Growing up Poor Made Me Willing to Spend Money on Travel

Jessica Wong

We didn’t have much money growing up, but my family still took a handful of vacations to Florida. My dad became Daddy Warbucks on those trips, but he charged it all to credit cards. I don’t judge him — he prioritized giving us joyful memories, and I do the same […]

  • We didn’t have much money growing up, but my family still took a handful of vacations to Florida.
  • My dad became Daddy Warbucks on those trips, but he charged it all to credit cards.
  • I don’t judge him — he prioritized giving us joyful memories, and I do the same for my kids now.
  • Read more stories from Personal Finance Insider.

This essay is part of “The Value of a Dollar,” a collection of stories about money from writers who grew up low-income.

“Poor” feels like a harsh word to describe how I grew up, but not an inaccurate one. My mom stayed home, my dad worked a low-paying job in education, and what money we had tended to get eaten by the livestock we kept on our farm.

I don’t want to paint too bleak of a picture — we never went hungry — but some days for breakfast we ate the leftovers from the night before, and my mom made most of my clothing with fabric she found in the dollar-a-yard section at Walmart.

But these memories of scarcity don’t tell the whole story, because a handful of times throughout my childhood, my dad took our family to Florida for weeklong vacations. 

Our family vacations were extravagant despite our limited means

My dad turned into a different person on those vacations. The serious man who worked late, stressed over the checkbook, and read silently on the couch until bedtime would transform into a Daddy Warbucks caricature, taking his large family out to Busch Gardens, SeaWorld, and fancy seafood dinners. Instead of packing the swim gear we had at home, he gave us carte blanche in the surf shop by the beach.

When I think of how poor we were and the Florida version of my dad, I realize there’s only one explanation: credit cards. This recognition of the burden of debt my dad willingly put around his neck for our family vacations makes my heart squeeze with appreciation, admiration, and compassion for a man who chose to give his children magical memories at a great personal cost.

My dad has suffered from insomnia for as long as I can remember, and it’s no wonder given our family’s financial strain. But what I don’t feel when I think of him swiping his credit card without knowing how he would pay the bill later is judgment. My dad made a choice, and I treasure that choice to this day. 

I make travel a financial priority for my family, regardless of what other people may think

Conventional financial wisdom deems my dad’s choice to travel when he couldn’t afford it as reckless, but he never declared bankruptcy or missed a payment. Perhaps this is why, as an adult, I too have put entire vacations on credit cards. Because if there’s one thing I learned growing up poor, it’s that when you have very little money, you have to figure out what it is you want more than anything because you certainly don’t get everything. 

We all have financial priorities. Some people have a latte habit, others pay for gym memberships and personal trainers, some people collect rare stamps, and many of us travel. With so many different values, it is easy to judge other people’s priorities, which in turn leads to us judging ourselves. We scold ourselves for getting takeout as often as we do, or for returning to the same high-priced hairstylist, but we consider these bad habits rather than recognizing them as our financial priorities.

Making the distinction between a bad habit and a financial priority is vital to creating a sustainable, financially secure lifestyle, but we can’t make this distinction without first being non-judgmental and honest with ourselves. 

My biggest priority that others, and even myself, may consider “frivolous” is travel, and why wouldn’t it be when my favorite memories revolve around family vacations? This has meant that during lean years, we charge the whole experience and worry about paying it off at a later date. My husband and I are financially comfortable, so this has never been a problem, but we both agree that this isn’t the smartest approach. But it hasn’t stopped us. Because while we know you can’t buy happiness, you can buy a vacation full of memories, and there isn’t enough of a difference between the two concepts to make me feel good about depriving my three children of either. 

But the pandemic we’re all living through meant that last year, we did just that. I think both my husband and I were shocked and a little disturbed by how much money we saved by skipping our annual family vacation and not spending the next six months paying for it. That said, our monotonous days spent indoors have only strengthened my resolve to spend every last cent on travel the moment it becomes safe enough to do so. In this way, being forced to take a year off travel has helped our family by showing us how much travel costs and how much we value it, which has led to us, finally, to financially prioritizing it. 

We’ve learned to budget and save for vacations instead of charging them

As backward as it may seem, being “smart” and “disciplined” with our money had more to do with our penchant for charging vacations than being poor ever did. Family vacations simply don’t seem like valuable investments when we could be paying off a car or squirreling money away into an emergency fund, but that doesn’t mean we were willing to forego a family vacation, it just means in high-minded moments of total self-delusion we failed to budget for it, and so, we put the whole thing on a credit card. 

The thing is, I will always value road trips spent listening to “Harry Potter,” days sightseeing in Nashville, and the light in my children’s eyes at their first glimpse of the ocean. Since I know this about myself, my husband and I now unapologetically budget for it. For us, this means allocating my husband’s yearly bonus into a special savings account for that purpose, but other options might be setting aside a certain portion of every check for your pet priority or even taking on a side hustle and committing the entirety of your earnings to it. 

Whatever it is, no matter how frivolous it may feel, don’t apologize for making it happen. When I think of my dad’s smile, 50 yards into the Atlantic, his arm raised victoriously as he showed off a plastic pail full of sand dollars to his family on the shore, I know we won’t regret it.

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