the wall all summer long.

While I’ll probably store the wall in our backyard shed as-is over the winter, you could take the bottles off and construct a different water path each summer if you felt up to it.  While it’s possible we’ll mix up our path next summer, I think I’ll need the 10 months or so in between to forget how challenging it was to help Chase while wrangling Jax at the same time before I approach that again!