As I posted last week sometime, our 17 year old son has a summer job at a campground in Tennessee, which is also a good ministry opportunity for him. We were so proud that he got accepted to this internship program last fall, and we began to look forward to the last days of June, when he’d start his work. After the excitement and pride that he was approved for this opportunity died down, reality hit. Somehow dear husband would have to take time off of work (without pay), shell out a bunch of cash for gas to drive to TN, pay for a hotel/motel, food, and so forth just to get Judah down there.
Even worse, the weekend was on a weekend that the girls had a thousand and one activities they had to be at to get ready for camp competitions and other things. Thankfully that issue was solved with my mom and her husband staying with the girls, and looking after the dogs.
Because I was planning this since the fall, I was able to plan a little bit better than normal, which helped us with saving money on this trip.
Here are some ways in which we cut back on the total out of pocket costs for this trip:
Saving Money on Gas
Until my husband got a new job closer to home, he was commuting 80 miles one way to work every day. What can you do if that’s the only job you can find? He signed up for Speedway’s rewards program, and only bought gas at Speedway Gas Stations. He would usually get one free tank of gas every month for all of the points he racked up. We would usually use this to fill up the van, because of how much gas that uses. We only used the van for family activities with the high gas prices, and these points basically had paid for gas for those.
As our trip grew closer, he let his points amass. He had enough points to get $150 in Speedway gift cards to take on the trip. These gift cards were essentially free, saving money for us on gas.
A Caveat: we were pretty dense here. We made an assumption. What assumption? We assumed that there were Speedway Gas Stations in TN. There weren’t. Whoops. Thankfully they were in every other state we drove through, so we only had to buy one tank of gas out of pocket, and the leftover gas from the cards will of course not go to waste.
Saving Money on Food
As much as possible, we stocked up on gift cards before the trip. We were concerned about not eating at fast food places, because of my liver issues, but at the same time eating somewhere with healthier options gets expensive, even with only one kid with us. Through these gift cards from various sources, we were able to eat well at restaurants with more options than burger and fries while saving money.
Now, lest you think that there is no difference between buying a gift card and paying cash, you’re not entirely correct. At our local Kroger Grocery Store, there was a promotion to get 4x the gas rewards points for every dollar spent on a gift card during one week. This saved me $1 off per gallon a few times over the course of the 9 months of planning we did, while slowly pre-paying for meals for our trip whenever we had the extra money to do so.
My husband bought a gift card at Speedway, which contributed to his fuel points, helping us to get that $150 in gas cards to use for our trip.
I also won gift cards through Swagbucks, saving money in a big way. I even bought a Restaurant.com gift card with my swagbucks (free), and then used that to get a gift card to a very nice Mexican restaurant across the street from our hotel. Because our trip was doubling as a celebration for our 20th Anniversary, we had our anniversary dinner there. To make the most of swagbucks, I recommend installing their “toolbar” and using the search feature on the tool bar whenever you need to do a search. If you click on the widget to the right here –> and sign up, then I earn points from your points too, which would be nice. I also bought most of my Christmas presents through earning Amazon.com gift cards with my swagbucks last year.
I also won gift cards through MyPoints.com, by doing surveys and taking advantage of other offers.
Finally I also signed up through the mystery shop website I’ve mystery shopped for to do a mystery shop somewhere down in that area. Although I had to pay out of pocket for the meal, at the end of this month I’ll be paid $15 and reimbursed for my expenses. This wasn’t just saving money but making money.
Naturally, we also brought a lot of food with us, particularly with how strict I eat these days. I bought a bag of carrots which I cut up, a few bags of apples, grapes, celery, radishes, and so forth. We snacked healthy throughout the trip.
We also bought two cases of bottled water when it went on sale, which was beneficial when we had car trouble (it was overheating). Thankfully God directed us to the right people who helped us while the car was giving us fits, and we got home safely.
I premade two water coolers full of Iced Tea (for hubby) and Iced Coffee (for my son and I). This helped us on the trip down to stay away from buying these items.
Saving Money on Lodging
Most of my friends insist that staying in a campground is the way to go. As we don’t have camping equipment and dear husband gives me “that look” every time I suggest it, we have not stayed in a tent at a campground. We did look into staying in a cabin, though it was going to be $69 a night. Wowsers. Most of the cabins I found were up in that general price range. That would work if we had the whole family with us, but not for three people.
Because, again, we were also going to celebrate our 20th anniversary after dropping off our son, we opted to stay somewhere a little nicer, especially since we didn’t have the whole crew with us. When everyone is with us, we have to get 2 rooms, which is expensive.
I went on Priceline.com and got a great deal on a hotel. More than that, though, reading the reviews on Priceline helped me to rule out hotels too. I am not fussy about what a hotel looks like or other amenities. But, I do not compromise on safety. I was thankful to find out how safe or not safe certain areas were in a place I’d only visited once or twice before (Nashville). In the end, we stayed in a pretty nice hotel in Goodlettsville, TN, conveniently located in such a way that we could reach Murfreesburo, Nashville, and other places easily (except for all of that construction). The regular price for the room was over $160, but we paid less than that cabin would have been.
The other option, which we may use when going down to pick him up, is to stop off at a hotel that has it’s vacancy sign up. There were many $30 hotels along the highway that were not online when I looked. Many of the cheaper places don’t advertise online, and if all you’re interested in is a place to lay your head at night, that’s an option. It goes without saying that for safety reasons, avoid any motel that lets you pay by the hour .
Have Cash, Will Travel
I also learned a valuable lesson on our trip. Cash is king, and rewards cards are valuable to have – and not just for fuel points.
I prefer to use cash when grocery shopping, and for most everything else. Still, on a trip, it felt somehow safer to have debit cards and gift cards, and not a wad of cash.
That was, until we were locked out of our debit card and checking account due to a fraud alert triggered by entering the pin wrong while out of state. To make a long story short, because we apparently had the account set to super secure (having been the victims of identity theft in the past), they didn’t want to allow us to unlock it until Monday morning. In person….especially after dear husband couldn’t remember the unlock code.
Thankfully, we had help in two ways:
1. I had some money I had tucked into my wallet for an emergency.
2. We came across the right people to help us out, especially when the car started to overheat.