13. Celebrations and Vacations: Less Fuss, More Fun – Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More by Doing Less

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Celebrations and Vacations: Less Fuss, More Fun

A cornerstone` philosophy of Minimalist Parenting—make room for remarkable—sums up our approach to celebrations, holidays and travel. Too often, minimalism is associated with scarcity, utilitarianism, and a tendency to shun the big splurge. But we take a different slant: fun and togetherness is the whole point! One of the most important gifts you can give your family is a mental album full of happy memories. In a few years, those memories will be worth more to you than a clean house or a thousand more dollars.

When you clear away the clutter and stress in your family life, you open up opportunities for recreation and celebration. Just think: the time and money you save by minimalizing can be spent on a vacation or another memory-making occasion. Bring on the joy!

While we believe in regular investments in family fun, we also know that special occasions can turn into black holes of excess and expectation. Who hasn’t attended an over-the-top birthday party or felt inadequate when faced with a neighbor’s perfectly decorated Christmas tree? In this chapter, we’ve got plenty of ideas for bringing parties, holidays, and travel back to earth and keeping the focus on what matters: the joy and deepened relationships these occasions are meant to inspire.

Birthday Parties

Making fun of the reality TV show Outrageous Kid Parties is easy pickings; intellectually, most of us agree that simple birthday parties are the way to go. But keeping the party budget in check is only part of the picture. If party preparation, planning, and management exhaust you to the point of resentment, it’s time to change the formula. Here are some steps you can take to simplify birthday celebrations.

Plan a Party That Works for You and Your Kid

Before you buy a single birthday candle, give some thought to what would be fun for both you and your kid. Granted, your kid is the guest of honor so his preferences are an important part of making the occasion special and memorable, but you—clearly—are the one doing the heavy lifting.

Be Honest About Your Motivations

Getting to the heart of your motivations around celebrations will help you identify your party priorities. You may be surprised to find that your expectations have more to do with your needs than your child’s. Ask yourself:

• Am I doing this because I love throwing parties and (perhaps a little) showing off my entertaining skills?

• Am I compensating for something missing from my own childhood?

• Am I doing this because everyone else is throwing large parties and inviting the entire class?

Birthdays typically have been a bit of a sensitive spot for me. Growing up, my siblings and I never had “friend” birthdays parties, partly because our family of nine (or sometimes more, depending on which relatives were bunking with us) provided enough of a crowd, partly because our house tended to be in a state of disrepair, and partly because birthday parties including lots of other kids were an added expense that was understandably challenging for my parents.

I was acutely aware of all these things as a small person, but I still longed for birthday parties with lots of friends, both because I felt bad about attending other kids’ parties and not reciprocating, and because I grew up with a bit of a complex about friends. I was different racially and socioeconomically from most of my peers, and I craved their acceptance and friendship.

As a result, Laurel’s birthdays were very important to me. I wanted to celebrate her. Surround her with friends and family. Show her she was loved. For her first three birthdays I threw big parties—not lavish or outrageous thematically, but given that we have a large family and many friends with kids nearby, the gatherings tended to be at least thirty to forty people.

I would exhaust myself making tons of food and giant cakes. (I do love baking and probably was showing off a little here.) And Laurel? In the face of such large gatherings, she would bury her face in my shoulder and look apprehensive, even among beloved family and friends. I finally came to terms with my motivations because they were clearly so out of joint with Laurel’s temperament.

Tailor Party Plans to Your Child’s Temperament

Once you’re clear about your own motivations, you’ll be able to see clearly what’s most important: what your kid would enjoy.

Starting with Laurel’s fourth birthday, I decided to take things down several notches. I incorporated Laurel in the decision making and we hosted small, simple parties. She was happy. We were happy. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t done this earlier! On her sixth birthday, our oven was broken so I couldn’t bake a cake. I bought a delicious cake and, as much as I love baking, couldn’t believe I had never “outsourced” cake before. Huge timesaver.

When Violet’s first birthday rolled around, my mind-set was totally different. Part of it likely had to do with the natural relaxation of standards that happens with second children, but I also felt as if I had grown and learned so much from our experience with Laurel. We hosted a small, simple gathering with just immediate family, where all I did in advance was cut up fruit salad, make a cake (not over the top but pretty), and hang a few simple decorations.

It was perfectly celebratory—and ironically, very much like the parties of my childhood.

Consider Throwing Parties Every Few Years

Everyone should feel special on her birthday, but there’s no rule that says your kid has to have an elaborate party every year. Family gatherings, simple traditions, sleepovers, or a day out with one or two good friends can be just as special as a big party, especially if (as for Laurel) big parties are overwhelming.

Plan Separate Celebrations

If you have a large family, consider planning two separate (but simple!) gatherings to keep the numbers more intimate. One year, Christine planned Laurel’s friend and family parties over the same weekend—she kept the time windows short so it wouldn’t feel like the whole weekend was consumed by party prep, execution, and cleanup. She found that, because the parties were close together, she could plan for and prepare the same refreshments and leave the same decorations up for both parties.

Erin via the Minimalist Parenting blog: One tip I learned from my sister in-law about birthdays—we only do ONE cake. So if my son’s actual birthday is on a Tuesday, but his friend party is the following Saturday, his one and only cake will be with his friends on Saturday. We will stick candles in the breakfast pancakes (or whatever he’s requested). I can’t believe I went so many years making TWO cakes!

Play to Your Strengths

If you’re a natural party planner, wonderful! Planning your kids’ birthday parties is likely a source of joy, and you should run with it! But if you’re not one for entertaining, the idea of hosting twelve five-year-olds in your house may fill you with dread. No need to feel guilty—just ask for help.

Mira loves to swim and is in her element in the pool. I’m not a confident swimmer, and I’m perfectly happy dangling my feet in the water. When Mira asked to host her birthday party at the community pool, I cringed inside. The idea of supervising multiple beginning swimmers got my anxiety meter rising. But it had been a couple of years since Mira had had a big party, so I decided to go for it.

Rael is a fantastic swimmer, so I delegated the job of in-pool grown-up to him. I also bucked the usual drop-off protocol and asked the parents of emerging swimmers to wear their swimsuits and stay to assist. I’m sure more than one parent groaned at the thought, but I decided to stick to my limits. If I had jumped into the pool to supervise while also trying to handle the cake, presents, and other party activities, my resentment and anxiety would have brought down the entire party. In the end, everyone had a great time, including the parents who stayed to swim.

Outsource It

If you want to save on the prep/mess factor at home, another great solution is to outsource the party. No need for an expensive, chaotic trip to the local pizza-arcade-party factory! Consider these great ideas:

Carla via BostonMamas.com: Our girls have birthdays in October and June, and we do the same thing every year, for every birthday. We invite all of our friends and family to meet us at the local park. We bring juice boxes, bottled water, fruit salad, and mini cupcakes, and the pizza is delivered. The kids have a great time running around outside, the adults get to talk, and we don’t have to clean up a house afterward. It’s super easy and a lot of fun!

Aisha via BostonMamas.com: I have four children and after the first I learned quickly about the “less is more” concept. Now every year I ask them what they want to do and we make it just an immediate family affair. For my son Thaison’s eighth birthday, we asked him what he wanted and he said anything science. We will have dinner at a restaurant of his choice (so long as it isn’t too expensive) then we are surprising him with a trip to a science museum. He has never been so I am definitely excited to see his reaction!

Host an Open Neighborhood Party

If you have the benefit of living in a neighborhood with lots of kids, throw a party just for them.

Lynn via BostonMamas.com: Here on our block in Chicago the parents came up with “neighbor birthdays.” We put out a flyer with the date and time, and kids and parents come over to the front yard of the birthday kid’s house for cake. We take a group picture on the porch steps and call it a day. The whole thing takes about an hour, there are no (or very small) gifts, the parents get to visit, and the kids of all ages have fun. We have a wonderful record of the children growing up with the porch step photographs. All of the neighbors have done this for about twenty years.

Minimalist Birthday Party Tips

Once you’ve decided on the type of party you’re going to host, there are easy ways to simplify each aspect of the party itself.

Decide on a Reasonable Number of Guests

A common rule of thumb is one person per year of the child’s age. But once kids start school, that’s not always possible as class-wide parties become the norm. If you don’t have the energy to host a class-wide party, that’s perfectly fine. Simply distribute invitations outside of school and to talk to your child about the importance of discretion.

Simplify Invitations

Printed or hand-lettered invitations are lovely—but only if you and your child enjoy making them. For everyone else, electronic invites via e-mail, Evite, or Paperless Post are quick, easy, and get the job done.

Ask for RSVPs, but Don’t Worry About Stragglers

It’s always handy to know how many people are going to show up at your party, especially when guests arrive with siblings. But a few RSVPs are bound to get lost in the parenting chaos. Plan on a few extra portions of food and don’t worry about it.

Set an End Time

Always err on the side of a shorter party, and note a specific end time on the invitation. As kids get older, most parents will expect to drop off their kids and pick them up at the end of the party. If you’d like some grown up assistants, be sure to arrange for them ahead of time.

Reduce the Expectations About Meals

A party doesn’t necessarily have to involve a meal. A selection of self-serve snacks and drinks, plus birthday cake, make for a perfectly festive food setup. If you set your party time between lunch and dinner, the expectations will be clear.

Simplify the Decor

It’s amazing how far a few balloons, streamers, or tissue paper balls go toward creating a festive atmosphere. In fact, to create a cohesive and festive party atmosphere in mere minutes, pick up plates, napkins, a disposable tablecloth, and balloons in the same color palette and you’re good to go.

Prioritize Tasks in Order of Fun Factor—Then Let the Rest Go

Even when your plans are simple, sometimes the tasks can still stack up. Prioritize the things that bring you the most joy and let go of the rest.

Laurel, like me, has a tendency to make plans. And despite the fact that our plans for Violet’s first birthday party were quite simple, a couple of days before the party, Laurel actually said, “I’m getting stressed about all of the things I want to do!” At which point, I suggested we sit down and list the things we both wanted to do and number them in order of most to least fun . . . and to not worry about letting stuff at the bottom of the list go.

It ended up being a really fun and illuminating exercise. We realized that baking was top on the list for both of us (me: cake, her: cookies). We also ended up letting several items at the bottom of the list go—including extra errands such as buying potted violets for my family to take home. We just didn’t bother and instead sent everyone home with extra cake and cookies . . . perfect! And it felt fantastic.

Skip the Goodie Bags!

There! We said it! We love the generous spirit behind goodie bags and party favors, but we could all do without random tchotchkes that get played with for five seconds (if that) and then stuffed in a drawer. How about hosting a simple craft activity and letting the result serve as the parting gift? Or sending kids home with something edible/usable? Or taking a group photo and printing out copies (at the party or after) for each child to keep?

One year, we used Frisbees as trays to serve the paper plates full of birthday cake. At the end of the party, each guest had a Frisbee to take home and play with for the rest of the summer. Another year we gave out binder-pouches stuffed with school supplies picked up on super-clearance. The parents and the kids loved them.

Team Up with a Friend

Does your child have a good buddy with a birthday in close proximity? Team up to reduce effort (and scheduling) for all!

When Laurel was in preschool, she and her good friend Grace had birthdays about a week apart and shared the same circle of friends. So Grace’s mom and I decided to celebrate their friendship with a joint birthday party. The girls loved the idea, the parents were psyched to be able to celebrate the girls and have one less thing on the calendar, and the joint party was a fantastic way to lighten the load for each family, as we split up all the party duties. Because this was basically a playdate birthday party—we didn’t have a specific craft that would result in a takeaway item for a party favor—I ordered cookies with a photo of the two birthday girls printed in icing. Cute, edible, and tchotchke-free!

Graduation and Other Milestone Markers

Rites of passage are wonderful hallmarks of childhood. Graduations, bar mitzvahs, and even sweet sixteen birthdays—each occasion has special significance, depending upon your background or history. But when every transition becomes the basis of a party, the specialness starts to fade.

We’re not suggesting you withhold your natural expressions of pride that come out when your kid makes it to the end of a school year, sports season, or particularly challenging assignment. Those pats on the back are incredibly important. But they tend to be drowned out in the glare of a big, shiny party. Kids get distracted by the gifts and treats and miss noticing the true satisfaction that comes with their accomplishment.

We’d like to issue a minimalist call for keeping special milestones truly sacred. Graduation from high school? A big deal worthy of celebration and recognition. Graduation from second grade? Not so much. If anything, hugs and milkshakes on the last day of school are more than enough. Summer is the ultimate reward!

Holidays

Oh, the holidays. They’re supposed to be fun and meaningful, and yet for so many families holidays become a time of chaos and oversized expectations. The food, the decorations, the family dynamics, the time/money pressures . . . everything gets compressed into a single day (or season) of stress.

But let’s step back for a moment to consider common holiday stressors:

• Too many party invitations

• Subpar decorations

• Last-minute shopping

• Cooking the “right” food and serving it on a perfectly set table

• Proper attire, whether it’s a homemade costume or the perfect party dress

• Family expectations

• Budget constraints

• Too many houseguests

• Worry that the holiday won’t feel “special” enough unless it’s celebrated with all the trappings

Are these “problems” really worthy of your stress? (Repeat after us: “No.”)

Minimalizing the holidays will bring back the joy, no matter what your background or tradition. It is possible to transform holiday burdens into memorable occasions, whether they are neighborhood Halloween festivities, a food- and football-filled Thanksgiving, or a relaxed Christmas (yes, such a thing exists).

Make a Plan, Then Edit It

Map out a plan that contains the minimum amount of preparation that would make your holiday feel special. List gift recipients (we cover presents in the next section), menus, neighborhood events, travel plans, and anything else that goes into your holiday planning. Not only can you see the scope of your planning needs before you even start, but you also can prevent “holiday project creep” (randomly adding more things to your to-do list as you go).

Now look at the completed list. Are you feeling a growing sense of panic? Time to edit the list. Ruthlessly cross off the unnecessary or annoying. For example: if turning on the holiday house lights is a beloved kickoff for the season, keep it on the list. But if it’s a curse-inducing headache, strike it. Same with homemade Halloween costumes. If fun, keep. If tiresome, toss.

Stick to Traditions

Creating and sticking to your own family traditions has logistical and emotional benefits.

Kristin Brandt of ManicMommies.com, via BostonMamas.com: I always set up our crèche in the front foyer, the tree in the “solarium” (a fancy way of describing our back room), and the Santa figures on the map drawer. We have Swedish meatballs for Christmas Eve dinner, cinnamon rolls for breakfast, and Paula Deen’s foolproof standing prime rib roast for dinner. It’s not that I don’t want to try something new, it’s that traditions such as these keep things easy and reduce the stress. And, they become something regular and anticipated for the kids.

We celebrate Hanukkah, and the traditional meal includes latkes (fried potato pancakes). Every time I forget about the latkes or skip them because I still don’t have a great recipe, my kids miss them. One year I bought frozen latkes and heated them up in the oven. My husband and I could tell the difference, but my kids enjoyed them just as much as the homemade version. In the end, just having latkes made Hanukkah more special.

Embrace Imperfect

You know those holiday magazine spreads that make your decor and food look a little (okay, a lot) lackluster? Keep in mind that those spreads took hours to set up and shoot. By teams of professionals. Imperfect is okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. It’s what makes holiday moments real and fun and memorable. Garnish everything with parsley and call it done.

Despite my less-than-stellar craftiness, I enjoy making Halloween costumes for my kids. My big secret? I don’t sew, and I view costumes more as interpretations than faithful representations. The whole thing comes together in collaboration with the kids. We use secondhand clothes, items from the dress-up box, a hot glue gun, safety pins, and duct tape. One year my daughter’s “space boots” were sneakers covered in aluminum foil. The only reason it works is because we have so much fun doing it.

Rethink Hosting

If you love throwing parties but tend to exhaust yourself doing it, rethink your expectations about hosting. Either take a break from it completely and enjoy attending other people’s gatherings, or simplify the food and preparations (or do a potluck!) to reduce stress and expense. The point is to enjoy time with your guests, not to be stuck working in the kitchen or panicking in the bathroom. People want to see you, not how perfectly you can assemble hors d’oeuvres.

Let Your Kids Help

Kids love the holidays, so why not get them involved? After all, doesn’t the cuteness and heartfelt-ness of a present wrapped by a child outweigh the fact that the wrapping paper seams don’t line up? Have your kids take the lead on decorations by finding holiday craft projects that will be fun, serve as decoration, and keep them busy while you take care of other preparations. The kids can also help with food gift assembly and cooking.

Pay Attention to Joy, Not Comparison

It’s hard not to make comparisons around the holidays, but really, why? You will be a lot happier if you march to the beat of your own drummer. Not only will you relax about your own festivities, you’ll be able to more fully appreciate others’.

One holiday season, we received our first holiday card mere days after Thanksgiving and I immediately freaked out, lamenting that the cards had already started to arrive and that mine would be late (I felt extra guilty since I am a graphic designer). As I stood there, trying to mentally go through my work flow and figure out if I had time to design cards that week, Jon asked, “Why don’t you just embrace and enjoy the greeting instead of looking at it as a symbol of any shortcomings?”

That comment really stuck with me. The whole point of holiday greetings is to reconnect, not race to the finish line. So that year we ended up sending our holiday cards in March (as spring greetings)—they were sent at a pace that worked for us and with heartfelt intentions and well wishes. And you know what? People went crazy over them because they loved receiving personal mail outside the holiday season.

Keep Travel Manageable

If your extended family lives far away, try to focus on travel arrangements that make the most sense for you and your family, not based on what will please everyone else. Ruffled feathers are not a reason to drain your bank account and your reserve of energy and goodwill during the holidays. Consider establishing an “every other year” tradition if holiday visits require long or expensive travel.

Accept That Family Dynamics Are Part of the Package

Family dynamics can be really tough, especially during the holidays. We all wish for happy, perfect relationships with extended family, but sometimes, old issues will come to the surface. Try to remember that your family is a work in progress, and that you can only control your own actions and reactions.

All families seem to experience stress during the holidays, but the basic mathematical reality in my family is that its sheer size increases the likelihood of dissonance. My therapist shared a concept that has helped me enormously in many areas of my life: that I may not agree with how someone behaves, but it is not my job (in fact, I couldn’t make it my job if I wanted to) to change that person. Instead, the best I can do is to figure out how to modify my own reaction to reduce/eliminate stress.

I’ve really taken this mantra to heart. With one fractured relationship in particular, I simply do my best to project forgiveness and healing in that direction and accept that our relationship is what it is in this moment. I can’t control it so I just need to move on and focus on the relationships that are nourishing, not depleting.

Be Kind to Yourself

You and your family deserve this time to rejoice. You have worked hard all year—in your jobs, in your homes, raising your kids—and you deserve a break. Go only to those parties filled with the people you want to see, and politely decline the rest. Keep the decor and the food simple, and let the company make the season special. Do those things—and only those things—that make the holidays happy for you and your family. Then sit back and relax with some eggnog.

Minimalist Gift Giving: Setting Limits on Presents, Not Generosity

Minimalist parents love to give and receive gifts! But giving presents to every office mate, school staff member, niece or nephew, and neighbor? Not necessary. We’ve got suggestions for making gift giving manageable while still expressing your love and generosity.

Make a Plan and a Budget

During the holidays especially, gift buying can get out of hand. Make a gift list and budget in advance, using the aforementioned “make a holiday plan and edit it down” tactic. Nix the “shoulds” on the list. On the budgeting front, consider using the cash-in-envelope budgeting approach that Jessica shared in chapter 6 to help you avoid gift price creep.

Scale It Back

If you have a large family, set some parameters. When kids started to come into the mix, Christine and her siblings decided to stop exchanging gifts, instead focusing on time together. Small token gifts (e.g., homemade items) were optional, and wrapped gifts were reserved for the wee generation and the older generation (a sign of respect in Korean culture). That single decision reduced holiday stress and expense for the entire family.

Gift Usable Items

You simply can’t go wrong with a usable gift, whether it’s a coffee mug painted lovingly by your child or homemade treats such as spice rubs, cookie mix jars, or baked goods.

Use What You Already Have

Do you have an avid artist in your home? Turn artwork into gifts (make it classy by tossing it into an inexpensive frame). Another idea: assemble a series of artwork in a stack, punch two or three holes along one side, and fasten with ribbon for a beautiful, heartfelt art book. Your family will love these tokens, and it also tidies up your house by moving some of the artwork out.

Give Experiential Gifts

Whether it’s tickets to a show, a museum membership, or a sleepover with a beloved relative, experiential gifts are clutter-free and offer an opportunity for bonding and creating lasting memories. These experiences need not be expensive, particularly for little ones with a limited attention span. Look into inexpensive performances by your local high school, college, church, or community arts group. If a family member asks what they can give your child, the gift of time—even just an hour or two spent together—can be a wonderful thing.

Give Gifts with Longevity and Purpose

Instead of the latest fad toy, consider giving gifts with a longer shelf life. Books are ideal because they can be passed on to a younger friend or donated to the local library when your child outgrows them. Art and craft supplies offer fun for playtime as well as inspiration for gifts. Board games bring family and friends together. Sports equipment and music encourage movement and social time.

Forget Buying Gift Wrap (Unless You Really Love It)

Wrap your gifts in kid-generated art, newspaper, butcher paper, or plain brown paper. Decorate with yarn. Asha’s family draws “ribbons” on the packages and adds funny gift labels such as “Freeze-dried lettuce” and “Lifetime supply of socks.”

Be Charitable

Instilling the concept of charitable giving in kids will help them see the world beyond their own immediate surroundings.

Isabel Kallman of AlphaMom.com, via BostonMamas.com: Volunteer at food pantries with your family. Do your holiday shopping at sites such as iGive.com and iBakeSale.com that direct a percentage of their sales to charities of your choice. Donate credit card points and frequent flyer miles to support charitable organizations for those who can’t afford to enjoy the holidays with their families.

Support Local

Online shopping is wonderfully convenient, but there’s something special (and powerful) about supporting local businesses and artisans. Make it part of your holiday tradition to patronize local stores, whether by visiting neighborhood shops or buying locally made gifts via Etsy.com.

Consider Tasteful Secondhand Treasures and Regifting

Careful selection, a little personalization, and creative packaging can turn secondhand purchases and unused items you already own into beautiful gifts. High-end gifts become affordable when they’re “preowned” (Christine’s secondhand baby shower was a testament to this point; see chapter 4 for details). Plus, it’s perfectly okay to run the idea by the recipient in advance.

One of my friends recently had a baby and I wanted to send her a care package. I knew she was into babywearing, and I had a fantastic baby carrier that Violet didn’t really take to. So I sent her a quick e-mail asking whether a gently used baby carrier would be appreciated and the answer was a resounding YES.

Use Gift-y Occasions as Opportunities to Declutter

We all love presents, but unless you adhere to the “one-in-one-out” rule, the inevitable (if gradual) result is clutter. Use birthdays and holidays (and any other occasion that produces an inflow of gifts) as reminders to edit your stuff.

Help Your Kids “Make Room” by Donating Old Toys

Kids’ generous natures often get a boost when they know presents are on the way. Birthdays and holidays are natural opportunities to go through old toys with your child to “make room” and to donate to other kids.

Susan via Parent Hacks: I told my daughter that on Christmas Eve, when Santa comes to visit, he’ll leave her new toys, but he’ll also take old toys back with him so the elves can fix them up and send them to little boys and girls who may not get anything for Christmas.

She was all gung ho to collect her used toys for Santa, even including some of her favorites and telling us that the kids who don’t have as many toys will love them even more than she does. On December 26, the box of toys will go in Grandma’s trunk for a trip to the local women’s shelter.

If You Can Manage It, Donate Rather Than Return Unwanted Gifts

If you find yourself with gifts you appreciate but don’t truly want, follow this great tip from a Parent Hacks community member: skip time-consuming return lines and donate the items instead.

Meet the World: Vacation & Travel

Fun family travel. An oxymoron? We think not. While no one relishes the prospect of hours trapped on a plane with a screaming baby, that’s not the stereotype we think family travel deserves. Travel is one of the best ways to introduce your child to the world living and breathing outside the bubble of his experience. Even a single vacation offers the chance to renew and deepen family relationships, learn something new, and have fun at the same time.

What’s more, by exposing your kids to the wider world, you’re helping build future citizens. Traveling while the kids are young inserts a global perspective into their DNA that continues to influence them long after they return home. Here we share our thoughts about fitting travel into a minimalized family life, as well as our strategies for reducing vacation hassle while increasing the potential for happy memories.

Challenge Your Budget and Availability

Are you really unable to take a couple days off to turn a weekend into a getaway? Are there expenses you can cut so you can funnel more cash into your travel budget? Push past the usual reasons of being too busy or it costing too much. Delegate work to colleagues, let some work wait for a few more days, or pack lunch for a month to make up for the money “lost” by forgoing another workday. In chapter 6 we talked about identifying the difference between an expense and an investment. If travel is a priority for your family, it’s worth the investment.

I’m fortunate to have a flexible schedule, and we cut corners money-wise and take the kids out of school to be able to afford the cost of travel. But some of our happiest vacation memories don’t involve exotic destinations or fancy accommodations—just warm days playing in the pool at my cousin’s house. All for the price of gasoline to drive there.

Rethink Big Travel

Sometimes making a vacation affordable simply requires reframing what constitutes a vacation in the first place. Travel doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive and sometimes it’s less about the destination than it is about the time to be together.

When I was a kid, air travel was financially impossible for our family of nine and time off from my parents’ store was scarce. However, there were a couple of years when we all went to Cape Cod for a weekend. We’d pile into the big two-tone green van, busting with excitement over the prospect of time together that was free of household and store demands. I have vivid memories from those trips—I had never before seen my parents so at ease. These trips were never fancy, but we were all so happy and present in the moment.

Jon and I are fortunate to be able to take vacations with the girls. We’re not extravagant but we typically take a few trips each year—whether they are weekend car trips to the Cape or Maine, or bigger trips requiring air travel. But to be honest, I don’t really care where we go. It’s less about the destination or itinerary; I just want the time and space to be present with my family.

If leaving home just isn’t an option, there are plenty of ways to enjoy what’s right around the corner. For example:

Get to know your neighborhood. Visit the new ice cream parlor in the neighborhood. What’s playing at the second-run movie theater? Check out your town’s local event listings and take advantage of the fun your area has to offer.

Get active. Get on your bikes, or go for a walk or hike. Assuming your kids are mobile, nothing ups an outing’s fun quotient like getting out of the car.

Consider a local hotel. If you need a change of scenery and can afford a short hotel stay, consider a night or two at a local hotel that you’ve always admired from the curb. Check around for hotels with family-friendly programming: many larger hotels offer kids’ club programs and activities.

Prepping & Packing

You know where you’re going; your next job is to pack and get your family there. Here are some minimalist travel tips that will help you with your preparation.

Prep Your Destination

Save packing space (and your weary arms) by renting or borrowing items in advance of your trip (e.g., use the hotel crib). Opt for lodging with a kitchenette or at least a refrigerator so you can store perishables and save money by eating in for some of your meals. A suite or adjoining rooms means you don’t have to sneak around in the dark once your kids go to bed.

Pack Wisely

A few simple tricks are all you need to lighten your load and get you on your way.

Limit your bags. The less space you have, the less space you will fill. If possible, aim to travel with one piece of luggage and one carry-on, keeping in mind that you only have so many arms and may have other gear (e.g., stroller) to negotiate (also, remember that school-age kids can handle their own bags). Boston Mamas reader Chris, of sturdyblog.blogspot.com, recommends onebag.com for tips on how to pack light.

Think old school. Bring the bare essentials (e.g., a compact stroller) and skip nonessentials (e.g., bouncy chair, lots of toys) that your parents’ generation never bothered with. Your kids will no doubt find plenty of to keep themselves busy in their new surroundings.

Pack mix and match basics. Get the most out of your wardrobe by packing items that you can wear repeatedly and simply refashion with space-saving accessories.

Stack and pack. To save space, place all of your like-category clothing (e.g., shirts, pants) in a stack then fold over in half. Folding clothes in a stack rather than individually saves room and also helps prevent wrinkling.

Do laundry at your destination. Bring fewer clothes and run a load of laundry while on your trip. It may seem like a bummer to do laundry while on vacation but it means you’ll have less to unpack and wash when you get home!

Be prepared. Pack an extra outfit for your child and a backup T-shirt for yourself in your carry-on (because you know that if you don’t, accidents will happen). Also, pack snacks. Always pack snacks!

Being Present

You’ve planned and packed and you’re on vacation! Congratulations! We couldn’t be happier for you. Now, kick your feet up and enjoy the moment.

Unplug. The video games may have helped get you through the travel time, but now that you’re at your destination, stow the electronic devices (except for the camera). That goes for the kids and the grown-ups. When the inevitable in-between moments are filled with video games and smartphone checks, chances to connect with each other and with the surroundings get lost. When Asha and her husband instituted this travel rule, at first there was protest, but even the kids now agree that vacations are more fun without the electronics.

Avoid overscheduling vacation time. Set your expectations about seeing everything there is to see at your destination. Make a list of the top attractions you’d like to visit, then proceed as it feels good for everyone. Know that you can always come back another time to see more.

When Jon and I first visited the United Kingdom, we opted for a “wake up and see what we feel like doing” approach to sightseeing that we have carried forward ever since. Every morning, we’d flip through the guidebook and decide what we wanted to do that day depending on our energy level and interests. It was so delightful to not have a structured itinerary, and we now take the same approach when we travel as a family (Laurel loves contributing input to the decisions!). Travel is supposed to be about doing what feels fun and interesting, not about slavishly checking must-see items off a list.

Don’t sweat the sleeping schedule. In general, it’s good to keep kids on a relatively consistent schedule. But when you’re traveling, go easy on yourself, especially if everyone’s contending with jet lag. Kids often have a harder time napping in unfamiliar places, so they might skip their regular naps, or nap in the car or stroller, or end up going to bed early. You can’t control all of the scheduling elements during travel, so spare yourself the stress.

Be open to new experiences. Travel opens you and your kids up in ways that aren’t possible when surrounded by the routines and trappings of home. You have an opportunity to discover new passions, break old habits, and find out things about your family you might never have known otherwise.

On a recent trip to Hawaii, we tried SNUBA with our kids (a snorkeling/SCUBA diving combination that allows total beginners to swim underwater while breathing from an oxygen tank). It was a stretch—that is, we were risking a kid freak-out because of the physical challenge involved—but when Sam came back to the surface he was sputtering with excitement. “This is my new hobby! Who needs video games?” While his plans might not be realistic, his passion was real. He’s now looking into getting certified for SCUBA diving.

When it comes to special occasions, holidays, and travel it really is possible to have your cake and eat it too. Stay focused on doing what brings you joy—you’ll be amazed to find that the company and trimmings and surroundings will sparkle all the more.