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Small Budget, Big Memories: Vacation Is a State of Mind

Food is getting more and more expensive. Gas is over $4 a gallon and airfares are out of sight. That family vacation you’ve been looking forward to all year seems to be getting further and further out of reach. The choice between a winter’s worth of heating oil or a week-long stay at the beach is really a no-brainer. But the part of you that really, really wanted a change is not at all happy with the decision to stay home.

It’s hard to change plans. It’s hard not to be resentful. It’s even harder to feel like we’re letting our kids down when they’ve been counting on returning to a favorite lake or amusement park that has been the family vacation routine for years. It’s hard to be “responsible” when we’d really rather not be. And yet it’s our job to be responsible. Even more important, it’s our job to help kids see that when reality requires a change of plans, it doesn’t require full-scale mourning. Our challenge is to show kids that people have the choice to be happy or miserable whether at the beach or in their own back yard.

My friend Penny figured this out years ago. A single mom with two girls, ages 8 and 10 at the time, she simply couldn’t manage a vacation trip that summer. Imagine my surprise, then, to get a postcard that pictured our own lovely town common and a local postmark. “Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here!” Huh? So I called. The answering machine picked up: “Hi. We’re on vacation in beautiful western Massachusetts. Leave a message and we’ll get back to you when we get back next week.”

Penny had taken a week off from work. She put a moratorium on all chores. She put the TV in a closet and limited time online to checking email once a day. She and the kids went to bed when they pleased and slept in every morning. They ate ice cream for breakfast. They went to see local attractions they had always meant to see but had never gotten around to. They put up a tent in the backyard and spent a couple of nights whispering ghost stories in the dark. They stayed away from malls and explored the nearby state parks instead. Most important, the girls had their mom totally to themselves for a week of spontaneity. What started as a make-do holiday turned into a yearly tradition until the girls got old enough for summer jobs that made coordinating schedules too hard. Even so, every now and then one of them would ask for a “vacation weekend.”

“It’s all in how you go about it,” says Penny. I realized that lots of other people spend money to be tourists in our town. So I decided we’d be ‘tourists’ too. We went to the Chamber of Commerce office and picked up the brochures and maps they give to out-of-towners. Then we all agreed to spend the week pretending we didn’t live here and that we were staying at a great bed-and-breakfast.

How To Make a Vacation at Home Truly a Vacation

The conversation with Penny led to talking with other people who have tried to vacation at home. The deciding factor between frustration and success seems to be the ability to set boundaries, i.e., a few rules that put a bubble around the vacation time to make it special. Boundaries that last for just that week or two set the vacation time apart from the usual routine. Boundaries say, “We’re due for a change. We’re on vacation.”

Put some boundaries around:

  • The office. Time off needs to be just that — time off. Vacations are meant to be a time to relax and recharge. If the office thinks you are accessible at home, they will probably call. If you answer the pull of the paperwork in your briefcase, you’re not on vacation.
  • Visitors. Sure, it’s one kind of fun to be the house where lots of kids feel comfortable and friends drop in easily. But it’s another kind of fun to create family time and family memories. If your idea of a vacation includes getting closer to your own kids, you need at least some time with just them. At the beginning of your week, establish some boundaries around when visitors are welcome and how long they can stay.
  • The usual routine. Vacation week is not a time to clean the garage or weed the garden or harass the kids about picking up their rooms. It’s tempting to think of a week at home as a time to catch up on tasks. Successful home vacationing requires the willingness to ignore all the things that need to be repaired, cleaned, or organized. Get out of the house and explore your community with the kids. The mess in the garage can wait. Relaxed time with your family can’t.
  • Various types of screens. Get the kids — and the adults — away from instant messenger, Facebook, text messaging, email, video games, and TV. Focus on spending time together instead of of attending to different-sized screens. Make a game of it. Challenge the family to see if they can manage without screens for a week. Resurrect board games. Find outdoor activities that everyone in the family can do. Cook outside. Connect with each other instead of the virtual world.

Vacationing Is a State of Mind

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Talking with Penny reminded me that vacationing is a state of mind, not a destination. Kids whose parents show them how to make a special vacation at home come away from the experience with something far more valuable than the usual souvenirs. They learn that adapting to changes in circumstance can be an opportunity for a different kind of fun, not a disappointment. They learn that it doesn’t take a big expenditure of money to make a great time. They learn that creativity can make the ordinary and familiar into something special. They learn that changing a point of view can change everything.

Small Budget, Big Memories: Vacation Is a State of Mind

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Small Budget, Big Memories: Vacation Is a State of Mind. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.