Sunday, August 27, 2017

Why we don't vacation

It's occurred to me that one of the keys to living an ecofrugal life is not caring about the Way Things Are Done.

There are certain things that most people do without thinking about why they do them, or even whether they want to do them, because...well, they're just what you do. For instance, I've noticed that most people, when they set the table, automatically put out a fork, knife, and teaspoon, no matter what they're serving. You need a spoon if you're going to have a soup course, but in that case, it should be a soup spoon, not a teaspoon...and if the soup is the main course, you don't need the fork and knife. Why put out extra utensils you're not going to use, and wash them after the meal even though they haven't been touched? Most people, if you asked them this question, would probably just stare at you blankly. They do it that way because that's the Way It's Done. It simply would never occur to them that it's possible to do anything else. (Even the Emily Post Institute describes this as the proper "basic table setting"—while saying on the very same page that you should "only set the table with utensils you will use." What you are supposed to use that teaspoon for, they never explain.)

Part of being ecofrugal is learning to recognize these mindless habits, question them, and ditch them if they're wasteful. That's how we figure out that there's no need to buy paper towels if you wipe up spills with reusable cleaning rags, which are more absorbent, cost essentially nothing, and can be reused hundreds of times with only a negligible cost for laundering. Or that you can get a perfectly good, plastic-free, reusable water bottle by buying a bottle of Snapple for $1.59, drinking the contents, and rinsing it out. Or that you can pop your own popcorn in the microwave in a Pyrex mixing bowl with a plastic colander inverted over the top, rather than using those overpriced little bags or buying something sold specifically as a microwave popper.

This weekend, I thought of yet another example: vacations. Several times over the past few weeks, I've been asked what I was doing this summer, or whether I was going anywhere. The assumption seemed to be that this is what vacation days are for: so you can set aside a two-week block of time, usually in the summer, and spend all that time—along with a sizable chunk of money—to go somewhere far away from home. The thing is, for us, this idea holds little to no appeal. We both hate flying and aren't crazy about long-distance driving; we're willing to do it to see his family at Christmas time, but we hardly see the point of making a long trip like that just to get away from home. We like our home. We've put a lot of time and effort into making it the way we like it, and we don't see the point of traveling a long distance and shelling out a big chunk of money to stay in a hotel instead. Not to mention all the hassles of finding someone to look after our cats while we're away, packing, stressing over airline or train schedules, and eventually coming home exhausted after a day of travel only to have to unpack and slog through two weeks' worth of mail, e-mail, and overdue household chores. And then the next day, we'd have to slog through a similar backlog of mail and unfinished business at work.

Some folks might argue that the ideal solution to this problem is a "staycation": taking those two weeks off from work, but not going anywhere. We could still go on outings and eat in restaurants and all those other fun (and pricey) activities people enjoy on vacation, but save ourselves the cost and hassle of travel. We could sleep in our own bed, clean up under our own shower, and not have to worry about finding cat care. And this does indeed sound more appealing to me than traveling, but it still has some of the same problems as a regular vacation. Because we'd still be spending two weeks away from work, we'd still have to deal with overflowing inboxes as soon as we returned to work. And because we'd be using up a whole two weeks of vacation time in one go, the return to everyday life would look even more bleak, because it would be months before we'd be able to take any time off again.

What works better for us, we've found, is to take our vacation one day at a time. Instead of taking two weeks of vacation all at once, we treat ourselves to three-day weekends on a regular basis—at least one per month. That way, we never have to go too long without a break—and our breaks themselves aren't so long that they start to become exhausting.

We spend these little mini vacations in a variety of ways. Sometimes we take a short trip to visit friends and spend the weekend playing games and hanging out like we did in school; these brief getaways don't involve any flying, and our cats can manage on their own for the couple of days we're away. Other times, we'll make a little excursion closer to home, such as a visit to IKEA (which is a lot less crowded on weekdays). And sometimes, like this past Friday, we don't go much of anywhere. Instead, we spent that day just relaxing: walking into town to visit the farmers' market (which Brian usually has to miss because it takes place during working hours), swinging by Dunkin Donuts to share a frozen hot chocolate and a couple of games of cards, hanging out at home where I read aloud to Brian while he cooked dinner, and winding up the day on the couch with a cup of cocoa and our favorite Web series, Critical Role. It's all the same kinds of things we could do on any other weekend, except we were able to devote a whole day to them and still get through our list of household chores (such as re-caulking the tub, going grocery shopping, doing laundry, and writing this blog). We were able to do it all in one weekend, without feeling rushed or stressed, because the weekend was 50 percent longer.

I realize there are plenty of people out there who genuinely love to travel, and for them, a series of little breaks throughout the year would be no substitute for a yearly vacation to some exciting, exotic locale. That's fine—if travel is what makes them happy, it's what they should save their pennies and their vacation days for. But I also wonder how many people there are out there who don't really love to travel, but who nonetheless set aside two weeks for a vacation every summer because—well, because that's the Way Things Are Done. For those folks, I suspect, small and frequent breaks like we take could actually be more enjoyable than a long, potentially stressful summer vacation. And certainly for the 55 percent of American workers who don't take all their vacation days every year, typically because they're afraid to leave work for a long period, taking those unspent days one at a time (so they won't ever fall too far behind) would surely make more sense than giving them up.

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