NEW YORK -- For most households, summertime means relaxation and fun, but it easily can turn into one of the most financially stressful times of year.
Added expenses for vacations, camp, pool memberships or clothing can dismantle any family budget, particularly those unprepared for such seasonal bills.
Money can slip away faster through theft or carelessness -- thieves prey on unsuspecting tourists; vacationers are more careless with personal possessions when traveling in strange cities.
"Many people don't plan well," said Paul Richard, executive vice president of the National Center for Financial Education in San Diego. "Vacation time is the No. 2 time of the year, preceded by Christmas, where people are likely to go into debt on their credit cards."
The National Foundation for Consumer Credit in Silver Spring, Md., says its 1,500 credit counseling offices around the country see an increase in activity during the fall months, as bills for summer purchases begin to mount.
And to make matters worse, those extra bills usually come as back-to-school expenses set in. Just around the corner are the holidays.
"The pattern is all too common," said Jonathan Pond, a Boston financial adviser and author of several personal finance books.
Consumers can stay mired in debt throughout the year unless they set aside some money to handle nonrecurring expenses such as vacations, holiday gifts, insurance or property taxes, to name just a few.
"If you add all of those up, it can easily be 15 to 20 percent of your income," Mr. Pond said.
He and other financial advisers suggest setting up a separate interest-bearing account, such as a money market account or money market mutual fund, to be used only for such expenses. The fund even could be started with this year's tax refund check. (By mid-May, MMAs were yielding around 2.5 percent, while money funds were yielding around 4.3 percent. Interest-bearing checking accounts were yielding around 1.5 percent.)
"Putting aside even a few dollars a week will help," said Mr. Richard. "You have to plan on spending a minimum of $100 a person per day" during a vacation.
Regardless of whether they can afford it, though, most people feel compelled to take off between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Americans plan to take a record 271 million trips this summer, 4 percent more than last year, the Travel Industry Association of America recently reported. The average cost for their longest pleasure trip: $956.
For many households -- roughly a quarter, according to a Gallup poll conducted last year -- the credit card will be used to pay for part or all of a summer vacation.
Using a card does have many advantages: If you're traveling overseas, it often provides the best exchange rates, plus it offers buyer protection and protection against fraud.
"If there's a problem, they (card issuers) can run interference for their customers to help resolve their problems," said Mr. Richard.
Choose a card with the lowest interest rate, though. The national average on a fixed-rate standard card is 13.2 percent -- that's lower than the 14.3 percent average for a personal loan, according to Bank Rate Monitor in West Palm Beach, Fla. The general rule of thumb: Plan on paying off vacation-related bills between three and five months after they arrive.
"The last thing in the world you want to do is go into hock the next few months for a vacation," Mr. Pond said.
If you'll be relying heavily on debit cards or automated teller machines, it's important to keep daily tallies of expenses and copies of bills and receipts. Like credit cards, they too provide the good exchange rates for overseas travelers.
But heavy ATM users need to be aware of fees. About three-quarters of all banks charge noncustomers a fee ranging from 50 cents to $3 to use their ATMs, according to a recent Bank Rate Monitor survey. In addition, 88 percent of banks charge their own customers a fee averaging $1.30 for using another institution's ATM, the survey found.
Even higher fees come on cash advances on credit cards. Not only might customers be subject to ATM surcharges, but they often face a transaction fee, ranging from 2 percent to 4 percent of the amount dispensed, and interest charges that begin immediately.
Financial advisers say it's important to prepare a budget for the summer, listing extra expenses, from pet-sitting to amusement park fees. If the total adds up to more than you can afford, look for ways to trim costs.
If you can be flexible about vacation plans, you can save a bundle. A few airlines reduce fares for night flights, or offer discounts for stays through the weekend. Airfare also may vary from one airport to another, so consider driving part of the way and flying the rest.
Being creative helps. House swap with another family or take short trips to nearby locations.