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Money Anxiety: Finances Don’t Have to Be the Most Stressful Part of Travel

We often travel to escape the tedium of meetings, the obligation of brunch dates, and the towers of dishes in the sink. But there’s one stressor we can’t escape no matter how far we fly: money. Whether you’re envious of others’ seemingly endless adventures or feel unsure about how to splash out on yourself, there are plenty of scenarios where money anxiety can put a damper on your trip. But it doesn’t have to, according to Prudential financial wellness advocate Amanda Clayman.

Her travel philosophy is rooted in embracing your bank account. No matter what your financial situation is, you should approach it with awareness and mindfulness—never with fear or denial. “A vacation should not be a vacation from thinking about money,” she says.

We asked finance experts for advice on common money scenarios when traveling—and how to have open conversations about budgets and means.

When you’re scared of being ripped off

When you’re traveling, there are plenty of unknowns to deal with. Ruby A. experienced anxiety in unfamiliar cities, especially when she had to convert currencies on the go and felt unfamiliar with new neighborhoods. Then there were the unexpected local practices: “When I was in Milan, I found out the café I was in had a tourist and non-tourist menu for prices,” she says. “That sort of thing got me paranoid.”

Clayman knows exactly what that feels like. “I ate very overpriced steak frites in Paris in that exact situation,” she says. “There was this place that was supposed to have amazing steak frites, and I was like, these are the same thing as french fries. I was mad because it was so overpriced. But at least it wasn’t a stretch restaurant.”

In her workshops, Clayman asks her clients whether $5 is too much to pay for a hot dog. The group always responds by asking if it’s a street cart hot dog, a baseball park hot dog, or a restaurant hot dog. This is because we use context to decide if we feel comfortable with prices. When traveling, however, we lack the necessary information to make the best spending decisions.

She suggests that when unfamiliar with our surroundings, we can make up for it by having complete clarity on our own money. Sure, Clayman had to relinquish control over whether the restaurant would be worth it—and it wasn’t—but at least she was able to ensure she could afford it by considering the menu and her budget before committing to the check.

“When we keep ourselves open to the idea that the unknown can bring unexpected gifts, we’re in a better position to stay grounded in reality,”

When budgets aren’t aligned

Group trips—and differing budgets—can be a major source of anxiety. If you earn more than your friends but want to include them in an experience, offering to pay for part of the trip is likely the best option if it’s within your means.

But if you’re on the other side of the group budget dilemma, things can feel even more complicated. I should know. My senior year of college, seemingly everyone I knew was going on spring break to Cancun booked through a tour company. The trip required fronting a sum that I couldn’t afford or justify at the time. After talking to my friends about it and hearing all the buzz, I punched in my credit card numbers and ended up committing to a series of deposits that were auto-paid once a month. The sight of the transaction confirmation in my inbox triggered a sickly pang of guilt, but I told myself it would be worth it.

After six months of charges racked up on my card—creating ping-induced waves of nausea from June to November—my lodging situation fell through. That’s when the trip started to feel like a burden. After many calls with customer service, I accepted the fact that I had no chance of getting refunded. I wondered if I should cut my losses or cough up even more to make what I had already lost worthwhile. Ultimately, I chose to cut off the cycle of anxiety and debt before it doubled. I canceled the trip, and lost the deposits.

I should have taken Clayman‘s advice from the start—no matter how dreamy a vacation seems, I couldn’t lie to myself about my balance. Erin Lowry, author of Broke Millennial Talks Money: Scripts, Stories and Advice for Navigating Awkward Financial Conversations, out in December, has some wisdom I could have heeded too. In fact, she has a few scripts to follow for open and upfront conversations about budgeting, group travel, and saying no.

One method is offering a short explanation to the friend who is extending the invitation. Try “I’m hoping to pay off $10,000 of student loans this year,” or “We’re planning to start our family next year and saving up,” or “We just put a down payment on a house and our budget’s tight.” Being honest, as opposed to hiding the reason the invitation was denied out of shame or awkwardness, prevents hard feelings and also informs what activities are within budget for both friends for future invites and plans.

Another effective technique is the compliment sandwich. Start with a positive, Lowry says. Like, “I miss you and would love to take a reunion trip together.” Then give your reason: “But a trip to Aruba just doesn’t work with my budget right now because I have four weddings to go to this year.” And finish with a counter-offer, “Would you be up for a trip to Miami instead? We can still get those tropical vibes at a better price point.”

When it all goes wrong

Alexandra T.’s phone was stolen at the start of her six-month backpacking trip in Southeast Asia, and she no longer could count on having a smartphone as a go-to resource. She replaced it with a Nokia to keep costs down. To make matters worse, her travel partner’s wallet was stolen the same day.

“We had no idea how long it would take to get [Erin’s] cards back and I was obviously concerned about not having a phone,” Alexandra says. “I couldn’t check in for flights, couldn’t show tickets on my phone, couldn’t use Venmo, couldn’t get on maps—all the things you take for granted while traveling.”

Clayman says that the first thing to do when something goes majorly wrong is to take precautions, like reporting the incident to your credit card company. Next up? Breathe. “You have to tell yourself, ‘I am going to have a different trip than the one that I envisioned,’” she says. But that doesn’t mean everything will go south: “I often say to my clients, necessity is a friendly muse.”

Scarcity can open us to new people and experiences we would otherwise miss, she says, like being forced to ask a stranger for directions or navigating a new city without a destination. “When we keep ourselves open to the idea that the unknown can bring unexpected gifts, we’re in a better position to stay grounded in reality,” Clayman says. “I think we need to release ourselves from the idea that a good life is a life where no bad things ever happen.”

After all, the joy of travel comes from taking a break from our regular circumstances. The unplanned and unpredictable events, good and bad, are inseparable from—and a big part—of what we take away from our most memorable trips.