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My Most Expensive Travel Habit & How I’m Finally Breaking It

Growing up, summer vacations were my family’s ultimate indulgence. My parents — a sheet metal worker and a third grade teacher — worked hard to be able to take my brother and me on trips to Florida at the end of each school year. Those weeks of relaxation were hard-earned luxuries for my mom and dad, and were treated as such; each trip to the beach was filled with indulgences we’d never normally allow ourselves back home. From lounging all day to eating dinner out every night, family vacations were little slices of uninhibited, unstructured paradise.

As I became an adult, that vacation mentality stayed with me — but it also began to influence my spending. Each summer, as a family trip approached, my resolve would weaken in the face of online sundress sales and sponsored posts for trendy Instagram swimsuit boutiques. That tendency to “let loose” as a way of making vacations special came to mean spending money on my trip wardrobe, too. After all, that week in paradise was supposed to be indulgent, right? Never mind that my fresh-out-of-college, majored-in-sociology paycheck wasn’t leaving a lot of cushion for extraneous purchases.

A few clicks — and a few hundred dollars — later, I quickly became more interested in buying a luxurious travel aesthetic than actually traveling. Planning any trip — from a weekend away with friends to a family getaway in a new place — became a reason to splurge on the perfect pieces to bring along. Eventually, I amassed a collection of clothes purchased only for trips, with no regard for price or practicality.

During a closet purge this spring, I noticed that my donation pile was filled with these destination clothes and accessories. Hibiscus-print dress with no business being worn at home in New Jersey? Check. See-through $50 cover-up not nearly as effective as an oversized tee? Check. Trendy bikini tops too big for my diminutive chest (but super cute for pictures)? Check, check, check.

Not only had I been spending way too much on maxi skirts and wedges, the clothes I was buying were wasted once each trip was over, taking up space on my shelves. From the look of things, my worst case of overindulgence happened in the weeks before my 2015 honeymoon to St. Thomas. I spent almost $500 on new bathing suits, cover-ups, and clothes for the trip, but hadn’t worn most of those items since that week. Some never fit me to begin with — but they certainly fit the Insta-tropical desires I ultimately indulged.

The size of the pile was an awakening for me. So was the realization that I could pay for multiple round-trip flights to Florida with the money I’d spent on vacation wear. I resolved at that moment not to take this habit on another trip with me.

I’m headed back to Florida with my family this summer, and for the first time, I’m being honest with myself about my propensity for sartorial overindulgence. Here are some of the shopping rules I’m following to help me break my habit for good:

Be realistic about how you travel.

Think about trips you’ve taken and what you’ve actually done, used, and worn — especially if you’re returning to a familiar spot. Will those macramé poolside shorts even stay on very long, and are they worth the $30? Do you really need a drape-y sweater for cool nights — or will you even stay up late enough to take nighttime walks on the beach? Will that fringy poncho actually make you feel like you “belong” in Jackson Hole, or will it make you feel less like you? Be real with yourself.

Shop your closet.

This one seems obvious, but it’s one I forget every time I fall into the trap of impulsive shopping ahead of a vacation. Browsing online for trendy clothes and ogling social media posts of your friends’ perfect wardrobes are both much easier than browsing your bedroom. But if you deliberately go through what you already own, you might realize you don’t need to make a single purchase. Sort through your wardrobe ahead of time, and take note of everything that’s packable.

If you’re going to buy something new, ask yourself these questions before forking over the cash:

Does it fit me? Or am I buying it for the wrong reasons?

Is it functional? Will it serve its purpose well? Will I wear it after vacation too?

Is this financially responsible? Is this item well-made and/or priced appropriately?

Buying new clothes for a vacation isn’t inherently wasteful. Well-loved bathing suits don’t last forever, and vacations should be indulgent breaks from everyday life. We deserve to treat ourselves! What is wasteful is forgetting that the actual indulgence is the trip itself. I’m looking forward to a summer vacation that’s less about how I’m dressed, and more about the destination — and I’m pretty sure my bank account is, too.

Molly is a nonprofit consultant and aspiring writer from New Jersey. You can often find her running, hiking, letting her tea get cold, and obsessing over word choice. She posts about the best and worst bits of life over on her blog.

Image via Unsplash

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  • I felt so guilty reading this post… nailed my guilty pleasure on the head. Being on Instagram all the time definitely doesn’t help. But shopping my own closet has!! THat is a really good tip.. and regularly go through purging, because when you go through what has accumulated, it makes you more aware of the behavior that isn’t working.

    I have 2 vacations coming up this summer, I need to keep all these advice on top of mind for sure!!

    Jessica || Cubicle Chic

    • Molly Harper

      Regular purging is so eye-opening – and is easy to keep up with if you build it into your calendar like any other occasional task. I try to do it at least a couple of times a year but really should make a point to do it more. Thanks for reading!

  • Summer

    #1 is so important. I constantly end up wearing the same stuff over and over while on vacation, and once I finally accepted that fact, I became a much more efficient packer. I also like to pick up something new before a big trip, but I’m way better now about making sure it’s a practical purchase in terms of both budget and functionality.

  • Wolf

    I usually end up taking older clothes to vacations.

    a) I’m a klutz, and I’ll ruin them with ice cream, grass stains or sunblocker.
    b) if I really find a super cute thing I want to buy, I can make space for it in my luggage by discarding the oldest item from what I brought.

  • Hyatt Lam

    I have overseas vacations 3-5 times per year for 4 years, here is my practice on shopping:
    1) Don’t regret buying that right dress for that right location for an instagram perfect day, but remember the dress also expire at that point, sell it immediately once I am home (on depop or similar) and it is usually sold at a good price as it is still fresh on trend.
    2) Stick to a budget, no impulse purchase.
    3) Clear my wardrobe every seasons, by going thru my purchases regularly I shop smarter gradually too~
    Happy holidays! by the way, love Molly’s blog post about hiking!

    • Molly Harper

      Hyatt – thanks for your compliment! I think your first piece of advice has definite merit – vacations should be opportunities to treat yourself and enjoy life, and if shopping for a beautiful new dress and wearing it happily brings you well-deserved joy and self-confidence on your trip, by all means. But as you say – those “perfect days” and “perfect outfits” have expirations. Making those purchases with careful awareness is the key. Thanks for reading!

  • Lava Yuki

    Mine is only when I go to Japan, as each time I came back with an extra suitcase full of clothes and all these fancy Japanese merchandise and cosmetics that you can’t get otherwise. I also spent a lot on Harry Potter stuff in London. For Europe trips, I’m pretty bad when it comes to where to stay. I’m very picky and reluctant to stay in hostels, airbnb or poor quality hotels, so i usually go for chains like Ibis or Comfort inn which are still inexpensive but reasonable quality despite knowing that there are cheaper ways to stay.

  • Lava Yuki

    Mine has always been accommodation where I always go for hotels as opposed to air bnb or hostels as I’m pretty shy and feel uncomfortable sharing a space with others. I do cut costs on transports and food though, by walking or using public transport instead of taxis and going eating at more local places rather than the overpriced tourist restaurants.