It’s March. The ground is thawing, the days are getting longer, and the occasional warm front reminds us that spring and summer are almost here. With the warm weather just a few weeks away, have you made vacation plans yet?

Most Americans don’t use all of their allotted time off from work. On average, we are given roughly 14 vacation days per year but only use ten of them. Expenses are one of the most common reasons people give for not taking time off. So a vacation fund is a great way to be financially prepared for a little R&R.

A Vacation Fund, as the name suggests, is a savings account designated specifically for vacations. It is not to be used for any other expenses - only to have on-hand when the chance arises to get away for a few days. The amount you save is completely up to you, but it should be determined in proportion to the rest of your financial strategy.

Remember, a good vacation does not necessarily require a lot of money. The point is to get away for a few days, have a good experience and recharge. You don’t have to throw down massive amounts of cash just to relax. Sometimes, more money invested in a trip can lead to higher stress if the vacation doesn’t go as you planned (or paid for). Imagine paying several thousand dollars for a vacation only to have delayed flights, overbooked hotels, broken down trains, or terrible weather. You will not only feel the loss of time on your vacation, but the sense of wasted money will also hang heavy over your experience. That’s not to say you should never take extravagant vacations, but be mindful of what vacations are for, and use your time and money accordingly.

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF VACATIONS

Vacations are typically helpful for your overall happiness and mental well-being. Adequate time off has also been linked to higher productivity at work. Surprisingly, though, the happiness and relaxation we experience on vacations is often short-lived.

Almost every major study done on the psychological benefits of vacations has determined that a person’s level of happiness drops back to its baseline within a week to ten days after returning from vacation. The more relaxing your vacation, the longer the positive effects last. But even for the most relaxing trips, the effects wear off after two to three weeks.

What’s fascinating, though, is that the happiness boost we get from planning a vacation actually lasts longer than the boost we get from the vacation itself! Dreaming about our trip, anticipating time off work, and discussing plans with friends and family give our brains a dopamine boost every time we think or talk about our vacation. Because of this, many who have studied the psychology of vacations recommend taking several short trips each year rather than one or two long vacations. That way you are not only given the happiness boost from more vacations, but you also receive the boost from more planning and dreaming.

Happiness is not the only benefit of taking a vacation. When we leave behind our work and daily responsibilities for a few days, it restores a healthy view of our place in the world. It’s easy to slip into the belief that everything depends on you, and that without you the world could not possibly continue on. That amount of mental, emotional, and physical pressure takes a toll, and sometimes the best gift you can give yourself is the reminder that the world is perfectly capable of spinning without you. That may sound harsh, but it’s true. Humbling ourselves and expanding our perspective on life is always a good thing.

MAXIMIZE YOUR VACATION EXPERIENCE

To maximize your time away from all of life’s responsibilities, consider the following suggestions:

  • Make travel minimal - The classic movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is a testament to how miserable we can become when travel plans don’t go the way we hoped. Travel is one of the most common stressors on vacations. Anything you can do to minimize this stress will only contribute to your overall happiness and satisfaction. If possible, always book a direct flight in order to avoid missed connections. If you’re driving, take the time to tune up your car before you leave. Pay close attention to the weather. And don’t discount the value of vacationing close to home. It may not sound exciting, but a trip to a town ninety minutes away can be just as - if not more - relaxing as a trip to the other side of the world.

  • Do something new - It might be tempting to return to the same place year after year, stay in the same room, eat at the same restaurants, etc. But if you want to increase your brain’s capacity for happiness and long-term satisfaction, make it a habit to do something new every time you take a vacation. As Daniel Siegel, M.D., wrote in his book, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, novelty is one of the best ways to increase healthy growth in our brains. He writes:

    ”Novelty, or exposing ourselves to new ideas and experiences, promotes the growth of new connections among existing neurons and seems to stimulate the growth of myelin, the fatty sheath that speeds nerve transmissions.”

    A healthy brain with strong wiring increases our overall sense of wellbeing and happiness. Vacations are one of the best opportunities for novelty, so don’t miss out!

  • Stay at a reputable location - Lodging can make or break your trip. If you choose some place off the beaten path for its “authentic” experience, be prepared for some possible shady moments. The location may not be what you saw online, it might have additional unexpected costs, or it might even be overbooked. Read reviews carefully and choose proven, dependable lodging.

  • Make a schedule - Have you ever wanted to crash on the couch and binge something on Netflix only to give up and go to bed after spending 45 minutes trying to decide what to watch? Don’t let your vacation be like that. The “Let’s-Decide-When-We-Get-There” mentality might seem exciting or romantic, but more than likely you’ll spend the bulk of your vacation driving around saying, “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” To maximize your happiness and rest, make some strategic plans ahead of time with a little downtime built in. That way

  • Leave the kids with friends or family - If you’re a parent, vacations can quickly devolve into stressed-out nightmares when kids come along because their needs don’t change; they still have to eat, sleep, and be entertained. Only now you have to do those things in a strange place and possibly without the rhythms and conveniences you’re used to. It can be hard to let go of the guilt you might feel for leaving the kids behind while you live it up somewhere on a beach, but when you are fully recharged from a few days away, you will come back as a better parent, employee, and person. If, as suggested above, you take several short trips each year, designate one or two for the whole family. But as often as you can, make vacation time about you!

START SAVING

The most important thing you can do to improve your vacation experience is to have the cash to afford it. When you remove financial stress from the equation, vacations are much easier to enjoy for you and everyone involved. If you do not already have one, start a savings account for your vacation fund, and go see those new, exciting places you’ve always dreamed of.