When it's time to update the house, leave the country

My friend Nancy handed me a cup of coffee as we sat in her kitchen. How, she wanted to know, had my husband and I managed to go to Europe twice in three years? She and her husband would love to take a trip abroad, but they were sure they could never afford to.

Looking around at her high-tech kitchen appliances and newly installed floor covering, I suggested that if she'd kept her old floor and appliances, she could have swung a jaunt across the pond.

I explained the formula for financing our recent Bathroom Upgrade European Getaway and other vacations: First, notice improvements that could be made around the home. Next, consider remodeling certain areas, such as a bathroom, and estimate the cost of it all. Then take the money and spend it on traveling.

We've done this for years, and it's amazing how much you can save for projects that aren't really necessary.

One year we decided to redo the family room where the walls were looking dingy, the baseboard was chipped, and the floor was scratched and worn. We spent several Saturdays looking at wallpaper and paint samples. We pinched pennies until we had enough for the job, and then spent it on visits with friends in three states. We never got around to papering the walls, but they're covered with photos from the excursions underwritten by the Family Room Redo Fund.

We spent two weeks in Germany for considerably less than the estimated cost of updating our kitchen. We went all out in planning that one, selecting new wood cabinets, granite countertops, a stainless-steel range, a refrigerator, and a dishwasher.

This year it's a tossup between the front porch and a vacation. A corner of our brick porch floor cracked and fell off last winter, so it might be prudent to have that attended to. But who has time to sit on the porch? And who wants to when you can take a trip?

We've been budgeting for the porch work, and when we've saved enough for it, all we'll have to decide is where to go to spend the money. But why stop at patching a corner when we could have a whole new porch? Factoring in labor and materials for tearing off the existing structure, building a replacement, and then landscaping, the amount needed should buy us a week or two in Europe.

This method works especially well if you visit countries where people live in buildings that haven't changed much since Charlemagne was a kid.

It helps to see that some people don't have bathrooms or kitchens as we know them. That can make you grateful for the ones you've got.

And after you've been away for a couple of weeks, there's no place like home. Flaws that have been bugging you for years can seem endearing after you've been separated from them for a while.

Improve the house if you must, but I recommend travel. If you have trouble dealing with the choice between "home work" and vacation play, try these tactics:

1. Think of ways to improve your living space. Think big: state-of-the-art kitchen, indoor pool.

2. Sketch a plan for a dream kitchen, sauna, or other luxury item. Get estimates on the costs of these projects.

3. Save for the one you can't live without. Hoard cash diligently.

4. Spend weeks going from store to store, inspecting samples. Pick up travel brochures for places you really want to see sometime.

5. Compare the samples with the travel brochures.

6. Take the remodeling money and run away from home.

Note: This formula may be invalid where septic tank repairs are concerned.

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