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It’s Time to Start Saving for This Annual Expense Today

Maurie Backman, The Motley Fool

For many families across the U.S., summer is synonymous with going on vacation. After all, it's easier to get away when school isn't in session and the weather is generally cooperative (albeit hot) across the board.

The problem, however, is that most Americans don't actively save for their summer trips. Nearly 75% have gone into debt to finance a vacation, according to financial-planning platform LearnVest. And on average, they've accrued $1,108 of debt in the process.

Not shockingly, millennials are more willing than other generations to rack up debt in an effort to get away. In fact, they're almost three times as likely as baby boomers to accrue vacation-related debt. Still, Americans, on the whole, seem more than willing to add to their credit card balances if it means enjoying a getaway, and part of the reason so many folks land in debt is that they don't factor vacations into their budgets.

Woman in straw hat at the beach, lying on her back on a beach blanket reading a book. A pair of sunglasses sits by her side.

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

If you're eager to take a vacation this summer but haven't begun to set money aside for it, now's the time to come up with a savings plan. It's a far better bet than accumulating debt and regretting it after the fact.

The dangers of debt

What's the problem with racking up a little debt if it enables you to get away? For one thing, charging a vacation on a credit card and paying it off over time means paying more for that trip. The extra amount will depend on how long you carry that balance and what your interest rate looks like. Furthermore, carrying a balance could drive down your credit score, thereby making it more difficult for you to borrow money the next time you need to.

Imagine you charge a $2,000 vacation on a credit card because you don't have the money to pay for it upfront. If it takes you two years to pay off that balance at 18% interest, you'll wind up spending about $2,400 in total. Ouch. That's why you really must save in advance if you're looking to go on vacation -- to avoid wasting money you can't afford to part with in the first place.

Of course, if you have the money to pay off your vacation in full, then putting it on a credit card could be a smart move if it enables you to accumulate reward points. Some cards also offer travel perks, so if you know the money is there, you shouldn't hesitate to use yours. But if you don't have the cash, then you'll need to address that before you go away.

Save now, enjoy later

If you're planning a summer trip but haven't yet started saving for it, don't panic. You still have a number of months to set aside funds, provided you start immediately.

First, figure out when you want to get away and how much your trip will cost. Then, see how much you'll need to save each month. If, for example, you're planning an early August trip that'll cost $1,200, saving $400 a month in May, June, and July will allow you to go away without risking debt in the process.

Where will that $400 a month come from? You can sock away some of it by cutting back on existing expenses temporarily. For example, if you typically spend $200 a month on restaurant food, you can probably replace those meals with $50 worth of groceries prepared at home, thereby leaving you with $150 a month to bank. If you're in the habit of paying $100 a month for rideshares, stop doing that for the time being and walk or take buses. Similarly, you might consider canceling your cable package or gym membership if these are services you don't use all that much anyway, as doing so could get you even closer to your goal.

At the same time, it pays to look into getting a side hustle to boost your savings. That could mean freelancing in your current field on evenings or doing something totally different, like signing up to pet sit or housesit on weekends. Since the money you earn from that gig won't be earmarked for existing expenses, you can apply all of it (minus taxes) to your vacation.

That said, if you find that you're still very low on funds as your vacation date nears, you may have no choice but to adjust your plans and expectations. That could mean swapping your oversized beach house for a smaller condo rental along the ocean or having a staycation and avoiding the expense of a flight and hotel.

If neither is ideal, channel your disappointment into motivation to start saving right away for next summer's big vacation -- and sock away enough funds to make it your best one yet.

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