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Watch what you buy before the trip. Do you really need new shorts, towels, a manicure and sunglasses?Edyta Linek/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Swimsuits and towels. Check. Airline tickets. Check. A whopping $5,000 credit card bill to pay at the end of this summer's vacation. Add a check to that, too. For most of us, the idea of saving up for any large purchase, be it a washing machine or new vehicle, is akin to putting a dress on layaway. That is so three decades ago. Instead, if most of us want an item today, we flash a little credit card plastic and it's ours.

That's particularly the case when it comes to booking a holiday. But throwing everything from hotels to fights and meals on a credit card – and not paying them off right away – could cost you more than you realize, says Rhonda Sherwood, a Scotia McLeod wealth adviser in Vancouver.

"The problem is that once you start using that 21-per-cent credit card, you get into a debt cycle," she says. "You know the moment you use a card for a non-emergency, some other cost will always come up and you're not going to be able to pay the trip off."

The result? Ballooning interest payments and anxiety, a combination that can zap all enjoyment and relaxation from a week in Rome, Key West or P.E.I.

Amanda Mills, a financial therapist in Toronto, agrees that paying for vacations and travel on credit isn't usually the way to go. Saving for large purchases is the better option. She admits, however, that delaying gratification isn't easy for younger generations who have been wielding credit cards since they were teens.

Part of the problem is our sense of entitlement. After weeks or months slaving away on a big project at work, it's easy to think, "I deserve a great vacation and I want it now." But entitlement comes in another form too, Ms. Mills says.

"We watch TV and see everybody having the perfect kitchen, the perfect clothes and the perfect kids. We feel we should get some of that," she says.

The trick to learning how to delay gratification, says Ms. Sherwood, is to be brutally honest about what we can afford and create a saving plan. Here's how:

Know the price tag

Calculate flight prices, hotel costs, car rentals and meals. Don't forget to factor in incidentals such as a daily shopping budget, travel insurance costs, taxes, gifts, boarding for pets, and even paying a neighbourhood kid to come over and mow the lawn.

Make a plan

After all the calculations, it looks like two weeks at Disney World is going to put you back $7,000 with flights. Figure out how much you need to save each month to reach the goal. (If you're leaving next summer, that's about $590 a month, by the way.)

Be realistic

Can't swing nearly $600 a month? It's time to look at other options. Driving to Florida instead of flying can save thousands for a family. Or maybe go for one week instead of two.

Forget self-control

Instead, make saving as easy as possible. Open a dedicated savings account and make automatic payments. Even better, have a percentage of your paycheque automatically deposited into that account. It's hard to miss the money if you never see it.

Watch what you buy before the trip

Do you really need new shorts, towels, a manicure and sunglasses? Ms. Sherwood says most people forget to budget for all the extras they buy pre-vacation and end up in debt before they even set foot on the beach.

Ultimately, the trick to saving for a vacation comes down to changing the way we think about budgeting. It's not about sacrifice. It's about eliminating stress down the road.

"It's a choice. I can put my vacation off for a year and save, or I can put it on my credit card and be in more trouble later," Ms. Sherwood says.