How My Family Vacation Taught Me 5 Meaningful Lessons on Financial Well-Being

Apr 21, 2023

I have talked with clients and others about their experiences of family vacations for many years now. 


Here is what I know. Family vacations are powerful and meaningful. They can also be a source of great distress and overwhelm for some. For others, they are a source of incredible pleasure and pride. Recently returning from my family vacation, I can’t help but reflect on the meaning and purpose of family vacation. 


Many of us are returning from recent spring break trips and may already have plans underway for summer vacations. These trips are so meaningful and powerful, but only sometimes in the ways we think. I would like to share five lessons from my family vacation that can help you make more out of your family vacations. 


 1. Financial Planning Helps Keep Perspective on Vacation

Six months ago, my wife and I were meeting with our financial planner. With our retirement projections up and talking with our financial planner, I had this deepening recognition that we are well on track for retirement and could afford to spend more money and time on vacation. This deepening recognition of our financial security unsettled me, as I have a core narrative that we will not have enough for retirement despite what the evidence points to. I continually work to unseat this core belief, yet it is long-standing. 


Fortunately, this experience at the financial planner's office lodges deep in my memory bank and returns on our spring break trip through northern California. 


At one point, while riding a ski lift to the top of the mountain, my mind turned to how much money we were spending. The financial anxiety started to spin. Then the memory of meeting with our financial planner emerged, and I felt a sense of calm return to my mind, and I returned to being in the moment of skiing. 


The objective reality is that we had planned for this vacation and how much money we would be spending. We were not wildly out of control in our spending on vacation, yet at times, I would feel sticker shock as we paid for ski lift tickets, museum entrance fees, or that family meal we picked up with 12 people. All great experiences were worth it, but they also triggered my patterns of money vigilance and scarcity. Returning to the reality that we have short- and long-term financial plans helps alleviate the flashes of financial anxiety. 


Core Lesson: I have experienced and heard countless stories that go something like this, with fear, anxiety, anger, or judgment in their voice why did you spend so much money in the gift shop, on dinner, for that theme park, soda card, and the list goes on. Sometimes their private ruminations. Either way, they are vacation spoiler experiences when handled poorly. 


On vacation, we may have a wide range of thoughts and feelings that come up about spending money on various activities and items. That is not the problem. It is what we do with them that matters. Acknowledging and returning to a sense of perspective is what matters. 


2. Sometimes, family business needs to be handled on a family vacation. 


Sitting around the large family table, a couple of my extended family members sit to talk with each other about their mother's recent passing and the transition of her estate. It’s not often I get to watch these conversations unfold when I am not involved as a professional. 


As the siblings talk with each other about their mother's passing and her estate plan, they are clearly trying to sort through their different responsibilities for helping transition their mother's estate. 


They both seek to support and understand each other through this time of transition and grief. They talk about what type of attorney they need to find to help them sort through some of the ambiguities of the estate plan and what that means for other family members involved in the process. 


As I watch this process unfold, I am reminded of the ongoing tension between the legal requirements of estate planning and the psychological/family relational realities of estate planning as I watch this family conversation unfold. 


When a family member dies, it can bring back the reality of the painful family dynamics of estranged family members, especially adult siblings. In the field of family therapy, it is generally accepted that even if family members are not physically part of the family anymore, that does not mean they are not a part of the psychological makeup of the family. 


Yes, we can psychologically block memories of their presence, but that does not mean the meaning of their absence from the family is gone. 


Core Lesson: Tending to your adult sibling relationships can help facilitate estate planning from one generation to the next. 


I have been sorting through this for many years in anticipation of managing my parent’s estate.  I have one younger brother, and at this point, I am responsible for helping with my parent's estate when they pass. I am aware of the potential that when roles and expectations are not clearly articulated adverse outcomes can emerge. 


Keep in mind it is not the estate size that matters, but the meaning given to how the estate is managed that matters to each person involved. 


3. Facing Sibling Differences Is Not Always Easy But Can Be So Worth It


I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. My only younger brother lives close to where we grew up, and on this family trip, we visited many places that we both cherished as children. One of them being Muir Woods National Park. This has been a source of great pride and sorrow for me in different seasons of life. 


Some things are very challenging for me about my brother's life story. The likely reality is the same is true in the other direction. It has been an internal journey of reconciliation to understand and expand my understanding of my brother, moving from a place of deep judgment and resentment to one of empathy and compassion. The truth beneath the surface of this story is that we have lived and continue to live very different lives. 


Seeing my brother on this family trip and the anticipation of my children spending time with their uncle was a big deal. My five and six-year-olds have never met their uncle in person, and the last time my 12-year-old saw his uncle, he was 5.  


In trying to make sense of adult sibling relationships, I have been reading a couple of books that have been so very helpful. One is Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and The Road to Reconciliation the other is Adult Sibling Relationships


Seeing my sons interact with their uncle and my ability to spend time with my nephew in the beauty of the giant redwoods of Muir Woods inspires and motivates me to continue to work towards creating a different family legacy of sibling relationships. One where there is open, loving, mutual respect and connection for each other in our similarities and differences as siblings.


For too long, all I could see was what was wrong with my brother and all his shortcomings. I did not even recognize how critical I was of him because, in my mind, I thought I was being helpful by seeing all his “shortcomings” and then providing solutions. Even as I write and reflect on this, I realize how far I have come and how unaware I was of the potential impact I was having on him. 


Core Lesson: Our sibling relationships, in many cases, will be the longest relationships of our lifetime. Whether we are in a relationship or not with our sibling, there is always a psychological and lifelong relationship. We have a reciprocal relationship with our siblings where what we do and don’t think and feel impacts our relationship with our siblings; the same is true in reverse. We can always work on our psychological relationship with our siblings.


4. Connecting With Old Friends Replenshishes A Sense of Meaning


A large part of our family vacation was connecting with old friends of mine since we were visiting where I grew up. Trips home are a powerful opportunity to reflect and grow. During this trip, I saw two of my best high school friends from different parts of my life. We also visited my old next-door neighbors and a couple, where the wife was my first boss as a lifeguard in high school, and her husband was a significant inspiration for me becoming a firefighter. 


Each of these relationships represents a large part of who I was in high school, as my social and emotional world was rapidly expanding and changing as it does for teenagers. Each of these people has played a pivotal role in my development. 


Having conversations and time with my high school friends showed me how much I was cared for by them and how much I cared about them. Having my wife and kids meet them was a rewarding experience as I felt like she got to know me more deeply through spending time with my friends. 


Connecting with my old next-door neighbors, my former boss, and her firefighter husband was rich and meaningful in ways it’s hard to put words to describe. They are the adults who have been a part of significant milestones in my life, including my wedding. They are also the adults I turned to a year and a half ago when I went home by myself as a part of a healing trip home. They showed great compassion and care as I shared with them the painful parts of my childhood hidden from public view. 


So now, 16 years later and in my 40’s, I can see how valuable it is to have people who have invested in me and cared about me in ways I could not even fully appreciate. I sure do now. 


As I mature and grow, learning more about who they are as people and the fullness of their life experiences is rewarding. I could not comprehend their lived experiences in my teenage years, but now I do as a maturing adult. 


I felt affirmed in this reflection as I recently listened to Audible The Good Life: Lessons From The World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness by Robert Waldinger, MD, and Marc Schulz, Ph.D. I was reminded of the research about how important it is to foster and maintain rich relationships, as this profoundly impacts our well-being and the richness of our lives. 


Core Lesson: Spend time connecting with people from your past to remind yourself there have always been people that care about you. 


5. Innocence In Front of Half Dome & Mental Health


Yosemite is one of the most amazing places on earth as far as I am concerned. While I did not spend time in this part of northern California as a child, I always knew about it. My neighbor I just mentioned spent much of her young adult life climbing in Yosemite and was more than excited to share some of the best ways to view and experience Yosemite. 


Watching my kid's reactions to Yosemite was a great reminder of the innocence of childhood. As kids, we can’t fully appreciate the significance of natural beauty and the complex adult world surrounding them. 


We spent the morning driving through the valley floor of Yosemite, taking in as many stops as possible to enjoy the sights. At least, that was the case for my wife and I. At the same time, my kids met these views with mixed reactions of awe and indifference. 


We eventually made it to the historic Ahwahnee Hotel for lunch. It is a beautiful afternoon, and my wife and I enjoy a drink while waiting for lunch. Then I feel it start to happen. I feel disoriented and uncomfortable in my body. It is all so familiar to me. My mind, brain, and body are starting to dysregulate. The reality of what I have seen, heard, felt, and experienced on this family trip sends me into overwhelm. 


We finish our meal, and I tell my wife I must sit in the shade. I am unbearably uncomfortable, just trying to hold my shit together. I find a chair in the shade, trying not to draw attention to myself. I kick my shoes off and get my bare feet on the ground. One of the things I have learned to do when I start to dysregulate. My wife has learned that when I get this way, I just need her to come close and tell me I am safe. 


She comes over to me lovingly and softly tells me I am safe. Tears start to flow, and my breath returns. My body and mind begin to calm and regulate. I come out of a psychological valley to look up and see the beauty and majesty of Half Dome. 


Being able to respond to my mental health issues has been a significant learning process over the years. Even on vacation, the reality of my mental health does not leave me. I have times when my mind, brain, and body will start to dysregulate. I don’t get to pick when or where. But I do get to choose how I respond. 


The beauty of actively working on my mental health is that after this short episode, we returned to play and the beauty of Yosemite on the lawn of the Ahwahnee Hotel. My kids play tag with their mom, and I marvel at their delight.  While the majesty of Half Dome looms in the background, my kids are lost in play. Nothing could be better. I ultimately join them in this game, and I am grateful that I can work with my mental health issues and return to time with my family. 


Core Lesson: Just because we are on vacation does not mean the reality of mental and relational health leaves us. When we are learning, healing, and growing, these realities don’t have to ruin a family trip. 


Final Thoughts:


Helping families have fulfilling and meaningful vacations is a beautiful part of my job as a Therapy Informed Financial Planner™. I realize that many families are at various stages of mental and relational health with each other, impacting how they experience family vacation. 


If you would like to talk about how Therapy Informed Financial Planning can help you enjoy more of your family vacations, you can schedule a free 30-minute consultation here


Wishing You Meaningful Family Vacations,

Ed Coambs,

Therapy Informed Financial Planner™



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