Next Level Budgeting: Category Groups and Vacations

How to organize your budget for the perfect vacation.

I set my lunch down on the table in the airport food court and thought “$28 for a turkey sandwich, a small bag of apple chips and bottled water? What is this food made out of, gold???”. I vowed that next time we traveled I’d grocery shop beforehand, make sandwiches and be more prepared. I also pulled out my phone, added a “Road Food” category to our vacation category group and moved some money into it.

Did I mention that I make a separate category group for any get-away that is longer than an overnight? Your budget should always be as simple as possible—but sometimes drilling down on detail helps. We have a Vacation category in our budget and a goal for how many dollars are assigned to it each month. But a single Vacation category with a lump sum of money in it  won’t tell me if we can splurge on renting bikes for the day or if that money has to pay for airport parking back home. 

When my husband and I decide on a specific vacation, I create the category group by clicking “Category Group” at the top of  the web app

or by tapping  “Edit” and “New Group” at the top of the mobile app . 

Screenshot of the mobile app showing where to edit categories.
Screenshot of the mobile app showing where to add a new category group.

Then I add categories for the basics: travel costs, lodging, activities that I know we’ll be doing, car rental or other special transportation costs ( I’m looking at you, airport parking), and road food. When our dog was alive, I added a category for pet sitting. (We still miss you, Brady—you were the best dog ever.) We use the money in our regular Gas, Groceries, and Dining Out categories to cover those costs, even during vacation. If we know the usual amount in these categories won’t be enough, I’d add “Vacation Gas”, “Vacation Dining Out”, etc… categories to the new group. 

Here’s a picture of the category group for our recent trip to Yosemite National Park.

Category group: Austin/Yosemite Trip
Category: Airbnb 2nd payment - due May 28th
Category: Car Rental
Category: Airport Hotel
Category: Airport Parking in Boston

It’s a pretty simple one* because the only activity for that week was hiking and that’s free! Notice that I prioritized the one bill with an early due date by putting it at the top.

Once I’ve done the research and made the necessary reservations, goals are my best friend. Adding them means the budget reminds me how much I have to put aside each month to be ready in time. Depending on how big an excursion we’re talking about, I might focus all the funding on just one category at a time or I might fund everything on a monthly basis. 

What happens to our generic Vacation category during this time? Depends on how big the trip is and how long we have to save for it. My preference is to reduce the amount we put in Vacation by half and put the rest towards the specific categories for the next vacation. Because no one can (or wants to!) figure out every single vacation cost that could possibly happen.  

Sherri, the author, riding a bike on a trail in the mountains.

Our Yosemite vacation, for instance: traffic in Yosemite Valley can be intense, so on the spur of the moment, we wanted to rent bikes one day to explore the area frustration-free. (Side note: there is only one bike rental place in Yosemite with one kind of bike. See the picture? It’s titled “1966 Called and It Wants Its Bike Back”. No gears and you have to pedal backwards to brake!). 

We could do it because the money in the Vacation category was available for extras that we hadn’t planned for. 

What happens when the vacation is over? Once everything has been paid for, if there is money left over in any of the categories, I move it back into Vacation. Which is there to help with any extra costs that sometimes show up after the vacation is over. Like when you sleep through your alarm and leave too late to fill the rental car up with gas before you return it (totally not my fault).

Then I hide this special category group. DON’T DELETE IT! You’ll delete the transactions associated with those categories and cause yourself budget sadness. Plus, it can be a source of knowledge the next time you plan a vacation or ask yourself “How did we spend that much money on a vacation?”

*Did you notice there’s no category for “Airplane Tickets”? Another YNAB win. Once we paid off our credit card debt, we continued to use that credit card like a debit card. Because airline miles, right? Which leads to vacations with no-cost airplane tickets for two, but no debt hanging over your head.