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Saving for your dream vacation

When Julia Barrett was 25, she left a high-paying job in New York City to take four months off for a trek through Southeast Asia to places she had read about in military history books.

She returned to the States and a career in the tech world and is now a program manager at San Francisco-based Salesforce. But conversations with her interpreter, and her curiosity of places like the caves in Laos, where airmen were kept as POWs, has set her on a path of many more journeys.

"I made a commitment to travel to places that remind me of how lucky I am," she said. "I also tend to be a workaholic. It's a good reminder that work is a means to an end. [Travel] helps me keep balance."

She budgets $10,000 a year for the ambitious trips and prepares for each one not only by saving but by training physically. She's hiked through the Madagascar jungle and this year is planning a trip to the Myanmar border. Meanwhile, she's beginning to stash money for a long sabbatical that she will take about five years out.

Turret along Old San Juan Wall in Puerto Rico
Gregory Olsen | E+ | Getty Images
Turret along Old San Juan Wall in Puerto Rico

"If I save up $80,000, I'll be able to pay off my mortgage and continue saving for retirement, and I'll feel comfortable walking away from my life for a while," she said.

If you're like Barrett, travel helps you recharge and keep your perspectives straight. But the biggest trips often are put off for lack of time or lack of money and never taken. Financial advisors suggest a variety of strategies to help you take the vacation of your dreams. The strategies combine saving and investing and differ based on time.

If the trip is in the far-off future, it makes sense to invest part of the savings so you can reduce the cost of the trip by compounding investment returns. But if you invest in any equities for a goal that's five years or fewer away, keep in mind that the worst historic returns are for equities in one, two- and three-year time frames. If a terrible market coincides with the years you are investing toward your goal, the risk is that you won't be able to take the trip on the planned date.

Medium-term goals are among the most difficult to plan for, but financial planners and advisors say that planning in advance for them will not only help you afford to go but help you gain the insight and learn the discipline that allow you to become a better saver and investor in general.

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"People see that it's not just a practice or discipline for the distant future; it's also something that benefits you in a way that's in reach," said Tim Maurer, director of personal finance with the BAM Alliance, a national network of 140 independent advisors. "[Planning for the medium term] allows you to really understand your risk tolerance. How willing are you to subvert those visceral feelings and say I'm going to stick with it?"

Vacation No. 1: 2 years out

Family trip for 4 to Puerto Rico
—4 airfares, NYC to Puerto Rico: $1,200
—Two weeks at a resort: $7,000
—Incidentals: $1,800
Total: $10,000

Perhaps the most important concept for saving for a $10,000 vacation is the idea of purpose-based asset allocation, said Dave Edwards, president of the Heron Financial Group in New York City.

He encourages clients to save their assets into different pots—different accounts that are all consolidated into one financial statement. Set up automatic deductions from your checking account into a savings account that you name according to your goal—say, Puerto Rico.

"With a time frame this short, you probably don't want any volatility," he said. Start setting aside $500 a month now, which will give you $10,000 with four months to spare. That way, you'll be able to act on any deals that come up, either on plane tickets or resorts.

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What about investing? Only people who are very comfortable with risk—and who won't be devastated if they have to put off the trip—should invest with that short a time frame.

If you have a lump sum to begin with—say, $9,000—you could consider putting that money into a portfolio that combines bonds earning 3.5 percent a year with stocks, which might earn 8 percent a year. The average is 5.75 percent, Edwards said. Compounded over two years, you'd earn enough from your $9,000 to pay for the $10,000 vacation, with a little bit left over.

But there are risks with this approach: You might not earn the return you expect. Worse, you might lose some of the principal.

"I was in the habit of taking my family on a $10,000 vacation. Our plan was to be in Italy in 2010. That plan got canceled," said Edwards.

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If you don't have a lump sum or prefer not to take any risk, keep your money in liquid investments."You don't want this thing that is an exercise in freedom to become another stress," said Maurer. He suggests a Capital One 360 high-yield checking account. When you accumulate enough money in it to buy a CD, do so, developing a ladder of CDs that will become liquid in the year before you need the cash.

Vacation No. 2: Five years out

Sea turtles resting in low tide lagoon, Galapagos Islands.
Paul Kennedy | Lonely Planet Images | Getty Images
Sea turtles resting in low tide lagoon, Galapagos Islands.

Family trip for 5 to Lima, Peru
—5 airfares from San Francisco to Lima: $6,000
—8-night stay in Lima: $8,000
—Six-day Inca Trail Trip, including a stay at the Macchu Pichu Sanctuary Lodge: $12,000
—National Geographic trip to the Galapagos Islands, three cabins: $20,000
—Incidentals: $4,000
Total: $50,000

A $50,000 vacation is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for many people. But it is within reach. If you start with $10,000 and set aside $575 a month and earn 4 percent a year for five years, you would reach $50,000, said Derek Holman, co-founder of Torrance, Calif.-based EP Wealth Advisors. "This would save the client about $5,500 or more than 10 percent of the total travel budget," he added.

With a five-year time horizon, it begins to make sense to invest your money. Though you will face some risk of the loss of principal—and thus might have to delay your vacation—you will likely have time to recover, especially if you take a cautious approach with the portfolio.

If you are traveling to a foreign country, consider putting some of the money you have now into a liquid currency ETF, which will hedge against currency risk or the danger that when you go, the dollar will have a low valuation against the Peruvian nuevo sol. Holman's specific recommendation: 20 percent of the investment allocation go to a liquid currency ETF, 5 percent to 10 percent in large-cap equities and the balance in shorter-term bonds.

Vacation No. 3: 5–10 years out

Dirk Freder | Vetta | Getty Images

Open-ended one-year sabbatical for 1 to Cape Town, South Africa
Total: $80,000

The biggest financial hurdle to taking a sabbatical is the danger to your career. But you may be lucky enough to work for an organization that offers sabbaticals, or confident enough in your earning potential that you can leave for a substantial amount of time and find a job when you return.

Saving up the cash you need, then, is the next part of the equation. You'll need to save enough to pay your mortgage and meet your other ongoing obligations while you have no income, as well as fund the travel. Your budget will depend a lot on where you go, but Barrett, for instance, envisions a place such as Africa with a much lower cost of living.

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If you invest in a basic, low-cost portfolio of stocks and bonds—which should be available through any brokerage platform—you could expect to earn between 4 percent and 7 percent a year in returns. Maurer, of the BAM Alliance, gave the example of a portfolio of 50 percent MSCI World Index and 50 percent Barclays Government/Credit Intermediate bond fund, which reasonably could earn 5.1 percent a year. If you started with a $15,000 investment and saved $352.61 per month, you'd end up with $80,000 and have your sabbatical.

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