Expert Q&A

Cooperation key to a frugal family reunion


Divide the tasks into manageable piles and put the Web to work so everyone buys in, watches the plan evolve and contributes

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Question for the expert

Dear New Frugal You,
Every few years my family has a reunion. This year I’m in charge of planning. The trouble is that many of us are struggling financially. So I need to hold the costs down. How can I keep the fun without making it unaffordable? Can you help? — Sarah


Answer for the expert

Dear Sarah,
For some, family reunions are a tradition that has gone on for decades. For others, it’s a way to reconnect with distant relatives who they hardly know. But for all, it can be a financial challenge.

A lot will depend on what your family expects and whether you’re able to sell a more frugal family reunion. For instance, some families are used to gathering at an expensive resort hotel and catering meals. On the other end of the spectrum are families that converge on a favorite campground.

While every family is different, every reunion has certain categories of costs in common:

  • Transportation.
  • Lodging.
  • Food.
  • Activities.

Breaking it down into categories can help you see the big picture and its components. If you’re working with a fixed budget, it lets you see that splurging in one area will require you to clamp down in another. And it allows you to subdivide tasks among family members.

And by the way, before we get started, social networking on the Web has evolved into a great way to let everyone in the family contribute and kibitz and see what the majority likes.  Done right, it can help build anticipation for the reunion, plan events and share savings ideas.

Now let’s get down to the categories.

One of the biggest expenses for any family vacation or reunion is transportation. We may be free to move about the country, as the Southwest ad says, but doing it surely isn’t free. There are, however, ways you can do it to reduce the cost.

Naturally, you’ll want to give people enough time to shop for and qualify for travel discounts. Pass along any discounts you find on the social site. Look for ways to share ground transportation. Renting one minivan is probably cheaper than two cars.

Don’t forget alternative forms of transportation. Consider taking a train. It might take a little longer, but you’ll have an extra adventure along the way.

One of the best ways to reduce the cost of travel is to choose a location near the greatest number of family members. You might even consider asking those nearby to help offset the cost for family members who will have expensive trips.

Lodging is your next major expense and probably the one with the greatest potential for savings. But it’s also the one that will require the most “buy in” from your family.

Moving from a resort hotel to something cheaper will save money. But it will probably mean more work for family members. At some point you may have to decide whether you’ll want someplace that more people can attend even if that means giving up some convenience.

One way to reach the proper balance is to let everyone comment on the different possibilities. Most places that you’ll consider will have websites to help everyone decide what they prefer.

Don’t be afraid to consider unusual locations. For instance, check out retreat sites that are used by business and church groups. Check with smaller nonchain hotels. Some may offer a sweet deal for a large group.

You might even want to contact local colleges. Some rent out dorm rooms when school is not in session. Many modern dorms have suite-type configurations. Could be interesting reliving some college memories with the kids listening!

Food is your next big challenge. Clearly restaurants and catered events will be the most expensive. But don’t eliminate them before you do a little research. Many restaurants are offering coupons that reduce costs. You might want to call them to see if they’d honor for a larger group. Check with caterers, too. Many will discount to get bigger jobs.

Naturally, the least expensive food is the food you prepare yourself. If you have access to kitchen facilities that’s a real plus. Most families have one or two people who enjoy cooking for larger groups. With a little help, the work becomes more of a social gathering than a chore. If your group is large enough, make sure that you buy in bulk. And don’t forget to find out what cookware will be available and what you might need to bring with you.

Your final challenge will be to keep everyone happy with the activities selected. You might want to select a variety of different events with differing costs. Let each family decide which events they want to do and how much they want to spend. Don’t expect every member to attend every event.

Along with the theme parks and other touristy attractions, look for local free events, tours and activities. Contact the local chamber of commerce and search the Web.

Also search for various group, reunion and picnic games. You’ll find traditional ones, but also some that were modified by or made possible by technology. For instance, some scavenger hunts now require players to take pictures of various local landmarks. Geocaching is another activity made possible by technology that would make a good reunion activity.

Don’t forget to include something that’s unique to your family. Things such as tall tale and talent contests can be very entertaining and cost nothing at all.

Aim for a variety so that everyone can find some things that they enjoy and can afford. Use social media to build some excitement in the weeks prior to the reunion.

Ultimately, Sarah, you can’t guarantee their fun. But you can give them opportunities that will fit within a frugal budget. Hope you have a wonderful reunion!

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