My husband and I are in the midst of an unofficial Three Month Cash-Only Challenge, in which we reluctantly forego credit cards and use actual, physical cash for all of our purchases. If you’re curious as to why would go cash-only despite our love of credit card rewards, check out Part I, “The Accidental Players.”
Six weeks into our unofficial Cash-Only Challenge I got the opportunity to try out our new cash-only lifestyle while traveling. On previous vacations we’ve always carried an absolute minimum of cash (maybe $20, to cover transportation tips and airplane food), and blithely charged all of our vacation expenses to our credit cards. Of course, we then had to deal with the arrival of the credit card bill a month later, and even though our spending was usually “reasonable,” it was always a bit of a downer to have to cough up money for a vacation that was already over.
A cash-only system changes that- all the money has to be saved and allocated up front, so there’s no “hangover effect” of having to pay after the fun is over. But regardless of whether the money is paid before or after the vacation, what I really wanted to know is whether going cash-only would result in less money spent overall. The verdict?
Going “cash-only” on vacation saved us a lot of money
Why? Because it forced us to set limits up front as to how much money we could spend. Rather than going into a vacation with a vague notion that we should only make “reasonable” purchases, a cash-only lifestyle required us to nail down our travel expenses ahead of time so that we could make sure we were carrying enough cash with us, and/or make sure there was enough money in the bank for a mid-trip ATM visit. And by looking at those expenses ahead of time, we became a lot less inclined to fritter our money away on needless purchases.
Our vacation in this instance was an 8-day trip to Georgia and North Carolina to visit family. Only my daughter and I went, as my husband wasn’t able to get time off work. The tickets were already purchased before our Cash-Only Challenge started, and we were staying with relatives instead of at hotels, so in budgeting for the trip I only accounted for the following expenses:
- Transportation to/from airports: Prior to the Cash-Only Challenge, we would often take airporters to and from our departure and arrival cities, but that would have put us back $250, and I just wasn’t interested in parting with that much cash. It’s one thing to charge it on a credit card and “forget about it,” it’s another thing to physically hold $250 in my hands and then part with it. I decided to drive us to the airport- I knew that gas would cost us $20 round-trip, plus $87 for long-term airport parking. Once in Atlanta, we could take a public transit train for $2.50 to our final destination. (BTW, it was an hour-long train ride and it seemed like we were the only tourists on the train, but I actually liked it- I felt like my daughter and I were seeing an authentic side of the big city.) Savings = $138
- Food (Breakfasts, Lunches, Dinners, Snacks): We’ve always done the typical vacation thing: eat out 3 meals a day, attempting to find fairly low-cost options like coffee shops, delis and fast food joints. But now that I had to budget up front, I was appalled at how much even that would cost. So I packed all of our breakfasts (saved $80), snacks (saved $20), and airplane food (saved $14). Then I budgeted a mere $2.50 per person for lunches and dinners, banking on the luxury of being able to cook our own food since we were staying with relatives. I know that might sound a bit hard-core frugal tightwad-ish, but it actually was pretty painless- see this post for a rundown of what I packed for breakfast. Savings = $159
- Presents for hosts: We wanted to give our two gracious hosts (our cousin we stayed with in Atlanta and our aunt we stayed with in North Carolina) a little token of our appreciation for putting up with us. I used to do $25 gift cards, but I realized that would put us past our available cash. So I went to local artisan food shops before we left and spent $15 per gift for little samplers of artisan olive oil and balsamic vinegar from The True Olive Connection, gourmet tuna fish from Dave’s Albacore, and premium roasted nuts from Nut Kreations. Savings = $20 (hopefully they don’t mind that I saved money on their gifts??)
The End Result- 65% Savings
So in total we spent $222, whereas we would have normally spent $646- that’s two-thirds less than before! As we go through this Cash-Only Challenge it never ceases to fascinate me how holding actual, physical dollar bills in my hands causes me to be more conscientious about spending them. it was a little nerve-wracking carrying over $200 in cash with me, and if I were traveling internationally I probably would make mid-trip ATM visits to avoid carrying that much money at any given time. But overall, taking our cash-only experiment on vacation was well worth it, and I can hardly wait to try it again for our next vacation. (Yes, I’ve gotten to that point where saving money is genuinely exciting to me- feel free to roll your eyes- I won’t hold it against you.)
Want more? In Part I: The Accidental Players, I explain how we wound up in this Cash-Only Challenge despite having no interest in a cash-only lifestyle. Part II: Grocery Budget Jitters describes how we weaned ourselves from credit cards and took the plunge into using cash. Part III: The Roller Coaster, tracks my logistical acrobatics (and occasional panicked moments) as I attempt to cover all of our month’s expenses before our cash runs out. In Part IV I report back on taking our Cash-Only Challenge on vacation with us. Part V describes the cash-only budgeting method we used to keep our spending on track.
Interested in doing a Cash-Only Challenge yourself? Check out Crystal Paine’s book, “The Money Saving Mom’s Budget” (which I reviewed here) and learn all about it. In her trademark upbeat style, Paine lays out the blueprint for a cash-only lifestyle.