Mini-Vacation Financials: Smoky Mountains Trip for a Wedding

This post as a case study example of how we use our Travel savings account to have a fun (and not too extravagant) weekend away for a wedding and to share some photos from our weekend!


The Plan


Kyle and I received a wedding invitation a few months ago from one of our very best college friends for her wedding in the Smoky Mountains.  Of course we knew we would attend so we just had to decide how to get there and how long to stay for.  The wedding was Saturday night but the weekend started with a welcome picnic on Friday night.  Since the drive was about 6 hours we left about midday on Friday.  (Kyle and I have an established driving/flying line for short trips – if a drive will take more than 13 hours, we fly.)


So several months in advance of the wedding, we already had a good idea of our major costs – two nights in a hotel and about 2.5 tanks of gas.  The bridal couple arranged for discounted rooms at a certain hotel, plus the welcome picnic was at that hotel and they provided a shuttle from that hotel to the ceremony and reception location.


The final estimated budget items were meals and entertainment.  Of the four meals through the weekend not provided to us by the wedding activities – breakfast and lunch on Saturday and Sunday – we predicted we would eat three rather inexpensive meals ($60).  On their wedding website, the bridal couple suggested several local activities for weekend entertainment, so we thought we would probably take part in one of those activities on Saturday before the wedding ($40).


Our total estimated budget for the weekend, plus the wedding gift, was $429.  We adjusted our travel savings rate down a few months ago, but made sure that the balance in April would be high enough to cover our estimates for this trip and our next one at the end of the month.  We paid for one night at the hotel and the gift in advance, but the rest was put on our credit cards throughout the weekend.


The Reality




We ate lunch before leaving home on Friday and packed snacks so we wouldn’t have to stop for food during the drive.  The welcome picnic provided our food on Friday night and hanging out with the other guests playing lawn games and warming ourselves by the bonfire was all the entertainment we needed!  Cost: $85.56 for gas, $0 for food, $137 for hotel.


Kyle playing lawn games


by the bonfire




Kyle and I went out for brunch at a fairly inexpensive country buffet joint, so we ate enough for breakfast and lunch so we wouldn’t have to eat again until the wedding.  Cost: $19.50.


my first plate and Kyle's first plate


We decided to go on a light hike recommended by the bride and groom for our afternoon entertainment.  We’ve been meaning to visit the Smoky Mountains since we moved to North Carolina but this was our first trip, so we wanted to spend some real outdoors time in the mountains instead of the other types of entertainment available to us.  Plus, there was no entrance fee for Smoky Mountain National Park! Cost: $0.


at Abram Falls


Of course the wedding itself was wonderful and tons of fun.  We had appetizers (cheese fondue) and dinner (TN BBQ) and tarts (from Durham, actually).  About 10 people toasted the bride and groom, which was wonderful, and then we danced for hours!  Cost: the price of the gift, if you want to think about it that way.



three courses


(No dancing pics, because they are just not flattering!  (Not that eating pics are.))




On Sunday morning I went to church with one of our friends while Kyle went horseback riding with the other two!  Then we all met for brunch at an excellent family-style country restaurant.  Cost: $32 for the riding and $37.81 for brunch.


from Kyle's horse



lazy Susan with our food



Finally, we drove back to Durham.  We filled up the tank again but used less than a quarter of it.  We didn’t stop for food but just had snacks and ate when we got home.  Cost: about $10.


Our total cost for the weekend was $413, so almost exactly what I had estimated!  We are currently saving $300 per month into our Travel account so it took less than a month and a half to save for this trip.


estimated and actual dollars spent



P.S.  I took 900 pictures this weekend with my little Canon point-and-shoot, most of which were terrible.  I take tons of pictures at events and love to share them.  I really think it’s time for me to upgrade to a nicer camera.  Does anyone know how to go about deciding what features I need?


Has your spending on trips recently matched your advance estimates?  How do you budget for vacations?  Do you have a camera you would recommend to me?



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27 Responses to "Mini-Vacation Financials: Smoky Mountains Trip for a Wedding"

  1. Awesome! That sounds like fun. I usually do the same thing with meals when I’m travelling – usually I won’t eat until later in the morning (when I feel hungry which isn’t usually until later) and then I eat a lot so that I am not hungry until dinner!

    1. Emily says:

      In general I’m a eat-5-times-per-day-starting-when-I-wake-up person, but I change my habits up drastically when we travel to eat 2-3 times per day. It’s what you have to do when you don’t have access to a kitchen/groceries!

  2. WorkSaveLive says:

    We are currently shopping for cameras and it’s very difficult to determine what to get! It depends on what you’ll be shooting pictures of I guess. Is it landscape, will there be low-light settings, do you want to be able to manually adjust the lens, etc.

    I’ve talked to a friend that has a photography blog (Time to take pictures) and he recommended the Nikon 3100 or 5100. We’ve also read great reviews on the Cannon Rebel T3i and T2i (which is comparable to the Nikon 5100). From various accounts those are GREAT starter, high-end, cameras that won’t necessarily break the bank.

    We take lots of photos too when we go on trips and we have the food recipes we shoot on a weekly basis. Good luck finding something! Let me know what you end up buying!
    WorkSaveLive recently posted..Recipe: The Green Monster

    1. Emily says:

      I’m not so much into the landscapes – I love taking pictures of PEOPLE! And I do take a lot of food pictures as well, but their lack of attractiveness can’t be blamed on my camera alone. 😉 Thanks for your suggestions.

  3. Suz says:

    check out he has great unbiased reviews of cameras and lenses.

    perhaps more important than your DSLR camera body is your lens! if you want a great, inexpensive lens to supplement your “kit” lens — i’d highly recommend the “nifty fifty” [50mm/f1.8]. both the nikon and canon versions are about $100 apiece (that’s super cheap for a great SHARP lens). it’s a fixed lens (meaning it doesn’t zoom) but it takes fantastic pictures!

    i spent a ton of time researching and am super happy with our camera (nikon d90 with 18-105 kit lens + 50mm f/1.8 fixed lens), but i know things have changed in the past 2 years so there is probably something better out on the market right now! feel free to call if you ever want to talk cameras 🙂
    Suz recently posted..Farewell for now…

    1. Emily says:

      Kyle specifically suggested that I ask you about cameras! I’ll look into the info you’ve provided and chat with you when I know a bit more about it all. 🙂

  4. Jessica says:

    Travel is one of the hardest things for me to budget. My estimate is usually too low, since I have less discipline in using my money wisely when I’m on vacation.

    As for cameras, my fiance has a Canon rebel. I’m not sure of the exact model, but he bought his sister’s old one after she upgraded. From experience, make sure you learn how to use the basic settings before you start taking pictures. The first time I borrowed my fiance’s camera, my pictures turned out horrible.
    Jessica recently posted..It’s Tax Day

    1. Emily says:

      We don’t try to be too disciplined, just realistic in the expectations. I probably should have had a higher food estimate since we didn’t eat as cheaply as I had wanted (though we ate less frequently than I expected).

      I definitely will take some time to learn about our camera, whatever we get, before I depend on its use. I know there’s a bit of a learning curve and I’ve never worked with a DSLR before.

  5. Leigh says:

    That sounds like an awesome weekend 🙂 You’re reminding me that I need to start planning my June trip soon! I have flights and the hotel booked, but I need to figure out what I’m doing while I’m there still.

    I love how you have a chart for the estimated versus actual costs breakdown of your trip! I’m pretty good at budgeting for trips, but terrible at comparing the estimated cost to the actual cost and I mostly forget about the budget once I am on the trip… I think my estimates are getting more realistic at least.

    I have a Canon point-and-shoot as well and love it! I also use my smartphone camera if it’s daylight out as it takes pretty good photos and it’s usually easier to find than my actual camera. So I’m not really much help in the camera department… How old is your camera? Maybe you could just buy an updated version of it?
    Leigh recently posted..How I Pay My Bills

    1. Emily says:

      I actually love my Canon! I had one for about 6 years and then updated it about a year ago, so it’s pretty new. This weekend I was just pushing it past its intended use for distance and light levels and such and was frustrated that it couldn’t perform better (not that it should). But I love it for snapshots especially in daylight.

      I don’t really try to limit us on our trips, but I do like to anticipate our costs so that I know we have enough saved. The post-evaluation just helps for estimating future trips. Kyle loves buying souvenirs, for instance, but I am much more interested in photos, so we compromised on him getting one per big vacation. And to know our eating habits and susceptibility to changes of plans (like the horseback riding – that was spontaneous).

  6. H says:

    If I instituted your driving/flying cut-off, I technically should be driving to NYC! (12h57m) But of course, our actual destination is a good hour further north and we make use of public transportation to get there; so there’s no question, we fly. 🙂

    1. Emily says:

      There’s also the issue of how many days the total trip is. The times that we have driven 12-13 hours (to Ann Arbor, Boston, and Miami) we have been able to devote two whole days to travel because we would be at our destination for at least 2-3 days. What’s your driving cutoff?

  7. Looks like a ton of fun! In terms of a camera, the features list can be mind boggling but the important thing to ask is, “am I comfortable wearing this around my neck/over my shoulder/carrying a bigger purse?” I have a Canon that is a big point and shoot and I carry it with me EVERYWHERE and I get a lot of crap from my friends for having a big heavy purse but I just wouldn’t take pictures otherwise.
    Frugal Portland recently posted..Ten sneaky frugal tricks

    1. Emily says:

      The bulkiness/practicality is something Kyle is really concerned about. I think I will keep my small point-and-shoot with me always (like I do now) but only carry the camera for special events like trips or local photoshoots. I’m not sure how I will really like to carry and use a large camera – I just REALLY want the resulting pictures! This is definitely something to consider before we buy.

  8. That is awesome that you were able to almost be right on budget! Very cool. If you spent a lot of time in smoky mtns national park, I’d love for you to write a guest post for my “cheap summer vacation series” which highlights the national parks/monuments, etc. Shoot me an email if you’re interested!
    Jeff @ Sustainable Life Blog recently posted..Wedding Expenses from the Flip Side

    1. Emily says:

      Unfortunately we did not get to explore the park very much as it was quite a short trip. I wouldn’t feel qualified to write a post. I hope you can find someone else who has had more experience!

  9. Michelle says:

    We have the Canon Rebel T3. It’s a great starter SLR. I’ve taken lots of professional-looking pictures with my little Rebel! I would highly recommend it. I did get a great Black Friday deal and I happen to have a good friend who’s a photographer that gave me a tutorial. It is not a point-and-click, though, so you will probably want someone to at least give you a few basics to get you started. We also have a Fuji Film 12 mp point-and-click when we don’t want to take such a bulky camera. Now, if only Jeff would learn to take a picture without cutting the top of my head off…it would be nice to be IN some of the cute pictures sometimes. 🙂
    Michelle recently posted..Pampering Your Baby Without Using Pampers

    1. Emily says:

      Thanks for the suggestion, Michelle! I don’t really want to wait for Black Friday but that could give us a good goal-date for saving up some money. Good idea.

  10. I’m waiting for my friends to get married so I can go to some weddings! LOL. Sounds like you had a great time.
    Well Heeled Blog recently posted..Committing to Financial Independence

  11. Nick says:

    Very cool – and great job with the estimate! Looks like a lot of fun.
    Nick recently posted..Worst money advice ever?

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