Staying on Budget During a Vacation

Next week I take one last trip abroad before I start working full time in January. Starting a new job means I will be working extra hard to show my excitement, motivation, and willingness to be part of my new team. This also means not taking time off for six months! Traveling is one of my strongest passions, so I want to enjoy my last few weeks of freedom by going to Switzerland and London for the first time!

Since I am not working yet and my savings are dwindling, you can bet I am trying to keep my trip as affordable (but fun!) as possible. I am so grateful that one of my closest friends is hosting me in Switzerland, which cuts down on hotel costs immensely.


To plan my initial budget I followed the steps mentioned in the Realistic Savings Goal: Travel Edition post. Now I have finished planning the trip and have a pretty good idea of how much it will cost, I need to focus on staying on budget while on the vacation.

Keeping to the budget while adventuring is one of the troublesome parts of traveling. I know I can easily get carried away by fun spur-of-the-moment activities or buying things I cannot get at home! This post will share tips and tricks to remaining aware of your spending throughout the trip while also getting the most out of your vacation.

4 Budgeting Tips: Before the Vacation

  1. Plan your vacation goals:
    1. This one sounds silly, but determining ahead of time what you want most out of your trip can help you make money-saving decisions later on, especially if you are on the fence on whether or not to spend for a certain experience or thing.
    2. Ideas for Vacation Goals
      1. Exploring the local cuisine
      2. Engaging in a new culture
      3. Relaxing
      4. Learning something new
      5. Experiencing nature
      6. Taking the best photographs
      7. Trying out extreme sports
      8. Etc!
  2. Plan your food options:
    1. Food can be the most expensive parts of a vacation. If you research beforehand the most affordable and tastiest restaurants around your area for a specific day, you can be sure to not only choose the best option, but take out the stress of last-minute disappointing meals!
    2. Packing easy snacks like nuts or granola bars will help to keep your energy high when you start to get hungry, which allows you more time to find the best food option instead of hangrily (hungry/angry) choosing the closest, and probably not cheapest, restaurant.
    3. Going to the local grocery stores can also be a fun way to learn about local culture and save on food costs. You can buy snacks like mentioned above, or also cook your own meals depending on where you are staying.
    4. Eating larger lunches and taking advantage of lunch specials is also a great way to spend less on the expensive dinner options.
    5. If you are traveling with someone, meeting new people at a hostel, or staying with foreign friends, consider offering to cook meals together or splitting meals. This is a great way to learn more about different foods while expanding your options to try!
  3. Plan your time carefully (or be flexible):
    1. Having to rush from one location to the next can cost you five to ten times the amount you were going to spend on transportation. Planning beforehand can be the difference between a $3 subway ride or a $30 taxi ride. Consider this when choosing hotel check in/outs, timed tours, and meal reservations.
    2. Plan your activities each day in similar areas to give yourself an opportunity to walk from location to location and save money. This way you can get a feel for the city and find things off the beaten path.
  4. Plan your suitcase carefully:
    1. Forgetting clothes or hygiene products can add up, especially in a foreign country. If you are leaving on a long trip or to a distant location, think about building a list of items you want to pack a week in advance so that you will not forget in the pre-trip packing stress. Be sure to check the weather, and don’t forget to pack your toothbrush!
    2. Deciding not to check a bag into your flight can save you money. Having a lighter bag will also allow you to walk or take public transportation stress-free instead of making you consider calling a taxi to lug around your heavy suitcase. Even for month-long trips in cold weather, trust me, you can fit everything in a carry-on.


4 Budgeting Tricks: During the Vacation

  1. Make friends:
    1. Meeting locals or fellow travelers can be a great way to learn about those hidden cheap restaurants, free sights, and must-do experiences that are worth spending your money.
    2. More people also means more people to pitch in! Some sights have group deals and you can order family-style at restaurants instead of paying for your food individually. Also, you are more likely to enjoy spending time picnicking in a free park or cooking together, which will save you cash!
  2. Keep a journal to record daily spending:
    1. Making a note in your phone or small notebook each time you spend money is an easy way to record your costs throughout the day. This also makes you stop and think on whether or not you should spend money on this particular item or experience.
    2. Every night, add up the totals to see if you are on track. If you happen to splurge, maybe be more cautious the next day.
    3. Keep in mind international credit card fees and exchange rates when calculating the total.
  3. Think twice before buying souvenirs:
    1. I truly believe new experiences are more valuable than souvenirs.
    2. An alternative to souvenirs, and a great present for family and friends, is a hard copy of your travel photos. I use which links directly to my Instagram account and costs about $15 for a 60 page, 6×6 inch book of my photos. Hard copies of photographs are personalized and unique, but still have the feel of a traditional souvenir. You also don’t have to fit it in your suitcase!
    3. If you do like souvenirs and have the time, pop into a few stores in the area to see where you can get the best price and the best selection. If you are in a rush or are unsure, just consider: “Will I regret it if I leave without this?”
  4. On the other hand, you should also never be afraid to “Treat Yo’ Self”:
    1. You may not get the opportunity to return to that location in the future so please give yourself leeway to buy and try new things. If you do happen to go over budget, just be sure to keep that in mind when you return home and cut back on going out to eat and shopping for a few weeks. The experiences are worth it!

I hope you have a wonderful (and on-budget) vacation!! Please share your tips and tricks to staying on budget by reaching out via my Contact Form or joining the Sophie Explains community on Facebook. Thank you!!

Realistic Savings Goals: Holiday Edition

The holidays are approaching quickly, and this means a plethora of parties, presents, and potlucks. Holiday spending can get stressful, but planning appropriately beforehand can lower your stress levels.

Take 15 minutes right now to open up a new Google Spreadsheet, and make a list in the first column of everything that comes to mind that you expect to buy or spend on this season. Or download a pre-made template here: Downloadable Holiday Spending Spreadsheet. To edit, click on File -> Download As or File -> Make a Copy.

Below is a brief holiday spending list for inspiration.


Starter Holiday Spending List

  • Presents for family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors
  • Food for parties, gatherings, and gifted baked goods (including decorations if you are throwing the party)
  • New clothes for holiday events, such as black tie galas, New Year’s Eve celebrations, ugly sweater parties, weddings, or holiday work get-togethers
  • Charitable donations for community organizations, churches, or apartment complex cleaning staff
  • Packaging and postage for out-of-town gifts and cards
  • Travel costs for driving or flying to visit family
  • Dinners with friends and family visiting from out of town

After writing all of your spending categories in column A move to column B and start estimating what you expect to spend in each category. Obviously these will not be accurate numbers, but make your best guess. You can even use column B for the “low estimate” and column C for a “high estimate.”

Finally, at the bottom of the list write “Total” in column A and in column B (and C) add up all the numbers you wrote by using a “sum” formula. Write “=sum(B1:B20)” and it will add up everything between box B1 and B20 (maybe your list ends at B10 or B50, adjust accordingly).

How does your total look? I know the numbers can be intimidating, but let’s discuss ways we can take control of our finances during the upcoming season of spending.

  1. Start Saving Early: Put away money each month, starting in January, to evenly spread the cost of the holiday spending across the full year. A slightly different approach is to start saving weekly, maybe cutting down on going out to eat during the holidays or daily coffee runs. Every little bit helps! If you save $50 for 6 weeks that is $300 you can use for guilt-free holiday spending.
  2. Cut Back: Are there any categories in your holiday budget you can tweak? Maybe you go to a secondhand store to buy your ugly sweater or borrow it from your grandma. Maybe you can DIY crafts as presents for friends and family. Maybe you can make your holiday party a potluck.
  3. Sales: Cyber Monday and Black Friday are coming up. Take advantage of the sales by planning early and creating a list of presents you’ll need. You are already on your way with the holiday spending spreadsheet!
  4. Credit Card Rewards: Many credit cards offer reward points to help you save on clothes, plane tickets, and gift spending. Do some research to see what your card can offer you today!
  5. Update Your List: As you start purchasing gifts and attending parties, keep track of exactly how much you spend. You can create a new column on your spreadsheet for “Actual” amounts. This will help you adjust your numbers in the other categories if you spend more or less than expected, and more importantly, it will give you a better estimate for next holiday season!

In just a few short weeks this holiday season will be over. Time passes quickly when you’re having fun! Take your recorded “Actual” spending amounts from Step 5 and go back to Step 1. It is never too early to start saving for next year’s holiday season, and this time you will be extra prepared by knowing almost exactly what you will need to save. Let’s work together to take the spending stress out of the holiday season!

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Other Realistic Savings Goals Posts

Realistic Savings Goals: Travel Edition

After graduating college and joining the workforce in 2013, the first thing I wanted to do was save up for a trip to my favorite place, Japan! To take the first step towards my goal, I had to figure out where I was spending my money so that I could realistically cut back spending and start saving. That was the start of my budgeting journey!

If you are reading this blog, you are probably passionate, motivated, and very busy. I bet you have a multitude of fun projects and trips in the works. Maybe you are building your very own home gym or saving to go backpacking in Europe or even creating an art business on Etsy. Whatever it may be, determining a smart and realistic budget is the right way to get started.


In the “Realistic Savings Goals Series” we will explore tried and true methods used to save up for a variety of goals.

Today we will discuss how to save for a trip, either domestic or international travel. This method will help you create a manageable savings schedule.

Five Step Process to Save for Travel

  1. Determine the overall cost. When I was planning my trip to Japan, I thoroughly researched the cost of airfare, housing, food, local transportation, and even souvenirs. It is better to be safe and go a little overboard than to have your savings pool run out halfway through your trip.
  2. Determine your timeline. When is the soonest you can depart? Figure out your ideal vacation date and then work backwards to do the math. Let’s say you want to save up $1000 for a trip to California, and you have five months to save. $1000/5 months = $200 a month you need to save.
  3. Determine if it is realistic. Would $200 a month be possible to cut out of your current budget? Maybe you decide to spend less on going out to eat or don’t add to your emergency savings goal for a month or two. If you don’t feel comfortable with this plan, it is time to rethink your departure date. If you wait a total of eight months: $1000/8 months = $125 a month. This turns into about $30 a week. Is this more realistic? If not, keep working backwards.
  4. Stick to your budget! The hardest part of any budget is sticking to your plan. Some tricks I’ve used in the past include updating my budget spreadsheet weekly (instead of monthly), setting alerts on (when I overspend in a category), or taking out cash instead of aimlessly spending with credit cards. Let me know what tricks you use!
  5. Record everything. Every time I return from a trip, I’m itching to plan the next one. If you record all of your costs (from airfare to snacks) in a separate spreadsheet during or after your trip, this makes budgeting for future travels easier and more realistic. It also is fun (for me!) to compare what you expected to spend versus what you actually spent. Sometimes this is possible to do in your monthly budget, but most trip expenses span multiple months, such as the day you buy airline tickets months ahead or book hotels a few weeks ahead. Keeping everything together in one place is a great way to simplify saving for your next trip!

Bonus: Travel Checklist

There are a lot of expenses to consider when traveling, this checklist covers the basics. If you can think of anything I am missing, let me know, and I will continue to make the list more comprehensive!

  1. Airfare – Take advantage of price tracking sites like Kayak, Cheapoair, Skyscanner, Mobissimo to determine the best time to buy affordable tickets. Tuesdays are generally the cheapest day to buy tickets!
  2. Housing – Consider the costs for all housing options such as hostels, AirBnB, or hotels. Consider joining an awards club for free nights or deals. If you stay with friends and like to bring gifts to your hosts, don’t forget to budget for those too!
  3. Sightseeing and Activities – Do research before you go! What are the top places to see and how much are they? Are there city or combination passes that include a lot of these locations?
  4. Food – Determine average cost of breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks at your destination. Look up unexpected costs of that particular destination, such as places that charge for tap water and bread. If you want to want to save money, think about stopping at a grocery store for breakfast items, snacks, or even food to cook if you are staying somewhere with a kitchen.
  5. Transportation – Will you be using taxis, trains, subways, renting a car, or walking? Be sure to look up if your location has a special rate for all-you-can-ride for 24 hours, 3 days, or a week!
  6. Souvenirs – Before you leave, make a list of friends and family for whom you want to buy souvenirs and how much you are willing to spend on each person. Be sure to calculate how much you want to spend on yourself as well.
  7. Luggage – If your purse, backpack, or suitcase needs to be updated before you leave, you may want to add this into the overall cost of your trip. The Ultimate Time-Saving Tool for Budgeters

When I first started recording my earnings and expenses monthly, it was a tedious process: I was logging into each individual bank and credit card account to view transactions, copying them over to my personal budgeting spreadsheet, and finally re-ordering everything chronologically. At the time, I was a full-time student and did not yet have many expenses, but when I started working and living on my own, the long process made budgeting unbearable. Then I found Mint! is a secure and free way to combine all of your account transactions to help you budget efficiently each month.


As this is a personal blog, I wanted to share with you my own reasons for using This post is extremely relevant because next week I will help you create and fill out your very own budgeting spreadsheet, and using is a necessary time-saving resource for that process.

Sophie’s Top 5 Reasons for Using

  1. Free: Who wants to spend money on budgeting tools when you could spend it on fun vacations and pampering pets?
  2. Secure: Mint is owned by Intuit, the same company that runs both TurboTax, a popular tax preparation software, and QuickBooks, a small-business accounting program. Mint uses multi-factor authentication upon login and SSL encryption to ensure that all data stays safe.
  3. Convenient: In addition to organizing your daily transactions, Mint provides an updated credit score each month with a breakdown explanation of the factors that affect your score, as well as clear instructions on how to improve your score. (We will dive into the importance of credit scores in a later post!)
  4. Accessible: You don’t have to worry about missing and leaving out your cash transactions, just log into the Mint app on your phone anywhere anytime and record your expenses directly.
  5. Easy: The first time you use Mint you will have to spend a few minutes linking all the appropriate accounts, but after that it’s ready to go! Mint saves me hours each month when I budget because I don’t have to switch between accounts to log information. I appreciate that Mint can find ways to save my time and work efficiently.

Mint has so much more to offer than I have discussed above, so take some time to explore for yourself and see what a wonderful resource it is. Other sites, free and paid, are similar to Mint, and I suggest you check those out as well and let me know if you find something better. In the end, I encourage you to find a resource that helps you save time each month so that budgeting is a fun experience, not a tedious chore!

Next week, to thank you for being so supportive, I have a special two-part series ready to get you started on creating your own budgeting spreadsheet! Please follow Sophie Explains on Facebook for the latest updates.

Note to Readers: No, this is not a paid promotional post, although if Mint would like to change that I would be happy to accept. (Just kidding!)