'How much should I spend on a family vacation?'

@Money May 10, 2012: 3:08 PM ET
vacation spending

(Money Magazine) -- What is an appropriate or common percentage of income for a family to spend on vacations? -- Darcie and Jim Alexis

Here are a couple of facts to consider as you plan your next vacation:

American households expect to spend about $1,200 per person on summer vacations, according to a just released American Express survey.

Assuming a median household income of roughly $50,000 a year and an average household size of two to three people, that translates to an estimate of 5% to 7% of income going toward vacations.

This is a rough estimate at best. Some people will spend more, others much less. And given the still lofty unemployment rate, I'm sure many people aren't taking any vacation at all.

Even though you can easily view average spending in mind-numbing detail for all sorts of things (although not vacations) in the Department of Labor's Consumer Expenditures Survey, that doesn't mean you should take your cues from what other folks do or don't spend.

Just because your fellow citizens spend a certain amount on a given product or service doesn't mean it's financially responsible to do so. After rebounding to more than 6% during the financial crisis, the U.S. savings rate has sunk to just below 4%. That's better than the average level of about 1.6% in 2005. But it's still low enough to make a case that Americans should consider reining in their spending in any number of areas so they can save more for their financial security.

There's an even more compelling reason you shouldn't let other people's spending habits dictate your own. Our spending reflects our priorities. We have a finite amount of money, so the way we dole it out amounts to a personal ranking of how important we consider various things. And what sits at or near the top of someone else's hierarchy, may not deserve as lofty a spot in yours.

Take me. I couldn't care less about fashion, so I spend very little on clothing. On the other hand, every year I go on StubHub, hold my nose and splurge on a couple of tickets to an "Iggles" game so my son and I can enjoy an afternoon of football and cheesesteaks in my native city of Philadelphia.

It doesn't really matter how your spending breaks down. If you prefer to "overspend" in one or two areas that are especially important to you, that's fine, as long as you hold the line somewhere else and don't lose control of your spending overall. What counts is that you set aside enough income for saving.

Rather than obsessing about specific expenditures, try the two-line budget technique: Write your income on line one and list a target percentage of income you intend to save (say, 10% to 15%) on line two.

As long as you're socking away that percentage on a regular basis (and reasonably confident that percentage is sufficient) does it really matter whether you indulge yourself on vacations but economize on cars?

That said, just as your spending should reflect your personal tastes, so should your budgeting process. If you prefer a more traditional budgeting technique, fine. Peruse MONEY 101 on budgeting and these budgeting and saving tips.

So spend whatever you like on vacation and have a good time. As long as you're meeting your other financial obligations and saving enough, don't worry whether the tab is higher or lower than anyone else's.

MONEY magazine is celebrating people, both famous and unsung, who have done extraordinary work to improve others' financial well-being. Send an email to nominate your Money Hero. To top of page

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