Expert Q&A

Traditional vacation vs. keeping the mortgage paid up


He wants a traditional, long break from the job. She wants a mortgage that isn’t past due. Something’s got to give

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Question for the expertDear New Frugal You,
I need help settling an argument with my husband. We’ve been struggling trying to keep up with our mortgage payments since they ballooned a couple of years ago. We haven’t missed any payments yet, but it’s been close a few months. Now that it’s spring, my husband is starting to talk about a vacation. He says it’s our right as a working family to get two weeks to do something fun each year and refuses to be deprived. We tried to budget some money for a vacation, but I don’t see how we can do one and not miss a house payment. What can I tell my husband? — Zoe

Answer for the expertDear Zoe,
Tough question. I can understand how your husband feels. It seems like there should be a break for people who work hard and live frugally all year. At the same time, you make an excellent point. How can you spend money on a vacation when you’re struggling to make the mortgage each month? So let’s see if we can find a way to help you do both.

First, let’s talk travel. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, in the last quarter of 2011 more than $800 billion was spent directly on tourism. That’s a lot of theme park rides and souvenirs.

[newslletter]They also report that the cost of vacations has gone up. For instance, air travel went up nearly 10 percent in the second half of 2011, much of it due to higher fuel costs.

Now, let’s see if we can find a way to keep both you and your hubby happy. We’ll begin by looking at budgeting. Typically, families are advised to keep their housing expenses (including insurance, taxes and upkeep) to less than 30 percent of their take-home pay. Travel and entertainment would be another 7 percent.

It sounds as if your current mortgage payment is pushing you over that 30 percent mark. As a result, you’re taking money from other categories to make up the difference. That makes sense: Feeding and housing your family should be your first considerations.

But if your housing expense exceeds 35 percent, you’ll find it very hard to make up the difference in other categories. At that point you’ll need to do something significant to bring down housing expenses. Refinancing or moving to a less expensive home would be in order. If you’re upside-down — that is, you owe more than the house is worth — it might be time to talk to your mortgage company about a short sale.

Let’s assume that your situation isn’t that drastic. You just haven’t been able to set aside any money for a vacation in the past year. So the trick is how to keep hubby happy without putting the house at risk.

One way to reduce the cost of family vacations is to eliminate the cost of transportation and lodging. That’s probably why “staycations” have become popular. In case you’re not familiar with the term, it means vacationing while you stay at home.

One way to get the most out of a staycation is to talk with your family and find out what things they like best about past vacations. Then try to create similar experiences from home. Then contact local tourism authorities and chambers of commerce to see what’s available in your area. Most people are surprised how many tourist attractions are available near their homes.

Naturally, you’ll find the well-known museums and zoos, but you’ll also get info on little-known museums, state parks, historical societies and tours of manufacturing plants. It won’t be the same as a week at the Magic Kingdom, but many provide experiences similar to those your family likes on vacation.

Don’t forget some of the enjoyable things that you haven’t done because there never seems to be enough time during the year. This summer might be a perfect time to catch up on those family picnics, nature walks and other activities.

We won’t get into all the kinds of things you can do on a staycation. There’s not enough space here. Search and you’ll find plenty of ideas. The key is to forget about the old-fashioned family vacation on the road and rather focus on what you liked best about those vacations.

Bottom line? Your husband may feel that he needs a break from work, but an expensive vacation on borrowed money just isn’t the answer. That will only increase the pressure later when the bills start coming in. Yes, we all need an occasional break. The trick is in finding one that’s affordable.

See related: Nearly free vacations

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