Extreme Frugality: What Was I Thinking?

In this day and age of specialization, W. Hodding Carter is an unashamed generalist. The man is curious about everything, and his books have taken him around the world. He’s followed in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, retraced Leif Ericsson’s journey to the New World in an authentic replica of a Viking merchant ship, and has written about the ecology of the Everglades, the history of plumbing, his quest for Olympic gold, and even how to build your own mackerel smoker with the same single-minded determination. These days, he’s finding adventure of a different kind—living within his means.

What could be better for a frugal family than a free vacation? Four days into said “vacation,” a few things come to mind, actually—a hole in the head for starters, and then maybe a long session with the “dentist” in Marathon Man. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Considering our monthly budget of $550 for everything except mortgage, insurance, taxes, and medical bills, a Florida vacation was not in the picture this year. Hell, even camping at a state park would be pushing things. However, when I’m not trying to barter for a Boston butt at the butcher’s, I coach the swim team at the local Y. Two of our swimmers qualified for the annual YMCA National Swimming Championships, and since my room, travel, and food were being covered by the team, it seemed like a perfect opportunity. Not only could we vacation for free, but if we shopped frugally, we’d end up living for free for an entire week. By seizing the chance to body-surf, bake in the sun, and coach my swimmers, I’d be richer than if I’d stayed home and kept my nose to the grindstone. So taking the family away with me seemed like a safe bet, even though it would mean missing a few days of sugaring maple sap. The excess Vitamin D and long, warm, sun-drenched days would far outweigh the loss in syrup. Once we survived the 27-hour car ride.

Oh, did I forget to mention that caveat—the small factor that can mean the difference between a happy marriage and one teetering on dissolution? Because Lisa couldn’t miss an important conference, we had to drive straight through. On paper, it didn’t seem so tough. Hadn’t I done that three-day, non-stop road trip to California (25 years ago)? How bad could 27 hours in a car with an extremely tired lawyer and four sleep-deprived kids be?

Just as we hit the New Jersey Turnpike, it was beginning to dawn on me that we might have made a mistake. By the time we reached a massive pile-up on I 95 south of D.C., I was wondering whether I’d be able to fly down to the meet on time if we turned around. Hours later, as Lisa was googling the letters d-i-v-o-r-c-e on her Blackberry and as all four kids came to the realization that once we arrived in Florida (which we hadn’t yet done), we’d still have nearly seven hours to go, I knew we had made a colossal mistake.

That was three days ago, and we’ve since spent endless time running back and forth between the ocean and our hotel’s pool. The Margaritas are cheap during happy hour, and Lisa just smiled at me.

Too bad we have to drive back.

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