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A recent Bankrate survey found that only 38 percent of Americans with paid vacation days plan on using all of them this year. According to Expedia’s annual Vacation Deprivation Study, Americans left 653.9 million vacation days unused in 2018. Those numbers are concerning considering the connection between time off and your mental health.
It’s not hard to understand why so many people are skipping out on PTO, considering how expensive the typical vacation can be. However, experts agree that taking time away from daily stressors such as work is essential to your mental health. That means planning a vacation, whether it’s a staycation or a week in the Caribbean, should be a financial priority.
The link between vacation time and mental health
Taking a break from work (and other daily stressors) is imperative to maintaining you overall health. Dr. Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, explains that constant, stressful work (such as your nine-to-five job) has negative consequences — both physically and mentally.
“A break from stress lowers cortisol levels, which improves mental health,” says Dr. Saltz. “This time for play also helps replenish ability for creative thinking by allowing for time to day dream and have unstructured thought…Also valuable for mental health is time to replenish lost sleep, time for physical activity/exercise and time to try new things.”
Expedia found that the average American takes two “mental health days” each year, but one day away from work may not be enough for most people to truly recharge — especially if that time is spent taking on other stressors.
Now, that doesn’t mean you have to plan a getaway to a five-star resort or go into debt to finance a two-week trek through Europe each year. According to Nicole F. Kaufman, a board-certified therapist who primarily works with entrepreneurs, a vacation is simply any time you break out of your normal routine. A low-cost trip to a nearby town or an escape to a domestic tourist destination can be just as effective as an expensive getaway to Maui or Ireland.
Staycations can even help you de-stress if your budget is tight. Kaufman says a change in scenery isn’t required, but she does clarify that you have to truly disconnect from your day-to-day.
“Just taking a few days to relax is helpful only if you actually intentionally relax and not substitute one stressful environment for another one,” says Kaufman. When you just take a few days at home as your PTO, you’re more likely to do things like run errands or take care of home projects. Those activities prevent you from taking the time to truly relax and recharge.
Making PTO a financial priority
According to Expedia’s data, it takes the average American worker between two and three days to feel relaxed during their time off. That means one day off every few months isn’t enough for your body and mind to decompress from those daily stressors.
On the other hand, not every budget can accommodate spending $2,000 on an island getaway. Some people have debt to pay off, and bills don’t take a break just because you do. However, it’s important for a true vacation to have a place on your priority list when looking at your finances.
Make a vacation fund part of your savings
If you can swing putting away an extra $10 a week, that’s $520 a year to put towards a vacation. Depending on where you’re flying, that’s easily a round-trip plane ticket.
For those who don’t have that kind of wiggle room in their budget, saving your digital pocket change is another option. Apps like Acorns will round up each purchase you make with your connected debit or credit cards, helping you put saving money on autopilot. Acorns also invests that pocket change in accordance with how much risk you’re willing to take (if your primary goal is just saving, it might be best to choose the low-risk option). Similar apps will put your round-ups in a savings account rather than investing.
Getaways close to home
According to booking data from Expedia, domestic vacations are very popular, including spots like Vegas, Orlando, San Diego and LA. Domestic flights and accommodations can often be cheaper. Even just a nice three- to four-day getaway a few hours from your house can help you refresh your mind.
Just remember to fully “unplug,” even if you’re not traveling far away. Your body and your mind needs a break from daily stressors, and you can’t get that break if you’re checking Slack or your emails every few hours.
Take advantage of credit card perks
Probably one of the easiest (and most underrated) ways to save up for a vacation is credit cards. You can use a travel or cash back credit card on your everyday spending to earn rewards that can be redeemed for travel expenses. Over the course of a year, you can easily rack up enough points or cash back to fund a plane ticket, hotel stay or gas money for a road trip.
The sign-up bonus alone from the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (60,000 points after spending $4,000 within the first three months) is worth $750 when you book travel through Chase. For those looking for a more general cash back card, the Capital One Savor Rewards Credit Card gives you a $300 one-time bonus (after spending $3,000 in the first three months) that you can put towards a vacation fund.
Rewards credit cards do come with high interest rates and annual fees, so make sure you are able to pay off your bill each month and make up for that annual fee in rewards. When used to their full potential, credit cards can help any budget afford a getaway each year.
The bottom line
Everyone deserves a vacation — whether or not you are in debt or have a college fund set up for your kids or hundreds of thousands of dollars saved up for retirement. Getting time away from the daily grind is essential to your mental health, and that’s most certainly something that should be prioritized.
Dr. Saltz recommends getting entirely off the grid.
“Try something new or exciting to increase dopamine levels in the brain which feels good, makes you feel closer with whoever you’re doing it with and adds another dimension to your life,” she says. “Allow time to just think freely, imagine what you like, enjoy your fantasy world. This helps you reconnect with yourself and think creative thoughts.”