How to Save for Vacations in YNAB

How I Save for Vacations in YNAB


Update April 2021: This post was originally written just before a global pandemic upended my (and everyone else’s) travel plans for the year. Our trip’s location and timeline has shifted, but how to set it up in YNAB hasn’t changed!

So you’re dreaming of your next vacation: a cozy cabin getaway, or a wide-open sandy beach: something to just get you away from your current grind. The location is almost set, now you just need the pot of money to follow. And like any excellent budgeter, you’re going to pay for this one in cash. Here’s how to use YNAB to plan that breath of relaxation, adventure, and fresh air.

I’m the type of person that enjoys planning a vacation as much as I enjoy the vacation itself. While some people keep all their vacation budgeting and spending in one category called Vacation, I take a bit of a different approach. Here’s how I plan my vacations in YNAB.

Every Vacation Gets its Own Category

Before we start budgeting for a vacation, we’ll pick the place and the month we plan to travel. Every vacation gets its own category with the name, a fun emoji, and the date we’re going. Our next big one will be October 2020 to Greece (insert a thousand happy dances), so here’s how I set that up in YNAB:

Ha! Best laid plans…

Use Notes for Guesstimations

I think the notes section of YNAB might be the most versatile underdog of the budget. When I plan for vacation, this feature is essential (use Shift+Enter to go to a new line in Notes). I’ll list out all the likely expenses of the vacation in big round numbers (also known as guesstimations):

  • Food – $150/day
  • Lodging – $150/night
  • Fun – $100/day
  • Dog Sitting – $30/day

I’d also do some quick research on flights and transportation. You can only get flights six months before a trip so I just look at what they’re averaging six months from now (around $1200 per person). Then I do a quick search on rental cars ($400 for the week in Athens should be more than enough).

We’re going to make this a nine-day trip, so our totals look like this:

  • Food: $1350
  • Lodging: $1350
  • Fun: $900
  • Dog Sitting: $270
  • Flights: $2400
  • Transportation: $400
  • Total: $6670

Wow, that feels like a lot! But remember: it’s a dream trip, I assumed high averages, and by giving myself a whole year to start saving I can break that big amount down into manageable monthly chunks. 

Create a By Date Spending Goal

I then create a By Date spending goal for the total.

When I first wrote this, I had 12 months before our trip. So my total broke down to saving $550 a month for a 9-day dream vacation to Greece. That felt doable and certainly more doable than a mountain of $6K all at once). If this goal amount isn’t realistic for where you are right now, try pushing the date out a bit or shortening your trip. Keep adjusting until it feels right for you.

The Fun Part: Do Some Research

Now this is when the fun really starts: time to do some research. I look for beautiful, affordable, can’t-miss, unique places to sleep and then plan the fun and the food around the location. We could stick to the lodging budget of $150/night, or we could come in under budget for a few nights and then splurge on a special place for a few (like this gorgeous flat that features a panoramic view of Acropolis from the balcony jacuzzi—$262 per night, yes please!). 

Use Notes to Record Spending

Once we start paying deposits or registering for excursions I change the way I use notes. Instead of just a dream of what to save, it turns into a dream of what’s to come.

Now obviously these expenses are tracked in YNAB and can be found under the Greece category, but I like to keep this reference to quickly check what has already been paid and what still needs to be paid four months from now. 

I also keep things like confirmation numbers, phone numbers and Airbnb host names in notes so they’re easy to reference. Your budget works even when you’re offline so it’s a reliable place to keep information you might need at any moment.

Enjoy a Stress-Free Vacation

When we are actually on vacation, I love this setup because I feel completely relaxed and completely at peace with spending while we’re on vacation (just how it should be). I know the vacation is funded in cash, we’re not going in credit card debt while we scarf down this incredible baklava, and as a major added plus…my notes saves the day for trip details when I’m short on a wifi connection.

Simplify Cash Spending on Vacation

We typically handle cash in our cash account when we’re living our lives day to day. But on vacation I don’t want to keep track of every single euro. So when we remove cash from the bank for vacation we simply record it as spent in our vacation’s category. No tracking, no trouble, just fun.

Post Vacation: Re-Allocate Leftover Funds

Once the vacation is over and all of our transactions have been cleared and reconciled I move any money leftover out of the category. Yep, it’s actually pretty normal for us to have a few dollars left available. 

I’ll move the category to a hidden group called “old vacations” so I can reference it in the future. This has come in handy when I want to remember the name of the Airbnb, how much our rental car was, or where we had that delicious pulled pork sandwich. It also brings back great memories just looking at all the places we’ve been and thinking about where we’ll go next. And you know what the best way to end a vacation is? Planning your next one.

Happy Budgeting!

Want some more vacation budgeting inspiration? Watch as Ashley takes us through how to save for a dream vacation with a slightly different approach in YNAB, plus all the tools you need for effortless planning.