NEW YORK - Suntan lotion. Check. Bathing suits. Check. Vacation budget ...
Most summer vacationers prefer to think about fun, not finances when taking off for beaches, theme parks or mountain resorts. But they may find avoiding the issue can spoil even the best-made plans, especially after bills start arriving.
"People get so intent on having that perfect vacation," said Becky Cutler, a spokeswoman for the consumer education program at Citibank. "Unfortunately, it doesn't turn out to be the perfect vacation when you're still paying for it at Christmas."
Next to the holiday season, summertime is usually the toughest time of year to control spending - whether it's splurging on new clothes, backyard barbecues or luxury vacations.
"This is a time when people feel the need to reward themselves for working hard 50 weeks out of the year," said Ms. Cutler, who teaches budgeting in seminars nationwide.
About 230 million Americans are expected to take vacations between Memorial and Labor days, up 2 percent from last year. The average family of four will spend at least $200 a day on food and lodging alone, a recent survey from the Travel Industry Association and American Automobile Association found.
Unless they've adequately planned for it, vacationing households may find themselves with post-summertime blues, the result of heavy credit-card usage or frequent withdrawals from automated teller machines. And these extra bills or fees couldn't come at a worse time: just as back-to-school expenses set in.
Phillip Garner, president of the South Florida Consumer Credit Counseling office in North Miami, Fla., sees a sharp increase in the number of households seeking help with their finances after Labor Day.
"We tell people you need to plan ahead," Mr. Garner said. "You really need to plan your vacation almost a year in advance so you can make hotel reservations and get the cheapest prices."
Setting spending limits should be the first step, even before vacation plans are begun, Ms. Cutler said. Once an affordable vacation has been chosen, major expenses should be listed, like transportation, lodging and food, and a budget formed.
While away, vacationers should keep daily tallies of expenses and copies of bills and receipts, even for incidentals like souvenirs and sightseeing, to ensure they stay within their budgets.
Choosing the right payment method also is crucial. If traveling overseas, credit cards, ATMs or smart cards often provide the best exchange rates.
"You can put it on your credit card, but you have to make sure you can pay it off in a reasonable amount of time," Mr. Garner said.
As a general rule, he and other financial counselors say, vacation-related bills should be paid within three months after they arrive. If it takes longer, you probably have overspent, they say.
If credit cards are the main payment source, choose one with the lowest interest rate. The national average on a fixed-rate card is 17.07 percent, but lower rates are available. At least one bank offers a card with a 7.99 percent variable interest rate. Several have variable rates in the 10 percent and 12 percent range, according to Bank Rate Monitor in West Palm Beach, Fla.
"There's still time to shop around for a cheap card, especially if you're vacation isn't until the end of the summer," said publisher Robert Heady.
Heavy ATM users need to be aware of surcharges. Financial institutions may charge noncustomers usage fees - typically up to $2 per transaction - in addition to any fees the customers' bank charges. Mr. Heady says the highest fees are usually at casinos and resorts.
A triple whammy could come with cash advances on credit cards. Not only might customers be subject to ATM surcharges, but they also may face a transaction fee, a maximum of $2, and interest charges that begin as soon as cash is dispensed.
The logical solution, therefore, is to limit ATM trips by withdrawing larger sums at one time.
Vacationers also should consider travelers checks, which are safer than cash because they're insured against loss or theft. While there's a fee on these - 1 percent of the total amount purchased - some financial institutions may waive it for certain customers.