Taco Tuesday: The Inner Mechanics of Budgeting on Vacation


I recently found myself sitting around a dinner table in Hawaii with a number of new traveling acquaintances. We met at the place of accommodation we were staying at, and enjoyed each other’s company, sharing travel tales of adventure and misadventure alike. So when “Taco Tuesday” presented itself as a way to get super cheap beers and tacos, we jumped at the opportunity to enjoy a night on the town all together.


Interestingly, Taco Tuesday became a fascinating study in the spending patterns of people on vacation.


John and Wendy, having nipped over to Hawaii for a quick break before embarking on a major move across the country, didn’t have huge money concerns, but were trying to be frugal knowing that their upcoming move would cost them dearly. Dave and Angie were finishing off a trip around the world, having been on the road for eight months already through countries both expensive and inexpensive. They played hard during their trip, but their stash of cash was predictably dwindling (an expected bi-product of good budgeting through their long trip). Julie was a very young headstrong woman figuring out where she belonged in the world, and Wayne was an older gentleman on an extended vacation. Rounding out the group (in addition to myself) was Phil, who was something of a nomad, living and working in Hawaii for a bit before moving on to the next locale that tickled his fancy.


I describe each friend’s background in an effort to paint the picture; one of a group of people, all originally from North America, but bringing an entirely different set of experiences, finances, and travel values to the table.


Where things got interesting was in how people indulged on Taco Tuesday.


John & Wendy decided that cheap beer was more appealing than cheap tacos, and so they engineered their budget for the night to partake of the beer (at $2/bottle), and prepared their own full dinner at the house we were staying in prior to going out. Dave & Angie being well-seasoned travelers chose to fill up on some home-made appetizers prior to going out, and each nursed one beer and a taco or two. Julie simply had Coke (not only was she young, but she was broke and underage), and Wayne (who had gads of money) flew under the radar with one beer and two tacos. And then there’s Phil. Poor Phil.

Phil was definitely out for the party and camaraderie, but didn’t have much money to spare given his lifestyle. This didn’t seem to stop him from indulging though; he managed to order seven tacos, and four beers – not the beers on special though – premium beers.

Phil’s tab ended up being more than everybody else’s tab – combined. No wonder he was broke and working during his trip. He listened to tales of faraway and exotic destinations with drooling enthusiasm – and a bit of melancholy, as he wished he had the ability to travel to these places, but couldn’t scrape together even the airfare if he had to.


Here’s the rub: The amount of money spent on this night was in no way correlated to how much fun each person had. Everybody laughed, shared stories, enjoyed the leisurely walk along the ocean to and from the bar, and came away with great memories. If anybody, Phil seemed the least enthused about the night, spending much of the walk home doing the math about how many hours he would have to work to pay for his tab. At least he had a good buzz on to dull the financial pain.


Despite a range of financial backgrounds and intrinsic values, the people who had the ability to spend a wad of dough that night chose not to. Most people ate something at home prior to going out, so they wouldn’t be starving and end up over-eating at the bar. The tacos were cheap – but they weren’t cheaper than a healthy homemade snack or meal.


So how do you budget on vacation and still have a good time? In short, make your vacation and having fun in general a state of mind, not a set of criteria or a checklist of experiences that must happen.

  • You don’t have to eat at all the finest restaurants in order for it to be a special vacation.

  • You don’t have to splurge on souvenirs for all your friends and family at home to prove you had a good time.

  • You don’t have to spend extra for the helicopter tour just because you’re on vacation and “why not”. The bus tour at a fraction of the cost can be just as much – if not more – fun.

  • You DO have to focus on the people. Enjoy the company of others without needing to spend money. Go to the grocery store and buy a bunch of different cheeses, a bottle or two of wine, and sit in the park (assuming you can drink wine in the park). It’s cheap (when you split the cost across the group) and cheerful.

  • You DO have to focus on your surroundings. Forget splurging – you’re already on vacation; that’s the splurge! You’re already abroad and seeing, smelling, touching, and listening to foreign and refreshing things. Soak it all in.


If you have a ton of cash and insist on spending luxuriously whilst on vacation because that is what defines a vacation for you, then that is fine. You will (hopefully) be spending within your means and having a good time. Kudos.


But if you don’t have a lot of money, and are even considering canceling this year’s vacation because you aren’t sure you can afford it, maybe this is an opportunity to re-evaluate how you spend your money on vacation. Where can you compromise?

  • Would you accept a lower standard of accommodation (maybe you have to walk further to see the sights, or contend with a shared bathroom and kitchen) than you are used to?

  • Could you eat more home-cooked meals (provided you stay somewhere with a kitchen) despite the fact that cooking is a chore, in order to enjoy everything else your destination has to offer?

  • Is it feasible to drive instead of fly? Maybe even to camp along the way, and even at your destination? (A family I know drove – and camped – all the way to Alaska and back from Alberta. The journey was one that created a lifetime of memories for everybody).

  • Will your vacation still be complete if you don’t do all the organized tours available, and instead soak in the culture with long walks and just a few key tours?

  • Can you sit at a restaurant or café and enjoy the culture without ordering the expensive lattes or entrees?


Check out this article for a few more ideas on how to enjoy a frugal vacation by making innocuous compromises.


Here is a little exercise for you to define your vacation needs:

Pull out a blank piece of paper and a pen. Now start writing down words that you associate with vacation. Don’t worry about sentences or specific locations or even making sense; just write down words that for you define “vacation”.

Is it “sun, sand, ocean, palm trees, pina coladas” or “foreign languages, art, music, museums”? How about “animal life, markets, nature, new friends”?

What are your vacation words? And how many of these terms that define your vacation directly correlate to spending a lot of money? I would argue that very few people define their vacations with “fancy restaurants, limos, expensive tours, and red carpets” unless they already have the financial capacity to enjoy these things at home.


By defining your vacation desires, and reframing your vacation needs, and being creative where you can, you just may find that you can budget on vacation and not feel like you have sacrificed a thing.

Happy travels!


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Guest's picture

When I was in Europe, I stayed at hostels that had kitchens so I could cook instead of eating out. That didn't mean I wasn't still eating out a couple of times when I went out with people, but when I did I tried to order sides or appetizers that were cheaper.

At this one place in Dublin, I ordered some soup and a side of roasted potatoes, figuring the two would fill me up and give me "walking around" energy. Well, they both ended up being huge portions, and the soup was more than enough by itself. I asked for a takeout box and got the requisite stare with the response, "we don't do that". Well, that took me aback a little because I was thinking the potatoes could be dinner later on. I ended up convincing the waitress to get a styrofoam cup and some saran wrap so I could take it back to the hostel.

Between getting creative with taking leftovers out of the restaurants, and buying bags of mixed nuts/fruit to eat while I was walking around, I probably saved myself a couple hundred dollars on my trip!

Can't say I didn't splurge on the beer and wine though ;)

Guest's picture

i read this through twice and may have missed it, but it appears that you neither ate nor drank?

Guest's picture
russell McGuire

disappointed that you didn't name the establishment. Since you claim it was recently, maybe it was the lamb tacos at cha cha cha's? they also have $1 beef tacos. now that compadres is gone, they are the only cheap tacos i'm aware of in honolulu. glad to see you visited. hope you enjoyed your trip.

Guest's picture

Ya lost me right after Hawaii. I'm sure that people that can afford to go to Hawaii want to be frugal, but for those of us that can't even turn our heaters on....

Oh, I know, sour grapes.... But I could live for quite awhile on the cost of a trip to Hawaii.

Guest's picture
Mom of 6

What does "vacation" mean to me? A night at home while hubby takes the kids somewhere so I can have an hour or two to listen to my ears ring.

20 minutes every morning to sip my coffee and read before the deluge of craziness hits.

A 10 minute walk in the very rare Tennessee snow - alone - listening to the crunch underfoot.

I'll take my vacations where I can find them, but I sure won't be finding them in Hawaii, for heaven's sake!

Guest's picture

We always self-cater when on holiday. It saves loads of money and also it gives you more flexibility about eating.

We never spent money on attractions. Sight seeing the countryside is just as good as spending at a theme park

Guest's picture
poor boomer

There is no room in my budget for vacation.

Guest's picture

We budget very carefully so that we can take a week-long vacation every year. When we go away, we don't spend big on hotels because all we do is sleep there, so we don't need the amenities like a pool or spa. We keep cereal and milk in the mini-fridges that most hotels now have, and that covers breakfast. We eat a late lunch/early dinner and that usually is enough to fill us up, and we always try to eat where the locals eat instead of chain restaurants that we have at home. We bring our own snacks with us and bottles for water. I also check the internet for deals and specials and try to find out as much info about a place as I can to get the most for my money. It CAN be done. I don't begrudge anyone a trip to Hawaii. Depending on where you live and when you go, there are always deals on airfare, hotels and attractions, if you budget carefully and do your homework. We went to Maui for our 25th anniversary and found that there was a lot of free or low cost things to do, and inexpensive local cafes to eat in.
As far as souvenirs go, my daughter buys a tee shirt to be used in a quilt I will eventually make for her and a I buy a Christmas ornament for our tree to remind us of the special memories.

Guest's picture

This is a good article, not only for traveling but for life in general.

Throughout our lives, my brother always made more money than I did and spent it like Phil did. I was the one who always bought things on sale and only if I really needed it versus just wanting it. Now, in our golden, years, he doesn't have a penny to get out of town on while I have put close to 100,000 miles on my travel odometer over the past few years - all paid for with bucks I saved by eating a #1 burger at McDonald's instead of a steak with a couple of rounds of drinks at Bennigan's over the years. My mom always said waste not want not. My brother wasn't listening.

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

Ha Ha! You're right Kate - I didn't mention where I fell in this equation! Since I snacked throughout the day, I managed with two tacos and a beer, which was plenty. Because of my Professional Hobo lifestyle, even this small expenditure was a bit of a treat...but one that fit the budget as well.

I love the definitions of vacation Mom (#5) has....it doesn't have to be a destination at all. Your vacation words are probably along the lines of "quiet, peace, solitude"!

But as for Hawaii being the destination, it is one of many. Simply transport Taco Tuesday to any location (or even aspect of life as MadJayHawk indicated), and the principles remain the same.

And especially for somebody living in the western part of North America, Hawaii can actually be an inexpensive place to fly to for some warm respite from the winter. I happened to be living there at the time, and saw the place from a different perspective, I guess. But I kept company with many a budget traveler in my time there...it can indeed be done.

By the way Russel, the location was Ocean's on the Big Island, not Oahu.

Thanks for the comments all!


Andrea Karim's picture

Hope all is well with the travels.

What I find funny about cheap taco Tuesday is that it happens here, in Seattle. I don't know if ever taco truck participates, but my favorite establishment does. No beer to be had in the middle of day, but I can't argue with 69-cent tacos!

For those of you who don't know Nora, try to check into her other blogs and past blog posts from Wise Bread. It's true that not everyone can live the lifestyle that Nora does, but that doesn't mean that nothing can be taken her advice. I personally can't travel the world (I have pets, and I'm not about to give them up), but it doesn't mean that I can't glean info from Nora's blog posts.

"make your vacation and having fun in general a state of mind, not a set of criteria or a checklist of experiences that must happen"

I think that the above statement is something that everyone can agree with, right? I haven't had a paid vacation in over 6 years, but it doesn't mean that I don't get a great deal of enjoyment from the small bits of time off that I have from work here and there. Vacation is a state of mind, not a location.

Guest's picture

We somehow have wrangled ourselves a 1-week trip to Mexico without the kids, our first much-needed respite since becoming parents nearly 5 years ago. Now I've been trying to decide on a balance between making the most of our time and avoiding unnecessary spending. For instance, I opted AGAINST the popular money saving measure of getting a room with a kitchen. I feel liek I spend most of my life right now preparing meals and washing dishes, and I just do. not. want. to. do. that. on vacation.

Instead, our big cost-saving measure is to fly into a popular destination (where we could get a direct FF miles flight), then get on a bus to a cheaper town that's also on beautiful beaches, where we can stay and eat for less.

Guest's picture

Nice post Nora.

Budgeting while on holiday is something I need to work on. I'm really good at budgeting and being frugal when I'm not on holiday but I'm not so disciplined while on vacation.

I do enjoy holidaying in the cheaper Asian countries like Thailand and Vietnam, the value for money is superb. Other excellent and cheap holidays are hiking and camping holidays, I have completed many multi-day walks in New Zealand and Australian National Parks, it is one of the cheapest holidays you can have.

This article has got me motivated and thinking about my plan to take an extended holiday at some stage.

Guest's picture
Peter Harbeson

Who can afford to go on vacations? The most I can manage is a change of scene to the public library; it's free and warm (or cool, seasonally). I've thought about seeing Hawaii but it was never important enough to become a priority for the several years it would take me to amass that much extra cash. But you know, there's a lot available in a public library.

Guest's picture

There are occasionally discounted fares to Hawaii from much of the mainland if you keep an eye out and are flexible. We're lucky enough to have relatives to stay with there, which in addition to a free bed (or sofa at times) also means a place to cook our own meals. When the in-laws get to be a bit much, camping for a night or two is a good cheap get away (and again, you can cook your own meals).

The nice thing about hawaii, is that we go for the beach and hiking, which are both free. All in all, its not cheap, but ten days can come out to be be less than what some friends spend on a three day weekend in some city.

Guest's picture

My Husband and I have been trying to figure out where to go for our anniversary, and I love your travel words idea! We cant figure out what we want and I think thats a great way to find out! Also, I like the comment "The amount of money spent on this night was in no way correlated to how much fun each person had." You made a great point here, this should be the case on any vacation.

Take Care!

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