Travel is expensive, and I’m often asked how I can afford to travel as often as I do. One of my favorite strategies since graduating college (because my parents will be quick to point out that I financed essentially 0% of my travel back in my collegiate days) has been designating my yearly tax refund or company bonus specifically for travel.
This year, I got a couple thousand back. I know — lucky me. Recognizing this isn’t the case for everyone, in years where I’ve received much less in a refund, I’ve opted to designate my annual bonus specifically for travel.
Being able to use your refund or bonus for travel might seem like a no-brainer. Like, duh, I can definitely choose to spend that money however I want. But I would argue that this travel financing strategy does require some planning. In fact, data from the National Retail Foundation found that only 12% of Americans spend their tax refund on travel!
Many people rely on their annual income infusion to help pay off long-standing debt or count it as their yearly contribution to their savings account. To make sure that my tax refund or company bonus are eligible for me to use for travel, I make budgeting and saving part of my monthly, ongoing routine.
I spend about an hour every week using Mint.com to make sure that I’m staying on top of my budget and paying down my debts (credit card & student loans) regularly. I evaluate my savings strategy every time my financial situation changes, whether in accepting a new job or in getting a raise. I make sure that I’m saving roughly 20% of my income in mix of accounts, namely a 401K, discounted company stock, personal investment account, and personal savings account.
This habit frees me up both mentally and financially to use my annual influx of cash as I see fit, rather than having to use it as a Band-Aid to poor financial planning.
Here’s how I used my refund this year:
4-day girls trip to Sayulita, Mexico
Flights: Combo of airline credits & tax refund
Airbnb: Tax refund
Food/entertainment: Mix of personal monthly budget & tax refund
2-day getaway to Paso Robles, California
Gas: Personal monthly budget
Hotel: Combo of hotel credits & tax refund
Food/wine: Personal monthly budget
4-day bachelorette party in Charleston, South Carolina
Flights: Credit card points (I have Chase Sapphire Preferred, which I love)
Airbnb: Tax refund
Food/drinks: Personal monthly budget
2-week trip to Scandinavia
Flights: Tax refund
Airbnbs: Tax refund
Food/entertainment: Mix of tax refund and personal monthly budget
I’m already three fourths of the way through these experiences, and I only got the refund about 3 months ago. So I’m not doing a great job at spreading out the travel love. But that’s not what matters at all.
I could have bought new clothes or home furnishings, two material goods that I’m a current sucker for, but the positive psychology offered by material gains are minuscule compared to the richness and joy that experiences and strengthened relationships brings us. Note to self: memories > clothes.
If you can, I would recommend using your refund or bonus to spread your travel throughout the year. If I hadn’t been beholden to the timing of others on these trips, I would have planned something for each quarter of the calendar year, so that I’d always have a little recharge from work (and wouldn’t be taking too much time off in a given stretch, which is sometimes more stress than joy).
Here’s your blueprint for putting this strategy into practice:
Make a commitment to yourself that you will use your tax refund or company bonus exclusively for travel next year.
Share this promise with your favorite travel buddy to add accountability and potentially convince them to do the same (#MoMoney).
Recalibrate your savings strategy to make sure you’re saving about 20% of your income on a monthly basis.
Find a budgeting tool or process that allows you to stay on top of your monthly cash inflow and outflow, thereby ensuring that you can comfortably pay off what you spend each month.
Collect your tax refund or bonus, usually in the February time-frame.
Keep track of how much you’ve used of your new travel budget, whether that’s through your new budgeting tool/process or on a pad of notepaper.
Travel stress-free, knowing you’re making zero sacrifices to your monthly spending habits, while still getting to enjoy the happiness boosts that travel brings!
Now go forth and practice financial responsibility so that you can travel a bunch of places for basically no money next year. Keep in mind: there’s power in mindfully asserting to yourself that your annual refund or bonus is used for travel, non-negotiable. This will reorient the way that you think about your finances all year round. Good luck, and let me know if you have other travel budgeting tips in the comments!