I’m a public school teacher, not exactly a field one goes into to become rich quick (or at all). Necessity dictates that I make and stick to a budget just to ensure I make due on my current bill and financial obligations: rent, utilities, car payment, car insurance, gym membership, school loans, investments, not to mention gas, food, and other essentials. I consider “fun” to be one such essential. I put aside money for my weekend activities from every paycheck, which in the past two months has allowed me to spend a weekend in Washington D.C, and Dewey Beach, Delaware; a 3 day weekend in Pittsburgh; a Halloween bus trip to Boston/Salem; a family reunion in Northeastern PA; and an Irish bar crawl across Philadelphia, culminating in a Dropkick Murphy’s concert. Not too shabby, if I say so myself. Now, I’m not trying to brag about how much fun I’ve had (ok..maybe a little), but am simply trying to show that even on a restricted budget, visiting new places, trying new things, and having a great time is completely possible, even if you aren’t bringing in the big bucks (yet). Now, I’m by no means a financial expert (you’ll see how shortly), but the following are some ways I’m able to stretch my cash. Everyone has their own tricks, but these have worked for me.
Don’t be a complete “foodie.”
I went to Las Vegas for spring break my senior year of college (we’ll forget the fact that I paid for this by cashing out childhood savings bonds). My brother and I saved a ton of money by eating solely at McDonalds & splurging for two big meals: a Las Vegas buffet and a nice steak dinner. Now, I probably wouldn’t do the exact same thing at age 25 since my waistline couldn’t handle it anymore and I’ve become disgusted be fast food. However, the general idea remains: you’re on vacation, save the fancy dining for a weekend when you have no other expenses.
When traveling, I try to eat relatively cheap and splurge on one pricier meal. Have you ever seen Diners, Drive-I’s and Dives? The USA is a veritable mecca of cheap (and interesting) eats: it’s practically unpatriotic for any major urban area to be without diners, sandwich shops, and pizza parlors. These are reasonably priced and more often than not, where the locals eat (just amp up the gym hours prior). Pennsylvania especially is known for its regional cuisine and you’re going to hard pressed to find cheesesteaks or pierogies in a four star restaurant.
My other monetary saving grace on the road is bar food: it’s good, cheap, and one could argue that you can judge a region by the pizza and wing offerings (somewhere that earns high marks in the wing department: Peter’s Pub in Pittsburgh).
My brother’s a big fan of bringing pop-tarts or granola bars for breakfast, which easily shaves $20-$30 dollars off a trip. Snacks for the car ride also eliminate annoying and potentially expensive rest stops.
Now, there are some instances when throwing financial care to the wind makes perfect sense. Should you go to New England and forgo the $17.00 lobster roll from harbor pub even though the price is probably marked up for tourists? No. I didn’t at least, and I’m not mad about it.
Don’t be an alcohol snob
You’re on vacation. You want to have a good time. Nothing’s going to sober you up faster than a $85.00 bar tab because you insisted on drinking only Heineken all night. You’re experiencing new places, new people, and new things; trust me, your buzz is going to be the same whether it’s $5.50 bottles of Blue Moon or a $1.00 draft of Coors Light, but one of them might allow you to throw in a last minute zip lining or kayaking expedition Sunday morning before you head home.
Dive bars are also a good, cheap alternative. Aside from the cheap factor, these bars usually capture the real flavor of local neighborhoods; offer more obscure bar games like foosball, shuffleboard, or even Connect Four (you could shoot pool anywhere); and I’ve often found that the divier the bar, the better the food.
College bars are fun and cheap if you aren’t feeling as adventurous—just make sure to come up with your own “alumni” story in case anyone questions what someone so “old” is doing there. Happy hours are also your friend, and often have accompanying food deals (and most cities anymore have their own Happy Hour app).
As with the food, don’t drink cheap if you’re sampling the local poison. The Hofbrauhaus in Pittsburgh is literally one of the most fun bars I’ve ever been too (not an exaggeration). It’s a replicated German beer hall where patrons spend the entire time standing on benches with mugs the size of your head while the band somehow turns Lady Gaga’s latest hits and Bon Jovi’s old classics into polkas. It’s also a microbrewery and not cheap, but one of those instances when you’re paying for your good time (and did I mention the mugs are the size of your head)? I recommend the Hofbrau Munich Weizen. Sometimes the local favorites work out in your favor. In Salem, since it was Halloween I asked if they had any pumpkin beer: Shipyard Pumpkin Ale, a microbrew from Maine was on special that night. Not only was it delicious, but it was $2.00 a pint.
Don’t ever try and save some cash by skimping on tips or rounds. Throwing down a five at the beginning of the night more often than not ends up getting you faster service and “this is on me” with a wink towards the end of the night. Being generous with your friends means that at times when you might be a little in the hole financially means they’ll step up to the plate on your behalf, because hey you “always get rounds.”
Be a tourist:
I typically like to have some sort of activity planned (especially for Saturday afternoons), but sometimes part of the fun in exploring a new city is just walking around. It costs nothing, and in my ever so humble opinion often ingratiates you to a city much more than say if you museum hopped. In Washington DC, a lot of the monuments are free. We spent a lot of time just wandering around the mall (We also wandered Georgetown which was a neat area and somewhere I would’ve never found had we not been wandering) and in Salem, we spent a portion of the afternoon waking the harbor and looking at the boats. Not only is walking free, but it can counteract all those dollar drafts and pub fries you’ve been consuming.
This may be the most important money saving tip I could give you. Trips on the fly are always more memorable, but a lot of hotels, attractions, and even restaurants will give you discounts if you book early. I’ve recently purchased my family a getaway for this upcoming Martin Luther King day (Can’t see when in case they see this post—it’s their Christmas gift). By doing some preliminary research I found out that if I booked the hotel over two months in advance with the hotel website I’d save $50.00. There are three different activities we want to do. I also found, by doing a little research that a discount ticket for $29.00 covered all three and saved $20.00 (again, sorry for being vague, but I put a lot of time into this and want it to be a surprise.)
Consult websites like LivingSocial and Groupon. Most major cities and regions in the United States have at least one or the other these days. If you aren’t familiar with these sites, everyday they offer discounts on activities, food, services, (quick search just showed that Lancaster’s LivingSocial deal for today is $40.00 credit at a local Irish pub for $18.00). LivingSocial also has an “adventures” section with things such as an afternoon of whitewater rafting with a tour of a local brewpub afterwards. Now, I hope I don’t sound like a paid advertisement for these sites, just I’ve used and had success with them in the past. I signed up to the Pittsburgh LivingSocial a month before we went. I didn’t end up purchasing anything (partially because we already had activities planned and wanted a loose schedule to accommodate those) but it did give me an idea of the kinds of things Pittsburgh had to offer. I get e-mails from these sites and if a good deal pops up, I will sometimes purchase it and then plan a trip around that. These two are very prominent deal based lifestyle websites, but a plethora exits. Find one that works for you and get on the e-mail list.
Planning ahead also gives you time to save the money you’re going to spend.
Skimp on other things
A coworker recently said to me, “you shouldn’t be able to afford your lifestyle.” I got a kick out of this namely because he’s probably right, but traveling and having a good time are things I value. If it’s something you really want to do, half the battle is being smart with your money when you’re at home during the work week.
I’d rather be able to afford the drive to Atlantic City on the fly when my friends’ text and say that they want to do a little gambling rather than having a brand new Polo sweater; stores like TJ Maxx and Marshall enable me to still dress professionally on a budget.
I’ve recently made a promise to myself to only eat out once a week. Sure, grilling up some chicken and sautéing some potato wedges may be an annoying alternative to Subway once a week, but it saves cash.
I always pay my bills on time (nothing good comes from skimping on these), but prioritize experiences to materials with my extra funds: I’ve been trying to save up for a queen sized bed for two years now. I’m a decent sized guy and have reached the age where I should probably ditch the twin bed, but have not been able to do so. Why? Because next year the Dropkick Murphys might not have another “Sham Rock ‘N Roll Tour” and if they do, it might not hit Philly. I’m pretty sure next year queen sized mattresses won’t be extinct.
Don’t Be Afraid To Break the Bank…A Bit
This is cheesy, this is cliché; but you can’t buy a memory. You may only visit someplace once, so if something might be a little more than you were planning, I say by all means go for it. I recently destroyed my credit card in Boston. Am I thrilled about this? No. Did I have a great time? Yes. Would I rather have those memories? Absolutely. Am I super excited to show off my new Black Rose Pub rugby and tell the accompanying story about getting out of Boston to get back to our suburban hotel in a freak fall blizzard? Oh yeah. Good stories are priceless.